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Part 1 of A China Saga:   Our Trip to the People's Republic of China, March 17-25, 2001

Beautiful gardens; lovely, slender women; gorgeous babies; playful senior citizens; and strolling, smiling families are among my positive impressions. China has invested heavily in its infrastructure, with newly built expressways; well-maintained streets, public buildings and parks; and lovingly restored monuments. Its bad side includes heavy-handed sales pressure and lack of access for the handicapped.

I began the trip from LAX with my mother and three of her friends (all seniors) and Pat, a co-worker who had agreed to be my roommate. Once in China, we were assigned to a larger bus group of 31 tourists and a Ritz Tours guide. This group would stick together, except for free days, for the remainder of the tour to Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. We were also assigned a government-licensed, local guide in each city.

We were very lucky, both to have beautiful weather and to have departed before diplomatic problems developed with China over the downed spy plane. The week before we arrived, Beijing's Lake Kunming (at the Summer Palace) had ice thick enough to walk on. Everyone was expecting temperatures in the 40s and packed accordingly. Instead, we were treated to sunny temperatures in the 70s in Beijing. Even at the Great Wall, where the wind was blowing so hard that it almost knocked us over the edge, we didn't need coats.

Eleanor at the Great Wall of China
Eleanor at the Great Wall of China

After all the news reports about illegal aliens risking their lives to get into the U.S., we were surprised to see crowds of happy, healthy, well-dressed people enjoying themselves in the public recreation areas. We were surprised by the wealth evidenced by China’s infrastructure, with wonderful expressways, wide streets, massive modern buildings, and lovely parks and restored monuments. The contrast to Mexico, for example, is very striking. Most of the roads we saw were in better condition than San Diego.

Pat remarked that Beijing was not as foreign as she had expected. She explained:

  • She was used to seeing Oriental faces in California.

  • Most people in public wore casual, Western dress, just as you’d see at home.

  • Many of the sights that we visited have been imitated in California. The entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown imitates the Forbidden City. The Oriental gardens in San Jose repeat the themes that were invented in China.

On the minus side, China is not a place to visit for anyone with a disability. Stairs are everywhere, even down to the subway. The ancient monuments have foot-high, vault-like thresholds across every entrance. Most toilets (not counting those in the high-end hotels) are the squat, rather than sit-down variety, and most do not have safety handrails. Forget about seeing wheelchair-accessible ramps or stalls. I saw just one wheelchair during the entire 10-day trip, and that belonged to a foreign visitor aboard a tour bus.

The constant sales pressure also put me off, both by clerks inside the government-authorized stores and by street vendors, who thronged and hounded us as if we were rock stars.

Traveling with a tour group, we saw more, covered more ground, were probably safer, and paid less than we would have on our own. However, the experience could not be termed rest and relaxation. On our one free day in Beijing, while we wasted a lot of time fumbling our way around, we could set our own pace. I would have appreciated another free day in Beijing. While I was in the experience, I did not have time to contemplate it. I am writing this article to try to capture the memories so that everything does not recede into a blur—or a total blur anyway.

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