After saying goodbye to Japan and my family, we flew to Hong Kong to start our China adventure. The main reason we went to Hong Kong was to get our visa to be able to enter China, so we stayed there for a week to make sure we had enough time for any processing that had to occur. We were able to find an agency easily enough and handed over our passports. I figured out we would be able to get a ‘group visa’ since there was 2 of us, and this would be both faster and cheaper than getting a regular tourist visa. We were nervous because a few people in front of us got their visa applications rejected, but within the same day we got our passports back and a piece of paper saying we could stay in China! We didn’t expect too much from Hong Kong, but it turned into one of our favorite stops. We explored both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, taking in its fascinating mixture of East meets West. Having been an English colony, English is one of the main languages and the Western influence is obvious. We even took a daytrip over to the gambling mecca of Macau. We wandered through the casinos (it was too rainy to do much else either) and thought of how it compared to Vegas. It seemed like it was way more geared to just gambling and not so much other activities and didn’t seem like as much of a party place as Vegas (no alcohol on the casino floors). Overall, Hong Kong was a really cool city that we’re glad we ended up in.
Our first destination in Mainland China was Shanghai for a stopover before Beijing. Here, we made a quick trip to Shanghai Disneyland for a fun day. It was only opened a couple years ago so it’s still pretty new. It was interesting with all the rides and shows being in Chinese, but it was a cool experience, and the rides were exciting too (Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean were awesome)! Otherwise, we just chilled out a little in the city before diving off the deep end into Chinese culture. The modernity of where we stayed in Shanghai would soon be in stark contrast to the old school vibes of Beijing.
In Beijing, we stayed in a hutong (courtyard), which are traditional courtyard residences joined together by narrow streets or alleyways. The hutongs represent the culture of ordinary Beijingers, in contrast to the elite culture represented by the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, etc. We mostly stayed in the old section of the city and didn’t venture too far into the modern side of the city.
For our first day of exploring, we headed out to Tiananmen Square. Right away we were greeted with reminders of Mao Zedong. From the giant image of him over the gates to the Forbidden City, to the hundreds of paintings, mini sculptures, and other memorabilia for sale (not to mention his visage on every piece of currency), to the imposing mausoleum containing his body in the middle of Tiananmen Square, the man is everywhere. Mao founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and ran it until his death in 1976. To many Chinese, he is still revered for his many accomplishments. These include unifying China and driving out foreign occupants, reducing drug addiction across the country, giving more rights to women, and promoting literacy and education. When walking through the National Museum of Beijing, this is the story we were told. While parts of it are true, the other side of Mao (the ruinous dictator) were glossed over. In the late 1950’s, Mao pushed for rapid industrialization (based on people instead of machines) in what’s known as the Great Leap Forward. This led to the Great Famine in China and led to tens of millions of deaths. Some scholars have said up to 55 million. Mao also started the Cultural Revolution, a decade long fight to preserve communist ideology and purge any remnants of capitalism and traditionalism in Chinese society. This movement paralyzed China both politically and economically and led to several million more deaths. Yet the line to pay respects to Chairman Mao winds through Tiananmen Square every day, and many come from far away to visit. However, not everyone believes he is China’s hero, and have a much more negative attitude towards the man. He is also viewed as the worst ruler in Chinese history, bringing disaster to the country, causing the deaths of millions and murdering masses. It was fascinating to hear about such a man of contradictions in the country he came from, as opposed to read about him in textbooks. The propaganda is alive and well, but the debate is still ongoing as to what Mao’s legacy is. [1,2,3]
One of the most interesting exhibits in the National Museum was a collection of gifts that China has received over the years from other countries. Dating back to the formation of the People’s Republic of China, it was interesting to see the historical significance and artistic merit of each gift.
We also took a food tour while we were here and ended up trying lots of neat new foods. We toured though several different hutongs, stopping at tiny local restaurants to try their specialties. Some of the highlights were Mongolian BBQ, and Beijing pancakes filled with Kung Pao chicken, stir fried beef, sliced potatoes and all sorts of veggies. We also tried something known as ‘door nail meat buns’. The story goes that a Qing Dynasty Empress was served this rolled up pastry ball with beef inside by a chef who hurriedly had to throw something together. The Empress unexpectedly loved it and asked him what the name of the dish was. Not having a name, the chef looked over at a door nail and the rest is history. We ended the tour at a local craft beer brewery and had some of the best cider and wheat beer on the trip so far.
The Forbidden City is a massive palace complex in the center of Beijing. Built in the 15th century, it consists of over 980 buildings. It was really cool walking through the complex and seeing the displays inside each building. We spent most of the day there (the place is HUGE) just wandering around. During our week there we also went to the Temple of Heaven and hung around the park there and went over to the Summer Palace to walk the grounds. We enjoyed seeing the architecture from the many different dynasties throughout the years.
Once we got to Beijing we really felt like we were in China. We really liked Beijing and had a good time exploring the city and getting a feel for it. The city is enormous and still with a week there it felt like we only scratched the surface. We also took a daytrip out of there into the countryside, but that’s coming in the next post.