This trip actually began several months ago when I saw an announcement for a trip to China for University of Delaware alumni, faculty and staff. The trip directors were UD faculty member and world-renowned violinist Xiang Gao and his wife Renee. Thinking this would be a unique opportunity to see China, I asked Jeanne if she was interested.
So, months later– with new luggage, several immunizations and a wallet full of new $20 bills (the only bills banks will accept for exchange), we boarded a chartered bus in Newark bound for JKF Airport to catch a flight to Beijing.
Day 1 – Beijing
We arrived safely after 13 hours in the air. The bus ride to the hotel gave us the first taste of the immensity of Beijing – 20 million people, 2 million cars, many million scooters, electric bikes and pedal bikes – all on the streets at the same time. The streets are lined with enormous apartment complexes–a small one near center city costs 1.5 million US dollars.
The city is very clean and very green, with miles and miles of ornamental plantings. Fences are lined with hundreds of thousands of rose bushes!
After an excellent dinner (duck, pork, vegetables, chicken, green beans and beer) at a local hotel, we retired for the night just as many Americans were getting up. There is a 12 hour time difference between China and the East Coast.
Day 2 – Beijing
We started at 7:00 am for breakfast, which was an experience. The Chinese eat a lot of vegetables, rice and noodles, even for breakfast. No Egg McMuffins were on the buffet.
Our first stop was the Great Wall of China – pretty amazing to say the least! Built to prevent the Mongols and Manchus (aka Manchurians) from invading China, it was started 2000 years BC, so the earliest parts are 4000 years old. It spans several thousand miles across the mountains of China.
Lunch was at a “tourist restaurant” that provides a 113-proof liquor for lunch; with the usual beer of course. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and off to the bank to exchange money – quite an experience! Duplicate forms, copies of your passport, signing your name 4 times, several red rubber stamps by the cashier and every $20 bill (brand new only) inspected carefully, and off you go.
All transactions were done by a cashier who was watched by a supervisor – both watched by a super supervisor.
No time to rest as we were off to an authentic “Chinese dumpling dinner.” A dozen or so types of dumplings with various sauces were provided and beer. Then, we were off to a performance by the Chinese National Acrobatic Company – truly amazing! Following the show, we made a short stop at “The Place,” an outdoor plaza and then a quick drive through of the financial district.
Back to the hotel at 11:00 pm.
Day 3 – Beijing
Another vegetable-laden breakfast starts the day. Then, off to Tiananmen Square -one of the most famous sites in Beijing. This area contains many of the most famous buildings and monuments in the city. Most notable is the People’s Monument (think Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), the largest such monument in China.
Just to the north on the Square is the entrance to the Forbidden City – the home of the Emperors of China for centuries. Keep in mind that the history of China began more than 5000+ years ago! Royal families ruled for centuries.
Within the City’s great walls lived the Emperor and the Empress, among others. Meals consisted of 108 courses, but the Emperor only ate one bite of each – as a favorite food could be easily poisoned! The pavers in massive courtyards are 15 layers thick to prevent enemies from ‘tunneling in.’ The City is actually a cold and Spartan place, but the north end of the Forbidden City is a beautiful and peaceful garden area where the Emperor spent most of his time.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we were off to the Summer Palace, where the Emperor and company went to get out of the city. It was only a mere 200+ acres of gardens, houses and sculptures on a mountain beside a 150-acre man-made lake. How else do you create a mountain for your house other than digging a lake to provide the dirt?
As evening approached, we were off to a beautiful hotel for dinner. Pre-dinner, Xiang talked to us about the difference between music from China and that from the Western World – very interesting! After dinner, we saw a performance of the Beijing Opera. This is a centuries old art form that includes talking, singing, acrobatics and fighting. After all, the Emperor had to be entertained!
Back to the hotel at 10:00 pm, an early night!
Day 4 – Beijing
Another busy day! After breakfast, I actually fashioned an Egg McMuffin – sort of – from 2 slices of bread, a fried egg and slices of lunch meat, a Spam-like substance.
