Friday, June 29, 2007

Long day's journey

It's now 9 p.m. Friday in Hong Kong. At 6 a.m. tomorrow, I'll leave for the airport, starting the long day's journey into night.

My flight takes me from Hong Kong to Tokyo (about 3 hours), a layover (about 2 hours), then to Dallas (about 14 hours), another layover (about 2 hours) and Miami (about 3 hours.) Make that 24 hours, give or take. But thanks to the miracle of the International Dateline, I'll be home the same evening I leave Hong Kong!

I love traveling, and I don't even mind the flight. But here's to getting home, with a stop on the way from the airport for a big fat American burger.

In a few weeks, I'll head out to Iceland and Greenland. You can read daily trip reports here starting again on July 15. Meanwhile, you can catch up with my articles and tips from other travel experts at the Miami Herald's travel page.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hong Kong: New and old

Most of us think of Hong Kong as a city of skyscrapers, and if you're staying on the Kowloon side of the city, that's mostly what you'll see. But stay on the Hong Kong side, and you'll be surrounded by patches of garden.

Better yet, head to Lantau.

Hong Kong actually is made up of more than 200 islands. Lantau is the biggest, at about 250,000 square kilometers.

The new airport, opened a decade ago, is here, and so is Disneyland. But much of the island is still protected -- the only private cars allowed are those owned by Lantau residents -- and coming here is like plunging into a forest.

Lantau is also home to the world's largest outdoor bronze sitting Buddha statue, which measures in at more than 250,000 tons and 100 feet high, and even in today's pouring rain is something to see. The vegetarian restaurant nearby is run by the Lin Po monastery monks, who once lived in seclusion but now see that tourism can be a lucrative thing.

Tai-O is a fishing village that retains much of its local culture -- mostly in the form of dried fish, dried seahorses, dried starfish, dried mussels ... just about any and everything that comes from the local sea that can be dried. Like so many traditional places, the village is shrinking; the local seas are getting fished out, and young people want a more contemporary life. And who can blame them? Still, you hate to see the old ways die.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cool thing in Hong Kong

I know that my stories go out via the McClatchy-Tribune wire to newspapers around the world, but I rarely know where they end up. Googling myself just seems indulgent ... not to mention nerve-wracking. (What if you found nasty stuff, or didn't find much at all?)

Today I opened up the South China Morning Post and found a story by, well, me.

Right there, in 32 point type (which is pretty big) were the words
Jane Wooldridge reports on the Bahamas. The story originally ran in the Miami Herald in April.

My daddy, rest his soul, would be proud.

The kindness of strangers

About 18 months ago my bag was stolen in London. House keys, phone, camera, wallet --plus a great new bag purchased on sale(!) -- were snatched from beneath my feet at the British Museum.

Since then, I've experience two great moments of kindness. One came about six months ago -- again in London -- when I lost my passport and credit cards (my money belt unclasped). A kind soul found it on the street and turned it into the police station, where I had gone to file a report so I'd have paperwork to take to the U.S. Embassy when I went the next day to get my passport replaced. (Whew!)

Tonight, I left my latest purchase - a cute little knit dress - on the Star Ferry. About 15 minutes after I'd gotten back to Kowloon, I realized my mistake and hopped back on the ferry, hoping to find the black bag in the same dark corner where I'd dropped it.

No go.

The boatman suggested stopping at the Ferry office on the Hong Kong side. And sure enough, some kind soul had turned it in!

So here's to you strangers out there: Thank you for your kindness. It is much appreciated.

Here's a reminder to the rest of us: Acts of kindness matter. Next time I find a wallet or bag or credit card on the street or a bus or the train, I'll turn it in. I hope you will too.

Hong Kong rides and slides

Hong Kong has two of the world's greatest rides -- and neither are at the new Disneyland here.

