Human beings are collectors; We all have an innate desire, hard-wired into our tightly-coiled DNA, to hoard things from our environment. Grain for the winter, fruit from the ripe tree, nuclear weapons for macho aggressive posturing – it’s our nature.

Some things I’m saving (and what for):

· Money (new TV)

· Cereal box tops (Betty Crocker silverware set)

· Frequent Flyer miles (Trip to China or India)

· Virginity (right girl)

Well, midway into my 4th bowl of Frankenberry (one more cereal box down!), I decided to check out Continental’s web page. Imagine my rapturous joy when I saw “Beijing for ½ miles”. Why, that’s only 30,000 miles - to go to China! And, to make the deal even better (how could it possibly get any better?!), the trip could be paired with an optional Continental vacations hotel package: 5 nights (at a new 4-star hotel), all breakfasts, airport transfers and 2 tours (Forbidden City and Great Wall) for a mere $268 per person. Sweet Frankenberry! That’s incredible!

While there are several people I know who want to go to China, few have the flexibility and ability to escape the bonds of employment on short notice. Hey Lisa!

Oooh, China. OK. This is Lisa, in red. Pretty much like our Costa Rica Journal, we’re going to tell this tale together.

So, yeah – 30,000 miles and a week of free time in January? I figured I could swing it. We booked within a day or two of his find. On January 13 we were off, taking the 13-hour polar route to Beijing from Newark. Mark looked for Santa. I slept and grumbled about Continental losing my vegetarian meals. Pretty uneventful.

Ugh – 13 hours. That’s a brutal flight - almost the record. The record? Well Lisa and I have each done the L.A. to Sydney thing before (14 hours! We took separate trips within a few weeks of each other – those silly competitive Pedersen kids.. Maybe that’s why we travel together, to avoid expensive, competitive trips just trying to “keep up”).

Oh, and just for the record, I collect Pez and glow-in-the-dark saints. (Because I’m not right in the head.)

January 13, 2006 – Arrive in Beijing 3:30 p.m.

As Mark said, our land package included transfers, so we picked our way through the throngs of sign holding greeters at the airport (Nope, we’re not the Wangs) until we located a pleasant, non-English speaking man with a tattered Xerox that said “Continental Vacations”. Upscale! It sounded like us, but it took a while to confirm, as there was more than a bit of a language barrier. Eventually he called someone on his mobile and handed it to Mark. The voice on the other side said stay there. Someone would get us. There was a couple that had also identified the shabby Xerox, and as we waited and they went out to smoke, we thought that was it; we’d be a “group” of four and get going. Turned out we were 19 in all, and we would be family for the next two days, as our tours would be on the same bus that picked us up. If you read the Costa Rica account, you know how we feel about traveling in groups – we sure hoped this wouldn’t kill us.

We discovered, on the way to our hotel, that all of the other people worked in some capacity for Continental or else were there with a CO relative. Apparently this flight and package were both new and employees could go for free – to check it out and be able to tell potential customers about it. …I want to work for Continental. Anyway, they all seemed nice enough, and not one offered our guide, Lei, any “cum gum.”

Heh. No cum gum, but one member of our group did inquire if perhaps there were any Martial Arts Academies around our hotel. Oh my. Well, I didn’t know at the time that the man in question (“Chuck from Boston”, who turned out to be very nice) ran his own academy, so I suppose it was “work related”. But I’m sure I still winced visibly at the time. Lei was also very quick to point out that we would be seeing the “New China”, very open, friendly and safe – but make no mistake, also very inclusive of Hong Kong and Taiwan. …and Tibet.

Lei suggested that we all grab dinner in our hotel that night and rest up for the tour the next day. Mark and I felt slightly more adventurous and so headed out as soon as we got checked in.

Hell yeah, you don’t travel to China to sleep – you can do that in Cleveland or Houston. We found a large tourist and “antique” market right next door to our Hotel. There, we got a quick introduction to the goods we’d be bargaining for during the next week: Carved stone, jade jewelry, beautiful Asian artwork, silk scarves, pearls – everything a tourist heart desires.

Next we wandered down the street looking for food. Pretty early on, we saw a place that had, in English, “A Sunny Place to Be” written on the side of the building. Sign us up! Sun was not something we were really able to see in Beijing – a result of the addition of, literally, millions of cars to the roads in the past few years. Beijing, my friends, is a very smoggy place to be.

I bumped into a “frequent Beijing traveler” during our stay who said that the 2-block visibility and throat-burning air were not the norm for this city. The fact that Beijing was surrounded on 3 sides by mountains (I’ll take his word for it) and the lack of a breeze were making this “very unusual” smog. Hmm… if you say so, but in the mean time, the haze, neon lights, darting bicycles and oodles of Chinese people (Wow, there must be a billion of them!), made for many a Blade Runner moment. Anyway, where were we?

