These are my memories of my November 3 – November 12, 2008 trip to China. Hope you’re comfortable and can stay for a while. This is long – consider yourself warned. I didn’t want to leave anything out. Enjoy!
Leaving on a jet plane (November 1 – 4)
So, I buckle up, close my eyes, lean back and my mind is at once clear. Well except for this one thought – I AM FREAKING GOING TO CHINA!!!
I fly home to CA – changing planes in the ATL – my brother A and his girlfriend E flew in the day before. My parents are glad to have us home and are stoked about the trip. We spend the next day and a half in church, Target, and El Taco Nazo – had to get my fish taco fix.
Have I mentioned that we were told to bring lots of small bills on this trip? The street vendors and lots of stores would take American dollars, but wouldn’t be able to make change. Well, your girl took that pretty literally and had $198 in ones strapped around my waist in my money pack. Not to mention my other spending money – which just so happened to be in fives. I was so nervous with all that damn money hanging off of different body parts I’m surprised I cleared security in Jackson. I told my Mom that every time I went to a credit union to get out money for my trip I fit the profile of a bank robber – sweaty, shifty eyes, nervous, demanding small, unmarked bills!
Monday we catch our charter bus and head to LAX. The trip was a tour, and we meet our fellow travelers for the first time. They’re all around my parents’ age (early 60s) but ummm, different. This is gonna be fun.
The plane is not nearly as roomy as I expected and I’m a little . . . disappointed in the fact that this is going to be my home for the next 14 hours. The good news is that there is only one other lady assigned to my row of four seats. The bad news is that she got there first and this heifer has inserted earplugs, put on a sleep mask, and stretched out across all three empty seats. I am not fighting with a Chinese woman on a Chinese airline on my way to China. She wins.
14 hours later we arrive in Shanghai. The airport is clean and nearly deserted. We get busted trying to take a picture under a sign that says “welcome to Shanghai airport.” We catch a flight to Beijing.
So Fresh, So Clean (November 5)
By the time we pull up to the Beijing Hotel I think it is about 230 in the morning, I’m not sure what day it is, and I need a bed.
Thank you God. Thank you God. Thank you God. I was originally supposed to have a roommate since double rooms are cheaper than single rooms. Last minute her boyfriend decided to make the trip and they share a room leaving me blissfully roommate free for the entire trip. My roommate’s name? Well, let’s just say that in the less than 24 (?) hours we’ve known her, my family and I have dubbed her “Evilene.”
So, we crash for a few hours and early the next morning we head to the bus (SB2) for our first day in China.
Let me tell ya – Beijing has got to be one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen. I joked to my brother that they must have people whose sole job responsibility is to catch the leaves as they fall from the tree. I don’t know whether the city was cleaned up solely for the Olympics, if this is part of their tourism push, or whether it has always been that clean, but my first thought was truly “this is the cleanest place in the world.” Skyscrapers for miles. I keep wondering how many business this one city can support until I realize that they are people’s homes. In a city with 17 millions residents, it is no wonder that they lived stacked on top of each other in the highest of high rises.
The city is bustling, but it doesn’t necessarily feel as crowded as I expected it to. I’ve never been to New York City, but I imagine that it feels more crowded and hurried than does Beijing. There are bicycles everywhere. I think I would die if I had to bicycle around in the craziest traffic I’ve ever experienced. Huge buses, cars, bicycles, mopeds all jockey for position without following any rules that I can make heads or tails of.
As we head to our first stop I notice the beautiful parks that are located throughout the city. Elderly women are practicing tai chi in one. Their movements are beautifully hypnotic. Older men walk their tiny dogs. The younger folks hustle off to work or school.
The first place we go is The Summer Palace. I believe this place was built for The Dragon Lady a few hundred (thousand?) years ago. Our tour guide’s English name is Shelly and I’m still getting used to the accent. Summer Palace is beautiful. It is late fall in China and this place is resplendent in its autumn glory. The trees, the coolness of the lake, the paths. We’re set free to explore and take pictures.
Shining Star For You To See
If you ever feel the need to feel like a celebrity? Be black, almost six feet tall, and dreadlocked in China! At first I didn’t even notice the pointing, the stage whispers, the stares. And then, it was on! People were taking pictures with me, of me, near me. Folks would pretend like they were taking a picture of something behind me – an ornate gateway, a particularly lovely roof and then bam! They’d be in my face just snapping away. My brother and I joked that if we’d just charged a dollar a picture we could’ve totally recouped the cost of the trip. By the end of the trip he’d taken to calling me “El Gigante” and acting as my manager of sorts – lining people up to take pictures with me, taking pictures with their cameras so that they could be in the picture as well. It was a trip! Wherever we went we were definitely popular – a large group of black folks and one with locs – I am prominently featured in homes all across China by now I’m sure! Much fun, though I totally understand how horrible it must be to be a real celebrity and to be stalked by the paparazzi on the daily.
Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News
I’m standing in the middle of a pearl store debating whether or not I should buy a black pearl for my charm bracelet. (I didn’t buy it, thinking I would hold out for a piece of jade. My one regret of the trip). It is November 5, early afternoon. Somebody shouts “he won, he won!” The whole store just stops. Somebody says “which he?” “Obama! Obama won! Obama is President!” Oh my God. Tears just start streaming down my face. I hoped, I prayed, but if I’m being totally honest (and I am) I didn’t really think it would happen. I am dumbstruck. I am standing in the middle a store in China crying because Obama has been elected. Then I look at my watch. It is early in the States – the west coast polls haven’t even closed yet. I say to someone “he can’t have won. It’s too early, all the polls aren’t closed.” Then I hear “he’s ahead by so many votes they’re calling it early – he won!” We all start laughing and clapping and hugging. Then I notice that we’re not all happy. Every white person who is on this tour looks mighty damn pissed. Except for three – a middle aged mother and her son and a retired male teacher who we assume is gay. The three of them walk over to us and tell us – half jokingly – that they may need to change buses as they were the only Obama supporters on their bus. We tell them – in all seriousness – that we’ll make room if necessary. A little white woman runs over to me, grabs my neck and starts jumping up and down screaming “we did it, we won.” My mom says “who is that?’’ Seriously Mama? I have no idea who this woman is – not that it is impossible, but how likely is it that I’m going to run into anyone I know in Beijing??? Anyhoo, after I peel the lady off of me, she explains how she’s been an Obama supporter from day one, how she campaigned for him, how she lost lifelong friends because of her political choices this year. Wow!
We went to Tian An Men Square. Huge, the largest square in the world. I almost forget we’re in a communist country until our tour guide noticeably neglects to mention the massacre that happened there. She mentions the size of the square, points out the picture of “The Chairman,” (Mao Tse Tung), and gives us other tidbits of information, but not once does she even pretend like she’s going to mention the students and protesters killed there not so long ago.
That night we had dinner and a show. A Chinese acrobat show. Or at least that’s what my itinerary says – I fell asleep. But not before I ate one of the grossest things I had on the whole trip. Fish balls. Get your mind out of the gutter. As best I can tell fish balls are little balls of white dough that have been soaked in aquarium water and then heated up for human consumption. If that’s not what they are, that’s what they taste like. (What I perceive aquarium water to taste like, I do not speak from personal experience).
I’d opted to have an in-room massage that night, but by the time we got back to the hotel, I was so tired I tried to cancel. It was too late, the young lady was already on her way. Oh thank God I couldn’t cancel! For $20 that little woman rubbed and stretched and pulled me into all sorts of loose and relaxed for a whole hour. Best sleep of my life that night. Do you know how relaxed I have to be to fall asleep in a hotel room, in a foreign country, while the masseuse is still in the room? Sheer bliss.
Walls Come Tumblin’ Down (November 6)
When I finally decided to make this trip, I only wanted to bring back two things for myself – a black pearl for my charm bracelet and a small rectangular piece of jade for the same bracelet. Well, I hemmed and hawed about the pearl and ended up leaving it in the store. Big mistake.
Jade is expensive as hell. Who knew? We went to a jade store and I ended up with the world’s smallest piece of jade. I’m still trying to figure out how to make it work as a charm, but no worries. I will make it work.
As this trip was a tour, and as we were in a communist country, our whole trip was arranged and planned out by the Chinese government. We were taken to the best places – as determined by the government. So the jade store, like the pearl store the day before, was a government sanctioned tourist spot. You pile off the bus and enter a room where an English speaking hostess tells you about the wonderfulness of pearls, jade, silk, embroidery, you get my drift. You walk past a few workers that are demonstrating their skills with whatever type of product you’re there to buy, and then that all spills out into . . . a store. This was my least favorite part of the trip. I didn’t mind on one hand, because I felt like I was buying reputable merchandise and wasn’t being sold a fake, but on the other, I knew the prices weren’t the greatest, and everything seemed so damn commercial. I get that money makes the world go round – or at least it used to – but at this point, I wanted “real China” wherever that was.
