Monday, December 8, 2008

Yulong River Photos

I just added a bunch of photos that I took along the Yulong River in Yangshuo to my photography web site. Yangshuo was my favorite place in China and Reenie and I had a great time on our bamboo raft ride.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Quoted in the Fodors Italy 2009 Guidebook

Yesterday I received an email from the Community Manager of (a travel site that has a great travel forum) stating,

"Congratulations! You were quoted in Fodor's Italy 2009 along with other travelers like you as a part of the guide's "Word of Mouth" feature.

Each title in the Fodor's Gold Guide series includes "Word of Mouth", suggestions and tips from travelers who have posted on, both in the Forums and within the site's member reviews sections. We believe that the first-hand experiences of our members add much to our guides; these stories and recommendations are a part of what makes Fodor's guides unique. T o thank you for being both a part of our travel community and our guides, we'd like to offer you a complimentary guide of your choice... "

I'm planning a trip to France next May 2009, so I requested they send me their book on Provence.

This is the second time that I was quoted. The first time was for their Paris 2008 guidebook, which I recommended L'As du Fallafel, a place in the Marais that serves great falafel sandwiches and other tasty treats.

For the heck of it, I decided to Google my quote and found out that it was used in a March 2008 story on Fodors entitled, "12 Tips for Beating the Euro in Rome"

...and here it is:

"One way to save on the expense of guided tours is to register online at Sound Guides ( and download the various free self-guided tours to your Ipod or MP3 player." -- monicapileggi

Along with a tip in the Frommer's Smart Travelers Passport, I've now been quoted three times! I really need to get into the travel business.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hong Kong - Time to Go Home

3 November: It was time to go home. Reenie and I were sad to leave. Even though we spent 24 nights in China and Hong Kong, we would have enjoyed more time touring another city or two. After checking out, we walked across the street to the K3 bus stop, very convenient, and took it to the express airport train station. We were able to check in with our flight and I checked my large suitcase. Reenie didn't check anything, as she was hoping to jump on an earlier flight out of Dulles to Boston. The express train ride was quick and easy. After getting off at terminal 1, we found the ticket booth to turn in our Octopus card and get our excess monies back. Then we exchanged that money back into USA. I lost a few bucks, but didn't have much to change. I guess I could have bought something at the duty free store.

As we started through the first round of customs/check in, one woman noticed Reenie's two bags and told her only one was allowed on board. She had to go back to the ticket counter and check the piece. She was not happy but rules are rules. Then we get in line to go through the area where our passports and airline tickets are checked, I move on to go through the x-ray area and Reenie is still there with the man. She's there for 5 minutes (while I'm on the other side not being able to see anything) with 4 men checking her passport and boarding pass. For some they wouldn't accept the boarding pass. She certainly didn't look suspicious! A supervisor came along, apologized and she was released.

Our first leg was on All Nippon Airlines, which I really enjoyed. Nice comfortable airplane, beautiful flight attendants, and attentive service. We flew to Tokyo and changed planes to United. We quickly window-shopped at the airport before getting to the gate. The last time I was in Japan was when I was 8 years old. Too bad I didn't add a few nights in Tokyo to our trip!!

After 12 hours of movies, eating, napping and reading, we landed at Dulles. I love going through passport control, as I always hear "Welcome home." I love to travel and always wish my trips were longer, but it's always nice to come home too. Tony was waiting for me with a rose in hand. Reenie headed off to her gate (she did catch the earlier flight) and Tony and I drove home to a waiting dog, Lucy. Wow, was she happy to see me!

Some observations:

People: The Chinese people we met along the way were very friendly and helpful. From Stella, who bought our bus tickets and walked us to the entrance of Xitang to the old couple in Xian laughing with us as we struggled to buy our wine, to the man who waved down a taxi car for us and making sure we got in, we felt like they really wanted to take care of us. Young children are excited to see any foreigner and their smiles just melt your heart. You can easily see how much the Chinese love their children, even girls, especially with the one-child policy. I understand it was lifted for those families that lost their child in the recent Chengdu area earthquake and that certain minority population’s areas allowed two children.

Driving and biking in China: If anyone can drive in China, then they can drive anywhere in the world! I was amazed I never saw a car accident. I was always uncomfortable sitting in a taxi, as they cover the back seats with a cloth that covers the seatbelts. The only time I sort of felt comfortable is when I sat up front. If we were on a 2-lane road, the drivers turned it into a 4 or 6 lane road. Even those on bikes zigzagged all over the road. In crossing a street, you have to look in both directions, as bikers move along in any direction they need to go.

Pollution and spitting: After my 6th day in China, I could understand why all the Chinese hack and cough and spit. The pollution gets to your lungs and throat that you are constantly clearing your throat. I never spat but did do a lot of throat clearing. I hope that China cleans up the pollution. It was sad to hear one of my guides say she had never seen the stars. Man, animal, and even plants have to cope with the pollution. I felt sorry for the pandas in Chengdu. I felt sorry for all life in China. I don't understand how anyone could live in a polluted world. I know there have been people protesting the pollution, but it certainly doesn't look like the government is listening. The air was cleared up for the Olympics, but it didn't seem to last.

Food: I found the food to be so much better than what I can get here in the USA. I know most Chinese restaurants are toned down for American tastes, but the food in China is so well made, so fresh, not overly greasy, and not sopping and drenched in thick sauces. Even the small restaurants and food stalls cooked up delicious meals. Even though I did a lot of walking, I think part of my 5-pound weight loss had to do with what I ate: More vegetables, less meat, no cheese or other foods high in fat. I need to pull my wok out and start stir-frying my vegetables. If our markets were set up like those in china, the FDA would close most of them down in a heartbeat. The same goes with the street food stalls. If anyone has seen my photographs, you know I love visiting the food markets in Europe. China was no exception. We got to see many things that aren't even grown in the USA. I certainly enjoying checking out all of the various street foods and watching people purchase their meals or snacks. The best part was that the foods were dirt cheap, filling, and delicious.

Sights: China is a fascinating country to visit and there is so much to see and do. Choosing which cities to visit is very difficult. Hiking the Great Wall at Mutianyu was one of our highlights, as well as taking a bamboo boat ride on the river in Yangshuo. Seeing thousands of terra cotta warriors knowing they were pieced painstakingly back together was another highlight. And Reenie and I will never forget the playfulness of the young pandas in Chengdu. I could have climbed the wall to hug them all!

Traveling in China: China can be done independent of a tour company, as long as you are willing to take the time to do the research and know there will be bumps in the road. I brought a couple of language books, including “Me No Speak” that my friend recommended to me. I will say that no guide is really needed in China with the exception of Yangshuo: I saw several bikers out with map in hand trying to figure their way around in the countryside and I know some of the dirt roads we went on were not on any map I saw. On the other hand, a guide certainly is helpful and makes life easier when figuring out bus schedules or menus if restaurants don’t have English menus or picture menus, as well as translating in stores. Negotiate a rate for the day and make sure you know what’s included and what’s not included. Tipping is not done in China, as the price you negotiate is the price you pay. Chinese don’t tip so why should you?

Well, this has been a long journal! 24 nights is a lot to write about and I tried to keep it short. Hah! I’m sure you’re glad to be done reading all of this, as I’m done typing it up.

I hope to work on more of my photos soon. My photos of the Yangshuo are some of my favorites and I want to share them with you, so stay tuned!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lantau Island and the Big Buddha

2 November: I woke up late, as I had not slept well through the night. In addition, the weather forecast called for rain all day and I was ready to have a day of downtime. That was not to be. It did rain overnight but looking out the window, we couldn't tell if it was going to rain or if it was just another hazy day. Reenie and I decided to go to Lantau Island to see the Buddha, the largest outdoor seated Buddha in the world, instead of visiting a museum nearby.

It was great to have the Octopus card, which we used on the subway to get to the starting point of our journey: a 3.5-mile cable car ride. Although it was overcast with thick clouds in the mountains, it was a pleasant ride and we could still see into the distance. Nearby was the Hong Kong airport, which we saw several planes take off…thank goodness in the opposite direction of the cable cars. As we neared the Ngong Ping village, we could see the Buddha in the distance sitting on a high hill.

We purchased a combination ticket that included the small museum and lunch at the vegetarian restaurant at the Po Lin monastery. Having read about the Ngong Ping village, we quickly walked through skipping the shops and restaurants. It was very touristy indeed. There are 268 steps to get to the base of the Buddha, sitting with one hand up and the other on his lap. Made of bronze, the Buddha is impressive. Surrounding the Buddha are smaller statues making offerings to the Buddha.

As we strolled around, the clouds cleared and we had blue skies again. I watched one mountain peak and the clouds that crossed over. It was fun to watch because you could see the clouds being pulled down by the winds.

Our vegetarian lunch was filling but I was not impressed at all. Our vegetarian lunch in Chengdu was much tastier.

While Reenie didn’t care for the ride on the cable car I didn’t care for the bus ride down! The driver zipped down the windy road fast, barely slowing down for the curves. No one seemed to mind. Along the way to the Mui Wo port, we passed a jail. It was in a nice location, right on the water. Nice beach views! I wonder if the prisoners ever get to swim in the ocean.

We took the boat back to Hong Kong and it was dark by the time we arrived. A quick jump on the Star Ferry and we were back in Kowloon.

We dined at Jimmy's Restaurant and ordered their prime rib dinner special. It's located within walking distance of the hotel. The waiters were attentive and the food was very good. The special came with soup, the entrée with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding, dessert (crème caramel) and coffee or tea. It had rained while we were eating, so after dinner, we just went back to the room to pack our bags.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Shopping for Jade and a visit to Aberdeen

1 November: A friend of mine recommended a jeweler that he has been buying from for many years, so we met Mr. Choi and his wife in his shop. It was located close to the hotel in an office/apartment building. I wanted to buy a jade pendant and ended up buying three pieces: pendant, earrings, and a ring. Reenie also bought a jade ring. Throughout the trip, I had looked at some jade but never knew if it was real jade or even a good quality jade. I think we both did very well with our purchases.

