The Art of the Chinese Massage

There is something divine about a good massage. As someone who has suffered a bad neck and upper back for over three-fourths of my life (see post:  Dealing with Chronic Pain) you can imagine how much better an excellent massage is to my poor, sore muscles.  I am like a new person after a massage.  I don’t have a darting, throbbing pain in my neck and my soul seems to finally find some sort of peace.

Unfortunately, like most luxuries in life massages are not cheap.  In fact, I find it difficult to find anywhere decent to get a massage for under $120 per hour.  In my book, as a stay-at-home mom with no income to call my own, I just can’t stomach dishing out that kind of money, even if my back hurts like hell.  Thus I end up getting probably only one to two massages a year, usually as a gift from my loving husband or understanding mother who also suffers chronic neck pain.

Before heading over to China, my neck and back were really causing me grief. After a ten-year hiatus, I had to start physical therapy sessions again to try to manage the pain and strengthen my back muscles.  It found it so incredibly frustrating to have to deal with this “pain in the neck”.  I am an incredibly active person who can’t let a persistent pesky pain stand in my way.

Looking back, I am convinced that my 20 mile plus bike rides over the summer pulling my four-year-old daughter were the main culprit in ruining my back again. (I suppose I can also add in “getting older” although I try not to dwell on it).  Stress and spending more time at the computer were also causing problems (hmmm….could it be all that extra time I’ve been spending blogging?).  I was determined to go on my trip and relax a bit, and pray my back wouldn’t go into complete spasms on the flight. Having a good seat helped significantly, but passing out after four glasses of wine and falling asleep at a strange angle did not help.

Needless to say, when I landed in Beijing after a fifteen hour flight I could barely turn my head.  I knew that it wasn’t a good sign but I had hope.  For I had heard about the art of the Chinese Massage and I knew that the price would be right.

Chinese medicine has been practiced for centuries. Per Massage Today:

Traditional Chinese medicine is one of the oldest continuous systems of medicine in history, with recorded instances dating as far back as two thousand years before the birth of Christ. This is in sharp contrast to American or Western forms of health care, which have been in existence for a much shorter time span.

Traditional Chinese medicine is based, at least in part, on the Daoist belief that we live in a universe in which everything is interconnected. What happens to one part of the body affects every other part of the body. The mind and body are not viewed separately, but as part of an energetic system. Similarly, organs and organ systems are viewed as interconnected structures that work together to keep the body functioning.

Massage known as “an mo” or “tui na” in Chinese and Acupuncture have been integral parts of Chinese medicine for thousands of years and has gained worldwide attention and practice for many years.  Chinese doctors believe that a network in the human body called “‘jing luo” serves as a passageway for vital energy and blood to reach all the parts of the body.  The use of acupuncture and massage on pressure points and injured muscles can greatly relieve pain and maintain overall health.

As soon as I landed, I could hardly wait to explore and experience the art of the Chinese massage.  My body was desperately waiting and begging.  Yet, unfortunately other things got in the way such as the more important excitement of exploring a new place.  Who wants to waste two hours trying to get a massage when I can walk until I drop and see as much of Beijing as possible?  I reasoned.

Stubborn, defiant me waited until the very last minute; until I was at the “point of no return” in level and severity of pain and discomfort.  I had walked for over eight hours long on our first day in Beijing, on hard concrete, constantly stopping to rub my back or do a quick neck stretch.  I even laid on my “tension release” racket balls for an hour, drank several glasses of wine, took a pain reliever…. yet there was no relief.  It wasn’t looking good.

The climb up to the Great Wall was amazing while I was doing it.  Exciting, fun and pure adventure.  Yet when I woke up the next morning I had hell to pay.  I was in dire straits.  I could barely move my shoulders let alone turn my head from side to side (I cursed myself and wondered how I ever managed to hike over 100 miles last year in the Himalayas!  Could my body really have aged that much in a single year?!).  

It wasn’t the way I imagined my vacation, suffering and wallowing away in pain. I had to do something.  It was time to discover the art of the Chinese Massage, and fortunately the best place in town was right outside my doorstep.

The Dragonfly Spa, located only four buildings down from my hotel,  is known as one of the top spas in Beijing.  Knowing that made me initially hesitate, thinking that it would be pricey and snooty.  But silly old me forgot the number one thing about China:  The low-cost of labor.

When I walked into the Spa to check out the prices, I was instantly drawn in.  The entire waiting room and spa smelled of roses, real fresh, fragrant roses.  Hundreds.  Thousands.  A room aloft in roses.  It instantly put me in a trance.  The friendly, pretty receptionist handed me over a neatly printed price list.  I swallowed before opening it and then to my shock and disbelief, the prices were insanely cheap.  An hour-long aromatherapy massage with hot oils was only $35.  The lesser hour-long “Chinese Massage” was a mere $16.  They even had a neck and shoulder massage for an hour for $15.  I could not believe my eyes or my luck.  I was in the perfect place! I was in Heaven!

I desperately asked the receptionist if it was possible to get a massage that moment.  It didn’t look too busy.  I was the only one there.  But I wasn’t sure because at home you have to typically book a massage at least a week in advance.

The pretty, young receptionist smiled reassuringly and told me, “One moment, please“, in perfect, beautiful english.  She picked up the phone, dialed, and spoke rapidly in Chinese to whoever answered.  “Please have a seat“, she said kindly.  Within five minutes a small, petite woman walked in, smiled at me and lead me back to Heaven.

As I left the pleasant waiting room and entered the spa, I was instantly greeted by the healing, peaceful smell of lavender.  The entire room was dark except for little candles that lined the stairs leading up to the massage rooms.  It was the most incredible, pleasing synthetic flowery smell I’d ever experienced.  It was enough to make my knees weak.

I lied down on my stomach in almost complete darkness and silence and let each ache and pain in my poor, overworked body relax.  Sometimes I think it is best if the masseuse does not speak english.  I tend to talk too much, even during a massage.  That makes it harder to relax and simply enjoy the experience.  Since I didn’t know Chinese and my masseuse knew little english, there was no conversation whatsoever.  Just silence and total relaxation; something I think everybody in this world needs.

For someone so small, I was amazed by the strength of her touch.  The hot, scented oils melted into my skin and sunk into my rock-like muscles relieving the tension that had been stored up for months.  I closed my eyes and relaxed, enjoying each and every moment of Heaven.  I didn’t want it to ever end.  It was so wonderful.

Of course, all good things must come to an end.  The sixty minutes were up, and I could barely move.  My body felt like butter and my muscles melted into the massage table.  I took my time getting up and was sad to leave.   But I knew that it would not be my last time at the Dragonfly.  For how could I resist the art of the Chinese massage? 

For the next day I was going to indulge in the $15 one-hour neck and shoulder massage.  And, little did I know there was a Dragonfly in Shanghai too where I would get a send-off massage before leaving China.  Heaven comes in threes.

Stay tuned…there are more China posts to come.  Not sure yet if it will be the post on “The Curse of the Asian Toilet” or one on the fascinating Hutongs, or old alleyways of Beijing.

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A high-speed visit to The Forbidden City

One of the top highlights of any visit to Beijing is a visit to the infamous Forbidden City, one of imperial China’s most exquisite displays of traditional Chinese palatial architecture and grandeur.  Built in 1406 to 1420 and used as the imperial palace during the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Forbidden City is one of the best preserved complexes of ancient cities in the world, containing over 980 buildings and 9,999 1/2 rooms in the heart of Beijing.

What makes the Forbidden City so fascinating and mystifying is that it was forbidden to the general public for over 500 years.  Only the emperors (there were 24 in total from the Ming and Qing dynasties who lived there), their families, and their crew of eunuchs and servants were able to live there, from its onset until 1911, when the Qing dynasty was ousted and the Imperial era ended.  The Forbidden City was not opened to the general public until 1925, over 500 years since its construction.  (For more historical information and facts on the Forbidden City, click here.)

Our hotel was in a prime location – at the heart of Beijing – within blocks of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We couldn’t have selected a better location as our base.  We knew that the Forbidden City was huge thus agreed to devote at least a half a day for exploring the world’s largest surviving palace complex (The Forbidden City was built in the center of the ancient, walled imperial city of Beijing and covers over 178 acres in a rectangular shape.  From north to south it measures 961 metres (3,153 ft)  and 753 metres (2,470 ft) from east to west).

