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Location: Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

This blog is a record of events in the life of Joseph Taggart and his family since his spinal cord injury while body surfing in Guatemala in January 2006.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Adventures in Beijing-- Part 1

Because our adventures in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan didn't leave us much time to write for the blog, this update was written by Joseph after our return home to the United States.

Sunday, June 15 --Leaving Qingdao
I last wrote about our departure from Qingdao. After finally negotiating with the airlines to not charge us for the extra weight of my 350 pound wheelchair. We all finally got on board for our flight to Beijing. Watching the countryside out the window was pretty interesting. The area between Qingdao and Beijing was very green and lush, covered with fruit tree groves, and other agriculture. It made me wish that I would have had an opportunity to go to the countryside to see what the rural villages are like. Most of the staff members at the hospital grew up in the countryside, and they were able to tell me what it was like. Our good friend Andy (right) told us that he had never seen a cell phone, or ever had access to a computer before he moved to Qingdao for his studies at the University. Even through my extensive travels in rural Brazil, I had never been to a place without cell phones. Even when I paddled a canoe into the Amazon to stay in a little village for a few days, my cell phone still worked. I think it would take a lifetime to explore all the different sides of China. I'm grateful that I could spend the time and Qingdao that I have, and the time that I will spend in Beijing.

After landing, our airplane taxied quite a distance away from the main terminals. Sometimes when larger airports are overcrowded and too busy to fit all arriving planes at a gate, the arriving planes park out on the tarmac. A pickup truck with a staircase on the back pulls up next to the plane to let the passengers off. I think mostly due to my size, the airport crew was not keen on carrying me down the tall flight of stairs. Consequently they arranged for one of the commissary trucks (the trucks you see pull up to the right side of the airplane to restock the food etc.) to take me down to the ground. After Matthew and a member of the ground crew plopped me into a manual wheelchair. They pushed me onto the elevated portion of the commissary truck, which then lowered me down to the ground. I thought it was a pretty fun adventure, and probably one of the few passengers to ever exit to the right of the airplane, rather than the left. Once I reached the ground, they loaded the three of us on our very own bus that took us to the main terminal.

Getting Around in Beijing
Once we collected my electric chair, and our luggage, we went to meet Joy who runs the only wheelchair accessible tour company in Beijing. We found her and her company ‘Access Travel’ on the Internet ( a few months ago before we left Salt Lake. She helped to set out an itinerary for the coming days in Beijing. While we were loading the luggage into the wheelchair accessible van (which was much more like a bus) we got to know more about her and our tour guide who took the English name "Andy"(see photo below: Andy, Joseph and Joy).

Joy started this company within the last year or so in anticipation for the Special Olympics. Basically she saw that there would be a need for wheelchair accessible transportation, and that there is nothing available of that nature yet in Beijing. We got the feeling that we were some of her first clients, especially in a large electric chair as opposed to a regular manual wheelchair. Andy grew up in Beijing and only acted as a tour guide as a sideshow to his regular job. When he's not showing off his home city, he's acting as a middleman distributor for copy Louis Vuitton handbags. A few years ago he graduated from a large university in Beijing in Political Science and English. Needless to say he and I were going to spend a lot of time discussing international politics over the coming few days.

They dropped us off at our hotel and made sure we checked in OK. We arranged to meet Andy and the van tomorrow morning at nine o'clock. We had the rest of the evening to ourselves. The hotel we stayed in was just around the corner from Beijing's famous ‘Silk Road’. Silk Road is in fact not a road at all, at least not anymore. It is a six-story shopping center filled with leather goods, clothing, jewelry, shoes, luggage, electronics, handicrafts, and just about everything in between (photo on right). All shoppers should know that with everything for sale at Silk Road, all prices are negotiable. We soon discovered that if you are paying around a third of the original asking price you're probably still paying too much. The three of us guys weren’t really interested in getting clothes or jewelry, so we went straight to the fourth floor where they sell handicrafts and electronics.

Every type of Chinese handicraft imaginable was for sale on Silk Road. Chopsticks, fans, sculptures, paintings, posters, carvings, masks, painted bottles and vases, jewelry boxes, etc. I quickly found a couple chopsticks sets to bring home as souvenirs, but Matt was more interested in the watches. Dad had purchased a couple of copy Rolexes during his previous trips, and Matthew quickly followed suit by buying a couple of his own.

After shopping for a little while we went to go find dinner. We found a neat little Chinese restaurant in a small alley behind the hotel. We went there not because the food looked good, but because it was the only one we could find that was wheelchair accessible.

Matt was feeling adventurous and ordered a Peking duck, I ordered a cashew and chicken stir-fry, and my father stayed with his favorite, sweet and sour pork. Matthew’s duck was by far the most interesting of the three dishes. In accordance with tradition it was served cold on a plate. The meat was pretty tough and with lots of gristle, but it had a good flavor to it. My cashew and chicken stir-fry had a really interesting spicy pepper in it. After having a few bites the tingling from the pepper completely took over all sensation in my mouth. It's kind of like a tingling that you feel just before your mouth goes completely numb when you're at the dentist, kind of like strong mint kind of tingle, but with the pepper flavor. Eventually all I could taste was the pepper, but the cashew and chicken flavor was good while it lasted.

Monday, June 16 --
We were all excited with the complementary large breakfast buffet was available at the hotel. Chinese breakfasts are quite different from western breakfasts. While the hotel provided both, it was fun to dabble into some of the Chinese cuisines. My favorite was a lightly fried pastry ball filled with sweet potato and covered in sesame seeds.

