Vicki's China

China

September 1, 2008. Aloft, an hour west of SFO.

We are en route! The last few days have been hectic.

Friday was my last day in the office. Many, many preparations had already been taken, but there were still many things to do...copying e-files, cleaning folders on the desktop and laptop, sending messages to my gmail account, shredding, selling the truck (70-something Vera!), getting travelers checks, then back to the office for my last ride (Ken's Lotus 7), and Friday Beer in Office, the untapped Bayern keg from our June board meeting. Then there were farewells to Ken, Claire, Neil and Kim. And more packing of books and mementos. Surprising how many work mementos one can accumulate in just a thirty-year career...four boxes, and I like to think I am not particularly sentimental. Then home to a steak dinner Vicki had prepared. I opened the bottle of 1989 Gevrey Chambertin I had saved from a 1993 visit to Burgundy and even drank some, but it was past due, already going a tinge brown. A George du Boeuf beaujolais substituted. Our laying-up conditions of the past fifteen years evidently had not been ideal. Oh well. We'll be in Burgundy inside a year. Then more packing and even a late night trip to the office to pick up boxes.

Dave and Kim Rott loaned us the use of their gray Silverado Frdiay and Saturday., a giant crew-cab (3x3) with a topper and a shift pattern I had not seen since being a teenager. It was a life-saver for us. No rental car or truck could have carried the load it did those two days.

Saturday was more packing, reorganization at the storage unit, more trips to the office (sending off my final e-newsletter, final report to the board, etc), more trips to the storage unit.... To me, it was becoming more readily apparent that there was more than we could do, more than we could pack, more than we could trash, clean, or stow. The life-saver was that the hot-water went out at our apartment complex, and this relieved us of the responsibility of cleaning, carpet-cleaning, etc. Even without the thorough cleaning, we just barely made it to the airport on time. It was an all-night thing, with all the loads carried down to the give-away area and to the Silverado in a driving rain (highly unusual for Missoula in August). At length, and with many other complications and difficulties, we made it to the airport, checked the 2 huge boxes and backpacks, passed through security, and got on the plane. Lois Welch was there, beginning a trip Martha's Vineyard, and witnessed our long-awaited Embarcation. I am quite sure Vicki and I were both asleep before the plane left Montana airspace. Denver was sort of a blur, and then we arrived in San Francisco, intact, all luggage accounted for (but four new holes in the backpack cover (United not accepting responsibility). Rebecca picked us up and we and she and Jeremy spent the rest of the afternoon, evening, and until the wee hours, sorting, packing, recording (iPods), etc. I got to sleep about midnight, and Vicki was up again until 4:30.

We were up at 7, and, after more packing, document copying, etc., Jeremy drove us to the airport. We checked-in, visited US Customs to document the Asus, iPod, and camera, called Rachel to say good-bye (she'll be hosting the Embarcation next spring!), and then headed to security, where we said our farewells to Rebecca and Jeremy. TSA and boarding were routine, and the pilot says we'll arrive in Tokyo 30-40 minutes early. Vicki's Shuffle seems not to b e working, but everything else seems in order. So now, life is much simpler...we'll be carrying everything on our backs and shoulders. And months of planning, arranging, researching, buying, trying, returning, sorting, selling, storing, and trashing—most all of it conducted by Vicki—are over. And we are en route.

September 4, 2008. Beijing. Thursday

We arrived Tuesday afternoon at Narita in fine form, all things accounted for, in good spirits. After immigration, customs, etc., we found the shuttle to the Narita Skycourt, a modest but affordable airport-vicinity hotel, and, after a couple vending-machine Asahi's, crashed. Meals on the United SFO/Narita flight were edible. We taught one of the flight attendants to say “Bring out your trash! Clink! Bring out your trash!”

Wednesday morning we were up before the crack of dawn, jet-lagged as expected, but had ample time to have breakfast and repack. The shuttle got us to Narita, check-in, security, and pre-flight gelatos and Starbucks. My, how Japan has changed since our visit 25 years ago.

The ANA flight to Beijing was great, especially the Asian lunch (smoked seafoods), the snappy attendants, some sort of film about a conquering princess (Mongols?). The approach to Beijing was interesting, conveying a bit of the scale. The metro area is said to be about the size of Belgium. The international building was the largest airport facility I have ever seen. And it was only one of many. Immigration, customs, etc., were fine. Olympics stuff everywhere, Parolympics people and signage everywhere. The English signage was great—until leaving the main building.

We knew all this was going to happen...our experiences in Japan two decades ago were preparation enough. We did not have the name of our Beijing hotel (Sheraton Four Points in Haidian) in Chinese, nor its address, nor anything else. We took a shuttle bus into central Beijing (not really knowing where it was going), got off at the end-stop, found a clerk in an electronics shop who spoke and read enough English to get us a taxi, and, after a bit of a ride and further consultations, arrived at the Sheraton. All this took about two hours, which is probably not much more than it would have taken had we known what we were doing. I am pleased to say we did all this in relatively good spirits, having agreed months ago that we were to regard such vicissitudes as interesting and beneficial adventures.

The manager of the Sheraton (brand-new for all I can tell), met us at the door, apologizing profusely for the fact that our original reservation, at the Beijing Lofts, had to be canceled (it's not open yet). English-speaking staff everywhere. Our 10th-floor room is palatial. We are not worthy.

The one unsettling aspect of the day was discovering that our possessions are more than we can readily carry. And so we spent much of the evening reprioritizing, resorting, repacking, etc. But very happy to be in Beijing.

Our shuttle into the city brought us past all the Olympics sites, the Birds' Nest, the Cube, etc. They are even more impressive up close. We hope to see more. No surprise: the scale of Beijing is overwhelming.Even the Ikea was bigger than the ones we have seen in MD and CA.

Again, we crashed early.

