Last year my co-worker, Rob Deason, shared about the trip he and his wife took to China to visit their daughter Rachel. This year he made a return to trip to discover new sights in China and beyond. Here’s more about his visit!
I never imagined going to China once, much less twice. Yet, here we are in Shanghai for the second year in a row. Our daughter, Rachel, still lives here, so we made the trek to visit her again. Last time we hit most of the iconic attractions; this time we went off the beaten path. One thing remained the same; the Chinese eagerly approached Rachel wherever we went to get a picture taken with her. It’s like traveling with a celebrity. They want photos because a) she’s beautiful and b) she’s not Asian. The Chinese have a weird perception that westerners are more attractive than those of their own ethnicity. Of course, that only goes so far. No one wanted my picture.
I think the second-time around made me less willing to try new foods. No meal worms this trip. However, I did try to eat a chicken foot. There really isn’t any meat in the foot; you basically suck on it for flavor. And you can pick your teeth with the sharp nail afterwards. I also discovered I really like goose, candied lotus root, and taro; a slightly sweet paste used in a breakfast pastry. At one of our first meals we ordered stinky tofu. That’s what it’s really called. It lives up to its name; I barely tasted it. Hot pots is a popular way to serve food. Picture a big bowl of hot oil at your table into which you place an assortment of meats and greens. Then, you fish them out with chopsticks moments later. Or minutes later depending on how adept you are using chopsticks.
From Shanghai we flew to Chengdu in Sichuan province. That’s about as far west as you can go in China before entering the highly-controversial occupied Tibet. As visitors we might have been able to go there, but Rachel, since she lives in China would not be allowed. Anyway, Chengdu proved challenging for all of us. Rachel is fluent in Mandarin. FLUENT. And yet, she couldn’t make herself be understood due to the accent. One Didi driver (their version of Uber) nearly brought Rachel to tears when he told her to speak Chinese. The Didi driver we finally obtained came in a car with very little trunk space. We put the lightest bag inside with us; the two heaviest bags perched precariously outside of the open trunk. The driver assured us, “No problem. Chengdu is flat,” as we ca-chunked down the pothole-laden streets. I guess the driver was right; they didn’t fall out.
Getting a hotel sight unseen on the web is a crap shoot. Pictures, descriptions and even reviews don’t always match the reality. Our Chengdu hotel was less than ideal, but passable. However, the staff proved to be poster children for Communism. Yes, they had jobs, but no, they didn’t need to actually do them. We knew we were in trouble when they had never seen an American passport and took probably 30 minutes registering us with the police; a process that normally takes 30 seconds. They refused to recommend a nearby restaurant. They couldn’t/wouldn’t assist with our sightseeing plans. They intentionally gave us the wrong time for breakfast in the hotel (long story, but a smirk says a lot) and they hung up our wet/dirty bath mat and towels as new. We really wondered whether they disliked us as strangers or were just surly, inept, unmotivated slackers.
Despite our unsatisfactory accommodations, Chengdu offered us a highlight of the trip. The Giant Panda Research Center houses 10% of the world’s panda population. Their work has saved the species from extinction. We saw pandas up close climbing trees, playing, and eating bamboo. Very few lazed around like you see in a zoo. The Center displayed newborns in incubators, babies in cribs, as well as toddlers, teenagers and adults. I felt totally privileged to be able to observe the cute, but dangerous, pandas in their native environment. Pandas are adorable, okay? Don’t revoke my man card.
Our next stop: Guilin. Guilin is famous for its karstic landscape of limestone hills thrusting sharply into the crystal blue sky. Not gently, sloping hills. More like rocket ships trying to escape the pull of the earth. Visually stunning. Guilin is comparatively small and easy to get around; one million compared to Chengdu’s 13 million and Shanghai’s 30 million. Our riverside hostel proved a welcome respite from our previous experience in Chengdu. They spoke some English and offered all of the help we needed. While in Guilin, we took public transportation to Reed Flute Cave beneath one of those majestic limestone formations. It featured cavernous rooms and intriguing rock shapes. Dramatic lighting enhanced the experience. The next day we rode three hours crammed in the rear bench seat of a van to go see the famous Longji Rice Terraces. If you’ve ever seen pictures of rice terraces, chances are they came from here. An engineering marvel, the stair steps carved into the mountainsides turn the unusable topography into a lush, lavish, productive food source. Even though we’d driven up a mountain, we had to take a 30-minute cable car ride to go even higher. There, as far as the eye can see, countless terraces of green rice plants ripple like waves in the breeze. Sunlight makes ever-changing patterns similar to running your hand over sequined fabric. Rachel, the adventurer, took off into the field. We followed her by taking mincing steps along a 6-12 inch uneven path abutting the drop off to the terrace below. Imagine walking on a balance beam…slick from mud and water. We did fine and got some cool photos.
On our drive up the mountain we stopped at a Yao-minority village nestled along a pristine river tumbling down from the peaks. The ladies of the village cut their hair only once in their lifetimes, at age 18. We assume it’s a rite of passage into womanhood. They style or cover their hair based on whether they are single, married, or have kids. Underneath, the newer hair must be gray, but can you imagine how odd it is to see ancient women sporting the jet-black hair of youth?
I’m glad we’re spending time with our daughter, yet I think we’ve seen all we want to of China. Even Rachel, who’s been here two years, says she loves China but doesn’t like it much anymore. Good thing, because we’re headed to Cambodia!