For the rest of the day we visited Aberdeen and took a sampan ride around the old fishing boats. We walked through the fish market, which was closing up for the day. I’m sure there was much activity in the morning. It was interesting to see all the boats with the high-rise buildings in the background, a stark contrast.

It was too late to try to get to Stanley, so we found a place in Aberdeen for lunch. It was a Japanese ramen restaurant and we both enjoyed our soups. It was quite different than what I used to eat in Hawaii, but very good. The broth looked slightly cream, but I’m sure it wasn’t cream or milk.

The traffic was terrible getting back to Hong Kong. We sat in traffic for almost an hour. We got off at Admiralty and took the subway back to our hotel. For dinner Reenie wanted to try Turkish food, so we ate at the Istanbul Express on Lock Road. We had kebabs and an appetizer, but I’ve had better. It was a small hole-in-the wall place. Lock Road has lots of dining opportunities.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A visit to Hong Kong Island

31 October: Reenie and I spent the day on Hong Kong Island first visiting the area around the escalators. We had taken the Star Ferry over and purchased the Octopus card. We took our time going up the escalators, getting off now and then to check out the area shops, and purchased a couple of things to include tea cups to go with my teapot. There were many antique shops as well. One store had a display of old Chinese shoes for women, which bound their feet. They were so small! I couldn’t imagine the pain the Chinese women felt having their feet bound. We also stopped at a Mosque, which was very simple in architecture. Even more plain was the interior, unlike the Mosques I visited in Istanbul.

We had pork and leek dumplings, and Shanghainese spring rolls for breakfast, which were good, in a small place called Dumpling Yuan (50KH). There was a temple nearby but Reenie said “no more!” so we headed to the Peak Tram. That was a fun ride! The angle of the tram was pretty scary, although there has never been an accident in its 100 years of daily use. We had read that before the tram was built the rich were carried to the top in chairs and that it took three hours to get to the top. Can you imagine having to haul up a body up a mountain for three hours? The views were spectacular, although the air was hazy. Someone had said the pollution floats in from mainland China. We walked along one trail for a while and then turned back.

There are shopping opportunities in the sky view building and we bought a few things. We headed back down on the tram and took a bus to the Causeway area and shopped along Jardine’s bazaar and Jardine’s Crescent, small streets that are filled with clothing and souvenir stalls. I finally found some reading glasses, as I lost my other 2 pair. The glasses at the temple night market were 4 times the price I paid (25 HK).

We enjoyed dinner at Vet Delicious, located in the mist of the shopping stalls on Jardine’s Crescent. A small, but modern looking place, it filled up quickly with diners in business suits. They were in and out before we finished our meal. I had spring rolls and the pork and vermicelli bun dish.

After dinner, we walked around the area, which was quite busy. It almost had a NYC feel. Took the subway back to our hotel for the night.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Off to Hong Kong

30 October: It was sad to leave Yangshuo, as it was my favorite place in China. It was a world of its own and quite different than the other cities we visited. I wish I had planned an itinerary with more countryside touring and a little less of the big cities. There is so much to see and do in China, so I’ll just have to go back someday.

Our taxi driver picked us up around 8am. We had a noon flight to Shenzhen. I said my goodbyes to the gals at the Li River Retreat and we headed out. It took about 1.5 hours to get to the airport. It was great to see the countryside, as we had arrived in Guilin the other day in the dark. I could see why the airport was quite a distance away. Who would want to fly among the mountains?

Our flight was very short and I think we were just served a drink. Once we landed, we could tell we would be having more warm days. Just beyond the luggage claim area, I found the ticket booth for the bus to Hong Kong. Tickets were 90 RMB each, which I used almost the last of my Chinese currency. We had to wait in the lounge only 10 minutes before we were gathered and escorted to the bus. Two security men boarded the bus and made sure everyone was buckled in. one security man took video shots of each person on board. Hmmm, I guess they wanted to keep track of who was crossing over into Hong Kong. After a short drive, we hit the border where we had go get off the bus, take our luggage and go through customs where we departed China and entered Hong Kong. Back on the bus we continued on to the Kowloon bus station.

On board we met a young couple (Elaine and Nigel) from California who were also staying at the Salisbury YMCA, so we shared a taxi after getting HK dollars at an ATM machine in the mall.

The YMCA is located in a good area of Kowloon with a subway stop nearby. The lobby was crowded with people checking in and just hanging out. Security men were everywhere. I booked a harbor view room (room 945), but a small portion of one building blocked part of the view. I checked later and was told our room was considered a full harbor view room rather than partial. I would recommend staying on a higher floor. In any case, the view was wonderful! I had seen this skyline for years on tv and in magazines but it was great to see it in person. Our room was basic with twin beds, tv., safe, mini bar and a small bathroom.

We met up with Elaine and Nigel and found a place for a late lunch/early dinner not too far from our hotel. I loved seeing all the street signs and the activity of the area. We walked around the temple street night market, but there was nothing worth buying. There were lots of eateries in the area and all the tables were filled. We walked south through the park and back to our hotel.

We headed over towards the harbor front to watch the evening laser light show. Many of the buildings across the water were lit up and some had green laser lights flashing over the city. The show lasted just 15 minutes. Found a department store with a small grocery inside under the convention center. Picked up a couple of food items and a bottle of wine for the room.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Our last day in Yangshou

29 October: During breakfast we met a couple from England, Tony and Trish, who had arrived the night before. After telling them about our adventures and our guide, they were anxious to meet Juan and hire her for their time in Yangshuo. I invited them to join us, but they weren’t quite ready to head out for the day.

Our last day in Yangshuo was spent on the Li River. We took a motorized boat up the river for 2 hours. We should have started at Yangdi town and worked our way south, not XingPing where the boat worked its way against the flow of the river. The scenery was incredible even though it was an overcast day. We spent a little time in XingPing before the ride walking along the oldest street in town. We visited an old man’s house where he entertained us with a song. He’s a musical teacher as well as an artist. We purchased paintings that he drew; typical Yangshuo scenes for 15 RMB each.

On the river we passed a few large boats that had come from Guilin. All the tourists were up top taking photos of the scenery.

After our 2-hour ride, we took the bus back to Yangshuo and spent some time window-shopping. It sort of made me feel I wish we had stayed at a hotel in town rather than the Retreat. We could have had more time in town. As it was, we spent little time at the Retreat, which I had planned on some downtime to relax and write in my journal. We were on the go every day!

We had dinner at Café China. I had a beef curry dish and Reenie had a pork and tofu dish. We had a couple of drinks, which brought the total to 154RMB. Ran into Tony and Trish, who were waiting to go to the Liu Sanjie light and sound show. Juan made arrangements for a taxi to take us there and back to the hotel after the show. She ordered our tickets the night before. The performance lasted about an hour and consisted of about 500 performers on bamboo boats. Young girls sang while dressed in local costume. Even an ox came out on stage with his handler! The same man who did the opening ceremonies for the Olympics created the show. It was pretty impressive.

Back at our hotel, we packed our suitcases for our last leg of the trip – Hong Kong.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yangshou and the Karst Mountains

26 October: I tried to book an early flight to Guilin but the airlines changed their schedules from a summer to fall schedule, which meant an evening flight. This gave us more time in Chengdu, however, with our late checkout at the hotel (Priority club member), we didn't have time to do a lot. We packed the night before and after a few minutes on the Internet; we took a taxi to Jinli Street. The taxi driver dropped us off in front of the Wuhou Memorial temple, which we visited. I hate to say this, but we really got tired of all the temples. They became a blur, as we couldn't remember which one was which. We walked along Jinli Street and checked out the various shops and food stalls. The street is narrow so it made it a little difficult to stroll along the way with everyone packed in. Both of us bought a couple of small items, including a cute panda key chain.

Back at the hotel and after checking out, I told one person at the door that we needed a taxi to the bus station to catch the airport shuttle bus. She explained that a taxi directly to the airport would be much better for us and less of a hassle with our luggage. I agreed, but told her that we had bad experiences with taxi drivers taking us to airports, that they overcharged us. I knew the approximate price to the Chengdu airport and told her so. She assured me we would not be overcharged, and in fact, it was a few RMB less even though the driver stopped to fill his car with gas and that took almost 10 minutes!

Got to the airport early enough to have a beer in the bar. We had a nice flight, arriving in Guilin around 9:30pm. I had the owner at the Li River Retreat arrange for a taxi to pick us up. A woman with my name on a sign was waiting for us outside. It was such a nice treat to be able to walk out and hop into a car without waiting in line and fighting with the illegal taxi drivers.

Our drive took about 1 hour, 40 minutes in the dark. It began on a dirt road! I was surprised to see buses leave the airport in one direction and our car in another direction. Both of us were tired, so it was a quite ride to Yangshuo. Not long before arriving, I could see in the dark the outlines of some karst mountains and my heart skipped a beat! Reenie told me the Great Wall would be the highlight of her trip; Yangshuo would be mine. I couldn't wait for daylight to see the scenery of Yangshuo! We could see the mountains that surrounded the town, some lit up with different colored lights.

The Li River Retreat is located along the river, about a mile north of the town. We drove on a narrow street that had no lights and through the woods. We arrived before midnight where two people were waiting for us. A man whisked our luggage up two flights of stairs and we checked into room 302, which our view and balcony faced the town. In the distance we could see the largest peak lit up. We were both thrilled with our room and views! Our room had two beds, one a double and the other a queen. No tv, no telephone, but for a place like this, who needs the outside world? The bathroom was tiled with a lovely round sink that "sat" on top of the counter. I had to borrow the community hair dryer each morning from the front desk. The A/C worked very well, as it was pretty humid. The Retreat does not provide room slippers but plastic slippers, which we had no desire to use. Fortunately we both had a pair from another hotel. We didn't unpack but showered and jumped into bed.

