Thursday, March 27, 2014



It was a cold, brisk, sunny morning in Beijing, and we headed out to find the Temple of Heaven Museum and Park which was about two miles from our hotel. It took us awhile to find it because the small map we were using was missing some of the street names (at least that's what Ron said), and our sense of direction was a little off. We finally went into a hotel for assistance, and it turned out to be an easy walk from there.
We entered the 660 acre park about 9:30 am; and to our delight it was full of older people, dressed colorfully, and having a great time. This was the happiest group of Chinese I saw the entire trip. Some were doing tai chi and many others were dancing to loud music, and a leader who often sang as well. There were couples dancing together and groups of women dancing alone (with men watching).
We enjoyed the variety of Chinese pop music that was coming from the different groups. Mainland China is currently experiencing a rise in the popularity of Mandarin pop songs and the release of many new albums.
There were ensembles playing live music for crowds that were singing along using the provided songbooks. It was kind of hard to believe that the park would be so active on a 30 degree windy day in March, but I suspect it would be the same in January. I was glad for my winter coat, hat and gloves.
There were games being played like Chinese Hacky Sack, which has been a popular sport in China for more than 2,000 years. It looked like a lot of fun. They also toss a soft hoop around and try to catch it around their neck. A man playing a mini badminton game invited Ron to join him. Ron had a good time playing and he entertained a few spectators as well. Then there was a long covered corridor with a sitting wall that was full of men and women playing games like dominoes and poker. It was here that I spotted two older woman, involved in a game of cards, they were a perfect picture in their red, pink and blue flowered jackets, silk scarfs and colorful warm hats.


      By the time we left at 11:30, the crowds were thinning. I imagine everyone was heading home for lunch. In warmer weather, retirees return to spend the afternoon relaxing, reading and socializing in the park.
The surrounding homes and apartments are extremely small, which I expect is an incentive for the locals to go to the park for entertainment, exercise, and camaraderie. For whatever reason, it appears to be a healthy lifestyle. Judging from the wide variety of vegetables, fruits, egges, beans and rice offered at the markets, their diet is hearty as well. I did not observe any obesity among the Chinese people.


In the midst of this popular park is the Temple of Heaven, considered one of China's finest examples of religious architecture. The complex was built between 1406 and 1420 and visited by Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven for good harvests. The wooden buildings are constructed without nails. An old Chinese cement mixture, made from raw materials such as egges, rice and kiwi juice, was used instead.
It was last used for ritual ceremonies in 1914, and then turned into a park, and opened to the public in 1918. All of the buildings within the Temple have special dark blue roof tiles, representing the heaven. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, with its three tiered circular roofed levels, was the most spectacular. It was worthy of my slow vintage walk around to enjoy it from many viewpoints. 
The cleanliness of the area was no doubt due to the many warmly dressed cleaners we observed. They used brooms, made of straw, and dustpans to pick up any trash in sight. 
From here we headed over to the Forbidden City by subway.






Wednesday, March 19, 2014



We recently returned from our journey to Beijing and Shanghai. It was a short trip, with only eight full days in these two major cities of the world. Typically, we prefer to spread our travel over at least a month—the “vintage way."  However, a short time in China was enough for us at this time
 As I mentioned in a previous blog, Anticipating a Vintage Journey to China, we booked this $999 trip through SmarTours. It included air travel, transfers and eight hotel nights with breakfast. We were well pleased with the arrangements, along with the added benefit of meeting some nice people. Ron and I passed on all but one of the daily optional tours. We prefer to explore on our own by walking and using the subway. Consequently, we miss out on some of the sights, but we have a good time and enjoy the freedom. There is something kind of special about casually walking along the streets and standing on the subways with the locals that you don't get on a tour bus.

The subways were generally easy to use, clean, and considerably more modern and efficient than the New York subways. People typically push to get on and off and don't allow other passengers to exit before they start rushing on. The riders are well-dressed and quiet with iPhones in hand. In Beijing, particularly, the subway riders were mostly under the age of 35. The price was an inexpensive 30 cents (US) per ride in Beijing. This increased to 70 cents (US) in Shanghai which was a more expensive city. In Shanghai we purchased the 24 hour pass for $3 (US).

