Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Days 16 and On - The End of This Trip

I arrived back in the good ole' USA yesterday (April 27) afternoon thanks to two wonderfully comfortable Korean Air flights (connecting in Seoul, South Korea) and an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Portland. As usually happens, the last few days of the trip get shorted when it comes to the blog details -- and that's what I'm going to do this time too! However to summarize the last few days:

On Saturday, April 24 I got up early at the hostel to catch a cab to the Xi'an airport to fly to Guangzhou (a little over two hours -- like flying from Seattle to San Francisco), taking an airport bus from the beautiful airport to the Guangzhou East Railway station, taking the train to Shenzhen and then a city bus to the district of Yantian where I met up with Staci/Martin and 3 other couples -- fellow English teaching program friends. This connection allowed me to join in with the four couples in birthday celebrations for all the girls, staying the night in one of the couple's apartment, enjoying some great meals and fun (karaoke, bowling, drinking/eating on the street at 2am in the morning) and seeing a little more of Shenzhen. All was great fun -- and a few of the many photos I took are posted here. In addition, Staci wrote more about the weekend in her blog posting here. As you can tell from the photos -- I had an absolute blast hanging out and getting to know the core group of "family" that Staci/Martin have enjoyed during their China experience.

There is always more I could write -- but I could never capture all of the wonderful experiences I enjoyed on this trip to China. It was truly a "trip of a lifetime" with my daughters -- and another fantastic experience to enjoy more of the life/food that Staci/Martin have enjoyed during their stay there. I have truly fallen in love with traveling to China -- and even as the planes brought me back to the US -- I was already thinking about when I might go again. I've already added another trip to China to my bucket list -- and am keeping in mind that Staci and Martin are still there until July -- and my Visa doesn't expire until October! Hmmm -- I'm already hoping air fares stay cheap -- so stay tuned -- and don't be too surprised if I restart this blog with yet another trip to China in the not too distant future!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Day 15 - Friday, April 23 - Xi'an

It was nice to have a day with no schedule to meet, not even a “must-do” attraction – and it made for a very relaxing day and since I'm writing this while waiting for the plane out of Xi'an, I have some extra time to do a bit of education as well as musing.

I think it is worth knowing that the city of Xi'an is where China began some 6000 years ago. It was here that the warrior emperor Qun Shi Huang (of Terracotta Army fame) rule began when he was 13. He united much of China by conquering and uniting six kingdoms, standardizing money and writing, and created a centralized government which would be the model for later dynasties. On the flip side, Lonely Planet advises that he was the sort of tyrant who gives tyrants a bad name because he had such disdain for Confucianism that he outlawed it, ordered all written texts to be burned and was said to have buried 460 top scholars alive. Again, lifting from Lonely Planet: Xi'an was the center of Chinese civilization long before anyone heard of Beijing.

The size of the Xi'an former glory becomes most apparent when visiting the restored city wall that now encompasses 14 of the original 83 square kilometers. And while those numbers may not mean anything, walking the entire distance of the wall today takes 4 hours. Since the hostel was located directly next to the city wall and it was a spectacularly beautiful day, I decided to travel the top of the wall – however, being the lazy sort I am, I opted for the hour long ride in a touristy golf cart for 50 Yuan (around $7.32 USD). It was money well spent as I not only got to enjoy wonderful views of this megametropolis but I also was a fellow traveler with some Chinese tourists who couldn't have more friendly even though we only shared a few common words (once again my maps helped make a connection between where they were from and where I was from and broke the ice for friendliness).

I've come to treasure and protect my Lonely Planet Guide as much as I do my USA passport – because it contains such valuable information including Chinese characters for destinations. So, armed with only a bus number and the Lonely Planet guide, I set out on a city bus to visit the “Big Wild Goose Pagoda” somewhat south of the walled part of the city. It turned into a wonderful visit on a beautiful day – and somewhat because it wasn't just a big pagoda but also an amazing park with a large display of water fountains – definitely a tourist attraction for Chinese citizens. I had some interesting contacts with other visitors – some just wanted to take pictures with me in them, others actually wanted to practice their English.

After the bus ride back to the city, I enjoyed an interesting stroll through the Muslim quarter – found a Muslim noodle place for lunch and then made it back to the hostel in time for a free dumpling making lesson and some fun conversation with backpackers from around the world including one guy from Holland who had been all through SE Asia and now China on a six month journey.