Cut to Sunny Place interior. A bustling food court type place with no English speakers, Roman character writing, or instructions anywhere. Totally local. We saw people at a podium at the entrance and assumed they were paying for their food, but could not be entirely sure, as the food was not with them. We bypassed the podium and took a look at the grub. Most places had pictures, plastic models or actual plates of food in front, so English was not totally necessary to order, however, we just couldn’t figure out prices or how/where/when to pay. And people kept talking to us in Chinese and we kept mispronouncing the Chinese phrase for “I don’t understand”, confusing everyone. “Wah poo doh! Wah poo doh!” Exhausted, we admitted defeat and opted to eat in our hotel restaurant after our exploring was done. We should have listened to Lei. Still, the Sunny Place to Be fascinated us, so we vowed to return one day after more rest.

We wandered a bit further and toured a supermarket – one of my favorite things to do in foreign countries. We marveled at stinky fish, bizarrely-flavored potato chips (Italian Red Meat, Cucumber, Peking Duck) and other great China-only tasty things.

I love supermarkets in Asia – you might as well be on another planet. The packaging is what trips me out the most. All the flashy colors and odd characters, and it’s really hard to tell what’s even in most packages. Sometimes you might have a cute cartoon character of a squid or something, which gives a little insight, but it’s usually a big culinary crap shoot. It would be tough being a vegetarian like Lisa (are those dried plums, or dried beef tips?). Can you imagine what might be in a Chinese hot dog? <shudder> Okay, maybe I do want to be vegetarian like Lisa. So, back to the hotel.

The Chinese restaurant in our hotel (I’ll borrow our friend Jeff’’s joke here and point out that they just call it a restaurant) was really swanky. Expensive, showy, great presentation – it actually was a fun time. And the food was quite tasty. My favorite part of the experience? The man hawking loogies at the next table.

CHI-NA! Wooo!

Oh –and I should point out that it was mostly a Seafood restaurant, so outside the actual restaurant, in the foyer of the hotel, they had tank after tank of swimmy things for you to pick out to eat. We saw tiger prawns, abalone, carp, some other kind of prawns, lobsters, seals… SEALS??? We still cling dear to the hope that the seals are not for eating – we are pretty sure they are just fun little hotel pets. Initially, I thought there were four, but when we went back to count and take photos, there were only three. I don’t want to know. You don’t either.

Then to bed – or rather what the Chinese call a bed. I, being a savvy world traveler, immediately identified it for what it was: a coffee table covered in a duvet. A queen-sized coffee table, to be sure, but unmistakably a table. Zzzzzzz

I think the plywood bed-thing is supposed to be good for your back. Just be careful before you take health advice from a culture who wants to stick needles in you to make you “feel better”. Though I must say, I woke up very refreshed!

January 14

The breakfast buffet in our hotel was awesome. We could munch on traditional western breakfast items or “go local” and have the Asian fare (dim sum, noodles, rice, steamed veggies - mmmm). I’m a big proponent of cultural immersion, so I tried to eat Chinese food whenever I could (but remember what Lisa said above, they just call it “food” there).

We packed into the airport bus for the first of our tours: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Lei told us that the Tiananmen is the “Largest public square in the world”. I suppose there’s a largest everything somewhere in the world, and tour guides need to know when they have the biggest “something”. We had some time to walk around on our own. Chuck from Boston used the opportunity to strike some awesome kung-fu poses in front of the various structures. Not to be outdone, Lisa put on her “Misses Smonnkenny” polyester coordinates for a quick pose. <sigh> I suppose I should explain. Well, perhaps she should:

You know, sometimes it’s funnier not to explain. But I’ll let you chose. Click here for an explanation or here just to see the photos. (Use your browser’s back button to get back here if you go. Hitting “Back” on my site will only make you confused. And cold and alone.)

Okay, let’s go to the Forbidden City.

Ever seen the Last Emperor? This is the place they filmed most of it. It’s a fantastic city-within-a-city built in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty. It’s got 9,999 rooms (numerology is huge with our Chinese friends), luscious red walls and (royal) yellow tiled roofs. So amazing – truly a Mecca for anybody who calls themselves a travel photographer.

Before our trip I read the book Imperial Woman, by Pearl Buck. It chronicles (as historical fiction) the reign of the last Empress of the Qing dynasty. It has great descriptions of the city and life in that era of Chinese history. I recommend it if you are interested in learning more about the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) or Imperial Chinese culture.

