Journey to Shangri La – China 2013

 


Door County, Wisconsin and China?

 

What? There is a connection there? Well, yeah. The reason we’re going to China is because we went to Wisconsin … and yes, China (Beijing) is more than 6500 miles from Door County. The family had scheduled an 80th birthday party for Aunt JoAnn in Sheboygan, and we wanted to attend. While we were planning our trip to the celebration, it seemed logical to take some extra time to visit another area of Wisconsin – the Door County peninsula. Filled with state parks and plenty of hiking and photo opportunities we had a wonderful experience. On several occasions, on our way to one state park or another, we passed by an Asian art and antique gallery in Ellison Bay.

Curiosity about an Asian art gallery in Ellison Bay, WI got the best of us and we stopped in the Linden Gallery. Like a museum filled with high-end paintings, antiques, jewelry and Asian objets d’art, we wandered about and became engaged in conversation with the lone salesperson. The exchange turned to travel and styles of travel, and when the subject of travel in China came up, we mentioned that it had never been on our radar. We were then told that the owners of the gallery also owned one of China’s most unique cultural retreats – the Linden Centre. We purchased a couple of small items, and were handed a deluxe brochure about the Linden Centre.

Intrigued, we still weren’t convinced about travelling to China, until, while perusing their website, Jeannie came across a section called “Themed programs”. Among the cooking and painting-based programs was “A Photojourney in Yunnan”. The small group (15 max) program would spend days photographing exotic locations, as well as engage in group critiques, portfolio reviews and presentations. That was the clincher.  So for the past year or so we have been busy working on arrangements, flights, visas, immunizations and other details.

So, that is the short version of the Door County – China connection. Less than two weeks and counting.


Time Check

 

We are now getting very close to our departure date. Since I like to measure things, I checked our flight times. Orlando to LA is 5 hours, LA to Beijing 12.5 and then to Kunming is 3.5 hours. So we’ll spend 21 hours of butt-in-airplane-seat time; well, actually more since you board and wait, then land, wait and go thru customs.

Hmmm, so how many total hours start to finish? I think there will be about 8-10 hours of airport time. So now we’re at almost 3 days of travel time. We leave on Monday and land on Wednesday at about 10 in the morning. Then the plan is to tour the markets, and dine in a restored courtyard mansion. Think I’ll need a power nap in there, and definitely a shower.

Now to think about packing, but that will have to be another post. What clothing is best to wear for a 3 day journey?!

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Going, Going, There

 

Orlando to Los Angeles,

Rising above the clouds, we began the first leg of our journey Monday, following the sunset toward LA.

We had been packed for hours prior to being given a ride to the Orlando airport by Jeannie’s brother and his partner. Negotiating check-in and security was standard, uneventful, and often confusingly stupid. Quickly getting to our “Comfort Economy” seats, we settled into the spacious first-class-wannabe accommodations, thanks to a free upgrade Jeannie worked out from Delta.

LA to Beijing

mg_3463Ugh, 12.5 hours in the air. We left LA at about 1:40am (LA time) Tuesday, and I don’t remember much more than that. We did each manage to get a few hours sleep. Plane food was terrible (is it ever good?)!

Beijing to Kunming

We had to dash to make it through customs, security and across the terminal to catch the connection just for another 3.5 hours in the air. A shower will be the highest priority after hotel check-in.

Kunming

Made it to the hotel in downtown Kunming with the group and quickly showered, dressed and went out for a short walk followed by a much longer walking tour of the old town and the Green Lake sections of Kunming. There were wonderful markets and vendors in a setting that ranged from ancient to modern.

Tomorrow … off to Dali.

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Day-2 Kunming to Dali to Linden Centre

 

Our brief time in Kunming is mostly a blur. Jet lag, cars, trucks, motorbikes, bikes, and pedestrians wove crazy confusion to the senses. Dinner was a traditional meal with many dishes set on the large lazy-susan in the middle of the tables. Our guides from the Linden Center translated the names of the dishes, though some of the ingredients were unfamiliar. We learned that it is perfectly acceptable to spit the crunchy unexpected items onto the table (frog bones or chicken feet, we didn’t really want to know.) Beer was good, even at room temperature.