Here are a few photos from the day.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Day 14 - Thursday, April 22 - Xi'an

As I noted in yesterday's posting, I arrived at the train station shortly after 5am and immediately got some breakfast at the McDonald's across the street. What I forgot to mention is that before I caught the hour-long bus ride to the Terracotta Army, I visited a nearby “internet cafe” listed in Lonely Planet. It was another unusual experience to walk into the dimly lit cafe and find around three dozen computers with larger flat screen where most all of them were occupied by persons either using the provided headset to make a call or playing shoot-em-up games. This was 5am in the morning and the place was busy. I purchased an hour from the attendant after noting they didn't offer wireless for my computer and I checked in online. Thereafter I caught the bus.

I arrived at the Terracotta site about the time it opened which gave me the opportunity to visit the site with very few other people. The site is definitely set up to handle crowds but I felt unrushed. I was able to get some other visitors to take my picture a few times – including one that cost me 10 Yuan (a little over $1 USD) in amongst fake soldiers – just for the photo-op! I've posted the photos here.

A fascinating place to be sure as I contemplated whether in it's day (220 BC) it was created as a public works project or a misguided, extraordinary ego by China's First Emperor. It's easier to understand an the Emperor's acquisition of concubines and luxury places to reside while living – it's impossible for me to understand an elaborate burial site with 8000 full size soldier replicas placed in battle-ready positions.

Upon exiting the museum/grounds, I was approached by a local “guide” who was engaging and fun to converse with – so I was happy to give him 50 Yuan (about $7.50 USD) to give me a guided tour of the nearby Tomb of the Emperor. The tourist site itself wouldn't have been worth a stop if I hadn't enjoyed the delightful conversation with the guide – who suggested, at my prompting, that my Chinese name could be “Dong Lai Fu” which he interpreted to mean “East Comes Happiness” and gave me the Chinese characters for it. He said that be picked this name because I had explained that I loved visiting China. For those of you who may not be aware, most english speaking Chinese choose “western” names to make it easier for us “foreigners.” It had been a topic of conversation with the factory sales reps I met with – who said they would also suggest a Chinese name for me. We'll see what they come up with, but I was impressed with my $7 guide's fast thinking – and I'll check out his claim when I next meet up with Staci/Martin's contact teachers.

The guide directed me to the local bus to return to the city – and that proved to be an interesting trip where the female toll taker on the bus got off at each stop and rounded up folks who were headed back into the city. After arriving back at the train station, I walked through the city to get to my hostel. It was a much longer walk than I expected from looking at the map – but I enjoyed every minute of it as I came to appreciate the fact that Xi'an really is a city of 4.5 million – and I think I saw them all on my walking route. Many of the streets are so busy that pedistrian underpasses are the only way to get across traffic.

The hostel was like the ones I stayed at in Beijing and Wuhan, providing a western oasis of fellow travelers.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Day 13 - April 21 - A 14 Hour Train Trip to Xi'an

I never did get a roommate at the Wuhan hostel and awoke to the sound of heavy rain. However, the first challenge of the morning was my first ever experience having to use a squat toilet (assessment: not as difficult as I expected thanks to some helpful pre-trip tips from Staci).

The rain proved more challenging as I began the mile long walk back to the downtown “Wachang” train station without an umbrella that I left at Staci/Martin's. I quickly learned why many serious backpackers use weather-proof packs – and realized that the jacket that I thought was waterproof, or at least water resistant, was neither.

I kept my growing panic under control as I scanned every store stall for an umbrella and alternated between wanting to take a bus or taxi (afraid my lack of language skills and any pointable papers would make those impossible) and finding an umbrella. Luckily, just when I thought I should make another choice/plan, I happened upon a stall where a woman was selling umbrellas – 40 Yuan (about $5 USD) and I was good to go. Of course by this time I was not far from the train station AND AFTER I bought the umbrella, there were plenty of street hawkers wanting to sell them.

The train station was, well, overwhelming. Large numbers of people in 24 different lines waiting to buy tickets – and not one indication of any “foreigner” window or non-Chinese speaking person. I collected myself and my “pointable” paperwork and kept my desperation in check with my favorite “what's the worst that can happen” mantra. I felt I was making progress as I pressed my Lonely Planet book against the ticket window while pointing to Xi'an and then pointed to another page with “soft sleeper.” However, my heart sunk when the ticket teller left the window unexpectedly – but calmed again as I noted he was bringing another person to speak with me. Unfortunately the new person seemed to better understand what I want – but it was clear that she didn't know enough english to get some needed directions to me. Just when I felt like giving up, a kind Chinese gentlemen from the large line now behind me came forward and asked if he could help. I was, once again, rescued with kindness and left the ticket window knowing that the only train to Xi'an with a soft sleeper was leaving from the new station I had arrived at the day before – an hour away.

