china travels

A trip to mainland China with 4 / 5 of my family.

dispatch #1


I wish I had a hat.

I mean, all the other tour groups have them, so why can’t we? I
feel like I’m missing out on one of the quintessential parts of
the Chinese tour group experience.

Yup, I’m on one of *those* tours.

We get on our bus. We get shuttled to the next tourist trap while
our local guide colors us in with either history or a clever
sales pitch. We get off the bus. We follow the guide’s bouncing

Rinse. Repeat.

It’s not all bad though. The guides are indeed entertaining,
although I’ve had to get translations for more than a few of the
jokes, since apparently my parents never taught us the word for
“fornicate” in our household.

There’s so much to write about, but it’s past midnight local
time, and I’m plum tuckered out. You get that way when you see
every single tourist attraction in Beijing in two days, have
already taken two in-country flights, and haven’t been sleeping
at all due to agonizing foot pain.

We’re in Li Jiang (麗江) now and are supposedly going to some
mountain pass at 4500m tomorrow. Luckily, I have an extreme
adventure cane that only cost 30 RMB ($4 USD), a borrowed ACE
bandage, crazy Chinese aerosol spray medicine, Chinese foot
plaster wraps, and tiger balm, so I expect nothing but smooth

Til next time…

hazy beijing recollections, part one



That’s the first thing you notice when you deplane in Beijing.
Everything in China is big. Sorry Texas.

The airport is huge, sleek, and modern. Frankfurt always seemed
pretty swell to me, but Beijing is a serious contender.

And if you don’t get the hint in the airport itself, the huge
eight-lane highways should quickly clue you in.


That’s the second thing you notice about Beijing. It’s (mostly)
immaculate. Litter is quickly scooped up by workers riding
garbage-bikes, tricked out three-wheeled bicycles with a large
metal container in the rear to hold the rubbish.

Unfortunately, “clean” only holds true if you don’t consider air
to be very important. The pervasive haze is horrifying and
amazing. I’m not a pilot or otherwise qualified to have an
opinion on visibility, but I do have a blog which is almost as
good. My claim is that visibility is somewhere between 1 and 2
miles if you’re lucky. The sun is a suggestive ambient light
source, and I get the feeling that Beijing parents talk to their
children about clouds the way that American parents will one day
talk to our children about glaciers and polar bears.

But let’s not get picky, ok?

This trip has been quite the learning experience. For example,
I’m learning what it’s like to be an older, established-person

From what I can tell, it mostly consists of waking up at 6am,
setting your watch to the regularity of the meals, complaining
about said meals, and spending highly regimented blocks of time
at every possible attraction in a given 100km radius. It’s not
all bad though; you get a free bottle of water every day.

On our first whirlwind day, our cougar-bait guide Eric, who is
over six feet tall and has a beautiful jet-black mane with golden
highlights interspersed just so, led us around the Forbidden
City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and possibly 6 or
maybe 34789 other sights. To be honest, my brain melted after the
three hours, because quite frankly, although all that old stuff
is cool I guess, after a while, they all start looking the same.

Add in the fact that I was working pretty hard to translate
everything he was saying, and let’s just say that I’m pretty sure
I never need to see another ancient Chinese ruin. At least not
while following around the Beijing Fabio.

I would have been perfectly content to wander around by myself
and follow my folly, but that earns scoldings galore in a Chinese
tour group.

I’m amazed at how much Chinese people can eat. Our group is an
eating machine. We’re about the size of a platoon, but would
require a support column of a division.

Normally I’d be having a field day because I love nom, but it’s a
little discouraging when every restaurant has an armada of giant
tour buses parked outside and you get the same mediocre dishes
that everyone else gets. Thus far, nothing fancy to blog home

I will say that I love the social aspect of this type of dining,
but I think that deserves an entire entry of its own, so I’ll
save it for now.

I’m amazed at how much energy my mom, the super-tourist, has.
After 15 hours of non-stop touristing, we got back to the hotel
and she asks what else we wanted to do that night.

She was a bit surprised and disappointed to hear “absolutely
nothing”. It’s pretty cool when your mom thinks that you’re a

I tried explaining that my ideal trip is seeing one thing in the
morning, maybe another thing in the evening, and calling it good.
Maybe occasionally climbing a 5000m peak or humping a 40lb. pack for
10 miles, but nothing hard like getting herded relentlessly for
hours on end.

