Sunday, February 7, 2010

Glenn's Hotel Reviews - China

Xi’an - Aurum International
My wife and I toured China with Friendly Planet from 1/27 - 2/5 and stayed here for one night while visiting Xi’an and the Terra Cota Army museum. I think I saw this hotel rated as four star, however that must be in relative terms to other hotels in the area. We had a suite with separate living area and bedroom. Bed was a double which was VERY firm (aka “hard”). Was challenging for the two of us (both over 6 feet tall) but it worked out since we were both tired from the day of touring. Breakfast (included for our stay) was not memorable. Combination of Western and Chinese dishes – nothing particularly amazing but you could find something to satisfy. The hotel is close to downtown and within walking distance of the Bell Tower and many restuarants and shops. If your plans extend to more than a couple of days, I would stay somewhere else. It was perfect for us for the one night.

Beijing - The Beijing International Hotel
My wife and I toured China with Friendly Planet and stayed here for three nights. Is one of the nicest hotels I have stayed. Had a beautiful room room with a fantastic bathroom and bed with great view of the city. Robes and slippers provided. Breakfast (included in our stay) was really great. Nice mixture of Western and Chinese selections. Really good dumplings, noodles, steamed buns and fruit. Also had omelettes made to order. Only issue we had was a sewer odor on day 2. We went down to the hotel manager and we were moved to another floor and didn't have any the problem again. We were told that floors 16 and 17 had the "issue" - so you may want to avoid those floors when staying here. It didn't detract from our stay since the matter was handled promptly and professionally. The fitness center, pool and spa were closed for renovations during our stay (exepcted to open in October 2010), so can't review those. Although the "artist's renderings" looked like it would be nice.

Shanghai - Broadway Mansions Hotel
My wife and I toured China with Friendly Planet and stayed here for 3 nights. This is an old 1930's era art deco style hotel. Very nice lobby. Rooms were small but nicely laid out with a desk area in the bedroom. Internet access was reasonably priced (US 8 cents a minute or US$20/day). Beds were extremely hard - which is common in China. Got a backache after the first night which made it tough to sleep except for the nights when we were really tired (at least one). We had what was called a smoking room on the 6th floor, but there was no odor of smoke to our surprise. The hall area of the floor smelled of smoke, but the room was fine. Had a great bathroom with glassed in tub and separate shower. Breakfast (included in our stay) was average but you could find something to satisfy. Best choices were fruit (delicious watermelon) and made to order eggs. The Chinese and Western "steam table" selections were lacking.
It is hard to recommend the hotel, purely based on the comfort of the beds. Maybe if you brought an inflatable mattress it would help.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Day 9 - The Journey Home

About noon we headed to the Shanghai airport for our 2 and a half hour flight to Beijing. Everything went according to plan and we took off at 3:00 pm, landed in Beijing at 5:15 pm. We had a 3 hour layover so we spent the last of our yuan on Pizza hut, water and caramels. Our flight boarded at 9:00 pm on Friday. This flight, Glenn and I decided to request aisle seats for both of us. We ended up 4 rows apart with empty middle seats so we both had a really pleasant flight – sleeping away most of it. We landed in LA at 4:15 pm on Friday – more than 4 hours BEFORE we departed. The international dateline does weird things. We had previously decided to spend the night in LA so we didn’t have to worry about immigration or customs. I quickly texted some good friends from college. Lucky for us, they were free. They came and picked us from the hotel and we headed to Rush Street in Culver City for an awesome dinner! It was nice not to have to worry about the ice in my drink or if the bathroom would have toilets. After a quick sleep tonight, we’ll be headed back to LA.

Day 8 – Our own private tour of Shanghai

We met our guide, Eee yore, this morning at 9:00 am. She just finished university last year. Her major was foreign trade, but she can make more money being a tour guide as few as 7 days a month than the salary for a starting position in her field of study. There was a slightly awkward moment when Sam, our Friendly Planet tour guide came down and saw us with her, but oh well. We jumped into a taxi and headed for the French Concession. Our first stop was Fuxing Park. It is an amazing park. It was so great. There were so many there doing their “morning exercises.” This means people were out practicing revolution songs of their youth, practicing calligraphy using water on the sidewalk, practicing tai chi, ballroom dancing, line dancing to “Santa Claus is coming to town”, playing badminton and practicing kung fu. It was just so cool. We walked around. A man who was drawing calligraphy on the sidewalk stopped us and wanted to write a special message for us. He wrote “Happy New Year” and “Wishing you Happy Travels”.

