This may just be an experiment

This may just be an experiment.

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Chenmama and the Art of Shanghai Shopping

In which our heroes learn what power shopping really means.

One of our international students has the genetic luck to have Chenmama for a maternal unit.  I know she has a first name but the kids were instructed to refer to Mrs. Chen as Chenmama, and so shall I.  CM decided a few weeks ago that we really weren’t capable of handling a truly free day in Shanghai, so she took it upon herself to organize it for us. Shanghai is big like none of us have ever seen and from what everyone says, it’s also somewhat dangerous.  Plus, if you don’t know the area, you’ll spend a lot of time getting to some place that isn’t where you want to be.  Ente:, Chenmama.  I do not mean to sound flip here, and if I do, just kick me.  This woman is a force of nature like you have never seen.  She is truly amazing.

First, after several jillion phone calls back and forth between CM and Tina, the schedule was set.  CM rented a bus for us.  Then, she started organizing the other Chinese parents to come meet us for a dinner.  Then, she set about scouting out sites for the kinds of shopping the kids wanted to do.  One of the guidebooks says that Shanghaians were born to shop (actually, it’s more of a local sporting event), and CM probably taught them all. We started out in Nanjing Dulu (?) the traditional shopping area.  After telling the bus driver where he would park, even if the policeman disagreed, she took us on a brief walking tour of the area.  Not the whole 10 square Chinese blocks, but the high points.  Once we had set the kids loose, it was off for jade for Cheryl.

The place we went was not quite the quality she would have preferred, but I can’t afford that, so off we went to the biggest jewelry store I have ever seen.  Three floors of sparkly stuff.  Diamond Wonderland.  Gold Wonderland.  Jade Wonderland.  Once we finally found the case we were looking for, we began the inspection of pieces.  I found a couple I liked, but they were deemed not up to snuff by CM—not pretty enough, according to my translator.  Eventually, we all settled on a piece, CM attempted to bargain, but was shut down right off.  Jade acquired, off we went for tchotchkes.  We found a stall with all sorts of things and even Tina backed off and let Mrs. Chen do her bargaining thing.  She talked them down by easily 20% and they threw in free Chinese knot danglers to boot.  Don’t mess with Chenmama.

Our next stop was a clothing market.  It’s really five floors of small, independent sellers.  Misa (one of the kids) and I were in the market for ties.  Our first tour of the third floor yielded nothing until CM made it known to one shopkeeper, who sells t-shirts, what we were looking for.  When we arrived on the third floor, we noticed several shops that were darkened and curtained.  I figured they were out of business or just not open yet.  Once the word was out, and news in a Chinese market passes faster than a rumor on CNN, curtains were opened.  It would seem that these shopkeepers were concerned about the bright lights doing harm to their wares.  The first shop didn’t really have very good quality (CM assured us they were real silk but the tags on them should not be believed.  Read: knockoffs.)  So,  we proceeded to another quality-minded shop.  Misa and I both found what we were looking for and for the ridiculous price of about $2 each.

Next up: scarves.  Not sure why, because neither one of us wanted scarves, but there you have it.  Misa found one she liked, and CM began bargaining.  It didn’t take much to figure out the conversation.

CM: How much?

Shopgirl:  For you, madame, $150 (ed note: yuen, not USD).

CM:  You nuts?  This thing isn’t worth more than $100.  (Fingering the scarf with barely concealed contempt).  Look at the quality of this.  My dog wouldn’t sleep on this.

SG:  Madame, you kill me.  This is highest quality silk.  Not one cent less than $150.

This sort of thing goes on for a couple of minutes, then CM throws the scarf down and stalks out.  She actually was mad and told Tina that it wasn’t worth any more than $120 and even then that was high.

As we proceed down the corridor and to the escalator, the shopgirl and her assistant follow us, grabbing at us, pleading, and suddenly coming down in price.  As we were about halfway down the escalator, the price came down to $120 but Mrs. Chen was having none of it. We walked around the second floor with shopgirls in tow, yelling at Madame and at one point, she stopped, turned around and threatened something.  They disappeared.

We then went back upstairs.  Shopgirls appeared magically.  How they do that without a transporter, I have no idea, but they did.  The lead girl said something with total sincerity in her face and CM and Tina both started laughing.  Apparently, the girl told us that “She wouldn’t cheat us this time…”  Nicely played, shopgirl, but you were up against Chenmama.  Seriously, if there were a shopping superhero, she would look just like CM, sporting a sweaterset and jeans.

Lunch, also organized by Mrs. Chen, was a festival of Shanghai delicacies, served in one of the most elegant restaurants I’ve ever been in.  The children were at their mannerly best.  At least until the meat was served.