Today, Thursday, I awoke very early, jet-lagged, went downstairs in search of free wifi, chatted on skype and gmail with Rachel and Rebecca, and had coffee in the restaurant. As always, I enjoyed dawn, watching a great city awake. After a bit more reorganizing (we must be very organized by now) and repacking, we set forth for the Summer Palace, a site we chose (judging from the map) for its relative proximity. We are learning that in Beijing this means a harrowing ride on the expressway, perhaps 2-3 miles away.

So we spent the afternoon at the Summer Palace, which turns out to be many palaces, state, and other buildings, on a grounds large enough to include lakes and forests. We walked a bit arojund Kunming Lake, took the dragon ferry aross the lake to the Corridor (decorated with 14,000 scenes, landscape, cultural, etc.), the Temple of Buddha's Fragrance, quite a few other temples, the Wengshan Gallery, Cixi's theatre, the Seventeen Arch Bridge, the Temple of Embracing the Universe, etc. (Merely hugging trees would not be enough here....). The artefacts, relics, etc., were pretty overwhelming, and this is a site that is pretty young by Chinese standards...built originally in 1750, expanded in the late 1800's, pafrtially renovated in 2005. Often the renovated portions stand side by side with the 1905 additions, and it is interesting to compare what a century can do. People often spend a day at the summer palace, so we may have to go back if we have time. Pix later.

The taxi ride back to the hotel took us past a gigantic shopping center just two blocks from the Sheraton. After a celebratory martini and pina colada at the bar, we resolved to walk to the shopping center to look for dinner and explore. The Lotus Superstore was impressive—kind of a giant Super Walmart. American products everywhere, labeled in Chinese (generally); plus all the traditional stuff. (“Made by America in China”). The seafood section was like a trip to the wharf. And everything very inexpensive. More of this later.

McDonald's, Starbuck's, KFC, Papajohn's, etc., were in evidence here, so, being in a hurry to eat and get back to the hotel to crash, we opted for KFC (how do you say “white meat only” in Mandarin?). One shouildn't jump into a new culture too quickly. Besides, McDonald's is the new culture.

September 6, 2008, Beijing, Saturday

Yesterday, after the obligatory reorganization, travel research, etc., we adventuresomely set forth for the inner city, taking the taxi to the Wukesong station and then the Metro downtown.The Metro is very fast and travels long distances between stops. It's not as plush as the DC Metro, but then it carries many more people. Security and baggage checks at the stations. 2 yuan (about 28 cents) will take you great distances.We emerged at Tienanmen Square (from the Tienanmen east station) and began walking around it, in trhe mid-day sun, taking in the scale, the sites...the Heavenly Gate and the likeness of the Great Helmsman, the Great Hall of the People, the Maosoleum, the National Museum, the Shrine to Fallen Heroes. Frowny-faced, fit-looking but unarmed soldiers, standing at attention, all around all the public buildings. But even they could crack a laugh at some of Vicki's antics.In the neighborhoods later, there were many yellow arm-banded "public security volunteers," older women mostly, keeping a watchful eye on everything. But everyone was nice, friendly, helpful...especially the touts (!).

Our secondary mission for the day was to look into cheaper downtown hotels, so we walked and pedicabbed the neighborhoods east of the Forbidden City. OK, we were royally fleeced with the pedicab, but it was another "experience.".Much of our exploration was in the hutongs, old Beijing, very interesting, but very sub-standard housing and conditions. The highlight was a tea-tasting, mostly green and oolong, most memorable of which was a "flowering fairy." (Pix later when I have the time and camera). Also many sites, temples, and street-scenes of interest and rather few Euro-American tourists. Toward the end of the day we strolled a beautiful garden near  the Heavenly Gate, then got on the Metro back to Wukesong. On the Metro one of the day's more amusing incidents (apart from our "negotiating" with the pedicab guy) occurred. We could not remember the name of the station we were to go to; we had it written down on a card only in Chinese (by the hotel concierge ("My husband used to be the concierge, but he's dead; now I'm the concierge")). So there we were, holding the card up to the Metro car's map, trying to match its Chinese characters with the ones on the card, with scores of young Chinese intently watching and helping. We crashed upon return to the hotel, ordering-in the 2-for-1 pizza special from the hotel's Italian restaurant, with Nanjing beer for me. The rest of the evening was spent making further hotel and flight reservations, etc. And washing 1/3 of our entire wardrobe. And reorganizing.Travel is hard work. 

September 7, 2008, Beijing, Sunday

In a hurry this morning. Yesterday, after posting, I discovered that it was Saturday, not Friday. This retirement thing is a bitch, never knowing what day it is! So we have lost a full day, sort of, and have to scurry.

After the morning planning, calls, reservations, etc., we set forth via Wukesong, to the Temple of Heaven. En route, we bought tickets at China National Bank to the Paralympics, Tuesday evening events in Bird Cage. Then saw the overwhelming Temple of Heaven, buildings and grounds.It was a horribly humid day, but all the sights and sounds were great. Peking opera singing groups everywhere, traditional instruments and music. Not buskers, just people who love performing and people who love listening. Anyhow, the Temple was awesome.Then did the night food market (as seen on Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, etc.). We played it pretty safe, dumplings and fruit and such; and roasted oysters for me. Vicki would not try the fried scorpions. I would not try the fried silkworms. Then wegot caught in crowds at T-square (Metro stations closed for fireworks, crowd control,  etc.) and had to walk three stations to get back on the Metro. We crashed with extreme prejudice. But we are up early this AM to do the Forbidden City today. Much more later.

Later, but not much more. This morning we went back to the CBD, Vicki did some airline reservations/changes, and then we did the Forbidden City/Palace Museum (as it is now called). It is a whole day's thing, just hitting the high points. Building after building, monument after monument, museum after museum, collection after collection. And then the gardens. And the whole thing is not very old by Chinese standards. Fortunately, we still had enough energy for the promised Beijing duck, at the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. Superb duck; great fun watching the oven-master pop the cork. We followed this with a stroll in the commercial area nearby. Vastest, coolest mall ever. But no Omron pedometers.