Then, off to the Hutong District of the city. This area has famous “courtyard houses” built 240 years ago to house wealthy and powerful families. Rank was indicated by the ornamental carvings and paintings over the doors. A courtyard house is 5 – 7 rooms surrounded by a…courtyard!
We were able to visit a local family that had owned their house for generations. Outside the courtyard walls, the alleys are littered and run-down, but the houses are extremely valuable – a much as $10 million for a courtyard house as the city wants to preserve the area. Think of owning a home in the middle of Williamsburg, Va. So, the owners are cash poor, but land rich.
Next, a quick walk through a shopping area for tourists. Xiang is not a “shopper,” so we moved on quickly. Back on the bus, we drove to a tea shop and enjoyed a beautiful Tea Ceremony, aka a “tea tasting.”
Making tea properly is an art form in China. Whether the water is 88 degrees or 91 degrees is critical depending on the type you are brewing. After a quick visit to the tea shop, we were on our way to lunch.
After lunch, a visit to the Temple of Heaven. This enormous complex – where the emperors came to pray to the gods – is considered the crown jewel of Beijing. We walked across large courtyards where ceremonies were held centuries ago to give thanks. One building, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, holds many ceremonial items. The largest temple, the Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest, was where animal sacrifices were made.
On the way back to the hotel, we made a quick stop at the Beijing Pearl Market. Think of this as a four-story department store where the value of items increases as you go up – the pearls are on the fourth story. Everything is bargained for! They start at 100 yuan, you offer 2 yuan and the games begin.
Jeanne and I opted for an ice cream cone from McDonald’s and a coffee from Starbucks – both near-by.
After quick rest – 10 minutes – we were off to another restaurant for an authentic Beijing Duck dinner. The duck is cooked by hot water on the inside and heat on the outside – pretty good eating. Of course this was just one of the 10 – 12 dishes (vegetables, spiced tofu, biscuits, etc.) that were served at the meal.
Day 5 – Beijing
This morning, Renee (Xiang’s wife) gave a fascinating presentation on the history of Chinese calligraphy. Writing Chinese characters is a skill, a science and an art form. Characters are made up of 8 (?) strokes, but there are 12 (?) rules as to how the strokes are made. These are taught from an early age in school and a 3rd grader is expected to be able to correctly make 3,000 characters.
After her class, we went across the street to a provincial embassy building for lunch. Their restaurant served food typical in their province – a whole fish, quail eggs and a spicy sausage were included.
After lunch, we were “on our own” for the first time. Jeanne and I went to a near-by park for a pleasant walk. Feeling the need for additional exercise, I ventured to the local fitness club. A Tai Chi class was about to start. I asked the young lady at the desk if a beginner could take the class. She said I would be fine, as “everyone in the class was old.” Encouraged, I ventured in thinking how silly could I look? Turns out, pretty silly. “Old” in China means you have been doing Tai Chi for decades! The other participants and the instructor were very gracious to me.
Dinner tonight? Pizza Hut. Where else would you go on a Saturday night in Beijing? Actually, Pizza Hut here is more than pizza; more like an Applebee’s or a Ruby Tuesdays back home. I had an “American Steak” served with spaghetti and a Corona beer – the global economy is alive and well!
Tomorrow, we fly to Xi’An, the capital of China from 618 to 908.
Xian – Days 1 and 2
The flight from Beijing to Xian is about 2 hours. The Chinese consider Xian to be in the northwest part of China; any thing to the west and north is considered un-inhabitable. Xian was the first capital of China. The city is surrounded by an enormous stone wall built 600 years ago – more than 9 miles around the city of 8 million people today.
After checking in, we headed to a dinner theatre for an authentic Xian dumpling dinner and Tang Dynasty music and dance show. More than a dozen different types of dumplings were served!