Our afternoon consisted of a visit to Richard’s old school, an impressive private school with its own planetarium, swimming pool and gym dedicated solely to volleyball.  We met what appeared to be the officers of the student council, who did a lovely job of talking about their various activities. A couple were quite comfortable in English and a couple were very nervous, even though they didn’t need to be.  They had our kids playing a game at the end of the visit, which caused much hilarity on all sides.

Off to the tea market.  Mrs. Chen had arranged a discount with one of the local sellers for us, so most everyone took advantage of that.

Dinner, also arranged by CM, was a three-room affair.  The kids, our 19 plus several of our students who live here, had two rooms and the adults had the other.  The adults consisted of several parents and the three of us.  Since I couldn’t understand what was being said, my job was to provide the entertainment.  My chopstick skills have been pretty good all trip, but they all but failed me with 11 Chinese parents watching.  Fortunately, the slippery seaweed wrapped waterchestnut I dropped did not hit Mr. Chen when it went flying to the floor, but only because he was in the other room tending to the children.  I appreciated the octopus rings because I could just hook one on one chopstick and get it to my mouth as it was sliding toward disaster.  I successfully negotiated most of the other 20 or so dishes, only dropping food on the tablecloth about ¼ of the time, but looking around the table, everyone else dropped stuff, too.   When the escargot were served, Mr. Chen offered me first (Whew!  I thought.  I can do snails.  Little fork in the hole…).  I decided it would be better to ask him to show me, in case there was some Chinese trick I didn’t know.  Nope.  Stick the fork in the hole and pop out the snail.  The one thing I could actually eat without looking like a two year old!!

I pulled hotel duty as Tina and Ben stayed to talk to the parents for a while.  The kids were given free time to go to the main entertainment core.  Rules:  stay with one of the Chinese kids and be back by 11.  A couple of kids (read “couple” as “couple) didn’t want to go, which was certainly within their rights.  However, imagine the complete shock on the face of the male part of the couple when I met him coming off the elevator on the girls floor with his suitcase and carry on.

Me:  Hey, ___.  Whatcha doin’ with the suitcase?

Him:  Um.  Nothing.  Going to ____’s room.  Um.  Is there a problem with that? (Ed. Note:  Kid.  Don’t take the offensive with a mom.  That’s just bad strategy.)

Me:  No, no problem with you going to her room.  My problem is with you going to her room with your suitcase in hand.  Why do you need your suitcase?

Him:  Um.  I just want my stuff.

Me:  Well, I think your stuff needs to stay in your room.

Him:  Is there a problem with me wanting to have my stuff?

Me:  None, per se, but just not in her room.  Your stuff goes in your room, where you are going to sleep tonight.

Him:  Uh, well (insert teenaged attitude here) Okay, I guess.  Whatever.

Needless to say, a couple of room checks were warranted.  (“It’s CHERYL. Oh, Shit.”)  Including the 11:00 check in which both parties pretended (and not very well) to be really soundly asleep and he appeared to be sleeping on the floor.  Said he, as I rode down the elevator with him on the way to his room, “Wow.  Sleeping on the floor sure isn’t good for my back.”  And you would know about sleeping on the floor how?

Okay.  Last day.  Time for the sumptuous cold chicken sausage and limp  veggie breakfast our hotel provides but before closing, a final note to Mrs. Chen, who will probably never read this, but I’ll put out there anyway.  It was a great day and we so appreciate all you did.   Thank you just isn’t adequate.

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Chengdu To You and more

Chengdu to You!

I think the last time I put finger to keyboard (the 21st century version of pen to paper?), we had just arrived in Chengdu.  We had been led to believe that Chengdu was a backwater, pretty much suitable only for pandas and people whose imaginations only ran as far as the red pepper sauce on their plates.  It is the the provincial capital of Sichuan, famous  for its cuisine and for being the cradle of Imperial China.

I think that those who branded Chengdu a backwater must have been from Beijing, because Chengdu is anything but.  True, the population is about half of Beijing’s,  making it only about a half a kajillion souls, but from what we could tell, every one of those half-kajillion were very nice and laid back folks.  We met all the kids from one of the primary schools (easily a couple hundred).  It was difficult to tell which they were more interested in, the pandas or us.  I think it was us, and they were loudly eager to say “Halloooo” as many times as they could.  They were especially impressed by the four guys who are over 6’, especially Olin who is probably about 6’4”.  Knowing how these things work, I am certain that by the time the little darlings got home, Olin was at least as tall as Yao Ming, if not taller, perhaps the big guy himself.  Yao, by the way, is everywhere.  Milk ads, clothing ads, wireless ads, you name it.  I had no idea Yao liked yoghurt as much as he apparently does!  Who knew he needed a GPS?  Really?  Like he doesn’t have a driver?  The most famous man in China can’t call up Chairman Hu and get the Army out (they’re everywhere.  It wouldn’t take long to deploy them.)

