What a 36 hours!

Trip Start Jul 12, 2013
Trip End Jul 23, 2013

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Flag of China  ,
Saturday, July 13, 2013

So once getting through immigration, we clear customs with ease an enter China....its 5:55a, and our tour guide isn't meeting us at Starbucks until 7 (I knew i should have told him 6:15!) oh well, lets check out Starbucks in China and see if its any different than the States...nope, same overpriced, uninspiring coffee. $17 for 2 talls and a scone. As we're sitting there lamenting our overpriced coffee, I say to Heather, "we have to make sure we find a McDonald's while we are out today and keep our tradition of eating McD's in every country we go to." Her response, "well how about right now, i see the arches down at the other side of the airport." Surprisingly they didn't seem to have anything on the menu that was unique to China; in fact, the egg McMuffin was pretty much a spot on match for one in Houston (and the coffee was better too!)

So 45 mins down, time to head back to Starbucks to meet our guide; as expected he was exactly ontime, not a minute early. But that's ok because he seems to have a good personality and speaks incredibly good English. His name is "Jerry". I ask him what the plan is for avoiding the crowds...head out to the Great Wall now and get in front of all the tour buses? No, we're going opposite, Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden Palace first, then to the Great Wall because that is the opposite schedule of the tour buses and the trip from the Wall back to the airport is easier than traffic through Beijing from TFC. Ok, good enough, lets go. Our driver, Mr. Ma greets us with a grunt and spends the rest of the day communicating like we're cavemen. Jerry on the other hand taught himself English and probably speaks it better than I do, he is also a walking encyclopedia of Chinese history, "this emperor did this, and this one built that, and the Square symbolizes this, and the reason why that temple has that many columns is this, while the reason that building is placed here is because of the symmetry with that one which actually replicates the lotus flower in bloom in late August on the Yantzee river at dusk on Thursdays (ok, I'm kidding on the last one, but he was like Rainman with dates, names, and reasons).

Tiananmen Square in and of itself isn't much to behold, it really is what its billed as, the largest public square in the world. And in low season (now) during the 'slow' time of the day with the least amount of tour buses; there were no less than 10,000 tourists there and 90%25 were with tour buses! (everyone knows how much I despise tour buses) To our surprise, easily 90%25 of the tourists were actually Chinese Nationals from other parts of the country, and if we're not the only white people in the square, we're 3 out of a very small number (because we didn't see anymore!) And apparently the Chinese Nationals coming to visit Beijing hadn't see a white person either because by the time we had walked across the Square, no less than 12 females took Maclaren's photo and we got mobbed by a group of 8-10 high school kids wanting to take our photo too (how do Celebrities handle this?)

The Forbidden City is much like many other ancient imperial seats in other countries these days...empty buildings that you can't go in. Other than the hallways from one courtyard to another, I literally don't think there is a building that you can enter. That said, the shear size of the courtyards and exquisite decoration and details on the buildings make it worth the walk through. The outer area (Imperial City) is free to wander through, while the actual Forbidden City (1st ring around Beijing) is not. Again we are swarmed by Chinese tourists as we traverse across the City, each courtyard and bottleneck area creating another opportunity for them to mob us. at the back of the city, behind the Emperor's private chambers is an amazing garden area. Heather and I are in agreement that this is the most impressive part of the city. The 300-500 year old trees are phenomenal, and the garden has a sense of peace despite the 5000 people in it at any given time (its max capacity is probably 5500). Out the back of the city and onto traditional Chinese tea time.

Our hostess for tea is the personification of "pudgy, round faced due to being overfed on western food, Chinese girl with a thick accent, who tries too hard to be nice, but only really wants this tea service to be over, and for us to spend some money, so she can go back to eating a cheese burger." That said, it was actually quite an enjoyable time despite MD getting bored 3 minutes in and deciding she'd rather run wild through the store full of glass chinaware...we barely made it out of there with just 2 unbroken cups and a bag of tea...I thought for sure any minute MD would rip down a whole shelf full of china and I would get the infamous "you break, you buy" (said in fat Chinese girl thick accent).

Onward with our whirlwind tour of Beijing, to the Great Wall of China. This probably goes without saying, but there are far too many people in China...the roads of Beijing are an almost constant gridlock. It took us about an hour and a half to get there, when it should have only been a 40 minute drive, but the drive is quite beautiful...its landscaped the entire way, on both sides of the road, and at least 50' deep. Along the way the road runs beside a small river that the locale villagers have turned into riverside restaurants and weekend retreats for city folks; we think there is a great opportunity to introduce river tubing to China here! We swing into one the restaurants and have lunch, its good but has definitely been Westernized some.

