Arriving in China, The first thing we see (as usual) is the airport. But unlike Vietnam, China's airport has been supersized, with at least 5m2 for every person. For China, thats a HUGE feat! but the size didn't stop there. Everywhere there was people, there was big stuff! Including the population. I knew it was big, but was not aware of how big. Over-one-seventh-of-the-worlds-population big! In Beijing, I was told that it was the biggest city in the world. At the time, I thought it was definitely big enough. Turns out Mexico City (which is one of our later destinations) is bigger though.
We were joined in our travels in China by Granny Gill and Grandpa. It was really good to see someone other than ourselves for a change. They were also our third 'supply dump', taking home all of our relics to keep safe until our return. As well as our treasures, they also got a full dose of funny, sad, happy, scary and exciting stories to take home.
When we were in Beijing, we took a day trip to the Great Wall of China. It really is hard to go to China without seeing it. The wall is a lot steeper in reality than in all the photos on the internet! The coolest thing for me was seeing the part of the wall that is a cliff; the wall goes right to the edge, and then carries on at the bottom
In Shanghai, Kieran, Dad and I took a ride on the experimental Maglev train. it is the fastest train in the world, and the fastest airborne vehicle that is under 300 meters off the ground. (it said this on the Maglev information board). The top speed of a Shanghai Maglev is 431 km/h!!! It is experimental because they wanted to come up with the fastest Maglev system in the world, so they tested it on a loop between Pudong airport and the city-centre subway station. It is also the only Maglev to be able to change tracks.
In Xi'an (she-arn), we visited the Terracotta Warriors. Their faces are all different. The ones that are together are not how they found them. In the farmers uprising, they went in, smashed all the warriors, and took all the bronze weapons to fight the emperor. But now scientists are putting them back together and fixing them. There was originally some wooden chariots, but they have rotted and disintegrated. The horses that pulled the chariots were also clay, so you can see them as well.
In China we saw lots and lots of things but I'm only going to do four of them.
One. the Great Wall of China. The great wall is situated somewhere about 75km out of Beijing and is about 7.5m tall and the Chinese didn't want the Mongols to get in because it is at least a straight area at most it's probably a 45 degree angle. There's one part on the Great Wall that me, Daddy and Mummy walked up to where the wall doesn't continue because there's an almost vertical slope and they didn't think the Mongols would easily be able to get in through there. There were lots of towers dotted along the Great Wall. On the Great Wall, I found lots of things that tourists had dropped, including at least 10 or 20 jems, a jewel on a ring that might be made out of silver, or might be something like steel, and some little Christmas items - the one on top of the ring is a little glove and on top of that glove is the gem, then there's two chains attached to the bottom of the glove, one with a candy cane and the other with a stocking. The little gem on top of the glove is white and it's the most likely gem to be a real gem. (Most of the other gems are probably glass with a background that makes them go different colours).
Two. The acrobatics and kung fu shows. The weird thing is that the kung fu show was mostly acrobatics and so was the acrobatics show. My most favourite part of all of the shows would have to be in the acrobatics show where there were six people riding motorbikes and they were all riding inside a big metal ball and they didn't crash into each other. My thought was “how do they do that?!” The kung fu show was really really really really really cool and I liked how there were little kids standing behind somebody but in the same pose so that when they turned around (usually the people who turned around were wearing cloaks) they changed from somebody to somebody else. We've seen one trick twice, and that trick is that somebody has a little needle and another is holding up a pane of glass and somebody else is holding up a balloon and they pop the balloon through the glass, but what actually happens is they stick the needle through the glass but at just the right force to pierce the glass, pop the balloon but without shattering the glass.
Three. The lollipop. The Oriental Pearl Tower (I'm going to call it the Lollipop because it looks like a lollipop) is made out of three spheres. The biggest one is down the bottom and the second biggest one with the revolving restaurant is higher than that and then finally theres a little tiny sphere on top of that which we didn't go up to and I'm pretty sure it's staff only. Just below the revolving restaurant is an invisible observatory which is made out of glass. I have a very weird scaredness of heights because if I'm looking down when I step onto something that's see-through when I'm quite a long way up I get scared, but if I don't look down then walk onto it then look down when I'm already on the glass then I'm not scared. On the last day with Granny Gill and Grandpa in Shanghai we went to the revolving restaurant and had dinner. Daddy guessed that it took two hours for it to do a full rotation but actually it took at most an hour, at least half an hour.
Four. Everybody wanting to take photos of me. In China, I think that Chinese people don't normally see many kids my size and age coming to China because about 20 people came and took photos of me in Beijing. In the whole of China I think I had about 50 photos. About ten of those were taken on a special app where once you've taken the photo you can customise and add accessories to it (I know that because I've seen people take photos of David in Florence and they were using that app and after they'd taken the photo they were customising it - I saw they used pirates and big bushy moustaches and things). About 5 of the 50 people asked if they could take the photo with me and of course I said yes.
