Sunday, July 25, 2010

Packing, Monday, July 5

I looked at all the items piled on the bed, on the cedar chest, on the bureau and then I looked at the suitcase. Again at the stuff. Then the suitcase. There was no way all of that was going to fit into one bag. And at least half of the “stuff” was not mine but rather the components of an ever-expanding list of needed items that Brandon sent from Beijing – things he said he could not easily get there.

(Brandon has been in Beijing since May 2009 when he started a three-month internship at the China Daily, an English language Chinese newspaper. He left for China about four days after graduating from Penn State. About half-way through the internship, Brandon decided that he would really like to stay in China longer than the three months. He also felt he had a better chance at getting a job in China than back in the States. He signed a one-year contract with the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine similar to TIME or U.S. News and World Report. He is one of several foreign language experts with the magazine. He edits copy written in English by Chinese reporters so that it reads more like standard English than Chinglish.)

I really didn’t want to pay for an extra bag but that would have been cheaper than mailing so many items to him. I found the Continental Airlines Web site somewhat confusing about the number of bags one could check. But my wife, Mary Ruth, was pretty sure I could check two bags on a long international flight – and she was right.

And so I was ready. One large suitcase and a smaller one. And my canvas Jack Baurer man-bag carry-on which I planned to use throughout the trip to carry my camera, water supply, sunscreen, sun glasses, umbrella, tour guide books, snacks, tissues, handy wipes, migraine medication and anything else I might need.

Day 1, Tuesday, July 6

Morning: We left Tamaqua for the airport right on time: 7 a.m. We did the same when Mary Ruth and youngest son, Michael, visited Brandon in April. And like our trip to Newark’s airport in April, we arrived around 9:30 without much traffic delay.

I did not go with the rest of the family in April because back when the trip was being planned, we had an elderly cat that needed daily medical attention. I did not want to put Snowball in a kennel, so I thought it best to stay home and take care of her. She eventually died before the April trip but the flight arrangements had been made and visa applications sent. Another reason involved the annual local American Cancer Society Telethon with which I volunteer as producer. Its air dates fell within the April trip dates. Since I was staying home to help with the telethon, I felt it only right to ask the event’s chair (and a former student of mine at Tamaqua Area HS), Joe Krushinsky, to accompany me to China. He agreed, and when Brandon appeared on the telethon via the Internet and made a pledge, Joe announced that he would be coming to Bejing in just a few weeks to collect the pledge. Perfect.

Afternoon: Thirteen hours on a plane. That may not seem too bad until you are stuck in the middle of those 13 hours. Actually, I began to think we were stuck in time. The Continental Boeing 777 is equipped with TV screens at every seat so you can pick from a wide variety of movies, TV shows, music or games. Screens mounted on the walls alternate between images of a world map showing the location of the plane and text telling you how far you’ve gone, how far to your destination, the time remaining to arrival and the temperature outside the plane (in case you were thinking of talking a walk during the flight). I swear we were stuck on “8 hours to destination.” But I kept thinking, “In just eight hours, I’ll be hugging Brandon.” That thought would get me through the flight.

Evening: To help time pass more quickly, we were served dinner, a “light” snack (a cheeseburger and ice cream), several rounds of non-alcoholic drinks (and 10 small pretzels) and breakfast. Back in April, Michael was sick for three days after eating the fish dish on the plane. Joe and I both decided on beef. I had planned to read some of my Ted Kennedy book during the flight, but the consensus seemed to be “darken the plane and get some sleep,” so that option disappeared. Instead, I decided to watch a movie or two or three or four. I’ve always wanted to see Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” so that was my first choice. Later, I bypassed the “Godfather” trilogy, “Gone with the Wind” and most of the Harry Potter movies for some films I never knew existed – and after watching them, I understood why I never knew they existed.

Day 2, Wednesday, July 7

Morning: “8 hours to destination.”