27 October: I arranged for a guide to take us around Yangshuo for three days. Expecting to meet Lijingfeng, the guide I hired, she sent her niece Juan instead. Juan was a wonderful guide who spoke English very well. I imagine it was due to all the English-speaking tourists visiting Yangshuo. She's been a guide for a few years now and we enjoyed her services. From my research, all the guides charge 100RMB per day per couple.

We rented two bikes, one a tandem for Reenie and the guide, and rode our bikes all around Yangshuo and into the countryside. I was in heaven stopping every few minutes to take pictures. We had semi-blue skies and the air wasn’t really polluted. I apologized to Juan for all the stops I was making but hey, it was my money and my vacation. We saw farmers in the fields, oxen tied up eating grass, and lots of other bikers and hikers. At some point, we rode along the Yulong River.

We stopped to tour a farmer's home and gave them a small donation. Reenie and I were fascinated in how they lived. Two old women and man showed us where they cooked and slept, and showed us their hand water pump. On display in another room were to coffins, which one woman gestured sleep with her hands. In the courtyard the old man lifted a large stone that had a carved out handle. I couldn't figure out what it was until he lifted it and started using it as a weight. Exercise! I tried to lift one, but it was too heavy. Throughout my trip I was astonished to see so many people still working hard into his or her 80/90s. The Chinese have a hard life, but they are hard workers. This is especially true for the farmers who break their backs bending over to plant and pick rice, wheat, etc. I saw old women carrying their grandchild and others carrying large poles over their shoulders balancing baskets that were filled with food.

After biking a few hours, we stopped at a small place for lunch. There were about 8 other bikers taking a break. Juan knew the owners, as she walked into the kitchen and started chatting with the cooks. We ordered noodles with chicken, pork with vegetables and some battered-fried taro root, which was sweet and crunchy, and some steamed local green leafy vegetables.

Continuing on, we biked another few hours before stopping at Moon hill. Juan stayed behind with our bikes and bags while Reenie and I hiked to the top, a total of 800 steps! We were definitely not in shape and stopped to rest many times. It took about 40 minutes to get to the top, while the more fit took less time. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the countryside and the mountains. In the distance I saw villages tucked between the karst mountains. It was hazy in the distance, but still a spectacular sight to see. Our 800-step hike was well worth it. During our hike to the top, two older women tailed us with containers of sodas. I had read about these women bugging people to buy their drinks as they hiked to the top. They didn’t try with us, but kept following us. Maybe it was because we had our bottled water with us. No sale from us. Other hikers managed to hike up alone.

By the time we got back down, we were both getting pretty tired. My tush was really hurting by then, as I had not ridden a bike in years (a 30-minute gym bike doesn’t count). It actually became painful to sit. I had asked Juan how long it would take to get back to Yangshuo town and she said, “About 50 minutes.” I about died! I didn’t think I could make it back so Juan and I ended up switching bikes and I led Reenie home on the tandem bike, as it had a slightly wider seat (although not any more comfortable). I made the mistake of selecting a mountain bike thinking the wider wheels would be best for countryside dirt roads. I’ll tell you, I was sore the rest of the trip and it was difficult getting out of chairs. To this day, I’m still sore and use a donut shaped cushion so that I don’t sit on the bruised spot. I really bruised the tailbone area and I know it can take many weeks to heal.

Back in town (still stopping along the way to take photographs), we ran into a couple we met on one of our flights, Lucy and Mark, a cute couple. We were all surprised to see each other, especially running into someone in such a huge country. They were staying at a “home stay” and loved their room. After 10 minutes, we continued on to return our bikes and collapse at the Retreat.

No night in town, we had picked up a bottle of wine after talking to Lucy and Mark, and had dinner on the terrace enjoying a local dish: Beer fish along with fried rice with an egg on top, and mixed vegetables with fried tofu. One of the young women working at the retreat, and serving our food, practiced her English, which Reenie and I helped. She was a little embarrassed but we both thought she did very well.

28 October: Another long day of sightseeing. We met up with Mary and Gan, who I corresponded with on Fodors. Gan’s sister was sick in bed (ate something bad) and missed out on seeing Yangshuo. I invited Mary and Gan to join us as we took a local bus to the town of Fuli for their market day, followed by a bamboo boat ride. The bus ride took about 20 minutes. It was a prettier day with blue skies but hot and humid!

Touring the market, we saw all sorts of fruits, vegetables, clothing, bags of rice, an old man selling honey (Juan bought some saying he had the best in town), etc. I even saw a vendor at a little stand selling false teeth. I have to say many of the Chinese have horrible teeth. I did see some puppies, but was told they were for pets. I hoped so! We were in an area where dog is a typical menu item, something I had no desire to try. Of course I understood the differences of our cultures.

We took a bus back to Yangshuo and then a taxi to the north end of the Yulong River for our bamboo raft ride. We let Gan do the negotiations, as he spoke Mandarin. There is one “boss” of the boat “drivers” and he controls the price After 10 minutes of back and forth negotiations, Gan was able to get tickets down from 200 to 150 RMB per couple.

What a wonderful boat ride we had along the river! With blue skies and green mountains, it was picture perfect. Our ride began with a lunch break for our “drivers” (each couple in their own boat with a colorful umbrella to keep the sun off of us) just minutes after leaving the dock. We floated while they quickly downed their food before getting back to work. We moved along the river snapping pictures and taking in the unique scenery. It made me wish I had planned for more countryside touring and less of the bigger cities.

Along the way, we encountered about 4 “drops” in the lake, where we had to put up our feet while we plunged over the edge. These drops ranged from a couple of feet to one where we had to get out of the boat, cross over a narrow road and continue on.

At the end of our ride, Juan and the taxi driver was waiting for us. We had negotiated a fair price for him to wait for us rather than him returning empty-handed.

Back in town and after a cold soda at the Buffalo Bar (Li River Retreat Alf owns the place), Reenie and I met up with a person for our cooking class. We made plans to join Mary and Gan later in the evening at the Retreat.

I arranged for us to take a cooking class that I found on the Internet last year. For 120 RMB (about $17.50) per person, it sounded like a good deal. Our cooking instructor first, along with a solo traveler, Jody, took us to the market in town. It consisted of two very large halls with the foods sectioned off. The instructor showed us the various local produce and which products we would be using in our class. She did ask if we were squeamish about any food, and I mentioned I didn’t want to see dog. Reenie didn’t want to see snake. Jody didn’t care. I had read that the back of the market is where dog meat had been sold, but didn’t think about it as we moved to the second hall. Walking through, we saw pork meat, beef, chicken, and, when looking left, a dog carcass hanging. Well, I saw it and just turned away. At least it didn’t look cute and cuddly, but one that I had typically seen in town.

Done with the market, we jumped into a car and drove to the countryside to the village of Chao Long for our class. We drove along the same route as our biking day, but it was lovely as the sun was going down. I could have jumped out to take more pictures!

The classroom is large with about 14 wok stations. It was nice to have such a small group. The food was already in place when we arrived. Going through all the ingredients, the instructor told us what we would be making. For each dish, she would have a demonstration and we would taste the results, deciding if we wanted to add more oyster sauce or spicy sauce to our dish. It was a lot of fun, but the first dish wasn’t easy: Egg wrapped dumplings, which consisted of pork filling and seasonings. After placing a spoonful (Chinese soup spoon) of egg batter into the wok, we had to quickly place a dollop of pork filling and fold over the egg, pan frying till golden brown and crispy. Two came out perfect but the rest were a little lopsided. Still, it was delicious. Other items we made: Steamed chicken with mushrooms and red wolf berries, eggplant with soy and oyster sauce, sliced pork with vegetables, and green vegetables with garlic. We all enjoyed our dinner with rice and tea on the terrace.

While eating, our instructor told us we would be taken back to town and dropped off. That was not the agreement and I told her so. The web site states transportation to and from the hotel and even though we were picked up in town, I expected to be dropped off at the hotel – it wasn’t much further. She ran off to talk to the owner, Pam, and came back with “okay.”

Full from dinner, we sat with Mary and Gan at the Retreat while they had theirs. Reenie and I had some red wine and we spent a couple of hours talking.

Another great day in China!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ancient town of Huanglongxi

25 October: A day trip to the ancient town of Huanglongxi. Today we took a taxi (100 RMB) with Fiona to the ancient town of Huanglongxi. The local buses were booked until noon and we didn't want to wait that long. We negotiated with a taxi driver, which Fiona said the 100 RMB was a fair price - $15 USD.I had read about this small town in my research. Not many Americans have visited this place, but I wanted to because I had read part of the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was filmed here. I wanted to visit a town that still had the feel of old China. It did in a way. The buildings still stand, although much of it has been renovated. Most of the buildings are two stories with ceramic rooftops and large pillars at the entrances. I would have loved to see the rooftops from above! Many buildings also had red lanterns hanging, as well as assorted flags written in Chinese characters.

This was a popular tourist destination site based on the crowds. We wandered the smaller streets, shopped a little, and just took in the area walking down the smaller streets. There were many vendors, which make it less than authentic. Still, we enjoyed our time here. I took many photos including those of the old folks. They all enjoyed the attention. Unlike yesterday with the many, many children asking for autographs, we had several that came up to us with their "hello!" One woman was holding her baby, a beautiful girl, so I took their photo. It's a keeper.

Near the river, to cross from one part to the next, is a short “walkway” that consisted of large stepping-stones. Reenie would have none of it and walked the long way around.

Along the way were old women with shallow baskets filled with baby rabbits for sell, but not to eat! One basket included a shivering and scared puppy. A pair of rabbits in another basket was nibbling on one lettuce leaf. I watched as they ate it quickly, almost kissing at the end when the reached the last piece of lettuce at the same time.

I saw three old women playing cards, which one had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. It was definitely a “kodak moment” that I captured.

There were lots of tables and chairs along side the river. A few people were having shoulder massages while others were having their ears cleaned with long metal prongs. I had seen this on the Anthony Bourdain show. No thank you! A few ‘cleaners’ approached me with prong in hand, and I politely said I don’t want it, “bú yào,” a phrase Reenie and I learned quickly for our shopping. Many people would repeat “bú yào” back to us, laughing, probably because they were surprised we knew this phrase.

