Suzhou, Tongli and Hanhzhou

Suzhou, Tongli and Hangzhou

Am sitting at Hangzhou airport waiting for my flight to XiAn to depart, it is at least 5 hours delayed due to weather. It gives me a good opportunity to catch up.

After my very brief visit in Shanghai, the next morning I boarded the train to Suzhou. What I haven’t revealed so far is that I am not traveling as lightly as I usually do, not that I am ever a minimal packer. This time there is the laptop that is small and lightweight. However the transformer, universal adapter plug, ,and make up that I never put on as well as guide books all weigh a ton. My clothing is minimal, have basically worn the same black pants and shirt for 3 weeks. Whatever it is I have packed weighs a lot.

When I get off the train in Suzhou I discover that there are stairs a lot of them to exit the station. Not a porter in sight, I am finally by myself on the platform with a station employee, he had a fancy uniform so I supposed he was the one that waves the trains on. Anyway he first indicated that he was calling for help, when noone appeared, I tried to carry my suitcase myself.

Nothing doing this kind gentleman took everything down all the stairs for me. As I thank him profusely, or as profusely as my Chinese will permit another young rescuer appears. He speaks English and takes my two bags to the taxi stand. I didn’t have a hotel booked, but knew the area where I wanted to stay, he tells me that is in the direction he is going and offers to share the cab. When we approach the old town he tells me he knows of a Chinese chain hotel aptly called My Hotel and suggests it. He refuses any money for the cab takes me to the front desk makes sure I have a room and then leaves. The hotel is very basic, but my room is nice with a terrace, if only the weather was better I could sit there in the morning. The cost is 258 RMB or approximately $38.

I am very happy and start exploring. First I go to the tourist office to find out about the overnight boat to Hangzhou. Unfortunately it stopped running for the season. I feel my travel karma continues. This way I can still get to see another water town and take the bus to Hangzhou. Also like the feel of Suzhou. Those of you, who know me, know that I have a thing for Chinese gardens. Suzhou, though it has canals and bridges is all about its gardens. I start out at the Master of Nets Garden, this supposedly is the garden that was copied at the Metropolitan Museum in 1981. Though I go there frequently, I didn’t recognize it, however it seemed exactly like the Chinese garden I saw in Portland. Whatever, it was lovely and I was very happy.

Decided to go for lunch, and whatever possessed me I don’t know but I ordered a tuna fish sandwich. It did take care of the hunger pangs, next it was time for one more garden, since I never got to the Summer Palace in Beijing I selected the Humble Administrators Garden which is supposed to rival the Summer Palace. It was very large and very lovely with a lot of pavilions , water flowing through the gardens and courtyards in the most unexpected places. What a treat it was to see and to be there. Now I am getting hungry again, having read in one of the tourist brochures that Sofitel, the French hotel chain was having a Bearded Crab Festival with a buffet dinner for approx $20.

I had read about bearded crab and knew this was on my list of things to try. My natural inclination is to stay away from hotel dining rooms, especially the buffet dinners, the crabs were the draw. Also didn’t know where else to go to try them. Took the bus to the hotel and walked into an empty dining room, was seated with my back to the television that was showing some American movie. The Assistant Manager comes up, he was obviously looking for something to do, and proceeds to explain the buffet. We walk through it together, he raves about the oysters of course I try them, watery and tasteless. Will I ever taste oysters like those we had in Cape Town again? I try a few more sea food items and then it is time for the crabs. The young man, they are all young men and women here it seems, then informs me, that he will show me how to eat a crab. It is pointless to explain that I ate crabs before he was born, so I graciously accept the lesson. The main difference is that these crabs are eaten with a sweetish vinegar ginger sauce. He also told me that I should not eat more than 4 or at the most 5 since my stomach would be upset. To the amusement of the staff I ate 4, had some salad, cheese and dessert including a beer the total bill came to $23. Money well spent in my opinion the crabs were delicious.

Since my schedule had been turned around I decided to go to Tongli, the closest of the water towns. The hotel was fairly near to the South bus station so I decided to take a bus. Missed one and waited for 15 minutes for the next and thought I’ll take a cab. It was a woman driver and I had all these great feelings about women taxi drivers, since I hadn’t seen one yet. I very clearly explained where I was going showing on the map and using the dictionary, she takes off to where she is going, which was to the train station in the exact opposite part of town. Took another cab to the North bus station and finally got a bus. There is a specific ticket booth for Tongli, you pay 80 RMB which includes the bus fare. Tongli is a very cute little water town with many canals and bridges, old houses and lots of vendors. If you haven’t already, you can buy pearls, silk comforters, pigs trotters and hocks, amongst all the other merchandise. A different variation on the black sesame crackers,I had seen in Pingyao, these were made on a large electric griddle as opposed to a wok with black pebbles. There is too much merchandise everywhere for me to get engaged in shopping, or perhaps I need a shopping companion. I did discover one street that was obviously geared to local residents, with furniture, household goods and a super market. Lunch was had by a canal where the cooking was done in one of the local residences. I had a delicious lunch consisting of local white fish, hairy crab and edamame with water chestnuts.
It was time to return back to Souzhou, on my way to the bus I see a man deep frying something am not quite sure what, there is an American standing there so I ask him what it is, it’s onions and potatoes in a batter. A Chinese version of latkes, he treats me to one, next time I think I will pass. On my way to the bus I pass a store that sells wine, having not had any since Beijing I decide to explore. Buy a bottle of white, brand name Dynasty and bring it back with me, surprise it is drinkable, not quite Pouilly Fume but not gut rot either for $5.

