A Month in China

Old Apr 28th, 2010, 03:04 PM
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A Month in China

Ni hao,

My husband and I just returned from a fascinating month in China. Before I get into the details, I want to thank all the Fodor posters for so much valuable information. In particular, thanks to thursdaysd, Hanuman, indiancouple, and Nywoman (who led us to Pingyao).

Some background on us: we are retired (late 50's/early 60's), independent travelers who have visited over 50 countries. We have done some traveling in Asia, but this was our first trip to China. Our style is more of a slow travel kind of thing with emphasis on learning about the people and the culture.

Here is our basic itinerary:

Beijing (8 nights)
Pingyao (3 nights)
Xi'an (3 nights)
Yangshuo (4 nights)
Guilin (2 nights)
Hangzhou (3 nights)
Shanghai (4 nights)

And here is the Trip Report:

We had a pleasant 14-hour direct flight to Beijing. That is, if you don’t count the NINE hour delay leaving Newark. This is by far the longest delay we have ever had. Apparently, our plane had some real servicing issues and Continental had to fly a new plane over from Belgium. But at least Continental did give us food vouchers and 10% off our next flight (guess that just means we will have to fly again soon…) Anyway, we found a way to entertain ourselves by wine tasting at Vino Volo, the air traveler’s solution for a long delay, which just happened to be located near our gate.

We had arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport in Beijing which probably was not necessary, but it sure is nice to have someone waiting for you when you first arrive in a new country. Especially since we were pretty punchy after the long, long day.

We are staying at the Double Happiness Hotel in an authentic hutong which is a narrow lane lined with 200-year old houses built around courtyards. Our room looks like something on a Chinese movie set with loads of red silk and carved wood. Our bed is in an elevated wooden alcove, and of course, the inside is lined with red silk. The bed is a bit hard, but the experience is hard to beat..

Every morning, we start the day with a breakfast buffet of about 50 items, most of which are unknown to us. Whatever it is, it’s good.

On our first day, we made the pilgrimage to the Forbidden City in spite of a day -long rain. A young 24-year old Chinese university student who called himself “Leo” approached us and offered to be our guide through the site. We weren’t really interested in a guide, but we agreed mainly because we both liked him immediately. He turned out to be a great guide, and a pleasant young man who spoke reasonably good English.

The Forbidden City was quite impressive even in the rain, and Leo gave us all the facts and figures. Like the fact that 10,000 people once lived here and 3,000 of them were the Emperor’s concubines. My husband was thinking Emperor sounded like an okay position! One thing that was weird is how Chinese people would come up close to us and just stare. At first, we were very uncomfortable, but Leo explained that many people coming from the provinces into Beijing for the first time have never seen a white person before. In fact, Leo is the first person in his family to ever come to Beijing.

Next stop: Tian’anmen Square right across the road from the Forbidden City. It is a huge square but very cold compared with the colorful palaces we just saw. My husband paid his respects to Chairman Mao by buying a watch from a huckster. The watch has a picture of Mao pounding out the seconds with his fist.

We wanted to have tea at the famous teahouse called Lao She. It may be famous in the U.S., but no one knows where it is here. We searched for almost an hour getting conflicting info from everyone we asked. -- we even had a picture and the name printed in Chinese, but nothing helped! It was like a Keystone Cops routine -- one person would direct us down the street, then someone else would tell us to go back UP. Remember all of this is taking place in the rain. Finally, a friendly Chinese man who spoke minimal English took on our cause. Even he had to ask about 4 people for directions, but eventually he delivered us right to the teahouse door. What a friendly, helpful guy -- and he wouldn’t even join us for tea.

The teahouse was fun with elaborate teas -- my tea looked like a flower unfolding in my glass. And they had a band playing live music on unusual old instruments. The bandleader immediately launched into an odd-sounding version of “The Star Spangled Banner” when we arrived. (I wonder how he knew?) We joined another couple, a German man with his Mongolian wife -- first time we ever met someone from Mongolia. She told us that winter temps in Mongolia are typically minus 40 degrees!

One thing we noticed during our first day is that security is everywhere, on the streets, in the subways, in museums, and in important buildings. A uniformed guard is on virtually every corner. (Later we learned that most of these guards are just doormen, but initially we felt like this was quite the military state.)

On our second day, we visited the Capital Museum for a better understanding of the history of Beijing. Very impressive, but we did notice a lot of hyperbole in the exhibits here -- like a statement that Beijing was the political and cultural capital of the world.