As we ate our lovely American breakfast, we could see the packs of provincial Chinese tourists march by our window, all wearing identical hats in order to identify them with their respective tour group.  Guides wearing headsets, microphones and sporting a similar matching hat, lead the way.  We were glad we weren’t part of the mob.

My dad and I, of course, had a different plan in mind for touring the Forbidden City.  We would simply walk to Tiananmen Square, look “American” and wait for our sales pitch.  We would go with the best, most informative Chinese (yet English-speaking) tour guide at the most competitive price for a two-hour tour.  We knew we could spend an entire day there and that most guides were happy to spend the whole day with you.  But we knew what we wanted:  A brief, yet comprehensive basic tour of the Forbidden City, all crammed into two hours time.

We headed around the gigantic 52-metre wide moat that surrounds the impressive Forbidden City walls towards Tiananmen Square, one of the main entrances to the Forbidden City.  We were lucky that it was still relatively early, only 8:30 am, thus the massive crowds we saw yesterday afternoon were presumably still riding into central Beijing on the tour bus.

We didn’t think it would be hard to find a guide.  Just the day before we got accosted by plenty of tour guides looking for potential clients while we strolled through Tiananmen Square.  Yet this morning they all seemed to be in bed, sleeping.  We waited patiently, glancing around and trying our best to look like we needed help.  Within five minutes, we met “Jack” (not related to our previous tour guide Jackie who brought us to the Great Wall.  Must be a popular “western” name!).

Jack was tall, lean and intense.  He dove right into his sales pitch with wanting eyes and seemed slightly offended as we tried to negotiate down the price and make a time limit on our tour.  He informed us that he was one of the best Chinese tour guides for the Forbidden City.  We knew within seconds after meeting him that he was the one.

Jack proved to be an excellent guide albeit an extremely high-strung, driven individual.  My father had realized that he had met his match.  Jack possessed even more of these qualities than my sometimes impatient, yet highly energetic father!  Me, on the otherhand, was rather excited to have such a high-strung, chatty guide.  I took plenty of notes!

Here are the photos from our intense, high-speed visit to the Forbidden City.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I do!  Warning: I had an awful hard time cutting them down.  So I decided to include almost all of them!

The entire Forbidden City, which overs 178 acres, is surrounded by a 52-foot-wide, two-meter-deep moat and a 30-foot-high red wall. I loved this picture of the backs of the buildings reflecting in the grimy waters of the moat. 

Looking the other direction.

This picture is definitely one of my favorite “third-eye” moments! The locals catching their dinner!

As we approached the Forbidden City, once again I had hoped for better weather than your typical smoggy Beijing day.  It finally dawned on me that this was a “normal” day in Beijing and I’d have to get used to it.  Too bad….as I would have loved to see the Forbidden City behind the smog.  

When I first saw the Forbidden City, my first thought was how intimidating it looked.  It went as far as the eye could see and was all done in imperial red, the color of China.  

There are four entrances (gates) to the Forbidden CIty.  We entered through the gate outside of Tiananmen Square, right next to the ticket/admission office.  This is the main gate that leads you through the Forbidden City’s main sights.  The above picture illustrates the crumbling, 30-foot high red wall that surrounds the Forbidden City.  

There is also this high grayish-colored wall that is on the far outside of the Forbidden City.  You could see plants creeping their way through the cracks. 

Here is the main ticket counter.  We were lucky to not have a big line.  It was still early (only 9 am) and the Forbidden City had just opened.   

Above is a picture of the main entrance to the Forbidden City.  This is where we met Jack, our tour guide for the morning.  The lines and groups of tourists were already forming as we entered into the Forbidden CIty.  Our timing was perfect! 

Jack was an eager teacher and couldn’t wait to tell us all about the amazing history of the Forbidden City.  All in all, there are 9,999 1/2 rooms.  Why the 1/2 room?  Because there are 10,000 rooms in Heaven thus there is a half-less room in the Forbidden City.

The line above is called the “Dragon Line” or “Middle Line” and was reserved and only used by the emperor.  The only other person able to walk on this line was the emperor’s wife, on their wedding day.  The line leads to the emperor’s office and house.  

The inside of the Forbidden City was enormous and kept going on and on through different archways and gates.  It is a beautiful place and I found this picture to be among my favorites. 

The first building we came to is the most important and largest palace in the entire Forbidden City, the emperor’s office.  The Dragon’s Line leads straight towards it.  

All of the 980 buildings in the Forbidden City are the same exact color scheme and architectural design.  The color red is the most prominent color on all the buildings followed by the yellow roofs. 

Each building is flanked by a male and female lion.  The male lion is on the east (closest to the rising sun) and the female lion is on the west.  The lion is symbolic of power and protection of the emperor.

Above is a picture of me in front of a female lion.  You can tell due to her location (west side of building) and also underneath her right foot is a baby lion.

The intricate painting on the woodwork of each building is unbelievable.  I could not stop taking pictures of the colorful design that remain bright hundreds of years later.

A group of provincial Chinese tourists in the “white cap” tour group. 

We walked past building after building trying to take it all in. 

This giant vat is one of several that is used for burning incense. 

A building’s importance is measured by the number of animals on top of the roof.  This is the top of the emperor’s office, the most important building in the Forbidden City.  It has the highest number of animals, ten.  The emperor’s home (his wife had her own as she had to share him at night with his concubines) had nine animals on top, which is considered a lucky number in China.

The crane symbolizes long life in China.  We found it ironic that it is the national bird.  There are so many (building) cranes up in China due to the intense construction boom, that we laughed at this irony.

The turtle is also an important animal in China.  It symbolizes long, happy life and good luck. 

An up close shot of the beautiful, yellow-tiled rooftops seen throughout the Forbidden City.

This is how fires were put out in the Forbidden City.  There are over 308 giant copper and iron vats that used to be filled with water in case of a fire. 

The vibrant red and gold colors can be seen throughout the Forbidden City. 

A picture of my dad and I in front of one of the many buildings (now weeks later, I can’t seem to remember exactly what building this is.  I guess that is one of the problems when there are over 900 and they all look identical, except in size!)

I love the shapes of the yellow tiled rooftops. 

There are plenty of impressive stone carvings and statues as well.  

Yet another building.  

Unfortunately the smog started to really set in, decreasing visibility greatly.  Yet I still really love this photo of the rows and rows of buildings.  Many are not even open to the public.  Just the main buildings are as it would take weeks to see them all and some have not been restored.  

Above is the “Large Stone Carving” made out of one piece of stone.  (Below is a sign that gives the details). 

Last but not least is a picture of the last emperor (only 6-years-olds when he became emperor.  His name was Puyi) who was finally booted off the grounds in 1924 (he lived here from 1911 after the failed revolution that ended the dynasties until 1924 when he was escorted off the grounds by the army).

After he left in 1925, the Forbidden CIty was finally opened to the public, over 500 years later.  Now it is the “unforbidden” city!

Stay tuned…more posts on China coming up soon!  I will be discussing “The Art of the Chinese massage”, “Asian toilets”, Beijing’s Hutongs, and more. 


The World (aka China) according to Jackie

We met Jackie, our 26-year-old tour guide to the Great Wall, at our hotel lobby on Sunday morning.  Jackie was dressed in jeans, sneakers, a pink button down shirt and a pastel blue sweater vest.  Needless to say, he was dressed well but not appropriate for an all day hike along the Great Wall.

Above is a picture of Jackie, smiling as we literally “climbed” up to the Wall. 

Jackie (of course his “western” name; all Chinese pick western names when they start English in primary school) is a jovial, bright fellow who grew up in rural China, like the majority of the Chinese people, to farming, illiterate parents.  He has witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes that China has experienced over the last twenty-five years, while China has emerged as a leading economic powerhouse fighting for the center stage in the world order.

Per Jackie, there used to be only three colors worn in China:  Blue, Gray and Black.  Now the Chinese wear any color under the rainbow.