Next morning I get up early to catch a bus to Hangzhou. Try to catch a taxi outside the hotel, this is a city that wakes up late, nothing seems to come alive before 10 am. There are neither taxis nor Tuktuks. I walk down to the main street, thinking I will grab a bus, fortunately a Tuktuk comes along and off I careen through Suzhou. Surprisingly I did arrive in one piece, to be met by a very old looking man who wanted to be my porter. I have no idea what price he was asking for his services, the usual crowd gathered who seemed to have an auction amongst themselves. The dictionary with numbers was useless, I offered 10RMB, which he accepted. It was worth every penny and more, he took my luggage, made sure I got the ticket, went with me to get some food, got me seat in the waiting room and stayed with me and the luggage for 45 minutes until the bus was to take off. Showed me where he had put the luggage on the bus and was off.
The movie shown on the bus had English subtitles am not sure if it was supposed to be inspirational or what, since my Ipod managed to erase itself, with a little help from me, I knitted and watched the movie. My knitting is of great interest to the women. It seems that the majority of knitters use four needles and do it all in one piece as opposed to me who uses two needles, and if it ever gets finished will sew the pieces together.

Am now in Hangzhou, the weather is very grey, it looks like it might rain. I am staying at the West Lake Hostel because it is close to the lake and my friend Sue had recommended it. It is very nice pleasant and as usual the staff is delightful and young. By now it is lunch time so I ask where to go, with a little map drawn. I think I have found the are but not the restaurant so I ask a doorman for this place, he indicates that it is around the corner, the map is crude I take his word for it. What I find is a hole in the wall with a lot of people, it is obviously not the place but who cares. I have a very good lunch of stirfried pork and a potato dish which was it seemed a specialty of the house since everyone was eating it.

Took a bus which wound its way around the lake to Lingyin Temple. It was founded in 326 and is one of the most famous Zen temples in China. You pay an entrance fee to the grounds and a separate one for the temple. As you approach the temple you pass 380 Buddhist images carved in the rock, dating from 10th-14th century. I only saw some of them and they were both beautiful and impressive, especially viewed in the misty grey light. I did go to the temple it was rebuilt after having been destroyed many times in 1956, still impressive. I met a woman from Taiwan who was there with her little very cute daughter, we took the bus back together and she told me about the night market. The buildings were white with black roofs and obviously old. There were many, many tea merchants and clothing shops with really nice things, unfortunately I was not in the mood to try on anything. By now it is late and time for dinner I go into a restaurant on the main street, actually not too many to choose from except McDonalds. Am tolod that the fish I wanted was not available, instead I was recommended a fish and dried bean curd dish that was not good. The braised pork belly was heaven and the vegetable dish acceptable. By now it is raining and as I leave the market and go to the next street to get a taxi I see an entire street full of restaurants.

Next morning it is grey,cold, foggy and raining I stay in and catch up on things. It is a blessing that every place has wireless connections. Kathy thanks for your advice to bring an extra cable. Finally I decide to brave the weather and walk to the Pagoda that is a few minutes away. Pay my obligatory fee, at least here there are escalators and elevators. The view did not exist due to the weather I was cold, my feet wet and stopped by a place by the lake for lunch. Then back to my room, all the other guests were Chinese who did not speak English, so my room it was. That night I put on my Crocs and took a taxi to supposedly Hangzhou’s best restaurant “Grandmother’s kitchen” It was located in an extremely posh shopping Plaza in Hangzhou Towers on the 8th floor. Again my travel karma is with me, am informed the wait is an hour, but there were two Germans and a Chinese girl waiting and if I was willing to join them there was no wait. We had a mainly vegetarian meal except Fish Head and I got to finally taste Smelly Tofu. It was a very good meal, I was not allowed to pay my share since the total bill for the 4 of us came to 130 RMB or $20. So ended my trip to Hangzhou. When I return it will be a different time of year and I will stay much longer, making day trips.

Train travel, Pingyao and ShanghaiI

Overnight train travel, Pingyao and Shanghai

According to my itinerary I was supposed to leave Beijing for Pingyao on the 22nd. Well it didn’t happen, all the trains were sold out and all I could get was a hard sleeper on the 23rd. Not knowing the difference between a hard and soft sleeper I accepted the ticket, figuring all it meant was comfort level. Not quite, a soft sleeper has 4 to a compartment and a door that closes, soft sleeper 6 bunks and no doors.

Was also advised ,that there were buses to Taiyuan which were frequent and fast from Beijing. One morning I took myself to the bus station which was very far away, as everything else is in Beijing, and tried to find out time schedules. The women at information had extremely limited knowledge of English. After an hour using the dictionary, including a large part of the population at the bus station, who were very intrigued by this laowai, putting in their 2 cents worth in Chinese. I found out that the bus takes 7 hours to Taiyuan, and then it is another 1 ½ hour to Pingyao. The bus to Taiyuan runs every 30 minutes to Pingyao there are only 2 a day. Since I already had my train ticket it didn’t seem worth changing. Especially since the train ride was approximately the same amount of time.

I arrived at the train station after my wonderful sightseeing day in Beijing and immediately ran into two of the Swedish girls who had been on the trip to Mutinayu. They were on the same train as I going to Pingyao, and were very helpful in watching my luggage, while I got something to eat, since I had not had time to eat during the day. The variety of food and freshness was really a surprise since rail road stations are not exactly known for their cuisine.