Oh – did I mention that we were on Chinese welfare of sorts? The government subsidized part of our trip. Which I didn’t know. Apparently China is trying to open itself up to the rest of the world and is really pushing tourism. No wonder I got a 13 day all inclusive trip to China for less than $1300!
Every time we got off the bus, street peddlers approached us with there wares. Pashminas, Rolexes, silk purses, whirly gigs and all types of stuff. I have a very hard time ignoring these folks. I want to buy something from everyone to help them out even if I don’t need or want what they’re selling. I got over that relatively quickly and by the end of the trip had managed to become quite good at emphatically saying “boo shi” (sounds like bullshit without the t) to let them know I wasn’t interested.
Where was I? Oh yes, after the jade store, we headed off to the Great Wall. Really, I was so damn excited that I lived up to my screen name – Nerd Girl. I was almost embarrassed at how nerdily excited I was to be seeing one of the great world wonders. The wall really is awesome. All of what you see is not the original wall. Some parts were rebuilt (long, long ago) but you can still definitely see portions of the original wall. We got to walking and walking and walking. By the time we were halfway up the portion we’d decided to climb (the easy portion) I was glad I’d put in some extra time at the gym before the trip.
At the top of the wall? Um yeah, we did the Cupid Shuffle. Somehow I’d decided that we should do something to commemorate our climb and that something should be the Cupid Shuffle. So, with only E and I singing, we did a quick four turns of the Cupid Shuffle. Judge not! If my brother ever puts it up on Y.ou T.ube, I’ll post the link J
Heaven Only Knows
There’s not a lot of variety in religion in China. Most folks are Buddhist, atheists, or Christian (minority). There was a period of time in China when religion – of any type – was banned.
We toured a lot of Buddhist temples. Today’s temple was the Temple of Heaven. Looked a lot like the other temples we’d seen. Except for the big, black Buddhas. Not sure what that was all about and was initially excited to see the black Buddhas until I realized they were all pretty evil and menacing looking. Didn’t want to insult anyone’s religion, so I decided not to ask about that.
The group we were with? A true bunch of holy rollers. Now, I’m a Christian, but I don’t go around knocking other people’s beliefs – no matter how much I disagree with them. These folks were rebuking temples left and right. Every time we got back on the bus, they prayed about the evil we’d just seen. Alrightie then.
Proud To Be An American
Oh, one more thing about the rest of the group. Apparently no one told those jokers we were going to China. One lady was like “I’m sick of all this Chinese food, aren’t you? She got the blank face from yours truly. One dude kept saying “Why y’all keep eating with them twigs? They got enough forks. You want me to get y’all some forks? Hey, bring them over there some forks.” Sir, we are cool using the chopsticks. Chill the hell out.
One day we were within walking distance from a K.entucky F.ried C.hicken. There is no way in hell I went all the way to China to eat some damn KFC! No way. Not these folks. They made a mad dash for that chicken shack. And came back empty handed. My brother was like all “what happened to your food?” “ We couldn’t get no food. They don’t take American dollars or credit cards.” SERIOUSLY? What the hell made you think you could roll up in a KFC in Beijing China and pay with damn dollars? My brother was like “that is as stupid a Mexican taking some pesos into a Taco Bell in Wisconsin and being mad when they won’t sell him any food.”
If you wanted your trip to China to be “just like it is as home,” and I’m just going out on a limb here – you should’ve stayed your ass in the U.S. of A.!
Seriously, the whole point of travel – nationally and internationally – should be (in my opinion) to experience another way of life. Open yourself up to other people, other food, other experiences, other languages. Or stay home. That concludes my rant.
Is it still November 6? Okay, that afternoon we toured the Hutong. The Hutong is an older section – ancient really – of the city where a more traditional lifestyle is still lived. Families live in compounds much as they did centuries ago. We toured the Hutong on rickshaws. Let me tell you – the CD/DVD/box lunch man at the beauty shop has nothing on the Chinese street peddlers. Those folks were riding up next to us on bicycles while we were in the rickshaws trying to sell us “R.olex” watches. Straight gangster. If the economy doesn’t improve soon, I may start rolling up next to cars on I-55 trying to sell a DVD or two my darn self.
We had lunch in a local woman’s home. Quite tasty. With the exception of the fish balls, everything we’d eaten had been good to me. I didn’t eat a lot of meat while I was there as we were usually offered pork. But I had some tofu that was delicious! If I could get my tofu to taste that way I’d be a vegetarian by now for real.