Later, we attended a Tao religious ceremony at the White Cloud Temple. Fascinating stuff: clouds of incense, strange wind instruments, priests in brightly colored silk robes and lots of mysterious rituals. We also got to throw coins at a gong for good luck. The gong had a bell in the center, and a direct hit would bring good luck. My dead-eye husband made sure we rang the bell and came home with plenty of good fortune.

We are enjoying the food here, but restaurants can be a real challenge since no one speaks much English. Thank goodness for menus with pictures. Everyone was more than happy to help us out, and seemed to really appreciate our minimal Mandarin language skills. My husband is especially interested in the language, and the young women at the hotel desk have taught him numbers in Mandarin and are now going to teach him the days of the week.

Tomorrow, we walk The Great Wall, so I'll stop for now.
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 03:42 PM
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For our Great Wall adventure, I had booked a driver I found on Trip Advisor. John (Zhang Yong Xin) was a great choice, a funny guy who kept us laughing all the way to and from the wall. John collects American slang so we taught him some new phrases. His favorite was “go for it.” Every time John would start to pass another vehicle (which happened a lot), my husband and John would start shouting together, “Go for it Johnny!!”

John talked about his life and cultural differences. He lives with his wife and daughter and also his parents who he supports in the traditional Chinese way. He originally wanted to marry a professional (a nurse or a teacher), but his parents introduced him to a traditional, uneducated girl. He married her, and now he says his parents were right. John’s marriage was not arranged, but you get the feeling that parents want to find the right girl, not just for the son, but also a girl who will take good care of them in their old age!

We chose to visit The Great Wall at Mutianyu, a less visited section than the more famous Badaling. We walked the gauntlet of souvenir sellers, bought our tickets at 40 yuan/person, and took a 9-minute cable car ride up to the Wall (no waiting!). Amazingly, we practically had
the wall to ourselves even on a bright sunny (but cold and windy) day. We saw maybe a dozen people during our first hours on the wall.

The Great Wall is simply awesome -- one of those unbelievable engineering feats. The wall itself is impressive enough, but to build it in this unforgiving terrain is insane. We were thinking these forbidding mountains should have been enough of a barrier to deter invaders even without a wall.

We first hiked to the left where the wall snaked up into a mountain top. The 12-foot wide wall has crenellated sides like the edges of a huge castle; it was 20 to 30 feet high depending on the terrain. With watchtowers spaced along the route and well-positioned drainage ruts this is one clever design. In spite of the sunshine, it was cold up there with a howling wind. All we kept thinking is that you sure wouldn’t want to be a soldier pulling wintertime duty on The Wall!

We also walked in the other direction along the wall down to the next entrance/exit point where we had a choice for our descent: open ski lift, toboggan, or walking trail. We elected to hike down, and it was a surprisingly easy and serene walk. We bought the obligatory “I Walked The Great Wall” t-shirts after some major haggling and then “go for it” Johnny drove us back into town.

We consider ourselves real Beijingers now, and on the following day we tested our subway skills with a convoluted trip out to the Summer Palace. The subway is very modern and easy to use with lots of English signage and announcements.

Speaking of English signage, some of the translations are hysterical. We had a good laugh when we read the rules for riding the cable car at The Great Wall: one rule had an admonition that stated “not to bring any exploding, erooing, or stinking materials on to the cable car“. Here in China, I guess they don’t want no stinking stuff on their cable cars! And don’t even think about bringing on that “erooing” stuff!

The Summer Palace is a gorgeous spot outside the city where the royals would come to escape the summer heat in The Forbidden City. A totally different atmosphere from the city. The Forbidden City is all about power and impressing visitors while this place is a pure pleasure palace. The Summer Palace is huge including the very steep Longevity Hill and the sparkling Kunming Lake. We hiked up and over the hill (quite a climb) and down to the lake on the other side. The hill is covered with colorful pavilions and the most beautiful pagodas. Down at the lake, we marveled at the Marble Boat (more like a marble pier shaped like a boat) that the crazy Empress Cixi built using funds that were supposed to be used to modernize the Navy.

We are constantly amazed that we are such an oddity here. When we see little school children, they jump up and down and yell, “Hallo! Hallo!” A young couple asked to have our picture taken with them -- one pic of us and the husband and one with us and the wife. We start to feel like an
attraction ourselves (My husband is thinking we need to start charging!!) One brazen Chinese man walked up to us (no more than 2-feet away), pulled out his camera, and started taking pictures of us. He never said a word, so we just hammed it up, waving and saying “Ni hao.” He cracked up and kept snapping away.