The Peak Tram is a just what it sounds like ... a decades-old tram that runs up a rail toward Hong Kong Island's crowning glory, Victoria Peak. For $HK 33 -- about $4.25 -- round trip you can take the tram up the hillside, gliding past green parks and freeways and skyscrapers awkwardly perched at improbable angles. (Of course, they're really vertical; the tram is at an angle.)

After two years of closure, facilities at the top of the Peak have just reopened in a space-vehicle looking tower that turns out to be an enclosed entertainment center, complete with multiple shops, a Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and countless restaurants -- including Bubba Gump's Shrimp Factory. The top of the building is a platform with spectacular panoramic view across the bustling harbour on the one side and to a tranquil bay on the other.

Hong Kong's other great ride is the Star Ferry. For $HK 2.2 -- about 30 cents -- you can take the ferry from Hong Kong Island to the New Terrorities on the mainland. The ride takes about 15 minutes, allowing for plenty of time for breezes and great views of both sides.

A third great ride is on the way. A new cable car will take visitors from a location near the airport to the giant golden Buddha on Lantau Island. Unfortunately, it's experiencing some technical difficulties. I'll have to try it next time.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is an old lover. Once I longed to move here, and might still given the right chance. Every few years I check back in.

I’ve been coming here since 1985. Even then, Hong Kong was Asia’s glitziest city, and despite competition from Tokyo and Shanghai, for me Hong Kong retains top honors. It's a vertical city jutting skyward from an exquisite harbour, rimmed by enough neon to give Vegas a run. And this week, rimmed by fireworks, as the city celebrates 10 years since it left British rule and became – at least nominally – part of China.

Unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong enjoys broad freedom of speech. It uses a different currency from the mainland – the Hong Kong dollar instead of the yuan – and flying here from the mainland is considered an international flight (complete with the usual hassles.)

Tonight it is raining, fists and spurts of downpour marked by periods of calm.

Hong Kong has a reputation for being one of the world’s truly expensive cities, and true, Canton Road is rimmed with the monikers of success: Coach, Chanel, Dior, Ferragamo. But it’s possible to stay in a good location without dropping a mint if you know about the YMCA hotels.

Most trips I’ve stayed at the YWCA Garden View with … yes … great views of the garden from the round tower on Hong Kong. I’ve longed to stayed in the Salisbury YMCA, which commands some of the city’s best real estate adjacent to the original Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tui. It's usually booked...but this time, a single ($100 US) was available. From my window, I can see straight into Peninsula guest rooms. Maybe next time I’ll finally stay here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Been to Tibet?

The bad news: My laptop has fried, so I'm stuck on a hotel computer ... and the clock is ticking!

Tomorrow I'll spend the day flying, heading to Hong Kong.

If you've been to Tibet or Hong Kong, share your experiences here by clicking the Click to Comment feature below.

As I've mentioned before, I haven't been able to view my blog in China, but that may be different in Hong Kong. If not, I'll answer you as soon as I'm able. Meanwhile, please share with your experiences and opinions with fellow readers.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Tibetan Way

Nothing stays the same, nor should it. Yet one of the disappointments of traveling back to a place you loved once is seeing how different it has become.

I was last in Tibet in 1991. Then, Lhasa was a tiny atmospheric town of dirt lanes and Buddhist devotion.

Today it’s a bustling city of 300,000, complete with glitzy storefronts, paved roads, traffic insanity … even nightclubs and a few high-rises. But nothing is allowed to stand taller than the Potala Palace, the centerpiece of Tibetan Buddhism with chapels dating from the 7th century. (A government building comes close, though.)

You can’t blame people for wanting a better life … like jobs that pay and indoor toilets. But I miss the old Lhasa.

One of the biggest changes is the number of tourists. In 1991 we were a handful; by 2005, the number had grown to about 1 million. Since the Beijing-to-Lhasa train opened last summer, the number has tripled. Tickets for visits to the Potala are now timed for a specific date, and you must leave within an hour.

