Zaijian Beijing!

Our family at the Summer Palace
Our family at the Summer Palace

“Zaijian” literally means “see you again” in Mandarin. I have a strong feeling that I will be back in this city again. We are ending our stay in a similar way to the start of our journey. The same hotel, the same time of year, and a shuttle full of luggage. As I navigate the Chinese breakfast buffet, I order my water or coffee in Mandarin, and the waitress looks at me, misunderstanding me. She doesn’t expect a western woman to be speaking to her in Mandarin in the hotel restaurant. Then she understands, and all is well. The hotel employees look at us differently. We do not fit the mold of the type of people who stay here. I remember when we first arrived, and we were so nervous walking down the road to Europlaza mall. This week, the girls closed their eyes and walked on the tactile sidewalk strip for the visually impaired, testing to see how it works.

It is an emotional time, as our stay here has been only a year. Too short, in my opinion. Despite the brevity, we have gotten to know some locals, and I write this blog post so that I will never forget them. These are the people that I saw on a daily basis, who I grew to trust and got to know a little bit. I practiced Mandarin with them. Some of them spoke a little English with me.

Chen Fun Lien is the guard who is stationed at our compound gate near the school. I passed through his gate 4-8 times a day. Each time, he greeted the girls and I with a huge smile. He would always say, “Good morning! I can help you please!” He would take my badge and scan it on the gate to open it for us. Finally, one day I asked him his name, and he was SO happy to tell me. I wondered how many other people made the effort with him, since he was always so polite and kind. His smile really brightened our day, and we were really distressed when, on June 1, he suddenly wasn’t at his post! It was getting close to move out day, and finally, I asked another guard at the main gate where he was. “He’s there today,” was the response. I went to check, and sure enough, he was there. I said hello, and he was so sweet, saying, “Hello! I have missed you! I am happy to see you!” The girls had a special surprise after school that day when we were able to say goodbye to Chen Fun Lien.

A salute to Chen Fun Lien.
A salute to Chen Fun Lien.
We HAD to say goodbye!
We HAD to say goodbye!

Another person that we will always remember is our driver, Mr. Shi. There have been many miscommunications and misunderstandings, but there have also been many moments of connection. I made the effort to get to know him, and his family. He, in turn, took us to his family peach orchard in the Spring. We met his parents. The girls will miss him for sure. I was glad that he was the one to drive us in the Beijing traffic. I will look forward to driving myself in Raleigh!

Mr. Shi!
Mr. Shi!

Summer, my tutor. Summer was the first person that I could speak to about my cultural misunderstandings. She helped me with problems. She cooked dinner for me. We went to the fabric market. She loved my girls. My younger daughter learned a lot of Mandarin by listening in to my Monday afternoon lessons. She was encouraging and challenging and a wonderful teacher.

A goofy evening with Summer
A goofy evening with Summer

The flower seller outside DD’s market. In the cycle of a year, I watched this lady and her family bringing seasonal plants to the sidewalk. In the winter, they sold Christmas trees, and then were gone. I hoped she made enough money to last through those cold months. I wanted to start a Spring garden, but knowing we were moving, I only bought small container plants.

My flower lady
My flower lady

Ah, the tuk tuk. What fun this was! We were so grateful for it in the winter when we could zip to school. Its been in our subdivision for years, and will continue to be there for several more. I sold it to a teacher who lives there. What a handy way to get the groceries (or plants) home.

Not a face, but the tuk tuk needed a mention.
Not a face, but the tuk tuk needed a mention.

A fuzzy face to remember China:
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The Ayi. What a relief to have someone to take care of the household with all the illnesses that went through our home. I could take care of the children and myself, and she kept the laundry going and cooked dinner. She really helped make everything run more smoothly. I did have my moments with her…it seemed that every other month I was unsure about her. Each monday, I would go through drawers, returning clothes to the proper owner. For some reason, she couldn’t understand the western sizes. My linen closet, however, never looked so good. She made really good dumplings too!

Wu Ayi, making dinner.
Wu Ayi, making dinner.

I had to throw in this picture to remind me of my Beijing flowers. The roses thrive here. As do peonies. Bouquets of fresh flowers that were a fraction of the price of an arrangement in the US. The peach blossoms! Dried pussy willows. Lavender. Lush orchids, bamboo, peace lilies. So gorgeous and fragrant.