I reversed my route from yesterday (hopped the local bus) and upon arrival at the Wuhan Rail Station, was helped by a person who spoke a little english. I was able to reserve a “soft sleeper” – one bed in a private compartment of 4 beds for the 14 hour train journey to Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Army. Having been through the preparation drill on the train trip from Beijing with Staci and Debi, it was easy to set about collecting the necessary food for the ride but there wasn't enough time to do anything else.

The train was on time whereupon I met my roommates for the next 14 hours – two guys in their 30's/early 40's (they didn't know each other) – but they spoke the same amount of english as I did chinese – none! Using my maps I was able to convey where I was from and we each pointed to where we were headed, but that ended the ability to communicate – though later I was able to use my IPOD translator program to explain that I loved visiting/seeing China – and I could tell they understood. One even repeated my use of the word “beautiful.” Their warm smiles made me know the trip would be comfortable. I had a bottom bunk in the sleeper and it was comfortable and quiet – and I turned in early knowing that I'd be getting off at around 4:30am for arrival in Xi'an. You might find it interesting that the sleeper only cost 379 Yuan (about $50 USD) to travel 14 hours. Also, I wondered why Amtrak doesn't have such nice/inexpensive sleepers – could it be that Americans refuse to sleep with strangers in the same compartment?

I was awake before having the car attendant wake me – and we arrived in Xi'an shortly after 5am. I proceeded to a nearby McDonald's for coffee/breakfast/etc (yep, another squatter - I couldn't help but think that my only objections now are mostly culturally induced) before finding a bus for the hour trip to the Terracotta Army.

This link will take you to a Google Map of my train route over the past two days. You might be interested to know that China's rail system is reported to be the most complex and busiest in the world -- and holds the record for transporting the most people in one day -- 6.5 million! Also, I found these awesome photos of the inside of the Guangzhou station and high speed trains that I wrote about yesterday.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 12 - April 20 - A Solo Adventure Begins

This morning I was up early with an incomplete plan for a solo adventure – to see how far I could get in my hope to experience the fastest train in the world. Incomplete both because of the lack of time to plan and because there was little information available on the details for these trains that just opened for operation on December 28, 2009 and new stations that were just opened in January 2010.

Called the Wuguang Passenger Railway, the Chinese Government spent around $15 billion USD and 5 years completing the first 600 mile stretch of a high speed railway that has reduced travel time between Guangzhou and Wuhan from 11 hours to 3 hours. This is the first section of what will be in 2012 a 1300 mile high speed connection between Beijing in the north and Guangzhou in the south. The train has a “maximum in-service speed” of 244 mph and an average speed of 194 mph besting a record average of 173 mph by a train in France.

It was truly a day of adventure as I took (1) a bus to the Shenzhen airport, (2) the 7:45am bus to the Shenzhen Rail Station, (3) the 9:20am bullet train between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, (4) the Goungzhou subway/metro to an yet to be documented stop to catch a (5) connecting bus to the new and amazingly beautiful Guangzhou South Railway Station where I caught the 12:17pm high speed train to Wuhan. At each step I needed a ticket and sometimes directions – mostly done by pointing to Chinese characters on papers I had printed out from the internet. At every junction I was lucky to be helped by kind people who mostly spoke no english. I'd like to claim that I have perfected the “please help me” look – but the truth is that I just think there are an abundance of wonderfully helpful and kind Chinese who are willing to help this “foreigner.”

The day was full of fun encounters from a smiling 3 or 4 year old Chinese girl who took time for her chatter with her mom to recite her “A,B,C's” in english loud enough so I could appreciate – to some cleaning ladies at one station who just observed me searching my pockets for my briefly lost ticket I needed at an exit – and without one word offered me a clean spot to set my backpack and, noticing my flipping the huge China volume of the Lonely Planet guidebook, took the book and shook it upside down as a more efficient way. They celebrated with smiles and happy looks and obviously happy, but unknown Chinese words, when I finally found the ticket in a small Chinese language book that I had been studying on the train.

The easiest part of the journey was when I arrived at the beautiful, new Guangzhou station and was able to purchase my ticket for the high speed on an ATM-like machine that had an “english” button! Similarly, the train was as nice as the nicest airplanes I've ridden in – with helpful and thoughtful attendants.