The main attraction outside Xian is the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum– really unbelievable! More than 2000 years ago, a young Emperor sought to unite (aka conquer) all of China and did so. In those days, when you became Emperor you began to build yourself a tomb. What a tomb he built – 720,000 workers toiled 37 years to create an entire army to 6.5-foot warriors, generals, archers, etc. to escort the emperor to the after life. Buried underground, they lay dormant for 2000 years until discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974.
Today, the site is an enormous archeological work site and museum. To date, 6000 warriors have been discovered – 1500 have been reconstructed, a process that takes 3 -6 months per warrior. The world’s largest jug saw puzzle! While the bodies are similar, each face is different indicating that each was made individually.
Entering Pit 1, the largest of the 3 pits started so far, is like stepping back in time. Check out the pictures on Flickr as words do not do justice.
After lunch, we visited the Tang Palace – the winter home of the Emperor—located at natural hot springs outside the city.
Dinner was on our own; Jeanne and I settled on a very nice restaurant in the hotel.
Xian – Day 3
Museum Day! After an excellent breakfast buffet, we were off. The first stop was the Wild Flying Goose Pagoda – a temple built to commemorate the Chinese man that left China and went to India to learn Buddhism and then bring it back to China. It was built in the 7th century – young by Chinese standards. Many Chinese are Buddhists; many are Muslims.
Lunch was across town at another dinner theatre that offered an excellent lunch buffet – no one has gone hungry on this trip! It is amazing to try a bite or two of 10- 12 different dishes.
In the small world category, we ran into another UD faculty member in the dinner theatre. He and his wife are here with a school trip from St. Andrews School.
After lunch, we visited the Shaanxi History Museum. Shaanxi is the Province in China where Xian is located. As this was the capital of ancient China, this area is an archeological paradise. The construction of the subway system is continually delayed, as every time they start digging, another tomb is uncovered. The museum has bones of the first man to walk up right in China in XXXXXX years ago.
After a short rest (and steam and swim) at the hotel, we walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant for dinner. Xiang ordered a dozen or so dishes for us to sample – Jeanne and I thought this was the best food we had so far. Peanuts in aged rice vinegar, green bean flour noodles in a spicy sauce, and lamb kabobs were our favorites – really delicious!
As a special treat, Xiang arranged with the bus driver to take us to the Sleepless City area of Xian. This is a redeveloped (at the cost of $15 billion – USD) area with every possible type of restaurant (Chinese and American), store, world-class concert hall, museum, statues, fountains and more lights than Las Vegas.
Back to the hotel for the night! Tomorrow, we fly to Shanghai.
Shanghai – Days 1 and 2
After a short flight that was delayed because of the weather, we arrived in Shanghai the largest city in China – 25 million people more or less. This city has emerged in the last 30 years to become the commerce and financial center of China and Asia. We took the high speed train—the MEGLEV –from the airport. It can reach max speeds of 240 miles per hour and we hit 180 mph!
Because we were late, we went directly to the waterfront for a boat tour of the Huangpu River that runs through the city. Along the banks are dozens of lighted skyscrapers – the Shanghai Financial District. The Shanghai Tower will be the tallest building in the world when completed. All the skyscrapers are built on what was farmland 30 years ago!
The breakfast buffet in our new hotel was very nice – Chinese and American food. It would be 4 hours before we would eat again, so a good breakfast was important.
After a brief bus tour of the city, we visited the site of the first Communist Party Congress meeting in 1921. In this house in the French Concession section of the city thirteen men created the government that would eventually govern 1.3 billion people. Clearly, history was made in this house.
After an excellent lunch, that included sweet and sour fish (served whole), shrimp, bokchoy, pork bellies, fried tomatoes, etc., Xiang turned us loose for a free afternoon for shopping in Shanghai’s Old Street – dozens of shops selling almost any thing! After contributing to China’s growing economy, Jeanne and I joined another couple on a leisurely stroll along the river, then back to the hotel. We ventured out briefly later for a light dinner – pizza!
Tomorrow, we travel 2 hours by bus to Suzhou – the birthplace of silk!
