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Prologue:In the Fall of 2005 People to People contacted Becky to inquire if she would consider leading a delegation of dietitians on a cultural exchange to either China or Russia. The decision to accept came after consulting with the ADA office to verify that such a trip would not be in conflict with FNCE in Hawaii in September. After receiving clearance from ADA and choosing a date that would fit into Becky’s schedule, she emailed her acceptance to lead the delegation to China from her Blackberry while driving to Fez, Morocco over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Sunday /Monday 08 and 09 October 2006
Our flights to Beijing were smooth and unremarkable. We were delayed about an hour and a half in Newark waiting for the inbound aircraft to arrive from Charles de Gaulle. But once underway we had a pleasant 13-hour flight to Beijing. Arrival formalities were quiet simple and quick. The People to People city guide was waiting for us at baggage claim and so were our bags! We went to a waiting van which took us on a 30 minute ride to the Swiss Hotel. We arrived at the Hotel about 4:30 in the afternoon. (from now on that will be 1630 since the 24 hour clock is the standard here). The guide explained all of the construction that is on going for the Olympics and how the Chinese will have a holiday during the Games to eliminate traffic congestion. The temperature was in the mid 60's, but the air is very hazy from smoke and pollution. After checking in to the Hotel, the RHATT (Reeves Holab Abelman Traveling Tours) made a quick visit to the indoor pool for a refreshing swim and to restore function to muscles and joints that had stiffened from the 13-hour flight. Next back to the room to prepare for happy hour and dinner. We met in the lobby bar for our first toast with Chinese local beer. (Fans of Seveer Beer have nothing to fear...Chinese beer is no competition) After happy hour we met Christel and Udo Henseler (other People to People delegates) in the dining room for a Chinese meal. Following the dinner the RHATT continued a trip tradition of single malt and chocolates before bed. This trip we are enjoying any 18 year old Glen Livet from Duty Free which was a gift from Fluor to commemorate my 30 years of service there.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
It’s amazing how good a night’s sleep can feel after loosing a day to travel. We had planned to meet Steve and Robin at 8:00 for the breakfast buffet. The spread was somewhat international with a selection of fruits (some unrecognizable) cereals, breads, meats, cheeses, omelets and Chinese offerings. We sampled a bit from all knowing that the next feeding would not occur before the afternoon happy hour. We consulted with the concierge about an itinerary for the day since we would be on our own until the People to People delegation arrived about 1700. We planned to visit three sites and arranged to have a taxi driver with us for the entire day. After we negotiated the price (400 Yuan, about $50 US) we set out for the Temple of Heaven. During this taxi ride we learned the most important accessory for every car is the horn. The Temple of Heaven is a mammoth sanctuary near Tiananmen Square which requires several hours to visit properly. We rented the audio guides and set out to see the monuments. One aspect of interest in addition to the grounds and buildings, were the groups of Chinese doing all sorts of activities. There were Tai chi groups, singing groups, musical instruments, hakky sack, racket ball which all blended into a remarkable cacophony of sounds which surrendered the anticipated solitude to the chaos that epitomizes Beijing. Robin remarked that we should have a pedometer to record the number of steps we took to tour the site…starting tomorrow we can add the distance walked to this narrative. After touring the grounds, we located our taxi and headed for the next stop, a hutong; this is a section of the city which has been preserved to show how Beijing looked before the high rise buildings redefined the landscape. The neighborhood consists of one story buildings which are crisscrossed with narrow streets. We made a half hour walking tour up and down one of the major streets through the gauntlet of bicycle rickshaw drivers. There was really very little to see as everything was hidden behind a wall. Oh well, at least I can say I’ve been to a hutong. The final stop on the day’s tour was the Lama Temple; this is a Buddhist Temple which is reputed to be the best preserved in China. The most remarkable feature of the temple is an 18 meter tall Buddha which is carved from a single Sandalwood tree. It is 15 meters in diameter at the base. Unfortunately no photos were allowed, but it is in the Guinness Book of World Records. From the Lama temple we returned to the Swiss Hotel and ventured out to find a store for happy hour supplies. We eventually discovered the Vanguard super store and found all we wanted; chips, nuts, beer and wine. After a brief break we met for the usual social hour and then went to the lobby to meet the delegation.
