- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

BEIJING — The Yan mountains appear as a series of dramatic crests, and the Great Wall’s ancient stones snake their way up and down the green ridge tops. We are about 55 miles north of Beijing.

The ramparts, dotted with watchtowers in this section, form a path between the peaks. At times, for brief stretches it’s just my husband, two children and me hiking. For the first time in days of exploring Beijing, we hear the wind in the trees as well as chirping birds.

Andy, our guide, is right. It’s worth the nearly two-hour drive to explore the Great Wall at Mutianyu instead of at Badaling, the most visited section. However, there’s a gantlet of vendors to get by before entering the cable car that lifts us to the wall.

As we walk by, the merchants wave us over, yelling “good price for you.” They’re hawking cherries, hats, tablecloths and T-shirts. Even the faux Mongol warrior and his camel posing for photographs try to snare us.

By the time we climb the steps to the ramparts and walk through the lookout tower, we see only a few other hikers. A Chinese sentry pacing out his watch hundreds of years ago savored much the same view except for the haze, of course, — a result of Beijing’s pollution. Blue-sky images of the Great Wall, we learn, are either rare or doctored on a computer.

Beijing, gearing up for the Summer Olympics, is a fascinating if frustrating city. Traffic swarms, main avenues stretch 10 lanes wide, hordes of bicyclists, many with children propped on the handlebars, dart around parked trucks, and the air tastes acrid, a result of the ever-present pollution. With 11 million people and an urban sprawl covering 10,450 square miles, Beijing, at first, overwhelms us.

Think Manhattan (about 23 square miles) multiplied 400 times — taller skyscrapers, denser crowds, a constant stream of buses spewing exhaust, few tree-shaded sidewalks plus an-ever present, eye-burning grit. Connecting to Beijing requires work.

That’s why we’re glad we chose a guide, private car and driver for our 12-day family trip arranged by Asia Transpacific Journeys. Not only do we gain freedom from getting lost in Beijing’s endless traffic, but we find out about the culture from a local. The favorable exchange rate of 7.3 yuan to the U.S. dollar makes the splurge more affordable.

Andy, our 27-year-old native Chinese guide, meets us at the Beijing airport. With his impeccable English, bluejeans, backpack and cell phone, he seems as American as my adult children, Matt and Alissa.

The Beijing airport is huge, with rows upon rows of baggage carousels, each gleaming as if spit-shined, and this isn’t even the new, larger international terminal, one of the world’s largest. Like most things in Beijing, the scale is gargantuan.

By the time we stuff our luggage in the van, we learn that Andy is waiting for a visa to the United States. He is engaged to a Michigan woman he met in Beijing when she was teaching Bible classes in the city.

This new China with its lessons in Christianity and freedom to move to America surprises us. So does Tiananmen Square. At 122 acres, the square ranks among the world’s largest open-air urban spaces. A clock outside the Chinese National Museum facing the square counts down the days and minutes to the 2008 Olympics in August.

We expected students sprawled along the edges reading and children playing ball, but neither is allowed. Unlike the central plazas in Krakow or Prague, cafes don’t line the perimeter, and people don’t linger. Instead, white vans of police continuously cruise the concrete, circling close to groups, eyeing them. Especially in the near 90-degree June heat, the square feels oppressive.

We ask Andy about Tiananmen Square — not its sculpture of people’s heroes or Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, but about the event, the Western shorthand for the 1989 student demonstrations for peace and personal rights.

“I was young, but I learned about it in school,” Andy says. “It was unfortunate. Some international groups that wanted to give China a bad name influenced the students to protest. Most of them didn’t know what they were doing. I had a cousin who was involved, and he told me that.”

It is still the People’s Republic of China after all.

The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, two more of China’s iconic sites, loom large. The court for the Ming and Qing dynasties for centuries, the Forbidden City is impressive and impersonal. The 7.75-million-square-foot, walled complex has 9,900 rooms. The facility unfolds as a series of outer and inner courtyards, each showcasing red pavilions roofed with glazed yellow tile. The vast expanse of paved ground, mostly barren of trees until the emperor’s private realm, conveys a sense of power and entitlement, however cloistered.

Andy points out the rows of carved, gold dragons perched on the eaves. The more dragons, the more important the building, a detail that offers us a maplike legend, an aid to understanding. By contrast, the Summer Palace conveys a sense of the personality of Empress Dowager Cixi, the royal most associated with the retreat situated along Kunming Lake in a 716-acre park in Beijing’s western hills. Water laps at the life-size marble boat she had built and visitors still walk the half-mile-long covered corridor she favored. Legend has it that she built the structure so she could promenade in the rain to admire the lake.

The walkway’s blue pillars and ceiling depict scenes from Chinese history. The most human-scale community we find in Beijing is the Back Lakes district. A hutong, or traditional neighborhood, still exists, as well as a new Western-style cafe community. The government leveled most of the hutongs to make way for high-rises.

“You must see the hutong so that you know what Beijing looked like long ago,” says Andy. “A rickshaw ride is the easiest way.” That’s how we come to be sitting somewhat embarrassingly in a yellow fringed rickshaw pedaled by a profusely sweating driver.

He takes us down narrow alleys, past gray stone walls that enclose one-story houses. Elaborately carved doors, signs of gentrification, grace a few of the entrances. Occasionally, through a partially opened gate, we glimpse a bicycle tire or a few tins. Although we encounter some children in the lanes who smile and wave, we mostly see other tourists because much of the life of the hutong goes on in the courtyards behind the walls.

On nearby Houhai Street, close to the lake edged with willows, a handful of small, Western-style bars bloom. The residents, Andy tells us, hope these businesses will help convince the authorities not to destroy this hutong. In the evening, twentysomethings sink into the sofas, talking and drinking within earshot of the centuries-old drum and bell tower.

