China 2009


Monday/Tuesday 3/23-24/09

The first two days of our 9 day trip to China are travel days. We have a scheduled 4:30pm flight direct from JFK to Beijing that leaves on Monday and arrives on Tuesday evening. The bus left Albany airport at 7:30am. I have already started to formulate my impressions of the rest of our group. I have identified some folks that are way too boisterous at 7:30am, found the couple who seem oblivious that people are standing behind them trying to pass, and the people who show up at 7:29 for a 7:30 departure with a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. In the better safe than sorry category, the bus, with one stop, gets us to JFK at 11:00am. We arrive to find our plane is delayed by one hour and the ticket counters don't open until 12:30. Everyone grabs a seat in the food court and awaits the ticketing. Once that opened, we were zipped through the ticketing and security. We make it to the gate by 1:00pm and now have 3 1/2 hours until boarding, providing it does not get further delayed. The flight does not get further delayed, but the seats are so uncomfortable it makes for a very difficult trip. The food is horrible, even by U.S. plane food standards and the seats do not have individual temperature control, so at some points it was too hot and other times too cold. I don't know if it qualifies as the worst flight ever, but I am having trouble thinking of a worse one at this moment. The best thing about the flight was that I was able to get the Chinese word for thank you down (xie xie (shee-shee)). The other thing that is worrisome is that I feel that I am getting sick. It starts off as a tickle in my throat, but a few short hours later I have a sinus headache and I am starting to feel achy. Luckily, El brought some aspirin for the trip that she eventually gives me. What I really need is some NyQuil, but that is in the checked luggage. I suffer through the marathon plane trip (14hrs) and as we get through the baggage claim area, the tour company is waiting for us at the arrivals area. After some quick paperwork formalities, we head out to the bus. Everyone is exhausted. I would have liked to have headed back to the hotel to clean up and then gone to get some food. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The bus takes us directly from the airport to a restaurant for dinner. We all take seats and almost immediately the food starts arriving on the lazy susan (a style that would be repeated several times on this trip) rice, stir-fry tofu, stir-fry veggies, tofu soup, mushrooms with eggs, and steamed vegetable dumplings that go very well with the condiment bowl of vinegar sauce. Many more varieties of dumplings followed. I had almost forgotten how bad it is to eat at a place that allows smoking while I am eating. The best dish is a stir-fry chicken with walnuts and potatoes. But, even as we all fill up they just kept bringing food. There was just too much food. (Good jokes around about kids starving in China and we got some mileage out of the Hello Kitty Dixie cups that the beer was served in).

lazy susan service with Hello Kitty Dixie cups

The others at our table decide to get pictures of the table to commemorate our first meal in China. But, having had no time to shower or even freshen up after our marathon flight, I am in no mood to socialize or get my picture taken, greasy hair and all. It looks like we are getting ready to head out. We have been warned not to drink or even brush our teeth with the tap water. The hotel provides free bottled water for every room for teeth brushing. I am going to go out on a limb and say that it would have to be cheaper in the long run to do what they do in tourist Mexican hotels and buy a water purifier for the whole hotel (but that's just me). After dinner we are taken back to the hotel. Our guide, Jason (Americanized from Jian-Xia), tells us about the morning meeting plan. We check into our room and shower just to refresh ourselves. It is getting late (around 11:00) and we know we are getting a wake-up call for 6:00am. We are a little tossed up about whether or not to explore the neighborhood. Against our better judgment, in a "we'll only be here once" moment, we decide to wander the immediate area for a quick beer and get back as soon as we can. We had been told that our first stop tomorrow is an hour and a half drive, so we plan to catch some sleep then. We stop at the concierge to get a calling card for the hotel in case we need to get a taxi home. We see some of the others from our bus had the same idea. They turn left out of the hotel parking lot and we turn right. It's pretty dark and there is not too much activity on the street. We walk a few blocks and in that short span we find the HSBC ATM, the closest subway station to the hotel, get almost assaulted by a woman begging for money, propositioned by a lady of the evening, and find a German brewpub with "high energy band" which translates into two young ladies singing karaoke to “Unchained Melody” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest” among other well butchered selections.

I get a house beer dark. It is certainly acceptable for what we are looking for. We were just looking to journal for a little bit and call it a night.

Observation: there seems to be a lot of superstition surrounding the existence and dealing with "evil spirits" here. From all of the times that the subject came up in our days in China, we understand that the evil spirits move in classic "zombie" or "Frankenstein" fashion with arms stretched out straight from the body and stiff legged. This is important, because you will notice in every house and palace we went to, there were substantial thresholds in every doorway (so the evil spirits could not enter the house because they can not bend their knees. We went to the Lingering Gardens, the designer had built zigzag bridges over the water. This had a dual purpose, as it made maximum use of space, but the zigzag pattern was said to prevent evil spirits from navigating the bridge, causing them to fall into the water. Then, he designed sculptures to represent sword handles that would ward off the evil spirits that had fallen into the water.

Wednesday 3/25/09

At some point on our bus ride, Jason told us that everyone would probably be waking up around 4:00am (and that is why we have a 6am wake-up call schedule). Well, he was right. Both El and I woke around 4:15 and could not get back to sleep. We knew that we wanted to get to the fitness center before we went to breakfast. I stayed my usual 15min, and El stayed for a half hour. The plan is to get ready for the day and head down to breakfast before 7:00 and meet the bus at 7:30. We have been warned that this will be a long day. We are looking forward to it. We went down to breakfast and realize that there are no empty tables. As we walk through the room, we spot Austin and Jonathan who were at our dinner table last night. It turns out that they do not plan to join the group at all today. We do a little chit chatting, eat our breakfast and then head to the lobby to meet Jason and get to the bus. As we depart from the hotel we are in rush hour traffic driving through the same area that we came through last night. Of course it looks a little different during the day than at night, but it seems that we are getting the same guide info that we got last night. At some point though, Jason starts giving us language lessons. I was fine with the words for "hello" and "thank you", but now he's on "mother is riding a horse" (i kid you not, that is the sentence he is trying to teach us!). I know this is supposed to be a substantial bus trip, so I decide to forgo the grammar lesson and catch up on my journal. Before I know it we are at our first stop of the day, the Temple of Heaven. The temple is part of a sprawling complex with a lot of green space. The place is filled with people. It is explained that around the age of 50 most people retire. Then, everyday people head down to these parks to take part in communal events. We pass by an impromptu ballroom dancing lesson, a Tai Chi class, and countless hacky sack circles. For those less interested in physical activity there is also a promenade where groups of players engage in cards or dominoes or Chinese checkers or other games. We walk around the complex and get our information about the Temple of Heaven. The most interesting thing to me is that it was built without a single nail. We get our pictures and history and head back to the bus.

at the nail-less Temple Of Heaven

Our next stop is a jade factory and showroom. One of the best parts of this trip was the price, but the price for that comes in the form of "business development opportunities" where basically the tour company agrees to parade all of the participants through these factories to give us a chance to spend money. We get a brief class in the different kinds of jade and how to tell the different qualities of jade apart. Then they take us through the carving and polishing area where we see workers making the products for the showroom. Then, finally, they take us to the showroom where we can walk through and see how expensive jade is! There were some nice little earrings, and a couple of other small pieces, but frankly I thought the larger items were very unattractive. El and I head back to the bus to relax while others take advantage of the time in the showroom to buy gifts. We wait to press on to the next stop which is the Ming Tombs. This is an area where the 13 Ming Dynasty emperors are buried. I think that of the 13, they excavated 2 of the tombs and there is an exhibition hall dedicated to one of the emperors. We congregate at a prayer burner (a hearth-like structure where people write prayers for the dead and burn them to send the prayers up to heaven) where we get a quick introduction to the site and then are told to wander the area on our own for an hour or so.

