China 2002

The adventure continues

 

 

            The Orient has always been a continent of mystery; in some ways far advanced over the rest of the world, and in others, held back by feudal customs and traditions.  I was always fascinated by the history of China since taking a year of Chinese history at the University.  I never thought I would ever get to see it until one morning in June when my daughter Wendy called me and asked me if I would like to go to China for a week for $1100.  Living up to my motto, “you can always get more money”, I gladly accepted the invitation and started saving my pennies.

 

 

            All of my children counted in on the trip and my son, Jared, invited his girlfriend, Katie Haynes, to go with us, so the entire tour group consisted of five of us.  My other daughter, Nikki, had signed on to a different two week tour that included a boat trip down the Yangtze river and a side trip to Xian to see the terracotta soldiers.  Our trip was set for October 13th, from Sunday to Sunday the 20th.   When the fated day arrived we enjoyed a leisurely morning and a short trip to the Van Nuys Flyaway to catch the bus to LAX international airport.  We arrived three hours before our flight was scheduled to leave thinking that we would have time to sit and relax before our long flight to Beijing, some 12 hours.  We finally made it to the departure gate just minutes before loading because of the idiotic security people that someone has insisted on placing in airports.  We first had to wait in line to check-in where we were singled out to have our bags randomly checked and scanned, then another line to have our tickets checked, then a third line to get through the scanner and so called metal detector where I emptied my pockets, took off my watch and for the first time since September 11, 2001, I walked through the portal without hearing the telltale beep and finally to the last gate where the Air China 747-400 was tethered.  Once in the air the service was terrific and they had seated us in row 12, ahead of the engines and right behind first class, the best seats I’ve had except for the time I was bumped up to first class because I checked in late and all the cheap seats were filled.  With less than two hours into the flight we had seen the drink cart come by twice and were served a meal of chicken or beef with rice and sat back to digest it with only ten more hours to go before landing looking forward to a severe case of numb-butt.

 

Tuesday morning: 1:30 am.

            After sleeping for only three hours, my body clock put me back on LA time so here I lay on a king size bed in a 4-star hotel wide awake somewhere in Beijing, China.  The flight dragged on and on until the last two hours when they started screening the 3 Stooges dubbed in Chinese.  The in-flight movies were “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and the Chinese movie, “The dragon sleeps in the lotus pond of serenity” or something like that with lots of kung-fu by a blind guy.

            On arrival in Beijing we walked into a beautiful and modern terminal, spotlessly clean, with highly polished marble looking terrazzo floors.  While we waited a short time at the immigration line, giant video screens told us in basic English what would happen to us if we were bad.  It was all very non-threatening and the officials were very courteous.  After getting our luggage from the merry-go-round we headed out the door into the unknown.  We were wearing the tour badges we were given and were quickly met by our guide, Mr. Alex Chen of the China Travel Service head office.  Outside was a shiny new van waiting for us and we were soon on our way into the city on a 4-5 lane toll road built to facilitate the influx of visitors expected to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.  Mr. Chen was obviously proud of his countries accomplishments and we talked about many things on the 45 minute ride into town.  Our first stop was dinner at, “What else?”, a Chinese restaurant.  The restaurant was on the second floor of a silk rug factory showroom and we were given a quick little sales pitch before dining.  There were stacks of hand woven silk rugs of all sizes, outrageously beautiful.  Alex, our guide, rescued us because we had to eat upstairs before the kitchen closed.  The room was full of other tourists munching on dishes of various Chinese concoctions and sipping a delicious Jasmine tea.  We were seated at a round table with a lazy susan in the middle which soon was filled with enough food for twenty people.  The highlights were the Jasmine Tea, the inside-out carp with sweet sauce, the orange chicken, oh well, it was all good.  It didn’t take long to fill us up even though they only gave us these tiny plates to eat off of.  It was sad to have to leave so much of it uneaten on the table when we left.

            We went downstairs to get into the van but had to walk through the rug merchants showroom again and I got sucked into buying a 3’X 5’ , 600 knot per square inch, drop-dead gorgeous silk rug of oriental design that I’m going to hang on the wall because it’s too pretty to let anyone walk on it.  I ended up paying $720 for it on my newly paid off Visa card and I left before I could be talked into buying anything else.

