Wednesday, August 22, 2018

China - Beijing, last in a series

China – Beijing, last in a series by DreamFinder Travel agent Kim Merrill

I’m going to summarize the rest of our visit to Beijing for a few reasons.  One is because the bulk of what we did here was straight tourism (and the point of this blog series was to report on taking the trip as a cultural exchange trip), and the second is that I didn’t have the down time that I had in Guangzhou and so it didn’t get written day by day.

We essentially had another two and a half days of tourism, which was enjoyable.  Please take note the air quality of the following pictures here—Clear blue skies? Yes!  That was a direct effect of the snow a few days prior! We were so fortunate to have the clarity.

After settling into the hotel in Beijing, and having a good night’s sleep, we headed off to see the Tiananmen Square area.  My first impression was shear awe.  If you are reading this and are of a certain age or older, this likely holds a particular scene in your mind.  The funny thing was that the kids had NO idea what the significance was here.  None.  Nor was there anything that we could relate it to for them.  From a sociological standpoint,  our guides said not one word of what happened here in 1989.  In retrospect, it is very possible that neither may have been born (one definitely not and the other is far too young for it to have had an impact).  In addition to that the denial there of what actually happened, or the history re-writes and who knows what they actually were educated about. But enough about that and on to the rest of our day!

Our walk continued thru the Forbidden City, and finished after the Palace of Heaven.  Any Disney fans reading this?  This might look a bit familiar to you:

We had time to walk around and see the detail, and ended up finding a group of junior high students from San Francisco.  Their teachers had the opportunity to teach a class here and the kids did an in-home-stay.  Such a wonderful opportunity for everyone!

The following day was the one that I had been looking forward to most, and waiting for since finding out about the trip (and it was the entire reason that I wanted to chaperone this trip.)  We were headed to the Great Wall of China!  It was hard to contain my excitement.

There are a few different areas of the wall that are within a short drive from the Beijing area and that are tourist-friendly.  The one we went to was apparently the most “easily accessed” and had areas that could be walked by all types of people.   The long and short of this is that the entire area had been developed to accommodate the hoards of tourists that showed up every day.  Please note that we are not talking Western tourists, most of these tourists are more local, from one of the other regions in China, more rural in nature.    We arrived to find a version of a strip-mall, with various shops, a Subway restaurant, and bathrooms in multiple locations (both with and without seated options).  I was not expecting that.

Here at the Wall, there was a central square and two hiking options.  The first was shorter and steeper, and the other was longer and less steep.  My daughter, after the obligatory selfies on the wall, literally RAN up the wall with some friends.  I took it a bit slower with some of the other kids and made it all the way up one side and about 1/3 of the way up the less steep side.  I stopped the second half of the way because of the crowds.  I’m not kidding when I say that they brought picnic lunches and were making a day out of their journey.

Not surprisingly, there were shopping opportunities and my daughter came away with a sweatshirt that she inadvertently bargained for.  We made some great memories together here, and it is something I’m sure these kids will never forget.

The blossoms were in full bloom and the colors were gorgeous:
Our last day in China consisted of a visit to the Summer Palace prior to heading to the airport.  This is where the famous “Dragon Lady” or “Dowager Empress” (the mother of the famed Last Emperor) spent her time.  It was gorgeous and absolutely enormous.  I wondered, knowing that this was during the time when women bound their feet, what the point was making the palace so large.  There is no way that they could have walked it on their own, surely they had to be carried?

 Unfortunately in these pictures below you can see that the air quality was declining as we were about to leave.
The flight home was tolerable.  Unfortunately the food on the plane was awful and I was very tired of being in the back of the plane (we were at the mercy of the seat assignments at the airport, one of the downfalls of not having been in control of the travel booking personally as the travel agent).  That being said, I still had a great time and I would absolutely go to China again.  I now have a visa that is good for another 9 and a half years, and didn’t even go to Shanghai or Hong Kong.  If/when I return, I don’t plan on doing this on my own without a guide.  One of the disconcerting things I noticed on this trip was that there was no English in the airport.  Were it not for the guide or one of the parents that could read Chinese, I think it would have been far more frustrating to get from point A to point B for me.  I’m figuring my next visit will be via cruise ship and guided excursions.  I do know people who have gone to China and worked there successfully, but I’m not sure that I would ever be comfortable with that sort of independence.