Jackie is a chatty, intelligent guy.  He had a lot to say about China – where it once was and where it is headed.  He talked the entire hour and a half ride to Jiantou, the entire climb up to the Wall (in between breaks) and the entire way back to Beijing.  I, of course, asked tons of questions and took tons of notes.  I found our conversation fascinating and it was great to get an inside view from a young, educated Beijing tour guide who has over ten years of experience and is quite knowledgable about what is happening now in China.

This post is a summary of the “World (aka China) according to Jackie”.  (Note:  I haven’t confirmed all the figures and statistics.  This kind of information is hard to get out of Communist, censored China.  I have discovered that many things are a mystery in China and it is hard to get accurate, hard data.  Thus, I am just going with what I heard from Jackie (whom I feel is an excellent, intelligent source of information) as well as some of the research I conducted myself (see below for links to the articles).  So, here goes nothing:  The World (aka China) according to Jackie!

Picture above of Confucius from the Wikipedia Commons.  Confucius was one of the greatest Chinese thinkers of all time.  His influence can still be felt today, thousands of years later.

Jackie had a lot of opinions on what China is like today, especially in Beijing, China’s political and historic capital.  For the most part, Jackie feels gratitude for how far China has come over the last twenty-five years.  China has literally taken most people, including the Chinese by surprise, in their unheard of industrialization and economic advances, which have brought millions and millions of people out of poverty.  China has industrialized in a matter of years compared with the centuries it has taken most countries in a similar situation.  When you visit China, the proof is in the endless amount of new buildings, apartment blocks and skyscrapers reaching for the stars.  It is said that the crane is the national bird of China.  The building crane is as well!

Yet, none of this rapid change has not been without problems and mistakes.  As most people know, China is still ruled by a dictatorship of hardliners that slam their iron fist down on many basic freedoms of their people.  While China is growing and expanding at insane rates, basic human rights and needs of its people are being left in the dust*.  Hospitals are old and dingy.  Doctors are scarce and expensive.  Social services are lacking.  Good education is hard to find in the countryside.  Good jobs for educated graduates are becoming harder to find.  Small and Medium sized factories are closing down at alarming rates.  Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable.  Pollution is out of control.  Traffic is maddening.  Freedom of Speech is denied.  Speaking out against the government comes at a heavy price with imprisonment, financial difficulties and abandonment.  And the list goes on. 

With all these paradoxes and complexities, I found my conversation with Jackie to be incredibly interesting.  Here are some of the main points he raised:

Decrease in opportunities for new university graduates:

Last year, 6.6 million students graduated university in China.  Yet, over one million of them can’t find a good job.  Most are holding off and not accepting the lower-paid jobs in hopes that there will be a turnaround.  Jackie believes that China is good a “making” things (i.e factory level) yet not “creating” them.  I found this to be an interesting point and wonder what it will hold for the future.


Education is central to Chinese mentality.  Look at Confucius (551-479 BC) whose ideals were paramount in Chinese thinking for over 2,500 years.  Education became a priority in China yet was briefly and tragically interrupted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which pushed everyone out to the countryside and created an entire decade of uneducated peasants.  Nowadays, all Chinese parents realize the importance of education and dream of giving their children a better life, out of poverty, through education.  Rural and urban parents alike strive to provide the best education possible for their children so they can head out to the big cities to find a better life.  If there are no good jobs to be had, this creates a big problem.

Pressure on the lower wage jobs:  Made in China to stay?

Everyone knows that almost everything these days are “Made in China“.  China’s enormous population has provided one of the greatest means to pull itself up out of poverty by its enormous labor force.  However, rising costs have been difficult on these very factories that provide low-paying, low-skilled jobs.  Many small to medium-sized factories are having a hard time competing and are forced to shut down, creating higher unemployment and unrest among many migrant workers.  **

Economists have differing opinions on what the future will hold for China and whether or not these low-paying, low-skill jobs will migrate elsewhere where the labor costs aren’t as high and the supply costs are lower.  Per the Financial Times article, “A workshop on the wane” (10/16/11):

 “Slowing global demand for cheap Chinese exports, rising production costs and unsustainable levels of debt have combined to crush some of the country’s most savvy entrepreneurs.  China’s economic success over the last 30 years has been built on cheap capital, cheap labour, cheap energy and cheap land but this has now produced huge imbalances and inefficiencies that are causing more and more problems.

But having drastically raised the living standards of almost a fifth of humanity, the formula is increasingly seen as defunct, and a contributor to serious problems including environmental degradation and rapidly rising social inequality.  Time is running out for a model that has served it so well. ….but this does not mean that the end is nigh for the world’s second-biggest economy”.

China needs to adjust and adapt its market, what it is doing.   Most economists predict a soft-landing for China, yet not without problems.

Housing :

As the economy has boomed and China has been seduced like others by an enormous gains in the real estate market, many argue that China is also facing a real estate bubble.  Per GMO***, “Property construction accounts for some 13% of GDP in the world’s second largest economy.  Construction has been one of the most important drivers of economic growth” (Jonathan Anderson, UBS, March 16, 2011).  Although it is hard to get a true and accurate picture of the Chinese real estate market since the government tends to hide unpleasant statistics, it is said that “there’s little doubt, however, that many Chinese feel they have been priced out of the property market.  A 100 square meter apartment in China currently costs around 17 times average disposable income, according to Deutsche Bank”.    I assume this must be what Jackie was referring to when he told us that the cost of apartments in Beijing has quadrupled since 2006.

Daily Life in Beijing becoming harder, more congested:

Jackie told us that China purchases 20 million cars and trucks per year.  There are currently about 20 million citizens and 10 million migrants living in Beijing.  There are 5 million cars.  Last year, there were 2,000 new cars added every day in Beijing.  Thankfully the government decided to put stricter controls on the huge increases in traffic and pollution.  Now if you want a new car, there is a lottery system.  This year there are 600 new cars added per day in Beijing.    Traffic is also controlled by the numbers on your license plate.

Marriage and Family:

The average age of marriage in urban China tends to be 30 years old for men and 27 for women.  In the countryside, it is generally around 20 years of age.  The year 1979 represented the start of China’s famous “One Child Policy” as a way to control China’s massive, growing population.  Over the last few years, the policy has changed a bit.  In the countryside, if the first-born is a boy then a family is done.  If the first child is a girl, then the family can try one more time for a boy.  In the city, a family can have two children now (if they pay) yet it is very expensive and most families today have only one child.

Social and Political Change:

This is a very tricky question.  While most Chinese are thrilled to have food on their plates, a job and a much better life than their parents, there are still huge inequalities and disparities among the people.  Like many other young people, Jackie shared the opinion that as long as people’s lives are improving that there will not be any major “Asian Spring” or push to oust the strong-armed Chinese rule.

As an American, I found this so hard to believe and tried my best to examine everything with my “thirdeye”.  I found China to be a confusing, frustrating yet fascinating place.  So much has changed.  Yet so much more needs to change.  I will be highly interested in seeing what the future holds for China and whether or not such a brutal government can remain in power.   It all remains to be seen, doesn’t it?

For further reading, please refer to the articles below which I used in my research: 

(Note:  The Financial Times online requires a free password.  Some require a paid password for the premium service.  I get the paper at home and only occasionally read it online.   If you want to access the free parts, it is definitely worth doing as these articles are excellent, and the FT is a fabulous paper to learn about what is going on in the world).

*”Cautious Beijing keen to avoid domestic unrest” – Financial Times 11/21/11 (click here for article)

**”A workshop on the wane” – Financial Times 10/16/11 (click here for link to article). 

***GMO “The Real Estate Cycle —September 2011.

Financial Times (print version):

“China labour costs soar as wages rise 22%”  – 10/25/11

“Reshoring jobs from China won’t happen” – 11/13/11

Plus, for a fabulous book that I am in the middle of reading about 1990’s China, “China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn“.

Stay tuned…..more China coming up!  I still have a ton of photos and stories to share!


Fall on the Great Wall: Part 1

He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man. – Mao Zedong

Photo above of the Great Wall of China at Badaling, the most heavily visited and fully restored part of the wall.  Photo credited to Wikipedia Commons (Free images). 

As a diehard wanderlust whose main goal in life is to see the greatest and latest of this amazing world, I’d always set my sights on leaving my footprints across the Great Wall of China.  Like Machu Picchu, Ancient Rome, the mighty Himalayas and the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China was something that could not be missed.