Sleep came easy, although Jeannie’s biological alarm clock which usually goes off at 4am traveled to China with us. Morning was busy, breakfast at 7 with the goal to depart at 7:30 to avoid traffic. Good plan, marginal in reality! The expected 4 hour journey was actually about 8 due to our stops. With half the group women, 3 stops were required, and quite different hygiene conditions were experienced. I’ll only say at one of the stops, an option of going behind trees would have been preferred.

The countryside was varied, some green and heavily forested areas to terraced farms ranging from dry soil being manually turned in preparation for sowing, to crops in the later stage of production. Road conditions were good, though vehicles with differing loads and engine strength strained due to the hilly terrain. As we approached Dali, the foothills of the Himalayas bordered our left, with high hills to the right (also mountains by Fl standards). Marble and quartz is mined in this area, with signs and monuments along the road. The 3 pagodas are visible from the road but we will experience this area more on another day. We turned off the main highway and drove along smaller village roads and made several more turns before coming to the Linden Center.

We were warmly greeted by Jeanee and Brian Linden, and their two sons. Our passports were collected, and keys distributed, then we were shown to the dining room for a very late lunch (4pm). We were served a traditional noodle soup. A large bowl of hot flavorful broth was the base, then we added a small plate of thinly sliced meats and vegetables, followed by the noodles. Parsley, scallions and peanuts were added for additional flavor and texture. And of course some local Dali beer completed our lunch.

After showering, thee was a wine (and other alcohols) tasting on the rooftop terrace(quite interesting brews made from rice, sorghum and other flavorings). Dinner was an assortment of veggie and meat/chicken dishes, all very flavorful but not too spicy! We then had our first photo workshop meeting, introductions, then discussion/guidance from our leader. A quick drink in the bar, then bed. We get to sleep till 7, but will we?!

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Day 3 Xizhou (Shee Jo)

 

We woke at 7 and went to the rooftop terrace for sunrise. The light and clouds over the mountains, clean air and birdsong provided sense of peace and calm. People walking and riding into town began to increase and workers beginning tasks on farms. Garlic harvest continues, dispersing fragrance in the air. Bags of garlic cloves weighing 60-100 pounds were carried by the women using a strap across their forehead and around the bags on their backs. We are told that the selection and purchase of the strap is a very personal thing, choosing decorations and style.

After breakfast, Brian Linden accompanied us into town. He is well known by the townspeople and one can sense the contribution to the local economy that the Lindens have made. We stopped in old Bai-style courtyards and Brian described the living arrangements in the large old buildings, and the role of government vs personal ownership. One can determine the number of families living in a structure by counting the number of electric boxes over the front entrance.

The local taxi service is provided by brightly colored horse-drawn carriage. Again it seemed that Brian knows everyone in this village and he greets the locals by name and with respect as they greet him. We stopped in a couple of antique shops, where our pause lengthened due to the interest in the jewelry items. Some of us broke off from the group to explore more and shop less. As Brian had brought several other employees with him, each group had someone to assist and guide us. We wandered through the local market where fresh vegetables, spices, sweets and meats were displayed in different sections.

We stopped at one courtyard and watched a woman making cheese. The contributing cow lazed in an adjoining area. Being offered a sample, we threw caution to the wind and it was tasty. The custom with this variety is to sprinkle sugar on it. There were various items on display and sale at this same place, so we purchased a pretty blue and white tablecloth; this one is from this specific area of Yunnan province.

It was time for lunch so back to the Linden Center for another wonderful meal. Several of the women decided to return to the village for more shopping. We found another batik shop that also carried scarves so it was a lengthy stop as we all make purchases. After more shopping, we stopped at the local “pizza” maker for a savory bread and sweet bread we all shared. On our way through the village we noticed more non-Asian tourists.

After dinner, a local group of Bai musicians and dancers put on a performance for us. It was also a session for photography during and after the performance. At breaks in the music, we were provided with 3 courses of tea. Each one symbolized a phase of life: bitter tasting brew reflecting the early years of life, sweet (flavored with almonds and honey) for the prime of life, and the last with the citron numbing fruit.

Oh, and Chris wandered the streets photographing all of the sights of the village.

A beautiful end to a wonderful day.