Afternoon: Somehow the "time to destination" eventually reduced to 0 and we arrived at Beijing International Spaceport right on time – 2:30 p.m. Joe and I followed the crowd after deplaning. They seemed to know where they were going. The facility is huge, expansive – an indication, we would soon learn, of the country itself. Joe and I got in line beneath the “Foreigner” sign – now that’s something different – to have our passports and visas checked. I was a little concerned because since Joe and I are both in the media business (he works for Maryland Public Television and I with a chain of weekly newspapers), the Chinese government would only issue us a one-month visa and would only issue it a few days before our departure date. In addition, the consulate in New York City wanted letters from both our bosses stating that we were not coming to China as journalists, just as visitors. Customs was uneventful. We walked to the train which takes passengers from the arrival/departure gates to the main complex where we would pick up our bags. Around 3:30 we were on our way out of the restricted area. In the line-up of anxious faces, we spotted a familiar one. I thought it funny that Mary Ruth had teared up when she first saw Brandon back in April, but they were just tears of joy. The 13-hour flight was worth it.

The cab ride to our hotel took about 25 minutes. Cabs are pretty cheap in Beijing – about 60 yuans (a yuan is about 16 cents American). While check-in time at the Oriental Garden Hotel is 2:30, our room was not ready so we were asked to wait in the coffee shop for about 15 minutes. Mary Ruth had booked our rooms through the Internet. I had copies of the confirmation and rates. Room 522 was pretty much like any moderately priced Western hotel room. We unpacked and I filled my smaller suitcase with everything I brought for Brandon for him to take to his apartment which was only about five minutes walking distance from the hotel. He has two roommates. They have separate bedrooms but share a common living room area and kitchen. Brandon has his own half-bath. I tell you this only from second hand knowledge (my wife) as Joe and I never saw the apartment.

Evening: When we finished the unpacking and repacking, I was ready for a nap. I plopped down on the bed. I like a firm mattress, but this was beyond firm. It felt like two box spring sets piled on top of each other. But hey, I’d been awake for over 24 hours so I was ready to relax. “Well, let’s get going,” Brandon said. “Going?” I responded. “Yeah, we need to see the Olympic area tonight.”

Obviously Brandon had planned out our visit very carefully. Subways are a great bargain in Beijing – 2 yuan (32 cents American) for any destination – except the airport, which is a little more. Brandon navigated us to the right subway line. Many of the lines were built for the 2008 Olympics. Older lines were renovated. Signs are in Chinese and English. The cars were moderately filled. What an interesting feeling it was being the only white folks in the car.

The Olympic area is huge. We walked and walked and walked. Local merchants tried without success to sell us some kites. Brandon told us that the Water Cube, where Olympic swimming and diving events were held, was to be opened to the public after the Olympics but has been closed and may need to be torn down. The roof, it seems, is being eaten away by acid rain.

We caught a cab back to an area near the hotel dotted with small restaurants. Brandon has been in Beijing over a year so he knows where to go and what to order. Bless him! My first attempt at using chopsticks was successful and my concern about starving to death in China was reduced. (I had planned to carry packets of plastic spoons, knives and forks, but Mary Ruth said I would embarrass Brandon so the packets remained at home.)

The food, served family style, was delicious just as Mary Ruth had said it would be. Brandon promised he would never order snake or silkworms. The local beer was cold and light.

After dinner, we walked back toward the hotel. Brandon said he would see us around 9:30 the next morning and pointed us in the right direction. As Joe and I walked to the hotel, I said how impressed I was with the city so far. Joe said he was even more impressed with Brandon. I guess I was, too.

Day 3, Thursday, July 8

Morning: Jet lag. I was wide awake at 3 a.m. even after being up for over 28 hours. Joe snores. I mean big-time snores. But that was not the problem. So I got up and logged on to the laptop Joe had brought along. The hook-up to the Internet was free. Michael had brought his laptop to China in April. I e-mailed Mary Ruth to tell her we had arrived safely and that everything was going fine. After about an hour I was able to go back to bed until daybeak.