Seeing the wall was so important to me and my dad, that it was one of the main reasons why we both wanted to go to China.  If there was nothing else we liked or enjoyed during the entire trip, we would be satisfied to have walked along the Great Wall, known as one of China’s greatest engineering triumphs and perhaps one of the most remarkable manmade structures in the world.

Given my unique, thirdeye perspective to traveling, our visit to the Great Wall would be anything but normal.  Most tourists choose to sign up with a Chinese tour company, jump on a huge, overcrowded tour bus and take a long, annoying day-trip to the Badaling section of the wall (which is the most-photographed and most-visited “tourist” trap in China).  Most tours to Badaling start at the crack of dawn, waking unsuspected tourists out of their warm, cozy beds to lead them on an eight-hour nightmare expedition to the Wall that includes multiple stops.  Instead of spending the entire time at the wall, the tour herds the tourists off like a flock of sheep to the famous Ming Tombs (who really wants to see a bunch of boring tombs?) followed by several stops to nearby jade, silk and porcelain stores where everything is way over-priced and the sales people are totally in your face.  In my opinion, a visit to Badaling sounded like going to Disneyland!  Who wants to ride a bus up to the fully restored wall, walk along this magnificent piece of architecture to be surrounded by loads of tourists and ride a toboggan down?  It sounded like a complete joke!

So, instead of doing what most or some would say “normal” tourists would do, I decided singlehandedly to do the complete opposite.  I convinced my dad into booking our own tour guide and driver through our hotel, to visit a relatively unknown, unrestored section of the wall, called Jiankou (which of course I found out about through my beloved Lonely Planet guide.

Lonely Planet describes Jiankou as follows:

For stupefying gorgeous hikes along perhaps Beijing’s most incomparable section of wall, head to the rear section of the Jiankou Great Wall.  It’s a 40-minute walk uphill from the drop-off at Xizhazi Village….Tantalizsing panoramic views spread out either direction as the brickwork meanders dramatically along a mountain ridge; the settings is truly magnificent.

After reading the inviting description, I was hooked.  I just needed to pry my dad a little bit which was fairly easy after a few glasses of wine.

We woke up early Sunday morning, our second day in China, to have a full breakfast and prepare makeshift sandwiches at our hotel.   We knew there would be no food options available and we were more than happy to use the hotel’s french baguette and cheese (a rare find in China!) for our meal.

By 8:30 am, we were introduced to “Jackie” (of course his western name), our twenty-six-year-old tour guide who was drastically inappropriately dressed for a hike.  While we were wearing hiking shoes, pants and dri-fit shirts, Jackie was dressed in slacks, a pinkish colored button down shirt, a sweater vest and sneakers.  He looked like he was off to teach Sunday school, not hike the Great Wall.

We met our driver, who did not speak any english, and climbed into our four-door sedan (with no seat belts) and headed off on our forty-five minute ride to the Jiankou section of the Great Wall.  The drive was our first real experience outside of crazy, congested, polluted Beijing and I was pleasantly surprised to find the road conditions to be excellent.  We passed through several suburbs, villages and farms, talking the entire way long about China.

I discovered that Jackie was a wealth of information (I took several pages of thorough notes that I will use on my upcoming posts) and highly educated.  He is a first generation university graduate and comes from rural China.  Both of his parents are farmers and are illiterate.  He is one of two children and is hopeful about the future of China.   Like most Chinese, Jackie is very proud of the enormous economic changes that China has made in his lifetime.  Jackie’s parents grew up wearing only one of three colors:  Blue, Black or Gray.  And, they ate meat only once a month.  Now, many urban Chinese proudly dress like most westerners and eat meat every day.  In his eyes, this was a great leap forward.  Jackie believed that China was a long way’s off having a democracy.  As long as the average Chinese life is impoving, the rest can wait.

We arrived in Xizhazi Village around ten o’clock.  There wasn’t much there as it is very small and quite rural however we did manage to find a squat toilet and a small farmer’s market where I found a supply of dried fruits.  The most notable thing I saw in the village was this fish farm below as well as the bag of Chicken’s feet (see earlier post on Chinese Street Food):

After a few minutes of asking around, Jackie finally identified the unmarked trail leading up to the Great Wall.   This should have been a sign but unfortunately it was ignored.

The trail was nothing special.  Just gravel littered with trash (something I still will never understand:  why people litter so much on hiking trails!). The day was unfortunately overcast and the mountains were covered in China’s telltale blanket of smog.  My earlier elation at being here faded fast once I realized the smog was probably here to stay.

As we hiked up the slowly escalating path, Jackie filled us in on the main details and history behind the Great Wall.  The Great Wall is not one continuous wall but a collection of walls that were built and rebuilt starting in the 5th century BC through the 16th century by various dynasties.  The “original”, most famous part of the wall was first built between 220-206 BC years ago by the Qin dynasty, yet little of that wall remains.  The majority of the existing wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and that is what most tourists see today.

The wall was built to keep the Mongolian and other various nomadic tribes out of the Chinese Empire.  As winter set in and food became scarce, the brutal Mongolian warriors headed south in search of food, and in the process terrorized the native Chinese.  Thus the wall was built as a defending line from east to west to keep these northern invadors out.  Unfortunately it didn’t always work.

The statistics behind the wall are mind-boggling yet inconclusive as nobody truly knows the exact length of the wall and most figures vary.  Per Wikipedia, the wall itself is measured at 6,259.6 km (3,889.5 miles) and includes 359.7 km (223.5 miles) of trenches and 2,232.5 km (1,387.2 miles) of natural barriers.

Map of the Great Wall of China (Wikipedia Commons). 

As we hiked, I became infatuated with the history of the wall and what it took to build it.  Slaves, indentured servants and other poor souls from the lower peasant class were forced into constructing one of the largest, most impressive engineering projects in the world.  Thousands of people died and it is said that their remains were mixed in and used as building materials in the construction of the wall.  Each stone of the wall was carried by hand or on the backs of the workers over 2,000 years ago!  It was hard to grasp.

Fall is the perfect time to visit China’s Great Wall.  The crowds are less, the temperature is good and you have a 50% chance of a relatively clear day (unfortunately we were the other 50%).  The fall foliage is also quite stunning.  We were at the tail end of the colors yet it was still quite beautiful. 

I became so enamoured in the historical significance of the wall, that I didn’t notice the lack of fellow hikers on the trail or the thick beads of sweat dripping down Jackie’s young face.  I was still severely jet-lagged and had “Sichuan” pork stomach after the questionable hot ‘n spicy meal the night before.  Perhaps that was why I was lagging behind?  I was tired.

As we hiked away from the village we saw a few birds and could hear the echo of dogs barking from down below.  We had hoped the smog would lift but unfortunately it was there to stay. What a pity!

As the time passed, and the forty minutes guaranteed that it would take to reach the wall per Lonely Planet, I begin to wonder where in the heck we were going.  The mountains were still covered in smog and the wall was no where in sight.  The trail kept heading up up up and into the mist.  I was starting to sweat myself so I stripped down to a t-shirt and wished I had worn shorts.  The exertion of the hike was getting to me as I realized that the lackadaisical trail was becoming more steep and more unkept.

After an hour of wondering where in the hell we were, we finally passed another small group of Chinese.  The sun desperately tried to peek out of the clouds and then I saw it.  The first of three large “hills”.

Where is the wall?  I asked Jackie.  “Up there?” I said and pointed at the first large, steep hill.   “No” Jackie replied, short of breath.  “It is there” he declared, pointing up behind the first hill.  That was my first realization that we were in for a ride.  This was no forty minute walk in the park.  It was a hike from hell.  A real live adventure.  Was I ready for it?  You bet!

Stay tuned….next post will be about our “climb” up to the Great Wall.  Yes, we were actually using our hands to grasp rocks and tree limbs.  If my mother would have known, she would have freaked.  Would we make it to the top?  You’ll have to wait and see!

Author’s note:  I decided to break this post down into parts due to my high level of photos and commentary.  I thought it would be easier and better to read.  Stay posted.