Still, this is a city of devotion. Though the number of monks has dwindled, pilgrims still come each morning to the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest temple, to pray. Many prostrate themselves, standing tall, then pointing their hands in prayer, then kneeling and then lying flat on the ground. Many more circumambulate the Jokhang, prayer wheels in their hands, chanting softly as they wind through pilgrims and tourists and salesmen. Even in 1991, it was thus.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

New friends in China

One of the joys of travel are the people you meet ... again and again and again.

Joe and Barbara, Americans living in Stockholm (each married someone else there, ended up divorced and found each other) have been, well, everywhere I've been. I met them one day in Beijing's Forbidden City, the next on the Great Wall, and a third day in the Summer Palace.

I've just run into them Lhasa, in Tibet.

"We like this so much more than Beijing,'' Barbara said. "The air is cleaner, the buildings are painted, they're more interesting. The people are colorful.''

Said Joe, "It's exotic.''

Wonder where I"ll see them tomorrow?

High Way to Tibet

For the past two days, I’ve skimmed the Roof of the World aboard the globe’s highest train. The Beijing-to-Lhasa run takes 46 hours. At our highest point, we surpassed 16,000 feet.

I’ve been lucky enough to snag a soft sleeper. Lucky, because the most comfortable accommodations on board sell out quickly to tourists from Europe, the U.S. and Japan. And lucky, because once you’ve seen the regular seats and the hard sleepers, you’re happy you’re four to a cabin with comfy pillows and duvets, video screens (though we rarely watched them), tables and electric plugs.

And lucky, because for the first 24 hours, we were only three to a cabin: myself and a young Dutch couple who traveled across the Trans-Siberian Railway before boarding the Beijing-to-Lhasa express.

Beijing departure comes at night. The West Railway Station was a mad crush; only the woman at the Information booth spoke English. A Danish couple stuck in a hard sleeper of six bunks – “it’s really not bad,’’ they told me along the way – helped me haul my luggage down the stairs and into the train. Porters and escalators were nowhere in sight.

The cabins were comfy enough, cradling us into the night. Day Two dawned on a rainy, industrial landscape of villages and factories spewing pollution, but soon settled down to sweet farming towns and sweeping fields of sunny mustard plants.

Toward day’s end, a group of Japanese boarded. We picked up a fourth roommate, making for a tight squeeze with our bags. The back of the train filled as well, the seat-only carriages crammed with Chinese and Tibetans heading across the plateau and into the capital.

By nightfall, the steep climb had begun, into rolling green hills home to nomadic herders and sheep and yaks, cow-sized versions of woolly mammoths. By the next morning, we were into the high and delicate permafrost…first brown, crusty hills, then snow-frosted peaks, then wide plains providing grazing grounds to deer, antelope, sheep, wild donkeys and yaks. “Look!’’ someone cried, as a deer took up the chase, running alongside the train.

“I’ve traveled in the north and northwest of China, but the train is really the only way to see this part of the country,’’ said Giorgio Stevanato, an Italian living in China.

The train began service last July. In early reports, the altitude caused pens to split open, hard-drives to crash and one man to become so ill that he eventually died. But on recent trips, including our own, there seemed to be no significant problems. (My hard-drive is still working, hence this report!)

“I though the Trans Siberian train was the best, but in some places this is even better,’’ said Gerard Laan, 21, the young Dutchman. “It’s so beautiful, just gorgeous. I think we will spend the day just staring out the window.’’ And so we did.

The terrain looks a lot like the Andean altiplano, or – as fellow American Michael Allport of Portland pointed out – the American west. But there’s a mystique that Allport remembered from childhood, looking at his grandfather’s globe and wondering what it would be like to go all the way across China. This is, after all, the Lost Land of Shangrila.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Roof of the World

For the next few days I'll be out of touch as I take the train to the Roof of the World. The Beijing to Lhasa route takes 48 hours; at its highest, it reaches 16,640 feet.

See you on the other side!

One fine day in Beijing

Blue-sky days in Beijing are rare enough, and yesterday the haze was so thick you'd have thought you were in San Francisco. Except this haze is a mix of smog, dust and weather, and doesn't have the San Francisco coolness.

