A Travellerspoint blog

Reflecting back ...

Bringing a close (finally) to our China adventure!

Our last China blog on July 17th left us in Hong Kong. No, we did not get stuck there forever -- although it was tempting. The multicultural, fast paced city provided a lot of excitement and intrigue. We felt we could take more time to get to know Hong Kong. But we were very hot, tired, and ready to head home. We never took the time to write that final blog. And once we returned back to the U.S., it was a rush of activity with no time to stop and "wrap up our trip."

Well, on October 25th, we are finally uploading our pictures and ready to create an album. That's when I checked in on our blog to see where we ended. We have reflected often on our great trip and amazing China experience. We are grateful for the opportunity to visit. It did change my/our views of the world and our speculation about what the future holds for this power. Watching the Olympics with our visit fresh in our mind was particularly exciting.

Thanks to ALL of you who subscribed to our site and the "feed" of information. If you learned something new, smiled at a misadventure, smirked at our prose, or enjoyed a revelation as a result of blog - then we are happy you joined us on our adventure. If we plan a travel adventure, we will do this again -- and hope YOU share your travels with us in the future.

Hope you are all well! Happy travels to everyone!

Posted by mpbtravel 08:35 Comments (0)

Guanzhou and Hong Kong

Hard at Work!

sunny 101 °F

Well, the blogging silence for the last week reflects how busy we have been. I (Maryann) went to work big-time with a group of 25 executives for a development program. It was pretty much a 7x24 work for most of the week. Also met some of my firm's contract employees in Hong Kong.
Needless to say, I was busy and pretty focused on working with them, navigating the culture (we did traditonal dinners, a tea house, major shopping expeditions, customer visits out to industrial areas, and major speakers). I will hit some highlights in a separate blog.
We did get some time to play in Hong Kong this week. An absolutely amazing city -- again, needs its own bog. We are traveling back to the U.S. tomorrow and will catch up on writing.

Posted by mpbtravel 09:03 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged events Comments (0)

Hong Kong

Night and Day


On Tuesday morning we catch a taxi in Guangzhou and head to the train station. Have to go through immigration and customs here since we are leaving mainland China and entering the New Territories, which have their own entry requirements. High speed train is a 2 hour run to Hong Kong. Cossing the border shows just how different Hong Kong is: the barbed wire and fences indicate that you do not just walk into the New Territories. Most of the territory is rural, and it has a lot of hills and islands.

Technically, the train station is in Kowloon, the peninsula part of Hong Kong. Our hotel is on Hong Kong island, which is a relatively quick drive via tunnel under the harbor. As we were getting into the taxi I noticed that the driver was on the wrong side. Wait! This was a British possession for 150 years, they drive on the left! It didn't even hit me until we got here.

Hong Kong on the hotel side, and Kowloon across the harbor, looking north from our hotel room.

This part of HK is tightly built up with high office and apartment buildings. We get to the Conrad and check in and head to the 53rd floor. The view above is what we see from our hotel room!

This city is vibrant, worldly, open, and welcoming. Our Kensington tour director told us not to even book tours with them here since it is safe and easy to navigate. English is common. This is very different from the mainland. We switch Yuan to Hong Kong dollars. Most everything is more expensive here.

But this is still China. There are a significantly larger number of westerners here, most likely doing business, but many ex-pats that are retired here.

On Hong Kong island there are no bicycles! After almost getting run over by bicycles and cars on a regular basis for the last 14 days, it is eerily different. Even the car and taxi drivers drive more moderatly here, not as many close calls. But the major reason for no bicycles is that Hong Kong is built on a hill that goes up rather steeply. Many apartment buildings and offices are partway up the hill, and the climbs and roads to them are steep. Riding a bicycle would be impossible.

The world's longest escalator is located here to help move residents up and down the hill. It is outside but covered most of the way and runs about halfway up the hill. It goes down in the morning, and up the rest of the day. About a 20 minute ride from bottom to top and you can get off at most cross streets.

There is definitely more money flowing through here than any other China city we visited. There are a large number of high rise apartment buildings and many high end shopping centers. An ad in local paper for a new apartment building listed average selling price for 1000 sq ft apartments at US $2.2 million. And this was considered a middle class place!