Our arrival in Chengdu was uneventful, and dinner was fantastic, what we could see of it through the cigarette smoke.  It’s been so long since smoking has been allowed in public spaces that I doubt any of the kids have ever seen people smoking in a restaurant.  Ugh.  Not to mention the fact that whatever they use for tobacco is designed to kill not only the smoker, but also anyone else in the room.  Not from second-hand smoke, no,much more quickly than that:  from holding your breath so you don’t have to smell or inhale the noxious stuff.

Chendgu is in the bottom of the geographic bowl that is Sichuan which means it’s humid.  How humid, you may ask?  Well, I can imagine what it’s like in the summer, but I washed some t-shirts and unmentionables on Monday night, when we arrived.  By yesterday, Thursday, everything was still damp.  Yes, the drying process can’t have been helped by the fact that Chinese hotels HAVE NO HEAT and the Tianfu Sunshine Hotel  was a very lovely and gracious ice palace, but still.  3 days to dry a quick-dry t-shirt?  Come on…

Everyone is tired.  Trying to be good-natured,  but tired.  The list of the things we will not miss but will laugh about someday will come later, but I say this now because the kids are pretty well done with the bus and tour guide thing.  Me, too, even though Na-Na, our Chengdu guide was just a sweetheart and apparently a Taoist at heart because she bent like new bamboo every time we asked her for an adjustment in the schedule, which we did frequently.  We had asked about the schedule on our second day,  which included a visit to a provincial museum (blech) and she got this really relieved look on her face and said she really didn’t think it would appeal to American teens as it doesn’t even really appeal  to Chinese teens.  She suggested a visit to the People’s Park, sort of the heart of Chengdu, home to a couple of teahouses.  The kids were all over that.  Tina brought the “hockey” sacks that we acquired in Beijing, but the kids were extremely content to sit and drink tea and watch the locals watch us.  Or to have their ears cleaned…

Let’s see.  Other Chengdu sights included a couple of different temples, Old Jinli street (a real, old Chinese city street with preserved buildings and street vendors).  A performance of Sichuan Opera, which really isn’t opera.  There was some of that, but the costumes are way more cool.  Other things included a Lucy and Desi  routine that really needed no translation.  The physical comedy was wonderful.  The hit of the show was the shadow finger puppet guy.  He was pretty stinking cool and I am certain that from now on, whenever Tina turns on her projector, one of the kids will be trying out some of the things we saw him do.  The Leshan Giant Buddha was pretty amazing, but not the terribly taxing hike that Nana, our guide, was expecting.  From talking to her, it sounds like she doesn’t get many student groups,  and I think she was really surprised that the 333 steps down the 71 meters of the Buddha’s height and the 333 steps back up were finished as quickly as they were.  We finished with a half hour to spare, but made up for it lingering over the hotpot dinner later.  The Carnivore 7 have discovered pepper and were challenging each other’s manliness.  A couple of them weren’t feeling too well the next day.  Boys.

Nana had suggested that we might like a foot massage, which Tina and I thought was a capitol idea.  This is a full-on “I will work out every knot on every reflex point in your foot if I have to pull your foot off to do it” massage.  An hour will set you back the princely sum of 120 quai (or yuen or RMB.  Take your pick.  No one seems to be worried that the money has as many names as Mao has honorifics).  120 RMB is the equivalent of $18 USD, or greenbacks, or bucks.

There isn’t any real need to check in at a Chinese airport more than a few minutes before boarding.  Security seems pretty perfunctory to me.  Stick your bags in the machine, pick them up (leave your shoes on!!!!!), have the surly customs person pretend to read your passport and then stamp it with an air of resigned contempt (how dare you expect to visit my country!), maybe be wanded and off to your gate.

We arrived in Shanghai in the early evening, too late to eat in the hotel restaurant.  I think a large group of white people scared them and they decided that they couldn’t put together something that would forestall the  cannibalism they feared from the boys.  We asked at the desk, and they sent us off to an area near the railroad station where there was fast food.  Ben and Tina were busy trying to get the kids some food, so I took off looking for something Cheryl-friendly.  I found a place Tina knew about, but all they had was noodles, despite the fact that the menu showed several items with rice.  The girl behind the counter was very firm—“No lice.”  Okay.  My only other option was just an offense to my sensibilities, but I really had no other optiosn—Mickey D’s.  Haven’t done that in easily 10 years and a Big Mac in Shanghai is just as blech as one in Seattle.  I didn’t even try to communicate “no cheese, no bun.”  I figured I could deal with the consequences later.