 

The silk rug merchant – our first night

 

            The Hotel was well lit up and had a young Chinese doorman in full uniform take our bags as we checked in.  The rooms were first class and would go for over $100 a night in the states.  At that rate the tour is exceptionally cheap.  It’s 2:00 am so I’m going to try to catch a few more hours of sleep before our tour of old Beijing tomorrow.

 

Tuesday, October 15th

 

            The Hotel wake-up call came in at 6:30 am but I had been awake since 5:00 am watching the Discovery Channel in Chinese.  The hot shower felt good and soon revived me from my jet lag lethargy.  We met down in the restaurant for the buffet breakfast which was okay but not the MGM Grand.  Alex met us and joined us for breakfast – it was only later that we found out that he had been up all night at a coffee house with some friends and only had one hour’s sleep.

            About 8:00 am we got into our mini-van and started off through the traffic to our first stop at Tiananmen Square.  Beijing is just starting to feel the crunch of automobile life.  There is still a mix of bicycles and pedestrians using the streets at the same time and they all claim the “right of way”.  It makes for some very close calls between vehicles and everyone else.

            Tiananmen Square is similar to Red Square in Moscow in that it is in the center of the city and a gathering point for any large demonstration, parade, etc.  It sits just outside the “Forbidden City”, Imperial palace and home of the Emperors in Chinese history.  In the middle of the square is a large building where Mao Tse Tung lies in a perpetual state on display in a glass coffin much the same as Lenin did in Moscow for so many years until he started to turn yellow from decomposition.  We had left the Hotel early with the object of taking a peek at the old guy but on arrival at the square we saw a line of people four across and half a mile long ahead of us, so we changed our plans.  I don’t think we could get a line in the USA four across and half a mile long to see Dolly Parton naked, but then again….

            So much interest in a dead man is foreign to Americans but Mao is revered in China for chasing the Japanese out during the Second World War and unifying China, freeing it from foreign influences by using sometimes drastic measures.  His picture adorns the money in China so there is a constant reminder of his importance to the country.  Tiananmen Square, as you will recall from your Chinese history lesson, was the site of protests in 1989 that turned bloody on June 4th when the military opened up on the masses of people gathered in the square, killing thousands and ending temporarily the cry for reforms and more freedoms and human rights.  The picture of the student standing in front of a tank was broadcast all over the world and eventually led to a government reform movement that has made China blossom into the Twenty-first Century.

            We passed on waiting in line and headed for the “Forbidden City”, the former imperial palace across the street.  The reviewing stands for communist officials flanked either side of the entrance and the six lane street in front was the parade route where China showed off her military might on May 1st each year.  We sort of went through a back door, through a memorial park dedicated to Sun Yat Sen, the true father of modern China.  He is honored by both the Communists in mainland China and the Nationalists in Taiwan as a hero of China.

           

Tiananmen Square in front of the “Forbidden City

 

            We walked down shaded pathways lined by junipers older than the United States and entered the Forbidden City about in the middle.  The Italian tenor Pavarotti was coming to town and they were erecting bleachers and a stage in one of the vast inner courtyards.  Inside the walls you get a sense of confinement.  The rock walls are tall and straight with no vegetation of any kind to be seen.  The ground is covered with stones so you are surrounded by rocks all the time.  It must have been just as cold for the emperor and his family except that I’m sure there must have been cloth decorations hanging somewhere to brighten the mood.  I was just about to purchase a silk scarf with a map of the Imperial Palace on it when we were quickly ushered out onto the courtyard and over against the side.  VIPs, in this case the President of Uruguay and his entourage, were coming through for a quick look.  It ended up making some of the interesting parts of the palace closed to us for security reasons.

            There were young, and I mean very young looking, soldiers marching here and there in small groups in perfect step, closing off walkways from public access as the VIP party progressed through the palace.  We ended up at a place where we couldn’t go any farther until the Presidential party passed by so Alex go on his cell phone and had a young girl bring me one of the scarves, which are only sold at one gift shop in the Imperial Palace.  We still hadn’t changed any of our money so we couldn’t even buy a coke, which went for about fifty cents.  Alex was very nervous about changing money in public, since, as we later found out, he carried over a thousand dollars with him in his briefcase to change our US dollars into Yuan for us.

