You know what was the best thing about being in Asia for three weeks? Getting to forget all about the clown show that is the U.S. presidential election.
Oh well, that’s what pictures and memories are for. I wanted to wrap up my trip to China by talking about the most fun (and admittedly touristy) part – Beijing!
Fresh off our final client presentations, we were now free to board an airplane to the nation’s capital and forget all about nanotechnology for the time being. We had worked hard over the last few months; now it was time to relax. I knew we would be hitting all the typical tourist sites that I think everyone sees when they visit Beijing: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and so on. Normally I’m averse to the canned tour group experience and prefer to go on my own program, but after spending so much time off the beaten path in Changsha (and probably sick from the experience, as I mentioned in my last post) I was happy to sit back and be led around for a while.
We started our Beijing leg with something rather awesome and unexpected.
A rickshaw tour of one of the old city neighborhoods! I’d been on a rickshaw once before in Japan, but then it was mostly for the novelty of having a guy literally run you around the city. These, however, were driven by bicycles, so I felt a little less guilt. It was a really cool way to see the less-traveled parts of the city, and a lot of fun being in a caravan with a bunch of friends.
There are families in the old neighborhood that open up their homes to visiting groups, partly to help offset the extreme cost of owning such a home. Mrs. Yuan was gracious enough to invite us in and talk to us a little bit about the culture while showing us around her house. She informed us that her house had been in her family for five generations, and that the home is worth about $30,000 per square meter. Insane!
We did have to do one last business school thing, which was make a visit to the Beijing International Studies University. This school, we learned, has one of the top tourism & hospitality programs in the world, and it attracts many students from China and other parts of the world. I loved having the chance to meet them and learn their stories, especially since many of them come from countries that aren’t represented very well in DC, if at all. For instance, I’d never met anyone from Kazakhstan before, and after that day I knew three! Another student was from Myanmar, and was telling me about how he wants to help spearhead the effort to bring tourism there now that it’s becoming safer to travel. All in all, a really great experience, and they were kind enough to take us to a nightclub later (with VIP access and free drinks the whole night. Talk about hospitality!)
Over the next couple of days we visited several famous sites, as advertised.
My one real complaint – and this is a total “first world problems” moment, is that it’s demoralizing being part Asian and traveling with a bunch of westerners in China. They were treated like celebrities, and everywhere we went people would stop to take pictures with them. The girls in my group were called “the most beautiful” and the guys were treated like celebrities. Okay, no big deal and it was amusing to watch, except they would then turn to me and treat me like a third-class citizen! I don’t know how many times I was denied the same discounts and free handouts that they’d gotten, or told to get out of a group picture. It was a strange and unsettling experience; I’d traveled in Asia many times with other westerners while I was still in the military, and I don’t ever remember encountering this. Then again, I had never before been to China, and this country was definitely different from Thailand and the others I’d been to. Oh well. Not the worst thing in the world, but it did make me come back and immediately want to book a trip to England or southern Europe where the locals were friendly to me no matter who I was traveling with.
All in all, it was a great experience. I don’t know that I’ll have the opportunity to visit China again anytime soon (although I should, considering how much it cost to get that tourist visa, and it’s good for ten years!) but I’m definitely glad I got to go! It was interesting being in a country that’s modernizing but still so disconnected from the rest of the world, if that makes sense. I had the opportunity to make new friends, even though I can only communicate with them through WeChat, one of the only social media apps that’s permitted in China and the primary form of communication there. I crossed another item off my bucket list by climbing the Great Wall. I got to learn a lot about an industry that’s new and interesting to me, and interact with high-level professionals. And I got to go into new territory (for me, and for many of my friends) by visiting Changsha, a place that’s still relatively unknown. It was great being back in that part of the world where I’d spent so many good years.
So… where to next?