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Beijing Dispatch: Glimpses of the Real China

mutianyu great wall of chinaDespite its status as a flat-out tourist attraction, the Great Wall is not to be missed. The Badaling section of the Wall is the most frequently visited, and thus is also the most commercialized and mobbed by tourists. Our host took us to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, which offers a cable car to take you both up and down if you desire. But a solo toboggan ride as the quickest way down for the adventurous -- it's an absolute blast, and less dangerous than it looks (and than any U.S. liability lawyer would admit).

Particularly if you keep in mind that the entirety of the Wall stretches over 4,000 miles, the Wall itself is hard to grasp with a mere visit to a single section; it's like trying to understand the Pacific Ocean by bodysurfing at Pacific Beach in San Diego. Nonetheless, even in the very small bites it is possible to taste, there's plenty to make you ponder the forces of imagination, fear, power, will, endurance and suffering the construction of the Wall called into play.

It's hard not to wonder what it all was for. Our ex-pat Beijing host brought the whole thing right into the present day when she compared it to the proposed wall separating Mexico from the United States. "This wall was meant to stop invasions, but much of it was obsolete almost as soon as it was started, and it has been torn down and rebuilt over and over," she said. "And now, hundreds of years later, it is mostly a tourist attraction outside the capital, with no other real use." Citing the Berlin Wall as another example, she said that building big and long walls was silly if you viewed history in terms of hundreds and thousands of years, and not from election to election. You might have to live in Beijing for the better part of a decade to come to this conclusion, but there is clear wisdom there.

Reflections on the Red Giant
China is changing at a breakneck pace, and not just in the political and economic realms; many of the changes cut hard across generational lines, and go to the core of cultural difference. Each day, hundreds and thousands of older Chinese folks queue up at Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, many bringing flowers and weeping openly.

Chinese teenagersMeanwhile, across the plaza outside the Forbidden City, young Chinese text madly on smartphones, slouching about while taking photos of one another clad in schizoid combinations of fashionista knockoff clothes and brand-name gear. The generational split is exacerbated by language; most youngsters spoke what I considered a fair amount of English, while their parents spoke little or none.

Even so, the old ways die hard, for now at least; these fashionista youngsters will probably return to their families as their parents advance in age, and assume the mantle of responsibility and familial leadership much as their parents did for their grandparents, and their great grandparents before them. Or they may not. Whether the new generation is truly different, or just dresses that way, is impossible to know.

For outsiders, visiting China will be more familiar and more confusing than visiting almost any other developed country in the world right now -- more familiar because of the tremendously rapid influx of Western and powerfully capitalistic influences, and yet still confusing precisely due to the breakneck acceleration of this very change, which has left many of the old ways completely intact. How all the disparate forces and tensions both from within and without China will ultimately play out is difficult to say, but at this particular juncture, after the world's first extensive exposure to China during the Games, it may be the best time to visit the Red Giant before it becomes something else entirely -- whatever that may be.

Coming in my next column: Beyond the Red Tape in Red China -- tips for getting there, staying there and getting back again.

Have you been to China? Send us your trip report!

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

Photo Credit: All images taken by Ed Hewitt.

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