Crossing the streets of Beijing and Shanghai (they were both about the same as I could see) was a challenge. They do have stoplights, walk signals and crosswalks. Many of the cars stop. However, vehicles turning right on a red light do not stop, in fact, they do not even slow down, sometimes I think they actually speed up. In addition, the bicycles and motorbikes (they have a special lane) do not stop and they often come from either direction. Making it worse is the fact that you can't hear the many battery-operated scooters approaching. Looking both directions and quickly crossing with the crowd helped us survive, but it wasn't pleasant. I am perplexed as to why a government and people would allow such horrendous danger and mayhem to exist on their streets.

The bad air in Beijing is a common concern and it managed to make the US news right before we left. A man from our group gave us a couple of face masks to use if we needed them. It turned out that everyday was sunny and windy. Our guide said “the wind is your friend in Beijing because it helps clear the air.” About 5% of the people in the cities were wearing face masks. I didn't notice any problem, but some people in our group were bothered by the smog.

The temperature ranged from 30F to 50F. It was slightly warmer in Shanghai which is about 1,000 miles south of Beijing.

We did not encounter many English speaking people. The restaurant menus often included photos of the meal as well as an English description. We enjoyed the Chinese food and the service was usually good; it just lacked any kind of friendliness or extra courtesy. The food came out in the order in which it was ready—regardless of whether or not you planned to share it. Beer was the most economical and popular beverage.  Rice wine was inexpensive, but not to my liking.

     If you walk up to the counter at McDonald's, the server automatically pulls out a menu with pictures and prices.

In future blogs I will share my favorite experiences: the lovely walks along the Bund in Shanghai, the Great Wall, hutongs, and retirees enjoying the parks on cold winter days.



Sunday, March 2, 2014


It was early December when I was sitting with my coffee and reading the UT San Diego newspaper. I happened to notice an article about a ten-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai for $899. This included airfare, transfers, hotel and breakfast. It wasn't difficult to convince Ron, who likes a good deal, that maybe we should venture off to China to see what it's all about. I called the trip sponsor, SmarTours, the next morning to confirm the details and to ensure they were legitimate. We decided to book the trip (adding $100 to travel in early March rather than January).

Planning was easy because the flights and hotels were prearranged by the tour company. We depart from San Francisco, and we will drive up the day before. I booked a hotel near the airport that includes ten nights of free parking using the website will allow us some flexibility on the return, in the event we decide to drive back leisurely or stay in San Francisco for a night.

Travel to China requires a visa. I spent many hours completing the required forms and supplying the necessary documents. Our tour company recommended we use the services of CIBTvisas which proved helpful. I needed to call them a number of times because the questions on the Chinese application were not all that clear. Finally, $380 later (China Consular visa fee: $140, CIBTvisa Service fee: $50.00—all times two) mission accomplished.

We plan to book a full day tour to the Great Wall and Ming tombs. The rest of the time we will venture out on our own. My husband, the expert in logistics, has been perusing the maps for nearby transportation and walking destinations close to our hotels. One thing I know for sure—we won't run out of things to do. I picked up a couple travel guides to bring along: Top 10 Beijing, DK Eyewitness Travel and Beijing & Shanghai, National Geographic Traveler. Our hotel offers free bikes to guests—could we really bike in Beijing?

In addition to the travel guides, I found a couple of novels about China that I enjoyed: All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson and Yeh Yeh's House by Evlina Chao. I am currently reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which I highly recommend. Historian, I will never be; however, I am attempting to better understand the hardships of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 and the Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976.

     Communicating in a foreign country is always a challenge, but even more so when it is based on a language that uses characters instead of an alphabet. I normally put some effort into learning a language before I visit, however, I must confess to not even attempting Chinese. My solution is to carry a small red book titled Me No Speak which contains lots of pictures and Chinese words for “no-speak 'ems” like me. I've already highlighted the picture for “Not Spicy.” Hopefully, we won't lose the book.

The ten day forecast for Beijing, so far, looks like an acceptable sunny and 50 degree high. I am on my way with a Minnesota winter coat, warm hat, gloves, scarf, and, as always, my tennis shoes (a no no, but they are the only comfortable shoes I've ever found, and I am much too old to trade comfort for looks). I am not expecting to love China, but it is a place in the world I have never been to and I am thankful for the opportunity to visit.

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