            Just outside the north gate of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Tea House.  We stopped in to warm ourselves with a hot cup of tea and rest our feet awhile.  It turned out to be a highlight of our trip as these two young girls performed a tea ceremony for us as one of them explained, in English, what was happening.  The first tea was an Oolong tea which we had to drink out of very small cups in three sips for long life, happiness, and good fortune.  The amazing part was the chinaware which had little dragons on the side which changed from blue to red when the hot tea was added.  The tea didn’t have much flavor but there was a sweet aftertaste that was very pleasing.  The second tea was a jasmine flower tea and very aromatic and nice.  The third tea was a green tea which didn’t leave much of an impression after the other two.  It turned out that the ceremony was free and used to present their products which included the chinaware, teas, etc.  We all bought something and they later delivered it to our hotel so we didn’t have to carry it around all day.

            As we left to find our van through a sea of parked tourist buses we were literally attacked by a swarm of people selling everything from statues to Rolex watches and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Katie made the mistake of pulling out her wallet to buy a Chairman Mao musical lighter and immediately was surrounded by ten people shoving stuff in her face.  She was lucky to escape with all of her body parts in that mob.  Oddly enough we all seemed to buy something from them as they continued to sweeten the pot and lower the prices.  I bought a little statue of a dragon, Wendy bought a calligraphy set, Jonette bought a dragon and some little Buddha’s, and Jared bought two watches with Chairman Mao waving the seconds off.  It’s a frightening experience to meet people so unwilling to take no for an answer.  So Alex, our guide, taught us a word to use, “Buyau” which means something like “get lost”.

            We hooked up with the van and went looking for lunch.  Since the travel business is controlled by the government, it puts its best show on for the tourists and we ate in very classy restaurants where the food was excellent and service very good for the most part.  We were eating Chinese food every meal and surviving.  I mean, how much can you stuff yourself and still function.  After lunch we went to the silk carpet factory showroom.  It was the same company that we visited that first night but Alex said we would get better deals at the factory.  Actually they were more expensive for the rug I bought which they wanted over $1200 to start.  The girls all bought small silk mats for $45 each and I went back and bought me one too.  Jared couldn’t find what he wanted in his price range so he left disappointed.  It was interesting to watch the weavers at the looms tying knots in the fine silk.  It is terribly hard on the eyes and the weavers take regular breaks to rest their eyes and massage them.

           

This rug is over 600 knots per square inch and they go up to 2500

 

            On leaving the rug factory we headed for the “Summer Palace”, a birthday gift from the boy emperor to his mother.  It is about the size of Glendale, California.  The palace sits atop a hill overlooking a large lake sporting three manmade islands, surrounded by forests – sort of like my house but different.  We walked down the 700 meter long covered walkway while Alex told us stories of the wicked “Empress Dowager”, mother of the boy emperor.  The entire walkway was decorated with paintings, thousands of them, depicting real and fantasy stories of Chinese history.  At the end of the long walk we jumped on a boat for a short ride to one of the manmade islands which was connected to the other shore by the “Marco Polo” bridge of 17 arches.  This is not the original Marco Polo Bridge but it helps keep the story alive.  We were being shadowed by a bus load of German tourists jabbering away.  It’s such a feeling of superiority to know that you can understand them but they might not speak English.

            Anyway, we hooked up with our van driver who had a habit of getting lost when we wanted to leave.  Alex, our guide, carried a cell phone and a palm pilot connected to the internet where he could pull up information and words at will if we had questions he couldn’t answer immediately.  The cell phone was used to contact the driver who was either sleeping in the van or off somewhere smoking to tell him we were ready to leave.  The driver was found and off we went to the Pearl factory.  Fresh water pearls are a giant business in China near the rivers.  We saw some beautiful stuff and Jonette just couldn’t leave without a necklace of brownish colored pearls to go with her business suit. 

            After our usual dinner at a very nice restaurant we attended an acrobatic show at a local theater.  It was quite remarkable what people can do with objects balancing on their heads and other parts of their bodies.  There was this one girl that was sooo limber and could put her body into positions I don’t think I could manage with two bodies.  Alex kept falling asleep as we drove along towards the hotel after the show due to his all night coffee house experience the night before. 

