To China with Griffin, 2006

Here is a small movie of the trip (or on Google). The soundtrack is Please Stay Friends from Remote Lands.

Drinking a dumpling in Yu gardens Some friends -- with even more children than we have -- introduced us to the idea of letting each child, when they turn 10 and again at 15, choose a destination and a parent for a special trip. P took Griffin to Stanfords in a bid to win him to travelling with her to Africa -- a natural plan given his fondness for animals. But Griffin was put off by a picture of a lion eviscerating a zebra, and liked a picture of a floating market that he thought was China (but was perhaps Thailand). Since I speak a little Chinese, I got the ticket. (To be fair, P will get the 15-year trip). If you are wondering about Ross, he gets a back-dated trip at some point.

I went to China a couple of times in the 1980s, when things like buying a train ticket were a many-hour struggle. So when P suggested a tour, I picked Imaginative Traveller's Chinese Crackers. I had never been on a tour before, and will put some specific comments about this one at the end. But in short, China has changed hugely in twenty years, and the old communist attitude to selling you stuff ("go away!") has vanished.

We went to Shanghai first to visit cousin Amena, but she had been called away to train for a new job. So we were on our own, at the Old House Inn that she recommended. We liked the maglev train (430kph) from the airport, and contrary to the TimeOut guide (which has other flaws too), it is perfectly easy to transfer to the tube. Griffin liked the JingAn temple, and at the CITIC department store we bought a cool remote-control plane. I am not sure what we were thinking, since we then had to carry it carefully for the next two weeks, and guess what, I just checked and it is nearly as cheap in the UK.

It was in Shanghai that we first learned to recognise 网吧 for internet spot. What a scene these places are! Lots of pretty powerful PCs with good connections, webcams, and lots of Chinese watching movies or texting or playing any number of internet games (the latter mostly played by men, not sure if they were doing it for fun or money). Almost certainly the XP OS and all the games are magically ignorant of copyright. And when I did a reverse lookup on the IP addresses, they were always "Unknown." We generally paid about $1/hour while I emailed and Griffin World of Warcrafted. The big firewall is there: you cannot get BBC news. And speaking of copyright, it easy to find DVDs and software, but difficult to find any costing much more than 50p (on the street) or maybe £2 (in shiny shops).

It was also here that we made the beginner's mistakes with bargaining and beggars. Griffin was particularly annoyed when I was suckered by two young girls pretending to be unemployed country gals (who spoke English and wore nice clothes) and gave them way too much money (whereupon they offered to come to our hotel). And I was annoyed when, for G, I bargained for what was clearly a glass (not jade) bead down to a small amount and then handed over five times as much out of a mixture of befuddlement and jet lag. Oh, well. Griffin did not like the pushy touts either.

My favorite meal was at Meilongzhen restaurant in a mall: chicken with quail eggs and bones, vinegar fish, beef with black beans, 150rmb. Griffin's favorite was the rotating buffet restaurant at the top of the Pearl Tower. He fairly flew up the steps, and had five helpings of dessert. My favorites there were the terrine of pigs' ears (labelled "pig earrings", really) and the hostesses in blue velvet sheath dresses. Over in Xintiandi at T8 we had peking duck pizza, which was a cool idea, but there was too much balsamic on everything. Nice decor, though. And it was near CyberCity where I bought a Chinese sim card, because my Virgin PAYG card was playing dead. We had good dumplings over at Yu gardens, but I got away fast because the Disnification of the place (there are McDonalds and Starbucks) was spoiling older memories. Looking back, I was silly: there are plenty of McD's all around Japan and it never bothers me. In fact, Shanghai is starting to look a lot like Tokyo, only with more colored lights. And folks walk slower.

We found our first geocache in a park near the City museum, which is excellent. Less excellent was the Natural History Museum, but I kind of like run-down Natural History Museums anyway.

