Beijing Bound
by Madeleine Wilken 1997  

The Great WallMadeleine Wilken and her husband, Nick, share their three-week adventure in Beijing, China. Nick uses a wheelchair due to a muscle-disabling illness.

Nick and I traveled to Beijing at the invitation of Peking University. Nick is a library director and professor, and was invited to present several lectures to "Beida" students and staff on doing research on the Internet and in American and international sources.

We also went to seek out respected practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, at the urging of a Beijing-born colleague of Nick's, Jindi, who came with us and was our mother hen. So we can't be said to have been either with an organized tour or entirely on our own. We made our own air travel arrangements, opting for the cheapest deal we could get, which turned out to be China Air.

The following applies to Air China, a highly discounted airline. It is possible, even likely, that flights on other airlines are more disability conscious and may access the terminals using our familiar roll-out ramps. Do not expect even Beijing airport to be accessible to any significant extent if you fly Air China or a discount airline. Air China apparently usually or always uses stairs to the tarmac - no roll out ramps. One disabled person on our incoming flight was carried down the steps on the back of a flight attendant.

My husband walked slowly and with great difficulty down the steps. It took so long that all the wheelchairs reserved for passengers on that flight had been taken by other passengers, some with less pressing needs, by the time we reached the tarmac. We then had great difficulty reaching the airport bus which was parked a considerable distance from the plane. All the pilots and male flight attendants ran ahead of us to jump on the bus first for a quick get-away, leaving us to fend for ourselves. They seemed not to notice us, struggling to get from airplane to terminal.

On our outgoing flight, we were quite vociferous at every stage of the process, from the check-in counter to the gate, about requiring assistance. By the way, the language barrier is almost always an impediment in these situations. VERY few airport personnel speak any English. For the outgoing trip from terminal to plane, as the result of frequent assertions of our need and frequent checking with gate personnel to make sure they remembered us, we did get two men to lift the wheelchair into and off of the bus, and my husband was then boarded via a medical or cargo lift into the airplane. It can be done if you are very insistent and clear about your requirements well in advance.

Do keep asking the flight attendants (if you can find one who speaks English on Air China) if help will be ready and waiting for you on arrival. They might change cabin crews if the plane makes a stop in Shanghai, at which point everything you conveyed to the first crew might not be conveyed to the second shift.

As for hotels, most rooms in "modern" hotels are probably accessible in one way or another, and this is almost certainly true of the most recently built "western style" hotels. If you are going with a tour, the tour organizer will surely see to it that your hotel suits your needs. If you are going on your own, make careful inquiries, with someone translating for you if necessary. Also, while hotel rooms might be reasonably accessible, the restaurant(s) in the hotel might not be. In one of our hotels, we had a choice of two restaurants, each of which required climbing nine stairs.The staff would have been willing to help us in any way, however, probably up to and including carrying my husband in his wheelchair up and down the steps.

We found that China has very limited awareness of requirements for disabled people, but that warm hearts and helpful hands abound. Everywhere we went, people came forward to help my husband over thresholds, up steps and out of cabs (often in well-intentioned but inappropriate ways, e.g., pulling on his arms, trying to pick the chair up by its fragile arms). Whenever we found ourselves in a pinch as far as getting over an obstacle was concerned (aside from the airport), we never had any trouble recruiting one or two strong young men to help us out. Learn to smile and be patient, and practice often saying "Xie xie!" (pronounced shie-shie) for thank you.

The major obstacles we encountered were the doorways and stairs of every major tourist site: the Imperial Palace, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples we visited. Sometimes the main entrances were ramped, but then none of the other buildings and rooms of the complex were ramped. Most daunting, almost every room in these places has an 8-12" threshold that a chair must be lifted over if one is to truly see the site. Therefore, we recommend that people travel with a lightweight wheelchair and a sturdy companion or two.

