The Forbidden City has become forbidden due to dangerous levels of smog

I always like to follow the news on places I’ve visited before. It just so happens that China has been in the news big time recently and not in a good way. Apparently Beijing has been impacted by some of the most dangerous levels of pollution in history and it isn’t going away anytime soon. The pollution is at such hazardous levels that the Communist Governement has declared emergency measures to try to decrease the horrendous black soot in the air that is unhealthy for people to inhale. The air quality is so incredibly bad that people are advised not to venture outdoors.

Per today’s New York Times article titled Smog Blankets China’s Capital, “In the past three decades, China has adopted a growth-at-any-cost attitude to build its economy, and the resulting environmental damage is now widespread and severe”.

I was in Beijing a little over a year ago and had been shocked by the thick layer of pollution and smog blanketing and strangling the city like a murderer. Every single picture I shot while in Beijing was a huge disappointment given the pesky pollution that wouldn’t budge. It was slightly better in Shanghai yet still worrisome.

As more Chinese move up the ranks into the middle class and buy more cars, there is bound to be more problems with pollution and the damage to the environment will be unbearable. It points again to the need for all governments to come together and agree on how they should address climate change and the impact that over 7 billion people are making on this earth. Of course, Americans with their big, gas-guzzling cars need to help out too. We all do.  But I hope something is done before it is too late.

I’m leaving you with a few photos I took while in Beijing last year and processed them with a new filter app called PhotoForge which I love. I’ve also been experimenting more with Instagram as well. If you are interested in checking me out there, I am under Thirdeyemom.



China Conservation/Environment Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION

Farewell China…til we met again

Photo above of me in Beijing in late October 2011. I thought about photo shopping this picture as there is a car in the way (ha) but then again, this is China.  This is the real China and the reality of the situation is that there are lots of people and it is hard to ever get a decent photo of anything, especially in front of a tourist site like the Forbidden City! 

As they say in life, all good things must come to an end.  Right?  That is how I feel about my China series.  It has been over two months since I returned from my trip to China yet for some reason leaving this post series behind feels like a painful divorce.  I keep trying to move on, to gently push it away, but it is still there bothering me and looking me straight in the eye.

Although China wasn’t my favorite place that I’ve traveled to, it was perhaps the most fascinating place that I’ve been to.  I believe it is due to many things.  An enormously rich culture filled with traditions that go back thousands of years.  A country that is so different from my own which is always interesting, perplexing and thrilling to try to uncover and understand.  And finally, being there at the right moment in time, as the Asian Tiger reigns and soars.

The transformation of this country over the last twenty-five years has been mind-boggling. To see the contradictions of old versus new all wrapped together like a garbled package in one place just blew me away.  My mind was constantly challenged and awoken to explore this place and comprehend what I saw.  It took months and I’m still thinking about it.  Yes, I was only there a short time.  But wow, did I learn a lot in that minuscule amount of time.  For a pensive traveler, that is the best gift one can receive.

So now I say farewell to China and my posts. I do have one more post coming out on World Mom’s Blog next week about China’s controversial One-Child Policy which I will include a link on this blog.  Yet for now I’m saying goodbye to China posts and moving on. I will still passionately continue to read about China in the news and through novels.  There is hardly a day when China isn’t mentioned somewhere in the papers.  It will be interesting to see what the future brings to China.  Happy New Year, China!  May the year of the Dragon be good!


The notoriety of being blonde in China

Have you ever traveled somewhere where it was utterly impossible for you to fit in? It is an experience that any avid traveler will face at some point in their travels and honestly, it is an important life lesson that I found truly fascinating and insightful. 

It wasn’t until I began to get off the beaten path a bit more in my travels and become more adventurous, that I began to experience the odd uncomfortable feeling off being “different” from everyone else. You see here in Minnesota, we have a strong Scandinavian heritage and many of us are blond and blue-eyed, fairly tall and hearty looking. You can easily walk down the street and blend in anonymously. Yet once you get on a plane and fly far away to a different place such as China, everything changes. You are no longer anonymous. You are different. You are big. You are tall. Your hair is a funny color one that some people have never seen. You stand out but not necessarily in a way you would like or want to.

For those who have been reading my blog for awhile, you may remember this picture above of me with my newly made Chinese friends on the Great Wall series.  As I climbed up on to the Wall for the first time, I was accosted by a herd of twenty Chinese hikers who nearly fell over when they saw me.  For the next ten minutes, I posed and took pictures with all my new friends.  It took me a minute to figure out why.  My blonde messy hair was discovered under my cap.  

In a country of 1.3 billion in which over 91% of the population is Han (or ethnic “Chinese”), any variation in hair color from the standard black pretty much sticks out like a sore thumb.  Occasionally, you will see a Chinese with dyed red, blond or even blue hair.  But not too often.  Even eye and skin color rarely varies.  Thus, looking “different” in China whether it be skin color, hair color, eye color or size, is an anomaly that for some reason simply fascinates the Chinese people and invites them to take a look.

Thankfully I had experienced this curiosity before.  Last year, I was rudely awakened by the intensity of the stares surrounding me for an eleven hour drive outside of Delhi.  Every single person for eleven long, unending hours not only looked but stared at my long, dirty-blond hair.  It was the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life.  The stares were not meant to be rude yet I felt their eyes taking me in deeply and penetrating my soul.  At first I smiled back or even waved hello from the close quarters of my car window (people drive insanely close together in India!).  But after a few hours of the penetrating stares, I felt like some kind of caged animal at the zoo and I buried my head deep inside my pillow and tried to hide.

I have traveled to many places that had never seen a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned person before.  My parents had taken me to rural Mexico many times as a white-haired little girl and I remember the kids chasing me and trying to touch my hair.  I also remember being constantly harassed in parts of France and Italy while I studied abroad as a twenty-one year old American.  I knew that the continual jokes and come-on lines were usually in good humor and that these men were rather harmless.  They had believed that any American woman with blond long hair was an easy escapade thanks to all those bad Hollywood movies.  I ignored them and didn’t let it bug me (except there were a few times when I was unexpectedly flashed and that bothered me immensely!).

