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Hong Kong: Are We In China Yet?

June 1, 2011

In a word: No. You may remember that Hong Kong was ceded from the British to the Chinese on July 1, 1997. But you probably don't realize that the agreement stipulated that Hong Kong is officially a "Special Administrative Region". That means it has its own government, a capitalistic economy, its own laws, no "One Child" policy, etc. For example, you don't need a visa to visit HK but you do need one for China. And, unlike what happened in many other countries when a new landlord took over (e.g., Viet Nam), it still has its original English street names (such as Chatham, Carnarvon, and Prince Edward), and children are still required to begin studying English when they enter kindergarten (although that is probably more for practical reasons than any lingering allegiance to Her Majesty). All of the street signs and other public info are in both English and Chinese. A little more background that we've learned: There are 7 million inhabitants, and the 200,000 Filipinos comprise the largest minority (can you spell "homogenous"?). We really should say "Filipinas" since most of them are here as domestics (nannies and housekeepers). Geographically, HK is comprised of the mainland peninsula of Kowloon and 200+ islands (the largest of which is Hong Kong Island).

OK. Now about our experience so far (note: we've been here since Saturday so there is a lot to relate! Also, our tour didn't actually start until Tuesday night, so the first 3 days we were on our own.): We arrived at the Shangri-La in Kowloon hotel about . We immediately noticed that the carpet in the elevator had a center medallion that said "Saturday" in English and Cantonese (or Mandarin...not sure which). We then went out to walk around the neighborhood. It looks an awful lot like many areas of Manhattan! It has the same "international" feel to it. Two big differences are: they drive on the wrong side of the street and there are many banners and lighted signs which hang across the streets. also looks a lot like every "Chinatown" in every city we've seen. We had a light dinner in the hotel casual restaurant (steamed cod for Wendy and boiled chicken and rice (just like Gramma used to make!) for Wayne).  Our hotel overlooks Victoria Harbor (with HK Island across the water), so the next morning we got up early (and the elevator carpet did indeed say "Sunday"!) and walked on the Promenade along the waterfront. Part of this is HK's "Walk of the Stars", an homage to their movie industry, so there are hand prints in the cement and a big statue of Bruce Lee. We saw the sun come up and people doing tai chi. After breakfast we went down into the subway station, but did not take the train. Each station has a network of air-conditioned underground passages that lead off to many streets in that area. An excellent idea as by this time (9 am) it was already in the 90s with a humidity reading of about 175% (or so it felt). We walked about 3/4 of a mile to the next station and came out and were right at Kowloon Garden, a major park in the center of the city (but only about 2 blocks by 2 blocks big). There was an aviary and many ponds with fish and turtles, beautiful trees and flowers. Then we went back into the subway and actually rode the train. The MRT is very efficient (trains arrive about every 3 minutes!), extremely clean (no graffiti) and very quiet. It is easy to buy tickets from the machine: you press the name of the stop where you are going on the map and it tells you how much the ticket is! Our first ride was to a station 6 stops away and it cost about $1US each! Each train is made up of many cars, but there are no doors between it is one huge tube with people walking through at ease (and of course "Mind the gap" when boarding or exiting). Since it was Sunday we thought it would be fairly empty, but no....we were stuffed in with a multitude of people. We got out and walked a block to the Wong Tai Sin Temple; lots of incense burning, chanting, and an 8 foot statue of each of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac. Right across the street was a mall, so we went in to get something to drink (HOT! DRY! THIRSTY!). Had a quick lunch at a Japanese eatery: we split another bowl of boiled chicken and rice! Plus cold beverages. Then back to the hotel on the subway. We were so enervated from the heat and had a little jet lag, so we napped for 2 hours.

If you have been reading this far you are probably perplexed why we haven't included a full-court press culinary description.  Well, here it is.  We chose two (off-tour) dinners in Hong Kong both written up in the NYTimes travel blog--Felix and Cuisine Cuisine. Restaurant Felix was first.  It is a chi chi fusion retaurant on the 28th floor of the Peninsula Hotel (the grande dame of hotels in HK).  The room is extraordinarily sophisticated and high tech and overlooks Victoria Harbor (and each night there is a laser light show from the tall buildings on both sides so we watched that as we ate).  The place was full of foodies with everyone snapping photos of every course and we were no exception.  Wayne started off with pan-fried scallops, green apple chutney and salad with Japanese pickled plum dressing.  It was exquisite and he proclaimed the "best scallops I have ever eaten."

I chose a crab and lemon confit with citrus-cardamon jell, braised endive and crunchy endive which was certainly the best (and only) crab and lemon confit I had ever eaten.  Very light and delectable. 

Our next course was a small cup of soup-- only notable because, apparently, there had been some error in the kitchen and they didn't want us to wait too long.  Piece de resistance came with the main dishes.  Wayne chose roasted chicken breast with spinach-stuffed chicken leg, black olive sauce and green mashed potatoes and I chose the challon duck breast, with szechuan pepper-teriyai sauce, green vegetables and spinach coulis. These dishes were inventive and fantastic. 

As previous readers know, there was never a dessert I didn't like.  I chose a caramelized mango and lemon cream sandwich with pistachio ice cream and mango coulis. 

It was among the top five desserts ever.  Oh my goodness.  Suffice it to say I did not do a good job of sharing.

Monday we took another early walk on the Promenade in the other direction. We commented on how quiet it was, and how little traffic, only to discover it was a Public Holiday in honor of the Dragon Boat Race! We also noticed on our many walks that there are no dogs or cats roaming around (and very few dogs on leashes either), and certainly no other animals (as we saw in India). No homeless people either. So while it certainly has the flavor of New York, it is still very much different from there or Hanoi or Delhi. (And, hardly anyone wears a hat or sunglasses!) After breakfast we took the subway to the area where there is: the Flower Market street, the Bird market Street (hundreds of birds of all sizes and colors in beautiful cages, and bags of live worms and grasshoppers to feed them!),

then the Ladies Market street, and the Pet Market Street (rabbits, turtles, other reptiles, etc.). We stumbled on another of those indoor food markets where they have 3 floors of live fish, freshly butchered meats, roasted chickens and geese (and "pick your own" live ones!), and stall after stall with rows of beautiful and exotic fruits and vegetables.

Then it was time for another light lunch. We opted for the Hotel's main floor sitting area and ordered dim sum. There were 8 pieces of delicious scallop, shrimp, pork and chicken "pot stickers"...and this was an order for 1 person!

Then we took the subway over to HK island. Aside from a narrow strip of land right on the water, the island is very mountainous. So we went on what is, according to Guiness, the world's longest escalator.  In actuality it is a series of escalators (at least 15 of them) that goes for almost 1/2 mile up to the top of one of the hills! It is elevated over the busier streets, and breaks at each smaller street along the way and then starts again on the other side!