We found the fewest problems of accessibility, as one might assume, on the university campus, where the hotel and the academic buildings we wanted to get into were all ramped in one place or another. This is a prestigious university with many new buildings going up, and which obviously seeks to present the best face to visitors, of whom it gets quite a few (enough to run a hotel of quite acceptable quality). So we were not surprised to discover there some higher degree of consciousness of accessibility issues than we found almost everywhere else. We were warmly welcomed by students and staff, and felt completely accepted for who we are as individuals, not as "westerners with a wheelchair.". This, I think, bespeaks the "new China" of students and young professionals who travel more, see more (there is a remarkable amount of programming of US and European origin on Chinese TV, though still not news programming), and have the luxury to reach out more than their parents did.

All arrangements for the first week were made by our university hosts. We were housed in Beida's guest hotel, which was modern and accessible in most respects. At the end of the week, we were told that our room was needed for visiting dignitaries arriving to celebrate the reunion with Hong Kong (we had been told in advance that this might happen).

We got a word-of-mouth recommendation to the Jimen Hotel and moved ourselves there. As far as we could tell, this is a typical Chinese hotel, probably better than average, serving a mix of Chinese and foreign visitors and a number of exchange students from all over, including the U.S. When we arrived we felt cramped in the regular room we had reserved, so we switched to a "luxury" suite, which had a nice little sitting room appended to the sleeping quarters but in total was about the size we are accustomed to of rooms at Marriott or Sheraton. We estimate this cost us $40-45 a night. The smaller room would have been perhaps about $35 a night. During the first week we had a university car at our disposal some of the time. The rest of the time and for the next two weeks we relied exclusively on taxis to get around the city and environs.

We stayed for about two weeks at the Jimen Hotel, which seemed by our standards to be a moderate-priced hotel catering to Chinese and foreign travelers and, it appeared, also to foreign students in short-term overseas programs. This hotel consisted of a front and a back building with a connecting section in between. We could access our room in the front building easily enough by elevator, but were separated by a set of steps from the realm of the back building, which contained a general store, the better of the two restaurants in the hotel, and Jindi's room. Whichever way we approached them, both restaurants' doorways were nine steps above ground level for us.

Now, as I reflect on this here at home, I am reminded that the number nine was the talismanic number in imperial China, the number that connotes power and status. Thinking of those nine steps that every night Jindi and I lifted Nick up, I wonder whose status and power they were protecting; certainly not ours. I have to say, however, that after the first night we dined there, the manager and staff of one restaurant emphatically proffered their assistance and, I am pretty sure, would gladly have had a couple of strong men carry Nick up and down the stairs.

It has to be said that without Jindi along we would have found it extremely difficult to negotiate the ordinary transactions of daily life. Bear in mind that we opted to stay away from the major tourist hotels, which we were told were largely concentrated in an area far from the city center and very expensive. We wanted to see the Beijing Jindi had grown up in and experience the city as native Beijingers do.

We saw extremely few western travelers in the three weeks we were in Beijing, even in the first part of June, which is a fine time to visit northern China as far as climate is concerned. I would say this might have been due to our choice of hotels, but for the fact that we also saw very few western tourists at the most popular tourist destinations, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. One of the few we did see happened to be a man by himself in a wheelchair, so apparently it can be done with enough guts! We mostly saw busloads of Chinese tourists and a couple of European bus tours.

While on the Beida campus, we were taken care of by members of the university's professional staff, many of whom spoke at least some English. In most of the places we went, and especially away from big tourist hotels and university offices, we found very few people who spoke English. This was the case at almost all restaurants, stores of all kinds, currency exchange counters, and even at the registration and information desks of both hotels we stayed at, hotels which purported to have an international clientele. Under these circumstances, when Nick and I ventured out by ourselves, we found even buying a postage stamp a challenge, buying a bag of cookies a confusing enterprise. But it was generally worth the effort and the confusion. As I have said before, do not fail to smile, be patient, and if you learn one phrase, let it be "xiexie" - thank you.

