October 2009

It's hard to believe that it's coming up on a year since our amazing travel adventures in India!

Not long after our jarring re-entry into western civilization, we were already debating what to do for an encore - a return to India perhaps?

Of course, I wasn't too anxious to get caught in another street riot or narrowly avoid a terrorist attack, but it's odd how quickly you forget the trauma and dismiss the negatives, then begin to selectively recall all the great experiences you had.

It was back in May, just after I'd just finished organizing our European itinerary, when Teresa read out loud an e-mail she'd received from Dinesh.  Dinesh, of course, is continuing to lead India tours for Intrepid Travel.  In the e-mail, he asked how I was doing and he mentioned that his grandfather, with whom we'd shared a wonderful meal at his family's home in Jaisalmer, had sent his regards and good wishes to us.  Dinner with Dinesh's family in Jaisalmer had been, no doubt, one of the highlights of our India experience, and it got me to thinking . . .

Should we do it again?

It's so tempting to do the same thing over and over.  After all, if it was good the first time around, wouldn't the second be even better?  And as I've mentioned before, travel is an iterative process -- each journey improves upon the last because one's accumulated knowledge and experience enhances the outcome.

However this presents a dilemma:  Do you return to those destinations with which you've become familiar and enjoyed previously?  Or do you forge ahead, seeking new adventures in strange and unfamiliar destinations while risking potentially disappointing outcomes?

I'll admit that its often tempting to go with what's familiar - after all, its basic human nature to resist change.  But when you pursue adventure travel, even when you deliberately try to repeat the adventure, you're likely to end up with something completely different!

So - while a return to India is high on my "to do" list, this will have to wait for another day.

In reviewing some of my prior journal entries, I came across a note dated from mid-2007 in which I had written about several budget tours to China recommended by Arthur Frommer.  One of these is an eleven day introductory tour of China offered by China Focus Travel.  And since independent travel within China can be difficult to arrange, I've chosen this basic tour to China as our "sampler".

On November 3, 2009, Teresa and I will depart for Beijing and Shanghai, once again accompanied by our three adult children who are such wonderful travel companions!

If you'd like to check out our itinerary, click here:  http://www.chinafocustravel.com/tour/HC10

En route to Shanghai

 November 4, 2009

After an uneventful twelve hour flight to Beijing followed by a two hour connection to Shanghai, we arrived at our hotel, the Central View Suites, located in central Shanghai on West Nanjing Road.  Traveling through sixteen time zones, we had crossed the international dateline, so it was approaching 11 PM on November 4 when we finally got our bags and made it through Customs and Immigration.

Our guide from China Focus Travel met us at the airport -- he introduced himself as "Ford", and advised us that he would be accompanying us throughout our tour.  We boarded our tour bus for a thirty minute ride to the hotel while Ford provided an informative orientation, cheered us up with a few jokes, and then warned us about taking counterfeit currency from street vendors!  He told us that although tomorrow was a "free" day in Shanghai, he had a tentative plan if we were interested.  He advised us to meet him in the lobby in the morning at 10 AM, and then we headed to our hotel room to try to get some sleep.


November 5, 2009

We were up at 6 AM having slept through the night - not bad considering the jet lag.  There was a nice breakfast buffet with a variety of Chinese and American dishes.  We scoped out our location which seems to be pretty central.  Lots of skyscrapers nearby - Shanghai is said to be the most westernized city in China outside of Hong Kong, and is also the business capital of China. 

We met Ford along with the rest of our tour group which consists of twenty-seven people including ourselves, and then proceeded to the Nanjing West subway station, about four blocks from the hotel.  The weather was perfect, about 70 degrees, sunny but smoggy.  Six stops later we emerged adjacent to the Oriental Pearl, the third highest transmission tower in the world, and rode up to the observation deck.  The tower kind of resembles a UFO with three large spheres "as if a pearl were descending from heaven" we were told.   The observation deck includes a "skywalk" - a platform with a clear Plexiglas surface and a view directly down to the ground.  But despite my bravado, I was unable to compel myself to walk on it - my knees simply got too shaky!