a prayer burner

I am getting very hungry and hope that food is in our plan soon. We make our way to the next "buying opportunity", an enameled copper factory called Cloisonné. We walk through the shop and see how they hammer the copper, decorate the vases, and fire them. The dark, cluttered tour ends as the room opens into a well lit showroom. Figuring we will shop better on a full stomach, we head upstairs for lunch. Again, lazy susan, family style service. One of our table mates has not been informed of family style etiquette and keeps refilling her plate from the communal bowls using her chopsticks. At one point she actually used them to rifle through the dish looking for choice bits, essentially leaving the double dipped pieces for the rest of the table. If I eat with her again, I may say something, but today I just make sure I grab the bowls first. Today, the servers were able to tell us in English what we were eating. There was the obligatory bowl of rice, fried chicken fingers, French fries, stir fried chicken, beef with funky cuts, beef that may be pork, there were some vegetable dishes that I did not eat, and a very peppery hot soup that was very good. I think the beef with the funky bits is going to be common on the trip. Not necessarily the beef part, but the fact that they use of parts of the animals that we are not that used to eating is commonplace. After eating the dish, I am comparing the textures to the locro (tripe) soup I ate in Buenos Aires and figuring there must have been some stomach-like innards in this dish too. This place sells a Chinese liquor that is 112 proof called “Erguotou”, which will become known as “fire water” on our trip. They set every place with a thimble sized shot glass for everyone to take a free sample. It tastes terrible and I pass on buying a bottle to bring home. The food is pretty good, nothing spectacular. Our next stop is one of the big ones, the Great Wall. There are several points along the wall that allow access to the path. We entered at Juyongguan which is a spot in a valley. We are told that from this parking lot, it is 1700 steps to the top on the left side or about 600 relatively easier steps to the top on the right. I don't have any illusion that I will make it to the top of either side.

at the Great Wall

on the Great Wall

My game plan is to start up the difficult (steeper 1700 step side), get some pictures, then come down and start up the easier side. One of the things we immediately notice is the unevenness of the steps. Some are a few inches of rise, while others are closer to 15" making for a difficult ascent and an even more difficult descent. El kept going up the difficult side with one camera and I did exactly what I planned to do. I take advantage of the alone time to journal on the Great Wall. It is pretty windy and although we were told the forecast was 62 degrees today, as I stand in my shorts, I am pretty confident it hasn't gotten much above 50. I am amazed that I stand here on one of the world famous sites I had imagined since childhood, and now that I am here I can check off another place on my list of places to see before I die. We have been allotted two hours to do our thing at the wall and after 45 minutes I am pretty much done. I saw an espresso shop downstairs, so I may head that way and see if I can't get some postcards in my travels. On my way down I pass a souvenir stand and ask how much his postcards are. He tells me $2. I pass and move on to the coffee shop. They have the same postcards and wants $4. Again, I pass and head outside to wait for El to come down. She does, and I devise a plan. We head back to the souvenir stand and ask if he will sell us two sets for $3. He agrees. We head back to the bus to relax out of the cold and wait for the rest of the group. The next stop for the day is three fold, everyone will have an opportunity to go to a reflexology center and be offered a massage (for a fee, of course), then dinner, followed by a Chinese acrobatic show for entertainment. I know we are pretty far out from our hotel, but I do overhear a group of six from our bus talking about getting a taxi back to the hotel to explore on their own. I never had any interest in an acrobatic show (Chinese or otherwise) and as soon as I hear that the massage takers can sign up for an hour session, I’m assuming this is playing out to be a long night. Thinking quick, I ask the six if they could use two more to help defray the cost of the taxi. They agree and we get a minivan taxi for 50 Yuan ($7.50 each). Although uncomfortable seating, the taxi ride lasts upwards of 35 minutes making the rate is extremely reasonable. We get dropped back at the hotel and decide on the Noodle Loft as seen on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations for dinner. After a quick freshen up, we walk down to the ATM to get some cash. Then we head to the subway station. We have what turn out to be excellent directions to the off-the-beaten-path restaurant. The ticket machine is very easy to navigate. I start to wonder how much the Olympics had to do with how "accessible" this city is. I mean, the ATM machine gives you a choice of 10 languages in which to conduct your transaction, and the first one is not Chinese, but English! The menus we have seen have English on them, and now the subway stations have ticket machines with English menus and while on the train the stop announcements are made in Mandarin and English. Do you how panicked people would be if the NYC subway announced its stops in English and Spanish? They would have a cow! I appreciate the ease that other countries make it for me to tour their lands, but I question how many of these methods were in place before the Olympics. The reason I ask is out of curiosity if a city like Tokyo or Mumbai would be as easy for me to get around in. Maybe we will get a better sense when we go to other cities later in the trip. We saw this place on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations a couple weeks back and added it to our list of possible eateries to try. The cuisine is Shanxi style (as opposed to the Cantonese, Hunan or Szechuan that we are familiar with), which is a kind you don’t usually get outside of the provinces that make it. Many of the sauces and condiments are vinegar based, and they taste very different from most of the Chinese food we have ever had. Not bad, just different. We started out with the single strand 25 meter (75 foot) noodle! As we took pictures and got ready to eat, the waitress came over and practically grabbed my hand to take me to the soup bar. As it turns out, you pick your noodle selection and then head to the soup bar to add broth and toppings. She translated the signs for me pointing out the vinegar, vegetable, and mutton among other bases. I chose to try both the beef and the vegetable with mushrooms. I threw a couple shredded carrots on top for presentation. The next challenge was figuring out how to cut the single strand noodle. By hand or by chopstick were the only options. We chose hand, placed the noodle in the broth bowl and slurped our soup from the bowl one at a time.