My Spring peonies.
My Spring peonies.

Here is the man that handled all of my outgoing mail and packages. At first, I was REALLY hesitant to send out packages. But really, only once did a package come back to me. We chit chatted and I practiced my country names in Mandarin and my number words. He saw every item I mailed out as gifts. Everything ended up being re-packaged, as it had to be in his boxes. So here he is.

The man at the mail center.
The man at the mail center.

We grew to LOVE sushi this year. This is the chef at our clubhouse teppanyaki restaurant. He cooks at the table, so he got to know our preferences pretty well. He was fun to watch and put together a great meal.

The chef at our favorite teppanyaki restaurant.
The chef at our favorite teppanyaki restaurant.

Another person that I must mention is the gardener that worked in my area of the compound. I don’t know his name, and I wasn’t able to get a photo of his face. We always greeted each other, and he was the one that I communicated with and who coordinated the tilling and planting of grass in our little square of a backyard. In turn, he was able to come use my bicycle pump anytime he had a flat tire on his bike cart. I think he spread the word about that, because one day some random young man showed up and asked for it. No problem. “Mei guanxi”.

Other things that I will miss:
Being able to call the spa and get a massage appointment in an hour. $40 massage. Divine.
30 minute scalp massage included with haircuts. Wow. I will be speaking with my US hair salon about starting this!
Biking to school. We all loved this. At the end of the year, Hollis was so proud to be able to ride her balance bike to school.
Sun parasols. You will see me using mine in Raleigh, for sure. I don’t know why it isn’t more popular in the West!
Excellent Asian food. I’ll be looking for Black Fungus with walnuts and Sichuan Bean Curd (tofu) on the menus in Raleigh…I don’t know if I’ll find it….My older daughter will be looking for roast duck and bok choy, and my younger daughter really likes fried rice. I’ll learn to make my own Shumai.
The markets. I’m scared to see what things cost in the US. The real price is about 1/10th of what we pay. Even when I haggled at the markets, I know the locals could get things even cheaper. As I westerner, I paid more.
Exploring the sites. The history of China is amazing. I will have to come back to see and explore more!
Learning and speaking Mandarin. I really enjoyed learning Mandarin, and I think that if I had more locals to practice with, it would have been better.
Asian fruits. I tried the dragon fruit, the pomelo, the custard apple, the lychee, and more. All delicious.
Green tea. My favorite is jasmine, but I also like pu ‘er with citrus in the winter.
The people. Fascinated by children, blond hair, blue eyes and foreigners. I wish I had photographed more young children and elderly folk. There have been some personalities for sure!

Zaijian!

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My Chinese Cooking Adventure

That is a HUGE knife!
That is a HUGE knife!

I’ve been wanting to take a cooking class for awhile, and was thrilled when a new cooking school recently opened up down the road in Shunyi! (88 Shun Huang Beilu) I went with a small group of women to learn how to make three dishes. We were able to make requests, and the chef made us fried caramelized apples for dessert.

Chinese Cooking Adventure in Shunyi, Beijing
Chinese Cooking Adventure in Shunyi, Beijing

The first thing that Chef Wang showed us how to do was to appropriately cut a zucchini for our Vegetable Shumai. It is SO important to curve your fingers, otherwise, you’ll be headed to the hospital for a finger re-attachment surgery! Chef also explained that when you properly cut vegetables, the flavors are released in the best way and the meal tastes better. Hmmm, maybe I need to work on that!

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The appropriate way to use this knife to chop zucchini.
The appropriate way to use this knife to chop zucchini.

Here are all the ingredients chopped and ready to go in the Vegetable Shumai. Delish! Black Fungus, egg, zucchini, green onion.

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Chinese chefs really use minimal cooking implements. Chopsticks work just fine for cooking, stirring, and eating!

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Using your palm to roll out the dough for the shumai. These small rolling pins are great!

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Make a flower shape with the rolled out dough in your hand, add the filling ingredients, and keep turning it around to seal it up.

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Here are my shumai, ready to go in the steamer.

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Now, Chef demonstrates his ability in slicing a round eggplant with the big knife! I didn’t attempt that one.

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Here are my ingredients, that I chopped and have ready for Fish Flavor Eggplant.