The train didn't stop very many times, but the few stops it made were all at beautiful, new stations – as the entire route had been specifically built for these trains – with bridges and tunnels totaling 2/3rds of the entire length (a reported 684 bridges and 226 tunnels) – traversing beautiful country side. It remains surreal to have seen farmers still plowing with water buffalo while speeding by in the fastest train in the world.

Upon arrival at Wuhan (also a beautiful new station) – a city of 4.5 million – I proceeded to the ticket window to inquire about continuing onto Xi'an (home of the Terra Cotta soldiers). A kind woman behind me in line helped with her few words of english when the ticket seller understood no english – and I quickly determined that an onward journey required a change in train stations to another one across town and the Yangzi River (at rush hour). The woman gave me the bus number to get to a third rail station which I had determined was about a mile from the Lonely Planet recommended hostel. The bus trip took about an hour or more – and deposited me at another massive train station in the heart of the city – whereupon I guessed at my personal compass by seeing where the sun was setting and walked the mile to the hostel. Probably only those of you who have been in China can appreciate the fact that walking across streets in a Chinese city is incredibly dangerous as drivers here do not recognize any pedestrian rights and largely ignore all traffic signals and lane restrictions. Wuhan, like Shenzhen, is obviously a city of traffic lawlessness.

Thankfully the hostel had a room (squat toilet only) that I may have to share (no room mate has shown up yet as I write this (10:30pm). I briefly checked out the room and proceeded to the lounge to get internet access. There I happened to encounter a woman who upon exchanging the briefest of greetings and “what are you doing here” type conversation, she noted that she had gone to Reed College (in Portland) when I mentioned I was from the Portland area. Then she gleaned enough information from my description of my daughter working in Shenzhen to say that she had emailed with Staci because they happen to use the same blogging site and she was in China teaching english (but on individual contract rather than program). Another crazy moment to be talking to someone who knows Staci after a day of seeing but a scarce few non-Chinese in all my long travels.

Not exactly sure what tomorrow holds – I'm making this trip up as I go – which is partly required because of the very unusual way in which train seats have to be purchased when not planned several weeks ahead of time. A local museum has the “largest musical instrument” in the world here – so that might tempt me to stay another night – or I might try to head off to Xi'an. I'll probably let train availability help decide tomorrow. Right now I'm ready to crawl in after a fun-filled and exciting day of travel challenges.

Day 11 - April 19 - Factory Tour and Happy Birthday Staci

This wasn't an ordinary “factory tour” – this was the real deal. Allow me to explain.

After our trip to Shenzhen in December 2009, I had an opportunity to attend the annual trade show/convention of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in Anaheim – where all the musical product distributors display their products for retailers. At the convention I happened to notice several vendors from China including the cities we had visited: Shenzhen and Guangzhou – and initiated several conversations with their China-based sales staffs who were uniformly excited to know that this American had visited their home cities. From those contacts, I emailed with a few regarding their products – and when I explained that I might return to Shenzhen, they offered visits to their office/factories.

With some email coordination and challenging logistics (even the staffs couldn't point any internet-based map that showed their location – and many street addresses in China are only available in Chinese characters), I visited one of the factories today and got a behind the scenes personal tour of the assembly area (around 100 workers assembling electronic parts – tuners, metronomes, amplifiers). In addition the sales representatives treated me warming with tea and product demonstrations (and samples to take home). It was so very interesting but I did not request permission to take any photos – feeling it might embarrass or offend the workers.
It was an interesting experience that gave me the opportunity to explore some of the challenges and details for arranging to import products for sale in the USA.

In the evening, Martin, Staci and I went out to dinner in their local village – and enjoyed yet another wonderful meal – this time in celebration of Staci's 24th birthday. A few photos taken at dinner are available here: (to be added as soon as photos uploaded).

Days 9-10 Hong Kong - Saying Goodbye to Debi

The whirlwind trip continued as we enjoyed touring Hong Kong for a full day and a half before accompanying Debi to the Hong Kong airport for her flight home on April 18. I didn't take time to blog about all our activities, but hopefully photos will help tell the story.

After seeing Debi off – we proceeded back to Staci/Martin's school where they accomplished another first since being in China – having food delivered to the school, thanks to assistance they got from one of their contact teachers.