After two and a half weeks in China I'm struggling to remember exactly what I expected before we got here. Whatever it was, it wasn't accurate. I found myself being constantly pleasantly surprised - by the clean air (helped by the rain before we arrived) and pleasant crowds in Beijing; by the historical compactness of Pingyao; by the simple street food in Luoyang (after we eventually managed to communicate our order, with lots of pointing and nodding); by the friendly and welcoming guides, most memorably at the TangBo Art Museum in Xi'an where we learned hands-on about calligraphy and bamboo painting; by the stories of the different dynasties (Qin, Ming, Qing, Tang, Jin, Song, Han, Yuan), which each seem to have a longer and more complex story than the last; by the skill of the performances - kung fu, drummers, dancers and acrobats; by the size of the Great Wall (I mean the clue is in the name, but it was much more impressive than I anticipated); by the mixture of delightful historical areas (both ancient and more recently from the time when European influences were shaping the city) and imposing modern architecture in Shanghai; and, as with everywhere we've visited so far in Asia by the delicious food which just keeps on coming until you eventually roll out of the restaurant.
The only frustration was the Great Firewall, which reasonably successfully thwarted any efforts to get any work done and keep in touch with people back home - you quickly realise how much you rely on online services when they are blocked. We wasted a lot of time trying to get a VPN to work, with at best temporary success.
The scale of everything is difficult to describe. One of the curious things I'll remember are the white fences. These are everywhere in the larger cities - lining the main streets; creating separate lanes for the many motorbikes (a surprising number of them electric and therefore dangerously silent for any tourists not paying attention as they try and cross the street) and smaller vehicles; and to discourage pedestrians onto the road except for in designated spots. I hope whomever placed that order got a giant bulk purchase discount!
We got around mostly by high-speed trains. These are pretty epic too. Especially between Beijing and Xi'an (a small city I'd never heard of before we visited, pop 13.5m!) the track passes through some uninviting terrain, so it seems like at least half of it is built on elevated columns, creating a long fast straight line. Even more impressive are the brand new giant stations and corresponding "new towns" which have been built around them, with literally hundreds of half completed high-rise apartment blocks (apparently ready to house immigrant workers and students from the regions as they move to the cities). They are building up and out. If there was a third way to scale they'd likely take that too.
Travelling with more people is definitely different to just the four of us which we'd gotten used to. But it was great to enjoy the time with Gill and Mike. We quickly learned the Chinese number gesture for six (what we might describe as “Hang Loose”).
Five months into this trip, it feels a bit like we've discovered a way to accelerate time. I definitely feel like I've aged about 5 years so far. We've squeezed a lot into almost every day. And we're not even halfway yet! Just quietly I'm feeling a bit tired, a bit jaded, if you know the expression. The limited amount of stuff we brought with us is all looking a bit worse for wear. But there is no time for feeling sorry for ourselves (and that would be ridiculous anyway) because next up we fly to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia where some Genghis Khan warrior training awaits!
For me, the highlight of our time in China was definitely family. My mother and step-father joined us for this leg, and we had people we knew and loved who hadn't heard all our stories, which Jacob especially enjoyed. It also meant that Rowan and I could have some time to ourselves for the the first time in forever, while the boys and their grandparents had quality time together. We even had a date! Travelling with others for the first time this year meant we had to make a few compromises, but it was all worth it. Great to see you, Gill and Mike!
Aside from family-time, my main impression of China is its size - it's huge. And there are a lot of people. Our guide in Xi'an described the city to us as “small - only six million people”, and when you consider there are more than 100 cities with more than a million people, you can see her point. Everywhere we went, we saw high-rise apartment blocks being built to house immigrants from rural areas, and to replace ageing flats.
One thing that results from having a population of a billion, and a large country, is that the domestic tourism market is enormous. At every tourist attraction we visited, Western tourists were vastly outnumbered by Chinese. Sometimes, this meant that we became tourist attractions ourselves - Kieran, with his big blue eyes, was the most popular, but all of us were asked for photos at various times. We'd be all over Facebook, if it wasn't blocked.
Probably related to the size thing, my favourite place we visited here was a small city (really small, about 430,000) called Pingyao, about three hours by fast train from Beijing. It's the best preserved ancient city in China, and World Heritage status means that the old town has very strict conditions on building - nothing over three stories, everything needing to blend in with the old buildings. And by having the whole town as a tourist attraction, it means it's easy to walk everywhere, meaning Rowan could be drawn into a Chinese chess game in the street, and the boys could run around with some local kids in the park. Also, the hotel was beautiful!
Our time here was short, considering all there is to see. Five cities in 19 days is a pace we haven't moved at since Italy. But we got to see what (and who!) we wanted to see, and had fun doing it.