Anyhoo—we spent a couple hours here taking about 800,000 pictures and then went, as a group, to lunch. At the restaurant, we split into two tables and I have to say, really had a great time bonding with the people at our table. (Cheap beer helps that.) My favorite moment was when I brought out my “Point It” book – a picture book for travelers to help you communicate basic needs where you don’t speak the language. We all took turns coming up with bizarre requests for the more unusual photos. (Pointing to photo,) “I am looking for a man in boxer shorts doing the washing up. When I find him, I will need this,” (flip the page, point to sea sponge type thing,) “a contraceptive sponge and a (flip, flip, flip, point,) “disabling car boot.”

After lunch we were off to the Summer Palace – another fabulous playground for the Empress Cixi, but not before what would turn out to be just the first of our many state-sanctioned tourist stops. Turns out that pretty much all tours get diverted to state run factories that have – surprise! – convenient stores attached where you can divest yourself of many, many yuan (or, conveniently, dollars).

The best part about the state-sanctioned stops (and there were many, each causing a strong rolling of my strange, round, western eyes), was the literature handed to us as we entered each “factory”. Each pamphlet or card “guaranteed the quality” of the goods found within. And please don’t confuse these high-quality items with the similar looking, but certainly inferior products you might find in the various open markets in Beijing. Dear tourist, isn’t the peace of mind that a government thumbs-up gives you (roughly 10 times the market price) worth the extra money? Oh, I thought so. On to the silk factory!

We got an informative little tour from Mark’s future wife (oh, that wonderful, piercing voice) that started with little cocoons we could touch, went through the unwinding process where cocoons are turned into thread and then moved on to a room where they stretch whole cocoons into batting for “fluffy quilts.” As a hardy peasant woman demonstrated the technique, we had a moment that made the entire stop not only worth it, but a highlight of our tour.

The one child on the tour, five-year-old John, interrupted her speech from in front of the workstation that held a bowl of cocoons and a bowl of discarded larvae. “How do you kill them?” he asked, in the guileless manner only a child can. “My mom says you have to kill them to make this.” Several of us hid our faces as we began to titter. “We use very high temperature,” Mark’s wife replied, “boiling water…” at which point John’s sweet little five-year-old lower lip began to tremble. Sensing impending tears, our silk maven quickly threw in, “We have to kill them. If we don’t they will all fly away.” At which point my titters hit full guffaw and I had to excuse myself.

I was not the only one who loved the strange non-reason she provided, and in fact, “You have to kill them, or else they will fly away” pretty much became our catch phrase for the rest of the trip. “1989 Tiananmen Square? Well, you see we had to kill those students…if we didn’t…” You get the rest. Anyway, after that bit of insight we got to shop for silk for about an hour. Joy.

Bleah, how I love waiting for 17 other tourists as they shop for overpriced crap. Eventually reassembled, we continued to the “Summer Palace”.

In the middle of January, it seems anything but a Summer Palace – the beautiful lake is now completely frozen over, with scores of people out on it walking, skating and falling with frigid delight. One of the best parts of the Summer palace is the 700m “Long Corridor” which spans the North shore of the lake. The hand-painted beams stretch as far as you can see, creating a diminishing effect very similar to looking into 2 opposing mirrors (except they’re all different!). Lei explained that the Summer Palace was destroyed by war, rebuilt, and then much of it destroyed again in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s. I try not to be too negative with my reporting, but every time Lei mentioned some incredible part of Chinese cultural history being destroyed in an effort to “Clear the Slate and start a new China” (and he did – a lot), I became sad and cursed the not very forward thinking revolutionaries who didn’t realize that people will come to your country and spend a lot of money to see all your old stuff. Hey, just ask the Egyptians!

Lei was “surprised” by a Chinese art store “he had never seen before” that was on the grounds of the Summer Palace (“Perhaps we should stop? I don’t know what it is”). Ha. Sure Lei. Oh my, there were some very nice works! Lisa actually bought some unique art. I have refined my travel purchasing philosophy over time – original art is the only souvenir that will bring back wonderful memories of fantastic trips, as well as beautify your house. Little paper fans, hats, castanets and snowdomes will only cause grief on your next move and should be put into a garage sale immediately upon return to the mother country. This time I got a great folk art oil – about 10”x10” – very cool. I resisted, opting to make my own art with the now overcast skies and moody silhouetted images of the nearby peninsula . Hey, I’ve got one of those, too!

All done with the Summer Palace, it was time for our next state-sponsored “factory”. This time: Pearls! Another future wife provided a very informative lecture about fresh-water oysters and the pearls they carry (Did you know they make the pearls by transplanting tissue from other oysters? I didn’t either! Neat!). She then split one open and gave each member of our group a little pearl (Sorry John, they had to kill it – otherwise it would fly away!), then we were taught how to test our pearls to see if they were genuine.

