Outlander, Oprah, and the Elusive Female Epic Hero

The mysterious stone circle, Claire’s call to adventure.

Like many who read (and loved) even just the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I’ll never forget when I first saw the TV promo advertising the recently-aired (and superbly rendered) half of the premier season on Starz.  It was one of those moments when I wasn’t really watching TV as much as looking at it; I think the sound was even off.  There they were, riding on horseback through the Scottish highland mist, Claire in front, with Jamie’s plaid-wrapped figure bolstering hers.  I credit much of the series’ excellence to the fact that I could tell just by looking at Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan that they WERE Claire and Jamie, with no prior knowledge that a show was in the works.   Anyway, this was all it took to rekindle my romance with Outlander, and why I’m  finding refuge from new episode withdrawal in re-reading the books I read –and starting the ones I didn’t– until the remainder of the first season airs in April of 2015. I’ve just finished the first book, having expected to enjoy it every bit as much as I did so many years ago, and it didn’t disappoint.  What I didn’t expect though was its newest revelation.

As a rule, I never re-read books I originally read for pleasure. As a high school literature teacher, I don’t have the time.  I’m usually reviewing whatever text I’m teaching, and let’s face it, most “pleasure” books don’t offer much depth; that’s partly why I read them.  So my tendency is to keep the reading I do to preserve my sanity, like Outlander, separate from the reading I do to prepare my lessons.  It just happens to be that time of year in my World Literature classes though, when the “In the beginning” of our creation stories segues into the ancient epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf.  Anyone who has ever taught these texts, or who was forced to study them under the auspices of a less than inspired teacher knows that they are not easy sells to students.  In the wrong hands, they can be dry, intimidating, and worst of all, wholly irrelevant–especially for girls.

Enter Oprah. One recent Sunday morning, when I was about halfway way through my re-discovery of Outlander, I turned on Oprah’s OWN network and sat in on a conversation between Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert (most famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love) on Super Soul Sunday.  Remarkably, the topic of legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey came up, as it does in my lessons, and they were lamenting that the questing literary epic hero is rarely a woman.  My first instinct was to disagree vehemently based on one female epic hero archetype I knew and loved, apart from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods of Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God.   I was taken aback because I knew Oprah loved her too,  having herself produced the TV movie based on the novel.  How, I thought, could Janie’s hero’s journey and subsequent status as an epic hero seemingly evade even Oprah?

Here’s a brief word from our sponsor for the Joseph Campbell monomyth uninitiated:  The hero, answering a call to adventure, embarks on a journey from the known to the unknown world, meeting (often supernatural) forces and mentors, and facing multiple challenges along the way.  Having faced and defeated myriad evil forces or dangerous obstacles, the hero ultimately makes a triumphant return, armed with a metaphorical elixir/ new sense of fulfillment.  Said journey is often physical/outward but it can be spiritual/inward as well.   Think The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which was directly inspired by Campbell’s monomyth.

Now, back to Janie. Didn’t her departure from the safety of Nanny’s bosom to marriage with Logan, her journey to Eatonville with Joe Starks, and ultimately to the Everglades with Teacake in search of (and finding) true love and God and herself count for anything?  Why, I thought, was Janie getting short shrift from two such brilliant women?  After all, if we didn’t recognize our own epic heroes, then who would?

My musings were peremptorily interrupted by THE commercial, and this time I was paying attention. There again emerged the onscreen Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser astride that horse.  In the novel’s context, I knew that this ride occurs just after she has been hurtled inexplicably back two-hundred years to 1743 from a peaceful post-WWII Scottish sojourn.  In her disoriented state, Claire has also managed to narrowly escape a rape attempt, and to MacGyver her way through doctoring Jamie Fraser, the first and most beloved of her many 18th Century patients.  I knew too that she would ride on from here to Castle Leoch to face the formidable Mackenzie brothers and the countless battles a modern woman must fight while trapped in the social mores of a distant past.  Traveling farther still, she would encounter and prevail against monsters of all kinds, some of them her own demons.  She would cross a border, meet a monastic mentor–and she’d get the guy to boot.  Suddenly Janie and Claire, united in symbolic name changes, yet separated by time, race, continents, and literary sub- genres, were starting to sound a lot alike, and certainly not unlike Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo.