This is getting long.  I have never learned the art of brevity.  I will post this and start the narrative of Chenmama and Shopping in Shanghai on another post….

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Travel Can Be Educational

Travel Can Be Educational

So, after we boarded the train, the train attendant had a word with Tina.   Her  concern was that the kids would not settle down and behave.  Apparently,  there had recently been a group of British students aboard who finally went to bed at 4AM.  Tina assured her that would not happen, and it didn’t.  We were in 4 berth cabins, snug, but comfortable.  I doubt many of us slept super well just because our bed kept lurching and shaking, but it’s not a bad way to travel.  That is, until you need to use the bathroom.

I haven’t really talked much about the process of relieving oneself in public spaces in China because, well, it’s just such an experience.  Sure, plenty of places have squat toilets, and I’m not averse to using one.  In fact, here are the things I have learned about using public facilities in the People’s Republic of China:

  1. Never assume that there will be tissue of any sort.  Always have at least a used Kleenex in your pocket.  An old cash register receipt can be used in a pinch.
  2. The used tissue does not go in the toilet.  It goes in the Barbie-sized “frame for refuse” (as the toilets at the Olympic park informed us).
  3. People still do smoke in public bathrooms.  Not often, but it happens.
  4. Just because the sign has a figure in a dress, that does not mean it is a women’s room.  Especially in the No. 20 Divine Tranquility Temple of the People’s Commerce.
  5. When you ask if a facility has tissue and the answer is, “Yes,” that does not mean it’s actually in the stall.  Nope.  It’s on a wall just next to or above the sink so it is usually pre-wetted for you.  Just part of the service provided to you by the People’s Republic. (It’s probably bugged, too!)
  6. When the city of Beijing has designated a public toilet “4-Star” it does have a special significance.  It means that there will be 500 women playing “Toilet Pursuit, Beijing Rules.”  This is a fun game that anyone can play, provided they understand the rules.  The rules are:
    1. Always go with a friend.  Then, she can be your doorwatcher as the doors, though they usually show that they are locked, do not lock.
    2. Do not stand in a polite line waiting your turn.  Your turn will never come this way.  You and your friend from A, should begin the round by selecting a stall you wish to use.  You certainly may carry on a lengthy discussion about stall selection if you wish and you will not be penalized for lots of hand gestures.
    3. Remember, girls, everyone lines up behind the stall they want to use, not in a line waiting for the next available stall.
    4. Once the appropriate stall has been selected, one of you immediately yanks the door open as the woman inside is finishing
    5. You get bonus points for coming out of the stall with your pants not quite up yet.  Extra bonus points the lower they are and the more of your backside shows. Bonus, bonus points if you haven’t yet finished with the TP.
    6. If you do not have a potty buddy, you better hope like hell you can squat and hold the door shut at the same time.
    7. Many, many points will be deducted for any form of Western courtesy.
    8. It is possible to use a squat toilet on moving train. I have done it.  Just don’t focus too much on the bucket o’ spit sitting just outside the restroom door and threatening at any moment to go over.  You’ll lose your last meal and I can’t give you any advice about upchucking into a squat toilet on a moving train.

More later, but it is bedtime.  Tomorrow:  My date with the Men of Clay

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From Deepest, Darkest China

Saturday, April 17, on the night train somewhere north of Xi’an

I’m going try again and maybe this time the computer won’t crash.  Must be some Chinese virus it caught, although better it than us.

It’s been an insanely busy couple of days.  Most of it is a blur, but it’s probably good for me to write it down so I don’t forget!

Thursday was originally designed to be a free day for the kids.  The plan was that the three of us would split up and  go different places with the kids.  We decided that since we didn’t really know the city very well, that we would stick together and visit the Beijing International School, where we’d been invited to tour, then go to the Lama Temple (the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet), then go shopping along Wanglingjifu ? street,  which is basically Times Square on sterioids.

The visit to the school was  nice.  The headmistress was very impressed with the questions the kids peppered her with, things like, how are your students different from us, and why would an overseas teaching career be a good choice.  Lunch was typical school cafeteria fare.  We toured the school and then were off to our next adventure: riding the subway.

