It was really great to get to see my parents. Even though I Skype with them fairly regularly, it is not the same as getting to see them, hug them, and spend time with them, so it was a real treat. As for Beijing, it was really nice getting to see the historical sites like the Summer's Palace, where the emperor would spend his summers to evade the summer heat. Its grandeur and beauty were impressive as it looked out over a giant lake. Another highlight from the trip happened randomly while we were just standing in Tianamen Square. Tianamen Square gained international notoriety after the protests in 1989 (you may have seen the photo of the man standing in front of the tanks). To this day, Tianamen Square remains a popular site for protesters against the Chinese government. For this reason there are police and military officials EVERYWHERE! Well our story picks up while we standing in the square, just across from the Forbidden City, when all of a sudden this woman in a wheel chair opens her book bag and all these papers just go flying. Within seconds there were 5 to 6 officers around snatching up all the papers (including the one under my foot that I had stepped on to prevent from blowing away, and secretly was hoping to keep to have it translated) and wheeling off this old lady and putting her in a van. I have no idea what those papers said, but I have to assume it was some form of propaganda because she deliberately threw them on the ground. It was just interesting to witness first hand the tight grip of China's Communist hand, and how quickly they were able to erase this woman's best efforts at "free speech".
Perhaps the biggest let down of the trip for me was the Forbidden City. The fact that during the imperial times nobody was allowed in that part of the city makes it an intriguing site, but once inside it is a little boring. I mean the architecture was beautiful, but it looked like all the other temples we had already seen. Its size was very impressive, but as you walked through the compound everything started to look the same. It is still a must-see due to its historical value alone, it just didn't live up to its hype.
Other sights we visited were the Temple of Heaven, Birds Nest Stadium and Olympic Park, the Silk Market, where I taught my parents how to bargain, and the Drum and Bell towers where we just barely were able to catch a spectacular drum performance (the towers used to be used to keep time). But the REASON we were in Beijing, the main event, the headliner was the Great Wall of China. One of the most recognizable structures in the world and certainly one of the grandest, it is something most people aspire to visiting in their lifetime, and we were getting to do just that. Now the weather we were experiencing had been crappy to put it nicely. Dreary haze covered the sky with a blanket of foggy grey. Not the most picturesque setting, but we had to make the best with what we were given. Now, I had heard from friends that much of the wall that tourists see today was part of a massive restoration project by the government in the 1980's, and in some locations was not even built in its original location! (Why not just build a wall in America, call it the Great Wall and save money on airfare right?) To avoid seeing a replica, I looked into the different places where you can tour the wall to find an authentic one. The trouble was that the more authentic the wall, the more difficult it was to access. Luckily we were able to discover one place where there had been minor restorations done to the original wall, and still had a chair lift to the wall to prevent my parents from having to hike to the top. Being in the high elevation certainly didn't help with the visibility issues, but it was still impossible to escape the giddy feeling I got from standing on such a significant piece of world history! The part of the wall we were standing on was built during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. That is before America was even on the map (unless the Native Americans or Mesoamericans had maps...).
However, I was still disappointed that we went on such a crummy day and did not get any good pictures, so we decided to try again on another day. This time I found a tour that allows you to hike from Jinshanling to Simitai, about 7 km (4.5 miles), on the wall, and the latter sections have remained completely untainted by restoration. So I went for a solo day hike along a 700 year old structure on what just so happened to be a day with the most beautiful weather. It was completely blissful, as the wall was vacant of the crowds and I could just be alone in my thoughts (which tended to be imagining I was a Chinese soldier having to ward off a Mongol invasion). The hike was strenuous, and got harder as it went along, but totally worth it.
Having satisfied our Great Wall expectations we were all set to leave, but having a late flight, decided to catch an acrobatic show before we left. The things these people did were incredible. Extreme feats of strength, balance, flexibility, and danger. At a few points, I was almost certain I was about to witness a death. Luckily I didn't and it made for a great ending to a fantastic trip.