Yesterday afternoon, we concluded a wonderful two weeks with my parents, my younger brother Daniel, and Daniel’s girlfriend Heidi. I had been planning for their visit for weeks (it was the welcome distraction that got me through the insanity of grading research papers and final exams!) and overall we had a great time.
The trip started when my family arrived in Shanghai. The plane had come in a little late, so we opted for cabs to the hotel rather than the subway, which takes about an hour and a half. In Shanghai, we stayed in the Ruijin Guesthouse, a converted villa in the French Concession area where Zach and I had stayed before. We love the way the green grounds serve as an oasis amidst the bustle of Shanghai (even when the hotel seems to be under perpetual renovation). The weather was rainy for the two days we spent in Shanghai, but that didn’t keep us from trekking out to the Bund for a somewhat limited view of the Pudong skyline, and my family got a chance to see plenty of other futuristic buildings on our other sightseeing adventures. We spend most of our first day in the Shanghai Museum, exploring everything from the ancient bronzes to the Ming furniture. On our second day, we had a brief respite from the rain that allowed us a walk through the French Concession and Old City, stops in a couple of parks along the way, and a visit to the Yu Garden and Bazaar. We also visited the Shanghai Circus World to give my family a taste of the intersection of Chinese acrobatics and Cirque du Soleil. It was a good way to keep everyone awake!
After Shanghai, we made a one-day stop in Suzhou on the way to Nanjing to take a look at the famous canal city. The weather finally cleared up, so we had a sunny day for climbing the pagoda at Beisi Ta and walking through the sprawling Humble Administrator’s Garden and the spectacularly designed Suzhou Museum. Zach and I were especially interested in a special exhibit on snuff bottles that had hundreds of examples of this intricate Qing-dynasty art form. Having left our luggage at the train station counter, so we picked it up in time for an evening train to Nanjing and I grabbed a couple of pizzas for dinner while Zach checked my parents into the Xiyuan Hotel on Nanjing University campus.
Nanjing (Part 1)
We spent our first day in Nanjing strolling around the Xuanwu Lake Park, one of my favorite spots in Nanjing. I packed sandwiches from Skyways Bakery for us to have as a picnic lunch at the lake, and we also made a stop at Jiming Temple, just inside the city wall, to burn some incense and take in the views. While it isn’t the most impressive temple in China, it has an undeniable hometown charm that everyone enjoyed.
After just one day in Nanjing, we hopped on an overnight train to Huangshan, one of the most renowned mountains in China and World Heritage site galore. We had spectacular weather for our two-day hiking trip, with clear skies and great views both days. Although the mountain was crowded, Zach and I were excited to have a chance to see some more of the western peaks, which were completely clouded over on our previous visit, and I think everyone enjoyed the unique landscapes and the poetic trail signage. After making our way down the mountain, we had just enough time to squeeze in a trip to the nearby village of Hongcun, where we had a nice lunch and stroll. Despite some problems finding bus transportation home (which ultimately involved waiting on the side of a highway to hitch a ride on a different bus than the one we had booked, and then three of us sitting in the aisle of the bus for half the trip), we made it back to Nanjing none the worse after two days of early rising and stair climbing.
Nanjing (Part 2)
We spent the next few days in Nanjing visiting the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, the Confucius Temple, and the Presidential Palace, but mostly sleeping in and resting up! I took everyone around the city while Zach enjoyed a couple days off from being our on-duty translator. Nanjing University was lit up with red and green lanterns and adorned with flower displays for a 100th anniversary celebration. Zach and I were excited that everyone enjoyed our very favorite restaurant, a little Yunnan restaurant around the corner from our apartment that serves some amazing seasoned fried lotus strips, a vegetable called “dragon bean,” and balls of fried dough with bean paste and rose petals inside. We even went back a second time! My parents also discovered the joy of the Chinese McFlurry and the many sidewalk freezers full of ice cream bars—the nectar of summertime in China.
For the last leg of our trip, we took the high-speed train to Beijing for a four-day visit. The skies were uncommonly blue and beautiful, especially for the last three days—a welcome surprise! We stayed in a nice hotel called the Red Wall Garden Hotel located in a hutong (traditional courtyard housing) in the center of the city. After checking in, we had time for an evening stroll over to Beihai Park, where we ate at a Cantonese restaurant and walked back through the brightly lit Houhai area and enjoyed some street snacks. We spent our first full day in Beijing walking to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. The day was hot, the Forbidden City was vast, and the trees were few, but an ample lunch of assorted dumplings and frequent breaks inside the Imperial palace kept our energy from flagging.