Today, at long last, there was blue sky...not Miami blue, but at blue at least.

A few moments:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Grate tour, Great Wall

In travel, as in much of life, you often get what you pay for.

In years past, I’ve visited the Great Wall at Bedaling, the closest access point to Bejing. It’s always packed: a Chinese wall of people. This time, I wanted a different view.

Several companies now offer regular tours to Mutianyu, about an hour and half from the capital. I checked out a few. In the interests of journalism (and budget), I decided to take the cheapest offered, which I arranged at a youth hostel.

For 180 yuan -- less than $24 -- I would get a tour to the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall at Mutianyu, and lunch. Other tours ranged from $34 to $54.Cheap it was.

The mini-van arrived on time. The guide spoke reasonably good English. Only one other person was on the tour, a German.

We got about 15 minutes out of town, then the guide began to explain the day’s itinerary. It would include four factory stops for “cultural education.’’

The German exploded. “I was told by the tour office that there would be no factory tours, no shops!’’ he said vehemently. Apparently he earlier had been dragged from store to store.

Our guide explained that while we were paying only 180 yuan per person, the tour with lunch and entry fees actually cost 500 per person. The way to make up the difference: Factory tours, where the company would be paid a fee.

The German refused. The guide called the tour company office, then told the German that he could take a taxi back to his hotel and get a refund. The German exploded and stormed off.

I agreed to go on. But there was much telephoning with the tour office; obviously making the costs with only a single guest was a problem. I also asked more questions. The main sticking points for me: I’d have only 90 minutes at the Wall, and we wouldn’t get back to Beijing until 7 p.m. This was both less time at the Wall and later than I’d been told.

In the end, the guide and driver took me back to the youth hostel where I bought the tour, so I could get a refund. On the way I telephoned another tour company that I knew left later in the morning and talked them into taking me.

Sure, it cost a bit more – 280, about $34 – and didn’t include lunch or the Ming Tombs, which I saw on a previous trip. But I got what I wanted: two full hours at the Wall, and only a single short stop at a silk factory.

End of story: The Wall at Mutianyu was totally worth it. Few other visitors, a cable car to the top and a fun toboggan ride back down the bottom. Not to be missed.



Top: The Great Wall near Mutianyu
Bottom: Tobogganing down the hill from The Great Wall

Beijing: Too Much Shopping

Shopping is an essential part of visiting China, and nowhere is it more enticing than in Beijing.

A decade ago, the streets would have been crowded with outdoor stalls. In stately and modern Beijing, they’ve moved indoors.

Sure, there are malls galore, but we’re talking indoor markets, floor upon floor of giant spaces jam packed with permanent booths selling just about everything you can imagine, from cell phones to D&G labeled jackets to pearls.

Shopping is one of the reasons Gretchen Bentley of Palm Beach, owner of Barzini on Worth Avenue, comes here. I found her in the quaint patio of Red Capital Residence, the boutique hotel created by American Laurence Brahm, where we’re both staying.

Bentley sticks with high-end goods; the Tahitian pearls in the Hongqaio Pearl Market are actually quite good, she says…but they’re not on the usual pearl floor.

Most of the rest of the items here are everyday goods: knock-offs, fakes (“cashmere’’ pashminas sans real cashmere), or factory seconds from name brand companies that manufacture here. I was once told that some companies give each employee an allotment of goods each month, and those generally end up in a cousin’s market stall. Hard to know for sure.

Market shopping here is real experience. “Come see my shop! Come see my shop!’’ beckon the sales people. It’s not unusual to find yourself surrounded by a half-dozen shop girls who are pushing and prodding and grabbing at you. This isn’t because they’re picking your pocket; it’s just the way. It works best if you have a little fun with them. “How much you pay me to take jacket?’’ usually gets a few laughs.

In earlier visits, I fell prey to the burning desire for local designs that at home, I never once put on my body. Now I only buy things I know I will wear, usually from makers I’d buy at home, like Banana Republic and Gap. Then I give it the TJ Maxx test: If it’s not equal to or less than what I’d pay for a similar item at TJ Maxx, I don’t buy.