In summary, this was an amazing opportunity that I never saw myself embarking on.  I enjoyed stepping outside of my comfort zone, and, as with any historical sight I have ever visited, I loved seeing things that I have only learned about in history books.  It was enlightening to become part of the tourist attraction.  In our country, it’s not common to look upon others as so “different” that they become a distraction.  It was very odd to be the one on that receiving end here. Lastly, these were precious memories I was able to have with my daughter.  Those 18 summers that we get with our children go by so quickly that you need to take every moment available to you.  This was one of those great moments that I will always cherish.  I am very thankful for the opportunity to have experienced this cultural exchange.  If you get the opportunity to do one with your child, take it—you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

China - on to Beijing today

China – on to Beijing (continuation of a series by DreamFinder Travel agent Kim Merrill)

Today we are off to Beijing.  Since we had a fairly early wake up call, our group was able to have a Tai Chi lesson from a master instructor prior to heading to the airport.  We all headed to the tennis court area at the hotel so that we could start with some stretching before trying to absorb the lesson.

Our instructor was young….maybe late 20’s/early 30’s.  It was funny to watch a group of swimmers trying to stretch out.  They were quiet and respectful as they attempted to perform the same movements that the instructor was doing.  Most of them, while awesome swimmers, pretty much failed in the flexibility category.  Regardless of the form, the stretching felt good after days of walking, my calves were sore from all the walking we had been doing.

The lesson proved to be a challenge.  Our guide was translating the master’s instructions, and it was a bit difficult to understand whether we were mirroring the movements or doing them on the same side he was (but looking opposite).  Either way, this form of Kung Fu (it’s a subset, apparently) is an art form to master.  I could follow along, but there was no way I could remember it when we were asked to do it on our own.  When the master demonstrated for us at the end, it was interesting to see some of the mixed martial arts incorporated to the movements he was performing.  It made this more obvious as to why it is classified as part of the Kung Fu family.

After finishing up the Tai Chi, and checking out of the hotel, we headed to the airport to catch our flight.  The flight to Beijing was just under 3 hours and quite frankly, it was mostly awful, and I will just leave it at that.  We deplaned and retrieved our bags and met our Beijing host, her name was Yo-yo and she was very sweet.  We had a bit of a shock in terms of weather—when we left Guangzhou it was 70+ degrees, and upon landing in Beijing—40ish degrees with a strong wind!  Quite a change, and we ended up having to bundle up to stay warm.

Our bus headed out and we went by the Olympic stadium to check out the structures there.  The Bird’s nest is absolutely beautiful.  She told us about the symbolism of the reason this was designed and built, and the summary is that it represents family and a “coming together”.  The Blue Cube was right behind it, but we didn’t get to go in.  It would have been awesome for the group of swimmers to be able to do so, but this has been changed into a community-accessible center.  We got all our obligatory pictures and left to head to our “Peking Duck” themed dinner. 

By this point most of us were tiring of Chinese food.  We had so far had a few items to eat that had been duck dishes, but not had a duck carved tableside as of yet.  Our experience so far with the duck dishes we had consisted of nugget-like pieces that had bones still in them (as if the entire bird was chopped up), not exactly pleasant. Tonight, the chef brought the duck into the room and carved it up by the table.  They served it with mu-shu pancakes and the sauce that goes with it.  I enjoyed it with the pancakes, but not on its own—I found it dry and gamey.