Night and day (mainland vs. Hong Kong)

  • Entry visa required vs. none required
  • Bicycles and wild driving vs. no bicycles and more moderate driving (and taxis require use of seat belts)
  • Few high end shopping malls vs. many high end shopping malls
  • Taxi drivers no English vs. some English
  • Drive on the right vs. drive on the left
  • Some westerners vs. many westerners, other Asians and Africans.

On the other hand both had: McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks! This may be a good thing: the author of The World is Flat claims that with only one exception, we have never fought a war with a country that has McDonalds!


Posted by mpbtravel 20:43 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Out of the Comfort Zone



Yesterday we had a guide and a driver of a van from the hotel take 5 of us to 3 different types of shopping areas in Guangzhou. Several of the group were interested in buying jade, and the guide was able to negotiate for them in the jade district, which covered several streets with small vendors lining this area. This approach kept us in the comfort zone since the guide and the driver were able to get us around with little trouble. At one area she advised me on negotiating a watch: I scored a nice Rolex for $21. Yes, what a bargain!

I could just sit in the hotel (the Ritz no less), relax at the pool, have a drink, whatever, and not get out of the comfort zone. But one surefire way of discovering and learning new things quickly is to force yourself out of the comfort zone, as I did today. There were 2 museums I wanted to see, based on travel guide descriptions. The concierge armed me with maps and cards from the hotel in Cantonese to show taxi drivers, who here, as in many countries where English is not the first language, speak little English.

The first museum was an easy setup, since all I do is tell the doorman where I want to go in English, he tells the driver in Cantonese and off we go. Taxis are still cheap here. This ride of about 20 minutes cost all of $5. Another thing is that I am traveling solo. I always feel more comfortable with a traveling companion to sort out problems, so there are several uncomfortable aspects of this trip: traveling alone, language issues, unfamiliar location, among others.

The museum was built around the tomb of an emperor from about 100 BC. This tomb was discovered in 1983 and Indiana Jones nor other tomb raiders had discovered it before that, so it was full of everything that went in when the emperor died, other than the emporer who deteriorated to small fragments of bone and teeth. Quite a find, and the artifacts are historically significant. Many descriptions are also in English, and I rent an audio guide in English that gives excellent descritptions of many artifacts. Museum entry was $2 and the audio guide $1.50.

My second museum was listed in the hotel travel map. Taxeee! Universal taxi hand signals work well. I show the driver the guide, he nods yes, and off we go. I get to the museum, go in, then discover this was not the one I wanted. The hotel travel guide listed this as the Guangzhou museum, which I want to visit, but it was really the Guongdong museum. Ooops.

Taxeee! This time there is a problem, as the travel guide I have for the correct museum is not written out in Cantonese, so the driver has no clue. Next best solution, head to the Ritz and sort it out. The card from the concierge is spot on with directions, off we go and within a few minutes I am at the hotel. Total taxi bill for this ride: $1.

I talk the problem over with the concierge who finds the correct address for the museum, writes it on the card, gets a taxi for me, tells the driver where to go, and off we go. This time I do end up at the Guangzhou art museum, which has a nice selection of Chinese art work. Only had about 1 and half hours till closing, but this was enough time as some galleries were not open. But it didn't have the terra cotta soldiers that one travel guide said were there. Must have been a temporary exhibit. Surprisingly, these last two museums here have not added English to many of the art notes, and the map of the facilities are not very useful. Beijing, Guilin, and Yangshou were way ahead of this city in English advancement.

Taxee! Now I want to go to a mall clear cross town, and the driver is able to figure it out from the travel guide I have. No problem getting there. I spot a Starbucks, score a latte and 2 Guangzhou city mugs, and relax in this crowded and noisy Starbucks, where everyone but me is oriental. So even the natives are getting into the Starbucks experience here.

This mall is crowded at 6 pm Sunday evening. Stores stay open late even on Sunday, and the place is a sea of young Chinese. Taxeee! Traffic is a mess, but I get a taxi quickly. This is not too far from the hotel so the ride is smooth. I’m back, no longer uncomfortable about getting around this city alone.

