Date: May 10, 2015
Written by: Joshua Le and Lorelaine Parcon
Our China adventure begins with a cultural day to the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. The forecast called for a 100% chance of rain and it didn’t disappoint. There’s a palpable feeling of excitement because learning about China on paper can only teach us so much and it doesn’t compare to experiencing the real thing.
WeChat is the top Chinese social media platform which combines a number of features from Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, PayPal, and more social platforms as a category killer. Conveniently, our group made a group chat to communicate throughout the trip. Time will tell how useful it turns out, but the prospects are promising. The first test of WeChat came from our first morning in Beijing. We were all experiencing varying levels of jet lag after traveling 14 hours ahead of MST. I woke up at 5:55AM and I decided to message the group to see if anyone was awake and wanted to work out. Surprisingly, 12 people came out to exercise. I’d consider that a success.
It doesn’t feel like we’re in China yet. Arriving in Beijing was thrilling with all the beautiful architecture, the grand scale, and Chinese characters everywhere. However, one point of consensus is that Beijing can easily pass off for another major city around the world with all the skyscrapers and grand structures. One thing is for certain: Beijing is much bigger than Edmonton with an estimated population of 22 million people and an area of 16,800 sq.km compared to Edmonton’s 880,000 people in 685 sq.km. We quickly found out that we will spend a significant amount of time on our tour bus since Beijing is so big, the population density is enormous, and certain points of interest are pretty far apart. The drives are long, but extremely fascinating.
Our Beijing tour guide, Lynn, took us to the Summer Palace to begin our day. She shared stories and information at several points of interest while also allowing us time for mini-photoshoots. I’ve designated myself as the unofficial photographer/videographer for the trip. It’s amazing how quickly large groups of people can organize for photos when the perfect photo, Instagram post, or FB album is on the line.
Surprisingly, it didn’t feel too different from Canada or other touristy spots around North America. As expected, there were many people at the Summer Palace of Chinese or SE Asian origin with a healthy dose of tourists and visible minorities; however, it actually felt like home with the variety of people but with a more Chinese setting. Maybe that’s a testament to the internationalization of Edmonton and Canada more than anything, but it didn’t feel too foreign. There wasn’t an unbearable amount of people and my personal bubble never felt violated, but your mileage may vary. So far, the cultural day was surprising and unsurprising at the same time.
The Great Wall was everything it was hyped up to be. We arrived to a heavy downpour, but it didn’t stop us from tackling one of the harder routes of the Wall. In fact, the rain was a blessing in disguise because the trails were relatively thinly populated throughout. I mentioned the workout 12 of us did earlier that morning. I know I was one of the people that regretted doing leg day; nonetheless, half of us powered through to reach the peak of this Great Wall section. The view was slightly obstructed with all the rain and fog, but it was 100% worth it. I was surprised how many elderly people were braving the Great Wall, and I’m sure it inspired other people to persevere despite the rough conditions. About half of us made it to the top and back, but I suspect the completion rate will be higher for anyone who goes back in the future because the Wall is not to be underestimated.
Food is a main highlight for any of my trips and proper Chinese food sits near the top for me. Breakfast at the Traders Hotel was incredible. It was an international buffet ranging from traditional Chinese food to Western cuisine. My top picks were dumplings, Chinese steamed buns, and fresh soy milk. To my disappointment, lunch and dinner weren’t very great. What I was able to decipher is the tour guide has a set of restaurants in which they get commission or kickbacks, so our meals were very Westernized Chinese dishes. In fact, the dishes were pretty similar to ones we’d get in Edmonton, but arguably worse depending on your exposure to Chinese cuisine. You know you’re in in a tourist trap when you see more Caucasian people than Chinese people at your restaurant or shop.
Similar to the restaurant situation above, our tour guide would take us to these very grand and elaborate shops. It would seem out of place considering the rural settings of some places like at the Great Wall, but you also know you’re in a tourist trap when a place is too fancy, there are a myriad of tour buses around, and Caucasian people outnumber the locals. Again, the tour guide would get some sort of kickback for all our purchases, so she was very insistent that we check it out. I tried to warn my fellow classmates, but some fell prey to the shiny local goods at the “best price possible.” The Marketing side of me has to give them credit because the shops are maximizing their profits while also giving the customer a sense of satisfaction that they are receiving full value for the product’s price, but the skeptic in me wouldn’t trust the tourist traps to give you a decent price even if you bargain because they know there will always be a sucker who will pay “full” price for the goods eventually.
The Silk Market is a collection of little shopping stalls in an 8 floor shopping complex. Each floor has its specialities ranging from shoes, electronics, fashion, home furnishings, and food. This market was much nicer than the typical Asian market I had pictured in my head, but I found out it’s because the Chinese government encouraged the Silk Market to renovate considering it was close to the former America embassy. The Silk Market was our first attempt at flexing our bargaining muscles. The sales staff will usually open with an outrageously high price to maximize their profit on unsuspecting tourists, but the saavy shopper will know that you must bargain down to a fraction of their initial offer. It varies from store to store and item to item, but the rule of thumb was to go 1/5 or 1/3 of their asking price. If you both don’t leave upset, you haven’t bargained hard enough. Bargaining is like a dance, but both parties are trying to lead. They will absolutely take advantage of your ignorance and lead if you’re too passive, so you must be firm and insist on leading the dance to maximize your value. In fact, I’m sure they appreciate a good dance and challenge because it can be boring to lead and milk tourists all the time. Be sure to throw in some theatrics, feign an exit, a dash of charm, and you’ll be great!
The first full day in Beijing set a great tone for what’s to come. I’m looking forward to the company visits and other cultural sites.