Chengde with the parents

Chengde (not to be confused with Chengdu) is a mountain resort city about 4 hours away from Beijing by train.  As Tenille was planning out another packed itinerary for her parents visit to Beijing, I suggested taking a train somewhere for a true Chinese experience.  There’s only so many palaces and cheap shopping complexes you can go to (or should go to.) 

I don’t want to say a four hour train ride with two little kids was a bad idea, but everyone was brainstorming ways to NOT take the train back when we arrived in Chengde.  It’s possible that waking up at 4:30am to catch a 6am train had everyone a bit edgier than normal (including the kids).  Or it could have been the musical chairs that everyone plays for the first 15 minutes of the train ride.  Apparently, in the Chinese train system, they just issue you the next available 6 tickets, regardless of how they are grouped.  The soft seats were grouped in foursomes with two two-seaters facing toward each other with a table in between.  But, with a group of six, half of you could be in one foursome, and the other half in another.  If you are a pair, you could be split up between two foursomes.  So, the first 15 minutes consist of families regrouping each other.  Fortunately, the Chinese people are quite accommodating to us and each other and it seemed like everyone made their best efforts to unite their traveling parties.  One saving factor was that we did have a good McDonald’s breakfast.   Tenille’s mom and dad had a big breakfast with pancakes.  I thought I’d try something exotic and had a pork filet sandwich.  (Kind of like a McChicken… but a McPork, I guess.)  Although we all scoffed at the fact that we were eating McDonald’s, I think Tenille’s parents (and Tenille) were grateful we were eating something familiar and recognizable.

Arriving in Chengde reminded me a lot of coming to Beijing for the first time.  Except we were armed with a little bit of Mandarin ability.  By armed, I’m talking maybe a slingshot, or a dull club…. sharp stick?  Everything was unfamiliar.  We started walking down the street from the train station wondering where we needed to catch a cab.  Luckily, a lady (perhaps moved by our pathetic, helpless looks on our faces) stopped to try and help us.  She spoke a little bit of English and we asked in our best Chinese if she knew where our hotel was.  She tried to describe where it was in Chinese, but in the end hailed a cab for us.  I do have to comment that every single native person we had interaction with in Chengde was very kind to us, often going out of their way to help us or accommodate us. 

The taxis seemed to be about 80% of the size of Beijing taxis which I think are already smaller than the big cars we are used to in the States.  They didn’t use the meters.  They just told us the price they’re going to charge us and we paid them.  Nobody charged us more than 15 RMB the entire time we were there ($2).  We managed to fit our family of 6 (+ driver), and they drove us to the hotel.  The Hotel spoke minimal English.  We asked where we could eat something.  They pointed to the hotel restaurant.  Not wanting to pay Hotel prices, we wandered out into the street in search of our first Chengde meal.  First thing that caught our eye  (mostly because it was the only thing we could read) – McDonalds.  We noted it as a last resort backup and continued our adventure through the streets of Chengde.  We walked by a bunch of fruit stands and side street vendors selling unrecognizable foods.  We walked past several restaurants that looked like there was 0% chance they had English menus.  We came upon a store with piles of roasted chickens and other miscellaneous meats that we could see through the window.  We walked in and felt the heat of the food warmers and the meat smell overwhelm us.  It was clear that we were not going to eat here by the look on Tenille and her mom’s face.   

Finally, Tenille piped up that she was getting hungry and hinted that we should walk back to McDonald’s.  Tenille’s father still thirsting for a bit more adventure suggested that we walk around to the next corner.  We got to the corner and found a bakery.  Apparently, it wasn’t lunch-worthy food, so we finally decided to head back to McDonald’s.  As an American, it may seem a bit ridiculous that we’d be eating McDonald’s twice in one day when there’s presumably all this great Chinese food around.   I won’t take time to fully justify myself, but encourage those that are looking down their nose to try out a country where you can’t read or understand the language, nor comfortable with the food handling standards, and see if the sight of an American corporate franchise (i.e. McDonald’s) brings a small sense of relief. 