The hotel has almost all employees working on English. On the street and in museums, it is not uncommon for young Chinese, maybe 10 or so, to say “hello” when they spot me. I think they are trying out their English that they are now starting to learn in elementary grades. Even though this is a major industrial and trade city, there are not a lot of westerners here, relative to the population. Thus, people stare at us all the time. Which initially is uncomfortable, but after a while it no longer matters to us.

Overall the day was a success: 2 museums I needed to see today (they are not open tomorrow, Monday), I navigate the city with assorted tricks in taxis, people staring is not a problem, I have a better orientation of the city, and I feel more confident that I can get around a city alone where languages are not the same.

Posted by mpbtravel 07:14 Archived in China Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Seriously, Yangshou

A Unique Expereince


If you read the theme blogs, you know that we had some special experiences in Yangshou. It is a "small" community of about 300,000. It is tagged a "back packer" town - and that it is. We took a 3 hour boat ride (racing other boats) up the river from Guilin. It was a great ride! The boat was questionable and sported a tag "Sanitized"which made us wonder what that meant! We shared a table with a newly married Italian couple (on a honeymoon across China) and a Mom and son from Beijing vacationing in the south. Food on the boat was surprisingly appetizing but somewhat mysterious.
What is most important is that it was a totally stunning ride. The Li River winds through inverted cones of limestone. The swirling fog (and it poured rain at times) made it so surreal. It was a time in the past, maybe a movie scene. It took at least 500 pictures on the digital cameras to come close to capturing the totally amazing ride.

We arrived in Yangshou to find the "back pack" community. It is quaint and really stunning scenary. It is mostly poor - people constantly followed us and asked for money from us. It is quite rural as well. So, we dived into our expereince. It often rained (heavily) and was tremendously hot and humid.

We took off on a bicycle tour (see separate blog). It was a truly cultural expereince - in intense heat. A local cold beer afterwards was never more appreciated!! The hotel was, well - uniquely Chinese. It was quite nice but not quite the comfort of hotels we had grown accustomed to.

At night, we experienced the most amazing light and sound show. It needs a separeate blog -- produced by the director of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. When you are amazed by what you see, you will see what we expereincecd at night in Yanshou on the banks of the Li River. Nearly 1000 performers ... on the river!
See vide clip:
The cooking class was our highlight. We have to blog that one separately! We did return early to Guilin - where we got to see the Panda Bears at the local zoo and sit in air conditioning in the hotel.

Posted by mpbtravel 04:40 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (0)

Food, Glorious Food!

... Chinese Style!


One thing I think I have learned as a result of my travels is that one's palette for food must be "learned." Wherever you go, people eat different things and seem to thrive on whatever it is they consume. The foreigners who visit may find the local cuisine unappetizing, if not appalling, and yet the locals love it. Whether it is hamburgers, stir fry, or mutton stew - appetite is clearly regional!

There is no place that this acquired taste is apparent than China. We have encountered the most bizarre (to Americans) food that is clearly common place for the Chinese. Menu items (beware: the faint of heart do not read further!!!!) include snake, dog, rat, squirrel, jelly fish, and others. A visit to the market where meat and vegetables are purchased daily shows that "live" animals are preferred, and unnamed vegetables and herbs are selected to embellish the flavor. However unappetizing to Westerners, the Chinese are very efficient. Absolutely every part of an animal is consumed: meat, skin, feet, tongue, eyes, entrails, etc.
Vegetables, fruits, and nuts abound. In Yangshou, we bicycled past groves and fields of walnut, organge, pomerants, mangoes, grapes, peaches, apples, bananas, and passion fruit. Watermelon are as plentiful as grapes might be in clusters. Again - they use ALL parts (garlic, garlic leaves and stems, water spinach, etc.). They use oils and spices -almost to a extreme. Beans - whole, curd, juice and whatever else can be extracted. And rice??? Rice 5 x a day (rice porridge - corrant for breakfast, rice noodles, rice wine, rice rice, and more rice). Lotus roots and wolf berries and Haw berries and things we never heard of. Most are prepared with great artistic flare. Many are very foreign in flavor and texture.
Now if you think this is repulsive, just take one look around you. The Chinese are healthy, thin, and active. They live to be older in years than Americans. And, judging by our quick look, they dance and exercise and move vigorously well into their senior years!! So, can't be bad.
Sanitary?? Ha!! Nothing is prepared with the US version of sanitary. Warmth, bugs, exhaust, ciggarette smoke - doesn't matter. Well, we have been eating it for the last week (albeit very selectively!!!) and we are still alive. Maryann swears she is now a vegetarian - never to consume animal again. Peter - well, he continues to swear off those wierd vegetables. This trip will have a profound affect on how the Billingtons will prepare and consume food.