In the end, it all comes to bargaining. In the past I would have figured that I’d settle at about half of the asking price, but in the past five years asking prices have escalated significantly. Now I start at about 20-25 percent of the asking price. I apologize that I know it is too little. They come down slightly. I go up only a hair, then prepare to walk.

My average deal: 25-35 percent of the original asking price.

A lesson in capitalism, from a Communist country.


Top: Beijing Silk Market
Above: Jane after TMS: too much shopping

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Beijing's big new thing

The biggest and newest thing in Beijing is called "the Eggshell.'' It's the National Center for the Performing Arts, perviously called the National Grand Theater, designed by French architect Paul Andreu.

This past weekend, the park-like surrounds opened to the public. When it finally opens entirely, it will be 15-18 months late and overbudget.

Locally, reports the China Daily newspaper, the massive glass-and-titanium dome is getting mixed reviews. Some people love it's futuristic feel; others find its juxtaposition to Tianamin Square and the Forbidden City jarring.

Sunday, plenty of Chinese were stopping by to check it out and have their photos taken in front of it. My Chinese didn't lend itself to talking with them, but they seemed to like it. I did, too.

Better in Beijing

No need to call the Embassy. After two bottles of fitness water, a grilled ham sandwich and a lot of sleep, I'm feeling better. Here's to sleep, food and a hat.

Overheated in Beijing

The worst thing about traveling alone is ... getting sick.

This has happened to me now several times. Once it was food poisoning in Vietnam. But my real Achilles heel is heat exhaustion. Had it in India, had in Vietnam. Got it now in Beijing.

I flew here a day early just to take advantage of what promised to be a sunny day. (Photographs, don't you know.) And then, there was barely any sun at all! So I started out without a hat, and without much food in my stomach.

Then the sun came out. And I forgot to eat (happens.) And I didn't drink enough water. And.....

Calling a doctor is out of the question; an English speaker costs $300! So I got the girl at the front desk to write down my symptons in Chinese and headed out for the local pharmacy.

Whether what I got will do anything for what I've got remains to be seen. So here's the drill: Room 435 at the Jianguo Hotel in Beijing. Honey, if you don't hear from me tomorrow, call the U.S. Embassy and tell them where to find me. It's just down the street.

Who said this was a glamorous job?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

In China, manners matter

You can hear the man – a New Yorker, by the sound of him – yelling across the airport.

“I’m not stupid. I get it.’’

Stupid, maybe not – but definitely a Class A jerk.

The issue at hand was his seats to New York. And while certainly getting a comfy seat is important on a long-haul flight, screaming isn’t the way to do it. Not in the U.S. – and certainly not in China.

In China, manners matter. Sure, the Chinese are shifting away from some habits considered unsavory in the U.S., like spitting and pulling out nose boogers in public. But Chinese are polite in their speech…it’s a matter of saving face. And so yelling and screaming in public isn’t just rude, it’s counterproductive.

That idea was clearly lost on Mr. New York, who also screamed at his guide. Hope he got stuck in middle seats all the way to the U.S. And heaven forbid that the teenage son with him grow up with habits such as oenerous.

Shanghai: City of change

Shanghai isn’t a visitors city in the classic sense. No Forbidden City or Great Wall or Temple of Heaven here.

But if you want to see contemporary Chinese culture in action, to see China in transition, there’s no place more vibrant or telling than Shanghai.

Bicycles and motorscooters share the road with gleaming new Audis; occasionally you still see a bicycle-powered work cart hauling recyclables or plants or construction rebar.

A man barbecues from a basket on his bicycle; another grills pancake-like pastries on a flat griddle next to a stand where ducks are drying, part of the preparation before cooking. Laundry flutters from low-rise wooden row houses flanked by glassy towers, and you know these traditional areas can’t last long.

