Bejing Day 3

This post is being written in Houston almost two months after the events described below.

Introducing Lois Clara Burton-Clayton! Just kidding, while this lovely girl was sweet enough to adopt and bring home, we didn’t. More about her later.

This is our last day spent independently in China. When we booked our hotels and tours with China Highlights I asked them to suggest a half day experience after which they would drop us off at the hotel where Viking Cruises had us booked. (We looked at trying to stay at the same hotel the entire time but the JW Marriott was much more expensive than the Crown Plaza). It was suggested we take their Life Discovery Walking Tour. We would visit a temple, a market and walk through the traditional housing neighborhood. It turned out to be a great way to spend our morning.

Our first stop was the market. Because it was the day after the holiday, it was not as crowded as usual but we still enjoyed learning about the foods and other foods sold here. It was amazing to see how many bottles of soy sauce there were!

From the market we walked a block to the temple which has the oldest pagoda in Beijing. We had to wait a minute or two for the temple to open. It was so nice to be there early when there were only a few worshippers and no other tourists! This temple was definitely off the beaten path. The last picture below is us with our guide CoCo.

From the temple we walked through a late eighties neighborhood and crossed a canal which was originally the most on the outside of Beijing’s City Wall. Except for one small section, the City Wall was demolished when the Communist took over and wanted to expand the City. Along the walk we saw that the parked cars all had cardboard or wooden squares leaning against their tires-CoCo explained to us that this was to keep dogs from christening the tires! We also saw a number of the three wheeled vehicles Mike is standing beside. We figured if we had one of those apiece we could probably make it work for us!😂

We then continued through a decorated park towards the traditional neighborhood. The park was in the midst of a National Day Festival so we got to see some traditional groups singing and dancing along with LOTS of Chinese families out enjoying their holiday. It was also fun to see older folks practicing Tai Chi and playing hacks sack.

After leaving the beautiful park we stopped on the street to have a Jian Bing. This is the Chinese version of a breakfast taco or crepe. A thin batter is poured on a crepe griddle and swirled using one of those crepe sticks, then an egg is broken and also swirled in top, scallions (and other veggies if you like) are them pushed into the egg. The whole thing is flipped, a bean paste (with chili’s if you like it spicy) is spread on the top, a fried cracker is placed on top (along with a hot dog if you want one) and then the crepe/egg is folded around it. Sounds crazy and we weren’t sure we would like it but OMG it was delicious. We now understood why we saw so many folks having them for breakfast.

We went to a nearby park to sit a bit and eat our Jian Bing’s and this is where we met Lois Clara (makes after Mike and my mom). We watched her and some other kids playing while we ate and as had been the case prior and would become even more so as we visited sights during the National Holiday crowds, many Chinese were fascinated with us-my height, Mike’s gingerish hair, and our beards. Lois Clara started staring and after the smile you seen in the title picture to this post, she came over and started rubbing the hair on my arm and legs and feeling my beard. Soon her brother? (Bobby Jack?) joined her and did the same with Mike. I guess since the Chinese have so little, it was probably the first time they had seen anything other than head hair. We had a good time smiling and taking pictures-even if we didn’t get the little “Mai Ling” we have always said we should adopt to do windows and clean up after us! 😂 of course as they we left they and the other children said “bye bye” which is apparently one of the first English phrases Chinese learn. So adorable. Encounters like this were some of the most memorable parts of our visit.

We then walked through a Hutong-the traditional neighborhood in Beijing. These narrow streets have buildings on each side which have four or six apartments entered through a gate into an even narrower alley-more like a tiny long narrow courtyard. Typically a multigenerational family shares each of the small apartments along this secondary alley. So there might be 16-24 people living off each one. Talk about dense living!

While of course we didn’t go through the gates into the actual alley, we learned the apartments apparently have kitchens and showers but toilets are communal for six or eight of the buildings – so 120 or more share the bathroom down the street. CoCo said lots of people like living in the Hutong as it is very cheap but she said she left as soon as she could as she didn’t like having to walk down the street in the middle of the night if nature called. The Hutong we walked through was obviously one of the poorer ones-we saw others (near Tianmen Square and the Summer Palace) which looked to have been restored historic ones and were quite beautiful (in a SoHo sorta way rather than the one below which was more “Brewster project like”).