Photo Link:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Days 3 to 8 - Beijing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

I have had no time to write as we continued our exploration of Beijing -- then took a 24 hour train ride to Shenzhen -- explored there and attended Staci/Martin's classes -- and then off to Hong Kong by ferry. Such a fun trip with lots of laughs. For now, all I've had time to do is add these additional photos. Details will have to be added another time:

This is only a small sampling of the photos -- as we have 3 cameras going (Staci/Martin's, Debi's and mine -- so these are only from my collection). Each photo has a story...but those will have to wait as well.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

China 2010 - Day 2 - The Great Wall - April 10

With the hostel provided internet, we were able to determine that today's expected sunshine (high of 60) would be the better day to visit the Great Wall as rain was forecast thereafter. We had explored several options for getting to the Wall and had some discussions about which section of the Wall would be best to visit.

There were many options – including a hostel organized 4+ hour hike (around 200 yuan a person), a private car tour (600 yuan for all), and a tourist bus (100 yuan per person). Because we knew we didn't want to commit to another day of strenuous walking that the hike would require and we procrastinated organizing a car tour, at breakfast we hatched a plan to take the the tourist bus. However when we approached the hostel staff about cab directions to the bus tour starting point, the desk clerk recommended what she said was a better option – taking a regular, express bus for 12 yuan each. The clerk provided her own handwritten note (in Chinese characters) to show the cab driver and get us to the boarding point. The bus option turned out to be a wonderful adventure amongst Chinese tourists headed to view the Wall on this spectacularly beautiful day.

As with all non-tour controlled travel, the experience is not just about the destinations – but also about successfully resolving every challenge that is forced upon you as you venture outside the comfort of routine and familiar. I've often said that if one wants to have a totally relaxing travel experience they should take a cruise where your mind can escape every challenge and your every need is resolved by a simple choice on a schedule of your own making. Traveling like we are here in China is the exact antithesis – where nearly every moment is filled with decision making – where/what to eat, where are toilets when you need one, where and how to go for every moment. Of course, it is the fun and the challenge of such travel – and here in China the obstacles of language (nearly no one, including cab drivers, read/understand English) and unfamiliar food make those challenges even more intense – and might I say, more rewarding when successful.

I'm out of time to finish this day's entry -- but hopefully the photos will tell the story as well as we continued the adventure from the Great Wall to a street market where we stepped outside our comfort zone to try some different foods including silkworm cacoons.

This link will take you to some photos of our visit to the Great Wall and night market.

China 2010 - Day 1 - The Forbidden City - April 9

We were up early, enjoyed the hostel provided breakfast and began a day of walking to the Forbidden City/Palace Museum, Tiananmen Square and nearby parks.

Here is a link to our photos for the day.

I haven't taken the time to write the details of our day -- suffice to say it was a wonderfully, fun day of exploration where we pushed our walking legs to their limits.

Just before crashing our exhausted bodies into a night of wonderful slumber, we hatched a plan to allow tomorrow's weather to dictate whether we headed to the Great Wall or the Summer Palace.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Getting To Beijing - April 7 & 8, 2010

From decision to departure, the days flew as I successfully procrastinated many of my preparations. But with the help of the excellent China Lonely Planet guide, Staci reserved our accommodations and we prepared an itinerary that fit within the constraints of unchangeable flights and Staci's work obligations.

To get to Beijing, I was booked on Korean Air because they had the cheapest fare ($752) at the time of my initial plan for a solo trip; Debi was on United because she was able to obtain her ticket using mileage benefits; and, Staci was booked on Air China. Each of us were arriving in Beijing at different times over a 4-5 hour period from 3:15pm to 8pm at two different termianls. So our planning included necessary meeting points in a country where only Staci would have a working cell phone (Debi and my Verizon phones don't work in China – or most of the rest of the world for that matter) so we arranged meeting places: no easy/foolproof task at an unknown, massive airport. Thereafter Staci coordinated with our accommodations who had offered inexpensive transport from the airport.

Debi and my flights half the way around the world were pleasant. And to answer a frequent question, the actual flight from the west coast of the United States to Beijing is about 12 hours non-stop where one arrives in Beijing having “lost” an entire day. For example, Debi's nonstop flight from San Francisco departed around noon on April 7 and arrived 12 hour later in Beijing where the time was around 3pm on April 8. But the common question: “How long does it take to get to Beijing?” is actually more complicated because most flights departing from Portland require a connection in either San Francisco or Seattle. Similarly the less-expensive flights often require a stop someplace else as well – for example, both of my trips to China required in Seoul, South Korea. This time I was on three different planes, from three different airports that took a total of 19 hours from departure in Portland to landing in Beijing (not including the extra hours to arrive at the airport prior to flight time). Good fortune allowed me to move up to an early flight to San Francisco – so Debi and I were able to coordinate a lunch meeting at the airport there before we again when our separate ways to our separate flights.