We walked down the street to a many set of alleys filled with shops and restaurants called Tianzi Fang. It was tiny little shops where the owners lived upstairs. It is also the home to many artists and their galleries. After that, we headed to Jade Buddha Temple. It’s the first Buddha temple we visited. The smell of incense hung in the air. We first visited the Hall of Kings – where the four kings reside. Together, each of the characters of their names forms the phrase “Everything will be alright.” Then off to see many different Buddha with the final Buddha – the jade Buddha in the reclining position. It was a little disconcerting to see such a relic smack dab in the middle of a gift shop.

Feeling hungry, we headed to Old Town – the location of the Yu Garden we saw the first day. We tried stinky tofu from a street vendor. It tastes a lot like regular fried tofu except it smells terrible as it cooks. Then we went to a Shanghai restaurant for lunch. We tried soup dumplings. These tiny dumplings magically hold liquid so it’s a burst of soup when you bite into them. We also had fried noodles and regular dumplings. Feeling fortified, we walked around Old Town. Glenn bargained with a street vendor to get a New Year’s decoration. The vendor started at 160 RMB, but Glenn quickly got him down to 25 RMB just by walking away. Yay! We walked down “Food Street” which was filled with street vendors. It was fine because it was winter, but with all the raw food out, I definitely would have been squeamish if it was summer.

We hopped on the ferry to go to the other side of the river to visit the Oriental Pearl Tower. We took the local ferry since it was only 8 cents a person. However, this was also the ferry all the motorbikes so we had to dodge the bikes and the gas fumes getting off the ferry. We walked over to the Oriental Pearl Tower – one of the tallest TV towers in the world. We headed up to the observation deck. It was a pretty good view even with the pollution. One of the coolest parts was one floor down where they have a skywalk – an observation deck with a see through floor. It was really cool and a little scary. Back down on ground level, we wandered through the museum. It had stamps from the Communist regime where people were paid with stamps instead of currency. For instance, you could get a stamp for food, furniture, bus pass, a bike, etc. Then we walked through the depictions of Shanghai over the years. It really is incredible the influence the international community had on the development of this city. After this excursion, we decided to call it a day and headed back to the hotel. All said and done, hiring a private guide and paying for all our transportation and admissions cost us only $44 more than if we had taken the optional tour offered through Friendly Planet plus we got to see more, eat better food, and do it all at our own pace. Tonight we are going out to dinner and drinks with our Friendly Planet tour guide Sam. We are pretty excited to get to just hang out with him.

Dinner with Sam was great. He had heard of a street with bars and restaurants in the French Concession so we hopped in a cab and headed there. Our cab quickly came to a dead stop because a dump truck was blocking the entire road as the demolition crew was using a front loader to fill it – right in the middle of the street. Finally after five minutes of non-stop honking the dump truck took a loop around the block to clear traffic. WE arrived at the street which was just outside a shopping mall. We perused all the restaurants and the busiest restaurant was a German Beer Hall so we ended up there. We think it was Sam’s first time with German food and beer. We ordered a cold cut and cheese platter and pretzels. It was really good. We had a really nice time with Sam just chatting about his family and our life back in the States. We called it an early night because he had to be up early to see some of the tour off on their flights to Hong Kong. This morning we had a leisurely breakfast and finishing getting packed. We have a flight from Shanghai to Beijing, a three hour layover and then our 12 hour flight from Beijing to Los Angeles. We have definitely loved China and will put it on our list of places to visit again.

Day 7 The Bund, Microbreweries and a very interesting taxi ride

Today we headed out into the Bund district just south of our hotel. It’s right on the river and the architecture is quite interesting. We took the advice of the guidebook and found this quaint little café in the middle of an office building and had our morning cappuccino. A cappuccino costs more than most purses, but is SO worth it. Then we walked down to the People’s Square and the Shanghai Museum. Both were very nice. We toured the jade, bronze, furniture, and currency exhibitions at the Museum. The People’s Square had a central park type of feel. Shanghai is very different than Beijing. It has a higher population, more bikes, and was developed by foreign interests. The British began the invasion winning what was called the British concession – a section of Shanghai that was controlled by the British. Many countries followed with their own concessions. The French concession is still the name of a popular neighborhood even though the Chinese are back in control.