Visitors who do not speak Chinese and who do not want to take a crash course should be prepared for great difficulty from the language barrier, especially if you want to stay in or visit "authentic" places. Our best advice, if you do not have the luxury we had of having a Chinese friend along, is to try to make friends with some local person who would be willing to accompany you from time to time on your visit. I feel this is not as absurd as it sounds. We found the Beijingers we met uniformly friendly and desirous of helping us. The friendliness we experienced was so sincere and ubiquitous that, at one point toward the end of our stay, we challenged ourselves to try to recall one unpleasant encounter we had had; we couldn't think of one in three weeks. Try that exercise out in New York! Some of our new acquaintances looked in on us in our hotel rooms and called us repeatedly on the phone, checking on our well-being, offering to take us places, wanting to hang out with us and bringing us gifts.

 Gifts, are a very important subject! China is a gift-giving society, and just as we bring flowers and bottles of wine to the houses of friends we are visiting, I think it's a nice idea to take along some little presents to give to new friends you might make or to people who especially help you. We found our Chinese hosts and even Jindi's family members showering us with little gifts, a typically Chinese form of hospitality. This might have proved embarrassing had Nick not had some amazing premonition of it before we left home. On some happy instinct we went to a couple of local stores and bought lots of small, easily transportable but nice things, taking care that everything was made in the USA or at least not made in China. We selected letter openers, nice pens, stained glass "sun catchers", some pretty paperweights, and the like. We were able to return the generosity of our new friends, who were clearly very pleased, as well as to "tip" some of the hotel personnel, who are technically not allowed to accept currency. If you are going to China and anticipate making new friends or being especially helped along the way, consider bringing along a few little gifts of friendship and appreciation. You might cement some long-term friendships. We are now corresponding with several people we met there, and hope to be able to host one or two of them at our home in Connecticut in the future.

We went with a Quickie lightweight folding wheelchair with quick release wheels. We have a Permobil electric chair at home, but I'm not sure that one would be well-advised to try to take a power chair to China. The standard voltage used in China is 220. Travelers from the U.S. with power chairs or with appliances that require recharging, such as a video camera, need a voltage converter. Jindi opines that it should be possible to buy a voltage converter or any type of battery in China today, but cannot guarantee this.

Aside from issues of voltage, touring in China still presents formidable obstacles to the wheelchair user. We were very fortunate that both Jindi and I are quite strong, and that with assistance Nick can walk a few steps in a pinch. There were many times each day when we had to lift the wheelchair and Nick over obstacles like the foot-high thresholds of palaces and temples, and there were quite a few occasions when we had to lift Nick up or down stairs and then carry the chair up after. Now and then we encountered a doorway so narrow that we would have to help Nick walk through, then collapse the chair to get it through. Many if not most modern buildings (and most hotels we saw) have ramps, but these are often just ones up to the front door, with no further ramping in the interior, where you might find yourself separated from shops, restaurants, etc., by a set of stairs. Many of the ramps are quite steep with grooves etched in them to provide traction.

Transporting a wheelchair around the city and beyond is another issue. We depended entirely on taxis, making sure the trunk or interior space was large enough to accommodate the Quickie. The abundant yellow van-style taxis, which usually pick up multiple fares and are cheap, are large enough to accommodate a folded chair without removing its wheels. With sedan-style taxis, we usually had to remove the wheels in order to fit the chair in the trunk. Sometimes even that didn't work. However, where there's a will there's a way, and we sometimes carried the seat cushion in our laps. It's very good if you can settle on an hourly or daily price and establish a working relationship with one driver with a reasonably commodious taxi over two or three days. Taxis in Beijing are numerous enough and the fares reasonable enough that the average western traveler should be able to foot the bill for retaining a cab for a day. A short ride in a micro van probably doesn't cost more than $2-$3. Retaining a large sedan-style taxi cost us between the equivalent of $50 and $75 a day, depending on our negotiating skills, which improved as we went along. We did not have occasion to use the trains or subways, and so I cannot speak about wheelchair access on them. All of our excursions to tourist sites, to temples, parks, palaces, the Ming Tombs, and even to the Great Wall, were done by car, either taxi or university car.

To see the Great Wall, one can drive up into the mountains and get a look at it from a couple of main tourist "gateways", complete with resort hotels and tschotscke shops. Getting on top of it presents a much greater challenge. At Mutianyu, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Beijing, one can take a cable car up the mountain to a site with a grand view. The cars, however, are the small four-seater bubble type that usually are not stopped at the platform but are allowed to glide slowly past while passengers jump in or out - not ideal for physically disabled tourists or the elderly.