After gorging on some good ol’ Americana, we continued to the Summer Resort complex.  Most of Chengde geographically is covered by this resort.  The resort was built by a Chinese emperor as a summer get-away in the mountains where the weather is a bit cooler.  It sprinkled rain most of the time we were there, but it was still beautiful.  The place was enormous and about a third of it was covered with lakes.  We could have taken an hour long, 11 km bus ride around half of the complex, but decided to walk instead.    It was nice.  It was crowded.  It reminded me of the summer palace in Beijing.  I have to admit that I was thinking, “we rode 4 hours on a train to see another Imperial summer resort.”   (Tenille just told me that this summer resort was her parent’s favorite part of the trip, so apparently it was good that we went!)    We did rent an electric boat and putted around on the enormous chain of lakes.  I have to admit that it was fun to see Caleb drive the boat around for a while.  It was also nice because the boats had a cover and it kept us out of the rain. 

We caught a taxi back to the hotel and opted to have dinner in the Hotel, as we obviously could not find a reasonable alternative on the streets.  When we arrived in the restaurant, there was nobody there except a few waiters.  They seated us in the middle of an enormous dining room.   The size of the dining room merely accentuated the fact that we were the only people there.  In general, I have a rule about eating at restaurants where we are the only patrons.  (I leave and find another restaurant.)  However, we were really out of options and we were admittedly a bit early.  Having no choice, we sat down.  The odd thing was that they did not give us any menus.  Tenille asked for some menus.  They said a bunch of things in Chinese, and did not give us menus.  We thought that perhaps this might be a buffet as we saw a bunch of food warmers to the side of the restaurant.  We waited.  Nothing was happening.  I went up this time, and asked for some menus in my best Chinese.  He said a bunch of things and smiled.  I told him I didn’t understand.  He said slowly and deliberately, “Tuan dui.  Tuan dui.”  (I gave him my “I don’t understand” blank stare.)  He asked me to wait.  I smiled and sat back down.  Mission failed.  We noticed that a Chinese couple came in and sat down in the restaurant.   Strange – they got menus.   After another 5 minutes, something odd happened.  Food started coming out.  Not out to the buffet tables.  Out to our table.  How could this be possible?  How do they know what we want?  And an even better question, “how much is this going to cost?”  As they started putting dishes of miscellaneous chinese food at our table, Tenille and I both started a rant of incomprehensible Chinese to our waiter.  This must have not played out as the waiter had imagined, as he quickly told us to wait and ran away.  Within minutes, a lady appeared and spoke a bit of English to us.  I asked her where this food was coming from as we had not yet ordered.  After some back and forth, I think we figured out that there was another party of Americans or foreigners, who I assume had reservations at this restaurant.  We think we know who they were, because we saw them on the train, then they appeared at the hotel (and we saw them in the same train going back home, too.)  (Which was all a bit of a coincidence as there are several nice hotels in Chengde, and there were probably 20-30 cars on the train.)  Once we figured out that we were not the foreigners they were expecting, we got menus and we were able to order.  A little pricey for Chinese food, but it was quite good.

After eating and overeating, we returned to our rooms and hit the hay.  This bed was by far the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on in my life.  It was as if they took a piece of plywood and then chemically treated to make it even harder.  Then they put a thin sheet over it (perhaps so we don’t get splinters or get a rash from the chemical treatment.)  Luckily, I had enough body fat to compensate and surprisingly got a reasonable night’s rest.

The next morning, we gathered up the troops and went to the bakery we found the previous day.  We each got 2 or 3 things because you never really know what you’re getting sometimes. 

We headed to the Putuo Zongcheng Buddhist Temple which was completed in 1771, just about the time the American revolution was about to gain steam.  It’s built into a hillside and is quite impressive.  It seemed like we wound up an endless number of stair cases to reach the top.  Along the way were statues of Buddha, Pagodas, an open air theater, paintings, pottery, and all sorts of artifacts.  Just as we got to the very tippie top, it started raining.  We joined the throngs of Chinese people as they made their way back down the endless sets of staircases to the bottom. 

If I had known how many stairs we were going to have to climb, I would have paid the $3 for a ride to the top!

Prayer Scrolls

Dad at the entrance of the temple

Almost there…..

The view from the top was worth the climb!  Awesome!  The wall in the distance is the wall surrounding the Mountain Resort.

Caleb as royalty.

Many buildings, many stairs, many beautiful things

The yellow roof signifies royalty as this is a temple where the emporer would go to worship.

