Two weeks into our stint in China, we arrived in the capital city of Bejing for our final leg here. Coming from remote and rugged Shangri-La, the sheer scope and scale of this city was a shock to our senses. Beijing has over 22 million residents, making it one of the most populated cities in the world. The airport alone serves over 40 million people annually, and is larger than any airport we’ve ever seen, anywhere. When Blair and her family came to Beijing in 1992, most residents moved around the city on bicycles, with the cars competing as second class citizens. Now, there are between five and six million cars competing for road space in the city, and hardly a bicycle to seen (not even motorbikes).
On our first morning in Beijing we awoke to clear blue skies which according to resident expert Gloria Rivieray Scuitto (Blair’s college housemate and close friend), is nothing short of a miracle. Beijing is notorious for its horrific air pollution problem, and there are many days when Gloria’s two young sons have to either stay indoors in their apartment’s filtered air system, or wear large air-filtering masks to get around the city. Because Schuyler has asthma, the air quality in Beijing was a concern for us from the earliest stages of planning our Asia travels, so the blue skies were a fabulous relief as we began our big city adventure!
Visiting a Chinese School: A morning at the Family Learning House
We were invited by Gloria and her family to spend a morning at The Family Learning House, a private school for children ages 18 months (the age that school begins in China) to 6 years, after which time the students leave for elementary school. Tristan and Caden Sciutto spend their days here speaking mostly Mandarin with a little bit of English – the school is bi-lingual but the majorty of students and teachers speak in Chinese. Our girls were thrilled to discover that the classrooms were essentially Montessori in their layout, materials, and structure and it felt a little bit like coming home for them. We sang songs with the students and spent time exploring their classrooms and chatting with the teachers. We even got to spend time experiencing recess on the school’s rooftop turf field. With blue skies, the children spent a lot of time outdoors, a real treat in Beijing!
ZOE: When we first arrived at the school, I was so amazed at how beautiful it was. The inside was all white with pretty furniture and a really nice energy to it. I had so much fun helping the kids with English and helping them face their fears to come up and talk to us. The teacher, Auntie Phoebe, asked them in English to raise their hands if they wanted to come up and meet us. Only one child raised her hand at first and she walked up to us and we introduced ourselves and asked her what her name was and hold she was and everyone clapped for her when she sat down. After that, a lot of the children wanted a turn to do the same! When we were playing on the roof, I met a group of boys and we played tickle monster. They would run up and try to tickle me and then I would get them back they were laughing really hard. They loved it when I chased them and we all had so much fun together!
SCHUYLER: Going to see this school was a highlight for me in Bejiing. It was amazing to see how clean, simple, and organized everything was, and the message of education and community values was very clear. When we went into the classes it looked a lot like our Montessori school back at home, with many of the same materials. The children were all so friendly and I loved playing with them at recess on the roof. The kids played imaginary games and pretended to be American superheroes even though many were just learning English. I definitely could have stayed a lot longer – I wish that we had!
THAYER: I was really excited to see so many things at this school that reminded me of my school at home! We were so curious to look around the classroom. The kids sing the same special song when it is someone’s birthday that we sing at my school at home – it’s called “The Earth Goes Around the Sun.” It was fun to see a Chinese school that was also like my school.
TIANANMEN SQUARE AND THE FORBIDDEN CITY
What would a visit to Beijing be without a tour of the iconic Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. The square is the fourth largest city square in the world, over 109 acres of open space. We know it best for the 1989 student-led pro-democracy protests and subsequent massacre, but the square has been the site of many significant events throughout Chinese history and dates back to 1415, when it served as the official Gate to the Forbidden City.
We were surprised to hear from our guide, a woman perhaps in her late 20’s, that although she had heard the reports of a student uprising in the late 80’s, she had never read anything about it or seen a single photograph of the event. Her information came only from her tourist clients with whom she walked around the square. The Chinese government has manged to suppress from its citizens all information, media, and photographs relating to the 1989 incident (including the famous photograph of “Tank Man,” standing alone in front of the military tanks in the square).