The home was small from what I could tell. We were in the kitchen/living room/dining room portion of the house. The rest of the house was accessed by going outside. She and her husband kept a grasshopper as a pet and she showed him off to us. I cannot imagine having a bug for a pet, and truly being attached to it, but whatever. The tour guide told us that people generally have 4 pets/hobbies – bugs (grasshoppers or fighting crickets), birds (sparrows I believe), fish, and small dogs.
We’d been warned not to drink the water as our systems wouldn’t be accustomed to the water. My peeps and I had been dutifully consuming soda and beer, brushing our teeth with bottled water, and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables. Well, at lunch I noticed one lady and her husband digging in to a plate of raw tomatoes. I mentioned that they might not want to eat them as they were washed in the same water we’d been instructed not to drink. Dude says “well, all the food is room temperature now anyway, so what difference does it make?” Cool. Please believe they were both sick the next day. (He was married to the chick we dubbed “Best Dressed Tourist.” Old Girl was shitty sharp on the daily. While most of us were schlepping around in old jeans, t shirts and sweaters, this lady was doing it up every day. Weave freshly flipped, a different animal print sweater set every day, a hot pink leather jacket, a lime leather jacket, a hounds tooth swing coat. She did not let her overseas travel interfere with her look at all!)
We had Peking Duck for dinner that night. I’d never had duck before, and certainly never Peking Duck. Well, it wasn’t the mind blowing culinary experience I’d been expecting. It was fine, but nothing I’ll ever look to eat again. Thin slices of duck, a sliver or two of green onion and some black sauce that you roll into a thin pancake and eat.
After dinner my parents, brother, E, and I decided to hit the streets. We’d all decided that we were going to try something exotic – foodwise – on the trip. So, we head out around the corned and find what we’re looking for. Skewer upon skewer of tempting morsels. Scorpion, starfish, beetles, worms. We decided on the little scorpion since they came four to a skewer and were pretty stankin’ cute. So we picked our skewer of wiggly scorpion (yep, they were still alive) the dude grabbed it, stuck it in the deep fryer and a few minutes later we were presented with our evening snack. Some Norwegian guy asked if he could have one and we were like cool – because my parents were holding out for the starfish. So we each – A, E, Norwegian dude, and I – pulled one off the stick, pinched off the tail, and ate a scorpion. Not bad at all. A bit like a thick French fry. Crispy on the outside, a little chewy on the inside. I’d eat it again. My parents picked out their starfish. Nothing about that thing looked right. My mom bit off an arm and chewed and chewed and chewed. Then my dad did the same. Then A and I decided we’d might as well try that too. Well, that was the second thing on the trip that I ate and thought was disgusting. Lemme see – take a mouth full of sand, add stank sea water, a little salt, and old grease. That’s what deep fried starfish tasted like. To me.
She’s a Brick House
Well, I’m not, but I would be if I lived in China. The women’s toilets (and men’s I assume) are really nothing more than porcelain holes in the ground. Hotel toilets were “regular, American” toilets, but everywhere else? Straight squatty potties. There are grooves on each side where you rest your feet, and then you squat, handle your business, and flush. But you don’t flush the toilet paper – the septic system can’t handle it. You throw your toilet paper into the trashcan that is located in each stall. Which more than explains the strong smell of urine present in every public restroom I used even though each one had an attendant who was steadily mopping the floor.
After a few trips to a squatty potty, I couldn’t help but think that Chinese women must have quad and glute muscles that are out of this world toned.
On The Road Again (November Eighth)
Back on a plane. We’re flying back to Shanghai so that we can head to Suzhou and Hangzhou.
First stop – Suzhou – about a 3.5 hour bus ride from Shanghai.
As stricken as I was with Beijing’s cleanliness and beauty, I can’t help but notice that Suzhou, a “small” city of about 3 million, is way dirtier. Not nasty, but a stark contrast to Beijing. The skies are grayer; we are in a more rural part of China. It is very wet and boggy looking here. A little depressing really.
By the time we get to Tiger Hill, it is dark and we can’t really see much. But we dutifully climb to the top of the hill, and with the help of some uplighting, can see how beautiful this place is. On top of Tiger Hill there is a leaning tower. This leaning tower is not nearly as off-kilter as is the leaning tower of Pisa.