Interesting side note: when she showed us the tiny, “inferior” pearls, she said they were used for cosmetics and diet supplements. Mmmm, pearls, they’re so good for your skin, the more you eat, the more wrinkles fill in! Well, then later, when it came time to test their authenticity, someone in our group suggested that you test against your teeth for grit, our pearl wizard said they didn’t suggest that – it’s not very good for you. Uh, OK. Can I return my diet supplement now?

The method she proposed was rubbing the pearls against other pearls. Mark took his sample and mine, so recently plucked from the unsuspecting oyster and tried it. I immediately determined mine to be a fake, causing the necessary suppression of titters. I may have been punchy, but that was almost the funniest thing I had ever heard.

After another round of tourist power buying, we returned to the hotel. Better rested this evening, it was determined that we would return to the “Sunny Place To Be”. Additionally, we made our new buddies Jeff and Mark go with us, as there’s culinary safety in numbers.

This time when we entered, there was no one at the entry podium, se we just went in and tried to figure it out. More hawking vittles in Chinese, more “Wah poo doh” and then we found a place with prices printed on the pictures. Bingo! We all ordered and were very, very pleased with our MASSIVE meals that ranged in price from $1 (my kilo of veggie fried rice and bowl of weird tomato-egg soup) to $1.30 for Mark’s giant bowl of beef and noodles, 4 dumplings and side of weird radish salad. Score! We washed it down with bubble tea and felt very proud of our native-like experience. After that it was a repeat visit to the Supermarket (fun and 13 cent beers) and then back to the hotel for a night on the coffee table.

January 15

Hooray! Today we go to the Great Wall! However, before we take in the majestic splendor of one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind, the authorities in the ministry of tourist exploitation have decreed that we will enjoy the splendor of the majestic jade factory first.

Actually, I’m glad we made this stop for one serendipitous reason. While the finished jade carvings in the gift shop (more like gift warehouse) were indeed impressive, I directed Lisa to one carving in particular I thought she would enjoy. It was an elaborate Buddha riding on the back of a fish like a rodeo cowboy. Although sorta funny in itself, I whispered “card… look at the card”. Each carving had a title card with information about the stone, dimensions, price and title (and the coveted certificate of quality and authenticity). Our little piscine sculpture was entitled the “Crap of Wealth”. I guess when English isn’t your first language, you need to be careful with the carp. Thankfully, Lisa had her camera, and now we can share:

After sharing our discovery with everyone on the bus (well, the cool people in the back anyway), and discussing the $146,000 table and chair set. YES that is US dollars, we continued on to the Great Wall.

Approximately 98 percent of all visitors to the Great Wall go to one of four state-approved, safely remodeled and well-maintained entry points. I’d be willing to bet 98 percent of those go where we did – to the Badaling section. Even in the off-season (which includes our balmy 0°C (32°F) day in January, the Wall is pretty crowded. We arrived and set off with several dozens of other visitors to scale to the “top” and back in our allotted two hours. Oh my shit! I know several people who have visited the Great Wall and not ONE told me how frigging huge the steps are! It was a difficult, steep climb up randomly sized steps (a defense plan – uniform steps are easier for invaders to climb) that absolutely SEARED my lungs.

We stopped a good way up at the “Hero” point to take the requisite smonkenny photos (It’s the same batch from the last link – if you already went.) They call it the called the Hero Point because it is said in China, that you are not a hero until you climb the Great Wall. I think they just made that up so they could sell more people - i.e. even the natives - more souvenirs. Hey, Wu-- you can’t leave without your hero card, on sale here at Hero Point, only 15Y. I went up one turret further, while Mark and two of our more fit companions went up three more.

Yes, I managed to wheeze and pant my way to the top tower, expecting to find a magnificent panorama of the wall receding into the mountainous distance as far as the eye could see, but found only some more mountain that you couldn’t see from the bottom, and 2 more fortifications. Not wanting to be “that asshole” on every large tour group that makes the rest of the bus wait, I decided to head back without the view from the tippy-top. Upon reaching the bottom, I heard an American woman complaining how the wall “just ended”, so perhaps I was unknowingly wise not to try a mad dash the rest of the way up.

Even though the section we are on was wholly rebuilt in the 70s, it still was an impressive sight, and if you blocked out all the souvenir stalls and the highway below the wall, you could get a good idea of how ridiculous and impressive a prospect this whole wall project really was.