At the base of the tower is the Shanghai History Museum which tells the history of Shanghai utilizing a series of elaborately constructed period dioramas.  The detail was astonishing and included a re-creation of the Shanghai waterfront, the Bund, as it appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as various storefronts, an opium den, the stock exchange and a depiction of the district known as the French Concession.  Historically, Shanghai had been divided into a number of "concessions", areas that had been conceded by the Chinese to the various colonial powers subsequent to the opium wars of the mid nineteenth century.

After exiting the tower and museum, we descended into the West Bund tunnel, an underground passage beneath the Huangpu River that connects Pudong on the east bank, to the Nanjing Dong Lu, a pedestrian mall on the west bank.  The tunnel itself was kitschy but entertaining, as you rode a Disneyesque people mover through a techie laser light show.  We then spent the next few hours on our own strolling along Nanjing Road, stopping for a light lunch at an authentic Chinese hole-in-the wall noodle soup stand before eventually returning to the hotel around 4 PM.

We met up with Ford and the rest of our group at 6:30 PM, then walked from the hotel to a nearby public bus stop where we grabbed a short ride to the waterfront, then set off on a scenic boat tour.  Cruising down the river, we were treated to an elaborate display of spectacularly lit waterfront buildings, with continuously changing light displays that easily rivaled the magnificence of the Las Vegas strip!  


November 6, 2009

We boarded our tour bus at 8:30 AM for a ninety minute ride to the city of Suzhou, so-called "Venice of the East", a nearby metropolis built on a series of narrow canals with a relatively well-preserved old city center and several historic gardens.  Our first stop was the Master of the Nets Garden, an idyllic self-contained retreat with a central pond and sculptured rock hills adjacent to the bustling shops and vendors of the old city.

Our second stop was Silk Factory No. 1 (Nos. 2 & 3 no longer exist), where the process of creating silk fabric from silkworm cocoons can be viewed up close.  Although raw cocoons are brought in from silkworm farms in the surrounding countryside, the laborious process of actually creating the fabric is done on-site.  Strands from eight or so cocoons are unraveled then combined on a master spool - this creates the thread that is then woven into silk fabric.  Seen up close, it is actually quite gross -- what's left after the silk is removed is a pile of wormy larva -- ick!

Following a tour of the silk factory, we boarded one of the ubiquitous canal boats and maneuvered our way through narrow city canals for an up-close look at the historic center of Suzhou before boarding our bus for our return to Shanghai. 

Shangai to Tai'an

November 7, 2009

After checking out of the hotel at 11 AM, we headed to the Mongolian Barbeque for an early lunch.  I'd never had this before so it was a novelty for me, scooping up various meats and vegetables then having them stir fried quickly and served back to you. 

From there we headed to the Shanghai Museum, a modern edifice with a more-or-less traditional museum collection with displays of Chinese artifacts dating back several thousand years - interesting but nothing exciting.  We exited the museum around 3 PM and walked to the nearby Peoples' Park, a bustling patch of manicured greenery that featured beautiful floral gardens.

According to our map, we were in the vicinity of the former French Concession, the area controlled by the French prior to the end of World War II.  We walked for several blocks as directed by a local Chinese passerby, but really could not find anything that appeared historic.  I checked our 2009 Fodor's for guidance but it only noted that if you wanted to see anything of historic interest, you'd better hurry before the "merciless wrecking ball" arrived!  What we saw seemed to be mostly new construction and not much of historical interest, so we finally gave up for lack of time and headed back to rejoin our group by the museum. 

The tour bus transported us to a nearby performing arts theater that featured an acrobatic show - we were skeptical and expected it to be kitschy - it was a variety show reminiscent of the old Ed Sullivan TV show, with jugglers, a magician, contortionists, etc., but was actually quite entertaining -- I couldn't for the life of me figure out where the magician stored all those birds that she repeatedly pulled out of her coat sleeve!