The driver picked us at the end of the Hutong and we headed to lunch. We didn’t know it until we arrived, but one of the restaurant’s specialties was Peking Duck. We were excited as we wanted to experience this while in Beijing but it appeared from our research that getting authentic duck was expensive and we didn’t want to spend a lot of it wasn’t what it was supposed to be. CoCo ordered for us and said she thought a half of a duck for us would be plenty. She also helped us order some stir fried veggies to go with it as well as stirfried asparagus and mushrooms. Soon one of the carvers arrived to show us our duck (and we failed to get a picture) and then took it around the corner to carve. They do an incredible job of thinly slicing the duck and it’s fatty crispy glossy skin-traditionally a whole duck is sliced into 120 slices. We didn’t count but 60 slices sounds about right for what came back to the table along with the pancakes and the toppings-dark and light sauces, scallions and cucumbers, our veggie side dishes and a delicious beer. It was a yummy and filling lunch especially after our Jian Bing snack.

After lunch, we were driven to our new hotel and said goodbye to CoCo. The JW was swanky with a beautiful lobby where we saw a Viking banner welcoming us. While I was checking us into the hotel, Mike checked in with Viking and got information on what time we would meet for tour of the Summer Palace the next morning. Our room was huge as was the bathroom-we could get used to living the high life!

After checking our our room and relaxing a bit, we headed out with the intention of walking to Tiananmen Square to see it up close in the evening. Unfortunately after the almost mile and a half hike to get there we discovered long lines to get through security and that a passport was needed (ours were in the safe in our room) so we made the death march back to the hotel. Luckily there were some decorations along the way but by that point we were a bit peckish but didn’t need a full meal so after a frustrating ride up and down five flights of escalators at the mall next door and a little hangry induced meltdown (we are so lucky we rarely argue that when we do it seems catastrophic) we bought that most Chinese of food-a tuna fish sandwich from Subway and ate it in the room. LOL

National Day

This post is being written in Houston well after the events described below.

I apologize in advance for all the pictures in this post. Most are taken of the television screen in our room with the others taken out our hotel window.

As you’ll recall, when we initially booked the Viking cruise in China, it was done due to a promo they were offering (upgraded stateroom and “free” air). We paid not a whit of attention to the dates so didn’t realize that we would be in China for their National Day (which is really a week). This is their counterpart to the 4th of July in the USA but like everything chinese is at a massive scale. This was especially true this year as it was the 70th anniversary of the founding of communist China which was celebrated more grandly than other years as the USSR only lasted 69 years.

If you watched the news you probably saw some of the festivities but I doubt you got a full picture. The military parade started at 10 am and lasted about an hour, followed by the people’s parade for about an hour and a half. The evening gala/pageant was about two hours long and was basically a blown up version of an Olympic opening ceremony. Everything took place at Tinammen Square and most of downtown streets in Beijing were closed to traffic. Only invited guests were allowed near the square and most businesses were closed so we decided we would pretend it was a sea day and just enjoy our nice hotel and room.

We slept in and headed to the huge buffet breakfast which was included with our room just before it closed. Like all Asian hotels with buffets like this, they have foods for American breakfasts as well as Asian ones-so eggs, bacon, hash browns, pastries as well as Chinese soups, stir frys, steamed buns and dumplings-think of a holiday buffet brunch at a big city hotel and you’ll have the general idea. The room was full of Chinese folks who had come into ten city for the celebration and all the TVs were tunes to the festivities. Actually, all the stations were covering it so it wasn’t possible to watch anything else. Before the actual parade started, Chairman Xi Jinping rode in his limo (which has its own microphones) and reviewed the troops.

There were reportedly 15,000 troops in the parade and gosh knows there was plenty of military hardware on display There were several flyovers involving helicopters, fighter jets and other military planes. We got to see these fly by our hotel window and then a minute or two later show up on tv!

