Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Three (um, really? who knows at this point)
Another rainy day and we started out at the Bang Fu Chun Pearl Store (http://www.bonajadestore.com.cn/bangfuchun-EN.html) where another lovely young Chinese woman, whose name escapes me, lectured us on the superiority of Chinese pearls. She explained the difference between fresh water and ocean pearls, colors and quality, and then demonstrated the very large number of pearls one could retrieve from a fresh water oyster. She also expounded on the benefits of using their special Pearl Cream to make your skin more beautiful and younger looking. I wasn’t convinced when, under our breath, we had guessed her to be about 10-15 years older.

The Chinese are definitely an entrepreneurial people. The modus operandi on these trips is to connect local Chinese businesses, i.e., tourist restaurants and factory stores, with Americans via the Chambers of Commerce. Time spent at the stores takes precedent over time spent at historic sites, in our estimation. Restaurants are focused on serving foreigners. It was rare to see a Chinese face among the customers. Wei, our Beijing guide, is a self-proclaimed capitalist. In addition to some interesting information provided on the bus about Beijing, he pitched us on additional side tours, custom-made suits and dresses, massages, name stamps with both American and Chinese characters all delivered to your room within 24 hours.

While I appreciated the low cost of the trip, I did feel a bit like prey. Probably the same if partaking in an African safari. The predators are lovely, giving us lectures on their product, such as jade or pearls. But, nonetheless, predators in my mind.

After the pearl store, we walked just across the street to the entrance to the Summer Palace and World Heritage Site #4 on our trip (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Palace). Bert and I had been hanging out on the bus, watching an unusual business transaction among some locals in the back of a very nice black car in the store’s parking lot. My imagination ran wild with thoughts of a Chinese mafia.

The Summer Palace is a bit of a misnomer. It’s actually a beautifully landscaped garden surrounding a totally man-made lake. The pavilions and temples and other surviving buildings are not open to the public but some may be viewed by peering through the windows.

The most interesting part was watching other people, especially the Chinese tourists. Umbrellas, cameras and curious tourists of every nationality.
Best single event of the trip
After a long, yet lovely, walk in the rain-soaked garden following Wei’s bobbing umbrella and his Bus #3 sign, we had our first optional, i.e. extra cost, tour, a lunch served in the home of a local Chinese family in the Hutong area (which later I found literally meant “alleys”). We traveled by rickshaw at break-neck speeds through narrow back streets to supposedly see how the real Chinese live. As a horror movie aficionado, I must admit I had visions of waking up in a bathtub of ice with a major organ missing during the rickshaw phase of this side adventure.

We were welcomed at the rickshaw stand by Mary; I never caught her Chinese name. Mary lives outside Beijing, a 90-minute bus ride on a good day, because she cannot afford to live in the city.

While she did not ride with us in her own rickshaw, Mary magically appeared before us at the entrance of the home where we were to eat lunch. Obviously, we were pedaled through the “scenic” route. The family consisted of a man (we were told to call him Mr. Who or was it Woo?) who cooked and served us lunch. His wife was at work and young daughter was at school. He claimed to have another job, serving lunch to tourists only on his day off. The food was probably the best of the Lazy Susan fare of the entire trip. But after seeing the tiny kitchen, lack of refrigeration and no bathroom facilities in the house, I popped a preventative stomach relief pill as soon as possible. The only toilet was a public one down the street, built by the government for the 2008 Olympics. I did wonder: what did they do before 2008? And bathing?

The home, in his wife’s family for four generations, was, by Western standards, a hovel. The three rooms, dining/living, sleeping (for the entire family) and kitchen, could fit quite easily into our condo-sized living room at home. However, the family DID have a 50” flat screen TV with cable, a fairly new desktop, flat screen computer and multiple cell phones and other electronic devices plugged into the wall. Chinese and American family values are, well, different.

Mary and our host shared stories and introduced us to the family’s pet cricket (in the cage).

We next drove to The Forbidden City (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbidden_City), World Heritage Site #5 and the last on our trip in Beijing, built in the early 1400s during the Ming and Qing (pronounced Ch’ing) Dynasties. It served for 500 years as the ceremonial and political center of the government in China. I had no idea how much ground the City covered. And, I’m glad we had that bobbing #3 to follow for we would surely have been lost.

We walked and walked and walked, down wide alleyways, past once lush palaces, most of which had been renovated, sneaking into the occasionally opened museum room but always wary of the location of that #3. One would have to physically visit a minimum of 27 rooms per day for a year to visit them all (9,999). It wasn’t until we passed through another enormous gate into the wide open, cobbled square with three massive pagoda-shaped halls that I recognized where I was. This is where the Academy Award winning film, The Last Emperor (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093389/), was filmed. I can’t wait to see the film again; we walked where the last emperor of China lived.

Bert was titillated by the interestingly translated Chinese signs. He took pictures everywhere, including bathrooms.

We also learned this was where the last empress of China lived, a concubine who rose through the ranks to become the supreme leader in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century who would later become known as The Dragon Lady (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empress_Dowager_Cixi). I was stoked!

To my surprise, the last gate we walked through was the entrance to The Forbidden City, and it opened onto Tiananmen Square (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square), the largest square in the world. The small bridge leading over the moat was lined with soldiers. They were so young and thin, I feared their uniform pants would fall down. Looking out onto the square, to the right is the parliament building. To the left is the Museum of Chinese History. Straight ahead is the mausoleum of Mao Tse-tung (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_Zedong), the first leader of the Communist Party in China. Turning around on the bridge, I was literally chilled by Mao’s infamous and ever-watching gaze from the gated entrance.

Beijing is truly a city that never sleeps. With over 20 million residents, it has a serious infrastructure problem. Even though we were told approximately 5 million people per day use the subway system, the highway traffic is constant. You’ve seen the pictures of guards in uniform shoving people into the subway cars. This is a daily occurrence, according to our guide, who warned us to avoid the subway. There’s no rhyme or reason, no rush hour or choke points. Just constant traffic no matter the time of day or night. And, the myth about Asian drivers is true; the painted lines on the streets are merely suggestions. Sitting in the raised seats at the back of the bus gave us a great vantage point to verify the myth as fact.

I was surprised not to see more citizens of Beijing riding bikes. Based on auto-driving habits, I see why.

Near the Square was our last stop of the day, before another unmemorable Lazy Susan dinner. This was an unexpected, non-itinerary visit to the oldest pharmacy in China practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), also known as their mainstream medicine and “alternative medicine” in the West, since the mid 1600s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_Chinese_medicine).

Bert and I opted not to participate in the TCM lecture. The “doctor” described how he and his colleagues would be touching our wrists to diagnose what ails us. We also avoided the “Chinese FDA” approved pharmacy with every herbal powder or ointment known to mankind (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongrentang).

Instead we walked outside and checked out the long line of street vendors selling exotic “fast foods” from fried sea horses on sticks to unusual crab species to, according to the sign, dog meat pies to what appeared to be a liquid nitrogen-frothing drink. The raw foods on sticks, squid and eel, etc. were all cooked to order right on the street. Wei, our guide, warned us not to eat anything, explaining that only Chinese tourists or Southeast Asians from Thailand or Vietnam would eat from these booths. “They eat anything,” said Wei.

Needless to say, we were less than hungry after the day we’d had. More snacks in our hotel room before bed.

Slideshow on Flickr

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Categories: China