CHICAGO TIME Is Available the World Over

From my Inbox….Amazon has announced that books published through their Kindle Direct Program are now available in India through Amazon.com.

This means that in addition to the US and Canada, my novel CHICAGO TIME is available in the following Amazon stores:

UK

France

Spain

Germany

Italy

I go to China and when I return I find that my novel is getting easier to buy the world over. How cool is that?

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The Final Drama….Coming Home

We could not leave China smoothly. No. That would be too easy. This adventure, which had stretched our emotions and senses, was not over.

Monday morning we ate our final meal in China, breakfast from McDonald’s. It was cheap. Much cheaper than the hotel breakfast buffet. It was also indelibly American, made up of scrambled eggs, orange juice, sausage, and hash browns.

My wife and I checked over our bags, deciding it was best to forego one carry-on and check in four bags. It was easier to spread our clothes (now mostly laundry in plastic bags) and our loot across four bags to better meet the strict weight limits.

We called down to the hotel desk and had them send up a bellhop for our luggage and to call us a taxi to take us to the airport. This was all done very smoothly and without incident. We’re saying goodbye to Hong Kong and China. We’re going home. The kids’ moods had been much lighter and joyful since dinner the night before. They hadn’t whined, nor had they bickered with one another. Everyone was at peace.

The ride to the airport seemed quick as we watched the Hong Kong skyline race past us. At the aiport, I got a cart and piled our luggage onto it. We figured out which line we needed to wait in and moved toward it.

That’s when I said to Stephanie with a hopeful smile, “You have our passports, right?”

“No,” she said.

The crushing pain focused on my chest at that moment threatened to stop my breathing. I suddenly knew exactly where the passports were: in the top drawer of the night stand on my side of the bed back at the hotel.

Important details I could normally recall in an instant, were lost amid the cloudy dulling of my brain thanks to my cold. I had forgotten to pull the passports out of the drawer before we left the hotel. How could I have been so damn stupid? So careless about something so essential to our existence. Throughout our trip I always had our passports at-hand when needed and stowed away for safety when necessary.

You can’t travel without a passport. At the beginning of our trip, my wife and I had joked with each other that there are really only two things you need when traveling: a passport and a credit card.

Now we had the credit cards but no passports.

What happened next tells you what an awesome staff Cathay Pacific has at Hong Kong airport. I and the kids parked our baggage near some chairs. Stephanie went to the Cathay Pacific service desk. A woman named Elaine took charge. Cathay Pacific called our hotel. It took a bit to find the number. We had thrown out the hotel card we had been given. We weren’t staying there anymore why did we need it? Thankfully, I still had the map of Hong Kong that the hotel had given to us. Since our hotel was a prominent one, it’s number was included in the list of hotels on the map.

Stephanie raced back to the service desk with the map. She returned several minutes later and explained that the hotel had found our passports and they would be delivered to the airport, but we would have to pay the fair for the taxi ride there and back. Expensive, but considerably cheaper than the $100 US per ticket it would have cost to change our flights and attempt to fly Standby….and we know who many open seats there are on International Flights, right?

Meanwhile, because we had photocopies of our passports on us (we’d had the copies made in case we ever lost them), Cathay Pacific was able to check in our luggage, but not have it sent to the plane. We needed to check-in before 12:15pm for our 12:55pm flight.

After doing that, I sat with the kids and our carry-ons while Stephanie went downstairs to meet the man from the hotel. We waited and waited until Stephanie emerged and waved us to follow her. I gathered the kids and our stuff and we hurried after my wife to the check-in desk.

Stephanie had our passports, had paid the hotel staffer who had brought them and had given him a giant tip. We all stood at the check-in desk. Elaine was directing the young man behind the counter, explaining what was going on. It was 12:10pm.

Can I tell you how tired we all were of all these Just In Time travel incidents? Thanks to the people at Cathay Pacific and the staff at the Harbour Plaza Hotel North Point the four of us were able to make our flight home.

Shortly after being seated on the plane, flight attendants brought the kids some activity bags, filled with things for each of them to do and age-appropriate. We got no such thing from American Airlines on the flight over to Shanghai.

The movie and TV show selection was fantastic. The entire first two seasons of Game of Thrones, Homeland, and several other cable-only TV series. I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the movie Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Our kids watched The Incredibles and played lots of different games. Henry really liked the pinball game. (The best movie option on the American Airlines flight to China was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I like Ewan Macgregor and Emily Blunt, but that is not a very good movie.) Others I didn’t watch were The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods. The former we had seen in the theater (excellent), the latter I would have watched had I not been so tired.

At our layover at LAX we just barely made our connecting flight to Chicago because by the time we cleared Immigration, then collected our luggage, then cleared Customs, and took a potty break, we barely had time to get through the slow-moving TSA security line to board the plane right after the Final Boarding Call. (There was 2.5 hours between our arrival and scheduled departure time.)