After the museum, we headed over to the Bund Brewery – a micro brewery in the Bund area. They had three types of beer: light, wheat and dark. We had a nice lunch of dark beer, chicken wings and fish and chips. Then we headed to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. This Tunnel was hilarious! It’s a cheap Disney ride that transports tourists from one side of the river to the other. You board single train cars that go on a track through the tunnel passing through paradise, hell, the sky and the underwater world – all designated by different colors of lights. So funny! On the other side of the river, we set off looking for the Chinese Sexual Culture Museum – which we couldn’t believe actually existed. Well, after looking high and low we learned it had closed. Big surprise. The trip was still worth it as we had a lovely walk down the Riverside Promenade. Back through the Sightseeing Tunnel and to Nan Jing Road – the Mecca of shopping. It’s neon-upped just like Times Square and just as busy. It was fun to walk through all the shops and I got a few bargains.

Then we bravely figured out the metro and headed into the French Concession in search of another micro-brewery: Boxing Cat Brewery. We found it pretty easily. I guess our navigation skills are getting better. We tried the four beers on tap: Stout, IPA, Vienna Lager, and the Light Lager. The IPA and Vienna Lager were very hoppy. We got a chance to meet the brew master and he was fascinating. He is originally from Houston and has been in Shanghai for three years. He has to import all his ingredients. The hops are the most difficult to get and he resorts to having friends who are coming to visit bring the hops in their luggage. He has to tailor his beer to the ingredients on hand which can be quite a challenge. We also had dinner there – a shrimp po’boy and a hamburger. We definitely needed a break from the Chinese spinner dinner.

After dinner, we grabbed a taxi, showed him our hotel card which has the hotel address and map in Chinese. Our taxi driver had NO IDEA where he was going. He drove the wrong way down one way streets. We definitely saw areas of Shanghai we would have never seen otherwise. He even tried to drop us off at a place called the Spicy Horse in one of the neighborhoods down by the dock. He finally made it to a place where we recognized where we were and we had him let us off. We headed to the Hotel’s British Bar for a drink. The décor was British, but the music was very loud Dr. Dre. After an overpriced round of drinks, we just decided to head back to the room and chill. We have hired a private guide for tomorrow. It’s less than the cost of the optional city tour with our tour company and we’ll get to see more. We both are pretty excited.

Day 6 – Well, hello Shanghai

We got up early this morning and headed out to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. It was nice because they had group check in so the bellmen picked up our luggage, checked it in at the airport and our tour guide just handed out our boarding passes. No line, no wait. The flight was uneventful. We got to Shanghai and boarded the fastest train in the world – the Maglov! It was VERY exciting. It gets up to 430 km/hour which is something like 220 mph. It’s a magnetic levitation so it floats above the track. It was awesome! It covered 30 km in 8 minutes. Very exciting.

After getting off the train, we headed to lunch. Another day, another lazy susan filled with Chinese food adapted for tourists. Then off to the Yu Garden. The Yu Garden is in a section of town called Old Town. It’s winding, narrow streets filled with tiny shops, then you come across this walled off garden. The garden is filled with beautiful rock structures, waterfalls, and small canals. It was really lovely. It was built by a high ranking official during the Ming dynasty.

After the Garden, we headed back to the hotel to check in. It was about 4:30 pm. Glenn and I laid down for a quick nap. That nap lasted until 10:30 pm when we got up and went to bed. We are very well rested for our day today – wandering around the Bund district.

Day 5 – Xi’an: Terra Cotta Soldiers, dumplings, and tour fatigue

Today’s tour started very early. A 5:30 am wake up call and on the road by 6:30 am. We travelled to the Beijing airport and checked into our flight to Xi’an. Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China. It served as the capital for 13 dynasties. We touched down and headed out with our local tour guide Jerry. Jerry was a fantastic guide. I found him hilarious because he talked non-stop and usually about what we were seeing. He was telling us about the history of Xi-an, saw a child and explained the one-child policy. This population control policy only applies to the Han people who make up 95% of the Chinese population. It has worked to curb population growth, but created a great disparity in the number of men and women since men are preferred. We read in the paper they are currently debating easing the restrictions to allow couples to have two children. The culture is based on the young taking care of the old; it will be difficult for one child to take care of his/her parents plus 2 sets of grandparents. Then he saw a BYD car and explained how Warren Buffett had recently invested in BYD so it would soon be a worldwide brand. Driving into Xi’an was honestly depressing. A grayish brown fog hung over the city blocking out what I assume to be a beautiful view of the mountains and it was a good, clear day. The smell of the coal fired plants just hung in the air. We passed farm lands with dilapidated brick homes. We went first to a handicraft site, of course. We learned how they make the terra cotta soldiers and the present day replicas. This is where tour fatigue really began to set in. We are both tired of taking so much for shopping and waiting for people to complete their shopping. Then we headed to lunch. For our included lunches, we sit at tables of 8-10 around a lazy Susan and they bring all different types of dishes to try. I think in general this is really fun, except they only bring enough for each person to have one or two bites so people get really stressed that they aren’t going to get any if someone takes too much. Then there is the issue of serving utensils. Most of us just reach in with our chopsticks and get what we want, but this grosses out another member of our tour group. Ahhh, the joys of traveling in a group. After lunch and too much time shopping, we headed to the terra cotta museum.