navigating a 75 foot noodle with assorted broths

The vegetable broth was really decent, the beef, not so much. El thinks that mung bean paste gave the beef broth a curious flavor, I didn't know what it tasted like, but I didn't like it. The waitress returned with a spoon to cut the noodle with. I failed to mention the menu selections here made this place more of a candidate for Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods than Bourdain’s No Reservations. Donkey, camel, organ meats galore, turtles, blood sausage. A veritable culinary minefield! I choose what I think is the safest bet, the chicken with peppers. When the bowl arrives, I pop a pepper, what a shock to find it is a hot chili pepper and not a green pepper! Damn that was hot. As I wade through the hot peppers pulling them out, I realize the chicken is cut into nibble size bites and still has bones, very small ones. The dish is filled with these tiny bones that prevent you from taking even one normal sized bite. I nibbled as long as I could with my lips numb from the heat. For dessert, El and I split a corn fritter. It was whole kernel corn with batter, deep fried and sprinkled with granular sugar. It was decent. Tasted like a cross between Corn Pops and popcorn. As we wind down our meal, we try to plan out our next step. We get the bill which comes to 106 Yuan (about $14). We were both thrilled with this place. By now El and I are both getting pretty sick with our head colds. I have every symptom on the NyQuil bottle and by now we are almost out of DayQuil. We had enough nighttime pills, but have nothing for the morning. I am also out of lozenges. The plan is to walk around the subway area to see if we can find a pharmacy. Fortunately, we have our quick phrase book; unfortunately, there is no one on the street to ask. It just looked like there was really not much opened the area we are in. We give up and head back to the hotel area and try for better luck. Our fear is that the trains would stop running and strand us leaving us to try to get a taxi. We went into the station to find the ticket machines were all out of service. I had to point to our destination on a subway map to get the tickets we needed from the attendant. We were on our way back to the hotel neighborhood. As we exited the station "Agricultural Exhibition Center" we realize there do not appear to be many places open here either. We decide to give up and head back to the hotel, get some rest and try again in the morning. On the way though, we spot a tiny bodega, and point to our phrase book stating “I need medicine for..." and "a cold". He shakes his head, but points encouragingly to the dark end of the side street he is on the corner of. We follow his direction and come across several old men loitering in front of a cigarette shop. We show our book again and get waved on in the same direction. A shimmer of hope comes in the form of a lit sign with the shape of a medical bag with a red cross that reads 24 hrs.

there's the pharmacy. psych.

It is a small place, but that doesn't matter. I walk in to find a woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform. As I look a little closer at the stock on the shelves, I realize this is an adult novelty shop, with nothing medical that I am looking for! I retreat as fast as I entered and keep going. At the corner, we see a "supermarket" which amounts to a bodega with two aisles. We ask again for the medicine and get waved on again. This time the clerk follows us to the street and as we look down the street, we see a sign that says "hospital". Now, we don't know if we should just give up and call it a night or what. Meanwhile, seeing our trepidation, and knowing we don't speak Chinese, the girl does the classic move and raises her voice to make us understand. El says that since we have come so far, we should just head towards the hospital. We have no intention of going to the hospital for our ailments, but we think maybe they have a pharmacy. As we walk a few more steps, we see another beacon of hope. This time, a green cross on a lit up sign. We realize at that moment, that this where everyone has been sending us towards. I walk in and there are two pharmacists in white coats and an array of drugs on the walls and under counters. This was it. Now, the trick to ask for the specific medicine we needed. When all was said and done, it cost us $7 US for a bottle of cough suppressant and a box of Tylenol Cold and Flu. We were good to go and wasted no time getting back to the hotel to take our first doses and go to bed. We joke on the walk back that we are usually out looking for drinks, but tonight we were out looking for drugs.

Observation: one thing that is a little odd is that when you sit down at a restaurant table and are given a menu, the server stands at the table until you order. This can be a little uncomfortable if you have no idea what you want to order and need a few minutes. They do not leave the table side until you place the order.

Thursday 3/26/09

We get up for our last day in Beijing. Although I still feel ill, I do feel like I am on the mend. El does not. She is coming down with my symptoms, but now we have plenty of medicine. We meet the bus at 7:30. Our first stop is a pearl factory/showroom. On the way we pass by the Olympic village, “Bird’s Nest” stadium, and the water cube.

Olympic "bird's nest" Stadium

On the way, we get history from Jason and are solicited to buy the photos and video that our bus photographer has been taking. El gets one, but I hope I will be happy enough with my own snaps. We arrive at the pearl showroom. We take the quick guided tour through the how’s and what’s of the pearl industry. Many people browse, but I decide to walk to a market I saw around the corner to see if I can get some lozenges. I was able to get a bag of fruit flavored hard candy, but I fear that it will take another trip to the pharmacy to get lozenges. Our next stop is a quick walk across the street to the Summer Palace. A large, picturesque setting that acted as a retreat for one of China’s most ruthless and feared empresses. The centerpiece of the palace compound is a lake that is partially natural and partially man-made. We stroll around the lake getting historical detail about the “Dragon Lady Empress” from Jason.

There is a large Buddhist temple and living quarters called the Hall of Happiness and Longevity. We head out from the summer palace and meet the bus. The summer palace is very crowded with tours and there are people everywhere. This gets to be a bit much when you are walking through tight corridors or in a small courtyard. We leave, and not a minute too soon. We see street vendors hawking their foods and several stands consist of a coal filled barrel attached to a three wheeled bike, with burlap sacks full of baked sweet potatoes. I didn’t usually think of baked potatoes as street food, but I guess I wasn’t thinking outside of the box so to speak. El and I have signed up for one of the supplementary tours, called a Hutong tour. The hutongs are living areas and we shall learn more about them today. We walk through the hutong and stroll through a small market. We then take a rickshaw ride to Miss Wong's house.

inside the hutong apartment

A modest three room abode that we learn has no bathroom. None of the houses do, as there are communal bathrooms nearby. I didn't really get into the specifics of the logistics of the middle of the night runs. Anyway, we all sit and the food starts coming out. No lazy susan today, just family style service. The dishes were as follows: boiled peanuts, chicken and cabbage salad, steamed cauliflower, sliced lotus root, stir fried beef, and plenty of rice. I opted for jasmine tea for my drink. The next stop is a pharmaceutical company where we get a lesson in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Another ploy to sell us stuff. After the demonstration and info session, a team of doctors are escorted into the room with their translator/nurse/assistants. Anyone who wants a free consultation has a one on one meeting with a doctor where they tell you that you have high blood pressure and strained liver functions, then write a prescription for your herbal remedy. Then, they whap you $900 for the goods. They also offered free massages or body part rubs. Afterwards we headed back downstairs to the regular pharmacy and I was able to get my throat lozenges. Then it is back to the bus to head off to the Forbidden City and Tien'an Men Square. El and I are planning to go to a Peking Duck restaurant called Li Qun (another Bourdain recommendation) by ourselves tonight. Our guide Jason helped us by calling for our reservations, although he gave them his name, Jain-Xia Lee, because "Jason" is “too hard to pronounce!". It is now 3pm. On the way to our next stop, the Forbidden City, we get a recap of the history which was basically the emperor’s complex where all living and business was conducted. We are told that this is one of the most popular tourist attractions, so the biggest crowds tend to be in the morning and after lunch. Because of this, we go closer to the end of the day.

at the Forbidden City

If this was the lesser busy time, I would not want to be here during the rush hour. When we entered it looked like a pretty impressive building. We all took a lot of pictures, then we are walked through a passage gate, beyond which is an even more impressive set of royal palaces and buildings. We are then escorted through another gate, which, surprise, reveals more impressive palaces and buildings. I must admit that by the end of the two mile journey from entrance to exit, I had seen enough, as there wasn't that much difference in the buildings and palaces. The whole group is starting to get exhausted from all of the walking. Near the end of the Forbidden City walk we actually got to see the living and sleeping quarters for the emperor, his empress and also his concubines. The last part of the tour was a walk through the Imperial Gardens. It had an interesting look with a lot of trees and rock formations. It was not as impressive as I thought it could have been (for an emperor’s palace anyway). After the gardens we make our way out the back end of the Forbidden City and walk several blocks along the city's moat to meet our bus. The last stop of the day is Tien'an Men Square. Due to traffic regulations we are given a choice. We can do a drive-by of the square or we can park the bus a few blocks away and walk to the square. I get the sense that the group is evenly divided, but that some staying on the bus and some walking is not an option. As a group we do vote to park and walk instead of the drive-by. I think we made the right decision. The drive-by was good for the Olympic Stadium, but personally, I wanted to get a little more up close and personal to the largest public square in the world.

