Friday, September 30, 2011

Next up...

Finally I seem to have shaken the worst of the jetlag and almost feel normal again.  In order to fend off the inevitable post-trip depression I have booked two quick weekend getaways...hell, not weekend getaways, one day marathons, to big cities nearby.

In October, I'm zipping to Philadelphia for the day to see the exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I fought off the urge to do this until I read the reviews of the exhibition; now I just have to go.  Not having been there before, I'm going to try to see some of historic Philadelphia as well before meeting an old friend for dinner and jetting home late evening.

In November, I'm zipping (again) to DC to visit the giant pandas, the new red panda cubs and my lion cubbies (before they get shipped off to breed in other zoos) at the National Zoo.  I may try to see the Sackler and Freer Galleries too, since I had my eyes opened to Asian art in China, but my other goal is to finally meet Bev, who went on the panda tour last year and was my lifeline in getting ready for my own China experience.  I suspect there will be a good meal involved there too, possibly something Spanish?

I am kicking other ideas around for early winter but it all depends on the financial damage I suffered in China (shopping tally still not yet calculated, I'm in denial) and how raise/bonus season goes at work.  I'm thinking maybe a long weekend in Atlanta, but who knows.  Thoughts for 2012 include Germany (Berlin/Dresden), Egypt, Peru or Turkey...but seeing the "walk with lions" tour in South Africa yesterday in my Facebook feed was mighty tempting!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I held a panda!

As the fog of jetlag continues to wear off, I'm starting to realize what an absolutely incredible experience I was lucky enough to have in China.  As an animal lover, it would have been spectacular just to visit the two panda bases in China and see more pandas (more than 80 by our estimation) than most people see in a lifetime.  I mean, really, you see maybe two, or six, if you travel to DC and San Diego and visit the best zoos in the US.  We saw over 80!  That alone made the last two weeks a breathtaking experience.

Never in my adult life would I have even dreamt that I'd get to hold a panda though.  Living in such a litigious country as I do, the thought of even touching a panda is so verboten that I would never even consider it.  To be honest, the thought would never have even crossed my mind.  Going into the trip, my expectations were that I'd not only see more pandas than the average zoo-going American but that I might, just might, get closer too.  Even after doing some reading online and writing to others who had already done it, it still really hadn't fully sunken in that others had really up close experiences and that I could participate in these photo opps that they did too.  I just had no idea how profoundly it would strike me.

Holding a panda cub, or sitting with one while he munches away and I am able to rub his back, scratch his chin and look into his eyes, is like nothing else I've ever done.  There are just no words sufficient enough to convey how magical it was.  I've been fortunate enough to have had some pretty amazing travel experiences, but this one tops them all.  I look at the photos now and it feels like it was all a dream, but its one that can still make me smile.

Pinch me, I held a panda!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I can say this now because I think I am finally over the hurdle...jetlag sucks.  And I'm not talking about the little speed bump we East Coasters get when we go to London and suffer the minor inconvenience of not being able to fall asleep there until midnight or wanting to sleep in that first day on the ground.  I'm talking "12 hours difference, my body thinks it's daylight when it's dark, I'm ravenously hungry at 2 a.m. and how many bad American informercials must I suffer through before I fall asleep" jetlag.

Before China (my version of "B.C."), jetlag was a speed bump for me, that is the best way to put it.  I'd force myself through that first day on the ground in Europe, get up at 8 a.m. the second day and be fine.  No harm, no foul, no medication required.  But going to China was not a speed bump, it was a shift in the tectonic plates in my brain.  I climbed into bed on the first night in Beijing, exhausted from 24+ hours of travel and our first group meal which was so blurred I can barely remember it now.  And there I was, staring at the ceiling for 8 hours.  I may have gotten snatches of sleep, but nothing that would allow me to feel either refreshed or that I had made any gains on the time difference.  That continued for 2 nights until I found drugs, thanks to a friendly pharmacist and physician in our group.  Once I started to catch up, the momentum built by a few nights of decent slumber got me over the hurdle, until I felt almost normal again on Saturday, when I was just 48 hours from going home and having to do it all over again.

My first night back in my own bed, I heard the town's church bells chime 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00.  I decided to just lay in bed until daylight, and was astonished to wake again at 11:56 a.m.  I guess that makes sense as my body thought it had gone to sleep close to sundown in Beijing.  The next night it was more listening to the church bells, so I watched bad reality tv and informercials until sometime before 5:00 when I finally drifted off to sleep, only for the alarm to go off at 5:50 a.m. for work

Getting through work that day....argh.  Imagine, if you will, being unable to focus your eyes, let alone your mind.  Imagine that your head is being pulled by some magnetic force to the center of the earth and you can barely resist the pull.  Imagine that your cognitive skills are so muddied that you e-pay all your bills twice.  Yes, that was me.

I stopped at CVS and begged the pharmacist for help.  He pointed me to melatonin and sent me on my way.  As darkness approached though, I felt better the later it got.  That makes sense, because my body was coming out of the sleep cycle I had been forcing it to resist all day.  I was tempted not to take the melatonin, because I felt so good compared to the daylight hours, but took it precisely for that reason; I was too keyed up to sleep.  Last thing I remembered, it was 9:37.  Next thing I knew it was 6:10 a.m.

Two more nights of melatonin, I think and I should be right as rain.  It'll be going with me on my next trip too, no sense in needless suffering.  Today I celebrate being over the hump.

Monday, September 19, 2011

China -- Day 11

Subtitled:  It's not goodbye, luggage resolution, going home

This morning I had my breakfast with Margie, Marcia and Tracy.  It was sort of sad to think that tomorrow we will all be back at our homes, going about our usual routines without each other’s company.  But it has been a good, no, awesome, ten days and we are all thankful for that, I know.

I had the usual breakfast at this hotel:  cocoa crispies, OJ, assorted pastries with peanut butter and jelly and today, homemade yogurt.  We agreed to meet for goodbyes shortly before our transfer took Marcia and me to the airport.

Regarding the suitcase crisis, I conferred with Dan and Naomi, who have also done a lot of world travel, and they agreed that I could probably get away with one very overweight bag.  I decided to gamble and gave my new second piece of luggage to Margie, who needed another carry-on.  I was hesitant to see what would happen when I tried to check my big sucker in.

Stanley arrived and so did our van.  Marcia and I said our goodbyes to Dan, Naomi, Margie and Tracy.  I really hope I get to see them all again somehow someday, even if it is not panda related.  For now I'd just like to think that it's not goodbye, but just so long until we see each other again.  I'd really like to think that.

The trip to the airport was quick and Stanley helped us check our bags in.  Miracle of miracles, my now 27.4 kg (60.28 lb) bag went through without so much of a second look, or surcharge!  Yee ha!  I skated through immigration and customs happy as a lark.  Honestly, I worry too much.  I know that.

The only flies in the ointment today were the four bottles of Gatorade I bought near the gate (after security) aren’t allowed on this flight, so I have nothing of my own to drink, and I’m left to the devices of the flight crew to keep me hydrated.  Bah.  And we departed nearly an hour late due to a “problem with the cockpit window”, but the pilot seems convinced we’ll only be 15 minutes or so late into San Francisco.  Go figure.

Our first meal was served and I inhaled the first Western food I have had in 11 days (ok, forget I told you about the McDonald’s cheeseburger!).  It probably wasn’t even very good, but it was beef in tomato sauce, some sort of au gratin potato, two little slivers of carrot, salad with thousand island dressing and some light lemon cake with raspberry sauce.  I did not leave a scrap of it.  I even ate the roll with butter.  Oh butter, how I have missed you!

I made it through that flight fine, the transfer at San Fran was fine until the Immigration officer said "Welcome home, young lady," which made me cry.  I'm not sure if those tears were because I'm tired and homesick or because I am old enough to be the officer's mother.  Young lady?  Yee ha!

The longest part of the trip home I have to say was San Fran to Boston.  That was interminable.  Full flight, annoying seat mate, impossible sleep, low battery on the iPod.

But finally, I was delivered home some 28 hours after I left Shanghai, greeted by another furry four-footed wonder who was happy to see me.  I'd do it all again in a minute...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More random thoughts...

For some reason, I thought it made sense to get up at 6 a.m. I’m not sure why that was a good idea, as I don’t have to be out of here until 9:00. Hmmm. Because of that I am now coming up with more random notes.

On this trip, I was fortunate enough to keep my snarking skills in tact by practicing with one of the best from the Midwest. Dan, it turns out, shares my proclivity for poking fun at the insane comments and observations that we came across during the course of the trip. We both found it quite implausible that Chengdu was the equivalent of Paris in David’s mind, and would raise eyebrows every time David made that assertion. Another repeating theme that left us wondering was that it seemed that anything of Chinese origin was good for something. For example: jade cools your inner heat; the powder generated by rubbing two pearls together is good for circulation; Sichuan pepper cools you when it is hot out; this tea eliminates belly fat; this tea is especially good for “drunken time”.  If everything is good for something then I would think this is the healthiest people on earth.  Which leads me to my next point....

One other very easy target for us was a male habit of walking around wherever they are with the shirt lifted up to the breast bone, letting whatever belly they have hang out over their blet. We first saw this in Beijing and it was a recurring sight just about everywhere but Shanghai, so we both realized it was more than just an isolated occurrence. I think this is how Dan and I originally started snarking during this trip. He appreciated the wonder I shared aloud with him one day. I’m not sure whether these men think this is attractive, whether it’s an animalistic instinct to attract the ladies or truly just a cooling mechanism, but I am fairly certain this is not what my mother hopes I bring to Thanksgiving dinner.

Already I miss hearing David and Stanley say “citron paper”, especially now that I’ve realized that what they really mean is “Sichuan pepper”.

China is a honking society. They will honk in traffic, honk on empty roads, honk to pass you, honk while passing you, honk to warn you around a sharp corner, honk because they are about to run you down. It seems an odd but efficient method of communication. It’s like New York cabbies on steroids.