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Next, we learn how to make Fish Flavored Tofu, which uses this type of Japanese tofu, sold in tubes.
It has a nice flavor and texture, that is different from the white tofu sold in blocks.

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Here are the Vegetable Shumai, just out of the steamer! We added shrimp to them about 3 minutes before completion. They were delicious! I have to admit that I ate them all!

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My tray of cooking spices for Fish Flavor Eggplant and Tofu. These dishes are Sichuan, which is quite spicy. The flavor can be adjusted.

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I cooked this! Deliciously spicy Fish Flavor Eggplant.
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Here’s the dessert that Chef Wang cooked up for us in the wok. Fried Apples with caramelized sugar and sesame drizzled over them. These were so sticky and delicious. Thank you Chef Wang and Chinese Cooking Adventure! I wish I was here longer to take more classes!

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http://www.chinesecookingadventure.com

The Terracotta Army at Xian

Our time in China is really winding down. We only have five nights left in our townhouse and thirteen total until we fly home. We managed to make the quickest trip to Xian this week, taking the “fast train” 5 1/2 hours south. We travelled an average of 310 km an hour, or 192 miles an hour. This train was the opposite of the slow train we took to Datong. It was quiet, we had a row of seats to ourselves, and there were tv screens on the ceiling which showed a variety of things, including a panda documentary. The toilets were sit down instead of squat, and basically reminded me of an airplane bathroom. An ayi would come by every hour to mop the aisles and sweep under our feet, which was reassuring. It was temperature regulated, which was a really nice thing considering it was close to 100 degrees outside. We spent one night in Xian, leaving a morning to tour and then hopped back on the train to Beijing. We hired an English speaking tour guide and van to take us out to the site, about 1 hour outside of town.

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The story behind these warriors is that the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, 210-109 BCE, had these 8,000 warriors made to protect him in the afterlife. They were discovered in the mid 1970’s when farmers digging a well found terra-cotta fragments. The soldiers are all different, and there are differing ranks among the men. There were wooden chariots as well as wooden weapons, but those have since disintegrated. They are housed in multiple “pits”. The exterior of the largest is pictured below. The emperors tomb was built in a pyramid shape with multiple entrances and wall boundaries. We only visited the main site.

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The most impressive pit.
The most impressive pit.

When you first walk in the huge terminal, it is really just amazing to see this army of protectors facing you. Years of meticulous archeology has restored many of the men to their original state. The work is still going on, as we witnessed in Pit 1.

Cleaning and repairing is still going on.
Cleaning and repairing is still going on.

In another of the pits, the work has not even begun, and there are thousands of soldiers broken and buried under collapsed wooden roof beams.

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The deeper pit.
The deeper pit.

In the third pit that we visited, our guide explained that this was one of great moral importance. The soldiers were buried even deeper, and faced each other. There were terra-cotta horses in this pit. The closer to the emperors tomb, the deeper the pits were.

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A seated archer.
A seated archer.
Detail of the back of the archer.
Detail of the back of the archer.
Evidence of a wooden chariot.
Evidence of a wooden chariot.

 

To market, to market…

Last week I went into town to go to the Sanyuanli Market. On a good traffic day, its about 20 minutes from my house. I really enjoy going to the market. I love picking out the stand where I will shop, discussing prices, browsing, and people watching. The first time I went to this market was with my friend  Julie, and our little girls. The vendors loved seeing the girls, and they were given little tidbits of fruit, here and there. Lychees were a favorite.

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A little girl (complete with Angry bird sandals) helping her mom at work.

Prices really are better at this market, and I’m sure they are EVEN better if you are a local! This is what I bought for around $35:

8 bananas (from China)

3 avocado

1 large papaya

1 large zucchini-like fruit to try

garlic

500g bok choy

1 head broccoli

2 zucchini

2 bunches spinach

1 bunch asparagus

2 packages of mushrooms

1 small jar of kewpie mayonnaise

1 jar of peanut butter (imported)

500g almonds

500g large blossoming jasmine tea

The fruit vendors are at the front, then you have the nut/dried fruit and tea vendors. Then some random grocery vendors. Next is the raw meat. Its quite warm this week, and being a vegetarian, I just walked through this section quickly. Next is the fish, and then the dumplings and noodles. Then come the vegetables. In the back are a couple vendors who sell housewares and shoes. There is also a tailor in the back. So really, you could buy your food, buy your skillet, have your dress made, and buy some shoes for your husband, all in one stop.