My flights went quickly as I ended up with some pretty interesting seat-mates. Coming out of Portland I sat next to a man who appeared to be in his 30's who was from Tibet. He left Tibet without a passport or a birth certificate – and was now making a special trip to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to try to convince them to give him a twice-denied visa to visit his dying mother in Tibet. Then out of San Francisco, I sat next to two men (not traveling together) – one a 66 year old OB doctor from California who was headed to Thailand to marry a young bride with whom he had very limited contact (3 week visits a few times a year) – and the other guy in his early 50's had met, through internet connections, a Chinese “girlfriend” who spoke no English (arranged and interpreted by another). It was fun to have an opportunity to get a first hand look and have conversations with the type of guys that I had seen during my earlier trip to China – older American guys with young Asian girlfriends.

All meet-ups in Beijing worked as arranged – and it was exciting to be greeted by my daughters in Beijing and begin this adventure together. The driver whisked us to our accommodations – a “backpacker” hostel recommended by Lonely Planet – and we were very pleased to find the place to be very nice with 3 single beds in a spacious, private room/bath. Cost per night for all three of us: $270 yuan – the equivalent of about $45 USD breakfast included. As we learned during our previous trip, China hostels are a wonderfully inexpensive alternative for people like us who don't require more than a clean, private room/bath – and many, like this one, are located in wonderfully close-in to city centers and/or attractions. In this case, we are walking distance from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – our planned destination for the morning.

We celebrated our successful first two days of our adventure with a shared a Tsingtao beer – and were in bed by 11 pm local time with our bodies reminding us that they knew we had stayed up all night (we had only slept briefly on the planes) – it was 8am back in Portland and we had been awake/on the move since 4am the prior morning.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Father/Daughter Trip - Ready for Departure

When my daughters/son were in elementary school, we participated in what was then known as the YMCA Indian Princess (daughters) and YMCA Indian Guides (son) programs that were wonderful father/child programs involving monthly meetings to build/assemble various craft projects and regular campouts with similarly situated dads/kids. Since that time the program has gotten more politically correct and removed the "Indian" connection -- and is now called the YMCA Guide Program. Many wonderful memories/experiences were created during those times with each child under the mantra of "Friends Always." I will forever hold those shared moments with each of my children as special times of adventure and fun! Fast forward to today -- when on Wednesday I depart for Beijing on what was initiated as a solo adventure -- but which has become an opportunity to have an adult version of the special father/daughters experiences.

I have already relayed how my oldest daughter Debi (now age 30) surprised me with her interest/commitment in joining this trip to China. As we developed travel plans, my younger daughter Staci (age 24 this month) was able to arrange her schedule to also come to Beijing (some 1300 miles from Shenzhen) to join Debi and me for our visit there and our planned 24 hour train trip to Shenzhen.

I feel incredibly blessed to have this opportunity to have a very unique, trip of a lifetime, "friends always" father/daughters experience in this newest adventure to China. Debi and I are set to depart Wednesday, April 7 and Staci will meet us at the Beijing airport.

In our preparations for the trip, Debi came across a public library offering of a two-DVD set (4 hours) entitled "The People's Republic of Capitalism" narrated by Ted Koppel and produced in 2008 on the Discovery Channel. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about today's China. For those of you that may be Netflix subscribers, you can find it here. Much of it confirmed what Debbie and I learned during our Nov/Dec 2009 trip to China -- but there was plenty that was new (did you know that "Buick" cars are the most popular/prestigious cars in China?) Similarly, we ran across a 6 part BBC series called "Wild China" that provides some wonderful background on the culture/wildlife in China. It too is available through Netflix here.

In addition, I FINALLY got around to organizing and selecting a representative sampling of photos from our Nov/Dec 2009 trip to China. Those photos are here. In preparing the photos for uploading, I separately arranged all the photos I took of some the food we ate. Those photos are here.