Nevermind that TSA security is slower and less thorough than Hong Kong airport security, and in Hong Kong you don’t have to take off your shoes….

We’re back in Michigan now, after a welcoming one-night stay with my parents in Chicago.

I’m relieved to be home after such a thrilling adventure. I’m also feeling let down because the prospects of Doing Some Cool New Thing in Shanghai are gone.

At one in the afternoon the sun is out, I’m awake and vaguely tired but feel like I should be in bed. I either wake up at midnight for no reason or to pee. Or I wake up at 4am or 5am and can not get back to sleep.

During the day ot’s not hot at all. It’s warm at a very comfortable 73 degrees Fahrenheit. When I go outside I don’t feel the air and I don’t immediately start to sweat.

There’s no one out walking. There’s no rush of cars, or buses or bikes or scooters. Just big houses on big lots, set far back from the streets in this very bucolic American setting.


The air is so clean and clear. Even with my clogged sinuses the freshness of the air is apparent.

There is a month and a half’s worth of mail. Among the pieces is a class list for the Fall for our son, including the name of his teacher and the names of his classmates. There is also a packet of forms that have to be filled out for our daughter so she can start pre-school. It reminds me that I have to get over to the pre-school offices very soon. They had granted us a grace period extension for paying the tuition because we were out of the country during the period of time when the tuition was initially due.

I haven’t had access to a kitchen since before we left for Shanghai. So the first time I make something other than pasta (boiling water) with sauce from a jar, the chicken is over-salted and slightly under-cooked.

During one of my errands, I resist the urge, when I see a group of 20-30 Chinese students on MSU’s campus, to roll down the car window and shout “loawai!”

When I eat I keep thinking I ought to be using chopsticks.

We have to refill our refrigerator. Which we do after a trip to the grocery store, which is the size of a couple of football fields, where I’m able to read all of the signs, where I recognize all of the food, where no one physically bumps into me and I physically bump into no one.

I could not walk to the store. I had to get in my car and drive.

It’s only the morning after when we find out our refrigerator no longer works. My quick-thinking wife runs out and buys some bags of ice, and moves everything into the two coolers we own. It takes a phone call and a 70-dollar late afternoon visit from a repairman to find out that the compressor on the refrigerator is dead, which means it’s time to buy a new refrigerator. His explanation is crystal clear, as is the pang of knowing that a Very Big Expense is about to be incurred. Is there ever a convenient time to buy a new appliance?

I take the kids to the park, the “brown playground” as they call Lake Lansing Park South. It’s their favorite playground. Again, I can read all the signs leading into and inside the park. The conversations, mundane as they are, that the other kids and their parents have are comprehensible to me.

There isn’t a Chinese character in sight.

As I write this, it’s a week after we oh-so-luckily boarded our flight home and my sinuses are still clogged up. Though instead of the bright red mucus that was pouring out in Hong Kong, my nose emits a translucent yellow liquid. I haven’t yet shaken this cold.

I had gotten so used to frantically writing about and then posting our adventures in China, dealing with the bureaucrat-slow VPN connection, worried that I would get too far behind, that now it almost feels wrong to be writing about something so far away even though it happened only days ago. It seems so long since we were in Shanghai. Shanghai was so loud, tall, noisy, dirty, infuriating, exhilarating, and awe-inspiring, and so tiring. I need to rest.

Trying to Power Through in Hong Kong

My eyes feel like they’re on fire at times. My head is heavy. When I cough, it feels as if my brain is going push out of my skull. Though the temperature is in the mid-80s, every five minutes or so I get the chills and my arms and legs are covered in goosebumps. I’ve been rationing tissues so that I don’t just blow my nose whenever I fee like and then run out of tissues. The medicine I’ve been taking seems to have no effect on masking the symptoms of whatever sickness I’ve got.

I’m trying really hard to be happy and enthusiastic. But my cold is making that almost impossible.

That’s how I felt sitting on a bench in the front of the library on Lamma Island, Hong Kong. I had just attempted to follow the map and find a restroom.

But I got lost, wandered off the hiking path and had an old woman point me in the right direction back to the path. The path is paved but very very hilly. Because I wasn’t able to breath clearly, by the time I gave up on my quest to empty my bladder on the island and found my way back to the bench where my wife and kids were, I was winded and thought I might pass out.

I was feeling so sick that under normal circumstances I would be either in bed or on the couch in front of the TV with a box of tissues. But this was the first time I had ever been in Hong Kong and I didn’t know when I’d get a chance to come back and see this fascinating city.

We had arrived Saturday afternoon after a 2.5 hour flight from Shanghai. I hadn’t felt well when I had woken up that morning. It didn’t stop me from taking one last run in Shanghai. I put on my running gear and walked over to Lu Xun park and ran for 30 minutes in the shade of the abundant trees, weaving my way through the usual morning crowds of walking elderly. I usually feel better after a run (this time I didn’t) and I would probably never have a chance to run in Shanghai again.