Initially our group of four, including Nick, myself, Jindi, and a Beida staffer who was accompanying us, devised a team strategy that involved dismantling the wheelchair, literally throwing Nick into one car as it came by, throwing the body of the chair in behind him, having two of us jump into the car, and having the fourth person take the chair's wheels into the following car. By the time we returned, though, the cable car operators seemed to have understood our need, because they were able to hold up the system at something like a stop while we got in for the ride down the mountain. We hadn't known this was possible. It's worth making people aware of your requirements at every turn, which is why having someone along who can translate is quite important.

From the platform where the cable car lets you out, the Wall is reached by a very uneven path with some stone steps leading to the Wall proper, where a stairway of about 20 extremely steep steps runs inside and to the top of the wall. We would not have been able even to reach the base of the wall without the assistance of some genial young men whose help we solicited, and who lifted Nick in the chair up the steps of the pathway. The photograph of us all smiling as we surround Nick in triumph is one of our cherished souvenirs, as are the pictures of Nick and Jindi and me after we had struggled and sweated to get ourselves up those last 20 steps. The saying in China is that you cannot become a hero unless you have climbed to the top of the Great Wall. Even with the help of a funicular, I think we all qualified as heroes that day.

For these and other reasons, we would advise against bringing an electric wheelchair unless it is very easy to disassemble and reassemble, or perhaps if you are a business traveler who has a well-defined sphere of operations between a modern hotel and modern office buildings in close proximity to each other. We are not aware whether or not rampvans are anywhere available. You should always clarify these matters in advance with your hosts.

Some very practical advice to travelers in China concerns currency, travelers checks and credit cards. Probably at the big international hotels these present no problem, but everywhere else you should be prepared to find a blank look if payment is offered in U.S. currency, credit card or, certainly, traveler's check. This seemed to be the norm, with the rare exception of a few stores and restaurants catering exclusively to tourists. We were unable to use either credit cards or traveler's checks to pay our bills at either of our hotels, nor were we able to pay restaurant bills with anything other than Chinese currency, named formally Renminbi (people's money), but everywhere called Yuan. It's perhaps not a bad idea to obtain some Yuan before leaving for China so as to have some cab fare and spending money on arrival.

We were there in late May and early June, and the weather was fine: one rain storm and a couple of showers and lots of warm sunny days. We went about in shirtsleeves most of the time. I figured the seasonal temperatures to be something like those of Washington, DC. I am told that it can get quite hot in the summer, which is the rainy season, and cold and dry in the winter, although it can snow. In May we found it quite dusty, the dust reportedly from storms that carry it in from the Gobi Desert. Sweepers are everywhere to be seen, indoors and out. The air pollution is one of the first things an American notices in Beijing, as good a reason as any for seeking out sights outside the city.

If asked what stood out most for us in the "new" China, at least in Beijing, we would have to say the enormous contrasts. It is not so conspicuous in the countryside, where traditional ways of life still predominate. But in Beijing, which seems to be exploding with new buildings, commercial activity, a new affluence, and glitz that has even completely pervaded the seductive images of commercial TV, the contrasts between old and new, traditional and modern, poor and affluent, can make one's head spin. We saw glittering new skyscrapers next to crumbling old neighborhoods which contain some of the last remnants of the old courtyard way of life. Some of these courtyards have been preserved and made into places for tourists to visit. In traffic we saw tens of thousands of people on bicycles mingling with tens of thousands of people in cars, weaving in and out with amazing facility, apparently dispassionately; no road rage there. We saw old people and peasants dressed in the faded blue Mao jackets and caps of the old order, and we saw numerous modish young people, especially stunning young women so stylishly dressed that they would not have been out of place in Paris or on Fifth Avenue. We had a wheelchair tire repaired by one of the omnipresent tire repair people on a dusty street corner operating with a basin of dirty water, a plank on two sawhorses, a rusty bowl of glue and a portable flame. And we saw fashionable shopping streets lined with boutiques whose home stores are in Brussels and Beverly Hills.