The rapid destruction and light-speed social shift are one of the most common themes in art seen in the warehouse district of Suzhou Creek, home to dozens of galleries. Overtly sexual messages are here, too – quite a change in a society that two decades ago judged public affection as a punishable crime. Some artwork even criticizes social policy. “The anxiety produced by consumerism,’’ decries a placard describing one artist’s work.

And such themes aren’t just in the most cutting-edge galleries. You can see them as well at the venerable Shanghai Art Museum and Shanghai MOCA.

Both are located in the Peoples Park, Shanghai’s distinctly Chinese version of Central Park, an island of green flanked by an endless forest of towers topped with domes, spires, industrial pyramids, even swirled roofs.

I spent the day wandering through these and a half-dozen other neighborhoods. Often English speakers would stop me: “Where are you from? America? It is a very beautiful country.’’ “Miami? Miami Vice!’’

I wound through the Dontai antiques market (there are few antiques anymore; most are now copies) and on to Yu Garden. This is Shanghai’s one bona fide tourist area – though the tourists are as likely to be other Chinese as foreigners. The district of traditional-style buildings rims the traditional-style Yu Garden itself, now dwarfed by the endless array of souvenir stalls (silk bags, silk pajamas, key rings with bright insects captured in plastic, Mahjong sets, chop sticks, Buddhas, purses …) And despite warnings in guide books, the prices here are actually cheaper than elsewhere in town, provided you haggle well.

Any Shanghai visit should end on The Bund, the historic district rimmed with French Art Deco and stately neo-Classic buildings dating from the early 1900s. A wide promenade flanks the river, looking toward the Jetsonesque district of Pudong. On a Saturday night, it seems as if all of China’s billions are here: Young couples (yes, canoodling), families with the beloved One Child, girls on a night out, guys snapping photos with their cell phones and loudly calling buddies. Many head out on a one-hour sightseeing cruise, $10 per ticket. Others just crowd the boardwalk. One fool climbs into a fountain and dashes to the top so friends can take a photo – quick, before he’s ousted by the security force that rolls along the boardwalk in a tiny Smartcar with flashing lights. A barge stops right in front of the crowd, flashing advertisements for Dior and Vogue magazine and Welcome to Shanghai.

Chairman Mao stands near by – or at least his likeness, imposing in his oversized bronze figure. Is he rolling in his grave, or smiling at the Great Leap Forward?



TOP: Old meets new: the Buddhist Jiang An temple is surrounded by towers.

Above center: Chen Yan of Shanghart, one of Shanghai's top galleries

Above: Chairman Mao's statue on the Bund

Shanghai: Note in a taxi

Posting in a taxi cab (paraphrased):

If the driver talks on his cell phone, smokes, refuses to turn down music, fails to use common courtesy (like saying Good Day) or is abusive to passengers, the customer doesn’t have to pay.

Wish we had that policy in Miami.

Post a comment

Please share your thoughts and experiences with other readers by clicking on Click to Comment below.

Please forgive me; I won't answer comments. Seems that many blogs ... including Miami Herald blogs ... are blocked in China. So I can't see what you're writing. I can't even see what I'm writing!

No bedtime stories tonight

It's bedtime for me, and I've been on my feet all day...museums, markets, art galleries, The Bund. I'm wiped...and I've got an early flight!

So sleep tight. And dream of Shanghai by night.


PHOTOS: Jane Wooldridge / The Miami Herald

Top: The Bund -- Shanghai's historic waterfront -- by night.

Above: View of Pudong from The Bund.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Shanghai scenes



From top:
Haagen-Dazs on Nanjing Road West
Skincare products created by Miami dermatologist Dr. Frederic Brandt are sold in Shanghai
Left, a man barbecues meat skewers from the back of his bicycle
Right, scene on the street
University of Miami students Karyn Meshbane, Karina Smuclovisky and Taylor Murphy at the Shanghai Museum of Art
UM students Karyn Meshbane, Taylor Murphy, Greg Linch, Karina Smuclovisky and Ryan Watzel

Back to class

I’ve spent the day in Shanghai with students from the University of Miami’s Shanghai Journalism Project, a summer study program run by Prof. Bruce Garrison.