Our tour group at the Wall In Beijing the next morning we met our tour guide, Lisa, another guide Candace along to learn the route, and the other four families: two from Australia (one living in Thailand), one from Canada, and one from England. We boarded a bus and went to the Great Wall at Jinshan/Simatai, and spent the whole day hiking over thirty of the guard towers. Griffin loved this, and chatted about computer games to James, another boy on the trip.

Ancient books for sale on weekends The next day we spent in Beijing, first at Tiananmen, where we introduced everyone to geocaching. Then we saw the Forbidden City. (I'm not bothering to post pics of these famous sites), and then Griffin and I had Beijing duck at Quan Jude, where there is a picture of Fidel Castro enjoying the same dish. Consistently with what I remember from 20 years ago, the skin is not crispy enough, even though cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, but it is still delicious. Then we went to the Pan Jia Yuan flea market on a tip that there would be used-books. And there were dozens of stalls of them -- all closed except on weekends. Heartbreaking, especially after having run all over Shanghai with a similar doomed mission. At least Griffin got a cool hat (and in Shanghai, yoyos).

Bird flu biscuits The next day we flew to Yinchuan, then took a bus to Zhongwei through some pretty desolate territory. Our local guide Fred told us about the "angry cultural" pursuits of the local Hui minority. The hotel was dirtier than most. Griffin and I walked to market, where we ate dumplings. Buying wolfberry wine and counterfeit-Oreo "pandemic cookie" really made my day. I can only assume that they thought pandemic meant "appealing to many." So much for bird flu.

Under the excellent Gao temple was an instructional "hell" with eerie noises and devils in fluorescent paint torturing the damned. I brained myself in the dark and sported a big scab for the rest of the trip.

Camel Camping in the Tengger Next day: camels in the Tengger desert! We took a bus, past a factory whose black smoke would darken our horizon for much of the trek. It was windy, and fine sand immediately gummed up all my electronics, which will probably require an expensive clean. The camels looked scary, but weren't really, except for the drool. They smell like lanolin and poo, and make squeaky noises. I had never ridden even a horse. Griffin named his camel Red Cross, and I named mine Daisy, but that conflicted with Natasha's, so I changed it to Camomile. Candace's camel fell on her, but only bruised her leg. We camped exactly here. It was cold but fun. I have read so much about the special beauty of deserts, and the dunes were indeed fine. But still, I was most reminded of a giant litter box. In every hollow there was camel dung, and beetles to eat it. They should vary the trek location more. We changed camels the next day (Griffin named his Hercules; I named mine Camelot). Some boys rode solo, which must be nicer because you do not have to watch your camel's nose get jerked around by the animal one foot in front. This time my camel fell under me, but by superb natural camelsmanship I stayed astride. He did not seem to be hurt.

After saying goodbye to the camels, we went to an amusement park with (very tame and very pricey) rafting on inflated sheep skins, and less tame sand-tobogganing. I gave it a pass to film, and because I had had enough sand for a while.

After everyone having showers in a shared subset of hotel rooms we caught the overnight train (soft sleeper) to Xian. To play, the kids all crammed themselves into the cabin that we shared with the Canadian father and son. So we drank wolfberry wine with the Australians instead. I wandered into the dining car and it was so nostalgic that I immediately snapped a flash picture. Oops, army types sitting right in front took offence, and a shrill woman dragged me off to make me apologise. A blast from the past! Too bad the picture wasn't very good.

Centipede on a stick Cheap toys In Xian we had a free day. I took Griffin to the museum, which was not as interesting as Shanghai's. Then we walked to Big Wild Goose pagoda and got some bugs on sticks in the carnival atmosphere. They had: giant spider, big pupa (two kinds), scorpion, and centipede. And little baskets of what looked like steamed ants. Too bad the cooking oil smelled so bad, or I would have eaten more (ho ho). As it was, we used our centipedes to scare girls, and then gave them away in a flurry of posed photos. (Griffin got used to being called "beautiful" and "piaoliang" on this trip). There were some excellent peonies at the pagoda, and a musical fountain in the square.Then we went back to the city walls and did a rather dangerous geocache. Dinner was at a savory kebab place in the Moslem section near the hotel. Lisa went to college here and plainly had fond memories.