Subways the world over are not terribly complicated –they’re just basically holes in the ground arranged on  loops.  The tricky bits are knowing which loop you need, which holes to descend and ascend and how much of the local currency the journey will take.  The loop bit and the hole bits were easy to figure out.  Since the Beijing subway costs 2 yuan anywhere on the system, the money bit was easy.  Giving your money to the system was a different matter, entirely.  Just as we arrived all the ticket machines decided to go Chinese on us (you could practically hear them snickering, “Hey, guys, ya wanna play a trick on the Americans?  Haaasnort.  Let’s refuse to take paper money and not tell them!.  Okay, everybody in?  This is going to be sooo funny!!”)  Even though some of the machines said they took bills, they did not.  So, not to be outwitted by a silly machine playing an adolescent trick, we went to the nearest (empty) ticket booth.  After some reconnoitering , the boys found a surly live human who condescended to sell us tickets and then we were off.  We have grown accustomed to being stared at (we are the Northwest School, where every day is Halloween, so we get that at home), I guess it’s still a little jarring to be so tall!

First stop:  Lama Temple., the biggest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.  You could smell the incense from several blocks away.  Just as Ben was acquiring tickets, a contingent of heavily armed military men, finished their patrol of the parking lot, jumped (literally) into their van and sped off.  I guess it was meant to remind everyone at the Tibetan temple that the long arm of the Chinese government is everywhere, as if that’s ever forgotten!

The temple has three inner temples and a bunchabuncha outbuildings.  The first three temples have giant guilded statues of Buddha in his various stages of enlightenment.  The last (gotta love the Buddhists for saving the best for last) was a solid sandalwood, guilded figure of the enlightened Buddha, over 20 meters in height.  It was awesome.  I wish photography would have been allowed, although I completely understand why it isn’t.

Having attained some enlightenment and a bronze Buddha figure for Adam, we were off to the subway again.  By the time we got to the new entry hole, all the machines on our route were in on the joke, but we outsmarted them.  We sent one Chinese speaker to the surly ticket person to buy all of our tickets.  That way, she only had to be snotty to one person instead of 22.  Must’ve ruined her day.

Tina has a truly unique way of going through the subway turnstiles.  As in, they totally befuddle her, but the kids have learned to shout instructions to her, occasionally even going back to swipe her card for her.  As the gates retract, she jumps in the air, and shouts something incomprehensible in Chinese then runs through the gate laughing.  10 for style, 0 for efficiency.

As the hour was growing late (4PM) and it had been at least two hours since the herd had grazed, it  was off Wangfangjuli or whatever it’s called.  It’s Times Square, squared on steroids.  You might have been able to get anything you want at Alice’s little restaurant, but she got it on the Wangwhatever.  High end fashion houses?  No problem.  Knock offs of high end fashion houses?  Right next door.  Tina got sucked into a store that had a 5 yuan special going on—Hint: Jewlery and Jade Discount Store can’t be all good.  She bought 50 yuan worth of things so she qualified for a free gift.  Ummhmm.  Through two more floors of cheap crap and to the back of the third floor. to claim some goofy keyring made in China.

We finally managed to drag everyone out and back onto the street.  Most of us were tired and ready to get back on that funny subway and go back to the hotel.  We left four kids behind because they were waiting for their free gift to be printed (a personalized coffee mug).  They made it back, but I’m sure it’s only because Tina and I worried them home.  The two block walk that Ben assured us wouldn’t take us more than a few minutes to the subway turned out to be closer to 20 and the subway entrance was pretty well camouflaged as a construction site.  We only happened to stumble upon it.

Friday AM was check out and the beginning of our fare-thee-well to Beijing.  Once checked out, we headed over to the Olympic park.  The air pollution was so bad that even from the parking lot, we could barely make out the outline of the Bird’s Nest.  We got to go inside, where at least a hundred people were laying new sod, presumably for some soccer game.  Inside, the thing is massive, but from the lower seats  it felt a lot like the Safe.  We walked across the parking lot to the Water Cube, to the music of the Olympic Theme from 2008.  You know the one—it was stuck in your head for two weeks that year, and it was blaring out of every loudspeaker in the parking lot.  I’ll try to post the video.

After lunch, our last stop was the Temple of Heaven.  I am sure it’s really spectacular, but with all the air pollution, you could certainly see the potential.  The grounds are a large public park, and lots of retired people gather there every day to play cards, or karaoke or just shoot the Chinese breeze.  The temple was really beautiful but the air is just so awful that it takes away from the experience.

After dinner, we were off to the train station, which we had been told was a really intense experience.  My job, as Keeper of Documents, was to hold onto the passports and train tickets.  This place was like Dulles/LAX/Dallas/ORD all in one place, except none of the reader boards had any English at all.  Stephen, our guide, got all of us to the waiting room and then onto the train.  Yes, we had to go through what passes for security (as we did going into the subway, and into parks and historic sites) but if anyone actually looked at the x-ray, I would be shocked.   In fact, I would be shocked if the display was actually on! You put your bag on the conveyor belt, saunter through what looks like a metal detector even though I have carried cameras through without anyone batting an eyelash.