While walking along, a young woman stopped Fiona (Reenie was off taking photos of the river area) and they chatted a few minutes. Next Fiona tells me the woman is in college and is doing a project and would I agree to being interviewed? Sure, which not! With a small video camera, she asked me a few questions, which Fiona translated. The main question was "How did you come to find this town?" I explained about my research for this trip, the movie I saw and that I wanted to visit a place that was relatively unknown to Americans. It was a short interview but it was fun. There were lots of people standing around watching the scene. I tell you, this trip has been a great experience and I have had fun interacting with the Chinese. They are wonderful, friendly people, especially the young ones.

Another time, two young girls came up to me and asked for my photo with them. This happened a few times on the trip. I had Reenie take my photo with them too with my camera. Thinking back, when waiting for Violet to buy our tickets for the Temple of heaven, I spotted two cameras in our direction. This also happened in Yangshou along the Li River where one man just walked up and stood beside me and posed for his friend.

Lunch was in a tiny hole-in-the-wall. I think we were eating tripe, which I have had before, but not my favorite food item. I asked Fiona a few times if it was tripe, but she didn’t know this word and kept saying it was part of the pig. Another dish we had, and I ate, was a sliced pork dish in a very spicy sauce, and soft tofu. This lunch was probably the one I didn’t care for the most.

We visited the small temple in town for just an RMB. I liked this one especially because of the gardens. There was also an old theatre stage, located on the second floor of one of the buildings.

Back in town, we took a taxi to a Thai restaurant for dinner, which was very good: Spring rolls, pad thai, and a curry chicken dish with green beans and mushrooms. We were served tea as well (129 RMB for the three of us).

Back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to Fiona. She was really disappointed that she had other plans the next day and would have preferred visiting with us instead. Reenie and I really enjoyed her company. She told us a lot about Chengdu, China, and her own life. We enjoyed getting to know her and always felt comfortable with her. We both told her she had a place to stay if she ever came to the USA. If anyone needs a reliable, friendly guide, I will be more than happy to pass her information to you via email: mjpileggi

I have to say, despite the crowds and touristy feel of Huanglongxi, I did enjoy our time there and would recommend it as a place to visit. It was a very nice change from the cities we had already visited. Now I need to go watch Crouching Tiger and see what part of the town was filmed!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Catching Up: Chengdu, Xian, Hangzhou

I haven't had much opportunity to get to an internet bar. Found one just now for 3 RMB per hour, which is about .45 cents. What a deal!

We're here in Chengdu for 3 nights, arrived yesterday. The Crowne Plaza hotel is great. Comfortable room, upgraded service (somewhat) for my Priority club membership, and great location (close to this cheap internet place among things).

Today we took a taxi with our guide Fiona, who I met via Trip Advisor. We had a blast seeing all the pandas, from the babies in the nursery (about 8-9 of them asleep - wish I could cuddle one), to the young 1-2 year old pandas, to the adults. I took a 'few' photos. ;) We could have watched them all day. We had arrived early enough to see them feed on the piles of bamboo, their food staple. Also saw people posing with one eating apples. A pose for about 30 seconds and 3 photos (with your own camera) cost 400 RMB.

We encountered several groups of school children, probably about 300 of them. All were excited to see the pandas, but many were excited to see Amercians. Many came up to us and said, "Hello!" Probably the only English word they know. That was just the beginning. Several came up with their panda postcards and a pen and asked for our autographs. What a frenzy it became! Both Reenie and I were swamped with children shoving the cards in our faces for our signatures. It started out fun and I wrote my name, "Monica J. Pileggi, USA". Well, by the third group of kids I was scribbling "Monica", as they were just happy to have anything written down. I couldn't keep up. One sweet girl came up to me and seemed to want to touch me, so I held out my hand. We shook hands and then she reached for me and we hugged. That blew me away. Such great kids. I saw another tourist bombarded by kids.

We later taxied to a museum, Sanxingdui, which has artifacts from an ancient Chinese culture from 2000-4000 years ago. Lots of bronze sculptures, masks, swords made out of jade, etc.

We took the local bus back to the city, which took about 1.5 hours. I wasn't happy as I now have a bladder infection and the bumpy ride did not help me. Fortunately, I have Cipro and will start taking it when I get back to the hotel.

Just a quick backtrack:

After Shanghai, we took the train to Hangzhou, which is the area of the West Lake and, "is like a heaven," according to the locals. We spent 2 nights and a young woman, Rebecca, took us around to see the various sights: temple, beautiful gardens, a ride on the West lake with 2 island stops. We also did some shopping and enountered a festival with TONS of food. The streets with filled with people moving about from one food stall to the next. It was fun.

After Hangzhou, we flew to Xian and spent 2 nights. Both flights we've taken so far have been great. Air bus planes.

In Xian, our main purpose was to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors (TCW). The day we went it rained like crazy and it must have been in the high 40s. The winds were blowing that everyone's pants were soaked. It wasn't fun. However, seeing the TWC certainly made up for it. We spent a few hours just viewing them. There is a museum, as well as three pits. This was an amazing find. Apparently the TWC were never written in the history records. How something so significant and so large could disappear for so long is astounding. In seeing the other two pits, I know it will be many, many years before they uncover it all.

We fly to Guilin on the 26th and will drive to Yangshou for our 4-night stay. This is the area with the karst mountains and Li River. I hope to get some good photos here. After, we'll head to Hong Kong for 4 nights and then home again.

I'll try to write again....maybe tomorrow! I can afford 3 RMB. :)


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Chengdu and the Wenshu Monastery

23 October: Up at 6:45am, we were out early to take the airport bus to the airport. No worries about any taxi driver ripping us off. It was a sunny day, yet cold day (9 degrees celsius), the best of the days we were there. Too bad. We caught the 8am bus and 50 minutes later we were at the airport. The bus driver, after asking if we were at the correct terminal, told us it would be the next one. Well, he was wrong! We had to back track to the first terminal. A woman told us to go back outside and catch a small golf-cart shuttle. I didn’t see any outside and was worried we would have to lug our bags to the other terminal. A couple of people said to walk. Finally, a shuttle arrived and we hopped in. We had plenty of time at the airport, but it’s best to get to the airport about 1.5 hours before the flight, as the desks close 30 minutes prior. I like the idea of the extra time to find the correct counters and gates.

Another smooth flight (1 hour, 10 minutes) and we landed in Chengdu. We took the shuttle bus to the city and transferred to a taxi to our hotel, the Crowne Plaza. It seemed to be in a good location. Our room, #1217, faced the front street. I loved the large lobby and the flower arrangements. One, near the elevators, was of Anthuriums, a beautiful display. I joked with the bellhop asking if there was an arrangement in our room and he told us we could take one. Of course, we didn’t.

The service was wonderful at the hotel. Everyone was very friendly. Some waited at the doors, opening as you came and went. They also bowed slightly and gave their greetings. Our room was very nice with two beds, a safe, desk, nice bathroom, robes and a mini bar.

We spent the afternoon at the Wenshu monastery. By now we were starting to get our monastery and temples mixed up! The area was nice, as it was set in an area with old buildings and shops. Inside the monastery is a vegetarian restaurant. We enjoyed the mushroom dumplings and deep fried pumpkin with red bean paste in the center, which was coated with sesame seeds. Tea was also served. (34 RMB).

After walking around the area, we had a hard time catching a taxi. It was rush hour and people were heading home from work. It took an hour to crab a taxi. We kept walking thinking the next corner would be a better spot to hail one. As we walked into the hotel lobby, we met up with Fiona. We were about 20 minutes late but she accepted our apologies when I told her our struggle to get a taxi. I met Fiona on Trip Advisor. I had hired someone to guide us, but his price was outrageous. After several emails with Fiona, I asked her if she would be our guide and she agreed. I think she was one of the nicest that I hired on this trip.

For dinner, we just went to the back side of our hotel to a small alley way that was filled with small restaurants and some shops. We dined at one restaurant on the corner and had just a couple of dishes: an egg and tofu mixture, thick and almost soupy, and sliced pork with mixed vegetables with crispy rice at the bottom of the plate. A sauce was poured on top at the table. Fiona treated us to dinner saying as host, she should pay for the first meal.

After dinner we had fun with some of the cooks at a small restaurant. They had a food stall at the entrance and we took photos of a little boy. He was so cute sitting in his little chair. The parents tried to get him to say hello but he just stared at us. I showed the parents the photos I took and they smiled. We really enjoyed our encounters with the Chinese during our trip and they seemed to enjoy us too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Xian and the Terra Cotta Warriors

22 October: Our main purpose for visiting Xian was to see the Terra Cotta Warriors (TCW). We woke up early to a much clearer (pollution-wise) day but it was colder and lightly raining. We figured our light jackets would be fine, but we were wrong! Standing on our balcony didn’t help us determine the temperature, which turned out to be in the high 40s/low 50s.

We took a taxi to the train station (9 RMB) after the first taxi wouldn’t take us. I learned it’s best to get inside the taxi and then show him the destination. We found the location of the buses, as we were told to take bus 306. There were four 306 buses, which were parked side-by-side. We got on board and it left within minutes. (7 RMB per person). Good timing!

It took about an hour to get to the site and by then the winds had kicked up and it was raining like crazy. By the time we got to the main entrance, our pants were soaked. The wind was blowing the rain sideways. I had a small umbrella that didn’t do much help to keep me dry. It wasn't fun and it was cold! However, seeing the TWC (90 RMB per person) certainly made up for it. We spent a few hours just staring them in awe. There is a museum, as well as three pits. This was an amazing find. Apparently the TWC were never written in the history records. How something so significant and so large could disappear for so long is astounding. In seeing the other two pits, I know it will be many, many years before they uncover it all. We saw two sets of chariots and horses behind glass, which apparently were pieced back together with over 3,500 pieces. The museum had many artifacts, including bows, arrows, harnesses, swords, etc. In one pit you could see the shape of the remains of the roof beams, now crushed by the weight of the ground that covered them.