Brandon arrived right on time. Joe and I had gone to the coffee shop for coffee. We would be touring around Tian’anmen Square. The subway was much more crowded than the night before. Subway workers in yellow vests are on the platforms pushing people into the cars to get the doors closed. Early morning trains run about every two minutes so there is not a lot of time for delays at a station.

Our first stop of the day was the Mao Mausoleum. The Chinese have preserved Chairman Mao Zedong’s body and put it on display weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Mao was the communist leader who defeated the Chinese Nationalists (now on Tiawan) and set up the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The lines were long but moved quickly. The sun was blazing. I had lathered myself up in sunscreen prior to leaving the hotel. As we got closer to the mausoleum entrance, we passed through several security checkpoints. No cameras were allowed. Many Chinese purchased small bunches of flowers to honor Mao. The flowers were placed in bins just inside the entrance. Guards keep the flowers nicely stacked. Joe and I both had the same idea – the guards could take the flowers back outside and resell them. The line split inside the main entrance – some went left, some went right around a large partition. On the other side is the darkened chamber with a huge raised glass case containing Mao’s body. Guards rush visitors by the case so we got just a glimpse. As I recall, the body is mostly covered and all I saw was Mao’s orangish face. I read that the body is kept in a vault below the display area and that it is treated daily with chemicals to keep it preserved. I think I also read that Russians (remember they have kept Lenin around and Stalin for a while) helped the Chinese in the preservation process.

We walked across Tian’anmen Square to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where communist officials watch the huge military parade held every 10 years during the National Holiday in October. (Smaller parades are held every five years.) Just think of the old May Day parades in Moscow’s Red Square. The view of the square from the gate is inspiring. The Great Hall of the People to the right, Mao’s Mausoleum center court and the Museum of Natural History to the left. Cars raced along the street in front of the gate, the same street where the famous protester-tank encounter was photographed some 21 years ago.

Behind the gate is the Forbidden City, the home of numerous Chinese emperors. Perhaps it should be called the “Forbidding City” because of its size. Mary Ruth said she would like to be able to spend more time exploring all of its little nooks and crannies next time she’s in Beijing. It is beautiful beyond description but on this day, in the excessive heat and sun, I was content with Brandon’s walk through tour. I began to appreciate the weeks and weeks I had spent at the gym. The cardio conditioning was going to pay off.

Afternoon: Across the street from the Forbidden City is Jigshan Park, which was actually part of the imperial gardens. Mary Ruth tells me the hill in the park was built from all the dirt dug out to make the moat around the Forbidden City. Atop the hill is a pagoda, which offers a wonderful view of the Forbidden City. I suppose the view is even more wonderful in cooler weather. My T-shirt was soaked by the time we reached the top.

Back on the street, Brandon flagged down a cab to take us back to the hotel. Getting a cab is not always easy, Brandon said, because some Chinese cab drivers are racist and will not stop for a white person. Imagine that.

Before going back to our hotel for a nap and shower, we stopped at a 7-Eleven for some bottled water (cheaper than the water offered in the hotel room) and a sandwich (cucumber and ham is not bad). Honest, this is the only American store we frequented. We did not go to McDonald’s, Burger King, Papa John’s or KFC. Honest!

Evening: Brandon selected a German restaurant for dinner. Mary Ruth and Michael had been to this one, too. Brandon’s girlfriend, Layla, would be joining us.

Brandon met Layla (pronounced Lyla) when she came to look at the apartment he shares with two others when one of the others had moved out. While Layla decided not to take the apartment, Brandon decided to give her a call and their relationship began. Layla is a German citizen of Chinese parents. She is in Beijing on an internship with a marketing firm. She speaks German, Chinese and English. She is delightful and they make a beautiful couple. Brandon smiles a lot when she’s around.

Dinner in Beijing was more of an event than just a meal. It was a time to sit, relax, chat and enjoy good food and a cold beer. While a German restaurant, a guitarist and singer performed Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle numbers. I ordered a pork dish with cheese noddles. It was delicious, but best of all, the German restaurant had forks!