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Day-4 Tea Plantation and Dali Old Town

Our day started with a tour of a local tea plantation. We were presented with the history of the plantation, and a tasting of both green and black teas. There were 2 activities to choose from: some were guided to pick tea leaves and then process it for future consumption, others including Chris and I, wandered the path up to the waterfall. Since this is still the dry season, there was no water falling.

Lunch was then served in the restaurant at the plantation. Another amazing array of dishes using local ingredients such as fern fiddleheads, kale-like greens, fennel with preserved eggs, and the buds of a local tree.

We then boarded our bus to travel to Dali old town. Chris wandered the town with his camera, while Jeannie joined the group for a foot, neck and shoulder massage. An hour of mixed pain and pleasure for a total of $8.50. We then wandered through various shops, making purchases along the way. A final stop for ice cream — coconut saffron for Jeannie and honey walnut for Chris.

Back to the Linden Center (except for 6 who stayed at the “Bad Monkey” bar, and later told tales of revelry recorded on someone’s ipad!) Dinner was delicious as always. The evening concluded with a photo workshop activity, though Jeannie stayed in the room, sipping wine and working on yesterday’s blog.

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Day-5 Zhou Cheng Village,and Cormorant Fishing

 

We traveled a short distance to the village of Zhou Cheng, stopping at a tie-dye “factory”. A lesson was ready for us: a square of cloth with a butterfly pattern on it, needle threaded for us, and guides who helped us take our first stitches, and then showed us how to work the different parts of the pattern. Once completed, we submitted our work to the dye, master while we shopped the items produced by the factory that were for sale. With many women, shopping is never a short activity.

We then walked through the village, stopping at another tie-dye factory. The blues, purples and greens created here were quite unlike those we had seen before. Our next stop was a small Buddhist temple, where the attendant graciously allowed numerous photographs to be taken. Walking back to our original stop, we paused to take pictures of the local townspeople, from old men, to young women with their children.

Lunch was another array of colorful, flavorful, and unusual dishes, mostly vegetable. Our afternoon was completed with a horse-drawn cart trip to Lake Erhai, where we boarded boats with a solitary oarsman who rowed us out into the lake. A demonstration of the cormorants catching fish allowed us a glimpse into the history of this aspect of life in a lakeside village.

Later, at dinner, our guest of honor was a large fish, cooked in various spices accompanied by still more delicious and exotic dishes. After a short discussion with our photography leader, another wonderful day came to a close.

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Day-6 Children of Shaping, Yunnan – A Haiku

 

(After a visit to a kindergarten)

The giggle of a child
has no accent.
Universal happiness
.
jt

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Day-7 Dali’s Third Month Fair

 

The Third Month Fair, a traditional spring festival of the Bai ethnic group in Dali, Yunnan Province, dates back1300 years to the Tang Dynasty. The biggest market in Yunnan, tens of thousands of people come to Dali for this market. As soon as we entered the main gate, we were swept along in a sea of people. We stood out, as we were among only a small handful of westerners in the crowd. But curious stares turned to broad smiles when we smiled and said “ni hao” (hello). Proud parents gladly allowed us to photograph their children, and we ourselves were the subject of other’s cameras. They would take photos of us, and then stand beside us to have their picture taken with us as well.

There locals and many from the surrounding countryside in their best native dress. However, the colorful and elaborate clothing was not just a costume just for tourists or the fair, as we often saw similar outfits worn on village streets. There were performers as well – musicians, singers, and dancers who we saw passing by in the crowd on their way to a stage somewhere in the vast area of the fair. Unfortunately, we were only able to see one couple on a stage singing.

Street/fair food was abundant, and we were told they could feed well over 100,000 people per day over the five day event.

We spent several hours at the fair and despite being shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of strangers were warmed by the smiles and friendliness at every step.

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Days 8 & 9 Linden Centre to Shaxi (sha-shee) to Shangri La

 

Our time at the Linden Center in Xizhou ended and we said farewell to the wonderful staff, beautiful environment, and charming village. A 3 hour journey to Shaxi, with a bus driver who skillfully negotiated the narrow and winding roads filled with bicycles, motorbikes, buses and large trucks. After a long descent we arrived in Shaxi, another quaint Chinese village. Unfortunately this place will soon be changed due to the building of a large hotel complex. While waiting for our lunch, an 82 year old man guided Chris to take a picture of the large tree in the center of the town.