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A step onto the street of Chinese Street Food

For those of you who can’t make it any time soon to China and want to get a close up view of the Chinese Street Food in action, get your chopsticks ready and dig in!

I loved the drunken commentary too!  Enjoy!

P.S.  Getting lost and almost breaking a bone on the long hike UP to the Great Wall is coming next!!!! Stay tuned….

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Chinese Street Food 101: How to eat like a Chinese without being grossed out

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”  – James Michener

A sign posted on the outside window of a Chinese restaurant near our hotel in Beijing.

One of the best things about traveling the world is experiencing the world through your stomach.  Taste, of course, is one of the five senses and you cannot possibly leave home without it.

Food is an integral part of every country and culture around the world whether it be for mere subsistence, pleasure or some of both.  It is often said that one of the best things about traveling can be trying and eating all the different kinds of cuisine a new place has to offer.  However, that said, one of the worst things about traveling can also be the food.  It is all a matter of how you interpret things and of course how adventurous or non-adventurous you are.

Let’s take me as an example.  I am a relatively adventurous eater who loves to eat ethnic food.  My favorite cuisines are Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern and recently Ethiopian.  However, I do not eat red meat (sorry folks, I had to drawn the line twenty years ago when my grandfather fed me a hamburger that was stone cold frozen down the middle I haven’t had the desire to eat red meat since then).  I also am weary of any other types of odd meats (donkey, venison, dog to name a few) and “meat parts” such as organs (eye balls, hearts, livers, etc).

I can’t stomach strange kinds of uncooked fish such as fish eggs or scary looking raw creatures (I lost 10 pounds when I traveled to Japan as a teenager).  Yet, When in Rome I try my best to try the local cuisine, especially if it is vegetarian, cooked fish or poultry.  Therefore, I’m not a meat an’ potatoes kind of gal but I do steer clear of McDonald’s and opt for Pad Thai.

Before my big trip to China, I was extremely anxious about the food.  I had tried the Americanized version of Chinese in the States (and even went to have Dim Sum in Chinatown) but I’ve always left the restaurant feeling sick.  It was too greasy, too fried, too MSG’ed and too much.   I had high hopes that perhaps I’d enjoy the food in China much more than the terrible Chinese American food I’ve tried here.  Unfortunately, I proved my fears correct:  I hated the food.  (Note:  I am certain there is some Chinese food that I would have enjoyed if I had more time in China.  Each province has their own unique kind of cuisine.  As a tourist who couldn’t read any Chinese, I was at a severe disadvantage thus I am perhaps being a little unfair in my judgments).

My first lunch in China proved to be edible.  I had cashew chicken with no rice (never figured out where the rice was!).  It was gooey, relatively bland and so-so.  It left me feeling incomplete and unsatisfied but at least I kept it down.  That evening, I tried Sichuan pork at another Chinese restaurant and my mouth was on fire.  The fire raged all throughout my sleepless, first jet-lagged night and I woke up at 4 am with a burning stomach-ache.  From that point on, I simply threw in the towel and gave up.  I know, lame lame lame!  But given my past history with parasites and other unmentionable stomach ailments, I didn’t want to risk it for bad food.  So for the rest of the trip, instead of eating Chinese food I found myself taking picture after picture of the various types of Chinese cuisine I saw along the street.

Never before had I ever seen such a wide variety of street food in my life!  You could find anything you wanted, any time of day and the price was right.  It was beyond cheap.  So cheap that most Chinese prefer to eat both breakfast and lunch out everyday on the street!

So, without further delay here is thirdeyemom’s Chinese Street Food 101:  How to eat like a Chinese and not get grossed out.  Time to get out your chopsticks and dig in!  Hope you’re hungry!

Scenes from the street:  Every evening this enormous line of street food vendors would set up shop on Donghuamen Daije (a busy thoroughfare in the heart of Beijing) and sell plates and sticks of food to hungry passerby. 

Raw meat was selected and cooked up on the spot.

As well as other types of raw foods (fish, pig’s feet, beef).

Candied calabash and other delights were for sale on a stick for a quick and easy dessert.  These were extremely popular and I frequently saw locals slurping them down.

Stir fry and noodles were made to order (obviously this Chinese vendor thought I was interested!).  All the ingredients are fresh yet the pots, pans and plates are not very clean or hygienic.

You could also find fish fry around town.  You would simply pick your fish, then they would kill it for you and cook it right before your eyes all in a matter of minutes. 

Smelly green sea cucumbers are also cut up fresh and served in a plastic container to go. Mmmmmm.

And one last time (I promise, I just can’t get enough of this picture) you can buy live scorpions, beetles and seahorses (supposedly have a medicinal quality per a fellow reader of my blog) to be cooked up live on the spot and eaten.  I did not see any tourists eating this stuff as it was strictly in a Chinese side street.  Thus I cannot confirm who does eat the live scorpions on a stick and why! 

Outside of town, you could find peasants selling their excess produce.  I still have yet to determine what these are (a fruit? a vegetable?) but I saw them growing in the trees en route to the Great Wall (thus they must be a fruit!).

Fresh nuts, figs, dates and other dried fruits were for sale as a tasty snack which even picky me enjoyed (they made a great treat for our  2.5 hour hike up to the Great Wall!).

Being measured are the mixed goodies I purchased.  They were delightful!

I had been warned not to be alarmed if I ordered Chicken Soup in China.  Apparently the Chicken’s foot is often sticking out of the soup!  Needless to say, I did not order Chicken Soup.

Shanghai eats:  Shanghai had much better food in my opinion which was a thankful relief.  It is an extremely cosmopolitan, modern city and is the complete opposite from traditional, historic Beijing.  Yet I did still find plenty of interesting street food!

Here are some of my favorites:

Dried fish parts, raw fish pieces and other yummy, smelly things.

Up close and personal.

Ahh….I found my Moroccan dried fruit cart, in the midst of central Shanghai! 

Ok….these steamed buns MUST be good because every time we walked by, the line was a mile long. 

 Freshly grilled Peking duck, head included.

A local specialty from Shanghai’s water village community, Zho Zang:  Bean sauce pork. 

Toes and feet included!   (Had to take it sideways to get up close and personal).

There are rows and rows of this bean-based pork delight. Seems like it would be a messy kind of food to eat while walking but many do.

Zho Zang is also known for its seafood, notably fresh crayfish as seen above.

Here are fresh oysters which are caught in one of the many fresh water lakes outside the water village.

Here is the traditional, local Hairy Crab, fished right outside of the water village.  The crabs are still chirping as you pass by. 

 The dumpling queue….must be good!

Street food and eating in action.

 Cookin’ it up.

All this talk about food is making me hungry!  But I’m glad I’m back and eating what I’m used to.  It is all a matter of our tastes and what we are accustomed to.  There is no right or wrong with cuisine.  I just wish I could have liked the Chinese food better!  Thank god for western hotel food!  (I am so embarrassed to admit!).


Stay tuned….next post details my exciting “climb” up and hike on the Great Wall of China.  Needless to say, it was a great adventure!

Adventure Travel China TRAVEL BY REGION

First day in Beijing: A jetlagged photoblog

Jetlagged, disoriented, confused, and culturally overstimulated are the three main adjectives that describe our first day in China.  (For earlier post, click here:  East versus West:  My First Bout with Chinese Culture Shock).

We walked the entire day and night, absorbing everything we could of this brilliant, unique city and I captured all my thoughts of my first day in China on film.

So without further ado, here they are, a hodge-podge of pictures taken throughout our first chaotic, marathon day in China.

First thing after breakfast, we walked the short distance to Beijing’s premier walking street, Wangfujing.  It wasn’t too crowded….yet.  But there was plenty of eye candy!

The sun was desperately trying to come out.  Yet the thick blanket of smog made it difficult.  This was the sunniest day we had in Beijing.  Note:  China is noted for having several of the most polluted cities in the world.  I’m not sure where Beijing fares on the list, yet I wouldn’t want to see the cities that are worse off.   Obviously their incredible rise and development as one of the world’s economic powerhouses has come with a price.  A big one.

Plenty of nick knacks to buy….all of course “Made in China”.