Yet, my short time spent in India was different. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin in my life.  Growing up and living in Minnesota, a place that is home to many people with Scandinavian roots,  it was rather unpleasant to be the one who stuck out and was different.

Looking back a year later, I realize that it was probably one of the best experiences I could have ever had.  It taught me what it feels like to be different.  To be misunderstood.  To be the minority.  And to stick out.  I realized how important it is to have this rather unpleasant feeling.  And how I need to seek it out more.

I expected the worst when I went to Morocco last April.  I had never been to a Muslim country before and the anti-American tensions were rising all across Islamic nations.  It wasn’t a good time to be blonde.  So I dyed my hair darker and arrived in Morocco as an even dirtier, dishwater blonde/brown-haired gal.  What was so funny is that no one even noticed the hair color change.  None of my friends said a word nor did my husband.  So basically the point was moot.  I arrived in Morocco not knowing at all what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to see that no one noticed me at all.  I could walk freely, openly and without covering my hair with no penetrating stares, uncomfortable moments or even harassment.  It was a nice change.

So six months later when I arrived in China once again I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would it be like India or like Morocco?  Would I be treated as an oddity or just fit in smoothly to the crowds of people?  What I discovered that for the most part, no one really cared except the young folks who treated me like a celebrity and wanted their picture with some foreign, blonde stranger, me.

As I was walking along the banks of the river overlooking the glorious Bund on one side and Pudong on the other, I was approached once again by a stranger.  It was a young Chinese woman and her friends.  They couldn’t speak English nor could I speak Chinese.  But one thing was universal:  A camera.  I reached out to grab the camera and prepared to take their picture when I saw a smiling shake of the head.  No.  That was not what she wanted me to do.  She wanted me to be in the picture.  With her.  As her blonde, American friend!

What else could I do but agree and then ask her friend to take a picture of us with mine?

Me, thirdeyemom and my new Chinese friend.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned during my travels is what it feels like to not fit in and to be different. That although we may not look the same, we are all the same in our wishes and desires in life. We all want to be happy, healthy and live a life full of love. It is this common desire that makes us human. Yet our differences is what makes the human race so grand.

Related posts:

Why I travel: An insight into why I became the thirdeyemom

How Nepal Changed Me



Street Survival 101: How to get around urban China without getting flattened

For anyone who has ever traveled in Asia, then you understand exactly what the title of this post is about.  Walking anywhere in any big Asian city – whether it be Beijing, Shanghai, Kathmandu, Bangkok or Delhi – requires a certain kind of expertise, guts and street smarts.  In these large urban jungles, traffic comes in all shapes and sizes and is massive, loud, aggressive and sometimes uncaring about human life.  You make a mistake once by stepping out into the street without looking and you could be dead.

The intimidating street:  Crossing the street in Shanghai can be a dangerous thing.

I discovered this frightening fact the first time I was in Kathmandu and New Delhi.  I had read about it before so was thankfully somewhat prepared and aware that there are real dangers involved in crossing the street and even walking down the sidewalk.  I grimaced when I heard the tales of the unexpected tourist who looked the wrong way and got smashed by oncoming traffic.  I was prepared, or so I thought.

I was shocked and horrified once I actually stepped onto these very streets for the first time and realized that you’ve got to truly pay attention whenever you are walking anywhere in a large Asian City.  For human life is not always valued the same in a big city where there are millions of people fighting to survive and get around (ok, this is a little harsh but sometimes I really did feel this way, especially when the cars, trucks and buses came right at me in the middle of an intersection during a green walk sign!).

Never before had I felt so threatened when walking the streets than when I first arrived in Beijing.  There were many close calls, especially when we first got there and were so jet lagged.  Yet, after a few days we figured it out and here are the main things we discovered.

Street Survival 101:  How to get around urban China without getting flattened.

First of all, there is no regard whatsoever for the “green” walk signs.  Cars, trucks, mopeds, buses, you name it, all come charging through the intersection honking their horn in warning as the pedestrians scurry across.  There were many times when I feared either I or someone else would be struck dead.  I especially got nervous when the elderly were wobbling across.  There were many close calls.

I probably shouldn’t have taken this photo and have been more concerned about my safety and my dad’s, yet this just shows how cars really don’t care if you are in their path.  You’ve got to get out of the way fast or else, well….

Second of all, vehicles love to run red lights.   It is extremely important that before you step out into the street you look ALL ways.  Do a 360 degree look around before moving forward no matter what color the street light or walk sign indicates.  Four times out of five, there will be something coming.  I found the bike lane to be the worst offender.  Many times bikes, mopeds, electric scooters and carts hardly stopped at all and kept going regardless of the red light.

Intersections in China can be a free for all—cars, bikes, motorcycles, trucks and people included!  Beware!

Third of all, whenever you cross a street you just have to keep looking and do your best to get safely across as fast as possible.  Vehicles can come out of nowhere and of course they won’t slow down or stop if you are in its path.

Getting around is a free for all.

I witnessed many “almost accidents” such as this one between the bicyclist and the moped.  


Finally, just because you are walking on a sidewalk does not mean you are safe.  I’ve seen motorcycles, bicycles and even small cars driving either behind or right at you on the sidewalk.  It would really hurt to get your foot run over!

This guy passed me from behind…thankfully the sidewalk wasn’t too crowded.  

The good news is that the Chinese are aware of the dangers of crossing the street and have done some things to make it safer for pedestrians.  In Shanghai, one of the most difficult places to cross the street, I found huge above ground walkways over some of the major intersections such as this one (Note:  In Beijing, these above ground sidewalks did not exist and I sure wish they had!  It was insane trying to cross some of the busy intersections there and I’m happy that there were no incidents!).