If you go out the back door, there is a nice lady in the street who sells fruit. She showed me this long green fruit that looked like a cucumber or zucchini. It tastes like a cross between a cantaloupe and a honey dew melon, but not quite as sweet.

On my way back to the front, I stopped at a tea vendor. She had some really nice smelling jasmine blossom tea. She also let me try a cold tea made from Hibiscus, Hawthorne, Stevia leaf (!), licorice, and lemongrass. It was really good! Definitely something to bring back to North Carolina to sip on my porch.

Here are pictures of the different sections:

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This is the section I walk through quickly.
This is the section I walk through quickly.
The Mushroom Lady
The Mushroom Lady

 

The best tea lady.
The Nut Vendor

 

 

 

 

Opening doors

Our family is in a big time of transition right now. While there is some emotional and mental turmoil going on, it is also an exciting time.

I left my comfort zone, traveled across the world, opened my eyes and mind to new ideas and cultures. As I ready myself to come back to that safe, comfortable place in the good old USA, I’m ready to make changes. Sometimes it takes a giant change in your perspective to see what your life was, and what it could be. The possibilities are endless. They are yours if you have the courage to grab onto them. There is comfort in what we know, but comfort can also be found if we have faith in the the opportunities presented to us. I’m so happy to be launching into something great with my husband.

Which door do you want to open in your life?

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Door in Hutong
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Door to Prince Gong’s Residence. The four blue posts at the top of the door signify royalty.
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Door in a Hutong. The two blue posts signify that a common person lives here.

A sea of peach blossoms

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A few weeks ago, in early April, it was the peak time for peach trees to bloom. Also at this time, I’d been making a bucket list of sorts of things to do in Beijing before we head home. Yes, our “year in Beijing” is almost over. I remembered that our driver, Mr. Shi, had said that the best place to go in Beijing was Ping gu Valley in the Spring time. He said there was a sea of flowers. I asked him if he would take us there one Sunday. Apparently, this drive is the equivalent to driving out to the mountains to see the Fall colors in North Carolina. Everyone in Beijing was doing the same thing! As soon as we entered the town of Ping Gu, there were peach trees lining the streets. He drove further, to the edge of town, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by peach orchards. It was truly a sea of peach blossoms. He stopped the car and showed us a short hike up a hill to a pagoda. We had a nice view of the surrounding orchards. I was really saddened to see the abundance of litter along the trail. People just didn’t care.
We got back into the car, and Mr. Shi said he’s going to take us to his village. This really was going to be a personalized tour! We drove further out and he stopped next to an orchard. “This is mine.” He said. Then he pointed to a man walking our way, and introduced us to his father. His mother approached a few minutes later with a bag full of jarred preserved peaches. (tao zi guan you)
Here is a a family photo:

Family Orchard
Family Orchard

 

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Here is the transcription of my interview of Mr. Shi:

How old are you?
“32”

Who are your family members?
“Grandmother, Grandfather, father, mother, wife, and daughter.”

What does your name mean?
“Learn really well and have a healthy body”

What is your education level?
“high school”

What are the best places to go in China?
“Beijing hutongs, Yunnan Province, Sanya island, Guanxi Province”

What is your favorite restaurant in Beijing?
“the dumpling restaurant”

What is the best place to go in Beijing?
“the Forbidden City, and Bei hai lake”

How old is your daughter?
“eight”

What do you like to do in your free time?
“travel with my family”

Where would you like to travel to in the world?
“Bali”

Where would like to travel to in the US?
“L.A.”

What do you like to eat for dinner?
“dumplings”

What is the best thing about the US?
“the air and the environment”

What is the best thing about China?
“the ancient culture”

What is the best thing about Beijing?
“the peach flower sea of my hometown”

What is the worst thing about Beijing?
“its crowded, the traffic, and the polluted air”

A day in the life of an expat in Beijing

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Our home phone stopped working yesterday. My husband needed it for a conference call tonight, so I was in charge of investigating and fixing it. I called our landlord’s representative and she sent maintainance to check it. He told me that I needed to make a payment. This was the first time I ever heard about a phone bill. I pay the utilities each month to the payment center of the compound. I didn’t know how much it would cost, but since I hadn’t paid in 10 months, I was a little worried! I took 1000 rmb (about $180) to the payment center and explained I needed to make a payment for my phone. Clearly…my phone. I gave the phone number. Another lady came out. I explained again. She asked if I had a bill. No. She went and got a bill that looked like a utility bill. She said, “you can pay this amount.” At this point, I’m thinking, ok, I paid the April bill, but it was low, maybe the phone charge was left off for some reason. I gave her 1000 rmb. I asked if they would turn the phone back on. Oh, she says, you have to go to China Unicom office for that.

