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Archive for January, 2011

Beijing – The Great Wall

There are always issues when traveling in foreign countries with small children, and it gets ever more serious when you get into emerging markets, where things are unpredictable, and few people speak English.

But one of the biggest “children” issues one faces when traveling in mainland China is the amount of locals who stop, point, crowd around, smile and chase your children.

F is well aware of it and hates it. T is too, and even though she doesn’t like the attention, she secretly does.

Try as we do to make F a friendly, polite young girl, she really isn’t. Especially when it comes to foreigners ogling over her.

Whenever a local person tries to get her attention, she lets out a growl, a grunt, or a whine, turns away, or scowls, hands on hip. It is not a friendly gesture, but who could blame her.

It did not take our guide, Jiling, long to notice this.

“The way F looks at the Chinese people is… funny,” our guide said, meaning it in the nicest and most honest of ways. I didn’t want to tell Jiling that she looks at them that way because they drive her crazy.

We were going to Mutianyu, about an hours drive from Beijing. It’s a section of the Great Wall that is much, much less crowded than a section that is closer to the city (Badaling). In this outskirt, the Wall does get crowded, but we left early enough that we never really felt overwhelmed by the people.

Our guide, Jiling, grew up in northeast China. She went to local schools there and got a government job after graduating but decided to give the big city a try in 2001, when she moved to Beijing. After some corporate jobs where she worked as an administrative assistant, she moved briefly to Germany, learned the language, moved back to China and started touring the country. She passed the state tour guide test and started her own business shortly afterward. We highly recommend her services: http://www.luckyjil.com/.

Our trip to the Great Wall was on a very, very hot day.

From the parking lot, you walk up a hill and through a local market where vendors are aggressive in their sales tactics.

“What’s your name, what’s your name?” asked a lady selling t-shirts. I muttered my name.

“I remember you M. You remember me M? You remember me M when you come back down. See you later M. Bye.”

We got in the chair lift line, as if we were going up a mountain ski resort for a run down in the snow. F thought the chair lift was really cool. T was a bit freaked out by it.

When we reached the top, there was the Wall in front of us.

We fought for five minutes over who had to walk, and who went on my back in the pack.

F realized she was going to have to walk, threw a brief fit. A snack helped her get over this.

“Look Mom, we’re on the Wall!” T yelled from my back.

“We’re not on the Wall, we’re near the Wall,” F corrected. She was right. We hadn’t quite reached it.

Once on the wall, the views are thrilling. Its rocky, rugged surface gives it an authenticity, even though one can arrive up in a chair lift and slide down in a toboggan. Each watch tower takes five minutes or so to walk to. Once we reached these square, stone structures, we’d rest in the cool inside, and look out the rectangle windows cut into the thick stones.

“He doesn’t have a shirt on,” T said, giggling, noticing a guy in jeans, running sneakers and no shirt. It was amazing to see how few locals wear shorts and flip flops, even when it’s nearly 100 degrees in the sun. Jeans were everywhere. It was difficult to comprehend.

F walked the whole way, up and down the slanted, jagged stone steps. The steps leading up and down from the watchtowers leaned whatever direction the wall was angled. One of the watch towers had a narrow staircase up to the tip top, where people gathered for a better view and pictures. F was getting tired, the whimpers were starting to get louder and more deliberate.

So I promised that the next watchtower would be the last one. There, I perched the kids on a thick window ledge. Chinese tourists immediately gathered around and started taking pictures of them. Some would touch the girls, and F would growl at them. T would just let out a squeal and turn her head away. Jiling was very nervous about how I perched the girls on the window ledge. Yes, it was a long drop below, but the ledge itself was 4 feet thick. I wasn’t worried. But every time one of them moved to grab a gold fish or sip water, Jiling would jump and reach out to block them. She stood guard the whole time, petrified that one of them would fall.

I split off for a moment walked down a bit further. I stood by a couple posing with their child near a canon. I recall in reading up to the trip that nobody has every bothered to attack the Wall, though I have not verified this fully.  The Wall did not look impenetrable, but it looked as if the Mongols would have one hell of a time coordinating an attack that would take them up and over. The portion of the wall where we were was perched along a steep ridgeline, making any attempt to go up and over the Wall seemingly impossible. Mongol invaders would have to climb a thousand or more feet straight up the side of several mountains before they’d even reach the part of the wall we were visiting.

The bribe that kept F going for one hour walking solo along the wall (not bad for a 4.5 year old, I reckon) was the promise of a popsicle. We kept passing these snack sellers along the wall, who clearly didn’t sell frozen treats, but of course, F kept insisting they did. The more we passed, the more I said no, the more frustrated she got. The men at these snack stops were all dressed in traditional PLA army garb. I don’t know if they did that because they were at the Wall and supposed to. A lot of older men in China where the army garb simply because its practical to them. Impervious to the heat, it covers their arms, keeps them warm in the shade, etc.

We found a snack seller at the top of the stairs we were descending to leave the wall. When I looked at the selection, I noticed there was a taro pop on sale, an item I doubted F would like. She looked at it, confirmed that she’d had it before, asked for it in Chinese, and immediately tore into it. T kept at her Goldfish.

I prepped the girls on how were getting down, which prompted some excitement from both. You’ve probably seen these kinds of toboggans. They descend down the side of a mountain and are situated on metal tracks. You pull to break, push forward to accelerate, and lean into the turns. In line, we met a couple from Oregon. They were a sweet, older couple. The mom did the talking, and the bearded dad, observed, smiled, occasionally made a remark.  The Mom spoke in a Midwestern, simple drawl, saying things like how good the food was in Shanghai, how hot the weather was in Beijing. Their son lived in Shanghai. He was up ahead in line with his partner.