After all that exercise, we needed a good meal so we returned to a restaurant recommended by our hotel. No one spoke English, but the menu had English descriptions and great color photos of all the items. We had Tsingtao beer (which has already become a favorite), a plate of cold, spicy funghi, excellent fried rice, spicy noodles, and veal chops. What a feast!

We made a return trip to The Wall on a tour with the China Culture Center, an organization for expats that also welcomes tourists. This time we visited the Wild Wall (which is what they call the unrestored sections) at Zhuangdaokou. Our Chinese guide, Sunny, gave us a great day visiting a rural Chinese village, climbing the Wild Wall, and wolfing down a Chinese food feast at the end.

The village was built within what was once a military garrison for soldiers manning the Great Wall. The visit to the Chinese home felt uncomfortable as we all traipsed thru Mr. and Mrs. Gao’s modest home, but of course, they are being paid to let us in. The Gaos are retired (seems like the government confiscated their farmland), and they live on a government stipend of 200 yuan a month (less than $30 for a month!). The most unusual sight was their bed which was a hard brick and cement box that is heated from within (like an oven). With only a bamboo mat to lie on, this gives a whole new meaning to firm!

Our walk on the Wild Wall was spectacular, as well as demanding. The climb was steep and the steps were broad. We loved the isolation here with nothing but the old wall surrounded by forest and chestnut tree groves. This area is known for having the best chestnuts in China, and at the end of our walk, we ate a marvelous dish of pork with chestnuts.

This day trip into rural China gave us a closer look at the real people of China (as opposed to the cosmopolitan Beijingers). Our Lonely Planet guidebook tells us that the Chinese government issued a statement “To get rich is glorious. It doesn't matter if some areas get rich first.” Quite a radical statement from the home of the People’s Revolution! It is hard to see how the peasants won’t be left behind as China continues her warp-speed development into a modern and much more capitalistic society. Maybe the real question is, “What will happen when some people never get rich?”

Enough philosophizing and enough Trip Report for tonight -- will pick this up tomorrow.
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 03:47 PM
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I'm enjoying this a lot and look forward to reading more. Thanks!
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 03:54 PM
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Thanks for coming back and writing a trip report for us! Good to see another successful independent trip.
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 10:43 PM
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Great report, Magster - thank you. Looking forward to some more! We go in a couple of months.
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 10:50 PM
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Thanks for the great report ....Keep it coming...your trip plan is similar to what I am planning so I am anxious to hear more...
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 11:18 PM
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Very interesting. look forward to the next bit!
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 05:51 AM
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Great reporting. Taking notes!
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 11:47 AM
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Thanks so much for the encouragement. This is actually a great way to relive the trip. If you have any specific questions, just let me know.

We spent Sunday morning at the Panjiayuan Market also known as the “Dirt Market“, one of the largest markets here in Beijing. The place had row after row of vendors selling all kinds of Chinese trinkets. The haggling was intense, but my husband is very good at it, and we had a great time shopping and dickering.

Next, we visited the Lama Temple, the most significant Buddhist temple outside of Tibet with an impressive 18-meter Buddha carved from a single piece of wood (supposedly).

On Monday, we toured the Temple of Heaven which was one of our favorite sights. The huge park is filled with fabulous pagodas and people playing games, picnicking, and just having a good time. The Round Altar was especially cool -- a huge 3-tiered marble extravaganza used by the emperor to worship the heavens.

That afternoon we hired a moto-cab and driver to show us thru the “hutongs” of Beijing. The word “hutong” (pronounced - “hoo-tong”) means “the lanes” in Chinese, and the hutongs here are comprised of the old family blue-collar neighborhoods, many of which are being torn down to generate a new and modern Beijing. Beijing was probably mostly hutongs at one time, but little by little these old places are being replaced bymodern housing and commercial buildings.

Actually, our hotel is located in the Dongsitao Hutong, so we are very familiar with the street life there. The hutongs can appear to be a bit rough around the edges; some of the homes, businesses, and alleyways are quite trashy, while others are old but well kept. It is an experience
to walk into the hutongs, because they are almost too narrow for vehicular traffic (which does not stop traffic from trying to get thru). Lots of pedestrians, rickshaws, and moto-bikes fight for alley space all day long. The pedestrian, from what we’ve seen, better watch out for traffic; the cars and other vehicles do not give the pedestrians any courtesies. You’ll be run down if you’re not careful, and these vehicles can sneak up on you before you know it. Just crossing a main street in Beijing is an art -- we usually latch on to some locals and let them run interference.

