Trip to China

Our 1st trip to China was amazing!

For years we have been talking to our friends from Maryland (the Zhou’s) that one of these summers we would love to travel with them to China. The Zhou’s (Joey, Cherry and James) are our great friends and former neighbors from the time we lived in Maryland (and James and Alex, the same age, are also great friends). The Zhou’s are from China and go back about every other summer to visit family and friends. The summer of 2008 was the date we always chatted with each other to visit together and potentially to go see some of the summer Olympics in Beijing. In the end we decided to go before the Olympics due to budget restrictions and the need to accommodate everyone’s schedule. In January of 2008 we booked our airline tickets round trip from San Francisco to Beijing, departing on July 16, returning on July 28th. The rest of the travel details – to include airline travel within China – we would leave to very close to arrival, with most of these details in the hands of our friends.

Below is a brief overview of the cities we visited:

1st city visited: Wuhan

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, and is the most populous city in central People’s Republic of China. The city of Wuhan, first termed as such in 1927, has a population of approximately 9,100,000 people (2006). Wuhan is recognized as the political, economic, financial, cultural, educational and transportation center of central China. (Source, Wikipedia).

2nd city visited: Kunming

Kunming is a prefecture-level city and capital of Yunnan province, in southwestern China. Because of its year-round temperate climate, Kunming is often called the “Spring City” or “City of Eternal Spring”.

Kunming is the political, economic, communications and cultural center of Yunnan. It is also home to several universities, museums, galleries and other important economic, cultural, and educational institutions. The headquarters of many of Yunnan’s large businesses are in Kunming as well. Kunming has an estimated population of 5,740,000 and is located at the northern edge of the large Lake Dian, surrounded by temples and lake-and-limestone hill landscapes. (Source, Wikipedia).

3rd city visited: Lijiang

Lijiang City is a prefecture-level city in northwestern Yunnan Province, China. It has an area of 21,219 square kilometers and a population of 1,137,600 as of 2005. (Source, Wikipedia).

4th city visited: Beijing

Beijing is a city in northern China and the capital of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. Beijing is China’s second largest city, after Shanghai. It is a major transportation hub, with dozens of railways, roads and motorways passing through the city. Beijing is recognized as the political, educational, and cultural center of the People’s Republic of China, while Shanghai and Hong Kong predominate in economic fields.[3] The population of Beijing Municipality, defined as the total number of people who reside in Beijing for 6 months or more per year, was 17.43 million in 2007. In addition, there is a large but unknown number of migrant workers (min gong) who live illegally in Beijing without any official residence permit (or unregistered people).[54] The population of Beijing’s urban core (city proper) is around 7.5 million. (Source, Wikipedia)

The details!

7/15/08

Our flight left for SFO in the afternoon flying SWA. We spent the night at the SFO Airport Marriott and had dinner that night at Benihana. The service and food were OK…. We were looking forward to some good Chinese food :-)

7/16/08

Our flight left in the AM on the 16th – a direct flight from SFO to Beijing. While we were waiting for our flight in the SFO airport we all had chair massages. It was a good start to a 12 hour flight across the world! We lucked out on the flight as it was only about 1/3 full. Each of us could stretch out over 3 or 4 seats and sleep… very nice… but had a feeling we wouldn’t experience this on the way home (and we were right!). We got into Beijing and had to switch terminals to take a flight to Wuhan. The main purpose to going to Wuhan was to meet up with our friends, the Zhou’s, who were already there visiting family (Joey’s parents, brother and sister in law, and their son live there).

The bus to the other terminal was absolutely packed… we waited for the next bus and were first in line. Five minutes later the next bus came and people started crowding around us. Within 15 seconds the bus was mostly full and although Alex and Maria pushed our way onto the bus, Lang almost missed the bus! Interesting 1st impression to the way all public transportation is in China – PACKED – you need to usually be aggressive to get your spot or you’ll get left behind.

The restrooms are overall a very interesting experience in China. When Maria entered the restroom in the airport there were a couple stalls with nothing but a ‘hole in the ground’. [Not a dirt hole... but a smaller porcelain bowl built into the floor] This was a new and interesting concept for a toilet that later in the trip would be used (out of necessity only). In addition, it is necessary to make sure when traveling in China to always bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer – as that was not always available in the public restrooms (that was learned the hard way in the beginning). You also have to learn to be aggressive at holding your place in line, as others will be quick to take your place :-) .

