We haven't even officially started the first day of our trip with Intrepid Travel--which begins in about 4 hours with a visit to the Great Wall--and there is SO much to say already!
First of all, I am really proud of myself & Seth and our "accomplishments" so far. Our first day and a half in China have already alleviated much of our anxiety about the trip. Our very long flight (15 hours) flew over the North Pole (didn't see Santa) and landed in Beijing safely. We got to our hotel, have found ourselves a couple of delicious vegetarian meals, and spent an awesome day wandering around Beijing's 798 District--a gaggle of contemporary art galleries. OK, so we didn't win the Nobel Prize or anything, but this felt like a great start in a place where we know no one and can't speak or read the language.
Oh! The wonder and excitement of traveling again! When even a trip to the grocery store is a cultural experience, something to marvel at, and you take nothing for granted.
We did have one funny snafu. We thought that the flight attendant told us that "thanks" is pronounced "SAY SIEN" in Mandarin. Turns out that it's actually "SHAY SHIEN," but "SAY SIEN" means "goodbye." No wonder people looked at us funny when we thanked them profusely--ha!
We were sort of over-warned about some of the difficulties of traveling in China, so things like jostling crowds haven't seemed so dramatic yet, which may be partly due to the fact that we're in Beijing which was just flooded with Western tourists for the Olympics and whose public was apparently trained in the ways of being a polite host city.
There are certainly subtle reminders that we are in a Communist country, like the "no smoking" signs that proclaim: "It's your patriotic duty to stay in good health," or the bleeping red eye of video cameras EVERYWHERE, or the fact that our Chinese trip leader explained with wide-eyed fascination that Hong Kong is still so different from the rest of China because you can "say whatever you want to about Mao."
---The very next day---
Finally fell back asleep , not having finished yesterday's entry. Now onto another adventure, en route to the Great Wall on a bumpy bus ride!
So the 798 Art District, our first day's outing, was an awesome introduction not only to Beijing, but to the many contradictions of modern day China. The area consists of gallery after gallery of contemporary art, housed in old factory buildings. There are 100 galleries, at least, and the art truly is contemporary, as abstract painting and sculpture is a relatively new phenomenon here. Displaying this type pf work publicly was apparently illegal until about 20 years ago. The Chinese government has realized that in order to accelerate their society, progress must not only be made in commerce and technology, but in culture, as well, and so suddenly art is sanctioned. However, the content of the work is still restricted. So--contradictions. Artistic expression vs. government regulation.
The tension between art and commerce is already apparent, too, despite the relative infancy of the modern scene. Smack in the middle of this artistic hub was an enormous brick factory building with an imposing Nike swoosh on the side. This entire "gallery" was devoted to a multimedia exhibit on the life and times of an American NBA basketball player, LeBron James, and encased in glass at the back was his new line of Nike basketball shoes. Weird.
Though the content of the work was stifled, Seth and I agreed that most of the paintings and sculptures were beautiful and/or interesting. In gallery after gallery we preferred the work over what we had seen at last year's Whitney Biennial--supposedly the creme de la creme of American artwork. All in all we felt like we got a sense of modern China by viewing its long unleashed creative expressions.
We ate the most delicious lunch at a lively little dive filled with locals. Spinach with vermicelli and garlic sauce, and some kind of diced pancake with shredded vegetables--both absolutely bursting with flavor but not the slimy "white sauce" or salty soy sauce that I'm used to from Chinese food in the US. (And PS including drinks the grand total came to $3. Holla!) One thing we noticed was that the place was filled with chit chat, but as soon as the food hit the table, it was down to business. Some people came in, ordered, ate, paid, and left before we had eaten half of our meal. Definitely different than my experiences in, say, Italy, where one meal could last for hours!
Wow. Am I really still writing about the first day?!
So we went back to the hotel to rest before our organized trip would officially begin with a group meeting. Our group of twelve seems friendly and interesting, and our group leader is absolutely adorable. She is like a Chinese Bjork--a pixie-like energy ball called Ammy. She seems really excited about her job and this trip in particular, which in turn made me even more excited for the adventures ahead. We were hoping that the group would not be all American, and our desires were more than met. We are, in fact, the only Americans present (and thank G-d Obama won so I can easily show my face in internationally mixed company again) and we are joined by some Brits, Aussies, a Kiwi, a Scotswoman and an Austrian.
If the first day was any indication, it should be a pretty awesome few weeks.