From the square you can walk directly into the Forbidden City, where 24 Emperors lived and ruled for over 500 years in a completely closed off, fortified complex. Very few people were allowed in– just servants (mostly eunichs), concubines, government officials, and the many guards. The Forbidden City opened to the public as a museum in 1925, and the girls were fascinated to learn about life within its walls throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.
SCHUYLER: I didn’t know very much about the history of Tiananmen Square before this sightseeing tour, so it was pretty fascinating to learn about it. I want to continue to learn about it now. I also loved learning about the Emperors, how they lived and the privileges they had (and the rules they had to follow). I was interested to learn about women’s roles and rights back then. For example, it was an honor to become a concubine to the Emperor, which now sounds really strange and unfair. But concubines were well-fed and cared for, and had some power within their ranks. They had to entertain him with music and dancing and they had many children by him which also gave them power. Overall, the Forbidden City was gorgeous and easy to walk through and I really liked our day there.
THAYER: I learned that at every meal, the Emperor had a person take a bite of his food before he could eat it. Even after that, the Emperor was only allowed to take 2 bites of every dish in case there was poison that worked slowly. He had like 30 dishes to choose from at each meal, but even if he really liked one he could still only take 2 bites. Also he couldn’t pick any favorite dishes or request any food because then someone might make it for him with poison in it.
ZOE: I was so interested to learn about the Forbidden City and the many centuries of history inside it. I was very curious about the concubines and eunuchs and how differently they lived back then. I’m not going to get into the details, because, you know, I want to keep things G-rated here. I had a lot of fun talking to our guide and asking her a lot of questions. Some tours are really hard, but this one was fun!
One of the most quintessential forms of Chinese recreation is kite flying, and we were able to experience this first hand when we met a local kite maker at his shop in the city. After learning about how the traditional silk kites are made and then painted by hand, we all had a chance to make our own Chinese kites in the kitemaker’s workshop. Everybody got right to work, excited to fly our masterpieces at the Temple of Heaven park later in the day.
When we completed our kites, we had a traditional Chinese dim sum lunch and then paid a visit to the lovely Temple of Heaven Park to fly them. With Lanna temple in the backdrop, the kids spent well over an hour running through the open courtyards with their new toys.
ZOE: I was so excited make kites because I knew it was a big part of Chinese history and would also be really FUN. I decided to draw a lotus on my kite and was very happy with how it turned out. I’m kind of obsessed with drawing lotuses. It was the perfect day to fly a kite, warm but windy and we found some open space at the Temple of Heaven Park. It was windy enough that when I sat down with my kite, it even stayed in the air! A lot less work… I don’t remember flying kites very much back home, but this was really peaceful and nice. To enjoy the wind and fresh air, and to have something to do outside, was awesome!
THAYER: Flying my kite was magical! At first I wasn’t sure how to do it, but then I got the hang of it. I can’t wait to bring it home to Portsmouth and fly it there.
SCHUYLER: The kite making experience was so cool. I felt like we got to experience a piece of China’s culture and history that was really geared to kids. We learned how to make our own kites and I think we can use that skill back in windy N.H.. On my kite I designed an owl which I thought turned out really well (as opposed to my Chinese ink painting in Xizhou!). I wished that I had more time to draw it, but I’m still really proud of my work. And who knew that flying kites was so happy-making? It felt like I was flying too when I watched my kite so high up. It brought back a lot of memories from when I was younger, flying kites with my grandparents at the beach in N.H. It was also really fun being with the Scuitto boys, helping them fly their kites and teaching them how to do it.
On the way back through the Temple of Heaven Park after flying the kites, we stopped to watch many forms of Chinese recreation along the way. There were groups of adults dancing, singing together in mini choruses, playing mahjong, doing martial arts exercises, having picnics, and the list goes on. Our group was particularly enthralled with the dancing, and couldn’t resist joining in every now and again along the way.
