Saturday, May 16, 2009

I took the 43 Things Personality Quiz and found out I'm an
Extroverted Traveling De-Clutterer

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Being a FIT-Things we Learned

It's taken a month to gather my thoughts about the most valuable things we learned about our two weeks of independent travel in China. Here are the things we learned.

1) Buy a cell phone: On our first day we bought a cheap Motorola cell phone-about $60. We charged it up, loaded up the telephone numbers of guides and hotels, and began to use it almost immediately, particulalry texting. This allowed us to call ahead to confirm meeting times with guides and drivers, AND to call the USA and the UK. We gave the number to family members and they could call us, or text us, if necessary. Split the cost with another travelling family or keep the phone for future trips. I had hoped to unlock my own cell phone and take it to China but the frequency was not the same. I'm glad we bought a phone while there.

2) Stay at Hutong/Courtyard Hotels: We stayed at the Zhong Tang and the SiHe courtyard hotels while in Beijing, and we LOVED them. The rooms were big,the service great, the ambiance wonderful, and walking through the hutongs every morning and evening was a treat. We would eat in the small restaurants in the hutongs and enjoyed GREATLY the relaxed atmosphere. They never cost more than $110 a night....

3) Trains! Travel by train, if at all possible. They may be a royal pain to reserve, but our family of four found them comfortable, spacious enough, a relaxing way to travel, and inexpensive, and kids LOVE IT.

4)Head off the beaten track, if you can, at least once. We visited Zhaji, a small village in southern Anhui province . It was a highlight of the trip, and it was a trip of many highlights. Do lots of research, ask around, and find a special place to hang out for a day or two.....these slower paced places were times to really connect with local people and to recharge your batteries.

5) And speaking of batteries, take a portable DVD player. When your kids need down time, they can have their favorite videos, and you can have a bit of peace.

6)Arrange your translators ahead of time: Again, through group lists and online networking, arrange a translator to be waiting for you in the places you need high level of communication.

7) We had friends help us make little printed cards that explained, in one to two sentences, who we were and why our family looked the way it did. This was helpful in two locations, in particular. One of our cards said "We are visiting China with our two adopted daughters from Anhui and Jiangxi. We are here on holiday. We love China." Something like that.....they were very helpful when we needed them.

8) Dragon Seal and Great Wall wine....self explanatory.

9) Do not be afraid to wander in to restaurants, wander around the place, point to stuff you want on other people's table, wander back to the bar area, point to what you want to drink, and smile a lot. You will be rewarded!

10) Travel with a good and varied supply of meds, ointments, cold meds...anthing you think you MIGHT need. Why waste time in Tibeaten homeopathic clinics in from of the Lama Temple when that tube of hydrocortisone cream sitting in your medicine cabinet at home would do the trick. It's worth being very prepared in this area.

11) Bribery works well with kids..."Mae, if you just smile and face the camera you can have a little coke at the bottom of the Great Wall...." Hey, it was for our likely Christmas Card and we did not have time to waste. Note: It worked.

12)ATM cards: Use them, but do not depend on them without preparing ahead. THere were places that we thought we would have no problems withdrawing money, and ended up having to have tea with bank managers at Agricultural Banks to withdraw funds. Bank of China was not always successful, but this is still a very safe way to access cash and not have to carry it around on your body.

Go for takes a lot of planning,but it is all worth it.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Place called Zhaji