The museum is magnificent. Basically, in 1974 a farmer dug a well and found terra cotta solider remains. He notified the government and they began excavating. The site they unearthed was far greater than they could have ever imagined. The emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had ordered the replication of his army for his tomb. Qin Shi Huang is one of the most famous emperors because he unified all of China. His mausoleum is believed to stretch over at least a mile of land with the terra cotta soldiers being the farthest away. But it wasn’t just the army that was included, it was everything needed to sustain life: horses, chariots, stable hands, acrobats, supplies for digging wells, decorative bronze sculptures – all to take with him into the afterlife. The tomb took 40 years and at least 700,000 workers to create which is especially amazing because he only ruled for 37 of those years. The next emperor had to complete the tomb. The tomb itself looks like a large mound of dirt in the distance. At this time, archeologists have decided it is too dangerous to excavate.

The museum is divided into 3 pits. Pit 1 is the largest and housed in a building the size of an airplane hangar. At this point, about 6,000 warriors and horses have been uncovered. The warriors and horses were placed in battle formation on a tile floor in between walls of earth. Then wooden cross beams were placed perpendicular to the walls, covered with fiber mats and then covered with earth so from the surface, it just looked like a field. The pits were damaged during a revolution when the area was burned so the wooden beams caved in and broke many of the soldiers. Archeologists have to painstakingly glue the pieces back together to reproduce how the tomb would have looked. To the right of Pit 1 is Pit 2. This pit contains 1300 warriors and soldiers and is still being excavated. Pit 3 is believed to be the army headquarters complete with a room for making sacrifices before the battle. It is just incredible the amount of detail that went into this construction.

After the short tour of the museum, we headed back to the city center. Glenn and I decided to go on the optional tour – a dynasty show and dumpling dinner. Little did we know what a treat the dynasty show would be because it took place in an amusement park! Yes, the Tang dynasty amusement park. The only thing I can compare it to is things I have heard about Branson, MO. We walked in and the front part is a “cultural park” with replicas of gardens, traditional buildings, and exhibitions. Then we went to the show which was filled with music, dancing and song. The dancing was so-so but the costumes were amazing!! Behind the cultural park is a bona-fide amusement park with zipper rides, tilt-a-wheels, the whole works. We just couldn’t stop laughing. It’d be like having a pilgrim amusement park!

After the park, we headed to the hotel to check in. We stayed at the Aurum International Hotel near the city center. For all the depressing brick buildings we passed, the city center is quite exciting. We passed the Big Goose Pagoda and then drove into a neon extravaganza. The city walls and gates were beautifully lit. Our hotel was very nice with a sitting area outside the bedroom. After checking out the hotel, we headed to Da Fa Chung for dinner. We passed the Drum and Bell towers and all the excitement the high end shopping malls had to offer. Traffic – both pedestrian and automotive – was insane.

The restaurant is a famous local place for what they call dumpling banquet. After a course of 5-7 cold appetizers including noodle, peanut and vegetable dishes, we were served 18 little dumplings in all different shapes and fillings. It was amazing and SO delicious. There was pumpkin, pork, chicken, seafood, shrimp, vegetable and even walnut dumpling in the shape of a walnut. Then they heat up a pot of chicken, lamb, and duck broth at the table and cook some “baby” chicken dumplings. It was a really neat experience. After dinner, we were exhausted so we just headed to bed.

Day 4 – Beijing – A Foodie Adventure aka WE ATE SCORPIONS!