7/17/08

We made it to Wuhan about 9:30 pm (we lost 15 hrs traveling from SFO to China). Joey and his brother (Feng Zhou) met us at the airport. It was great to see a familiar and friendly face. They took us to the hotel (a Ramada), where we checked in and immediately went to bed.

7/18/08

The next Am we woke up early (around 6am) and Alex and I went to the health club to work out a little. The hotel is very nice for a Ramada. All international hotels, regardless of their brand, seem to offer a lot more amenities than in the US, and the service was great here. We spent the day at an historic site, a museum / park in honor of a famous Wuhan poet (Qu Yuan). The park was very pretty. We then went to the Hubei Provincial Museum and saw a concern with ancient Chinese symbols. It seems that most of the girls (women that perform and work in the various tourist areas (including the hotels) are all very pretty.

Traffic is crazy – as no one observes the street rules. Constantly people are cut off and pedestrians must all beware! However, even with the extreme lack of law obeying of traffic rules, there doesn’t seem to be much road rage. Perhaps Chinese drivers (and pedestrians) have just accepted this is the way it is and there’s no reason to get upset.

That night we went to dinner at a great restaurant. It was huge restaurant – 4 stories high and every seat was taken. We got in at the last minute because of Joey’s brother and Dad’s local connections. We had our own private dining room overlooking the city. After dinner (and crossing the street while taking our life in our own hands) we went to a karaoke bar. Karaoke appears to be very popular in China, and there are quite a few bars in Wuhan. Again we had our own private room (thank goodness:-)). Joey, James cousin (Jiy Ray), and Joey’s brother Feng Zhou) sang great! After that we went across the street (again- risking our lives!) to walk along the Yangtze River. The river area was packed with locals enjoying the nice night and festivities. The kids bought some “sky lanterns”. What is a “sky lantern”? According to wikipedia a sky lantern is:

“Sky lanterns are traditionally lanterns made of oiled rice paper with a bamboo frame containing a small candle or fuel cell, which is a waxy combustible material. When lit the fuel cell heats the air, creating smoke, and causes the lantern to rise into the air. The Sky Lantern is airborne for approximately 15 minutes, or until the fuel cell is exhausted, after which the lantern floats back to the ground. They achieve quite a height and launching them in strong winds is not recommended. It is considered good luck to release a sky lantern, and many Thais believe they are symbolic of problems and worries floating away.”

There were some high winds and they had a little struggle getting them lit and airborne. We also had to keep an eye out for other lanterns that were mis-launched, coming close to lighting us on fire! Maria thought this may be a fire hazard for the city. We went back to the hotel around midnight ready for a good nights sleep.

7/19/08

The next AM we woke around 9, grabbed some breakfast and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Kunming. There were 8 of us total traveling, the Zhou’s (Joey, Cherry and James), the 3 of us, and Joey’s mom and James cousin Jiy Ray (Joey’s brother’s son). Joey’s mom did not speak English, and Jiy Ray a little. The airport scene in most of the Chinese airports we visited seemed chaotic and unorganized. There is no such thing as group 1,2,3,4 or A, B, etc… its just “all aboard”, and everyone jostles it the line to get ahead. What appears to us Westerners as potentially being disrespectful is most likely just a way of life for the Chinese.

After a 2 hour flight our tour guide (Ms. Chen) met us at the airport and a bus took us to the hotel. The tour guide only spoke mandarin, but Joey would translate for us periodically. We checked into the hotel and left quickly to go to a dinner show. The dinner show was primarily a music showcasing beautiful costumes and dancing. It’s called “Worldwide Business Show” and displayed 56 ethnic styles of dances and costumes. There was lots of local food, but because we booked last minute we ended up sitting in the back and couldn’t see the stage too well.

That night Maria didn’t sleep that well. The bed was hard (which seemed to be the case at all hotels we stayed at except the JW Marriott in Beijing) and the hotel wasn’t too nice (not a Marriott:-)) – but the room and the bathroom was clean.

7/20/08

We woke up early to go to Stone Forest. It was absolutely beautiful. We ended up renting a little cart (with a driver) to take us around. The kids had fun buying bamboo hats and drinking a little beer for lunch. There is no drinking age in China.