Posted by mpbtravel 05:08 Archived in China Tagged food Comments (0)

Traffic in China

Look out!!!!

I have a completely new perspective on driving in China. On my last trip in November 2006, I concluded that there is just a chaotic mess of drivers versus pedestrials versus bicyclist. On this second trip, and seeing exactly the same pattern in Beijing, Yinchuan, Guilin, and Yangshou, I have concluded 2 things: 1. this is the way it works in China, and 2. it works in China.
Taken from front seat of van, which is passing the bus on the left. The van is in the middle lane. Note oncoming traffic on left.

Let me explain. As soon as you get in a car (and we do not drive in China, it would be suicide), you see a lot of close calls. Cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles are all weaving and dodging each other in a mess of close calls and chicken. I have never seen a stop sign, but there are occasional traffic lights - but rare. It's really spooky when you drive down the street and see buses and trucks suddenly in your lane, but miraculously get back into their own lane without incident. The first time you see this you figure you are dead, as you would be in the US. But after witnessing the same thing time after time with no incident, you realize that something is going on here.

What I realized is that since everyone is doing this, it works because everyone is actually looking out for all the others. Someone cuts you off, you slow down, no big deal. You cut someone off, not big deal, they slow down and avoid you. It all evens out at the end of the day. People are actually patient in this big mess of traffic.

In an aside here, we witnessed the same behavior on a river cruise with maybe 5 or 6 cruise boats passing and weaving and missing each other by feet on the river. Go figure. And these were boats that could hold several hundred people, not just little boats that could manuveur quickly. It's just the way they drive here.
We even did a bike ride that included a few miles in this traffic. If I tried cutting in front of cars in the US, I would probably get knocked off the bike and die. Here, a car just slows and avoids you. After a few of these, I gained confidence that I could cut off or swerve around cars without any problem. By the way, no one on bicycles wears helmets, and motor-bike drivers wear 1960's helmets at most. And horn-honking on the road is a ritual that could be a warning, a greeting, or just a defective vehicle.

So I concluded that this scheme works because everyone here knows the deal. You swerve, you dodge, you play chicken, you honk your horn, you cut some off, you get cut off. But the great thing is that traffic moves, and there are few incidents. We have not yet seen anyone injured, and amazingly, there is no road rage! I have not witnessed one case of a driver yelling or getting angry. No flipped fingers (that may not even be the sign in China). And police tend to be scarce, so there are few tickets written. That's because this mess works.

We even witnessed little kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old running into traffic knowing that they will not get knocked over unless they are not careful. This skill starts at an early age here.

So what we have is a system that seems incredibly foreign to us (Americans), but works well in China. Do not try this at home, you will cause major road rage!


Posted by mpbtravel 03:59 Archived in China Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Chinese Life and Customs

The stories from our guides of life in China.

sunny 100 °F

Beijing_July_7_281.jpgOne of the more interesting parts of our trip has been the opportunity to get to know about the Chinese through our guides. Both are young - in their late 20s (we think). And they spend lots of time by our sides so we have great opportunity to hear about their lives. Sally in Beijing (real name is Zhang Hong (first name is Hong). And our 2nd guide in Guilin and Yangshou is John (zhou Wan Fu). And we also learned from the young boy and his mom who sat at our table on the boat from Guilin to Yangshou (Tony, or Chen Jian Yu). They all seem to take English names if they come into contact with Westerners. Even Tony, who is 11 or 12, had an American teacher in school who gave them American names.
They are all well eduacted. And what is very apparent is their profound respect for their culture, religion and family. They all talk about Buddhism and the 12 Chinese years (or zodiak). They even talked about when to have babies - in certain years like the Pig which is good luck. John is married to a "minority" or small sector citizen. She is a pharmacist. Sally is not married. They both live with parents. In fact, a man's parents save money for a dowry and then give him up to move in with the woman. But many familes only have one child as a result of years of mandatoroy birth control. The plan is for a woman and man as husband and wife to have BOTH their parents move in and live with them. Sometimes the parents who have money build a home for "everyone." Apartments are expensive so many are 3-bedroom (parents of each and the lucky couple). Since it is still mandated you have just one child, that is what is planned for that house. Both John and Sally are "only" children. They both have strong respect for their parents and expect to live with them and care for them. Very genuine and amazing concept! BTW, a man's parents not only pay for a dowry but also the wedding ceremony! Bride's parents get off easy.

