Back in Beijing, China: Travel Diary
It’s been eight years since I took my first trip abroad to Beijing, China. It was my first encounter with being lost—truly lost—in a city where I couldn’t read the signs, in a culture I had only read about, and in a place where time read the exact opposite of the clock at home. That trip cemented my desire to see everything, go everywhere. Now, having checked off many places on my never-ending travel bucket list, revisiting Beijing showed me that I’ve changed more than it has.
I don’t remember hearing anyone speak English on my first trip to China. We took a taxi to anywhere we couldn’t walk, showing the driver a note that our concierge had handwritten in Mandarin. The language barrier buffered me, but widened my eyes. I saw the crowded sites with wonder.
Going back took away some of the enchantment. Stephen and I took the metro everywhere, which had an English option on the ticket machine. I wasn’t captivated by the Forbidden City in the same way. The Ming architecture was still interesting, but it wasn’t worth the mass of people anymore.
Other parts I loved better the second time around. We woke up at 4 a.m. to visit the Temple of Heaven, and saw the sunrise as we walked to the metro station. We took the first train, and had time to walk around the park before being first at the gate. Seeing it in the early morning light, without anyone else around, was stunning.
On my first visit to Beijing, I remember being hungry often. While out sightseeing all day, we weren’t comfortable eating at restaurants we didn’t know. This time, Stephen and I ate at local places where we pointed to convey our order. At a busy dumpling shop without an empty table, we were seated with another couple. I tried a noodle dish with soybean paste, something I wouldn’t have ordered before.
There was a gulf between how I remembered Beijing and what I experienced. I had thought the traffic was chaotic, until I traveled to Bali. I had thought it was hard to communicate, until I’d become accustomed to being in other countries. I had thought I liked it, until I’d been to places like Japan—places I loved.
We spent our last day in Beijing hiking the Great Wall of China. The first time I had walked along it, but Stephen and I hiked 6 km across a steeper, less restored section. Nothing had changed though. Not the beauty of the wall stretched out across the hazy mountains, or the way it made me feel.
Since the last time I stepped on it, I had celebrated eight birthdays, graduated twice, fallen in love, moved across the country, then sold all my things, and taken off across the globe. But I was still awed. I was on top of a wonder of the world.