Wednesday October 12, 2006
People to People had arranged for the delegation to have a private dining room for breakfast; the buffet offered the same selection as the public facility, however the setting provided a more enjoyable experience. Following breakfast the total delegation and guest (there are 60 professional delegates and 16 guests) met on the 3rd floor for a trip briefing. Here we met the guides who provided some Chinese historical information as well as an outline of the program we would experience while here. Following the 2 hour briefing, the guest separated from the dietitians to meet in the lobby for our first cultural experience. We first traveled by bus to our lunch stop, unknown to our guide this was the highlight of the day because we drove through the central business district and witnessed the on going construction as well as the recently completed projects. Beijing is a city undergoing a rapid transformation. Any building constructed before 1985 is a candidate for razing and reconstruction. The skyline is a blend of glass enclosed office towers and tower cranes. It’s easy to see why half of the world’s concrete and steel is consumed in China. Our lunch destination was in the Day’s Inn hotel, or more appropriately named the restaurant of many tour busses. The set menu consisted of a variety of tourist friendly Chinese dishes served on a lazy susan family style at a round table for eight. Beer is included in the lunch but a diet coke was extra…go figure. From the restaurant we continued to the South gate entrance of the Temple of Heaven. Of course we had toured the site the day before and did not discover much new. The one difference was the time of day; afternoon vs morning and the activity from the locals was much different from what we had seen the morning before. Leo, our guide, did include some new information about the tiles and their color significance; he also explained the animal icon decoration of the roofs and their significance in protecting the buildings from demons. One other noticeable difference is that a tour group with a guide is a magnet for the local street vendors who were aggressively offering their postcards and souvenirs. Following the hour long tour of the temple site, we visited a tea room, where we learned about the variety of Chinese tea and the magical medicinal properties of each. I should be surprised that any drug companies would want to do business in China, because according to our hostess, tea is a panacea for any physical distress. Of course we had opportunity to purchase any tea and service piece that were available in the shop. We then returned to the Swiss hotel where we met the professional delegation for the trip to our evening meal. Again this was a venue which specialized in serving the tour bus trade. The set menu offered a selection of at least eight different dishes served in typical Chinese family style. All were good; however none was remarkable or memorable, at least the beer was included. From the restaurant we walked one block to the Red Theatre for the evening performance of “The Legend of Kung Fu”. I can’t tell you much about the show as I followed my plan to sleep through the show. Steve described the show as “Kung Fu in a Cirque de Soleil style”.
Thursday October 12, 2006
Following breakfast at the Swiss Hotel, Becky and Steve departed at 8:00 for their 1st professional visit of the day at the ILSI Focal Point. The guest group departed at 9:00 for Hutong; this is the old section of Beijing that has been preserved to show how the city had looked before the freeways and skyscrapers. We toured the area by Pedicab (the evolution of the Rickshaw) because some of the narrow alleys were too small for the bus. We had a few minutes to visit a local market (read tourist drek) before going to visit the home of one of the residents. The home was built around a small courtyard; it consisted of 9 rooms which was sufficient for 3 generations. All of the essential utilities was there, although heating was provided by a coal burner; cooking and water heating by bottled gas. Our visit provided plenty of time to tour the home and ask questions. After the rickshaw ride back to the tour bus, we took a scenic route to lunch which provided a view of the new Olympic Stadium. With the atmosphere was so hazy and the bus windows glare, taking pictures was a waste of battery power. The stadium is a monstrosity which seats 140,000. Our lunch was at a venue not far from the Olympic stadium. I think the translation of the sign out front is “For Tour Busses Only”. By now all the food is beginning to taste and look the same. Bland would be a compliment to describe the taste. I have learned to demand salt, pepper, soy sauce and red chili sauce; any thing to try to squeeze some taste from these lunches. Still the beer is considered a soft drink, so it’s provided with