There’s neon and then there’s neon. The neon of Times Square, for example, is seizure inducing. It is meant to be crazy-ass in your face. The neon on the high rises in Shanghai is tasteful. It seems as if they meant it to be pretty and eye-pleasing. The tv tower projects rainbow colors that fade in and fade out. The Citi building is covered top to bottom with animated video. The bottle opener building is a gorgeous neon blue. Sure it’s all bright and you can probably see it from the moon, but not an assault on the brain in the least.

In my last hour in Shanghai I am going back and forth on whether to take the second piece of luggage at $200 or cram it all into the big bag and pay the weight overage of $100. I’m leaning toward the latter, but I’m afraid I’m missing something here. It seems too obvious.

Off to my last breakfast in China….talk to you from the US!

China -- Day 10

Subtitled: Peanut butter, (More) Retail Therapy, Oh What a Skyline and Solving the Baggage Crisis

After nearly 10 ½ hours of sleep last night, I hit the breakfast buffet and was excited to see cereal on the menu here, as well as peanut butter. Peanut butter is something I’d started craving about 2 days ago and I made sure to indulge. After a large glass of OJ and two cups of coffee, we were off for a very long day in Shanghai.

Our first stop was the French Concession. Here we saw the spot where the Chinese Communist Party first met and walked around to enjoy the very quiet (hey, it was 8:30 a.m.) tree-lined neighborhood. Who knew that such pretty trees were grown in the center of a large city? The architecture seemed to be a sort of fusion of a bit western and asian. We walked through some narrow streets and areas with shops and restaurants. I indulged in a caramel macchiato from Starbucks. I figured I’d made it this far with my digestive system in tact, might as well risk it all on the last day.

Our next stop was a silk factory. I’d been a bit indifferent about the silk stop, and I think many can attest to the fact that I had no interest in buying anything. Well, my Bank of America Mastercard was left a puddle of melted plastic there. After looking at all the hard work that goes into harvesting the cocoon and how they meld the single threads into eight more more to get something durable, and how the cocoons are stretched, well, who wouldn’t want to support all that effort? In the end, I bought a silk comforter and duvet set, a silk jacket and a silk blouse, plus a couple of table runners for home. Good lord, my luggage crisis (you might remember I was 6 pounds over coming from Chengdu) just went into DEFCON 3. But I’d worry about that later.

After I bounced the Chinese economy further through the roof, we moved on to The Bund. Driving in from the airport last night I could see that Shanghai was different than any place else we had been so far. Despite being utterly exhausted, I was sort of excited by the fact that I was in another of the world’s greatest cities. Stanley said that Beijing is China’s history and Shanghai is its future. That much is pretty obvious. This area is notable because the buildings on one side of the river are all old and established, and face the slap in the face contrast of the financial district across the river, all flashy brand new skyscrapers that seem to all have once been the tallest buildings in the world. I love this. I love big cities. I love gorgeous skylines. I love nice, sunny, warm autumn day. So today I was hitting the jackpot on all counts. The skyline here is incredible. It is also less than 30 years old and because it was built on farmland is also already sinking. But that won’t stop the Chinese, who are actively building what will be (when it is done) the world’s tallest building. Until another is built to top that.

A side note about all this construction: I mentioned earlier all the cranes I was seeing. As we left the hotel this morning and drove down a block nearby that tended to be mostly residential and light commercial, Stanley said that the entire block was being taken for new construction. “Come back in two years and this will all be very tall buildings,” he said. I have to wonder what that does to the morale of citizens to constantly be displaced for things like Olympic stadiums, river gorges and skyscrapers.

Anyway, my favorite buildings were the tv tower, which looks like three fuschia colored pearls stuck on an upright pole, if that makes sense and one building they call the bottle opener, because it has an opening at the top that looks like could pop the cap off a beer.

Our next stop would be lunch. This would be the most accessible meal we’ve had so far, with either dishes we’ve had several times and tolerated well on this trip, or actual dishes we’ve had in Chinese restaurants at home. I wish I could remember specifics, I know the tomato and egg dish returned, which we all devoured. But after a while one lazy susan filled with 20 dishes starts to blend in with another. I ate happily, but Linda and I still found room for a Magnum ice cream bar afterwards.

After the Jinsha Museum experience in Chengdu, which was right after lunch and left most of us in a coma, we were afraid we would suffer the same fate at the Shanghai Museum. To the contrary, this ended up being one of the most amazing museums I have visited. It is logically split into sections for paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics, coins. As Ping Ping, our local guide (who was with us for the first three stops then disappeared at the museum never to be seen again) suggested, I started at the top floor and worked down. We were given only 75 minutes on our own, so I made a point to see the Chinese painting and calligraphy first, and that ate up nearly 40 minutes. I could easily have spent a half day here, but instead had to speed walk through the porcelain (I loved the Ming dynasty porcelain) and the bronze work. I absolutely adored the calligraphy section though, which traced how the art of writing Chinese characters changed with each dynasty. There were actually artists who were considered masters of this art and it showed. It was all just beautiful.

Next we moved on to the Yuyuan Garden, which is the best example of southern Chinese style gardens. Stanley did a great job explaining to us the elements of feng shui here, like putting a large stone in between the entrance and the courtyard to keep the energy in; making foot bridges zig and zag “to keep things interesting”, how rocks were meant to look like clouds or mountains or both, so that visitors could feel like they are escaping to a different part of the world when they visited the garden. It really did evoke a peaceful atmosphere, but for the throngs of crowds parading through it. I think I’d go back early in the day to try to see it less crowded. If I were staying here and had more time, that is…

Stanley surprised us next and took us to a Chinese tea tasting ceremony. This was in a small teahouse upstairs in the neighborhood near the garden and it had a spectacular view of the skyline from up there. The tea ceremony was nice because we got to sample about 6 teas we hadn’t had, and it was all prepared by a tea master who knew how to properly steep and pour the tea. Personally I liked the lychee black tea the best but I’m not really a tea drinker to begin with, so I didn’t know what was “good” and what wasn’t. It was a nice surprise from Stanley and I think we all enjoyed it.

We were allowed to roam around for about an hour before dinner. This was sort of unusual because I felt like we’d really been kept on a short leash most of the tour. What was funny was that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t really want to shop, was running low on batteries for the camera (seriously, about 1500 shots this trip!) and was just mentally on overload. So I did what any other girl in my situation would do, I went to Starbucks and bought an iced hibiscus mango tea and then to McDonald’s and ate a cheeseburger. In one day, all food cravings were satisfied!

That snack did not stop me, however, from eating with the group at our farewell dinner. The restaurant was right outside the garden and we knew we were in for a good meal when we saw photos that proved that both Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton ate there. Now there’s a pair of fascinating diners! This would be our last lazy susan meal and it was quite good. Now that the best part of the trip is over, I got a little more risky in what I ate, so I tried some seafood in the form of crystal shrimp and sweet and sour fish. I’d purposely avoided seafood and meat most of the trip just in case it made me sick, so now was the time to catch up. There was a spicy chicken and cashew dish that was great and a smokey sweet bean dumpling that was interesting. Stanley bought us another bottle of red wine, this one a bit sweeter than the last, and it was delicious.

Stanley rounded us up and piled us on the bus for one last time. He told us sincerely that we were a great group and he enjoyed his time with us. He says he doesn’t say that to every group, but who knows. I think for the most part we were a great group. I had fun and learned something from everyone and certainly enjoyed mucking out cages and snarking it up with them. Some of us hit the bar in the hotel for one more drink, but not before I stopped in the lobby shop and paid $35 for a second checked bag. There was no way I was going to make it with all this stuff and one suitcase without either paying serious overage or doing the “redistribute and rebalance your dirty laundry at the check-in counter” dance. This way it’s all going home, I’ll just have to pay to check a second bag.

So now I’m packed and ready to go, except for what I’ll be throwing out tomorrow and the electronics that are charging.  But damn, I just looked it up and an extra checked bag on United is $200?  Maybe this expense will curb my trip shopping in the future!!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

China -- Day 9

Subtitled: No rooster, wedding crashers, turbulence abounds

Today was the latest we have been able to sleep so far. The wake-up call was at 7:30 but I really didn’t have to be up until well after 8:00. It felt good to stay put and lounge a bit before breakfast. I finally managed to have a really good night’s sleep which I attribute both to finally adjusting to the time difference as well as shutting my window. That may seem strange, but after the big cities, it was nice to be up on a hill away from city noise, so I’d been sleeping with my window open. No window, no rooster, so I made it through to nearly 7 before I started to want to wake up. Take that, rooster buddy.

Breakfast at the hotel was better once we managed to actually let the buffet open before we invaded it before we jetted off to Bifengxia the first two mornings here. There wasn’t too much more on offer, but the OJ went from steaming hot to actually cold. The coffee here was interesting, already milked and sugared for us on the hot plate. It was good, but I like my coffee sweetened. The only other add to the buffet this morning were fried dough type bits, which could have used some cinnamon and sugar but I made do with the bright red jelly meant for toast.

We have nearly three hours to get to Chengdu to catch our flight to Shanghai at 3:20. On the way to the airport we stopped at a large banquet restaurant (with many rooms to serve large parties as well as smaller groups of diners like ours). This was the closest to Chinese food in America I have seen, with something like chicken fingers available. I had probably my last of the Ma Po Tofu only instead of tofu it was veggies. There was also a slightly spicy beef dish that tasted good. But again it was an exercise in more than 15 dishes all being spun about on the lazy susan and was way more food than all of us combined can eat.

The fun part of the meal though was when we crashed a traditional Chinese wedding being held near us in the restaurant. It was gorgeous, with all the bright red and gold decorations. There was a very loud officiant using a microphone who sounded to me a lot like the host of Iron Chef. The bride was dressed in traditional dress and headpiece and stood at the back of the room covering her face with a fan until she arrived at the side of her groom. There was a whole lot of bowing to each other, offering of tassels and sharing of food, all prompted by the bellowing officiant (remember, here louder is better) and very ceremonious, thundering piped-in music. It was interesting to see and cheap entertainment for the last half of our lunch hour.

On the way to the airport, David told us he enjoyed our time with him and gave us each a small panda pin as a gift. “It is cheap but it comes from the heart,” he said. Then, like he did when he picked us up, he sang again. He chose John Denver’s “Country Roads Take Me Home” and also “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. I don’t know what got into me other than fatigue and homesickness, but I will admit to shedding more than a couple tears.