            But wait!  There’s more!  We got home about 9:00 pm and were dog tired but we had ordered massages for 10:00 pm, all of us!  So after a quick but very hot shower I waited for the masseuse.  At 9:50 pm I opened the door to this young lady in her twenties smiling at me so I had no other choice than to lay there and let her beat me up for an hour.  She was actually very good, at least she didn’t break anything like Igor did in Russia, except that she didn’t use any massage oil or lotion and sometimes the skin to skin rubbing got painful.  Nothing that a big, burly ex-firefighter couldn’t handle but she continued up one side and down the other as I kept falling asleep and snoring and waking myself up.  The price was $15 for the hour but all I had was twenties from the ATM so she got a very generous tip which made her very happy.  Fifteen seconds after she closed the door on the way out I hit the light switch and was gone.

            The next morning at breakfast I asked the others how their massages went and all seemed to enjoy them except Jonette who claimed her masseuse had been too rough and beaten her up.  Well duh!  Massages are supposed to hurt so that they feel so good when they stop.  The buffet was its usual self and we got to eat off of normal sized plates.  The Chinese restaurants give you these tiny teacup sized plates so you can only put a few things on it at one time and then they load the lazy susan with tons of stuff.  The Chinese take their time eating but the Americans are used to fast food and get on with it.  Anyway, after breakfast we met up with Alex and headed for the Great Wall with an intermediate stop at the Jade factory show room.

            There were the usual twenty tour buses in the parking lot and lots of people inside the showroom speaking any number of languages.  Most of the young women working the counters spoke some English since it is required in school – another of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to bring China into the world community.  The Jade was beautiful but not very practical at my house.  The kids bought a few things and we left for the “Great Wall” just up the street.  The landscape changed abruptly as we got to the Wall.  Beijing sits on a river flood plain and the mountains to the north rise up sharply.  This is where the Wall passes closest to Beijing.

 

The Great Wall, 25 miles north of Beijing

 

            There were closer to fifty tour buses at the big parking lot near the Wall and you could see a constant stream of people ascending the stairs up the side of the mountain.  We off loaded and had our official picture taken and off we went up the stairs, or at least we started up after the Scottish Bagpipe Band from Canberra, Australia finished playing and blocking the way.  My legs turned to jelly after the first 100 stairs because they were so steep and uneven.  After going up only a couple of hundred feet I stopped and contemplated whether I really wanted to continue.  Wendy was with me in case, as she thought, I would have a heart attack from climbing so as we rested and caught our respective breaths I talked her into going back down and sent her ahead while I rested a little.  As I sat there dodging the people climbing the stairs, some with canes, others carrying children, I decided that I could make it just a little farther and so I started up again.  I reached the next level, rested for ten minutes and then went for the next level until I had reached the top of the mountain, the first mountain.  The Wall kept going but I decided to call that the place I was trying to reach and waited to see the young ones, Jared, Jonette, and Katie, coming down from farther up so I could take their picture. 

            We were supposed to meet back at the van at 12:15 pm so at noon I decided to start back down, thinking that I could make it easy in fifteen minutes since it had only taken me an hour to get up there.  So I started down those #*&@+ stairs giving my already weak knees even more to think about as I would turn my gaze from the steps to the landscape momentarily and hit one of those severely short steps and almost trip.  It was good that there was a handrail to hold on to as I carefully negotiated the remaining 1,000 steps and made it to the flat ground again.  I picked up the photos that we had taken and bought a round of cold apple juice for all the thirsty climbers who had been to the Wall and conquered it.  As it turns out, Wendy got to see more than any of us because she went to the other side where the gate was.  The view from up on top was foggy and not too spectacular for picture taking.  Our guide Alex gave up signed certificates testifying that we had indeed climbed the Great Wall.

            Back on the toll road to Beijing we passed by an abandoned theme park that was never finished because of a lack of transportation to the area.  Most people in Beijing still ride bicycles and couldn’t get out to the park to spend their money.  We stopped at another state run factory that manufactured “Cloisonné” vases.  It was interesting how they made the stuff but our legs were still wobbly and we were hungry so we went into the restaurant for another lazy susan extravaganza.