!@#@@##!!!

What did I just give you money for? Why am I paying towards a utility bill that is not yet due?
Where is the China Unicom office, I ask? They tell me some things that I don’t understand. There is a machine in the clubhouse where you can pay, she says.

Well that is great, because I just gave you my 1000 rmb and the atm in the clubhouse is out of money at the moment! I don’t have a car to get to another atm!
(In order to pay using the machine, you have to use a Chinese debit or credit card, which I have, but I need to extract money with my US card to put on the Chinese card. Hence the frustration over the atm that is without cash.)

I leave. My daughter and I head home. We stop at the big fountain in the park and she plays with a stick. I make her a fishing pole to play in the water. We smell the roses. I take some deep breaths. I have been here too long to be experiencing such a day. These things happened in our first three months here.

Later….I go back to see if the atm has money. It doesn’t. The manager of the clubhouse, a friendly chap from the UK asks if he can help. I explain the situation, and he says, “Well that sounds dodgy. There is a woman here who was subject to fraud in a similar manner.” He takes me to the service center, where he expresses to the representatives in fluent Mandarin what is going on. She investigates my phone number. No, it truly is an overdue bill. Not fraud. It is not connected with the compound, but is connected with a private individual. Apparently, I cannot pay the bill to the China Unicom machine in the clubhouse.

“How do I pay?” I ask. “Oh, you must call Coco. You should pay her.”
“I see. I must pay Coco. Now I understand. Do you have her phone number?”
She calls Coco. Coco has just left. She tells me to come back soon. I go to pick up my older daughter, who is finishing up her Obstacle land after school program. I call Coco. She says she can be back in ten minutes. Great! I tell her. I arrange to meet her in the lobby.

A few minutes later, one of the women from my experience this morning trying to pay this bill shows up.
It is Coco. Apparently she couldn’t do this earlier today???
She uses her China Unicom credit card in the machine. I wait for the total due…expecting the worst.
The numbers flash on the screen.
15.88 rmb. ($2.65)

I laugh and give her a twenty.
And that, is another day in my life.

***If you are an expat reading this, and are confused about the landline telephone billing system, this is what I found out: You have 300 minutes free a month. If you go over, you are billed. There you go. Get a Chinese credit card, and go to the little machine that looks like an atm, but isn’t. Enter your phone number, and pay your bill.
Check it once a month to avoid further hassles.

Beijing-Datong: Part 2

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We meet our guide, Nancy, in the hotel lobby and we head out to the van and driver we have hired for the day. Do you remember that we brought a carseat with us on the six hour train ride? Unnecessary. It is unnecessary because the van has no seat belts. I was hopeful, since our van in Beijing has them. So I settled in for our 1 1/2 hour ride wrangling a squirming three year old on mountain roads. The scenery was beautiful, as we travelled through farms and valleys to the mountains. My mother would not have been comfortable on this ride. There were not really reliable guard rails on the the hairpin curves, and the one that I did see had been broken  from a crash! I practice meditation exactly for moments like these…

Our first destination was the Hanging Monastery, pictured above. I posted this photo so that you can see the relative size and location on the cliff. Monks actually climbed the mountain from the other side, and by hanging down the mountainside, 1500 years ago, built this monastery. Two to three monks would live in it at a time. It is not that big, but has several small temple rooms, and living quarters. The windows were papered with rice paper and at one time had paper cut out designs adorning them.

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Here is what my eldest looked like as she climbed the steep staircases hugging the sides of the cliff. She made the mistake of looking down

It was a wall hugging climb!
It was a wall hugging climb!

After visiting the Hanging Monastery, we climbed back into the car to visit the oldest pagoda in China. Here it is:
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As we walked to our lunch restaurant we walked by a pack of street pups. They were pretty cute! Its been pretty interesting watching the street dogs interact. The hierarchy is clearly there. Street dogs are SMART and TOUGH!