The sinus issues I was having only worsened as the day went on, through the flight to Hong Kong, the taxi ride to our hotel, and through dinner.

Dinner was at a market on 99 Java Road. Stephanie had found it through some searches on the Internet for nearby places to eat. Apparently, it’s one of the places Anthony Bourdain ate when he did his show on Hong Kong. When we gave the address to the taxi driver, he didn’t feign ignorance, nor did he throw us out of the cab. He took us to the address, and told us that we should go up the stairs to the second floor, because that’s where the restaurant was located. (I can’t imagine a Beijing taxi driver being so helpful.)

The first floor of the building was a market where you could be every imaginable piece of produce and type of meat and fish. The second floor contained a series of restaurants, with round tables and plastic chairs. Food was cooked to order from fresh ingredients. We sat near a bank of water tanks, inside which contained different kinds of fish and crustaceans. A man repeatedly pulled crustaceans out and brought them over to a kitchen, where they were boiled, broiled, or sauted.

Afterwards, Stephanie took the kids swimming in the hotel pool while I marveled at television in English.

This was our view from the Harbour Plaza Hotel North Point.

It was a fantastic hotel with excellent staff. It’s also a two minute walk from the Quarry Bay stop on the Island Line of the subway. This made it a convenient place to stay for getting around Hong Kong. Sunday morning we rode the subway to the Central stop and walked up to the Peak Tram Lower Terminus.

“The Peak” is short for Victoria Peak, one of the highest points in Hong Kong. It contains an observation deck that is accessed through the Peak Tram. The tram has been in existence since the 1880s. The wait on Sunday morning was a long one. The kids handled it well. We bought the Sky Pass so we could go all the way up to the very top.

The views speak for themselves. Even on a cloudy day like the one we had, though the sun’s rays were dimmed the beauty of the city was not.

Here’s the tram we rode up and down.

If you get hungry afterwards, there are several restaurants where you can eat, including a Bubba Gump Shrimp. “Run, Forrest! Run!”

Or you can go shopping at the mall.

You don’t need to leave terminus at the top to do any shopping. There are plenty of stores inside where you can buy souvenirs of all kinds. There was also a candy shop which we could not avoid, thanks to the kids.

We rode the tram down the Peak and during the course of searching for an ATM, Meredith fell asleep in my arms. Despite being sick, I carried Meredith around while we found an ATM, hired a taxi to take us to the ferry docks, and got on a ferry to Lamma Island. Why Lamma Island? It was a random choice. We wanted to take a ferry ride to view the harbor and to take in a very different view of Hong Kong.

Here’s the dock on Lamma Island. As you can see it’s filled with bikes. I imagine island residents ride their bikes to the dock, park, and then ride the ferry (22HK$ each way) to Honk Kong Island or Kowloon.

The island looks nothing like what you’ve seen of Hong Kong. There are no skyscrapers. With only 6000 people it is not crowded or loud. One of it’s claims to fame is being the place where the actor Chow Yun-Fat grew up.

The map I mentioned and showed you above displays a path you can hike, taking you around the circumference of the island. I imagine it’s an excellent thing to do, provided you don’t have small children or a fever. I was actually a little bummed we couldn’t do it, even for a short bit. I was not expecting Hong Kong to have such a rural component, thinking that it was all skyscrapers and shopping.

We rode the ferry back and took a few pictures along the way.

On the mainland, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen has a mausoleum. In Hong Kong, the good doctor has a sports arena named in his honor.

Back on Hong Kong island we found a toilet so I could finally empty my bladder, and then got on the subway back to the hotel.

My wife got some takeout dinner and brought it back to our room. Once we had all eaten, the kids wanted to take another dip in the pool. Originally, I was going to go with them. But since I wasn’t feeling well, Stephanie took them.

The kids were disappointed. I told the kids that there was nothing I wanted to do more on our last night in Hong Kong than take them swimming. but that I simply couldn’t do it. Not with the way I was feeling.

While my wife was with the kids down at the pool, I managed to post the following status to my Facebook page.

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to eat breakfast then click my sweaty sandals three times and say, “There’s no place like home…”

That was another nice thing about Hong Kong: we were no longer behind the Great Firewall of China.

Then I did the thing I should have done earlier in the day; I took my temperature. It was 101 degrees Fahrenheit. I had a fever. No wonder I felt so terrible.

It was a quarter after eight in the evening. I wrote my wife a note about my temperature and then I went to bed. I spent the night sipping water every time I’d wake up because my lips were dry and my mouth was parched. Sometime after 4am I started to sweat. The fever broke but at dawn I felt exhausted, wondering how I was going to make it to the airport for our flight back to the States.

Our China Adventure was about to come to an end and I was feeling like I needed to be carried out of the country.

Michigan Seems Like a Dream to Me Now….

Our last day in Shanghai was spent being thankful we were no longer in Beijing and doing some last-minute souvenir shopping.