Our second day in Beijing was reserved for a trip to the Great Wall. When we found out our hotel had booked as a driver and a tour guide (rather than just a driver), we weren’t too worried, but it turned out the tour guide had different plans than those Zach and I had made. While we had asked to go to Mutianyu, a stretch of wall farther from the city than Badaling, the most visited stretch, he suggested we visit Juyongguan instead, suggesting that it would be less crowded. Since we had never been to (or heard of) this stretch of wall, we agreed, but I think he was actually more interested in its proximity to several other tourism stops—like a jade factory store and a cloisonné warehouse plus cafeteria—than its inherent value. Although Zach and I were frustrated by the experience and we were sorry to miss out on some of the beautiful panoramic views at Mutianyu, the mountains at Juyongguan were stunning in their own right and we all got to spend a couple hours hiking on the Great Wall of China! We also had time for a stop at the Olympic Stadium Park to see the bird’s nest and water cube (which Daniel does not like to hear called a cube) before heading back to the hotel.
For a chance of pace, we spent the next day investigating a few lesser-known (or at least less frequented) spots in Beijing, although we started with the Temple of Heaven, once of Beijing’s most iconic sites. Technically an altar rather than a temple, the Temple of Heaven includes a round building in which the emperor made sacrifices to ensure a good harvest, another round building in which ceremonial objects were stored, and a round altar on which a sacrificial bull was slaughtered—all surrounded by a massive park the size of the Forbidden City. After our morning in the Temple of Heaven, we disappeared into the Ancient Observatory for a peek at some ancient astronomical instruments created in the 17th and 18th centuries under the guidance of Jesuit astronomers and boasting some neat Chinese flourishes. Next, we made our way to Beijing’s Hui Muslim district for a trip to Cow Street Mosque. Though I’d forgotten to dress conservatively, the gate attendant kindly provided long skirts for Heidi and I to wear over our exposed legs and a shawl for me to put over my v-neck shirt, and we were free to explore the mosque. With Chinese architecture, the mosque’s appearance had a lot in common with Buddhist temples, but the flourishes of Arabic calligraphy revealed the difference in purpose. Finally, around the corner we found the Fayuan Temple, arguably the oldest in Beijing and now functioning as a college for monks. As we entered, the monks and a handful of lay Buddhists were just exiting the first hall to make a circuit around the courtyard while chanting. We observed the service, Zach and I reminded of our undergraduate trip to South Korea and the amazing few days we spent at a college for Buddhist nuns. After they had reentered the hall, we quietly continued through the temple complex, peeking in the windows of some closed buildings and glimpsing the assortment of Buddha statues and other stored objects inside. We rounded out our day with dinner at a Muslim restaurant, where we ate lamb skewers, fried naan, and some other favorite dishes. After my family had grown accustomed to the big crowds so common in China, it was neat to find some quiet spots even in Beijing.
On my family’s final day in China, we had time for some final sightseeing—we took the subway to the Lama Temple just a few stops north of our hotel to see the very large 55-foot Buddha (and the interesting array of small Buddha statues on display in another hall that served as a sort of museum) and the Confucius Temple and Imperial College, where students would prepare for the civil service examination. While I’d been to both sites previously when Zach and I were in Beijing for Chinese New Year, the weather at the time had been windy and below freezing, so I found them much more enjoyable this time around! For lunch, we stopped at a vegetarian restaurant that offered meatless versions of famous Chinese meat dishes– we tried some fried shrimp, lamb skewers, and sweet and sour pork all magically fashioned from tofu and veggies. In the afternoon, we did some final souvenir shopping and then headed to the airport– and I finally got to see the shiny Terminal 3 built for the 2008 Olympics.
A Memorable Two Weeks Drawn to a Close
After two weeks with Mom, Dad, Daniel, and Heidi, I really got used to having them here! I’ll miss being with family, but will be excited to be returning home in just over a month myself. I’m so excited that they got to share a little bit of this incredible year with me– to see the one-of-a-kind palaces, temples, gardens, mountains, and walls; to sample my favorite foods from street stalls, hole-in-the wall restaurants, and the shiny Taiwanese and Japanese chains found in Chinese shopping malls; to eat fried noodles and steamed buns for breakfast; to become experts at riding the subways in three different cities; to see the poodles with their ears dyed blue and orange; and to simply experience the bustle of Chinese urban life.
Zach and I will be staying in Beijing for a few more weeks so that Zach can do some research at Beijing Normal University and I can check out the Beijing Zoo for a research collaboration of my own with some UGA Social Foundations colleagues. Hopefully we’ll have a fun and productive stay here before heading back to Nanjing for our final days in China! After my family’s visit and with only one month left, I’m feeling very bittersweet– savoring the end of our time in China but also looking forward to being home!
Thanks again Mom, Dad, Daniel, and Heidi for being such willing, adventurous, and all-around good company! 🙂