Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wayne’s First Kiss (Hong Kong Oct 19-24/09)

For Wayne, Hong Kong is like that first kiss, or staring down that bully in grade 1. It’s filled with romance and larger than life dreams that have been upsized with each telling.

He didn’t tell you that it took 25 hours to get there from Huangshan, involving a taxi, two buses and two trains and a subway, and a frustrating border crossing, did he? Nor did he tell you about Chinese trains, right?

We railed it down most of the way in soft sleeper class. That’s Chinese speak for first class, tho officially this is a classless society. The mattresses are a little thicker, and there’s a door for the four bed/2 bunks in a tiny compartment. We’d done the hard sleeper earlier, which was downright proletarian compared to the softie as it’s three walls, 2 rows of triple bunks, and doorless, so prying eyes and wanderers get to peer into each other’s warren. The thing about trains is that they are such a microcosm of China. You’re not supposed to smoke, but people do in the aisles, especially the crew. Everybody brings instant noodles and seeds. They compartent jump, and there’s a different sense of space, and privacy is a very different concept. Wayne say’s it’s like growing up an only child in a mansion then getting adopted into a family of 13 in a two room, smoke infested basement. So on a train, lower berths are communal, whether it’s your compartment, class or not.

Anyway, Wayne loves riding the rails whereas, I can’t sleep on them and I arrive exhausted. So it took me days in Hong Kong to recover, and by then it was end game time. So yes Wayne will return to HK because he absolutely loves the mood, the vibe, the energy, the people watching, and he feels a sense of familiarity and home there. But it's not my first kiss, and I never had to face down that bully.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Hong Kong. We did some really cool things, like hiked around one of the many sub-tropical islands Lama, in order to treat ourselves to a fresh seafood lunch at the end. We enjoyed the $2 ferry ride from Kowloon (mainland) across the harbour to HK Island and the stellar view from Victoria Peak down onto the phalanx of skyscrapers . And ooo the markets, in HK there is a market for everything: birds, fish, flowers, jade, sporting goods, electronics, and action figures. But to really get HK, one must look beyond the giant Buddha, and the shopping meccas. Tho it is a city that seems to exists for no apparent purpose other than to shop and make money, it's the vibe, the energy as Wayne maintains. Even from atop Victoria Peak, one could literally hear a constant hum (not to mention the construction), as if the pulse of the city were collectively hitting cash registers and ATM buttons.

I must admit its not my fav Chinese city, though it is an oasis from all that’s challenging about China. And spending two of my favorite evenings in Asia thus far, with Annie and Max will always, always rank up there. They’re wonderful insiders to HK. They live (in a deluxe but dear apt) and work (in English) on the Island along with most westerners. I’d seen more white faces there on a Friday night strip of bars and restaurants, than I had in all of China put together.

Favorite Food:

Tough call, do Strawberry martinis at the Nepalese restaurant-Annapurna count? The shark fin dumpling soup at dim sum was sublime, the Taiwanese street noodles with baby oysters, real crab (we waved off the pig intestines) were yummy. But Wayne’s vote is the deep fried and breaded squid off the Temple St market. In the shadow of the brothels and massage parlours, this street eatery screams out jumble hand sanitzer. But the squid was cooked to perfection and melted in Wayne’s mouth.

Favorite bad translation:

“Garish” for your noodles

By the numbers: Hong Kong’s GDP is 14th in the world, Canada is 22, China 133

Next: cross border into Shenzhen, fly to Guilin where we overnite, then onto the karst limestone peaks and landscapes of Yangshuo

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Secret Mission to Hong Kong, Oct 19-24, 2009

Objective: Ascertain viability of long term living in HK

Risks: Pollution, poverty, Trish killing me

The best way to see HK is either after or in between China. Having done this now twice, I (Wayne, here) am deluded with romantic notions of it. I crossed into it after the Tiananmen Sq massacre, and now after a month of second hand smoking, spitting and language challenges.

I also remember HK the way it was, before the Brits left. Temple St inspired my first published story. And even Temple St is now a disappointment, a gross tourist trap not worthy of the seedy aura it once held for locals and foreigners, I still love it all and hope to convince Trish to move here for a year or so. Why?