Next post:  On the Night Train

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Welcome to Beauteous Village of Grandview of Greatwall

Ed. Note:  As much as I would like to illuminate this with some of the stunningly fantastic photos I have taken, it’s literally taken 10 minutes to save just the text of this post.  If you want to see pictures, go to the school blog:

One of the fun things about travel, especially in Asia, is the creative way that Engrish (as the kids call it) gets used. The title of today’s missive is from a sign we saw on the way to the Great Wall. Another, warning of fire danger simply said, “Firt prevenetion saves the land.” I think we all would agree that firt preventetion is ver impornantant. One of our free day activities today is a shopping trip to one of the few state-owned department stores left around. Ben did a reconnaissance mission the other night and took a picture of a t-shirt that said “ I (heart shape) J (boat shape) weenies.” After showing the picture he took of it to the kids, they couldn’t wait to get there. Yesterday was declared the best day so far (after 2 days). We began the morning fighting about a thousand scrubbed, glowing and identical Australian high schoolers for breakfast. Put it this way: The Stepford thousands will never beat the Vegelectuals in guile and wit. However, pound foot per pound foot of shear force and my money will be on the Carnivore 7 any day. I got down to breakfast early enough to watch most of the fun and there’s just no way for some blonde soccer player to beat out a 6’2” rower for the last fried egg(s). So after the Breakfast Scrum, we headed out for the Summer Palace. The weather was foggy, so the grounds really did look like the Chinese scrolls with the dragon boats floating ethereally on the lake the mist hanging in the hills above. So beautiful. The one place we didn’t get to go was the temple on the hill where the thousand-handed golden Buddha lives. Rats. I would have loved to have seen it. After a lovely walk about the grounds, with its’ hundreds of buildings and covered walkways (wouldn’t want the Son of Heaven to get his little toeys wet!) we headed for…LUNCH! Lunch this time was a cultural experience. We drove to a little village just at the foot of the Great Wall, Mutiyan. We had a dumpling making lesson from two of the village grannies, in their home. Now, this was just a rural house, pretty much the way they live, and it really was something for the kids to see. There is a community bed, basically a large platform with the cooking hearth at one end. The air from the fire is vented under the platform to keep it warm and that’s pretty much the only source of heat. The grandpa makes his own herbal medicines and one jar of it had some roots and bark and a lizard. Kent, my Chinese environment junior, didn’t have the words to tell me what the lizard did, just that it makes you stronger. By the red on his face, I’m guessing herbal Viagra. After the dumplings were made, we marched with the tray of dumplings up the street to the restaurant. They cooked our dumplings and served us, what we were told, was a fairly traditional village fare. Roasted carp from the pond in the front, DELISHIOUUUUS fried chicken (fresh, plucked and just tossed into some hot fat. No breading of any sort.), all sorts of tofu, bok choy and mushrooms. And, it was a good thing we’d had a good meal as our next activity was to climb up to the Great Wall. It’s between and quarter and a half mile up to the top, and I surely did not run it, Pritam, but we all made it up. Photos just simply cannot do it justice. For anyone Google-Earthing this, we were at the seventh and eighth watchtowers. Looking out the hostile side of the wall, you can see the wall snaking through the country, with watchtowers dotting the wall. I half expected the Beacons of Gondor to be lit at any moment. The kids kept saying that they thought they were in a picture. It was just amazing to actually be climbing around on this artifact that was begun 7 centuries before Christ was even born. It was about an hour ride back to the hotel, and then, DINNER. We have all agreed that it is going to be so hard for us to go back to American Chinese food. I know, this really ought to be a food blog, but one of Tina’s complaints about the tour company for the last trip was that the kids kept saying they were hungry. Not on this trip, let me tell you. Plus, I just love the restaurant names, which reflect the same creative use of translations as the road signs. I ask you, where would you choose to eat? “Spicy Grandma,” or “Fish Head Restaurant?”

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Oh, The Day Was Just Filled

One sure way to quickly get teenagers up and assembled, along with three bleary eyed adults, at the appointed time is to let it be known food is available.  A Chinese breakfast was the HIE’s contribution to our first full  day.  Yum. Rice, beef meatballs, bok choy, tea eggs.  I managed to have breakfast with three of the boys and it was a lot like eating with one of the baseball teams.  Bring on the protein!