Speaking of traffic, Beijing drivers seem to have a set of driving rules that rival few we’ve seen. It's an odd combination of aggressive but defensive driving. The drivers we’ve ridden with cut other drivers off routinely, muscle their way into impossibly tight traffic jam situations (if it seems too tight, they just reach out and fold their side mirrors in against the vehicle), make crazy impulsive left-hand turns right in front of oncoming vehicles, tailgate at just inches from the vehicle ahead of them, make continuous right turns on red lights (no stops), make turns and just skim past startled pedestrians. Traffic signals and road signage in general seem to be optionally obeyed. But at the smae time, our drivers will routinely allow other cars to pull in front of them without any annoyance at all. One of our drivers, when faced with a potentially lengthy traffic jam, just calmly went to the right, up the curb onto the sidewalk amidst many surprised pedestrians, passed the traffic obstruction, then re-entered the road and went on his merry way. It's wild just riding in the back of these vehicles watching the chaos.

We ate dinner at a Hot Pot restaurant where the restaurant allows you to cook up your own pot of meat and mystery vegetables. No one spoke any English so we just pointed at the pictures, and they brought us plates of goodies to drop into the pot of boiling broth. We had no idea what
we were doing but the food was great, and the staff was really nice as they tried to help us - despite the language deficiencies. Our favorite hotel desk girl, Angela, had written a note for us saying that we wanted half spicy and half mild. This note got us a clever metal pot with a
curved divider in the center that worked perfectly for us with red spicy broth on one side, and clear mild broth on the other.

On Tuesday, we said goodbye to our wonderful Double Happiness hotel and hopped a train out of town. I am a bit of a train freak and I LOVED the way the trains operate here. At the station, you look at the big board to find the number of your waiting room (each train has its own). You show your ticket before entering the room (so you can be assured that you are in the right place). Another board in the waiting room instructs you to wait and later tells you which platform your train has arrived on. When boarding time arrives, the waiting room doors open up to a main corridor that leads you to your platform and your train. It is perfectly organized with no crazed running around like we sometimes have to do in Europe.

The train was very modern and our 1st class seats were quite comfortable with roomy luggage space overhead. And so clean -- they actually wet-mopped the main aisle after every stop. In less than 4 hours, we arrived at Taiyuan where our hotel had arranged for a van driver to meet us to take us to our next destination, Pingyao.

Pingyao is possibly the best preserved ancient walled city in all of China with authentic homes from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Our hotel, the Yide Guesthouse, is a good example set in incredible stone courtyards with gorgeous stone and wood carvings and lots of red lanterns hanging at each portal. Our room is authentic too with a “kang” for a bed. If you remember, we saw one of these box-of-bricks beds at Mr. and Mrs. Gao’s home outside of Beijing. Well, now we get to try it out ourselves.

The room is tiny with the giant stone block kang bed taking up most of the space. The bathroom is an all-in-one style with no separate shower area just a shower head sticking out of the wall. But I loved the ancient stone floor, the wooden double entrance door, and the red lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Actually, the bed is not bad – the 2-inch thick mattress makes it more comfortable than we expected. As my husband likes to say, “When you are this tired, even a bed of nails can feel good!”

A quick word about our netbook. We brought this little computer with us for the first time, and it has earned a permanent spot on our travels. Small, light and yet a real workhorse. So far both hotels and even our train had internet hook-ups so we can stay connected with everyone, and work on uploading photos whenever we like. Regarding access to information, we have used Google here with no problems. However, Facebook is blocked and I was unable to access the Philadelphia Inquirer website, so most newspaper sites are probably inaccessible.

The main streets of Pingyao reminded us of the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. -- tons of shops and restaurants with a fun atmosphere like at a carnival. The vendors were out in force, and my husband got to use his “mad” negotiating skills. One haggling session between him and a vendor was so intense, it drew a crowd of several Chinese onlookers. It was all good-natured fun with lots of laughter, lots of “Noooooooo” and plenty of oohs and aahs from the crowd as each “combatent” entered his next price offer on a calculator that they kept passing back and forth. I think the seller appreciated my husband as a worthy opponent -- the vendor really seemed to be enjoying himself, and so did my husband. They finally agreed on a price for the item. Both parties were satisfied and happily shook hands. By the way, no English was spoken during the whole haggling session; just lots of finger pointing, use of a calculator, and our limited Mandarin skills.

