Last month, I quieted my admittedly jaded outlook on the country that’s been my home for two — going on three — years and took in China as my fellow travel companion did. Though well-traveled, my friend, Erica, was an exceptionally enthusiastic first-time visitor. Her attitude was contagious. It’s hard to sneer at anyone who greets you at the Beijing airport smiling and looking refreshed after a twelve-hour flight from the U.S. I take it she didn’t have someone sitting next to her, as I somehow always do, who spends ten of those twelve hours picking their nose.
Conditions were right for an impromptu trip. One thrown together within weeks of Erica’s arrival that equated to something like this:
One hospital doctor’s fortuitous shift schedule + One housewife living in China with plenty of time on her hands + Several cheap flights + Lots of hotel perks and points + A ticked biological clock = Obvious whirlwind trip of China!
Having not traveled solo with anyone other than Iggy for the last four years, it helped that we were good friends who first met on a service-learning trip to Tanzania over a decade ago. We’d already done squat toilets, days without showers and shaving, and the occasional dinner of goat meat. A ten-day trip through China turned out to be easy for us. Especially now that we were no longer college students, having said goodbye long ago to the days of dirty hostels, cheap food of questionable quality (well, this is still China), and perpetual worry over dwindling bank accounts. Then there was the sublime May weather that would’ve convinced anyone that China’s pollution problem is a myth concocted and promoted by evil Western heads of state in an effort to make China lose face on the international stage. Proof is in the screenshots of my WeatherChina app. A moderate score of 89 is unusually good, and 98 was the highest reading we got during the entire 10-day stretch.
Where else but Beijing would one begin her first trip to China? I had to show off the country’s most well-known city and its famed sights, including the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Llama Temple. Thanks to a recent New York Times’ 36 Hours article, new for me stops were Duck de Chine to sample a sophisticated take on Peking Duck and Great Leap Brewing Company whose hipster-trendy vibe somehow fit with its hidden setting in a modest hútòng. The 60s American soul music, bare bones decor, and chalkboard menu tricked me into believing we were sipping craft beer and, somewhat sadly for me, home brewed ginger ale in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville.
Having been to Beijing just last year, I would’ve been satisfied with these two stops. But the trip wouldn’t have been complete without all the historic highlights. I know the climax of Beijing — if not the whole trip — for Erica was our visit to the Great Wall. For other would-be China escorts out there, wow your guests with a very early morning trip to the Mùtiányù section (if you can find a guide willing to take you). There’s nothing like being the first tourist of the day on the wall and having it all to yourself, blissfully empty. This section was already popular for its toboggan ride. The newly built visitor center, which features a cluster of overpriced souvenir shops and an assortment of touristy restaurants, including the famous Chinese chain Burger King, will make it more so. As nice and sanitized as it was, I missed the chaos of traffic, racket of honking horns, and uproar of aggressive vendors selling magnets and threadbare t-shirts I encountered there last year.
Erica dubbed our trip through China the “ADD Tour,” which is how she classifies most of her vacations. She’s more of a see it, snap a photo, and move on type of traveler, so we didn’t dwell long in any one place. To maximize our time and indulge a curiosity I’ve had since moving to China (but one that Iggy has not) we opted to take the overnight train to Xi’An. Given what I’d read about the Z19, I was disappointed with our private soft-sleeper cabin. Though I appreciated the Western commode that was solely ours, the cabin’s age was visible and smellable. Smoking may now be banned, but its lingering remnants were buried deep within every inch of the cabin, infusing the faded carpet, frayed curtains and thin, papery sheets. Yet, the experience wasn’t altogether bad. I enjoyed the early morning view from my bottom bunk as we rollicked towards Xi’An. The landscape looked a lot like other parts of China with clusters of small, low-lying villages surrounded by plots of farmland. We passed a factory or two and, I think, a fairly large coal plant that was thankfully not operating at the time. Upon arriving ahead of schedule, we were greeted by our thoughtful guide at the city’s main train station. He whisked us away to the day’s main attraction, the Terracotta Warriors, in his Toyota Camry. Along the hour drive, we gulped down the cold cans of Nescafé and Sprite he offered us and gobbled up our own granola bars. (Another downside of the Z19, especially for a pregnant woman: no food cart.)