Oh! Our hotel in Suzhou is off the chain. The one in Beijing was nice, but this one is newer and more luxurious. The décor is more modern, and I’m going to replicate the bathroom sooner or later. The wall behind the vanity mirror is red lacquer (or glass), the wallpaper is either grass or bamboo – dark brown with gold threads running through it, and the walls and shower are large marble (slate?) tiles. I’m not doing it justice – it was truly lovely. And the toilet seat was heated. And I liked it.
Don’t Rock The Boat Baby (November 9)
We take a tour of Grand Canal. This canal is where 5 rivers in China converge. As we cruise down the canal, we get to see more of the “real China” I’ve been looking for. The water is murky and green. The houses back up to the canal and this is the water the people use to wash clothes, dispose of garbage, and in some cases wash dishes. I am struck, not for the first time on this trip, by how much we as Americans really have.
We get off of the boat and are given some time to wander through the neighborhood. There are stalls with some of everything for sale – from pajamas and croc-like shoes to brains, innards, and live birds for dinner. We see stalls selling live crabs, eels, and huge toads. One that seems dedicated solely to organs, and another where a man is making some sort of egg pancake to order. We were told not to eat the street food, but having already consumed both scorpion and starfish, we were willing to take a bit of a chance and ate some deep fried dough that was slightly sweet. A bit like a thin fortune cookie.
And we’re off! To Hangzhou. About a three hour bus ride from Suzhou. Here we will live in the world’s best Holiday Inn. Almost as pretty as the hotel in Suzhou.
I honestly don’t remember much else about this day. I’ll cross reference with my peeps and see if I’ve forgotten something monumental.
I Love It When We’re Cruising Together (November 10)
We spend the day in Hangzhou. We cruise West Lake. Absolutely gorgeous. The lake is nestled in large park, and the hour long cruise is unbelievably relaxing. I hate that I got so relaxed that I dozed off and missed most of what the tour guide was saying. I wasn’t at all bored – just really, really relaxed. The tour guide tells us that Shanghai is considered the City of Love. I can totally see that. Outside of the hustle of the city, everything is so clean, green, and relaxing. It does seem to be an ideal place to hold hands with your love as you walk through the city and just bask in the beauty of it all.
We visit a tea plantation. As much as I love a cup of tea – the lady told us that tea in tea bags is pure garbage much to my dismay – the tea they are peddling is over $100 for 4 tins, and no, you can’t just buy one tin for $25. Believe me I tried. The presentation is on the health benefits of this particular green tea. I vow to drink more whole leaf, green tea when I get home. It just won’t be $100 tea!
We also visit the Lingyin Temple. Honestly, don’t remember much, but it was gorgeous.
Took the bus back to Shanghai that evening.
Rock Me Amadeus (November 11)
That night we go to the Era Show. This was an optional add-on to the package that I opted not to buy. Fortunately for me, unfortunately for him, one of our fellow travelers was feeling ill and gave me his ticket! It was a bit like Ci.rque du Soleil – traced China from ancient times to the present. I was glad that I went, but equally glad that I didn’t pay for it – a nice way to end our time in China.
Going Back to Cali (November 12)
Spent the morning walking the neighborhood around the hotel.
Left Shanghai at 2:30 p.m.
Arrived in LA at 12:30 p.m. the same day thanks to the international date line.
Flew home to MS at 12:15 a.m. on November 13.
Home sweet home!
Let’s Do It Again
So, all in all I had a great time.
My only regret? Not buying myself a black pearl.
The people were very nice. Curious, but nice.
I’d love to visit China again – without a tour group. I’d love to spend time in some “smaller” cities. I still can’t believe how many people there are – my mind really cannot wrap itself around that large population.
The trip was perfectly timed – by the time I began to miss Smoochy and Lovegirl, it was time to come home.
An added benefit of the trip? I lost weight. All that walking and tofu consumption has resulted in some very loose fitting clothes. I don’t get on scales, so I’m not sure how much I lost, but my brother’s girlfriend weighed herself – she lost 10 pounds!
I didn’t buy much, but for posterity’s sake, my purchases were: 10 “pashminas” I’m keeping two for myself, the others are gifts; 10 silk purses for the little girls in my life including Lovegirl, my nieces, and my goddaughters; 8 bottles of rotgut liquor (I took a shot of this stuff and tears just poured out of my eyes) this is for the men folk; a black pearl bracelet for myself; a very small open circle of jade for my charm bracelet; a few Chinese toys for Lovegirl; a silk jewelry box for Lovegirl; a watch for Smoochy, 3 chops (stamps) English/Chinese names for Smoochy, myself, and my youngest brother and his wife; and a green ceramic hand-tied necklace for myself. I think that’s it!