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The first destination in China we visited on our trip 15 years ago was the Guilin region, famous for its stunning limestone cliffs that climb straight up to dizzying heights along the beautiful Li River. We discovered the quaint town of Yangshuo back then and extended our stay by a week to explore the area because we were so enchanted. This time, I wanted to return and share the landscape with my children. The description of Yangshuo today, however, paints a much different picture of the sleepy backwater village it once was.., “the town, once peaceful, is now a messy smoggy collage of Chinese tour groups, bewildered Westerners, discos, pole-dancing bars, bad traffic and the glue that binds any tourist hot spot together – touts.” – I think I’ll pass!

So instead, we found an off the beaten path airbnb in a small Chinese village that seemed like it might offer a more authentic experience – and it delivered in spades. LaoJia is an old Qing dynasty home in a small village nestled at the base of the cliffs right on the river. An American and Dutchman have spent the better part of the last 1.5 years restoring the home and they have recently started to rent out rooms to recover their investment. There are no restaurants, no shops, no hotels and no cars as the village is accessible only by boat and most of the villagers are farmers. Sounds perfect!

Due to the epic rains, the river had swollen to near record levels and the short 15-minute crossing was exhilarating as we got our first glimpse of the scenery, which was simply stunning. The men navigated our little bamboo boat (not really bamboo, more like lashed together PVC piping with benches on top) across the treacherous waters and we docked. After meandering through a few tiny alleyways, we opened the door to the courtyard of our new home. The guys had restored it beautifully, keeping the old architecture in place and just adding some (necessary) modern amenities (like a toilet!). They had stripped the wood back down to its original glory, but because the rooms were simply appointed with just a bed, you really got a sense for what it would have been like to live in the house circa 1800 as one of the many Chinese concubines of the merchant who owned the complex.

One of the villagers, who they lovingly call “goat man”, immediately took a liking to the kids and wanted to show them his goats — Alright, let’s go! We hiked through the majestic mountains – which took 1.5 hours instead of the usual 30 minutes because it was super slippery due to the mud all over the rocks. Kailani and Mike then descended into the jungle to locate the goats and put them in their ramshackle hut for the night. We were dripping in sweat, covered in mud and our shoes were filthy – it was great! After showering up, we joined the other guests for a communal meal that their Ah-yee prepares every night – all fresh vegetables from the farm sauteed beautifully with a side of rice (they don’t serve meat because it got complicated with the needs of different guests).

Every night, the villagers would come round the house after dinner for a cup of tea and a chat – we would stay up with the other guests trying our hand at Chinese, or just playing games – you really get a sense for the slow pace of village life. The next day, the river was closed to tourists because it was too dangerous to navigate, so we relaxed, took a hike, strolled around the village and played on the banks of the river. The following day we got a boat to take us down river to the larger town of Xingping. You had to try really hard to romanticize the experience – romantically you are floating down river like Tom Sawyer, gazing at peaks that rise upwards of 600 feet above you, Comorant fisherman floating passed, and the water lapping against the bamboo boat. In reality, you’re listening to the ear deafening putter of an engine, getting sprayed with water guns by throngs of Chinese tourists, floating down a chocolate brown river and sitting on a wooden bench. But with the right imagination, it was a pretty fun sight to behold.

On our last day, we wandered around the village some more and took a short stroll with Maarten to “the cave” – the water source for the entire village, and something the villagers are immensely proud of. It was crystal clear, cold and delicious. “Where does this water go?” Mike asked, as we watched it cascading down the mountain making a small waterfall. “Can we swim in it?” – “I don’t know, let’s find out!” said Maarten. Further down river was a series of pools, shaded by pomelo orchards. We were baking in 103 degrees with 98% humidity. The pools were a cool 65 degrees — aaaaahhhhh, glorious! We spent the remainder of the day scrambling around the rocks and immersed in the blue-green waters, gazing out at the karst limestone cliffs beyond – it felt like we had just found the garden of eden – don’t eat the apples!

We regretfully said our goodbyes to Eric and Maarten and the rest of the villagers we had befriended, hugged Goat Man and proceeded on a 15 minute boat ride to a 2 hour car ride to a 20 hour train journey followed by another 8 hour train journey to a 20 minute taxi ride to our next destination – Dali. Lijiang and Shangri-la were our original destinations, but we couldn’t stomach the hoards of Chinese tour groups we had read about that had invaded the towns. There was also a recent fire that destroyed all of the old part of Shangri-la, so visiting a disaster area did not sound fun. Instead we chose Lijiangs little sister, Dali. After 4 days in a small Chinese village, Dali with its Western food and quaint cafes was a welcome reprieve. We rented tandem bikes with ridiculous red and white awnings over them and cruised all over the markets, souvenir stalls and ancient Chinese gates. That night it poured rain for the first time in months and the Chinese got a real kick out of watching these crazy westerners bike through town getting soaked. Glad we were able to provide the entertainment that evening.