Yes, and nothing captures the awe of such a monumental architectural accomplishment like stalls full of cheap tourist crap! After everyone bought a little something, (Mark got a swell Mao watch – he waves!) we cast off for lunch at the Friendship Store.

Interesting side note: Though by far, more Westerners can probably be spotted on the Wall than in any other place in China, to many Chinese we are still a huge novelty. Some have never seen live whities before; so it happened quite often that people wanted to take pictures of, and more often, WITH us. While Mark was climbing past me, I took no less than 20 photos with 3 teenaged boys and their 3 cameras in every possible combination of boy/camera. Very weird, but also kind of fun. I just hope they didn’t photoshop out my clothes and post it to the web with a link from Censor-rific Chinese Google. Ok – sorry to get waylaid – back to the Friendship Store.

Thanks. A cultural icon in its own right, the Friendship Store is a living fossil of the “classic” communist era, where tourists and diplomats could buy the required silk, pearls, and cloisonné (hand made copper-decorated porcelain) in state-run convenience. Several members of our tour had been asking about this place since the airport. I suppose as long as word-of-mouth continues (and the government keeps making it a mandatory tour stop), this overpriced (no-haggling allowed!) tourist trap will continue well into the next “New China”. Um, I bought more art.

After we bought a wealth of crap (hm – that translation is useful…) we headed for the Ming tombs, burial place of several Ming dynasty emperors. The thing about the Ming tombs is that they, for the most part, have not been excavated. Some of the tombs are buried so deep in the earth, the logistics of excavation have not yet been figured out – plus the estimated costs are staggering – One guess I read was a cool $4.5 million. So there’s really not much to see. I’d say if you had just a few days in Beijing, you could skip this. The walkway into the tomb area is lined with great statues of men, beasts and man-made beasts. Nice photo op, I guess. The “tombs” themselves are dotted throughout several hills (40 sq. km. worth!) and we, like most people, really only visited the oldest and largest one with a shrine holding artifacts placed above ground.

Okay, I need to give my 2 Yuan’s worth here. It bugged me to no end that there’s 10 Ming Dynasty emperor tombs just sitting around unexcavated. Isn’t anybody curious?! Don’t you think China needs some new treasures to share with the world after destroying a big chunk of their old treasures in the Cultural Revolution? Don’t tell me it’s about the money. China is among the top 10 economies in the world, they own most of our debt, and they’ll be economic juggernaut #2 by 2020 – just dig up the damn tombs already! (Okay, I’m off the soapbox).

I guess the interesting thing we learned there was that the location and all of the individual sites within it were selected for very specific Feng Shui reasons. Since I thought Feng Shui was pretty much a Queer Eye/flaky decorator concept, and not really actually used in any degree of seriousness, this was interesting. Actually all of the Imperial constructions were located and built following very strict Feng Shui principles to maximize positive Qi. If you take any knowledge away from this journal, know this: Qi is now an acceptable word in Scrabble (yes! No getting stuck with the Q anymore, baby!).

Ok – so yeah. Ming tombs. Then the bus home. Oh man – we totally forgot to tell you another big thing on this trip. We had a videographer in tow for both tour days. About 900 times we all had to wave at her as we entered sites, passed through doorways, etc. Well, on the bus ride home, we got to preview the video (only $38USD for VHS or $44USD for DVD. I think the Chinese are doing OK with the whole capitalism experiment) Let me just tell you it opened with approximately five full minutes of kung fu routines in front of Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen Square. Chuck was mortified, but we all had a good laugh, especially as it was followed by a full minute of my posing in polyester coordinates in the center of the square. I guess our behaviors do not translate well to Chinese and I’m sure the video girl thought she had done the right thing. :)

We went back to our hotel, hit the internet for a panicked, last-minute search for our travel documents for the following day’s trip to Harbin, and retired to our coffee tables, yet again.

January 16

Today was the beginning of our impromptu trip to the Northern city of Harbin. I think the logic in planning this was: Since we saved so much money with the airfare and bargain package, how could we afford not to fly up and see the ice and snow festival? Lisa sent me pictures from the internet and I had to agree it would certainly be worth the trip (And when were we going to be back to these parts in the middle of January?).

So up we were before 5 for an Air China flight up to the 45th parallel. Although there was very little Beijing road traffic at that hour, the airport was still crazy, and we endured quite the “Chinese fire drill” with our departure gate. 45 minutes delayed, we were finally off and ready to enjoy our in-flight breakfast. Like on our Continental flights, we were offered a choice of Western or Chinese breakfast. I assumed I would only be able to pick at either, so Mark and I decided to get one of each and share. He got the Western. The flight attendant looked surprised when I ordered Chinese, hovered over one and then said it wasn’t warm, so she would skip me for now and come back later when they had more. Yeah. She never came back. I started to think maybe I misheard her original query and that I had, in fact, opted for the Starving Chinese Orphan breakfast. Which I got. It was nothing. Again, strangely, exactly like our Continental flight.