the meal. Following lunch we boarded the bus for the trip to the Summer Palace. This is an enormous ground with one of the few hills in Beijing. It served all of the Emperors through the last one in 1920. The public saw it for the first time in 1925. While the grounds are very well maintained especially considering the amount of traffic, the buildings and “furnishings” can only be viewed through closed and smudged windows. The access was so poor that we didn’t bother to see what was inside. We walked the longest corridor in the world to the boat landing; the corridor was freshly restored and interesting to view the paintings. Schedule did not permit a visit to the Temple on top of the hill. The boat ride across the lake saved a long walk back to the bus lot, unfortunately the air was so hazy that objects on the shore were indistinguishable. We motored to Tiananmen Square for the flag lowering ceremony. Tiananmen Square is huge, even larger than Red Square in Moscow. The square is the site of the government buildings, Mao’s mausoleum and other significant monuments. The street vendors are very aggressive here and we were warned to be careful of pickpockets. We met Becky’s delegation near the flag pole and then went to dinner at Qianjud Roast Duck restaurant for the famous Peking Duck dinner. Here we were introduced to fire water and fried scorpion appetizers…they taste like the grease they were fried in. There wasn’t any dish that was remarkable and I can’t figure out what the fuss is all about over Peking duck…to me it’s just dark greasy meat that needs a lot of chili sauce to be edible. We returned to the Swiss hotel for the evening and immediately retired for the evening.
Friday October 13, 2006
Today was the first “cultural day” of the tour…this meant that Becky and her delegation of dietitians and the guest were together to tour the most significant sights in Beijing. We began our tour at the Forbidden City. This was the winter palace of the emperors and was in use until 1911 when the last emperor was overthrown. He was kept as a prisoner inside the walls until 1920 and the first visitors were allowed inside the gates in 1925. The Forbidden City is not a place to be described but to be experienced. Photos cannot capture its enormous size and serenity. Only two of the major buildings were scaffolded and shrouded for restoration in time for the Olympics. Our guides explained the symbology and yin and yang of position of the buildings, the colors, and the relationship of the courtyards; they flavored their commentary with folk lore concerning the role of the concubines and their cunning to get a date with the emperor to have a chance to be the mother of the next heir. The Forbidden City suffered from total pillaging following the overthrow of the emperor. Little remains to illustrate the opulent life style of the emperor. We toured the grounds for almost two hours and saw only the highlights; our guides suggested that we see the movie “The Last Emperor” which was filmed in the Forbidden City to get an idea of what it may have been at its zenith. We boarded the busses for the ride the silk rug factory, the low point of the tour..no further comment. Our next stop was lunch and the friendship store. Another typical meal the only difference was the beer was unlimited…apparently to loosen one’s shopping desire. The store offered a nice variety of Chinese souvenirs; the selection and variety was probably as good as is available in the country. From the number of full shopping bags that returned to the bus, everyone appreciated the shopping time. Now the highlight of the day…a visit to the Great Wall; built 2500 years ago and over 4000 miles long, it is truly one of the wonders of the world. About 25% is restored and the remainder is derelict; we visited a restored section at the Badaling Pass. We had an hour and a half to walk the steep inclines of the wall. Unfortunately we had a foggy/hazy atmosphere so the pictures of the wall are compromised. The wall follows the contour of the land…there is no grading so the wall can go from steep steps to gradual grades in a very short span. The wall is full of vendors who are trying to make a living. Some were pleasant and others were annoying…we did buy t-shirts partly because of the cute vendor and partly because the wind and fog were cool and the extra layer was welcomed. The original asking price for the shirts was 100 yuan for one; the final purchase price was 20 yuan each. Becky signed certificates for everyone in the group as proof that each had walked on the great wall. The ride back was a bit sporty over narrow, switch back mountain roads. We arrived back at the hotel to tired and too late to consider any additional activities for the evening…instead we finished the happy hour supplies we had purchased on our first day and had room service send up some sandwiches.
