Saturday, May 24

Met up with the Houston Four in Beijing. Jessica, Jennifer, Julia, and Dr. Muchard joined me for a 6 day tour of China. They got in around midnight so we downed a bottle of wine and got some sleep.

Jessica: Oh, yeah the wine, not quite vinegar but not exactly what I’d call an excellent bouquet. I doubt I’ll take a return trip to explore the Chinese wine country.

Jennifer: I don't remember the wine. Oh wait, yeah I do. It was bad.

Dr: Direct quote describing said wine from the label on the bottle: "Tasting best and delicious production elaborate brewing and classical making the wine was made of best grapes in the world and with internal advanced technics it is clarity and hasfull-bodied fruity-smell. Vinosity and long aftertaste."

Sunday, May 25

We decided on a train/foot tour of Beijing. Rumor was that there were tours of the Olympic Stadium so we headed that way via the subway. The other determining factor was that the stadium was not on our tour itinerary. We made it there and were greeted by armed guards, chain link fence, and a lot of confusing signs and instructions for tour tickets that did not exist. Se la vi... at least we saw the darn thing.

Next, we were off to the Temple of Heaven. It is huge, probably covers a good hundred acres. Another one of these deals where you tromp accross town and are greeted by a huge brick wall with no way in. I struck up a conversation with a Swiss flight attendant, but she had no idea where said temple was at. Eventually we found our way in and saw the sights. It is amazing what can be build with unlimited time, money, and man power. The air in the gardens here seemed cleaner than outside the temple gates. The air in Beijing resembles a fog. It hurts to breathe after a while. It makes Houston look and smell like a garden spot.

We returned to the hotel just in time for our first group meeting. 15 total: 3 Brits, 4 Minneapolis, 5 Texans, 1 Louisiana, 1 East coaster, and 1 Canadian. After the meeting we ventured out for our first of many group meals. Leah orders a variety of dishes and they all come out to a huge lazy susan in the middle of the table... round and round it goes as we sample the various dishes. By the end of the trip, everyone's chopstick skills had greatly improved.

Jessica: Should have packed a hard hat because Beijing equals one big construction site. The Olympic Stadium excursion was a bust but I suspect they hid the ticket booth when they saw 5 Americans approaching as other folks were clearly touring the Olympic Village. The signage was funny though like the “Tickets 300 m à” only to walk 300 meters à to find a sign that says “ß Tickets 200 m”. I also liked the English translation at the ATM that said “Question Authority” when what I think they meant was go inside to speak to teller. Our guide book called this type of translation “Chinglish”!J

Jennifer: I suspect that some of those stadium guards spoke english, but just didn't want to deal with us. I like how Larry fails to mention that the Swiss girl's body building look-a-like boyfriend did know where the temple was.

Dr: Sincere thanks to the five people working at information desk at the mall near the Olympic stadium who made their best efforts to attempt to figure out what we were looking for. Needless to say there was a big language barrier. They ended up giving us directions back to the gated stadium entrance.

Monday, May 26

We headed out of town in our small tour bus to the Great Wall. We went to a less visited section of the wall and enjoyed the lack of crowds. Persistent vendors, but not a lot of tourists. Unfortunately it was a hazy day, so the views were 'limited.' Still, it was cool to see it.

The parking lot is at the bottom of a large hill so we took a cable car to the top. The wall is on top of a large ridge line. We took the slide back down, a stainless steel slide with a luge like sled you sit on. Without slow moving sledders blocking traffic and Chinese dudes with bullhorns telling me to slow down, it could have been a kick ass ride. Instead is was merely 'cool.'

Jessica: So many steps, so little time. You often have to climb up to go down. Why anyone would want to attack by climbing this wall is beyond me…so I guess it served the intended purpose. Although limited, the views were worth the climb. The toboggan ride down almost made me want to climb back up and do it all over again.

Jennifer: The great wall has more stairs than anyone tells you ahead of time.

