From the Great Wall of China to pandas and other attractions…
This mother explored all around Beijing while seeing her son compete in the Paralympics.
Teaching Traveling: Welcome, Lesley! Tell us about your background before visiting Beijing.
Lesley: I’m Lesley and I’m from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I was born in Vancouver and have spent most of my life here apart from living for 3 years in a small town in Denmark as a child.
I’ve worked for the local government for most of my adult life, and for the last 17 years as an administrative court judge. I’ve loved this work and found it both challenging and fascinating.
There are not many careers where one can get an intimate glimpse into another person’s life and perhaps be able to help them a little bit along the way.
My two kids are now adults, and 28 years old! They’re boy/girl twins, and my daughter also has twin boys, who are now 6. It’s true that being a grandparent makes all the travails we experience as parents worth it!
I’m now 55 years old and I plan to down-shift next year into doing part time work. I have been very fortunate to have had stable employment for many years and this together with a great pension plan has left me in a very lucky position. I feel myself very fortunate indeed.
One of the great motivators for making the decision to retire from full-time work was starting my travel blog and wanting to spend more time traveling. Writing about my travels, finding the best travel gear and helping mid-life people like me travel more is becoming my true passion!
Apart from living abroad as a child, I did not travel very much until I was in my mid-40s. Raising children as a single parent and focusing on my children’s activities and my career was a great target for all of my time and money!
I was able to travel a little more when my kids were older. We mainly traveled within Canada and the US in support of my children’s competitive swimming careers. Since the experience detailed here, I’ve since traveled a great deal more and am always planning my next adventure!
TT: Nice! Tell us more about your travels.
L: As I mentioned above, both of my children were competitive swimmers. As they became teenagers, finding competition required travel and as a supportive parent I traveled with my kids to swim meets all over Canada and the United States.
Although both of my kids did very well in their swimming careers, my son was particularly talented, and his results and opportunities reflected that. My son was born with a congenital defect in the bones of his arms and he competed as a Paralympic athlete throughout his career. His dreams came true when he qualified to represent Canada at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.
The prospect of traveling to Beijing to see my son compete was an exciting one for my daughter and I. I had never traveled internationally, much less to a country as foreign as The Peoples Republic of China!
As soon as my son qualified to represent Canada, we booked our flights and hotel and began doing our research. Deciding what to do and see in the relatively short amount of time we had chosen (two weeks) was hard, as there were so many fascinating things we wanted to experience!
We knew our time in Beijing would be mainly focused on the Games and seeing my son compete, but there was also time available to experience all that Beijing had to offer.
The Canadian Paralympic Committee was quite helpful in providing materials and advice for visiting Beijing, and we used this material to guide our decision-making about what to do and see. Lonely Planet and Frommer’s Guides were also really useful.
Arriving in Beijing about an 11-hour flight was quite dis-orienting! I was amazed by how Beijing had clearly made huge efforts to welcome visitors to the Games. The Paralympic Games were held just 10 days after the close of the Olympic Games, yet all signage had been replaced to reflect the Paralympic Games and to welcome the athletes and visitors.
I remember riding in the taxi from the airport to our hotel and being amazed by all the potted plants lining the highways. China really made an effort to make Beijing look good!
We had been warned in advance about the air pollution in Beijing. Although we were hopeful that their efforts to mitigate it had helped, I don’t think we saw a blue sky the whole 2 weeks we were there. The smoky haze over the city was persistent and contributed to the humidity that was ever present.
Attending an international games event is a hugely heady experience! The Chinese were extremely supportive of all their athletes and their cheering for Chinese swimmers in the Water Cube was deafening!
I cannot begin to describe the pride I felt watching my son compete for Canada. It still moves me to tears when I think about it or write about it!
Each time an event was announced and the athletes emerged onto the pool deck, the cheering, clapping and whistling shook the building. Each swimmer was announced by the emcee and as their image appeared on the big screens set up throughout the building, supporters from their country would scream their lungs out with pride.
My son had somehow developed sufficient presence of mind at his young age of 17 to take all the adulation in stride when his name and country was announced and the cheering began. He would smile and wave to the crowd, but then shift his focus back to the mental clarity he needed to maintain before the upcoming race.
Tickets to the events in the Water Cube were festival seating only so each time the doors opened for a session, all the fans would run madly through the doors and down the halls to the seating area, trying to get the best seats possible.
The Canadian contingent in the Water Cube got to know each well during the 10 days of the swimming events. Each day before the sessions began, we would draw together outside the doors to the Water Cube, planning how to get seats together to watch our athletes swim for Canada.
The fastest runners among us would take the lead and run as fast as they could, taking as many coats and sweaters as they could carry with them. They would make a mad dash for the seats so they could reserve as many as possible for the slower fans amongst us.
Every countries’ contingent employed the same strategy, so it made for some interesting diplomatic negotiating along the way!