If you are hungry, there is also stall after stall of street food available.  These things below are extremely popular.  Kind of like a Chinese lollipop.  I tried to find out exactly what the red glossy ones are.  I heard they are candied calabash on a stick.  I decided to pass.

Freshly cut sea cucumbers are also quite popular.

Little Chinese fast-food joints with happy hour beer to flush it down. 

We entered our first touristy shop which was loaded with Chinese gifts.  Bin after bin of cheap, Chinese trinkets await the weary tourist.  Sales ladies also eagerly await their prey, ready to pounce on the next unsuspecting tourist and offer you a deal.

We meandered around the shop marveling at all the strange things for sale.  Being easy prey, we wondered over to the Chinese stamps to take a look.

Here we met “Daniel” (the Chinese all pick a Western name) who was the store’s one and only Grand Master Seal Carver.  Before we knew it, we were convinced into buying a stamp for my son Max. 

Max was born in 2004, the year of the Monkey.  Apparently this means he is clever, witty, happy and smart.  Hmmm…this guy seems to be on to something.   Daniel looks up Max’s name and translates it into Chinese characters which is carved gently on the bottom of the stamp.   According to Daniel, carving your name in Chinese is good luck. 

All in all, we were out fifty bucks.  Yep, we were had but oh well.  The memories!

Next it was time for some comparison shopping.  Here is a picture of my dad walking out of a leather store.  I tried to capture the thirty sales associates, all dressed in matching pink outfits, yet it was impossible.  I was in too much of a hurry to get out of there!  Talk about capitalism in the making.

At the end of the shopping street, tucked away behind a corner we found the real treat….our first introduction to Chinese street food.  Here a lion statue flanks the entrance to the market.  Lions are everywhere in China as they are symbols of power and protection.  There is always a male lion on the east and a female on the west side (given the east side of a building is the most important.  It is the direction of the rising sun).

This is the section of town where I first encountered the live scorpions on a stick.  

Lunch time…scorpions, sea horses, beatles and bugs plus any fresh, raw meat grilled to perfection.

For dessert, you can try these sugary treats…

After the walking street, I had a case of “Peking knees” and decided to take a short break…

Lunch was at no other than the “Red Lantern” which was across the street from our hotel and known for its Peking Duck. 

Thankfully the menu was translated into English and included pictures (a big thank you for me!  It talked me out of ordering several things!

After lunch, it was time for more walking.  We headed the short couple of blocks past our hotel to the center of Beijing:  Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City is surrounded by a huge moat that in my opinion was not that clean.  But it didn’t stop the fisherman from trying to catch their lunch.

I loved this view of the backs of the old Beijing homes reflecting on the murky water.

Again, I was distressed that it was so smoggy as it was annoying on my lungs and also for my camera.  It was hard to capture the true beauty of the massive complex of ancient buildings which make up the Forbidden City.

Yet another lion, the symbol of ancient dynastic China.

I could not stop marveling and snapping pictures of the exquisite Chinese architecture.  It was so intricately detailed and beautiful.

I was mesmerized by the glory of the Forbidden City and could hardly wait until we had time to check it out in full.   That would be saved for another day.

We got lost many times throughout the day.  Beijing is not that hard of a city to navigate yet we were tired and in a new, foreign land with oddly named streets and monuments to our western eyes.

We continued wandering until we unexpectedly came upon the entrance of Jingshan park, one of the premier parks in Beijing that offers a panoramic view of the Forbidden City from above.

We followed the hordes of people up the steep steps and arrived on top of the hill to be stunned to see the entire 800+ buildings of the Forbidden City laying before us.  Unfortunately as we climbed up, the thick layer of smog intensified giving the Forbidden City a forbidden, ghostly and surreal look.  I can only imagine what it would have looked like on a clear day (is that possible?).

Oh…the pollution (which the Chinese liked to call fog).  What a pity! I was so sad that none of my pictures turned out.  Yet this is the reality. 

For ten bucks, you could dress up as a Chinese empress or emperor…yet it felt a little too cheesy for me. 

The Buddhist temple on top was a delight to my weary eyes. 

The happy Buddha…

By five o’clock, we were back at the hotel for a quick happy hour and then off for our next adventure:  Dinner. 

We grabbed a cab and ended up on a wild goose chase all throughout the lights of Beijing.

We finally reached our destination, Ghost Street, an hour later. The brightly lit red lanterns were everywhere, just as the guide book had promised.  Yet the throng of people and endless amount of Chinese restaurants seemed to overwhelm us and make me want to hide.

Finally, we found a restaurant to rest our tired feet and were treated to live Chinese music.  What a way to ring in our first day in China!

Stay tuned….next post will be about my favorite subject:  Food!

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East versus West: My first bout with Chinese culture shock

Culture shock (noun):

a sense of confusion, discomfort, disorientation, and uncertainty felt by those exposed to a different cultural environment.

Even the statues have a third-eye….yet where was mine?

I woke up Saturday morning feeling foggy and confused.  Where am I again? I wondered half-awake.  Somehow or another, I managed to get four and half hours of alcohol-induced sleep yet my body was still terribly confused.  For it was 8 pm Friday night back home in Minneapolis and 8 am in Beijing.   I told myself that I just had to get through the first day as it is always the hardest.  Jet lag sucks.

I took a shower, and peered out the window of our hotel room.  Life outside was full of activity and noise.  Yet the sky looked like dirty water after washing the floor.  It was flat, gray, thick and dark.  Hmmm….was that what everyone said about Chinese pollution?  My mind returned back to last year’s trip to India and I realized without a doubt, yep here we go again.  Prepare myself to not see the real color of the sky or sun for the next ten days unless there is a magical lifting of the thick blanket of smog. That was my first experience with culture shock number 1.  Pollution.

The pesky, loud birds being sold directly across the street outside my hotel. 

I headed downstairs for breakfast.  Our hotel offered a splendid buffet included in the cost of our room.  I was actually hungry as it was dinner time for me.  I waltzed into the dining area, made myself my own personal espresso and then took a look around to investigate the offerings.  That was culture shock number 2 (it wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet!).  The food.

Don’t worry…this wasn’t our hotel buffet.  It was some of the street food sold directly outside our hotel every night. Here are legs and sometimes foots of pig.

Ok, I understood that I was in China and was prepared with the unfortunate knowledge that Chinese food is the one and only kind of food I cannot stand.  Yet I was hoping that perhaps Chinese food would be different in China, maybe even better.  Not the American over-greasy, over-fried and over-MSGed grub.  Well, it was different that is for sure.  But in my American eyes, it was shockingly different.  There were fish with heads on, friend rice for breakfast, and God knows what in the silver heated buffet trays.  I took in a whiff and suddenly felt sick.  How in the heck am I going to manage here?  Yet thank goodness I found the Western breakfast nearby.  You could get a prepared omelette or eggs by the egg chef or as much bread, jam and cheese as your heart desired.  They even had corn flakes!  So instead of diving into the fried rice or raw fish for breakfast, I went for what my body knows.  My third-eye was suddenly disappearing.

View of our soviet-exterior styled hotel (which was actually a highly rated and fabulous hotel) from across the street.  Look at the pollution in the air.

We left the hotel by 10 am to start our day exploring Beijing.  We didn’t really have a game plan for the first day since we knew we would be so tired.  Our only plan was to walk until we drop.  As we opened the door and headed out into the bustling streets of Beijing, I was hit with culture shock number 3.  The people.  We were instantly surrounded by black-haired Chinese people everywhere we turned.  As an American, I am so used to the diversity of people even in Minnesota that I found the sea of black-headed people all dressed in black, gray and blue to be a big shock.  Where were the Somalis, the Mexicans, the blonds, the red-heads, the African-Americans?  No where in sight.  It felt incredibly awkward to be two relatively tall Scandinavian looking Minnesotans in the heart of Beijing, a city of over 20 million people with one of the highest population densities of people per square foot in the world.

As we walked down Donghuamen Street, the main thoroughfare leading directly to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, I was suddenly struck with severe culture shock.  My mind started racing with doubts about coming here and I had to stop myself for a moment and remember the golden rule about culture shock.

That it happens.  It is nature.  You need to face it, deal with it, accept it, and then move on.  Culture shock is actually a process and depending on how different the host culture is compared with your culture, it is going to depend on how well and how fast you adapt.  For example, there is less culture shock traveling to a western country than an eastern one.