Something happens when you enter the backwaters of China, a more approachable and kinder dragon appears. Is it the big crazy cities that change the people into the corrupt and harsh golems or do the cities just attract those people?

For our final days in China, we kicked it up a notch, and booked rooms at the famous Linden Centre in Xizhou. An American couple restored on old mansion built by a merchant before the war. The merchant was only able to occupy it for one year after it was built when he had to flee and it was taken over by the communists in 1949. After the war it was a Kindergarten for a little while before the Lindens rented it from the government and restored it to its original glory. It is more than a hotel, in that they stress interaction with other guests, the staff and above all the culture around you.

The rooms and buildings were amazing! It was like sleeping in the Asian Art Museum with no glass or ropes to keep you back. The owner was and still is an Asian art dealer, so the place was not shy on décor. The food was simple and made exceptionally well; Mike even got to hang out in the kitchen to learn how to make some of the dishes. We were able to do calligraphy and cooking while at the centre, and hear about the globalization of Burning Man. Yes, that’s right, we heard a talk on how Burning Man is now all over the world and hear stories and see photos of its first incarnation in China (near Shanghai). Fascinating stuff. We could have spent hours that night on the terrace above the rice paddies pontificating man’s basic human need to connect and how Burning Man is getting translated across the globe.

The Centre loaned us a couple of tandem bikes and we put them to good use. We rode all day along the Erhai lake to a small city where they still hand produce tie-dyes. We randomly found a family that had a small production in their courtyard and was willing to show us how to make them (we were afraid this was gonna be some lame tourist crap but it turned out to be just hanging out with this minority family teaching us to make tie-dyes – stoker!). Creating the intricate patterns is a very labor-intensive process, it was a better part of an hour or two for Kai and Soleil to produce their leafs. As we set off the rain started to fall. “At a certain point you can’t get any wetter” was our motto for the ride home. A good hour and a half of pedaling as fast as we could, the lake to one side, rice paddies stretching to the massive mountains on the other, clouds of all shapes and colors in the sky, dumping buckets, singing with your kids – another unforgettable moment.

When we got back, we must have looked like wet cats. As we jumped in the hot shower, the hotel sent us up Ginger Tea (the best damn tea I have ever had, a must to recreate at home this winter!). The next few days we enjoyed walking around the little town and in and out of the rice field paths. The final day we had bright blue skies, the first time in a week, the sky reminded us that we were at 7,000+ feet, the deep blue and the powerful white clouds that moved so very fast.

Reluctantly, we boarded our last overnight train ride back down to Kunming, where we would say goodbye to China and Malaysia welcomed us like a warm hug.

Top 10 questions from China left unanswered (warning — some are borderline rants):

  1. What is up with Chinese toilets? Why do they have to be so gross? Don’t get me wrong, I am a friend of the pit toilet. I appreciate that your body doesn’t touch anything in the bathroom. But that doesn’t mean it has to be disgusting. China could use a serious overhaul in the design of public restrooms – that’s all I’m sayin.
  2. Why with the yelling into megaphones and only traveling in groups? Raise of hands — who finds that fun?
  3. What do the Chinese have against napkins and toilet paper? Isn’t it “made” in china? Just a couple of squares to spare?
  4. How do Chinese women manage to stay impeccably clean in white rayon and heels, with so much rubble and garbage and trash everywhere?
  5. With billions of Chinese people riding trains all across China every single day, why is the only available food RAMEN? How about some hawker stalls at each station that could fry up some fresh noodles or steam up some fresh Baozi? Is ramen really the best we can do? Some entrepreneurial hawker empire could make a killing.
  6. What happens when the kids no longer want to wear minority or tribal outfits? What happens when they no longer learn to speak the many dialects? Will China lose a lot of its individual heritage that makes it so wonderfully interesting?
  7. Can’t we use our inside voices when talking on a phone? Why are they yelling?
  8. Not sure I love the shower over pit toilet combo. Okay, that’s not a question.
  9. Do I need to ask?
  10. What does the China 20 years from now look like? What direction are we headed?
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One minute the air was sweet and the grounds kept, people smiled and seemed to have a positive outlook, an assurance about themselves and their surroundings. Then we crossed the border and stepped into the ashtray. The smoke is the first thing that hits you, then it’s long faces that stare like ghosts, the whole place is like a film negative and we just crossed onto the negative. In all fairness, train stations in China have to be the worst places on earth, with a slight second to bus stations.