I am very excited to know that departure is just days away!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I Loved Visiting China - So I'm Going Again -- With A Different Woman

I still feel badly that (1) my prior posting was so negative, (2) I never finished this blog and (3) I have yet to organize/post the photos for sharing. But you certainly will understand that even though the one posting was negative (or, in my view/style, bluntly honest) -- I truly loved visiting China. In fact, I loved it so much that I've decided to go again for another 3 week trip -- this time adding Beijing to the journey. It's good that I didn't wrap up this blog -- because I intend to revive it so that it will cover this new additional adventure. And with this second trip in the planning stages, I've found renewed energy to finally organize and post the photos from the first trip -- and will soon provide a link.

A little background on the new trip: The trip was planned and tickets purchased as a solo trip because Deb had already, long ago, planned and reserved flights to travel to West Virginia and Virginia to visit her dad, her sisters and our son/daughter-in-law (in Williamsburg, VA). I knew Deb was less interested in traveling to China a second time -- so it seemed like a natural to travel there while she was on her trip to the east coast. I, on the other hand, thought there could be no better time to visit again than while Staci (our youngest) and Martin (her husband) were still there.

So, with little thought to the details of the trip -- and only the general sense that if I was going to return to China a second time, I should also plan a visit to Beijing and see some of the country between there and southern China, I purchased my tickets departure from Portland on April 7 to Beijing and my return from Hong Kong on April 27.

I purchased the ticket on February 22 and let our kids know of my plan. By the evening of February 23, I got a call from Debi Anne (our oldest child) inquiring about my plans and my willingness to have her come along on the trip. As you might imagine, I was delighted -- I had even briefly thought about inviting her but quickly dismissed the thought as unworkable given her employment and the busy life she and her husband have raising our two grandchildren (ages 6 and 3). Debi (note the different spelling from my wife "Debbie" -- yeah, we hadn't anticipated the confusion when we named her!) had already begun to address the work/child rearing issues and was getting encouragement from her husband (who had the opportunity to visit China while in college) and her friends. In short order and with coordination around the globe with Staci -- Debi now has tickets to join me for the first 10 days of the trip.

I truly feel blessed to be making this dad/daughter trip. I've changed the title of this blog to fit the fact that it will now cover both Debbie and my November/December 2009 trip and Debi/my April 2010 trip. More postings to follow.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Home Again - Reflections On What We Didn't Like

Where did the 21 days go? Here I am sitting comfortably back at home reflecting on the wonderful adventure of China. We continued to keep so busy that I had no time to add to this blog -- so I'm going to take a few minutes now to recap some observations. And, while the great majority of the trip was absolutely fantastic -- I'm going to divert this one posting to divulge some less-than-fun moments during the trip:

1. Hong Kong is NOT China: Our Scariest Moment: China uses the expression "one country, two systems" to describe its unique reacquisition of Hong Kong -- but it is my observation that there is very little similarity between Hong Kong and the part of mainland China that we visited. And, the border crossing of having to process out of one and then into the other makes it clear that China and Hong Kong are still completely separate entities. For while the border crossing entering mainland China had gone quick and routine when we arrived, our departure from mainland to Hong Kong was anything but routine -- giving us the scariest moments of our trip. We arrived at the border crossing and became part of a mass of people both ahead of us and behind us that we're crossing into Hong Kong. We never did learn why the processing backup occurred -- but we had gotten to about midway in the crowd when, again for unknown reasons, the crowd began to rush the doors. We had already known that the Chinese people do not seem to have any regard for queue jumping (see this article ) in our experiences on the buses, trains, stores, restaurants, etc. But, now, the mass of people just pushed the queue barriers out of the way and forced ahead. We were caught in the middle. We didn't want to disobey the orders of the yelling/indeed screaming officers who were in hand-to-hand fisticuffs with some at the door but we also couldn't stop the crushing crowd as we were moved along against our will. About the same time that we feared that the officers would pull weapons -- the crowd surge paused and we had a-way-too-close view of officers yelling all kinds of demands (none of which we understood -- but we could tell the crowd wasn't responding the way they wanted as they began to get physical with a few).

It was an experience I'd rather not have again. The border crossing that day -- both out-processing from China and in-processing to Hong Kong -- took us 5 hours. It was no fun and left us with more questions about China, its people and government. It is still hard to reconcile in my mind what we had learned about the school systems apparent focus on teaching obedience first -- with the apparent disrespectful -- survival of the fittest -- type behavior demonstrated both by their lack of queuing etiquette and crowd rioting at the border crossing.