I knew I was extremely tired, jet-lagged and overwhelmed with my new environment.  I just had to remember to use that third-eye of mine and then everything would be fine.  The first day is always the hardest.

We had lunch at a recommended restaurant nearby our hotel.  We were the only Westerners inside but thankfully we didn’t get too many looks and felt perfectly comfortable.  I ordered cashew chicken and my dad decoded on some kind of spicy beef thing.  Beijing (also known as Peking) is famous for their Peking duck.  It is a specialty that we were told is a “must have” when you visit Beijing.  I enjoy duck so I thought I’d maybe give it a try.

I then instantly changed my mind once I saw it.   There it was, head and all, browned to a crisp and dripping with juices.  The sight of a dead, baked, not headless duck made my stomach churn.   The chef pushed the dead-baked-duck over to the next table, where he carved it tableside for the ravenous guests and then I watched how Peking duck is eaten.  Basically you take a slab of crispy fatty skin and use it as a tortilla adding vegetables and other delights inside, roll it up and enjoy.  I decided to change my mind about trying Peking duck.

My relatively tame lunch….yet where was the rice?

The now headless Peking duck….

Our lunch was good yet my body was not ready to handle such different foods.  As a preventative, I popped two pink Pepto tablets to line my stomach and keep in from harm.  Unfortunately I’ve gotten sick way too many times on past travels so I decided to be extra careful on this trip.  No lettuce, no raw veggies, no tap water and definitely no street food.

After lunch we walked over the Beijing’s premier walking street, Wangfujing, to check things out.  Once again, I was instantly inundated with culture shock.  The street food was repulsive (third-eye, where art thou?), the bright neon flashing lights too obnoxious and the floods of people everywhere, too overbearing.  We didn’t last long yet I managed to snap a ton of photos.  I couldn’t find a better way than pictures to express my serious dilemma with culture shock.

Wangfujing Walking and Shopping Street during the day.

Live Scorpions on a stick, anyone?  They are fried and eaten for special luck.

By four o’clock, we were completely wiped out.  Our feet throbbed, our brains ached and we felt a little disoriented.  It was time to have happy hour and take a few moments to decompress before heading out on our next adventure, dinner.

For such a big city, we hadn’t managed to scope out a dining choice for the night during our marathon, sightseeing walk.  Thus we had to go to Plan B:  Refer to my invaluable Lonely Planet guidebook.  Page 80 of Lonely Planet China highlighted a section of town called “Ghost Street”, a “don’t miss!” place.  The description is:

“Hopping at weekends and one of Beijing’s busiest and most colourful restaurant strips at virtually any hour.  Ghost Street is the nickname for this spirited section of Dongzhimennei Dajie, where scores of restaurants converge to feed legions of locals and out-of-towners.  Splendidly lit with red lanterns from dusk til dawn…”

After hearing the words “scores of restaurants” and “splendidly lit with red lanterns” I was in.  Yet little did I know this misadventure would only lead to furthering culture shock.

First of all, getting the correct translation of the words “Ghost Street” into Chinese took much time and many differing opinions.  The Chinese language is a complex creature and trying to convey the “correct” meaning is tricky.  Needless to say, we got it figured out after fifteen minutes and multiple disagreements among hotel staff.

Second of all, getting a cab in Beijing is no easy feat.  After many attempts to score a cab that would actually take us there, we finally just opened the door, jumped in, closed the door and then handed the cab driver the instructions “Take me to…” in Chinese.  This way there was no denying us.

Third of all, we got there an hour later thank planned, not the promised ten minute drive. The cab driver decided to take us on a little tour of Beijing so he could add on to the time.  Of course we couldn’t communicate with him and had to just sit and wait.  The fare ended up only being a few dollars so no real harm down.  But still!.

Ghost street at night.

Finally, once we arrived it was a complete red lantern, Chinese restaurant galore filled with mobs of people.  Talk about cultural overload!  Finally after walking block after block loaded with Chinese restaurants, defeated we opted on the only presentable choice:  Some kind of fancier-looking venue that had an over-the-top Charlie Trotter meets Jackie Chan menu.  It was gourmet Chinese to the extreme and there was hardly anything on the menu that I could possibly stomach to eat.  Thankfully almost everything in China is relatively cheap and after an incredibly spicy Sichuan pork dinner with chilis to kill, we were only out about $50.

My spicy, hot dinner again where was the rice?  I could have used some to cool things down. 

Ahhh….my mouth is on fire but I’m still smiling!

Exhausted, we literally jumped in a cab using the close-the-door approach, and headed back wearily to our hotel.  What a day of extremes!  My only hope was that my increasingly important third-eye would decide to show up soon and rescue me from the extreme, intense culture shock I was experiencing.

Stay tuned…next post will be a day of photographs:  First day in Beijing. I took too many pictures to put in this post and too many great ones that must be shared! 

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I landed in China after a thirteen hour non-stop flight from Chicago feeling elated, excited, tired and uncertain about what to expect.  I had been to Asia before with a visit last year to India and Nepal and trip to Japan years ago.  I’ve found these countries fascinating yet for some reason I was unsure what my expectations would be of China.  I had heard a lot about it.  Both good and bad.  It was time for me to judge for myself.

Of course I knew there would be tons of amazing history and culture to see.  Not many other places in the world can boast about having a 5,000 year-old civilization.  Yet I also knew it would be crowded, polluted, controlled, different, and perhaps confusing giving the huge paradox between the old and the new.

As I got off the plane and entered Beijing’s new Terminal 3, one of the largest terminals in the world that was completed just before the 2008 Olympics, my eyes widened.  It was so huge, so modern, and so clean.  This couldn’t be China, could it?

Photo taken just past midnight at Beijing International Airport’s Terminal 3. 

We retrieved our luggage, and wearily followed the clearly marked signs in English pointing to the taxi line.  Then, all hell broke loose.  As we stood there, waiting patiently in line, there was a mad dash of black-haired Chinese pushing past us and jumping into cabs haphazardly.  It was organized chaos.  It was so uncivilized.  It was China.

We arrived at our hotel well past one am, in a trance-like mood after so much travel.  I hardly noticed the row after row of street food canteens lining the brightly light streets.  Instead, what I noticed was the Soviet-looking appearance of our Trip Advisor rated hotel.  The outside was just plain old ugly.  Yet the inside was surprisingly nice.

We checked in to silence.  No one was around except a few late night stragglers coming back drunk, commenting on how wonderful the Beijing nightlife was.  The room was more than adequate (much nicer than the outside of the building) and since we were going on a twelve-hour time difference there was no way I could fall asleep.  It was 1 am yet my body was telling me it was noon.

My plan of attacking jet leg was to have a few glasses of wine, stay up for a while and then try to sleep four to five hours if possible.  It has worked before so I was hoping it would work this time.

I went down to the lobby to check my emails and enter my first blog post when I had my first real dose of serious culture shock.  I entered and nothing happened.  Hmmm.  I was tired but I couldn’t quite understand why on earth it wasn’t working.  I next went to my email and tried reading some of my fellow blog posts.  I could read the emailed short version but then when I clicked on the link to read more, it went blank.  Frustrated, I decided to try going on my Facebook page to send out a message to my friends that I had arrived and was here.  No dice.  It went blank.

It took me a day until it finally hit me that these sites as well as other social networking and media sites are blocked in China.  I couldn’t believe it.  I guess when I look back, it all makes sense to me and I should have known that this would be the case.  I know that China’s government censors all its media including the internet.  Yet for some reason I was completely taken aback.

I’ve heard stories off CNN being cut off right in the middle of a program.  Words being mysteriously erased from Obama’s speeches.  I’ve heard about the jailed and imprisoned writers, journalists and human rights activists who tried to speak their mind.  Yet I was absolutely stunned by the level of censorship on the big wide web.  How in the heck do they do it?

A timely November 7, 2011 article in the Financial Times claimed that:

“The heads of China’s leading information technology companies have pledged to censor internet content more strictly as the Communist party tries to tame the country’s boisterous online media”.

“While the Communist party regards the internet as making a positive contribution to economic development, it runs a vast censorship machine to ensure that online information does not challenge its grip of power”.