Kimberly’s perspective: I have a different perspective on this topic. The train stations are wildly improved from years ago. No one is smoking in the stations and there are seats in the waiting rooms with signs in English directing you where to go – a great improvement for the western traveler. Fifteen years ago, traveling through China, I was a spectacle pretty much everywhere we went – people stared in disbelief as if an alien was walking down the street. Now, most people barely notice me, and when they do stare, I feel a tinge of disdain. As if “why are you in our country, foreigner?” Back then it felt like the only people traveling around were other foreigners, so everyone you came in contact with wanted to chat you up. Conversations felt like a genuine exchange of information and ideas between people from two different cultures. Now, it feels like, “Spend your money and keep moving lady”. Most travelers are Chinese tourists, now seeing different parts of their country for the first time. They are developing a sense of pride and nationalism that didn’t exist before. This sounds at first like a good thing. But without the perspective of traveling to other countries (most Chinese travelers still cannot get a visa to leave the country), this nationalism could taint an otherwise balanced perspective. Apparently in Lijiang (a popular destination in Yunnan) there are already many eating and hotel establishments with signs that say “No Foreigners!” because they wish to cater exclusively to Chinese tourists. I wonder what this wave of nationalism will lead to?

I noticed in Hong Kong there were a lot of campaign signs in the subways and malls declaring “what person are you?” followed by a nice gentleman giving up a seat for an elderly lady. Cartoon figures of people washing their hands, sneezing into their sleeves and not spitting nor smoking. I remember growing up in the 70’s and a commercial with an American Indian floating down the river in a canoe and he slowly was surrounded by more and more trash, a big “don’t litter” campaign. I also recall the no spitting and don’t throw your McDonalds out the window campaigns. I guess each society has its growing pains. I just hope China learns quickly from its little sister HK.

We boarded the train from Shenzhen to Guilin armed with fruit, milk, juices, ramens, snacks, cookies and some KFC, let us not forget 10 vias from Starbucks. The train ride was just as we prepared for. Crappy bathrooms, hot water at the ready and our own private room to watch China roll by. After watching an episode of Master Chef (our latest family addiction) and a few cartoons, which I downloaded in HK, we went to bed. The swaying of the train and the white noise of the carriages is like a sleeping heaven. The only reason I woke up was the ticket collector came in around 5:30am. Damn why did he have to do that? Maybe a shift change? We were not due to arrive in Guilin until 9:30am. That is what I read on the ticket 9 (Chinese character) 30 (Chinese character).

We arrived at 6:30 am sharp! The train pulled into the station, two totally asleep kids and me just dreamy and pasty. Kimberly said, “the signs say Guilin Railway Station!” What the… how could we arrive 3 hours early? I can’t believe I did not realize we were also on car 9 and I had bunk 30. Duh.

We had arranged for a driver to take us to a guesthouse in the Longsheng mountain region amongst the rice terraces. They call the area the Dragons Backbone because the rice terraces that cover the mountains look like dragon scales reflecting the skies above. The ride through Guilin was comical. First off it was morning so there were not many cars or trucks on the roads, but lots of motorcycles and scooters. We are now in the south of China and it rains, so people adapt. I have never seen an umbrella for a motorcycle before nor have I seen ponchos that are built to cover the driver, the headlight and little arms to cover the rearview mirrors. In China they have adopted the unwritten rule that 2 wheels, motorized or not, should occupy the same patch of pavement. So they drive on the sidewalks, bike lanes, car lanes and don’t stop for any traffic lights. They even come up the road on the wrong side of the street. It was like being in an undersea world when the little fish just wake up.

After about 2 hours we started to ascend into the mountains. The road was narrow with one side along a cliff and the other along a river, sometimes with a big drop below. It reminded me of the road into Yosemite Valley, only much more lush, green and narrow. We passed several rock slides, a few that would have surely closed the road in California, but not here! Tour buses managed to squeak by without falling off the soft shoulders. On any parts of the earth that were not straight up and down in the valleys were covered with massive bamboo. Strangely, the other major plant seemed to be pine trees — the climate here goes from tropical to snow so I guess that makes sense.

We passed a few villages on the way up and felt like we were entering some magical kingdom where dragons might be real. Finally stopping in a town to see the blank stares of the minority people. I always feel awkward when you go to a village to see the locals on display, even worse when you go to watch a dance performance. Luckily we were there so early that they were not ready to dance, nor sell us any trinkets. It was nice to walk through the cobbled alleys and across 2 wood suspension bridges.