We ended the evening taking a cab to the lake area just on the other side of the Forbidden City. We had seen the lakes from the Jigshan Park lookout earlier that day. The lake area is known for its night life. People crowded the numerous restaurants and bars. Employees outside the businesses tried to get you to enter their particular establishment. You could rent boats and cruise around on the small lakes. It reminded me a little of the boardwalk at Wildwood, N.J., but not as crass. Brandon picked a place and we went to its second floor terrace for a night-ending drink. Our first full day of sightseeing had been a good one.

Day 4 - Friday, July 9

Morning: Figuring on a long day at the Great Wall, Joe suggested that we take in the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Lots of interesting dishes, fruits and salads offered. I stuck to the things I could easily identify. The steamed buns were interesting but the mystery filling caused me some concern. A lighter breakfast may have been a better idea we learn a little later that morning. Brandon arrived at the hotel a little after 9 and our driver, John Ping, showed up at 9:30. Brandon had used John Ping when Mary Ruth visited. She had raved about John and wanted me to make sure I got a photo of John with Brandon. Brandon liked using a driver and private car instead of taking a tour bus. He said it would be faster and more convenient. I soon learned what he meant by “faster.”

John Ping would make a good NASCAR driver. No wait, they have rules in NASCAR, don’t they? Picture this: a four lane highway – two lanes going and two lanes coming. John decides that traffic in his two lanes going is moving too slowly so he just goes out in that third lane (part of the coming lanes) to pass. Did I forget to mention the oncoming traffic? I was beginning to understand why Mary Ruth couldn’t wait until we met John Ping. As we got closer to our destination, John told us he had applied to be a driver for the U.S. Embassy but had failed the driving portion of the exam. I can’t imagine why.

John Ping, like every other driver in China, must have learned how to drive from a “Fast and Furious” video! Beijing taxi drivers actually believe that two objects CAN occupy the same space at the same time. And while they are the craziest drivers I have ever seen, we saw only two accidents and only one person getting a traffic ticket (he must have killed a dozen people to get that ticket). Two things must wear out quickly on Chinese cars: their brakes and their horns. Chinese drivers honk at everything, especially pedestrians. Even scooter and bike riders like to honk their horns or ring their bells at you to get out of their way. And since cars are allowed to park almost anywhere, you’re not even safe walking on a sidewalk! But I digress…

After miles and miles of flat land, the mountains just suddenly appeared. The Great Wall is not one wall but many walls, some connected, that stretch hundreds of miles across China. Sections were built under numerous dynasties. The section we visited at Mutianyu in the Huairou district outside Beijing is not the closest section to the city, but Brandon likes this section because it is less visitor friendly than the section nearest Beijing with its handrails and safety barriers. (Obama visted the user-friendly Wall closer to Beijing. Bill Clinton came to Mutianyu.)

Afternoon: “This is my space,” John Ping said parking his car in the through lane of the lot. I slung my Jack Bauer bag over my shoulder (complete with sunscreen, camera, umbrella, etc.) and off we went. The entrance is surrounded by numerous food and souvenir stands. In addition to the all the Great Wall trinkets and T-shirts, we spotted a “I (heart) BJ” T-shirt. I think the Chinese wanted BJ to mean “BeiJing.”

We hit the public bathroom before getting on the cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain and the Wall. It is a beautiful area and reminded me of the Endless Mountains in Sullivan County. We mounted the Wall by way of steps from a staging area outside the cable car building. The Great Wall is great. Richard Nixon said that. Actually he said, “The Great Wall is a great wall, built by a great people.” I have seen photos and videos of the Wall but standing there and looking to my right and then to my left and seeing no end of it gave me a new appreciation for this human accomplishment. I marveled at how it had been constructed. How did they get the materials to the top of the mountain? How was it planned? How many died in its construction?