A natural pack
A natural pack

Nancy showed us our lunch restaurant and both she and the driver joined us. I think that this is a pretty standard practice when you hire someone to work for you in China.
The next part of our day was the most disconcerting. I think the driver took a shortcut to drive by the coal plant on our way to Yungang Grottoes.
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All of a sudden the road seemed to disappear and we were driving in the midst of coal trucks at least three deep on all sides. I don’t know how the driver knew which way to navigate through them and the other cars and scooters.
Then we stopped. For about forty-five minutes.

Surrounded
Surrounded

It turned out that a passenger car had some sort of engine trouble. The driver just abandoned it in the middle of the road with its hazards on.
Finally, we arrived at Yungang Grottoes. It was definitely worth the trouble getting there! As a bonus, we were able to see an older clay portion of the Great Wall! You can see it at the top of the cliff in this picture:

These Buddha carvings were commissioned by the government about 1500 years ago. Datong was the capital of China at that time. The government moved the capital because it was thought that Datong was too close to possible invasion from Mongolia. There are forty five caves with thousands of meticulously carved buddhas, varying in size from 2cm to 17m. The entire site had been upgraded with a park at the time of the Beijing Olympics. The government built an enormous three roomed temple for the monks to use to pray, since the grottoes are being preserved now.

Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes

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At the end of our day, we had dinner at our trusted restaurant, Fen Lin Ge (Feeling Good) again. The next morning Brian took the girls to the hotel pool and I asked the hotel desk clerk for directions to a shop for local gifts. He told me the walking directions to wu market. I set off walking, and after about twenty minutes I saw a Wal-mart right where he told me it would be.

Beijing-Datong; Our train adventure (Part 1)

temple roof and blossoms in Datong
temple roof and blossoms in Datong

Mr. Shi dropped us and our luggage (two duffels, a carseat, bag of food, and the girls’s backpacks) at the Beijing train station. “Which way to the train?”, we asked. He motioned around the corner. When we walked around the corner, there were crowds of people; in lines to buy tickets, and other lines to get into the station. The staring commenced. We were the only foreigners here. This is not the usual mode of tourist transport. But then, we aren’t really tourists anymore. We are resident card carrying expats living in Beijing.

Once in the train station, the crowds had dispersed into various waiting areas throughout the station. We purchased green tea, pistachios, and raisins as our snack before boarding. We had 1 1/2 hours to wait. The raisins were overly dry and looked questionable, so we did not eat those.

People watching:
A man walked by, cleared his throat and spit on the floor. Moments later an ayi came and mopped the floor. A family came over to pose their toddler son with us for a photo. A man entered the station carrying a sapling tree about five feet tall. This he carried on with his luggage.

Bathrooms: Squat toilets. Relatively clean. Sinks, but no soap or any method to dry hands. Rating: 4 of 10.

Boarding time. It was a long walk to train car #2. (2 hao che xiang) We could have purchased a private sleeping cabin, but chose to travel as most do, in sets of four seats with a small table in the middle. Four tickets roundtrip for this journey cost $60. Six hours each way.

We are split up. Hollis and I are seated across from two gentlemen. One older, one younger. The younger man speaks some English, possibly rusty from school, as he looks embarrassed and checks his phone translator when I ask him questions. Brian and Sophie are with a group of four people in their section. Immediately the older gentleman fixates on Hollis, taking pictures of her with his phone. Then he lets her look at the pictures, and other professional photos of babies on his phone. I ask him if he’s a photographer. Its unclear. He says he likes taking pictures. They are professionally done though. After he takes about twelve photos of Hollis, I tell him that’s enough. Hollis keeps him engaged in chit chat. She is playing with silly putty. He hasn’t seen this before. He asks her name. She asks his name, and he says, “yeye”, which means “grandpa”. Hollis replies, “Beijing Yeye!”. Our little crowd that has gathered in the aisle around us laughs, and the relationship is firmly cemented. Beijing Yeye offers Hollis one of his packaged drumsticks, dyed red, and she offers him jelly beans. Each time we walk through the cabin Hollis is given a gift, a cookie, a free toy, a tomato. More pictures are taken of the girls. Sophie is used to it. Hollis is accommodating today.