After dinner we headed to our hotel, which was also a Marriott property (under the Renaissance label).  It is considered the same hotel category as the previous hotel, but it is not as nice, and the beds feel like bricks.  The kids have been assigned new roommates but thankfully not the adults, which is a good thing as my roommate and I are compatible and able to both shower and get ready without issue (pretty important when sharing a room!)  The kids at this point have started to form some cliques, so it is nice to shake things up a bit to remind them that they are ALL here TOGETHER. 

More on Beijing tomorrow—for now I’m off to bed! 

Monday, August 13, 2018

China - last day in Guangzhou (4th in a series)

Today is a continuation in a series on cultural exchange travel to China by DreamFinder travel agent Kim Merrill

Last night was the first night I appear to have conquered my jet lag and slept all night without waking up.  We had a leisurely morning and didn’t have to queue up for the bus until 9:30 am. Today’s agenda had us picking up some of the swimmers from the Chinese team and touring local sites with them.

Our route today took us into the very modern city center.  We hadn’t been thru this particular area yet, so it was nice to see some different architecture.  The buildings were very ultra-modern and cutting edge in terms of design.  We saw the tallest structure in Guangzhou, coming in at a total height of 600 meters after including the obligatory spire that was 150 meters in height. Two other buildings (both finance centers) log in at the #8 and #24 tallest buildings in the world, with one of them apparently the most expensive ever built.  I’m trying to fact check that data, but while I was able to get the rankings, in trying to search more details, I’m no longer able to search.  Google is blocked here entirely (no gmail, people!) and apparently the one search I did on Bing was enough to shut that down too.  The cultural/governmental differences are quite evident.

Our destination was the Guangzhou Museum and the building was amazing, very cubic and angular.  We only had an hour here and had to power-walk to get in some of the exhibits.  We started on the 4th floor and worked our way down.   The exhibits covered provincial ancient life, wood carving (VERY elaborate), pottery from many eras (yes, we saw Ming Dynasty vases) and calligraphy (which we actually never found in spite of the signs).  I could have spent hours in there.

We headed to lunch at a restaurant that was located in a (mostly) pedestrian market area.  Lunch was served family-style and I ended up sitting next to a very pleasant young man who was very helpful with identifying foods.  His English was very good, and when we had a few glitches with communication, he had a handy-dandy app on his phone that would type out the intended word after he typed it in with the Chinese characters.  “Bread” was a word that was difficult for him to pronounce, but the app made it easy to understand.  We talked about the differences in meals between American families and Chinese families.  Both are family-style dining, but the “how” of it is a bit different.  They bring out a LOT of dishes..I was not able to ascertain how they determine the number that was selected.  It was entirely too much food for the people at our table and there were a lot of leftovers.  One thing I did notice….kids avoid some vegetables in all cultures.  Broccoli was well received.  Bok Choy, mushrooms, and eggplant?  Not so much.

After lunch, we all had time to walk the market.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am a very specific shopper and the idea of a crowded foreign street market with bartering is NOT my thing.  At all.  Having been to markets all over the world, today I was actually surprised that it was not as crowded as I thought it would be (La Rambla in Barcelona was much worse).  That being said, I followed my group around and avoided going into the shops as that was entirely too space-limited for me.  Had my new friends not wanted to go around and look, I would have headed to Starbucks and hid until we had to meet for the bus.  My daughter actually braved the crowds and bought a few items for her friends back home.  I noticed that there was a lot offered in the way of t-shirts with slogans in English (which I thought was strange as there were not any other visible Americans around).  These slogans made no sense, if they are funny the translation is lost.

Speaking of other Americans, while we were waiting for a bus to come get us from the market, there was a guy a wee bit too close for my comfort, so I turned around and smiled and said hello.  Turns out he was from Houston (ethnically speaking he did not stick out like we do) and he literally was wondering if he was missing something as our “crowd” was congregating.  We chatted a bit about the reasons why we each were here and he literally was here to sightsee (we have seen lots of tour groups).  It’s worthwhile to take in your surrounding and at least smile at people (more on this in a sec).