            After lunch we had nothing scheduled so we spent some time shopping at the Yulong Restaurant  department store attached to the Cloisonné factory.  I met a cute little girl named Helen and she helped me spend my money all over the store.  I bought some silk robes for the ladies and a Cloisonné vase for me.  The others purchased some things and soon it was time to go.  We talked Alex into taking us to the bazaar in downtown Beijing where the real bargains are to be found.  It was unbelievably crowded and narrow but the deals were definitely to be found there.  Wendy stopped at a booth a short way into the alley and bought some place settings, talking the sales girl down from $15 each to two for $25 and thought she had a good deal.  Fifty feet farther down the alley I saw the same ones on display and as I stood there looking at them a young girl tried to sell them to me for $12.50 in perfect English.  When I didn’t seem interested the price quickly dropped and each time I said no she lowered it some more until it reached $5 each and I caved in.  I didn’t even have a use for them but with Wendy standing there getting angrier each time the price went down, I couldn’t resist.  I guess my angel sister, Marlene, will just have to find a use for them at her house.  I also bought a chess set for $30, which had started at a price of over $100.  Not being a swap meet kind of bargainer it was hard for me to not just pay the first price that was offered, but that wasn’t the game in this bargain hunter’s paradise.  Everyone had a blast shopping and we met out in front and walked past Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc. on the way back to the van as it started to get dark.  Katie and Jared went back to Starbucks to see if Katie could get her employee discount, since she worked at Starbucks in San Luis Obispo.  She did, and brought Alex a gift of coffee as we left to go to dinner.  That evening’s restaurant was across the street from Tiananmen Square and Chairman Mao’s glass coffin on display.  We had eaten in a different restaurant for every meal, some better than the others but all good.

 

Xiushui Market in Beijing

 

            After dinner we opted for a Chinese Opera at a nearby 300 year old theater.  It was fun but oh so noisy with all the gongs and stuff.  They served Jasmine tea to sip during the show which lasted only about an hour at about $20 a ticket.  There were three acts: the General at the front getting bad news, the Princess throwing flowers to Buddha in the garden, and the Monkey King making mischief at the wedding in heaven.  When we got outside we had a different van and driver to take us to the hotel as our other, grumpy driver had to go to the airport to pick up another group coming in.  Alex had received bad news and asked to be dropped off at the nearest subway station.  Some family emergency had come up and had him worried.  It turned out that he emailed me after we got home and told me that his father-in-law had died in Shanghai and he had to fly down to the funeral.  Back at the hotel sleep came quickly but by 4:00 am I was wide awake again and finally got up to pack my suitcases for the trip to Shanghai later in the day.  The dawn of a new day and a new adventure.

            After our buffet breakfast, western style, we went off to see the “Temple of Heaven” where the Emperor went to pray for good harvests, etc.  It was crowded with groups of people, both foreign and domestic.  On the sidewalk outside the main gate old men were writing poetry on the cement with water and a long brush which lasted only a minute before disappearing forever.  The entry walkway was level but in order to give it a feeling of climbing up to heaven the designers had slanted the adjacent area downward as you approached the entrance, giving the illusion that you were walking uphill when if you turned around it was plain to see that the walkway was perfectly level.  The grounds were a collection of square and round walls surrounding the Temple.  The wall surrounding the main temple was round and known as the echo wall because the acoustics were such that a person could stand next to the wall and speak in one direction and listen as the sound traveled around the circle and returned from the other.

            On leaving the temple we got stuck in traffic and Alex had to stop by his office to drop off some stuff for the next group arriving that day.  He had a family emergency and so wouldn’t be taking the group around.  Anyway, it got to be late and we were still a long way from the airport so the driver put the pedal down and we flew.  I was afraid to look at the speedometer but the little four cylinders were crying for mercy.  However, we did get to the airport on time, checked a suitcase full of gifts for pickup on Sunday, got cash from the ATM, and still had time to sit a while before our flight to Shanghai.

            It was a two hour flight to Shanghai but my butt didn’t like it much anyway.  We were met by our new guide, Lin Chun, a young man of 21 years who had just graduated from the university and taken the exams to become a tour guide.  We were one of the first groups he had taken by himself.  He had a very charming personality but he kept coughing in the van as he spoke and it became very unsettling.  Shanghai is very different from Beijing.  It’s a commerce center and the money flows through its banks like water.

            We checked into our hotel, the “Jiangau Hotel Shanghai”, and as Lin was getting our room assignments, in walks my daughter Nikki and her tour group.  She had come to China a week earlier and visited Xian and the terracotta soldiers and spent several days on a boat on the Yangtze River before we got there.  It was a family reunion half way around the world.  Nikki went to dinner with us which proved to be an adventure in itself because the driver got lost in the rain.  The restaurant, chosen by the CTS (China Travel Service) was clear across town in a very old neighborhood.  The food was okay but the tea tasted like mud.  Pepsi was the drink of choice.  It cost me an extra $4 for Nikki’s dinner since she wasn’t part of our group.