Tiananmen Square
At nine o'clock we met up with Andy and the driver and today's adventure began. That morning we had arranged to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is about one kilometer long, and a half a kilometer wide (that's about two thirds of a mile long, and a third of a mile wide for those who have trouble converting). At one end of the square is a tall building with bells used to call the city's attention, at the other end is the entrance to the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is most recognized to the West for the famous student protests that happened in 1989 where the Chinese government overran the students with tanks and heavy force. Also once a year the federal government's highest officials sit in the stands in front of the Forbidden City and watch a parade through Tiananmen Square of the nation's most advanced tanks, missiles, and best trained soldiers. Hanging on the entrance to the Forbidden City, overlooking Tiananmen Square, is a gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao. It was Mao Zedong(Mao Tse-Tung) of course who led the Communist revolution in 1949 that took control of mainland China, and forced the existing government into exile in Taiwan.

Marching all throughout Tiananmen Square were large groups of Chinese soldiers. They marched in groups of 20 or so in perfect formation (this is in addition to the regular, and quite visible, police presence in the square). Our guide told us that this is not normal, but that they are training in preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. China has a pretty big concern with both Chinese and Western protesters making a scene during the Olympics. I get the feeling there's going to be a very large police and military presence just about everywhere in Beijing during the Olympics.

Beijing has made a strong effort to make its city and tourist attractions more wheelchair accessible. Of course the term "accessible" is relative. This is being done mostly in anticipation for the Paralympic games that will be held here this fall. While their effort is extremely appreciated by people like me, it's obvious that as a nation they are still trying to define "accessible". It appeared that ramps had just been built connecting to the tunnels that pass underneath the road between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (a wide road without crosswalks). Even though the ramps were still under construction, we managed to move barriers and sneak through.

The Forbidden City
Once we crossed under the road, we emerged from underground directly in front of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is absolutely mind-boggling. First of all there is the scale of it -- it first opens up to a courtyard that could fit four or five football fields. Following that is another courtyard about the same size, followed by another. Each courtyard is completely fortified against the previous one. In that sense it felt a lot like some of the European castles I visited, except this seems to be a castle inside a castle inside a castle. Our guide told us that the stone floors and all the courtyards and throughout the entire Forbidden City are anywhere from three to four meters thick to prevent people from tunneling inside. After the third courtyard there are tall platforms with special rooms for the Emperor. Some of these rooms have thrones, others are waiting areas for people who wish to speak to the Emperor, and there are hundreds of rooms for the Emperor's nearly 2000 concubines.

Directly behind the Forbidden City are large hills that are likely the only major elevated point in Beijing (which is otherwise quite flat). These hills are today part of Jingshan Park with Buddhist temples and a few viewpoints overlooking most of Beijing. I was shocked to discover that these hills are completely man-made. They were made from the dirt excavated to build the Forbidden City, and the gigantic moat that was dug out to surround it.

There are way too many fascinating details and side stories to include them all here in the blog. But I will say this, the Forbidden City is by far one of the most incredible and overwhelming places I have ever been. We only had a few hours to wander through it, it's obvious I could've spent a few days and still not seen it all. (Note our photo of the Nine Dragon Wall Screen, 30 meters [100 ft.] wide-- just one little detail of the Forbidden City. Click on it to enlarge).

After the Forbidden City we broke for lunch. We had originally planned on eating lunch at a "hot pot" style restaurant not too far away. Unfortunately the restaurant's definition of "wheelchair accessible" was far different than mine (see photo on left). So we ended up driving around to find an accessible hotel with a restaurant on the main floor.

Visiting a Beijing 'Hutong'
In the afternoon we visited a very old Beijing neighborhood called a Hutong. The best way to see the neighborhood is on the back of a bicycle rickshaw. A bicycle rickshaw is a large three wheeled bicycle (I guess that makes it a tricycle) with a covered bench across the back axle. The people touring the neighborhood right on the rickshaws, while a tour guide rides a regular bicycle along the side. I wasn't too thrilled about being transferred into the back of a rickshaw, so I opted to turn up to speed on my wheelchair and follow the rickshaw caravan. It actually worked out quite well. It turns out my wheelchair is a little bit faster than the guys can peddle the rickshaws while carrying all the extra people. I had quite a bit of fun racing around the neighborhood, and we got even more stares and funny looks than would be typical.

Each of the small homes in the Hutong neighborhoods are inhabited by generations of the same family. Each home is passed on to the male heir. This is why it's so important, especially since Chinese city dwellers are only allowed one child, to have a male heir. If you had a daughter she would move into her husband's inherited home, therefore leaving no one to take over the home she grew up in from her parents. Eventually the home would be lost, and the family line would be discontinued.

The homes are usually four connected buildings in the shape of an O surrounding a small garden in the middle. The four connected buildings all serve a different purpose. One is for the grandparents, one is for the parents, the third is for the child and his wife, and the fourth is typically used to receive guests. The garden in the middle usually will have a fruit tree or two, small area to grow vegetables, and a few pets like fish or birds. The one we visited had a garden with a pomegranate tree, four or five melon, squash and cucumber plants, a few pet fish, a turtle, and a few birds.

Eventually we made it back to the hotel where we all collapsed in exhaustion. According to the odometer on my wheelchair, I drove about 9 miles in that one day. After resting we spent about an hour or so bartering for souvenirs at Silk Road, before picking up a Subway sandwich for dinner and going to bed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I can't wait for pictures. The Forbidden City sounds incredible. Did you bring me a present from Silk Square? *wink*


Jul 4, 2008, 7:35:00 AM  

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