I think perhaps Oprah’s Janie oversight, and my own failure to recognize Claire’s hero’s journey when Janie’s was so crystal clear says something about the way we read and interpret women characters. For the most part, no matter how progressive or how female we are, we’re not wired  to find the call to adventure and its subsequent quest in stories about women, so we often fail to see them when they’re there.  And viewed outside this primal and universal lens of human experience, which Campbell argued is open to anyone, regardless of gender, characters like Janie and Claire are reduced to the status of  fantastical, other-worldly  romantic heroines, rather than metaphorical blueprints for real women who long to go in search of their own bliss.

Watch Outlander, Episodes 1-8 here:

http://www.starz.com/originals/outlander

Watch Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert on Super Soul Sunday here:

http://www.oprah.com/video_embed.html?article_id=53660&width=574&height=321

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THIS SOJOURN: CHINA EDITION

 

Very old koi fish at Yu Gardens

 

The image of these koi fish continues to resonate with me as I reflect on our trip three years later.  Like this pond, China as a nation is huge, crowded, determined, busy, but her people are also kind, curious, friendly, and hospitable.  I wrote quite a bit here about the fact that we did indeed stick out in China, and  that that was a “fishbowl” experience that took getting used to, but we were never made to  feel ill-at-ease.  Most people acknowledged that we were unusual but not one person suggested that we were unwelcome.  We can only hope that our picture-posing diplomacy has left them with an equally positive impression of us.  

Visiting China was an incredibly edifying and wonderful experience that reinforces why we make travel such a priority. It is the ultimate course in the Humanities. Once you’ve been somewhere, and walked its streets, eaten its food, learned its history, culture, point of view, and smiled with its people and at their children, you are personally connected, and that place can no longer be exotic, foreign, nor reduced to a distorted sound byte on the evening news.

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: SHANGHAI IS FOR SHOPPING

Travel Dates: July 19 – 20, 2011

Shanghai’s Museum of Science and Technology has wonderful exhibits, but its real treasures are underground… . Image Source:http://www.shanghai.gov.cn/uploads/oldpic/objpic/00019643.jpg

 After diligently avoiding the relentless calls of the “watches, bags, shoes” solicitors on the streets, I decided that while I didn’t want to follow some greasy type down a back alley and end up like Carrie and Co. in Sex and The City 2, I most definitely was not going to leave one of the knock-off capitals of the world without some loot. Thanks to some searching on the www, I found out where the two best and biggest fake markets were, and off we went. The first one we were directed to was at 580 W. Nanjing Rd, which we eventually found after realizing that there was an East Nanjing Rd. It certainly didn’t help that we were looking for a 4-5 story building and both 580s matched that description. 580 East though was a legitimate dept. store, and I suspect we looked pretty shady, checking out their back entrances for hidden passageways. When we finally did get to the right place, there was no mistaking it; I picked up its scent the moment I saw happy women walking past in the opposite direction, laden with huge, black nondescript shopping bags.