We finally arrived in Dazhai. Our hotel was the Wisdom Inn, not to be confused with the other Wisdom Inn two buildings down. Our hotel was the first one in this area and did very good for many years, now there is a glut of hotels and to try to get more customers someone named their hotel Wisdom Inn. “China is a world of copycats” said our host. We were the only guests in the entire place and the rooms felt like a pine cabin in Tahoe.

Kimberly’s comment on the hotel: While the Wisdom Inn is sparkling clean and the lady is reasonably polite, I would not recommend this place. We booked a room for 4 guests, and when we arrived, there was only 1 bed that would never fit all 4 of us, so she offered another room across the hall (which required us to pay another $60/night). She also charges for breakfast, $4 for a cup of coffee and $2 for butter. Really? Butter? Today I saw that she does have a family suite with 4 beds in it, but didn’t offer it to us because she knew she could make more money by having us take two rooms. Quite a racket – expensive and nickel and diming us on top of that. I suppose she has to make a living somehow. I’ve written it off to one of the many lessons in travel – clarify, always clarify.

The landscape around Dazhai is truly stunning. Dazhai is the central village surrounded by several smaller hamlets throughout the valley separated by quaint cobblestone paths. Each hamlet is a steep 30-45 minute walk to the next. We took several big hikes around Dazhai, all but one required us to start by marching up lots and lots of stone steps (for one day we took a cable car up to a hill top). All led to little villages where we were greeted by happy faces looking out of windows, doing daily work or sitting behind makeshift kiosks selling trinkets and cold drinks. The people are mainly of the Yao minority and the women are distinct in that they never cut their hair. They wrap it up vey nicely into what looks like a Turkish hat. They all have a very similar smile and gentle way about them. The scenery is amazing! The water management systems are outstanding. Water flows from the top tier down through so many tiers of rice plantings and none are clogged or overflowing. It must take a ton of work to keep the water slowly moving. We were there for 3 massive days of rain, which swelled the many creeks causing waterfalls everywhere. From the hotel room to every place you walk or hike, there are constant sounds of water rushing, falling or trickling.

A funny site to see here is the local Yao women, average age being 50-60. They have a very lucrative employment — carrying tourist luggage from the park entrance up to their hotels. All day you see old women with wicker baskets strapped to their backs and inside is wheeled luggage, with a tourist a few steps behind. These women obviously grew up in these hills and have walked them countless times, but I still marveled at how effortlessly they bounced up the paths carrying big loads of other peoples crap. (There is no way I could walk guilt-free behind a 60 year old woman carrying my crap, but it was amusing to watch others do it.)

Kimberly’s comment on village life: The government has come in to this region in the last 8-10 years and developed tourism infrastructure, but is not sharing it with the local people. I guess this is pissing them off, so, in protest, they have been known to stop flooding the rice terraces so they look like a muddy mountain. The village people are pretty uninterested in tourists and immediately ask if you want to buy some of their trinkets. There isn’t much of an exchange between the tourists and the local village people other than the paper kind. This is a shame, as it creates a somewhat soul-less place with little faith in anything other than the almighty Yuan. I suppose some of the blame lies with me, in that I don’t speak the language and therefore can only truly observe this perspective, rather than understand it.

One thing we both are still amazed at is the number of Chinese tourists and the lack of western tourists. The sheer volume of the Chinese tourists is staggering. Wherever there are Chinese tourists there are thousands! And they all seem to want to do the same thing and then get back on the bus. I think we have seen about 12 western tourists in total during our entire trip in China so far. It is funny to see the Chinese tourists because tourism is so new to them and they all seem a bit awkward. It seems like they are going to places just to get the photo then get back on the bus, not for the experience or the understanding of the different culture or environment. Interestingly, as Kimberly noted above, this means far less gawking than when we visited 15 years ago. But it also means far less attention in general. They seem to know that western tourists are uninterested in their trinkets and doo-dads so the touts seem less aggressive than in years passed, since they know a hoard of Chinese tourists are coming up the path, why bother with the stingy westerners?

After three days in the mountains, we arranged for a car to pick us up and drive us four hours south to a little town on the Li river called Langshi. It is only accessible by boat and thus keeps it pretty remote. Remember it rained big time for three days? Well the roads that were already terrible were now much worse. It was a harrowing descent out of the Longsheng mountains. I will hopefully post some videos later, but we actually drove under a waterfall at one point!