It runs in a "down" direction only from each day so people can use it to get to work. Then it runs "up" from until . At the top, we took a circuitous route down the adjoining stairs...even going down it was hard work (and of course, it was tres hot!). Near the bottom we came across another market street with (again) fish, meats, flowers, and veggies.

Back on the subway to change for dinner.

Monday night dinner took us to "Cuisine, Cuisine" for an amazing Michelin-starred contemporary/traditional Cantonese feast.  This restaurant was situated at tree-top level of Kowloon Park and was decorated primarily green.  The room was stunning and quickly filled up; we were the only Caucasians there--generally a good sign that the food is superb and it did not disappoint.  The menu was probably 12 pages long--with seasonal options, set options, specialties, and food offerings by category. Since it was only the two of us, we needed to limit ourselves.  With the maitre’d's guidance, we chose an appetizer, two main dishes, fried vermicelli, and a dessert.  A word or two about Cantonese cuisine in HK so far.  The food is more delicate than the Chinese food we've known and loved at home.  No corn starch anywhere to be seen and each dish is pretty much limited to one or two key ingredients.  Presentation is everything.  We started with an appetizer of fried "duck fish" per our waiter's suggestion.  It was very lightly dusted--almost like a very upscale Cantonese fish'n'chips without the chips.  This was followed by barbequed  pork slices---not that different from BBQ pork we've had in the states. 

The next course was a seasonal specialty--spec prawns displayed on a tempura lotus blossom chip perched on a cucumber slice.  This was amazing and was accompanied by vermicelli wit barbeque pork and shrimp.  We closed out this luscious meal with fresh fruit (we are yearning for chocolate already). All in all, the food was ethereal and sublime!

Tuesday we went back to HK Island and walked around Victoria Park. But it was so hot and humid we soon had to head back to the hotel! Rested in the afternoon and then (FINALLY!) had the tour's welcoming dinner: 12 courses --including, but not limited to spring rolls, shrimp and vegetable dim sum, scallop sweet and sour soup, Peking duck in pancakes, sirloin with vegetables, vermicelli,  Peking duck in lettuce cups, and fresh fruit. The food was fantastic (particularly for a banquet meal) and we are coming to understand why travelers to China take a break every now and then for Italian, French, or other cuisines.

Wednesday: our first actual touring day. Of course we were on the tour bus, and so rode one of the many tunnels under Victoria Harbor back into HK Island. We switched to a double-decker open-air bus and got a guided tour through one of the world's most important financial districts. Learned that Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where the government does NOT issue the money. It is made and distributed by the three largest HK banks (70%. 15%, 15%)! Then we boarded the funicular to ascend the 1,400 feet to the top of Mount Victoria (gee! She must have been popular!). This one-car vehicle is almost identical to the one we rode to the top of Corcovado in Rio two years ago. The views from the top were incredible, and we were fortunate that there were no clouds to block it (which is a common occurrence). Then back down via bus to the dock where we took a ferry back across to Kowloon. The trip used to take about 12 minutes, but due to the aggressive program of landfill and building on both sides of the harbor, it now only takes 8! We walked a few blocks to the Jade Garden restaurant where the group feasted on..............DIM SUM!!!!!  We plan to have a small room service dinner tonight...probably not dim sum. Early tomorrow we fly to Shanghai....which, they tell us, is in China!

wendy and wayne

Shanghai Stories

June 5, 2011
On Thursday, we took a mid-morning flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Upon our landing and a quick trip through customs (YES! We are now in China!), we boarded the MagLev train. This high-speed train makes the 22 mile trip into the downtown area in 7 minutes. For you Chicagoans, that is the equivalent of going from our house to Wrigley Field in the time Zambrano walks 3 batters. It reaches a top speed of 431 kph (259 mph). It is a smooth but quick acceleration, but you can really feel the seat-back pushing you.

We passed mile after mile of high rises. Our guide told us that Shanghai is built on the Huangpu river. The 'other side' of the river, the Pudong area, was, until 30 years ago, all rice paddies and farms. At that time, there were 238 skyscrapers (officially: buildings of 20 or more stories) in Shanghai. After Mao died, a great expansion began. Now, Shanghai has the most skyscrapers in the world: 5,000! It is the home to 30 million people, and is a huge financial and shipping center. It is called the City of Lights, and every night the entire downtown area is lit-up from 6 - 10. Many of the riverfront buildings display video graphics across their entire surfaces. And, no, the term 'shanghai' (meaning to kidnap) has nothing to do with the city. In Chinese 'Shang Hai' means 'City over the sea', as it sits on a delta into the East China Sea and the silt flowing down adds land to the city each year.

As we drove into downtown, an overall haze was apparent. We think it is smog, though did not affect our eyes or breathing in any way. After checking in, we took a short walking tour on the Bund. This is an Indian word meaning 'riverfront' and is pronounced like 'bun', not as in the German 'boond'. One side is 52 blocks of magnificent buildings (most of which were built from 1880 - 1940) in a variety of architectural styles. On the other side of the street is a wide walking path directly on the river. We then went onto Nanjing road, part of which is pedestrian only, which is a huge retail shopping area. The temperature was 37C, the highest of the year! But it was not as humid as Hong Kong. There were many, many cars and motor scooters (which, we learned later, all run on batteries - you cannot get license to drive a gas-powered scooter). And there were a few people on bicycles, but not like what it was just 30 years ago.

We are staying in the newly-renovated Waldorf Astoria. Allow us to digress for a moment, as this is an extraordinary hotel-- blending upscale old-Shanghai 30s glamour in the public areas with amazing high tech amenities in the private areas.  This is not a hotel where mere mortals stay (as a testament to that, the Shanghai Film Festival was opening while we were here and friends had a Susan Sarandon sighting; we had to 'settle' for Matt Dillon, omg)... so we are fortunate we could stay here with the group.  Anyway, to our amazing room -- it had ornate ceiling moldings, a chandelier over the bed, a 42 inch TV which also features a wireless keyboard for internet access, gas masks (in case of a fire), a bedside touchpad which shows the outside temperature,  lets you turn the lights on and off, open / close the curtains, call for your personal butler (from bed!), adjust the A/C, and allow you to check the local time in over 50 cities around the world. Yes, it also has a clock and an alarm. In the bathroom there is a TV behind the mirror! You only see it when you turn it on! And the piece de resistance: a hands-free toilet! You walk into the toilet alcove and the lid opens automatically (the boys have to press a button to make the seat also go up). It has a heated seat, and you can press buttons to 'rinse' and 'dry' when you are done (toilet paper is provided for those who wish). Of course, when you stand up, it flushes automatically and the lid closes. It almost made it hard to want to leave the room! For the record, our time there was limited.