September 8, 2008, Beijing, Monday

Today, the Great Wall! We actually finally slept-in (til 7), then did the now familiar Wukesong/Metro route to T-square, walked its western periphery to the "Tour Bus Dispatch Center" (west), where we bought tickets for the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Finally, after all these years of ridiculing people on tour buses, we are riding one. (I stand by the ridicule). The bus was full, we were on the back row with three eastern European men. There were two German women from Cologne, the rest (50) Chinese. The ride through the northern half of Beijing was something. A mega-city of high rises, mile after mile, five-story shopping malls, sky-scrapers. Many kilometers beyond the 5th Ring Road, it began to thin, even to turn briefly buccolic (fruit orchards mostly). Then we turned into the dreaded jade factory/showroom. It was interesting to see the exhibits about jade, and also interesting to watch our travel companions shop. Our rule on this long/lite trip, is "take only photos, leave only footprints," so we didn't buy anything. The family-style lunch (soup and 8 dishes) was not enticing, and neither of us pigged-out exactly. The more we saw (and heard) the less we ate.
 
The Great Wall itself was about what you see in the documentaries. Today was exceptionally cloudy, low-cloudy, and there were no distant vistas. Lush, mostly deciduous vegetation everywhere, mountains to 5,000-6,000 feet by my estimation. After the obligatory sliding car ride up, we climbed about the various towers and walls, took some pix, and descended back to the car/bus park, feeding the bears along the way. (Bears in concrete pens whom you can toss apples to for 3 yuan). I bought a small bottle of rice "wine" (50 proof) for the ride back, but couldn't figure out how to open it. (I did later). The tawdry, commercial aspect of the car park was comparable to Cherokee, NC.
 
So what to make of the Great Wall? Impressive for sure. The experience is somewhat numbed by the masses. This is the world's most popular tourist site, and, in order not to be trampled by exuberant picture-snapping Chinese, you don't have much time for contemplation. But it is truly wondrous, even the few miles (of the 4,000) you can see, obligatory, and we're happy we did it. Been there, done that. Might do a different section next time.
 
We got back to the Sheraton early (for us). I did some shopping at the Lotus (giant supermarket in the giant mall four blocks away). Take-out Chinese for dinner. More travel research.

September 9, 2008, Beijing, Tuesday

Vicki spent the morning packing and reorganizing the reorganization. I was determined to visit the Maosoleum and the Mao relics, so I took the taxi/subway, checked the camera, and got in line. It was 9:30 in the morning, but already there were a couple thousand people lined up. The mood was very different from the Wall. No exuberance; mostly reverence and evident pride and joy at being there. It was a cheek-to-cheek line, gentle pushing and shoving, but general order, especially once in the great Hall. Perhaps a third of those in line bought flowers to present, with a bow. Mao himself was as presented in the photos I have seen. Utter silence in the chamber as the thousands passed by. The relics area and the Chou and Deng rooms were closed, evidently (or maybe I just didn't notice them), and I proceed on to the next chamber, the gift shop, very tasteful and affordable memorabilia, but, still, a gift shop. Oh well. My own impressions of Mao are complex, and getting more complex. Like all the great figures of history, perhaps, his flaws nearly matched his achievements. If there is contempt for  him in China, I have seen no evidence of it.

Our afternoon was spent in journeying to the Olympic zone, a special subway, all kinds of security, throngs and throngs. We had tickets for the Paralympics but were there mostly because we wanted to see the Cube, the National Indoor Stadium, the Bird's Nest, and all the rest. It was all overwhelming, especailly the Bird's Nest, where wer spent the next several hours about 20 rows up from the ground, in section A. When we arrived, the place was nearly empty, but as the afternoon turned to evening, it filled, literally, as 90,000 Chinese and a few foreginers cheered on the Paralympic shot-putters, javelin-throwers, 100 and 400 meter runners, wheel-chair relay race, and more.  We were moved by the athletes, their achidevements and the obstacles they have overcome. But it was hard not to be more impressed with the Olympic facilities, the architecture, lighting, sound, scale, organization, and so on. The Bird's Nest is unlike any other stadium I have ever seen, especially the architecture, the comfort, and the technology.

September 10, 2008, Xian, Wednesday

Today we decamped, bidding farewell the luxurious Sheraton Four Points/Haidian, taxied to the airport, and, with only a little e-ticket difficulty, flew to Xian, the ancient capital. The trip was made ever more pleasurable and informative by a fellow passenger, Mr. Jim Kim, sales manager/Asia for InfoTrust Group. He travels frequently to the US, speaks superb English, and was able to answer the 1,001 questions we have been formulating about contemporary China. Lunch aboard the Air China flight was a treat (not pretzels, to say the least). The terrain we flew over was largely mountainous, dry, then later very green, with terraces, rivers, gorges, and, finally, the fertile plain we are now on in Xian. The 40 km shuttle ride from the airport featured massive bucolic scenes—lots of corn—dotted with ancient imperial burial mounds, most as yet unexcavated. At length, we arrived in the central city, within the ancient walls, and found our hotel, the Prince International. (It apparently goes by many names). It's plenty nice enough.

Xian is a sleepy little Chinese town of 8 million. About the size of NYC or LA, I guess. We walked the downtown a bit, booked our tour of the Terra Cotta Army tomorrow, and visited the 14th century Bell Tower, which is ground zero in Xian. The view from the Tower enabled us to gain greater perspective on Chinese traffic phenomena and driving behaviors. We have formulated the following hypotheses:

  • Pedestrians have no rights, no priority, whatever.

  • Wheeled vehicles have rights and priorities in accordance with their size. Even bicycles outrank pedestrians. Buses have great priority. Taxis, however, appear to be bound by no rules nor priorities.