Our flight out of Chengdu left an hour late, so the impromptu river cruise Stanley suggested earlier was nixed in favor of more sleep. We had a hellaciously turbulent half hour during the flight and I think all of us were hot, tired and in need of alone time. Stanley made the call to cancel the river cruise on his own, so maybe even he is feeling fatigued.

Once the plane landed, I noticed the crew all lined up in the center aisle and bowed to us. I hadn’t noticed that on any of the other domestic flights (all on Chinese carriers) here, so maybe it’s only done after near death experiences like the one we had cruising through that turbulence.

We were talking amongst ourselves and I think what is tiring about this trip is not just the physical moving about but also the constant overload of our senses. Everything we see, we hear, we taste is new and needs to be processed. I think that interrupts our normal rest and sleep patterns, as there’s been no “off” switch since we got here. I just need to make it through one more day…

So while I killed time on a bus, I thought of more random things that I’ve forgotten about in all that I’ve already written:

In Xi’an, I bought a book and had it signed by one of the farmers who discovered the Terra Cotta Warriors. When he discovered them while he dug a well on his land back in the 70s, the government gave him some obscene amount of money, like $30, to get him off the land so it could be excavated further and, as we know now, convert it into a tourist destination. Now though, he is sitting in the gift shop signing books and I’m sure reaping some reward for it.

At the start of the trip, Stanley asked us to give him the US equivalent of $8 per person per day to cover tips during the course of the trip. My first response was that everything I had read to prepare for China indicated that tipping is illegal. But as the week wore on and I saw these guides bending over backwards to accommodate us, it felt criminal that that was all we gave them.

Along that same vein, when four of us told David yesterday that we wanted to do the play with pandas photo opportunity again, he was surprised. “1000 yuan, you know?” he said. That is $150 which for them is about what they get paid in a month. And the four of us did it four times in a week. I felt almost gluttonous at that point, if that makes sense. It made me wonder what they think of Americans like us who seem to come here and cavalierly throw our money around like that. To me, it was part of the experience and a memory I would never want to forget, so if I have the wherewithal to do it, I will. But part of me did feel almost guilty when David was so incredulous that we would pay for that again.

As he gave us the itinerary for Shanghai tomorrow, Stanley just uttered the understatement of the tour: “This tour is not for your relax (sic), this tour is for you to see as much as you could.” I mean really, I like to jam-pack my days when I travel, but even I am starting to be run down from this schedule.

When checking in at Chengdu, I noted my luggage is 23.2 kilos, which is about 51 pounds. I think I need to shed 6 pounds before I head home on United. Gulp.

All along the roadsides in rural Sichuan province, I started to notice in the driveways in front of homes on which the residents would spread grain or rice or corn out and leave it to dry in the sun. That, and they would hang hundreds of ears of corn from their homes to dry. I asked David and he said they do that to preserve it for the winter, usually for farm animal but sometimes for themselves. I found it hard to believe that many will strip the corn kernels from the cob by hand one painstaking kernel at a time; if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.

While I’m in no race to get home, I will say that I eagerly await the time when I enter a bathroom and don’t wonder if it’s Western or squatty and whether I need to bring my own toilet paper or not and whether I can flush it or throw it in the waste basket when I’m done. I’ve adapted well, but see, these are the sorts of things we take for granted and don’t need to mentally process at home. Here, even going to the bathroom or brushing your teeth (DON’T use the water!) can have serious consequences.

All of us have been trying Chinese ice cream wherever we see a freezer case full of it. In Bifengxia, Dan found the best ice cream bar ever: some sort of chocolate covered heath ice cream with little chocolate balls embedded in it and a marshmallow center. At the Chendgu airport, Paula found an oatmeal ice cream covered in dark chocolate. It is good to travel with people with such excellent taste in the finer things!

That’s it for Saturday….full day in Shanghai tomorrow!

Friday, September 16, 2011

China -- Day 8

Subtitled: I Found My Man, This Is What Plastic Is For, All In The Name Of Tai

It rained last night and when I say rain, I mean torrentially raining. I laid awake for a while last night listening to it and prayed that it would stop before we had to volunteer today. And my prayers were answered. It stopped raining but did not clear up for most of the day. In fact, heading higher into the mountains the fog and mist was heavier (every time I rode into those mountains and saw the peaks shrouded in fog, I thought “Gorillas in the Mist” for some reason). We had the same breakfast as the day before and hit the road at 7:15. On the way up the mountain we got stuck behind a trash truck that refused to move. After trying to squeeze by without mashing mirrors for quite some time, our guide got out and argued demonstratively for a bit with the driver of the truck and finally convinced him to move in a bit so that we would not plummet down the side of the mountain. This was one of those roads only wide enough for maybe 1 ½ normal sized cars, not a bus and a truck. And there was no guardrail to keep us up, only a sure-death plummet down on our side. So that was why we were all late for work. I swear.

Something happened overnight and the four of us did not get split up and we were assigned to a new keeper, who I think introduced himself as Mr. Chang. It was funny calling him that as he appeared to be all of 20 years old; all of us could have been his mother. Anyway, Mr. Chang seemed to want to practice his halting English on us and also didn’t mind waiting while we ran amok taking pictures when we probably shouldn’t have. It was nice having a rapport with him though because we could ask him about the pandas rather than feeling like we were an imposition simply by asking simple questions.

Each time we entered a panda house for the first time of the day, it was always interesting to see how the pandas would greet you. They hadn’t seen humans overnight and were also probably hungry and ready for some treats. Most of the time they came to sit on their butts, legs out, right near the enclosure’s bars. They’d hold on to the bars or stick a paw out. One we saw this morning was up on his hind legs, holding the bars with his front paws, and rocking side to side, one foot to the other, head back in the air. I’d seen the pandas on panda cam do this before and it was sort of neat to see it up close.

We cleaned four of the enclosures we did yesterday. You might remember that I managed to dodge the poop scooping simply by having exceptional broom skills. No such luck today. And the enclosure I got to clean was Lu Lu’s, who apparently is the Ace #1 Pooper at BiFengXia. I was surprised he was still standing when I finally saw him; it appeared as if he’d imploded. And just to properly indoctrinate me into poop scooping, I reached down to pick up a long stalk of bamboo and the other end got stuck under the edge of the bars and when it flicked back, it flicked you-know-what all in my direction. Joy. I let it get to me for all of 30 seconds, didn’t care what hardened in my hair for the rest of the day and went on to the next cage. I can assure you, nothing will faze me now that I’ve cleaned Lu Lu’s cage.

Mr. Chang also had me clear off the outside enclosure for Lu Lu, which meant removing the bamboo from yesterday, cleaning up the poop and then hauling in new bamboo for the day. It was actually really satisfying to visit him later in the day and see him out there on his patio enjoying the bamboo. It was still clean out there then, but I’m sure he’ll waste no time messing it up. Lu Lu got up to return to his inside enclosure while we were watching him, but somehow I used some panda whisperer skills to convince him to stay with us and pose for photos. I won’t say I guilted him into it, but….I did scoop his poop! He indulged us for about 5 minutes, then gave us a bleat and went inside. And that was it for me and Lu Lu until I went back to say good bye later in the day.

We each got to feed pandas again this morning, having cut up more panda cake for them this morning. The keeper knew how many grams each panda was supposed to get, so we had to eyeball the loaf, cut it down to what we thought was correct and weigh it. We got pretty close most of the time. The keeper uses the panda cake sometimes to lure the panda in and out of the different parts of the enclosure, always sliding closed and locking a door behind them to keep them separate from us.

When Mr. Chang cut us loose from our morning duties, David took us back up to the 2 year olds’ area for another “play with pandas”session. Even though I hadn’t taken the cash out of the ATM for a third paid session here, I whipped out my credit card and signed right up. Experiences like this, that only happen once in a lifetime, are exactly what the plastic is for. We gowned up and got in line. While we were waiting, we could see the four pandas that they had chosen for us, and they could see us. I think they are well aware that any time non-keepers show up in hospital gowns, they’re going to get snacks. They were climbing all over each other and up and down the bars between them and us, they were obviously so excited. I could hear the little bleat of the guy I sat with yesterday and hoped I could get my hands on him first again today. And I did. He wasn’t hard to spot because he was already talking away. I sat down sort of next to and behind him and just started to pat his neck and back. I talked to him and he was chatting away back at me. I made a point this time to really take it in, look at his eyes, look at his fur, remember how it feels. It is just such an incredible thing to be that close and have them be so gentle and cute. I believe in storing up memories to pull out and savor when I need it the most, and every encounter I’ve had with a panda here is one of them, but this little guy really won me over. I asked the keeper on the way out what his name is, and she said Xiang Riu, I believe. All I know is that I found my man. I’m smitten!

Once we were done hanging with the two year olds, David whisked us off to lunch again in the employee dining hall. Today we had something similar, starting with a tomato and egg drop soup, a pork stir fry, lima beans of some sort with chicken, a hot cabbage slaw and rice. Again it was interesting to see all of the employees come with their own bowls, get them filled at the window, sit with us to eat and then go outside to the sinks to clean them up.

After lunch we went back to the panda kindergarten where I got to see the nursery worker de-poop the infant panda. She held him belly up and started to stimulate his lower region by rubbing it with a wet cotton ball. Then she tapped that area and all of a sudden he started to clear his bowels. I won’t go into much more detail than that, but I did take video of it. The poor guy really looked more comfortable once that was done for him; he’d looked a bit agitated just before that.

The other team of volunteers from our group was assigned to the temporary enclosures that are housing the pandas rescued from the Wolong base during the earthquake of 2008. There they saw a mother panda with a one year old cub who had not been separated from her as most of the cubs already have been. Our team of volunteers really wanted to see them both, so Stanley made a point of taking us up there on the way back to our jobs. Unfortunately we found the mom but no baby. But at this point, our cup already runneth so far over, it was hard for me to be disappointed.