For the independent traveler, there exists mythical place, lodged safely in ones mind’s eye-a place that is off the beaten track and fairly unspoiled by tourists, authentic and picturesque, and with just enough creature comforts to make it feel both relaxing and like home. These places are often difficult to find and often disappointing. But thanks to a tip from an FCCSD friend, Susan Keogh, our family, on a recent trip back to China in March, found just that special place, a place called Zhaji.
Located deep in the southwestern corner on Anhui province, Zhaji is a small Ming Dynasty era village, surround by rice paddy, mulberry bushes and tea. It is an overwhelming agricultural environment, where water buffalo are more common than cars . There are no major bus terminals or train stations nearby. One must arrange transportation to and from Zhaji’s nearest big city neighbors-Nanjing which is three hours north, Huangshan which is two hours south. Zhaji is nestled in a small valley, with a pagoda-clad hill overlooking the village. Save for small groups of artists that come to sketch the picturesque alley ways and the meandering stream that runs through it, Zhaji is devoid of tourists. It is a place where there is a lot to see and explore but not much to do, a place, that for our family, felt like home within a matter of hours.
Much of the credit for goes to owner and proprietor of Zhaji’s lone tourist accommodation, Frenchman Julien Minet. In a story that probably would be the makings of a short novel, he purchased the village’s most decrepit courtyard home several years ago and lovingly restored it. He now provides the two upstairs rooms for visitors. The architecture in southern Anhui province is unique for its high white walls, black tiled roofs and stone and woodwork. A step into Chashiwu, the name of the ‘inn’, is like having one foot in the 16th century and the other in an edition of Architectural Digest. From the high white walls, stone floors, wood beams and the handmade wooden furniture-all purchased and produced in Zhaji, and splashes of red and blue on the cushions in front of the fireplace, it is a place of utter simplicity and comfort. The bedrooms upstairs sported solid wooden bedframes with huge white comforters, a bathroom with a HUGE wooden bathtub, and a small private deck looking over the neighboring homes and further out into the fields. Back downstairs, the windows and huge wooden doors open out onto the courtyard, where in mid-march the peonies and fruit trees were just beginning to bloom. Beyond the courtyard walls one could see the tiled roofs of the village, and the mist-covered mountains beyond
After lunch we headed out into the village for a guided tour, led by Julien. Our daughters, Mae,age four and Zoe, age seven, followed closely behind him as he took us to his favorite stops-a calligrapher’s brush-making shop, an old clan house that had been turned into the village museum, the woodworker who made small bamboo stools and had a private museum of porcelain and artifacts upstairs in his home. Twisting and turning through alleyways, we came across Julien’s friends, whom he would stop and speak to in fluent Mandarin. And then the high white walls became less frequent; crossing over the small river we then headed out into the countryside, tramping along muddy paths cutting through paddy , where men with their water buffalo were ploughing for the upcoming planting. We walked through the local cemetery, passed small plots of vegetables and groves of fruit trees, skirting outlying homes and grazing livestock. There was much to see in this working village, and from the brood of newborn chicks to the stacks of harvested bamboo, the baby water buffalo or the small bridges cutting back and forth across the river, our girls were engrossed and highly entertained. Julien, a natural teacher, provided extra entertainment, by explaining in simple terms the architecture and the history behind the things that caught their eye, including ‘Magic Bridge’ where packs of cookies were said to magically appear for those that were good (they DID!) and M & M Tower, the pagoda overlooking the village and the source of all such candied delights. Julien explained to the girls that legend had it that hidden doors would open from the pagoda and all the M&Ms in the world could be found here. The girls spent twenty minutes pushing on this stone structure, looking for these hidden doors, with Julien even boosting them onto his shoulders for a closer (and higher) look. Walking down Zhaji’s only paved road, we wandered into small stores, buying drinks and snacks, and arousing a tremendous amount of curiosity about our family. More than any other place we travelled, our preprinted cards of explanation came in handy and brought yet more people into the street for a quick look at our unusual family.
Sitting by the fire in the evenings, Julien explained his interest and desire to preserve this part of China, one that is not so much being outright destroyed but rather one slowly eroding due to the loss of viable families and sustainable employment. With most young people leaving the village in search of work, Zhaji, like many rural places in China, is becoming home to only the young and the old. So Julien helped set up a “Zhaji Artisans Club”, to help a small handful of local entrepreneurs stay in the village while simultaneously making a living in a skilled profession, and selling their goods on the internet. Village preservation, in his mind, is about preserving a way of life and the ability of people to sustain themselves in their ancestral villages and not flock to the city leaving parents and children behind. The stories he shared were quite sad, evidence of the strain many families from poor villages are experiencing in rapidly-changing China.
He and the ‘auntie’ who manage Chashiwu were thrilled and extremely curious about Zoe and Mae, particularly Zoe, an Anhui native. As Julien explained, “These are Chinese girls who have lost a deep element of their heritage, like many Chinese today. I want to make them feel engaged about everything they are seeing, “he continued, “and to give them that special connection to China. I preserve this kind of China out of an intellectual curiosity, so to have adoptees here gives the meaning of my work an entirely different perspective. I want them to leave here feeling the magic of their country.” In this endeavor he succeeded brilliantly.
On the last day we took one last walk through the village, and as Ian and I poked our heads into small homes and shops, a few selling rustic artifacts and antiques and painting supplies, Zoe and Mae charged ahead down the small, winding alleys. As I lost sight of Zoe but could hear her laughing voice echoing off the high, tiled walls, I realized that my Anhui girl had made Zhaji, for just a short time, her home.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Homeward Bound...Sniff

OK, none of us really wanted to leave. We were so sad the night we left that our visit to Beijing's most famous HotPot restaurant felt more like a wake. We visited the Temple of Heaven in the morning and nearly froze our butts off. Mae continues to insist that she dress for San Diego weather, and it's making us all a bit crazy. The girls both asked where the prayer wheels were and if they could pray to the Buddha...LOL we have two new religious converts and for those who know this you can see how funny this is. We warmed ourselves up quickly by visiting HongQiao Market, which is totally renovated since I was last there, and quite overwhelming in its size. We all got into the shopping frenzy, making darn sure that we brought home not one yuan with us. We came pretty darn close!

Trip home was uneventful, which is what you want on long, trans-Pacific flights. My major task now is to get photos linked in some kind of coherent fashion so that some of these blog posts make sense.

Maybe I am getting soft(er) in my old age, or maybe I am really tired, but I kept crying on the airplane, thinking of the highlights of the trip, counting my blessings we could swing a trip like this and mentally preparing our next one. I know it is a big world with lots to see and do, but China seems so the center of our universe, and with so much to explore, it is hard to tear ourselves away, even mentally.