Later, we enjoyed a group dinner at a nearby restaurant, seated at three large round tables with each table having a rotating lazy susan in the center to share the many dishes, some of which were recognizable and some of which were not, but overall a very interesting assortment of dishes.  It's remarkable that virtually all of our meals have been included so far considering the low price of the tour.  

Afterward, we headed to the train station and boarded an overnight train to Tai'an.  We settled into a small first class compartment with four beds -- it was substantially nicer than what we'd experienced in India.  There was some excitement when Ford realized one of our group was missing - Rick apparently had a few drinks at dinner and boarded the wrong train!  Fortunately Ford found him before the train left the station!

Ford awakened us at 5:30 AM in anticipation of our arrival in Tai'an at 6 AM and we were met by another tour bus and taken to our hotel.  It was too early to check-in so we were directed to the hotel's buffet breakfast before continuing with our day.  Simultaneously, two other tour buses arrived and a swarm of aggressive Chinese tourists attacked the buffet like a horde of locusts, and we were left to pick over the leftovers!


November 8, 2009

After breakfast we rode to the nearby historic city of Qufu, birthplace of Confucius, the revered Chinese philosopher.  The grounds are a charming park-like setting that include a vast compound consisting of numerous dwellings and temples including the 16th century Confucius Family Mansion where the descendents of Confucius lived until 1949.  (Apparently the head of the clan was tight with Chiang-Kai-Chek and ended up exiled to Taiwan.) 

We took a tram to the grounds then walked another mile or so to the burial site of Confucius, a relatively nondescript grave marked with an obelisk.   The cemetery grounds are expansive and have served as the exclusive resting place for the many descendants of Confucius for more than 2000 years.  Only Chinese whose surname is "Con" may be buried here.  Each grave is marked by a raised mound and there are mounds as far as the eye can see.  Ford informed us that the entire grounds were desecrated by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and many artifacts were destroyed at Chairman Mao's direction in an effort to eliminate "old" ideas.  However, subsequent to his death, the grounds were restored and are venerated once more.

After lunch we returned to our hotel to get checked in and cleaned up.  (Some of us at least - unfortunately some of the rooms were still not ready.)  An hour later we met Ford out front and walked down the main road about a kilometer to the "free" market.   Apparently it's called the free market because until about twenty years ago it was the only place where you could freely buy goods without government issued ration coupons.  It was an interesting market, most noteworthy for its cleanliness, despite rows and rows of market stalls offering a huge assortment of fresh meats, live seafood, poultry, vegetables, nuts, spices and cooked foods.

After returning to the hotel we enjoyed another group dinner, again with the dishes rotating around a large round table on a lazy Susan.  By 8:30 PM (along with everyone else in our group) we were exhausted and sleep-deprived from the overnight train and were back in our room sawing logs! 

Tai'an to Mount Taishan

November 9, 2009

We've been fortunate with the weather so far - every day has been sunny and 70.  However it's chilly and overcast this morning and it looks like we're in for a change.  Ford wanted us to get an early start today so after a wake-up call at 6:30 AM and a quick breakfast, we boarded our bus and were on our way to Mount Taishan at 8 AM. 

The tour bus dropped us off at the entrance to the Mount Taishan World Heritage Site, and we boarded a small shuttle bus which transported us along a narrow winding road to the base of the mountain.  You can either hike up the 7000 steps which takes about five hours or ride five thousand feet to the top in a cable car which takes about fifteen minutes.  Guess which option we chose!

About twenty minutes later we disembarked and prepared to hike the last 700 steps to the peak.  Unfortunately the entire mountain was blanketed in a heavy fog so there wasn't much to see.  We walked past a number of souvenir shops and food stalls, then followed the steep walkway to the temple of the mythical Jade Emperor, stopping at several Taoist temples along the way.