The warriors are as impressive as you’ve been told by anyone who has had the fortunate chance to see them. Everything about them is unique — from their shared history, to their accidental discovery, to their singular facial features, to the ongoing efforts to restore them. We spent over two hours touring the three accessible “pits,” while our guide stuffed our brains with surprising facts. Getting jostled about by photo-happy Chinese tour groups hardly bothered us as we learned all about the significance of Qin Shi Huangdi’s tombs (China’s self-proclaimed first emperor) and the gory backstory surrounding ancient burial customs where rich men took their property to the grave. Wives, concubines, soldiers, servants, and animals were buried alive, or so we were told. We didn’t let this gruesome detail curb our appetites after the tour as we sat at a local noodle shop, munching on the most delicious dish I’ve had in China: a bowl of biángbiáng miàn. These thick, never-ending noodles were topped with a garnish of crisp and vibrant hot peppers and not-too-heavy oily sauce. The best part? No slurping was required to eat them, which was a welcome silence to my normally squeamish ears. If you’re ever in Shaanxi province, look for 彪彪面 on the menu. You won’t be disappointed.
There is a lot more to see in Xi’An, but our visit was hampered by rain. We quickly climbed the stairs to the ancient City Wall and made the short stroll down the Muslim Street (Beiyuanmen Lu) where we sampled piping hot fried persimmon pastries stuffed with sesame and various types of dried fruit. After a quick photo-op in front of the nearby Drum and Bell Towers, we called it a day. We were ready to move on to Hollywood’s currently in vogue city to film, Shanghai, which was lucky for Erica since I know the city so well, given that it’s Iggy’s and my go-to escape from Haiyang. It was also lucky for me that Erica wanted to see the city since I was able to squeeze in a doctor’s appointment. If by now you haven’t picked up on the clues above, I should make it clear that I am pregnant with our first child. Our two-day tour of Shanghai coincided nicely with my twentieth week, so Iggy met up with us to attend a prenatal appointment and “see” the baby via ultrasound. As exciting as Shanghai is with its historic Bund, towering skyscrapers, and edible treats from street eats to our own expat restaurant favs, seeing the baby scrunched up with its little fists balled up next to its ears couldn’t have been topped. Erica probably had a different opinion. Understandably so. Her reward for waiting for us was a drink and a hard-to-beat view of the city from Pudong’s Park Hyatt on a gorgeously clear day.
Iggy flew back to Haiyang while Erica and I took a cheap flight to Hong Kong. In-flight entertainment was provided by our fellow passengers who dutifully followed the flight attendant-led group exercises. These were limited to in-seat movements like rolling the ankles or wrists and pulling earlobes, all while sweetly counting “yī, èr, sān.” I found Hong Kong to be underwhelming, though I could very easily adjust to the expat lifestyle on constant display: foreign housewives strolling around the city in yoga gear, couples of all nationalities enjoying a night out on the always-bustling town, impeccably dressed and beautiful office workers taking a break at the many branches of Starbucks. If only I could do the same things in Haiyang. But, really, three days turned out to be too much time in the city full of luxury shopping malls, narrow, congested streets, and claustrophobic hotel rooms.
A day would have been enough to ride the escalators, take in the view of the compact city and surrounding harbors and hillsides from Victoria Peak, and enjoy an upscale treat of delectable dim sum at Mott 32. Of course, I didn’t mind the spur-of-the-moment baby shopping I got to do or the well-deserved foot massage we had at Gao’s. But I was glad that Erica suggested ferrying over to Macau to check out its casinos and Chinese-meets-Portuguese historical leanings. The humidity made the day trip tiring, but we had a few pick-me-ups along the way. In the region’s historic center, by the Lou Kau Mansion, we cooled off with a dish of Italian ice before making our way to what remains of the 16th century, Jesuit-built Church of St. Paul. Later, we took refuge from the heat in the Wynn casino and enjoyed refreshing cocktails (mine was virgin) as we watched the high-stakes Chinese gamblers place their bets. I left Macau with the same feeling I have about Vegas. Once is enough, but god bless the casinos in Macau for providing free transportation to and from the ferry terminals.
Ending our excursion in Hong Kong made me appreciate mainland China a little bit more, as did seeing all of the cities through the touristic eyes of Erica. It’s easy to get fed-up with the daily, sometimes harsh realities of living in China as an expat, especially in our rural area. Seeing China as Erica saw it — an expansive country with modern cities, ancient history, impressive cultural sights, and endless exotic foods to try — made me remember just why it was I agreed to move to China in the first place. The trip rekindled my fascination with the country and also gave me an added confidence boost in our decision to have a baby here. Life isn’t always easy in China, but as with anything else, it has its ups and downs. We’ve dealt with all of the challenges we’ve encountered, so how much harder can it get? I guess in a few short months we’ll find out.