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

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Awaiting our flight to Xi’an, one of our six trips to the airport.

 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.

 

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.

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

imageOur 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.

Newport News and Weather: Jazz Fest 2014

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I am a pathological optimist, which is probably why I do most things early. Last January, snowed-in and seduced by the torrid promise of August, I bought two-day passes for T. and me for what turned out to be this past week-end’s sodden, muddy, and downright frigid Newport Jazz Festival.

Because I’m also a planner, I started reading weather forecasts earlier in the week which promised partly cloudy skies and temps in the mid 70s, perfect I thought, for enjoying great live music in one of New England’s most scenic and posh landscapes. I looked away from the forecast for what seemed just long enough to turn this into a family weekend, purchasing discounted student tickets for our reluctant teenaged boys and two nights boarding for our recalcitrant dog, only to find myself opting for wellies over Fitflops for Saturday’s footwear du jour, as the rain poured on. Of course, I didn’t put the Fitflops too far from reach just in case August was waiting, late and apologetic, at the end of our three-hour drive.

Well, it wasn’t, but the music was and we were in for the proverbial pound at that point. As I told the boys, this would just have to be Woodstock with hipsters in lieu of hippies, more clothes, and fewer (I hoped and assumed) drugs.

Now back to January. Right before I bought those tickets, I remember trolling Facebook on my iPad, happening upon Grammy Nominations, and seeing the name Cecile McLorin Salvant nominated in the Best Jazz Vocal album category. Her face (sporting the trademark white glasses) and music were familiar to me because I had watched a couple of her very impressive performances on YouTube a year or so prior, after she was featured on Essence.com. While I love jazz, jazz vocalists in particular, I had been much more fascinated by her name. A name like Cecile Salvant begged for what I like to call the “Haitian investigation”, which if successful, would mean we could claim her and add one more notch to the collective belt of the Haitian Massive. We Haitians, on a constant, unspoken mission to celebrate the merits of our tiny and maligned island, never miss a chance to claim one of ours if she’s doing great things. It turns out, she’s half Haitian, which in my head at least, made my personal presence in support of her debut at Newport Jazzfest that much more crucial. For whatever reason, it stopped raining on Saturday afternoon just long enough for us to see that one show, and Cecile dazzled the audience with her quiet grace, wonderful voice and gifted improvisational style. The critics love her, and are comparing her to Sarah Vaughan and other legends. More importantly, my boys liked her, and didn’t seem to mind standing in the rain and mud, listening to very old songs sung by a very talented–and fully clothed–young woman. I think this bodes well for her, for youth, for jazz, and for our trip here next year.

Cecile McLorin Salvant , adding life and light to some great American standards.

Cecile McLorin Salvant , adding life and light to some great American standards.

We also enjoyed the Vijay Ayer Sextet.  Check them out here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PLC59D256D882A4694&v=poP9pvGXP7I

We also enjoyed the Vijay Ayer Sextet. Check them out here:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PLC59D256D882A4694&v=poP9pvGXP7I