Our afternoon volunteering didn’t consist of much but hauling some fresh bamboo in and talking some more to Lu Lu. We asked the keeper about him, and he said he is 15 years old and has always lived at BFX. I think he said he’d fathered some cubs, but I can’t be sure with Mr Chang’s English.

There was a whole lot of confusion about how the day was to end. David came to get us at 2:30 for a “ceremony” up at the main entrance at 3:00. We were supposed to be back for the last feeding at 3:30. We took the buggy up to the main entrance and quickly surmised that the ceremony was to honor a contributor to the facility and it would be all done in Chinese (obviously) so it would be of almost no value to us to see. Others in the group were still really desperate to get a glimpse of Tai Shan, who’d been practically hidden when we went up to Leopard Mountain the day before. We managed to convince David and Stanley to take us up there one more time. Since all employees were at the ceremony, we had to walk from the main gate. At David’s pace, we did it in about 20 minutes: 10 minutes to the kindergarten and 10 more to the repatriated pandas.

On the way, I stopped our group to show them Lu Lu, since some of them didn’t work with him like I did. He was still eating bamboo, only this kind he was stripping the leaves off with his mouth (with the leaves all pointing in the same direction!) and once he had a dozen or so leaves all lined up in the corner of his mouth, he use his hand to twist them into a cigar shape, and he’d bite of chunks of the cigar and eat them. It is all really very scientific, and he has it down to a science, to be able to pick up stalks of bamboo and strip the leaves off, skillfully leaving the twig that attaches the leaf to the stalk intact! I bid Lu Lu a fond farewell and told him to be a little kinder with his poop production with his next volunteer, and we continued our walk up to Leopard Mountain.

When we first arrived, Tai Shan was right where we left him yesterday. And even when the keepers came to bring him and his neighbor Fu Long biscuits, he didn’t move. After a bit, he crept up two steps so we could see more of him, but he was still dozing away. Finally he got up, went into his enclosure (where we ran to the front window to peer in at him). He thought about his biscuit for a few minutes and then brought it outside. Tai sat upright on the step, one paw on his knee, the other holding the biscuit to his lips where he licked it absentmindedly for about 10 minutes, giving us ample time to snap about 50 photos. Then as soon as he’d had enough, he dropped the biscuit and went back to his spot. And that was the end of the Tai Shan show. Now that everyone was satisfied (David let us stay past 4:00 because I think he knew he’d have an uprising on his hands if he tried to make the group leave) we could leave. While we waited for a buggy to bring us back to the entrance, I went over to say goodbye to Fu Long. He was the first adult I saw when I arrived on Wednesday and it felt right to see him last too. We also caught a glimpse of Mei Sheng doing his tree climbing routine again, climbing nearly three stories up a tree, to then perch himself precariously in the fork of a branch for a nap. I honestly don’t know how these pandas balance and don’t accidentally fall out of the trees while they sleep!

We left Bifengxia for the last time. Last time on this trip, that is.

Dinner tonight was in the hotel restaurant again. Stanley helped us order. Since I was the only spicy chick there, we didn’t order spicy. We had kung pao chicken, two plates of Sichuan green beans with chicken, the fried sticy rice sticks that we also had last night and a big order of fried rice. With beer for some and Sprite for others, the whole thing came to 24 yuan or $4 a person. What a bargain!

I noticed that on the way back on the bus I started thinking about packing for home. I think mentally I’ve made the transition and am ready to head back. Tomorrow is mostly a travel day (2 ½ hours to Chengdu then a 3 hour flight to Shanghai) and we have Sunday to see Shanghai and that is it. I can’t believe I’m at this point already!

Not sure if there will be an update tomorrow…nothing but travel, I think.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

China -- Day 7

Subtitled:  Who Knew They Look Into Your Eyes, Mr Hard To Get, A Nice Chinese Red Wine

Today would be our first official day volunteering at Bifengxia. We got our wake up call at 6:15 in order to be on the bus by 7:15 and working by 8:15. Last night I managed to sleep most of the night in good order until the loudest rooster in the universe started to crow at 4:30 a.m. I just can’t win here when it comes to getting some sleep!

This hotel, Moonstar Hotel, is on one of the highest hills in Ya’an. It is so isolated that walking to Ya’an for a night out or even for dinner or the supermarket is just out of the question. The hotel has its own restaurant though and we ate there last night; another lazy susan meal with dish after dish of interesting or wonderful things. I am in love with what I think is called Ma Po Tofu, which is a really hot and spicy tofu and meat dish. I put it over sticky rice and it is quite a meal.

Anyway, the restaurant doesn’t open for breakfast until 7 so that left us little time to eat this morning, but we managed to sneak in early. Since I just can’t stomach noodles, rice or anything Chinese at that hour, I hit the pastry table and had something that looked like jelly roll, two shortbread cookies and toast with some sort of fruit flavored gel. The chef showed up and fried eggs for all of us. I’m still wondering about the orange juice (like Tang at this hotel) that was boiling hot. Hmmmm.

We made it to BFX and got split into two groups, one of four and one of six. I volunteered to get off at the first stop with Bev, Tracy and Kim. They then split the four of us to work with other volunteers, for some reason. This proved problematic later in the day when the other volunteers seemed to be getting special treatment from their keeper, but the keeper Kim and I worked with seemed nice enough for sure and treated us well. We got paired with two girls from Ireland who were here to work for two weeks.

It was time to don our keeper clothes (ok, I’ll admit I put the jumpsuit on in the bus) and get to work. First stop was an enclosure that needed to be mucked out. Each enclosure holds two pandas separated from each other by a wall inside and fence outside. They are indoors overnight, so we first cleaned the outside, scooping up any poop and cleaning up the shedded outer layers of bamboo that the panda had eaten on his patio the day before. Then we pulled weeds on the patio, swept everything up and dumped it into big buckets. The keeper would then transition the panda outside, locking us back inside, pushing panda out and locking it outside. We’d then sweep and de-poop the inside of the enclosure. It was not sunny but it was about 80 and humid and I broke a sweat fast. We’d lay out fresh bamboo for the day and off we’d go to do another. We did enclosures this morning and helped with another one, getting done about 10:00. Then we got to take a break until 11 but Stanley and David had arranged for us to sit for another photo with a 1 year old panda and play in the kindergarten with 2 year old pandas, so off we went for that.

I am, apparently, an expert sweeper. I somehow managed to avoid scooping poop if only because I can sweep with these bundles of sticks they call brooms here. I swept the fronts of a couple enclosures as well as a long path from the main road up to an enclosure. It felt good to break a sweat but I do wish I’d gotten to do something else.

The whole time you are cleaning within eyeshot of a panda, there is a very good chance they are watching you. We were outside the first couple of enclosures and I was down pulling weeds on the floor and I’d look up and the panda would be inside at the round door watching me, as if it were overseeing the whole thing. I will say, it was satisfying to go back by the places that we cleaned during the morning and see them enjoying their newly laid bamboo and freshly cleaned and weeded terrace!

What really amazed me is how the pandas respond to their keeper. One female panda, Ho Bao, was way out in her enclosure, high up in a tree. Apparently she’d been there all day yesterday and they couldn’t get her down last night either. Her keeper didn’t seem concerned at first, but when he stood for almost 15 minutes calling her name and she didn’t come down, he started to tell the other keepers about her. What was fascinating though is that when he called her, she lifted her head and looked in his direction, so she knew he was calling her. Not that she was going to come to him, but she obviously realized she was being called. All of the pandas, when being summoned in or out, respond to their names.

The difference between this photo shoot and the one at Chengdu is that the panda does not sit on your lap. They brought out a little one and put him on a set of chairs (that so closely resembled a bus station!). One by one we each got to go sit with the panda and pat him while he was occupied by a carrot or cookie. The encounter lasted all of 30 seconds this time (rather than a minute in Chengdu) but this time I managed to get video. It was not as overwhelming emotionally this time because I was prepared for it all. I just remember patting him and looking into his eyes as he ate away. I also scratched his neck and his chin when he lifted his head up. The whole thing went by so fast though it seems like a dream.

Very quickly we got driven up to another panda kindergarten, different from the one yesterday. This one was for the 2 year olds. We were gowned up again and led into a courtyard where four pandas sat munching away eagerly on their panda biscuits. I moved towards one panda that was sort of off on his own and got to know him. This was just an amazing experience because I could spend three minutes getting to know this panda. What was just amazing about it is I did nothing but rub his back and scratch the back of his neck and talk to him and every few bites he’d squeak at me, like we were conversing. And when he turned to look at me, he made eye contact with me. I told Suzanne about it and she smiled and said that that was very common.

Right after that, David took us to the keepers’ dining hall, where he had arranged for us to have lunch. For 20 yuan (about $3.50) we had about five courses. It was all traditional Chinese but it was good and cheap and we didn’t have to go too far for it. What was interesting though was seeing how it worked for them. Each employee brings their own bowl, goes up to the buffet window and all five courses are served into the bowl. The employees all eat in the dining hall and when they are done, they go outside to communal sinks, scrape off the leftovers into a slop bucket and wash the dishes in the sink. It was actually sort of cool to see the behind the scenes action. Suzanne told us they don’t get paid much but they do get room and board on site.

After lunch with two hours to kill until we were needed back with our keeper, one member of our group convinced David to take us up to the mountain where the repatriated pandas are, specifically with an eye toward seeing Tai Shan, the panda born in DC. We made the long and winding trek there in the buggy (large golf cart) only to find that Tai Shan had hidden himself away behind a wall, but ever the diva, he did stick his head and one paw out when we called his name. I got to revisit his neighbor, Fu Long, who is just one of the most photographic pandas ever, especially when he sticks his uniquely white foot out. We also saw Mei Sheng roaming up in the hills amidst the grass. I think there is already a movement underfoot to get back there tomorrow in order to see Tai out and about rather than sticking his ears out from behind a wall!