Want to see more photos of our trip (go to http://bymichaelwang.com/china/dazai)


NOTE: For the super-interested, we uploaded a bunch of photos for the grandparents here, http://bymichaelwang.com/china/hongkong/

We stocked up for our 24-hour train journey with all sorts of fast food for dinner (including KFC) a bag of snack food and a few jars of water. After the initial excitement wore off and the morning came around, Kimberly had a hankering for her morning coffee. MeiYou (don’t have it)! In fact we missed breakfast in the food car and could not get any food not even tea. We survived the rest of the journey by eating things off the push carts that come around every 1-2 hours on the train, various flavors of cup o’ noodles, cashews and bananas. We brought with us Kleen Kanteens from home, like good SF recycling and consumer conscience people, but those are the worst for Chinese Trains. In China, most all places have access to boiling hot water and lots of it, including each train car. But the thin metal in our containers reacted so quickly to the scalding water that we could not fill them up, not even a few ounces. Needless to say we arrived in ShenZhen pretty scummy, hungry and thirsty.

Crossing the boarder with 2 kids at 11pm after a 24-hour train journey sounds like a nightmare – but it wasn’t! Kai and Soleil are champs. They carried their own bags and marched through the train station, crossed the boarder and into the Hong Kong Metro (which seemed to be about 2 miles of walking), with grace and style.  These kids are going to be great leaders some day, (says their proud parents :>)

Here are a few first impressions when going from Beijing to Hong Kong:

  • CLEAN—CLEAN—C—L—E—A—N
  • It felt like we walked into a shopping mall
  • Lots of English signs
  • Lots of helpful maps and directions to everything and everyplace
  • Super cool looking money
  • People looked healthy and happy and stylish
  • Its like a Singapore only way cheaper
  • Everyone seemed helpful

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After a very uneventful 45 minutes on the subway we arrived in downtown Kowloon, Tsim Sha Tsui. “Where are we going? What exit do we take? What road is where?” no worries, the subways have huge maps that show most hotels, malls, restaurants and attractions. There are even pictures in case you don’t read English or Chinese. Damn this is an easy city.

Following the pictures of our hotel we walked 15 minutes underground in the maze of shops, restaurants and exits that make up the subway stations, surfaced and felt the hot sticky air. Instant sweat. It’s crazy how fast the humidity and heat opens every pore on your body and extracts all the dirt, toxin, grime and water. Don’t forget we have been wearing the same clothes now for about 36 hours and not touched any soap in that time.  We must have looked disgusting walking into the hotel lobby to check in the 5 star Intercontinental Stanford (thanks to Dad for hooking us up).

Go up the elevator, put in the room key and walk into one of the cleanest rooms we have seen in a long time. Pull back the curtains and take in the full view of Hong Kong harbor. “This place is beautiful!” were the first words out of Kai’s mouth.  We quarantined our clothes and shoes to a spot under the desk, not to be touched or dealt with for a few days. Chinese trains and train stations are not particularly sanitary. Hot showers all around, followed by room service. I love French fries! Slept with the curtains wide open, in fact in the following 3 days we never closed them. The view is unmatched, and constantly changing with the massive squalls or rain and clouds that roll in every few hours.

Do we have to leave the room? I ran out early to grab Kimberly a proper large Starbucks coffee before she woke up. I also purchased a 10 pack of “Via” so she wont go hankering for coffee again. (As Kai said “Mommy, you were a monster without your coffee!”)

The hotel is right on the waterfront so we took a stroll down Hollywood walk. Fun little bronze statues of famous Hong Kong idols and stars with hand prints of the big actors/actresses. Kai put her hands in Jackie Chan’s prints. We took the star ferry across to Hong Kong island marveling at all the massive buildings in such a small space. Now Manhattan is cool and huge and lots of people, but Hong Kong seems even more dense, more like an island and just has a certain chic about it. It’s a very walkable city and most people are walking, so the sidewalks are packed.

We went to a huge dim sum palace, a true Hong Kong experience. I know I would have let my foodie friends down but many of the options were just too outrageous for me to eat (duck web with thousand year old egg and congee soup)…nah, I will just stick the 5-10 things I know I like. We did have a go at a few new items and found that coconut custard is a good way to end the salt fest.

Ok, you’re full, sweaty, dirty and the air is thick with moisture and the heat of the day is starting to come into full effect. What should we do? Let’s go to a temple that is full of smoke and should promise to be even hotter. Enter Man Mo temple. This is the picturesque temple of Hong Kong, it’s small, hot and smoky (not from cigarettes but from coiled incense).  It’s an amazing contrast to the hyper consumerism, a/c smoke free environment outside. I hope the photos do this place some justice.