  • Everyone drives pretty slow. In10 days in China, we have seen only two wrecks, both very minor, both today (one in Beijing, one here). Top speed on the freeways we have observed is 80 km/hr. We have seen some pretty close calls, however, and were involved in one with our pedicab ride last week.

  • We believe the entire country is engaged in a massive game of “chicken.” Tour buses and taxis rule.

After the Bell Tower, we decided to check out a massive department store nearby. It was comparable to anything we ever saw in Dallas, with every upscale brand of every conceivable article. We were about to head for the food court/epicurean market in the basement when there, at the foot of the escalator, was a huge counter of Omron products. My beloved Omron pedometer had ceased to function properly back in Missoula, after going through the wash and most of the dry cycle; I had borrowed Rebecca's, but neglected to pack it for the trip, and had been missing it for days, especially with all the walking we're doing. So I am now the proud owner of a new Omron pedometer (as seen on the You docs). It's China-red, has Chinese language markings, weighs me in kilos (76 currently), calculates my mileage in kilometers, but counts steps just like the old one. It was meant to be.

After an unremarkable dinner, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we will do the Terra Cotta Army and associated tombs and sites. We leave late Friday afternoon for Guilin, so will see more of Xian Friday, hoping to use the evenings catching up on photos, blog, learning our various gadgets, including camera.

September 11, 2008, Xian, Thursday

For those of you wondering if Vicki is on this trip, I am.  Mark is going out hunting for a beer and an Olympic t-shirt.  I have had to spend any computer time I've had trying to figure out hotel reservations we didn't have, and generally trying to get all the things done that I didn't finish before leaving Missoula. We still have vast gaps in the planning--for instance, no place to stay for the next four nights.  However, the travel agent who arranged our day tour today said she could help with that tomorrow morning.
 
Our day today was pretty close to perfect. We were part of a group of 10 on a mini bus with English speaking Chinese guide.  We visited the first Buddist pagoda built in China--1100 years old, then to an archeological site of the oldest villiage--about 4000 BC.  Both sites had wonderful signs in English, information displays, dioramas, etc., which along with our guide,  made it all very nice.  We did stop at the obligatory factory store--but at least this one was "high class."  The only factory allowed to make reproduction Terra Cotta warriors from the clay quarries used 2,200 years ago.  We learned the whole process--30 days in a kiln to fire one of the life size ones.  They also had craftsmen making laquered and jade inlaid furniture, cut paper work, etc.  Not being able to buy anything is sometimes a blessing.  I did get one of the smallest warriors as my one China souvenir.
 
Then we had an amazing Chinese family style meal--at least 12 dishes and 2 soups and the waitresses actually told you what most of them were in English. A little vague--chicken, pork (turned out to be a very sweet, smoky ham), fried winter melon (no idea--the woman from New Zealand said she thought it was bean curd), sweet/sour pork, the regional noodles, an orange flavored fruit with a green skin, etc.  Mark and I would both eat there again in an instant--we had Dairy Queen blizzards for supper--though not the green tea or sesame seed flavors.
 
After lunch we had 3 hours at the Warriors site.  There is really no way to describe it--none of pictures or videos I've seen begin to do it justice.  The guide described it as the eighth wonder of the world and I do not think it an exaggeration.  Mark and I have been to historical and archeological sites all over Europe, Mexico and America--the Chinese do it best.  I would have dearly loved to buy the newest book-- being signed right there by one of the farmers who made the discovery in the 1970's, but our luggage is at the limit we can manage and also for Asia flights.  You are allowed 44 lbs total including your carry-ons!  That is not much when you're going to be gone over 6 months and visiting every climate from the Himilayas to the tropics.  Right now we would dearly love to ditch the down mummy bags and jackets but I know we won't feel that way in Nepal.
 
Last comments from me on a philosophical note.  I have been continually struck these past 9 days that China is the future. The high school  across from our hotel in Beijing began class at 7:30 and ended at 6--plus homework and weekend  exam practice sessions.  These people are not kidding. They are moving forward at a breakneck pace, they are young, and they see the world as their oyster.  If you were impressed by the Olympics--multiply that accomplishment as far as the eye can see for ten days--and we haven't been to Shanghai--which is not only the largest city but the economic center of  China.  It is truly impressive in a way our travels to Europe and elsewhere have never been.  Hope we will have Internet the next few days.  Internet cafes are not that common and most we have seen have had only 2 or 3 computers, so we are relying on hotel connections.  In Guilin we plan to stay in slightly less expensive places which may not have connections.  Vicki

Ditto to the above. The pagoda was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The gardens and stones were particularly interesting, as well as the three-wall jade depiction of events in the Buddha's life. The neolithic village was Banpo, an extensive facility, several large buildings housing the excavations. Neolithic things are pretty rare. We have visited several in Europe, but Banpo was perhaps the best we have seen, especially of one site. The Chinese appear to be taking extraordinary care of these things, exercising great patience. We saw ever more of this with the Terra Cotta "Worriers" (as the signs outside Xian proclaimed), where, amazingly, only a small percentage appears actually excavated. In the case of Qin himself, his tomb's whereabouts are well known, but the Chinese are willing to wait for technology to appear that will enable exploration without sacrificing preservation.  As Vicki said, full employment for Chinese archeologist for generations to come!  Mark

September 12, 2008, Xian/Guilin, Friday afternoon

We are sitting in a coffee bar at the Xi'an airport. Mark having an expensive Bud—no soft drinks here—only bar drinks or coffee and tea. For me it is too hot for tea. Mark is not too happy that we have been eating a lot of American fast food—of course, he doesn't like it even at home. Me, I love having at least something familiar to put in my stomach. I haven't been really sick yet—but my cast iron tummy has not been too happy most of the last ten days. So far we have eaten KFC, McDonalds, Subway, Dairy Queen and have seen outlets for Burger King and Pizza Hut and Haagen Das. Of course Starbucks is everywhere—even inside the Forbidden City. Mostly when we have had fast food it has been a time issue rather than a deliberate choice to avoid the real thing. Fast Chinese food means a street vendor cooking a pot of something or offering you a skewer of something—usually mutton, if there is a label. Many of the food vendors in Beijing and Xi'an have been Muslim—don't know why.