After the temple, we hopped in a cab, and just for good measure made one more stop at McDonald’s.  We got back on the train, played our 15 minutes of musical chairs until everyone got in their optimal seating arrangements, then headed back home.  Since our train ride home was in the middle of the afternoon, we were all in a bit more of a sociable mood and played several card games.  Caleb was quite good at Uno (that we approximated with a normal deck of playing cards).  I’ll probably get a deck of real Uno cards sometime soon for him.

These two ladies were awesome!  They entertained Caleb and Andrew for a couple of hours on the train ride back to Beijing. 

I imagine Tenille’s parents will likely remember the difficulty we had getting around more than the sights that we saw.  It’s hard to forget the feeling of helplessness when you can’t communicate or read anything.  Overall, I thought it was a great experience and a great reminder of how difficult things were when we first arrived in Beijing.  I didn’t really even think about how difficult it would be in a new city with relatively little foreigners.  I suppose that could be a testament to how far we’ve come along… or how over-confident we’ve become.


Train ride to Xi’an

Last weekend, we took a train trip to Xi’an with the Robinson’s.  Xi’an is a large city in the central part of China.  Thousands of years ago, this region was the capital of China.  One emperor (that is known to be the first to unify China under single rule) built his own tomb.  He surrounded the tomb with hundreds (if not thousands) of life-size clay warriors.  They are known in English  as the Terra-Cotta warriors.  As with any Chinese capital city, this city, too, was sacked by invaders and the tomb was long forgotten.  It was only in 1974 that a farmer digging a well discovered a piece of one of these warriors.  When the archaeologists arrived to dig through the rest of the field, they found hundreds of these warriors.  They were dressed in battle regalia, some charioteers, some calvalry, and many just foot soldiers.  Apparently, these statues are studied to give us answers about ancient China.

No two statues are the same.

This is the largest of the 3 pits.  Truly an amazing discovery.  The farmer who discovered the statues while digging for a well was there at the gift shop signing books for a premium price.

A picture board showing how the warriors look when they are excavated.  Most of the paint quickly fades away, so they have stopped excavating until they can figure out a way to preserve the paint.  They continue to try to piece together fragments of statues.

I’d have to say that the most exciting part about this trip, and perhaps one of the most exciting things I feel I’ve done in China was ride an overnight train.  It was an 11-hour train ride.  The train station in Beijing was enormous and grand.  And the best part was that I was actually a participant in it.  It was different than the Forbidden City or Summer Palace or some other ancient structure that was big and grand.  Train is how most people travel in China.  I felt like I was doing something that the natives did and participating in the purpose of this enormous structure. 

However, I should clarify.  We weren’t exactly travelling like most Chinese people.  We did buy tickets for our children and got a soft sleeper car which gave us a private room with 4 beds in it.  On Chinese trains, you can get:

a. soft sleepers – nicest accommodations.  Four beds to a room with a locking door.

b. hard sleepers – beds that are stacked closely against each other in an open car.

c. Soft Seats – similar to coach bus seats.

d. hard seats – I don’t know what these are like, but I got the impression that they were like benches that people squeeze in tightly on, like a subway.

The average Chinese person will take this grueling red-eye 11 hour ride on the hard seats.  Our family arrived at the train station in our pajamas at about 8pm, got on the train, watched the country side go by for a while, then woke up on the other side of the country.  I slept with Andrew (so he doesn’t fall off of the bed) and Tenille got a top bunk bed all to herself.  In the morning, she complained that it wasn’t too comfortable.   I thought it was ok.  Honestly, I preferred this to plane rides.  If we had a high speed train from Seattle where I could sleep on it and wake up in LA, I’d be going much more frequently.  Furthermore, the prices were much cheaper than an airplane at $60 per person.

There was also a restaurant car, but I didn’t get anything.  There was a flat screen TV for each bed.  They had 3 or 4 channels that played different movies throughout the ride.  I watched one in the morning about a basketball team that learned mystical kungfu skills to pump up their game.  On the other wall was an Oxygen port.  This train continued on to Lasa, Tibet.  I’m told that the elevation was so high, that people wear oxygen masks through certain portions of this trip.

The enormous railway station

Caleb entertained himself on some broken chairs while waiting for the train.  It was an overnighter, so we came in our pajamas.