Around 2:00 we went back to our assigned teams. The Irish girls we were teamed with showed us how to cut up the panda cakes, which to me seem a lot like Irish brown bread. David said we could try it, but I was still pretty full from lunch. We then went to visit the four pandas under our care to watch the keepers weigh them. They called to them and threw piece of apple and carrot on the large platform scale. The pandas being pandas, were interested in the food and would climb up to get weighed. Our pandas ranged from 125 kg to 94 kg. It seemed like the lower weighing pandas got the bonus of getting panda bread, which we got to feed them. It was the first time I got to feed a panda. Our keeper warned us in the morning to stay back about 3 feet, hold it out to them and when it seems like they have it in their mouth, let go so they won’t bite further down toward your fingers. With that in mind, I lifted some panda cake to the panda and he took it. I might have gotten a little too close on the second piece because I came away with panda drool all over two fingers. I’ll never wash that hand again….!

The last thing we did before the day was out was put fresh bamboo in the enclosures for the overnight. A few of the pandas got bamboo shoots as well, which I also got to hand feed them. There is just something so awe inspiring to have an animal like this take food from your hand and eat it while looking you in the eye the whole time. I really felt like I did something to make their day better today.

We left tired from being hot and on our feet all day. The work wasn’t necessarily hard but it was a long day to be outside in humid mountain air.

Dinner was not part of the tour package but because we are so far from the city, Stanley met those of us who were interested and took us to the hotel restaurant to help us order. I split a Ma Po Tofu and rice with Kim and a bottle of Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon with Linda. I also had an interesting little fried rice cake too. All in it was about $17 per person before the wine.

After a long day, it’ll be nice to go to bed to the sound of a gentle rain…hopefully it stops before morning and I don’t hear the local cock crow again tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

China -- More random notes

I had over three hours today on the bus, so I caught up on my blogs and put together more random notes.  Unfortunately it doesn't appear that I have access to Facebook from here, so you have been spared nearly 140 shots of baby pandas!  This and the next two blogs are new as of early on 9/14.

More random notes...
David said this morning that the day rarely dawns sunny here in Chengdu but when it does people usually call up their friends and go to a tea house to enjoy the nice morning. I’m wondering how that sort of spontaneity meshes with a work schedule…

On the flight over, the guy I sat with told me a story about capital punishment in China. He said that if prisoners are on death row and they don’t need to be made an example of, they would be fed extremely well and made to be fit so that they are in the best shape for organ donation. How creepy is that?

David told us the most popular US singers in China are Karen Carpenter, John Denver and Michael Jackson. Now there’s a trifecta!

After we saw the wealth of archeological treasures at Jinsha, Paula told me that she had asked Stanley about all the development in Beijing for the Olympics and if they had encountered anything like those digs that would have held up development. His reply was “we had a schedule”. So I am guessing that if anything like that was found, it was just built over. Paula had a good point that most of this sort of exploration started well after the Cultural Revolution so the Chinese are probably still figuring out all of things like the Jinsha site they could be doing but weren’t allowed to previously.

David is extremely proud of his hometown of Chendgu and home province of Sichuan. Whenever he introduces a sight or opportunity to us, he points out how unique it is and how much we are going to like it. When Dan said that he’d already seen face-changing at a theater in Beijing, David made him confess which show was better. Dan of course said the one in Chengdu was, and David acted as if this were a personal victory for him. At one point during the day, David told me that there are many similarities between Paris and Chengdu: the teahouse lined river, the wealth of museums and culture, the slowness of it all. I really have to take exception to the comparison because while on paper that may be true, Chengdu is about as far from Paris as I’ve ever been, both literally and figuratively.

One other thing that is acceptable here is when desperate mothers try to play matchmaker for their unmarried sons. Stanley told us that in the park near Temple of Heaven, we may see mother sitting with photos of their son, a description about him (think “Looking for Love” ads) and a phone number or QQ (like Facebook or Twitter) address for him. We didn’t see that at Temple of Heaven but we did see it in the big park in Chengdu. All over a row of bushes were pinned these handwritten missives which were basically “take my son, please” requests!

China -- Day 6

We had a later wake up call today but I ended up awake a few times during the night so I finally got up a little before 7 and got online before I took a shower and packed. Today we are moving on to Ya’an where the Bifengxia Panda Center is and where we’d be working the rest of the week.

I had a breakfast similar to yesterday’s and made it to the bus by 9. Suzanne Braden, the co-founder and director of Pandas International is riding with us to Ya’an, which is about 2 ½ hours away.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside place and again were treated to a lazy susan chalk full of Sichuan specialities. There was a great celery dish, only the celery was really thin and it had some sort of sliced up bacon with it. There was also a specially ordered spicy dish for the hot and spicy girls (of which I am one) that was a whole lot of Sichuan peppers and some beef. It was excellent and probably the hottest I have had yet. I also liked an egg dish with diced tomato.

It was great having Suzanne at lunch with us. She told us about how Pandas International sprang into action after the 08 earthquake at Wolong and got them supplies for both humans and pandas within 72 hours. She said it was chilling to receive the first email from Wolong that said “send medicine to stop the blood.” I got the impression that that was more a figurative than literal statement but she said one that still gives her nightmares. Last month rain and mudslides washed out the bridge to Wolong so she won’t be making the trip there during this visit to China. She feels Mother Nature hasn’t been too kind to the Sichuan region since 08 because in 09 and 10 they had flooding and this year there was the horrible snowstorms the crushed bamboo. She’s asked us for our list of topics that she can cover at dinner tonight and I expressed my interest in breeding especially given the pseudopregnancy of Mei’s that I just witnessed on panda cam.

After lunch we went to Shangli Old Town which I can’t decide whether it is a tourist trap or an actual working town. It seems more like the latter, and I think maybe my skepticism taints my view of it to even think it’s the former. The town seemed really dilapidated but I’m thinking instead it is just not developed. There were lots of really small local shops and restaurants and locals just hanging about.

We made the short drive to the Bifengxia Panda Center. Getting to Bifengxia means a lot of driving along slow roads with many hairpin turns through the Bifengxia gorge. It was gorgeous scenery but more than a little precarious in spots in our tour bus. Once we were there, it was obvious that this isolation and desolation, so far from society as we know it, is exactly where the pandas belong. The center is so vast that they have golf carts to transport volunteers (us) from the entrance to the volunteer center. Because we arrived here so late today, we were “only” going to go see the panda kindergarten. David and Stanley came after us and warned us when our golf cart left first to wait for them at the top. Well, like hell I say (and I have to say, others were with me, I was not alone!). I started to wander and I think I found Tai Shan’s enclosure since I recognized a very new play structure I’d read was recently installed for him, but there was no sign of Tai himself. I wandered further past that building and found three adult pandas sitting eating bamboo. Already I’d seen three more than most people see in their lifetimes. But turn around again and about 6 feet away from me was who turned out to be Fu Long. What a handsome guy he is…just leaning against the log, sniffing at us as if to check us out. Of course it took me no time to take his glamour shot. And I thought I could die happy with my photos yesterday? Oh, today would be so much better!

Once Stanley found us out and dragged us back to the group, we went to the panda kindergarten where we passed by another nursery, this time only with one newborn in it, but we could take photos. A little further on, we found out that we had lucked out and arrived just in time for feeding. The keepers put pans of milk out and the little one year old pandas wandered over to drink it up. When they were done, they sat up and the keepers would wipe their mouths off and hand them a biscuit of some sort. Then came bamboo and what looked like carrots. These little ones were so fun to watch as they toppled over backwards, eating with their front paws up in the air. It was hilarious. One was significantly smaller than the others and I learned his/her name was Mao. We circled up, over, around and down, finding pandas sleeping precariously perched on tiny little stubs of branches, lounging against logs, walls or the steps. One was hiding in a ditch, thinking that we wouldn’t find him snuggled against the wall.

David summoned us for our orientation, which was really just picking up uniforms (a styling UPS brown jumpsuit) and gloves and signing a waiver. Tomorrow we start work at 8:10, which means leaving the hotel at 7:15. It is all just too exciting for me to put into words, to be honest. I’m crazy with anticipation now that it’s finally here!

Dinner tonight is with Suzanne in the hotel.

China -- Day Five Part 2

Looking back on the whole experience it is even more incredible. But a few things I forgot…the keepers would put the panda on your lap and then they’d hand him a stick of bamboo and dip it either in honey or sugar water that he’d busily gnaw away at. As long as the panda had that, he didn’t care what happened to him. What was hilarious though was as he finished one stick of bamboo, he’d look to the keeper with the stash of bamboo and sticky goodness and they’d hand him another. It was like he knew the drill and would stay with it as long as he could. I think he made it through 8 of us before they changed shifts and the second cub came in for the rest of the photos.

Chengdu PRBC has red pandas as well, which I love. Unfortunately only three were out in the enclosure and they are so squirmy and skittish that it was tough to photograph them.

I think the biggest take-away I had from the day at Chendgu PBRC was that the pandas here are extremely well taken care of and seem to be living as normal an existence as I’d hope for. Just following those two through the grass yesterday felt like a safari to me and seemed so much more natural than just walking up to a glass room or a large cage to see them. I’m so curious to see how things are at Bifengxia now!

Believe it or not, David had to drag us out of Chengdu PBRC. I really think.we all could have stood around waiting for a panda to turn its head to give us that money shot. We would wait patiently if it meant getting the perfect view of thinking it had acknowledged us. But David had an agenda for us and off we went.

Our one mistake was not getting the names of the cubs who participated in the photo op. We think the one I held was Yun Zun or something similar, so I will have to look that up when I get home. I’d want to follow his progress if and when he gets sent to a zoo or starts breeding.

I should probably use this space now to talk about Chengdu. For a city I’d never heard of before I started reading more on pandas, it is massive. Massive in the sense of “how could a city this big exist and I’ve never heard of it?” In fact the top 20 largest cities in China are larger than all US cities. It is massive and sprawling. It is also in a perpetual state of construction and demolition. It is very common to see enormous piles of bricks that used to be one large building that will be replaced by yet another skyscraper. The city is also building additional subway lines so whole blocks have been taken by eminent domain and demolished to make way for the subway.