There were several winding paths that diverged from the main walkway ostensibly leading to other observation areas, so I decided to abandon the main part of our group to do some exploring on my own.  For about thirty minutes I hiked up and down a series of narrow staircases, but it was too foggy to see much so I finally decided to turn back.  However after another ten minutes, surrounded by heavy fog, I wasn't sure if I was heading in the right direction and I realized my surroundings had become eerily silent.  I turned around and started to walk back then realized I didn't have a clue as to where I was.  In a panic, I ran up and down the staircases where I had just come from, breaking into a sweat while repeatedly calling out to anyone who might hear!  The response: dead silence. 

I glanced at my watch and realized I had only fifteen minutes before I was supposed to meet up with the group at the cable car.  I began running full bore until I finally heard distant voices, then headed in that direction.  I finally encountered several security guards and frantically gesticulated to them my need for directions!  They looked at me like I was a lunatic then calmly pointed me back toward the cable car station.

When I rejoined the group and boarded the cable car for the trip down I was sweating profusely but immensely relieved that no one had noticed my absence.  What a fool I am, I thought to myself -- getting lost on a foggy mountain!!

It was a two and a half hour ride to Jin'an, and when we got off the bus at our hotel we were greeted by a fierce, bone-chilling wind.  The temperature must have dropped by thirty degrees since we'd left Tai'an!

After a group dinner at a very pleasant upscale restaurant near the hotel, we joined Rick and Colleen who invited everyone back to their room for wine and snacks.

Jin'an to Beijing

November 10, 2009

We met in the lobby at 8:45 AM for the short bus ride to the train station then boarded the bullet train and settled in for the three and a half hour journey to Beijing.  We arrived in Beijing at an impressive railway edifice, the station apparently having been completed just before the 2008 Olympics.

We bundled up against the cold then emerged to find a heavy layer of snow all around.  Our local guide, Wen, met us at the station then escorted us on foot to our local tour bus parked about half a kilometer away. 

We stopped for a quick meal at the local McDonalds, not exactly my first choice for lunch and a bit of an oddity compared to the other meals we've had.  What was really peculiar was that the restaurant manager kicked several locals out of the seating area where she wanted to put us - they just got up and left without complaining! 

So I forced myself to munch through a Big Mac (along with everyone else), and then at Katie's insistence, suffered through an ice cream cone for which I paid 5 yuan for the two of us, about 65 cents!  All in all, I'd say that this lunch was a rather bizarre experience!

We re-boarded the bus for another short ride then were dropped off in front of the Temple of Heaven, a spread-out cluster of oddly named individual temples.  Wen informed us that the Temple of Heaven had been built in the fifteenth century and featured Ming dynasty architecture, but to be honest I was finding it hard to focus on what she was saying because I was so cold!  I will definitely have to add several more layers tomorrow! 

We were surrounded by aggressive vendors hawking all kinds of stuff, so I promptly availed myself of a pull-on cap embroidered in both English and Chinese with the word "Beijing"  -- not exactly a fashion statement but for fifteen yuan, about two bucks, it kept my ears from freezing and dropping off my head like icicles! 

Inside one of the temples, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, I encountered an odd display of relatively recent memorabilia, among which was a photo of Richard Nixon when he visited China in 1971.  I was immediately reminded of that ancient Vulcan proverb "only Nixon goes to China" famously uttered by Spock in Star Trek 6 (The Undiscovered Country), just before Captain Kirk meets with his Klingon adversaries to negotiate a peace treaty.  Anyway, I digress --by the time we headed back to the bus, I couldn't feel my fingers or toes. 

After dinner we were taken to the Joy City Hotel where we checked in and headed up to our room.  The hotel was quite impressive, with the first six stories consisting of a multilevel shopping center, a huge indoor atrium stretching from the seventh floor to the roof, and a terrarium with tropical vegetation adjoining a large indoor deck adjacent to our eighth floor room. 