I took too many photographs and wish I had a longer lens (kept the zoom lens at home to my regret).

On the way out, I picked up a box of terra cotta warriors for my Mom. I told her I had read they were not well made and by the time she got them they might be broken. I figure for $2, I would chance mailing them to her. Reenie picked up a warrior that stood about 8” tall. Heading back to the bus stop, we went through another gauntlet of vendors. They were selling boxes of the TCW for $1!

We met a couple on the way out and I told them about the local bus. They had arrived by taxi but were glad to save the money with the bus ride. We ended up on another bus (can’t remember the number) but the driver told us it goes back to the Xian train station/bus stop. While on the bus, the head of Reenie’s soldier fell onto the floor! We cracked up laughing! She bought it 15 minutes earlier and already it was falling apart! She said she would keep it on her mantel with the head next to the body, just as they were originally found. (Back at the hotel, I double wrapped Mom’s warriors and got them home safely and will triple wrap them for the package to Florida).

The couple was also staying at the Bell Tower hotel, so we shared a taxi back and made plans to meet up later for dinner.

I got on the computer at the hotel and quickly sent a few emails. The hotel charged 1 RMB per minute, so I typed quickly.

The four of us met up and we headed out to visit the Muslim quarter, which I had told them about while on the bus. We all did a little shopping and then had dinner at Jiasan Guantang Baozi on Bei Yuan Men 93. Coming from the beginning of the bazaar, it’s on the right hand side. Reenie and I had mutton dumplings, which were delicious and filled with broth, spicy lamb shanks, and a shredded potato dish that had vinegar dressing. I tried a couple of the dumplings that the other couple ordered (wish I could remember their names) but when I bit into one, I knew something wasn’t right. It had a bad, bitter taste. I later had a stomachache, but that was the only food item that hit me wrong while on this trip.

After dinner, we did more shopping and I got the hang of bargaining. It was quite fun! A third day in Xian would have been nice for more shopping and sight seeing. We were right in the Muslim quarter and I forgot to visit the Mosque!

We headed back to the hotel to pack for our next destination: Chengdu and the Pandas!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


21 October: We had a very early morning wake up call (5am) so that we could catch our flight to Xian. We were excited about visiting the panda research center. The streets were empty as we headed to the airport. Our taxi driver overcharged us and I even saw the meter skipping numbers. The ride came to 96 RMB. He ran off to get us a luggage cart and I was so temped to drive off with his car! LOL! I also hadn’t paid him yet and I wondered if he would have chased us down if we simply walked into the airport and got mixed into the crowds. He came back with the cart with all smiles on his face. I handed him the 100 RMB bill and he smiled to thank me. I smiled back and raised four fingers and then the palm of my hand. He kept smiling as if to thank me for the 100. He went to his door and I followed him with my hand still out. He continued to smile and this went on for a couple of minutes until he place a 1 RMB coin in my hand. I smiled and kept my hand out until he gave me the other three, one at a time. I thanked him for ripping us off and walked away.

We had a good 2-hour flight to Xian on an airbus plane. Upon landing, we were shocked to see such thick pollution in the air. We when landing, the pilot had practically no visibility and landed IFR (instruments versus visual). I didn’t see any ground until a few seconds before hitting the ground. Reenie and I just stared at the pollution. Unbelievable. I took a few photos from the window. I had read that Xian has some of the worse pollution in China, which is why I had changed the itinerary from 3 nights to 2 nights.

It was an easy ride to the city on the airport shuttle (27 RMB per person), which dropped people off at the Melody hotel. From there it was just a few minutes to walk to the Bell Tower Hotel. Our room (#441) was not ready, so we dropped off our luggage and explored our area. Both of us bought a crepe for lunch, which was filled with a chopped pickled hard boiled egg, cabbage, mushrooms, and hot sauce). It was filling, tasty and only 3 RMB.

Not too far from the hotel was a very small temple. I didn’t get the name of this temple. It was so peaceful and quiet, away from the traffic and congestion of people.

Reenie found a teashop where she bought a teapot. She didn’t want a whole set, just the pot. Up until then, I didn’t want to buy one, but hers was so pretty that I decided I wanted one too. The store didn’t have any other teapots, so I would start my search later.

On a small street corner, we picked up a bottle of wine. The old couple running the store enjoyed meeting us, as we tried to figure out which to buy. They hand gestured the prices, smiled, and seemed like they wanted to help us. As we walked away, we decided to turn back and get our picture taken with them. They laughed and seemed pleased. The man, at first, didn’t want his photo taken, but agreed after his wife harped on him. We showed them the photos and we got more smiles from. It would have been nice to go back another day to say hello to them.

Back to the hotel, we unpacked a few things. We had a great view of the Bell Tower from our room, which had a narrow balcony. The room was pretty basic. It had twin beds, desk/chair, large t.v., and a small bathroom. The carpeting was very old and dirty (thank goodness the hotel provided room slippers), including the carpeting in the hallways. The hotel really needs to replace all of it. The beds were slightly firm but comfortable.

After unpacking, we visited the Bell Tower, which had an expensive entry fee, 40RMB, compared to the other sights we visited. There was a short performance in the main room: five or six people playing various musical instruments and bells and a dancer with extra, extra long sleeves. It was entertaining and helped offset the entry fee. Not much else to see since the views were hampered by the pollution.

The Muslim quarter was nearby, so we went to check it out. There were lots of food vendors and people shopping for souvenirs. I found a place that sold teapots and I bargained: less than what Reenie paid for hers! I’ve done this twice now underbidding her.

We met up with Jasmine, a young woman that I met on VT. She had given me suggestions on getting to the Terra Cotta Warriors (TCW) by local bus. She took us to a restaurant near our hotel (Du Du Family Cuisine), about a 10-minute walk. We ordered five dishes but should have ordered four, but we ate most of it: baked eggplant, squid with celery and bamboo shoots, beef with cucumber, vegetable rolls (my favorite!), and a plate of various mushrooms with green and red bell pepper. It was an excellent dinner! 83 RMB for the three of us.

Back at our hotel we said our goodbye’s to Jasmine.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hangzhou and the West Lake

20 October: Today we spent time around the West Lake area, which included a visit to the Lingyin temple. We had met in the morning and took the local bus (Y2), which cost 3 RMB per person. Tour groups were already filling the area. The temple grounds are large and we only saw a portion of it since we had other sights to see. We saw lots of buddhas carved into the walls and caves of the area (Feilai Feng, “Peak That Flew From Afar”), which I was glad to see since I had cancelled our trip to Luoyang (although I’m sure the ones at Luoyang are more impressive). These carvings are about 600 years old. Walking through the caves, one needs to be very careful, especially if the rocks are wet. Some of the ceilings are short, so that can be a problem too.

One hall contained 500 Arhats, which were made out of copper and apparently weigh a ton each. The hall’s floor plan was shaped like a swastika and there were swastika emblems on the walls and ceilings.

Moving on, we took the bus to the area of the Shangri-la hotel. We peeked inside for a few minutes (and even used their lobby bathroom), lovely place! The street in front of the hotel (main street around the lake) was busy with traffic. I don’t think I would like to stay there. We had lunch at a small place across the street, which was a little pricey, but we enjoyed the baked fish with a sweet vinegar sauce; beggar’s chicken (entire chicken served with head and feet); bokchoy with mushrooms, and cucumbers in garlic sauce (large chunks of garlic too!).

After our lunch we walked along West Lake and took a ride on a boat and visited two of the islands in the lake. It was the late afternoon and I enjoyed the scenery. Still, it was pretty hazy out. Both islands were lush with gardens, bridges, and pagodas. The sun was setting as we continued on to the northeast side of the lake. I think I got some good shots.

Running out of RMB, we found an ATM machine and filled our wallets. Took a bus back to our hotel where we picked up a bottle of wine to enjoy before dinner while Reenie iced down her ankle and foot. For dinner, we enjoyed Indian food at Haveli India Restaurant and Bar, located on Nanshan Road (#77) and within walking distance from our hotel. The restaurant was quite colorful with purple chairs, silk draperies of assorted colors, and a beautiful woman who danced every so often to Indian music. Having Indian food (Tiki Masala Chicken, chickpeas and lentils, raita, a mixed vegetable dish, and rice for 220 RMB for 3 people) was a nice change from all the Chinese food we had been eating.

After dinner, we headed back to Hefang Street to buy more Chinese cut-outs.

I have to say we only scratched the surface in Hangzhou. We spent a lot of our first day on Hefang Street, which we had fun, but could have done more. I think this city deserves at least a 3-night stay. We did enjoy the lake views from our hotel the first night and I took some night shots of the nearby pagoda (which was the only time I used my tripod – Nutella, you were right, it was a waste to bring it).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hangzhou and the West Lake

19 October: Reenie and I took a taxi to the train station, which the driver overcharged us. I tried to pay him ½ the bill, as we had taken a taxi the day before and knew the going rate. Also, I watched at how fast his meter was turning. Of course, I couldn’t stop him. Several men approached us and tried to help. The taxi driver argued with them but in the end we paid. I did take his license plate number down (actually took photos). One person said to call a particular number, but how could I? We needed to get on the train for our next destination. He was one of 2 drivers that “took us for a ride.”

Reenie and I couldn’t believe there was no elevator or escalator at the Hangzhou train station. Many people were traveling with their luggage and everyone had to use the stairs. Reenie had a hard time with her foot, so I had to lug all pieces down the stairs. After getting through to the main area, we met up with Rebecca, a young woman that would be with us for our two days in Hangzhou. She was recommended on Fodors wiselindag, a fellow fodorite, who used her services a few months ago.