We landed in Harbin to a balmy -9° (that’s Fahrenheit people! and in the sun!) It’s -22°C – which I like better because it sounds so much more brutal. But we knew it would be like this before we left, so we made the appropriate pre-Harbin garment purchases. Laugh, if you will, but I went ape-shit at Sierra Trading Post and got a fur trappers hat, some “expedition weight” long underwear bottoms (rated to protect against -45° while sitting and doing nothing but monitoring Arctic seal mating calls) and several packets of instant hand warmers. I’m a Texan. Even I bought some long underwear, and whoo-ee, am I glad I did. If my boogers froze in 20 seconds, imagine what might have happened to my Johnson.

Not wanting to waste the precious sun, we bundled up and ventured out of our warm hotel. We knew there was a snow festival to be found, though we weren’t exactly sure where. We spotted a minor festival-looking thing next to the river, complete with an ice rink, ice slide, stalls of crap and most interesting: your choice of horse, dogsled or snowmobile to take you somewhere on the other side of the frozen river.

I actually knew that it was the island where the ice and snow festivals were, but I wasn’t sure how big the island was or where, on it, the festivals were. I suggested we hoof it across the frozen river – there were a couple other people doing it and it didn’t look that far. If we got across and didn’t see anything, it would still have been a novel outing.

Well, easier said than done. We were accosted first by a horrible “fake dirty” beggar child. This was NOT common in China, and so upset me even more. His mom probably made him spread coal dust on his jacket to elicit pity, but we only got more and more angry as he kept touching us and trying to block our path. We both brushed him off several times before I think I yelled, loudly, at him something akin to, “Get away from me NOW you little fucker!” (I tell myself it’s OK because he didn’t speak English) Mark finally stopped, stared him in the eye and said I don’t know what to get him to bugger off. (Jedi mind trick – the force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded… and children.)

Next we were accosted by many, many sled operators (dog and horse pulled) who, though we shared no common words, clearly were expressing to me the impossibility of someone western crossing by foot. Pantomime indicated I would either 1) Fall on the ice, 2) Fall through the ice, or C) Spontaneously bust into an ugly interpretive dance. (At least that’s what I think they said.) We politely declined and I am proud to submit that not one persistent sled driver was called any kind of “f” word.

We crossed in about 5 minutes- and it was awesome. COLD, but awesome. On the island we found a map and were able to find the location of the snow festival, though our own location was subject to interpretation. (Someone had removed the “you are here” red dot.) A nice Chinese man pointed out where we were and we set off.

When we arrived at the snow sculptures we were absolutely floored by the size and detail of many of them. We strolled around the park, stopping briefly to warm ourselves (and our camera batteries) in a mobile snack/coffee/gift shop. Although we could still see our breath, when you’re walking around in below zero temperatures, 40° seems tropical in comparison.

In a separate area reserved for an international competition, several teams had sent over their best sculptors and the results were miraculous. The combination Mexican & American team created a large fish and somehow managed to hollow it out, turning the outer body into an elaborate snow grid. I couldn’t figure out how they did it (and still lose sleep about it).

After several billion pictures, we walked back across the frozen river to our hotel, defying the sled operator’s prophecy of doom. After the restoration of our core body temperature, we struck out to find food around our Hotel. Although we came up empty on the food (finding exactly zero restaurants with an English menu), we did discover one of the new Chinese Wal-Marts. I am a little conflicted about this sort of thing. On one hand, it’s great that China is opening up to foreign companies and investors, but on the other hand, it’s frickin’ Wal-Mart. The omnipresent McDonalds had the same effect on me; Why must we export the worst of our culture? Maybe it’s our secret plan to make the rest of the world fat and ignorant too – then America will be “normal” – Brilliant! (Ooh, how’d that soapbox get there?) Preachin’ to the choir, my brother.

Fortified by dinner and a beer apiece we got MASSIVELY bundled up (Including Lisa’s awful blue outfit on the outside of her winter garb) for the rest of the snow and ice festival. Ice. This was the part I had most looked forward to. I had seen pictures of previous ones, and as we planned this trip, googled photos of this year’s. Truly amazing. They build a whole park’s worth of giant buildings with lights actually imbedded in the ice bricks to make a frozen wonderland of unbearable cold. I mean beauty. :) The scale of these things is beyond comprehension. Even though I had seen a picture that looked exactly like this one that I took , it still didn’t sink in, until our cab pulled up to the park, exactly how huge these things were.

