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NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Impressions of China

As the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America's tour of China comes to a close, conducting apprentice Christopher Vazan recounts his impressions of the cities they visited. From the wide expanses of Beijing, to the awesome skyscrapers of Shanghai, to the final stop in wondrous Hong Kong, Christopher found that each city possessed its own unique character.

Christopher Vazan
Conducting Apprentice


Fifteen days. Seven cities. Just enough time to get a snapshot impression of each. Our first stop was Beijing. By the end of the 14-hour flight, most people in the orchestra had colds, stomach aches, and ear or eye infections. But we made it to firm ground all in one piece, and soon were on an air-conditioned bus to our hotel. Beijing is quite possibly my favorite city that I have ever visited. I had read horror stories of TV screens in public places depicting the sunrise because the real thing was invisible behind the smog. I was expecting throngs of people and filthy sidewalks. But my three days in Beijing left me with precisely the opposite impression. Though it is home to a population of more than 20 million people, the city covers a huge area (larger than the state of Connecticut!), and the streets are spacious and relatively clean. Most importantly, Beijing left me with a distinct sense of authenticity, caused by the myriad traditional Chinese buildings interspersed among the colorful, high-rise apartment buildings. We made an excursion to the Great Wall of China, a couple hours’ drive from the city. It is far more magnificent than any picture can convey (and quite a workout to walk along!)—a truly humbling experience to imagine the number of hours and lives spent in order to build it. When we visited the Forbidden City, Chinese tourists, unused to Western faces, would often ask us to pose for pictures. We performed that night in a colorful, brightly lit hall for a youthful and energetic audience.

NYO Forbidden City (Chris Lee)
NYO-USA musicians visit the Forbidden City in Beijing. (Photo: Chris Lee)

Next, we flew to Shanghai. Driving to our hotel at night, the contrast was immediate. Where Beijing was ancient and spread out, Shanghai was hypermodern and vertical. I couldn't keep my eyes off of Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world. Shanghai gave me a new perspective on what a large city can be. As a native New Yorker, I have always been in awe of the enormity of my hometown—every other city I have been to has been small in comparison to the Big Apple. Not Shanghai! On our sightseeing day, we went to the 88th-floor observation deck of Jin Mao Tower. The city is breathtakingly enormous. Our concert in Suzhou was a run-out from Shanghai, so our time in that city was the most limited. We spent the morning in a museum close to the concert hall and returned to Shanghai after the performance. The hall bore a strange resemblance to the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, SUNY, where we had spent a majority of our rehearsal time during the two-week training residency at the beginning of the program.

After four nights in Shanghai, we boarded a plane to Xi’an—the only portion of the trip that took us to inland China. Aside from the overwhelming pollution, Xi’an is a lovely city replete with beautiful sights. It was the ancient Chinese capital for many centuries, so the city is full of ancient buildings and artifacts, many of which remain to be unearthed! The most significant archeological discovery in Xi’an so far has been the Terracotta Army; the emperor of the Qin Dynasty had ordered a whole army of terracotta infantrymen, archers, and cavalrymen on horses to be built in his tomb to protect him in the afterlife. Thousands of soldiers have been found already, but the excavation is expected to continue for decades to come.

NYO Shanghai (Chris Lee)
Christopher was dazzled by the skyscrapers of Shanghai. (Photo: Chris Lee)

Finally, we flew back to the coast for our last three stops: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. We did not stay long in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, but had a pleasant visit to each city. Both were very modern and very large. The concert hall in Shenzhen had the most beautiful interior, with an elaborate organ behind the stage and red seats extending far up into the many balconies. The morning after the concert in Guangzhou, we boarded a train that took us directly to Hong Kong. After passing through immigration, we settled into our final hotel, located right on the harbor between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong Island is one of the most fascinating human settlements in the world. On the north side is a densely populated financial capital, the most vertically built city in the world. In the middle of the island is a steep, mountainous region that rises above the tallest buildings. And on the south side, there is a luscious beach dotted with a few small colonial British buildings. From either side, it is difficult to imagine the utter contrast that is found just a 15-minute drive away. This metropolis and its haven give the city and its diverse inhabitants a palpable, ever-present sense of wonder that distinguishes Hong Kong from any city I have visited before. I hope to be able to return to China and Hong Kong many times in the future, as there is so much more to explore! After all, our conductor, Charles Dutoit, is on his 25th visit, and he seems as excited as ever!


View Christopher's profile, and learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.