Our lodging was at Laomadian Lodge or ‘Inn for old horses’ as it used to lodge caravan owners traveling on the Tea-Horse Caravan Road, from Xishuangbanna to Tibet and further, transporting and trading mainly tea, but also other merchandises like salt, silver, copper etc. Situated between Dali and Lijiang, near Jianchuan, Shaxi was one of the important trading centers on the Tea-Horse Caravan Road for several hundred years. Another dinner was prepared in the inn with local ingredients and we were filled with good food and the spirit of the people.

The next morning it was market day, where many people displayed their wares, livestock for sale, and the dentist was available for consultation. The produce section was quite extensive, with the fragrance of onions, garlic, ginger and other aromatic vegetables displayed. Small tubs with fish provided another fresh ingredient for the shoppers.

One of our group photographed several women dressed in traditional clothing, but one motioned for payment for the photo. Brian Linden, having observed the request for payment, and exclaimed “You’re no model; you get no money for just standing in the street!”

We then boarded our bus again, destination Zhongdian, also known as Shangri La. More traffic, horns blaring, it was a long 7hour drive with minimal stops. Lunch was at a local “truck stop” along the way, with very worn table settings and rustic food — and truly local and crude toilet facilities!

The Yangtze River flowed quickly along the valley floor as we climbed the mountain road. The snow streaked mountains peaked between the tree line of the ridge of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We spotted heavy smoke high in the distance, fire somewhere on the mountain ridge. After continuously ascending for hours, we finally reached the Shangri La plateau.

In Shangri La, Brian had arranged dinner for us with a friend of his that owned a restaurant and gallery. As we enjoyed a wonderful meal, Tara described her life of travel. In addition to her local businesses, she consults on different eco-tourism ventures across the globe. We were also entertained with the story of how Zhongdian received the name of ShangriLa. Tara also shared the recipe for lentil soup. We’ll see if Jeannie can repeat the flavor at home.

We walked upon the stones of the Tea Horse Road that form the path through the old town, hearing music along the way. As we entered the town square filled with scores of people dancing clockwise in a circle. Some appeared to be very experienced and graceful in their movements, while others were tentative and awkward as they attempted to learn the steps. Evidently it is a nightly local ritual and involved young and old alike.

After a long and bumpy ride in the dark, we finally arrived at our hotel, where we will have 3 luxurious nights. Chris purchased a bottle of wine for us to relax as we adjusted to the 11,000+ foot elevation.

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Shangri La – I

 

Morning presented us with a view of the Ganden Sumtseling Buddhist monastery against a backdrop of vast rolling hills accented with high, sharp, snow-covered mountain peaks in the distance – a wondrous view from our porch. After breakfast, we assembled for a slow walk up the hill to the monastery, built in 1679, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province. The effect of altitude as we climbed the path and stairs left everyone with an elevated heart-rate and shortness of breath.

The experience of walking through a Tibetan Buddhist temple complex was both exciting and tranquil. The sights and sounds and smells of the massive temples were fascinating. Gilded roofs, prayer flags, and monks in colored robes added to the sounds of chanting, prayer bells, and drums all surrounded by the fragrance of incense created an exotic aura of peace.

We walked through a number of the temples, carefully respecting the rules: no hats, no sunglasses, observe quiet, no photographs. The last restriction was difficult as the interior of the temples was an array of color and symbolism. Gigantic murals covered the walls, streaming banners and cloth hung from the ceilings and columns. Statues of Buddha and other deities were everywhere. Candles and incense burned on tables around the many alters. And at the center of it all was a truly massive gilded statue of the Buddha, over 26 feet tall.

Not unexpectedly, this place encouraged reverence and feelings of peace.

After lunch, we went into town to explore old town Shangri La. Truly a Tibetan town, we wandered the narrow, cobble-stoned ancient streets. Ascending the long staircase to the local temple, the local Buddhist priest showed us the proper etiquette for lighting incense, and circumambulating the temple’s interior (always clockwise). Shortly after, we went the few steps to one of the world’s largest prayer wheels. At 68+ feet tall and weighing 60 tons, it took an about 30 or more people to get it turning, and of course we joined in.