I asked the girls to make a list of their favorite things they did on the trip. Mae's were funny :"Seeing ducks in the water but those weren't the ones we ate.." and "Praying". Zoe listed her new found culinary bravery, the visit to Zhaji, and seeing Joan and Hai Ying. Ian loved, as I did, Zhaji-a place that has totally stolen our hearts, our entire trip to NingDu, and returning to the Summer Palace. I personally was surprised how much I loved BeiHai Park in Beijing, but the highlights were connecting with Zoe's nanny, my hero, Li Kai Nian, finding the woman who found Mae quietly laying in a box early one morning in October 2003, and the images of Zoe running through the village streets of Zhaji, totally at home and her small voice bouncing off the 500 year old walls of this farming village; the man serenading Zoe with old Anhui songs on the little island off the shores of Chao Lake-an Anhui daughter returning home; the Peking Opera being staged in a dirt lot in NingDu, our eyes on the performers, all audience eyes on us and every kid wearing split pants and the feeling that I had been transported back in time about 40 years;Mae's firecracker entrance to NingDu's CWI and the banner above the door that read "Welcome Ning Fu Hua Back Home"....small moments that will be etched into my memory forever.

I can list the downsides of this trip in about 10 words:
Mae's bug bites on her arm.
Couldn't stay longer
(oops, that's nine words)

We were treated with kindness at every turn, every place we went. The Chinese know that travelling independently takes a bit of courage, and I really believe that families are rewarded handsomely when they stray a bit off the beaten track. And in several instances where our presence was met with incomprehension, our little Chinese cards stating that we were returning with our Anhui and Jiangxi born daughters and that we were visiting China, a country we loved, on holiday, we were met with thumbs up, Hen Haos and boatloads of smiles, all that made every bit of planning worthwhile.

I don't even think paying my visa bill this morning will dampen these fond memories.....

We are blessed, truly.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Winding Down in Beijing

Well, this adventure is winding down,and our goal to cover a lot of territory today was dampened by rain which started late morning. We headed to Beihei Park, one of the private gardens of Emperors and his family. It is just outside the Forbidden city and we had never been. WHAT A TREAT! Even with gray skies it was lovely and we spent a number of hours walking around the lake, clibming hills and getting great views of the city.

Zoe and Mae, after encouragement in their provinces from various people, now insist on kneeling before Buddha, bowing three times, making a prayer or having a moment of silent contemplation, then dropping 5 RMB into the donation box. They search out prayer wheels and think carefully about what they pray for (No toy or DS/Gameboy requests allowed). Zoe got quite into it, and began asking me a number of questions about the various reincarnations of the Buddha, and my intro to world religions university class began to fail me quite quickly. Living in Asia for so long you would think that I would know these things. I hope her interest lasts.

Got a phone call from my mom about this point, and our Watsonville friend, Hunter. We rented paddle boats to take out onto the lake and it began to rain hard just as we pulled away from the dock. Then the winds began, and I had a horrible vision of us being lost at "sea" (Well, it IS supposed to represent the ocean) and having to be towed in at great expense by the boat staff with all the locals looking on getting their jollies at our expense. We paddled hard and our ride on the lake lasted a total of 10 minutes. But the girls enjoyed it..until they started getting soaked and freezing.

I forgot what a royal pain in the butt trying to find a taxi in the rain KL at least it was 80 degrees....not so today and poor Mae, who stubbornly refuses to wear socks and anything but a sweater, was shaking like a leaf by the time we found a cab. Give us another parent of the year award for our planning, but we did have plenty of toilet paper this time.

Just desperate to get inside, I pulled out an old business card for the Shard Box shop near Ritan Park..God, I LOVE this shop, and Ian hadn't been. He now loves it too. Fascinating place and the owner had lots of time to talk with us about various items. When we were both engrossed in looking at jewelry with 2000 year old coins, porcelain beads and other cool stuff, the staff took Zoe and Mae outside, around the corner to the building's lock communal pit toilet. Where else would you let a stranger take your kids to the toilet...LOL. Zoe continues to assimilate quite well, and is so proud of her squatting abilities...she can go alone. Not so Mae, who continues to sometimes call them Squish Toilets and prefers to have me dangle her over the loo to do her business. My back is quite shot after two weeks of this.

We then walked, in the drizzle, to the NEW silk alley market, a frightening experience of 4-5 stories of hundreds of stalls, and according to my guidebook, sees upwards of 20K people a day(!!!). We got jackets (SURPRISE) a few teeshirts, and a gift or two...ran into a line of stall workers all from ChaoHu (I tested the veracity of this with info that only us ChaoHu insiders could know). Zoe got horribly embarrassed because these girls and couple of guys made a HUGE deal out of her. Pissed Mae off and she began to slide into a funk. Add this to the 2 1/2 hour search for a taxi, and you can guess the rest.

We had 'room service' tonight (nice food ordered at a restaurant down the hutong and delivered to our room, along with another bottle of wine.....) packed our bags so that we are not rushed tomorrow, and will call it a night.

I know we said we wouldn't be back for at least five years, but we are once again planning a trip sooner rather than later. At breakfast this morning, almost every group was doing the same.....kind of funny.

But once China gets in your blood......