Our first stop was the Mao’s Memorial.  We started in line (when they say there are literally thousands who go through it in a day, they ain’t kidding!) but this was no stand and wait, sissy American line.  No siree. Think “Flight of the Penguins,” with thousands of people all shuffling to some internal cadence we simply did not hear.  We kept getting shuffled off to the side.  My job was to be the leader penguin since I was keeper of the  passports.  Now, I admit that the penguin effect probably was somewhat exaggerated by the fact that even I towered over everyone else in the line, except my fellow travelers.  We all felt somewhat out of place as many, many people couldn’t stop staring at us as we attempted to get to  Mao’s Memorial.  Just before we entered the building, the line split into two—being paranoid about keeping us all together (as if finding an American in that crowd was going to be difficult)- I yelled at the group, “Do something uncharacteristically Northwest and stay to the right!”  They all thought it was funny…

The Mao-soleum is a bizarre, extremely odd place.  You enter the mammoth building with hushed tones.  There’s an enormous statue of Mao seated a la the Lincoln Memorial.  In front of Lincoln Mao is a large platform where people lay flower tributes and say prayers.  Pass that, and enter the Maomorial.  In the center of the room is a glass coffin containing what appears to be Mao’s body, covered in a Chinese flag.  I say “appears” because what you see is his waxen  head, torso and hands, all lit in a bizarre orange light.  The whole effect reminded me of those little waxy pop bottles (the ones with the orange pop) that we used to chew when we were kids.  So odd.  Our guide told us that the real body is kept somewhere safe and trotted out for special occasions.   Oh, and taking photo of the “corpse” can be punishable by death.

What’s the logical thing to do after a visit to the Memorial? A quick and very cold and windblown tour of Tiananmen Square.    It’s an impressive and giant space on a scale that puts DC to shame.  Pictures simply do not do it justice. Then, it was off to lunch.  A Sichuan hotpot lunch, served family style.

So far, we’ve had two tables to sit at and the kids have divided  themselves naturally.  At one table, the intellectuals and vegans.  At the other table, 7 teenage boys, three of whom were my dining companions for breakfast.  I managed to wind up the vegelectuals for lunch and about half the food went uneaten because it either had meat of some sort (delish!) or they were to busy arguing about something stupid and philosophical.  Ah, to be young and know everything.  At one point the carnivores came over and started vulturing our leftovers.

The afternoon was spent exploring the Forbidden City.  Walking through the gates and onto the grounds, everyone had what I thought of as a “Taj Mahal moment.”  You could hear kids gasp as they walked through the gates and realized that we  were, actually and really, on the grounds of the Forbidden City.  It’s really so amazing.  The entire 8,000 hectares was constructed in 14 years and I can’t fathom how.  It is comprised of four or five walls and 9,999.5 buildings.  10,000 would be heaven so the Son of Heaven could only have 9,999.5 rooms.  I’ll post pictures as soon as I can.  We hiked up to a temple above the City that was built on a man-made hill (Shout out to Pri, here,  594 steps round trip on a hill that rivals the steepness of the stairs.  I counted.)

What’s the logical thing to do when after you have visited the Forbidden City?  EAT!  Even some of the kids were saying, “We have to eat again?”  Yeah.  Not the Carnivore 7.

Off to a dinner of Peking Duck and a private performance of Beijing Opera.  Dinner was fantastic, although one of the vegans started to cry when the tour guide was describing the process of being a Peking duck.  Think veal that quacks.  I was sitting with the Carnivore 7 and gotta say, I would much rather sit with a bunch of boys who love to eat and truly will eat anything and laugh about it than listen to teenagers argue about the Marxist dialectic and let good food go cold.  We discovered that one of the dishes had peppercorns in it that when bitten made the mouth tingle and go numb.  By we, I mean the royal we as I did not participate directly in the hilarity that ensued.  The boys challenged each other to eat as many peppercorns as possible and then when they had picked all the peppercorns out of our dish they vulture the other table.  Once all the duck (every morsel and particle) had been consumed at our table, they vulture  the other table.  Actually, it was more like “locused.”  After dinner,  we were treated to a short excerpt from a Beijing opera about some heroic Chinese general and a his beautiful, tragically heroic and suicidal concubine.  I’m pretty sure that’s the story line for all of Beijing opera, but I admit, the woman performing the concubine part was a lovely dancer and the shear physicality of her performance was beautiful.

We were exhausted, but still had to conquer the money changing mountain.  (Another shout out to Pri–just had to muscle my way up this hill.) The front desk had “run out of money”  this morning, so several of us had been unable to change money, not that it was an issue because there wasn’t anything to buy anyhow.  Let’s just say that you have to pick your desk clerk because a couple of them pretty much used any excuse to declare a $20 bill unusable.  A crinkled corner, a mark left from being authenticated somewhere else, a crease where it had been folded. Kid you not.  We were able to surmount most of this and everyone has at least a few RMB’s in hand.

Today:  The Summer Palace and the Great Wall.  Can’t wait!