Climbing up out of harms way (thank you, Chinese Government!). 

I am much happier here than there down below! 

When Shanghai built this new highway a few years back, it was a welcome gift not only to the drivers but also to the walkers who received the above ground sidewalks. 

Because it sure beats trying to walk down there and be battling against that line of traffic. 

Shanghai also adopted the use of crossing guards on some of the busy streets near the high-end French Concession.  I had never seen these in other highly congested parts of Shanghai and certainly not in Beijing, which is notorious for having extremely dangerous crosswalks.

Finally there was some help for the pedestrians!  The crossing guard even blew here whistle loudly at aggressive drivers and stopped them from driving through the green walk signs.  Phew! 

Rest assured….after a few days of walking like a local you’ll be fine!  You will learn how to zigzag across traffic at extreme speed and expertise.  You’ll remember to take a 360 degree look before stepping out into the street.  And most of all, you’ll appreciate your streets back at home even more!

Stay tuned…more China coming soon!  Thanks for reading and comments are always welcome and appreciated!  


Screaming by on the Beijing-Shanghai High Speed G Train

Leaving Beijing, we had our first taste of heavy traffic and wet rain.  We were ready to leave the dreary weather (or so we hoped) and head south to Shanghai known as Beijing’s decadent little sister.  Although I truly enjoyed Beijing’s majestic Forbidden City, ancient hutongs and scattered parks, I really was getting tired of the smoggy, cold weather.  Plus the food options were becoming limiting (that happens when you don’t especially like Chinese food) and I knew that I would find much more variety and international fare in cosmopolitan Shanghai.  It was time to leave.

Photo below taken during our hour-long taxi ride to Beijing South Railway Station.  The further we got out off town and along the Ring Road, the more of these ugly Soviet-era apartment complexes there were.  It made me realize just how insanely big Beijing is and how densely the people live.  This represents one of hundreds if not thousands of these kinds of living complexes. 

In my opinion, there is no better way to see some of the countryside and what is really going on in China than to travel by train. There is something nostalgic about train travel.  You can sit back, relax and watch the world go by or in the case of China’s high-speed G trains, watch the world scream by.

The Beijing-Shanghai G Train is one of the longest and highest quality high-speed railways in the world with a designed speed of 350 km per hour.  It makes the 1,318 km/819 mile long journey between Beijing and Shanghai take a mere 4 hours and 48 minutes with a brief stop at Nanjing.  Launched in June of 2011, the railway was the first one designed for speeds up to 380 km/hour (236 miles/hour), making it the fastest train in the world.  The journey from Beijing to Shanghai took 3 hours and 58 minutes compared to 9 hours and 49 minutes on parallel railways with conventional trains. However, after a few mishaps shortly after its launch, the train was slowed down to its current rate averaging 300 km per hour/186 miles per hour.

Photo below:  Pulling up into the Beijing train station I am amazed by its modernity and vastness.  There are railways everywhere. 

Entering Beijing’s train station which is extremely modern (except for the bathrooms: Squat toilets of course).  Security was tight and the place was packed.  

An up close look at a G Train.  Impressive! 

There are rows and rows of G Trains waiting for its passengers to board.  Each train has a “sightseeing” class with only four luxurious seats, one section of first-class seats (with about twenty-four seats) and 16 trains of regular coach seats.

Leaving Beijing there are tons of buildings in the midst of construction.  We made a joke that the national bird of China is the “Crane”.

Per GMO (9/2011), “over 200 skyscrapers are under construction in China today.  This is equivalent to the total number of skyscrapers in the U.S. today”.


As the train slowly rolls out of Beijing, passing by one new building conglomerate after the other, it becomes evident what is really going on in China.

“A giant smog of unreality hangs over Chinese property.  SocGen calculates that over the last decade, China has completed 16 billion square meters of floor space.  This is equivalent to building Rome every two weeks” (SocGen, June 23, 2011)”.

As we would soon witness during our five hour train ride, this construction boom has resulted in vast “Ghost cities” across China in which there are no inhabitants and the cranes cease to be working.   The China National Bureau of Statistics and GMO estimate that there will be up to 75 million new homes built this year.

Per the Financial Times*:

“After a decade of soaring prices, signs are that the world’s most populous nation faces its first real estate crash.  That would be dire for other countries that rely on China to fuel their own economic growth”.

Some scary trends:

  • Home prices in Beijing have risen by about 150 percent in the past four years.
  • Residential transactions are down 11.6 percent from last year, all across China.
  • Analysts say an urban apartment costs 8-10 times the average annual income nationwide.  In Beijing and Shanghai the multiple is closer to 30.
  • Construction accounts for 13 percent of the economy, one-quarter of all investment and 40 percent of steel use.

*Source:  Financial Times “A lofty ceiling reached” (12/14/2011 by Jamil Anderlini).

As we head out of Beijing, passing by all the look-a-like buildings and apartment complexes, the G Train finally starts to pick up speed reaching of dizzying 306 km/hr or 190 miles/hour.  It is the fastest speed I’ve ever traveled by train and my stomach felt it.

Finally we had left Beijing and were in the countryside and it was beautiful ….but not for long.

Ghost cities appeared in the distant horizon and it freaked me out….they were everywhere!

This photo below spooked me the most.  We were in the middle of nowhere and in the distance there was a gigantic “Ghost City” where everything had stopped in time, uncompleted.  The initial belief of the Chinese government and real estate tycoons was “we will build and they will follow”.  Not so sure if it is true.

After almost five hours of passing ghost town after ghost town, I was fascinated and in shock.  I have never seen such massive construction and building anywhere before.  It is phenomenal.  In a country where property construction accounts for an estimated 13% of GDP in the world’s second largest economy, what will happen when the real estate bubble comes to a half?  The economic ramifications for China, its people and the world are frightening.  Let’s hope for a soft landing. 