This year, the program drew five students: Ryan Watzel, 20, of Coral Springs; Karina Smuclovisky, 21, of Fort Lauderdale, Greg Linch, 19, of Weston (in-coming editor of the Hurricane), Taylor Murphy, 20 (as of yesterday!) of Orlando, and Karyn Meshbane, 21, of Boca Raton. (You can see their work at //

The five-week progam is designed to help students polish their feature writing skills. But more important, perhaps, is the exposure to contemporary Chinese culture.

Garrison, who lived here for a year as a Fullbright Scholar, arranges meetings with local students and journalists, as well as foreign journalists based in China. This year the group has visited Beijing, Chengdu (to see the pandas) and Hong Kong; tomorrow they go to Xian to see the terracotta warriors. They return to South Florida on June 22.

But in Shanghai, they’re often on their own. “I try to get them oriented, introduce them to the right people, and get them to understand and respect the local culture. Then I set them loose,'' says Garrison.

The lessons, say the students, are many: the differences in the way journalism is practiced in China and the U.S.; the generosity of local people; the culture shock of being stared at in the subway. “We take so much for granted, so may things like toilets and toilet paper and soap and clean water and clean air,’’ says Karina.

Says Ryan, “When you’re in America, you think we’re the only people in the world. Here you see that there are a lot of people in the world besides us.’’

After the first two weeks of eating only Chinese food, the students searched out other cuisines. Today we had lunch in a Greek restaurant and ice cream at a Haagen-Dazs with sit-down service; tonight we’re going Italian.

“But we haven’t gone to McDonald’s or KFC or Burger King,’’ says Greg. Not even Starbucks.


From left: Karyn Meshbane, Taylor Murphy, Karina Smuclovisky, Ryan Watzel, Greg Linch

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Weird thing

While I seem to be able to post to my blog, I can't actually see it.

I had read that China has blocked Web access to some sites, including some blogs. Guess the blog site we use is one of those!

So I'm not sure when or if I'll actually be able to view the blog. But keep reading! I'm posting....

Got a question?

Got a question about China? About how to visit? Tour companies?

Or have you visited and want to share a memory?

Just Click to Comment, below.


The time from the plane through the health counter, immigrations, baggage pick-up and customs: About 30 minutes.

I’m met by Bruce Garrison, a University of Miami journalism professor who is holding a class for five UM students in China. I’ll hang with them for the next day or so, before they zip off to Xian to see the terracotta warriors.

Bruce taught here for a year on a sabbatical and delights in sharing the place.

We take the MagLev from the airport into town, a 15-minute rail ride at 430 km (267 miles) per hour that is the world’s fastest train. When another train passes, the reverb creates a powerful jolt.

The ticket cost $6 … high by Chinese standards. The regular subway that takes us from the MagLev station to our hotel costs just 3 yuan – less than 50 cents. It’s clean, efficient and fairly crowded, mostly with twentysomethings dressed just as they’d be in San Francisco or New York.

Welcome to the future.

It's raining; time for a nap.

Then and now

1985: My first flight into mainland China was from Hong Kong. It wasn’t full. Most of the passengers were Chinese; the few Westerners were European diplomats or businessmen trying to carve a foothold into what a near-impenetrable Eastern market with great potential and little cash.

I had waited at the Hong Kong office of the China Travel Service for four hours before I talked the staff into giving me a visa. I ended up at a disco with a group of staffers later that night. I was the tallest person in the room.

Though the flight was billed as a direct flight to Beijing, we stopped first at another airport, small and dark, outside the capital. No one spoke English, but a sign indicated that we should fill out health forms, and I eventually figured out that this was a pre-entry health check. I was terrified a slight cold would land me in quarantine; I lied on the form.