I love how Louis Vitton, and Dior snuggle up beside greasy chopstick diners, dried seafood stalls and knock off vendors.

I love how 5 star hotels look out into 20 story crumbling apartments and their laundry. Imagine Four Seasons-like hotels back home surrounded by Jane/Finch corridor or Caldwell like tenements (which would be mighty fine here) and you get a picture.

I love how beyond the columns of fantastical modern and decrepit skyscapes, are hundreds of island getaways, subtropical jungles and hills, and the most gentile villages, without the mass tour groups.
I love the irony, the contrast, the juxtaposition of east and west, rich and poor, indifference and conscience, and of past and future.

And I love how after a month in China, we haven't had to breath hardly any second hand smoke, dodge sharp spitting locals; and because of widespread English and my faiing Cantonese, have not had to think.

We hook up with Anne and Max. She's an Aussie we met along with her two wonderful mates in Turkey years back. They're doing the expat scene, living on the Island, killer hours, primo expensive digs. They're younger and more portable and I'm jealous. They're also wonderful hosts. They did offer to take us to the China Club where her company has a membership, a vestige of the colonial era. It was created because the Chinese were not allowed into the English Club. The irony is, now only white folk go to the China Club. I was kinda hoping to go, pick up a tray and some drink orders, do the odd bow--- for the hell of it, but they were packed. Anyway, even Anne and Max can't help me accomplish my mission.

Regrettably, Trish loves Edinburgh more. So for me to drag her to such heat, which in the summer feels like a heating vent for Hades, I'd need a serious paying job so she could be a kept women gingerly taking up caligraphy and sipping iced teas.

Mission status: abort

Turtles, Turtles, yeah, yeah, yeah!!

For those such as Carlee who've accused us of animal cruelty, I'd like you to think of this as a cross cultural exchange.

Wayne's done the guinea pig, snake eating thing in previous travels, this time he was determined to try turtle. Here you can buy turtles as big as fry pans on the street. In our favourite restaurant in Huangshan they come in burger sized, and whole. It's served shell up, head and appendages intact, and in a soup. Wayne recalls Campbells soup coming out with a turtle soup years ago, but he's old.

Anyway, the turtle came, Wayne had a few sips but it wasn't especially hot so Wayne called the waiter over, who proceeded to flip it over. She explained that that was where all the meat was. You should have seen Wayne's face. He sent it back anyway, figuring if he was going to eat it, it had to be piping hot.

When it returned it was piping hot. Wayne flipped it over. Through the cartilage, the organs and bits of fat, tiny slivers of soft meat could be found. The soup was more fish/crab-like than anything else. One doesn't need to order this a 2nd time.

And for the record, Wayne says it was oversalted.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Crouching Tiger, Burnt Monkey, Huangshan Oct 14-18 

Stayed at the Old Street Youth Hostel in the old town. Located on the narrow, stone pedestrian tourist street, it's lined with shops and stalls built to the old Huizhou ways. Every region so far has unique architectural elements. This area also has some of the best tea anywhere. We sampled lots and bought the most incredible green tea.

Huangshan is an area long venerated for its otherworldy and romantic mountain, as well as surrounding UNESCO 1000 yr old villages Hongcun et al, and the bamboo forest in Mukeng.

If God rested on the 7th day, he would have whittled away on this granite form, Huangshan (mountain) carved out 40 fantastic granite peaks with whimsical names such as Beginning to Believe Peak, Double Cats catching Mice, Purple Cloud, and Mobile Phone Peak (really). He then would have thrown in rippling brooks, inserted pine trees into the most obscure crevices and cracks and made them grown into impossible places, and shapes.

Immortalized into the Chinese psyche for its beauty, it's recited in poems, paintings,'s likely one of the country's biggest and most expensive draws. It truly, truly is awe-inspiring and it's no wonder the Chinese see this as the epitome of romance and contemplation. Tho they don't contemplate here. They make like Tarzans, yelling, in their group herds. Each group has different coloured hats, and follow their megaphoned leader like mice to the cheese. They then dutifully and cheerily line up to take the same shot with the "welcoming pine tree" etc.

