Having only three days, I arranged for a guided tour of Beijing through Han Tours’ Internet site. In this, as usual in China, I had very good luck indeed. Cynthia, our tour guide was knowledgeable, helpful, and funny. She took us to Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and Great Wall, providing running commentary, cultural information, and a helping hand when needed. With a natural flair for drama Cynthia dramatized the tale of Tzu Hsi, the courtesan who seduced a young emperor and in time became the Dragon Lady, the Dowager Empress of all China.
These sites are tourist destinations for the Chinese and I was continuously impressed with their hospitality, kindness, and generosity of spirit. People offered to take our photographs, asked to be photographed with us, and, with and without English, communicated their good wishes. Even the security guards at these precious venues smiled and performed their jobs without the gruff rigor of comparable functionaries in the West.
The Forbidden City has a formidable police presence which is understandable granted its cultural importance and the daily throngs who trundle through. There is a police barracks near the entrance and, to my delight, a basketball court for off-duty officers. Basketball is a world sport. It would be fun if some promoter would organize regular international competition.
At the Great Wall, I scaled a long and steep staircase to reach one of the watch towers. A couple who’d struggled up with me (she in platform heels) shyly asked my age in halting English. When I told them, they clapped their hands, declared me a ‘hero,’ and asked me to pose for photographs with them.
My daughter Lisa, who joined me in China, was a constant object of attention. She was treated as a celebrity and frequently asked to pose for photographs with new Chinese friends.
The Temple of Heaven is surrounded by a large and lovely park. People played Hackey with feathered shuttlecocks, practiced Tai Chi, and danced in groups. An informal orchestra performed on amplified instruments with supporting vocalists. Adults and children swayed to the music. One performer had an amplified ukulele, others violins, flutes, and cymbals.
The Summer Palace crowns an artificial mountain built from the material excavated to create its surrounding lake. Dragon Boat ferries take visitors to the palace and surrounding grounds. My favorite part was the marble pleasure boat built at the command of the Dragon Lady. I thought of Cynthia’s rendition of her voice and character – ‘Very sexy, very smart lady.’
Flying back to Shanghai on the bullet train, I collected my thoughts about this ramshackle visit to China. For my next visit I will find accommodation which includes breakfast and bi-lingual hotel staff who can write taxi destinations in Chinese. The time saved in not food foraging would be worth the additional expense. I will also make the effort to learn enough Chinese to express gratitude for the many kindnesses showered on me. At no time and in no place did I ever feel the slightest threat to my safety or security. I can’t say this about any other place I’ve visited.
Tomorrow I board the Hanjin Amsterdam bound for Busan, North Korea, then Prince Rupert, Canada, but a piece of my heart will remain in China.