It was time to board, the train was leaving at 5.10 pm and it turns out that I am sharing with 5 men, not one of them who spoke English. However they had great fun with my dictionary, and I think that their friends were in the adjoining compartment,all these men kept on joining us. I did manage to find out who was sleeping in the bottom bunk and was able to switch from the top to the bottom. At one point Malin and Erika came to visit me, the men were somewhere else, all of a sudden this older woman sits down and starts to converse in Chinese with us. I did get that she said Hong Kong is very large and Pingyao is very small, she herself lived in Shanxi. No I don’t speak any more Chinese now than I did when I arrived, but sign language works great, most of the time. Finally she said goodbye, the girls left, and it was time to go to sleep after all it was after 8 pm. I put in my ear plugs, donned the eye mask and swallowed a Benadryl. Next thing I knew it was time to wake up, we were approaching Pingyao at 3am. The conductor was very solicitous to make sure that I knew which door to exit through. In general the service on the train was very good, food and drink carts going through as well as thermoses with hot water for tea were constantly offered. Another thing that really impressed me was that the men at one point had bought a bag of sunflower seeds but did not throw one hull on the floor. The cleanliness on the train was impressive, including the tablecloth on the table under the window..

As promised the car from the hotel Tian Yuan Kui was waiting for me, and when I arrived they had a a bunk bed outside the owner’s bedroom available, so I could get some more sleep, since the hotel was fully booked. When I woke up and went downstairs I knew I wanted to stay in this place for weeks. The hotel is in the center of town and in a very old building from 1791, to get to my room I walked through a classic courtyard and an outside corridor to enter a very comfortable room. The staff was lovely, as was the owner and I was in heaven. The girls arrived at 9 am as we had arranged, very distraught, the hostel they had booked into was freezing and they decided to leave that night for Xian.

Pingyao was founded during the Ming dynasty and is surrounded by the only completely intact city wall in China. It prospered during the Qing dynasty as a banking city and it really is a historical museum, with all the old buildings.

We hired a driver to take us to Shuanglin si a Buddihst temple founded in 571 there were thousands of the most amazing statues dating from The Song, Yuan ,Ming and Qing dynasties, a definite highlight for me.

When we returned to town it was time for lunch. We found a place on one of the side streets that looked nice and we had a delicious lunch for approx $3 each. We then bought our city tickets,120 RMB, mine at half price because of my venerable age of over 60. If I was over 70 almost every place would be free. When this trip is over I am going to sit down and figure out how much all the entrance tickets cost. They are definitively a large part of any budget, and should be considered.

We walked ½ the wall and thoroughly enjoyed all the backyards and looking down on the old buildings. We then wandered the streets just admiring the building styles. Of course here as everywhere else most of the shops on the main streets looked like Panjiayuan market in Beijing. Said goodbye to the girls and went back to my lovely room. That night I borrowed the DVD of “Light the Red Lantern” a sad story of a concubine, which I watched in bed on my laptop. The movie was shot at an old compound called Qu after the family that owned it. It is on the way to Tiyuan airport.

The next morning I awoke to glorious weather and walked around town, trying some of the street foods and visiting many of the historic buildings, including climbing up a gate in the middle of town. They say you should walk stairs instead of taking elevators, I have climbed more stairs on this trip than I care to count, and I think my knees are stronger. So I guess they are right.

Before going to the airport my charming driver took me to Qu’s compound, to get there you walk through a street lined with vendors. On one side there was what appeared to be a parking lot, lined with corn kernels drying in the sun. Two little children were having a great time playing with them. The compound was old, crowded with Chinese and as usual no signs in English. I walked through it, took lots of pictures and tried to imagine what it had been like to live there 300 years ago. Then it was time to leave and re-enter the 21st century in Shanghai.

I cannot really comment on Shanghai, since I was only there for one day. It seemed much edgier than Beijing, a lot of beggars, in particular women with small children, sitting on the side walks. Many more westerners on the streets and incredible shops Did manage a few meals, I stood on line for the very light and delicious dumplings (xiao long bao) at 90 Huanghe Lu, which was very near my hotel. Thanks EKS for the tip.

Later I met my friend Mimi who was having brunch, with her family and friends, at the Westin hotel. If you are in Shanghai with children on a Sunday that is the place to go, it probably costs close to a small fortune, but what a spectacle. Apart from the buffets on two floors, unlimited champagne, there were jugglers, magicians, acrobats, singers and musicians performing. There were also wandering entertainers for the children, I had declined the invitation to eat with them since I wanted to see the Shanghai museum which was stupendous. Mimi’s husband and children went home we went shopping, at some small mall that one of the young girls had heard of. I broke down and bought a Hermes belt for 30 or 40 RMB, I don’t remember the exact price. It was time to say good bye and for me to go back to the hotel. Dinner was had in the old section of town, in a restaurant that President Clinton had gone to. A word of advice, stay away from restaurants with pictures of celebrities. I shared a table with a man from Mexico City, who imported machinery from China. I tasted his Xiao Long Bao, no comparison in quality to that morning's breakfast. He tasted my beef which in my opinion was no gastronomic epiphany.

Next installment from Suzhou.

Beijing continued

Beijing continued
It was a very grey day when I went to the Forbidden City, had rented or at least paid for an audio guide when I came upon the English information desk, with a Chinese British woman manning it. Sorry I didn’t write her name down, but I was told more than even I needed to know. Was told not to bother with the guide, since Roger Moore’s can only be picked up at the North gate, and I entered through the South Gate. She then informed me what I should, and should not see and proceeded to give me a Chinese map. I dutifully followed some of the advice since it was the only way I could avoid the other 599,000 visitors that day. However by the time I had seen the costumes , porcelain and art exhibits. I was tuckered in, did manage to see the treasures, or at least some of those that had been left behind, the well, and the garden, by then it was really time to leave.

I couldn’t be in Beijing and not go to one of the markets could I, that is, the Pearl or the Silk one? Off I went to the Silk Market. I never knew that I disliked being touched before, but discovered very quickly that I don’t like being grabbed to look at things. Quickly left the main floor, proceeded up floor by floor, until I reached the “better” merchandise. I saw a jacket that I liked bargained some but probably not enough. It doesn’t matter I got a garment I liked for a price that I can live with. By now it was really time to quit for the day, returned to RLH ready to collapse.