Many spend the night up in the mtn in price-gouging, often ratty hotels. For the locals, to witness at dawn, the ghostly mist threading through the peaks, is equivalent to a pilgrimage to Mecca, paying off your 60inch big screen, and shooting a hole in one--all in one go. We escaped these romantics and marched into the solitary and rugged north west Xihai canyon, and found the aching beauty the Chinese love to romanticize about, but won't tread to. We can see why, its serious and painful work (Andre you'd have sprinted through it).

The bamboo forests at Mukeng are hardly a draw at all. Guess it would be like creating an attraction back home about pine forests. But imagine walking through a forest completely surrounded by just towering far as the eye can see in either direction. You scamper over bamboo steps, you lean over the bamboo fencing (which stop the newly cut trees from shooting all the way down the hillside). The farmers hack the trees down with small handtools, then stack them like hockey sticks. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was partially filmed here, and this was for us a wonderous escape. In fact seeing green and rural China have been oases from the big city smog and pace. Mind you, we've yet to see the type of blue sky we're used to. We imagine we'll have to go inland, away from the industrial belt to really breathe fresh air.

The village of Hongcun is a massive tourist draw. Again it holds a romantic ideal of a simpler, uncomplicated life for the locals as well as for foreigners. Perhaps we're villaged out, but we felt the water towns were more interesting. Disappointment here, especially considering the expense and time to traverse here. We seem to be the only non-locals riding the buses, others in the hostel hire out cabs and join tours.

We couldn't get a timely outbound train and a soft sleeper for our 19hr journey to the border by Hong Kong. So we've been chillin', killing time, reading in the old town and getting massages. Speaking of which, we've hit them in every stop but Beijing. They are legit massage places, well at least we weren't offered nor asked for anything extra. We did hear of a Barcelona woman who was groped at the Best Western spa. Armed with this knowledge, we learned the word 'prohibited' in Chinese, which when Trish pronounces it, sounds like ginger.

The Yin Yang cafe with free internet, expensive coffee and doughy pizza has also sustained us. Must mention massive restaurant across street from hostel. Usually when Chinese restaurants back home and here want to look upscale, they go for size, throw in stone/marble floors, the ususal grotty loos, and professional looking hosts. But here, its done over in traditonal Huizhou dark wood furniture and latticed windows, stone lions, fish pond, massive steel door with dragon knockers. The staff and hosts wear different uniforms everynite, often period costumes. The budget menu is self serve and is snack and dumpling, and wokpot oriented, but you check off what you want over the kitchen counter and it's cooked made to order. Trish got a nasty nasty burn handling the table wok. Can you guess who does the cooking home and abroad? Poor monkey. For days I mustered up the courage for fresh turtle soup--cooked and served whole, for $2.45 Cdn (most dinners were anywhere from $4.50 to our splurge at $11.50. Anyway, this restaurant is worth visiting again and again, and so we have.

Favorite food: the chive, pork rice steamed in a bamboo cup, made at the above restuarant.

Favorite bad translation: "No louding"

Favorite delicious irony: The word for modem? Mao.

Next: Hong Kong

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreams of Glory and Family Discovery

Wayne here.
Had a strange dream the other night. The principal dancer at a major dance company took ill and the rest of the cast and crew beckoned me to step in and take over. I stated that I had no real (or imaginary) skill at this, but they insisted.
Then I woke up, not realizing the significance of it. Until last night.

We went to an acrobatic show. Turned out they added a modern twist. Western-style moves and grooves. It's kind of like going to a dumpling vendor and he offers you a pizza. Anyway the acrobatic piece and traditional Chinese opera was at times brilliant, but the modern pieces lacked the expected discipline, tightness and synchronicity of the acrobatics. It was so lame it was funny, watching the amateur choreography stumble all over the place.

Think we will stick with dumplings next time.

Just a final note about Suzhou. We went digging through some family records at the Chinese Sex Museum in Tongli, and found some familial artifacts that show a clear link to me (Wayne). Enclosed picture is self-evident.