After my wife proved herself to be far superior at bargaining than me, we stopped at the Carrefour on the way back to the hotel to pick up some snacks. The Carrefour at Hongkou Plaza had been our lifeline during our time in China. It’s where we had bought all of our fruit, bread, peanut butter, snacks, and juice.

The Carrefour also carried electronics, clothes, dishes, tableware, toys, and quite a few other things. In the Meat Department, this included fish heads and turtles.

I don’t think the kids understood that the turtles were not intended as pets.

For dinner we met up for one last time with my wife’s TAs Crystal and Jessie, at a fancy restaurant in Xintiandi. Xintiandi is a very upscale part of Shanghai where high-end brands have stores, like Armani.

When Stephanie had told her TAs she wanted to treat them to a nice dinner in Xintiandi before we left Shanghai, they got nervous, protesting that it was too expensive. It wasn’t too expensive. The food at Xin Jishi restaurant was expensive by Chinese standards. But believe it or not, the meal for the four adults and our two kids came to less than the breakfast at Element Fresh.

My favorite of the dishes was called “Grandma’s Red-Braised Pork,” which I had eaten variations of during our time in China. It’s called “Hong Shao Rou” in Mandarin. Crystal told us that Hong Shao Rou was a very Shanghainese dish. Xin Jishi’s version was by far the best version of the dish I had eaten during my time in China. The fat was so soft it simply melted into your mouth. I found a recipe for this delicious braised pork belly here.

My wife was weirded out by the skin.

I said, “what skin?”

“The skin!” she said. “I’ve got hair on mine, I swear.”

“I didn’t notice. I was too busy enjoying it. This is awesome.” I shoved another chunk into my mouth with my chopsticks.

After the meal, we posed for pictures outside the restaurant then walked to the Metro. We parted with the young women on the Metro after a few stops. They headed to their homes, while Stephanie, the kids, and I headed to the Bund.

Stephanie had never been to the Bund before. Nor had the kids and I seen it at night.

Stephanie was tired and still fighting off a sinus infection that had come and gone, and then returned. I had picked up a version of the infection, too, sometime in Beijing. As we were slowly walking from the Metro stop on Nanjing Road, she said she hoped the walk and effort were worth it.

There were the usual Chinese crowds but it is still one of the great things to do in Shanghai.

“This would be a very romantic moment if it weren’t for the kids and the crowds,” said my wife.

“I agree,” I said.

Back at the hotel, we struggled to get the kids washed and in bed.

Henry climbed onto the bed he’d been sharing with Meredith and looked out the window. He told us he was going to miss the view of Shanghai.

Stephanie and I said we were going to miss it, too. No more Shanghai skyline to see every night before going to sleep, or gaze at in the morning while sipping a cup of coffee.

It was hard to believe our time in Shanghai was about to come to an end.

At this point, after being gone for such a long and intense time in such a different place than Michigan, USA, it was hard to clearly picture our home with its trees in the yard, on its very ordinary quiet street.

In the morning we would eat our breakfast (our last Lillian Cake Shop egg tarts), make sure everything was packed up, and take a taxi to the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong.

Good Night and So Long, Shanghai.

Get It On, Yong He Gong, Get It On!

For our last day in Beijing, Stephanie had researched the Yong He Lama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist Temple, saying she wanted to see something peaceful. I thought that after having to deal with non-existent restaurants, Beijing taxi drivers, and never-ending tours, something peaceful sounded great.

And it was largely peaceful, despite the number of tourists and Buddhist followers. The latter more peace-inducing than the former.

The tickets came with a mini-CD.

Sadly, I have misplaced mine. It’s in a pile of ticket stubs, maps, guides, and whatnot somewhere here in the house. Unpacking from a month-and-a-half-long trip is messy. I want to see what’s on the tiny CD. Though I’m not sure my MacBook can read it.

Back to the Lama Temple. You’re not supposed to take pictures of the insides of the temples where the buddhas are located. That didn’t stop people from doing it. I refrained, even though I’m not a Buddhist or a spiritual person, simply out of respect for the rules.

Here’s Meredith spinning one of the many prayer wheels.

Here’s Henry posing silly for the picture.

The main feature of the Lama Temple is a colorful, 18 meter tall Buddha carved out of a single trunk of sandalwood. It even has a sign from the Guinness Book of World of Records, testifying to this unique feature.

The giant buddha was carved from 1748-1750. It was something to see that no picture I could take would be able to do justice. We all stood in the temple marveling at it for several minutes.

At noon we decided to leave, so that we would have enough time to get back to the hotel, grab a snack and our luggage, and get a taxi to the train station for our 2pm train to Shanghai.

Outside the temple we hailed a taxi. The driver stopped. We got in. I showed him the address to our hotel and pulled out some Yuan bills. He got out his microscope to look at the address, again like he’d never seen the address to a hotel near the Forbidden City, or he’d never heard of the Forbidden City and did not know the way.