Saturday October 14, 2006
Today we move from Beijing to Xi’an. The flight departed about 9:00am…there are significant challenges of moving a group of 70 plus people and their luggage, but our national guides met every challenge and got the entire group onto the plane. The flight lasted just a little over one hour. The atmosphere was so hazy over China that we could never see the ground. We met our Xi’an local guides at the airport and boarded the 2 busses for the trip into the city. We had been warned that the trip would take an hour and a half mostly due to traffic congestion. We did ride through some farm land; small plots with stoop labor tending the crops. The land seems dry and dusty, even the leaves on the trees had a layer of dust. Jenny, our guide, explained much of the history of Xi’an and its importance as the ancient capital of the Chin dynasty and the terminus of the Silk Road. As we arrived into the city, we saw the magnificent 600 year city wall and entered through the South Gate. We stopped at the City Hotel for lunch and then proceeded to the Hyatt to check-in. We only had a few minutes before the group departed for the art museum and the Wild Goose Buddhist Pagoda. The art museum was constructed in the mid 80’s however it was not well maintained as art is not a high priority for the Chinese…probably a holdover from the Cultural Revolution. So this was one of the least crowded venues that we visited. We saw a few exhibitions and then had a demonstration by a Chinese artist…Becky was awarded his painting at the end of the visit. From the Art Museum, we went to the pagoda, because the next day it would be closed to the public for a celebration. We had dinner that evening at a Mongolian Hot Pot restaurant…it was an enjoyable experience as well as a nice break from all of the fried foods we had been served. As we arrived back at the Hyatt, we walked across the street to Parkson’s department store to get a couple bottles of wine to enjoy for the remainder of the evening.
Sunday October 15, 2006
The breakfast buffet at the Hyatt is very nice, this was the first time I had seen peach and strawberry juice offered in the selection of breakfast drinks. We loaded the busses for the quick trip to the Jade Carving Factory. We were greeted by the manager who provided a quick history and tour of the facility; then the 1 hour shopping frenzy began. It was quite an experience to see 60 ladies demonstrating their inner talents for shopping. Becky came away with a jade ensemble of necklace beads, a bangle and a pair of drop earrings. Getting everyone back on the bus was a challenge and Gerard thanked us for helping the Chinese economy. We had about an hour ride to the site of the Terra Cotta warriors. This burial site was discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a water well; the warriors are symbolic guards of the tomb of Qin Emperor. The site of the tomb covers about 30 square kilometers; the site is huge but only the section of the tomb where the terra cotta warriors were discovered is uncovered. The museum consists of three major pits all under cover; the largest is 160 meters by 80 meters where over 6000 warriors are standing guard. Only about a fourth has been excavated, the remainder rest under 2000 years of debris. Most of the figures were broken under the weight of the overburden, but have been meticulously restored to their original condition. The color has been lost to time, but the individual characteristics of each remains quite distinct. The horses are just as splendid but the chariots they pulled were made of wood instead of terra cotta and have been lost to decay. The second pit is much smaller than the first containing only 64 figures, but this is the head quarters building for the entire legion of warriors. The 3rd pit contained the cavalry so there were as many horses as warriors. There are about 1500 figures in this pit which has only been partially excavated. There will be future excavations however much will remain undisturbed. The final building we visited was not a pit, but an exhibition of two bronze chariots that were discovered in another section of the tomb and restored for all to see. Following our visit to the displays we had a chance to meet the farmer who discovered the warriors in 1974 and have a group picture made with him. We had a few minutes to buy souvenir warriors before we returned to the city for a free evening. We chose to walk along the top of the city wall from the East Gate to the South Gate, a distance of 2 miles. Then we dropped into a brew pub for a glass of local brewed stout. There was a green beer on the menu and a strawberry beer neither of which was appealing. We returned to the Hyatt, with an intermediate stop at Parkson’s to get a couple bottles of Chinese Cabernet to go with the pizza’s that had been ordered for delivery to our room. Both wine and pizzas were enjoyable and a fitting close to a very culturally fulfilling day.