Both of our jaws dropped, and we just took it all in as if we had just been escorted to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. We paid the entry price and went to play. Most of the buildings had at least some stairs (ice stairs) to climb and some even had internal “rooms” to pass through while climbing. It was not lost on us that this could NEVER happen in America. Not because we don’t consistently stay in the -20° to -30° degree range fro months on end, but the lawsuits! Ice stairs on ice buildings with either no railings or, yes, ice railings? Get out! It rocked.

But, it rocked at approximately -30°C, and so after about an hour of mad photo taking, we returned to the hotel and our new twin–sized coffee tables. (Chinese beds are apparently all made and monitored for quality at one huge factory/sweatshop. In China. Is that the opposite of irony?)

Oh, and as just one more illustration of how cold it was, this picture was from the INSIDE of our hotel room. There’s a bit of a permafrost.

January 17

After breakfast we decided on a cultural expedition to see if the Wal-Mart across the street was anything like its Western counterpart. The verdict? Well, sort-of. There were 4 floors of goods, with the bottom 2 containing foodstuffs (fresh meats!) and the top 2 filled with the Chinese equivalent of normal Wal-Mart products. One interesting difference was the tiny shopping cart that could be pushed in any direction thanks to its better engineered wheels. The wheels also fit perfectly into grooves on the moving sidewalk-escalator that took you to different floors – this kept the carts from rolling, Tiananmen style, over your fellow Wal-Mart shoppers. Neat!

After buying a few gifts, we decided the next exploration should be the Cathedral of St. Sophia – a picturesque Russian church in the middle of downtown Harbin. Just 300 miles from Vladivostok, Harbin was, at one time, a Russian colony. But first, a re-warming while we played another of our many travel scrabble games. During the match, BBC International started a story about the deplorable conditions of captive bears in the Chinese medical trade. At least that’s what I think it was about, since the screen went black a few seconds into the report. “Ooh. We just got our BBC censored” I said. Lisa thought maybe the cable just went out, but as the story cycled the next hour, we got a few more seconds into it before the screen went black again. It was a reminder that although China does seem very open under casual observation, big brother is watching (or at least watching BBC).

Warmed and paranoid, we ventured out to find St. Sophia. The hotel front desk wrote down the name of the cathedral, in case we decided to take a cab ride, but we learned that there was a pedestrian-only shopping district that would take us in the general direction of the church should we decide to hoof it. “Hoof it!” we voted.

20 feet into our journey, a man on the street corner asked us if we spoke English. “Yes, very well”, I replied. I expected him to ask if we had been watching BBC a few minutes ago, but was relieved when he introduced himself as Peter, a Harbin business interpreter and part-time tour guide. Peter asked if he could practice some English with us on his lunch break. “Absolutely” we said, explaining our destination. He knew exactly where the church was and would be happy to accompany us there.

Ok – sometimes I wish I was not the most cynical woman alive, but about 50 (ok, maybe 14) steps into our walk I wondered how much “Peter” – if that was his real name - was going to charge us for the service. I said as much to Mark, under my breath of course (this dude’s English was excellent) and we decided to feign innocence if he asked for money later. “But Peter,” Mark practiced, “I thought you just wanted to practice your English!”

Yeah, this kinda thing has happened to me before – In Peru, a “tariff-free” guide scoffed at my 3 solas tip, stating that the minimum tip for his service was 10 solas. I am now wiser in the ways of the world.

Turns out Peter (which was his real “English name”) actually just did enjoy talking in English. He pointed out sites on the way to the Church, helped us get tickets to enter the church (which is now used as a museum of the history of Harbin) AND pointed out a second attraction below the church that we NEVER would have known about without him: A replica of the entire city of Harbin in miniature. Pretty cool.

Peter was supposedly on his lunch hour, so after the church, we were surprised when he offered to take us to the “Dragon Tower” – Harbin’s equivalent of the Space Needle or similar. “Don’t you have to get back to work, Peter?” (Mind you, I – at this point – still thought he was going to ask for money at some point) Pete said he wasn’t very busy, and he could go with us. He got us all a cab, and surprisingly, on the way, I did not even once think maybe we were off to Siberia to be held hostage until appropriate tour guide payments were received.

The tower was OK – more Mark’s kind of thing than mine. (yay towers!) The visibility wasn’t the best – a fact Peter repeatedly apologized for, as if maybe it had been up to him. That Peter. What a nice guy. Why am I such the a-hole?