The hilarity begins the moment you enter the market. First of all, there are prominent signs condemning the theft of intellectual property, and others citing a cease and desist order against selling the very names everyone’s there to buy: Gucci, Louis, Prada, etc. The whole cease and desist thing is easily dealt with in two ways: one, put a dead-ringer for a product on prominent display without identifying tags or labels, or sell the labeled stuff (especially the Guccis and Louis) in your shop’s secret back room/hidden wall, speak-easy style. I kid you not. In the end, we decide to steer clear of the blatant knock-offs, favoring high quality custom-made items, but transactions can be a little intimidating for the faint of heart. For example, both my guidebook and the blogs I’d read recommended offering just 10 percent of whatever the initial quoted price was, because apparently it’s hard to bid too low in Shanghai, but we Americans find this tough, so it takes practice. After a couple of days and a couple of markets though, I had NO problem offering that 10 percent (or something just slightly higher) and getting what I wanted. The trick is to keep a straight face, even as the vendor acts shocked, dismayed, or even insulted by your measly offer, and to be willing to walk away, even from a product you want badly. More often than not, the vendor chases you down, grabbing your arm and negotiating the whole time, but if you stick to your guns, you get your price. It’s pure theater, can be great fun, and ultimately, everybody wins no matter how much the vendor pouts. BTW, if you want to see Black folks in Shanghai, the markets are the place to go.  Lots and lots of West Africans shopping away.

The second fake market is located in the subway underneath Shanghai’s Museum of Science and Technology. This one practically runs the length and breadth of this huge subway station and is remarkable not only for its fake designer products, but for its huge collection of custom tailoring shops. Yes, couture clothing for the common man, for pennies on the dollar. A custom-fitted Chanel style suit or Burberry-esque plaid raincoat can be had for prices you’d pay for clothes at TJMaxx or Marshalls. T. got a long wool cashmere blend coat custom-made (in just 24hrs) for $78!! .  As noted above, this is where we did the most damage.

I’ve gone on and on about the shopping, but there’s more to Shanghai than that; it’s just a great city. It’s got everything from the most magnificent Buddhas in the Jade Buddha Temple, to the Maglev, the world’s fastest train, to the most delicious street drink (green tea and kumquat limeade) I’ve ever had. As New Yorkers, we are nothing if not jaded, and we can judge “lesser” cities pretty harshly, but there are some (Paris, Rome, Philadelphia, Rio, New Orleans to name a few) that really live up to their hype in terms of pure flavor; Shanghai is definitely one of these. We’d love to come back some time.

Jade Buddha Temple Gallery: A Buddha for Everybody

 

 

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: SHANGHAI– DISCOVERING THE OTHER CHINA

Travel Dates: July 16 through 18, 2011

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 Shanghai is part sprawling, Jetsons style uber-metropolis and part retro-chic former European outpost. It is about as un-China as one can get, and still be in mainland China. Our tour-sponsored hotel for the first two nights, The Crowne Plaza Fudan, is in the Pudong section, the sleeker, more modern side of the Huangpu River, but we’re transferring to The Salvo Hotel across the river and near The Bund for our final three nights. It’s worth mentioning that the former hotel is a four star worthy Crowne Plaza — it’s kept in pristine condition, and the rooms and public areas are spectacularly decorated. It is, though, off the beaten path for what visitors to Shanghai really want to see/experience.

Mr. Wu, our guide for this leg is nowhere near as helpful or as enthusiastic as the ones we’ve had so far; I suspect our flat-out refusal to visit the “very popular” silk “museum” may have contributed to his surliness. After picking us up at the airport Saturday night in a comfortable, air-conditioned coach, he showed up Sunday morning to escort us to the Shanghai Museum in a dirty, tiny, Montessori school cheese bus with temperamental AC. There was a curious, hand-written sign on the “bus” (a van, really) to assure us that “THIS BUS HAS BEEN DISINFECTED”, we suspect from lice.

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Upon arrival at the museum, Mr. Personality hustled us through the entrance gate and metal detectors, told us we had 90 minutes of free time, and he disappeared. So much for our guided tour.  The museum was lovely though, both inside and out, as these pictures will attest.

Mr. Wu returned at the appointed time with news that the AC had been fixed, probably because we were all shooting him with hate stares and because Dick, who felt by now like our collective “Dad” demanded he get us a better bus. Mercifully, T. and I only had to deal with him for half a day, after which the organized tour part of our trip came to a close. We made sure to take a group picture, and then parted at the Yu Gardens Bazaar in the Old City.

