Sunday, February 24, 2008

Getting ready to go

Our visas, allowing us to enter China, came last week, and with it a surprise.

We had applied for the standard tourist visa, which gives you 60 or 90 days to enter China with a maximum stay of 30 days.

What we got were visas which give us one year to enter China with a maximum stay of 60 days. I wish I'd known this sooner because visa prices went up $30 each the week before we applied for ours.

This is apparently in retaliation for the United States raising its visa prices for everyone, not just the Chinese, to $131. The USA also requires foreigners to fax their itinerary two days before they arrive here. This reportedly is for homeland security purposes. At the same time, the government is requiring this, they're planning to mount a multi-million dollar compaign to attract foreign tourists. Go figure!

We're working on gifts now to take to our friends. We each take a small wheeled suitcase with a day pack to carry on the plane. That limits the size of the gifts we can take. Plus, all the neat souvenir items, such as mugs and T-shirts with Washington on them, are usually made in China. Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle! In the past I have scrapped off "made in China" stickers as well as cut tags off clothing. I am trying something new this time: having items made with pictures I've taken on them. In China, you have to be careful about giving gifts that you've made yourself. For so many years, the people did not have enough money to live on, let alone buy gifts, so any gifts were homemade. Today, with their standard of living rising, they have money to buy gifts, and a store-bought item has become a status symbol. I'm hoping the gifts we're taking this year are just the right compromise. They can be seen at

One friend is a diabetic who loves sweets, so we're taking along a lot of sugar-free candy for her. She also likes Sweet 'n Low, so we're taking a long a couple of boxes of packets for her. Apparently you can get artificial sweeteners in China, but she says it's not as good as Sweet 'n Low.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

On becoming a Sinophile

On becoming a Sinophile

My husband has become an unbashed Sinophile, which, as a macho motorcycle rider, is about the last thing I ever thought he'd turn into.

When we got married in 2002, I'd already spent two years working in Beijing and traveling around the Middle Kingdom, plus I'd been back to China twice since my last contract with China Daily ended in 1998. I was having withdrawal symptoms as it had been a couple of years since I'd been there, and proposed a trip for our first anniversary. He wasn't having any of it. No way he'd ever go to China, he declared, especially since the SARS epidemic was still going on (though in the waning days). Let's go somewhere else. So we went to London -- a city I'd visited several times before -- instead. He got sick the morning we were to return home and puked his guts out across the Atlantic. I told you we should have gone to China, I smirked.

Six months later, in the spring of 2004, I broached the subject again. I NEED to go to China, I told him. No way, he responded. OK, then, I'll go by myself. No way, he said. Never mind that before we were married, I'd spent 30 years traveling around the world by myself, and was perfectly capable of going to China again on my own. He reluctantly agreed to accompany me for a quick trip to Beijing, complaining all the way. Some good Chinese friends of mine met our late flight at the airport and got us settled into our hotel near the Chongwenmen subway stop. The next morning we took the subway to Tian'anmen Square, walking the length of it before touring the Forbidden City. His vocabulary that morning consisted of one word: awesome, and just a few hours later he was making plans for our next trip to China. And I thought you didn't want to come to China, I muttered to myself.

Two years later I returned to Beijing with three friends on a "ladies only" tour, and he complained because he wasn't invited. (Hey, sweetie pie, at least I didn't go by myself!)

He is the driving force behind our trip to China next month, and is even more excited than I to be returning to the country I consider my second home. Maybe if we weren't going just to Shanghai . . . I've been there twice, both times on tours (once as a tourist and then as a tour director) and have never been impressed with China's largest city. We'll be spending the whole time there, with maybe some day trips, and friends from Beijing will fly down one weekend to see us.

Still, it's gonna be a good trip.

P.S. He didn't get sick coming back from China, though he barfed his way across the Atlantic again after a trip to Nice, France, the following year.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chun jie hao!

Chinese New Year, known as Spring Festival, is coming up next week. Spring Festival is the equivalent of our Christmas, just as "chun jie hao" is the equivalent of our saying Merry Christmas, meaning in Mandarin "happy spring festival." Families travel hundreds of miles across the country to be together, gifts are given, and the night before is spent making dumplings. A lot of small shops close so the owners can go home for the holidays. China Daily always gave staff three days off, and put out smaller newspapers with a skeleton staff the rest of the week.

I lived in Beijing during two Spring Festivals, in 1995 and 1997.

Though the temperatures were freezing, it didn't stop people from enjoying the festivities. Parks have temple fairs, with games, food, entertainment and a gazillion people. The first year I went to the temple fair at Ditan Park, a major park in northcentral Beijing which was only a short bus ride away from China Daily, where I lived and worked. I was able to only see a few things before people swarmed the park, making it impossible for a short person like myself to see anything, let alone move about. I know now what sardines feel like!

I learned well from that experience: don't go in the middle of the day. Two years later, I left early for the temple fair at Da Guan Yuan, a smaller park in southwestern Beijing. This time the bus ride took an hour, instead of just a few minutes, but it got me there for the start of a very colorful parade with dragon dancers and musicians. Some even rode toy ponies like children ride.

After the parade, I entered the park. It was still early, so crowds were minimal. I enjoyed watching people play games, the entertainment which included singers, and, most amazing, men wearing high stilts doing somersaults, always managing to land upright on the stilts. Talk about coordination! I marveled at the delicious looking snacks for sale, but the crowds were starting to swell, and I wanted more than snacks to eat, so I left, and had lunch at a noodle stand just outside the park walls.

I also made a few trips to Beijing Zhan (train station) to photograph the crowds coming and going. It's very hard to get train tickets during this time, so when a co-worker and I made a day trip to Tianjin that week, we took a bus. Firecrackers and fire works weren't allowed in Beijing, but they were in Tianjin, on the coast, and the streets were littered with red paper remnants. We walked through the shops on Ancient Culture Street, buying some tiny souvenirs. We met a man from Hong Kong who, like us, was working in Beijing. The three of us had lunch at a dumpling restaurant, and then caught the train back to Beijing. Because everyone had already arrived at their destination, few people were traveling that day, and we had the car to ourselves.