The old town is quickly becoming touristy, but it doesn’t take much to see behind the commercial facade to see the old Tibetan trading town on the Tea Horse route. Down one back alley, we discovered the local artisan’s shop where many of the local ethnic groups were represented by their crafts. The young volunteers that worked in the shop spoke good English and we had an engaging conversation.

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Leaving Shangri La …?

 

For our last full day in Shangri La, Mother Nature decided to let us know who controlled things. Overcast and cold, it started raining on the walk to breakfast. The weather the entire trip has been excellent, cool nights and mild days. Even at this altitude (11,000+ feet) the temperatures haven’t required a jacket, though until the sun gets up in the sky an over-shirt or warm vest is nice.

Anyway, the weather dictated that we hold our group photography discussion early, and as we were finishing up, the sun began peeking through holes in the clouds. Though there were travel options to go back into town, Jeannie and I both had the urge to relax. Differently of course, she scheduled a massage at the spa on property, while I took the opportunity to explore the local area.

On the advice of one of the staff members here at the hotel/resort, I took a path up the valley to another secluded valley. I passed several yaks along the way and found the landscape to be similar to parts of the American Southwest. It was mostly treeless with low-growing, rugged vegetation. Dodging yak poop I walked several miles, and noticed the dark clouds that had been coming up behind me as I walked towards blue sky. It was a good thing I had my poncho, as the rain came down heavy yet passed as quickly as it had arrived.

Her massage over, Jeannie was in no condition to join me on another walk. So while she mellowed the afternoon away chatting with a new friend, I took off for a walk through the village and around what is left of a drought shrunken lake with beautiful views of the monastery complex.

Tonight was to be the photography group’s final dinner together. As always the food was good and plentiful and the conversation was stimulating and fun. Tomorrow we all would go to the local airport for the flight back to Beijing.

We had packed all of our stuff earlier in the afternoon. After dinner, Jeannie was feeling a little out of sorts and decided to head back to the room. I hung around for a while, but when I arrived back at the room, Jeannie was in bed sick. Evidently the victim of General Tsao’s Revenge (the Chinese version of Montezuma’s revenge). Her condition worsened overnight and it was clear she would not be in any condition to travel. So as everyone else loaded onto the vans for the early departure to the airport, I was making arrangements to stay in Shangri La and canceling the first night in our hotel in Beijing.

UPDATE

Well, the expectation that Jeannie would be better the next day never materialized. To make matters worse, I became ill also. It was to the point that it was necessary to contact out travel insurance to arrange medical care. Their first concern was to get us down from this elevation of over 11,000 feet, as altitude sickness is highly suspected. So today, Wednesday I think, we will be taken down to the Lijiang Peoples Hospital for Jeannie to be evaluated (my condition has improved greatly). It looks like we may not get to Beijing at all. We are not sure what to expect from the rest of the trip but hope it gets better.


Day-14 Getting down

 

Our car and driver and interpreter arrived earlier than expected at 11:00 am (that is PM yesterday to EST types. I was much better, but still feeling like … ummm … crappy, but better. Jeannie was no better than before, the nausea was gone but the headache was worse.

The descent into Lijiang took about fours with little incident, except for cows on the road, mini avalanches, crazy intersections in small villages, unreal switchbacks, traffic jams, oh and rain.

The People’s Hospital in Lijiang was chaotic. More on that later. By the time we got there Jeannie was feeling MUCH better and was given a so-so clean bill of health by the doctor – whose Chinese handwriting is as bad or worse than American doctors. Our interpreter couldn’t read a word.

We made it to our hotel, and off to find a Western meal, HA HA. More on that later as well.

Well it’s only 8:15 pm here on May 1, but we’re exhausted and once again tomorrow is fluid, but we fly home on the 3rd … Yay.

As I’ve said before “Adventures aren’t always fun but they’re always good.

Oh, and once again, sorry, no photos.

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Day-15 The Hospital

 

The trip down to the People’s Hospital in Lijiang took about four hours with little incident, except for cows on the road, mini avalanches, crazy intersections in small villages, unreal switchbacks, traffic jams, oh and rain. It was overcast with off and on rain as we wound our way down from 11,000 to 6,000 ft.  Jeannie slept most of the way with her head in my lap. Our driver and interpreter weren’t quite sure of the location of the hospital, but the interpreter’s phone had GPS so after a couple of creative U-turns in traffic, we arrived.

