China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Great Wall)

I spent two weeks in China in September 2012 and found a country that changed my preconceptions. I had expected crowds, dirty streets and that, not having any knowledge of the language, I would have to use a tour guide to get around. What I found was a country where the streets, buildings and subways are almost spotless, with amazing contrasts of an old way of life and the introduction of Western influences.  I was able to walk around Beijing by myself feeling totally safe and use the subways and the taxis without knowing a word of Chinese!

I was lucky to have the first few days in Shanghai with my nephew, who was able to show me how to navigate the subway and taxis, and take me to the major sights.  After that I spent three days on an almost private tour of the Great Wall with William Lindesay, author and researcher, and three days in Beijing, before returning to Shanghai for the last couple of days.

The weather was mostly in the low 70s the whole two weeks, which is typical for that time of year. Weather and vegetation are not dissimilar from the Chicago area.  Many of the flowers and plants I saw were the same as grow here, but more abundant and allowed to grow so they created large areas of wonderful color.  One flower that was prolific in the parks was the Lotus flower.  Most of them had already bloomed, but in some places I was able to find wonderful pink flowers standing out of the water and surrounded by a sea of green leaves.

Water is a predominant feature of the palaces and parks, creating great opportunities for reflections of trees, boats and bridges and providing calmness to the public spaces. Willow trees, parasols, temples of all shapes, sizes and colors and bridges provide classic photo opportunities.

One of the greatest delights was seeing how the local residents used the public parks and palace grounds to exercise, sing, dance, play music and share their thoughts through calligraphy and speech.  Small groups gathered with musicians or a boom box and joined together to entertain themselves and everyone walking by.  They did this with no inhibitions and no request for donations—they were simply enjoying their community.

The palaces and temples are beautifully preserved and offer lots of photo opportunities for details of the sculpture and paintings. The Summer Palace in particular has wonderful ceramic tiles and the boats that take you for a trip on the lake are painted inside and out.

Not being one for the typical tourist spots, I was fortunate to find a tour of the Great Wall led by William Lindesay, an Englishman who has researched and written about the Wall for the past twenty years. Together with just two other visitors I stayed at William’s house from where we hiked on two mornings to arrive at the Wall at sunrise. To see the sun come over the mountains and dispel the morning mist, while walking along unrestored sections of the Wall was spectacular.  The abandoned towers that intersect the Wall at frequent intervals also made for great photo opportunities. I would recommend this tour to anyone that wants to see the Great Wall unprepared for tourists and is able to handle some strenuous hiking.

China is full of contrasts—beautifully preserved temples alongside modern glass buildings in Shanghai; bicycles alongside cars; workmen carrying lengths of bamboo on bicycles; a bedroom set piled on top of a rickshaw; sleek Western restaurants and stores—and full of color.  It is a delight for a photographer and, as in most places the best times of day are early morning and early evening, although the colorful buildings and sights offered plenty of opportunities throughout the day.  Some days the haze and smog did make some of the landscape and lake views hard to get detail.

There were many sights that I would have liked to have photographed but that I felt were intrusive, such as people cooking and eating in the street outside their houses, people making dumplings to sell on the street, people praying in the many temples, lighting candles in front of the temples, a street wedding and people selling corn on the cob at the Summer Palace.

Photographer Hester Bury provided the details and images for the China destination.

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