Five Rams Statue
We left and headed to the Five Rams statue in Yuexiu Park.  This statue is the emblem, if you will, of the city of Guangzhou.  Per our guide, the city had several disasters and the rams were built to “protect” the city and because of this the hardships abated and the city was once again prosperous (I may have butchered the legend, but you get the idea). After picture opportunities, during which WE became the sight to see (seriously, the Chinese tourists were taking pictures of US and trying to get into our pictures), we headed back to the hotel to rest and get ready for our dinner cruise on the river tonight.

Because my preparation will consist simply of putting on my dress and sandals, I headed to the lounge to have a glass of wine and write this blog.  Picking back up on the looking at your surroundings comment above, I noticed a couple at a nearby table doing a recording with a microphone.  The gentleman eventually walked by me and I asked if they were recording a podcast.  He was kind of surprised, but that was, in fact, what they were doing.  They were from the Congo and were here for his work (marketing) and she was a gospel singer.  He asked why I was here and as some of the swimmers were in the pool, he had seen some of why we were here already. You never know who you are going to meet, or their story, and I cannot emphasize enough to smile and say hello or wave. 

Tomorrow we are heading to Beijing.  Our tour guide is coming with us, which is wonderful.  He has gotten to know us and is very knowledgeable and easy to understand. The weather there is a LOT colder, more reminiscent of home (Washington).  The news this morning was of the SNOW they had in Beijing and the trade war.  Sigh.  It should not be snowing tomorrow but I will need to put on socks (I’ve been in shorts and flip flops since we arrived).

Stay tuned—more on Beijing to come!  Until then Huítóu jiàn (see you later)

Friday, August 10, 2018

China - part 3

My trip to China – part 3 by DreamFinder agent Kim Merrill

I decided to combine yesterday and today into one blog, as they were both very student-centric and I figured a summary of my observations would be a bit more interesting than a detailed account of the goings-on.  As I mentioned in the first installment of this, this trip is a cultural exchange and not something that I personally planned as a vacation.

Yesterday we were taken to a “middle school”.  These students were the equivalent of our high school students and we were told that the group we interacted with was part of their “international” program.  Some of those students have been to different places in the US and UK to practice their English skills.  One of the students translated a speech from one of the administrators with surprising ease and clarity.  It was interesting to see their textbooks too….Chemistry, Physics, and some math classes are taught in English, not Chinese. 

There was a gift exchange between the students and a talent show of sorts. They had one girl play piano, as did one of our girls, and what was fun was that our piano ambassador taught her to play Chopsticks (the duet version).  If music is universal, then so is dance, and as such the teenagers all had fun doing some current popular dances.  We got a tour of their school, it was older, built in the 1950’s after the revolution and it is currently under the process of renovation.

This leads me to an observation about the architecture in Guangzhou......there is a bunch of “mid-century” concrete institutional block structures intermingled with modern-day high-rises, an eclectic mix.  The streets we drove along are tree-lined and have flowers on overpasses….almost like ivy that clings to the side of a building, but horizontally-strung and currently blooming pink (quite beautiful to see).

I did have some interaction with the educators at the school on an adult level.  One teacher was actually bold enough to ask about the US political structure and beliefs.  Her phrasing was delicate and not at all to the point, but it was a clear message that she was curious.  She had finished her University studies in Scotland and commented to me (after I told her not to believe all that the media reports) that she had been brought up to “listen to her teachers” and didn’t realize until after University that perhaps they weren’t totally informed.  Another teacher asked one of the parents how US teachers dealt with discipline in their schools, as “it was a problem” here in China.  All very interesting conversations.

Lunch yesterday was “Hot-Pot” style.  If you are familiar with the sushi restaurants that have dishes go by on a conveyer belt, then you can picture what this was.  We had a pot of broth (one of 4 different flavors, I had “spicy and numb”) that sat on a hot plate and as you saw ingredients go by that you wanted to try, you put them in the broth.  It was a bunch of fun, but not as I remembered it from when I was a kid. Historically it was more of a family style experience, however they have Westernized this a bit for people that don’t want to share with strangers.