The Yu Gardens Bazaar is pure sensory overload.  Yes, it’s at once a garden, at its peaceful inner perimeter, and a bustling bazaar on the outside.  It’s super-crowded, very touristy, and jam-packed with everything everyone’s been trying to sell us in China so far. Want pearls and jade? Check. Silk scarves, bangles, Buddhas? Check. And of course, that knock-off Gucci, Prada, or Louis Vuitton bag is yours for a fraction of the cost of the real McCoy, not to mention iPhones, iPods, and Rolex watches. These wares are not sold out in the open though, since the recent promised gov’t crackdown. For these items, you have to be willing to follow one of the many guys with pictures or flyers depicting their “high quality” designer goods, or those simply sporting this season’s must have Burberry satchel on their shoulders, looking perfectly natural. We’ve not been brave enough to follow the knock-off scent yet, but I can feel my resistance ebbing away.

Anyway, after making a few purchases at The Bazaar, sharpening our haggling skills in the process, we jumped on the subway back to Pudong. The Shanghai subway is gorgeous, clean, well-lit, air-conditioned, and cheap. It’s about a twenty minute ride back to the Crowne Plaza, but then we proceed to misread the map and walk about a mile in the opposite direction. Eventually we make it back by taxi, I konk out, and my beloved goes foraging for food.

 

 

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: KRISTY KEEPS IT REAL

Travel Dates: July 15-16, 2011

We are back on dry land after our three nights aboard the Victoria Selina. That little excursion was very pleasant in retrospect. In spite of aforementioned feeding-frenzies and BS shore excursions, it reminded me a little of old Hollywood movies about the Orient Express. Our cabin, which wasn’t large, was nonetheless bigger than any cruise cabin we’ve ever had on a more traditional cruise ship. It was rather romantically decked out in fine wood-grain paneling (like our luggage), and because of the ship’s Mississippi steamboat style design, every cabin had a balcony.

My peaceful little berth on board ship.

My peaceful little berth on board ship.

Our flight to Shanghai leaves at 7:15pm and we disembarked from the ship at around 1pm, so we had some time to kill in Yichang. Luckily, we had the coolest city guide named Kristy who after the requisite trip to the city “museum” took us to the mall to hang out for a couple of hours. One can tell that China is exceedingly proud of her malls, and this one was no slouch. Dairy Queen, Papa John’s, Mickey Ds and KFC (which is EVERYWHERE) were all represented with menus appropriately tweaked for Chinese tastes, but best all, there was a Walmart! This is the place to go to satisfy those pesky cravings for blueberry-flavored potato chips, sweet pea crackers, or Oreos with orange/mango filling. And the teaser item near the checkout stand? Why condoms, of course! We stocked up on a few snacks for the plane and continued our stroll around the mall.

Thankfully, the people of Yichang, a mere village of four million people, are a lot more low key and polite; the stares are discreet and there are no solicitations for pictures. On the ride to the airport, Kris, whose command of both English language and idiom are impressive thanks to a steady diet of Friends, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and Modern Family, fills us in on the particulars of the single-child policy. Basically, there’s no such thing as an unplanned pregnancy if you want your child to exist here (via a gov’t ID). When you get married, the gov’t keeps a record, and couples must apply for a permit to have their one child. There are exceptions for farming families and some leniency for families whose only child is a girl. Otherwise, there’s a stiff $8,000 US fine, a fortune in China, for those who violate the law. Kris is the mother of a baby girl, and she explained that the split bottom clothes for babies in lieu of diapers enable parents to begin toilet training their children as young as six months old. Apparently, they’re taught to squat at the sound of a whistle (?).

Speaking of squatting, traditional Chinese toilets are literally holes in the ground. I learned pretty early on not to panic when I entered the stall (even at Walmart) and found a pit with a porcelain “lip” where the toilet should be; you’re just supposed to squat on your haunches and do your business. That being said, I don’t panic, but I keep looking for a western-style commode. My female tour mates and I have even developed a star rating system for public bathrooms: 5 star means it doesn’t stink, is reasonably clean and has toilet paper; 4 star means all of the above, sans toilet paper; 3 star, somewhat stinky but bearable with western commodes; 2 star means it stinks, has a western commode and will serve if you’re desperate; 1 star is all-squat AND stinky.

