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Discovering China

by Charles A. Porter

A wonderfully congenial group of 30 of us traveled to China last April on the Northwestern Alumni Association's China Discovery tour that introduced us to an age-old yet vigorous civilization.

From the capital city of Beijing, via ancient Xi'an to the teeming port city of Shanghai, we visited palaces, museums, temples and gardens. We observed the production of silk and watched people performing tai chi exercises in the parks.

Space will not allow me to list all the things we did, but among our group's favorites was our first morning's visit to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing. The following day's marvel — climbing up and walking along a small part of the restored Badaling section of the Great Wall of China near Beijing — took less cultural imagination to appreciate. On the way back to Beijing we visited the Ming Tombs, the burial site of 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors.

The third morning we toured by pedicab the Hutong District, where traditional houses line the alleyways near Tiananmen Square. While there we were invited into the home of a retired woman who offered us tea and described for us the communal life of the city before the construction of high-rise apartments that now typify urban China.

One evening during our stay in Beijing we went to the traditional Peking Opera, which often features percussive fight scenes and high-pitched solos. We were greatly amused when several days later at the Children's Palace in Shanghai we watched little girls at the arts school trying with varying success to perform Peking Opera.

On the second leg of the trip we traveled to Xi'an, several hundred miles southwest of Beijing, where we visited the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi. We were awed by the army of 8,000 life-size terra-cotta warriors and horses, still in the process of being reassembled and displayed in their original site. Their great age (more than 2,000 years old), realistic and individual detail (no two are alike) and number (in the thousands) make them seem magical, and yet they're so lifelike!

On our first full day in Xi'an we also visited a museum of peasant art, and then, just before dinner, Rachel Hampton Park (GC86) and Dale Park Jr. hosted the NAA travelers for a lovely cocktail reception.

The following day we walked through the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an and saw its bazaar and Great Mosque. In the evening we attended a dinner-theater show based on legends of the T'ang Dynasty.

The following morning it was off to Shanghai, where over three days we visited the Yuyuan Garden and bazaar, the very rich Shanghai Museum and a silk manufacturer. We were also entertained — and maybe a bit terrified — by a Chinese acrobatic show. Dense, stinging smog unfortunately clouded our walk on the Bund along the Huangpu River, practically hiding the surreal new towers across the water.

On the final day, while some stayed in Shanghai and shopped, others of us went off in the rain to visit the Embroidery Research Institute and the gardens and canals of the historic city of Suzhou.

As we headed out for each day's points of interest our excellent Chinese guides summarized what we most urgently would need to know about China's long history and explained to us how best to look at what we were about to see. Although they avoided any discussion of government or policy, they told us with remarkable frankness various things about their own personal lives.

Wherever we went, the Chinese readily returned our smiles, and we all commented on how much they made us feel welcome. I am convinced that the Chinese find us oversized Americans hilarious — but they politely show it only by smiling.

The tour's brisk agenda was fueled each morning by a copious buffet breakfast in our first-class hotels. Many lunches and dinners featured regional food specialties, such as Peking duck in the capital and the noodles and dumplings of Xi'an. Overall, we managed honorably eating with chopsticks.

I returned home from China feeling exhausted and exhilarated. The exhilaration comes from my observations of an extraordinary human experiment in full evolution: the transformation of an ancient and traditional society, with almost unbelievable speed, into one that makes a New York or Chicago or Paris seem curiously old-fashioned.

In the cities we visited, we were much impressed by the vast number of people, their seeming energy and confidence, and, what seemed at least to this observer, their pride in the direction the future was taking them.

For information on upcoming NAA trips, call 1-800-NU-ALUMS or visit

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Travel - Park&China
Dale and Rachel Hampton Park at the Great Mosque in the old city of Xi'an
Travel - Great Wall
The NAA travelers visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China.