We decided to give our hardworking peds a break and get some foot massages. The massage started with a foot soak. The masseuse brought out wooden tubs lined with yellow plastic trash bags. They must have been filled with various herbs, but at first glance it looked like trash with maybe a worm or leech thrown in. Nothing appeared to be moving in there, so we cast fate to the wind and plunged our feet in.

What followed was a serious toe-by-toe workout. My male masseuse was particularly enthusiastic (or maybe sadistic). At times it hurt like hell, and I was gnawing on my fingernails. The masseuses just laughed at me and gestured that I should relax. But in the end, even I had to admit my feet felt totally refreshed. And, at about 1 yuan per minute (that’s about 14 cents per minute), an hour long massage only weighed in at a whopping $8.40. It was well worth it!!

We bought a Pingyao city ticket that allows us to visit all the sights including a walk on the city walls where we got a behind-the-scenes look into private courtyards from above Another highlight was the Rishengchang Financial Museum, home of the first draft bank in China.

I am a former banker, and I loved seeing an old-time teller line – which looked a lot like the current ones except for the scales to weigh silver ingots and the abacuses to do the accounting. Best of all, were the special features of this bank like a kitchen and lodging for bank employees. We figured this is where the time-honored tradition of working bank employees 24/7 must have started! The bank also had luxurious overnight accommodations for exclusive big money customers, offering extras like mahjong games, cigarettes, and even an opium pipe! These Chinese really know how to seal a deal.

Pingyao with its small town feel was such a nice change. And it was wonderful to be able to walk everywhere. I also enjoyed the Taoist temple where I received a blessing from one of the monks. However, the temple had the absolute worst toilet I have ever seen. Squatty potties are the norm in China, and we have no problem with that, but some of the squatties here are beyond disgusting.

We hired a moto-cab for a jaunt outside the walls of Pingyao to the Shuanglin Temple to see the renowned painted Buddha sculptures. Our favorite was the 26-armed Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. The ride in an open vehicle was uncomfortable because of the dust (China is having
the worst drought in 50 years)and dust can be a real problem. Luckily, we had our face masks which helped tremendously.

We ended our day with a full body massage at our hotel. Our two masseuses were very professional and showed up wearing white lab coats looking like little doctors. And in a sense they were medical professionals because they sure fixed our aches and pains. And best of all, the price was just $15 each for one hour of bone-cracking bliss.

We had a favorite restaurant in Pingyao called De Ju Yuan -- it was so good, we ate there three times. The Shanxi specialites here like cold cucumbers in soy sauce, mountain noodles, and chicken with wonderful black mushrooms and greens were some of the best food of the trip.

Tomorrow we leave Pingyao and fly to Xi’an to check out the Terracotta Warriors. This will be our first experience on a domestic Chinese Airline. Stay tuned.
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 11:59 AM
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Mag, from your description of Chinese traffic I'd guess you've never been to India. We too thought Chinese traffic was incredible until we visited India... Thanks for continuing the report.
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 12:32 PM
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"I'd guess you've never been to India" - or Vietnam! Or Cairo, for that matter, although the traffic in China has been getting progressively worse.
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 01:24 PM
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Great descriptions! I was particularly interested in reading about your husbands "bargaining" skills. Did the shop keeper have a calculator to pass back and forth? Did it have English numbers translated from Chinese characters? I wondered how we can perhaps go to a small hotel in one of the smaller villages where no English is spoken and bargain for a room...
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 02:00 PM
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Calculators are common. I've also had a hotel write the suggested price on a piece of paper in western numbers.
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 02:40 PM
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Fabulous report! I'm taking notes for a possible trip next year. Here's some questions I have:

Do you have the contact info for your guide - Zhang Yong Xin who took you to the Great Wall?

Would you recommend Double Happiness Hotel? Do you remember the cost and did the large breakfast you mentioned come with room?

Is the tea house worth going to? Address? Near what?

Where did you get driver from that picked you up at the rail road station to take you to Pingyao?

Can't wait to read more!
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 06:59 PM
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Great questions!