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What’s up next? To the top of the world, of course! We wanted to take the fabled peak tram to the top of Hong Kong, it’s kind of like the cable cars in SF but only go straight up. When our taxi pulled up to the tram line, we saw the hoards of people and the line stretching way up the street, “no drop off please, lets go the top”. We had read that the mall at the top of Victoria Peak (of course there is a mall at the top, where else would we buy new shoes… we did you know), had a free observation deck that was better than the paid observation tower at the peak tram. It did not disappoint. We also got lucky in that it rained as we were up there. Strange how people don’t like to get wet when they are already drenched in their own sweat. We had the place to ourselves for a short 10 minutes.

The next day we did some more “Wang” history hunting. We went to the church that my dad, uncles, aunts and grandparents used to visit every week. The history showed that many of the churches played crucial roles in helping the many immigrants fleeing from the wars in China during the 1950s. It was a beautiful church and a few of the workers were amazed at the 1950 photos I had brought along with me.  After a quick trip to Starbucks we tried to find my dad’s old house, alas it was now a huge condo complex. Well, lets go shopping.

There seems to be a few things to do in Hong Kong, eat, sweat, shop, sweat or sight see and….oh yeah, sweat. We were near the ladies market, so we decided to give it a go and see what bargains were there. After a few sweaty hours (notice its sweaty here), we all scored some cool stuff to send home. I think the kids really liked walking in the tented flea market style shopping alleys. I know I loved hearing them bargain in Chinese.

While on the topic of Chinese, I noticed that only the older generation really uses Cantonese. Mandarin and more readily English was spoken by the younger crowds. It makes me wonder how much longer Cantonese will be around for.

Repulse bay on the far south end of Hong Kong was supposed to be a beautiful beach with bioluminescence in the water during July. We planned to get there for a sunset swim followed by a night watching/swimming with the glowing little critters. The sunset swim was great, but no water lights so we headed back and watched the city lights from our room. We did however, see the largest snail I have ever seen.

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The hotel has been a form of constant amusement for the kids. Roof top pool, room service, a person who comes while you are gone and cleans up, what’s not to love. The dinner buffet here is outrageous, so ridiculous that we have eaten it twice. There is a massive selection of seafood and sushi, Kai has devoured at least a couple of whole crabs. Indian, Chinese, American and Italian fare all done very well and mostly done to order. But the real kicker is the dessert area. Ok, ice cream, pies, cakes and made to order soufflés seems extravagant, but add the all cool and powerful chocolate fountain. Take brownies pieces, marshmallows, strawberries, etc. and swipe them under the fountain. It makes everything just that much better.

Our last full day in this oasis. We thought something called the toy market would just blow us away. It didn’t so if you come – no need to go. The Hong Kong park on the other hand was fun. Highlights include the aviary where we reached a new level of sweaty, seriously one of the sweatiest we have all been outside of a sauna, the fountain and just walking around looking at the frogs, fish and terrapins (British for turtles).

4 nights in a bubble of cleanliness. Now it’s time to get back on the horse and ride into the wild west again. Next stop the Dragons Backbone in Guangxi province.

Its only a short 20 hour train ride to a 3 hour bus followed by a 1 hour hike up into the rice paddies to reach our little village we are going to stay at. Do we have to leave the room?


NOTES: This is a long post – not having access to Google, Gmail, WordPress, etc… is somewhat challenging. Also, the “I” referred to below is sometimes Kimberly and sometimes Mike – you can figure it out.

The last time we were here was nearly 15 years ago and my how things have changed. The city is cleaner. The air seems dirtier. There are far more Chinese tourists than ever before. There are way fewer bikes on the road. But China is still China and some things never change – the smoking, the spitting, the pushing and shoving, the people, the people, the people, so many people… ahhh, it’s good to be back!

From the airport to the taxi, everything seemed like just another city. As we drove deeper and further into the center or Beijing we remembered just how massive this city is. The blocks are huge, gray and cement. The buildings all have the same communist look, void of character and stained with a yellow and black soot. The taxi dropped us off at the end of a narrow street, “ba hao hutong” (hutong #8). Hutongs are the savior of Beijing. Between the massive city streets is a network of alleys, some with beautiful trees, some clean, some filthy, all with endless doors leading to homes of various sizes and number of occupants. In all the hutongs there are a few shops and public bathrooms that are used by a majority of the hutong dwellers. Our airbnb home was in hutong #8, we opened the very non descript metal door and walked passed a little makeshift kitchen and several small apartments. When I say small they are about the size of a very small room or perhaps a large walk in closet – each having at least 4 occupants. At the end of the hall was a round moon shaped entrance, this was the final gate to the home of Cindy and Nick. It was a step back in time to old Beijing, we had a large two bedroom place with widows on all sides. Our own bathroom and shower with 4 heads (yes we could all shower at the same time). The kids had to get used to throwing the toilet paper in the garbage and not in the toilet.