My sense of wonder began to fade as we started walking. First to our left. “Just a little,” Brandon said. He and his brother had gone as far as tourist are allowed on the left side in April which included a section so steep they were crawling on their hands and knees. But not this day. While the sun was hidden by clouds, the air was hot and humid. I had lathered up again with sunscreen and some of it had begun to run into my eyes causing them to water and burn. It was on this side of the Wall that we met our first Penn Stater. Seeing my PSU hat, a young man asked if I was a graduate. He was. I said I was and so was Brandon and Joe. As we progressed on the right side of the Wall – the section leading to the only way down the mountain – we met a family from Maryland whose members were either Penn State graduates or a soon to be PSU student. Nittany Lions are everywhere!

The Great Wall could easily be renamed the Wall of Many Great Steps. Again, my gym visits and conditioning were paying off. But I was moving slower and slower. My eyes burned from sunscreen and sweat. We stopped frequently to rest in the huts atop the wall – so did lots of other people. Mary Ruth had warned me to stay hydrated but my water supply was running out. Merchants manned card-tables set up along the Wall selling water, soda, beer, T-shirts and Pringle potato chips. Now who would drink a beer on the Great Wall on a blistering hot day? Not even I could do that.

As we neared the exit steps, Brandon discovered that he had lost his keys – or he thought he had lost his keys. He hoped they had fallen out in John Ping’s car. I hoped so, too. I didn’t want anything to dampen the experience of being on the Great Wall with my son.

We found John Ping playing cards with some other drivers at one of the fruit stands. After grabbing a few cold drinks for the ride back to Beijung, we were ready for take-off. Brandon’s keys were not in the car.

When Mary Ruth, Michael and Brandon visited the Great Wall, John Ping had taken them home via some small towns with shops and a porcelain factory. He obviously gets kick-backs when the tourists he brings make purchases. Brandon, concerned about his keys and wilted father, suggested we go directly to Beijing.

Beijing is a pretty much a modern, westernized city but the countryside outside the city is something else. I saw lots of modest living, if not downright poverty, on the country roads we raced along. I saw large high rise housing projects out in the middle of nowhere sitting empty. I saw other housing and road projects abandoned in mid-construction. I saw modern multi-lane highways with only a trickle of traffic using them. Not too many days after our visit to Mutianyu, I read in the China Daily that the government wants to relocate 400 families from a small town near the Great Wall to develop the area into a tourist attraction. China seems to be alive with growth, but sometimes it appears to be misdirected and unplanned growth.

We arrived back at the hotel. Joe and I showered and settled in for a nap. Brandon placed a few calls regarding his apartment and workplace keys. He made arrangements to meet one of his roommates back at the apartment to at least get him in. Then as Joe and I slept and snored our way to happiness, Brandon also took a shower, curled up in a chair and fell asleep.

Evening: Beijing is a diverse city and Brandon has embraced its diversity. Granted, attending a German World Cup soccer game at the German Embassy was not a great leap for him since he studied German in high school and college and has been to Germany several times, but when he told us we were going to a Muslim restaurant that night, I was surprised. The restaurant had several things going for it, he said. First, the food was really good. Second, it offered entertainment including belly dancers and a bongo player who sang Frank Sinatra songs. And finally, if you bought three beers, you got a fourth free. Now how can you beat that?

Everything he said was true. The food was good. (I don’t think I ever ate lamb before.) The entertainment interesting – especially the belly dancer who placed a large live snake around the neck of an audience member. And, of course, the beer was pretty good, too. Friends of Brandon (FOB) Kyle and Jackie came along. Brandon met them through a mutual friend, Cassandra Kane, a high school classmate who had met Kyle during a Washington, D.C., internship program. Kyle and Jackie are engaged and are in China teaching English to elementary school children.

It had started raining we discovered as we left the restaurant and began looking for a cab back to the hotel. It took a long time to hail a cab. Traffic drastically reduces in the evening in Beijing so fewer cabs are available. I had my umbrella and a Chinese gentleman invited Joe to share his until a cab finally stopped. We were dropped off at the hotel and Brandon took the cab back to his apartment. As Joe and I settled for the night, the phone rang. It was Brandon. Somehow he had dropped his keys in his apartment. Despite the evening rain and burning eyes on the Great Wall, that bit of news capped a rather nice day.