Then he said no and kicked us out of the taxi. Our crime? Apparently, we were on the wrong side of the road to catch a taxi to go in the direction we needed to go.

Henry was so upset, he started crying, worried we wouldn’t make it to our hotel and that we would miss our train.

We jaywalked to the other side of the street. (I will say this: jaywalking on most streets in Beijing is actually easier than crossing in crosswalks in Shanghai.) Then we began again the process of hailing a taxi.

Second time was the charm. A driver took us back to our hotel, where we gathered our luggage and the hotel bellhop attempted to hail us a taxi to Beijing South Railway Station. It took many tries. No taxi would stop. Then one did after awhile. The bellhop loaded our luggage into the taxi and gave the driver directions.

We arrived with plenty of time to find our platform and get in line to board the train. It was a little after one-thirty.

One problem: the kids were very hungry. Thanks to the usual Beijing Taxi Drama, we hadn’t had time to get anything to eat. Then we saw a Burger King! In the station! Not far from our boarding area!

So Stephanie took the kids to Burger King to get the kids some French fries and us adults some burgers. While they went for food, I waited with the luggage. And waited. And waited. I looked at the time on my phone ticking away. When it reached 1:50pm, I could tell the attendants at the platform entrance were calling out for any last riders to to Shanghai.

When it got to 1:55pm I was in Full Panic Mode, standing on my tiptoes to look over the crowd for a sign of my wife and kids. I was worried we were going to miss our train and not be able to get on another one. The day before all the high-speed trains in and out of Shanghai had been canceled (along with flights out of Pudong Airport) because of the typhoon. My thinking was that because of all of those canceled trips, today’s trains would be booked full, leaving us with few options one of which being to stay another day in Beijing.

At 1:56pm I spotted my wife and waved. But her head was down, looking like she was trying to make space in the thick crowd. I called out, “Steph!” which turned a lot of Chinese heads in my direction. I moved a little closer, ticket in hand. She finally pushed her way through to me, kids  in a chain of hands behind her, her other hand holding the Burger King bag.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But it turns out the Burger King isn’t even on this level. You have to go upstairs! And the line…”

We turned and rushed to the platform entrance and held out our tickets to the attendants. They didn’t make us put our tickets through the gates. They simply examined our four tickets, saw that we needed to get on the train NOW, and let us through.

We went through and down the escalator to the platform where the attendants just told us in Chinese and through hand gestures to get on the train and then find our car. Our seats were on car 12. We boarded on car number 9 and walked down the center aisle of the cars to get to our seats. Some poor bastard thought he was about to get a window seat. Then we came along at the last minute to claim our seats, bumping the guy back to his aisle seat in another row.

We sat, breathing heavily, Stephanie handing out food to all of us. We were leaving Beijing just as we’d left Shanghai; in a daze of adrenalin, sweat, and relief.

Here’s our obligatory picture of the speed readout on the screen at the front of the high-speed train car.

The train ride was uneventful other than the discovery that you can buy popcorn in the dining car. It’s microwave popcorn, kettle style. (There is no buttered popcorn, dear Westerner. Butter is a dairy product.) You buy a package and they put it in the microwave for you. Kind of neat actually. It made the kids happy.

I still hate Beijing, though it was worth visiting for the Summer Palace, my wife and I having a good inner with a colleague of hers from USC, the Lama Temple, and the thrill of the seeing the Great Wall.

When the train pulled into Shanghai Hongqiao, we were glad to be back in Shanghai. And I do know this: I am never going back to Beijing.

Wandering the Summer Palace

On our third day in Beijing we took a more leisurely pace after having spent so much time on the Tour of Indefinite Stops. Henry’s fever was gone and he was feeling well again.

After breakfast and some planning by my wife, we went out and rode the subway to the Summer Palace. The subway stop is a 10-15 minute walk from the palace. There are plenty of rickshaw cyclists offering to take you. We opted to walk, despite the usual protests from Meredith. (Yes, one of the nice things for us about the Summer Palace, is that we didn’t have to deal with the First Class Hassle of getting a Beijing taxi driver to agree to take us there. I have no problems picturing a Beijing taxi driver looking at the address to the Summer Palace and making a face as if he’d never heard of the Summer Palace before.)

One of the exits from the subway stop Xiyuan opens to a small upscale outdoor mall with a Starbucks and an Ethan Allen store. I was looking to get some bottled water, so I went into what I thought was a convenience store. It wasn’t quite that. It seemed to be selling upscale body products and revitalizing liquids and creams all sorts of other “natural” bodily improvement products. The only bottled water for sale in that store was Evian, at 12.50 Yuan per bottle. Which, given that I had now been in China for over a month, I thought was outrageous. I knew I’d be able to buy bottled water down the road for two, three, or four Yuan per bottle at most. Mind you, 12.50 Yuan is about two US dollars. Shows you how I’d come to view prices. But I did end up buying two bottles of water from a street-side store/restaurant for 6 Yuan.