My British friend the photographer asked if I would join him and some others for another Hutong dinner. This time we went to the Moslem kebab place, very inexpensive but also not very good. The Lamb Kebabs on the main street are so far superior in quality.

On another day I went to see the Lama Temple, walked to the Bell and Drum towers and through some very pretty streets up along Beihai lake to see Prince Gong’s Palace. It is the largest and best preserved of the patrician residences. It was also obvious that it is a very popular destination for Chinese tourists. The place was packed, with not one single sign in English. By now I had walked for several hours and was not in the mood to battle crowds, so I took off for my own Hutong which was not too far away.

This brings me to the subject of food, and me in Beijing. For the most part I have had breakfast at the local dumpling place, that is unless I bought a scallion pancake from a stall, or another kind of pancake with egg, herbs, and things I didn’t recognize from another stall. The street food in the neighborhood is staggering, I never got to any of the “famous” streets the variety here is enough. After a few days I was recognized at the local noodle shop, and received special treatment, I got served as opposed to walking up to the window to get the food. One night I decided to go to a “real” restaurant and went to Ding Tai Fung for dumplings (xiao-long-boa) I just felt that it was time to act grown up, as much as I love street food and local joints. It was not a disappointment, on the contrary after having ordered Hairy Crab, Seafood and Baby Pork dumplings in soup, as well as a rice noodle, tofu seaweed salad I got greedy and ordered Vegetable and Pork dumplings. After all this was close to gustatory heaven, I almost swooned it was so good. However my body decided that I should not reach above my station, and revolted. Fortunately nothing that a few Imodium couldn’t fix but I thought it pretty ironic.

I had arrived before DTF had opened for dinner, and decided to walk around the neighborhood. It is in a fairly dismal area, but across the street is a small park with several machines, perhaps that is too big a word, but for want of a better one to describe these self propelled contraptions that quite a few elderly people were using to exercise. It appeared to be a working class neighborhood, a short tour of the supermarket didn’t convince me otherwise. It never ceases to amaze me how restaurants that have a built an reputation can go to the most out of the way places and still have a following.

The next day I visited the Temple of Heaven and had another encounter. As I stood and watched the gardeners exchanging plants on the approach to the entrance up to the temple, this by the way was all over Beijing ,plants being exchanged at tourist sites. There were two young men singing Hebrew songs one of them playing the guitar. Catchy tunes, people stopped to listen and swayed with the music. When it was finished the tall one started to talk about the music, that it was a song from Jerusalem and that is where God lived. He then went on and on about God and faith. The crowd could care less, all they wanted were their photographs taken with the blondes, those were me and the preacher. I tried to extricate myself from the situation, but every woman my age and older decided that a picture with me was what was needed for their happiness. Actually that seems to have been a pattern since I arrived.

I finally asked one of the young men if they were Jews for Jesus, the answer was negative. They weren’t Jewish but for Jesus. Then I asked if they weren’t concerned about preaching Christianity in China, the answer was Jesus protects. I wished them good luck and went on my way. When I was leaving I ran into them again and the “preacher” cornered me to try to challenge me. That is the kind of challenge that I try not to rise to, I wished him more good luck and left with a really bad taste in my mouth. How I detest religious fanatics who think that their path is the only one. Make that fanatics of any kind.

Talking about religion, my last day in Beijing was one of those super sunny, cool, crisp days when you feel as if you have more energy than you know what to do with. My train was not until 5 pm so the day was mine. I started out at Coal Hill with a stupendous view of the Forbidden City, the mountains and Beijing. Then went to the Zoo to see the Pandas, they were mainly sleeping but very cute, I didn’t do the rest of the Zoo so cannot comment on the conditions, it looked very nice and the tropical aviary on the way to the Pandas was in great shape. After the Zoo I went to the oldest Temple in Beijing founded in AD645, Fayuan Si, there were maybe 6 visitors all total,,and a few Buddhist.monks. I walked around and felt if not religious at least a similar feeling that I had experienced in a mosque in Istanbul. There was something very spiritual in the space. When I thought that I had seen it all and was on my way out, one of the women I had seen who was also leaving, came up to me and took me by the hand and showed me the original temple, I would have totally missed it if not for her kindness. It was completely hidden behind the newer buildings. I really have to read up more on Buddhism, even if we had a lot of information given to us in Korea I feel most ignorant. Going to so many temples here in Beijing, and seeing punk looking, young people bow, lighting incense and really showing great respect makes me curious about what I don’t know.

While I was at it decided to go visit the Nijujie Libai Si Mosque, am not sure whether the guard thought I was Moslem because of my scarf, or if I said yes to a question I didn’t understand but he never charged me an entrance fee. It was very poignant walking around after just having read how the Chinese government is cracking down on Moslems, if not in Beijing per se but in other areas further north. It appeared to be a very vital mosque with many men and women walking around. One thing that has really struck me here in China is that exact years are very rarely given, things are from such and such a dynasty. In the case of the mosque, people have worshipped here since the Song era 960-1270

So far my experiences and feelings about China are extremely positive. I have felt that people are genuinely kind and helpful. The fact that my Chinese is non-existent doesn’t seem to bother the Chinese, they talk as if I understand.