Today was a magnificent day. We got a chance to sleep in and enjoy a leisurely breakfast since we were on our own. Our hotel has a buffet with both western and Chinese foods. Glenn and I both tend to get the Chinese foods so breakfast is filled with dumpling soup, fried vegetables, fried rice, fruit, steamed buns, and sometimes a little cheese. It’s a great spread. After breakfast we headed up to the Dong Cheng district – home of the Hutongs. Hutongs are historic alleyways that the Chinese government has decided to preserve and develop to make into a tourist attraction. We were on a quest to find a restaurant we read about. All we knew was that it was down an alleyway near the Nanluoguxian alleyway and we would walk 150 yards into the alleyway and see a red lantern. When you see the red lantern, turn left and then you will the restaurant. We found the first alleyway – Nanluoguziang pretty easily. It is a bustling area filled with shops, bars and restaurants. We found some great souvenirs and had a lot of fun walking around. I can’t tell you how many alleys we went down in search of a red lantern! We reached the end of the alley – no restaurants - so we headed to the left and went down a couple alleys that way. No luck. We headed to the right and one the 3rd alley we struck gold. It only took an hour and a half of looking.

The restaurant, Dali Courtyard Restaurant was amazing. It’s a set menu. The chef goes to the market in the morning, picks what he likes and then cooks it. We had 7 courses: mint with tofu skin, dried mushroom salad, stir fry mushroom, whole baked fish, shrimp with asparagus, mixed greens, and chicken wings. It was SO good. Glenn’s favorite was the tofu skin and mint salad. My favorite was the baked fish. All that food plus two cocktails each totaled a stunningly low US$50.
After that great lunch, we grabbed a taxi and headed to Dragonfly spa near the Forbidden City. It is a beautiful spa. I got an hour long Oriental Foot massage for US$20 and Glenn got an hour long massage for US$35. It was awesome! Glenn said it was the best massage he had ever had. After our massages, we headed to Emperor Hotel. This was the hotel we were looking for on Friday and the bar was closed to a private party. Well, this time it was open. It was so nice. Definitely a chic hotel. The view was great. The lychee martini was fantastic.

It was so luxurious! After drinks, we headed to meet our tour guide for our night market tour. The meeting point was outside a bookstore so we browsed a little and bought some more souvenirs. Jenny our tour guide met us. She was really nice. She led us to the food stalls.

It was so much fun. While we were walking, a young boy came up and struck up a conversation. At first, I thought it was another scam, but then he started asking all kinds of questions like What is your job? What is your favorite place in Beijing? Our tour guide went over to talk to his father. It turns out he was in Beijing from Southern China near the Canton region for an English competition. His father had brought him to the night market area with the hope of finding some foreigners to practice his English. Once we found this out, we chatted with him some more then wished him luck. His English was very good. Back on the tour, we tried a ton of street food: squid balls, vegetarian spring rolls made with corn wrappers, pancakes with purple rice, spring rolls made from tofu skin, pan fried dumplings, lamb skewers, banana fried dough, Chinese hamburger and scorpions – yes scorpions! Glenn and I both tried them.

They just taste like something fried. The scorpion was Glenn’s favorite street food. My favorite was the purple rice pancake. The tour cost US$100. It was definitely way overpriced. We had booked this tour before we left and we only had our optional tours from our tour package for comparison. Now that we’ve been here, we have learned you could have hired a personal guide for two whole days for that amount. Live, learn. We are definitely glad we had a guide though because the night market was huge, crowded and tons of food options so it was good to have someone steering.

Glenn and I both are so glad we came in the winter. The weather has been cold, but not terrible. The cost savings is significant. The biggest advantage is the lack of crowds. Tonight at the night market, I would say it was relatively crowded. However, our guide said that it was not crowded at all. In the warmer months, it is so crowded that you just move with the crowd and there are people on all sides touching you. Glad we avoided that. Tonight we say goodbye to Beijing. We just finally got the hang of the city, the metro and could find our way around easily. We head to Xi’an tomorrow for a trip to see the terra cotta soldiers and some dumplings!

Day 3 Beijing – Jade Exhibition Center, Ming Tombs, Vase Factory, Great Wall

Day 3 was a full day tour with the group. We first stopped at a Jade exhibition center and learned all about the different types of jade. I, of course, made some purchases. I have gotten quite the reputation as a shopper on this trip. While I was shopping, Glenn told everyone the story of our dinner last night. So now we have the reputation of most adventurous as well! After shopping, we headed to Ming Tombs. This is an area where the 13 emperors from the Ming dynasty are buried. The tombs are quite large because when the Emperor died, his concubines would also commit suicide so they could be buried with him. We didn’t get to see the actual tombs, just the gates and the stone statutes lining the walkway in between. Then it was off to lunch and more shopping. We went to a place that made copper pots and vases. It was interesting to learn the process from molding the copper, to creating designs with wire, to filling in the designs with enamel and then polishing. After lunch, it was finally time for the main event – the Great Wall. Driving through the hills, we were able to catch glimpses here and there. Then we got there and headed up the wall. Climbing on the wall up to the Towers is very steep. It was quite an exhausting experience! We climbed to the first tower, almost got flattened by the wind, and then headed back down for a celebratory beer.