After the kids had their practice it was time for dinner.  We went to a Dim Sum restaurant and tried a bunch of different styles of Dim Sum.  Some were tasty, some were oddly textured.  Not much to add to that—just interesting…

Today we had a very busy morning.  We started off by visiting a kindergarten (ages 3-5).  This school, which is one of the best in the city, was AMAZING.  These kids were kept busy and had the opportunity to play, both outside and inside, incorporating skill development in their activities.  We got to play with them (it was great to see all the teenagers interact and have fun) and we all had little gifts for the kids.  They had made crafts for us as well.  Half of the group got crowns that were decorated and the other half had clay art to take home. 

Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in GuangzhouWe departed the school and went to visit the Dr. Sun Yat-sen memorial.  He is the Chinese equivalent of George Washington.  If you know anything about Chinese history and political structure, he formed the Nationalist Party.  This was the party that eventually retreated to Taiwan after the Revolution.  We were curious why the monument was here in Guangzhou and not in Beijing as one might expect.  It turns out that when he formed the party, Beijing was not the capital of China at that time and he lived in a palace of sorts in Guangzhou.  This monument is built on the site that the palace once stood.

I am happy to say that we had enough time to sneak in a trip to Shaimen Island.  This is a small shopping area on the waterfront.  We split up in groups and I followed about 6 kids around and thankfully they were more interested in walking than shopping (and bartering).  We wound up finding a group of locals dancing, and also a group of older people having a community sing-a-long (for lack of a better explanation).  The leader had a bunch of rolls of large song lyrics (in Chinese) on what were essentially long strips of papers and the violinist played along while he used a pointer to keep people on the beat of the music.

We headed back to the hotel to have lunch (Subway sandwiches, nice to not have Chinese food) and get ready for the swim meet.  Tomorrow we are back to more “tourist” like activities and I’ll deviate away from the cultural exchange portion of this.  I hope, however, that the exchange info was interesting to read.  All the kids AND the adults thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Interested in booking a trip ?  Contact Kim ( for more details.

Monday, August 6, 2018

My trip to China – Guangzhou day, second in a series by DreamFinder agent Kim Merrill

Twenty-seven hours after leaving the house we finally arrived in Guangzhou, China.  We had a non-stop flight to Beijing that lasted 11+ hours, followed by a 4-hour layover before our connection to the final destination.  Add to that a 40-minute drive to the city center to our hotel and needless to say, I was tired.

My thoughts on the flights:
  • ·       Leg one was on an Airbus A330-300.  I was stuck waaaaay in the back, and I was pleasantly surprised at the legroom and seat pitch.  The plane had a 2-4-2 set up and as I had an aisle seat it wasn’t too bad.  The food?  Notsogood.  The wine?  Well, the white was tolerable and the red tasted like Welch’s grape juice.  The movie selection was mediocre, making me glad I rented and downloaded a few movies before we left.  My daughter and I shared headphones and watched 2 movies back to back.  I also read 2 books!  (**tip….make sure when taking a long trip that you bring your own movies just in case!)
  • ·       Leg 2 was in the new DreamLifter, Boeing’s new 787-900.  I had yet to fly in one of these and while I found the takeoff and landing to be a bit noisy, the interim flight was pretty quiet.

 We are staying at The China Hotel, which is a Marriott Property.  It’s very nice and it has a wonderful mixed-culture breakfast buffet (as many American chains in Asia have).  While I am not gluten-intolerant, I really do not eat carbs, and I have found plenty to eat (so those who have gluten sensitivity you will be happy to know that there are options available).  Unfortunately while the food is good, the coffee left a lot to be desired (whew—crisis averted—thankfully there is a Starbucks in the hotel.)

After breakfast we headed out to the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall for our morning excursion.  This was originally built in the mid-1800’s and appears (based on the signage, in Chinese with pictures) to have been heavily restored.  The grounds were beautiful and there were several exhibits that showcased the local artisan crafts.   The kids got to participate in a few crafts and were thoroughly engaged. 

