My first trip to China was unforgettable. It was a tumultuous time in my life, with the ending of a long-term relationship and studies that had kept me occupied for four years. I had no strings keeping me anywhere, so traveling was a reprieve for my soul as much as it was professionally important.
I was on my way to Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, and any other cities in between. I planned on keeping a diary, which I did just so I could memorialize the experience.
A few selected excerpts are what I’d like to share here.
-Day One: Shang Hai-
It’s been raining in Shang Hai for over a week. There were floods worse than they've seen in 50 years. This place is like most big cities – loud, full of traffic, chaotic and extraordinarily overpopulated. The Bund, a 2½-mile stretch along the river, offers views to Pu Dong, the modern financial district on the opposite side of the river. There are buildings of various shapes and sizes going up everywhere you look. It reminds me more of Las Vegas than anything else.
I walked for hours this morning and everywhere I go, I stand out like a sore thumb. My light hair and eyes are unusual. Children stare at me and when I smile back, joy shimmers in their eyes and their adorable faces light up that “the foreign one” smiled and noticed them. People work very hard here and although I cannot fathom the life they lead, it has its order and sense.
I walked through an enormous park in the center of Shang Hai and I was the only Westerner anywhere. There were large swaths of beautiful trees surrounded by winding paths; it was a relief to see some nature.
All over there were people practicing tai chi, qi gong and other forms of exercise. Others took advantage of the facial and head massages offered. There were groups of men sitting around small tables playing traditional games. Some of the women sang. Clusters of people gathered in groups talking; families walked with their children in hand. This was more of the China I imagined.
The antiquity I’d hoped to discover is no longer in physical structures, but remains in bits and pieces scattered among the people of China – mostly the older generation.
-Day Two: Shang Hai-
The air is so dirty here that my skin is breaking out and I always feel like I have a layer of grime on my face. I woke up at 5 a.m. today just as it was starting to get light. The sun was trying to push its way through the clouds and smoggy haze. I don’t know if the people of Shang Hai know what a truly blue sky is. Being from San Diego, I’m so blessed to have days where the sky is so blue you could swim in it.
As I walked I saw people doing their morning exercise, this morning with swords along the Bund. As I continued walking along the Bund, I saw an elderly man, probably 80 or so, with his leg straight up against a signpost. He did a better standing split than I've ever seen, and with no strain on his aged face. I wanted to photograph him, but didn’t want to distract him, so I kept walking.
I walked through the Old City, and some of the people stared at me with less than happy faces. The broken stone streets were wet and in front of the small, closet-sized homes people were cooking their dumplings and pancakes. There were chickens wandering around and kids swinging from metal piping precariously attached to the neighboring roofs, which were quite low to the ground.
An occasional “hello” would come from places I could hardly see, and I walked quickly as to not disturb the residents here. While this is a fascinating world, if there is one thing I’ve learned the most, it is a tremendous appreciation for home.
-Day Three: Bei Jing-
Today I am going to the Great Wall. The Wall is impressive; the mountains are enchanting and full of lush green slopes. Small trees look like they have been planted in rows and remind me of little soldiers ready for action. We took a trolley up to the Wall and then walked back down. It seemed to be in amazing condition, at least the area we saw. We walked up and down the steps, passing long tree-lined corridors on the outside of the Great Wall.
When we reached the bottom, a Chinese man came and asked me to take a photo of him and his family – or so I thought. When he gestured for me to get into the photo with his wife and son, I was astounded. They pointed to my eyes and hair (again) and wanted a photo with me. It was strange and sweet. They were so excited and happy to have the photo. They thanked me and we went on our ways.
-Day Four: The Forbidden City-
I couldn’t have imagined the immensity of the Forbidden City. This is where the Emperor resided with thousands of concubines, 30,000 eunuchs and the highest officials of his government. It truly felt like a city. The long walkways and walls rising up to protect the Emperor had 15 layers of stone at their base to assure that no one could tunnel their way in. The surrounding moat is green like jade and very still. It was so hot today, I became impatient in the masses of crowds that were here to view the Chinese treasure.
I’m surprised how clean Bei Jing is. There are so many high-rise apartments and buildings going up, I wonder how they'll have enough energy to keep such a huge amount of people supplied. Tienanmen Square is incredible. It is the largest public square in the world, and it is truly massive. It was wonderful to see people walking, bicycling and moving through this large space that is mostly remembered in history for a terrible massacre. Today it is peaceful and serene.
-Days 5–35: Nanjing, Suzhou and other cities-
Nanjing is smaller than Shang Hai and Bei Jing with only five million people (as opposed to the staggering 12 million of Bei Jing). The first order of business upon arrival was a foot reflexology massage. It was amazing, and I did this throughout the remainder of my trip, usually every other day, usually at the cost of $6-10 U.S. It was so hot in Nan Jing that it was hard to breathe. It’s known as one of the three “ovens” of China, and certainly lived up to its name!
Walking in the streets to the hospital where I was interning, the smells of sewage and dirt were overwhelming. Soups and other foods were cooked on every street; smells mixed together that were both tasty and repugnant. Even though Nanjing was considerably smaller than the other cities I had seen, it felt every bit as crowded and noisy.
The rest of my journey was absorbed in hours working in the hospital. It was a whole other chapter of the experience.
Seeing and being part of China for a short while was both strange and wonderful. The sense of mystery has faded for me, though, and I realize that China, like nearly every other region of the world, has traveled through time as much as we all have. I’m grateful for the differences in culture and language, of sights and sounds. It all adds to the magic of travel to another side of our amazing planet.