Just got foot massages today as we prep to hit the road via overnite HARDsleeper train to Huangshan. Goodbyes to waterworld.

Favorite meal-- not many, perhaps the tiny meat filled mooncakes and boat shaped wonton at Pin Von, a 130 yr old canal side snack shop laden with dark wooden furniture and latticed windows overlooking the water.

Favorite bad translation-- slip carefully

Pet peeve--tourists (foreign) who don't haggle but abuse and act rudely to vendors making dollars a day

Won't miss---the sterility of this western bubble we stayed at tho enjoyed the computer and amenities

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ghost-girl takes on watertowns

Suzhou (6mill), just west of Shanghai, is one of those legendary cities with 2500yrs of history. It was said that in heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Suzhou and Huangzhou. Even Marco Polo said it was the most beautiful city in China, with its tree lined canals, fantastic gardens, silk and art epicentres, and trading hub. Well, none of the above have seen the post Stalinist/Mao influences since. It has much of the pollution and noise and congestion and smog and concrete blockitecture typical of Chinese cities. Some of the canals and alleyways reek of charm, but these are few and far in between. And only a few of the hundreds of gardens of yesteryear, tho they are utterly breathtaking.

Anyway, we're doing a homestay here. If you're thinking we have a small room in a family home with an outhouse, handdrawn well water, chickens in the yard and adorable, wrinkly faced granny...forget it.

We're 14 floors up in a western, expat enclave of luxury hotel apartments. Interesting carpentry note for you Andre and Stan, whether its the 5 star hotels or our spacious deluxe condo----the lack of craftsmanship is appalling. The abundance and use of top notch materials----interesting rocks of all kind, exotic woods, metal and glass, is wasted with shoddy workmanship. The Chinese and their facades, eh?

If you've ever wondered where cushy westerners live in foreign places, well we found it. Bubbles. Surrounded by guards, sterile highrises, Starbucks and Tex Mex. And not far behind, are the columns of locals who have escaped the has beens and are on the escalator up. Behind them, as far as one can see...industrial, soulless wastelands. Were staying with a local Suzhouness, Sally (they all seem to have western names, we suspect a status thing) who is married to an Austrian (currently in wicked Bangkok). Shes 34, and part of a generation who have done well economically, yet is quietly critcal of the government.....something she would never articulate publicly.

She runs an accupunture and massage clinic (great hands--10bucks).
speaks perfect Eng, tho she starts and ends every sentence by singing the last syllable, and jumps around her sizeable apt. You'd swear she was 8.

Anyway, this is a much needed pitstop, fajitas or not. But to be honest, the odd bit of western food has been nice. We`re trying to chill and pace ourselves. For a month we've been going out exploring everyday. Not to complain. Each and everyday has been crammed with wonders and adventures big and small. Whether its streetscapes that haven't changed much in a 1000yrs, or the subtle beauty of a pavilion surrounded by rockscapes and water, or a kamikaze cabbie impersonating an F1 driver.

We checked out Suzhou Museum (designed by a local lad, same dude who did the pyramid of the Louvre...I.M Pei). Stunning in its simplicity, the sleek geometric shapes and angles, the gray rock and white washed walls that honor the unique Suzhou heritage and highlight the small but cherished collection of silks, bronzes, sculptures and Ming and Qing artifacts. And what they did manage to salvage and restore after the maddening cultural revolution is a tribute the greatness that was Suzhou. The gardens are a harmonious interplay of naturally eroded limestone, water and fish, and flora and fauna, within historical temples or residences of the elite. They all competed with one another in a Yin and Yang keeping up with the Joneses kind of way.

We've been riding public buses to the local villages. What they mean by villages are smaller cities on the fringes of suburban and industrial sprawl. ( We are really looking forward to rural China). Anyway Suzhou is surrounded by UNESCO sites---water towns....villages with canals for streets kinda thing. Many have changed little over the centuries but for the souvenir shops and endless electric bikes (real bikes are so Mao). The electric jobs are scary. Fast and silent...when they brake (this is a good time to laugh) the shoddy plastic parts vibrate, emitting a high pitched banshee cry.