Arrival at Shanghai’s Rail Station…..and on to the next adventure. 

Stay Tuned…more Shanghai surprises coming soon!  

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION

Daily Life in Beijing

China is a place awash in complexities and paradoxes.  It is a place that is growing, developing and modernizing at lightening speed yet at the same time is being held down by its ugly past.  It is full of splendid culture and traditions dating back thousands of years.  Yet, it also has some disturbing truths that may someday bring the current Communist Party and its “emperor” down.

As the country continues to race towards become the next global leader and world power, the housing bubble is finally showing unwanted signs of crashing, the Communist Party is hammering down and trying to stop the rapid growth of micro-blogging, human rights activist, journalist and anyone speaking out against the government is imprisoned and severely punished, the environment is rapidly deteriorating, pollution is pitiful, and ghost towns lay dormant.  All the same, China is still technically booming and its people are better off today than they were twenty years ago.  China has witnessed one of mankind’s most incredible rise of its people out of poverty.  

Yet, where are they headed?  What would happen if the economy begins to stagger or fall?  Will people speak up and protest?  Will there be a Chinese Spring?  What will happen to the 900 million peasants who have seen their life improve but still have a long way to go?  What will happen to the rest of the world if China is hurting?

The implications are mind-boggling and of course would have worldwide effects.  It is no coincidence that articles on current events in China are found daily in papers, online and on TV.  China is huge, important and will impact us all.

Perhaps these questions are why despite not “loving” traveling to China, I have found it one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been.  China is at the center stage of the world right now and to be there, witnessing it all, is an amazing travel experience.

To wrap up my Beijing posts, I felt a photo blog on “Daily Life in Beijing” would help illustrate the complexities and paradoxes of this fascinating place.  I am also including a list of intuitive articles on China today, for those who want to learn more.  (See the bottom of the post for links).

Here is a walk through Daily Life in Beijing.  Hope you enjoy.

Old versus New:  A remaining part of the ancient city wall in the heart of Beijing.  

All that remains is a dilapidated old wall.  Whereas right down the street is Wangfujing Dajie (below), a Vegas meets New York City-styled pedestrian walking street and shopping Mecca. 

And the new….

The Lion is the symbol of China and can be see throughout the country protecting its inhabitants for thousands of years. 

The red lantern, another prominent symbol in China.  

For some reason, I truly love this picture.

The Hutongs represent the old part of Beijing.  Hundreds exist yet many have been torn down in the thrust towards modernization. 

In a high-density city of over 20 million inhabitants, there are still many places like this one to find peace and solitude and enjoy nature. 

Signs of westernization and commercialism are prevalent but not overbearing like in most cities in Europe…note the Starbucks above. 

Yet traditional architecture can be found throughout the city bringing the visitor back to the days of the dynasties and reminding us of China’s long history and path. 

Truly spectacular hand-painted art embraces the heart and soul of Beijing. 

As you explore Beijing’s streets, you are struck by the contrasts between old and new.  Modern and traditional.  I found the local farmer’s markets to be one of those great contrasts and delights.  

I have never seen such an enormous pile of lettuce in my life!  And it looked so fresh…

Buyers and supplies loaded their produce onto the back of their bicycles, just like the old days.  

Tai Chi could be seen practiced daily along the streets of Beijing usually in the mornings.  

Or you could find parks filled with retired Chinese playing Chess, Checkers and cards.  

Ping-pong is also popular in Beijing’s many parks. 

Some of Beijing’s oldest Hutongs have been transformed into modern-day party central, filled with outdoor bars, terraces and craziness.  It was where all the young, somewhat rebellious Beijing youth hung out at night.  

Beijing is still a large bicycling community.  There are even pathways like these along the streets for bikes, motorbikes, motorcycles and electric bikes.  It is one of the main ways the Beijing people get around the city:  On two wheels.  

The electricity and bike park outside the Hutongs.

Laundry can often still be seen drying outside the home or apartment balcony.  I was impressed with the creative methods for drying laundry in big cities! 

The pollution, congestion and traffic where alarming and frightening.  This is the typical day in Beijing.  Gray, smoggy and dark.
This parked car shows how dirty the air is!  I had to take a picture of it.  Not sure if it ever got or will get washed.  
Most Chinese live in apartments.  In a country of 1.3 billion people, space is key.  Most of the apartment complexes I saw in Beijing were quite dreary like this one below.  It reminded me of a Soviet-era complex. 

As you get out of the central part of town on the Ring Road, you pass a million of these kinds of apartment complexes where there are several generic-looking gray buildings clumped together as a some sort of compound. These kinds of developments are going up for miles and miles outside of the city.  I have never seen so many apartment complexes being built anywhere.  It simply blew me away and made me realize the gravity and magnitude of the Chinese ballooning population.  

As our time dwindled in Beijing, I left feeling perplexed and uncertain about my feelings of this city.  The history was amazing yet the complexities bothered me.  I wonder what will become of Beijing and of China?  How will it transform and grow into the next century?  Will it hold on to its long traditions or will it become more westernized?  Will democracy come or will the people remain powerless and voiceless in their own country.  It certainly will be interesting to see. 

For further reading on China, please see the following articles:

Financial Times, “A lofty ceiling reached” 12/14/11 by Jamil Anderlini

Financial TImes, “Beijing in a hole over new homes” 11/15/11 by Simon Rabinovitch  “Guest Pot:  Some Things You Should Know About China” by Tyler Durden

Also the tremendous book, “China Wakes:  The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicolas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn is an excellent read. It is a little outdated by I think these two brilliant New York Times Writers are right on target with what is happening in China.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about China.


Beijing at night

When you think of China’s city lights. your mind often rests on Shanghai and Hong Kong:  Big cities, amazing skyscrapers and incredible lighting at night.  These cities sometimes feel like Disneyland or Vegas, captivating your souls and imagination.  There is an odd resemblance to Christmas, as the city lays aglow in uncanny lights.