REPORTING LIVE FROM BEIJING…..
The girls got the thrill of a lifetime when Gloria gave them a taste of her career as ABC News’ Asia Correspondent in Beijing! She and her cameraman met us at our hotel and taped a mock interview with the girls in front of Beijing’s “Big Pants” building. We have not yet seen the final result, as it is being edited, but it will definitely be one of our favorite souvenirs from the trip! And no, this interview will not actually be aired on ABC, but perhaps we’ll be able to air it on demersgoneglobal sometime in the near future.
THAYER: Gloria interviewed us on a hot sunny day in front of a building called the Pants building because it looks like a pair of pants. It was ok if we messed up because she didn’t put it on the internet or tv, but I wanted her to. She asked me how it feels being a 6 year-old traveling around the world.
SCHUYLER: Gloria is a reporter for ABC news and she focuses on China and Asia in general. Therefore, it was really special to experience a real set up for reporting live, and to experience what it might feel like to be her, on air! Her cameraman brought his medium sized camera and a fuzzy microphone that blocked out all of the background noise so you could just hear the voices of the people talking into it. Gloria asked us some really tricky questions. The one that I had the most difficulty with was “what do you think you learned about the most on this trip?” She didn’t mean what we’ve learned from a tour or sightseeing, but more like what we are taking away from this in a deeper way – what we’ve learned about ourselves or the world. In brief, I answered back that it is really interesting to see what’s out here in the world, and to see how differently people live. It makes you really grateful for what you have. I’ve learned so many life lessons about independence and responsibility, and about why it is important to travel and get out and see the world. It’s so much different than you might think!
Jeff got his own thrill when he navigated the Beijing subway and made his way to the 2008 Olympic Venue known as “The Bird’s Nest.”
ON TO THE GREAT WALL…
After four days in Beijing, the Demers Family said goodbye to the hustle and bustle of the city and headed for the mountains, enjoying a 2-night stay in the village of Mutianyu to explore the Great Wall of China. We owe a huge note of gratitude to Gloria and her family for hosting us in Beijing and giving us such a special visit. It was so interesting to get a glimpse of expat life there and to feel like we were on a slightly different tourist track during our stay. Thank you Gloria!
Despite all of the fabulous sights we’ve seen this year, arriving at the Great Wall felt like a major accomplishment, some kind of symbol of our journey (far-reaching, remote, meandering, beautiful, laborious, extraordinary ). Even though it is sometimes easy to feel over-saturated by our many experiences this year, there is no doubt that all five of us were awed by the view of the Wall winding its way along the mountain ridges for as far as our eyes could see.
SCHUYLER: Just looking at the Great Wall from a distance made me feel so powerful, because it is just to mighty and impressive! So much history took place here and it was weird to think about all the battles and attacks, and the fact that workers might spend their entire lifetimes building the wall and never actually see it completed. I always felt like the Great Wall, when I read about it in school or whatever, was this big icon of China and the world in general and I never thought I’d be able to actually be walking on it someday. I made it! It felt like a really big accomplishment.
THAYER: On the ride down we took a toboggan and Mom and I went together on a big one. It went very fast and went down a whole mountain! It took a lot of minutes to get down. I was really excited to do it. I thought the Great Wall was pretty, and it went on for SO LONG.
After two nights at the Great Wall, we headed back to the Beijing Airport to catch our flight to Kyoto, Japan. It’s hard to believe we are heading to our last international destination of the trip. The girls are talking a lot about coming home now, gearing up for the return to our “normal” life and the many perks of life off the road. But the conversations are bittersweet, because we all are keenly aware that this 10-month journey has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will be difficult to say goodbye to. The closer we get to home, the more reminiscing we are doing about the things we’ve seen and done since we departed from Boston on September 6, 2013. We have so much to be grateful for…
SEE YOU IN JAPAN!