The hospital was a rather large building looking to be of 1960’s architectural style with speckled linoleum-tile floors and industrial green walls. It was busy, but not crowded as we went inside. We were thankful we had an interpreter/handler to guide us through the bureaucracy of getting checked in, making payment (about 30 RMB or $5), gathering and filling out the various needed documents, and making our way to the internal medicine triage area.

The facility conjured up a vision of a medium-sized, old, inner city hospital.  My impressions were of an over-worked, yet caring staff with too many patients, in a basic, stark, and worn facility. Patients attempted to crowd into the small triage office where two doctors and two nurses were evaluating and filing  the forms handed to them into a stack on their desks. HIPAA-style rules were non-existent and privacy was impossible as each patient answered questions about their condition from the doctor, surrounded by other patients.  The physicians quickly determined the severity of each case and inserted the forms higher or deeper into the stack accordingly.

While Jeannie sat in the hall, our interpreter and I went over the symptoms he would present to the doctor when our turn came. While his English was good, mostly learned from movies, words like “diarrhea” and “vomit” drew quizzical looks. Fortunately his smartphone had a translation app and as I typed each word in and it translated it into the Chinese characters, he went “Ahhhh.”

We were called in and Jeannie took her place on the small stool next to the desk of one of the doctors. Most of the eyes in the room were on us as the interpreter responded to the doctors questions – we were quite the curiosity in this place. The doctor, with small blood-stains on his white coat, would ask questions and glance up at Jeannie, the interpreter would respond, and the doctor would write. Occasionally, he would speak to the nurse next to him, and at one point she left the room, returning moments later with a thermometer which she handed to me. I had misgivings regarding the sterile conditions of our surroundings, but especially the thermometer; I hesitated at the thought of placing it beneath Jeannie’s tongue, when the doctor indicated, in English, that it was to go under her arm for “ten minutes.”  and then motioned us to wait outside.

The waiting area was a busy place. Those waiting patiently, standing or sitting next to the walls, had to regularly make way for a steady parade of patients, doctors and nurses, gurneys – with and without patients, and others to pass by.  Smoking was not uncommon, and the open windows and doors without screening allowed for scores of flies to be hovering about the hallways.

One mother and daughter sitting across from where I was standing were quite curious about us, staring at us and whispering yet smiling all the while.  I smiled back and said, “Ni hao,” –  hello. To which the mother said in only slightly broken English, “Where are you from?” This led to a brief, pleasant conversation, assisted by our interpreter. When Jeannie’s name was called.

Again seated beside the doctor, Jeannie’s temperature was recorded, as was her blood pressure and heart rate. Several more comments were exchanged between the doctor and our interpreter, and then the doctor asked Jeannie if she wanted some medicine to which she answered, “no, thank you.” By now her condition was so much improved, our only thought was to get to a hotel where we could get some food and sleep – Jeannie hadn’t eaten in three days. The doctor then said, “No spicy food, and no more high altitude.” He handed her the booklet, her health record in Chinese, in which he had been making copious notes – and like doctor’s handwriting everywhere, undecipherable even by our interpreter.

Once out of the hospital, we were driven to a very nice hotel, checked in and arranged our flight to Beijing for the next morning. After we gave our heartfelt thanks to our driver and interpreter, we said goodbye, and went to the hotel restaurant for something non-Chinese to eat.

After a good night’s rest, we got up early and made our way to the airport for the flight back to Beijing.

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Day-15 Beijing at last.

 

Well, we had finally made it to Beijing alive. The three hour flight from Lijiang was good. However, we did expect to feel even better at the lower altitude … it didn’t happen. Ok, we weren’t sick-sick but low on energy and with a bit of the all-over-body-aches. And the brains weren’t yet feeling fully charged.

In spite of that we did manage to walk several miles in and around Tiananmen Square, some new shopping areas in renovated hutongs and some vibrant back alleys where a real, raw Beijing thrives.

We went back to the hotel room exhausted and repacked our luggage for the looooong flight home tomorrow afternoon.  But first we hope to get in a few hours in the Forbidden City before our departure.

Now,  good night all.