In Beijing the streets are super clean, actually to call them streets is an understatement. Each of the main streets are as wide as a city block. Distances are enormous, what looks near on the map takes 30 minutes or more by car, without traffic. The traffic is very congested and though the subway is very efficient it only covers certain areas, taxis are very cheap the most I paid for a very long ride was 30 RMB which is less than $5. I had remarked on how clean and orderly the Seoul subway was, so is Beijing’s, people are quiet, there is no debris or litter, actually that seems to be the case all over Beijing. I also traveled by bus a lot, the cost was approx 15 cents. The subway costs 30 cents.

Spitting is not the problem I expected it to be, neither is smoking since it is forbidden in most areas including parks. Of course these are my impressions from Beijing, which does not make me an expert on China but so far I really like this country. I know that Beijing has gone through a sanitation phase, however people are people, and the kindnesses I have encountered, the feeling of being taken care of, and the courtesies extended, no government can mandate people to show that to tourists.

Beijing #1

Beijing the first couple of days

Arrived to a very grey Beijing after an uneventful flight on Korean Air and took the airport bus into Beijing. Tried to get a metered taxi but there were none, I ended up in a stainless steel Tuktuk. He delivered me to Red Lantern House which was to be my home for the next 5 nights, Hutong meaning alley, sounds glamorous and quaint, this one was not, though very genuine. However, the courtyard I stayed in was lovely with lots of plants and a persimmon tree dripping with fruit. The room was spacious and very clean for 200RMB per night I was not complaining. The staff were very lovely, young women who spoke English, then there was William, the brother in law whose command of English and the violin were remarkable. He was there for everyone to help, assist and aid in every which way.

That first night, I had arranged to have dinner with two women I had met on Fodor’s travel forum. It turned out that one of them could not make it, but I was still to meet Lisa at 7 pm at her hotel. First I took a bus since I had given myself a lot of time, also being told to take a taxi at the end. Except there were no taxis, finally I got a rickshaw, that is a bicycle driven carriage the driver nodded very knowingly when I showed him my destination. I since learnt that there are two kinds of drivers, the ones that look as if they don’t have a clue but know, and the ones that look as if they know but don’t. I finally reached Lisa’s hotel an hour and some later. She was frantic with worry, I had a great story to tell, the driver being very lost, tried to lose me too in a godforsaken alley, which I wouldn’t let him. Some kind people came to my rescue, they screamed at him, what, I don’t know but I was allowed to continue on the ride to almost nowhere. When we finally arrived he had the most victorious smile on his face.

By now it is too late to go to the Courtyard restaurant we had planned on so we decided to go for duck. Grab a real cab this time, show the driver the name of the restaurant that Lisa had, which was not DaDong, but that is where we ended up. The wait was to be an hour+ however the wine was free. We each have a glass of wine, mine is white, has oxidized and tastes pretty bad. This prompts a conversation with a gentleman standing next to me who it turns out is the team captain for Malaysia’s Gastronomic team, that was competing the following day. Before we know it cards are exchanged, and we are invited to join them for dinner. Restaurant people never quite know when enough is enough, a lot of food was ordered apart from the requisite ducks. What stands out in my memory is a fish dish called “snow fish”, everything was delicious. Ringo, the team captain and I shared the pleasures of no longer owning a restaurant. His ownership I think was on a much larger scale than mine. We say our goodbyes to our hosts and thanks all around and as we make to leave, the Frenchman at the next table starts to sing songs by Charles Aznavour, Of course we have to stop and listen, get into a conversation while we are being serenaded. Before the evening continued we said goodnight and I got a taxi back to my hutong, so ended my first night in Beijing.

The next day Saturday I take the subway and bus to Panjiayuan Market after having had some dumplings and corn soup for breakfast at a little diner around the corner.
The market is amazing with so much bric a brac that is becomes overwhelming. I walk around for a few hours until I reach the row where the ladies from Guizhou sell their tribal works and clothing. Strike up a conversation with woman who exports their clothing to France and she offers to purchase at her price one of the jackets that caught my fancy. I may be short but dainty is no longer the way to describe me, all the jackets were too tight. Leave Ricky to let her continue her negotiations and continue down the aisle. Some of the women were about to have lunch and invite me to join them. Who am I to turn down the offer of a home cooked meal so I accept. There I am in the middle of Panjiayuan market sitting on a stool having lunch with the tribal women, nfortunately we couldn’t communicate too well. I did find out that one of them came from Taijiang but that was about it. Have no idea what I ate it was very tasty and enjoyable. They kept on filling my plate up and I kept refusing it was just too much food for me. This is now a very nice memory and it reinforces my belief that women can communicate without always knowing each other’s language.

As I am about to leave the market I run into Ricky again, I tell her that apart from a jacket I also wanted to buy pearls she offers to take me to the Antique market which is nearby and where she used to work, she also knows a lot of people there. I get my pearl necklace which is what I wanted for a very good price and return to the hotel very satisfied with my day.

That night a British photographer who is staying at the RLH and I go out for Hot Pot in the neighbourhood, 56RMB for the two of us with 2 beers, true it was not haute gourmet but very satisfying nonetheless.

I had every intention in the world to go to Mutianyu great wall by public transportation but in the end I booked a tour with the hotel. The day was gorgeous with sunshine and a clear blue sky. The cost was 320RMB including breakfast and lunch. It turned out that the tour which picked up people from different hostels consisted of, apart from me, 5 Swedes and 2 Australians. I was very glad that I had chosen a tour, since Paul the guide was always at hand to assist me. The steps are very uneven and hard to walk. That is on purpose to make it more difficult for the enemy, in case they ever came onto the wall.