 

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: Chongqing and Sailing the Victoria Selina

 Travel Dates: July 13-14, 2011

 

Well, it turns out you CAN get Wi-Fi on the boat for 150 yuan (about 30 bucks US), so here we are. Thursday was the first full day on our ship, the Victoria Selina, which we boarded in Chongqing.  Chongqing is a municipality of about 32 million people, all of whom seemingly live in apartment buildings that could pass as skyscrapers elsewhere (some 30 plus stories high), and if yours was built before Y2K, you’re really out of luck because those have no elevators! Chongqing was also the site of an infamous airborne massacre by the Japanese during WWII which not only killed thousands of Chinese, but destroyed much of the city’s 3000 year old architecture and other antiquities. During our mercifully brief city tour (it was pouring and we had no umbrellas), we were taken to a lovely guild hall, part of which survived the Chongqing Massacre, and part of which has been impressively restored, and then to city hall. We then headed for a spicy Sichuan dinner before embarking on the ship.

As I write, I’m sitting in the 5th floor lounge area, which is one of the two places here where Wi-Fi is available. There is some Chinese soft rock wafting through the system, which sounds a lot like Euro pop ( the pop music trends in China seem to lean to boy bands with crazy haircuts), and the ship is moving slowly along the river through the countryside. The Yangtze River is quite brown and muddy, and the ubiquitous haze and fog doesn’t add to the scenery, but this is still an excellent experience. We’ve chosen to forego the glorified shore excursions to nowhere, opting instead for some r and r from all the sightseeing /shopping stops.

We have assigned seats for shipboard meals and have gotten friendly with our table mates: Nick and Sheryl are from New Zealand and are traveling with their six year old son, Dylan, who’s a freckled and precocious hoot; Gordon and Dang, his Thai-born wife, are from London and appear to be in their sixties. Gordon and Dang are like Penn and Teller, he pretty much speaks for both of them (although he swears he can’t get a word in edgewise at home :)) They’re all very sweet, and we just spent a couple of hours chatting with them on Nick and Sheryl’s balcony in the ship’s “Shangri-La Suite”. This is pretty much a miniature version of a typical cruise, which to me means lots of eating when I’m not hungry. Needless to say, resistance is futile but I’m giving it the old college try.

Observation: Onboard mealtimes are fascinating, especially buffets. Today’s captain’s reception was an interesting example. There was free-flowing sparkling wine and juice for the children, in addition to a table full of appetizers. Right before the captain’s toast and invitation to enjoy the appetizers, this 7 or 8 year old Chinese boy made it his business to bend over and sniff each and every item on the table. This lapse in hygiene and etiquette only seemed to bother Westerners though because after the captain finished his toast, the alacrity with which our Chinese counterparts swarmed the table was almost alarming. Imagine feeding pigeons in Central Park and you start to get the picture. Mealtimes present a similar phenomenon; people don’t line up, it’s every man for himself. We’ve now made it a practice of being ten to fifteen minutes late to meals. That way we avoid the rush (the Chinese diners are very punctual) and there’s also a good chance that the food would have been replenished from the initial rush.


 

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: Xi’an and the Terra-Cotta Warriors

 Travel Date: July 11, 2011

 Our guide for the Xi’an leg of the journey is named JC. His English is good, but not as good as Gary’s.   As a former teacher of Ancient Chinese History, he’s quite the scholar and insists on regaling us with everything he knows during the hour long bus ride to the hotel.  The weather today, both in Beijing and here in Xi’an has been extremely hazy and overcast. Thankfully, once we get to the hotel, our time is ours.

Awaiting check-in for our flight to Xi’an, one of six flights we took during our tour. The big suitcase had lost a wheel by the time we landed.