Yes, as thursdaysd said calculators are very common -- every shopkeeper seems to have a couple lying around (and all have western numbers). And, the fallback is to write the number on a piece of paper. In general, we found the Chinese very easy to work with even when we had no languages in common. We brought the Lonely Planet Chinese phrasebook with us and we would just show the Chinese person the word or phrase in the book (that usually worked better than our pathetic pronunciation attempts although we did learn to speak some basic phrases).

Our driver for The Great Wall was John (Zhang Yong Xin) and his email address is: [email protected] And he has a website: www.beijing-driver.com

We highly recommend the Double Happiness Hotel for the atmosphere, great customer service, and the remarkable breakfast (which was included with the price). Our rate (thru Booking.com)was $73/night in March and $86/night in April plus a 15% service charge.

I enjoyed the Lao She Tea House. The teas are pricy -- our meals with tea cost around $35 (which is quite high for a meal in China), but the entertainment was good. We saw both the concert and a shadow play. The address is 3 Qianmen Xidajie (south of Tian’anmen Square)

Our driver to Pingyao was arranged by our hotel the Yide Guesthouse (which I also recommend). Their website is: www.yide-hotel.com (click "English" in upper righthand corner)
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Old Apr 29th, 2010, 07:35 PM
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It turns out our concerns about flying our first Chinese domestic airline were totally unfounded. China Southern was no problem at all. My husband was concerned that they might put us on some klunker, but it turns out China Southern flies some of the same stuff we fly back here in the USA - ie., Boeing 737s and MD90s. Our flight to Xian took about 55 minutes, and hot dogs and bottled water were served. We were the only westerners in the airport and on the plane; some people stared as if we were the most exotic animals in the zoo. But we are getting used to that.

Xi’an will never make our list of favorite cities. It has some of the worst air pollution in China -- every day looks cloudy, but it is really a thick blanket of smog hanging over the city. We stayed at the Ibis within the old walled city. Good accommodations at a very cheap price ($25 US/night). The only drawback is that many Chinese stay here, and they smoke like fiends. Unfortunately, we have pollution inside and out!

We thought it would be a good idea to book a bus tour with the travel agency at our hotel to see the Terracotta Warriors. Unfortunately, the tour included many other “side-stops” before ever getting to see the warriors. Several overpriced shops, selling such things as jade, furniture, jewelry, rugs. I guess you have to take the good with the bad when you do a tour like this. But, we also got to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Banpo Neolithic Archeological digs which we really enjoyed. And I was happy to try my hand at calligraphy in an art shop.

Finally, after lunch, we got to see the famous “Terracotta Warriors.” It was one of the most awesome things we’ve experienced so far in China. The figures are so powerful -- you can see why the emperor felt he would be invincible even after death.

The Terracotta Warriors are housed in 3 separate buildings (Pits #1, # 2, and #3). Each pit is an unfinished archeological work in progress, with many of the soldiers and other artifacts in varying degrees of being unearthed. Pit #1 is a favorite, for sure. It is by far the largest and provides the best display of these soldiers. And, as you may have guessed, it is also the most crowded room. You can walk around the periphery of the large room and see the details of each soldier in formation and photograph them as much as you want.

No two soldiers are the same, and the heads of these soldiers are all separately molded pieces that fit together with the body like inserting a peg in a hole. Since we arrived late in the day, I was thrilled when we got one last glimpse of Pit #1 right before closing time when the crowds had subsided. What a memory to have! That last almost solitary look...

The next day, we hired a driver for more touring and were pleasantly surprised when the travel agency offered us an English-speaking guide for free. Kitty was a college student tour-guide-in training. She was a total joy and took excellent care of us. She said I was “so gentle
and friendly” and giggled constantly at my husband’s antics saying to him “You are so cool!”

Our day with Kitty was a highlight of the trip. We started with a visit to the Little Goose Pagoda where women were practicing Tai Chi in the beautiful gardens there. I take Tai Chi classes, and I was fascinated to see them using both swords and fans. And Kitty even arranged for me to have my picture taken with the “Tai Chi fan ladies.”

Our primary destination was the Hanyangling Museum, a largely (and unjustly) ignored site. This tomb of Emperor Jingdi is the domestic equivalent of the Terracotta Warriors. Jingdi was buried in an underground world of 50,000 miniature people-like figurines -- not to mention wagons, farm animals, pottery and everything else he might need in the next life. We donned plastic booties to cover our shoes and descended into the museum where we walked on glass floors overlooking the archeological pits. It was amazing to see all the artifacts literally at our feet.

