With August approaching, my husband Germano and I weren’t sure where to go. In recent summers we’d visited family in the United States. We’d also spent long weekends in both popular and obscure European capitals. This time, we picked China (see Photo Gallery). It was far enough north to avoid south Asia’s summer monsoons and we’d get in well ahead of the Olympic crowds (China hosts the Summer Games beginning August 8, 2008 — eight is an auspicious number for the Chinese). We’d also beat the revaluation of China’s powerful currency, the yuan.
But it wouldn’t come cheap. Air China (Rome-Beijing, Shanghai-Rome) ran €1,200. We’d also need to buy visas. Our travel agency advised us to book ahead for everything. That’s tricky because English isn’t an accepted second language, even in hotels. Rail travel demands a knowledge of Chinese since track numbers and timetables are in Chinese characters.
It was time for our first organized tour. We selected a three-week “Soft” packet offered by the Rome travel agency Avventura nel Mondo — “Soft” means they plan for you. An extra fee bought flights, train rides, and hotels. For €2,715 a head they handled visas, hotels (3-4 star), museum entry fees, internal travel and dining costs. The package included 10 cities — Beijing, Louyang, Nanjing, Xi’an, Guilin, Yangshuo, Suzhou, Tongli, Hangzhou, Shanghai — with a Chinese guide accompanying us on our first day in each new place.
Off we went! Me, Germano, his brother Danilo, and his girlfriend Claudia. Germano took photos and I jotted down notes.
When Germano saw the listless snake (his main course) in its aquarium, he chose toad. Why he didn’t pity the toad I don’t know.
The Chinese dine at 6 p.m. Exhausted from Beijing pagodas and gardens, we scanned our guidebook for dinner options. China is in transition; restaurants come and go. At one, a large black rat sniffed the stoop. Another had “Lonely Planet” printed in yellow on the window. Uptairs, I found the usual squat toilet. When I asked to rinse off my hands I was sent to the kitchen sink (dishes, ceramic soup spoons; no soap). Out the door we went.
We found a place across the street. It was Chinese Valentine’s Day and the owner indicated a round table with another couple (the woman wore a surgical mask). We waited and finally got our own table overlooking a tree-lined street.
Baffled by the menu (our vocabulary consisted of “thank you, hello, goodbye, toilet, tea”), I played Pied Piper with the waiter, pointing at dishes and holding up fingers: one spicy tofu, two bowls of white rice, one crab basket, one water, one beer. Germano then led the waiter to the aquarium and the toad. While most Chinese restaurants in the West serve Hong Kong or Cantonese-style food, we mostly got Mandarin (north China and Beijing) and Szechuan (south China) dishes. Spicy Szechuan is rich in peppercorns, dried chili peppers, and ginger.
Restaurants close around 9 p.m. but empty out by 8. After that, cooks haul out garbage in large plastic pails. Since shops stay open until 10, Chinese girls take after-dinner strolls with friends through malls and pedestrian zones, carrying paper bags filled with goodies.
Food stalls rule the night. In the Muslim quarter of Xi’an — a Silk Road city in central China — we followed spicy smells to vendors hawking fried bread filled with egg, dill, and onion grass, or pork and onion grass (they were like Rome pizza al taglio shops). Steaming, fig-sized dumplings came in plastic bags. In Beijing, other aromas led us to an array of grilled and glazed skewers with scorpions, starfish, silk worms, sea slugs, jelly fish, and beetles. Yum! Here are some favorites:
— “Squirrel”-shaped fish with mango sauce
— Fried shrimp with spicy roasted peppers and peanuts
— Spicy tofu
— Stir fried pak choy (a long green vegetable)
— Over-baked chicken in lotus flower leaves
— Steamed vegetarian dumplings
— Fried bread filled with onion grass, dill and egg
Grilled octopus skewers
— Mooncake (made from lotus seed paste)
— Bubble tea (green tea with tapioca pearls imported from Taipei)
— Peking duck
— Mongolian Hot Pot
When Air China lost Danilo’s luggage, we went shopping. The Chinese are small. Western “small” is “large” here. “Large” is a Chinese XXL. But it’s an inexact science. Danilo bought XXL underwear but ended up tearing the waistband. His new t-shirts cost about €1 each, pants about €5. Markets sold knockoff designer bags, watches, and shoes. When Germano saw an American tourist paying 100 yuan (€10) for a Prada wallet, he sizzled: “He’s driving up the prices!”