The Summer Palace, covering roughly 70,000 square meters, was originally built in 1750 during the Qing Dynasty. It was burned down in 1860 by the English and the French. It was rebuilt in 1888. (The English and French burned down a lot of things in China before getting their Concessions.)

The Summer Palace sold maps in English, so we were able to easily find our way around. It’s a beautiful place.

We found the restrooms first, then wandered around some buildings before heading over to see the Kunming Lake.

We looked into renting a four-person paddle boat on Kunming Lake but there were no more available for rental. Or at least that’s the best my wife could make out when she went to the ticket window.

If we couldn’t be on the water, then we decided to see the Long Corridor and the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha. To to do that, we had to walk along a narrow pathway set next to the lake and the lotus plants.

The Long Corridor is exactly that, a long corridor. It’s 728 meters long with 273 sections. It’s the longest corridor in a classical Chinese garden. We did not walk the entire length. We walked about half of it. Well, we tried. There were a lot of people and we ended up walking next to it.

Each beam was painted with a unique image.

At about the halfway point in the corridor we entered the Hall of Dispelling Clouds and climbed up the steps to the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha. It offers a panoramic view of the lake and much of the park itself.

Henry didn’t make the trip up to the tower. He’s afraid of heights and the steep steps intimidated him. So I stayed behind with him while Stephanie carried Meredith to the top for a look, then back down. Here they are on the way down. Can you see them?

Then it was my turn.

Inside the tower is a five ton statue of the Buddha, cast in bronze and gilded with gold that somehow managed to survive the destruction of so many of the buildings by the English and the French. You’re not supposed to take pictures inside the temple. There are signs prohibiting it. So I didn’t. As an agnostic, I’m not a spiritual person. But that doesn’t mean I want to disrespect someone else’s religious beliefs. But there were plenty of Chinese and loawai tourists taking photos. (I was actually offended at all the picture-takers at the Lama Temple the following day. It’s a working temple; there were many people burning incense and praying to the Buddha in all of the temples.)

When I came down from the tower, it was time to make our way back to the entrance gate to the park (East Palace Gate) and back to the subway. My wife and I would have liked to have seen more. With 70,000 square meters of space, there is a lot of beauty to walk around. But we had plans to meet up with a colleague of my wife’s for dinner.

Amon is someone my wife knew from her doctoral program at USC. He was teaching for the same program as my wife, except in Beijing. He came to our hotel and we went to a restaurant across the street for some dinner. The cold duck dish we ordered wasn’t very good. But the spicy lamb dish Amon had picked turned out to be quite delicious. There wasn’t a scrap left on the serving platter.

While we ate, Amon and my wife swapped stories about teaching in the program and of our experiences living in China. Amon had rented a bike for the month or so that he was there in Beijing to get around, saying it was quite easy, once he figured out the flow of traffic. He also told us how after the nasty rains which caused all those floods that killed three dozen people, the next day the skies were clear in Beijing. He said, “I didn’t know Beijing was surrounded by mountains!”

Me neither. We never saw them from the city.

Chinese Paparazzi Count: 22

We fended off many many attempts and requests to take pictures of our kids. Though at one point, my wife tried to accommodate two very nice middle-school aged girls who kept running by and saying, “Hello! Hello!” while waving at Henry and Meredith. Just before we entered the Hall of Dispelling Clouds so we could climb up to the Tower, Stephanie decided to humor them and let their parents take a picture of the girls with our kids. Well, as soon as the girls’ parents got their camera ready, at least a half-dozen Chinese tourists took out their cameras to snap photos, too. And that was the last photo request from a stranger that we accepted in China…

To the Great Wall and Back On the Tour of Indefinite Stops

I know my last post was a bit negative. But there are times when traveling is not fun. Having written that post, I actually feel good now. Plenty good enough to focus on the positive. Which is easy when you’ve done something you consider not just the highlight of a particular day but one of the best parts of the entire trip. It was a fun and spontaneous thing as you’ll see….

Tuesday in Beijing we woke up tired from the day before but excited at the prospect of seeing and walking on the Great Wall of China. The frustrations and disappointments of Monday were over.

One of our cell phones rang at 6:26am. I answered. It was the tour operator. He said, “Maybe we pick you up before 7:30 this morning? Yes?”

We had previously agreed on 7:30am.

“Maybe we’re ready a little before 7:30am,” I said, not wanting to rush the kids.

We dressed and ate our breakfast, then went down to the hotel lobby. The tour mini-van was waiting for us at 7:30am. We rode the bus with a 20-something Swiss couple, a young Spanish couple, and a father and son from Norway.

We had hired a tour operator to take us to the Great Wall as part of a small package that was supposed to include the Ming Tombs and the Olympic Park.