in Tien'an Men Square

On the way into the square you are required to pass through a security check. As part of a tour group, we are waived on by-passing the screening. We get about 25 minutes to roam and take our pictures. Mission accomplished. After the square time, we head back to the bus. Jason gives us the info for our dinner reservation and then asks the driver to drop us at a cross-street closer to the hutong where it is located. He tells us to get off the bus and ask around and everyone will know where the place is. We have a pretty good map with us, but the place is located in a hutong where streets are more like alleys and not always mapped properly. When we get off of the bus it is 5:30 and we have 6:30 reservations. My plan is to wander around the hutong to see what we can, and if we can't find it in 45 minutes, then we would grab one of the pedi-cabs that are everywhere. Earlier, I referred to a “rickshaw" which I think refers more to a chariot pulled by a runner (which we have not actually seen), but what we are seeing are technically "pedi-cabs" as they are three wheeled bikes pedaled by the driver.

taking our only pedi-cab

As we start down the street we are approached by several pedi-cabs who each have the same sign with four popular local destinations that people may want to visit. One of the options is Li Qun Restaurant. We decline the first guy who basically follows us like a stalker, all the while motioning that the hutong alleyways are twisting and turning, presumably too difficult for someone who is unfamiliar with the area to find Li Qun. We stick to the original plan and continue walking towards the unknown. We walk about one more block and I recognize the figure of a duck on the wall that I remember seeing when I did my research. I knew we were close and sure enough as we head down the alley, we turn the corner to find ourselves at the front door. As we walk into the very poorly lit entrance the first thing we are confronted with is the scene of two chefs working the ducks in the ovens and on the racks.

we knew we had made it

turning out traditional food

They inject the raw duck with boiling water and lacquer the skin with sugars and spices until golden brown. There is a science to this and this place has been doing it for generations. We make our way past the kitchen and into the dining room where we are greeted by the hostess. The next thing that strikes us is the smell. A fragrant mixture of raw meat in a butcher shop, a kitchen grease trap, and a sewer. It didn’t smell like feces per se, but like a bathroom that had been neglected. Of course, our better judgments told us to turn and run, but our sense of the real world told us that since this place is full of Chinese people eating Peking duck, how bad could it be? We are seated and offered a menu. We have a choice of three duck presentations. A, B, or C. We choose option B "Chinese style", which basically is the duck skin and meat served with mu shu pancakes and a few side dishes. We also get a pot of green tea. Now, since the kitchen has chefs turning out roasted ducks continually, it really took about two minutes for a server to arrive at the table with the full, cooked bird. The initial presentation seems a little weak as he carries the bird in a metal roasting pan. After the brief presentation, he sets up at a side table and goes to work on the carcass, cleaver in hand. As he carefully shaves the meat off the bones he is careful to leave the skin attached to the individual slices of meat. After a few minutes, we are served two full plates of meat. It was beautiful. And the taste was outstanding. Simply great. The side dishes were a plate of boiled peanuts in white sauce, a sliced egg roll with a vegetable and egg filling which was very eggy tasting. A plate of Chinese cabbage with mushrooms and a small dish of cold cabbage salad rounded out the meal. The hoisin dipping sauce was a little odd, but not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of the meal. After we had finished and grabbed our check which came to 308 Yuan (about $44) for the whole meal. The experience was worth every bit of it. After dinner we walk back to the main street on the edge of the hutong and check our map. We know there are some metro stops along this street so we figure we will just walk until we hit one. After passing a couple of strategically placed construction sites, it dawns on us that some of the subway stations are still being built, and not open for service. We decide to press on and hope to find one that is open. Sure enough we do. We breeze through the ticket kiosk and get to the train. The ride turns out to be about 15 stops with one transfer. Unfortunately, we are both so tired, that any thoughts of a nightcap are unrealistic. We head back to the hotel and promptly fall asleep for the night around 10:00.

Observation: every place we go has a tremendous amount of hustlers hawking their wares. I ask the group for adjectives to describe these merchants and get a variety of good ones, with the most apt probably being "mosquitoes". The thing is that everyone regards these persistent peddlers as a scourge, yet it seems that almost everyone has, at some point on this trip bought something from them. Whether it was a pack of postcards, a "traditional" musical instrument or a fake Rolex, it is the tourists that are the most critical of these entrepreneurs that are keeping them in business!

Friday 3/27/09

Today we leave Beijing for the Shanghai area. We have been told to meet in the lobby at 11:00am. Although we do not set an alarm, we both have better than previous nights' sleep, but still far from an ideal night. I am up around 5:30 and when El wakes, we get our game plan together. We shower, then pack, then have a small breakfast at the hotel. Then we walk off looking for an internet café. We know there is a business center in the hotel that we can use if we fail. We head out. I ask a couple of younger people walking the streets if they know where an internet café is. One points far away and the other says he has no idea. Our quest turns from internet café to just regular café to sit down with a pot of green tea and write out our postcards. We find a place that will work for us, although it seems that cafés don’t seem to be as popular here as in other countries. After one pot and several postcards later, we return to the hotel, check email in the business center, clear out of the room, and head to lobby to meet group for bus to airport where I update this journal. I'll take a moment to note some observations. One is that, although losing ground to the influx of cars, Beijing is still very much a bike culture. In a city of 13 million people, there are more than 7.5 million bikes! They are everywhere. One of the people on the trip was noting that for all of the bikes we see, a) you don’t see people riding nice, new bikes, but more like the kind your grandparents had in their garage (think Kermit the Frog or Pee Wee's Big Adventure) and b) where the repairs were made. This morning I got one of my answers. We saw a mobile bike repair shop- on a bike.

mobile bike repair shop

I’ll bet he's the busiest local mechanic! Of all of the trips we have made to far off lands (and some not so far), El and I are usually able to adapt very easily to the new schedule. It has gotten to the point that I believed jet lag was either a myth, or at the very least, something that only affected some people and not others. However, this trip is proving to be pretty difficult for me. With a time difference of exactly 12 hours, and immediately jumping into the tours’ schedule, I am finding myself waking up in the middle of the nights and feeling extremely tired much earlier in the evening. The thing that is different between the tour and what we usually do, is that we usually find time to nap in afternoons between sightseeing and nightlife. Finding nightlife time here is strictly on our own time where the days have been rather long on the sightseeing side, not a bad thing, but preventing me from getting onto a good schedule. Today we flew from Beijing to Shanghai. Our first night though is not in Shanghai, but in a city called Suzhou. We are met at the airport by our new guide, named “Charlie”. The bus ride is upwards of two hours and I sleep most of the way. Even though I do have some sporadic symptoms, my cold is definitely almost done. As we get into Suzhou, we are taken to a restaurant for our dinner. Same as before, family style on the lazy susan. The exception here, is the variety of dishes and the quality. There were some really great foods passed around. Some of the high points for me were the spicy pork soup with chili oil and a chicken with crispy wontons. The rest of what I tried was quite acceptable. After dinner we take the bus to the hotel and get checked in. On the ride we get filled in with the time table for tomorrow which starts at the standard 7:30 with a 6:00 wake up call. It is around 7:00 now and we do want to get out to explore the neighborhood, but we don’t want it to be too late of a night. We head out as soon as possible to accomplish this. We are on a quest to find a bar. We walk around for several blocks and do not see one place that looks like it qualifies as a bar. We start to wonder if we are missing them, or if China is just not a pub culture (and we are leaning towards the latter). Anyway, we get as far as I really want to be from the hotel and we see a place across the street called "U.B.C. Café" we go in to find that they do have lattes and I order a banana split to share. After this, we should head out. We pay our bill which comes to around $12 for the two coffees and the sundae. We head back to the hotel for a quick check of email and then to bed. On the way back we start noticing the mystery meat roasted and served on a stick offered at different vendors. We choose to avoid eating any of these offerings.