The Chinese are famous for jade, pottery, pearls and silk. In Beijing, Claudia bought a black river-pearl bracelet, a ring, silk sheets, and a silk comforter. For the remainder of the tour she was our Linus, hauling the comforter everywhere.
On a tree-lined boulevard in the prosperous town of Suzhou, 100 kilometers west of Shanghai, we found a store called “Northbay” — the only English we’d seen all day. The Chinese owner had a perfect American accent but struggled to understand me. He explained that his partner liked “American-style” stores (Northbay look a bit like J-Crew). They had four stores within 30 meters on the same road, all called… Northbay. Mixing it up might have helped — Northbay, Southbay, but no. Northbay had Abercrombie & Fitch madras shorts with an official-looking price tag: $49.50. The shorts actually went for 90 yuan (about €9), or half off the sticker price (he had a “50% sale” sign in English in the window).
I bought two pairs of shorts and matching tops. Germano found a Burberry shirt and a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt. While Polos went for €3 in the local market (after bargaining), Mr. Northbay wanted €9. Germano rationalized the higher pricetag by saying Northbay’s items were the real thing. They all looked alike to me.
Our guide told us that the Chinese put a premium on toilet paper, which is why most stalls don’t have any. You squat and leave. Many Chinese women kept the waist-high stall doors ajar, apparently wanting nothing to do with the much-handled door knobs. Most wore skirts, perhaps another concession to toilet necessities.
The worst facilities were a brook-like channel carved into cement running from the men’s room to the women’s. Look down and you saw what you’d rather not. The smell of urine was overpowering. I decided it was best to gaze at the ceiling and leave.
Smog swathed Beijing and surrounding cities in a metallic haze. It was often hard to see more than 30 feet ahead. Summer resembled Rome, but sauna-like. We were literally glued to our clothing. The Chinese seemed unbothered. Older Chinese men wore t-shirts rolled above their bellies, like half-shirts, exposing sweaty stomachs.
Whites turned black and yellow within a day and the smog left tan-line marks. Though I washed the whites in the hotel sink, some went grey for good. I threw them out.
Street sweepers cleaned the sidewalks with irregular straw bristles and long red feather bristle-brooms. City garbage cans had stone lids, the bins divided into three sections: organic waste, disposable garbage, and recyclables. The elderly often followed us after we bought bottles of green tea on the street, eager to collect discarded ones for the small refund.
Parks, temples, and residences resembled well-manicured miniatures. We found lily pads and lotus flowers. In ponds, giant goldfish vied for breadcrumbs. Camel-colored monkeys paraded freely or sat pensively on fences. Germano’s attempt to befriend one went nowhere; it hissed. There were temples with imposing marble staircases and balustrades. In Beijing’s Forbidden City, a sign explained that heavy marble was brought in by sled. Ingeniously, the streets were flooded and allowed to freeze. The marble was then hoisted onto the sleds.
Jogging at 6 a.m. I found the streets already clogged with cars, bicycles, and electric mopeds. Girls rode bikes with open umbrellas anchored to the frames as sun shields. After paying the park entry fee, I ran by younger groups practicing tai chi and elderly folk square dancing to “Oh, Susannah.” As the only jogger, I weaved around the groups before finally giving up and returning to the hotel.
One night our hotel phone rang at midnight. Germano answered. “Message? Message? Yes, please give me the message.” But the caller didn’t. Instead, she insisted on her question. Germano finally got it: she was offering a massage. Massage girls usually don’t call 5-star hotels (management doesn’t give them access to guests rooms), or 2-star hotels (they assume that guests won’t splurge). But if you’re in the 3- to 4-star range, you might get a message.
Our hotels had English names: New Friendship Hotel, Swan Hotel, Lily Hotel, Gentleman International Hotel. Taxi drivers usually didn’t understand the names, so we used business cards. Some drivers were either illiterate or needed glasses. Often, they’d study the business card, hold it up, and then shake their heads.
Before each domestic hop, we had to bring our padlocked luggage to the lobby. It would then be loaded into a white minivan to reach us at the next destination. After Danilo’s suitcase fiasco, the white van made us nervous, but the luggage always showed up without a hitch.