Monday October 16, 2006
We awoke to a light drizzle a little cooler temperature. The professional delegation had two visits scheduled for today; First to a university in the morning to visit with students who were studying dietetics and second in the afternoon to a food production facility. The guest went to the history museum in the morning where we took a two hour tour from the 1st Qin Dynasty in 200 BC to the last Chin Dynasty which ended in 1840. At that time the capital of China moved from Xi’an to Beijing and so did the historical relics. The museum was new and the displays were well organized in a chronological perimeter exhibition. Most of the artifacts were taken from tombs of noblemen; to date China has not opened any tombs of the Emperor’s. From the museum we went to the Xi’an hotel for lunch where we were joined by the professional delegation. This was one of the better lunches and the first to be served as a buffet instead of family style around a lazy susan. At 1330 the groups separated again; the guest went to the Moslem section of the city. I can’t say this was a worthwhile visit, but the mosque was from the 7th century and nothing like any we’ve have visited in the rest of the world. Islam is a declining movement in China as many of the children have elected to marry outside the sword. There is a tourist market in this section which is similar to the bazaar in Istanbul except on a much smaller scale. It is full of every imaginable souvenir for tourist and everything is of questionable quality and authenticity. Buyer beware, but for cheap souvenirs this is the place to visit. The weather did not improve during the day; the Moslem market is not well protected from the rain so many of our group elected to return to the bus to get out of the drizzle. We returned to the hotel by 1530 to wait for the delegation to arrive from their exchange. I did have some time to visit the Parkson’s department store to get supplies for a small gathering later in the evening. The entire delegation met at 1900 for dinner; it was raining quite heavily as we departed but the busses could get under the covered entrance so we could board without getting soaked. For the 1st time on the trip, there was a spicy table provided for those of us who had grown tired of the bland diet provided for us. The spicy selections were a welcomed improvement, however not so robust to be uncomfortable. Following dinner we returned the Hyatt for a small gathering to try some of the local Chinese dry red Cabernet’s. The wine was OK; predictions are that the wine industry will improve rapidly as the Chinese continue to prosper.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Today is our travel day from Xi’an to Kun Ming; we left the hotel at 0830 for the hour trip to the airport. Our bus did encounter a traffic jam and the driver elected to make a u-turn across 6 lanes of traffic…this maneuver did not seem to be upsetting to the traffic. We arrived at the airport and collected our boarding passes and boarded the plane for the 2 hour flight. Both flight and arrival were routine, the best surprise was blue skies and fresh temperatures. Kun Ming is a city of 5.1 million situated at an elevation of 1900 meters so the weather is a bit drier and fresher. There isn’t much western influence here so the cultural experience is more diverse than either Beijing or Xi’an. This is a well landscaped and decorated city; streets and gardens are well maintained. After check-in, we had the afternoon to explore to neighborhood around the Horizon Hotel. Dinner was a little earlier because our lunch had been just the snack served on the airplane. We walked as a group about 2 blocks to the evening dinner venue. Again there was a spicy table option, but this night word had spread about the zesty food and there were more people wanting the spicy table than there were available places. After a few quick adjustments, everyone was accommodated according to preference and we started to enjoy the southern style of spicy food. This food was considerably more robust than that we had experience in Xi’an, but still the reviews were are positive and no one complained about anything being too hot. I should note that the amount of beer consumed seemed to increase proportionally to the degree of spice in the food. After we walked back to the hotel and enjoyed a small gathering in our suite to sample more of the local wine and recount the experiences of the trip.