We had about a 90 minute bus ride back. Because I was so tired, we decided to just do fast food across the street for dinner. It was pretty funny because we walked in and the staff looked scared for us because nothing was in English. We just pointed to some pictures on the wall and ended up with a pretty good meal. We headed to the Chinese bakery next door for dessert and the hotel bar for a night cap. Sunday is a free day so I can’t wait to see what kind of adventure we will have.

Day 2 – Beijing Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Chinese lunch, Pearl Exhibition Hall

The day started at Tiananmen Square. Security is very tight getting in. All bags must be X-rayed. The Square is considered the largest square in the world – holding over 1 million people – Chinese people as Sam our guide said. It really is quite a sight. The square is surrounded by Mao’s mausoleum, the Parliament building, the national museum, and the famous gate with Mao’s picture. In the center is a monument to all the people who died during the revolutions prior to communism.

Then we went to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was constructed during the Ming dynasty and then rebuilt during the Qing dynasty. We entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Then the Meridian Gate. Then to the final gate to the outer court – the Gate of Supreme Harmony. This leads to the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the emperor would perform special ceremonies. The Forbidden City is called the Forbidden City because common people were not allowed to enter – even though a million of them worked for 50 years to construct it. The Gate has three openings – the largest for the emperor, the second largest for the Empress and high ranking officials, and the third for guards and lower ranking officials. Each gate has a foot high threshold running across the bottom to keep out the ghosts. Each gate also has 9 rows of 9 knobs for good luck. 9 was considered a sacred or lucky number because of the cultural belief in yin/yang. Yang is associated with heaven, men and odd numbers. So the largest odd number – 9 – had to be associated with the emperor.

After the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Middle Harmony. This is where the Emperor would practice the ceremonies. Then the Hall of Preserving Harmony where official banquets and final interviews for high ranking officials would take place. Then we passed through the Heavenly Purity Gate to the inner court and the Palace of Heavenly Purity – where the Emperor slept. Actually, the Emperor slept in a different room each night for security reasons and with 9,999 rooms – that could keep him busy for 27 years. During the Ming dynasty, the Emperor would have up to 3,000 concubines. The selection process to be a concubine was even more rigorous than America’s Next Top Model. 5,000 pretty girls from all the country would be narrowed down to 50 based on their looks, height, size of hands and toes, speaking voice, manners, personal inspection by the Old Maid, and then a one month personality try-out. The Empress was chosen by the Emperor’s mother and other high-ranking officials. The Empress had a dedicated Hall of Union for the celebration of her birthday. Her wedding ceremony and wedding bed were held in the Earthly Tranquility Palace. It is still preserved and looks amazing! Behind the inner court is the Imperial Garden and an amazing wall built of rocks. The rocks are held together by lime, water and sticky rice.

After the Forbidden City, we headed to lunch at a nearby Chinese place for lunch. Then to the Pearl Exhibition Hall. A lovely lady showed up how freshwater pearls are harvested. Pink and purple pearls are only available in China. They are very smart at the Center because they have a bar in the front so I shopped and Glenn tasted some Chinese brew. After the tour, we headed back to the hotel. Then off on another adventure…

We went looking for a bar we seen featured in a magazine article. The concierge had to track down the address, but he wrote it for us and off we went. It didn’t seem too far on the map. (Famous last words). We headed that way and encountered every scam China has to offer: the art student trying to get to go to the Art Gallery for a high pressure bait-and-switch art sale, the “English” student who wants to practice English at a high priced café, the motorbike driver who followed and harassed us for half a mile and then almost ran over Glenn to give us a “free” ride. We were quickly losing our patience, but found a nice shop owner who told us it was 500 more meters so we headed out. We actually found it – the Emperor Hotel, but the rooftop bar we were seeking was closed for another party.