After all the military might had finished being shown, the People’s Parade started with the unfurling if the HUGE flag by 2,500 (at least if my counting of heads and multiplication is correct) Chinese shown at the top of this post. Those are people in white outfits marching along (in unison of course) carrying the flag. It was originally rolled up and carried by the last row. When the parade started, it was unfurled and ended up in the center of that huge block of people. I can’t imagine being one of the poor 600-750 folks who spent the entire parade holding it up over their heads! The flag was followed by 15-30 other motorized”floats” each of which was surrounded by a mass of people. According to the news reports, there were over 100,000 marchers! The parade ended with the release of 70,000 doves followed by 70,000 (biodegradable) balloons. All in all it was a pretty impressive show!

After the parade was over, the television channels spent the rest of the day reviewing it and interviewing those who were in the square. We decided to enjoy the hotel’s indoor pool and perhaps a nap might have been taken😂

That evening we watched the four act gala on television. It included a 1000 piece orchestra, a large group in mirrored suits holding LED screens with changing animations-flag, amoeba like shapes, etc), dancing and dribbling basketball players, singing and saluting children and lots of fireworks-including those that opened the pageant by making a huge 70 in the sky. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the fireworks directly from our room but we could see their reflection in a nearby building. The party leaders all watched this from the balconies of the Forbidden City’s Gate. They had attended a big dinner inside the palace and had dessert and tea served to them during the show. Given how bored they all looked, I think we had a better seat for the show!

All in all the daylong celebrations had been most impressive to see-I suspect the logistics would have been ever more impressive to learn about. Where did they find another space big enough to allow for rehearsal (and trust me they had been well rehearsed!), where did they house 100,000 people and 15,000 soldiers-perhaps that is why our hotel was changed at the last minute? How did they feed them all? After seeing the havoc a simple parade in a city like Houston causes, it’s amazing to thing of putting on this event which was hundreds of times larger and in a city that is 5 times bigger!

Tomorrow, we do a walking cultural tour and then transfer to the hotel to connect with our Viking Ocean Cruises’ precruise extension. V

Today’s the Day!

This post is being written over a month after the events described.

Long before we planned on going to Asia, we said we would like to go someday in order to see the Great Wall. Finally, today is that day!

When we decide to book the Viking cruise, we knew that their included tour for the first full day aboard was to the Great Wall. BUT, that was going to mean about a 3 hour bus ride in each direction and Viking would be visiting during the National Holiday week, we quickly began to explore other options.

We didn’t know that there were so many sections of the wall that were open to tourists, not that most had been heavily restored while a couple of sections are “wild” and unrestored. After much research (Link to descriptions of the Great Wall) we decided to do the Jinshanling section which had both restored and unrestored sections. We were concerned however as it would involve some hiking but our contact at the agency said they had other clients who had done it. We also hoped that since this section wasn’t as popular that we wouldn’t run into huge crowds as we had seen in our research:

We left the hotel at 7:30 and after an hour and a half or so drive we got our first glimpse of the Wall from the highway. Shortly thereafter we arrived at the entrance where the driver dropped us off (he headed to the east gate where he would pick us up several hours later).

From here Coco and we rode a big golf cart to the entrance building where Coco bought our tickets. You can see in the map what we hoped to hike.

The hike uphill to get to the wall was pretty steep and while there was a cable car, that seemed like cheating so we walked up the asphalt and gravel path and stairs until we reached the gate where we climbed up, into and on the wall.

The wall is just incredible. To see it disappearing into the distance in both directions and to think of what it took to build this 13,000 mile long building over 2,300 years ago is just amazing.

