Friday, October 31, 2014


Up until a few months ago, we didn't have any plans to visit China while living here in Japan.  Somehow, however, we recently decided that we should really see the Great Wall of China while we are so close.  We booked tickets for fall break, and Sunday morning we boarded a plane for Beijing.  I had heard mixed reports from people who have been to China.  Some love it, some hate it.  We decided to just go with open minds.

Day 1:  Initial impressions of the city.
I guess I expected Beijing to look like Japan.  Japanese cities have their own charm, but since the country is so mountainous, everything is built upward.  Buildings are close together, streets are small and narrow, and the cities often feel like a hodgepodge of styles haphazardly thrown together.  Beijing is built on a wide plain.  It is sprawling, modern, and quite attractive.  Roads are wide and trees and greenery are abundant.  It reminded me more of an American big city.  This is a silly thing to say, since I've never even been to Houston, but I'll say it anyway.  Beijing looks to me like what I would expect Houston to look like!  In spite of being wide and spacious, however, the roads are jam-packed and traffic is crazy!  Cars, bicycles, electric scooters, three-wheeled mini-trucks, and pedestrians all crowd the streets going every which way.  Pedestrians do not have the right of way.  It seems to be every man for himself, and if you want to get somewhere, you had better just go for it because no one is going to do you any favors.  Horns are heavily utilized, as is the emergency lane on the shoulder of the expressway.  Driving in Beijing was very exciting!

We landed in Beijing at 2:00pm.  I had hoped to walk to a large park not far from our hotel, but I forgot to take Beijing traffic into account.  By the time we got to the hotel, it was 5:00 and we thought we had better be looking for some dinner rather than walking to a park.  Our hotel was right downtown, so we did walk down Wangfujing street and wandered through some back roads packed with merchants selling cheap souvenirs and street food.  We didn't see anything that looked safe to eat, so we returned to the hotel and ate in the attached French restaurant.

Scorpion on a stick, anyone?

Day 2:  Out of the city
Mike and I were both interested in seeing some of the Chinese countryside, and when I asked the tour company for a recommendation of a tour our kids would enjoy, they suggested a family visit and hiking in a suburb outside of Beijing.  Our tour guide picked us up in the morning and we drove a couple of hours to Flaming Dragon Gorge.  It was a beautiful area with mountains that reminded us of Utah.  The kids really enjoyed hiking and rock scrambling for a couple of hours as we followed the trail through the gorge.  Afterward we walked to the home of a couple in the village that keep chickens and geese and grow their own vegetables.  They prepared an absolutely delicious lunch for us.  Even Bear tried, and enjoyed, a few of the dishes.  Beaver happily ate plain rice.  :)  

After lunch we drove to a section of the Great Wall that was built by stacking stones on top of each other instead of bricks.  It was interesting to see, and Beaver really loved hiking up and up.  We couldn't get him to stop!  It was a long drive back to the hotel, but it was a really great day and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Mom, Bear is eating the pancake-thing that was my favorite food in China.

If there is a dog in the vicinity, my kids will find it.

Day 3:  The Great Wall of China!
Coincidentally, we were visiting Beijing at the same time as my very good friend and her family that live just behind us.  Since we were there at the same time, we decided to visit the Great Wall together.  First stop was the Summer Palace, with its beautiful buildings and grounds.  We didn't stay too long there, but it was nice to see.  That was followed by a stop at a pearl shop where we learned a bit about pearls and a bit about the skills of Chinese salespeople.  Then we were off to the Great Wall of China.  After another delicious lunch,  we rode a chair lift up to the wall and spent about two hours hiking around and exploring.  It is an incredible piece of work and a great experience to see it in person.  Very surreal!  After our time on the wall, we rode down a super fun toboggan slide.  Bear says that was his favorite part of the trip.

Summer Palace

Unfortunately, it was rather hazy.

We probably had the kids jump 20 times.  This was the closest I got to everyone's feet off the ground!

Here's a shot of the toboggan ride from the lift.

You can see in the pictures the iridescent blonde hair of my friend and her girls.  Our kids got some smiles and looks from the Chinese people, but her's got stopped for pictures several times throughout the day!

Day 4:  Day in the city
Wednesday morning we had a short drive to Tiananmen Square.  We got in line to go in, but when we got to the entrance, the security guard refused to let us in.  Our tour guide couldn't give us a good reason for the refusal.  He said it might have to do with the APEC convention happening in Beijing this next week, or it might just be that the guard had a fight with his wife and was in a bad mood.  Whatever the reason, we had to just look at Tiananmen Square from across the road.  We moved on to the Forbidden City.  It is a very impressive complex.  Our tour guide explained that, according to Feng Shui, the complex should include both water and mountains.  Since Beijing is a dry, flat area, a moat was built around the city, and a mountain was built behind it.  After the Forbidden City, we rode rickshaws through the hutongs, which are the old neighborhoods of Beijing with their narrow, winding alleys.  That was interesting to see, but the rickshaws are pulled by men on bicycles, and I felt uncomfortable being pulled by the manual labor of a human being.  I didn't mind in Thailand, where it is motorcycles doing the pulling, but something about it being a bicycle made me feel weird about it.  

We had lunch at a dumpling shop, and then just walked a bit through the city.  I found it very interesting how the old neighborhoods are set up.  Facing the street are shops, but now and then there is an opening between the shops with an alley leading back to where the homes are behind all the shops.  After walking for an hour or so, our driver picked us up and took us to a tea house and then a silk shop.  We almost left the tea house when we learned that it was basically a tea tasting, but when we explained that we wouldn't drink caffeinated tea, they told us they had a few non-caffienated teas, so we stayed and tried those.  Fruit tea - made with dried fruit; rose tea - made with dried roses; and something else that I can't remember but tasted rather woody.  It was fun and we were glad we stayed.  At the silk shop we learned all about the process of turning silkworm cocoons into silk for commercial use.  It was very interesting, and the saleswoman convinced us enough of the positive properties of silk that we came home with a silk-filled quilt for our bed!  Then we went to the Pearl Market, which does sell pearls, but also many other things.  It is the quintessential Chinese market with bartering and everything.  All we bought there were some fake Lego Ninjago toys for Beaver.  

Finally, we ended our day with a Kung Fu show and Peking duck for dinner.  A long day for all of us!

That's Tiananmen Square across the road from us.

The entrance to the Forbidden City.

Inside the Forbidden City.

The man-made mountain behind the Forbidden City.

Women drink tea with their fingers extended like I am demonstrating here; men with their fingers curved under the cup like Bear's.

Stretching a web of silk for another layer of what will be a quilt.

Beaver at a neighborhood entrance.

Peking duck for dinner! (Honestly, not our favorite of the meals we had in Beijing!)

Final thoughts on Beijing:
I should always go into vacations with no expectations.  Those ones always end up being my favorites!  I enjoyed Beijing so much more than I expected to.  I wished that we had stayed longer, and I would happily return again.  At the same time, it was strange to be unable to access Facebook or search on Google, and the whole Tiananmen Square experience was strange.  We were denied entrance to a public space based purely on our race and could do nothing about it.  I think that made us appreciate the freedom of a democratic nation more than we have before.  Still, I told Mike that I am no longer absolutely opposed to the idea of an ISE assignment in China!  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Trick or Treat!

 Headed off through the neighborhood - a wizard, a vampire, and a hobo that everyone thought was Tom Sawyer, which led me to think, "Oh, yeah, he does look like Tom Sawyer!  We should say that he's Tom Sawyer instead!"

And a knight with his Halloween spoils.