Tag Archives: China

CHINA, The mountains and rivers of YANGSHUO

4 Nov

 CHINA, The mountains and rivers of YANGSHUO

Yangshuo, a small town in southern China, most known for its beautiful KARST mountain scenery (karst topography is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of layers of soluble bedrock such as limestone or dolomite.  South China is a major Karst area in the world), was our next destination in China.  The major appeal of this area is three-fold – to cycle the area, float the gorgeous Li River while taking in the breath-taking mountain and rice field scenery, and to climb the peaks (Yangshuo is one of the top 5 climbing destinations in the world and many climbers hang out here for months to perfect their skill).

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We stayed at the most perfect eco-friendly, home-style run villa called The Stonebridge Inn http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/The-Stone-Bridge/Yangshuo/53001?sc_sau=sfab&sc_pos=5 This super bright, clean and inviting hostel was located in the valley – just outside the busy town centre – overlooking farmers’ rice paddys, mountains and pomelo orchards (a pomelo is a type of large, delicious grapefruit).  This inn is run by the nicest and most hospitable husband and wife team you’ll ever meet.  ahLong (Australian) and his wife Jess (Chinese) know what foreigners and first-time visitors to China need; a delicious breakfast (with best Muesli ever!), some good directions on what to do in and around town (ahLong will even drop you off at the bus station or ride into the mountains to see that you are going in the right direction), help with translations and your laundry, that quickly starts to pile up, and even play “mommy” and take care of you when you are feeling a bit under the weather (Thanks a bunch Jess!)!

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Jessie and ahLong, our wonderful hosts at The Stonebridge Inn, Yangshuo

Our first day there, we were excited to take the 1.5 hour ride on a bamboo raft down the Li River. This outing did not disappoint as the scenery was gorgeous – unfortunately the kids were a little tired from travelling and the calm movement of the raft put them to sleep for most of the ride! But no sweat – this gave Anthony and me the chance to chat alone a bit, take lots of pictures and have two cuddle bunnies on our laps. The end of our raft ride was in Xing Ping, a little, historic town where we had a nice lunch by the river (the green, local vegetables with garlic sauce has quickly turned into the boys’ favorite dish!).

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Li River Bamboo Raft Ride

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Delicious green vegetables with garlic

Next it was onto cycling into the mountains. Unfortunately, we chose a slightly wrong day for this activity, as it was the first day of China’s Golden Week (a week of holiday for the Chinese where everyone travels!). It took us over an hour to get out of our small town as bikes, motorcycles and cars where whizzing by us – and coming directly at us from all directions!!!  Emile very quickly pointed out that if he could ride his bike in this kind of holiday traffic in China, he could ride it anywhere (so true!). It was a miracle we made it out unharmed– and so quickly, we needed a break to recoup. We stopped at mountain village attraction that showed the life of local aboriginals. At the dance performance finale, the boys were “attacked with kindness” by the girl performers who didn’t want to let them go until they all had a picture taken with them (much to the chagrin of the boy performers who moved Emile and Filou along once they felt they had had enough attention – too funny to watch this male dominance at work!)

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Little aboriginal Chinese children

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With Chinese gong

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Boys styling it the Chinese way

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Emile and Filou with Chinese girl performers!

Among other attractions in this cycling area were Moon Hill Mountain, a hill with a natural arch through it that Filou and I climbed (800 large steps)! Filou was convinced there was jade to be found on this mountain so in true adventurer style, we stopped several times to dig! We didn’t find anything but our reward was a motorcycle ride back home (a first and thrilling experience for Filou who had never been on one, let alone together with his mom and driver all stuck together, and without a helmet – o the things you do in other countries)! And then there was the Mud Cave & Hot Springs that I indulged in with the boys one afternoon – slightly smelly but super fun to float on mud in a beautiful cave!

I have quickly come to love and appreciate the members of a Facebook group called, Families on the Move – a group of avid travellers that take their families on the road for 6 months or more and provide advice to one another about travel in various countries (some have sold all of their belongings and travel continuously – and because of it, are the best travel guides you’ll ever find!).  Through this group, I got to meet Sonja and her lovely family from Vancouver who, like us, set out to travel for a year with their children.  When Sonja, her husband Mike and their children Emma and Jacob arrived in Yangshuo we were all very excited to meet them (the kids were keen to have some English playmates) – and we all clicked instantly. Sonja invited me to a Chinese cooking class she was taking and of course I was game.