I chose to stop at one of the watch towers and let the rest of the group climb to the top. I had climbed enough and it gave me the opportunity to talk to some people. There was a young couple with 2 small children, one was a baby who was bottle fed milk, being as I am, I asked about the milk situation. They told me that they had always used imported milk, since they both worked for IBM they could afford the extra cost. I was also informed that since September 14th all the milk was safe to drink. It was interesting hearing them discuss China and how they felt about living here. Then I spoke with an American-Norwegian who manufactured machinery in China because labor was so much less than in Norway, he had climbed the wall 4 times. No wonder he was prematurely grey. I descended on the toboggan which was a lot of fun. After a rather lackluster lunch we returned to the city.

That night I went out for dinner to a Hakkan restaurant on Behai lake with a young French girl who was here on business and hated traveling and eating on her own. We had a lovely bottle of white wine with our fish dish, we also had corn and black rice, bok choy with garlic and a very nice duck dish. Walking around the lake was fun, it is obviously a very hot spot with many bars we ended up having Long Island Ice Tea at one of them. That is a drink I have not had for at least 20 years. I didn’t like it any better now than I did then.


Day 4 Seoul
Gertie had asked if she could come with me on my explorations , We set out early because I wanted to see the changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace. It was not to happen since there was no changing of the guard that day. Even better, there was going to be a whole procession taking place at 3 pm in front of City Hall. We took our time exploring the palace grounds and seeing the Korean Crafts Museum.
While we were at it we went over to the Westin, because there is an old temple in their gardens which is an unusual spot and we needed a bathroom break. Talking about bathrooms, Seoul is amazing, there are public restrooms, everywhere, in the underground shopping areas. As you enter there is a giant roll of toilet paper, Western and Asian style toilets, spotlessly clean. I never saw any attendants so have no idea who keeps them as clean as they are.

Since we were in the area of the department store Lotte, we decided to explore it, well we didn’t get much further than the food section, “natch” $15 Asian pears beautifully wrapped. $500 teas in exquisite boxes. I could have spent hours there. Did manage to buy a handbag, which was exactly what I had been looking for in NYC and everywhere else but found in Seoul. My motto, if you see it buy it.

By now it is time for lunch and we take the subway to Noryangjin fish market which was the largest fish market under one roof that I have ever seen. Whenever I go to beautiful food markets I wish that I have a kitchen to cook in, and this was no exception. If it came from the sea it was available here. The varieties were staggering, everything was very fresh and so appetizing. We went upstairs where all the restaurants are situated and had an incredible lunch for $16 for the 2 of us. We didn’t realize it but we had gone to a sushi place, which was a perfect choice for us and the location.
The English translation of the menu didn’t do it justice, which is often the case I have noticed. Apart from the usual assortment of appetizers and kimchi, we also got a delicious fried fish, fish soup, Sashimi, sliced raw fish in a salad all of this for $16 for the 2 of us. We were very happy as left to go to see the king and his warriors.

There is a very large field in front of City Hall which was to be the scene of a martial arts demonstrations, and mock battles between different battalions. We managed to get front row seats, between the old age pensioners, and the ever present school children,I don’t know which of the Joseon Kings we saw but it was medieval drama at its best with elaborate costumes, martial arts soldiers jumping up and breaking sheets of wood with their bare feet, the foot soldiers jousting. We felt so fortunate to have chanced on this.

It was time to hurry back to the hotel and change for the reception and dinner at the Swedish Ambassador’s residence.

What a fun evening it turned out to be, Seoul Swea dressed in Korean headgear greeted us with song. Singapore Swea had changed into Singapore Airlines uniforms and again in song took us on a flight. The winner of the drawing competition, for the international image of a SWEA .was won by Anneli Olsson from Singapore, who was also present. We had the opportunity to see the drawing and congratulate her in person.

Thus ended my solo days in Seoul and the official group tour started the next day.

Day 2 and 3 Seoul

Day 2 Seoul
Breakfast has an interesting assortment of foods. There is mixture of Korean and Western dishes. They serve a lightly smoked salmon, vegetable salads, dried small fish, hard boiled and scrambled eggs and the standard cereals. I opt for kimchi, (fermented cabbage), and all the other goodies.

The card to the camera is stuck and I want to get a mouse for the laptop so decide to go exploring the electronics center. Get off at Yongsan station and walk through a shopping center, the size of several malls. The amount of general merchandise is staggering, one really senses how much of a consumer society this is by all the malls and shops that are all over. I walk through this mall and take an escalator up, and am in electronics heaven, there are several floors, each one carries only one type of merchandize. The first floor have only cameras, thousands of them, next floor laptops and computers. Finally I reach the floor where I can get a new card reader and the mouse. I could have spent hours wandering around, but the Seoul National Museum was waiting.

When I get out from the subway and approach the museum I am totally taken aback by the sheer beauty of the building. As a rule architecture is not one of the things I wax lyrical about, however, this building is magnificent. The museum was built only a few years ago, and is a very impressive building.

I spend several hours walking around, and am fortunate enough to meet a docent, who very kindly explains some of the art that I am seeing. It was very fortuitous that there had been a Chinese exhibit at the Met which is described on my blog that I visited before coming to SEA. The difference in the art is quite striking. There was also a lot about the different historic eras in Korea which was a good introduction for me, since we would be visiting the old capital of the Silla kings later in the week. I ended up having a not very satisfactory Chicken Salad lunch at the Reflecting Pool Restaurant ,before it was time to go back to the hotel and meet the rest of the group.

What has struck me so far is the incredible sense of well being I feel in Seoul. Just being here makes me feel good. It might be that though people stare at me, when I smile at them I get big grins back. The fact that the overture to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, is played before you arrive at the subway stops where connecting trains can be caught makes me smile. Could it be because people are not loud and boisterous, but incredibly orderly, they stand on escalators in one line and the city is very clean?