It took quite a while to hail a cab, as many did not want to go the short distance to the hotel; but I was able to get one. Our hotel was located right on the West Lake on the southeast side. We stayed at the Liuyang Hotel, which is set in a garden area with bamboo and other trees, shrubs, and flowers. I had corresponded with a person at the hotel, who told me earlier this year the entire hotel was booked due to a conference. I was told to check back later, which I did. Still, no room. My last email to the woman was, “That’s alright, I’ll find another place but will stop by to say hello.” A couple of hours later I received an email saying the manger of the conference gave up one of the rooms for us. Talk about nice people! We were in room 2105, which is on the ground floor. No view to speak of. It was a small, basic room, probably equivalent to a 2-star hotel in Europe. The beds were very hard and the bathroom was small. Also, the bathroom had the ‘hose’ type hair dryer, which I hate. We paid 528RMB per night.

After check in and dropping off our bags in the room, we all headed out for the afternoon. We walked to Hefang Street, which is an ancient shopping street. Just before the start of the street there was a huge festival in progress. Many people were out and the street was crowded. There were many food vendors and people pushed and shoved to get their food. One food item I saw and should have bought was squid on a stick. It looked so good! And they were large squid too. We snacked on some food, including stinky tofu, although it wasn’t the authentic stinky tofu – just very tasty. We sat at a nearby park, which a police office walked by telling people to get off the grass. I asked Rebecca to tell him we needed to sit because of Reenie’s foot. He accepted our reason for sitting.

Hefang Street was a lot of fun. We bought a few items, including some Chinese paper cut-outs. There were all sorts of designs, including pandas, flowers, mountain scenery, etc.

Later, we took a taxi to a garden, but it had closed down for the season. Rebecca felt bad. We walked around the area, next to the West Lake, where we saw several bridal couples having their photos taken. All of the women were wearing cream-colored dresses and they wore jeans under their dresses. Out in the distance on the lake, we saw several boats. The views were quite hazy from the pollution. It was a shame to see the pollution in such a beautiful setting.

For dinner, we dined a Zhiweiguan, which is a well-known restaurant. We dined outside on the terrace. Fortunately there were no bugs or mosquitoes. We ate sautéed beans, whole fried shrimp, and a beef dish, which was similar to short ribs. They were the tastiest dish of the night.
Realizing it was too far to walk back to the hotel (we had walked about 20 minutes), we grabbed a taxi and planned to meet Rebecca at 9am the next day.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Day trip to Xitang, a Lovely Watertown

18 October: Today we took a day trip to the watertown of Xitang, where the 3rd movie Mission Impossible was filmed. I should have asked William to buy our train tickets, as the station was packed with travelers. I was able to buy tickets to Xitang (actually to Jiashan with a change to a bus) but not for the ride home. I was told that there were plenty of buses for the return trip. The trip was 45 minutes. Upon arrival, I wanted to buy our bus tickets before heading into Xitang. A young woman, Stella, guided us to the bus station, which we would never have found. There were no signs in English and the buses were parked in the back and out of view. She helped us buy our bus tickets and then went with us to Xitang where she lives. She even walked us all the way to the entrance of Xitang. Both Reenie and I really appreciated her assistance.

We spent a few hours walking around Xitang, which is a popular tourist destination. It was a semi-clear day and quite enjoyable after the two big cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Lots of people were taking boat rides on the canal. Many of the residence have shops or food stalls. We picked up a deep fried vegetable fritter for a snack.

For lunch, I picked a place facing the canal, although the tables outside were filled. We had a simple lunch of sautéed sliced purple eggplant and rice. A bowl of edamame (soybeans) was also served. Only one person in the restaurant spoke English and it was very limited. We managed well though. Lunch was 24 RMB. I always enjoy finding delicious foods and meals at deliciously low prices.

We took a mini bus back to Jiashan, which dropped us off at the bus station. The bus ride was a lot longer, but it was nice to sit and relax. Back in Shanghai, I looked for a taxi. A person in uniform apparently saw me looking and said, “Taxi?” Yes! He walked to the street and hailed one for us and made sure we got in, as there were several other people waiting for a taxi. It was really nice of him! We found that the Chinese are very friendly and helpful, even if you don’t speak Chinese.

Reenie wanted to visit the Yu Yuan Gardens but it was too late. She was very disappointed but knew she had to give up some time in order for her foot to heal. We found a place near our hotel for dinner since she had her fill of walking. We enjoyed a braised fatty pork dish with chestnuts and red hot peppers, steamed cabbage with shitake mushrooms and rice. A large bottle of beer was 10 RMB and dinner total came to 60 RMB. The pork was tender and flavorful and the chestnuts were cooked until just soft. It was a great combination.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shanghai: Jade Buddha Temple and French Concession

17 October: Since Reenie’s foot was swollen and sore, I headed out for the day on my own. I took a taxi to see the Jade Buddha Temple, which was packed with people. Incense burned everywhere. The temple was quite a popular place to visit and very colorful as fodorite friend Stu said it would be. Of course all the smoke didn’t help my lungs. On the second floor of the Jade Buddha Chamber, I tried to discretely photograph a Monk, who was with (apparently) his mother. Just after snapping the photo, he looked over to me and smiled. It’s hard to point a camera towards someone that might be offended, so I smiled back.

Next I taxied over to the Yu Yuan Gardens, which was another colorful area with a large shopping bazaar. I bought my chop, my name in Chinese characters, as well as the meaning of my name: "Advisor." I paid 100RMB, or about $15. It came with a box and large container of red ink. The chop itself is larger than average, so I think I got a good price for it. I also bought a large paintbrush with a blue and white ceramic handle to hang in my house.

The Gardens were lovely and I spent some time just wandering and taking pictures. It was certainly night and day between the gardens and the bazaar area. I had a quick lunch of a steamed dumpling filled with pork and soup and served with a straw. It was so good!

I taxied back to the hotel where Reenie was ready to go out. She had iced up her foot a few times and the swelling seem to have gone down. We headed over to the French Concession and walked around before dinner at the Ruijin guesthouse with some fodorite friends. We checked out an old Russian Church that was being worked on, as well as another former residence of Soong (it was closed when we arrived). Reenie and I stopped at a bar and had a couple of watered down drinks before dinner. At least they were cheap.

For dinner, we met up with Jackie and her friend Tako, from Japan. Dinner was very good. Reenie and I shared some dumplings that were filled with vegetables and we all shared a bean curd dish with crabmeat; and fried chicken pieces with red chilies. The chicken pieces were pretty small and bony. We were all surprised the chicken wasn’t spicy hot with all the chilies in the dish. Service was a little slow but we enjoyed each other’s company.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Shanghai - Museum and Cheap Street Food for Dinner

16 October: Reenie’s foot had been hurting for a couple of days and we suspected it was because of too much walking and Great Wall hiking. I, on the other hand, started having breathing problems because of the pollution. I bought cough drops for my sore throat - something to consider bringing when traveling to China. It might have been better if I had renewed my inhaler prescription.

We took it easy this day. After breakfast at a French pastry shop near our hotel, we headed out to visit the Shanghai museum (no charge). On the way there, three young people stopped us. They welcomed us to China and spoke English quite well. We chatted for several minutes, as they told us they had recently graduated from college and were on vacation from Suzhou. The second one of them asked if we had ever been to a tea ceremony, I politely ended the conversation by saying I don’t like tea. They smiled and walked away.

We really enjoyed the museum and spent a couple of hours looking at the various artifacts, jade pieces, calligraphy, and other Chinese works of art. Reenie sat a lot to rest her foot.

We slowly headed north to a well fodorite-recommended place for lunch: Jia Jia Tang Bao. It was very easy to find, as we saw a long line of hungry diners. We waited in line for about 25 minutes, which went by very quickly. We had two sets of dumplings: one with chicken and pork and the other with chicken and crab (my favorite); along with some seaweed soup. These dumplings were so delicious I was in heaven! The dumplings were soft in texture and thin. The soup inside was piping hot, so one has to be careful when biting into them. It’s best to place the dumpling in the spoon and biting from the top. I sucked out the soup before eating the rest of it. Wish there was a place like that where I live!

Reenie had enough with her foot, so we took a taxi back to the hotel where she iced up her foot. I headed out for the remainder of the day walking around the area and seeing the Pudong skyline at sunset. Many people were on the Bundy promenade hanging out and watching the skyline scenery.

For dinner, which we had in our room with our wine, I picked up some street food. One small shop had two vats of boiling broth whereby each person takes a basket and fills it with whatever food they want to eat. There were skewers of various types of meat and seafood and assorted vegetables. There were also three or four types of noodles to select. I picked some pork meat, two types of mushrooms, cabbage and thin noodles. The cook finished off the soup with some hot sauce and other spices. I also picked up two crepes that were filled with leaks – a Chinese pancake that was typical of Shanghai. I think they were 1 RMB each. The soup was about 14 RMB. Cheap, cheap dinner for two.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shanghai - Our First Day

15 October: Packed and ready to go, we flew to Shanghai at noon. I had bought our tickets a couple of days before, as well as our tickets from Guilin to Shenzhen (the direct flight to Hong Kong was booked). Our first inter-China flight was very smooth and just a short 2-hour ride. Lunch consisted of a pork noodle dish and cold vegetables.

We arrived at the smaller Hongqiao airport and took a taxi to our hotel, The Bund Hotel. The hotel isn’t as nice as the Park Plaza and the beds were horribly hard. Our room (#1607) had city views but on the backside. We could see the nearby freeway. The room had two double beds and a very nice large bathroom. The employees were not friendly at all with the exception of William at the concierge desk, who helped us obtain our train tickets for Hangzhou. The location was great, about a 15-minute walk to the Nanjing pedestrian street. The area around our street was quite colorful with street food vendors and small shops.

We spent the afternoon unpacking and then heading out to tour the pedestrian area of Nanjing road. Shanghai was a great city to visit – such pulse it has! We saw lots of fabulous tall buildings. It seems that when a building is built it tries to outdo the others. Nanjing road reminded me of Times Square in NYC with all the tall buildings and neon signs. I loved the shops on this road, with its many varieties of food. I wish I had an interpreter to tell us about the many packaged foods. I did buy some dried plum seeds, which I grew up on when living in Hawaii. Many people asked if we wanted to buy fake watches, bags, etc. No thanks.