Funny scene: we saw a gentleman whose job it is to pick up garbage. He rides his bike with a little garbage hopper in tow. He then uses two three foot chopsticks to pick up pieces of litter from the street and place it in his trailer. Being an intermediate user of chopsticks, this gives me a new appreciation for expert users.

Interesting idea: as we walked around some of the gardens and monuments, we would see a series of Chinese characters on some of the bricks. When asked about it, Jason explained that the brick makers were required (and may still be, I don't remember) to put their stamp on a certain percentage of bricks. That way, if, at some future time, the craftsmanship of the brick proves insufficient, the government could use these stamps to determine who manufactured the brick and deal with them "appropriately"!

brick builder's stamp


Saturday 3/28/09

I took some NyQuil last night and had my best night of sleep yet. I woke around 5:45 and went to the fitness center for a 15 minute jog. Then we showered and packed as we are not staying in this hotel tonight. We breakfast at the hotel, where we meet up with most of our group. We ate what turns out to be the best hotel meal we have had so far this trip. It turns out now that many of the others are starting to get sick. We meet in the lobby to head out for the day and our first stop today is a spot called the Lingering Gardens. It is a garden that was designed by landscaper and calligrapher. The landscapes are made to look like paintings. Looking out through windows was interesting as they act like picture frames.

a window made to look like a painting

Lots of rocks, bridges, trees, and water. In order to maximize limited space, they used zigzag bridges to cross the pond. There were sculptures that look like sword handles that were used to ward off evil spirits that would fall into the water off the zigzag bridges. A rock formation called Crown Cloud Peak is the centerpiece of main garden. It is pointed out that there are several short walls that were used for sitting periods especially for women with bound feet. As we walk through the gardens we get to a section with peach blossom trees and bonsai garden. The garden has a long history which included Japanese occupation and looting. We stroll through the gardens at a leisurely pace. We get the rundown on silk paper paintings which were used to cover lanterns and windows like glass, which of course are available for purchase in the gift shop. I missed a little of the story, but, I think the designer’s last name "Liu" is also the same Chinese character as "to linger". The gardens were originally called for the name of the designer, but over the years because of the beauty, it has become known as Lingering Gardens because when you go, you want to linger or stay.

inside Lingering Gardens

We make our way out of the gardens and get back to the bus. The next stop is a silk factory. We get our demonstration on how silk is made and a little bit of the history of the fiber. We are then lead through the factory where the spinners spool the cocoons into silk ropes that are then spun into the fabric. We end up in the showroom where it is a free-for-all with everyone trying to get a good deal on the items that they need, or have been convinced they need. El says that her research indicates the prices on these silk products are pretty good and that we should take advantage of buying a California King comforter, something that she does not find all that often at home. We spend far longer here than many would have liked to, but eventually we press on. One of the disappointments today is the weather. It is a bit cooler here than any of our days in Beijing, even though it is usually a bit warmer here. At least it is not raining, although we do have our rain gear in case it does. The next stop is the second of the supplementary tours that we opt for which is a group canal boat ride. We all pile into one boat and motor up the canal while getting a bit of the history and culture. Unfortunately, I sit near the motor, and cannot really hear the speaker too well. All is OK, as I am content just taking in the scenery. We ride up the canal a little ways and dock near a public market. We get off and take a guided walk through the vendors’ market. There were plenty of things that I expected here, but would be considered odd elsewhere. Let's just say that the vendor selling frogs and turtles might have a tough time making a go of it at the Troy Farmer’s Market. A lot of organ meats and sea creatures. Unfortunately, we arrive around lunch time, and many of the vendors have covered their offerings as they leave for lunch. It’s no Bouqueria (huge, fresh, and diverse market in Barcelona), but you get a sense of the freshness and localness of the market. After the walk around, Charlie gives us 10 minutes to walk around the market. El and I know what a market looks and smells like, so we didn’t need to do much exploring. We had passed a vendor selling some kind of bread like nan that had been dredged in sesame seeds and some green herb like scallions. I order one for each of us. We walk with our bread and head back to a stand that we had passed earlier where the woman was selling her homemade sesame seed oil. We asked for a price and she motioned 25 Yuan for the large bottle and 10 Yuan for the small. We bought a small, then headed back to the boat to return to the silk factory for lunch. The lunch is a Chinese buffet. The food is fair at best, but there seems a bit more of a selection than usual. During lunch Charlie comes around to tell us to meet at the bus at 2:30. One item we haven’t seen before, is a woman bringing a cart through the restaurant offering a shot from a large pickling jar full of Erguotou with a dead snake sunk in the bottom.

"waiter, there's a snake in my liquor!"

A few of the guys do get the $3/shot drink and report it tastes somewhat sweet and not offensive. I pass and begin to question my interest in taking over Anthony Bourdain's job. During the meal our group begins to grumble about the schedule of the day. It seems that we are scheduled to spend more time at the silk factory than at any of the attractions today. Then we are supposed to have a multi-hour bus ride to our next hotel in the city of Hangzhou. The rest of our day will include a silk embroidery factory and Tiger Hill. The ride to Tiger Hill is not very long, and in fact we can start seeing the temple on top of the mountain as soon as we leave the center of town. The temple itself is China's version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