As Beijing grew, the people who lived in the hutongs either systematicall subdivided their spaces, or were forcefully removed to make room for modern highrise condos and offices. The ones that remain are truly a respite from city life. Beijing is now in the process of rebuilding some of the old hutongs, instead of tearing them down, as they realize the unique treasure that they are.

Beijing and China in general is a monstrous place. There are a lot of noises and the more noise one can make, the better they feel. It’s a place that people feel better when someone else is knocked down. Enter our first dinner. We went to eat jiouzi, a steamed dumpling, much like a won ton without the soup. As we walked into a local restaurant, the air was thick with cigarette smoke and a group of men were sitting around a table with an absolute mess on the floor. They reveled in who could talk louder and who could yell the deepest, all the while food spilled, cigarette butts stamped out and spit was coughed up and shot onto the floor around them. The highlight was the fight over the bill. It’s a tradition that was once a great gesture to show respect to others, now a trump card to hold over your friends heads that I beat you to the punch. The jiouzi was good and when we stepped out into the street with cars zooming by and the city’s polluted cloud covering us like a dirty cotton ball, Soleil said, “Now I can breathe and hear!”.

Our first day led us to the Forbidden City, it’s a major tourist destination, but you can’t come to Bejing and not go. The loudspeakers were turned full blast and the tour groups were in force, but if you stay on the edges and appreciate the history of the place, it’s not too bad. Schlepping two kids down the mega boulevards of a major Chinese city is not my idea of fun. As many of you know, the only true mode of transportation for this family is by bike – car is too fast, walking is too slow. So we rented two tandem bicycles for the duration of our stay and life quickly got a whole lot better. No more schlepping. No more whining.

Now, the Chinese have a habit of driving without following too many of the rules, and I don’t think they know what a helmet looks like (I know, Mom, I know… but look at the bright side – with them on the back of the bike, there is no way for them to get lost!). Biking around Beijing, you have to keep in mind a few important rules of the road:

  • First of all, there are no rules
  • Second of all, there is no stopping as pedestrians DO NOT have right of way
  • The Chinese adopted the American system of right turns allowed on red, but they didn’t quite understand the stop first part of the rule – so they just barrel through right turns at the intersection.
  • If you make eye contact, you must yield, so best to avoid looking at all costs.

The bikes allowed us to get around the city much faster – we saw many of the random temples, rode around the beautiful HouHai lake, cruised through the old “hutongs”, and visited the Llama temple, an old Buddhist temple which I had never been to before and it was beautiful – highly recommended for a peaceful respite.

The next morning was an early morning rise to see The Great Wall. Mike’s Dad has an affliction known as “carve-isitis” – he feels the overwhelming urge to carve his name into ancient relics of great importance. Luckily, this affliction has subsided in his old age, and he is no longer carving. But in his heyday, he managed to claim a brick on the wall, and he promised $100 to the grandchildren if they found it. So we were on a mission. We searched every tower and finally found it after 3 hours of searching every corner of every tower between the stretch of wall he had steered us towards. We took a tram to the top of the wall and got to ride a toboggan down. The toboggan was so much fun that we opted to do it a second time.

The Wang family has deep roots in Beijing. Beida (the Oxford of China) was attended by Mike’s grandmother, his Great Grand Father helped found the Library and he, as well as his brother and cousin, have taught there. Mike’s father was born in Beijing, his great grandfather was a minister at the first Methodist church that was attended by 2 U.S. Presidents. The list of history goes on and on…

We spent a whole day going to historical “Wang” sites. The church, grandmother’s middle school, places that KK and Bob have been to. It was supposed to be an easy day that led us all around the city including the Temple of Heaven. That night we went to a Chinese acrobat show. It’s like a kitschy Chinese circus but entertaining as all get out. The highlights were watching 12 women ride around on 1 bike and biting your nails off as 8 guys on motorcycles zoomed around inside of a pretty small metal ball. After the show, we thought we would walk 3 blocks to dinner, then catch a taxi home – seemed easy enough. Well, 3 blocks takes about 1 hour to walk – finding the restaurant takes about another hour and getting a taxi in a city of 21 million people is like waiting for a lottery ticket to fly by while sitting at a bus stop in the Gobi desert. We navigated the Beijing subway and after 2 transfers and several long walks, we collapsed into our beds at 11pm – so much for an easy day!