We found a small place for dinner, just about a block north of Nanjing road. An older Chinese woman stared at us through the window for quite some time. I guess we were an oddity. Dinner included kung pao chicken, thinly sliced broccoli spears in a white garlic sauce, rice and beer (93 RMB). We just loved those fresh vegetables. The chicken was very good but too many peanuts for my taste.

Back at the hotel, Reenie went to the room while I headed out to find a bottle of wine for the room. About a block away is a nice sized grocery store. Wine was very inexpensive, about 32 RMB. The streets were quite lively with food vendors. It did look good, although it seemed rougher than in Beijing. I couldn’t tell what some of the food was but it did look fresh. Maybe we would try some another night.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Back Lakes, Hutong, and a Fabulous Dinner

14th October – On our own. This day we took the subway to the Back Lakes. The subway is very easy to navigate, as many signs are in English. And it’s very inexpensive! We spent most of the day wandering the Back Lakes and the area of the hutong. It’s a lovely area with shaded trees, peaceful gardens, and hutong. Reenie and I really enjoyed seeing another part of Beijing life. Many of the hutong are in ruins with small alleyways. Life continues in the hutongs with people going about their business, exercising in their small parks, and sitting around with neighbors. We met a beautiful old white-haired woman, who was sitting outside enjoying the day. She could have been the twin of my 99-year old grandmother. I showed her my camera and she smiled with a nod. I snapped a few photos while she sat regally.

We saw people swimming in one of the lakes, which I would never have done. Most had large bottles filled with fresh water to wash them once they got out. There was even a sign posted telling people NOT to swim in the polluted water.

Reenie and I visited the Soong Chingling former residence and museum. She was the honorary Chairman of the People's Republic of China, established in 1949, and wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The residence/museum remains as when she lived there, with the residence set in a beautiful garden with corridors and pavilions. On display were photographs that showed her life, to include her political activities. There were other exhibits, including a Children’s Hall. It was quite an interesting museum.

In the area, we saw many people on rickshaws. They seemed like a fun ride, but we enjoyed our walking, as we got to see more of the area. For lunch we had Thai food. As soon as we settled in our chairs, the owner changed the music from Chinese to American! We listened to several eras of music. Lunch consisted of spring rolls, beef with basil and rice. We found many of the restaurants served large portions of food. Sometimes we could have done with just one or two dishes.

In the late afternoon we visited the Jinshan Park for a bird’s eye view of the Forbidden City. It was very hazy out but I was glad to see the city from this point of view. Many people were hanging out waiting for the sun to set. The air had a yellowish glow. It would have been wonderful to see the city and its red rooftops with clear skies. As our days progressed, we encountered more pollution.

Reenie wanted to catch the lowering of the flags at T. Square, so we tried to grab a taxi. There was no way with the evening traffic, especially in the area of the Forbidden City. We hired a motorized “rickshaw” which an old man was driving. We zipped through the traffic passing the crowded streets. It was exhilarating but also scary, especially since we knew how people drive in Beijing. The man dropped us off but we still had to cross over the square (via underground walkway) and just didn’t get there in time. We headed back to the hotel on the subway.

For dinner, we met up with Lisa and taxied over to the Noodle Loft, a restaurant I had seen on the Anthony Bourdain show (No. 20 Dawang Road, Chaoyang District, tel: 8610-677 49950). The center of the room has an open kitchen where four or five chefs will cook fresh made noodles. It was quite entertaining to watch them perform. They would toss the various types of noodles into the large pots of boiling water. Some looked like the Italian gnocchi while others were extremely long noodles.

Dinner was fabulous (although we actually didn’t order any noodles): fried lotus root, a fatty pork dish with vegetables (thinly sliced green vegetable of some sort that was crunchy), a whole duck with pancakes and plum sauce, and a plate of ear mushrooms with cilantro. Reenie and I agreed the duck was more succulent than at Liqun duck restaurant, as well as getting more for our money (although we certainly enjoyed our dinner in the hutong). It was probably one of the best meals we had on this trip. Dinner for the three of us: 206RMB (or about $10 per person).

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Day on the Great Wall

13 October, Monday: Yesterday Violet sprung some “news” by saying, “Sorry, I can’t take you to the Great Wall tomorrow.” Apparently she had to take a test to get her driver’s license but didn’t tell us till the day before our outing. I was angry to say the least, but just told her to resolve the problem, which she did. She arranged for a driver to pick us up at our designate 7am time and would charge us the same 500RMB price that I had negotiated with Violet. In the end she did us a favor, as we didn’t have to pay her 350RMB/day fee. I did have two backup plans in case any guide fell through. In fact, I had hired a driver the year before and even though we corresponded quite often and up until about 2 weeks before I left for China, he too backed out. Must have gotten other customers where he could make more money.

The driver met us at the hotel and we were off to the Wall at Mutianyu. It was an overcast day, unlike our first 2 days in Beijing. As we neared the wall, I could see parts of it in the distance. I was getting excited! Reenie had told me this is the one thing she wanted to see while in China – her trip of a lifetime. We arrived about 8:30am or so and there were already a few buses. However, I had read this part of the wall was less crowded than at Badaling. The driver escorted us to the ticket office, where we purchased our entry fee, the cable car fee and toboggan fee (all for 120RMB per person).

The cable car ride was short but we enjoyed the views despite the haze in the air. The wall winds its way through the peaks of mountains and wooded hillsides. We headed towards the left first. Up and down the stairs we went, some were narrow and some were wide. It was great to be on such a historical site and to wonder how it was built on such high mountain peaks. The number of people it took to build must have been in the thousands. We walked through several towers, which varied in size and height. I would stop now and then and just look out into the distance where I saw the wall disappear. I wish we had all day to hike the wall, but it wasn’t possible.

Heading back in the opposite direction, we passed the cable car station and headed to the other end. We had even better views! The air cleared up somewhat and we saw blue skies above us. It seemed at times we had the wall to ourselves. I noticed some small groups of people walking a very short distance and then turning back to leave. What a shame. The wall deserves a few hours at least! We were on the wall for about 3 hours, and I would say 4 would even be better. We felt a little rushed getting back to the car and the length of the wall to the right was longer than I thought it would be.

Our trip down the mountain was fun! We took the toboggan down where one sits in an individual seat for the ride down. Each controls the speed and breaks, with a toggle in the middle. A worker tells us to lean as we hit a curve. I knew Reenie would be going down slowly, so I started first. And wow, did I go fast! It was so much fun!! It probably took 5 minutes to get down, but I was ready to go back up for another ride. I woo-hooed all the way down! This is definitely a "must do" for any visitor to the wall. After, we walked through the gauntlet of vendors selling cheap t-shirts. I should have bought one, but didn't. They were dirt cheap, two for $1. Oh well. We have the memories of our wall hike. And our many photos.

The driver was waiting for us in his car, taking a nap. We headed next to the town of HuaiRou for lunch. Recommended by fellow fodorites, we certainly enjoyed lunch: Eggplant sautéed in a brown sauce with bits of chopped meat; fried dumplings (which had a crispy topping, almost like flat layer of almost-burnt cheese); and a mixture of sautéed mushrooms. Reenie said they were canned mushrooms, but the dish was still tasty. We shared a bottle of beer while the driver waited for us in his car. I did ask him to join us, but he declined. (74RMB for the two of us).

Continuing on, we headed back to Beijing and stopped at the Lama Temple for an hour or so. It was such a colorful temple filled with people praying with their incense sticks. It was quite smoky and I imagined the many temples in Beijing played a part in the pollution. There were several courtyards with individual temples. Buddha’s, large and small were inside. No photography is allowed. The last temple contains the largest in the group.

For dinner (after our usual glass of wine), we met up with fellow fodorites Lisa, Charna and Manny and Evelyn and Manny. We met in the lobby of our hotel and not knowing where to go, I suggested the small dumpling restaurant from our first night. They all loved it! We ordered a variety of dumplings, as well as a delicious pickled, garlic cucumber salad. Some had sodas, while Reenie and I shared a beer. Dinner per person came to 15 RMB, or about $2.20, to which the group was amazed. Eating in places like this makes me a happy woman!

Lisa joined Reenie and me and we walked to the night market. However, not realizing the time, we arrived just as it was shutting down (10pm). Lisa did get the jist of it and I hope she had the opportunity to go there another night. Quite frankly, we should have returned directly to our hotel after dinner, as our feet and legs were sore from the hike on the wall.

All in all, this was a great day. The Great Wall was certainly a highlight of our trip!!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday in Beijing: Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and Delicious Peking Duck!

Sunday October 12th: We had nice weather again, although slightly more smoggy than the day before. Violet picked us up at 8:30am at the hotel and we took the subway to the Temple of Heaven (TH). Reenie and I both enjoyed this park-like setting. It seemed everyone was out enjoying the day with his or her loved ones. We enjoyed watching people dancing in the park, playing various games, doing their exercises, and groups of singers or musicians.

One man stopped me for a few minutes and I played a sort of 'table' tennis but it was with a large soft ball that we tossed to each other with a paddle. I had fun interacting with him. What I did learn is that the moves you make in order to toss and catch the ball are tai chi moves. He helped me with a few moves, but I could tell it's something that takes practice.

Violet told us about the sights at the TH. I was amazed at its size (I’m starting to sound like a broken record but hey, Beijing is large and it seems that the Chinese wanted to build everything large). At the TH many people were enjoying their Sunday. Some were dancing, some singing, some playing various games. One could tell that socializing is the thing to do on a weekend day. The TH was just about as large as the FC. We did lots of walking!

Next, we headed over to the pearl market and Reenie bought a hat, as she is fair-skinned and the sun can be too much for her. She bargained and ended up paying 20RMB, which Violet recommended. Reenie had bought a watch the previous day ($15 USD), which Violet said she paid "too much!" Me, I haven't bought anything yet. The stores with all the young sales women and the number of stores can be overwhelming.