Our cabin with 4 beds.  We could have only bought two beds, but we didn’t want some random Chinese guy joining us for the night, so we bought all four beds.

We came home by plane which only took us a few hours. On the way home from the Beijing airport to our home, I got yelled at by our taxi driver again.  The bill came to 64 Yuan.  He asked me if he could just take a 100.  I laughed at him, trying to communicate that he was speaking nonsense.  This was China.  There are no tips.  Then he asked for 80.  I told him 65 because he kept the meter running and it charged an extra Yuan while we were arguing.  Then he mumbled something about being Korean.  It’s a good thing I don’t understand Chinese, because it didn’t seem like a compliment. 

I realize that I’ve only written about my bad taxi experiences.  It’s because they’re typically the most interesting, or there’s something funny about them.  Although there are quite a few taxi drivers that will take the long way to a certain destination to cheat us out of a few extra Yuan, I’ve also run into very nice and extremely honest taxi drivers.  Once, on my way to work we got lost.  I’m pretty sure it was my fault.  Once we figured out where we were and got me to my building, he discounted the fare for me.  I’ve had a couple incidents like this where they’ve either discounted the fare or stopped the meter early to compensate for some issue. 

Tenille:  The most interesting part of the Xi’an trip for me was visiting a man who’s house is built inside a cave of a mountain.  These "homes" are slowly dwindling as the government is trying to help these people move into more suitable living arrangements.   

The cave is closed in with bricks and clay from the surrounding hills.  This man really lives here, and he kept saying how bad his house is.  It was really sad!  If you think you have it bad, remember at least you’re not living in a cave.  It made a huge impression on me, and I hope that Caleb will internalize how blessed we truly are!

Inside the main living quarters, there is one bed where everyone piles in.  You can see how meager their lives are.

Another room in the courtyard.

We assumed this was the "bathroom", which was located outside the house courtyard.

We also took a golf cart around the Xi’an city wall, visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, saw the Tang Dynasty Jaozi and Dinner Show, and visited the Muslim Quarters Bazaar where we got some "groovy souvies" (Adam’s friends’ name for souvenirs.  Love it!)

One of the gates of the city wall.

Caleb enjoyed running on the open city wall

Dads having fun with the armor displays.

A rare picture of our whole group together.  Thank you, Robinsons for an awesome trip!  We love you guys!

The jaozi (wontons) are shaped into the animals whose meat was found inside.  Here are some duck jaozi.

Caleb and Tenille getting their "zen" on.

Cute little monk at the pagoda.

The pagoda….it is famous because it has Indian architecture.  One of the most famous monks had it built after living in India.

Monk getting his head shaved.

A village in Guilin

We got a chance to visit a southern Chinese city called Guilin.  It is known for its beautifully terraced rice fields and cormorant fishing birds.  If you’re curious, I highly recommend watching a documentary series called “Wild China”.  It’s on Netflix.  For me, watching the documentary was pretty close to being there. 

You do miss out on being solicited every 5 feet by someone who wants to give you a special price on a tour.  And if you have a baby with light colored hair, getting mobbed by other Chinese tourists that are there that have never seen a white baby.  We don’t have white babies, so our children get the normal version of baby admiration….  

When we were in Guilin, we travelled with our good friends, the Robinson’s (Adam published the squatter the toilet how-to that was linked in a previous entry).  They have a 3-year old daughter with curly, blond hair and cute as a button.  At first, it might seem like it’d be cool to enjoy celebrity status where strangers mob you and take pictures of you.  After travelling with them, I could see quickly that it’s not always fun.  Strangers want to hold your child and touch their face.  Sometimes, mobs gather and press up their cameras in their face.  Some are more discreet and stand at a distance, but have their cameras creepily and steadily pointed at your child like they’re taking some kind of video.  When you need to get somewhere, sometimes you’re stopped every few feet by a new mob of people asking if they can take a picture with your child.  At some point, you have to say no so you can do the things you planned to do, and that sometimes causes bad feelings.  And very quickly the child also gets tired of being prodded and held, and photographed.  Lizzy (Kay and Adam’s daughter) quickly learned the phrase for (I don’t want to). – Bu Yao!  If you’re travelling with the Lizzy and see the amount of attention she is getting, you can certainly understand why she is screaming “Bu Yao, Bu Yao!”, covering her face, and running away.  However, if you’re an admiring Chinese person who sees a blond little girl for the first time, and that’s the first thing she yells at you, you’re probably left with an unpleasant impression.  I only got a glimpse of this life, and hopefully the Robinson’s will publish a more detailed account of their experiences with Lizzy.