This morning we got in some yoga and then went to the old city wall—quite impressive. Big enough on top for many cars to drive—though only official ones allowed. But bicycle rentals, pedicabs and even an electric mini bus for tourists. It takes about 1 ½ hrs to bicycle the full way round. 4 main huge gates, many smaller ones and 98 guard posts that jut out from the main wall. Large moat and between the wall and the moat a beautifully landscaped city park with trails, boats to rent for pedaling the moat, exercise equipment, etc. The wall is the largest and oldest extant in the world, dating from the sixth century, renovated in the 15th. It is huge. I will let Mark describe the street of the calligraphers and the Stele Museum.

At the south gate to the walled city is a university of traditional arts and many streets and arcades of calligraphy shops, both art works and equipment. There is also the Forest of Steles, or the Forest of Stones, the oldest and largest collection of stone tablets in China. They are all huge, over 2 meters high. All the classics of ancient China, Analects, Confucius, Mencius, et al. We got some pix of Confucius (on a tablet) and also bought a rubbing of a mountain in western China we liked.

Then a mad dash back to the hotel, packing, on to the travel agent (no deal), shopping for a camera filter, a aquick non-Chinese lunch, and the bus ride to the aifrport. Unfortunately there was no time for the Muslim quarter nor the Grand Mosque. We got on the plane just fine and enjoyed the 2 hour flight south to Guilin, via China Air--nice Chinese meal, choice of fish and ruice or spicy beef and noodles, salad, beer, tea, fruit, dessert--then the usual 40 km shuttle ride from the airport to town, then an easy taxi transfer, thanks to a young woman who wrote "Sheraton" for us in Chinese (also Mark's resourcefulness). We are at the Sheraton/Guilin, on the Li River.


September 13, 2008, Guilin, Saturday

This morning we booked a cruise on the River Li (for tomorrow) and a removal to Yangshou, down-river, less hustle/bustle, hotel there for two nights, the river sound and light show, etc. Today we will walk Guilin, the 7 Star Park, some of the hills. Hopefully, somewhere in the next three days, I will find time to edit and incorporate some pix.

The Star Park was very nice. A little bit of everything among the small karsts in the city. We saw a cave, the zoo (panda!), the stone forest, the river, the stone museum, and the stone store, where we bought a few items (gifts). We are now rampantly violating the "take only pix" rule, but at least they're small and light-weight things. Tonight, dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and work on the pix and gadgets. And some rest. It is very warm here, 92 degrees, and muggy. But very nice and ever interesting. The lady who sold us the stone objects treated us to tea in the store and a long conversation about China and America. Later, a couple of teenage girls accosted us, obviously wanting to practice their English. This occurs often, and we try to oblige. It's pretty easy to tell the ones who are students versus the ones who have quit school and are devoted to their MSN texting while doing menial jobs. Not unlike home, I guess. A little English goes a long way here, unlike the foreign language situation in America.

Random observations: the fusion restaurant here in the hotel--Peking duck quesadillas! And, electric motor scooters...very quiet! About half the scooters in Guilin are electric, and even the internal combustion cycles are relatively quiet.

September 15, 2008, Yangshou, Monday

A very interesting two days, Sunday and Monday. Yesterday we checked out of the Sheraton/Guilin and took the tour booked through the hotel on the boat down the Li River. Our boat held around 100 people basically on two semi air conditioned levels with an open third deck for picture taking. There are literally dozens of these boats taking off every morning for the 4 hour trip to Yangshou. We had a lunch buffet aboard ship—I recognized the french fries and the bananas. I did have some very good rice noodles also. We are spending two nights in Yangshou as the guidebook recommended for its slow pace. Only 30,000 people live here—with 10 million visitors per year. Last night was the Moon Festival—autumn harvest festival that is big in this part of China. Everything was packed even more than usual. When leaving the boat you literally had to run a gauntlet of shops and stands and sellers. Hundreds—we had so much luggage that all our hands were occupied, but that only deferred the less determined ones.

Staying at the Sheratons for free (we are using Starwood points we earned on our credit card) is really spoiling us—so far 9 nights. They are extremely nice, with robes, slippers, marble baths, every toiletry and amenity you can think of, including American style mattresses. Last night was our second Chinese International Hotel—which cater to mid range tourists.. They feature the favored Chinese hard mattresses, of which they are quite proud. They feel exactly like concrete. The room here with breakfast is 300 yuan—or about $45. If we hadn't booked through the concierge at the Sheraton we would have probably done better. Posted charge is about twice that. Breakfast was interesting. Orange juice, which isn't safe to drink, noodles, stuff for on the noodles, hard boiled eggs (no salt or pepper), steamed buns, fried bread, two kinds of sweet rolls—not a South Beach diet kind of place, though 98% of the Chinese are thin. Most are not as short as I expected, but the lack of anyone really overweight is really striking.

The heat here is oppressive—even for a couple of Miami natives. I would say 95 degrees and 99% humidity. The karst mountains always look hazy in all the pictures because of the very high humidity. You are dripping wet from head to toe after 15 minutes outside even at 9 am—there is no cool down in the evening or overnight—or if there is it is like Dallas—maybe 4-5 degrees.