Beijing was no more hospitable. The airport was dingy, poorly lit. I can’t remember whether my pre-arranged ride showed up or not; what I do remember is a vague panic on the long country road into the city that perhaps I was in the wrong place after all, that perhaps I’d be whisked away and never heard from again. The legendary harshness of a then-strict Communist regime gave me comfort; surely kidnapping or killing a foreigner would bring penalties too severe to risk.

2007: The plane from Chicago is packed: school kids and an American musical ensemble and Chinese families heading home with gourmet chocolates for the relatives. Everyone has a camera and a cell phone; many carry laptops.

Getting a visa has been a simple matter of popping down $75 and FedExing my passport to LA. Five days later it was back on my desk.

There are still a trio of forms to fill out: Customs, Entry and the Health Declaration, inquiring whether we’ve handled birds or poultry recently, or are suffering from fever, diarrhea, snivel, cough, vomiting, sore threat, headache, TB, venereal disease or psychosis. The psychosis question always gets me; If you’ve got it, do you know?

There’s an air of anticipation. For most in the Main Cabin (euphemism for back of the bus), this a Great Adventure, or at least a Homecoming. A brief ground delay – awaiting clearance for Russian airspace – doesn’t dim the cheer. Adrenalin is a power weapon against jetlag.

Kari Zuidema, 23, a saxophone player and music teacher in northern Illinois, is traveling with a group of 50-plus musicians, a wind instrument and percussion band that will be playing in seven Chinese cities over the next two weeks.

“I never wanted to leave the country,’’ she said. “Then this trip came up, and I went for it.’’ After the group leaves, she’s staying for another month to teach English. “Before I’m tied down, I decided I should do this. It’s a cultural opportunity I couldn’t pass up.’’

Harold Petty, 21, an international business student at Southern Illinois University outside of St. Louis, will spend the next two months studying Mandarin Chinese. He visited last summer on a school program and decided to return. Why? “The money is all going to China,’’ he said.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On the way

Leaving is always a trauma. Last-minute packing (no, I can't ever get it done in advance.) The fourth attempt to contact the backpacker hotel in Tibet and the officials I"m meeting in Beijing (not picking up e-mail.) A story to finish.

And what, oh heavens, did I forget this time?

But that's all behind me. I'm now in Chicago, ready to board my Shanghai flight.

14 hours, 30 minutes.

People ask how I survive long-haul flights. The RX: No e-mail, no phone calls. The to-do list maker shuts down, and I get 14 uninterrupted hours to read, sleep, watch bad movies.

I love it. Of course, Ambien helps.

When I arrive, it will be Thursday, thanks to the marvel of the International Date Line.

See you then.

Friday, June 08, 2007

China bound

1985. Mao blue was the color of the day; the Mao suit the acceptable form of dress. China had just opened to travel by foreigners on their own, without a tour group.

My official interpreter in Beijing barely spoke English. I only had him for a day; the rest of the time I was on my own in a most-foreign land. 26 and alone. The only hotels open to foreigners were far from the city center; taking a taxi meant getting the hotel concierge -- who didn't speak much English either -- to write down the destination in Chinese.

How things have changed. For my upcoming trip, I corresponded with an agency in Beijing, which arranged a train ticket that will be delivered to my Beijing hotel. My flights were booked on the Internet.

In the years between, I've been back to China a half-dozen times. Each visit is a time warp -- one time backwards, to a world languishing behind the West. The next time, into a country that has leapfrogged light years into the future.

Who knows what I'll find this year? But you can come along via this blog. I'll post every day that I have Internet access.

Wednesday I take off for Shanghai, where I'll meet up with Bruce Garrison's journalism class from the University of Miami. Maybe check out some of the cutting-edge art galleries that developer-art collector Craig Robins has recommended.

In Beijing, I'll catch up on the latest plans for the 2008 Olympics.

Then I'm on the 48-hour train to Tibet, and finally, to Hong Kong, which is marking 10 years of Chinese rule.

Pass along tips and suggestions for dining, shopping and anything else I shouldn't miss. Just Click to Comment below.