After getting settled, Katie and Teresa headed into the mall while I fiddled with my laptop computer and tried to get on the Internet.  Although I've been able to access Google and MSN, I haven't been able to upload my daily blog entries to my website.  At first I thought it was just the hotel Internet connections, but it's now evident that the government aggressively blocks many social networking sites including my own.  While it's also apparent that the Chinese state is only nominally communist, the government is clearly authoritarian and does not tolerate free speech.  

When Katie and Teresa returned from their scouting trip to the mall, they brought back custom face masks which, in addition to serving as protection from the germy population at-large, are also a peculiarly Chinese fashion statement!


November 11, 2009

After a 6:30 AM wake-up call and a really nice buffet breakfast, we headed to the Summer Palace, the official royal retreat for the Emperor which is now a UN designated World Heritage site.  The setting was quite spectacular, with a beautiful lake and several hillside pagodas as well as living quarters all within a forested setting.  The Summer Palace was last occupied by the Empress Dowager, the former concubine who ran China (in the Emperor's name) from 1861 until her death in 1908.  It was shortly after she died that the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911.  (The movie The Last Emperor depicts the last days of the child emperor subsequent to her death.)

En route to our next stop, Tiananmen Square, we stopped at an "official" government-sanctioned store that specialized in cultured pearl products.  I'm beginning to suspect that some of these shopping interludes are actually subsidizing the cost of our tour.

Although I wasn't interested in shopping for pearls, there was an abundant of impressive pearl products and Teresa purchased a classic luminescent pearl necklace.

Our next stop, Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 massacre of student protesters, was an extremely large open-air plaza built by Chairman Mao after he came to power.  The lesson of the Tiananmen Square massacre was clear - don't challenge the government's authority!  However, as Christopher astutely observed, the current nominally communist regime is simply a dynasty by another name, only now it's no longer hereditary!

Tiananmen Square is located directly in front of the entry gate to the Forbidden City, and is dominated by a huge portrait of Mao.  Flanking the square on the left, facing the gate, is the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese Communist Party headquarters, and flanking the square on the right is the National Museum.  To the rear of Tiananmen Square is a mausoleum where the embalmed remains of Mao are maintained  -- frankly, this business of preserving one's leaders for posterity has always struck me as one of the more morbid aspects of Communist regimes.  The square itself is relatively unadorned and is actually much less imposing than it appears on television.   

We entered the Forbidden City through the main gate under Mao's portrait, then passed through several more large gates.  Wen provided some details of its history and emphasized that until 1911 access was exclusively restricted to the Emperor and his retinue, including concubines, children, eunuchs, servants and dynasty officials.  We were told that the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors over 500 years but is now simply a museum and tourist site.  Truth be told, I found it all rather dull!

After leaving the Forbidden City we walked for about fifteen minutes to Hutong, a nearby historic neighborhood.  Bicycle rickshaws then transported us for a short distance along a canal and several side streets to the modest home of an elderly Chinese gentleman, a retired government scientist who welcomed us and offered to answer any questions we might have about his life in Beijing.  It was interesting, but the authenticity of the setting seemed questionable when another tour group showed up while we were there -- tour groups are apparently brought here on a pretty regular basis!

By the time we left, it was after dark and the temperature had dropped dramatically.  Even with my many layers of clothing, I could feel the chill permeating, so it was a relief to get back to the hotel after being outside all day.


November 12, 2009

It was snowing heavily and very cold when we departed the hotel for the Great Wall.  But first we were diverted for another shopping stop at a commercial jade complex.  I wasn't interested in more shopping and most of what was being sold seemed overpriced, so I sat by the entrance and chatted with several other visitors.  First the Silk Factory, then the Pearl Factory and now this - I'm certain there must have been a kickback to the tour operator for bringing us here - it sure felt like a waste of time especially since we had to get up at 6:30 AM again!

When we finally made it to the Great Wall there was a thick layer of snow and visibility was very poor.  As we ascended the steps to the top, snow continued to fall making the climb so treacherous that we had to cling to the guardrails and climb hand-over-hand.  I hiked for about an hour along the slippery stairs as they wound back and forth toward the top.   I still could not see anything up ahead due to the steadily falling snow, and as the walkway became even more difficult to negotiate, I started to feel fatigued and finally turned back.