We met a sweet, 20-year old girl Chinese girl called Mona in the heart of town. She first took us to Yanghuo’s local farmers market to guide us through the many varieties of Chinese vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. And that is not all you see –if you dare to go to the end of the market, you see all kind of animals being killed on the spot – and when I was pointing to an skinned animal that hung up side down – thinking it was a small pig, I was explained it was a dog.  So, yes indeed the Chinese eat dogs and cats – and even the local water rats.  ahLong explained to me that he lost three of his pet dogs in three weeks! – as poachers were targeting the area and would come over lunch time – when the Chinese sleep –  to scout for dogs to kill and sell at the market!  We were told that people are hungry here so that this is indeed a reality (ps: I will spare you the picture of the dog)!

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Yanshuo’s farmers market

So we quickly moved on from the market and drove 20 minutes out of town. In the beautiful countryside, the Yangshuo Cooking school had a lovely set-up in a farmhouse where we learned to cook the most delicious dishes; bok choy in garlic sauce, spicy cashew chicken, beer fish (a local speciality), stuffed mushroom caps and tofu balls, eggplant in oyster sauce and some delicious pork stuffed dumplings!  So much food we made in a very short time (as cooking in a wok is all about timing, temperature and speed!).  So with very full bellies, recipes in hand and a great satisfaction, we went home that night!

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Chinese cooking class creations

During our days in Yangshuo, Anthony went to a rock climbing café, where he met the real nice owner called aBond. It turned out that aBond is the number one rock climber in China, sponsored by Adidas to climb all over the world (with his girlfriend Ting – also a force to be reckoned with and sponsored by the same brand).  This goal-driven 25 year old has the big mission to turn China into the number 1 rock climbing destination in the world (something that one day is achievable as the country has fabulous mountains and a growing interest in this sport – with still so many potential local followers).  Abond is building a great community with his rock climbing café, rock climbing hostel and adventure company & gear.  Needless to say, Anthony chose him and his girlfriend to take us on our first rock climbing expedition.

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Filou at the RockAbond climbing wall

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Picture of Anthony with rising climbing superstar Abond

Our beginner mountain was called Swiss Cheese – you can probably imagine why – the many holes make it easier for beginners.  After the initial explanations and equipment checks (ABCDEFG – A:    B: belt, C:  D, E:   F: Friends, G: Go) Emile was eager to be the first to try, and with little effort reached the first mountain top. Filou needed a little more encouragement and Ting proved to be a brilliant coach – she just wouldn’t take no for an answer or bring him down.  After several “I can NOT do this”, he also reached the mountaintop – and was flying with pride (and a high five and candy from Ting). Now, he cannot stop talking about climbing and wants to do it more!  While I was quite happy to be the official photographer, Anthony also really loved his first experience and climbed three different climbs at the hands of aBond….There is now talk about more climbing in Vietnam (where we are as I write) and in Thailand over Christmas!

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Filou with Ting, his fabulous climbing coach

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So with this great experience we say good-bye to the lovely little town of Yangshuo.

We will remember you for:

– Your most amazing scenery of mountains, rivers, rice fields and yaks.

– Your wonderful markets where you sell many delicious snacks (especially vegetable dumplings) and beautiful things (the best were your scarves and $7 RayBan glasses) and the craziness and charm of West Street where we savored many a coconut drink, smoothie and passion fruit.

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–  Café China where enjoyed wonderful food and made great friends (the daughter of the café owner was crazy about Emile!  Note to Marsha: Emile gave her one of your Canadian penny necklaces and she is still jumping for joy!)

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 –  Your killer $12, one-hour massages that brought such relaxation and comfort

–  Your people that seem to be able to sleep anytime and anywhere (see the guy spread out on his motorcycle sleeping by the road at rush hour – sound asleep!)

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– Your insane traffic that comes from everywhere – but somehow everyone knows how to share the road!

–  Your squatting toilets, some without doors and almost all of them without toilet paper

–  Your (to us), crazy eating habits of dogs, cats and water rats!  We are sorry you are so hungry.

–  Your gorgeous karst mountains that we had the pleasure of climbing (hard to find a second climbing spot more beautiful!)

–  Your beautiful Li River that we loved cooling down in, after a 33C day!

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–  The kindness of your people – we thank you for making us feel so safe, welcomed and treated like stars! (our Chinese cooking instructor told me that children that major in English get the mandate to practice the language with foreigners, and are instructed to take a total of 100 photographs of those they chatted with!).

And with Yangshuo, we say good-bye to a wonderful month in China. Via bus, train and 2 planes, we will arrive soon in Vietnam!