After visiting Shanghai I admit that the city’s evening lights are unbelievable and mesmerizing.  I instantly fell in love with the city at night, and felt that Shanghai was almost right up there with Paris, the City of Lights (yet I prefer the older city atmosphere of Paris over the newly built, ultra modern Shanghai).  I could have sat there all night admiring the lights over the Bund and Pudong in Shanghai.  I had never seen anything quite like it before and I realized that the night in Shanghai was by far more beautiful than the day time when the city was awash in pollution, traffic and noise.

For as much as Shanghai’s lights beckon,  I believe that Beijing’s city lights are highly under-rated and definitely worth admiring.  Maybe it is the old-world architecture that I fancy or perhaps the initial belief that Beijing would be uneventful.  One night in Beijing proved that my assumptions were wrong.  It was not a gray, dull, boring city.  Instead, it is an ancient city beaming with life as soon as the sun sets.  

The beauty of Beijing at night can’t be denied.  It is a place worth exploring with your eyes wide open….

The Forbidden City at night is unbelievably spectacular.  My only regret is that I’m not a better photographer as I was unable to truly capture the dreamlike nature of this place at night.  

View from the cab.  I love this photo.  I feel that it captures the true energy of Beijing at night.  I took it from our cab window obviously while we were moving. 

Picture of Ghost Street, the renowned street with any kind of Chinese food that your heart desires.  

Right outside of our hotel was one of the largest street food venues I’d seen.  It was bustling with activity as soon as the sun set.  Hungry customers lined up and ordered their meals on a stick to go (of course cooked fresh right in front of their eyes). 

The main pedestrian street at night was filled with colors and entertainment.  There were enormous flat screened TVs built into the sides of buildings.  Kind of reminded me again of Vegas or New York.  

Restaurants awaited hungry customers….

My only regret was that I was too tired from jet lag and walking eight hours throughout the day to stay up later and enjoy the sensational beauty of Beijing at night.  For the city’s secrets are often revealed at night when it is quite, more peaceful and full of a different kind of life.


The Lama Temple: Buddhism in Beijing

Before visiting China, I had the amazing opportunity to hike the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal.  As I’ve said time and time again in my blog and to family and friends, this was the one trip in my life that really touched my soul.  It inspired me.  It changed me.  And most of all, it encouraged me to continue exploring as many far off destinations that I can possibly visit.

My trip to Nepal was my first exposure to the Buddhist religion.  Sharing a border with India, Nepal, a tiny mountainous kingdom, was exposed to two main religions:  Hinduism and Buddhism, that grew and developed to become the two prominent religions in Nepal.  During my trek through rural mountains villages in Nepal, I was blessed with one Buddhist village after another.  Temples, colorful prayer flags, gigantic prayer wheels and burning juniper incense infiltrated my heart and soul.  The monks dressed in maroon robes and praying softly was a pleasant, peaceful experience.  I instantly purchased the Dalai Lama’s famous autobiography when I got home.  I felt inspired by this magical religion and wanted to learn more.

I read his book, appropriately titled “Freedom in Exile:  The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama“, and felt an anger and shock burning inside my soul that drove me mad.  I could not believe what the Chinese government had done.  It was tragic, sad and terrible.  Yet, it was a story that had been repeated all too frequently in our world’s history.  America and the injustice done to the Native Americans.  The “colonization” of South America.  The tearing apart of Africa.  And the list goes on.

What I had a hard time coming to terms with after reading this book was my feelings on traveling to China.  I understood that human rights were far from being achieved by the Tibetans as well as most of the population of China.  Would I be ok with that? 

Driving around town in the Twin Cities (the local term here for Minneapolis and St. Paul area) I grew accustomed to seeing “FreeTibet” bumper sticks on many cars.  I knew that the Dalai Lama had recently come here to speak with his people, the local Tibetans who have come here in exile to start a new life.  What do they think of the Chinese government?  I wondered but felt like I knew.

I wouldn’t find my answer of course until I was in China, looking around, visiting Buddhist temples and talking to people.  The first stop in my quest to understand Buddhism in Beijing was the most revered Buddhist temple outside of Tibet:  The Lama Temple.  Originally built in 1694 during the Qing dynasty it was used as a palace and later changed to lamasery in 1744 by Emperor Qianlong.  Today it is the largest, most well-preserved lamasery outside of Tibet and is a renowned place of worship, pilgrimage and importance in the heart of China’s capital.

We set off on our last afternoon, walking, to the Lama Temple.  After reading the Dalai Lama’s tragic account of events, I wasn’t sure what kind of religion I’d find in China.  I understood that the Communist Party of China had no official religion yet tolerated religious practice to some degree.  Yet it was hard to get a sense of how religious the Chinese are overall since many prefer to keep their religion private.  Some estimates state that there are approximately 100 million Buddhists in China.  It is the most prevalent religion, followed by 18 million Muslims, 10 million Protestants, and 4 million Catholics (Facts from “Culture Smart China:  The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture” 2010 edition).  Yet in a land of 1.3 billion people, these numbers lead me to believe that there are a lot of people who do not practice a religion or chose not to tell anyone that they do.  Like most statistics in China, it is hard to get a clear picture.

Regardless, Buddhism has a strong cultural importance in China as it has been inside the country for thousands of years since its introduction from India via the Silk Road.  I was keen to visit the Lama Temple and see what it was all about.  After visiting this lovely place, I was even more confused than ever.  For it was simply serene and the devoutness of the practicing Chinese Buddhists was deeply touching.  It didn’t make sense to me what had happened and why Tibet cannot be free.  Like most of my trip to China, it proved that it is a land of paradoxes and contradictions that a foreigner may never fully understand.   There are many questions in life that will remain forever unanswered.  Perhaps this is one of them.

Here are my pictures and commentary from my visit.