Discouraged, we set out in search for a metro station to try to find a different restaurant we had read about. This search took us about a mile and a half, but we found it and headed out. We got out of the metro station and I was very cold and very tired so we tried to grab a cab at a nearby hotel. After waiting several minutes with no taxi in sight, my impatience won out over my cold, tired feet and we set out. Again, it didn’t look too far on the map. We walked for about a mile, and realized we had another mile to go. I lost it. All the taxis driving by were full so I decided a beer was just what the doctor ordered. We headed to the closest bar –Den Den Bar and Restaurant and walked into a little piece of Australia. Everyone in the bar was Australian! They were playing live Australian cricket and tennis. It was pretty funny. We rested there for 2 beers and then I was ready to hit the road again. About a mile later, we found it – Beijing Da Dong Roasted Duck Restaurant. We were SO excited. We went inside and got our number. They offered free tea, soda and wine to those waiting so we filled up our glasses and waited.

A nice young lady struck up conversation while we were waiting. Mina was from Hong Kong and in town with her boss, Gabriel. They sell insurance for yachts, barges, big boats. We chatted while we waited. In Chinese, they announced the restaurant had a private room for four available. She went to check it out, checked with her boss and invited us to eat with them. We said absolutely as we had been having a great conversation. We didn’t get that room, but about 20 minutes later another one became available and we grabbed. They lead us up to this lovely private room with a round table.

Mena took charge of ordering. The food was amazing!!! We got a delicious beef stir fry dish. We ordered a very expensive clam – Welk clam I think they call it. In fact, they had to come and show Gabriel the clam because it was twice as big as the menu said so it would be twice as much (about US$120). The clam was amazing. It was delicately cut and melted in your mouth. Blindly tasting, you would have thought it was noodles. We got had braised sea cucumber that was just incredible. Sea Cucumber is very gelatinous as it is made mostly of collagen. They harvested, soak it, and then braise it slowly for three days. It melted in your mouth. They brought out the barbeque eel and it was just gorgeous. It had a crispy skin, delicate fresh taste and followed the theme of melting in your mouth. I wish I had photos to share, but it would have been very awkward to pull out the camera during dinner. When they bring out the duck, they bring it out whole and the chef carves it very carefully right there. The crispy skin and the delicate breast meat are put onto pancakes, dipped in hoisin sauce, and then you have little trays of radishes, cucumbers, onion to add to the pancake. They also have you dip the piece in sugar to bring out the natural flavors. It was delicious. To end the meal, they bring out a lovely fruit plate. It was such an amazing dining experience. The check arrived and we reached for our wallets, but Gabriel said dinner was on him. He hadn’t expensed anything all week and it was just a nice change to have a dinner not about work. We were floored. What an amazing gift. We left the restaurant a little dazed, found a taxi, explained to the taxi where our hotel was, and off we went. Still can’t believe it happened!!

Day One – Beijing – Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth and an early night

Today we landed in Beijing at 5:40 am. The weather was overcast (due to smog) and the temperature was a manageable 28 degrees. We cleared immigration, got our bags and headed to meet our guide. Our group is 28 folks. It’s a good mix of older couples (60+) and younger couples. We got on the bus and headed to the hotel – Beijing International Hotel. Luckily, our rooms were ready so we were able to check in, have breakfast, shower and rest. The room and hotel are very nice. Day 1 was a free day so we got our game plan together and headed out to find the Temple of Heaven. After failing to find the metro station, we jumped into a cab. The cab driver didn’t speak English, but our hotel concierge had given us a map with both the Chinese characters and the English names of places, so we could just point. We learned the hard way that the cab drivers like to give tourists the “scenic” route as the fare is based on mileage. There is not one thing we can do about it because they don’t speak English and we don’t speak Chinese. The cab driver dropped us off at a hospital near the Temple of Heaven. I guess I pointed to the wrong dot. We headed through a local neighborhood and found the Temple. For US$28 – we gained entrance and each got an English audio-guide to the Park.

The Temple of Heaven literally means Altar of Heaven and this is where the Son of Heaven prayed for good harvests and sought divine intervention. Practically this means that people don’t pray here so no incense. It was originally constructed in the 1500s, destroyed and then rebuilt in the 1700s. The property covers 267 hectares and is used as a park. We came across lots of people practicing dance routines, tai chi, or just enjoying a brisk walk around the property. We saw the Bureau of Divine Music – where performers learned and practiced ceremonies and the huge Fasting Palace where the Emperor would conduct the ceremonial fasts. It is the most secure building in Beijing with a moat and several inner walls. Then it was over to the Circular Mound Altar. The three gates into the Circular Mound Altar are three different sizes. The largest size is reserved for the Gods. This round altar is three levels high with the stone of heaven in the middle of the third level. Each level is based on the number 9. Prime numbers are considered sacred and 9 is the largest odd number. So each level is 9 rows with 9 pillars.