For lunch Violet took us to a restaurant very close to the pearl market – Old Beijing Zhajiang Noodle King, 29 Chong Wai Street, Chong Wen District. We didn’t want a multi-course lunch since we had dinner reservations for Peking duck! We all enjoyed a bowl of Beijing noodles, which is served with a thick plum sauce. It was excellent. The restaurant is large (there I go again) and was completely filled, mostly with locals from what I could tell. People waited in line for a table. As we ordered we were asked to pay for our meal. They worked fast! Chairs were uncomfortable, as they were just small bench-like chairs, but that’s probably to get people in and out quickly. No lingering here.

The afternoon was spent at the Summer Palace (SM), where the emperors would enjoy their summers. It was about a 40-minute taxi ride. The SM was a zoo! It was just as crowed as the Forbidden City. We spent a couple of hours walking along the area, including along the long corridor, the longest in the world. It reminded me of the corridors at the Temple of Heaven.
We decided not to walk up the hill to the, I think it's called the temple of harmony, since we had plans to climb the great wall the next day, but instead, we walked over to the marble boat. I had seen photographs of the boat and appreciated seeing it in person. What a work of art!

For 10 RMB per person, we took a short boat ride along the lake to the 17 arch bridge. Here is where the number 9 comes into play. If you stand in the middle of the bridge you have 9 arches on either side of you to include the one that you are ‘standing’ on.

It was late, so we took a taxi ride to the nearest subway and went back to the hotel. One stretch of the subway was very crowded, especially at the interchange.

For dinner, we ate at Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant, which is located in a hutong (11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Road, Qianmendong St, tel 67055578). Our taxi driver had a hard time finding it and had to call the restaurant. Once he stopped the car I was unsure if we were in the right location. The cars that drove on the streets kicked up the dust, which make the area look eerie, especially with the few lights on the street. Pointing in the correct direction, we set off. Right at the corner was a sign painted on a wall directing us to the tiny hutong restaurant. We knew this would be an experience. Even though Violet had called to make reservations for us, she told us we would have to wait "a little." That wait turned into 45 minutes. However, it was worth the wait! Every table is presented with their duck to see before it is taken away for carving. To eat duck, take one of the very thin crepes, a piece of duck that has been dipped into the sweet bean duck sauce, "paint" the sauce onto the crepe; add more duck (along with the skin), thinly sliced scallions and sliced cucumber. Wrap it like a burrito and enjoy! It was so good! Both of us were in heaven. We also enjoyed garlic snow peas, perfectly cooked and still crisp. I hate overcooked vegetables.

This hutong restaurant was very small and had about three rooms of diners. The middle, courtyard, was covered with a plastic roof. One could imagine how people lived before it was a restaurant. Tight quarters of families sharing the center courtyard. Many hutong are being destroyed on a daily basis.

I hadn't thought about getting a taxi back to our hotel but one woman at the restaurant told us to walk back to the main street and someone would hail a cab for us. Sure enough, on the corner were several men, including two in security uniforms. It took about 10 minutes before one could be hailed down. It was a short ride back to the hotel.

I have to say that I never felt uncomfortable while in China. I felt very safe and never thought twice about walking in the streets at night, even in small dark alleyways.

Next: our visit to the Great Wall!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Beijing Saturday

Saturday October 11th: Early wake up call since we had a long day. We met up with Violet after breakfast, our guide for the next three days. Our morning started with a walk to the Forbidden City (FC), which took about 25 minutes. We arrived at the east gate and circled south to the main entrance. Instead of going directly in (a mistake, which I’ll explain later), we headed south to Tiananmen Square. Both Reenie and I were amazed at the size of the square. I had read it was the size of 90 football fields. I also read other sizes, but in any case, it was incredibly large. Decorations remained from the Olympics and we saw a group of school children touring the area.

Heading back to the FC we encountered crowds of people. While the National holiday had ended (on the 8th?) many people still remained in Beijing for the weekend. The crowds packed into FC. There must have been 10 lines of people squeezing into 2 final lines to get through the gate. I saw a few people panic because everyone was pushing. Had there been any problems I’m sure some would have been injured. I recommend that anyone visiting the FC to go there first thing in the morning and visit T. Square another day, as we would have avoided the crowds.

If I thought T. Square was large, I was even more amazed at the size of the FC. It seemed like we walked forever going through the various parts of the city grounds. We learned that the gold knobs on the red doors signified the lucky number 9, as most of the doors had 9 rows across and 9 rows top to bottom. Also, there are apparently 9,999 rooms in the FC.

We visited the small jewelry museum (lots of beautiful jade) and then headed out the north end of the City, probably spending 4 hours total.

By this time, we were hungry for lunch, so Violet took us to a place for a hot pot lunch. The card I have reads “Beijing Full Blessing Catering” 38 Dianmennei Street. Across the street, according to Violet, was another hot pot restaurant that busloads of tourists go to. Most tourists apparently missed the restaurant we dined in. Each table had a steaming hot pot with a spicy broth, depending on how spicy you like your food. We ordered lamb, beef, cabbage, straw-like mushrooms, and celery leaves. I like spicy food, but ordered mine mild. It was certainly mild but after several bites of food, the heat kicked in. Reenie and I enjoyed our lunch (226 RMB for 3 of us).

Reenie wanted to buy some bulk silk, so we took a taxi to the silk market. She shopped around, as there were many stalls and she wanted a particular color and thickness of material. She bargained and purchased some. She also bought a watch, but Violet said she paid too much. I agreed! I looked around but wasn’t in the mood for shopping. Too much to see in Beijing and I’m not a shopper anyway, except get me in an Italian ceramic shop and I go crazy!

After a short rest at our hotel, we walked to the Wangfujing night market. Wow! I loved seeing all the various foods and bugs. There were probably 30 food vendors, most selling the same items. Since we had a large lunch, I dined on some of the street food, to include some skewered meats (lamb) and a crepe that was filled with cabbage, vegetables, sliced meat and some hot sauce. Reenie wasn’t ready to try the foods but did have some fried ice cream.

Nearby on the pedestrian area of Wangfujing, we shopped a little before heading back to the hotel.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Beijing - Arrived safe and sound

My cousin Reenie and I arrived safely in Beijing. We flew on United Airlines from Dulles International. The flight was loooong but we managed well. We did have lots of turbulence over Canada. We saw lots of ice-covered land, especially over the Queen Elizabeth Islands and Siberia. And the mountains were beautiful with jagged edges. We crossed over Mongolia before heading south into Beijing.

Landing, going through customs, and getting a taxi was very easy. We both took money out of the ATM machine outside the exit area. There are two official taxi lines. As warned by fellow travelers, a man did walk up to us while still inside the terminal asking if we needed a taxi. I knew best and headed to the official stand. It took about 20 minutes to get to our hotel. The traffic was very light. I had read about the aggressive taxi drivers, but not ours. Our seatbelts didn't work but I actually felt comfortable with his driving. Along the highway into the city there were many potted planters with various flowers. We didn’t know if they were from the Olympics or if flowers are there for most of the year.

The taxi driver had to stop to ask for directions to our hotel, while I kept trying to tell him it was next to the Regent. He called the hotel and we were at the door the next minute. We paid 84RMB for the drive, which I knew was more expensive than the express train/subway, but after a long day in the air, we wanted no other mode of transportation. It was nice having door-to-door service.

Check in at the Park Plaza Wangfujing hotel was fast and we were upgraded to an executive room with the club benefits (breakfast, cocktails in the evening and use of the computer!) Our room, #1506, was quite nice with two double beds, desk, tv., decent sized bathroom; chair and coffee table; and amenities (slippers, robe, 2 bottles of water daily). The service was great at the Plaza. Every employee we encountered was friendly and always with a smile. The location of the hotel is great: a subway is located next to the hotel and the Wangfujing night market is only a 10-minute walk away. Breakfast was just “ok” – not enough of Chinese foods and they always put out American sausages. Got tired of that. Evenings they had wine and hard liquor, but we enjoyed the white wine. Most evenings we would have a drink or two while I got on the computer; followed by dinner out.

Our first day was beautiful. Blue skies, with a slight haze, but nothing compared to what I saw on t.v. before and during the Olympics. The weather report called for the same sunny days and temps in the low 70s.

For dinner, I asked at the concierge desk for a recommendation for a light dinner, as Reenie wasn't that hungry. We were given a restaurant business card and one of the employees walked us outside and pointed us in the right direction (out the back entrance and to the left, crossing over a main street and down 2 blocks or so, restaurant is on the left). I wasn't sure if we were going to find the place since only Chinese characters were on the card and it took a while for the employees to figure out the directions.

The restaurant was a dumpling place (Shun Yi Fu Dumpling restaurant, 36-3 Gan Yu Avenue Eastern District, Beijing, Beside South of the WgFuJing Church) and the place was packed. In fact, it was the only place that was full on this particular street. There were probably 5-6 other small restaurants. We didn't have to wait, as 2 people just left their table. Three young waitresses brought out plates of steamed and fried dumplings. Some of the diners had various types of soups, vegetables, and other dishes. It all looked great! We ordered a small plate of pickled vegetables (daikon, cabbage and carrots), which was slightly spicy (5 RMB) along with a plate of fried dumplings stuffed with cabbage and pork (15 dumplings for 25 RMB). The cabbage had the taste of spinach. They were delicious and filling. With 2 bottles of water our dinner was 35 RMB. What a delicious, yet inexpensive dinner for our first night in China.

We didn't get to the night market, as we walked in the wrong direction but we did see a lot of activity in the area. Many shops were open and we even checked out a teashop. After picking up a couple of bottles of water for the room, we walked back.

My first impression of Beijing: Alive, vibrant, fast-paced and wow, those drivers are all over the street. I can’t imagine riding bikes in the city in between the cars, but the Chinese do it so easily.