Andy takes us to lunch at the Zhejiang Noodle King, Old Beijing. The hostess shouts for a table for five, and the waiters yell back their answers. When not loudly calling out a table, naming an order before slapping it down in front of a diner, the servers keep busy by stacking and rattling dirty bowls and plates in plastic tubs. It reminds us of a Jewish deli, Beijing-style.

We’re the only tourists. With no English menus or photographs of entrees, we randomly point to a listing. Andy translates “pigs’ penises in sauce” and “ox intestines.” “Chinese people,” Andy assures us, “eat everything.” We settle on noodles, rice, bean curd and chicken. The food, fresh and tasty, costs less than $25 for five people.

Food is fascinating in China. Forget about being forced to eat fried insects for lack of other choices, but lots of crunchy critters are served, particularly in the street markets. On a stroll of Wangfujing Snack Street, we watch as locals purchase skewers of scorpions and cicadas as well as fried starfish and other delights. Similar munchies tempt residents in the nearby Donghuamen Night Market.

We told Asia Transpacific Journeys that we wanted to explore Chinese art and culture. At a private performance in a Beijing teahouse, we listen to classical music played on traditional instruments, a dizi (bamboo flute), an erhu (two-string instrument) and a sheng (a reed instrument). The flute, with a sound like a high-pitched harmonica, evokes a sense of longing in “River Water,” a piece about a woman mourning her dead husband. In “Horse Race,” a folk tune from Mongolia, the pace quickens as the notes mimic the fast gallop of horses’ hooves on the steppes.

We also visit Factory 798, officially the Dashanzi Art District No. 4, northeast of Beijing. The former electronics plant, Factory 798, is a maze of brick buildings and pipes that house scores of galleries plus a few cafes. “This is the only place in China you will find graffiti,” says Andy, pointing to a series of red and orange spray-painted walls. While the art may be avant-garde for China, much of the work seems ho-hum. We do, however, like the black-and-white photographs of the old hutongs. The galleries we like best are XYZ Gallery, New Art Warehouse, Factory 798 Space and the Beijing-Tokyo Art Project.

•••

Despite the hoopla for the Olympic Games, summer is much too hot for a comfortable visit to China. May, early June or September and October are the best times to explore this fascinating country. Except during the Olympics, airfares range from about $900 to $1,200, not too much more than a high-season ticket to Europe. China can be affordable; luxury hotels cost much less than comparable places in the United States and Europe, and a good meal for four can be had for about $25. United Airlines operates nonstop flights between Washington Dulles International Airport and Beijing.

China Tours: Asia Transpacific Journeys listened to our needs — art, culture, shopping, as well as the typical sites plus time in the country. Our custom trip included a private car, driver and guide in each city. Custom trips, depending upon lodging, start at about $350 per person, per day, including lodging, breakfast guide and transportation. Group trips are available. For more information, go to www.asiatranspacificjourneys.com or call 800/642-2742.

Raffles Hotel, Beijing, 33 East Chang An Ave.; www.beijing. raffles.com, 86 (10) 6526-3388, is well-located, a block away from the pedestrian shopping street Wangfujing and not far from the Forbidden City. The hotel includes the facade and marble lobby of the former Grand Hotel de Peking, built about 90 years ago, plus a newer wing. The hotel offers oversized rooms, an indoor pool and workout facility, plus exceptional service. The business center provides laptops as well as snacks, and in-room massages are available. After a long day of walking, the 45-minute foot massage is worth the price, about $30.

Li An Lodge, Ping An Village, [email protected], 86 (0773) 758-3318, is the most upscale lodging in Ping An. Built of wood in the manner of a traditional Zhuang dwelling, this inn has 16 rooms, each with private bath. The decor mixes antiques and local items.

Yangshuo Paradise Resort Hotel, 116 West St., 86 (773) 882-2109,a three-star property, among the best in town, is at the foot of Xi Jie (West Street), a pedestrian strip with many shops. The rooms are clean and serviceable and come with telephones and private baths. We found the mattress uncomfortably firm but eventually fell asleep. Rates typically include breakfast.

For more information, contact the China National Tourist Office, www.cnto.org.

Countryside offers own spectacles

For hundreds of years, the Zhuang and Yao people have built mud banks into the side of the mountains to create the Longji rice fields known as the Dragon Spine Rice Terraces.

To reach the village of Ping An, we walk 30 minutes uphill; sherpas — small women with large woven baskets on their backs — met us at the bottom of the mountain and insisted on carrying our luggage uphill. From the deck of the Li An Lodge we watch farmers till the soil with water buffalo and carefully plant seedlings by hand.

On hikes, we encountered local women, known for their beautiful long hair, and admired the views of the mountain-high terraces. Li An Lodge and Ping An rate as one of the most magical places we visit.

Even with a population of 300,000, Yangshuo, 40 miles south of Guilin, is considered the country. Once a backpacker’s haven, Yangshuo draws more typical tourists who come for the scenic rafting, biking and hiking. As our guide poles the bamboo raft down the Yulong River, we pass the region’s karst mountains, each shaped like an upside down “u.” On our bike trip to the dam, we pedal through small villages, past rice fields turning yellow for harvest.

Don’t miss the evening outdoor spectacle “Impression, Sanjie Liu.” The extravaganza conducted on water against a background of dramatically lit karst mountains has a cast of 600, many of whom portray the region’s minorities. The tale features music and song — you more or less understand what’s happening even without knowing the language. The costumes and stagecraft impress. Yi Mo Zhang, the director, is creating what should be the dazzling opening ceremonies for the Olympics.


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