On our way back from Stone Forest we stopped at a market that sold many things (as they all do), but the specialty was tea. We had a presentation on various teas (each one could solve a different health problem), then ended up purchasing quite a bit (almost all the tea in China:-)). We had lots of fun sampling all the teas!

We caught a flight this evening for Lijiang and checked into the hotel. Apparently this is a 4 star hotel… The ‘fitness area’ was very disappointing (mostly to Maria) as it consisted of a treadmill that was at least 20 years old (and not working), and some very old weight equipment. But it did have a ping pong table, which the boys enjoyed. And again – the room and bathroom were clean (what more could you want:-)).

7/21/08

Today after breakfast we took a 2 1/2 hour bus ride to Wu Tiao Sha, also called “Tiger Jump Gorge”. (Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 metres wide), hence the name.) We walked along a Stone Wall for about 45 minutes each way, alongside a huge river called Jin Sa Jiang. We kept being told to walk close to the wall to avoid falling stone. We walked stairs which were literally located right next to the rapids. The kids got soaked. We had a good time laughing about a very pretty Chinese girl that stopped Alex and asked for a picture with him:-) Lang was intrigued with the bathroom design… very different here! The bus ride back was long, windy, and bumpy – but the scenary was simply beautiful. Lots of farm land and beautiful green everywhere the eye could see.

That night we ate at a restaurant where we watched them take out the fish we would eat for dinner from a small stream they had located on the main level of the restaurant. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! There were also rabbits caged in the front of the restaurant… we were pretty sure they weren’t pets….

Overall the meals here are (no surprise) very different. 1st of all, many of the meat dishes are served displaying the entire body. This includes not only the fish, but chickens as well. The silverware is of course chopsticks, and for a plate it is usually a very small appetizer size plate and a bowl. The fish usually has many bones, which forces you to eat slower (it is also an art we quickly learned). Everything is served family style and you take small portions at a time to enjoy.

7/22/08

Alex and Maria were sick most of the day with bad stomach problems (we’ll leave it at that). Probably just a combination of being tired from travel, changes in time zones and drastic changes to our daily diet. They couldn’t travel that day with the others who went to Snow Mountain. They stayed behind to sleep, but did manage to play some cards and walk around a little. Lang got to ride up a gondola to get a better view of Snow Mountain, but the clouds obstructed most of the view. Later that day Alex & Maria were feeling better and everyone went to see a beautiful garden. There were pools of colorful fish and a huge Buddha gold statue.

7/23/08

Today we went to some more beautiful gardens. There are many opportunities to shop and the local items are very reasonable, especially after a couple of negotiation rounds. The kids found a place that sold fake luxury bags and great coffee (what a combination!). Many of us ended up buying something. The shop owner said that the material used is the scrap from the real bags. (good story – but questionable!) Regardless of the authenticity of the bags, the fun part was watching our friends’ negotiate. In the end the price was about ½ to ¼ of the original asking – but it took a while and in the end we felt like we got a great bargain (I think the shop owners did too!).

The weather here is amazing. No need in any buildings for air conditioning or heat year round.

Late in the day our bus driver took us to a place where the kids could play basketball. We also saw a local gym area where a Chinese team was playing a game. It was an amazing facility that included tennis, a driving range & fishing. We then went to look at a place for sale in what they call “Old Town”, the heart of the city where all the great shopping, dining and accommodations area. The place was over 10,000 sq feet and could be used for a hotel and restaurants (it is the owner’s decision as to how to use the space). Although we weren’t sure of the asking price, we were fairly certain that for the right person this place would be a great investment as over the last few years’ real estate prices have tripled!

That night the kids went to Dico’s (fast food) while we went to dinner.

7/24/08

Tonight we are leaving Lijiang so we needed to checkout of the hotel in the AM. We decided at the beginning of the day to upgrade our hotel in the next city we visit (Kunming) to a 5 star hotel. The 4 star (the star rating apparently are different in China compared to the US) was not quite as nice as we expected (or Maria did?). We were looking forward to a little nicer hotel.

We started the day with a horseback ride. It was great! It lasted almost 2 hours and went through very rough mountainous area. The trail we took is a trail that goes through Tibet to Nepal. To do the whole thing would take about 5 – 6 months (no time for that!). We had 2 guides with us and they walked the whole way! Cherry, Joey’s mom, and Lang didn’t go but went on a boat ride instead. Our horses trotted a lot – and it seemed that this adventure wouldn’t be allowed in the US due to liabilities.