Thursday evening, we joined (eating) forces with a family for a sumptuous set Shangainese feast. As with our other dinners so far, there are multiple courses served to each person.  We began with an artfully-presented plate of four Chinese amuse-bouches-- sauteed trumpet mushrooms in a delectable sauce, barbequed pork belly, yellow croaker fish (which sounds like amphibian but was a lightly dusted river fish) and marinated fungus.  Lest you recoil in horror, this dish was the tastiest of any on the plate (once we got past its gray palette).  It tasted like the Chinese equivalent of cole slaw, bathed in rice vinegar.  Next course, hairy crab soup.  We missed hairy crab (a Hong Kong delicacy in HK) so wanted to be sure to 'catch' it somewhere.  The soup was somewhat gelatinous, with a strange aftertaste but at least we can say we had hairy crab.  Next up, a lightly dusted scallop served in an oversized spoon with serving handle, followed by sauteed beef, then asparagus and broccoli and topped off with the ubiquitous fried rice.  The dining room was vintage 30s Shanghai. We left the meal quite satisfied and eager to begin our official exploration of Shanghai the next day.  (One last aside, we think it should be obvious that we do not do the Jewish dietary laws in our household.  Pork and seafood seem to be strongholds of the Chinese diet so far.)

Friday morning we got up early and saw from the delivered newspaper that the forecast was for the upper 70s with rain expected 'for the plum reaping season'. They made it sound like it was scheduled! But we went out anyway. There was a little mist, but many people were on the Bund promenade. Lots of people flying kites!

And groups doing tai chi!

How Chinese is that! We walked to the 'Memorial to the People's Heroes' which is dedicated to those who fought in the Opium Wars (the British!), the Democratic War (1910; Sun Yat Sen), and WWII (which is referred to as the 'anti-Japanese War' in Chinese textbooks). Then back to the hotel and another sumptuous buffet breakfast.

Then the group headed out for the day. We walked partway along the same stretch of the promenade and then down an escalator to take an amazing ride under the river to the Pudong side. They have these 'pod cars' that hold about 20 people standing up. The doors close and you go into the tunnel. Then the walls come alive with colored lights in different patterns. At another point swimming fish are projected as if you can actually see into the river. It is a true Disney-like experience. The ride takes about 5 minutes (for the 1/2 mile distance). Then we were in Pudhong. The mist had turned into a light drizzle, but all were prepared with umbrellas. We took a short bus ride into the old section. This area has been populated for at least 400 years, and many of the buildings are several hundred years old. We walked through Yu Yuan Gardens, a small but magnificent oasis built by a wealthy man for his parents. Adjoining this is a touristy shopping area with many small winding passageways (it reminded us of Venice...the same feel and some of the same goods for sale!). There were also restaurants selling buns (very popular),

candies, and baked goods. There were even 3 Dairy Queens and 2 Starbucks!

Our guide said this is not the area for 'the real thing' but great for authentic tschotkes. In other words, don't look for Rolexes, real jade, or real pearls here. And you must bargain! With a little stubbornness, you can get them 80% down from their original asking price... and we did!

Friday afternoon, we ventured out on our own and took the Jewish tour of Shanghai.  Sephardic and Russian Jews started settling in Shanghai in the late 19th century but Jewish immigration really picked up between 1933 and 1941.  At that time, Shanghai became a modern day 'Noah's Ark' accepting approximately 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.  While Jews did need to have a visa to leave Nazi Germany, Shanghai was one of the only places in the world that didn't require an entry visa for Jews--so in they came.  The Jewish tour we took was in the 'Tilanqiao Historic Area' and included a monument in Huoshan Park, an architectural complex where the Jewish ghetto was (where Jews and middle class Shaingainese lived side by side), and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue).  This was a wonderful tour highlighted by us doing our own navigation (with unknowing taxi cab drivers) in a torrential downpour.  The museum was fascinating and included many profiles--both of people who made the move (either via train across Siberia and down to Shanghai--over two months, or via boat through the Suez Canal, around India and up to Shanghai--approximately 23 days) and those who enabled their journeys.  Some Shanghai Jewish trivia:  did you know that Carter's Secretary of Treasury Michael Blumenthal was one of these Shanghai Jews? The story was fascinating; the museum was well done; and we were inspired by the beneficence of the Shanghainese who enabled the refugees to seek haven in their community.  Services are no longer held in the Ohel Moshe Synagogue as, apparently, the Torahs were taken back to Europe.  Indeed, the lion's share of the refugees left for Israel, America, Canada, or back to Europe after the Holocaust.  There is a Jewish Community Center on the west side of Shanghai were services are held for Shabbat but we did not have an opportunity to visit there.

Rather, we spent our Friday evening at a Chinese Acrobats show.  Think Cirque de Soleil but death defying, heart-stopping, breath-taking, how did they do it and one centimeter short of ruthless.  There were many segments in which this writer literally could not breathe (and I am the risk-taker of the family).  It is obvious that OSHA concerns have not crossed the ocean.

Saturday morning brought us to the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. Shanghai is in the middle of a 20-year urban plan. And not only do they have a plan, they built a museum to tout it! The plan includes building, 'greening', waste and pollution control, transportation, commerce, etc.  Hmmmm....a plan....what a concept! One our new friends said that his overwhelming reaction to Shanghai has been anger that we (Americans) cannot do what they appear to have done.  We then moved to the Shanghai Museum where we viewed ceramics, jade furniture, bronze, and calligraphy exhibits.  Impressive. We spent the afternoon at a silk factory where we actually restrained ourselves from making any purchases at all.  For those fashionistas among our readership, Chinese sizing for women is very interesting.  You can't wear a size small unless you are 5 feet tall and weigh under 100 pounds, with no chest. hmmm

But, back to impressive.  Very impressive was our 'farewell to Shanghai' dinner at Jean-Georges--highly acclaimed by a past NYTimes restaurant reviewer as one of his world favorites.  Also in New York, this bastion to French cuisine was a 'must visit' on our list-- so we did.  And it was worth the (lofty) price of admission and calorie count (thank goodness for elastic pants).  This writer started with a glass of champagne (but not one of the US$80 glasses!).  The amuse-bouche was a pinkie-sized glass of warm asparagus/lime puree with brioche croutons, accompanied by a warm eggplant bruschetta.  Next, for Wayne was a chilled crab salad, garnished by market vegetables and edible flowers in a floral vinaigrette. 

I chose ribbons of ahi tuna on a bed of pureed avocado, garnished with spicy radishes, and bathed in a ginger marinade.  OK, let's be real.  At this point, we could have readily gone back to the hotel and called it an evening.  But, no.  Four more courses for each of us!  Wayne continued with sea scallops garnished with caramelized cauliflower and floating in  a caper--raisin emulsion (absolutely the best caper raisin emulsion he had every experienced). 

I chose a delicate parsnip soup poured atop a coconut, lime and mint foam. OK, Spiaggia, try to top that!  Suffice it to say, this course was amazing.  Next up... the main course.  Wayne chose onion and chili crusted short ribs atop French lentils and marinated in a sherry vinaigrette.  (Custom House/Chicago, your short ribs need to step aside!).  My main course was sauteed lobster served with herb pudding and porcini and potato gnocchi.  Goodness, I have never seen so much lobster in my live -- no work required -- and it was extraordinarily delectable (Bob Chinn's:  sorry about that, no comparison). 