The next day we saw the terracotta soldiers, about which I need not add anything. I liked the chrome plating on an ancient sword. The sign points out that Chinese seem to have invented this technology some 2,200 years before the West did.

We flew to Chengdu and checked in at a central hotel near the drum tower. We had great ribs for dinner with Candace. I wanted to revisit Ma Po's Dofu place, but now it is a chain, and wasn't convenient.

Red panda Wenshu temple The next day we took a bus to the Panda Sanctuary (another cache). For 50rmb, I think it was, anyone can hold a red panda. To cavort with the giant pandas, about ten times as much is required.

Then we popped back to town and had a giant vegetarian meal at the Wenshu monastery. The kids particularly liked the fake fish, which seemed to be mashed potatoes with ketchup. G and I spent a lazy afternoon after that, and ate Korean (raw lettuce no problem) at the hotel. Then we all went out and saw the Chengdu opera, with fast face-changes, fire-breathing, and advanced hand-shadows.

We were up very early for a flight to Guilin. Guilin means osmanthus forest (there is an osmanthus wine but for once I didn't try it). Then a bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, with lovely scenery -- the karst extends a long way. We were left on West St for the day. Griffin and I ate lunch at Cloud 9, which Candace recommended (she "lives" in Yangshuo). Sichuan chicken, deep-fried river shrimp, and amazing pomelo rind stuffed with pork. The cute cook (turns out she teaches the cooking lessons) explained that she blanches the rind several times in boiling water to remove the bitterness (shades of shark fin). Amazing texture. We wandered around, and saw the smaller market: frogs in net bags, etc. We had a Tai Chi lesson by river with a man in white silk pyjamas. He said there are two styles: old-lady and fighting. We bought some CDs on the very touristy West St.

Yangshuo The next day was a bike-ride in the countryside, a part of the trip that I correctly expected to be my favorite. The karst hills often have caves. There are farmers sowing and ploughing the paddies, and we cycled through the fragrance of orange blossom. We stopped at a kindergarten to thrill and terrify the kids -- there was a picture of Mao on the wall along with the usual crayon drawings. (Are all schoolmarms cute?) We paused often for water, and paused at a river with persistent old-lady postcard-sellers that Candace says are rude and evil (will pop your tires). We lunched at Moon Mountain (egg-dumplings, soup) and then made the sweaty climb to the top, where there is a rock-climbing route. It was very humid, despite spitting rain. I was slow to descend, and slow to follow on the bikes. Griffin rode back in concern. I was panting like a dog, which made me dizzy. Finally I sat at a complex near a bridge and allowed that I was not OK. A merciful Australian on the tour gave me cold drinks and rehydration salts. Eventually I felt very much better, especially as weather finally broke, and we did some more beautiful cycling. I took the Aussies to dinner at Cloud 9 (fritters for dessert) in thanks. We dropped Griffin at the hotel and continued in the bar.

Toasted dog I woke up with that backward-looking "why do I feel so bad?" feeling. Slowly I remembered: beer with Aussie friends (who stayed out till 3am), before that those weird after-dinner liquors at Cloud 9 (red chicken-foot-fruit wine, strange nut wine), before that great wall wine, before that beer...and before that heatstroke. Then it was off to cooking class with Griffin and the three other English boys. We were to cook dumplings and gungpao chicken and eggplant with roast garlic, but replaced the latter with sweet-sour pork that the kids love. The meat market overwhelmed Griffin: tables full of brains or hearts, and in the corner a man blowtorching a dog to remove hairs. We rushed to the veg section. Fortunately at the cooking class we used anonymous pre-prepared meats. By the way, I had always wanted to taste bamboo rat, and had tried to order it for dinner, but it was not available. The cook offered to get some live ones and show me how to kill and clean them, but I figured I did not want to eat rat that much. Then we had free time. We should have biked again, as the Canadians did, but instead walked around and went to the overpriced garden with the old banyan tree. We chickened out on the geocache as the climbing sounded hard. Then it was back to Guilin to board another sleeper train. Again the children congregated in our cabin.