In the afternoon we went to a hot spring bath. It was a huge pool with a few smaller ones surrounding. They say it is all natural and that the water they get in the area is twice as hot as the pool – in other words, they need to cool it down before filling the pool water (it was pretty hot). Lang thought maybe they didn’t chlorinate the water at all – because they said it was all natural and they changed the water every couple of days…. we decided it was clean enough and enjoyed an hour or so in the pool.

From the bath house we left for the airport to catch a flight back to Kunming. The airport in Lijiang is very small – there is only one small check-in desk for all airlines and it took about an hour to check in. it was chaotic… but somehow, with the help of our tour guide, we got through it.

We got into Kunming late that night and checked into the hotel. It was a little nicer than the previous “4 Star” hotel we stayed in for our 1st round in Kunming, but not a lot. The carpets were old, somewhat dirty and worn, and the lamp shades stained. However, the beds were a little bigger, the bathroom nicer, and the fitness area a little more acceptable. They also had a pool, which the boys enjoyed (although it wasn’t heated very much), and a ping pong table. They also had room service which worked out well since we were hungry and it was much too late to go out to dinner. Maria decided to test out ordering room service on her own (without our friends interpreting), only to find out that the person on the other end of the phone didn’t understand what a “chef salad” was. Even though this is a bigger city than Lijiang, many of the staff still didn’t understand English. Maria got Joey to help out (once again:-)). Maria also found it strange (ok – very frustrating) that the fitness center didn’t open until 9am in the morning… apparently this is the standard in Kunming (I guess folks in Kunming don’t like to work out at 6am?).

7/25/08

The next day we decided not to do anything until 12noon (checkout time). This gave Maria a chance to work out (since they didn’t open until 9) and the boys’ time to swim and play table tennis. All the boys had fun playing ping pong with a couple local retired Chinese ladies who were quite good! Joey took his mom and nephew to the airport earlier in the AM, as they were not with us to Beijing but instead going back to their home in Wuhan.

We left the hotel at 12noon and had the driver and tour guide drive us around to do some shopping before we caught our flight to Beijing. We stopped in at a local bakery for pastries and a local outdoor market as Lang had a craving for oranges. We learned that a couple days prior to our arrival in Kunming there was a bus bombing, so security at the airport was extremely tight and we had to arrive at the airport 3 hours prior to departure. However, we were able to check in fairly quickly, and our flight left to Beijing at 7pm.

We got in to Beijing very late (11pm). What a change in the cities from others visited! This is a huge city, with lots of shopping, dining, nice hotels and of course, many more people. We were told by our driver that the far left lane of the highway was reserved for the “Olympics”. There was absolutely no on using it… but the other few lanes (even at 11pm) were very busy. Seemed like a strange idea to us. By the time we checked into the hotel it was very late and we were tired, but immediately became energized by the beauty of the hotel (The JW Marriott Hotel In Beijing, only 1 year old, would rank well over a 5 star:-)). Thanks to my friend Greg Albertini, we had been upgraded to a beautiful suite with a connecting room for the boys. Everything in the hotel was amazing, to include the amenities and the service. Wow – this is what a JW brand is international – really spectacular and hard to explain unless you experience it. This is definitely the nicest hotel we have ever been in. Everything in the room was electronic, to include the window shades! The furniture was classy, modern and very tasteful. The location was great and the service unbeatable. If you called for something for your room is was brought within 5 minutes. Regarding housekeeping there are no such things as service carts – as apparently the housekeepers carry what they need from room to room. The room (and rest of the hotel for that matter) is spotless. The fitness area and pool are great – and I’ve heard the spa is as well (although we didn’t have time to check it out).

7/26/08

It is overcast today with this strange ‘haze’ over the entire city. We quickly figured out that it wasn’t fog, but pollution. This stayed over the city the entire time we were there – and really started to bother Lang over the few days we were there.

Today we ventured out and checked out the subway! Of course we were that courageous only because of our mandarin speaking friends were by our side (Ha Ha) and we managed to make it to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City for only $2 RMB (about $.30 each). The subway was very crowded – definitely standing room only – but comfortably air conditioned with TV’s where we could watch a soccer game! We spent a couple hour walking around the Forbidden City, before heading back to the hotel. It was very hot and humid… so that was about all we could take. That night we ate at the Asian Bistro restaurant in the hotel. It was a buffet, and the display of food was absolutely extravagant – more than we could possibly try – with many chefs around to help describe what the food was and what the ingredients’ were. It was a great experience. We were also upgraded to the concierge floor (thanks again Greg), where we were treated to a unique concierge experience. The food display was always plentiful and varied, with lots of space to spread out and enjoy each others company. We also had computers and free internet access, so Maria got caught up on the communication from her Accounting class and Alex caught up with friends.