For dessert, Wayne chose crackling lime tart with vanilla chantilly mousse (an upscale key lime creation) and my choice was pineapple chibboust (a pineapple frozen custard that was simply splendid), and pomegranate sorbet served atop the most decadent gingerbread ever.  Oh my.  Again, this would have been more than adequate but you certainly realize that in a restaurant of this sort, the last course will be friandises, additional sweets.  So, they came to the table with a small platter of delicate truffles and cookies.  We couldn't just look!?!  A fitting close to a memorable meal.  We walked back to the hotel (downpour still continuing) amidst the papparazzi waiting for the stars to show up AT OUR HOTEL for the after Film Festival opening night reception!  (We found out this morning that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is debuting here... too bad we're leaving!)

Anyway, it is Sunday morning, June 12. We just got back from a walk around the neighborhood - we find that is the best way to really experience the people and culture of an area. Here are some pix of what we saw: 

We are leaving in an hour for our Yangtze River Cruise.  From the boat, we will send a 'bonus' news letter based on our overall perceptions and observations so far (as a preview, our views are altogether different from what we expected at the beginning of the trip).

Until then, be well.

much love,
wendy and wayne

On the Yangzi

June 10, 2011

We've been on the boat since Sunday cruising west (up) the Yangzi River (yes, that is how it is spelled phonetically here), after our 2 hour flight inland to Yi Chang.  This is another city of about 1 million (do they have any with fewer?) that our guide proudly told us has been rebuilt in the last 25 years. He specifically mentioned how the hills used to come down to the riverside, but "we removed the hills to make more space for people to enjoy the water" (and) ".. to build apartments for the riches (sic) people".

Due to logistics, the flight gets in earlier than the boat is ready for boarding. So we were treated to one of Tauck's wonderful surprises! Most of you who know us and follow our travels know that Wayne is not particularly fond of boats...indeed this will be our first "cruise" (that is, staying overnight on a floating vessel). Many of you will also know that Wayne is not into self-indulgence. So this was to be a true red-letter day in his life! The surprise was an authentic Chinese foot massage!!! (And a significant body massage as well!).

The 24 of us pulled up to the massage parlor and were warmly greeted by the staff. We were led up to a large room with massage couches and instructed to remove our shoes and socks. Each person had their own masseuse..all at the same time! First, our feet were put in a boiling bucket of water with slimy tea leaves. While they soaked, we were given a hard neck, back, and shoulder massage. Many "ows" and "ouches" (mostly from Wayne) could be heard among the "oohs" and "aahs". The massesue ladies talked and giggled to each other...we can only imagine what they were saying! Then a vigorous foot and leg kneading. Joints were put into places they had never been before. This went on for about 90 minutes! There was one relaxed group of campers when it was all over.

Then we took the short ride to the boat, the Yangzi Explorer ( ) . This is billed (by Tauck) as the nicest boat on the river. It holds about 120 passengers (thought there are only 50+ on this cruise) and has a staff of 120! We have a wonderful cabin suite. The food (all you can eat!) and staff are excellent, and the ride is very smooth. We didn't actually begin moving until Monday morning (after Tai Chi on the deck--this writer has tried Tai Chi several times and just doesn't get it!)  when we began our tour through the Three Gorges (including an off-boat excursion to the Three Gorges Dam--a huge project which has inundated thousands of villages and towns and resulted in the displacement of at least 1 million people--but they have been generously resettled by the government). There has been a lot written, both pro and con, about this project. It was primarily done for flood control, as each year floods would wipe out crops and villages and often kill thousands of people. The second reason was for hydroelectric power; China's rapidly growing middle class is showing an increasing appetite for electricity. The third reason was for navigation, as the river was very treacherous and difficult to navigate through the gorges. In our short time aboard we have seen an almost constant flow of barges (most carrying coal or Fords!), so taming the river has had big benefits commercially.

We passed through the first of the three gorges (the Xiling; the others are the Wu and Qutang), and then had to go through the locks to get past the dam. There is a series of 5 locks which raises the boats over 100 meters! Each lock can hold up to 8 boats (think 2 rows of barges, 4 deep). It takes about 3 hours to go through the whole process as the boats enter the lock, the doors close, water from the dammed lake flows in (completely by gravity) and raises the boats 20 meters in 8 minutes. Then the door to the next lock opens and all move forward and the whole process repeats itself. Everyone was on the top deck as we did the first lock, then most went to their cabins to relax and get ready for dinner. It was very weird to look out our cabin window and see a wall of concrete less than a foot away moving by (as we went forward) and then, a few minutes later, see the wall moving "down" as the boats rose.

Shortly after embarking several of our group became ill. But not to worry, as the shipboard Chinese doctor gave each an antibiotic IV followed by a soothing stomach rub of ashes from a burned herb (which smelled suspiciously like marijuana). So instead of a group-identifying lanyard, our mates all have a gauze-bandaged wrist. So far the Rhodes' team is A-OK!

Though it hasn't stopped us from anything, the weather has continued to be gray, gray, gray and wet since we left Hong Kong. Especially here, where you have the moisture from the river and the high mountains on both sides, the water vapor / clouds are trapped. We have been lucky that, while we are out touring it has been just a mist, with the heavier rains while we've been inside. But it has made for some very interesting  photographic conditions.  Tuesday morning was an excursion down the Shemong Stream-- via ferry, then sampan, then ferry.  The Stream is a tributary of the Yangzi and the scenery was absolutely spectacular--only enhanced by the magical mist.  We saw several Hanging Coffins (circa 2,000 years ago), numerous waterfalls, primordial ferns, extraordinary tectonically-generated rock formations (as the Mediterranean got pushed to the west and the Himalayas emerged), and more.  A definite highlight (beyond the scenery) was the sampan ride.  Each sampan (pea-pod shaped and covered partially by a tarp to protect us from the mist/pounding rain combination) was rowed by four strong-armed men.  We took a detour to the shore where the men demonstrated how the boats were moved "in the day" by naked men pulling ropes alongside the river.  Over the past twenty years, as the tourism has ratched up considerably to this area, modesty has taken over and what was an attraction is no more.  Another highlight on the sampan was the sing-along of several Chinese folk songs.

The rest of the day was spent eating, sleeping, going to lectures, eating, sleeping, and seeing a show--a typical cruise itinerary.  Wednesday started with yoga (for Wendy) and then breakfast. Though the skies were overcast, the predicted high was 90 and there was no threat of rain. We had cruised all night and were tied up at the old city of Fengdu. This was one of the major areas for relocation. The city was only on one side of the river; the other was all farms. Beginning in 1997, about 75,000 people were relocated to the other side and an entire new city was built. All of the houses and buildings were demolished (but much was saved for reuse, such as door frames, windows, bricks, etc.). So we were given a guided tour of the old city (the part that is above the flood line and is still inhabited. We had to walk up about 150 stairs from the dock; our guide said that that part is underwater in the flood season. Then on a small bus into town. We walked around a bustling area (including a mah jongg parlor!) and through a market with pig parts (snouts, feet, tongues), many beautiful vegetables, chickens and beef.....and many flies.

