A Trip to China

by Annette Ratcliff, Ellis-Cutler Scholar ‘06

Standing on the Great Wall of China is truly a breathtaking moment.  The mammoth structure extends from underneath your feet to beyond the farthest mountains your eyes can reach.  To know it is only a small fraction of the entire wall is almost beyond comprehension and certainly humbling.  Never did I imagine I would be so lucky.

My brother, Travis, works for Mettler Toledo, Inc., as a business process specialist and he has been living in Shanghai for the last six months. My cousin, Todd, and I decided to visit him in the middle of November 2010.  We decided to meet up in Beijing first and then travel our way by plane, train, and occasionally automobile to Shanghai. 

Annette RatcliffExcited as we were to be in China, we decided to tackle the greatest attraction first, the Great Wall.  We visited two specific sites along the wall just outside of Beijing on the same day.  Starting very early in the morning, we arrived at the Juyongguan section around 8 am.  The air was very crisp and chilly but perfect for the intense climb that followed.  From the visitor center below, the wall wasn’t easily visible until we emerged from the entrance and saw the looming stairs.  Over 300 steps separated us from the first watchtower.  With a total of thirteen watchtowers awaiting us, we bundled ourselves up and began the grueling ascent.  Halfway up the first set of stairs my knees started trembling, not from overexertion as you might think, but rather an irksome case of the fear of heights.  Persevering though, we finally arrived at the top of the mountain to spectacular views of the wall we had just scaled, dipping and darting along the mountains. 

Our morning exercise complete, we next headed to an even more scenic section of the wall called Mutianyu.  To our relief, a cable car scooped us up and delivered us to one of the watchtowers along this section.  By mid-day the sun had come out and the clear sky meant visibility was spectacular with views extending for miles.  I have to say this was one of the greatest sites I have seen so far in my travels and I feel very fortunate to have been able to see it with family.

Back in Beijing we spent the next few days visiting the Forbidden City, the Olympic Park, and the Temple of Heaven before heading northeast to Datong to visit the famous Yungang grottoes.  The weather was freezing on our arrival (wind chill below zero) but our first glimpse of a 1,500 year old, 70 feet tall Buddha that had been carved into the side of the hillside made our cold limbs worthwhile.  Over 50,000 carvings of the life of Buddha span the hillside with the smallest only 2 centimeter and the largest 70 feet tall.       

Courtney and Travis GintherDatong is a small coal mining town, however, the industrialization and growth occurring all over China was particularly striking here.  High rise apartments are popping up everywhere with approximately forty completed in the last three years and another fifty to sixty under construction now.  Outside our hotel window we could see about one hundred construction workers working day and night in freezing temperatures on one of these buildings.  These apartments will house farmers relocating to work in the many factories just outside the city.  Our tour guide informed us that Datong has grown by about 2 million people in the last five years to roughly a population of 8 million, yet it is still considered a small town by Chinese standards.  It was evident as we walked down the sidewalks that the people of Datong were not accustomed to seeing foreigners.  Many people stared at us and a few even took our picture as we walked by.  Whispers of “laowai” (Chinese for foreigner) were common to hear.  However, the people we met here and indeed everywhere in China were incredibly friendly and gracious.

I would recommend to anyone taking a night train to bring a pair of earplugs and a night blinder with you as we found out on our 17-hour train ride from Datong to Xi’an.  Xi’an is a very ancient city that is probably best known for its recent discovery of the Terracotta warrior army from the mausoleum of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang.  The life-sized statues stand in perfectly aligned rows.  Each soldier’s face is discernibly different and intricately detailed along with their body armor.  Their fragility is easily seen in the number of soldiers that lay shattered in the pits where excavation has stalled in an attempt to salvage and piece together what remains of them.  It truly is a wonder to stand before them all.

Our final destination in China was Shanghai where my brother lives and works.  I was impressed with the size and scope of the city immediately from our drive from the airport.  Shanghai is the most westernized city in mainland China with a broad array of shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.  Due to the recent World Expo public transportation was completely renovated to include a new fleet of taxis.  Street signs and subway maps have English titles that make getting around much easier as a tourist.   There is a growing population of ex-patriot workers in Shanghai, as the surrounding countryside hosts hundreds of industrial factories from companies all over the world.  The area that my brother lives in, Xujiahua, houses both Asian and western shops, restaurants, and markets.  The cultural mixture makes Shanghai an exciting, fun and vivacious city in which to live.  It is also a central hub for traveling around Asia with flights to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, and Bangkok. 

I was reminded though that information is still tightly controlled in China.  Several young tour guides we encountered did not know of the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 or that more recently Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism for human rights in China.  Indeed, my brother told us that the television networks such as CNN were shut down while the peace prize announcement was being made.  Internet access was also severely impaired as I was unable to check email from my university accounts or access sites such as YouTube or Facebook. 

Overall my experience in China was wonderful.  The Chinese people were very friendly, gracious and sometimes curious towards us.  It was obvious throughout our traveling that the metropolitan areas are growing rapidly.  Construction was occurring almost everywhere you looked with the influx of industry, both production and service.  I was left with the impression that China is becoming a major economic power and is slowly opening itself up to outsiders by hosting the World Expo and the Olympic Games.  China has so much to offer historically and culturally to tourists.  I would highly recommend visiting if you ever have the opportunity!

Top Photo: Annette on the Great Wall of China. Bottom Photo: Annette and her brother, Travis, on a rickshaw in China.

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