Day 5, Saturday, July 10

Morning: After two full days of sightseeing, we slept in today. Around noon, Brandon introduced us to the little bagel shop he had taken his Mom and brother to when they visited. Joe and I order “American” coffee from the menu and a bagel melt, a sandwich with bacon, lettuce, cheese, onion and tomato and a dressing. Brandon ordered a plain bagel with butter. We noted that the Chinese tend to use fresh produce and fruits in their cooking.

Afternoon: Brandon had planned to take us to the Summer Palace this day but it was raining. We decided that a ride on the bullet fast train to Tianjin would be a good idea instead. And besides, Mary Ruth had suggested that we pick up some of the fried dough knots (not donuts) for which Tianjin is noted.

Beijing has many train stations. We used the south and west stations during our visit. This day we would depart from the south station, again an expansive structure similar to the airport. Brandon purchased our tickets and we lined up at the gate. No need to rush, though the Chinese are big on rushing places, because the seats are assigned.

The train is sleek, modern, bullet shaped. Free bottled water was available as we entered our car. The train left exactly on schedule. Once outside the city limits, we hit speeds exceeding 325 km or a little over 200 mph. I got the feeling that it could do even better if needed. By car, the trip from Beijing to Tainjin takes about 2.5 hours. By regular train, about 1.5 hours. By bullet train, about 25 minutes.

The station at Tianjin is huge. People swarming everywhere. I had never seen so many Chinese people in one place at one time before. After scouting out some local shops for the requested fried dough knots, we walked around the area near the station, not as far into the city as Mary Ruth and Michael had gone due to the weather. Like other Chinese cities we visited during our stay, Tianjin is in building mode. Modern structures dot the landscape. I worry that China is modernizing at the expense of its cultural history. We make our purchases and head back to the rail station and Beijing.

Brandon had warned us early in our visit about beggers in Beijing who target foreign people. To be honest, we didn’t see many more beggers in Beijing than we would have in any large American city. I saw two handicapped persons begging in the underpass leading from the Forbidden City to Jigshan Park and once we were approached by children asking for money. I saw an elderly man, apparently blind, singing in Chinese being led through subway cars by a woman who collected the few donations offered by passengers. But this day, before going back to our hotel, we stopped at the 7-Eleven so Joe could get some bottled water. As Brandon and I waited outside, a man approached us and in very good English asked if we might give him 20 yuan. At first Brandon said no. The man said he needed the money to pay for a cab to get to a job interview. Then to my surprise, Brandon gave him the 20 yuan. The man turned to me, but Brandon said, “No!” Thanking us, the man turned and walked toward the street. I was pleased to see Brandon’s generosity even though we both suspected the man was not telling us the truth. “I thought he spoke pretty good English,” Brandon said justifying his gift. But you never know. ('I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.') Joe came out of the 7-Eleven. Brandon said he’d be meeting us around 7:30 for dinner. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the man hailing a cab.

Evening: Did you know that Beijing used to be called Peking? Probably misnamed by some westerner who could not properly pronounce “Beijing.” Obviously, the name stuck for some time. In fact, one of the universities in Beijing is named Peking University. And then, of course, there’s Peking duck.

We arrive for dinner around 8 p.m. More FOBs have been invited. Mike Peters is the international wire editor at the China Daily, the English language newspaper where Brandon did the internship last summer that got him to China in the first place. Mike told us he spent some time with the Dallas Morning News and has traveled all over the world, including Iraq and Iran. Now, he’s trying to get into Afghanistan. Ken McManus (photo at right) is a foreign expert at the South China Morning Post, an English language newspaper with headquarters in Hong Kong and a bureau in Beijing. He is a jovial, friendly individual, easy to be around and reminds me of Captain Kangaroo. Brandon has gone to Ken for advice numerous times when making important career decisions in Beijing. Ken has been a guardian angel watching over our boy.