The villages are indeed charming, and welcome relief from the big city. Tongli for example contains several wealthy restored Qing style mansions replete with antiques, rock gardens and well stocked ponds. Now it is simple lives, not unlike the hutongs in Beijing, but a distinct Suzhou architecture of narrow alleyways, grey tiled roofs, white washed walls over long rectangular bricks, stone footbridges over avenues of water. Whats really big in the watertown of Luzhe, are the costume shops. Many young women come to rent wedding dresses, Ming Dynasty costumes and the like, and have their pix taken. Most of them work in the nearby industrial parks. Most of the time I am the only white person or ghost as they call me. Many other ghosts get stopped to have their pix taken, but they don't have a soy boy toy escort, so I am usually left alone. But in the watertowns, several smiling giggling young women with cameras were left appreciative of a pasty white, Yorkshire pudding visage.

Wayne experiences a different sort of celebrity, because he is Chinese they expect him to speak mandarin and when he cannot communicate effectively with them, they scold him like a moron. Despite our lack of language and huge regional variations in Mandarin, Wayne has done wonders getting us what we need and where we need to go.

Friday, October 9, 2009


We check into the Asset Hotel, a unremarkable but clean 2 or 3 star job, and are happy with the extra space and anonymity, and promise we will do nothing in Shanghai...Yea, right.

Wicked Shanghai it ain't. More like Blade Runner takes Asia. The contrast in the poor and the glitter is jaw dropping. We do our rounds of 5 star hotel washrooms, some of which are still smoke and toilet paper-free, and recall how 20 years ago Chinese weren't allowed into foreigner hotels. Now they own and stay in them.
We take in 2 Chinese movies on huge screens (the Message, and Wheat---the former is fabulous). The act of not walking or talking is wondrous. The theatres offer multi-coloured popcorn, grilled chicken breast, lasagna, Haagen Dasz and sparkling seats and service. We think of staying longer in Shanghai but are pretty sure we can't handle the propaganda movies.

We discover Taikang Rd, an artist colony in an area of old tenement houses cloistered around narrow alleyways and passages which used to house revolutionaries and the working masses. Now pocket-sized cafes, working studios, locals fill these haunts. Trish buys a stone necklace for $16, I get off easy.
We find our burger. It is from heaven. The California-based owner Dennis and his local wife Mei, tell us he imports all the ingredients from NY. He decries the work ethic of the Chinese. Yes the plebs who are working hard to survive, work hard. All others are indifferent. For example, nobody strays from doing more than they have to or want to do. The lowest ranked, least paid bureaucrat is the one who most likely can, and will screw you. He is a wealth of hospitality and information as he steers us up to the bar in the New Hyatt Hotel. Its glass and steel lobby is the size of an aircraft hangar. The 34th floor Vue Bar overlooks the maw of the Huangpu River, with the space-age Pudong district to our left, and the Bund to our right. The bar has a small outdoor jacczzi on the rooftop and swim wear is listed on the drink menu for purchase. We're not ones seduced by lights and glamour, and still prefer the narrow cobblestoned alleyways of old China. But this is hypnotic. There must be 20 buildings higher, much much higher than ours, many with whole sides of their buildings lit up like video screens. Our martinis cost more than our dinner, but that is the price of the view.

On our last full day we struggle our way through the crowds at the Shanghai Museum. Like the Beijing Capital Museum, and the Suzhou Museum, they are ultra modern. Combining elegant and clean glass, rock and steel forms, they wouldn't look out of place anywhere in western capitals. But these are shaped like historical objects, in this case a drinking vessel. The bronze and coin collections are superb...deftly arranged and lit.

Everybody had said Shanghai was a place to miss, that it is like any other western city in many respects. We don't agree, but we don't lament leaving after 4 nights. Much of it is under construction as it awaits EXPO 2010.

Best meal...the cheeseburger topped with spicy mayo, bacon and fried onion strips.