 

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XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

22 Oct

XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

From Beijing, we moved by overnight train to Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province located in the middle of China and one of country’s oldest cities (Xi’an is one of China’s four Great Ancient Capitals).

The kids were quite excited to go per sleeper train (about 12 hours) – although the arrangements were rather small (2 tiny bunk beds) and a little cramped for my long Dutch legs – it was a great first, overnight train experience (the train is really a great way to see the beautiful and interesting countryside!).

Anthony was invited to speak at the EuroAsia Economic Forum in Xi’an where he was presenting on Innovolve’s exciting low carbon housing work in Latin America.

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Anthony presenting at the EuroAsia Forum in Xi’an, China

As part of the conference we were staying at the luxurious 5-star Hilton Xi’an (http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/china/hilton-xian-XIYHIHI/index.html).  To have super comfortable beds (with 5 choices of pillows), fluffy bathrobes, a bath to soak in and a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, were real treats after several nights in hard bunk beds.

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Lobby of the Hilton Xi’an Hotel

Our first day, we were offered a complimentary conference tour of the Terra Cotta Warriors Factory. We misunderstood, as we thought we were going to the coveted museum & site– and we probably would have skipped this tourist trap – but in the end is was quite interesting to visit the place where they make the beautiful replicas of these world famous warriors (the ladies who make the replicas go through years of ceramic studies!). Apparently, the replica statues are made from the same clay as the real warriors in the ground and full life-size ones can take up to a year to make (and yes….we were weak, couldn’t resist– a nice, small copy of a Warrior General is being shipped to Canada  – we hope this souvenir will arrive in one piece!).

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Filou with life-size replicas of the Terra Cotta Warriors, at the factory where they are made

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The real Terra Cotta Warriors site is of course the main reason why many visit Xi’an and we were also quite excited to explore this phenomenon.

In 1974, farmer Yang Zhifa found a piece of old terracotta as he was digging a well.  What he dug up was the first warrior of the now world-famous Chinese Terracotta Army (a selection of 2000 year-old Qin warriors, chariots and horses depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China).  It was absolutely incredible to visit this impressive, large historical site that has now turned into a must-see museum.

When you enter the complex, you walk into a large Pit (they have about 3 pits in total). Pit 1 is the largest excavation pit of the Army and the most impressive one – it is also the easiest one to see as it is the only one in bright light (some of the warriors were found with colours on them – red, blue, black & yellow tints – that disappeared when dug up and exposed to light.  Therefore, Pits 2 & 3 can now only be seen in darkness).

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At Pit 1 of the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum

In the Pits, we saw the warriors still in the clay and surrounded by the walls they were found in – several of them in full condition – while others are mere fragments of horses, warriors and wheels of chariots.  The figures vary in height and dress according to their roles (the largest and most impressive being the general). It was truly mind-blowing!

Our guide told us one funny story about the farmer who found this historic treasure. When Bill Clinton came to visit Xi’an and wanted to meet the farmer who dug up the national treasure, the Chinese government prepped him to say a few word in English.  “How are you”? “Thank you” and “Me too”.  When the farmer met the former US President, he was so nervous that he said; WHO are you, instead of HOW are you. So Bill said: “I am Bill Clinton, President of the United States”.  The farmer was confused as he expected “I am fine” in answer to HOW are you – so he asked again: “WHO are you”?, so Bill said: ”I am Bill, husband of Hillary Clinton”.  So the farmer answered: ME TOO!

Everyone had a good laugh and the Chinese still to this day, very much like Bill Clinton who was quite amused by the whole thing!

The children were also quite amused when I rented some bikes with them (Filou and I on a tandem) and we rode 1.4 km on the ancient city wall of Xi’an.  This beautiful, ancient wall that surrounds the core of Xi’an is the most complete city wall that has survived in China. It was quite special to ride on top of this beautiful piece of architecture – but it has to be said that the ride was quite a bit more challenging and longer then we expected (it was also incredibly hot).  But we are troopers and the views both inside and outside the city wall were worth it.  The bikes were not like good solid Dutch bikes though and we had some nice red behinds and hands to show for our adventure!

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Cycling the Xi’an historic city wall

On our way back from our bike tour, we walked passed several locals selling various pieces of jade, local rocks and coins. Filou was absolutely thrilled to find a small piece of Jade and Emile was super happy to add an old Chinese coin to his collection.  We found a very sweet Chinese lady who made the beautiful pieces into a necklace that the boys don’t seem to want to take off (Filou has learned that Jade is as valuable in China as diamonds are in Canada so he feels that he is walking around with a diamond around his neck – so precious!).   So with “diamonds” around our neck we left Xi’an and headed for the airport to make our flight down south to the mountain retreat of Yangshuo.

