China Trip Three – Houhai Lake District

After a full day of touring the Forbidden City we still had dinner plans for the evening with a former Rollins College student who was now living back home in Beijing. Xiaolin was a former student of Art’s sister and offered to show us one of his favorite areas of Beijing.

We had asked if there was something from the US that he would like us to bring back for him. His request – a package of hazelnut vanilla coffee from Einstein’s Bagels. He was very happy when we gave it to him. He was even more ecstatic that he had a new girlfriend to bring with him and she was the reason he was an hour late to meet us at the hotel. The female shortage in China was hitting him hard too. She was very pretty, smart and demure. Xiaolin was smitten.

We all packed into a taxi and headed off to the Houhai Lake district to dine at one of his favorite restaurants. The restaurant is named after one of his favorite writers and if you read Chinese you can get more information about it by clicking here.

And, the menu was in Chinese. No English menus available here. It is customary in China for the host to choose the items that will be eaten at the meal and Xiaolin quickly assumed this role. He apparently forgot or ignored the fact that we would be paying for dinner. I made it clear that I cannot eat dairy or really creamy dishes but he interpreted that as “I didn’t care to” not “I’m allergic to” and kept pressing me to eat one particularly creamy dish until I may it clear that eating it would make me sick. He also ordered a hot yellow wine. I never drink anything that’s hot. It’s a preference but a strong one so I stayed away from that. Nevertheless, most of the rest of the meal was fine but not remarkable. A stewed chicken entree was good and the fried rice was okay. Some other small bites were tasty but overall the food was not really what I would call interesting or really tasty.

The atmosphere was very nice though and after dinner we set off to walk around the Houhai Lake area. This area has become a hot spot for nightclubs and bars. And since this was a Saturday night the business owners were gearing up for a busy night. It was still early though and, like we have found in certain districts in Paris, Brussels and Barcelona, hawkers are employed outside to lure people into the establishments. We were not tempted to enter any of them because the music was very loud and we really wanted to see more of the surrounding area. Even so, the lighting and the activity around the lake in the evening makes this a very compelling place to visit if you are looking for some serious libations and entertainment.

We moved on to a very busy pedestrian-friendly area with lots of stores and snack food purveyors. The place was colorful and a real riot of sounds and aromas (some more pleasing than others – stinky tofu really is stinky). Then we moved on to a less pedestrian-friendly area where small cars, motor scooters, bicycles and foot traffic all compete for the same space. Sometimes it was a very tight squeeze to make sure we didn’t get run over. Very interesting things to look at but nothing that we really wanted to buy.

After a couple of hours of walking (on the same sore knee that I had injured the day before) Art and I decided we had seen enough vendors for one day. We thanked Xiaolin and his girlfriend for taking us to see this area of Beijing and set off back to our hotel via taxi. Even at 11:30pm the streets were jammed.

We were exhausted and happy to drop into a very comfortable bed. This was our last night in Beijing before we headed off to Shanghai but we still had more to see on Sunday before we left. This was only the beginning of our journey.

Priscilla (one half of the Travel2some)


China Trip Day Three – The Forbidden City

My knee was still smarting from the previous night’s fall (in fact it continued to hurt for several weeks after) but we were here to explore China so as long as we had Advil and I could still stand up we got up early to seek out the Forbidden City.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site (the third we would visit in two days) was within walking distance and since it was a beautiful, clear sunny day we had plenty of company.  The sidewalks were wide yet quite crowded. This was also a Saturday so the area was filled with both foreign and Chinese tourists.

On our walk we were “joined” by a young man professing to be an art student who could take us to an art studio where we could buy original art.  We had heard about this scam so we politely said, “No thanks.”  He persisted at which point we just ignored him and kept walking and he moved on.

We could see Tiananmen Square across the street from the entrance to the Forbidden City but we decided to forego visiting the Square. The line to pay our entrance fee was long and it took us about a half hour to get our tickets.  There were lots of tour groups representing many nationalities queued up to enter the gateway to the City.

We were impressed with this walled city within a city and there seemed to be an unending series of gates to palaces and rooms.

One of the many views within the Forbidden City

  Getting the opportunity to see the inside of these buildings could be a challenge. Chinese don’t queue – they crowd. You have to push your way to the front of the crowd to get a glimpse of thrones and opulent seating areas – a pickpocket’s dream location from what I could see.

We purchased a map to navigate the site and even with that in hand it was sometimes confusing to figure out exactly where we were located.  This was a huge complex with beautiful artifacts that once housed the emperor and his wives, concubines and children.  The complex also housed gifts that were given to the Emperor by foreign kings and political powers, obviously to gain favor with the Emperor.  Some of these were housed in separate exhibits.  One of the exhibits is the Clock and Watch exhibit.  A separate admission is charged for this area but it was well worth the price which was relatively cheap.  The huge and ornate clocks were impressive even if the way they are presented is less so.  Lots of fingerprints on glass cases that don’t look like they have been cleaned in quite a while.  Dimly lit displays are explainable because the artifacts may be sensitive to light but the overall rooms are drab and dark.

