We spent March 27th and 28th on airplanes. From BWI, we flew to O'Hare, where we met up at the gate with most of our travel group, which was comprised of 55 people, or 17 families. A few stragglers, e.g., people who had beaucoup frequent flyer miles on airlines other than United, a dad-to-be who was a CPA and swamped in seasonal tax work, etc. (To no avail, we had tried to use our own 120,000-plus United frequent flyer miles -- Kevin used to travel a lot for work -- to upgrade to business class. Grrrr!) Our plane to China was literally full, every seat of the big 777 taken. Fortunately, we had good weather and lenient flight attendants, and I spent much of the flight standing in the back galley talking with people whom I'd previously only "met" online and in a video teleconference a few days before the trip. We shared family pictures, including referral pictures of the children who were waiting in China for us, and life stories as the plane bored its way through the Friendly Skies. We also talked with other travelers, including a bunch of retired folks who were on a group tour. One little old lady kept expressing her amazement that we were able to adopt from "Red China."
We landed in Beijing a little after 3:00 p.m. China-time on March 28. Our guides Sherry and Johnson met us at the airport. Sherry was a young, sweet-faced kid -- I believe she was 24 at the time -- who spoke fluent, idiomatic American English. Johnson was a 40ish man with a kind smile and apparently quite an expert on internal travel in China. They had a tour bus waiting and whisked us away to the Beijing Radisson, where we were free until 8:00 a.m. the next day.
The Radisson looked like any downtown hotel in small-city America. It could have easily been in Chattanooga. A mid-size city hotel, it had the requisite sunny atrium lobby with cushy jewel-tone chairs and a brass-and-fern bar off to one side.
Kevin and I have always felt strongly about resisting the temptation to Americanize our foreign travel. So while a number of our fellow travelers planned to dine at KFC or Pizza Hut, both of which had restaurants near our hotel, we decided that we should eat what the locals do. We asked the front desk manager -- a young American kid -- if he'd recommend a good seafood restaurant (and not necessarily one that catered exclusively to foreigners). The manager first checked the reservations list for the hotel restaurant, which was a celebrated Cantonese-style eatery, and found that nothing was available. Then, with a wicked gleam in his eye, he told us that he had just the place for us. It was 3 or 4 blocks away, and he drew a little map for our use. "You'll feel like you've walked into a National Geographic special," he promised.
We found the place easily enough and, yes, our young friend was right. There were rows and rows of aquarium tanks filled all kinds of sea creatures. My sushi-loving husband went nuts. There were also a couple of big tables displaying various uncooked vegetable dishes. The place was full. We were the only Caucasians -- heck, we were probably the only non-Chinese -- in the place. One of the wait staff approached us, showed us to a table, and procured a couple of beers for us. He then explained, more in sign language than in the bit of English he knew, that we needed to make our selection from the tanks and the table and the chef would prepare our meal. We chose a spiny lobster, some dumplings that we thought we recognized, and a vegetable dish with snow peas. Apparently, the chef would decide how these raw materials would be prepared.
A few minutes later, the waiter returned with lobster sashimi. Kevin was ecstatic. I did not eat raw fish at that time. I was hungry, though, and I didn't want to insult the chef or the waiter, so I dug right in, thanking God with every bite that I'd endured a round of hepatitis shots a few weeks before. And it was good! I've eaten sushi occasionally with my husband ever since. Hunks of raw fish still aren't my favorite, but I'm not grossed out by them either. Later, the waiter brought us more lobster, this time deep-fried in a spicy batter, and of course, our dumplings, veggies and more beer. This truly delightful repast cost us $23, I think.
The next morning, after an English-style breakfast in the hotel dining room, we boarded our tour bus again for a day of sight-seeing. As we chugged down the broad avenues of Beijing, which was relatively quiet early that Saturday morning, we noticed two things: the unbelievable smog and the tiny trees that looked barely alive. China has a serious air pollution problem, folks. Pollution, in fact, has become an issue for the upcoming Olympics. Although I was feeling no ill effects from our gastronomical adventure the night before, my sticky eyes and runny nose testified to the atmospheric conditions.
As Sherry was regaling us with tales of growing up in China, our bus pulled up to Tiananmen Square, and one of the men in our group piped up and asked, "What can you tell us about June 4, 1989?"
A dead silence fell over the group, though in our heads a lot of us were probably screaming, "Oh, no!!!" I know I was. Next to me, I heard Kevin gasp. Sherry handled the question beautifully. "As you know, I am only 24 years old, so I was a small child in 1989," she began. Then she lowered her voice, and with the most serious expression on her face, said something like, "You would be very foolish to discuss these matters anywhere outside of this bus. Do not ask questions like this to the people you meet here. Do not talk about the Falun Gong. Do not take pictures of an military or police equipment you see or of people wearing uniforms. The Army wears green. The police wear blue. The secret police wear gray." While the Cold War imagery conjured up by the little old lady on our flight didn't exactly fit the China we were seeing that morning, it was abundantly clear we weren't in Kansas anymore -- or anywhere else where the First Amendment applied.
I'm sorry to admit that much of the rest of our time in Beijing is a blur, for Sherry and Johnson ran us ragged over the next two days. We started at Tiananmen Square, then visited the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Great Wall at Badaling, and several shopping outlets for silks, jade, pearls, and cloisonne. We had a festive dinner on Sunday night at a famous restaurant where Peking Duck was the house specialty. Down the street from the hotel, we discovered Carrefour, a huge French-owned Walmart-like place with an amazing and colossal western-style supermarket on the ground level -- think Wegmans -- and a department store above. On Monday morning, I spent close to an hour upstairs in Carrefour looking for fuses for Kevin's CPAP machine, which he uses for sleep apnea. His machine had blown a fuse, thanks to the uneven power supply in the hotel. (Unfortunately, we were never able to find the right kind of fuse. I endured a lot of snoring for the rest of the trip, and poor Kevin didn't get a good night's sleep until we got home.)
Besides the pollution and the scrawny trees, there were a few other things that struck us during the Beijing leg of the trip. First, we never saw a bird. Downtown Washington, where I work, is just full of birds. Later on, we learned that Mao thought they were pests -- rats with wings! -- and launched a campaign to get rid of them during the famine of 1958-61. Second, although Beijing itself was crowded and bustling, there was little traffic on the way to the Great Wall. Sure it was Sunday morning, but even in the middle of the Bible Belt, you'd seldom see a 12-lane freeway that was virtually empty on Sunday morning.
In a similar vein, we were struck by the extreme contrasts between new and old, rich and poor. Besides beautifully-maintained freeways (not that hard when there aren't many cars), there were buildings going up everywhere, construction sites ringed by bamboo scaffolding. The street where the Peking Duck restaurant was located was a sea of neon reminiscent of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Walk a couple of blocks off the main drag, however, and you'd see decaying buildings and other signs of extreme poverty.
Additionally, everywhere we went, we were accosted by people who wanted to sell us touristy trinkets. "Worth 50 U.S. dollar, ma'am, but I give it to you for five!" One of the first Mandarin expressions Sherry taught us was, "Bu yao!" or "I don't want it!" Self-defense, I guess. It did, however, come in handy.
And on Monday evening, so did the second expression she taught us: "Wa ai ni," which means, "I love you."