 

CHINA-1, Beijing; a city of many surprises

21 Oct

CHINA, BEIJING – a city of many surprises

China – Beijing, a city that houses 22 million people and one of the 7 wonders of the world that many dream of visiting (us four included)! We have come to know Beijing as a city that has a new surprise in store for you each day, so let me tell you a bit about them.

The first surprise we encountered was our hotel called Hutong Ren, This little place of rest boasts only 8 rooms and is located on a side street of the very crowded and lively Dongcheng area. The staff gets it perfectly – after a day of intense sightseeing (where the masses of people, smells and sounds overwhelm you, and take you by surprise each time) – you need a place to kick back & get back to balance. So at Hutong Ren, we relished the wonderfully calm background music, the delightful assortment of teas, the laughter of the sweet & helpful girls that work there and the enthusiastic welcome of Blackie, each time we entered back “home” (Emile & Filou particularly liked this super sweet dog, who would crawl on their laps for cuddles or run and play with them).

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Staff of Hutongren Hotel with “Blackie”

The Dongcheng area is one of the city’s interesting districts where you can get a great, first glimpse into Chinese culture. It is a maze of charming, small streets  & alleys (hutongs), which boast an interesting mix of buildings, food establishments and stores. Side by side you will find designer stores (where you can buy the most beautiful silk scarves, bags and clothing) and little food and nick-nack establishments (some completely falling apart, others doing their best to cater to the tourists). And the city seems to have enough of those – apparently about 2 million foreign visitors and 60 million domestic travellers visit Beijing each year). So, you can probably imagine how busy those streets were!

The Dongcheng Hutong area particularly comes to life at night as it is then when many street sellers crowd the hutongs and you can buy anything from silly toys (and the Chinese do LOVE their toys – teenagers walking around with wooden noise makers that we would consider buying for toddlers or putting silly, fuzzy animal ears on their heads as a headband), to meat or crickets on a stick!  Each night we went out, we saw something different and it was always a great adventure to decide what to eat, what to do to cope with the masses and not get run over by one of the many honking motorcycles, food carts or bike taxis, or how to overcome the incredible smell that is apparent is some of the streets (the exploration was so worth it as it was super fun, but the smell is one that I still find hard to forget)!

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Dongcheng District; the cultural and commercial centre of Beijing 

Our first night, we enjoyed a nice hot-pot – boiling pot of water in which you cook your own vegetables and meat (a good first choice!). Very close to the restaurant, we saw a barbershop with a young, funky hairdresser who seemed to know what he was doing.  Emile & Filou had talked for a while about getting their hair cut off (practical look for on the road that would require little maintenance and a crazy experiment that isn’t as easily tried at home).  However, we were surprised that Filou was dead-set on getting his buzz cut that first night!  But, we happily obliged his enthusiasm and entered the shop.

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Emile with the hot pot

During the whole haircutting process, Filou laughed hysterically! And once his new look was completed, he showed similarities to a little monk – but he was happy as pie (and still is).  Emile (a bit jetlagged) was not quite ready for this adventure and got a regular haircut. Although two days later (after some encouragement from his little bro – who wanted to become the bald brothers) he went back and did the same.  The boys’ new look (which is a bit more in line with Chinese kids), has proven to be somewhat of a defense mechanism as on many occasions, the kids are being stopped, stared at or taken a photograph of (some Chinese have just never seen Caucasians before). It should be said, that the attention does make them feel like little rock stars!

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The Bald Brothers with their funky hairdresser in Beijing

Of course Beijing’s incredible history is mind-blowing and we joined the masses in visiting some of the city’s top attractions. The changing of the guards & flag lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square was interesting in that we thought there to be a major festival due to the thousands of people – however we later were surprised to learn that it was just a regular day!  The Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace and home of the emperors for over 500 years – from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty) was incredibly impressive in size and history, and the Summer Palace (the largest and best preserved imperial garden in China) was a beautiful, serene place, that the boys most enjoyed.

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At Being’s Forbidden City

At the Summer Palace, Filou focused in on a local artist who was making grasshoppers out of bamboo leaves. He was charming the man with his attention and after sitting with him for a while, a nice Chinese couple appeared and kindly offered him one of these crafts (they were just so taken by his enthusiasm).  Emile, too was lucky to get one – and he happily gave his away to one of the super-cute little Chinese girls he met in the park later that day.