In comparison, climbing Cotopaxi was like grabbing a steak out of
the freezer.

five for today


haze at the Summer Palace

Bird’s Nest light fixture

mom and Victor at the Olympic center

Great Wall

a podiatric interlude


modern voodoo

I’ve had some on-again off-again mysterious chronic foot pain for
the past year or so, and the hours of relentless walking in
Beijing took their toll in the form of a flare-up that resembled
a mini-case of elephantiasis.

I won’t say that it was miserable, since I reserve that word for
situations where actual death is possible, but it sure wasn’t
pleasant either. Turns out when your body is trying to decide
what to do in the battle of extreme sleep deprivation versus
agonizing consciousness-inducing pain, the loser is you.

Our itinerary called for a flight to Kunming, and I hobbled
through the Beijing airport in a fog. At some point, Victor and I
got separated from the group, and we ended up losing the pack
before the security line. No matter, we had our boarding passes
and gate number so what was the big deal, right?

Apparently, even though the TSA now allows you to carry an
unlimited supply of certain fluids like contact solution, this
little nugget of knowledge has not trickled down into other
countries. I found myself arguing with the Chinese security goon
about being able to keep my big bottle of solution, but he was
having none of it. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have lead
out with “In America, this is no problem” and his response of
“This is China, not America” was exactly what I would have
retorted with as well. At the time, I wished for more curse words
in my limited Chinese vocabulary, but also in retrospect, that
would have probably been a bad decision. I’m no Jarrett Bialek
after all.

Eventually, I found the gate, limping, sweaty, and frustrated. It
was not a fun day.

Anyhow, I knew my mom would go into maxi-fret mode about my
temporary discomfort, but I hadn’t counted on inheriting thirteen
other equally worry-wart aunties as well. As one who believes in
the power of the bedrock of western medicine (aka ice and
ibuprofin), I found it quite difficult to fend off all the
well-intentioned but crazy-sounding ancient Chinese folklore
voodoo hoodoo medicine that the aunties offered.

Like, for example, drinking the tincture of yunnan baiyao, which
according to the label, is indicated for:

bruises, contusions, injuries, wounds, swelling and pain
due to blood stagnation, rheumatism and numbness, pains
in bones, muscles and sinew, pain due to arthritis,
chilblain, etc.

I asked my dad what the ingredients were, but they weren’t


Think about that for a second. Medicine that comes in a bottle,
with a child-proof cap and its very own little graduated dosage
cup (like Robitussin) but DOESN’T LIST THE INGREDIENTS.

Well, I drank it just to humor my dad, and as far as I can tell,
it’s equal parts gasoline, fermented tiger penises, worcestershire,
orangutan back hair, and AIDS.

It did not help.

I did manage to beg for some ibuprofin and someone in the group
had an ACE bandage, and between those two things, along with
dutifully applying a yunnan baiyao plaster each day in addition,
I’m somewhere in the ballpark of normal again.

Note to self, I’m adding an ACE bandage to my international
travel kit from now on. This is the second time in an
underdeveloped country that buying one has proven to be next to
impossible, and it’s a pretty cheap form of insurance. Just
something to consider for yourself next time, dear reader.

sxsw china, cliffs notes edition


Holy smokes, time flies.

Apologies in advance for the terseness of this entry; I’m more
taking notes for myself to maybe expand upon later, but the
activity to time density has been extremely high that I’m already
starting to forget some of the things we did.

Tip o’ the hat to…

Stone Forest Scenic Area in Kunming. It’s a magical place
absolutely littered with alien karst formations up to 100 feet
tall. A climber’s wet dream (although sadly it’s not permitted).
I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang. We started the day off
watching a show at the base of the mountain, which I’d normally
be pretty skeptical about, but this show was produced by the same
guy who did the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. The
production quality was amazingly high, and the show was really
nice. Afterwards, we took a gondola up to a saddle on the
mountain at 4506m. Mom and dad stayed in the lower area, with mom
sucking down O’s, and I managed to get to the high view point of
4680m, bum foot and all.