 

We spend the afternoon and evening walking around Xi’an, which is notable for having the best preserved city wall in all of China, for its drum and bell towers, for its vibrant Muslim quarter, and apparently, judging by the pointing, staring, and pop-up amateur paparazzi behavior, citizens who get out even less than those Beijing…Anyway, we walk quite a bit, as Xi’an is a walking town, but the air quality makes it pretty tough. Much has been reported about pollution and air quality in China, but it hasn’t been an issue for us until now. The only respite we get is in the Muslim quarter, the air in which for whatever reason seems a bit fresher. The district itself is a big street market selling all sorts of pastries, confections, noodles, meat kabobs, and other sundry edibles on a stick. I wasn’t brave enough to taste anything but I feel like a wuss, so I may return for some fudge (which looked a lot like Haitian douce). 

In the evening, we end up at this restaurant called The Greenery Cafe, which we pick mostly because of its English menu and accompanying pictures. We opt for their $20pp fixed price dinner option, and make what we thought were our dinner selections from the proffered choices. For T., chicken served with fried rice; for me, filet of sole with black pepper pasta. First T.’s beer comes out, oddly followed by a cup of lemon tea that neither of us ordered, (hmmm…). This is quickly followed by the dessert plate, (yes, that’s right) complete with ice cream! A few seconds later, the salad shows up, along with two soups, which again, we hadn’t ordered; this was quickly followed by the two main courses and one cappuccino! Within five to ten minutes, the table is essentially jam-packed with everything offered on the prix fixe menu– the whole affair is like a Saturday Night Live skit. I might’ve thought they were trying to get rid of us quickly, had the table next door not been served in a similar fashion. Besides, they seemed genuinely pleased to see us laowai (I could have sworn I saw the chef pop out and take a peak), and our server was quite sweet, attempting to speak to me with my limited mandarin. This is however, one for the books.


Travel Date: July 12, 2011

  This is our only full day in Xi’an, and today’s excursion is a trip an hour outside the city to see The Terra-cotta Warriors, the life-sized (and larger than life) army that the first Qing Emperor had crafted in order to protect him in the after-life. You may have seen them brought to “life” by Hollywood in one of the sequels to The Mummy. This is a highlight of any trip to China, and one which we’ve been personally anticipating.

JC comes to collect our group after breakfast (where we saw at least six Black ladies from Chicago!) and we head out, but not before a stop at (you guessed it) The Terra-cotta Warriors Factory Store! Here, we get to pose in TC soldier molds for goofy pictures, and get a spiel about the army ranks of the soldiers and how we can differentiate them.

Ultimately of course, we are there to shop, so shop we must. One salesman attempts to sell me a life-sized replica of a soldier for two grand (Dude, really??). I quickly sic him on T., calling him the “general” in the family. This salesman’s no idiot though so he comes back to me in a few seconds. I tell him frankly that $2000 US could probably pay for a semester at a small state university so spending it on a rather intimidating looking garden gnome is definitely out of the question. Besides, I’ve done my homework, so I know that there are guys selling desk-sized box sets of these for peanuts at the actual museum.

 

We finally make it out of there and to the museum which, like everything we’ve seen in China, is built on a massive, impressive scale, and is still growing. It consists of three exhibits, with the first one being the largest, and most spectacular. The “surviving” soldiers are still lined up in battle formation the way they were buried with the emperor centuries ago. There are generals, officers, common soldiers, standing archers, kneeling archers, horses, chariots, and charioteers, and none of them has the same face or facial expression. This is a truly mind-boggling sight, not to mention, one of the greatest displays of hubris I can imagine. The irony is pretty rich though when you think of how the descendants of the poor people this guy victimized to build his armies, both real and fake, are now benefitting from the huge influx of cash this discovery has brought into their communities since its discovery in 1974. I’m by no means suggesting that this somehow makes up for criminal acts this emperor perpetrated, but this was tantamount to hitting the lotto for some people for whom life was pretty hard.