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Day-16 Beijing II – A New Dawn?

 

We slept well in Beijing. The busy sidewalk businesses were open long after I fell asleep, however  I did wake up in the middle of the night to … quiet. Looking out the window, all of the shops and restaurants had drawn in their wares and tables. The shuttered storefronts and sidewalks showed none of the previous day’s activity nor of the days to come. Morning’s light crept in along with the sounds of an automobile or scooter passing by, then more. Foot traffic slowly increased as workers headed toward their jobs.

Since we only had a limited time, about two-and-a-half hours, we planned to visit the Forbidden City, only about two blocks from our hotel. A massive complex dating back to the 1400′s or earlier, seeing very much of the many buildings or visiting the museums would be futile. Seeing all of the Forbidden City would be like visiting the Smithsonian or Louvre in the same amount of time. But we had no choice.

After an early breakfast, we made our way to the South Gate to wait in line for tickets. We wanted to be early enough to beat the massive number of tour groups and other tourists, and we were partially successful as I waited in line while Jeannie sat to the side making notes. Tickets in hand we made our way through the massive main gate and past the security screening.

Once inside we were awed at the scale of the courtyards. At the top of the stairs leading down to the huge ancient cobblestones, we could see slightly into the distance, and marveled at the number and size of the ornate and colorful buildings. It would take all of our allotted time to merely walk the perimeter of the central courtyards. We did make a couple of side trips through one or two small galleries of the museums to see a fraction of the artifacts and items associated with the life of an emperor.

Visualizing this setting in its glory days, one can only imagine the impression it would have on anyone seeing the courtyards filled with soldiers, guards, members of the court and others. For someone to see the Emperor, if one should even have such high status, they would have had to traverse the many courtyards with increasing levels of scrutiny and security.

Once we reached the inner garden, we were treated to a place very different than that of the pomp of state and military. Unlike the outer areas which were void of plant life, this garden was a tranquil space of flowers and trees, some very ancient and still revered. Many pieces of stone, some small and some massive, were displayed as sculpture, their eroded or dissolved surfaces the result of natural forces that revealed a distinct character and beauty.

As the clock ticked, we were forced to begin heading back to our hotel for final preparations for the taxi ride to the Beijing airport and our flight home.

The taxi ride to the airport, like all of our experiences on the road in China (we would NEVER consider driving there) was an unbelievably chaotic dance of man and machine. So vastly different from driving as we know it – if there are any rules they are totally ignored. Unlike the US, the horn seems to be sounded for informational purposes rather than hostility. People switch lanes and cut in front of other cars with abandon. Actions that would get an aggressive blast on the horn, a dirty look, and the finger in the US, never seemed to elicit any response in China. When you throw pedestrians, scooters, motor cycles, hose/donkey carts, cows and chickens into the mix it gets … well you can guess.

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time to enjoy lunch with Fae and Susan, two of our tour group that had also decided to spend time in Beijing, and soon boarded and took off for the 11.5 hour ordeal to LA. Unfortunately the travel fates were against us as international baggage claim, customs, inspections, and security were all slow or deliberately thorough enough to eat away at our small margin of error with time … oh, and to top it off, our Delta flight decided to depart a little early — we were three minutes late to check our luggage in. We were dazed, tired, and hungry from a rather uncomfortable 11.5 flight and far too much bureaucracy. Try as they might, the ladies at the Delta stroked their magic keyboards but could not find an alternative. But wait, we could fly standby to Atlanta and from there try standby from Atlanta to Orlando. And if it all works out we’d only be an hour later than our original schedule. What the hell. As I type this we are on the LAX-ATL flight, and hoping for a miracle for the last segment as we are so ready to be home.

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Day-15 … Huh? Homeward bound …

 

We were so glad to get to Atlanta.