While our intention had been to walk both this restored section and make our way to the unrestored portion, the wall conquered us. The steps up and then down and then up and up and then down and down killed us. Thank goodness we had splurged at Target for the set of 19.99 hiking poles or otherwise I don’t think either of us would have made it. Some of the steps were almost as high as my knee-Crazy steep! Anyway, after about two hours of being on the wall we asked Coco (that’s her hands on her hips in the picture with Mike) how much further to we got to the Wild section. When she said we had five more towers (it’s the last tower you can see on the far right of the top picture in those just above and at this we had only been through two plus our entry point) we both decided that it was not going to be possible. 😢 While it was disappointing to not do what we had hoped, we were thrilled to have been able to do it at all. If you have any notion you want to walk on the Great Wall be sure and do it when you are able. We are so glad we did, and as you can see we didn’t have crowds to deal with. We saw the same 15-20 people all day including the family below who asked us to take their picture. It was so much more enjoyable than what our fellow cruisers described they did later in the week. Not only did they have the 3 hour bus ride there (and due to traffic a 4 hour one back), they only had a short visit to the wall and had to fight their way through big crowds. We truly enjoyed the experience and with the exception of the disappointment of having to leave the wall after only doing about a third of what we had hoped (compare the marked up map below to the one at the top of the post) it was a wonderful time and one we wouldn’t trade for anything.

After walking to the next exit point and climbing back down the hill followed by one of the several souvenir vendors (who we had seen at the entrance, at the towers and now on the way down – why won’t they take no for an answer), Coco finally had cell service and she was able to tell the driver to come back from the other end of this section for us.

We then went to a local restaurant and were the last lunch customers as as soon as they served us, all of them sat down and had lunch too.

Coco ordered for all three of us and just like Rocky before her we had too much food. But after our exercise, we ended up finishing almost all! We had a delicious slightly spicy beef stir fry, fried rice, an omelet with green onions, a tofu (it was thinly sliced and very dry-almost like a noodle) and snow pea dish, wok fryed greens (sorta a cross between spinach and kale) and sweet and sour pork. We questioned Coco about the last dish as we both thought this was a Chinese American dish but she swears it is authentic. It was very tasty and while sweet, not as much as here in the states. We were intrigued by the set up at each place (we had seen the same thing in Xi’an). Apparently the smaller restaurants use a service to wash, sterilize and package the dishes rather than having staff to do it.

After lunch, we made the drive back into the city. After our big lunch, we weren’t hungry for dinner but we did need some cash so after a little bit of a rest we explored the blocks around our place. Like everywhere else, there were lots of National Holiday decorations up. I was surprised that poinsettias seemed to be the flower of choice – not sure how they kept them from wilting. We ended up buying a few sodas and some interesting Chinese snacks which we enjoyed while watching some tv later that evening. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the purple yam ice cream cone at McDonald’s 😢.

Needless to say, we weren’t up late and slept good after the great day on the Great Wall.

Xi’an Day 2

This post is being written in cloudy Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 7 (more than a month after the fun below actually happened).

When we were emailing back and forth with Lily our contact at China Highlights about how to spend our time in Xi’an, she suggested we might enjoy a bike ride on the city’s wall. Hmmm, wonder if the bikes will be big enough? Will we end up falling and breaking an arm (or at this age now maybe we need to start worrying about a hip?!). Lily suggested we plan it and if upon arrival we just wanted to walk them that would be ok too.

Rocky picked us up bright and early at our hotel and we drove to the north gate (there is one in each compass direction). Xi’an is one of the few larger Chinese cities whose walls thankfully haven’t been demolished to make way for new buildings or roads. While Rocky bought our tickets to mount the wall, we looked around the base of the gate. This was our first (but not last) time seeing how hard the Chinese work to keep places clean. They use the old fashioned brooms everywhere. With tickets in hand we went through the tunnel and into the courtyard and up the stairs to mount the wall.

The wall is well preserved and one could circumnavigate the entire older part of the city on it, a distance of about 9 miles. It was originally built in the 1300s. It is about 40 feet tall and just as thick at its top and even thicker at the base. In addition to the four towers at the gates, there are towers every 400 feet or so along its length. The walls were relatively empty when we arrived shortly before 9 am but by the time we left an hour and a half later they were becoming more crowded with folks taking morning walks, sightseeing, a company morale boosting run celebrating National Day. the towers were decorated for the Holiday as were the battlements at the corners.