China's leaning tower

The temple was built with a foundation of both bedrock and earth, so as the earth portion has eroded away over time, the bedrock portion remains sound and the structure began to lean. They tried to restore the building, but the efforts failed. So, instead, they removed the set of stairs from inside the temple to prevent people from climbing up it. Good thinking, because at a lean more than 2.6 meters off center, this thing could fall and no one would be surprised. We are given some free time in the area and plan to meet at the bus in 40 minutes. The last stop of the day is the silk embroidery factory. As usual, we get the quick tour of how they are made and then are let loose in the showroom to make purchases. The pieces are really nice, and they explain that there are four levels of craftspeople: student, apprentice, technician, and master, and in the whole world, there are only five masters whose careers are short due to the intense detail of the work. They then become teachers to the next generation of artists. The tour is superb because they parade all of the master level works in front of you. It’s true that these pieces are exquisite. When you look at the pieces, they look exactly like photographs, but they are indeed woven silk. There are pieces that run from a couple of inches to a few feet. The thing is that it takes a master multiple years to do one piece, so you know it can’t be cheap. Some were priced in the several hundred thousand dollar range. Then, when you go to the showroom, they say, you can’t afford the master or technician’s work, but you could easily afford a students work at $35. I find a seat to catch up on my journal and wait for the bus to leave for the hotel in Hangzhou. We are told to use the restroom before the three hour bus ride. As soon as we leave, I fall asleep for pretty much the whole trip. We arrive to the hotel around 7:00pm where we are whisked off to the restaurant for dinner. We were told it would be heavy on the veggies, and it was. The dishes were fine, just nothing spectacular. After dinner we check into our room and get ready to head out to look for a bar or a café. El finds some suggestions from the internet, but unfortunately the concierge assures us the places we are looking at are upwards of 40 minutes away by taxi. We are also assured that there are plenty of places in the local neighborhood to get drinks and socialize with local people. On our way out we meet up with Beth, who joins us on our quest. It is raining hard and we are glad we brought our rain gear. We start out walking down the street, but don't really see what we are after. We get about 15 minutes away without any luck. Instead of pressing on we decide to turn around and head back towards the hotel using a different route hoping to find a local watering hole. As we get surprisingly close to the hotel, we just pick a little coffee shop/restaurant called Hecto instead of going back to the hotel bar. I get a French press of Jasmine tea and an apple sundae. We wind up staying there for about an hour and a half. We have an enjoyable evening getting to know Beth and telling her about ourselves. A nice time had by all. We head back to the hotel and call it a night. We get a half hour extra before our start in the morning.

Observation: things, in general, look a lot less safe here than elsewhere. For example, we just took a boat ride with 17 people on a boat, with not one life preserver on board. At Tiger Hill, I notice that on the steps leading down from the top, there is no handrail, nor edge to the steps. One false footing and that could be trouble. The entire week we were here, I believe I saw a grand total of two motorcycle helmets. Speaking of which, there was one day in Beijing where the bus was entering the highway, only to find ourselves driving alongside several bicycles...on the expressway! I wonder what the bicycle fatality rate is here.


Sunday 3/29/09

El and I both wake early and head to the fitness center for a quick jog, then back to the room for shower and packing. I need an ATM and we passed one last night. I run back to use it. When I arrive, I see a sign in the door that apologizes for the inconvenience of the ATM being out of order. Unfortunately, I need the cash and do not have enough time to find another, so I have to get the cash from a working ATM next door at Bank of China. Today we will tour the Hangzhou area and spend the night in Shanghai. After a breakfast at the hotel, we head to our first stop at a Dragon Well tea plantation.

among "all the tea in China"

learning how to appreciate fine tea

The ride to the plantation has Charlie talking non-stop. He will not be accused of giving us too little information. When we exit the bus it is raining pretty steadily. We walk on a short path into a tea field. Charlie gives us a tea picking demonstration, then, we head to a pavilion where we get a tea drying demonstration. After this we are lead to a group room where we are given a brief tea making and drinking demonstration. The saleswoman is a perfect for the part. She is funny and full of spunk. At the end she takes live orders and packs your order while you watch. The tea can be expensive, and she sells a bundle. I bought a small bit of Empress grade Dragon Well tea to bring home. I return to the bus to write and wait for the group who is starting to arrive now. Our next stop is the Lingyin Temple which is a major destination for Buddhism. The place has quite a long history and houses the largest wooden sculpture of Buddha in China.

In addition to the many buildings, there is also a significant amount of incense burning. People buy sticks of incense and light them at communal flames, then offer their silent prayers in front of the temple or statue or wherever is significant to them. We saw one woman offering prayers at some non-descript rocks- a very private moment in a very public place. Besides the sizable statue, the rest of the complex looks pretty similar to some of the other places we have visited. El takes the camera and we wander lastly through the Hall of the Arhats which were the followers of Buddha. We wander the grounds that should be a tranquil reflection area, yet has been transformed to a commercial destination. They need to bring in money to pay for upkeep, while at the same time losing sight of the true nature of the complex. Next is lunch. Not one of our better ones, but acceptable. The dishes were either spiced poorly or not enough. We have a schedule to make, so we need to eat and run. We are now off to a boat ride on the West Lake. The lake turns out to be a man made tourist attraction. It is relatively small and tranquil. There is a lot of activity on the water as tourists move from one end to the other. Again today, the weather is a bit on the chilly side, making stern riding a little uncomfortable. The inside, although not as cold, does not offer nearly as good photo quality. The ride is smooth and we all take advantage of relaxation time. After the boat ride we continue walking through the gardens. It really is nice scenery, which would explain why there were no less than four wedding parties taking photos on the grounds as we walk through. At the end of the park, we catch our bus for the 3-4 hour ride to Shanghai. We stop part way at a rest stop to stretch our legs and whatnot. As I exit the bus I am smacked in the face by a stench that I figured was reserved for garbage dumps and sewers. Upon inquiry, I learn the foul odor belongs to an "edible" dish aptly called "stinky tofu". I had seen this stuff on Bizarre Foods and even Zimmern was disgusted by this stuff. It must be an acquired taste, because the line at the stand is the longest around. Those who want ice cream get immediate service, but stinky tofu, standing room only! Unreal! I wander around some of the vendors waiting for the bus to go, the first stand I see offers several styles of cooked poultry, including deep fried whole duck heads- bills, eyes, and all. That's about enough for me, so I head back to the bus where I am sad to learn the stench of stinky tofu has wafted into the cabin. We are on the road shortly, but it can't come fast enough. We make it into Shanghai in decent time and the first stop is dinner. The food is OK, nothing special. This is the first meal with a dessert of ice cream. After dinner we get our introduction to The Bund. The Bund is a promenade with business districts on both banks of the river. Across the river is the "new Bund" as we take photos from the "old Bund". Charlie gives us a quick rundown of the buildings surrounding us, with the world’s third tallest building among them.

on the Bund

photo of the "new Bund" from the "old Bund"

We are now heading to our hotel for the night. We will probably try to find a drinking hole to plan our day tomorrow as we will probably do our own touring without the group. We start walking with our maps and soon realize that we are staying in an area that is more on the outskirts of the city than the center. Being that is around 9:00pm, the prospect of having to taxi back to the hotel is not popular. We walk up to the closest subway stop (which is not even on our maps) and see a small restaurant. We go in for a coffee and ice cream and try to plan our first stops in the morning. Afterwards, we walk back to the hotel and get a nightcap in the hotel’s bar. After about a half hour, the music drives us out and we call it a night.

Observation: everyone spits everywhere. It is not at all uncommon to hear someone hack up a substantial wad of phlegm and when you turn around to look, you discover it is some 80 year old woman using the ground next to you as a spittoon. It is not that they are spitting at me, but more that I am walking in their spit path. Equally not uncommon is the practice of anywhere, anytime seeing someone stop in their tracks, pinch a side of their nose and blow hard, effectively using the ground as their handkerchief. Everyone does it, so it does not even cause head turns from anyone besides revolted tourists. I did not stare, but admit I was fascinated by this practice. I was unable to notice what they do if they accidentally snot on their shirt or if they have a piece that straddles the line between attached and ejected. I am presuming that this practice negates the need for people to carry around tissues with them, which of course would come in handy to remedy such situations. I suppose, on some level, I don't need to know the answers to these questions.