2. What We Liked the Least - Toilet Smell, Spitting, and Driver Behavior: First off, toilets: It's pretty well known that China has historically used "squat" toilets rather than the "western style" sit-down type. We knew that and we knew the kids had regular "western style" toilets. We also quickly learned that we could find "western style" toilets for handicapped or elderly (sometimes marked in English "for week" (misspelling for "weak" that was also common). So, the squat toilet really wasn't a huge issue. The real issue became the unbelievable stench in almost every room that had toilets. First I thought perhaps it was because the plumbing can't take paper, and so the used toilet tissue is deposited in a waste basket. That was sometimes a contributing factor, but not often because the wastebaskets frequently had foot operated lids. Then I thought it was just general lack of cleanliness. That too was also sometimes a contributing factor, but not often because even those restrooms with full time cleaning attendants present (and many had them) stunk. I finally came to my own unprovable theory that Chinese plumbing systems are missing the simple U-shaped water trap that keeps the the septic odors from re-entering the room. I obviously don't know if my theory is right -- but I do know that the smell of China's toilets is disgusting.

Second, spitting: One of the many challenges the Chinese government is trying to address is the anti-civilized cultural behavior of spitting by a large portion of the population. When Staci/Martin first told me about this -- I was somewhat dismissive of the notion that the problem might be as widespread as they had observed. I couldn't have been more wrong. While it's clear that there have been successes: I saw/heard no spitting in the nice, new metro systems where apparently laws are clear and there is adequate on-site law enforcement to catch offenders. On the street is a whole different story. And, disgustingly, I'm not just talking about a simple, move to the curb and spit. What is common is to have people walking nearby hocking a loogie with seriously startling sounds. And, given their population density (it's easy to understand why they don't have the same personal space assumptions that we take for granted) -- that nasty sound is often offensively close.

Again, it was hard to wrap my head around the observation that about 10% of the general population and a majority of the government officials continue to wear surgical face masks at all times to protect against H1N1 but the hocking and spitting continues.

Third, driver behavior: It is impossible to adequately describe the experience of being both a pedestrian and a bus user in China. I can not ever imagine wanting to personally drive there. As I previously described, China's drivers demonstrate chaotic lawlessness where the pedestrian has no rights, the drivers make a habit of honking their horns constantly without regard for whether the honking really serves any useful purpose, and with same disrespect for space and sharing demonstrated at the border crossing -- driving is the wheeled version of survival of the fittest -- the ultimate game of automotive "chicken."

Here again, I continue to have great difficulty in understanding why the Chinese government employs a reported 30,000 to monitor and control what its population can see on the internet (even this google blogging site is restricted) and yet it seems to have almost no law enforcement of basic traffic and public sanitation laws.

Those are my rants for today. I share them so that you might get a more complete picture of our experience -- but don't think for a moment that these less-than-best experiences seriously detracted from the wonderful adventure we enjoyed in China.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Weekend In Guangzho

We just returned from spending Friday and Saturday nights in Guangzhou (pronouced Gwawng-joe) the capital of the Guangdong province in which Shenzhen is located. To and from we took a 55 minute ride to go about 85 miles on a "bullet" train that reached speeds of about 125 mph. The trains were modern and plush -- and the cost was the equivalent of about $10 each way.

The province of Guangdong holds great significance in China both (1) historically: origins of contact with the outside world that reaches back to the second century AD and origins of revolutionary politics that has guided the direction of China; and (2) culturally: origins of Cantonese and their world-respected cuisine. Guangzhou is a city of about 11 million people.

The weekend was filled with fascinating exposure to the city, its people, food and history. We enjoyed long walks through major city parks which gave us lots of opportunity to see families at play and exercise, and visited one history museum and several historical monuments. Surprisingly, the city traffic was less crazy than Shenzhen -- even Lonely Planet guidebook says that the city enjoys "tougher traffic law enforcement" -- and the city seemed better equipped for English-only speakers with more dual-language signage. The subway/metro was most similar to Shenzhen in that it was modern and beautiful.

We exhausted our bodies -- but envigorated our spirits as there was so much to be interested in and learn about. We had many fun encounters with students collecting money for charity, random Chinese tourists who just wanted to put us in their photos, and locals who wanted to teach us their activity with a ball/paddle. We also enjoyed lots of wonderful food.

Upon returning to Shenzhen, we visited their spectacular concert hall and library -- and had a random encounter with a local resident who saw us sampling food from various street vendors and just wanted to converse in English. We chatted for quite a while -- and exchanged email addresses -- so we can keep up the contact.

It is impossible to adequately explain all the wonderful contacts, food and experiences -- but I've put together these two photo collages that will give you the flavor of our wonderful weekend.