The people-like figurines are about 18 inches high -- they were once clothed in robes befitting their occupation: farmer, cook etc. They had moveable arms which were made of wood and have, of course disintegrated, so what you see are thousands of armless “dolls.” BTW, these figurines are anatomically correct allowing researchers to identify men, women, and even eunuchs (the only men permitted to watch over the concubines). One of the most interesting sections held a world of domestic animals: rows and rows of pigs, piglets, cows, dogs, goats etc. All meticulously replicated.

We topped off our tour with a dumpling feast at the famous Da Fa Chang restaurant. We invited Kitty to join us to thank her for being our guide, and she was thrilled. Our meal consisted of five trays of assorted dumplings -- thin dough wrapped around all kinds of fillings including pork, chicken, ham, vegetables, fish and even walnuts. Delicious and very special.

That night we attended the Tang Dynasty performance, an extravaganza of Chinese music and dance. We were blown away by the elaborate, colorful stage sets and costumes. The music was a fascinating mix of unusual Chinese instruments including a dulcimer. The dancing was very graceful with women waving their long sleeves like ribbons in the wind.

Before I go, lets talk about one thing that really grossed us out in China (if you have a weak stomach, you may want to skip over this paragraph). Our number one complaint is the spitting -- this is by far the most revolting habit we have ever encountered. Men, but also women, spit constantly on
the pavement and in the streets. And these are not gentle little spits -- they really hock it back making all kinds of disgusting guttural grunts and horrific noises. Then, they launch a major missile. In Paris, we watch for dog merde on the sidewalk. In China, we have to look out for the lugies!!

Next, we will fly south to Guilin and then on to Yangshuo along the Li River. We are looking forward to some clean country air!
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 05:33 AM
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Fabulous descriptions. Thanks for your answers to questions. Still enjoying.
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 05:43 AM
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Decreased spitting was one of the pre-Olympic goals. The plan included distributing spit bags:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6927361.stm
Looking forward to Guilin.
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 07:55 AM
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Well, we survived our second Chinese domestic flight experience, this time on Hainan Air in a very modern A319 Airbus. It was on time and very comfortable. Nothing but good things to report about it. Again, we were the only westerners on the flight.

While at the airport, we had an incident which we now regard as almost commonplace. As we sat waiting for our plane’s departure, 3 Chinese men and a child (about 4 years old) walked up to us and stood less than 3 feet away from us, and just stared. And they stared, and continued to stare. Did I mention that they stared??

I was starting to wonder if we were sitting in a restricted area or had violated some taboo. It was the most blatant staring yet. They just stood there staring, not speaking, not smiling. Finally, I raised my head and uttered our now familiar “Ni hao” to the child. Of course the child shyly backed away, but all of the adults laughed.

My husband then got down on the floor, used his camera to take a picture of the child, and then showed the child the digital picture on the display on the back of the camera. The child responded by slowly coming forward and curiously looking at the picture. When he finally recognized himself in the picture, he beamed with a smile at these crazy westerners. Everyone laughed again, and a few smiles later, the curious gents and the child walked away.

We had a driver waiting for us at the airport to take us to the small village of Aishanmen, just about 6 km outside of Yangshuo where we will be staying at an old farmhouse/hotel called “The Giggling Tree” (www.gigglingtree.com). With Dutch owners, this place has great European flair. In fact, the picturesque courtyard could be in Tuscany. Services are a bit basic with lukewarm showers and little heat in the room, but the staff are extremely friendly and all the guests are too, making this an enjoyable stay in the countryside.

If there’s a drought in China, it is not apparent here in the Li River Valley. It has rained every day since we arrived. Sometimes quite hard, and constantly. But, we just don our raingear and carry on with any plans we’ve had in mind. The roads are dirt roads, full of ruts and puddles and mud; whenever we take a shuttle into town, it’s a very rough ride with us being hurtled back and forth in the backseat for the first few kilometers till we hit the smoother roads. Welcome to rural China!

On Tuesday, we took a rafting trip on a portion of the beautiful Li River. Of course, it was raining, but onward and forward we went. A taxi driver took us about 80 km upstream to the village of Yangdi, where we boarded a strange motorized pontoon-like boat, which was devised from what appeared to be PVC pipe lashed together like logs on a raft. With this construction, we could see that this boat, fully loaded, only sat about 2 inches deep into the water; the primitive, but sleek design could easily traverse any shallow conditions presented by the Li. And, it was rugged too.

