Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square…I was provided an opportunity to see these significant sites in China, and I took it.
I was asked to go to our Shanghai office for 2 weeks to oversee some Testing and Compliance activities and it opened up the possibility of being able to go on a sight-seeing trip over the weekend. For this project, I have been in Shanghai twice in the past already, but it was always “fly in on Sunday and fly out on Friday”. I believed this might be the last trip to Shanghai for this project, so it made sense for me to maximize it. I would only be hours away from all these beautiful tourist spots (they are in Beijing).
I initially tried finding someone to come along with me, but when it was clear that there was no one available (because they have already been there, or they were working over the weekend –what the–?), I just closed my eyes and made the necessary arrangements for my trip with…myself.
The last time I travelled alone, as in really alone going to a place I knew no one, was 17 years ago. But that was to Sagada (in the Mountain Province), still within the Philippines. Going to Beijing alone was another matter altogether. I knew no one there… and I don’t speak any Chinese. I was able to book my hotel through the company AMEX team, including the car pick-up, so that’s good. I wouldn’t have to attempt and get a cab (I was told that you had to always fight for a cab in Beijing). Choosing between flying or travelling through a high-speed train, I opted to take the train, because, well, it was going to be a first for me (Although I did take a train alone from Washington DC to Maryland, was it? But that was an ordinary train, and everyone spoke English in the US. ). I booked the train through the hotel so that’s okay as well. Via email, I already booked my English speaking tours so I knew I was covered on Saturday and Sunday and I would be able to go to the places I wanted to go. So everything was prepared. All I needed to do…was GO! And go, I did.
Friday morning, I checked out of my Shanghai hotel. I went to the office in the morning, and after lunch, I went back for my hotel car to the Hong Qiao train station. I was able to find my boarding gate and just waited. I joined the mob going through the gate and boarded the train.
Lesson #1: Study and know the details of your train ticket. Since all but the numbers and codes on the ticket are in Chinese characters, I didn’t know that I had a CAR # and a SEAT #.
I saw a prominent alphanumeric code and assumed it was my seat number. So…1B was the location I went to, and there was an old lady already seated there. I showed her my ticket and she gestured that my seat number was another set of alphanumeric codes I neglected to notice. To top it all of, I was in the wrong car (duh—the train is made up of multiple cars—why I never even bothered to think about it, I don’t know. Chalk it up to excitement). So, after a few more gestures and showing of my ticket, I got to my car (#7 – good thing I entered #8) and my seat (#12C). Incidentally, “1B” was my gate number…hahaha…it never occurred to me while I was at the actual gate, waiting, as I only checked the display board for my train number and got the gate details there.
So…not a very good start. Murphy seemed to have come with me for the ride (Murphy’s Law, get it?).
The train ride was about 4 hours and 50 minutes. No one spoke any English, not the ticket inspector, not the people peddling food and drinks, and none of the passengers (well, I never tested this of course, for all I know, most could speak excellent English). Everyone took out their gadgets/phones and proceeded to either watch videos, or listen to music, or play games. I tried to sleep, but only got snippets, since I wanted to be alert to any occurrence. The countryside flew past. I was seated at an aisle seat so I had to crane my neck to look out the window. I wanted to take photos, but was a bit apprehensive to take out my clunky camera—not sure of what I was scared of more, the camera being stolen, or people lynching me because I was taking pictures, haha. So, I just tried to write… on my cellphone, sleep and basically wait out the 4 hours and 50 minutes. I listened intently to the announcements (thankfully, there was an English translation) and counted the minutes before I reached my destination. 5 hours was nothing compared to the 13 hours bus ride I endured going to Aparri a few months ago. As paranoid as I was, I didn’t stand to use the facilities, and I didn’t buy any food to eat and just suffered through the sight, smell and sound of people eating. At one time, an attendant passed through the aisle selling Haagen Dasz ice cream! But because I was afraid we won’t understand each other, I didn’t succumb to buying… plus ice cream will make me thirsty, requiring me to drink water, which might require me to use the rest room! So…no ice cream.
Lesson #2: I should have brushed up on my knowledge of the train and how everything worked, where the food was sold, how much things were, etc., etc. I could have asked so many people at the office and I wouldn’t have had to endure not doing anything due to ignorance (and fright at making a mistake – as if getting the seat number wrong wasn’t a big enough boo-boo).
Beijing South station. I spilled out with the mob and just followed where they were going. Again, it never occurred to me that there were 2 exits. I just went where most people went. What a lemming! But anyway, I left Murphy on the train, because I saw my hotel driver holding up my name! I was so relieved! And he smiled and told me it was fortunate I got out at THAT exit or else we would have missed each other. He did say he would have called me (good thing I left my number for this exact occurrence; bad thing was that I was having roaming issues and couldn’t get a signal at that exact time) and would have asked me to wait for him at this exit.