Day 3 – Shanghai (Day trip to Suzhou)
After breakfast, we boarded the bus for a short tip to Suzhou. This small (a few million) city is known for its beautiful gardens. We went to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which sits on many acres. This garden was created in the 1500’s.
We walked through acres of stone paved paths, temples, ponds, and large rock sculptures! One area has dozens of bonsai’s, some hundreds of years old.
As I tried to photograph a Chinese family eating a picnic lunch, I was asked to join them. I sat down and was offered a bagel like roll filled with vegetables. It was warm and delicious! Then the photo session began. They want a photo (several, actually) of me with their young boys. Afterwards, I gave their older boy my UD – College of Agriculture and Natural Resources cap!
Next, we went next door to the Suzhou Museum – a new museum of more modern Chinese art. Truly breathtaking calligraphy, sculptures and paintings..
Next, a wonderful lunch. One specialty included fried shrimp that you eat whole – just pop one in your mouth – head, tail, skin and all. Another was the barbecue fish. Again, this can be eaten completely – included most of the head. I have actually developed a taste for fish heads if they are prepared correctly. Also, only Xian and Dom Detoro are my competition for them!
After lunch, we toured the No. 1 Suzhou Silk factory – the first silk factory in China. We saw the complete silk making process from growing the mulberry trees to feeding the silk worms to cocoon creation to pulling the silk from the cocoon to weaving fabric to the gift shop! A very integrated process!
Before we left Suzhou, we drove through the new Suzhou Industrial Park – a science and technology park on the edge of the city. Think of this as a planned city – factories, offices, apartments, schools, and entertainment all together. Virtually every major company in the world has a presence here – generating $100 million in tax revenue for China every day. This is considered to be a “snap shot” of the future China, where the government plans to move 250 million more rural residents to urban areas in the next 10 years.
There were naps all around on the bus ride back to Shanghai. After a brief rest (30 minutes) we gathered in the hotel for our official group picture and farewell dinner. A grand meal with new friends and plenty of beer! Beer in China is weak by U. S. standards – what we used to call “near beer” – but refreshing none-the-less. Then, back to our rooms to pack.
Day 4 – Shanghai (back to Beijing)
The morning first entailed a trip to the Shanghai Museum – the finest in China and one of the finest in the world. Xiang guided us through the Bronze Exhibit. On display are bronze pieces – small and large – from all over China. They included wine vessels, weapons, sculptures, ornaments, etc. All include intricate carvings, calligraphy and inlays. Please see the pictures on FLICKR. Unbelievably, many were from 3000 years ago – even the engineers in our group were puzzled as to how they were made. Thankfully, there was a display that explained the process.
After the museum, we made a brief visit to the Shanghai Urban and Development Center. This Center has numerous displays that document the past and future of this vast city. A vast model shows the 110 km2 area of the city. Another room has photos and even some old movies of Shanghai from the last century. The change from just 30 years ago is amazing!
Then, we had a farewell lunch at one of Xiang’s favorite restaurants in the city. Several new “local delicacies” were served, including a whole fish and a delicious “pork knuckle”. Some things have to be tried to be appreciated!
A 45-minute bus ride took us to the airport for our flight back to Beijing. Unfortunately, stormy weather delayed the arrival of our flight for 3 hours; we left at 8:00 pm instead of 5:00 pm. With no further delays we arrived at our hotel near the Beijing airport late in the evening. We all crashed into bed as we had to be up at 6:00 am for the final flight of our journey – the long flight back to New York City.
As I write this last entry, we are crossing the top of the world with some 6 hours in the air to go.
How do I describe this trip? Words and phrases like adventurous, illuminating, astounding, educational, fascinating, and “trip of a lifetime” come to mind.
Xiang has said many times that he and Renee do this trip to introduce Americans to China and its wonderful people, culture, history, and future. I am sure I can say for our group, they have succeeded.
I would be remiss not to thank Xiang, Renee and Sammi for their gracious hospitality and thoughtful considerations for all of us. They have made this a truly “personal experience”.