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Summer Palace

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Filou with his grasshopper made out of bamboo leaves

798 Art Zone is Beijing’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries and shops (and many wonderful little cafes). This thriving artistic community, located in the Chaoyang District is housed in various 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings of unique architectural style. It was a place on Anthony’s hit list!

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So we spent a lovely afternoon browsing through many interesting galleries and funky shops. We even came across an outdoor rock concert (with a terrible sounding band!) – but in a cool courtyard with fantastic vibe.

We left the arts vibe and enjoyed our best and cheapest meal in Beijing when we found some 5-6 food carts lined up outside on the street (the four of us feasted for about $5).  When waiting for our last portion of delicious grilled vegetables, tofu and meat – Emile almost got run over by the food cart when it suddenly packed up, rushing away in great hurry when the police arrived.  Quite the nightly adventure that the boys still talk about – illegal street food was definitely a new experience for them!

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The guy that made our delicious “Illegal” street food

But the highlight of our stay in Beijing was undoubtedly our walk on the magnificent Great Wall of China.  We picked a perfect day for our adventure as it was slightly cloudy and therefore not too hot for our big walk.  We chose to go to the “Wild Wall” (the portion of the wall between Jinshanling and Simatai). This portion is still in its original state (has not been rebuilt or renovated like some other portions) and is a lot less touristy due to its more distant location from the city (about 2.5 hours outside of Beijing – instead of Badaling which is only 1 hour away).

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Little guy on the Great big Wall

We usually like to do things on our own, but we chose to go with an organized tour for this one (as we didn’t want dishonest cab drivers to ruin our day). We learned that the Great Wall is in fact a discontinuous network of wall segments (and not continuous as many think) built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern border. This UNESCO World Heritage site is over 20,000km long, and took millions of people (soldiers, common people & criminals) over 2000 years to build.  It is the longest man-made structure in the world, and seeing all those big rocks, it must have been a tremendous job to create this masterpiece (without any tools but bare hands)!

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Once arrived, we chose to take a cable-ride up to the #10 Tower on the Great Wall – from there, we would make the trek to tower #20. Frankly, I was ignorant in thinking that the Great Wall of China was an ancient structure that once arrived at, could pretty easily be walked upon. O, was I wrong – it is 4 days later now and my calves are still in serious pain – best stair-master ever!  There were several portions of the Great Wall that we could only climb, using both hands and feet –as double strength was needed to pull ourselves up on the incredibly steep staircases (nothing for you mom!).  But it was little pain for the privilege to be walking on this most incredible, historic structure.  Gazing out, there was stunning nature all around us – looking left were the mountains of China while paying attention on our right, and we were looking at the gorgeous scenery of Mongolia.

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It is without saying that the Great Wall of China needs to be preserved at all cost and no littering of any kind is allowed (including the human bathroom kind).  If you have to do your business (with no facilities anywhere in sight) you need to climb down from the Great Wall to find yourself a secluded spot. And of course, our little boys with small bladders had to (they thought that this unfortunate incident made for a cool story though, as now they can say they did “pipi” in Mongolia!).

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We met several sweet locals on the Great Wall – encouraging us to keep going and trying to sell us some souvenirs. But we were happy, taking our memories and our many “snaps” with us from this most wonderful day.

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So the surprises of Beijing were many;

– The serenity of our hotel amidst chaos

–  The incredible masses of people everywhere & the traffic that knows absolutely no rules (motorcycles zoom all around you when you cross the lights on a green – even cars don’t respect the signs and go when they feel like, even go against traffic all the time!)

–  The many different smells & sounds (loud and not always pleasant)

–  The mix of designer shops & little merchants everywhere

–  The childlike interests of the Chinese and their love for toys & mega drinks

–  The variety and multitude of food (some extremely spicy!) – we even discovered some fabulous Japanese restaurants in Beijing when looking for a change of cuisine

–  The unexpected safe feeling, moving around the city

–  The incredible history of each Beijing attraction

–  The differences in restaurant service (waiters will stand by your table immediately and wait till you have made your selection without giving you a few minutes to ponder the menu and/or dishes come out when ready – and never at the same time for four people dining together!)

–  The deliciousness of Beijing’s illegal street food

–  The incredible beauty and steepness of the Great Wall of China!

–  The behavior of the Chinese, which we at once consider to be rude (spitting, making loud noises during meals, pushing – an 80 year old Chinese woman gave me a mean push when she felt I was taking too long trying on a scarf in front of a mirror) and very kind (laughing and staring at us, being thankful for the opportunity to take pictures of us, giving us gifts, assisting us in showing how a meal is properly eaten or giving us directions, helping us make the best of our stay in their fascinating city)!