Shannon Grand Canyon in Shangri-La. We stayed in the bottom of a
deep river canyon, very reminiscent of the Black Canyon of the
Gunnison. I think the walls were 600 or 700m in height, and a mix
of crumbly choss and decent granite. No climbing signs littered
the place, but I’m not sure if that was simply to deter stupid

Shangri-La. We’re staying in a hotel at 3360m, the old town is
pretty cool, and people here wear the native dress for reals.
This is an autonomous region of China with a heavy Tibetan
influence, and it feels way more exotic than any other city we’ve
been in so far.

Wag o’ the finger to…

Tourist trap shopping mazes. Apparently it’s common to set up a
giant shopping center with one entrance that forces you to walk
in a giant maze, one direction of travel only. Along the way,
shop employees bark at you the whole time to buy stuff. The only
exit is approximately 2k away and you have to walk through the
entire thing to get out. Sucksville.

Spirulina factory in Lijiang. Another tourist trap that we got
bused to and forced to listen to marketing spiel in a closed
room, similar to a time share pitch. This time, it was for the
miracle and wonder of spirulina. The sales pitches work though,
because our group bought heaps upon heaps of the stuff.

Fake tourist trap villages. The Chinese love to build
re-enactment villages, similar to colonial Williamsburg. Let’s
face it, these things suck regardless of the country or culture.

Shangri-La. The name of this city was renamed from Zhongdian a
few years ago simply for marketing’s sake. The amount of new
fake-old construction is staggering and obvious, but it must be

That’s it for now. Tomorrow, Shanghai!

travel day


holy pile of rocks, Shangri-La

Chiangs minus one

Yangtze River, Shanghai

Ass sitting all day
Planes, buses, taxis, oh my
Made it to Shanghai!

that’s a wrap


Tibetan script inscribed on a brick, Shangri-La

drying laundry, Hangzou

riding the “bullet” train from Shanghai to Hangzou

The official part of the tour ended today.

[Praise the deity of choice here.]

It’s been a fun two weeks, but I’m looking forward both to
unstructured time and me time. I must be getting cranky in my old

Tomorrow, we’re taking the “bullet” train from Shanghai to
Nanjing to visit my uncle, who has decided to relocate there from
the Garden State. We’ll be staying with him for a few days; then
the family returns to the States while I stay in Beijing and

begin the work part of my trip.

ps, If you can afford to stay in the Shanghai Crowne Plaza, I
highly recommend it. It’s the first 5-star hotel we’ve stayed in
that actually merits all of its stars.

This post has been brought to you by my new favorite bathrobe I

bullet the grey sky


good role models, old Lijiang

Shanghai is a hustling bustling frenetic locus of human activity.
As you blast through the city in a screaming taxi with the angel
of death sitting shotgun, dodging lumbering whale buses and zippy
bike and scooter minnows, the future winks back.

Shiny-ancient construction projects sprout wildly, straining up
to the haze-ridden sky; concrete is the new organic; motley
cranes rear their urban brood, standing tall like terrible kings
of our present times, although they’re all arms and no legs,
quite opposite the lizards of millenia past.

Joss Whedon predicated his Firefly universe on a world where east
and west were fired in a cracked crucible heated unevenly, the
resulting admixture a mishmosh of component parts with clear
lineage like Uncle Mort’s lumpy gravy, both gibbetty and floury.
It would be unsurprising if he drew inspiration from Shanghai.

Beijing is stiff and stodgy, weighed down by 5000 years of
tradition — starched collars and Brooks Brothers. Shanghai
dances and prances and embraces shabby-chic. Oversized overpriced
Dolce and Gabbana eyewear with $5 Target flip-flops are a-ok.

I’m writing-riding on the train to Nanjing. We’ve kissed 207
km/h, and I’m mainlining Portishead into my brain to drown out
the 40somthing dumpy looking dude making out with his 20something
girlfriend or wife or whatever.

A few headlines and quotes from the Shanghai Daily:

Hidden dangers of home decorating

More than 91 percent of Shanghai homes tested were found to have
high levels of formaldehyde in the air… “It is too late to
offer advice after decorating so we want to give help
beforehand,” said Li Wei, the [Shanghai Association of
Environmental Protection Industry] vice secretary-general.