There were other stops on the schedule, including a jade factory and a silk factory. Neither of which I minded. We ended up buying some very nice souvenirs and gifts. I do understand this is the point of these stops on the tours, so that the tour hawker/hustler/operator can get a commission based on what we spend at those places. We are seen as giant dollar signs who can expel money at will. Even if by Western standards we live modestly, compared to most people in China, we are extremely wealthy.

According to the tour agenda the Great Wall was a two-and-a-half hour drive. Which it is, when you stop twice before going there.

Our first stop was the jade factory. There is no doubt about the beauty of jade and the difficulty of working with it. Real jade pieces, even in China, are expensive. At the factory you could buy pieces as small as earrings (like Stephanie did) to life-sized lions which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I think the lion would look awesome on our front lawn back in Michigan.

After we were given a chance to buy things in the factory store, we were ushered back into the mini-van. To the Great Wall? No, to the Ming Tombs. The emperors of the Ming Dynasty had themselves buried in a beautiful elaborate setting on the sides of a few mountains.

Meredith decided to play hide-and-seek from the camera.

Then it was back into the mini-van.

Even we, who had so far avoided the stereotypical death-defying tourist bus drive during our time here, were not to leave China without being subjected to one. We got ours on the drive from the Ming Tombs to the Great Wall.

In the hour-long drive there were dozens of near-death experiences as the bus wound its way up the mountains at speeds far exceeding reason. We passed every car we saw on the road. Each turn was attacked by the driver with the intensity of a pro-bowl linebacker blitzing a quarterback.

Henry was not happy about the drive. He sat cowering between me and my wife. Our daughter Meredith, who had been prodding and poking her brother, got put next to the window, separated from Henry by Stephanie. She proceeded to put her face out the open window and shout “weee!” and “awwwwwwwww!” My wife had to keep telling her to keep her hands and face inside the van.

Now, my wife Stephanie gets motion-sick under far less dramatic circumstances. With the way the driver was going, I thought she was going to have to pull Meredith aside and stick her head out the window and puke. Thankfully, she didn’t have to do that.

The Norwegian father took out his video camera and filmed some of the drive, particularly the times when we burst past other vehicles.

After we arrived at the parking lot outside the entrance to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, Stephanie found the nearest curb and sat with her head between her knees. Henry wouldn’t even look at her, hiding behind a car. He was afraid she was going to puke.

Meredith was oblivious.

It took Stephanie a good 10 minutes to get to where she felt she could stand without feeling woozy.

Meanwhile our tour operator had led the rest of the group up to the Wall Entrance. He came back wondering where we were and why we hadn’t gone up with the rest of the group. I explained that my wife was sick. He wasn’t fazed and proceeded to lead us to the entrance.

Henry and I had to make a pit stop and use the public toilets. I don’t care about squat toilets. They don’t bother me or make me squeamish. What I do care about is the lack of toilet paper when I have to do Number 2. There wasn’t any toilet paper. The main dispenser at the entrance to the toilet was empty. Good thing we carry baby wipes with us at all times.

We had to fend off the usual hawkers who lined the path up to the entrance to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.

The tour operator guided us through the entrance (included with the tour price) and then to the cableway, which I thought was the gondola pictured on the wall opposite the ticket booth.

After carrying Meredith up to Sun Yet-Sen’s Mausoleum, I was not going to carry her up the side of a mountain to the top of the Great Wall of China. I knew there would be plenty of carrying once we were on the Great Wall.

At the ticket window we asked would we be able to take the kids on the toboggan slide down the mountain? No. They were too small. So we would take the cableway up and down.

That was a shame. Because the toboggan slide looked very cool. It was one of the reasons I had suggested we go to the Mutianyu section. There other reasons were that it was less-filled with tourists and had beautiful scenery.

Oh well. We bought what we thought were round-trip tickets for the gondola. Only it wasn’t the gondola, nice and enclosed and safe for small children. No. It was the ski lift.

Have you taken a four-year-old on a ski lift? I hadn’t before. Nor would I have recommended it. Not a four-year-old who could easily squirm her way through and off and fall to her death. That’s what we rode up and down to the Great Wall of China.

That picture was taken on the way down. On the way up, she sat with me and I had an arm wrapped all the way around her. I got over my fear about the ski lift and focused on what we were about to do: walk around on the Great Wall of China.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, though farther than the more popular Badaling section, provides views of ample beauty. We were not disappointed.

 

We walked around for about an hour. The kids ate lollipops bought from one of the many sellers on the wall. Lollipops are not the only thing you can buy. You can buy water, pop, and even beer. I think the lollipops were 10 yuan for the two. Outrageous by Chinese standards. But then someone had to haul them up there.

The highlight of the day for me was something spontaneous. It started with a young man. My wife, kids, and I were standing atop one of the guard towers with several other tourists. A young man started doing dance poses and had his family take pictures.

Henry said he thought it was silly.

I said you only live once. How many people can say they danced on the Great Wall of China?