Getting to the Water Cube each day required a 2-mile walk down what was euphemistically called the Olympic Green, which was not at all green but rather, was a re-purposed main thoroughfare in Beijing.
After passing through the security checkpoint, fans would stroll down this Green admiring the hordes of people and dramatic scenery including the Birds Nest Stadium and the Water Cube.
Photo opportunities were on everyone’s mind, and the Chinese citizens seemed to my mind at the time quite puzzling as they leapt in the air, made a V for Victory sign and executed other mysterious poses for the cameras. This photo-taking strategy is now common-place in this Instagram age, but it puzzled me in 2008!
My daughter and I were regularly stopped and asked to pose for photos with Chinese citizens (including some police officers!) and although baffled as to why, we were happy to oblige. These requests began to occur with such great regularity that we asked one of our English-speaking tour guides why we were so popular with the locals.
The tour guide explained that many of the people from the countryside had made the trip into Beijing for the Games for the first time and had likely not seen a Caucasian person in real life before. The tour guide provided his somewhat jaded opinion that our photos would likely be proudly displayed on many Chinese mantels for years to come!
My son made great strides at the 2008 Paralympic Games and honored all the work he had done to get there. Although not a medalist, he swam well and was a credit to his coach and country.
When not spending time at the Water Cube, my daughter and I were happy to do some sightseeing around Beijing. We saw the adult and adolescent pandas at the Beijing Zoo – definitely one for the bucket list!
Pandas are just as cute in person as you’ve always imagined them to be. The adult pandas that we saw were mostly sleepy and hanging out in trees, but the adolescents were bundles of energy and did a lot of rolling around and playing together.
We made a day trip to see the Great Wall at Badaling, and we learned so much about China and the history of the Wall from our great tour guide. The most fascinating fact that we learned about the Wall was that 1 million people had a part in building it, which was 1/6 of the total population of China at the time!
The Wall has existed in various forms for over 2000 years with different sections of the wall displaying different eras of building. Good to know: it’s a myth that you can see the Wall from space.
When people say that they’ve “climbed” the Great Wall, they’re not kidding! Steps of varying height have been cut into the stone of the wall, with some steps being just a few inches high and others more than a foot high. Most steps show their ancient age with the stone having been worn down from thousands of footsteps over hundreds of years.
It was a personally momentous occasion when I first stepped onto the Great Wall. I felt the antiquity of it and the importance of it to the history of China. Visiting the Great Wall is something I will never forget.
Another memorable experience in Beijing was definitely shopping! We went to several marketplaces and were instantly overwhelmed by the huge array of goods on display as well as the distinctly insistent requests from the salespeople to buy something, anything!
Although none spoke English well, most had some rudimentary knowledge that was sufficient to communicate with us. Needless to say, my daughter came home with so many souvenirs that she had to buy another bag to hold them all!
TT: Wow! How did you find the money to fund your travel to the Paralympics?
L: Our trip to Beijing was entirely self-funded. It’s a common misconception that families of Olympic and Paralympic athletes are sponsored in some way to attend the Games, but this was not true for us or other families in 2008. Many families who cannot otherwise afford to attend hold fund-raisers or organize crowd-funding efforts.
In 2010 Petro Canada launched the Canadian Athlete Family Program, which supported over 500 athletes’ family members to watch their loved ones compete in the 2010 Vancouver Games. I know that this program was greatly appreciated by many families.
TT: Really good to know. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
We were on a tour of traditional courtyard homes in Beijing (called Hutong). Nature called halfway through the tour and I inquired as to the location of the facilities.
I was pointed in the right direction and off I went. Imagine my dismay when I arrived to find that the facilities consisted of squat toilets arranged in two rows, facing each other, with no doors or walls to provide privacy!
I thought about what to do and considered the amount of time that would pass until I was able to return to our hotel. With that calculation in mind, I determined to make the best of it.
The only available position was directly across from a young woman engrossed in her mobile screen. With a casual nod in her direction, I went about my business. After washing my hands, I returned to the tour group, quite proud of myself for having conquered the public toilets in the Hutong!
TT: Oh my! How have your travels impacted you?
L: I think that my travels have really broadened my perspective as a decision-maker and as a person. It’s so easy to forget that there are many different ways to live in this world, and that each way can be right. If you never leave your own country, you’ll soon begin to think your way is the right way.
Experiencing unfamiliar locations, people and food not only broadens your perspective, but it can also make you really appreciate home!
There’s nothing I love better than planning a trip and all the attendant details. Getting there, navigating the unfamiliar, communicating in a foreign language, and figuring it all out is what I love to do. Quixotically, I also suffer with homesickness whenever I’m away, so I’m always dying to get home too! The struggle is real!
TT: Thanks so much for sharing your experience at the Paralympics, Lesley! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English from Boston who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs AroundTheWorld L.com Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following @WorldLillie on social media!