The walk from our hotel near the Forbidden City took us over an hour passing through main thoroughfares, small streets and plenty of interesting things to take pictures of.  We knew that we were finally getting closer to the Lama Temple when we reached this street packed full of Tibetan shops. 

Suddenly gray dull Beijing came to life with color, smell and sounds as we entered the Buddhist district near the Lama Temple.

The majestic archway leading into the Lama Temple.

The walkway to the temple was beautifully adorned with shade trees that cast a peaceful glow on the area.

There were plenty of monks dressed in brilliant orange.

Some monks had obviously come from far to pray and also be like a tourist and snap some photos.

When you were done with your incense, you placed them in the fire pit to burn.

As always, there were lions protecting the temple.  This one is a male with its location on the east side of the building and grasping a ball.

The breathtaking architecture of the temple reminded me of the palaces in the Forbidden City.  Yet the smoke-filled air from the burning incense gave the Lama Temple a much more mystical feel. 

Perhaps there was too much smoke in the air to take this picture but I still enjoy the close-ups of the incredible art and detail of the buildings. 

I left the Lama Temple feeling relaxed and peaceful.  It was such a special place and I was relieved to see so many ordinary Chinese there practicing their religion openly.  It is estimated that hundreds of Buddhist temples were destroyed after the revolution in China in 1949.  It is a pity that they no longer exist.

Stay tuned..Next stop is “Everyday life in Beijing”.  It is my last post on Beijing and a compilation of tons of great photos I haven’t shown yet.  Thanks for reading !

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How to get around urban China like the Chinese

Throughout my stay in urban China, I was bemused, amazed, surprised and continually fascinated by the resourcefulness of the Chinese in regards to modes of transportation.  Here is a photo blog of what inspired me.

When getting around or transporting goods, anything works, especially bicycles!   

These were the “party bikes” located in the bar zone of the Hutongs.  I loved seeing all the young Chinese gals cruise around on these fun bikes for bar hopping.  

One of many bike parks.  I loved the electric bikes.  They were sleek and quiet.  You hardly knew they were there.  

I especially loved these little bicycles.  Not sure if they have a special name or not.  But they sure are cute! 

With such heavy traffic and high costs for cars and trucks, it is no wonder the bicycle is the number one mode of transportation for both people and goods.  

Sidewalks, streets and highways…no matter!  If you are a pedestrian, you just had to watch out for passing motorcycles and bikes! 

Meals on Wheels!  Hungry anyone?

The Daily Commute:  Beijing.  (Look at all the smog!).  

I loved these little “tin cars”.  There was no way I was ever going to step foot in one of them though.  I don’t think you’d come out alive if you got in an accident in one of these little cars.  I even saw them on the highways!  Scary. 

Thankfully Beijing had their own devoted “Bike and Motorbike” lane.  This made things far safer except of course at the intersections where it was a free for all between bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians and cars! 

There are plenty of buses in China which is a cheap and affordable way to travel.  

A motorcycle park.  Genius idea! 

Driving is the most dangerous mode of transportation in all of China.  Per Lonely Planet China, “China’s roads kill without mercy.  Traffic accidents are the major cause of death for people aged 15 and 45, and the World Health Organization estimates there are 600 traffic death a day!”.   After spending ten days in China, I completely understood these facts.  Driving is crazy there (like many big cities in the world) and it was even more scary being a pedestrian in Beijing.  Vehicles do not think twice about driving right towards pedestrians even if there is a walk sign in the cross walk.  You have to really be careful and use a 360 view when crossing the street (if you want to make it safely across!).

I had heard about these graphic displays of “Traffic accidents and resulting deaths” before and was thus forewarned that they are disturbing.  Here is a display set up in the heart of Beijing.  The police were passing out flyers with pictures in case these warning signs weren’t enough. 

After seeing these graphic displays of fear, I was a bit weary getting in taxis (especially in Shanghai where our hired cab driver drove over 100 mph on the highways, passing on the shoulder.  I finally told him to slow down as the pictures continually returned to my mind). 

Stay tuned…more China coming up soon! I may even sneak in a few posts about Minnesota!

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Hutongs at night

Finding the Hutongs at night were hard but fun!  At least we had a sign to guide us in.  Yet once inside the Hutongs, it was anyone’s bet on which direction to go.  There were no maps nor streetlights to lead your way.  In some Hutongs, a flashlight would have really come in handy!

My last post on China was by far one of my favorites:  In Search of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs.  As I mentioned in the post, the Hutongs, or narrow alleyways, are the true heart and soul of Beijing’s past.  They are magical maze-like places which instantly transport you back in time, to thousands of years ago.  The rooftops were by far my favorite thing to capture on film.  They were so detailed and so lovely.  I could have spent hours just taking picture after picture of each and every one.  I also truly loved the sense of adventure and discovery while wandering around the hutongs.   The narrow alleyways snaked around in mysterious ways and you had to decide whether or not to go left or right or continue on straight.  It reminded me of the Dr. Seuss Book “Oh the places you’ll go“.

After our second day in Beijing, we finally discovered a fabulous hutong near Qianhai lake which was loaded with restaurant after restaurant.  We decided that day that we would have to return at night for a meal and if we had the energy, hit the bar section further down where the generation X and Y’s of Beijing let off some steam.

The main difficulty for returning to the Hutongs at night was once again finding them!  As I mentioned in my earlier post, they are marked yet still difficult to find on a map and cars are not allowed inside them.  Thus if you took a cab to a Hutong, they typically would drop you off outside of the entrance on one of the main drags and you’d have to weave your way back inside the serpentine maze of the Hutong to try to find your destination.   It wasn’t easy to find in the day time and the night time was even harder as the hutungs are not very well-lite thus you are often found wandering around in complete darkness.

This was right up my alley in terms of adventure and “getting lost”!  I loved it and best of all, we did finally find our way around some of the Hutongs thus were able to enjoy them at night as well.