Ken and Brandon ordered the food, including Peking duck. We sat at a large table with an equally large glass lazy-susan in the middle to facilitate the passing of food. I have not mentioned that food is not necessarily delivered all at the same time in a Chinese restaurant. Whatever is ready is delivered to the table. You eat as the food arrives. Eventually, the entire order gets delivered. So we started with a great eggplant dish and lemon chicken, a dish my wife urged me to try. There had to be a rice dish of some sort since every meal included rice and eventually the Peking duck arrived. The duck takes an hour to prepare and the final presentation is done right at table side. Thin slices of poultry, along with the duck’s head, are presented on a platter. To eat the duck, you place slices of the meat in a sauce and then put it on what looks to be a soft taco. You then add onions, carrots or garlic, roll it all up and eat it. Not what I expected, but enjoyable none-the-less.

Equally enjoyable was the dinner conversation. Ken and Mike talked about the tight control exercised over the print media in China. Mike said the 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square uprising last summer was never mentioned in the China Daily. Ken echoed a lament I’ve heard many times from Brandon. While foreign experts like Ken and Brandon are hired as “smoothers” to make English copy written by Chinese reporters read like real English, the Chinese do not always take the foreign expert’s advice. This, of course, can lead to some conflict. It also leads to some pretty unusual English like a subway Nike World Cup sign stating that “Impossible is nothing” or perhaps even the “I (heart) BJ” T-shirt.

I’m glad Brandon has these senior friends in Beijing who can be both mentors and friends who understand his frustration. As we left the restaurant, I quietly thanked Ken for being Brandon’s mentor in Beijing. “My wife and I really appreciate your guidance and friendship for our son,” I said. Ken smiled. “He’s cool.”

We decided not to end the evening. Brandon invited Ken and Mike to come along to the Fubar at the People’s Stadium. Ken declined. He doesn’t drink. Mike accepted and off we went in a cab. The Fubar is sort of like a speakeasy. You walk into a hot dog stand at the stadium and as you approach the bathroom area, you press a button on the wall and a panel slides back allowing you to enter the bar area. Brandon had taken his brother Michael there one evening with a group of friends. Mary Ruth spent that evening resting back at the hotel. Brandon and I had whiskey sours and Mike and Joe ordered a special drink presented in a rather tall ceramic Buddha, which you could take with you for a slightly higher fee. Both Joe and Mike decided to buy their Buddhas.

Day 6, Sunday, July 11

Morning: It’s difficult to adjust to a different time zone. Beijing is 12 hours ahead of local time. Both Joe and I kept waking up in the middle of the night, wide awake. We’d get on the computer and look at e-mail and then go back to sleep, sometimes until late in the morning. This was one of those mornings. Today’s breakfast at the bagel shop included two plates of french fries. They looked a lot like McDonald’s french fries. In fact we suspected that they had run to the nearby McDonalds and fetched the salty fries for us. Brandon said that sometimes when he orders french fries, they give him little potato triangles.

Afternoon: Bad weather again forced the postponement of visiting the Summer Palace. Instead, we decided to take in the military museum which was near the west train station we’d be going to the next day for our overnight trip to Xi’an (pronounced Shee-on) to see the Terracotta Warriors.

The Chinese have been fighting each other and outsiders for a long, long time so there is plenty of military history on display in the museum. We spent a good three hours walking through the displays. Photos probably do more justice to the museum than words. One thing struck me as unusual: a display of Chinese military uniforms over the years featured non-Asian manikins.

The Silk Market is a shopper’s paradise – or hell, depending on whether or not you like to haggle over the price of an item. Imagine a place like the farmer’s market in Hometown, Leesport or Kutztown only much, much bigger. Electronics. Luggage. Clothing. Jewelry. Arts and crafts. As you walk through the narrow isles, merchants aggressively try to get you to look at their wares. They go as far as pulling your arms to get your attention.

