We began our two weeks in China on the outskirts of the city of Xi’an. China came across to me as much more western (in terms of cleanliness, architecture, goods for sale, fashion, and so on) than India does. However, it is also clearly an ancient country with a rich and very different culture from the West. One big difference was immediately obvious on arriving in China: Unlike every other country I’ve visited in recent memory, English was not going to be of much use. Since I couldn’t read the writing, this meant that a great deal of preparation was required, something I don’t excel at with travel. Luckily, we had a printout with the hotel name on it, and were able to procure a taxi (though we were charged twice the normal rate, we later learned). Later in the trip we would discover that Taxi drivers mostly didn’t like us — one time Anind was forced to hail 42 cabs before one took pite on him and brought him home.
Our hotel in Xi’an was situated near a mountain near a natural hot spring, among fields of ripe pomegranates. The hotel had a spa, with 40 or 50 separate stone pools of hot water containing diverse “soup” and “tea” concoctions such as lemon, cucumber, aloe, jasmine, carrots, marbles, and many I
could not recognize spread out among peaceful walkways surrounded by greenery, flowers, and ripening fruit. Unlike spas in the US, this one welcomed children (for free), and had a special larger pool intended for a play space. The kids loved the spa, and we spent several half days bathing in pools,
playing, resting on hot stones (heated from underneath), and eating snacks at the spa’s small snack house. Afterwards, we would go to the hotel’s excellent restaurant and fill ourselves with delicious chinese specialties. Since it was raining most of the time we were in Xi’an, this was a perfect way to pass our first few days in China.
In between spa visits, we also did some sightseeing. We spent a half day in Xi’an, biking around the top of the city’s large old wall. We also had the unexpected opportunity to view a concert in the city’s bell tower, where women danced to the sound of traditional chinese instruments. The instruments included bells, a flute, a bowed single string, and a plucked string instrument. The children were entranced. We also spent half a day at the Terra Cotta warriors, tromping from building to building in the pouring rain to see one of the greatest archeological finds of the last century. The detailed carvings of the warriors and their sheer number were both impressive.
After about four days in Xi’an we headed by overnight train (always an adventure) to Beijing. Our goal there was to attend parts of the Ubicomp 2011 conference, but we also had a great deal of sightseeing planned. These plans were waylaid in part because every one of us got the flu, one after another, during this trip (ending with my husband having it on the flight home). However, as there were a few days where no one was sick, we still managed to do some sight seeing.
My favorite thing by far was the great wall of china. We went to the MuTianYu section of the wall. Our driver encouraged us to arrive there early (it was over a 1 hour drive), so at 7:30, when the shops were just opening, we found ourselves eating freshly made dumplings for breakfast at the base of the wall. I somehow never realized this, but the wall is built along the peaks of a mountain chain, so we had to take a cable car up to the wall itself. We were the only people on the wall for the first few hours of our hike, which made it a very special, peaceful experience. We had intended to walk toward the flatter section of the wall and head down after an hour or two, but the children saw the wall rise along the side of a a nearby mountain through the mist in the other direction and insisted that they wanted to scale that peak. After passing turret after turret, we finally reached the section of
the wall that rose to the peak, and we worked our way up the stairs. My son was especially brave, alternating between hugging the ground and forcing past his fear of heights to scale the next few steps. At times, when we encountered stairs that were especially steep, he clung to my back, eyes closed, as I walked up (or, earlier in the walk, down them). The view from the top was beautiful, as was the sense of accomplishment that we all felt. Amazingly, my son had no trouble at all going back down, his fear conquered by his own success. Following this, we retraced the route and began to walk toward our original goal. My daughter ended up scraping her knee and we carried her much of this way. Finally, we reached the way down: A toboggan with a brake lever and room for one adult/child combination that traveled down a metal track to the bottom. We ended with more dumplings for lunch, and a purchase of the obligate tourist trinkets.
Although the wall was my favorite, we did see some other beautiful sights. We spent a day wandering around the Forbidden City (prelude: A bicycle rickshaw ride and an attempt to change the price from 6 yuan to 600 yuan at the end of it!), followed by the notorious 42 taxi refusals and a visit to one of the top acrobatics companies in China. The feats we saw on stage were impressive, including bike acrobatics, a ballet dancer who danced point upon the shoulders and arms of her partner, tumblers, balancing acts, juggling of balls by foot, and more. We also visited the summer palace, during the evening reception of Ubicomp, which included a series of performances, including a sampling of the Beijing Opera and a mask dance that ended with firebreathing.
We topped off the trip with a special visit to the musical instrument sales district of Beijing, promised to my son who was missing having a cello. We took a 45 minute taxi ride to an obscure section of Beijing, and found ourself on a street filled with stringed instruments of all kinds, both western instruments (cello, violin, even viola) and traditional chinese instruments (a ceramic type of whistle with finger holes, a reeded bamboo instrument with a drone and fingered section called a Hulusi, a bowed string instrument, and more). Our first goal being a cello, we stopped at the first store that had child-sized instruments and I encouraged my son to try more than one. It was an eye-opening experience for him to compare the sound and feel of more than one instrument and see how much they differed. However, the price was high and the instruments out of town and badly made, so we kept looking. We quickly discovered that the highest quality instruments (both traditional and western) were found at shops where skilled musician played music to attract customers and display their wares. One shop even specialized in baroque instruments, including an (unfortunately out of tune) 6-stringed Arpeggione, which they let me try. In the end we settled on a beautiful, well-made 1/4-sized cello with a nice sound, and a Hulusi for my daughter. After a comedic visit to about 10 banks with no success in retrieving money, we ended up having to go back to the hotel and purchase the instruments the following day.
In the end, our time in China, despite having many “wasted” hours waiting out sickness in hotel room, was a wonderful success. In between spa visits, we were lucky to enjoy much music, acrobatics, and dancing. We ate a huge variety of food in dinners both in Xi’An, at our hotel in Beijing, and thanks to the conference at two separate conference events. We saw palaces, nature, and city walls. We bought blatantly overpriced tourist tchochkas, paintings, and even a chess set. And to top it off, I had the opportunity to attend a conference I rarely can (though I often submit to it and read its papers). The day I spent at Ubicomp 2011 was intellectually stimulating and full of wonderful discussions with friends and colleagues.