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Greetings from Seat 51C

We made it to Seoul uneventfully. All 22 of us made it through TSA without a hitch, which in and of itself is a miracle. The flight was looooooong, and all of us were glad to have to walk from our gate back into Seoul to the transit area. Seriously. Incheon is one big airport and it was a good 5-7 minute walk to where we needed to be. Few trinkets were acquired as the kids had all been told to save that for the homebound leg but a couple of the starving teenaged boys were happy to have found KFC. Expecting the KFC from home, they were somewhat surprised to bite into their food and discover that the K stands for “Korean” and that it was a lot spicier than they were used to. They also pronounced the fries the worst in the history of fries. Greasy, cold and stale. Delish. There’s a reason I did a happy dance when I found out we were flying Korean Air. The planes are always comfortable, there’s food and the service is always wonderful. Today’s flights were no exception. The Sea-Seoul leg was on what appeared to be a brand new 777, with amenities that made the kids thrilled. Not only did each seat have the usual built-in screen, it was loaded with games to play! Plus, there was a USB port for plugging in your iPod or charging something AND (piece de resistance to the techies in the crowd) AC power in each row of seats!!!!!! There was even a cute little cupholder that you could use without folding down the whole tray. WhooHa Ko-re-a! And the icing on the cake: I just love it when our flight is plepaled for landing or take off. Too bad the triple 7 doesn’t come with a lepligelator, too! Kamsamida! Sadly, the Beijing plane isn’t quite that top-drawer, but it does have cupholders. Another kudo for KAL (Sorry. I still shudder at the acronym). Food. Real food. At no extra charge. The kids were delighted to find, “Hey, Cheryl, REAL SILVERWARE!” Any airline that serves bao instead of pretzels will always get my vote and any airline that serves bi bim bap (complete with illustrated instruction card) is top of my list. So, I’m writing this from 30,000 very bumpy feet the East Sea, having just finished my third chicken meal of the day. All starred that much underrated part, the thigh. Somewhere in Korea, there must be flocks of chickens in little chicken wheel chairs, cuz the rest of the bird sure does not seem to be in use! Boarding was a true treat: (could someone please invent a sarcasm font?) A completely packed 737, and nearly all of the other passengers appear to have gone to Incheon from China on a duty-free shopping binge. The overhead bins were going-to-Grandma’s-at-Christmas stuffed, and the cabin attendant had to find a place for my bag. I’m glad it isn’t red and white, because if it was it most surely would be mistaken for one of the duty free bags and picked up by one of my bargain-hunting fellow travelers. (Note: If a Gucci bag still cost $400USD is it really a bargain?) Once we land and are, hopefully, reunited with our luggage, we are whisked off to a welcome dinner and then check in at our hotel. I believe tomorrow is Tianmen Square and DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH Chairman Mao’s body day. I would say for certain if I could get to my bag that is trying hard to not look like it has Fendi and Chanel in it. Trail Mix and Via, yes. Fendi and Chanel, no.

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Changin’ the Title

You may, or may not, have noticed that the blog title changed.  “Cheryl in China” just had NO pizzaz.  Ben, Tina and I were in a meeting with the kids this morning and Tina was explaining the money-changing process at the hotel.  She, in her very endearing and charming English, was telling the kids that when they go to the change money at the hotel, you just to have to be patient to the people changing the money.  They will to want to write and record down everything and it does no good to yell or to get impatient.  You have to do it the Chinese way and to just to wait.   Somehow, “The Chinese Way,” seemed to be a better title than that boring placeholder I was using.

Through my oh-s0-extensive travels, I have learned that you do just have to do it the (fill in name of country) way.  India certainly has its own way of doing everything from driving pre-dented cars at breakneck speeds to their interesting billboards (“Able Hospital” comes to mind).  Korea, too:  Luke Cabdriver who got us from the airport to our Seoul hotel with the Warp Drive at 9, the lovely Korean spa at the hotel, and the dancers singing, “Arirang,” the world-famous he done me wrong song.  Ah, such memories.  I am really looking forward to making new memories and learning about how to “do it the Chinese way.”

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Getting Ready for Takeoff!

It’s 19 days before we leave, and I think everyone is excited.  But, as Ben observed in an email this morning, there is so much to do!  I keep making lists and then losing them, so I think need to find a way to create a permanent list.

At the moment, the biggest challenge is getting the kids to  turn in their forms.  Deadlines don’t seem to be very important to this bunch of kids–19 of them.  True, we’re talking teenagers, but sometimes a good cattle prod sounds really tempting.  They’re good kids, they’re just teenagers and as we know from brain research, not all of the connections are yet made. 

This is going to be my private blog for the trip.  The kids and I will be blogging on a public one, but anyone who knows me knows that I usually have other opinions to share.  🙂

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