Back to Guilin – Cormorant fishing birds are pet birds that are raised by fisherman.  They remind me a bit of pelicans, but they don’t have the big sagging beak.  These birds are taken out by the fisherman on a narrow bamboo raft into the river.  Their throats are tied with a string, not tight enough to choke them, but snug enough that they can’t swallow fish.  The fisherman then releases them into the river.  Less than a minute later, the birds emerge and hop back on the raft.  The fisherman picks up the bird and pulls fish out of their mouths that are stuck in their throat because of the string.  Their fishing basket is filled within minutes.  At the end, the cormorant birds are relieved of the strings around their neck and are given a few choice prizes to feast on.  Although the technique is amazing, apparently, it’s not the most economical way to fish.  We were told that very few people actually fish this way any more.  Mostly cormorant bird fisherman are really only left around for the tourism industry. 

In Guilin, there were also a large number of caves.  We went through one that was impressively enormous.  When I think of a cave, I usually think of a tunnel.  But naturally formed caves are very different.  They are not uniform.  They have all kinds of crazy formations that have formed over thousands of years.  The Chinese have all kinds of creative names for the various formations jutting every which way from the cave walls, ceilings, and floors.  I suppose in that way, it’s somewhat like cloud formations.  This particular cave was quite well developed for tourists.  They had it lit up with all kinds of colored lights, especially the formations of interest.  There were narrow areas where steps were carved into the floor, and there were large expansive rooms with benches for the tourists.  In the middle of one of these large expansive rooms, there were a laser light show.  In some ways, it took away from the naturalness of the place, but it also did a good job of highlighting the points of interest (in a vegas light show kind of way.)

We also got to see some beautiful scenery as we floated down a river to a smaller community called Yanshuo.  This is the stereotypical scene that I think of when I think of China.  Rocky hills jutting vertically from the ground laced with lush greenery.  The views were pretty spectacular and photographs could hardly do it justice. 

Then we got to a little village in Yanshuo.  When we got there in our little electric cart, an old woman (maybe in her 70’s or 80’s) dropped a bunch of things she was carrying and took off like a bullet and at first I thought perhaps she was scared of us.   Ends up, she ran over to a manual wooden water pump and was demonstrating it for us.  She smiled and waved.  We stopped the van, and a horde of other old ladies showed up all with their circus act selling trinkets.  One lady brought out her bull.  Many of them wanted us to pay them to take pictures with them.  One thing that was obvious was that these old ladies were living in poverty.  The interesting thing was that they weren’t begging.  They were selling.  I’m not sure if there’s really a conclusion to take from this.  It could just be that offering photo opps was more profitable than begging.  Or, it could be that there’s a prevailing negative attitude about begging.  I don’t know. 

Along our trip through the village, we did see little kids being carried in baskets and a lot of old people.  Many of the young working-age men and women have all left the village for a better-paying job in the city.  The tour guide explained to me that he used to live in a village when he was growing up.  He described a place where he would run around with his friends from house to house.  They didn’t have TV, so they would gather around an old man telling stories.  When they were done, they’d find another old man and beg for another story.  He said the village was very tightly knit and acted like a big family. 

It reminded me of the neighborhood that I grew up in.  After school, all the kids were outside in the cul-de-sac organizing some kind of game or riding around on bikes.  Many of the adults were out either watching the kids or doing some household chore.  What I know is that I haven’t seen a neighborhood like this in a long time, but I yearn for it for my kids.  I wonder if it has to do with income and independence.  Or perhaps all the information that we are exposed to in the modern world that prevent us from letting our kids run amok.  Regardless, I’ve talked to several of our good friends about creating such a community.  I’ve called it “the compound” but I’m sure there’s a more marketing friendly name.  Perhaps, “the village” might be a bit easier on the ears.  Compound sounds like we’re going to amass weapons and drink poisonous koolaid together. 