Strapped to the deck of the boat were a couple of passenger seats, a seat for the boatman, a canopy to repel rain and sun, and a low horsepower motor with a long tail and prop that is steered by hand from the back of the boat. It was a kluge for sure, but it was an efficient kluge - and a simple design.

The day was cold and damp - and raining hard at times. Not the best day for sightseeing in an open air boat. But we were very secure under the canopy of the boat, and under our own full-length ponchos. A little cold perhaps, but essentially dry. And it was worth it since the mountain formations along the Li offered some of the greatest scenery we’ve seen in China thus far.

Dramatically sheer limestone mountains with smooth rounded tops and covered with dense vegetation undulate in various shapes at the river’s edge; eerie mist swirls about the peaks and valleys and make for some unique ghostly, but artistic formations. Giant ferns line the banks of the Li, water buffalo graze, and dainty swallows skim the surface of the water collecting insects as they fly. What an idyllic setting. In fact, the back of the Chinese 20 yuan bill has a picture of these Li River mountain formations.

On Wednesday, we decided it was time to learn a little about Chinese cooking at the Yangshuo Cooking School (www.yangshuocookingschool.com). It was raining again all day, so what better place to spend our time than indoors learning about Chinese food. Our young 25-ish English-speaking Chinese instructor “Tessa” first took us to the local market to introduce us to some of the foods of the region, and also to buy a few goodies for today’s class.

Wow, the market in Yangshuo was an unforgettable sight. Lots of unknown critters hanging from meat hooks in the market, even skinned dogs and cats. And donkey, eel, frogs, snakes, rabbits, scorpions, and almost every other animal that has enough flesh on it to make a meal. Live geese, chickens, rabbits, and others are penned in stacks in small cages, waiting to be purchased “on the hoof “by hungry patrons. You can’t get much fresher meats than that.

But back to cooking school. After showing us around the market, Tessa took us over to the Yangshuo Cooking School, which has a patio and kitchen right on the banks of the Li River. This was a totally hands-on cooking class, so each of us had our own workstation, and except for some minor prep work, we did all of the cooking ourselves. We learned to use a Chinese cook’s favorite tool: a big old meat cleaver. We prepared steamed vegetables stuffed with pork, a wonderful eggplant dish, tasty chicken with cashews, and a yummy Yangshuo specialty called “beer fish.” This is actually carp caught right here in the Li River, then seasoned with Chinese spices and veggies, and sizzled in beer for that extra bang of flavor.

That evening, we headed to the Liu San Jie Light Show in Yangshuo – a performance by a cast of 600 Chinese singers and dancers done via spectacular lighting, costuming, and singing at the edge of the Li River with a backdrop of lighted mountain peaks. The show was designed by the same director who did the famous opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics and this one was performed in front of an audience of about 3000. It rained throughout the open-air performance, but we had our ponchos so we stayed quite dry underneath, and enjoyed a great performance despite the unfavorable elements.

The next morning, I had a Tai Chi class (arranged by the hotel) with a Chinese Tai Chi master who goes by the name of Jason. The class was one-on-one with a heavy emphasis on breathing and feeling your “chi.” It was amazing to practice Tai Chi in front of a window looking out at water buffalo, rice paddies, and towering mountains.

The rain finally subsided so we set out to hike the area surrounding our hotel. What an adventure! We hiked over to the Yulong River where local people kept coming up to us and saying “Bamboo.” We eventually realized that they wanted to take us across the river on one of their flimsy bamboo rafts. Why not? At least the water was shallow and the views were magnificent.

Once we were safely across the river, we hiked through orange groves and rice paddies, and occasionally, spotted small family gravesites, decorated with red banners and spent incense sticks. This was our best day here since we got to wander through this gorgeous lush landscape on our own. No one out here but us and the water buffalo.

We crossed back over the river and hiked through some villages. We met three children who ran out to greet us, yelling “Hello!” Their English was pretty good so we chatted with them for a while, and they even showed us their English school book. My husband pulled out his harmonica and led the group in a spirited version of “London Bridge is Falling Down.” The children sang along with us and knew all the words. It was so much fun to interact with these enthusiastic local children.

Tomorrow we leave here for the bigger city of Guilin - we will miss our country retreat!
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 07:58 AM
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What a great trip - and what a great report! Still reading.
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