After passing through the Circular Mound Altar, we went to the Imperial Vault of Heaven.
This vault holds the tablets from the ancestors of 8 dynasties. Wrapped around the Vault is the Echo Wall. You can whisper on one side and hear it on the other. I also stood at the third stone from the front of the Vault, clapped, and heard three echoes.

After the vault, we passed over a bridge to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It is an amazing wooden structure that was built in 1420 without any nails. The beams are all interlocked for support. The colors and structure is just amazing. After the Hall of Prayer, we headed for the East Gate. To get there, we walked down the Long Corridor. This corridor was used to move ceremonial animals to the Divine Kitchen for ceremony preparation. Since the animals could get dusty or dirty, the Corridor is covered. Today, the corridor is an amazing collection of singers, dancers, and people playing a version of hacky sack. They come with their own karaoke machines and perform “Peking Opera”. They are not asking for money, just performing. The sides of the Corridor are also lined with people playing cards. It was really neat.

After the Temple of Heaven, we headed down to the Metro. The subway is incredibly easy to use – thanks in part to preparations for the 2008 Olympics. All the signs have the English translations, the overhead announcements are in English and there is a map that lights up so you can easily tell the current stop. Coming out of the subway, we got a little turned around and ended up at the Temple of Earth. Turns out it looks a lot like the Temple of Heaven. We headed back south to the Dongcheng neighborhood and found a local restaurant. We ordered smoked meat plate, dumplings, and hot plum drink. All were very good, but the dumplings were exceptional! I think we’ll be eating a lot of dumplings. After lunch, we headed off to explore the neighborhood. It’s well-known area because the Chinese government preserved the hutong- historic winding alleyways - that lead to homes with courtyards in the front or other Temples and parks. Some of the historic city gates still remain. We were looking for a bar we had read about, but finding a particular address is incredibly difficult. A woman walking by heard me say “where are we?” and quickly asked “where are you trying to go?” and pointed us in the right direction. That was so nice! I was very tired so we hailed cab, took the scenic route and headed back to the hotel. The plan was for me to take an hour nap and then we would head out to find a Beijing Duck restaurant we had read about. Unfortunately, the nap lasted 4 hours. So we chalked the day up to jet lag and went to sleep. It’s now 4:30 am Beijing time and I am up ready to go! Today we head to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We will definitely make it to the Duck restaurant.

Angie’s Reflections on Day one - I am really impressed with how clean the city is. I was very surprised by all the English in the subway and how easy it was to use. The city overall feels very gray. I am not sure if that is because of the pollution, the weather or the age of the city. I feel very confident moving around due the map we have, but I do get very nervous about things like jaywalking because I very afraid of Chinese jail. Overall, I am really excited and impressed with the trip so far and can’t wait until tomorrow.

Glenn’s reflections on day 1: Travelling around by cab, I was amazed by how many stores there are. In Florida, I am used to seeing a lot of store closings, but here there are so many stores of all types. A lot of small markets with various food snacks, a lot like what you would find in Oriental markets in US. Also clothing stores, electronics, etc. The subway was very easy to use and cheap (approximately .35 US). Now that we know where the major routes are, we’ll be using that during to venture around the city. Breakfast was included on Monday and it was not just American-style. While they did have the standard “staples” to please those needing American tastes, I really enjoyed the more local fare. Noodle bowls, dumplings and steamed buns – with all the accompaniments – including dried shrimp which is so tasty. They have a daily special of steamed buns also. Today was some kind of sweet lotus bean paste (I think) and another stuffed with spinach. Both were very good.

A quick trip to LA

Our China adventure actually began in Los Angeles. We arrived Monday night. On the way to the hotel, we stopped at In-and-Out Burger so Glenn could experience his first Double Double.

It was very good. I headed to work on Tuesday and Glenn headed out to Santa Monica. He found a bartender that was a Red Sox fan so obviously, he had a lovely afternoon. That is, until he got stuck in notorious LA traffic and it took him 2 hours to drive 16 miles to pick me up from work. We headed to the airport. We arrived in plenty of time. The check in at Air China was very simple. We were even able to get exit row seats! YAY! We proceeded to security and just waited to board. The flight was very long, but smooth. We were served two meals – both meat and rice or meat and noodles. There was a movie playing on a big screen in the main cabin, but Glenn and I both tried to sleep.