Then I got an idea. I grabbed Stephanie and said I want to kiss my wife on the Great Wall of China. Meredith, who we had been letting take a picture or two with our big 35mm camera, said she wanted to take the picture.

We handed the camera to Meredith, hanging the strap around her neck. My wife and I put our arms around each other and kissed. Meredith aimed and shot with the camera.

I would show you all the picture Meredith took. It’s quite good, centered and in-focus. But it’s just for us. I’m not even going to post it to Facebook. It’s too personal. Too precious. When we get back to the States I’m going have it printed and framed.

I kissed my wife on the Great Wall of China!

When we were done walking around, we headed back to the ski lift. Only, we didn’t have a tickets for the ride down. What we had bought were not round-trip tickets. I had to shell out another 100 Yuan for us to ride down. Grumble, grumble….

You can see the toboggan slide here. It’s my view from the ski lift ride down.

The Norwegians were late to lunch because the line for the toboggan slide was long, and they got stuck behind several people who went very slowly down the slide. But they said it was worth it to say they rode a toboggan slide down from the Great Wall of China.

When we got to the bottom of the ski lift, we bought a handful of souvenirs from the hawkers and then met the rest of our group for lunch at the restaurant where our tour operator had told us to go. Mr. Yang’s was a two-story restaurant filled with loawai tourists. The food, which was good, was included as part of the tour price. Though we had to buy our own drinks.

While we ate, Stephanie began to worry about the ride down the mountain, wondering if she should risk eating much if at all.

The ride down the mountain and back to Beijing was far better than the ride up. The driver with Formula One Dreams got stuck behind a line of a half-dozen cars until we reached the highway. Which meant we had to move at a normal speed, one which didn’t make my wife motion sick.

The kids leaned against us and fell asleep. They slept for most of the hour-long trip to our next stop. The Europeans all nodded off, heads periodically lolling down then snapping back up.

Next stop was the silk factory, the Beijing XinAo DongWu Silk Company.

Once we got there, the young Swiss couple took off. They said they had done enough for the day and wanted to get back to their hotel because they were returning home the next day. They had been traveling for a few weeks. We had talked to them at lunch. Turns out they had come to Beijing a few days before from a tour of North Korea. They told us how strange the weird it was, and how the government checked all of their cameras before they left to make sure they hadn’t taken any unofficial photos.

So they hired a taxi and left.

Having already toured the No. 1 Silk Factory in Suzhou, my wife, kids, and I knew what to expect as far as the process. But honestly, the process is still pretty amazing. Stephanie and I had a few questions, and unlike at the factory in Suzhou, our guide Michelle was more than happy to answer them. I wanted to know how long ago the Chinese started using silk to make clothing and other things. She said over 5000 years. I said, wow.

We spent some money there. We were feeling in need of some Retail Therapy. But my wife and I also wanted to get something for us. Something special we would have for a long time. So we blew our budget and bought a silk-lined comforter for our bed, a silk cover for the comforter, and matching pillow sleeves. It was a lot, but far far less than what we would pay in the US.

When we got outside the factory, Henry wanted to sit down. He seemed lethargic. We sat on the steps and I felt his forehead. He was warm, fever warm. I told Stephanie and we talked it over. We assumed we were nearly done, that we had one more stop, at the Olympic Park, and then back to our hotel. We figured one more stop would be okay.

But it wasn’t one more stop. The next stop wasn’t the Olympic Park. It was a tea house, where we were given a demonstration of tea-making and got to sample some teas (all excellent). But we did not buy any tea.

Okay, we thought, so now the Olympic Park and we’re done.

Oh, no. Not at all.

We got in the mini-van and it wound its way around and then down a main thoroughfare and then off onto a side road and then off onto what was a block-long driveway to some building.

Everyone gets a free foot massage according to our tour operator. At this point, we say the hell with this. We have a sick kid who needs to go back to the hotel, eat, and rest.

My wife told the guy that our son had a fever and we needed to leave. Why didn’t you tell me before? he said.

My wife replied, because we thought we were heading back to the hotel.

This will be 30 minutes he tells us, then pictures at another place, then back to the hotel.

At this point, it was just after 5pm and there are too many additional things on the schedule. So we told him we were going to get a taxi back to our hotel.

“It is customary to tip your guide 30, 40 yuan,” he suddenly told me.

I gave him 30.

“For each person,” he said.

I turned and kept walking.

We made it to a main street and began the patience-testing process of hailing a taxi in Beijing. One stopped and we all got in. I started waving around money and showed the driver our hotel’s address. Because it’s after 5pm, that means it’s Rush Hour and we are going to spend a fair amount of time sitting in traffic. She looked the card all around as if she had never seen the address for a hotel that’s so close to the Forbidden City, like she didn’t know how to get there. (Why do all taxi drivers in Beijing do this?)

Well, she drove us to our hotel and we gave her a fat tip out of pure relief that she hadn’t refused us and that we were no longer on the Tour of Indefinite Stops.