Wednesday October 19, 2006
The beds in the Horizon Hotel are very hard and the nights rest (?) was somewhat dependent on the bed comfort. We began the morning at breakfast…there was a large selection, but there was much more Chinese dishes than we had seen at the previous hotels. Becky and her delegation left at 0830 for their last day of professional exchange; they visited a hospital in the morning and a drug manufacturer in the afternoon. The guest had a guide to take us on a tour of the Golden Palace. This is a Taoist Temple situated on a high hill on the outskirts of Kun Ming. The Chinese gardens were very nice, but our guide was not English fluent enough to provide a meaningful tour of the facility. We did learn about the great general Wu San gui who lived at the temple for a while and some of his artifacts are on display. The golden palace is so named because it is gilded copper. The highest temple is made of 17 tons of copper which gave it a golden appearance (when it’s polished bright and shiny). From the Golden Palace we drove to the Green Lake Park which is a major city park in Kun Ming. The lake is not green, but kind of a muddy, milky color. It was the favorite garden of the third wife of Wu San gui and now serves as a popular city park where locals go to play cards, sing and do Tai Chi. Our visit was only a quick walk trough, and then we went to the lunch spot to meet the dietitian delegation. The restaurant was in a historic old building; by now all the Chinese food is beginning to taste the same and I can’t remember any thing remarkable about this lunch except we were able to exchange the room temperature bottles of beer for some cold ones from the ice box. After lunch our group went to enjoy a Chinese foot massage. This is an hour-long message which starts with a little neck and shoulder massage while your feet are soaking in hot water with some sort of large tea bag. After your feet have steeped long enough with the tea, the masseuse shifts from the neck and shoulders to the feet. For the next 45 minutes your feet are rubbed, pinched, pulled, slapped and beat until you either collapse in ecstasy or succumb to the pain. Depends on your approach to massage and how comfortable you are with a stranger beating on your feet. The vast majority thought it was a wonderful experience. I limped out with bruised feet from all of the beating. I won’t go back for another. We had a little free time before the delegation arrived from their afternoon exchange. Becky wanted to visit the Green Lake Park, but we went to a bookstore to find envelopes for the gifts for our national guide. This night dinner was our responsibility. We tried to find a western styled restaurant, but gave up and went to the place we had been the night before. This was a bit of a challenge because no one spoke English and the menu was in Chinese. We did manage to get a couple of dishes and some local beer for the evening meal. We returned to the Horizon for nightcaps and bed.
Thursday October 20, 2006
Today the entire delegation visited the stone forest. The site lies about 1 1/2 hours outside of Kun Ming. The drive was one of the highlights of the trip which went through fertile farming land and mountain passes.. The Stone forest is a natural display of a limestone uplift which left a forest of interesting formations. Unfortunately it’s a very popular tourist site and it was overrun with tourist. Sara (our local guide) did know a trail that would be less crowded and showed us some of the really significant formations. We visited the rocks for about an hour and then stopped for lunch. I can’t say there was anything exceptional about this lunch but the venue was nice with a good balcony view of the area. We all visited the souvenir shops on the way to the bus. Our next stop was a small farming village which is a throwback to the 18th Century. After visiting 3 very modern cities, it was quite a contrast to walk through the narrow streets and see the corn hanging from the roof tops as it was drying for later use as animal feed. China has a population of about 1.3 billion...our guide told us that 1 billion still live in the rural areas, many in remote villages similar the one we were touring. While it was interesting to walk through this village, it would certainly be a challenging life style. From the village we returned to Kun Ming city to visit a silk factory. This was an optional tour and since Becky had to prepare for final night responsibilities, we returned to the hotel without seeing the silk fashions. Back at the hotel we prepared to tips for the guides and wrote the script Becky would use in her presentation. The banquet started at 1900 in the revolving restaurant on the 29th floor of the Horizon Hotel. We had great time with the presentation and speeches about the success of the tour. Following the banquet, we adjourned to our suite for whisky and chocolates and conversation with Gerard and Hui, our two national guides.
Friday October 20, 2006:
Today is our travel day from Kun Ming to Houston The first flight from Kun Ming to Beijing was about 3 hours. Sara, our local guide, met us at the hotel and stayed with us as far as the security check. We had about a 4 hour layover in Beijing, but the arrival and check in procedures to change to our international flight required a significant portion of the layover. The Continental flight was on time and a comfortable 13 hour flight to Newark. We were looking forward to a nice ribeye steak in the 1st class cabin, but we had preordered the low fat option and were served a piece of fish, which was still enjoyable. Becky and I both slept over 7 hours on the flight to Newark. In Newark we encountered some delay due to heavy winds in the area. Our flight to Houston was delayed almost 2 hours so we did not arrive home until after midnight.
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