Have no idea what causes this sense of well being, am going with it and enjoying myself. When I get back to the hotel the group has gathered, I meet the woman with whom I am to share room for the remainder of the time in Korea. She lives in Perth Australia, and is very perky. As it turns out I have a single room for most of the trip.

That evening we were to meet at a wine bar for dinner and a mixer. Some 50 odd Swedish women in one room, the noise level is deafening. Since this a regional meeting for Asia, the majority of women live in Singapore, Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai. There are 6 of us from USA, I have the very good fortune to sit next to two women who live in Bangkok. Unfortunately they are only doing the Seoul part of the trip. After a lot of wine and food it is time for bed as we have an early start tomorrow morning to go to DMZ. And Panmunjeom

Day 3
The DMZ is only 55km from Seoul and the group has been invited by the Swedish team stationed there. We are very fortunate in being met by a Swiss Major. Unfortunately the Swedes are away on maneuvers.

What I had never realized that this is a war zone, that only an armistice had been signed and not a peace treaty. On the road up to DMZ we see watch towers with armed guards. The border is supposed to be the most heavily guarded border in the world and I believe it. Major Eberle had asked a couple of American GI’s to give us guided tours. We are taken into a tunnel that the North Koreans had dug, that was discovered in 1978. It is wide enough for an army to walk through. We have to don hard hats before getting into the train that take us underground. This is tunnel #3, there are 4 tunnels like this and supposedly 9 more that have yet to be unearthed. They were supposedly meant for an invasion, and coated with coal dust. When it was discovered after a defector told about the tunnels, and many attempts were made to find them, the North Koreans claimed it was an old coal mine. Except there is no coal, in this area only granite.

The young soldier who ends up being our guide for the entire rest of the visit is from Texas, 23 years old, complained of the bitter cold winters, it can be -20F at times and the loneliness, he is on duty 6-7 days a week. He explains that they have to wear sunglasses at all times in case they would inadvertently make eye contact with the enemy.

We are escorted to a small UN building that is ½ in South Korea and ½ in North Korea. TheSouth Korean soldiers stand on guard with sunglasses and clenched fists. The soldiers who stand guard outside the buildings facing North Korea keep half of their body hidden to make smaller targets. We see the North Korean soldier who uses his binoculars every few minutes, that is when you realize how precarious the situation can become. It may be a tourist destination but, this is a war zone, with both sides prepared at any second.

Because Sweden and Switzerland are the two neutral observers within the zone, they have their own camp. We have been invited for lunch, which is quite the feast, with mainly Swedish food. Our young American GI is sorely disappointed that the cheese cake is not as he is used to.

We say our goodbyes, I leave with very mixed emotions, it is scary to see the barbed wire, the guard towers, and the soldiers with their automatics and the barren land on each side. I remember Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, but it was not as scary or ominous.

There is one bright spot in the middle between the two Koreas there is stretch of land that has not been touched for over 50 years, though heavily land mined it is a haven for flora and fauna with many rare species of birds nesting, perhaps when and if peace is ever struck this is one place that can be safe.

We return to Seoul, this evening we are on our own, the chapter presidents are having a meeting, my new found friend, Gertie from Bangkok, and I go out for a Korean dinner. I have a delicious dish of stewed octopus and she has Bimbibip. We then take the subway to City Hall. I had read about it being Breast Cancer day with 60 different countriesw having monuments being lit up in pink. Seoul is one of them and I want to see it.

We get off at City Hall and there to the entrance to Cheonggyecheon stream is a large statue in the shape of a woman lifting up a pink globe. It was designed by an artist who specializes in cartoons, forgot the name, she is in front of Claes Oldenburg’s snail like statue. It was all bathed in pink, As we walked down by the stream, pink umbrellas were dancing in the air and pink flood lights illuminated the area. To think that all over the world on this day the were pink lights. There were some young Americans putting on an improve comedy show in an area by this stream. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

I really liked the Stream, a very lovely part, in the center of Seoul, which I unfortunately never found the time to explore again.
The stream was a project undertaken by the current president when he was mayor of Seoul. It was an old expressway that was cleared and underneath it was this stream that drains the valley of Seoul. It is really lovely and well worth looking at, with art exhibits on the banks.
So ends day 3.