Finally we found the main entrance to one of the best Hutongs in town!  Now who would imagine it would be located back here, behind this construction area?  Yet it was our way of finding it again at night!  We followed the main drag and looked for the crane above.  Then we wove around the side of the construction and voila!  There it was, an enormous maze-like Hutong loaded with boutiques, restaurants and bars!  

Finally we found international restaurants!  We found Italian, British, Indian and more!  I could hardly contain my excitement since I was not enjoying Chinese food so much.  This area was only about a 40 minute walk from our hotel.  Yes, a bit far but worth the walk and it felt great to get exercise after a big meal.  

Once you entered the Hutongs, there were many parts like this one above that were almost pitch black!  I could have really used a flashlight there!  

We had dinner at a fabulous little Indian restaurant that we found in Lonely Planet and actually had searched for during the day and found it that night. I loved having my favorite Indian foods in the heart of Beijing. It felt kind of strange but then again, I love Indian food so why not?

We didn’t make it to the wild and crazy bar Hutong (never quite figured out what the name of it was). When we had passed it during the late afternoon, things were already picking up. There were three-person bikes to rent, rooftop bars with sofas on top and lots of loud music. It felt vibrant, fun and not at all like most parts of gray, old, stiff Beijing. I really wished I had the chance to hang out there for a few hours and learn about the young, rebellious youth think of it all. Beijing, China, Communism and the future.

Stay tuned….more China coming soon! I still haven’t finished Beijing and Shanghai will be a delight as well. Thanks for reading!


In search of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs

While waiting in the American Airlines lounge at Chicago O’Hare to catch our international flight to Beijing, we found ourselves talking to a China “travel warrior”, one of those successful American businessmen who had either the luxury or the headache (depending on how you view things) of traveling overseas constantly to Asia.  Since I never got his name, I’ll call him the Chinese Travel Warrior as it seemed to fit.  He’d been to China at least 40 times and was well versed in the ins and outs of traveling and doing business there.  He’d informed me gleefully about the preparation of Peking duck as well as showed me a picture on his cell phone of what you’d get in China if you ordered Chicken Soup (yes, a real dead chicken foot sprouting out of the top).  He told me the good and the bad, the nice and the dirty and helped get me excited about the adventure ahead.

Probably the best piece of advice that the Chinese Travel Warrior gave me, however, had to do with sightseeing.  He told me that I had to spend some time in Beijing’s infamous Hutongs or “narrow alleyways” that mysteriously thread through the heart of old Beijing.   He told me that the Hutongs are where the history, culture and life of old China can be seen, if that is, you can find them.

Not knowing or understanding at all what the Hutong are, I opted to search my beloved Lonely Planet China and here is what I found about Beijing’s Hutongs:

The spirit and soul of the city lives and breathes among these charming and ragged lanes where a warm sense of community and hospitality survives.  Criss-crossing chunks of Beijing within the Second Ring Road, the hutong link up into a huge and enchanting warren of one-story dwellings and historic courtyard homes.  Hundreds of hutong survive but many have been swept aside in Beijing’s race to build a modern city.

The description of the hutongs obviously grabbed my attention and lead my father and I on a three-day search in finding the best and the most colorful hutongs in all of Beijing.  Here is a collection of my photos taken during our explorations of Beijing’s Hidden Hutongs. 

Finding the Hutongs was half the battle and half the fun.  Our first day in Beijing, I was on a mission to find them.  We walked until we dropped, for over eight hours, pounding the pavement of Beijing.  I had read in Lonely Planet that all the Hutongs are marked with a historic sign.  Yet finding them on a map was another challenge all together.  We realized that the best way to find these hidden treasures was to walk without a map and explore.

Eventually after lunch we found our first section of Hutongs located directly behind the Forbidden City.   Before I saw the red sign (photo below), I noticed a dramatic change in the architecture of the buildings and most notably the roofs (photo above).  They looked old.…could these be part of the Hutongs I was searching for? I wondered.

This sign confirmed it:  Our first Hutong spotting!  

Yet this Hutong wasn’t too inviting.  Perhaps it was being renovated?  We decided not to walk down and explore it much further than this picture.  I knew there would be more.  Many more.  We would just have to find them! 

We continued our walk down Beichang Jie, one of the main drags located behind the Forbidden City, in search of more Hutongs.  We saw lots of interesting photo shots like the one above which I adore.  I love the old bicycles and the cool buildings.  

We walked a little further and came across this lovely Hutong.  I found a splendid alleyway but there was not much else back there but quiet courtyard homes.  

I was fascinated by the Hutongs and could have explored them all day long!  Here is my dad going under the electrical boxes that provide electricity to these ancient homes.  

The Hutongs are narrow thus all bicycles are normally parked outside the entrance.  I love this picture.  For some reason, it is one of my favorites from the trip.  

During our second day in Beijing, we discovered an entirely new area of Hutongs located by Qianhai Lake in North Dongcheng.  These Hutongs were more than residential and had stores, bars, restaurants and even chic boutique designer shops.  Here is a more lively Hutong that we found the second day which snaked around in many different directions.  

I found it hard to not get lost.  Yet getting lost was probably the best aspect of our search for the hidden Hutongs.  That meant you discovered new things that you probably would have missed.  Sometimes traveling without a map is the best way to travel.

If you did get lost or not want to get lost, you always had the option of hiring a rickshaw to show you the way.  We found this line up of eager rickshaw guides in a more touristy section of Hutongs (now what it was called still remains a mystery to me!  Again, it is a hutong that we managed to stumble upon and never found it again!).

Comparing notes and trying to work a deal. 

After hours of walking and exploring, we finally came across this trendy Hutong that had tons of cool bars, restaurants and shops.  This time we made a note on how to get there and find it again! 

Some of the beautiful boutique shops found in the Hutong. 

By lunch time, we were ready to take a rest and found the perfect place, The Passby Bar, located on Nanluogu Xiang, which was a great place to eat and watch the world go by.