Religion seem important, although they may not practice it formally. They really practice Buddhism which has a happy, nature- based, seasonal spirit to it. I found it particularly interesting to observe how genuine and spiritual even the young people are. Hey, anyone would like to believe in a happy Buddha!!

Posted by mpbtravel 03:33 Archived in China Comments (0)

Yangshou Mystery

What year is it?


It was a dark and rainy night (it really was) in Yangshou. Here's my story. I received a letter from a woman in Yangshou China. She has a problem; she doesn't know what year it is. This I can handle. She offers me full expenses and a daily fee. After this gig, I'm turning consulant. Give your clients the answer they want. Good money. But back to my story. It is July 1938. How do I know this? Because the Magnolia Hotel flashing neon light is outside my window, and all detective moves from 1938 have a flashing neon sign. I am Peter, P.I. and this is my "Yangshou Mystery."

I take the Pan Am Clipper across the Pacific, land in Hong Kong and catch a crowded sleeper train to Yangshou. I check in to the hotel about midnight. Within minutes, I hear a knock on the door. It's the woman, she's American and beautiful. I fall hard for this women. After I get up (from the fall), she tells me her story. She doesn't know what year it is. "No problem, it's 1938," I reply. She says that strange occurances have made her think it is not really 1938. We will take a bike ride tomorrow morning to check this out. I fall asleep within seconds, a serious case of propeller lag.

The next morning we head out on bicycles.

We ride along the hazy Li River and come across water buffalo. I've seen this before, I think, but I cannot place it.

We continue bicycling by rice paddies where workers with cone-shaped hats harvest the ripened rice.


This is spooky. Now I place it! I'm expecting copters any minute. Mekong Delta 1968. "Yes, yes, see. I really don't know what year it is," the beautiful American yells.

We peddle our rusty bikes and head back to Yangshou. On the way, a peasant farmer passes us, pedaling his tricyle, overloaded with chickens on the way to the market in town. Five minutes later we notice that he has stopped on the side of the road. Does he have a flat? Did the US forces shoot him? No, he is talking on his cell phone! Can it be 2008? Oh, it is so confusing!

We return to the hotel. The beautiful American says she is leaving tomorrow for Guangzhou to conduct some business. Will I come along, she asks, to continue to work on this mystery? Is this a trick question? I will follow her anywhere. Maybe there I will be able to find the answer to my "Yangshou Mystery."

Posted by mpbtravel 03:15 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (0)

The Tropics of China


We travelled from the BIG, BIG city to the not-so-small (over a million) tropical community of Guillan. Not too far from the China Sea and Vietnam border.
It is a city trying hard to become a commercial resort. The city is poor but the center of it consists of many nice hotels around the lakes and rivers. The scenery is magnificent - limestone mountains like inverted cones along a hazy, humid river. The night cruise we took on the river included spectucular lighting and opera and music peformances on riverside stages performed just for the river cruises. One site is fisherman using cormorant birds to catch fish and return to their boat (like pets would). The birds have a string on their neck - not choking them - to keep them from swallowing it and rendering it to their fisherman. Amazing number of tourists, despite off season. John is our new tour guide here whose wife is a pharmcist. We also toured a cave. Like everything, the Flute cave is larger and more dramatic than any cave we have ever seen in the U.S.

We also took it easy for the afternoon - rested and had a Chinese massage. Today, we travel by boat down the river to the city of Yangshou where we will stay at a local hotel and take a cooking lesson at a "farmer's home." That will be a stretch away from the U.S. hotels in which we stayed!

Posted by mpbtravel 15:24 Archived in China Comments (0)

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