            After dinner we went down to the harbor and took a cruise around for an hour at $25 each.  Shanghai is a very impressive city with all its new skyscrapers, but at night it is even more spectacular, even with a gentle rain falling in the warm night.  The clouds were very low so the tops of the tall buildings disappeared into the sky with an eerie glow coming from the lights on top.  It was truly beautiful and unfortunately isn’t as great on film.  It looked like the buildings were on fire as the clouds drifted over the top in waves.  The architecture of the downtown area is ultra-modern and neat to look at.  There is a “space needle” tower that rises up on three legs and is something out of “2001, a space odyssey”.  We had seats on the side of the boat and just enjoyed the hour long boat ride on the warm, balmy, rainy night.  Back at the hotel it was lights out in ten seconds.  We leave for Suzhou at 8:00 am in the morning by van.

 

Shanghai at night

 

            Friday morning, after breakfast, we checked our suitcases at the hotel with the concierge and took only overnight stuff with us for the overnight trip to Suzhou.  After leaving the beauty of the new buildings in Shanghai, the elevated roadways and the horrific traffic jams, we headed west out into the real China.  Just outside Shanghai we saw the first single family homes, mostly two story and probably very expensive.  The farther we got from the big city the more run down the houses became.  The slickness of the new high rise apartments gave way to basic living conditions with small gardens where families eaked out an existence.  There were fields of grains growing everywhere, mostly wheat for the noodles.  There were lots of ponds everywhere and I thought they were for growing Carp fish to eat but it turned out to be ponds of fresh water oysters for pearls.  The houses in the countryside were of communist vintage without many frills inhabited by farmers according to our guide.  Suzhou is known as the “Venice of the East” because of all its canals and water gardens.  It sits on a river flood plain so the water table is very high and keeps the canals full naturally.  The streets are narrow and lined with small shops just as you would find all over Asia.

            We finally stopped at the “Tiger Hill” gardens and met our guide for the day, “Gray”as she translated her name to a color, a young girl of 24 with a bubbly personality and terrible English, but as the day wore on we grew to love her for her sense of humor.  The grounds of “Tiger Hill” were filled with beautiful bonsai plants that were older than we realized.  There was even a floor show with young entertainers dancing and playing the drums.  Lunch was at the #1 silk factory cafeteria, a western style buffet, but there were so many tour buses coming in at the same time that the lines were long and the food mediocre.  Those damn foreigners were crowding and pushing like the Chinese.  I was doing so good until Jonette offered me a piece of pizza off her plate and with the first bite it promptly rolled down the front of my white Utah Jazz sweater leaving a trail of tomato sauce as it went.  Duh! 

            Once into the factory it was fascinating as we learned how they harvest the silk worms and unwind the tiny silk thread from the cocoons, up to 1600 yards in each one.  They are pretty good at it because they have been doing it for thousands of years.  The first showroom of the tour was where they were putting together silk comforters for beds, light and warm for about $65.  Of course we all bought one but then we had to buy the silk cover for another $100 for the California King size.  Still a bargain for having something so beautiful.  The next showroom was clothing and different than the other places we shopped – the price on the tag was the price you paid – no bartering.  That was actually more to my liking since I’m not very good at going low bid.  I bought some silk nothings as gifts for those left behind and even bought myself a silk robe with golden dragons embroidered on it.  They packaged up the five comforters we bought and bound them with nylon tape which compressed them to about half their size so they would be easier to take home.  I had thought about having them shipped but airfreight doubled the price and the boat took three months and I didn’t want to wait that long.

           

Unwinding the silk cocoons

 

            It was still raining gently off and on as we made our next stop at a beautiful garden with a giant pagoda where the city wall crossed the “Grand Canal” and was controlled by a gate.  The Grand Canal was built from Beijing to Shanghai to facilitate the movement of goods much the same as the Erie Canal in New York.  There were lots of school kids running around on a fieldtrip and some would practice their English on us, since we were easily recognized as Americans.  English is mandatory for all school children in China.  School is mandatory for all children in China except that the State no longer pays for it.  It is up to the parents to come up with the money, but the State does offer no interest loans for all students up to and through the University.