Day 1 Seoul

SEA Trip
Seoul Day 1
So many firsts, eating Oyster pancakes, Bimbimbap, Chrysalis, riding the Seoul subway, going to the top of Seoul tower, while having a delightful time.
After having spent a great day in Toronto meeting up with old friends, it was time to board my flight for Seoul ,Korea . By the time we boarded I had been up for 18 hours as well as having slept very little the previous nights. Was prepared to have some wine and fall asleep for the better part of the 13 ½ hour flight. It didn’t quite happen that way.
This was my first experience flying long distance with a non-European or American Airline. What an experience it was, service to the nth degree, administered by gorgeous flight attendants. It brought back memories from the days of Pan Am glory. Each one of these lovely women was more exquisite than the next, and always smiling and gracious. We were served cold water and juices, the hot towels, drinks and dinner. I opted for the Korean meal of Bibimbap, which was a first, a delicious dish consisting of hot rice, ground beef, soybean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, spinach, topped with an egg, served with hot chili sauce, sesame oil and a seaweed soup. Have now found another favorite food, served on an airplane, amazing. My seat companions were fortunately very nice, we were cramped but for once the seats reclined to a pitch which made sleeping reasonably comfortable. After more food, water, juice, etc we finally arrived in Seoul at 2.30 am. Cleared immigration and customs and walked through this huge airport.
There was an ATM outside in the arrival hall next to the currency exchange booth. What I discovered is that there are two kinds of ATM’s, global that will accept all kinds of cards and another that is card specific. Touts approached with offers of taxis for 110,000w, which I declined, having received a letter from the hotel that buses were not running at that hour, but that the black taxis were 40.000 w. Exit the airport and there is a bus for 14,000 the driver tells me to get off at Seoul Station and take a taxi, with the aid of kind passengers that is what happened.
The hotel which has been booked is called Hamilton and despite several confirmations that I would be arriving at an awkward hour nobody has a clue. No problem, am given a room, which reminds me of budget hotels in Paris, small and dingy. I remind myself that one shouldn’t judge by first impressions after a long flight. Unpack and sleep for a couple of hours. Go down speak to reception and the room is changed. What a difference, now have a view, a sitting area, two double beds and room to breathe.
Since I don’t know what has been planned except a general schedule I decided to go to the Korean Folk Village about 1 ½ hours away in Suwon . The subway system is very efficient, before each stop there is a snippet of music I recognize but can not place. All the announcements are made in Korean and English. It was an easy ride despite having to change trains several times. Ticket cost 16,000.
The Korean Folk Village comprises of a large collection of thatched Korean traditional houses and buildings from all over the country. There is a bus by the tourist information center, on top of the stairs when you exit the station, which runs every half hour, you purchase the ticket 12,000w and that is your admission to the village. I had decided to do this thinking I would get a better idea of what life was like in Korea in the rural areas. Am not sure I know any more than before, however it was an interesting visit. I believe that every school group in Korea was there, at least that is how it seemed. The 4 year olds in identical sweat suits were so adorable that I could have taken each and every one home. The older children, 8-9 years, were having a ball, photographing the houses, using either cell phones or digital cameras. They were boisterous but not obnoxious. My impressions so far are that the Koreans are very courteous, pleasant and agreeable people.
After having seen many of the houses I am getting bored and hungry so I proceed to the market place which is also a food court. They serve the same food as in the restaurants that you walk by as you enter the village, and prices are the same. The food is cooked in small houses, you eat it on platforms, at traditional low tables. After having paid in advance I go to the place where the pancakes are made, I had ordered to Oyster pancake, not knowing what I was getting. For 6,000 I got 6 smallish omelettes with fresh oysters. You help yourself to soy sauce and metal flat chops sticks. Though my knee, for those of you who missed my news I have a torn meniscus, which happened just before the trip, but thanks to modern medicine and a Cortisone injection it is quite flexible. However I was not going to climb up on one of the platforms and sit at a low table to eat. Instead I let my feet dangle and relished my lunch.

When we got back to the subway, I decided to go into the supermarket to buy water. Each subway station appears to have malls, shops and supermarkets. As you enter you are greeted by an array of food stations, many of them cook on the spot. There were dumpling being made, a sushi conveyor belt, shrimp rolls fried, cookies baked and everywhere smiling faces. I wasn’t very tempted to try anything but loved the atmosphere. In the back of the locale was the supermarket, it was small, everything looked so fresh. As I left with my water I saw a shoemaker, my shoe needed fixing, and he could do it. He wanted to practice his English so the first thing he said was “Can I buy you a welcome drink” my reply was “Yes, that would be nice” I think he had no idea what to say or do after that. While I was waiting a young man came to order something which it took a while for me to figure out. His chop had broken and he needed a new one. It was made and cut by a computer, after all the proper identification had been produced. Then it was duly stamped in a book and intialled.
Time to go back to Seoul, wasn’t quite sure what to see next, should I go to the fish market or…..One of the beauties of being on your own is that you can make your decisions as you go along. I decided to go to Seoul tower. According to my guidebook it is a walkable distance from Seoul tower, it is not. Fortunately taxis are plentiful and cheap, so off I went, took the cable car up and landed in what must have been the Korean version of Valentines Day. First there were large staues of hearts designed by various artists. Couples were arriving with huge flower baskets in the shape of hearts, the fences around the periphery of the outlook platform were covered with padlocks, that had words of endearments written on them, bike chains in the shape of hearts and a lot of young couples. There were a few tourists, but mostly Koreans. On my way down to the cable car I see this old man selling something hot, a little smelly and quite suspicious looking. Stop to look a woman walks by and buys a paper cup full, and tells me that it is delicious. Then a young family walks by they stop to buy some for the children, so I ask is it really delicious? The mother tells me the children like it, and that is how I got to taste puppae cooked in a soysauce. They were actually quite good, though I don’t think they will become part of my regular diet.
On my way back to the hotel I walk through what is probably the equivalent to the garment district, and pass by a building that has something obviously important going on. Parking attendants looking like marionettes directing cars into a parking lot. Outside the building that is lit up, are hundreds of tall flower arrangements with long silk banners. Security is tight lots of walkie talkies. I approach a man who appears to be in charge and he explained that it is the inauguration of a wedding palace, or in my vernacular a special events place for weddings. I ask permission to go and look and surprisingly he says yes. The party is being set up, I wander around it is very impressive, meet the presumed owner and congratulate him, he tells me go upstairs it’s even better. He was right, I take pictures and then this man comes up and says no pictures. He then takes me on a guided tour, it turns out he was the constructional engineer. and very proud of his work. The place can hold 3 weddings simultaneously, the p.p. cost is 50.000 excluding alcohol. My mind is reeling, how on earth can they make a profit. Unfortunately never had the chance to find out since the ribbon cutting was about to take place and it was time for me to leave. This was one party I would have loved to attend. It is now close to 7 pm time to get back to the hotel and go and have dinner. When I arrive I see a group of Swedish women who are obviously part of the meeting. We hook up and go out for Korean food I have another Bibimbap which was still delicious.
My first impressions of Seoul are that it is a city that seems to come alive as the day progresses. It is very vital and has a good feel to it. The signage is a mixture of English and Korean. People are generally very nice and courteous.