The plan for the last day was to drop off the bikes, eat lunch in an air-conditioned place and not get too sweaty before the long train journey. Up to this point, Beijing had been a perfect trip. “The pedestrian is the lowest form of living creature in Beijing” our host Nick told us. I couldn’t agree more (foreshadow). After relinquishing the bikes everything seemed massive again. The city seemed too hot, too crowded and it just all came at you like a sack of rice.

We made our way to Jingshan park which resides at the back exit of the Forbidden City. It must be one of the most visited places in Beijing but we had it on an amazing day. First off, the air seemed like home, BLUE! Some miraculous wind must have come in last night and blew away the hazardous-to your-health-2.5 micron death cloud that had been sitting over us the last few days. At the top of Jingshan park you could see as far as the eye can see, as Beijing is pretty flat. We could see all the places we had been in the days prior (remember we could only see about 1 block if not for the crystal clear air). Secondly, the place was relatively empty and relaxed on the cool benches of the Buddhist temple at the peak overlooking the Forbidden City in peace and quite. As if the gods were smiling at us, there was a good stiff breeze and no one was smoking, two things you don’t find in Beijing. Needless to stay, we lingered…

We were on cloud nine and ready to enjoy some lunch. As you leave major sites in China the touts and dregs of society come out. “Hutong tour” “Taxi” “Tea ceremony”

“where are you going”…. It’s an endless assault when you are on 2 feet and not 2 wheels. With the kids in tow you move even slower and lunch suddenly felt like a long 2 blocks away. We opted to jump in a motor cab, which is like a 3 wheel motorcycle that takes 2 passengers. At first all was well, then I asked why we were not going in the right direction? Kimberly and Kai were in the lead 3 wheeler and by the time I told the guy to turn around, they had led us to a desolate end of a hutong, a good 3-4 blocks in the wrong direction. They said “wangfujing is just over there”, I knew it was not and that this was not going to end well. He then took out a sheet and told me it was going to cost me 300 per motor cab. (about $100). I quickly took out a map and said we are nowhere near where we wanted to go and that I was not going to pay. A little yelling… scared kids… Kimberly walking away quickly with the children…, and we were nowhere near anything. A textbook shakedown. I took out what was about the equivalent of $1 and started to hand it to him. As he advanced and grabbed for me, I gave a pretty forceful shove. I think that was enough to startle him. As he was about to start a fight I yelled “Police”, this was enough to send them on their way. It was a crappy way to leave Beijing, but as we walked the now 6 blocks to lunch, I told Kai something I was told long ago. When China beats you down and the humanity seems to not exist, remember that you have a passport and can leave at anytime. The poor ass will have to live here the rest of his life. We missed our bikes.

After the motor cab incident and the failed attempts at hailing a taxi, we braved the subway, which required two transfers to make our way to the train station for the train to Hong Kong. Being in transit is kind of the worse part of traveling, so I wasn’t looking forward to the journey. The kids were very hesitant about the whole experience and Kai even whined at one point “Why can’t we just take a plane?” But once we entered our soft sleeper train car, the kids were in heaven. Our very own sleeper bunks in our 4-person soft sleeper car going from Beijing to Hong Kong – what could be better? I find traveling by train so incredibly relaxing (provided you’re not slumming it in hard seat!). The landscape zooms by. There are various train stops where you can peer out the window and wonder what it’s like to live there. You can stroll to the dining car. It’s relatively smooth and safe. It feels like the gift of time – there’s nothing to do but read, talk and daydream – when, in your daily life, do you have that kind of luxury for hours on end. And, while sleeping comfortably in your bed, you’re making progress towards a new destination! Next up – Hong Kong!

A few random reflections on Beijing:

  • Its hot, sticky, dirty and the men here seem to pride themselves on wearing dress pants pulled up like shorts and sport shirts pulled up above the belly. And the larger the belly, the more pronounced the shirt is pulled up.
  • There are a lot of men and boys, and far fewer girls I wonder what will happen to the one child policy in the coming decade.
  • There is a public bike system here, 1 yuan per hour to rent (about 15 cents). This is to try to get people to bike around more and drive less. A good start.
  • In general the city seems cleaner in terms of trash but dirtier in the sky.
  • The subway system is pretty clean and seems to work very well, something we did not see much of as we had bikes.
  • We did not see very many foreign tourists, none on the train. But have met lots of Chinese tourists from all over China. This is different from years ago, and a good sign for the country in that people have disposable income and are starting to see more of their country.