We head back to the bus after another lackluster group lunch, and JC threatens to take us to a traditional embroidery factory; this time somebody puts his foot down. Among our traveling companions is Dick, a very spry and hilarious retired gentleman in his 70s or 80s, who is the patriarch of eight family members in our group from San Francisco. I don’t remember if I mentioned that we’re the only Easterners in our tour group…. Anyway, Dick asks JC if we can take this embroidery factory thing to a vote, and we unanimously vote to skip it. Whew!!…Later, Dick tells T., who has easily been the most reluctant shopper, that he owes him 10 bucks (Chinese) for saving him from the embroidery factory:). Tomorrow, we’re bound for Chongqing, and the seafaring portion of our journey. Hopefully, there’s Wi-Fi on the boat.

 


 

THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: BEIJING DAY 2

 July 10, 2011

 This morning begins with a long ride to the Olympic sites, preceded by what feels like a government “recommended” tourist stop at one of Beijing’s latest development projects which rests on the former site of what used to be an actual (and fairly ancient) traditional neighborhood.  The place is practically deserted and as such, somewhat creepy.  We all play along with Gary (who BTW is wonderful), but no one lingers when its time to hop back on the bus and continue our journey.

The 2008 Olympic sites, Bird’s Nest and Water Cube etc., are quite spectacular; hopefully our pictures do them justice. Funny thing, these non-Chinese tourists tapped T. on the shoulder, holding their camera. He assumed they wanted him to take their picture, but of course, they wanted to photograph HIM. Since I’ve made it my business to document all of these bizarre encounters, I then proceeded to photograph them, only to be told to get in the picture myself! Apparently, they wanted both Jay-Z and Beyoncé :)!! BTW, they were from Moscow, where I assume there are few Black Russians that don’t come in a glass.

Next, of course, another shopping stop. This time, it was the jade factory, quickly followed by the adjacent cloisonné factory; it’s a good thing I already have too much jewelry. Lunch, which seemed premature after such a huge breakfast, was included in today’s tour and was served at said factory. The meal was a plentiful if strange array of cold cuts, pickles, tomatoes, bland cabbage soup, French fries, bok choy, rice, a strange sweet and sour fish dish, lamb kabobs etc. One lady in our group, Rose, is Chinese and noted that there was really nothing authentic about that weirdly eclectic mix. After lunch, we headed to The Sacred Way, an excursion that added nothing to our trip, just some neatly aligned 500 year old statues reminiscent of a gigantic chess set.

Our tour group entering The Sacred Way. Our guide, Gary, is in the red T-shirt.

Finally, on to The Wall. There are technically 4000 miles worth of wall so the key is to pick a scenic segment of it for climbing and pictures. Gary took us to the Badaling segment, which is the one Nixon visited in the 70s, and probably the most photographed for representations of the site as a whole. The wall, of course, was amazing, a little steeper than I expected, and laden with international and domestic tourists. We saw more Black people in this one afternoon than we had seen in Beijing as a whole so far. Be that as it may, we, especially T., continued to be the object of fascination, and found ourselves posing for many pictures with our utterly dumbfounded Chinese hosts.  

After two hours at The Wall, we boarded our bus back to Beijing. The ride, which should have taken an hour, took two hours, which gave us a little time to sleep. Apparently, city traffic doesn’t take Sundays off.

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THE ORIENT EXPRESSED: BEIJING BOUND

Our 2011 Chinese odyssey consisted of five cities: Beijing, Xi’an,Chonqing,Yichang, and Shanghai. In two weeks, we flew six times, cruised the Yangtze River, and just for fun, rode the world’s fastest train.