It reminded us of places in India and Viet Nam. Then back on the bus into another section of town. We were taken to a new home of a relocated family. The downstairs is their small grocery (and where their kitchen is located), and the living quarters is upstairs. It was a central "living room" (about 10 x 12) with four bedrooms coming off of it. Through our guide interpreter the grandmother who lived there told us that she and her husband share one room, their son has another, 2 of their grandchildren are in the third, and the fourth is a guest room (used by the woman's granddaughter during the summer). Her other son and his wife own a nearby restaurant and earn 200,000 Yuan a year, which is very good. Her husband is a builder and built their house using some materials from their former house. She said she was very happy with her new home and hoped to live out her days there. Then we walked a few blocks to a family that did not want to relocate. They are farmers and live in a mud house that was built 40 years ago. The man is in his 80's and was happy to show us around, though we did not understand a word he said. The house was very similar to the mayor's house in the village we visited in Viet Nam. There were chickens running all around, the rooms were dark with only a few simple chairs and a table and a bed (and of course a TV). Quite a contrast to the newer home.

You'll note no special food commentary on the cruise,  Just use your imagination!  The food has been delicious and plentiful--exceeding our expectations.  No worries... we're sure there will be more memorable meals to come.

Tomorrow morning we leave the boat for Guilan.

Before we leave you for now... some random thoughts.  Some of them rather basic--but were eye-opening for us.  This is 2011.  If you haven't been to China, perhaps you will be as surprised as we were. Yes, China is a communist country; but only small percentage of Chinese are actually party members.  We had assumed that people were either actively recruited for membership or that it was a mandatory thing, but such is not the case. Moving on... clearly, there is no Capitalism in China. Instead, they have a 'Socialistic Market Economy'. It costs a minimum of $8,000US to buy a license plate for a car. There are no nurses in Chinese hospitals. Instead, the family is responsible for caring for the patient including bringing in the food and washing and changing the linens! Family is important to the Chinese, so their names are 'last name, then given names'. As a sign of friendship, the second given name is often repeated. So our Shanghai guide is called 'Fun Fun'. So we are now officially 'Way Way' and 'Wen Wen'! Shanghai has a somewhat independent attitude (a la Saigon). There are no statues or pictures of Mao anywhere, because (per our guide) the people don't like him. They much prefer his successor, Deng Shao Ping, who encouraged development. Our Shangainese guide also told us that Shanghai and Beijing are quite different in their sensibilities.  Beijing is a government town (like D.C.) and is "conservative."  Shanghai is a business/cosmopolitan (she said like NY, but we don't necessarily agree).  All of our guides are quick to point out a particular item as "the biggest", "the fastest", "the tallest" the world. We got the sense that there was some indoctrination mixed in with the legitimate national pride. Per our guide, the three most famous Chinese in the world: 1. Mao.  2. Confucius  3. Bruce Lee. There are several hundred ethnic groups in China, although the largest makes up about 95% of the population. here is a one-child policy but it does not apply to the minorities because the government wants them to maintain their culture. For the rest of the people, if you do have a child after the first, that child(ren) can not get a citizen ID card. So they get no benefits, can not attend the public school, can probably not get a job. More cultural potpourri to come.

wen wen and way way

Tales from the Heart of China

June 15, 2011
Thursday,  we finally disembarked from the Yangzi Explorer. We did boat-to-funicular-to-bus-to-plane-to-bus-to-boat-to-bus--starting in the city of Chongqing (pronounced "chun-ching" which used to be known as "Chungking". Remember those cans of Chinese food?). The city is located where the Yangzi and two tributaries meet, so the city is divided into three parts. This is another large (7 million+) city which is experiencing major growth (see below). There are blocks of huge apartment buildings, many multi-level expressways, and a monorail to various parts of the city. We were treated to a spontaneous panda visit.  As it was early in the morning, we actually saw them moving around (much closer than at the San Diego Zoo!). 

The people at the zoo were just as fascinating--groups dancing to music (men and women couples and same sex couples), tai chi, or playing cards.  Our guide explained that all of these in some way encourage socializing, a big part of Chinese culture (he also attributed the loud talking to this need to socialize).

Then on to Guilin. This area is known for its karst geography. It is filled with many miles of large limestone mountains. Of particular note are those located along the Li River. Use your imagination here--when you see Chinese watercolors of mountains partially hidden magically in the mist, that's where we were and precisely what we saw. The beauty was absolutely spiritual. Of course, like most cultures, the Chinese have given almost every mountain a name based on some perceived shape or "picture" on its face. There is the Phoenix mountain and the Dragon mountain (what a coincidence!). Soon we were all trying to imagine things that wee saw on the mountains; two monkeys looking over a cliff, a witch's face, etc. It was really a magical mystery tour.

After about an hour it was time to get off, but, since the river was already approaching flood stage, the normal dock was unusable. So we had to find a clear (but muddy) spot on the bank and kind of run aground there and walk over the water on the gang plank. Then up the embankment and we were in a tiny town (yes! Less than 1 million people!!! Probably about 100). We saw how a small village really looks.

An unrelated aside.  Our guide told us today that 92-5% of Chinese are of Han ethnic roots, there are 55 other ethnicities (you will recall that the one child rule does not apply to families among these minority ethnicities).  The many decoratively dressed dolls in the gift shops represent these different ethnicities.  The area surrounding Guilin is populated by many ethnic Chinese.

Friday morning we were off to the airport for Xian. There is a beautiful new 8 lane highway that travels the last 10 km to the airport. Our guide explained that this is how they make a good first impression when dignitaries come here. It shows how prosperous and productive and happy the people are. It was somewhat pride and somewhat party line).  We arrived in Xi'an at about . This is another city (of 7 million give or take 100,000) that has seen explosive growth in the last 30 years, much of it due to the discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors --to be described in our next update.

After landing we were taken to the (Buddhist) Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built 1,300 years ago! In front of this is a compound which was built "only" 300 years ago. This used to be the heart of the old city which was surrounded by a wall (now it is surrounded by a Papa John's, a Dairy Queen, a Starbuck's, and other examples of a booming "socialist market economy").  In the compound are several large temples with golden Buddhas inside. There are also two smaller buildings: the Bell Building and the Drum Building. In the old days, the bell would sound at and the gates to the city would be opened to let people go to the fields, etc. At the drums would sound and the gates were closed for the night. If you were late, too bad. Sounds just like bus departure time on the tour! While the majority of Chinese don't practice any religion at all (a hold-over from Mao's reign) the primary religions that are practiced in China are Buddhism and Daosim (same as Taoism).