7/27/08

Today we left the hotel around 9am and hired a driver to take us to the Great Wall of China. It was about an hour drive and we were able to drive by the Olympic “Bird Cage”. It is an incredible structure. When we arrived at the Great Wall we took a Gondola ride part way up the wall (it felt a little like cheating!). We walked the wall for about an hour – it was very scenic even though it was overcast (that ‘pollution’ issue again). It was very crowded, especially in areas where the wall was very narrow. The kids got tired and wanted to take a ‘sliding chair’ partway back down the wall. Lang and Maria decided to walk a little more and go back the way we came (the Gondola).

We got back to the hotel late in the afternoon, and after grabbing a light snack in the concierge lounge, ventured out to do some shopping. We went to this place called the “Pearl Market”. Wow – it was 4 floors of vendors selling everything from pearls, purses, scarfs, electronics, clothes, etc, etc. They were extremely aggressive sales people and would call out to you as you walked by saying such things as “hey lady, want to buy a purse”… “hey lady, what’s your name? look at this pretty scarf”.. and on and on. Our friends quickly taught us the art of negotiation – and by the end of the day, we knew that whatever the vendors would say they wanted, we would end up usually offering 1/4 or less of that. It became a little addicting… the negotiation piece as well as the desire for the merchandise. At the end of the day we were exhausted from shopping and ended up having to buy a new suitcase! We took our suitcases and merchandise and walked a couple blocks away to eat dinner at this great restaurant. The food was great and it was an awesome way to spend our last night in China. After that we grabbed a taxi (that was a little more difficult than we thought as a few cab drivers refused to take us because they didn’t know where the JW was) and went back to the hotel. We all went swimming then packed to leave the next day.

7/28/08

The next day we got up, had breakfast, and left the hotel in the AM to catch our flight to SFO. We had no problems getting on our flight, and it was a smooth 12 hrs to SFO direct from Beijing. We lucked out in SFO and were able to catch a direct flight early afternoon to Phoenix (we originally were going to need to change planes in San Diego). We got home that night around 6pm (same day.. amazing how easy time travel is!).

Lang’s Notes:

  • Lot’s of care went into the landscaping along ALL the roads we drove on in ALL the cities.
  • The drivers are nuts! They don’t pay attention to the lane lines. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way… They will run you over in a cross walk. On the country roads the drivers would all honk when they passed someone. And they would even pass going up a hill and turning a corner…If there was on-coming traffic it’s lights out!!!
  • There are umbrellas every where, rain or shine! Many women were riding bikes/mopeds and carrying umbrellas. They are used to shield from the sun. Probably healthier than the chemicals in sunscreen.
  • Lots of women ridding Sidesaddle on the back of a bicycle with another person pedaling. Some women weren’t even holding on, but seem to have great balance.
  • I still can’t believe all the things the people would carry on their bikes!!!
  • People seemed friendly and happy.
  • Everywhere there was a garbage can, there was also a recycle can… Everywhere… much more than in the US. Nice to see.
  • The air quality in Beijing really bothered me. It seemed to give me a funny taste in my mouth.
  • I enjoyed the food and never got sick from it, which is more than I can say for back home.
  • Nice subway system in Beijing. Could go anywhere for about $0.30.
  • Gas prices are controlled by the government. I’ve heard journalists say that gas was around $2.50/gal. I calculated it at $3.40/gal (pump price was 6.20 yuan/litre ; 1 US gallon = 3.78541178 liters ; 6.75 yuan = 1 us dollar)
  • All 5 flights we took within China were completely full! The cost per ticket was around $100.
  • China is composed of 56 ethnic groups. (Han Chinese 91.5%, Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uyghur, Tujia, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan, Buyi, Dong, Yao, Korean, and other nationalities 8.5%). Lijiang is the main region inhabited by the Naxi ethnic group.
  • In China they say and write their last name, first. Above, Maria has written last names, last. I suppose that is why on the visa application it is not called a ‘last name’, but a ‘family name’.

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