Dr: The tobaggon slide at the Great Wall represents true capitalistic spirit: attempt to extract as much money as possible from visitors at major tourist attractions. But it was still fun.

Tuesday, May 27

We took a tour of Mao's Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We then had lunch at a local house and had beverages on a small lake surrounded by bars and restuarants.

Mao's Mausoleum
No cameras allowed. This dude killed over 30 million of his countrymen, but they line up to see his well-preserved body like it was the new ride at 6 flags. He died in '76. Our tour concensous is that the 'well-preserved body' is actually a wax replica. We could be wrong though.......

Tiananmen Square
Epicenter of the June 4, 1989 Pro-Democracy reforms that were smashed by the governement. Death estimates range from 300 (China Government) to 3,000+ (Chinese Red Cross). The NSA puts the number between 180-500 . It was a pretty peaceful place at the time of our visit. It is a very large area, centrally located in Beijing. Adjacent to it are Parliment, Mao's thing, and the ancient Forbidden City.

Forbidden City
Old temples, gardens, and royal palaces. Can't describe this part without saying that the Houston Four got separated from the group for a while. Tour guide Leah was briefly worried, but eventually we found them.

After this we boarded a bus for lunch at a local house. Lunch was good. Most houses have no toilet facilities. There are public restrooms on every block. I don't recall if these folks had a toilet or not. After lunch we boarded a rickshaw caravan and rolled to a few locations along the backstreets of Beijing. Good times. Severa of us hit the lakeside resturaunt with Leah and then headed back to the hotel to prepare for our overnight train ride to Xian.

We rolled taxis to the train station. There are a lot of people in China and this is demonstrated while you sit around a train station for an hour. We boarded around 10:30pm and arrived in Xian around 8:30am. The train is a narrow hallway down one side, with sleeper cabins down the other side. 6 bunks to a cabin- that top bunk is high. Luckily they have sides so it would be real hard to fall out. No doors on the cabins either. There is a bar/resturant car, but we didn't make it there as we brought our own sleep medication.

Jessica: An interesting day. A “well-preserved” chairman, the first of many baby butt sightings, a rickshaw ride, local fare, a cool beer, and a midnight train...could almost be a country song. Oh, yeah, as for the separation from the group, we were never lost, we knew where we were the entire time…about 4 blocks west and 6 blocks south of our hotel.

Jennifer: The square was peaceful, but I did see a guy hold his kid over a trash can while the kid took a dump. True story. I am not going to address the overnight train, since I am trying to forget it. Lesson: if someone ever suggests that you take an overnight train, decline. And for the record, we weren't lost, just not where Leah thought we should be.

Dr: When separated from your tour group in China, simply locate another tour guide leading around a bunch of English speaking people and ask him to use his Chinese cell phone to call your tour guide. Don't spend 30 minutes attempting to locate and use a local pay phone (they only take Chinese phone cards) or trying to dial your guide's Chinese cell phone number on your cell phone. Our apologies to the rest of the group who had to wait around while we figured this out. Also - our sincere apologies to the two people in our bunk compartment on the train who were not associated with our tour group and had to listen to us enjoy Larry's "sleep medication" while they actually tried to sleep.

Wednesday, 28 May

Xian Orientation Walk. Xian is pronounced 'She-an'. That is the easiest thing I found in Chinese. The air here was slightly cleaner than Beijing, but only slightly. We checked out the city wall, which is about 10 miles along and surrounds the original city boundaries. There's a bell tower in the center of the city. Saw some cool stuff at a museum. Overall a very relaxing day. A few of us finished out the afternoon with Chinese massage at Leah's club. It had elements of Thai massage, with touches of pain and pleasure. My favorite move was when the masseuse massages your back with her knees while kneeling on top of you. Freaking awesome.

Jennifer: Instead of massages, some of us went to the market. I saw a purse at the market that I already own. The exact same purse. Turns out Harwin Street in Houston is our very own China right here.