Note, as we were heading down to the business center prior to dinner, we ran into a group of well-dressed Chinese gentlemen coming out of an adjoining conference room. One of them we recognized as Chinese President Hu!!!!! We asked the business center personnel "Who were those people" and she replied "Our government"! Earlier this week (was it just this week!) our Shanghai guide had given us a Chinese government primer that sounded like it was straight out of an Abbott and Costello routine.  She asked us:  "do you know who is the Chinese president?" and we all said:  "no, who?"  And she said:  "Hu! that's right" and we said "who?"  You get it.  The gentleman who is the second in command is Wen (though our own wen-wen thought it was HOW).  Perhaps you have to be here to appreciate this joke (or be drinking copious amounts of Chinese beer)...but we thought this was very funny.

Now, a dinner synopsis. We had a choice of restaurants in the hotel this evening (all of which are excellent (and one of which was Chinese).  Ironically, we were the only ones in our group to choose the Chinese restaurant as most members of our group claim they will never eat Chinese food again (and we have another week of touring and eating left!).  Anyone, we dined at Tian Jiang Ge which is an upscale elegant restaurant in the Shangri-La Xian. Based on our guides' talks, the Chinese use every possible part of every possible animal and this was apparent on our menu (though not with our choices).  So, for the record, we did  NOT order:  durian puff pastry, sliced pig stomach with leek and vinegar, roast pigeon with head and beak, abalone and sea cucumber combination plates (over two pages in the menu dedicated to these dishes alone), stir-fried pork knuckle with peanuts, tossed jellyfish with garlic, chicken feet marinated with rock salt, sliced fish skin with vinegar sauce, mashed garlic with pig ear terrine, or braised goose feet with abalone sauce. Our selections were rather conservative, but still very delicious. We started with wild mushrooms with minced garlic.  This dish was not described as being hot but we almost needed to call in the fire department for way-way.  Next, we feasted on stir-fried French green beans with minced pork, sauteed prawns and scallops with black bean sauce, and fried vermicelli Singapore style with barbeque pork.  Our dessert was ice cream (OK, we caved but we needed something to cool the heat) and baked cream honeycomb puff--which looked like three huge hairy tater tots with a warm sweet crunchy filling.)  In our defense, while our choices were conservative, the presentation and flavors were very different from what we would have had in the States.

More observations and learnings since our last posting.  Per the latest census, the population is now almost evenly split between urban and rural. Almost all farms are managed (the government owns the land) by individual farmer families. Their plots are about 1 or 2 acres. Nearly all of the farm work is done by hand.  Many young people are leaving the farms for the city. They estimate that about 40 million people are on the move. This is reflected in the tremendous amount of building going on across the country. At one point a few years ago, 50% of all the heavy cranes in the world were in Shanghai (not just in China, but in that one city!). Couples may move from the countryside to a city and leave their (one) child with the grandparents. They work to make money and may be gone for several YEARS at a time! We described the toilets at the Waldorf. Well, outside of the hotels, everywhere else has "eastern" toilets (i,e,, a hole in the floor). This did not seem to be the case elsewhere in Asia (at least not where we stopped--India, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Japan), but the Eastern toilets are unavoidable in China in public places. However, they always have one "handicap" stall which has a "western" toilet--usually out of order.  By the way, very few of these stalls (east or west) have toilet paper! In the men's room at one airport for example there was one toilet paper dispenser on the wall as you entered. Apparently you're supposed to guess how much you'll need and tear off that amount BEFORE entering the stall! Luckily, we learned many years ago to always carry a roll with us, so we are prepared. And, needless to say, wen-wen's extensive workouts throughout the years (resulting in very powerful quads) have come in quite handy!  Another observation...there are collection boxes in the hotels and museums for donations to help the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. We found this to be very strange after continuously hearing of all of the times Japan has aggressively attacked China. But our guide explained that many Japanese companies are getting many supplies from China to fill their gaps, so it seems like both sides are benefiting.      

Off to the Terra-cotta warriors early tomorrow!

wen-wen and way-way


June 20, 2011
Saturday, we had an early departure to see the famed Terra Cotta Warriors. We left early because our group is allowed special access before the museum opens to the general public.
The warriors were first discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Since then, the archaeological work has been, and is still, going on. When you walk into the first and biggest building (over 16,000 sq. meters), the scene is overwhelming. All together they estimate there are over 8,000 figures. In Pit 1, over 800 have been restored. This picture gives you some idea.

This pit contains 11 rows of warriors; mostly infantry here, but there are some archers and horsemen with their horses.  The place where the farmers happened to dig is in the front left corner of the first column. If they had dug 5 ft away in either direction this wonder might never have been discovered. It is below ground level for several reasons. One is that the emperor had it covered with wooden planks (the "walls" in between the columns of figures were used to hold the roofing timbers). So it actually was about 7 feet below ground level when it was constructed. Second, this area is near the Gobi desert (this is still a very dry region), so over the centuries blowing sand has raised the ground level about 10 feet. Indeed, during this long period, the timbers eventually were burned and there was periodic flooding. So nearly all of the figures were found in many pieces and had to be completely reconstructed.

The figures each stand on a base, so they are over 6 feet tall. There is some debate as to why this is so (since the real soldiers probably were not this big). Also, the horse statues look like ponies. The archaeologists have determined that this was the actual size of the horses in China at that time! One way they did this is because there are no stirrups (and everything else is realistic down to the minutest detail. (For example, the soles of the kneeling archers' shoes.). So this shows that the soldiers' feet almost reached the ground when they were riding. It was not until later that larger horses were brought in from Mongolia, and Arabians, and cross-bred that the horses were the size we are used to seeing today.

This huge army was the work of the first Qin ("Chin") Dynasty emperor in about 210 BC. He was the person who actually unified the country from a group of (often warring) states. The custom for the local "emperors" (war lords) prior to this one was to bury his army alive when he died so that they would be with him in the next life. But this emperor had lost so many men in battle that he wanted to reward (and spare) his remaining soldiers, so instead he ordered the creation of these clay figures. Originally, they were painted in the bright colors of their uniforms, but due to the fires, floods, and time, the colors are all but gone now.

Almost as impressive as the warriors themselves is the fact that they built these huge arched buildings right over the pits without bringing in any heavy equipment! This site is now second behind the Great Wall for most visited in China, and is the largest on-site museum in the world.

Next we were treated to a mega (13) course dumpling lunch!

Each table of 8 seats had a huge lazy susan in the center. When we went in there were plates of pickled baby cabbage (hot!), but luckily the beer was included and they kept our glasses full. Other first course appetizers were plates of crunchy sweet and sour meatballs (better than IKEA!), and a platter of sliced veal and mushrooms. Then the parade of steamed dumpling plates began.  (As a side note, many of the dumplings were twisted into interesting shapes--corresponding to their contents.  For instance, the chicken dumplings actually looked like chicks).  Here is the order of the dumpling parade.  We started with spicy chicken, moved on to lotus root with and pork (which some mistook as "locust" and pork), shaomai (dumpling filled with fried rice), yuan pao (more pork), sesame duck, pork with corn and fungus (mushroom), then a dumpling that had been colored with cocoa and filled with sweet walnut meats. Next, a fried dumpling arrived with lotus root and tofu followed by a chicken broth with several varieties of boiled dumplings (each the size of your fingernail).  According to the guide, the number of dumplings that landed in your bowl directly correspond to your likelihood of good luck, prosperity or longevity.  If you receive no dumplings at all, that is the best message.  We each received three dumplings--a sign of a good future (and more travel?).  The last course was a platter of fresh seasonal fruit (they are very big on watermelon). This meal was really wonderful except that many of us (one of your writers included) have begun to refer to themselves as "dumplings".... given our consumption over the past two weeks.