Lesson #3: Know about the train station and I would have known about the exits and could have arranged it more clearly with the hotels. I was just fortunate he (hotel car driver) and I chose the same exit. If I had chosen differently, things would have turned out very bad, considering I was having cellphone signal issues at the time.
I checked in at the Beijing City Wall Marriott and ordered room service. I was soooo hungry. I called the tour desk and found out they were closed, so I just had to be up and early not to miss my tour.
Saturday morning, I woke up bright and early, dressed up and packed my gear, ready for a day of sight-seeing and picture-taking. I went to the tour desk and well…it was STILL closed. I was told the tour would leave at 7:45AM and it was 7:30AM and I saw groups of people climbing buses. I was starting to panic. I asked the help of the Concierge and they contacted the tour desk people and I was told I needed to just wait for the tour guide at the tour desk area. At 7:50AM, I was panicking again. I went back to the Concierge and they made another phone call. Five minutes later, my tour guide appeared and led me to the tour bus. Apparently, I was the only person from Beijing City wall going on the tour and the others were from other hotels. To think I was ready to board one of the buses outside the hotel from sheer panic.
Lesson #4: Get more information about the tour, the time, the logistics, etc. So I wouldn’t have needed to panic.
My tour group for the day consisted of the following:
- Jackie, our tour guide
- Our driver
- An Indian couple
- A Russian couple
- A Zimbabwe family (Mom and 3 adult daughters)
- A German pediatrician specializing in stem cell therapy
Jackie was very good at providing us with background information and historical tidbits about China, the Chinese, and the places we were visiting.
First stop was the Ming Tombs. We saw a recreation of an ancient Chinese ritual of worship and sacrifice. We toured just one tomb and looked at some artefacts. What stuck in my mind was that one emperor was buried with 16 of his concubines as human sacrifice. Every so often, there is a selection ceremony of concubines. And the girls included in the selection group are aged 13 to 16. My God… my eldest daughter could be in that selection group, if we were born in that era… and in China… hahaha.
Another thing that stuck in my mind was Jackie’s comments about China being a modern nation, without letting go of the ancient beliefs which ground and unified them as a people. Feng Shui, Yin Yang Balance, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism. They also have a very rich history dating back centuries. All these should be taken into consideration when trying to understand China as a nation as a people. Interesting.
Second stop was a Jade factory and store (of course), which also had a restaurant so we had our lunch there. I struck up a conversation with the German pediatrician. He was in Shanghai to consult at Beijing University. His studies fascinated me, as I am no stranger to cancer, and sick kids tug at my heart. He said though that kids with cancer have a higher chance of survival and when cured can actually survive without recurrence of the disease for a long, long, long time. So he looked at it from a very positive perspective, when I asked whether his job depressed him because he was around sick and potentially terminally ill children all the time. And that’s why, he said, his research in the stem cell therapy was really very important work.
During lunch, I sat next to one of the Zimbabwen daughters and we kept on a running commentary on the food. She asked what the soup was and I explained it was Hot and Sour, and I usually liked it, back in Manila. When we tried it, it tasted different though, not as sour as I would like it, and for her, not as appealing. She explained that she and her sisters hijacked their Mom’s business trip to Beijing so the Mom stayed one week longer with all of them touring. So nice…can’t wait for my kids to do the same in the future!
The 2 couples kept mostly to themselves. Ah yes, of course…
Third stop was the Great Wall and man…there are no words.
It was huge, majestic and just…awe inspiring. To think how it was built. How many people, how much work, how much history there is. It was just so overwhelming. Jackie left us to “explore” for 2 hours. Exploring included hiking up the wall…and it was a real hike. The steps were uneven and very steep. I had my backpack slung at my back, my camera on my side, and my cellphone in my hand, to take selfies (just because my eldest told me to). Midway through, the cellphone went into the bag and the camera was left. I tried to take good images, but having to climb, huff and puff, and making sure I wasn’t trampled on (did I say that there were like hundreds and thousands of tourists, mostly Chinese going up and down the wall as well?). Near the top, I had to catch my breath, I was dry heaving and my heart was beating like crazy. I kept Mama Z company while her daughters attempted to climb another flight of steps. I bought water and drank for my life. After a few minutes, I was fine, but I didn’t attempt to continue the climb. Call me a wimp, but I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I have climbed the Great Wall! I don’t have to say how high. Hahaha!
Lesson #5: Read up on the places to be visited. I would’ve been prepared for the hike and would have packed a bit lighter (read: leave the big camera lens and bring water, towel and a change of clothes).
The Beijing haze was about, so the pictures weren’t as pretty as I would like them to be. I got nice shots of Buddhist monks climbing and taking pictures of each other. And just bits and pieces or portions of the wall. Not sure if my landscape shots would turn out well, but who knows!
After the tour, I went back to the hotel, had pizza and juice at the lobby, arranged my next day’s tour and then took a long shower. I packed my stuff and slept.