Veg Most of the next morning we were still on the train. Griffin ate his first cup-noodle. I explored and found that there are some even "softer" cabins with just two beds and their own bathroom. The border formalities at Shenzhen were amazingly long. Isn't it the same country now? Not really, HK is utterly different from the mainland. We had a group mix-up on the tube: we had to get off several times and try to hook back up with rest of tour members. By the time we got to the hotel I declined all further tour stuff (peak tram and dinner) and instead set off looking for great meals. We had a reasonable one by Star Ferry, and planned to eat another but could not quite do it. Instead we shopped around for PSP games. Everything was much more expensive and there were no internet spots.

On the last morning we gave tips in red envelopes to Lisa and Candace (there had been long debates among the group about what was appropriate), and said goodbye to the other tour members. Well, I did -- Griffin was still asleep. The tour provides a form to swap email addresses, so we can (perhaps to their dismay) stay in touch. Then Griffin and I ate dim sum at Fook Lam Moon, whose Kowloon branch is near the hotel. The "Wom Guide" put FLM at top of several categories. The dumplings were nice enough but won't make me pine. Also had ancient-fruit-rind beef, which was a nice zestburger. The we were off to the new airport, for many many hours of sitting around.

Jasper We came home to an Easter egg hunt, visiting grandparents, and a new dog. We ate the eggs but not the dog.

The Imaginative Traveller Tour

Good Points

All the ticket-buying and hotel reservations and event booking and so on are done for you. A bus is laid on to get you places. Your child can interact with other children on the tour. What a relief, at the end of a day, for an adult to sit down at the adult-only table and talk about adult things. And what a relief for a child to sit down at the child-only table and talk about child things. There is a native tour guide to pester with questions, including political ones. I personally benefited from the medical attention of the other tour members, all of whom were fine and interesting people.

Bad Points

You wait around for the slowest members of the tour: many hours can be wasted this way, or in the group getting separated. The tour brochure leaves you with the impression that the camel trek and the sheepskin rafting and the panda sanctuary are somehow specially arranged for you, but in fact they are easily bookable by anyone. Indeed, the rafting was simply an amusement park ride, not a specially crafted adventure. I did not purchase a guidebook except for Shanghai; one would have come in handy for the "free days", when the guide leaves you with a simple hand-drawn map and a few words of advice. Also I think a paragraph or two in a guidebook would tell you more than the occasional extra local guides did. I bought my air tickets through the tour company as well, which was convenient, but I was not hugely impressed by the service: a better deal was lost, the internal tickets were delivered by the skin of my teeth, the "required" insurance was somehow lost, and the return flight number and time were incorrect on the ticket.

Summary

I would recommend this tour if you didn't want to fuss with travel arrangements and for the benefit of traveling with other children. On the other hand, China is no longer a hard place to travel (especially if you can speak a few words of the language), so personally I think I would prefer the serendipity and adventure of independent travel to the passivity of being in a tour again. Griffin might well disagree! Certainly you can do what you like on the "free" days. (And if the kids wanted to go somewhere that scares me -- read Africa -- then I might pick a tour.) Oh, bring luggage with wheels - we thought carrying would be more important, but wheels were. And nobody took malaria medication.

For the two of us I paid £1080 for the air tickets and £1485 for the tour, plus a compulsory local payment of $480. I took a lot of money out of ATM machines in Shanghai and Beijing.

As for Qatar Airways, the planes were much nicer than when I flew them to Nepal in 2000. There are loads of personal movies to watch. The killer is Doha airport itself. It seems glossy at first sight, but that is because it is mostly a shopping area with no place to sit. Everyone is waiting for their 2a.m. connecting flight that is delayed until 3a.m. and tempers are frayed. This is why people would not move to let me sit next to Griffin on the plane - why QA could not have seated us together is a good question. And on the way out I forgot that we would be spending time in a Moslem airport, and Griffin was in shorts, which drew him a crowd of male "admirers". I made sure he had long trousers for the way back.

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