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More learnings and observations: Until about 15 years ago, only the very few elite could afford a car. So public transportation was (and still is) a major way for most people to get around. But increased prosperity has allowed more and more people to own and drive a car. So there are MILLIONS of inexperienced drivers in China! It is not as chaotic as in India, but there is still much disregard for traffic lights, lanes, right of way, etc. Speaking of which: we have been in many countries where pedestrians do not have the right of way. But we have always been told to walk confidently across the street, don't stop once you start, and don't look at the drivers; they will drive around you. And we have been successful (though mighty scared) following this advice. In China, this policy does not work! They will drive right over you!!! So we have seen many Chinese cross the street one lane at a time. Walk, wait, walk, wait, run for your life! Here in Xi'an there are many beautifully decorated (with flowers) pedestrian overpasses at some of the bigger (more dangerous) intersections.
Re the one-child policy: There have been some negative (and perhaps unexpected) results. First, males are more highly prized than females as they can earn more (in general) and have a higher chance for success. So many women chose to have an abortion when they found they were carrying a female, and to try again. As a result, there are now 20 million more males of marrying age than females! Also, tradition says that the children take care of their parents in their old age. But since each family (parents of the husband and wife) had only one child, these children must take care of BOTH sets of parents. And the parents are living longer. This has put a huge strain on many people's expenses and lifestyle. Also, if you have a government job and have a second child you are fired immediately. But for non-government people, you can have multiple children if you pay a fine: 20,000 Yuan for the 2nd (about $3,000), 30,000 Yuan for the third, and so on.

wen-wen and way-way

Beijing - Part I

June 22, 2011

It is now Wednesday afternoon on the 22nd. Our tour is officially over (except for the farewell dinner tonight). However, we are staying until Sunday, and we have many other special activities and eating events planned, so we will have lots more to report!

We flew from Xi'an to Beijing on Sunday and were immediately driven to the central square of the 2008 Olympics This is where the National Sports Arena (better known as "the Bird's Nest") is located. This was the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as track and field events. This open-air stadium seats 90,000+. Surrounding it are a wide pedestrian walkway and several other Olympic buildings. Over 300,000 people were "relocated" to make room for these venues.

Beijing (population 19 million) is the government center of the country (Shaghai is the financial center, Xi'an is the historical center). The Forbidden City (more below) stands in the center. The streets around the Forbidden City are considered the first ring road. As the city has grown, the government has added more and more rings. Our guide, who is in her thirties, said that when she was little, she lived on the outer edge of the third ring road, and she could see rice fields out her window. Since then, a fourth ring road has been added and they are now beginning work on the fifth! Within the third ring road, it still looks like old Beijing, Other than in the Central Business District on the east side, there are not many buildings over 20 stories, and still the majority are much smaller. There is not the same ubiquitous frenzied building atmosphere nor number of condos that we saw in the other cities. And the smog! Our guide was not at all reluctant to say the words "smog" and "pollution", though she was quick to point out that it is much better than it used to be. If this is "better," we honestly don't want to know what "worse" was.  We didn't have any problems breathing, yet have never seen the likes of this.

After seeing the Olympic area and a short tour of the city, we were taken to our hotel. It is a nice place, but not exceptional other than the Rolls-Royce dealership at one end of the lobby and the Bentley dealership at the other end.

Monday we had an early start for a day of walking (and the temp was in the low 90's) where (with our nearest and dearest 1,000+ newest friends), we visited the Forbidden City, then Tiananmen Square. First we the Forbidden City (officially known here as the "Palace Museum").

This complex of 9,999 1/2 rooms and gardens was (mostly) finished in 1420 by an emperor of the Ming Dynasty. From that point on over 28 emperors (and their empresses, concubines, attendants, and immediate family members) resided here. It is much like imposing royal palaces we have seen in Tokyo and Delhi, but of course with the traditional Chinese curved roofs and many dragon-adorned lintels and eaves. There were many staircases and ramps which were reserved solely for use by the emperors; anyone else using them would be beheaded (ouch!). Of course, now we were able to use them with impunity.

Next, we left the Palace through the south gate, crossed a small street and went through Tiananmen Gate (which means "gate of heavenly peace"). This used to be the main gate of the city. Shortly after Mao took power in 1949, he visited Red Square in Moscow. Since the Russians were close friends of the Chinese, and he wanted his country to emulate the Russian communist/socialist model, he decided Beijing also needed a similar square. So he ordered that Tiananmen Square be built at this spot. It is the largest square in the world (what a surprise!), and can hold 500,000 people (in other words, a small Chinese suburb). It is surrounded by government buildings (one of which is now the National Museum). At one end Mao's picture overlooks the square.

At the other end is his Mao-soleum. It was absolutely awe-inspiring.

In the afternoon, we were driven to one of the many hutongs. These are small neighborhoods of one story homes, many of which are over 100 years old. "Hutong" is a Mongolian word meaning "water well". As Mongolians and other people settled here, on the southern edge of the Gobi Desert, the first thing they did was look for water. Since the hutong roads were created in the pre-auto age, we were taken in via bicycle rickshaws (i.e., the "tuk-tuks" we've been on elsewhere).

It was fun, but not as chaotic or harrowing as on some of our other trips. We went to the home of a man who is a calligraphy and painting teacher. He also showed us the 60+ racing pigeons that he raises. Though his home was built in the 1880's (and has been in his wife's family ever since), it has been modernized (indeed, at 2,300 sq-ft., it is bigger than our house!). As we sipped tea in his kitchen he told us about how the home was acquired and life in the hutongs. On the kitchen wall was a picture of his mother-in-law in front of the White House and his wife and our host in Las Vegas! So we guess they are doing all right.

Then back to our hotel to get ready for dinner. While there (remember it was about on Monday) we turned on ESPN and saw a tape delay of Sunday Night Baseball: Cubs vs Yankees at Wrigley.....announced completely in Chinese!!!!!!! Language notwithstanding, the Cubs still lost (actually, we had tickets to go to that game but had to sell them since we were on the trip!  As a side bar, we had asked several of our dear friends and family members to "look after" our beloved Cubbies in our absence.  Sad to say, they have failed miserably and, in keeping with our new respect for Chinese tradition, those individuals will lovingly be beheaded upon our return!).  We went for a walk before dinner to a local attraction...the outdoor food market. (In hindsight, it was good to go before we ate).