We ended up deciding that the bike ride would be a great way to see more of the wall and are so glad we did. Not only did it give us a great overview of the 1/4 of the wall we rode, it got us some exercise in before our afternoon train ride to Bejing. Turns out the bikes have easily adjustable seats so they were able to fit even me! The bike ride turned out to be a real highlight of our time in Xi’an.

After returning our bikes, we went to a city market where Rocky (we apparatuses don’t have any pictures of him 😢) pointed us in the direction of ten souvenir sellers and advised us on how to bargain. He said however that he wouldn’t join us for this portion as the vendors blamed him if we ended up not buying something. We think we did ok buying chopstick sets for “bread & butter” gifts for our friend Andy in Seattle and Jeff & Ken who we stayed with last week in Tucson. The market reminded me of a single alley in Istanbul’s huge bazaar. The vendors all try to get you to buy their stuff as it’s better than everyone else’s even though it’s pretty obvious it’s all coming from the same manufacturers. When we did t have enough small bills to pay for what we bought, our lady pretended to not have any change and wanted to give us the change in merchandise until we started to walk away….then suddenly her vendor neighbor “loaned” her enough to make change. 😂

Rocky met us at the end of the market and we then headed to the food portion. He explained to us what each of the foods was and we had some delicious fresh squeezed (crushed?) pomegranate juice.

Even though it was a little early, we had lunch in one of the local’s restaurants in the market. Rocky ordered on our behalf and we had “soup” dumplings. We had heard about these before our trip and were excited to have them in person. The “soup” is broth made from bones and then chilled into a gelatin which is chopped up and mixed with the dumpling’s stuffing. When the dumpling is cooked, the broth liquifies. Theybare eaten by tearing a small hole in the dumpling, draining the soup into a spoon and drinking it. Then you eat the dumpling after dipping it in the ponzu sauce served in a small bowl along with the basket of dumplings. Delicious!

Rocky also wanted us to try “Chinese” hamburgers. These were steamed buns with a chinese meat filling that reminded me of pastrami. Not a hamburger but certainly tasty. We finished with the local fried dessert made of yams and filled with nuts.

After lunch we were driven to the HUGE railroad station newly built just to handle bullet trains. Rocky left us after making sure we (and some other gringo tourist) made it correctly though the first security check. We had to go through another to get to the area of the stations for trains headed to Beijing (perhaps extra security for the holiday?) where we faced hundreds of people waiting for the gates to open to let us go downstairs to the platform. After a short wait, the crowd finally started moving and we made our way to the train where the platform seemed relatively empty compared to the chaos upstairs!

The train trip was uneventful. Speed was slightly greater than on the Japanese trains and we got some snacks though most weren’t very tasty and were left behind! Legroom may have been a little less than in Japan but the lack of a footrest meant it was just as comfortable. Even though they didn’t bow, the attendants were just as pleasant and even better dressed. Unfortunately, unlike the Japanese, the Chinese don’t think it impolite to chat on their phones or sing/hum along to whatever song they are listening to over their earphones! 😱

We arrived in Beijing just before sunset and after wandering around the station for waaay too long (apparently there was more than one Exit 3) we finally found our guide, “Coco” and after basically retracing our steps, we got to the van and were driven through the heavily decorated streets to our hotel for the next three nights.

Just before we left for Japan, Lily our contact at the Chinese travel agency emailed me to inform me that due to the holiday, our hotel near Tinammen Square was no longer available and she suggested another hotel. After checking TripAdvisor and finding poor reviews, we looked to see if we could find another hotel. We found a great rate for the Crown Plaza and asked her about booking it. She did but I order to get a king room we paid an additional $20 a night. Upon arrival, apparently they had given away “our” room so we were upgraded to a huge fancy corner room with an entry hall, separate toilet room, and big shower/tub room. So glad we “splurged” for the extra. I think even with the extra the room was under $80 a night!

After checking in, we had a snack from the mall next door and quickly went to bed. Tomorrow we attempt to conquer The Great Wall!