Monday 3/30/09

El and I told the tour that we would be exploring on our own today. They didn’t have much in the way of sightseeing planned today, so we wanted to spend our last day doing a little roaming. We woke early and went to the "fitness center" for a jog. Worst fitness center ever. One treadmill, an outdated Nautilus machine and two run down stationary bikes. We got our 15 minute jog in and returned to the room to shower and get our stuff together. We have a light breakfast in the hotel and start getting our maps in order. We come up with an outline for our day, but the difficulty in map navigation quickly sinks our tentative plans. We walk up the street to the subway (which at this point is an elevated train). It is still rush hour and we pay a premium for our transit ticket. These are 4 Yuan (about $.46) one way for a train ride (and that is the peak fare!). The train is packed and slow, but we eventually hit our first stop in the Pudong section of the city which is essentially the area we took pictures of from the Bund last night. It is the "new town" section of the city where the big financial buildings are located. The guide book suggests the Chinese Museum of Sex Culture, which looks reasonably priced and would allow us to see a part of the city we might not ordinarily get to see.

After about an hour of wandering around the promenade area, we give up on trying to find the museum. If this place exists, it is so well hidden that I am surprised they are still in business. In our wanders, we do manage to find a Starbucks so El can buy a coffee tumbler that says Shanghai on it. We also stumble on our first pay toilet in this country. Let me rephrase, we also found the first toilet since we have been in this country that we needed to go bad enough that we agreed to pay it (the cost is .5 Yuan which is about 6.5 cents each). At least it was cleaner than most of the free places we have been to. After walking around a little, we take the subway back to the "old town" in an effort to find and eat at a Zimmern recommended dumpling house. The subway stop is called People’s Square. It is a huge station like 42nd street. After exiting the station, we are to walk through neighborhoods to get to the restaurant. The maps we have are difficult to navigate. Usually we need a combination of maps to get to one place. As we press on we come upon a woman sitting on a stool in front of a shop, knitting. Knitting supplies is something that El has wanted to find at some point on her trip, but all of the people she has asked seem not to know where she can shop for the goods. As we see this woman we quickly pull out our phrase book and point to the yarn and needles and point to our phrase book asking “where do I buy…”? Quickly, there is a small crowd gathering around us, some not understanding what we are asking, others offering answers to our questions. One couple starts a round of charades to explain that we need to walk for two minutes, but fails to expand on what to do after the two minutes. Eventually, either out of convenience or frustration, an old woman motions for us to come with her. She walks at a very slow pace, but we are not in a rush and sure enough less than a block later she points us into a wool shop. El had found what she wanted and spends a few minutes shopping in the store. I stand outside an update my journal. After her spree, we continue towards the food, but have a difficult time figuring this place out, and if any place we read about it in had even mentioned that it was the YuYuan Market, it might have saved us valuable time, but as it was it took about two hours to find Nan Xiang Dumpling House.

the buns have molten soup inside and will burn your mouth and anything else it comes in contact with

Once we do find it, we decide to take a seat upstairs and get table service instead of just getting the takeaway service on the street level. We order two sets of fixed price meals. They arrive together and include eight pieces of the house specialty of steamed crab and pork dumplings. The meat is wrapped in dough, filled with soup, and steamed to heat. When you eat them, you have to be careful not to let the hot soup burst into your mouth or drip down your chin. Most of the $14 meal was very good. The dumplings were very good, as were the buns and other assorted meat pastries. The spicy fried cashew wafer was bad and tastes like it is filled with fish flavored oil (which it probably is). But, the rest was pretty good. After lunch we wander some more through the YuYuan Bazaar which is an area that has shop after shop of goods for sale. Everything from food stands to luggage to electronics to jade and wood carvings. Many of the stalls have hawkers and even infomercial style demonstrations to show of the products they are selling. We run into a few of the others from the tour in our travels and exchange some tips and tricks. El and I press on to a place in the guidebook called the Old Shanghai Teahouse.

Old Shanghai Teahouse

part of the tea ceremony

We find it pretty easily and go upstairs. Our server helps us navigate the menu to choose a cup of tea. In a mini ceremony she returns to the table with our order and methodically prepares, pours, and serves our tea. It does not look like they sell any dessert type food, so El and I just sit, relax and journal while we enjoy our cup of tea. The server keeps a constant eye on our tea progress and keeps returning to refill our pot and strain he leaves from the liquid. The tea leaves are reusable up to six times, so every time we get low, she is there to warm us up. This turns out to be a most tranquil stop for us before heading back into the bustling streets of Shanghai. After the teahouse, El and I walk back to the subway, which turns out to be quite a hike. The train ride, then, is another hike, making it a substantial journey to get back to the hotel where we shower and change and get ready to do it all over again to go to dinner. We have dinner reservations for 7:30 tonight at Jean-Georges. In NYC, I would be declined entrance for having no jacket, no tie OR no dress shoes. Tonight I will arrive without all three- and I wonder if my buttoned down, collared Kiss t-shirt will qualify as a “dress shirt”. We may get turned away, and I would not be surprised. If we do get in though, I will surely be the worst dressed diner in the place. They can sit me in the corner or near the kitchen if they need to, but hopefully they won’t reject me outright. My money is still blue and orange. We also do a little bit of packing so we are not rushed in the morning as our flight is an early one. We take the train back to the Bund district and get off at the Nanjing East stop allowing us a brief stroll along the Times Square-like area known as Nanjing Road. It is a shopping district that has more flashing neon than Las Vegas. Making good time we stroll leisurely through the area and eventually find the 3 on the Bund address we are looking for. The fourth floor is where Jean-Georges is located. We enter through the Armani Exchange and are escorted to the lobby where we are directed to the elevators. As we walk in, besides being much darker than it needs to be to get the desired effect, I notice the restaurant is pretty plain and unassuming. We are seated at a table where we both have views of the Pudong and all of its glitz putting on a show just for us. The menu is typical. Two tasting menus and a Prix Fixe three course meal. We both choose the three course meal. I start with a "Nitro-tini" which is a Hendricks Gin martini chilled with liquid nitrogen. They start the excellent bread selections coming and don't stop until I say when. Some are warm and some are not. All are good.


The chef sends out a three course amuse-bouche with his compliments. The trio consists of: a fois gras sandwich with parmesan crisps; a dish of artichoke foam sprinkled with cocoa powder and beet nibblets; and a cauliflower powder soup with herb puree swirled on the top.


My first course is three seared sea scallops with a caramelized cauliflower round on top of each. There is a drizzle of raisin-caper emulsion which was an excellent flavor accompaniment.


Next up was a wild mushroom soup ladled over freshly grated Parmesan with chili pepper shavings, thyme, and lemon zest. This is an excellent dish on every level. I recognize some shiitakes and enokis, and there are some mushrooms that have been chopped that could be creminis or morels, but are too small to tell. I am glad that I selected it.


My entree was caramelized veal tenderloin cooked medium rare. It was served with onions and artichokes as well as a side of mashed potatoes. The entire dish was drizzled with lavender and Parmesan jus. The sauce was just barely on the too salty side.

Next, as the entree plates are removed from the table, the server delivers a plate of petit fours. It is a small selection of bite size chocolates and fruit gels.