There’s just a few things you need to know about the Silk Market. First, just about everything offered there is a knock off – it’s not the real thing. iPhones are not made by Apple. That shirt is not really made by Armani and that is not really a Rolex watch. The second thing you need to know is that you never pay the asking price. Brandon suggested that I never pay more than 40 percent of the asking price. Lower than that is even better. Here’s how it works. The salesperson will type in a price on a calculator. Then you type in what you are willing to pay. The bargaining can continue until an agreed upon price is reached or you simply walk away. If you walk away, the merchant may then follow you offering a compromise. I didn’t much care for the process, nor did Mary Ruth when she visited the Silk Market. This day was merely a reconnaissance visit. I noted what was available and realized I would mostly have to come back before leaving Beijing. I decided to e-mail my wife to see what exactly she wanted me to pick up.

Evening: Dinner was at small restaurant near the hotel. Layla came along and brought a cell phone for Joe and I to use on our trip to Xi’an. Our Great Wall driver John Ping had arranged for a friend of his to be our guide in Xi’an, but Brandon thought we ought to have a phone just in case the guide didn’t show up at the rail station and we’d need help getting on a tour to see the Warriors and some of the city. Tonight’s meal included roasted chicken hearts. Brandon said he was a little leery of them at first but has learned to like them. I tried one. Layla said that ours was a little burnt and not as good as usual. I decided I’d take her word for it.


Day 7, Monday, July 12

Morning: We checked out of the hotel because our trip to Xi’an involved an overnight train ride to the city some 600 miles away and an overnight train back. No sense in paying for a hotel room those two nights. We’d be checking back in to the hotel when we returned to Beijing Wednesday morning. We had breakfast again at the bagel shop. This day, the fench fries are bigger with less salt.

Afternoon: The Beijing Review where Brandon works is about a 30-minute subway-bus ride away from the Donzhimen district of town where our hotel and Brandon’s apartment are located. We handle the subway well but the bus driver skips a stop and we’re left off one stop beyond where we should have been. The cell phone got its first use, and Brandon came to where we were and walked us back to the area of the Beijing Review, an English langauge weekly news magazine similar to TIME. Before visiting his office, we have lunch in a small restaurant in a back alley.

Around 1:30 we head to the magazine’s office. Brandon wants Joe and I to meet his co-workers and his bosses. According to custom, we’ve brought gifts for many of them. Mary Ruth and I had traveled to the Boyertown area to purchase four Pa. Dutch hand towels for some of the ladies in the office. A history book about Tamaqua was purchased for another. Hershey chocolate bars and Reese’s peanut butter cups were placed near the water cooler. And for the big boss, a special gift was in order. Brandon had suggested something to do with the history of Tamaqua, relating to either mining or railroading. After visits to Jim Thorpe, Lansford and Eckly, I eventually tracked down a hand-carved, hand-painted American miner figure at the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton.

Brandon’s co-workers and bosses praised his work. They did the same when his Mom visited earlier. One boss asked if Brandon would be staying after his year contract had ended. I took that as an indication he might be offered a new contract. Before leaving, Brandon showed us a display in the building lobby – a display of the people who produced a special video on Shanghai’s World Expo. Brandon had been part of that team.

Brandon walked us to the bus stop and gave us final instructions for our trip to Xi’an. I patted my shirt pocket and the cell phone inside it.

We arrived at the Beijing Railroad Station West about four hours before boarding time. The building resembles a huge oriental temple. Hundreds of Chinese scurried to make their train connections. Waiting rooms overflowed. Joe and I decided to wait on the uncrowded second floor. We picked out a clean looking spot and sat down. I spent some time reading my Ted Kennedy book and watching the people pass below.

Finally, it was boarding time, and we moved to the waiting room. As I stood in line, a young Chinese man, perhaps about 16, started a conversation in English. He said he would soon be going to a summer program at Brown University and he wondered what Boston was like. He also wanted to know how much we had paid for our flight to China. I think he had hoped we would be in the same rail car but we were not. Before we parted, I told him that he spoke English very well. I asked him how he had accomplished that. “I practice,” he said and smiled.

Since all the sleeping compartments had been booked that evening, we rode the train for 12 hours in seats similar to those in the airplane but without movies, food service or a chart showing how far the train had traveled. I tried sleeping sitting up with some success. The young man next to me put his food tray down and was slumped over it. That worked, too.