What I have noticed though is that the further I get away from Beijing the more the infrastructure declines. From Beijing to Xi’an to Chengdu, I saw less and less English, more squat toilets (and no Western style toilest), more demolish, more construction cranes, and more evidence that this is a developing, not developed, country. I am curious to know how much of the difference between Beijing and the other two cities is due to the fact that Beijing was built up for the Olympics. Here I see more really rundown buildings that look like the outer boroughs of New York that just look like lower class tenements. There is what David calls a “deluxe neighborhood” that has designer shops like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, but that seems to be the exception and not the norm. And while I had heard before I came here that China is really dirty, I’ve found that it’s more a function of having billions of people in a relatively small space and also of being one of the oldest nations on the globe. So is it sparkling clean like a quaint city at home? No. But is it as dirty as I was led to believe? Not really. It’s sort of like when people say Rome is dirty…if dirty is classic old architecture that hasn’t been razed for new glass skyscrapers, then give me dirty.

Anyway, after leaving the panda center, David took us for lunch and it was back to lazy susan style serving. All of the dishes had a more Sichuan flare and as I was one of the three on the trip who wanted “super spicy” he had dishes made up especially for us. One that was fabulous was a julienned string bean with three types of hot pepper. There was an interesting egg dish, almost like a flan, that had a spicy beef on top of it. I think we had maybe 15 dishes, none of which horrified me, which I guess is a good thing.

After lunch, we went to the Jinsha Site Museum. This modern glass building was built over an archeological dig It is still an active dig and if we timed it right probably could have seen people working there. The guide walked us through the dig (on platforms over the pits) and explained to us what significant findings were made and where. Then we went to a second building that was more like a museum displaying items that had been found. The guide said this museum had been opened in 2007 so it is still relatively new and I am guessing will become less sparse as the dig continues. I felt that for such a massive space, it had a lot of filler in the way of maps and dioramas with stuffed animals and mannequins than actual treasures. It was interesting enough but I think we were all brought back to harsh reality after the euphoria of the panda experience that morning.

Our next stop was supposed to be a tea house but the one David wanted to try was closed, so we went to another that ended up being the same one that Anthony Bourdain went to on the episode he was in Sichuan Province. This was an outdoor pavilion with little cement tables with big wicker chairs around them. Almost as soon as we entered the pavilion, older Chinese men approached us with these long wire rods with cotton at the end of them. What they were (get ready for this) were ear wax cleaners. For a price, they would stick the rod in your ear, use a tuning fork and let it hum against the rod. Somehow, that would clear out the wax. We all politely declined; no, really we don’t need our ears cleaned. Then the men started to offer arm or back massages. I was tempted as I’ve had a knot in my shoulder for the entire trip but Stanley didn’t think it was a good idea. But by far the strangest encounter we had was with an old man who came up to us with a mesh bag of live turtles. These are the little turtles that some kids get as pets when they are young. The guy was pretty insistent that we buy them. I asked David why people might be buying them. He replied “soup”. Ok, so maybe not pets after all.

David ordered us tea which was served in little cups with lids on saucers. David also bought each of us a mooncake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival together. He taught us to drink the tea by picking it up with the saucer, tipping the lid away from you (which holds the tea leaves in and pushes the steam away from your face) and sipping gently. The jasmine tea was nice, but I still miss my coffee!

When we were done with the tea house, we moved on to the park around it where there were a lot of activities similar to what we saw Sunday morning, only all of this felt like it was on steroids. Everything was louder and more ostentatious. There was some sort of faux red carpet runway where residents were taking turns walking the catwalk. There was lots of karaoke, where apparently louder means better. We saw more people doing these groups dances (usually women) and a few groups of men playing cards or Chinese chess.

One of the other tourists in the group got me interested in photographing little kids. For the most part, if we smile, point to the kid and hold up the camera, the parents are really accommodating and proud of their child. Only some times are we denied a shot. But I think that it really captures the spirit of the country when you see the kids react to the camera and I am surprised by how many parents will respond to us in English, even if just to say “bye bye” or “thank you”. We found a lot of little kids in this park that we managed to snap photos of.

After the park we went to the Wenshu Temple, which is the first Buddhist temple I have ever visited. It is made up of several buildings each of which have a different icon (not sure if that’s the right word for a statue of a god in Buddhism) and people would come to pray to a particular god based on what they are looking for: benevolence, wisdom, etc. I found that I hadn’t realized how loud China was until we were inside the grounds of the temple where it was almost deafeningly quiet. In the lantern covered lanes, we saw monks walking around and the faithful lighting incense in large incense burners and offering them up to the gods. The contrast of the dark would buildings with the bright red lanterns and the brilliant gold statues of the gods was really striking. This was a cool, quiet respite on what was a very long day.

Our last stop before dinner was the Kuanzhai Lane Pedestrian Street, which was sort of a touristy block or two of shops, restaurants, pubs and tea and coffee houses. The architecture was pretty and we had a laugh at places like “Scent of a Woman Coffee Shop”. What did it for me though was finding my first Starbucks of the trip, where I bought my collector mugs and thermal cups as I do wherever I go. We only had a half hour here, so we moved on to dinner pretty quickly.

Dinner was meant to be on our own tonight but David made reservations for all of us to eat together at a Sichuan style tapas meal. He said it would be $15 a person so we didn’t hold out a lot of hope that it would be anything fabulous. We were so wrong. In the end, we had over 20 dishes served either to us individually or family style on the lazy susan. David also got extra spicy dishes made for the three “hot girls” so we enjoyed those. I think from that meal, my favorites were two noodle dishes (one thin like spaghetti, the other white and thick like a pencil) that were really spicy, round “sweet meatballs” that looked like golf balls but were filled with something sweet. There were also spring rolls filled with what we think might have been blueberry. Stanley bought us Chinese whiskey so a few of us did some shots. That was interesting; it had a scent of cherries and berries, went down like grappa but had a chocolatey aftertaste. It didn’t take much of that to get a buzz on!

After dinner we drove to the Shufengyayun Theater where we were seeing a local show. We had some time to kill so David walked us through some local neighborhoods. One street was nothing but pet shops, selling predominantly different types of goldfish, but also a few with mice, gerbils, kittens and puppies. This sort of disturbed me because on its face it is not the type of neighborhood I’d ever feel comfortable walking through and the rundown nature of the shops was really unsettling. But a mere 10 minutes’ walk away had us browsing Louis Vuitton and Burberry. Go figure.

The local show was really entertaining. There were maybe 10 acts and included hand shadows, Chinese violin, Chinese opera, dancing, puppetry and face changing, which was the big finale. Face changing is an interesting trick. The actors appear with a mask on and quicker than you can blink, they switch their masks right before your eyes. I think I saw a few of the actors pulling them away with strings, but it doesn’t explain how they can get down to bare face and then have a mask on again! This was really a great experience and I’m glad we had the chance to see it. But what an action packed, fun filled day!

I stayed up until midnight checking email, looking at photos and posting to Facebook. Hoping for more sleep tonight!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

China -- Day Five

Subtitled:  Pandas!

This will have to be part one of Day Five, since it's 11:20 p.m. here and I have a 7 a.m. wake up call.  But I'll cover the best part of the trip now.

I got a nice 7 1/2 hours of sleep last night which was just tremendous.  Mentally it felt so much better to wake up the first time and see it is 6 a.m. and not 1:30, 3:00 or 4:15.  Breakfast here was good but the further we get from Beijing the more Chinese and less Western breakfast seems to become.  I still managed to carb up (cereal, pastries) and balance that with protein (yogurt) and juice before we headed out.

Our first stop of the day was Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Facility.  There was a heavy mist to the start of the day, which made everything seem rather ethereal.  We walked up a path and immediately into a wooded area surrounded by bamboo.  David, our local guide, asked how many of us were interested in the panda photo opportunity, and all of us except Dan did it.  David took us right to the area where the photos were to be done and told us to kill some time looking at the panda nursery nearby.  The panda nursery is just like one for humans, with incubators and the cutest darn little pandas ever.  Since pandas breed around the same time every year (January-ish), all the cubs are born in the summer, so these little guys were all about 6 weeks old or younger. Actually I think the oldest in the nursery that I saw was born on 7/24.  Their eyes are closed, the have a thin layer of fur and they are doing what they do best at this age:  sleep.  We made two passes through the line and more than a few of us were talking baby talk to them.  No photos were allowed so this part of the day has to stay in my memory only.  Finally, David called us over for the photo opportunity.

All of us were taken into a room where we put on a surgical gown and booties.  We gathered together like nervous school children behind the line in front of a big wooden throne.  What seemed like ages, but probably was just a few minutes, passed and all of a sudden the keepers came from the hallway on our right and they were escorting in our panda baby.  He wobbled in like a little toddler would.  He was just about a year old and ready to get to work.  So one by one, we each handed our camera off to a keeper, sat in the chair and they plopped this bundle of fur on to our laps.  From there on, I cannot explain to you what it felt like.  I know I was talking to him, I know I put my cheek on his head to feel his fur (coarse, damp) and I know that I didn't want to let him go.  This was just so much more overwhelming than I ever imagined.  I don't remember now how I thought it was going to be, but however good that expectation was, this was better.

Much too soon, the keepers lifted the panda off my lap and my time was up. I made it about 5 paces away before I broke down and cried. I was not alone in that feeling either. I couldn’t believe what I had just done and felt truly blessed by such an amazing experience. When we talked about the whole thing as a group, we all agreed and others said that I just exploded with happiness holding that bear. I’ve seen their photos of me as well as my own and I have to agree.

We spent the rest of the morning touring the facility. We tracked a pair of pandas as they worked their way through tall grass seeking out more bamboo for breakfast. We saw some cubs snoozing peacefully up in trees. We saw Mei Lan (formerly of Atlanta Zoo and Po’s big sister) napping on a platform. We laughed as one panda dove head first down a ravine and into a ditch in search of breakfast. It was all just so amazing to see them in such a good, healthy environment. I cannot believe I still have three days of this to go!

I’m heading into the Sichuan mountains tomorrow and am unsure of when I’ll be able to connect again. It may not be until Saturday, but I’ll update the blog with everything when I get connected.

Monday, September 12, 2011

China -- Day Four

Subtitled: To Sleep Perchance to Dream, Looking for One Good Warrior, Not So Hot Pot

Lo and behold, today I awoke at 4 a.m. for the first time, having gotten a full 5 ½ hours of sleep. I didn’t necessarily consider that a success but my tour mates cheered for me at breakfast, pointing out that that was the sum total of sleep I’d managed to get the past two nights combined, so that's progress I guess.