Dr: The massage place was very upscale and at 120 Yuan (around $17 US) the 90 minute massage was a bargain.

Thursday, 29 May

Terra Cotta Warriors. Located about an hour bus ride from the hotel. Pretty cool to see. I say again, it is amazing what unlimited manpower can do. The warriors are buried to protect the emperors in the after life. One of the emperors wanted to bury his actual army with him, but one of his wise men convinced him that the army needed to stay alive to protect his children and family.... good call.

Luckily I brought the tripod along for the dimly lit viewing areas. It was one of those 'intuition' moments, halfway out the hotel door, turn around and get tripod, even though I hadn't used it for weeks. Ignored the 'no tripod' sign at the viewing areas and never got any slack from the numerous guards. Guess they didn't care that much........

Jessica: Very cool if not a little freaky to see life-like, life-size terra cotta army men positioned in precise military formation for eternity. Especially when you consider that in the 3 pits that have been uncovered there is estimated to be approximately 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses and the experts estimated that it took approximately 1 to 2 weeks to create just 1 figure and all this was done around 210 BC…oh, the joys of limitless manpower! Freakin’ amazing!

Jennifer: creepy.

Dr: It took 700,000 people 38 years to build this thing. Amazing.

Friday 30 May

We rolled out fairly early to catch the flight to Shanghai. It was an uneventful flight- just the way I like them. It is amazing the contrast in some people; they can be extremely gifted in certain skills but as irritating as fingernails on a blackboard otherwise.

We did an orientation walk around this bustling city. Apparently it was the gateway to China back in the roaring 20's. I think one of the Indiana Jones movies started here, maybe Temple of Doom.... We walked our rears off. Hit a museum and a historical part of town.

I believe this is the night we hit Pizza Hut for some comforts of home. After dinner we went down to the Shanghai Bund, which is a long pedestrian area that allows viewing of the city lights across the harbor. Good views.

Jessica: Yes, Temple of Doom starts in Shanghai…(LR – I’m not sure I like your lack of respect for Dr. Jones.) Personally, I was hoping to see a wild “Anything Goes” number on The Bund that evening, but the communist tried to rid the area of debauchery back in the ‘40s when they kicked out the Americans, Europeans, and Japanese so now there is only a handful of bars on The Bund and it kind of resembles the Vegas light show downtown at night. (I learned on this trip that the Chinese really like the neon lights…everywhere you go there are neon lights.)

Jennifer: The best part of the Bund was when all the people trying to peddle their wares, literally packed up and scrammed in about 3 seconds flat. We're talking kites out of the sky, stuff thrown in bags, packed up and ran. Turns out the cops weren't coming, but the tax man was.

Dr: It is interesting to see how American chain restaurants are implemented in foreign countries. Starbucks is exactly the same. Pizza Hut is upscale compared to the American version. They serve wine and the waitstaff wear fancy uniforms. Too bad the pizza was lousy.

Saturday 31 May

Day trip to Zhu Jia Jao, a traditional village situated on a canals system. Kinda like the Venice of China, but not quite. We took a ride through the canals in the water taxis. Wandered the alley ways and shops, checked out a temple, ate lunch, and headed back to the big city.

Our afternoon was free, so the big group split up. Several of the group went up in the Shanghai space needle looking tower. The Fab Five went to see the Jade Buddha and and area of town loaded with art galleries. This was the only one open:


We had one last group dinner that evening and everyone left town the following day.

Jessica: Water taxi was cool, alley ways and shops were full of interesting foods(?) and things. I was a little disappointed in the Jade Buddha as I like my religious artifacts a little less commercialized (we had to pay for admittance into the temple and then pay again to see the Jade Buddha and in order to see one of the Buddhas they route you through a gift shop. Unbelievable, but definitely capitalism at it’s best!)

Jennifer: Have you been Jade Buddaed lately?

Dr: The above-mentioned canal also serves as combination disposal system for untreated sanitary waste and direct (i.e., no treatment) source of water for domestic chores.


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