The Yangshou area with the karst mountain (humped) scenary has been a tourist area for about 1500 years—so they know every trick in the book and they have everything for sale. I would love to window shop but that is impossible—if you even look at an item from afar the salesperson comes out into the street to grab you. Mark learned “no, thank you” from our guide today, but I am quite sure they all know what “no” in English means—it just doesn't have any effect. Vicki

The karst landscape is unique, and it is why this part of China has been in the tourism business for so many centuries—and why it traditionally has been a magnet for artists, poets, philosophers, and other aesthetes. From the boat, the karsts seemed to come in clumps. In Yangshou, you are surrounded by them. They rise anywhere from several hundred to several thousand feet above the flat valley floor. So many different shapes, sizes, so many different images suggested by them (camel, moon, etc.). This morning (Monday) we arranged our own mini-tour, with a young student (studying English) in a sort of open-air bus-let. The tour was out into the countryside, around the karsts, down the Dragon River a bit, a stop at Yangshou Mountain Resort, over to views of Moon Hill, and back into town. The river conveys quite a rafting business—bamboo punts (five or so large bamboo lashed together, with seats and umbrella for tourists), so many it seems crowded at times. Even in the nearby rural areas (Yangshou is about 30,000) there is evidence of de-population, homes half-built and abandoned, residents moved to the city.

The Li River is quite clean-looking, clear, not terribly deep, but relatively swift. The scenery along the way, cormorant-fishing, water buffalo, traditional river trade and transportation, wedding photos, cell towers, the haze, and, of course, the karsts, was unforgettable.

I have eaten pretty well the last few days. (OK, the meal on the boat was not to rave about, but at least there were serving utensils and free beer). Saturday night in Guilin, at Gu Long restaurant, I had steamed vegetables, rice, and mixed grill (duck, pork, beef, fish). Vicki nibbled. I very much like the local Li Quan beer, especially the 600 ml bottles. And I surprised myself with my chopsticks facility. Last night we ate at a nearby air-conditioned place, and I had the local specialty, Li River “beer fish” and snails. All this was done in beer, presented on a platter with scallions, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, snails, and an anise flavoring. Very interesting but for all the tiny fish bones. One gets at the river snails in their shells with toothpicks. Earlier in the afternoon we had watched live fish being delivered by bicycle. Vicki had a very tasty lemon chicken dish.

We are in our room now, 3 in the afternoon, at the Imperial Palace Hotel overlooking the market, the quay, the river, and the karsts. Vicki is watching TV and asked me to mention the infomercial for the “Magic Bullet,” a Vegematic-like device being demonstrated by a young couple, which, if you order right now, can be yours for only 200 yuan. This, folks, is full capitalism. But wait, there's more.

Tonight, we are seeing “Impressions Liu Sanjie,” the outdoor theatrical extravaganza concocted by Zhang Yimou, whose most recent credit was the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. Needless to say, my expectations are pretty high, even if I don't understand a word of it.

Last night, we did some photo down-loading and editing, s soon, I promise, there will be picture.

Randoms: “more to see, visit Inner Mongolia” (on TV). Bamboo scaffolding at construction sites, 3-4 stories high. Watching Ike (and US gas price gouging) on CNN. Paper-cut portrait of me. Fireworks outside our windows during the Moon celebration last night. Moon cakes everywhere (I bought a tiny one in Guilin, very tasty.). My 1968 copy of Chairman Mao's quotations, acquired Saturday night at a market in Guilin. Bu yao, xie xie. And posted from Jimmy's Cafe. Mark

September 16, 2008, Shanghai, Tuesday

Last night we indeed saw the Impressions Liu Sanjie in Yangshuo. It was created by Zhang Dimou, a filmmaker who also did the Olympics opening ceremonies. From the Impressions, created in 2004, I think, it is easy to see why he was chosen to do the Olympics. Impressions featured a stunning mega-setting (ever more so than the Bird's Nest), cast of hundreds (six hundred; plus six cormorants and two water buffalo)(for the Olympics he had 15,000, but no water buffalo), incredible fire/light/sound effects, much traditional as well as contemporary material, great integral music. Of course, Vicki and I understood not a word of it, even less the narrative flow. Be that as it may, it was yet another unforgettable Li River experience. The setting is the river itself, on an inlet of it, perhaps 300 meters deep and 150 meters wide, bounded on either side by karsts, giant bamboo, banyan. Everything was performed on or near the near shore, but mostly on the water, on movable piers, boats, and the like. The visual effect, at night, was something else. The backdrop was five or so karsts in the distance beyond the river, softly lit. A bonus for last night's audience was a beautiful full moon rising between the karsts. There were a few individual song numbers, but mostly large numbers of dancers and other such, apparently depicting the history and culture of the region. (We picked up on the bamboo punts, the fishing, the cormorants, the water buffalo, etc.). A dazzling variety of scene and costume changes. Dimou is a mega-magician, and one of the things I like about the two performances I have seen is that, occasionally, at the end of a scene, he shows you how he did the trick. I can't imagine a more rewarding experience for the 140 yuan (including transportation) we paid—about 20 bucks.

Today was a transit day, a harrowing 90 minute taxi ride from Yangshuo to Guilin airport; then a Shanghai Airline flight to Shanghai, then another taxi ride from Honshuo airport to the downtown Holiday Inn where we are staying. On the plane we befriended a lady from Devon whose tour guide was kind enough to write “Holiday Inn Downtown” for us in Chinese. The "kindness of strangers" bit is real. Shanghai, from what we saw coming in, dwarfs Beijing, utterly. It's not as beastly hot and humid here as it was in Guilin and Yangshuo, both way further south. We spent the afternoon unpacking, reorganizing, researching arrangements for the next (and more adventurous) stages of our China trip. After a decent Chinese breakfast and meal on the plane, we dined at Maison d'Mickey's, then walked around the nearby blocks, including the central train and bus stations. Also another big department store and mall.

On the basis of today's experience, we have further refined our observations about taxi drivers and driving. The “Five Ways” of taxi driving in China are

  • get your clients to their destination and collect their payment
  • pass anything and everything on the road, from hand-pulled carts to tour buses, including police cars
  • fear only on-coming tour buses
  • make sure the seat cover precludes client use of seat belts
  • do not charge for the thrills

Internet is costing us here, so we may not post much the next few days. We'll be in Shanghai and environs through the 20th, departing Pudong airport on the afternoon of the 21st for Dayong and Wulingyuan National Park.