Hall of Clocks

You can eat a small lunch within the Forbidden City where there are snacks shops and a small cafe.  We shared an outside table with a British  couple who now live in France.  They were touring on their own as well and had started their journey from the other side of the City making their way to the area we had just covered.  It was nice to share our experiences with other people and rest our feet (and my knee) at the same time.  The Beef Noodle dish I ate was formidable and very tasty.  Lots of cilantro – one of my favorite herbs. 

Pagoda in Jingshan Park

We continued on and paid for a few more special exhibits and ended our tour of about 6 hours with a beautiful view of a pagoda from Jingshan Park.  The sight was impressive.  Of course, once outside the walls of the Forbidden City we were besieged by crowds of merchants and beggars.  We had to laugh when one pair of panhandlers tried to have us take pity on what was supposed to be one of the pair’s handicapped leg.  We walked faster and picked up the pace and it got to the point where they were literally running faster than we could walk.  I was in worse shape than they were.  It is obvious these kinds of people gravitate to the entrances and exits of tourist areas because the rest of our walk back to the hotel on the back streets of the area was much quieter. 
We passed interesting shops and local restaurants and watched a lot of less than safe road traffic whiz by us.  Children standing up while riding in front of mothers on motor scooters.  Bicycles with LOTS of merchandise strapped to the back.   We really enjoyed the walk back to our hotel on this warm and pleasant day.
But the day was not over and we were going to do a lot more walking as the evening ended.  But that’s a subject for the next post.

5 Lessons Learned in Two Days in China

We spent close to 18 days in several areas of China but it didn’t take us long to learn a few things along the way. These lessons aren’t the only things we learned on our trip but are just a few things we observed as we traveled through the country.

Lesson 1: If you like bargaining down the price of an item for sale then China is the place for you. It’s not a skill I particularly enjoy employing because, in general, I just want the process to take less time. But patience is a virtue when it comes to shopping in most places in mainland China. The initial price stated is rarely the real price and once you ask for a price the seller can be unrelenting in bargaining to get you to a price that you both can live with.

Lesson 2: Many vendors and service providers know enough English to get your attention and to respond with a “yes” or “no” but that doesn’t mean they necessarily understand you. When getting into a cab it’s important to have the address and, ideally, directions back to your hotel. This can minimize a lot of misunderstandings. Also having a map and pointing to where you want to go also helps when words are too difficult to pronounce. We had one extremely helpful taxi driver in Shanghai that helped us pronounce Yuyuan Gardens correctly (it doesn’t sound anything like it looks).

Lesson 3: In quite a few cases, vendors and other freelance service providers (such as private taxis, private tour guides, etc.) say “hello” to get the opportunity to sell you something and will continue to try to sell you, walking along side you sometimes, even if you say “no”. This “in your face” approach is just the way things are done, but it can be annoying. I found that by responding in Spanish, the person became so disarmed they looked surprised and then walked away.

Lesson 4: China’s single child policy has created a shortage of marriageable women. This in turn has given single women the upper hand in selecting a husband and is producing angst among single men. This is a significant change for the Chinese male’s perspective where, they feel they are under more pressure to bring more to the table with respect to the relationship, such as a successful career, social status, looks, etc. The policy, obviously, has also produced a lot of “only” children in households where the activities revolve around them. Yet, many single children we talked to coveted the fact that we had siblings.

Lesson 5: Watch where you walk, i.e., look down. This is something I’ve always known (you can fall into an open manhole in some countries) but forgot as I got caught up checking out the sights in Beijing. If you want to look around (and you should) stop and look around.

Of course, we’ve only written about our first two days in China. We still had a lot to learn.


Amtrak’s AutoTrain Economics – An Update

Several years ago I wrote an article comparing the costs of a typical road trip up the east coast from Central Florida to NYC versus taking the Amtrak AutoTrain back from Virginia to Florida.  The link to that article is here.  Overall the economics are pretty much the same from the drive versus AutoTrain standpoint but there have been some changes since the article was written.  The cost of taking the AutoTrain has gone up a little bit and the cost of gas has gone down a little bit (about 20 cents a gallon depending on where you live).  I plan on taking the AutoTrain up to the Washington DC area in a few weeks and thought I’d compare the costs.  The reason for taking the train isn’t all focused on economics –  my sinuses could use a break from the up and down of flying.

So here is an update comparing the cost of taking a flight to DC and renting a car versus taking the AutoTrain up and back and not having to rent a car. 

The total cost to take the AutoTrain roundtrip is $635.  Broken down this is the roundtrip cost of a coach seat (about $268 using a AAA 10% discount rate) and the  cost of transporting the car ($367).  The coach seat is just that.  It is not a compartment.  But it is equivalent to a business class seat on a plane with outlets to plug in cell phones, laptops, etc.  Dinner and a continental breakfast are included.  What you sacrifice here is time.  Even so, I find I can get quite a bit of writing done on the train that I can’t get done sitting in the cramped quarters of an airplane seat.  I also have to take into account that the mileage to the Amtrak AutoTrain Station in Sanford, Florida from my house is less than that going to the Orlando International Airport.