The Great Wall requires a decent hike up the hill to the base of the gondola and its 32C now since its after lunch and there is no breeze whatsoever. You know if Heather says its hot that I'm already soaked in sweat! The ride up the gondola is no better; closed in glass box with no air vents or fans. With sweat running profusely now, we finish the rest of the steps to the top carrying our sweaty, 30lb baby! At least we're at a high point on the wall now, its downhill either direction for a couple hundred yards. Looking at the details of the construction up close and the size and number of stones, then considering how far up the side of the mountain we just came, and then gazing out across the adjacent hills to see the wall continue as far as you can see...its hard to comprehend the amount of effort it took to build this wall. And to think, all it really did was slow the Mongols down, albeit for a couple hundred years. Its prohibitively hot up here on the wall, so we walk down one side to the nearest guard house, then back up to the starting point and down the other side to that guard booth, and back to the starting point again. An hour on the wall really is more than enough because really all it is is 5000km of the same thing, truly when you've seen 1km, you've seen it all.

On the way down the hill we decide to break out our negotiating skills at the market and buy some local goods. The question is, is cheap Chinese goods at the street market, the epitome of cheap Chinese goods? Yep, pretty much. Even their handicrafts have become factory made. Still the negotiating is authentic. I start with a mask for my office, the seller wants 250 so I counter with 100 (without doing the math in my head first, thats about $16) and the seller jumps on it and says ok, deal. I knew as soon as he accepted my first offer that I had just overpaid, and probably by double. "Ok you sneaky sellers, I've got your price markups figured out now...lets go to work." The next seller is an old lady with a little red dress for MD. She responds to my counteroffer with "that Laos money" which means thats too cheap because Laos is among the poorest countries in Asia. We banter back and forth for a while and I respond with "Laos money, better than no money!" We eventually reach an agreement (and I feel like I've won because I got her initial offer down by 70%25, we leave with a smile and a photo. Further down the road I negotiate for 2 cold beers...I ask our guide if I got a good price for the beer and he is shocked that I got 2 for what he thought was a good price for 1. I'm on fire now...we should stay, pretty soon they'll be paying me to take their stuff home!

The drive to the airport is easier than the drive out was, so we arrive with plenty of time, pick up our luggage and head to the hourly hotel & showers. They claim they are all booked up and won't have a shower available until 7p, but we leave at 7:30 and this shower is on the outside of security so that won't work. Ask a few more aggressive questions and miraculously they have a family shower room available for us! The slippers they provide are made for women and Chinese men, they barely cover half of the bottom of my feet and don't do much more than make the floor more slippery. I'm almost as sweaty after the shower as I was up on the Wall because there is very little AC in the shower room, but at least it's just 1 layer of fresh sweat and I'm in fresh clothes.

Its a good thing we arrived back at the airport with plenty of time, the security check-in is ridiculous. You have to go through 3 checkpoints to get into the departure terminal and the security scan is the worst I've ever been through. We literally have to take almost everything out of our bags, including all our camera lens out of the camera bag even with the camera already out. Our bags get rescanned 3 times, they want to look in my backpack to find my toothbrush, I didn't set the metal detector off but I still got a full body wand and pat down, and they swabbed our stuff for residue! Literally 10 minutes later, this better be the safest airport in the world for all the hassle we just went through.

The flight is uneventful and we arrive in Ho Chi Minh City near midnight. Heather always loves seeing our name on a pick-up board when we exit an airport, and tonight is no exception, we're picked up in a Mercedes 500 series and driven to the hotel...with 1 piece of luggage riding shotgun because it wouldn't all fit in the trunk. I've booked us at The Majestic Saigon, which is about a hundred year old hotel with a lot of history. Its not a disappointment either, the service has that old school charm feeling that you don't get in vanilla, global chain hotels today. The lobby looks straight out of the 20's (elegant and beautiful, not dusty and old!) and the room is very spacious with hardwood floors, a balcony overlooking the Saigon River, and king size bed.

Its been a whirlwind 36 hours, room service pizza, a beer, and glass of wine and we're sound asleep. Tomorrow we wake up in Saigon, Vietnam.
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