We know our readers have been itching for another food description. Here it comes.  This block-long set of stalls features fried foods of an exotic nature. Now it seems to us ok to eat creatures such as shrimp, crabs, external chicken parts (e.g., legs and wings), and lobsters, but this market featured skewers of: snakes, squids, silk worm larva, scorpions, sea mushrooms, starfish (seem to be a lot of weird "s" foods!), bees, crickets, grasshoppers, lamb hearts, whole pigeon (yes, head still attached), and lots of fried sweet treats like durian puffs, fried ice cream, and various fruits with a candy-apple-like coating. You can imagine the smell. No, cannot!!!!  (Speaking from the experience of encountering lions eating a several days-old rhinoceros carcass in Krueger Park, South Africa, this smell was a close second and extraordinarily distinctive.)  After all that (and the heat), we had to get some refreshment, so we went across the street to a huge 6-story mall and found the Dairy Queen! The flavor of the month was Mango Blizzard with Swiss cheese chunks. read that correctly.

So, we opted for a mango-passion fruit smoothie. So good!  Also in the food court was a restaurant touting their "squid lips and pork knuckles" special! Then we joined friends for a delicious dinner at the Peninsula Hotel. Afterwards, while walking back to our hotel we had more sorbet at the Hagen Dasz store (HD is very big in China).

Tuesday we had another early start for one of the high points of the trip: The Great Wall. It is about 60 km from the city, so it was a 1 1/2 hour bus ride (the traffic is incredible!). As you get closer you begin to see the Wall snaking across the mountain ridges (built on the ridges for obvious defensive purposes).  The wall was originally built as individual walls constructed by the various war lords and chiefs over the years (beginning about 5,000 years ago). But under the Ming emperors (1600s) it was finally completed as one 4,000 mile long structure. Indeed, the Chinese call it "The Long Wall". Of course, it is the longest wall in the world! We began our ascent at the Badaling section (there are many different places where tourists can climb). OK.  In past editions for past trips of our blog, we've indicated that we were running out of adjectives.  Well, just let us say there is a reason why The Great Wall is one of the Wonders of the World.  It is just stupefying and breath-taking to imagine something this massive (20 feet high, 4,000 miles long) all made out of stones.  To see it from the bus then actually climb it with another horde of tourists almost defies description.

We walked about 1 1/2 miles to the farthest point allowed. The walkway was at times stairs (of various random heights, some in not-so-good shape) and steep slopes (many over 60 degrees). And it was very crowded and people continually stop to take pictures. The total incline was several hundred feet. Luckily, it was cooler there and there was a nice breeze, but it was still a relatively difficult climb (certainly a lot more difficult than our daily walk of 1-1/2 miles to downtown Deerfield).

And the descent was no piece of cake either! At one point we came upon a class of blue-uniformed 3rd graders on a field trip (to the Great Wall!!!!) and they all crowded around us for a picture.  It is very funny: when we see the kids we shout "Nihau, nihau!" and they shout back "Hello! HI!"!!!  Needless to say, we succumbed to two "I have climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts--wouldn't you?

Then we were taken to a beautiful secluded resort and treated to another multi-course Chinese lunch. This one featured: assorted marinated cold dishes (including that disgusting fungus again), assorted dim suns (including a cookie shaped like a carrot), stir-fried duck slices with Chinese broccoli, diced beef soup with bean curd, egg white and mushroom (another gelatinous dish for which we took a pass), stir fried pork with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce, stir-fried fillet of beef with peppers in black pepper sauce, boneless chicken in lemon sauce, stir fried eggplant with minced pork in sweet and spicy sauce, wok-fried cabbage, steamed rice, and fresh fruit. Our waiter (from Wilmette, Illinois!) was doing an internship there!  No wonder his English was impeccable.

Following lunch we took a long bus ride back to the city. Between the climb and the food, most of us were sleeping when we stopped at our next cultural site: The Summer Palace. As we exited the bus, we were hit again with the 90+ degree heat. Ugh!!! But, after a short walk we boarded a dragon boat for a ride around the lake. The Summer Palace (15 km from the Forbidden City) was built in the 1800s as a retreat from the heat of the city (obviously, they did not go far enough). For reference, it covers an area of 3.5 square kilometers (860 acres). This is almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City. Most of this is taken up by a huge man-made lake. They dug out the dirt to make the lake and used the dirt to make a hill upon which they built the summer palace. It was almost destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (as was the Forbidden City), but saved at the last minute by Chou En Lai.

Today, Wednesday, we had our last official tour activity: we went to the Temple of Heaven. This is a huge pagoda-like structure where the emperors came to pray for good weather for the crops. It is not associated with any particular religion or god; it's just there to pray to whoever is in charge. It was a neat building, but the best part was the park around it. There, every day of the year, hundreds of Chinese (mostly retirees) come to exercise and socialize. They fly kites, work out on various pieces of playground equipment (including parallel bars!), sing songs accompanied by a harmonica band, play cards and dominoes and Chinese checkers (!!), play hacky-sack, and do many forms of Tai Chi.

We were invited to try one of those. Each of us in the group was paired with a local expert. We were given a "racquet" that was a little bigger than a ping-pong paddle, but it has an elastic fabric middle (instead of a mesh like a regular racket). Then they gave us a rubber coated ball (about baseball size) that is squishy but does not bounce. The idea is not to hit the ball, but to do graceful tai chi moves while swinging the racquet around and not dropping the ball!! There were some pretty interesting moves and after a few minutes (it was hot again and more humid today), many in the group were quite exhausted. Then we DID do another exercise where you kind of spin and flip the ball to your partner. Of course, he flips it back and you catch it on your racquet-thingie. Lots of fun! Then Wendy joined a group (about 20 or so) of women who were doing Chinese Zumba (or at least that was her interpretation)! It was wild!!!!!

We are fully booked over the next several days--we will visit Chairman Mao's Tomb and the museums tomorrow.  On Friday, we will have a cooking class and see a Peking Opera performance.  On Saturday, we will visit the Ming Tombs and may try to catch an opening weekend screening of "Snowflower and the Secret Fan" (worldwide premiere here on Friday).  In between, we have two "out of the ballpark" meals planned--as you would suspect--with some shopping sprinkled in between.  We expect to send an entry on (our) Sunday morning before we head to the airport and may send another entry when we get home with more philosophical perspectives not "appropriate" to send from here.

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In the meantime... More learnings: When you buy a new condo or rent a new apartment in a big city in China, you only get an empty shell. YOU are responsible for getting the wiring installed and connected to the main! Same for the plumbing pipes!  Nearly everyone in China is right-handed! We found this out when Wayne signed one of the restaurant bills and the waitress was fascinated that he used his left hand! We asked our guide about this and she said that, yes, children that show a preference for using their left hand are "corrected" (her word) when they enter school. But, she said that some are now questioning this policy.

wen-wen and way-way