Yes, we 're watching the financial meltdown from here, on CNN International and MSNBC. Also pretty harrowing. Mark

September 16

I must comment on our taxi ride from Yangshuo to Guilin's airport. It was 1 ½ hrs over everything from dirt road country lanes to limited access highways. The driver spoke no English and after the first time he passed a tour bus, handcart, and motorcycle truck (all 3 at one time) on a blind curve at 50 mph, I refused to look ahead again and kept my eyes glued to the scenery. At least there were seatbelts—most taxis cover the back seats so that you can't use them. Mark did say he never went over 65. At least it only cost $38. Cheaper than the Airport Shuttler for two in Missoula. Literally, a 90 minute roller coaster thrill ride—with the added knowledge that you really could die. Hemingway would have definitely classified it as a sport.

September17

We visited the Shanghai Museum today and it was terrific. Just four floors but amazing galleries of bronzes, calligraphy, scroll painting, furniture. Unfortunately the jade gallery was closed. The bronze castings dated back to 4000 BC and the calligraphy to 2000 BC—though I could be off by a millennium or so—anyway, really, really old and impressive. I particularly liked the pottery gallery with the evolution of porcelain. Every piece was exquisite and though behind glass, you could get very close and see the detail. All the displays were also in English and in many cases they had taken special close up photography of details and those were enlarged on the wall. We spent about 4 hours and were not overwhelmed like you are at the Met in New York, just mightily impressed.

Had lunch at the museum—chicken curry for me and Pizza Hut for my dinner, so I'm a happy camper. Mark had Chinese take out. I prefer to know what I am eating and not have it staring back at me. Another scandal broke here last week—tainted baby formula. It has killed several infants and sickened many others. The same chemical that was the problem in the dog food in America a few months ago was being added to milk to boost the protein value—they caught some of the perpetrators but they claim many others were adding it at the dairy collection centers. Very scary.

Our lunch with beer and coke was $13. Mark's dinner was $2.80 and my 9 in pizza $7.50. The taxi ride from downtown in rush hour traffic took 35 minutes and was $3.75. A subway ticket is .25 and bus .12. On the other hand 24 hrs of Internet access in our hotel is $15. So prices vary a lot. American style fast food is pretty expensive compared with Chinese.

September 18, 19, 20

Mark just spent 1 1/2 hrs doing the detailed blog, so I will just hit the highlights.  First, it is so hot and humid that even in our air conditioned hotel room the postcards we bought have all curled up.  Socks won't dry in even 3 days so we have resorted to using the hair dryer on them--and then the moisture immediately condenses all over the granite surfaces in the bathroom.  Today was the first day it hit 90 but they say it can be 104 in July and August.  Remarkably almost no one in China wears shorts of any kind.  About 50% of the men have on dark pants and white short sleeve shirts.  Most of the women wear slacks or jeans.  Today I saw more women with knee length shorts and capris; I guess because it was so hot and also a Saturday. 

We had planned to go out to the West Lake area of Hangzhou today but I guess many others of the 20 million residents had the same idea so the train tickets were all gone.  We left early to try to beat the heat (we didn't) and took the subway to The Bund and then walked over to the market/shopping area.  First we went into the Chinese area (for tourists and locals)--hundreds of little shops and a 5 story department store building also filled with little shops on every floor--but air conditioned.  Then we went to the foreign tourist area, had lunch in a Chinese restaurant, and browsed some more.  I was tempted to buy some additional silk scarves but with literally dozens of shops and no set pricing, it is quite time consuming and I ended up not buying a thing.  Our luggage is barely managable as it is so that is a good thing.  I did buy myself two silk scarves at the silk factory tour yesterday.  It is pretty liberating not being able to buy souvenirs, but also sad.  There are so many beautiful things for sale and very low prices, but then I would have to spend all my time shopping instead of touring. 

Yesterday we took a bus tour with guide to one of the water towns with canals and to Suzhou, which is famous for its gardens. It is basically a suburb of Shanghai but with its own 8 million people.  Picture riding in a bus on an expressway at 50 miles an hour for two hours and all you can see in any direction are apartment buildings--a few small ones, but most 30 stories or so--and easily 200 under construction.  What ever land wasn't apartment buildings was industrial parks--almost all electronic manufacturing--and any little bit of open space was under cultivation with crops--even between the expressway interchanges.  There are lots of lakes, ponds and canals in this area because of the high water table.  The guide pointed out that all were being used to cultivate oysters or for fish farming. 

Tomorrow we head out to a national park in a very rural area.  It will be interesting to see the contrast with Beijing and Shanghai.  Right now I'm convinced that China will be the number one world power in my lifetime.  Consider this little fact the guide told us yesterday--10 years ago Shanghai had 2000 private cars on the road; today they have 3.5 million--in 10 years they have built a complete highway system, taught 3.5 million people how to drive (well sort of), and most importantly increased the standard of living so that 3.5 million can now afford cars.  Everything I see would be unbelievable and undoable on paper, but it has all really happened.

September 22

We made our fourth trip by plane in China yesterday. I don't think I've mentioned that every plane was full, took off early, and on each flight we had a complete meal. Free beer, too. A lot different from the States right now. We arrived in Zhangjiajie on a plane where we were the only Euro-Americans. Today in Wulingyuan National Park we spent about 8 hours and saw thousands of people—4 “English.” This is really off the beaten track for non-Chinese tourists. We hired a guide for two days since no one speaks English, and there are hardly any signs in English—at least outside the park. Though expensive at about $70 a day, “Josh” speaks pretty good English and was immensely helpful in getting our money changed. We had no problems until today—just put the card in the ATM, punch in the pin, out comes the Chinese money. After 3 banks this morning and a manager's help (via Josh) we learned that only certain ATMs take foreigners cash cards and their 4 number pins—those are all in big cities only. The rest of the country uses 6 digit pins. So we tried to exchange our $100 bills—not crisp enough to be read by the counterfeit machine! With humidity at over 90%, crisp is not really an option. Two banks wouldn't take the American Express traveler's checks, but the third finally did. It was a little shaky there wondering what we were going to do for money other than to fly back to Shanghai. Rural areas like these—a city of 1.6 million—don't take credit cards not issued by Chinese banks! Mark will fill you in on our lovely, though beastly hot, day in the park. Whole grilled fish on a stick for snacks anyone?