July 7 & 8, 2011

As I write, we’re three and a half hours into a 13.5 hr. plane ride to Beijing. T’s time management skills made on time arrival dubious, as usual, but here we are.  Adding to the fun, we sat on the runway for nearly two hours due to thunderstorms at JFK. Food on Air China is edible, at best.  Our seats, middle aisle, four across, aren’t great. To my right are two little men.  One snores and has little grasp of personal space, taking the liberty of sleeping in the fetal position across two seats (a magazine serves as the only barrier between his toes and my thigh). The other one is a screaming toddler who looks to be about a year old; I have far more tolerance for him. T is snoozing contentedly on my shoulder….5:57 AM NY time. We’re roughly 2hrs from landing. Flight was long, but smooth and definitely no frills. Nothing to eat since last night’s seafood with rice, served with salad, stale bread, and melon slices. Just got some o.j. and I’m hoping there’s a little more to come. T. has been sleeping soundly; I envy him.  Passengers on the flight are of course mostly Chinese, then there are a few laowai (foreigners) like us, but so far, we’re the only Blacks.  Wondering how much of an issue this will be during the next two weeks.  I’m also looking forward to meeting the rest of our tour group when we land; hopefully, there’s no one too obnoxious. Signing off for now.

 ARRIVAL:  Beijing airport is massive and spotless. We proceed through immigration smoothly and baggage claim is a breeze. My feet and ankles are quite swollen though from the flight; this is a new thing for me. The ride to the Doubletree Beijing is pretty lengthy, and while it’s dark, it’s pretty clear that this is a bustling, thriving center of commerce. Not sure we’ll venture out tonight, as it’s nearly 10pm, but we spoke to our guide, Gary, on the phone. Our day starts early @ 8am–off to the Bird’s Nest and other Olympic sites in am and to The Forbidden City in pm.


 

July 9, 2011

We rose at 5:30am unable to sleep, and got ready for breakfast @ 6:30. The spread was impressive and varied: everything from an omelet station and pancakes, to dim sum and soup. At 8am, we met with our group, three families from California, and our tour leader, Gary, to head out to Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. Both these sites are massive and crawling with tourists, again mostly Chinese. So far, we’ve encountered about 5 to 7 Black people, and we all appear to be objects of considerable interest. The Chinese tourists at times couldn’t decide which to look at first or stare at harder, us or the official sites. T. had a “mean Joe Green” moment when he was asked to pose with a little boy, while his family recorded this momentous encounter with a novel laowai). The weather was 90 plus degrees, and the walk was grueling (there are NO trees in Tiananmen Square). Trevor had forgotten his hat at the hotel and had to buy one post-haste. There was never greater need for the thousands of parasols we saw today on the square.

 Next, we went to a rather unimpressive lunch with the group, pretty typical tourist trap “let me hook up my buddy/brother in law with some unsuspecting American customers” routine, and then we were all subjected to the first of the mandatory shopping stops that tend to go hand in hand with these tours. Gary took us to a pearl factory, where we got the expected spiel about pearl production etc. Needless to say, we bought nothing. Upon returning to the hotel, T. and I settled down for a much-needed nap after a quick trip to the supermarket around the corner. Tonight we plan to head out to Wanfujing Street to experience the night market, where they sell everything imaginable (and unimaginable) on a stick.


bugs on stick fruit on stick pigeons on a stick

The night market is a real experience. First of all, it’s nestled right behind Beijing’s Rodeo Drive. All the big names are represented here: Chanel, Hermes, Rolex, you name it, but blink and you might miss this little alleyway that leads to Dong Hua Men St., and the most colorful interpretations of food you’ve ever seen. Scorpions, sparrows, seahorses, beetles, starfish, eel, and baby shark were all there by the hundreds to be enjoyed shish-kabob style. We took far more pictures than samples.  T. refuses to try even the most conventional offerings, and I have some vegetable dumplings.


Scaling the Great Wall

great wall

In 2011, I found out what happens when you try to access FB in China, which is nothing–blank screen–super, duper firewall. This prompted me to keep in touch w/family members via diary entries I sent through numerous emails, before it ever occurred to me to start this blog. I’m busy compiling these and hope to post with accompanying pictures by the end of the week. Thanks to all of you who’ve read, liked, followed, commented, encouraged, and shared so far.