Breakfast here at the hotel in Xi’an definitely skewed more toward Eastern than Western cuisine. I had to hunt to find my carbs, but managed to make do with Rice Crispies, a couple different pastries and two cups of yogurt. And then Naomi and Tracy told me they’d found lychees and dragon fruit on the buffet, so I headed out for round two which would include something with a more Asian feel. See, that’s what picking my food with blinders on gets me! The lychees are good here, just like what I get in the lychee lemonade at home. The dragon fruit is actually like a kiwi only with whiter meat and a bright pinkish red skin. So that was my fruit for the day.

Alan and Stanley warned us that there’d be no scheduled lunch again today but no amount of convincing from them would have me wrapping up things from the breakfast buffet to smuggle on to the plane for lunch. Instead I hit my personal stash of protein bars, Pop Tarts and Fig Newtons. Lunch of champions, I say.

The weather dawned dry at least, although I spent about 10 minutes with a hair dryer drying out my sneakers a bit. Rather than pack still-damp jeans for the journey to Chengdu, I’m wearing them again. Long range weather forecast says it is supposed to be warmer, dryer and downright hot as we approach Shanghai this weekend. By lunch time today the sun will have found us and it is becoming increasingly warm.

Our first stop today was a local art museum and school. The guide at the museum was a cute little Chinese student with a good grasp of English and a playful sense of humor, as we were to find out. She took us on a trip through the history of Chinese art, showing us examples of folk art, like farmer art, which used propaganda to get the Communist Party’s message through (she says people nowadays laugh at that message). Also she showed us puppetry which was made from animal skin and paper cutting and carvings on clay.

As we moved to the next room, she showed us how high all the thresholds were and asked which foot should we lead with when crossing such a high threshold. It turns out men should only step over with the left foot and women should always step over with the right foot, because women are always right. She said this with a wink and a smile to Dan, the only man in our group. In the next room she told us about Empress Wu, the only female to have ever ruled China. Apparently she lived quite long and at 81 still had extremely young boyfriends. Some of us said simultaneously, “cougar” and laughed. The guide looked puzzles and said “teach me new word?” and we explained how cougar has a double meaning now in English. It seemed to me she’d be quick to use that the next time she tells Americans about Empress Wu. We also told her that “dog” and “weasel” have different meanings as well. So we did our deed for the day, educating the Chinese about American vernacular.

The last room in the museum was set up as an art studio with long tables with 10 seats, and plenty of black paper, brushes and ink. If you are hearing foreboding music in your head now, you’re on the right track. We were going to learning calligraphy. Being quite possibly the least artsy person I know, this ended up being an effort in not getting frustrated, throwing the brush and leaving. I felt the pressure when the guide came through and said “Lady, you must finish your stroke.” I thought I was done! Ugh. So instead of saying “forever”, the symbol which contains all 8 strokes of calligraphy, mine probably said “underachiever” or “you’re not done yet”. Who knows. We got to take our lessons home but I’ll be damned if it’s going on the fridge. What I will be hanging are two watercolors I bought from the local students; one is an orchid and the other is a plum tree. Of course they cost about 10% of the price I’ll have to pay to frame them, but it’s a nice souvenir nonetheless.

An interesting sidenote to the calligraphy story is that when artists does paintings of bamboo, they usually do so using only the 8 brushstrokes of calligraphy, so it is more appropriate to say they are “writing bamboo” rather than painting it.

After the museum we headed outside of Xi’an to the Terra Cotta Warriors museum. This has been so high on my bucket list for so long that I could hardly believe I was going. I’d already seen an exhibition with 10 of the soldiers in DC a couple years ago but still to see them on the site where they were found and excavated would be amazing. The warriors are guarding the tomb of the Emperor Qin, emperor of the first dynasty. Qin was a good emperor and is usually compared to Julius Caesar in terms of success, although he was also known for being sort of mean as well. Anyway, of the many things Qin did (among which were unifying the country, centralizing currency, weights and measures and linking the Great Wall together), perhaps designing his own tomb to have several thousand warriors guard it as he went on the afterlife, was one of the best, for me anyway. The “cemetery”, as Dong calls it, is over 56 square kilometers, but only three pits of warriors have been excavated for us to see. Excavation in other areas has stopped until they can determine two things: one, how to preserve the colors on the terra cotta, which fade extremely fast when exposed to oxygen, and two, how best to handle the high volumes of mercury which they find coming from Qin’s burial mound. The amount of mercury they are finding near where he’s known to be buried is so high that it would be dangerous to anyone working on the excavations.

Walking in to pit 1, despite the fact that I’ve seen so many photos of this, I was still completely breathless when I saw it all with my own eyes. Right before me were row upon row of soldiers, each one unique and each dressed for his position in the army, since the uniforms and hair styles varied whether the statue was a warrior, an archer, an officer, a general, etc. These soldiers are so unique that even the soles of their shoes were different, so there was no cookie cutter production line here. Even though I'd seen the dozen or so in DC a couple years ago, there is just something about seeing them here where they were meant to be, and realizing that there were several times more still underground just really blows my mind.

The warriors closest to the entry were completely excavated, but as I walked around the hangar (because the pit looked like a huge airplane hanger), the further from the front the less excavated the area was and fewer whole soldiers I could see. It was just stunning to look down and see pieces of soldier or horse just lying there. I was blown away. To be so completely overwhelmed by it even when I’d looked forward to it for so long was more than I could ask.

Dong did a great job showing us around pits 2 and 3, where there was even less excavation and different types of warriors. We also saw the bronze chariot that was discovered. I really expected a stop like this to be rushed like they tend to be, but we spent quite a bit of time there, over two hours and I left feeling like we had really seen it well.

We went right to the airport from there and again the luggage had been checked and we arrived just in time to board the flight – this is traveling in style. The flight was only about an hour and we picked up our luggage and met David (Chinese name Ying) who is took us to dinner for hot pot. We had to preorder whether we wanted hot pot or not spicy hot pot. I put in my order for fully spicy…we’ll see what happens….

On the way to the restaurant, David told us about Sichuan province and Chengdu (Sichuan means “three rivers”). Oddly enough, he pronounces Sichuan like “Sit-re-an” which I’m trying to figure out. He says there are a lot of Tibetan people here because the province is close to Tibet and Chengdu is the closest big city. When I say “big”, I mean bigger than Boston. A lot of it looks like the area out around Huntington Ave and Northeastern in Boston. It’s a bustling college city with lots of traffic filled double-laned streets.

One epidemic here is building cranes. You can’t throw a dart without hitting a crane putting up a very tall building. Not just here, but in Beijing and Shanghai as well. It is really sort of crazy to think about adding still more to the skylines here!

Dinner was interesting. For Sichuan hot pot, each diner gets his or her own pot of oil with spices. I had to ask for either regular (not spicy) or spicy (hot and spicy, with lots of Sichuan pepper). I opted for spicy because I do like hot and spicy food. Once I’d put in my order though, I had instant regrets. I remembered Anthony Bourdain’s episode where he did hot pot and the next day had a pretty serious intestinal meltdown. I really wasn’t up for that tomorrow, with it being the first day for pandas, but I took my chances. In the end it wasn’t so bad. I was more concerned about the rare/raw meats (chicken, pork, fish and beef) that we had to boil in the hot oil, so I opted for either big wedges of veggies (pumpkin, celery) or noodles or previously cooked shrimp, fried pork strips or fishballs. I suppose in the end it was like really spicy fondue, but it wasn’t that hot. I do wish it had been hotter, but for the sake of saving the day with the pandas and my intestinal fortitude, I am happy I played it smart.

We got to our hotel here in Chengdu and it is really nice. I think the room is the nicest we have had so far, with a big comfy king bed and very Tibetan furnishings. There’s a nice big soaker tub and shower in the bathroom. Hopefully it’s quiet and I can get some sleep!

As I write this someone just rang the bell to the room. A tiny little female hotel employee was delivering mooncakes to my room, a complimentary snack in recognition of Mid-Autumn Day, the night of the first full moon of fall. I have of course already eaten one, and can’t quite explain it. There is a dense moist cake inside and some softer gooey covering outside. I might have to have another to figure this out...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

China -- Day Three

Subtitled: Why Don’t We Do This, (More) Retail Therapy

Oddly enough as we prepare to leave Beijing, the day dawned sunny and warm. You might ask why I know this and it’s because I’d been up since 2:00 waiting for it. I guess one might say I have that affliction Bill Murray had in Lost In Translation, I just cannot sleep for the life of me, at least not when I’m supposed to. I brought this up earlier this morning with some of my fellow travelers, and given that there is both a family doctor and a pharmacist with a pharmacopia among us, apparently I will be hooked up with suitable sleep relief tonight. We’ll see.

Today I ate breakfast with Tracy and Margie. Since our luggage had to be outside our doors for pick-up by 6:30, we were all downstairs for breakfast when it opened. That got us marginally better pickings and at least a table together. I had the same breakfast as yesterday, only with more coffee and dumplings that were filled with cheese and something resembling blackberry.

We were off so gosh darn early to head to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple itself is situated in the midst of a big leafy green park, which is hard to come by in a city like Beijing. We were dropped at the gate and Stanley led us through the park. What we found there was actually fascinating and also heart-warming if you want me to be honest. Stanley had explained that men retire here at 55 and women at 50, so there are legions of folks with lots of free time to fill in their later years. Apparently they meet every day in the park to catch up with friends and do all forms of exercise, game-playing and catching up. I couldn’t believe how crowded it was and how active these “older folks” were. We first came upon a group doing tai chi to some soothing Asian-inspired music. There were groups playing badminton, smaller groups of friends playing cards, mah jong, dominoes. Women would sit and crochet things like small animals and bonnets and sell them along the pathway. A large group was dancing under the shade trees; it seemed each dance started off slow and relaxed and as the group danced to some pre-determined sequence of moves (it seemed they all knew the steps, we certainly did not). The pace of each song built over the 4-5 minutes in went on and it ended in a flurry of arm movements and swirls. There were musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments solo, and a trio of guitarists who were letting anyone who wanted to sing with them. All of this seemed so natural to them and it did give me pause to wonder why we don’t do anything like that. There was a sense of community and camaraderie that I don’t see at home. Plus too, not one of these folks was overweight. Is it because they do this every day or is it just that their daily life doesn’t lend itself to eating enough to be big. I don’t know, but this was extremely cool to be a part of.