So what’s the cost to fly and drive to DC from Orlando.  I could take into account that I don’t have to leave the day before the flight would leave and arrive on a different day but there are no extra hotel days involved so hotel costs are the same.  Here we are just comparing overall flight, meal, car rental and airport parking costs.

  • Flight roundtrip to Reagan National Airport – $247 on USAir.  That is the cheapest flight that will accommodate my business schedule and closest to where I’m staying in Virginia (at least according to Kayak).
  • Checked Bag Fee: $25.  The AutoTrain doesn’t charge for checked bags since your bags are in the trunk of your car.  You can bring a carryon for the overnight.
  • Rental Car Costs:  $382 including tax using Avis.  This is for an equivalent size car to mine and doesn’t include the additional gas charges but I’m also assuming I will have to fill up my car while in the DC area. 
  • Airport Parking:  $49.
  • Food at Airport: $15.  Since flights don’t offer any food this cost has to be factored in.

Total: $718

A difference of about $83 more for the flight and car rental.  That may not sound like a lot to some people but I also know that when I go to this particular trade show I end up having to ship stuff back home because I can’t take it back with me on the plane.  That can add up to significant shipping costs that I won’t have to incur if I just stow the stuff in the trunk of my car on the way back.

Just something to think about if you want to take the AutoTrain on your own and think of it as too expensive.

Priscilla (one have of the Travel2some)



Maitland Art Festival – 35th Annual Maitland Rotary Art Festival Maitland FL

A beautiful sunny day for the Maitland Art Fair. This is an annual fair every October around Lake Lily in Lake Lily Park in Maitland, Florida. The fair started on Friday night and continues through Sunday at 5 p.m.  The art fair includes close to 250 exhibiting artists of  fine crafts, graphics and drawings, jewelry and metalwork, mixed media, paintings,  photography, pottery, and sculpture.  Music is in the air at two stages Friday night, all day and night on Saturday and on Sunday till 5 p.m.  This includes the Maitland Stage Band, Maitland Symphony Orchestra, Maitland String Quartet, Orlando Brass Quintet and about twenty other musical acts of different genres.

Some of the artists have exhibited here before but many are new  to the fair.  Among the artists whose exhibits I enjoyed were Out On a Whim, Ken Jensen Pottery, Matter of Woodwork and Jim Casey Sculptures. Many of the artists are local to Central Florida or to greater Florida but other artists are from all over the country.

If you can’t make it to the fair this weekend put this on your calendar for next October.  The weather is usually sunny and warm, the artwork visually appealing, the music delightful and there is food, wine and beer that can be purchased too.

Art ( one half of Travel2some)

China Day Two – Taking a Fall

We left off our last post disembarking from the Great Wall Cable Car and were immediately greeted by very aggressive vendors clamoring for our attention. There are many items you can buy to commemorate your visit to the wall – a T-shirt, picture, a scarf, towel, etc. And we didn’t want any of them. After all I took dozens of photos to provide our own personalized memories.

That didn’t matter. Prices are quoted even after you say, “no.” And, the prices get lower as you walk away. Vendors step in front of you while you’re walking. You could assume that because we definitely looked like tourists we were targets – and we were, but we also observed this behavior occurring to Chinese tourists as well. This continued all the way back down the steep hill to our waiting bus. This experience would be repeated throughout our trek through China.

But we were back on our minibus, headed to downtown Beijing and driven past the Bird’s Nest stadium, which was built for the Summer Olympics. Then it was on to the next “museum.” This was a silk museum and store. The place was fascinating. The staff explained and illustrated how silkworms are cultivated and how silk is created. We were amazed at how much strength is required to stretch out raw silk to eventually become fabric. Silk seems like such a delicate fabric but it’s really quite strong.

Then came the sales pitch but this was not just the typical scarves, shirts and pajamas – these were quilts. We were impressed with the quality and the prices but they did not offer the ideal weight quilt for a Florida climate in our bed size. However, a few others on the tour did buy quilts that were packaged efficiently so that they could fit in a suitcase.

That was the last stop on the tour and we were dropped off at our hotel. We were famished. After a quick break to change our clothes and freshen up we headed out to the Wangfujing Night Food Street. This is the area made famous by various travel shows where you can choose from a variety of exotic finger foods/snacks. Since it was located just a couple of blocks from our hotel we figured it would be an easy night out.

Unfortunately, the market was in view but the cable tracks below my feet were not. Down I went – entertaining for those around me but not a great feeling for my knee, which went down full force. That killed my appetite for walking around, so we slowly made our way back to the hotel and settled for room service.

I really use the word “settle” loosely because the food at the hotel restaurant, Vasco’s, was a welcome surprise. The stylized Macanese cuisine, a combination of Portuguese and Asian flavors, was excellent. We ordered beef short ribs and something they called a beef kabob. The short ribs were sauced just right and were extremely tender. The beef kabobs were really thin slices of steak wrapped around prawns. Not what we expected but delicious just the same. The service also included ice for my knee.

So what did we learn today? A lot – but that is fodder for another post.

Priscilla (one half of travel2some)