Next stop...the 2500 yr old city of Suzhou.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Free iPhones at the Forbidden City

We discovered a delicious steamed bun paradise on the way to the Summer Palace but we are in need of some western food...never thought we'd say this. These five bite buns of joy were named after a general who used them as heads in order to disguise his army size. Whatever, they've ruined any future bun eating.

The Summer Palace is the 2nd most visited site here. Made for heavenly emperors to escape the heat, its 4x the size of the Forbidden City and is an impressive spread of temples, villas, landscaping, water, and opulence.The last Empress Dowager splurged on this when it was supposed to go to a modern navy. She did however, build a marble boat for her pleasure.

It's the National Holiday period and Oct 1 is THE special day of celebration--the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. An exit strategy for Beijing has been a struggle. All trains booked. Oh well, this is what improvising is all about.

Even in Canada, Chinatowns never shut down. Incredibly, many businesses here are closed. Lazy buggers!! The exception is our hutong area. It's as if our village enclave is secluded not only from the noise of the city, but its dictates, and modernity. As we walk around the hutongs and the main roads, all tvs are on the parade. Joyful revolutionaries songs blast away. They all sound like Auld Lang Syne until another verse of how great the wonderful Peoples' Republic breaks in.

Though its' taking place at Tiananmen Sq where Mao regularly gave speeches to 1mill comrades, the parade is open only to good commies. Common folk do get to see the overhead jets and tanks rumbling through the streets. The government never misses an op to flex its intimidation and saturate the plebs and foreigners with propaganda. Must confess, even on tv its impressive--the 200,000 performers, the light show, the fireworks, the parading----way more over the top than the Olympics.

Trish takes her first day off in 3 weeks, I rent a bike. On this holiday, traffic is sparse and being on a bike is absolutely brilliant on the wide, empty roads.

On our last day, we and along with half of China are lined up to get into the Forbidden City. We have to remind ourselves the pushing, the shoving, the free for alls, the apparent discourteousness is anything but. At one of the temples, masses of people press into the barrier to get the shot of the Empresses' throne. It is a pick-pocketers' delight as bodies are locked together, arms with digicams held high, shouts and hollers. Free iPhones couldn't render such bedlam. I'm more interested in pix of the locals. I'm awed by the normality of the chaos and also love how they typically pose as if they are facing a firing squad, or are doing a GQ or Vanity Fair shoot.

We say our goodbyes to Bobby, and our dear Kamloops boys Frank and Darcy, who we know we will see again. We head to Shanghai, the largest and most western city in China.
A burger would be real nice.

Still looking for our travel legs. Must learn to pace ourselves, be wary of touts and scams who sense when we are tired and pounce on us with can't miss offers.

Best Beijing eats?: Not the Beijing duck surprisingly (had better with Mary Gallagher in Toronto)
The sweetest little snowpeas south of heaven, the perfect broccoli heads in garlic sauce--all local fare for pennies.

(Sorry we missed Don's, Behrokh's and brother Ed's birthdays)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Michael Jackson does the Great Wall

There's likely few people who couldn't identify the Great Wall. The long, meandering battlement snaking in and around rugged hills, the myth of it's visibility from space, images of Mongol invaders scaling it's precipice. Nice images. But rather unreal.

Most people go to sections of the wall that are completely restored and polished, and inundated with aggressive hawkers, touts, cheap souvenir stands, endless tour buses. There is no serenity or peacefulness there.

So we, along with Herbert and Marta, 2 wonderful Germans, hire a guide to take us to Jiangkou.... a bit further out, and a whole lot more authentic. Its an area closed off to the the masses, so no throngs, and no chotchca vendors. Here the wall is real and wild. The crumbling bricks compete for space with overgrown bush and weeds. There are more salamandars than people. It is wild and far more entrancing than the gringo route, as it shoots off into the hills, often forcing us to scamper up 70 degrees of forested and rubbled trail.