I’ve seen such a place up in Marysville.   Our good friend, Kate grew up on one.  Her father owned a large piece of property and as the children all grew up and got married, they would build another house on the property.  In the end, there were four other houses all living within a stone’s throw from the house they grew up in.  Kate says that it was wonderful to grow up in such a place.  She could go to every house and see who had the best dinner brewing.  Kids would run around the large grassy fields in herds playing all kinds of games.  I’m not sure what it would actually take to create this kind of community.  Do we need to be poor?  Do we need to be friends?  Do we need to be family?  Do we need to own the property together?  Do we need ownership in something together?  Whatever it is, I’m interested.  And as the Guilin tour guide described his experience of village life, it’s something I desperately want for my kids.  Something different than the sterile world of video games and computers.   It’s something I’d want for myself.  Even now, I’d rather spend an afternoon sitting on the porch playing checkers with a friend (or even a stranger that will become a future friend) or help sift dirt for a garden, than spend it browsing the Internet.

Violent Americans?

Our Chinese teacher told us that he aspires to go to America to further his studies in English.  He was thinking about the U.S. or Canada.  Being Americans (citizens of the United States), we tried to convince him to come to the U.S.  He did mention that it was very difficult to get a visa for the U.S. and mentioned that it takes considerable amount of money.  

Then, he asked me if I owned a gun.  This was right around the time that there were these string of shootings across the U.S.  Apparently in China, many people see the movies with buildings exploding, car chases, and automatic weapons being wantonly discharged by ski-mask wearing villains.  And then there’s the real stuff, too – like high school shootings, shootings at Jewish centers, immigration centers, post offices, etc.  He thought that the U.S. might be too scary for him, and that his parents would worry too much.

I like to believe that the media portrayal of violence in the U.S. is a bit over-exaggerated.  However, I should note that on the day of my father’s arrival to the U.S. (when he was fresh out of high school), he was mugged and beat up in Manhattan.  He stayed in his hotel room for several days, scared to go outside.

With that said, I think the people I know that had first hand experience with a violence is far and few between.   Unless you start counting video games…

Beijing’s Underground City

Apparently, it’s a well-known secret that Beijing has an intricate tunnel system underneath the city that was dug out many years ago when they thought that there might be a nuclear threat from Russia (or other countries.)  Apparently, the massive tunnel system can hold millions of people. 

I’m not sure what the plans for clean water and unradiated food sources were, but concern was probably not much unlike the nuclear attack drills in the US during the 50s and 60s. 

We’ve seen on the web that we could actually take a tour of a portion of the tunnel system.  Most of the websites warned that it was quite difficult to find and gave some directions through neighborhoods and alleyways.  The fear of not being able to find a place has never stopped us before. 

We hopped in a cab and got off about where we thought it would be, then started asking random people where such and such street was.  We found a non-descript hutong alley and a lady pointed us down the alleyway.  We walked a long way.  I was carrying Andrew in a front pack, and Tenille pushing Caleb in the stroller.  The few people that were out biking or walking stared at us as if aliens.  But, the two guys riding an enormous tricycle, wearing an orange jumpsuit and a face mask hardly got a glance.  About 3/4 of a mile down this dusty hutong, we finally found a building that looked approximately like what we’ve seen in the pictures on the web.  We excitedly hopped into the gate.  To our disappointment, we just saw an 8.5×11 piece of paper on a window that said, “Underground City closed.” 

Then some people came out of the courtyard where we thought the underground tour would be.  They looked at us and waved their hands at us as if saying, you’re in the wrong place.  Then he pointed at the sign.  With heavy steps, we went back outside.  As a consolation prize, we took some pictures outside, That’s when we noticed that the signs have been taken off of the walls and left an imprint of the words “Underground City Tour”.  The place wasn’t just closed for the day.  The place was closed for good.  We started the long trek back out of the Hutong. 

That day, we did end up looking at a new upscale retail area by Qianmen.  It reminded me of a Disney’s main street (or the Promenade in Santa Monica), with tracks laid down for  a trolley and an enormous pedestrian only boulevard.  The only difference was that 1. It was all Chinese themed buildings, and 2. 98% of the buildings were empty.  It was an eerie ghost town of brand new retail stores.  But, what was weird was that there were thousands of Chinese people walking up and down looking at the empty stores.  Walking through this empty prime retail location felt like a gloomy reminder of the economic condition that the world is in.