However Brandon, together with Rick and Bob, two other group members, continued upward for another hour and eventually made it to the pagoda that marked the peak, where they would have been able to see the wall stretching to the horizon had the weather cooperated.  While waiting for their return, most of our group loitered in the coffee shop at the base. 

Our next stop was the Olympic Stadium, the Bird's Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics.  It was quite impressive up close and was surrounded by an enormous plaza.  Adjacent was the Water Cube, the Olympic swimming complex.  Both were architecturally very impressive although Ford informed us that neither had gotten much use since the Olympics.

Dinner was noteworthy for the local specialty, Peking duck, but I must admit that although it was tasty, I've never been a fan of duck - it's just too greasy!   

Later in the evening, back at the hotel, our tour group got together for a small farewell gathering on the eighth floor deck adjacent to the terrarium, and we said our goodbyes to those who were flying out early tomorrow for the East Coast.  For the rest of us it will be a free day - we don't head out to the airport until 5 PM.

Beijing: Our Final Day!

November 13, 2009

We got up late this morning.  Ford had arranged for a late check-out so there was no rush to vacate our room. We left the hotel on foot at about 11 AM just to see the local area. 

The streets were bustling and we passed many shops filled with various goods as well as restaurants full of locals.  It is apparent that China is only nominally a communist state - what we have seen is clearly a mixed market economy with substantial private enterprise.  The streets are full of cars, buses, motorcycles and bicycles.  Food is plentiful and inexpensive.  Clearly the Chinese government has abandoned the command economy that led to the collapse of Soviet communism.  They have headed down an alternate path that relies heavily on free enterprise.  The major shortcoming, however, is that China remains an authoritarian one-party state.  But economically, China is strong and getting stronger, and the Chinese appear to be single-mindedly focused on growing their economy. 

Call me naïve if you must, but I see no evidence to indicate that China poses a serious military threat to the U.S.  (It is especially noteworthy that their military is an all volunteer force -- there is no draft.)  

Economically, however, THEY ARE EATING OUR LUNCH!!

There is no way of sugar-coating this.  They are taking our manufacturing jobs.  They are buying up our debt.  And they are creating the infrastructure to sustain an economic superpower. 

When we returned from India I disparaged the notion that India posed a serious economic threat to the United States.  With their countless beggars, their streets piled with garbage, and their government obviously inept, it seemed clear to me that the U.S. had little to worry about from India.

However, unless the U.S. gets its act together China will own the twenty-first century.  Americans must stop arguing over political ideology, stop the demagoguery, and start working together to build the future.  There is simply no time to waste!


November 15, 2009

Our return home was uneventful.  We flew from Beijing to Los Angeles, then on to Sacramento.  Gaining a day after crossing the international dateline, we arrived home late Friday evening. 

Despite its limitations, our China tour was an eye-opener, and it definitely offered tremendous value for the money. 

Should you have any interest in taking a similar tour, you can check out the China Focus Travel website at    http://www.chinafocustravel.com/

Censorship lives!

November 16, 2009

Several readers have asked why my daily China blog entries were not viewable while we were abroad.  The answer is annoyingly straightforward:  the Chinese government blocked me from accessing my website.  I could not upload my posts as they were written!  At first I thought it was my Internet connection that was faulty, but when the problem persisted it dawned on me that this was deliberate!

Although I'd like to indulge my narcissism by inferring that my clever political commentary and witty yet subversive observations were the motive for being targeted by the Chinese government, the unfortunate reality is that virtually no personal or social networking websites are accessible using Chinese Internet servers. 

However, even though Katie and Teresa found early on that they could not access their Facebook pages, Maria, a fellow group traveler, realized that she could use her still functioning Blackberry to bypass their servers using her direct satellite connection.