As we disembarked, we knew that good fortune would now guide us through the remainder of our trip home. Moving with all due haste to our gate to check on our standby status for the last flight of the day to Orlando, we stood behind other travellers and listened. Apparently, there had been a major outage of the security system computers, and there were LOTS of people waiting for standby seats to Orlando. As it turned out, based on the super-secret and convoluted algorithms that the airlines use to assign priority for standby seating, we were numbers 37 and 38 in line for the 7 available seats on the last flight home. Jeannie wanted to wait – “You never know, we still might get a seat.”  Such optimism. I, on the other hand, realized  that the businessmen, doctors, and the group of computer-types from the Netherlands were all going to trump our good-natured optimism with their Platinum Member status, frequent-flier miles, and previous first-class status. This was not looking good.  As Jeannie whined “Shouldn’t we wait, just a little longer?” I dragged her by the arm to the busy Delta help-desk. As we were talking to the rep on the Delta-phone, the hoards that had waited “just a little longer” descended on the help-desk and overwhelmed the lone attendant and all the  Delta-phones.

Jeannie did an incredible job of explaining and negotiating our revised flight schedule for the next morning. Departing at 6:30 (it was currently 11:00 pm EST and our bodies and minds were working overtime by at least 20 hours ), we just wanted to get home. As she asked the rep about accommodations for the night, it seemed that the Atlanta area hotels were pretty full, you know – baseball game, big convention/show, security computer snafus, etc. – there was a room at the Sheraton nearby for $89. Great, we’ll take it!  Then, as she was getting the confirmation number, the rep pauses and says “Huh? … well, I’ll be, that room was snapped up before I could get the confirmation number!”  OK, just get us another room at the Sheraton (we’d gladly pay more).  She comes back with, “I cant, it’s full.”  We hear furious keyboard tapping in the earpiece, and she then says, “You aren’t gonna believe this …”  (wanna bet?), “There are less than three vacant rooms in the Atlanta area.” Jeannie and I scream in unison “GET US ONE!”

You see, not only were we sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, hungry, 20+ hours without a shower, recovering from altitude sickness and General Tsao’s revenge, we were getting pretty, uh, irritable. So the rep sensed that we are in need of a break and offers the only option available – the Motel 6 in downtown Atlanta.

Ever the optimists, we envisioned a newly remodeled facility filled with Monet’s and Picasso’s, flowers, a bottle of wine in the room, and a 24-hour breakfast bar. SCREEETCH to a stop! After the less than pleasant taxi ride from the airport (did I say that it was currently pouring down rain?), we pulled up to what can best be described as a old, well-worn, inner-city, motel-ish place with the street appeal that was just a little better than a war zone.  Carrying our few items, (we hoped that our luggage made it to Orlando) we went to the front desk and, smiling, stated that we had just made reservations under the name “Fooshee”. “Hmmm, there doesn’t seem to be a reservation under that name.”  To this Jeannie and I say in unison, “WHAT!.”

We don’t care, he has another room, we’ll take that. “But you’ll likely be double-billed.” he says. Now Jeannie is giving him the crazy “don’t you dare tell me this” stare of a sleep-deprived, tired woman, when he glances to the side at a piece of paper face-down on the desk, picks it up and says, “I’m sorry, here it is.”  To make this long tale of woe just a bit shorter, we get the key and schlep our way to the room just around the corner.

The room looked no better than the exterior appearance of the building and we half expected to be awakened by screams and/or gun shots in the night, but there was a bed, lights, running water that we could presumably drink, and western-style toilets. After the bed bug check, we brushed our teeth and fell into a bed with sheets thinner than a single sheet of tissue paper, and a thin blanket (the bed spread didn’t look as if it had been washed since 1964, so we left it off).  Then we crashed into a deep sleep.

We had four hours of sleep when the three alarms we had set (2 phones and the hotel alarm) shocked us back to reality. It reminded me of a ‘Twilight Zone’ version of ‘Groundhog Day’.

Jumping into the shower and putting on the same clothes we had worn for the last 30 or so hours. We dashed past the empty coffee carafes in the lobby, and out to our cab for the final (uh, are we sure?) leg of this never ending return home. We arrived at the airport, reconfirmed our flights, got our seat assignments, and went through security screening again for the 10th time in two days. We ate breakfast, headed to our gate, and boarded our half-empty flight home where we were to be reunited with our luggage.

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Home at last!

 

Jeannie’s brother John and his friend Brian picked us up and drove us home. They had kindly provided us with a welcome home basket of staples and treats so we wouldn’t have to go out right away. Ahhhhh, home. Now we can deal with  being jet-lagged, recover from altitude sickness and General Tsao’s revenge in comfort, we’re finally home! Ahhhh!

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