Strange case of the eggs that bounced

The man, surnamed Chen, found the yolks of the boiled eggs had
become hard and elastic. They could “even be bounced high like
pingpong balls,” he said. Chen, 67, said the eggs looked exactly
the same as normal ones.

Paying homage to all things pink and Barbie

There is also a gelato bar with special flavors: Barbie, Ken, and
Barbie’s new friend in Shanghai Lynn. Diners can also take on the
Barbie burger complete with beetroot red sauce or the meaty Ken
burger with bacon and cheese.

Mourinho rules out racism in Juve chants

The Portuguese said that if Juventus fans were really racist,
they would also abuse their own black players, such as Mohamed
Sissoko. “If it’s racism, it’s racism for all, not just
opposition players,” he said.

And in yesterday’s edition, we got a story about a counterfeit
store. No, it’s not a store that sells counterfeit items although
there are many of them here. Instead, an enterprising
counterfeiter set up an entire building to resemble a Tesco (the
Euro equivalent of Wal-Mart) with fake signage, price tags,
promotional material — the works — and got people to shop there
for several months thinking that they were really shopping at a

Victor and I walked through the Shanghai shopping district this
morning and it was moderately depressing. It seemed like every
store wanted to sell you a cheap Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Paul
Frank or whatever namebrand knockoff. All I wanted was a plain
leather belt, but apparently the urge to slap on a crap fake logo
on everything is irresistable. It will be a good day when the
Chinese get some brands of their own that they can be proud of,
rather than settling for el cheapo fakery.

Our bargaining attempts were thwarted due to the flashing neon
“FOREIGNER!!!” signs floating above our heads. Apparently we
confused the hell out of them with our Chinese physical
characteristics but horrible Mandarin. Everyone thought we were
Malaysian or Singaporean (two other countries that speak
Mandarin). Our “we’re Americans” reply was something that no
one expected.

The people here are taller than I expected. I was thinking that I
was going to somewhat above-average height, but the nutrition
here must have improved by an amazing amount in the past few
years, and it turns out that like always, I have to rely on my

sterling personality and razor sharp wit to stand out from the

I’ve no clue what Nanjing has in store for us. We’re meeting up
with my uncle for a few days. I’m hoping to get more than 6 hours
of sleep per night over the next few days.

This android does dream of electric sheep.

daily Chinese life, Nanjing

exuent, chased by a panda


rare image of clouds in Nanjing

Nanjing is what I had in mind when I imagined urban China. Lots
of bikes and Buicks, well-worn buildings interspersed amongst a
few new ones, hustle without bustle. She’s the old capital of
China, and moves at an appropriately stately pace. Her robes are
beginning to threadbare, but the nobility remains. She’ll be here
til the longafter.

architectural detail

The Chiang clan ancestral roots are here in this province and in
this city. My grandfather attended war college here, fought for
the Nationalists (making colonel), and escaped literally on the
last boat to Taiwan when it was obvious the Communists were going
to win in 1949.

Nanjing is the spiritual home to many Taiwanese who were in the
same literal and figurative boat as William Chiang. Dr. Sun Yat
Sen is often thought of as the father of modern China, and the
Taiwanese leadership like to think that they are the true heirs
of his legacy.

There are many memorials to the good Doctor here, including his

We saw them all.

air raid shelter

A sobering afternoon was spent wandering around the Nanjing
Massacre Memorial Hall. The Rape of Nanjing occupies the same
dubious spot in the Chinese psyche that the Holocaust does in the
Jewish psyche.

At least the Germans admitted their errors. To this date, the
Japanese government has not formally apologized for their war

All the exhibition signage in the memorial is prominently
displayed in Chinese, English, and Japanese. As far as typical
Asian subtlety goes, it’s somewhere on the scale of running
someone over with a bus to ask if they would please pass the

My conclusion is that all war is hell.

nj reunion in nanjing

Uncle Mike is wacky as ever, and has been more than gracious in
schlepping us around everywhere, which is to say, using his bus
pass x6 every time our group heads out.

“bus” in Chinese translates literally as “work car”, which is a
lovely way to think about it.

Tomorrow, mom, dad, and Victor head back to the States, and I’m
in Beijing for another weekish or so. I’m feeling ill-prepared
and mush-brained but that’s the way things go.

Act II concludes.