Attendants come by with carts loaded with packaged fruit, vegetables, drinks, hot meals, toys, cell phone accessories, etc. Everything is for sale. Men take smoke breaks in the space between the cars. Its tolerable at the beginning of the journey, but after four hours, the car smells like smoke. Every couple hours an attendant comes by with a large trash bag to collect the refuse from our table. Another attendant sweeps the floor under our feet. After three hours, we need the bathroom. We head to the opposite end of the car, away from the smoke. Its not the worst squatting toilet I’ve seen. Rating: 3 of 10. There is an unintentional leak in the sink that actually keeps a steady stream of water cleaning the floor. I am prepared with a little roll of toilet paper (I bought a supply in Target before we came here), and Wet Ones for cleaning hands. (Thanks Mom!)

Beijing Yeye says goodbye. It is his stop. I regret that I didn’t take a picture of him! He has a leather case containing two bottles of wine and the accompanying wine tools. Perhaps this is a gift, or more importantly, for his “guanxi” or connections.

My Mandarin skills seem inadequate here. I struggle to understand the different accents. I rely on my phone for terms and the characters.

Scenery: Closer to Beijing we travel through mountains and river gorges. It is quite pretty, with blue/green water and clear skies. Then we enter the farmland. Farmers tend the fields using hoes. They clear refuse from fields by building small fires. Donkeys help pull loads. We see one tractor in six hours. There are lots of sheep tended by shepherds. Closer to Datong the earth is very dry and there are many ravines and small canyons.
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Finally we arrive. “Dao le”. It is chilly in Datong. As we emerge from the station taxi drivers barrage us to use their services or to take us to a travel agency. Our twenty minute ride to the Holiday Inn costs $2.50. The hotel looks like it struggles with costs. There are ashes in the corner of the bathroom stall and it smells of urine. During our two night stay, the bathroom doesn’t get mopped.
We go to the best rated restaurant in Datong for dinner. It is called Fen Lin Ge, or “Feeling Good”. Dinner for four is $40. It is delicious! The flower dumplings are divine. I order vegetarian dumplings and smoked eggplant. This is served cold. I also order Ma Pao tofu, which is spiced with chile sauce. I can take the heat! Hollis likes the meatballs, as does Brian. Sophie likes the sweet rice, which is molded and has jellied fruit on top.

Flower dumplings in Datong
Flower dumplings in Datong

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My impressions of Datong is that it is cleaner than Beijing. There are hardly any foreigners there, compared to Beijing, although it is a popular business to serve as driver/guides to take tourists to the sights, which are outside of town. It is definitely poorer than Beijing. It is a coal town. Our guide, Nancy, explains that one of the coal factories hires 9,000 people. There is housing right next to it with schools and shopping. My heart goes out to the families that breathe in the coal dust everyday. There is a newer section of Datong with modern buildings and could fit in anywhere in the US. There are several art deco style elements to the city: lamp posts and building details. Datong is about the same size as Chicago. There are skyscrapers, but as a whole, the feel is that of a smaller city.

We are thankful for our beds after the long journey. Tomorrow will be a busy day of sight-seeing!

Beijing in Bloom

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I was hoping for a beautiful weekend to start Spring Break, and my wish was granted! We took full advantage of the weather by heading to the Botanical Gardens with thousands of other Beijingers. Our driver, Mr. Shi, did quite well getting us there quickly by driving on the shoulder and making a new lane. (this is pretty common in Beijing) Its located in the Haidian district, in western Beijing, along the mountains. Many locals brought tents and found a grassy knoll to camp out on for the day. They also strung up hammocks between the trees to take a nice snooze. Wish I had thought of that…with the fresh air, and the scent of the magnolia trees blooming, it is a perfect getaway from the city.

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Sophie and Hollis had some bubbles, and this little girl made friends with Hollis and followed us around for quite awhile. Those are her parents following behind, amused.

It wasn’t until we were leaving that I noticed that we were the only foreigners there at that time. No wonder we had people following us with Nikons and iPads set to video. I caught one of our paparazzi outside having some corn on the cob for lunch. He laughed.

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Capturing our paparazzi
Capturing our paparazzi
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Eggs marinated in soy sauce for sale on the street
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Meat and fried egg skewers for sale outside the Botanical Garden