Our guide has a music phone that he can't put down. With every Chinese popster that he sings along to, he is befuddled that we can't recognize them. Then Michael Jackson comes on and he jumps onto a watchtower with a vertigo drop that would kill an elephant, and he feigns a moon walk. Occasionally he lets off a Tarzan yell and awaits a reply from competing guides. He is from a poor province to the south. Twenty nine years old, he tells us how lucky his 23yr old girlfriend is. He speaks English (not well), has his own biz--his own travel company of 6 years employing 5 others, and he flexes his biceps. He is a rare Chinese man who doesn't smoke.

The weather has cooperated. It has been the only smogless, cloudless day so far and easily our best day. We gaze off into the endless winding wall studded with watchtowers, and realize how rare it is to be so secluded, and alone with such a significant piece of history.

Beijing Then and Now

Wayne here. Twenty years ago when I was here in Beijing, the country was in the midst of social and political upheavel. It culminated in the Tiananmen Sq masacre which today isn't discussed, nor taught, nor acknowledged. You have to be at least in your mid thirties for it to register. For these locals, it appears to be a sad chapter, but they've moved on.

Now it's about racing to be like the west. It's about making money. No secret here. Unless you talk to a Communist cadre.
I'm surprised how open the English speaking locals are. Things are so different.
Far less spitting, far less smoking (tho still a problem if eating in public places), more posh, more modern, more cars (By the way, contrary to what one might expect of a sea of Chinese drivers, they are no more kamikaze than in other developing countries)。 Also helps that I'm not staying in $5 dives.

Beijing is so huge. The greater area is the size of Belgium. Two blocks on a map is 2 km. I've taken more public transpo in the last few weeks than in the last 20 yrs combined. Trish says the ever efficient subway which offers videos and electronic maps, sardine you more than when she was in New York for 5 years. We are exhausted from walking. Our feet ache. Quads and calves are guitar strings, and a decent cup of coffee can be found, but of course its a trek.

Must also say, after European/UK beers, its pee-water here, even the Tsingtao which is a German recipe.

Trish has done well. Her health and stamina are mostly holding up. She is a joy to travel with. Her enthusiasm is a propellant. The silk dress she scored likely had an elixir effect. It's shopping heaven. High end, knock offs, silks, electronics, antique reprods,... whatever. If we didn't have another 30 stops, we'd load up.

We're staying a traditional hutong setting. The Mongols laid out a system of narrow winding alleyways and warrens fronted by high walls, massive doors to courtyards of the nobility, storefronts, and homes to the common folk. In Canada we'd call these dark ghettos. Most of these have been bulldozed for soulless apartment blocks and neon shopping. But its a slice of life that's as honest as Atlantic Canadian hospitality and as real and unpretentious as your grandma's chicken soup.

Old men huddle around Chinese chess boards, laundry hangs out, one room businesses double as homes, public phone businesses serve whole segments of the community and smiles come honestly.
It's gritty and grimy compared to the space-age looking new hotels, and most westerners wouldn't feel very comfortable here. But we've survived the street eats and the road anarchy of the bikes zipping in and out.

Within this locality of Beijing,we are staying in a traditional courtyard-style residence。 Seven rooms huddled around a courtyard, each with a high back wall to the rest of the 'village'.

Bill (not real name) is our host/owner.He is originally from 5 hours south and though he has rarely returned to his ancestral home, he is treated like royalty when he does. He also lived in Sydney for 2 years and is as easy going and non-chalant as they come, and refreshingly honest about life. I told him he's a bad commie but a good man. Like others, he will show surprising candour and express fear and respect of the government. One night we joined him and his staff (teen girls from further south as well) in dumpling making (yes Trish got in on it, too), then we danced (yes I really did ) and he flung open the 'bar' and we sucked back brews and the local screech, aka 'Mongolian King', more like fermented hockey equipment. Joining us were the Kamloops odd couple--Frank,a Spanish Canadian full of spontaneous with and humour, and his bud Darcy, who resembles a Nam vet with a few pieces of lead still in him. New top mates we now have.

Among our top 5 to see was the Temple of Heaven--where the Son of Heaven, aka Emperor would pray for rain, a son, a flaming hot new concubine----whatever. It's richly restored and splendid in its celestial colouring of blue and gold.

For Wayne Ng's latest travel adventures and book " Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu ," please go to his website and blog at...