What delighted us most were things that combined features of traditional life with the new, the dynamic, the anomalous. Our favorite places to visit were the outdoor markets. We were fascinated by the so-called "bird market", where everything is sold from houseplants and goldfish to exotic birds and blue-eyed white kittens (they will be kept as pets, not eaten, as one paranoid friend guessed). There we saw a bicycle completely engulfed in cricket cages and throbbing with the sounds of hundreds of chirping crickets, which are thought to bring good fortune to a household.

Our favorite market was the morning market near our second hotel, where people living or working in the area get breakfast. A fixture of Beijing life is the stacking nested pot in which people carry their breakfast or lunch of soup, soft tofu, or noodles back home or to the workplace. At the morning market we saw people getting their breakfasts "to go" of many forms of fried dough, tofu with spices, egg fried on wheat pancake, sesame biscuits, tripe soup, and noodles. The north, where Beijing is, produces primarily grains other than rice, and noodles of various kinds are the staple dish, rather than rice. There was agricultural produce of all kinds for sale, and bicycle wagons loaded high with fat heads of garlic and leeks. Merchandise of all kinds is sold at these markets. Pots and pans, clothing, bicycle bells, hardware and plumbing supplies, compact discs, children's toys were spread out on blankets on the ground. Jindi acquired a pot and some bowls and spoons, and during the last week of our stay we took to getting our breakfast at the market and carrying it back to the hotel room, making our plan for the day over a typical Beijing breakfast.

Chinese culture seems devoted to physical fitness. Each morning one saw and heard the evidence of this. Early in the morning in various parks and pavilions, in open spaces and alleys, one could see people in groups or singly exercising before going to work or school. Some did Tai Chi, some did calisthenics, one young man lobbed a tennis ball against the outer wall of our hotel room for half and hour. On our way to the morning market one morning we heard the sound of western big band music emanating from a park a block away. We walked over and turned a corner and came upon a group of perhaps fifty people all jitterbugging to the music pouring from a portable stereo. This was all before 8 o'clock in the morning!

As I have said, everywhere we went people were uniformly friendly and helpful. Of course, as one would expect, we elicited stares wherever we went, certainly partly from curiosity about Nick in his chair, but just as certainly because we were foreigners, and apart from a tour group at that. My feeling when we travel these days is that we have a wonderful opportunity to help people to overcome their feelings of discomfort about physical disability and people with disabilities. Now, when I notice someone staring at us I smile toward them and wish them a cheery "hello". Sometimes I'll try to elicit a smile from them. So learn the Chinese word for hello, which is something like ni hao, with an upward inflection on both syllables.

In general, once we were out of the cocoon of the Beida campus, accessibility was rather a "mixed bag". Consciousness-raising in China about the validity and requirements of people with disabilities of any kind is still in an early stage. I have read that the son of the late premier was disabled and, as a result, a start was made to raise awareness in this country where, traditionally, I surmise disability imputed bad fortune and was hidden away. We did find ramps here and there, did see a handful of people in wheelchairs, were amused to see some pedicabs with the international wheelchair logo displayed on their seats, and on the last day of our visit spotted that rarest of all rare finds, a marked handicap parking space!

Of the handful of people we saw in wheelchairs in Beijing, several were in the hospitals and clinics we visited, several were western tourists, and only a couple were locals out in public. I asked Jindi whether Chinese families still felt they had to hide their disabled family members away because they were ashamed, because disability might impute bad luck to the family. I asked him if he thinks this attitude of shame is still as strong as it used to be, or if he thinks there has been progress. This is what he wrote: I don't have any disabled people in our family, therefore I never had this attitude of shame. You have seen how people treated Nick when we were in Beijing, even though they were not familiar with him. In general, Chinese people are nice and kind to others, especially to those with disabilities.

I hope this description has been helpful, and that it encourages rather than discourages readers to go to China. Nick and I, who have done quite a bit of traveling in our lives, feel that in spite of some difficulties it has been one of the most important journeys we have made.

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