For a country that is advancing at lightning speed, with its 1.3 billion people wanting more and more a piece of the economic pie, I find this situation to be completely mind-boggling.   As an American, I’m used to being able to say or do what I want.  I had never realized how much I’d taken this liberty for granted until I was in a place where freedom of speech was gone.

Another big surprise was how incredibly slow the internet is in China.  Whenever you do a search, the internet runs at a snail’s speed to find or not find the answer.  I could just picture the giant censorship apparatus at work.  How do do it?

With anything illegal, of course there are ways around it.  Censorship can become uncensored.  You can use a proxy service to sneak into blogging sites or Facebook, if you like.  Likewise, many times things written in English from foreign sources are not censored (yet the Chinese versions are).  An American businessman I met traveling in China told me he could access Facebook only on his Blackberry.  And China does have their own Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter-like tools which are in demand and growing.  Yet it leads me to wonder how long this can really go on.  The estimated 500 million internet users in China only continue to grow, as does the breadth of the wild wild web.

Will censorship be possible forever?

Stay tuned…next will be Day 1 Culture Shock galore! 


Blogging Ban In China

Hello Readers! Greetings from China!

I’ve been here for two full exhilarating days now and am beyond tired. I have more things to write about after 48 hours than I can believe. It is a fascinating place!

Unfortunately, I’ve figured out after the first day that the strong arm of the Republic of China has blocked access to my beloved WordPress site as well as Facebook and Twitter. Unless you have a proxy, it is extremely difficult to get on these banned sites. Thus, to my disappointment I am unable to blog while I’m in China. I also cannot access any other features of the site including the comments. I can read them via email yet cannot reply so please hang tight. I will respond to your comments and continue blogging when I return home on November 6th (that is, of course, after I get over the jet lag…it is 13 hours ahead for me here!).

I am so excited to write about what I’ve seen and experienced here in China. In just two days, I’ve taken over 100 pictures and have written meticulous notes. I will have lots of great, interesting stories to share! I have constantly had to remind myself to use the “third-eye” approach. It has been an extreme culture shock here yet after two days now I’m feeling more myself.

So, please hold on tight. There will not be any posts for at least a week unless for some reason I’m able to get onto WordPress or can bother my husband again to post them for me (I am emailing him my posts and he is entering them on my site yet we are not including any photos since it is too much of a hassle).

In the meantime, if you are interested in hearing more of my stories, I have over 100 posts accumulated so far thus there is plenty to read. Check out my journeys to Morocco, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Iceland, Nepal, India or more.

As always, thanks for reading!


Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD

Flying High

I woke up Thursday morning after a rough night sleep of tossing and turning which has become the norm now before a big trip. I am actually surprised that I am able to sleep at all! But by now, I guess I’ve become sort of a veteran at taking these crazy, adventurous trips. All the normal worries and anxieties pass through my restless head. Will the kids do ok while I’m away? Will everything run smoothly at home for my list of helpers while I’m away? Will I get everything done before I have to catch my flight? Will the plane ride be smooth? Will I like where I’m going? And the list goes on.

I always find morning flights to be the best. You are stressed the moment you wake up and hop out of bed, yet then after you arrive at the airport and check in, you can sit back and relax. Afternoon and evening flights are the worst. Then you have the entire day to stress out about it and it pretty much feels like a wasted day. You can’t do much since of course you’ve already packed. Then your mind keeps going and going and a mixture of emotions race through your blood all day long, ranging from anxiety, stress, nervousness to excitement and joy. When you through in the fact you are leaving your family to go half way around the world, it feels even worse and then the guilt and worry come along to mess your stomach up even more. The nerves are the hardest part.

By 3:15, the familiar maroon-colored minivan taxi showed up outside my door. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry or lose it. I had to remember to be strong for my kids. I gave them both multiple hugs and kisses, trying to keep my emotions at bay, and then a final hug and kiss to my husband who had come home early to watch the kids while I left. The kids stood waving in the distance and blowing me kisses. They’ll be fine, I sighed. Thank God they weren’t crying; otherwise I’d be a real wreck. I turned and waved one last goodbye and felt relieved that I could finally leave and get on with the trip. Once I’m in the cab, I’m on my way. I’m always fine and relieved to be past the “saying goodbye” thing which in my opinion is the hardest part about leaving.

I arrived at the airport ready to get out of the cab. Once again, I had a chatty cabbie who talked my ear off about the state of the Minnesota economy. I went through security feeling proud that everything had gone so smoothly until I heard the security agent remind us to take out all our lotions and gels. I opened my backpack to realize I mistakenly packed my bathroom bag with everything inside. My toothbrush, deodorant, sleep aids, etc. Oh well. My first mistake. I’d survive.

I headed over to the place I’d be dreaming about all day, the Surdyk’s Wine Bar and Cafe, an awesome little spot tucked away inside all the mayhem of the airport. I discovered this great spot on a previous trip and couldn’t wait to come back. It is fantastic! I ordered up a wine flight of “adventurous whites” (which was probably a little too much to start out with) and a cheese trio plate that was delightful and fully-eaten. I finally let out a breath of air and let the tension drift out of my neck and shoulders. I knew I had two flights and 15 hours of air travel ahead of me, so the nice alcohol-induced relaxation did me well.

The flight to Chicago was uneventful. It is short and sweet. I arrived at 7 pm to find my traveling partner, my smiling Dad, waiting right outside the gate. We headed right for the lounge where we had another glass of wine together and talked about our trip.

I was flying high and in style. For the first time in my life, I was flying overseas First Class. My dad, being an avid traveler, knows how to work the deals and somehow managed to use miles to snag us two first-class roundtrip tickets to China. I know, this sounds completely spoiling, and I must admit, it is. But since I’m not independently wealthy or famous, to me flying up in the front of the 777 was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done! For once in my life, I couldn’t wait to board that 13 hour flight. I would get to check out what it was like to be one of those people!!!!! Plus of course, it would be a great blog post for my fellow travelers to give them a bird’s eye view of what it is like to be at the nose of the plane.

When I saw my seat, all I could think about was that Fergie’s song, “Glamorous”. I can’t seem to get the words out of my head…

“G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S, yeah G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S
We flying the first class
Up in the sky
Poppin’ champagne
Livin’ the life
In the fast lane
And I won’t change
By the Glamorous, oh the flossy flossy”

We boarded our American Airlines non-stop flight to Beijing at 8:30 pm, and this time we got to get on first. I had never been up here before so was excited to check out my home for the next 13 hours. There are four enormous rows along the windows with one seat each, which turns completely flat into a nice, cozy bed. Then there are four rows of two seats running down the middle of the plane which are flatbeds as well. Thus, there are 16 first class seats on the plane and only about half of them were taken. Apparently four of the seats are reserved for the crew to take their breaks. (As I type there are two of the pilots sleeping directly in front of me. It is a strange sight to see! But at least you know they are taking a break).

The flight path is very interesting. Basically the plane takes off and heads directly north over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Canada and travels directly over the North Pole and down into China. Since you leave so late at night, it is pitch black out the entire time. It is so strange to not see the sun for so long, especially when you wake up. Your body is telling you it is morning yet there is no sunlight and you are being served pizza! This whole time change thing is quite bizarre.

My dad and I enjoyed our service with pleasure. We were served wonderful wine, a three-course meal and even dessert. By 11:30 pm, I was utterly exhausted. I could hardly keep my eyes open and probably had a little too much of that free wine. I put on my “free” pair of American Airlines pajamas, turned my seat into a bed and waited graciously while the flight attendant performed a turn down service. They actually put a thin mattress over the seat, a nice warm blanket and even gave me a pair of slippers for the restroom! Wow, it is no wonder these seats cost a fortune! Yet I thoroughly enjoyed this luxury knowing very well that it is most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity. I certainly won’t be flying this way again and know very well that next time I’ll be back there like the rest of the passengers, crammed into a tiny, miserably uncomfortable sardine can like seat for thirteen hours while listening to screaming babies and not sleeping a wink. So, I will enjoy this moment of being spoiled and remember it painfully next time I’m flying in coach.

Note: I’m having difficulty using wordpress here so I may not do too many posts.