We climbed into the toboggans and bombed down the mountain. E went alone with the baby in the bjorn. Jiling went ahead with F. I brought up the rear with T.

I thought F would resist the Jiling partnership but she took it on. They were pals now. Jiling kept yelling something up toward us, and I couldn’t tell what it was, but I had a hunch. There was a couple in front, in which the woman was 10 times the age of T, and 20 times more scared of the toboggan. She was going so slow, you could walk past her. Jiling was yelling in Chinese at this woman and the woman’s boyfriend to go faster. So we’d all put on the brakes, queue up, wait for some distance from the slow poke, and head down the mountain, the Great Wall meandering behind us along the ridge line.

The next stop was fresh rainbow trout. Jiling had a local place in mind but a place called the Schoolhouse was recommended to me. When we got there, Jiling looked at the menu and remarked to E that the place was expensive, which they immediately let me know about. When I asked how much the dishes were, I quickly did the math. The local place probably sold exquisite local trout dishes for $5 per plate. This one sold them for $8. We could endure the added cost.

On the way back we did a drive buy of the Olympic sites – the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest.

I’d warned the girls that a colleague had invited us over for a barbecue at the hutong where he and his wife live, located not far from Lama Temple.  They didn’t say anything when I broke the afternoon plan to them early in the morning. I knew the questions and the resistance would come closer to our trip there and they did. They pulled it together and made the best of it. And E and I loved seeing hutong life with the added benefit of being just around the corner from Lama Temple.

The following day Jiling brought us to Dashilan, Qianmen Dajie, Tian’anmen Square, and the Forbidden City. All of these sites were truly astonishing. We probably could have done the sites on our own but it was great to be able to relax, have her guide us around, pay for entrance fees, and tell us interesting facts and history. She was extremely flexible and understanding to our needs and limitations with the three kids.

We lunched at a fantastic Hot Pot place (sorry don’t know the name) where the kids loved throwing dumplings in and trying to fetch them out with their chopsticks. We then spent the afternoon at the 798 Art District. I definitely recommend the trip out – it’s a a  great, vibrant, thriving scene.

We ended our Beijing trip with a dip in the pool and before heading out for  Peking Duck. We got a recommendation to go to Huajia Yiyuan – and it didn’t disappoint. Best of all we could walk there from our hotel so we got a bit more of touring the streets of Beijing before our departure the next morning.

(Note: In that Tianamen Square photo above, there are probably a dozen cameras alone in that one lamp post, filming the people — a true police state.)

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Beijing – Summer Palace

Walking through Beijing’s airport terminal, we followed our hired driver out the automatic doors, and into the main parking lot.

“It smells like elephants,” F said. It was really an astute observation, because, in fact, a herd of elephants is exactly what the outside air smelled like. We’ve been to airports and large urban transportation hubs that smell like gasoline, or jet fuel, cigarettes, or a sewage treatment plant. But it’s still a wonder what blend of odors created that exotic animal zoo scent in the early hours of that Beijing night.

Let me start by saying that I love Beijing. It’s a got a magic to me that I felt the first time I was there, and felt it immediately upon my return. The last time I was in Beijing was November, 2008. Election Day in the U.S. The Obama election results came in just after a bunch of us got out of a meeting. When we got out of the boardroom an hour later, Obama had won Ohio.“He’s got it,” shouted a British colleague. “He just won the election.” People were scouring the internet for images and videos of his victory speech. Local media wasn’t showing it. We crowded around desks that found video. I looked over and saw a British woman crying at her desk. The weather outside was cool, clear and crisp, just like a New England day in November.

So here we were, the whole family this time, in Beijing. I worked pretty long hours that Thursday and Friday, leaving E and the kids on their own those first two days.

Thursday they went to the zoo with friends who live in Beijing. It’s not something highly recommended but if you have extra time and want to do something kid-friendly it’s worth a visit.

Friday E and the kids went to the Summer Palace. An absolutely gorgeous park that was an imperial retreat from the Forbidden City. It’s just on the outskirts of Beijing along Kunming Lake. They hired a driver who waited for them. While this was a bit pricey it was worth it seeing as she was on her own with three little ones and very little mandarin.  Here’s their day:

We walked from one gate to the other and all around the grounds. We started at the Hall of Happiness and Longevity. We loved walking through the Long Corridor, stopping along the way at various sites – Temple of the Fragrance of the Buddha and so on. We wound up at the Marble Boat built by Empress Cixi. On the way back we walked up Longevity Hill as far as I could while pushing a stroller.

At one point we stopped for a snack and before I knew it F was negotiating with a woman for bird whistles. For someone usually reticent to use her Mandarin  she did just fine in securing the correct number and colors she wanted, telling the woman which ones she didn’t want, and then leaving me to work out the price. I definitely overpaid her because when she realized I wasn’t asking for changed she quickly scurried away with her extra cash. F would also miraculously speak whenever she wanted ice-cream and other treats. Yet, if someone spoke to here but not offering anything she wanted she rarely spoke back. Amazing when and where she would and wouldn’t speak.

After spending about 4 hours at the Summer Palace we returned to the hotel, cleaned up, and met our friends for delicious, albeit chaotic (read 3 exhausted kids), dinner.

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