We got to visit a local “University” that houses/trains/teaches students in various sports.  It was shocking to see how little these kids were…..think 5 and 6 year old little gymnasts away from home.  While I understand that the culture here is totally different than in the US, I can’t imagine sending a kid that young away to a school.  The government here supports high-level sports and it is evident.  Kids spend a half-day training and half of the day learning. Unfortunately we were told that this regimen causes them issues later on as they are behind in studies as they can only learn for half their day.

Our kids were able to get in a quick workout (only about 90 minutes) that my daughter described as “the easiest workout I’ve had in ages” with the team at the school and it helped her to shake off some jet lag.  Tomorrow’s workout is supposed to be longer and hopefully a bit more of an intense workout. 

Image result for no chopsticks in rice imageLunch and dinner today were Cantonese-style meals served family style.  Our guides prepped us with cultural do’s and don’ts (do NOT stick chopsticks straight up in rice or point with them), and educated us on how to serve ourselves without double-dipping our chopsticks. Learning the culture is interesting and it is so helpful to have the guides to help us with that.  The food was amazing.  Green peppers are hotter than red, orange chicken is universal, and broccoli comes in a white variety (and no, it isn’t cauliflower!)

Items to note:
  •        Diet Coke or Coke Zero is impossible to find.
  •        Toilets here are ceramic holes in the ground.  For a girl that does NOT camp, this is probably the hardest thing for me. 
  •        Bathrooms are not stocked with toilet paper.  Apparently it is normal to travel with tissues and/or a roll of the hotel’s toilet paper (just sayin’) in your bag. (Christine….you were absolutely right)
  •        I have not yet had a personal space issue.  Guangzhou has 14 million residents with 100 million in the Guangdong Province.  I will revisit this later in another of the blogs.
  •        The air quality is abysmal.  The news reports on this are spot on.  (be prepared, take a mask)
  •        The people are friendly (except on airplanes….people seem to be rude on airplanes no matter where you are).
  •     They really DO look at us as a novelty.  Photos were being taken of US at the airport.   I felt like a celebrity! 

Up tomorrow is a visit to a local school and more training. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

China? Why yes please...(part 1)

First in a series of blogs by DreamFinder Travel agent Kim Merrill on heading to China:

My job as a travel agent, essentially, is to participate in planning other people’s vacations to the fullest extent they want me to participate.  I am, admittedly, a bit of a control freak when it comes to details, so when it comes to planning my own travels I have my own set of planning criteria, lists, and spreadsheets that usually materialize over the time from the beginning planning stages to booking the vacation, to traveling.

Today, I actually am embarking on a completely different kind of vacation….one that I had ZERO input on planning.  None. Zip.  Zilch. (YIKES!!) and I'm going to do a few blogs on it along the way.

My daughter was invited to participate in a cultural exchange trip to China last November as part of her high school swimming.  If any of you have read any of my previous blogs, you can figure that letting her go see new things without me wouldn’t go over so well.  So…….I volunteered to chaperone.  I wanted to experience China and this would be a good, comfortable way to do this (I think!!).

The group that organizes this exchange has been doing this for more than 20 years with multiple trips per year over a few different sports focuses.  They have this down-pat and have all the planning done.  They have guides that they have used for years on-site and have hour-by-hour itineraries ready to go.  My job?  To help corral kids and make sure that our part of the group gets to where they need to be when they need to be there. 

China VisaAs part of the pre-trip process, our Visas were obtained for us by one of the group leaders.  They physically took our passports to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to get our Visas put in our passports.  For me, this meant that I was without my passport for an entire month.  This DID cause quite a bit of anxiety for me as I’m usually the one collecting and holding on to everyone’s stuff. I am so glad that part is over!

So, we are at the airport now and getting ready to board our plane.  Our flight is non-stop to Beijing and then a connection to Guangzhou.  I’ll be posting as much as I can, but with the unknown internet situation and a 15 hour time difference, keep checking back for an update. -- Kim