From Tongling, we returned to our Beijing 'home', the Nuo Hotel. After an almost six-hour high speed train ride, we arrived at the Beijing South station which was newer than the Beijing West station but just as large, crowded and confusing. Except for a one day trip to Shijiazhuang to visit Anna's original host family seven years ago, we spent the rest of our stay in Beijing. (Interestingly, Anna will be doing her required spring internship with her host mom working in one of her businesses)
You can't go to China without visiting the Great Wall. We really didn't want to go on a guided tour or take public transportation, so we decided to hire one of the taxi drivers which we became friendly with. The ride from the hotel to the Badaling visitor's center was about 90 minutes but the traffic was incredible. Apparently, choosing the correct day to go is critical. Going during the National Holiday is not a good time. Our taxi driver sneaked into a back parking lot and we walked a long distance. It was bitter cold with a very strong wind. While waiting to buy our admission tickets, I spotted someone selling scarves. It was like finding a bottle of water in the middle of the Sahara.
The engineering history of the Wall is incredible. After walking and climbing the steep steps and looking out in the distance and seeing the Wall stretch out over the hills, I cannot believe that it was ever constructed. I can't imagine how all of the giant blocks of stone were put into place. Really worth a visit but try to pick a slow tourist day!
One other thing that was on my to do list was to see the raising of the flag at Tiananmen Square.This is done at sunrise every morning and is quite a site as an Army brigade marches (in impressive precision) out of the Palace, crosses the street to this large flag pole. The troops are followed by a band that plays the National Anthem as the flag is raised. We were told to get there early and we took a taxi to the Square and got there about 6:15 am for a 7:23 am sunrise. I thought we were being smart and crafty but as you can see from the photos, there already was a large crowd gathering on both sides of the street. After going through security (a routine when entering the Square, all train stations, subway stations and airports; although I detected less attention paid to us foreigners), we picked a spot by the Palace and were in the second/third row next to the barricade. Thanks to Anna, we spent the time talking to people and all of them traveled a long way to get there. We were next to a young man, his third time attending, who is the captain of the flag raising team at his school. Very proud of his country and stood at attention and saluted the flag during the entire ceremony. We wanted to go see Mao's tomb, which is open only in the morning hours, but the crowds were too big and you are only in there for about 30 seconds.
One place we visited multiple times was the Great Leap Brewery. A tremendous selection of craft beers brewed on site with all Chinese ingredients. During our time in China, the Great Leap was the only place where you might think that you were back in the western world. Outstanding hamburgers and fries as well!!!
When we were planning this trip, neither Rondi nor I had any idea what we would experience. We spent a lot of time getting Maine-based gifts for our various hosts and friends. Little did we know that we would be returning home with more gifts than we brought. Everyone we met welcomed us to their homes and were very generous with food and laughs; despite not knowing how to speak the other's language. There were some political discussions but not often and everyone was respectful. Rightfully, the citizens are very proud of their country and its rich history. But the United States is still a beacon, especially among the youth. Learning English is so important to the children and so many of them said they do so because they want to come to the United States. As for the many parents we met, from rich to poor, they all work hard and want the same thing we strive for -- to provide a better life for our children.
All in all, a fascinating country. And we are so very lucky to have stayed in the homes of so many families. And very humbling, that all of these people we met, living in diverse parts of the country, came about solely from our daughter's relationships developed over many years.