The final course was the dessert. I chose the warm banana cake with salt caramel ice cream, caramelized bananas, a dollop of coffee foam, sprinkled with buttered peanuts and sauced with a drizzle of malted chocolate syrup. It was the weakest part of the meal as there were just too many flavors working against each other. It was too much. The banana cake was good, but once everything else started to mix, it became a conglomerate of, coffee, peanut, caramel, banana, malt, and salt. In town for a Spring Gala, as a nice end to the meal, Jean-George himself came out and greeted the diners, making sure everything was to their satisfaction. We were never offered after dinner coffee, and I wasn’t going to bellyache about my dessert woes. The dinner for two including tip, with drinks, but no wine, came to 1450 Yuan (about $212), which is cheaper than an evening at the New York location would run us. After the dinner, we walk back to Nanjing Road and catch the subway back to the hotel. We are leaving tomorrow morning with a wake-up call at 5:00am and it is after 10:00pm. So far, we have planned our spending pretty well and only have about $10 worth of Yuan left. We are not sure if this would be enough for a taxi, and we don't want to find out, because the hassle of converting more money would not be worth it unless the trains had stopped running all together. We are pretty sure the trains stop running around 11:30 or so, so that is an added reason to get back to the hotel sooner than later. As we are walking through the city streets towards the subway, we come upon a small park with some music playing from a radio. As we look on to investigate, we see about ten couples all dancing a waltz to the music. There is no light in the park, so shadows are all we see. We don't know if this is a random grouping of dancers or the Shanghai chapter of the Monday Night Waltzing Club, but it certainly ranks as a "you don't see that everyday" moment. We press on to the trains, which seem to run on a reasonably frequent and prompt schedule. We get back to our hotel neighborhood in a timely fashion and head in for the night. On our way in we actually run into two other people from our group heading out to explore the neighborhood, but since El and I have already done that, we figure they will not run into much in the way of bars of nightlife, so we wish them well and head in to retire. Again our wake-up call is at 5:00am, so we make sure we are packed and prepared to leave quickly. We call it a night.

Observation: when some people see Americans they will come up and just start talking to you. This happened to me three times on this trip. In all cases the people were probably just trying to test their English skills. We have read about scams involving this kind of thing where you get chatted up in a bar and wind up getting stuck with a large check or worse, having your wallet lifted. Coupled with the fact that I am not a social person and don’t really want to talk to anyone, I wind up being put in an awkward situation. The questions are ones like “How long are you in China for?”, “Did you see other cities?”, “What do you do for work?”, “Are you married”, all fine questions, so I answer as I walk. One time though, I was asked “How much money do you make each month?” As I look back, I am sure this was an innocent question, but I felt uncomfortable discussing my paycheck with anyone and how am I to know if answering truthfully would make me an easier target than if I answer dishonestly. If he was not pulling a scam, I would feel bad if I treated him poorly, but at the same time, I am trying not to open myself up to being a victim. Looking back, I don’t think that I treated any of them poorly or rudely, I just wish they stuck to benign questions to get benign answers. I just hope that I did not come off as a poor representative of Americans by choosing not to continue to indulge in that specific conversation.

Tuesday 3/31/09

The wake-up call comes as planned and our pre-packing pays off. We meet in the lobby and are off at 6:00am. There is no traffic so we zip right to the airport and get checked in. The first leg of the trip is to fly into Beijing; the second is a non-stop to JFK. We have some waiting time before boarding, so we wave goodbye to Charlie and wait, for what we hope will be an uneventful flight. The flight turns out similar to the flight over to China, but not being ill made for a bit of an easier ride. I think the food is a little better on this return trip and flight itself seems a little shorter. For the second time in our lives, we cross the International Date Line, which means that we left China at 2:00pm on Tuesday, flew for about 13 hours, and arrived in New York at 3:00pm on Tuesday- only an hour later on the watch! Flight is uneventful, and we are glad to be home- but anxious to travel again.

In Conclusion

Being as interested in world travel as we are, El and I each have a list of places that we would want to visit someday and a list of places we would not want to visit. There are various reasons for how a city or a country would get on our lists and there are some places that make both lists. China was one of those places. A country I have always been interested in visiting, but the fear of being unable to navigate a city with such a foreign language was not appealing to me. The last thing I would want to do is spend a substantial amount of money on a trip and then spend a week trying to get from the airport to the hotel. That does not appeal to me. When El and I have traveled in the past, we have been autonomous for the most part. We don’t usually travel with tour groups, so when this trip to China became available we thought, here would be a way to visit a country that was on my "not to visit" list and be guaranteed not to be a slave to the language. Further, we would be able to get a feel for if we thought we would be able to navigate the cities if we were to visit on our own. I am happy to report that the couple of times that El and I did venture off on our own, we did not have any problem getting around. We were able to use the metro system with a minimum of issues and carrying a Chinese-English dictionary helped a lot. But, then I wondered how much of our ease was due to the fact that within the past year the Olympics were held here? I had to figure that some significant changes were made to make the city more "visitor friendly". After visiting the cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai (all major cities), it seemed like many of the changes in Beijing may have been in the way of upgrades, but not necessarily in the way of use of English in places like the subways or on menus. It is true that the translations on the menus in Beijing seemed more accurate in major tourist eateries than in the smaller restaurants, but every place did seem of have at least some measure of English.

All we needed to know from this sign was that the #4 train was coming in 1 minute, the #3 train was coming in 4 minutes, and there would be another #3 train in 7 minutes.

The subways were very English friendly, even offering an English touch screen ticket kiosk, and once on the train all of the station announcements were made in both Chinese and English. This was true in Shanghai as well (we did not take a subway in Suzhou or Hangzhou). As this trip concludes I am curious if these cities are typical of far eastern destinations, or atypical? Would Ho Chi Minh City or Mumbai, India be as easy to navigate for a visitor such as I? At this point, I am not willing to proclaim my complete conquering of all foreign travel, but this trip does give me hope that there are places that we could navigate by ourselves and allows me to move a couple of cities closer to the "want to visit" list from the "do not want to visit" list due to navigation concerns. Would I come back? Well, El and I are city travelers and these certainly qualify. I think this tour did a fantastic job getting us around to see all of the major sights, so I would say, I wouldn't need to come back to see them again, with the exception of possibly, the Great Wall. It is 4000 miles long, so even though it would probably look the similar to what we saw, maybe going to one of the more remote access points would offer a little different perspective, but I think I have fulfilled my Forbidden City needs for a lifetime. What I would love to come back to Beijing for is places like Li Qun. For better or for worse, I am certain that many of the meals we ate with the group were "Americanized" where the riskiest dish was some mystery fish ball soup. I am not saying that I needed to experience the chicken feet salad, deep fried duck heads, or stinky tofu, but there was just something amazing about our experiences at the places we did on our own that showed us that there is some really great food available if you just have means to go find it. For that, I would not turn down a chance to return to Beijing and to a lesser extent, Shanghai. From what I know about the different regions of China and their cuisine, I think I would love to be able to spend more time in some of them to experience the "real" food. Unfortunately, many of those cities are still on my "do not want to visit" list, due to me not thinking there are easy enough for me to get around. Hopefully that will change. As I leave this country, I expect the next time I find myself in Chinatown, in any Chinatown, I will have a new perspective on what I am experiencing, right down to the cheap luggage and $3 "Rolex’" on Canal Street. And that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.