We made our way to the Temple of Heaven, which was just gorgeous. The temple is round as heaven is round (so they think). It is designed in three levels (roofs) going up to a steeple like top. Stanley explained that it was constructed using no nails, because the Chinese believe that nails will eventually rust and give way, but if joints are constructed so that the pieces are interlocking, they will hold together forever. The colors and decorations (dragons and flowers mostly) were stunning, mostly blues and greens with some gold and red. Visitors are not allowed into the interior but we could peak in at the 28 columns holding up the roofs (28 for some combination of hours in a day and days in a month, or something like that). It was actually quite surprising how impressive this is, especially after all the buildings we saw at the Forbidden City yesterday that could arguably be considered bigger and better than this. Sometimes, I guess, a little less is more.

After the temple, we boarded the bus and were off to Pearl Palace, where we were shown how fresh water pearls are cultivated and then let loose into the showroom. The sales person asked us to guess how many and what color pearls were in one of the oysters we pulled from a pool inside the showroom. She then split the oyster shell opened and scooped out about 15 pearls. We each got to keep one as a souvenir, which was cool. I made my way through the showroom and quickly found a very affordable solitaire pearl on a chain (we got 30% off the ticket price, which I didn’t feel the need to talk down). I also picked up a ring, because hey, the price was right and I liked it as well as a gift for someone at home. Despite working my credit card down to a melted pool of plastic yesterday at the jade factory, it still worked here and the retail therapy took a bit of an edge off my ongoing jetlag.

I sat outside the shop in the gorgeous sunshine with Dan and Naomi, a couple from Oklahoma. We talked about places we’ve been and favorite places to revisit. Stanley then loaded us all back on the bus where we all agreed we could have spent all day watching the folks at the park just hanging out and being social. It was one of the best parts of the trip so far, for sure.

We had a 1:00 flight to Xi’an on China Eastern Airlines; the flight taking about 90 minutes. I had the noodle lunch on board, which was just noodles with green beans, shrimp and cabbage. I ignored the cucumber salad and the brown hard boiled egg and started munching on the copious chocolate I just bought in duty free.

Having left beautiful weather in Bejing, we arrive in Xi’an heavy rain and back in the low 60s. Stanley had hired us a luggage service on both ends of the trip, so the luggage that was picked up at my room at 6:30 was miraculously delivered to the flight in Beijing and appeared on the luggage carousel for me in Xi’an. It was sort of sweet to arrive at the airport just in time to get a boarding pass and get on the flight!

Once we arrived in Xi’an we had no choice but to persevere despite the rain. Half the group clustered under an overhang for shelter but I went with a few others to walk the Xi’an city wall. It is about 20 feet wide and 8 miles long. We did perhaps a city block’s length, but I figured I’ll only be here once, to hell with the rain.

From there we went to walk the Muslim Quarter, which has a significant food street market. I never thought I’d say this but I was actually tempted to eat street food, some of it looked and smelled so good. One in particular was a thin pancake topped with leek and scallion and some sort of cheese, then topped with another pancake and pressed, then fried. It smelled amazing. Walnuts and dates are really big here. Alan (Dong is his given name), our local guide, said they are grown right outside the city.

After traipsing through more rain and getting soggier still, we arrived at the restaurant for our 16 course dumpling dinner. After being a bit disgruntled with dinner last night, I was happily surprised with tonight’s. Dumplings are thin sacks almost like pancakes, filled with a stuffing of some sort (veg, rice, meat or a combination) and twisted into shapes. This restaurant is known for making the shape look something like what you are eating, so chickens, rabbit, walnuts, tomato, fish. Most of them continued with a somewhat bland theme that I’d discovered. But a few had a kick to them that made them really enjoyable to eat. The spicy chicken, extra spicy chicken and spicy pork were phenomenal. Bev and I were the only ones who like spicy foods so a lot of those were left to us to finish, which is clearly not a problem for me! There was also a pumpkin spice dumpling which I loved, but I would being a pumpkin fan. This was the first time we had Chinese rice wine, which is like a much weaker version of Japanese sake. It was too sweet for some, but just right for me! As I’ve given up on seeing any dessert but watermelon (and I hate watermelon!), I stocked up on Dove chocolate bars and am presently indulging as I get ready for bed.

We don’t leave until 8 a.m. tomorrow but luggage call is at 7:15, so another sort of early morning for us!

China -- Day Three -- Special Edition

As I’m on the plane on the way to Xi’An, I figured I’d write up some of the more anecdotal things I’ve neglected to share in the blog so far.

At the jade factory yesterday, I won’t say the saleswoman was hard sell, but when I expressed an interest in a bangle, she pulled out a display tray of them, grabbed my wrist and slid a plastic bag over my hand and started trying to force (my impression, not hers, I’m sure) bangles over my hand. Now don’t get me wrong, but I was thinking that if I need to employ any method of persuasion to get a bracelet over my hand, it is probably too small. Yet she squeezed the widest part of my hand together and said “RELAX” and I tugged my hand away and said “I don’t want to own it” and she finally backed down. I’m thinking hard sell here might have meant “stick it on them so they can’t get it off and have to buy it.” Ultimately I got a bracelet I can get on and off without butter, soap or Crisco.

Stanley is a really sweet guy and a good guide. But we noticed quite early on that he won’t eat with us. Every meal we’ve been to, they seat the 10 of us around a table and he will leave once we’re seated. He says he goes to eat with the bus driver and oddly enough he always re-appears just as the watermelon is delivered to the table. A few people had Stanley as a guide for a few days before the rest of us arrived and they said they played the game trying to figure out how old he is (born during the Cultural Revolution, that’s as much as we know) and if he’s married and has kids (married, no kids because “I’m a good Chinese”).

The gentleman I sat next to on the interminable flight to Beijing told me a story about a factory manager who works for him here. A couple years ago he called my seat mate who lives in Albany, NY and asked for a favor. It turns out his wife had just found out she was pregnant with a girl and it was their second child. They wanted to keep the baby but with China’s one-child policy, knew they probably shouldn’t. The factory manager wanted to send his wife to live in Albany to have the baby, who would then have dual citizenship in the US and China. Their plan was to return to China with the baby, with the fabricated story that it was a baby who’d been adopted by a US couple but then returned. It seemed they’d thought it all out, but ultimately they just had the child in China. The daughter, because she was the second child, would not be eligible for any social services (health insurance, etc) for her entire life because she was a second child.

Beneath Tiananmen Square is a network of tunnels that get you across the streets from the square over to the entrance to the Forbidden City and back again. These are pretty common in other cities I’ve been in, with the exception of the somewhat arbitrary metal detectors, which are manned by Special Police and overseen by an armed guard. We whizzed right past without stopping, whether that is because we had Stanley with us or not, I’m not sure.

I didn’t manage to dodge the squatty pottie for long. The really nice, seemingly upscale restaurant we ate at for our Peking Duck dinner had only squatters, which I think caught a lot of us offguard. At least they had toilet paper, I suppose. And in the domestic terminal of Beijing Airport, they had only one Western toilet available, which I gladly stood in line to use. Remind me to thank my PT for all those wall squats I’ve been doing for my knee, they are coming in handy for something!

I’m a sage with chopsticks at home having become a sushi freak. However, those are wooden bamboo so the roughness of the wood gives some texture to help you hold on to what you’re attempting to pick up. Here, they are nicely varnished, smooth wood. Here too, most of what we’re eating is in a sauce, which makes the food extra slippery. I will admit to having stabbed more than one bite of food with one chopstick to get some leverage. Call it cheating, I call it survival skills.

The Chinese superstition, if you call it that, is unbelievably limiting. The things that Stanley has said are almost hard to believe. Like when China bid for the Olympics, they either wanted 2000 or 2008, since 2000 was the millennium celebration and 8 (as in 2008) is a lucky number for them. As we know, they got 2008. But other little things like being aware of your birth zodiac (I am year of the dog) and when it comes around again, because every 12 years it will and that will be a transition year for you. You shouldn’t do anything risky or unusual in your transition year, and in fact you should wear something red all year. Men typically will wear a red belt. Generally they really believe in numbers and that 4 is really bad because it sounds like the Chinese word for “dead”.

Stanley taught us how to write some Chinese characters. He drew one horizontal line for “one”. Two for “two”. Three for “three”. All three together can also mean the three parts of life: earth, heaven and something else I can’t remember… To write “emperor” draw a vertical line through the three lines. To show “jade”, draw a dot to the right of this same symbol. To show “country”, draw a box around all of these characters together.

Which leads me to how these folks text on their cell phones. Being the computer geek I can be, I asked Stanley to show me how he texts. He does use a Western alphabet on the keyboard, but what they have to do is type in how the syllable sounds, like “bei” and “jing” for Beijing. Each sound he types will reveal possible characters to choose from and he has to scroll through to pick the one that matches the tone he wants, because don’t forget that each character can be spoken in any one of four tones, each tone changing the meaning of the character. Yikes. I said that it all seems tedious, but he said once you’re used to it, you can do it pretty quickly.

Walking to dinner tonight, I saw a woman carrying a toddler out of a shop with a sense of urgency. She had him facing forward, arms around his waist. She got to the top step of the store and squatted down, holding him over the next step down. He leaned back, spread his legs, letting his pants split open (on purpose) and his private parts popped out only to pee all over the top step. I guess this is just how it’s done here…think of the savings on diapers. Think of how quickly I’m burning these sneakers when I get home.

I've seen some pretty interesting uses of the English language.  One small take out restaurant was called Glutton Kitten, another Nice Rice.  The best billboard I've seen was today, for a "come to Xi'an" travel promotion:  "The Amorous Feelings Tourist Festival".  Now that ought to lure them in!