One year ago today, we flew to Changsha, in Hunan Province. It started as a rainy Sunday in Beijing and with our travel group, we passed the morning holed up in the Beijing International Hotel, recovering from a few days of whirlwind sightseeing.
The prior four days were spent acclimating to the time change and exploring Beijing. On the first full day since our arrival Wednesday, we ventured out with our guide, Tao, who took us to the Summer Palace. A student of history, Tao walked us through centuries of Chinese culture and experience. We marveled at the beautiful paintings on the ceiling of a long, covered outdoor corridor, and at the large marble boat commissioned by the Empress Ci Xi, who requested a canal be built all the way to Beijing so she would not have to travel over land. For dinner, we met up with two other couples who had also come to China to meet their future daughters. We exchanged stories and dined on 1,000-year eggs. On Friday, we visited Tienanmen Square, surrounded by Mao's Tomb, the Parliament or People's building, and many cameras mounted high on lampposts. Chinese tourists mingled with the Rolex vendors while kites flew above us in the square. Under and across the street, we entered the Forbidden City and were awed by the age and enormous scale of the complex where hundreds of years prior, whole armies massed in the plazas. We climbed into bicycle rickshaws for a tour of the ancient Hutong neighborhood, watching local people scrub and paint the alleyways in preparation for the Olympics to come the next year. We ate a home-cooked lunch and dinner in the two-room dwellings of Chinese families, enjoying cucumbers braised in a wok and dumplings, chicken drums cooked with cinnamon, and were surprised to find fresh tomatoes and watermelon at every meal. We visited a kindergarten, where kids clamored to pose in a picture and stuffed animals were airing along a clothesline in the sun. We visited a family that lived in small, single-storey rooms surrounding a courtyard with vegetables growing above their heads and a myna bird that said "Nee-how (Hello)." Several generations had lived there and the patriarch showed us his skill at intricate paper cutting, an historic folk art that involves great precision. We climbed the steep stairs to the drum tower and admired a view that rivals that of the Empire State building. We boarded a long boat paddled by the Chinese version of a gondolier and were serenaded by a sullen young woman who played beautiful pi pa music at the bow. That night, the two of us struck out on our own to enjoy a masterful performance of martial arts infused with Vegas showmanship. We winced with empathic pain as young men broke metal bars across their foreheads. We marveled at the performance, which was packed with foreigners whose guides waited to collect them outside the building following the show. Bypassing the cabs, we walked in the finally temperate night air for 20 long but safe city blocks until we reached our hotel. We strolled among people with little dogs and passed an ancient observatory wall reconstructed from bricks returned by the city's citizens.
On Saturday, we all set out for the Great Wall. We drank a lot of bottled water and closed our eyes as our van dodged other vehicles on congested streets and highways. We passed the future Water Cube and Bird's nest stadiums that would be so familiar to the world one year later. We traveled for an hour to the North, leaving behind the vast city and finding ourselves quickly in open countryside. Once at the site, we climbed a steep, uneven and crowded path up the Wall until the altitude and grade thinned the numbers of fellow tourists. The dense green thicket on either side of the Wall looked like fortress enough to repel an invading army. At regular intervals, roofed parapets served as ancient way stations, sheltered areas to sleep and cook and recharge. We left the Wall and visited a State-run store that featured crafts from around the country and busloads of tourists. On again to Beijing, to stop at a pearl store where we learned about the minerals in a river that yield pink (copper), champagne, black (iron?) and purple pearls (copper and iron?), and the associations for each color (purple signifies romance). That night, we ate at a Mongolian restaurant that featured a mural of Mongolian warriors, one of whom closely resembled Grace's future Daddy. While enjoying an eggplant dish rumored to be good for the digestion and weight loss, I bit into a spice called the prickly ash seed which caused my mouth to tingle and then go numb for a few unnerving minutes. Later, we struck off to see a performance of acrobatics -- very young children in some cases, flying around. At one point, there were 15 people on one bicycle.
That night, I rinsed our clothes in the sink so we would have clean apparel in Hunan. On Sunday morning, everything was soaked; the humidity made it difficult to dry anything. I bundled it in a plastic bag and put the heavy load in my carry-on in an effort to avoid luggage charges due to the extra weight.
The two of us were getting stir-crazy in the hotel and needed some R&R. A hotel bell hop escorted us under a big umbrella back through the parking lot and across the street to a Thai massage house, where we were briefly separated, lost the ability to be understood and questioned the merits of the whole pursuit until skilled hands soothed our tired and tense muscles.
That afternoon, we all toured the Temple of Heaven under cloudy skies, noting with awe the total lack of nails in the massive tongue-and-groove structure. We joked about our busy itinerary to date and bought postcards as mementos. Mostly, though, we were preoccupied with thoughts of meeting our little girls and anxious to get to Hunan.
Our flight left late in the day and we arrived in Hunan at night, nervous, giddy, and full of questions.....
[Pictures of most of this experience available on request.]