Anyway, by 3 or so, we really needed lunch. We invited Peter, but he declined He said he had already eaten before he met us, but offered to show us a good place near the tower. After his first suggestion was closed, he took us to another place, negotiated our food orders for us and said his goodbyes. I was so overwhelmed by all he had done for us that I INSISTED he take cab fare from us to get back to the area where we had met him. Making me feel even worse for my initial cynicism, he refused. …but I’m a really good insister, so eventually he relented. Mark and I had a nice lunch in a cool, non-touristy place, complete with big beers. A truly great experience.

After lunch I whipped out the Point It (first official use!), hailed us a cab, showed the driver a photo of an airplane and flashed 100Y, had our offer accepted, and we were off. Back to Beijing.

January 18

Oh sad day, our last in China (for a while), so we stuffed ourselves a little extra at our final breakfast buffet (I am addicted to those little bean paste buns. Yum!) and hailed a cab to the “Pearl Market”. Word on the street was that this place was where we’d find the best bargains, although we would have to work for them. I must say that I enjoy the art of the haggle. The trick is not to commit yourself emotionally to anything, so you can really walk if you don’t get the price you want. There are also fun little psychological tricks and bad acting you can do to help your cause, but ultimately the rule is to have fun. If you’re too serious about getting a price, you’re not doing it right.

I did a little internet reconnaissance and found that the Chinese are already well aware of the 50% rule (cut their initial offer by half and go from there). You should counter their initial price (and every one of them does it on their trusty desk calculator) with about 10% and try not to deviate too much from that. Ultimately, if you settle on a price you’re happy with, then it’s a success for you (even though it’s probably a bigger success for them). Lisa and I had a lot of fun at the market. I would frequently mutter some advice or bargaining strategy to Lisa at key moments and get the “aw, c’mon man” stare from many of the vendors, but my favorite part was having fun with the calculator, typing in 9 digits with a very serious look on my face, or once, even offering to buy the calculator itself. They didn’t laugh. I laughed my ass off. “How much for the calculator?” Brilliant. Actually, Mark should have pointed out that he DID make several people laugh. I think we were, by far, the most entertaining customers they had had in a while, as many came to watch Mark gut the price on a sweater he wanted. (Successfully, might I add.) My favorite was when the lady asked him, “Why you so stingy?” – I had to laugh. So did they. What a great word for her to have learned. They also called us “hard” – which I told people up front after the jacket lady called me that. I’d say, “Look, I’m very hard. You can charge someone else too much.” They’d giggle enough.

When it was all over and the calculators were silent, I had a new Chinese chess set (very different from the classic game), a marvelous jade rhino (with veins of bright red that really look like a circulatory system!), various gifts for people in Cleveland, earrings and a fridge magnet for Mom’s birthday – Um, what did you get, Lisa? My first purchase was a lovely embroidered silk jacket – for the same price as the crappy polyester ones we saw at Harbin’s Wal-mart. The lady looked really pained when I wouldn’t budge on my 100Y price – and I was told by subsequent stall owners (who just Looove to tell you they would have given you a better deal), that I had gotten a very good price. Yay. The rest of my purchases were little gifty things.

Returning to the hotel, we left ourselves just enough time to go to the supermarket (in the event Continental screwed up Lisa’s vegetarian meal again) and take a few last-minute pictures.

Before leaving I went to take photos of the restaurant seals. (Still 3 of ‘em…) While we were there something very bizarre happened in the large, cylindrical tank that held the tiger prawns. There was a little rippling, then a mass escape attempt. Shrimps everywhere! Flying through the air, flopping on the floor. It was mayhem. I stared, open-mouthed, for a minute before trying to locate someone who might care. A little guy came out of a workroom, and assuming he spoke no English, I launched into sound effects and pantomime. “Pew! Pew!” I squealed, raising, then swooping my cupped hand down in an arc. Then I pointed to the floppy floor shrimp. He got it. He poked them into a dustpan with a broom and plopped them back into the tank, but not before I documented the debacle.

So then home – without a vegetarian meal. (Bastards!)

This trip was a great introduction to China and a chance to see firsthand how the world’s newest super power is developing and attempting to shape its identity. Make no mistake, they are not the next super power – they are already there. We could really tell that, while there, and with each passing day after our return, I’ve noticed it even more, here… one article at a time in the news. Look for the stories – read up. You don’t want to be surprised when the rest of the country gets the hard truth that we are no longer the biggest dog on the porch. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just a fact. China is the New Russia. Or maybe even the New USA. And in case you didn’t get the memo, Bean Paste Buns are the new Egg McMuffin.

And the Pedersen kids are the new Marco Polo. And we’re outta here. Catch ya on the next ½-off frequent flyer sale!

& Lisa
February, 2006