September 24

We thought we had been captured by the Communists for a while. After many semi-intelligible conversations with our tour guide, his boss, hotel desk people etc., over a period of 5 hours yesterday, we found out that they hadn't bought our train tickets, and none were available for today. (But we could sign up for another tour today--right!) Combing the Internet we found that we could only fly from here to Shanghai or Beijing and then to Yichang and the Yangzte river cruise. Not very direct, very expensive, and probably not available with the national holiday approaching. But after only 5 more hours of similar phone calls and conversations this morning, we have in hand two tickets for tomorrow's train—very cheap at only $5 each for 6 hours of travel. Bad news is that the very cheap seats were the only ones available—foreigners never travel that way as the cars are not air conditioned, the toilet is a hole in the floor where you can see the tracks and you are packed in like sardines. I can't wait.

We don't yet have the cruise tickets either. We had wanted to wait until the last minute to get a lower price—but didn't realize how much the national holiday next week would impact this week. So I am writing this while waiting for an answer from a China travel agency working on that issue. The first tickets they wanted to sell me were a good buy on an American owned cruise line—but the agency didn't realize we were Americans. Americans have to pay $75 more each than Europeans. That is the cruise lines policy—I intend to write them to complain. So much for buy American.

For some more little tidbits, the oranges here all have green skins, orange insides, and no seeds, and they are delicious. The hotels we have been staying in all have central room controlled electricity. You put your room card key in a slot in the room and the power comes on. In the nicest hotels you get two keys and that way you can leave the air conditioning on while away. In the Chinese hotels you are only allowed one keycard. The room lights are all controlled by switches in the headboard of the bed or the nightstand. Some are master switches, some only dim, some turn off a certain circuit, others one light, most are not labeled. So even turning on and off the lights is an adventure every time. Mark calls it the command and control center.

PS. We now have the cruise tickets and confirmation, so life is good, assuming the train runs on time.

September 28

Our last afternoon on the Yangzte Cruise, September 28. It has been quite enjoyable—3 nice excursions (just like field trips only I didn't have to be the one counting noses). The food has been Westernized Chinese—with English labels, so one needn't eat the duck lungs by mistake, along with both Western and Chinese breakfast. We have had lots of free time just to loaf and look out our sliding glass doors or sit out on the little balcony. The weather was cloudy the first two days and some sun this morning—but not too hot. In fact last night there was a beautiful pink sunset in the gorge with the mountains piling up in shades of gray and the breeze and evening were what I would call 'soft' and just about perfect. We disembark at 9 am tomorrow and our last few days in China will be relatively easy—Holiday Inn and Sheraton and air tickets all booked. This is very good, as day after tomorrow is the National Holiday which means everything, everywhere will be completely booked up. When you have to compete with 1.3 billion others plus visitors, you have to plan ahead. Details of where we have been are on Mark's improved blog. Vicki

September 30 Chengdu

Tomorrow we are off to see the baby Pandas, so I am quite excited about that. Today's airport experience was exciting. We were supposed to fly out of Chungqing at 9 am. We were up a 6 and at the airport at 7. Upon check-in we were told there would be a 4 hour weather delay. Mark checked off and on during the morning and was told the departure would be at 1:40 pm. At 11:25 we were finishing lunch and Mark went to check the board again—now it said boarding at 11:40. While Mark packed up, an announcement was made for final boarding of our flight. We rushed to security where the line was long, but a nice family let us in ahead of them, then ran a couple of blocks and staircases to the gate. No on was there. We searched around and an airline employee took us upstairs, consulted with a colleague, and we were rushed back the two blocks to a different gate, where we were the last ones to board. The flight took off at 11:40—when boarding was supposed to begin! Every Chinese flight we have made has left early—but only by 10-15 minutes. This one gave us both heart attacks. But they did feed us breakfast—on a 45 minute flight. Vicki

October 1 Chengdu

Today we went to the Panda Breeding Center. We saw 3 babies in incubators each about 1 month old. While we were there the nurse took one baby out and took it next door for the mother to nurse. Only at that point were you allowed to take pictures. The babies were just getting their fur. They are born completely hairless and blind—all pink skin looking a little like crocodile embryos—hard to describe. There were also 3 cubs about 2 months old sleeping in a large wooden playpen structure. At two months they have a full set of fur with all the panda markings. Their eyes are still developing so no pictures of them allowed either. It was terrific to see the babies—bad part was that since babies are only born 2 months of the year, there were none old enough to hold. They have a program that allows you to hold a cub if you contribute a healthy sum to the breeding program. I had been looking forward to it. Next time.

I have been trying very hard not to buy stuff. Fairly successful. I can't list the gifts I've bought, but they are small and light. For me I've purchased a panda tshirt with little cartoon pandas demonstrating the 24 tai chi poses, a silk fan, 2 silk scarves, bookmark, a couple of hat pins. Mark bought a Beijing 2008 Olympics t-shirt and a 1968 little red book of Mao sayings. Together we bought a slice of “picture rock” with stand and a small Terra Cotta Warrior. Haven't found a Chinese bathroom sign or the tiny shoes for bound feet, so will have to live without those. Our purchases cost about $160. We really can't buy much else. I want a pashima from Nepal and some sort of Everest Base Camp Trek t-shirt. More than that will put us in serious trouble on carrying stuff.

Off to Thailand for 1 night and then to Kathmandu!

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