            Next, we went to an embroidery factory so see how the beautiful silk on silk embroidery was done.  Like the rug factory, it is very intense for the ladies doing the stitching and they must take frequent breaks to rest their eyes.  The creation of beautiful pictures using tiny silk threads of all different colors is truly an art form.  After seeing just how much work was involved we again bellied up to the payment window and brought home a treasure.  I bought a see through silk picture of two fish swimming in a pond, mounted and framed, for about $87.  My house will become a showroom for Chinese art when we get back.  How strange!

            Our cute Chinese guide, Huang Dong Qing, took us to a restaurant for dinner at 4:30 pm and they weren’t ready to open yet but they took us anyway.  The tea again, wasn’t Jasmine, and tasted like mud.  The dinner was okay and we hurried through it like always.  The kids are all getting good at eating with chopsticks.  I can do it but not quickly.  Finally we made it to our hotel, “Aster Hotel”, in Suzhou, another 4-star high rise and very nice.  China has done wonders in providing luxury accommodations for visitors in the last ten years of its reform movement.  We checked into our rooms on the 8th floor and went across the street shopping at the giant discount store – a Chinese Wal-Mart!  I bought two suitcases to carry the junk we had bought over the last few days, one costing $7 and the other $10.  The $10 one broke on the way home so it wouldn’t stand up on its own and now it has gone to the place where it belongs, the landfill.  Wendy went crazy and loaded up on Curry flavored Pringles potato chips.  It was a fun store but the cargo holds are just about full so we held back in anticipation of the discount stores in Shanghai.  Sleep came with a bang – the sound of my eyelids slamming shut at 9:30 pm.

            It was Saturday morning and the buffet was excellent.  We were to head back to Shanghai but first would make a stop at Zhouzhuang, the water town.  It was an old village built along canals with narrow walkways lined with small shops selling anything you could ever want so we shopped some more.  At least this time Qing, otherwise known as Gray, would barter for us with the shop owners.  She is so bubbly it’s just fun to be with her.  After an hour or so of admiring the artistry of the Chinese – making something beautiful out of something simple – we headed back to Shanghai.  Qing came with us just for the ride and to meet Lin, our guide in Shanghai.  It was lunch time by the time we got there and we stopped at a “Mongolian Barbeque” restaurant set up to handle 20 tour bus loads at a time.  It was okay but most of the other tourists had never seen one before and didn’t know how to use it.  Fortunately for us there is one just around the corner from Wendy’s house and it’s Jared’s favorite place to eat.  Qing ate with us and met Lin but then she had to catch the train back to Suzhou where she lived.

            After lunch Lin took us to the old part of Shanghai to see a private garden with seven dragons.  There was an orchestra of young ladies playing porcelain instruments of the traditional folk songs which was really quite nice but when I tried to buy a CD of the music, they were sold out.  As we were leaving the area some young Chinese girls working in a pearl shop called out to Jonette that they had pearl necklaces for $1.  So Jonette went back to see what the catch was.  No catch, the necklaces were really pearls, and really $1.  But she only bought three!

            We kept telling Lin that we wanted to go to the discount store we had heard about but he ended up taking us to the government sponsored department store where, as usual, we bought some stuff.  It was our last night and we had money to burn.  Lin took us back to the hotel and dropped us off with the notice that dinner was on us.  Well, since we had tasted McDonalds in six different countries we decided to try it in one more and started walking down the street in the rain.  We found one a few blocks away and feasted on Big Macs and fries.  Connected to McDonalds was a supermarket and we just couldn’t pass up another chance to shop.  I had to stop off at the ATM to re-supply so I could tip our guide and driver and pay the airport taxes.  The kids went back into the underground city that contains the subway and I went off to find a bank.  We all made it back successfully and packed our bags before turning in for the night. 

            Sunday morning we had an early flight to Beijing where we would connect to LA so we got up early and had the buffet breakfast and headed for the airport for the two hour trip to Beijing, followed by the eleven hours over the Pacific to home.  We spent our last Chinese Yuan at the airport duty free shops before taking our seats in the plane.  It had been a wonderful experience and we had been treated like royalty the entire time.  It was good to get home but we all agree that it was a great trip and we look forward to visiting China again, perhaps in 2008 at the Olympics.