Above is a picture of all the restaurant’s Lonely Planets!  Apparently the owner is an avid world traveler! 

As we entered the Passby, it felt like entered some kind of English pub.

I LOVED their motto:  BETTER TRAVEL THAN DEAD!  It seems like it was written for me! 

After a delightful lunch with of course a glass of wine, it was back to it.  I was determined to find more of Beijing’s hidden Hutongs and the more we walked, the more we discovered.

The architecture was a photographers dream.  

We left the Hutongs feeling excited about what we’d seen and looking even more forward to coming back to experience them at night, when they come to life with people, lights and mystery.  

The Chinese Travel Warrior was right….you can’t possibly see Beijing without finding the hidden Hutongs which are the true heart and soul of the city and its magical past. 

Stay tuned…next post will be on Beijing’s Hutongs at night! 

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The curse of the Asian Toilet

If you have ever traveled anywhere in Asia then you have certainly experienced the “curse of the Asian Toilet” before.  Otherwise known as the squat toilet, it can be a brutal and stinky affair, especially for women who do not have the biological convenience that men do (yes, God must truly be a man!).

I, myself, am well past any issues with the squat toilet.  After traveling for three weeks in Nepal (in which over half of it was in remote villages in the Himalayas) I got broken in rather quickly to the “do’s” and “don’ts” of squat toilet etiquette.  For example, Do carry toilet paper.  Do always have hand sanitizer available (since there is seldom anywhere to wash hands let alone find running water).  Do carry a flashlight.  And most important: Do cover your noise (don’t you dare breathe in through your nose!  Mouth breathing only) and Do, and I mean Do, try your best to not look down or spill.  This is tricky for a female who isn’t equip like a male.  But it is a reality that we must face especially when using a squat toilet!  You definitely don’t want any accidents when you are traveling all day long wearing the same pair of pants!

For me, going to China and dealing with the lack of the “western toilet” (as my beloved Nepali guide called it) was going to be nothing after three weeks of roughing it in Nepal. I’d seen plenty of bad, cold, smelly toilets.  After awhile it was determined that sometimes mother nature was best.

So, I thought amused that it was no big deal dealing with the Asian toilet situation during my travels.  I’d done it, I’d mastered it and best of all, the hotel would most likely have a western toilet (unlike in Nepal where I went three weeks without one).

What I found so incredibly fascinating in China was the controversy regarding the Asian toilet (especially before Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008), the resulting growth of the public toilets (over 5,333 were added to prepare for the Olympics), the new rating star-standards of toilets, and last but not least, the hilarious commentary I saw about the wonder of the porcelain gods.  I couldn’t get enough of toilets during my trip!

Per an article I read on hilariously titled, “Beijing’s toilet horrors flushed away“, here is an account of the improvements Beijing has made recently to the toilet situation in the city:

Strolling along Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue in May, Kevin Born was drawn to an ancient Chinese-style building with delicate wooden carvings and wash paintings — only to find it was a public toilet.

Inside, he found a granite floor, remote-sensor flushing, automatic hand drier and piped music. He found it difficult to believe that only three years ago when he first came to China, answering nature’s call was an experience not for the faint-hearted.

“You had to take a deep breath and dash into the toilet. You held your breath and your head high, and never looked down. Then you’d dash out quickly for another gasp of fresh air. All within 30 seconds,” recalls Kevin, 30, an engineer from Germany.

The city launched a three-year campaign — with a 400-million-yuan (57 million U.S. dollars) investment — to modernize its public toilets in 2005 as part of its effort to prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games.

With 1,000 new public toilets being built and renovated each year, the fetid back-street privies are being replaced with clean, well-maintained flush toilets.

Now, Beijing is flushed with pride that all the 5,333 public toilets, boasting standardized white male and female figure signs, are available within a five-minute walk of any downtown location.  In addition, there will be 700 toilets in Olympic venues by the time the Beijing Games start and an additional 800 nearby.

Now it is time for a few of my best toilet shots (no worries….they are all flushed) as well as another interesting article I found regarding the history of toilets in China (including the introduction of the star rating system) and the push of the Chinese Government to vamp up the number of public toilets in preparation for the Olympics.  Happy reading!  (And please….don’t read this post on the toilet!).

Worth a read:  “Beijing Toilets Go Upscale”

Inside our hotel lobby, we had nice clean western toilets.  Yet I could not stop laughing over this “lost in translation”!

One of thousands of new, convenient public toilets made available throughout Beijing in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.  It was fabulous having so many public toilets available!  Most were all the traditional squat toilet, however, they were clean, not sticky and readily available everywhere.  It made a day of sightseeing or an evening of drinking beer easy.  (Don’t you hate it when you are traveling and desperately need to use the bathroom but can’t find one anywhere?!  Not possible in Beijing, thanks to the thousands of newly minted public toilets).

More public toilets located in the famous Hutongs.  They even had sinks with working running water!  Some had toilet paper too….bonus!

See, they are now nice and clean!  Not the old nasty ones that left people ready to pass out.  Locals and tourists alike embraced the availability and cleanliness of the new toilets. 

Different styles of public toilets that were “stand-alones” and much nicer than our “Port-a-Pottys” back at home. 

I could not resist grabbing my camera and taking this picture of the sign in the bathroom at one of the restaurants we ate at in Beijing.  Too funny!

It was not posted once but twice!  Guess they meant business!

In Shanghai, I nearly fell off my (toilet) seat when I realized that (a) it was heated! (b) it had a “rear cleansing” option and (c) it had a dryer!  Now that is a little disturbing, isn’t it.  (No, I did not try any of these services). 

The toilet was constantly heated to a warm 90 degrees F.  Guess they want you to stay seated for a while and enjoy!  Ha!

Stay tuned…enough silly business.  I’m starting to remind myself of my kids and their non-stop adoration of “potty talk”!   Next post will be on Beijing’s fabulous Hutongs!  Thanks for reading!

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