Recently, I made a quick weekend trip to Luoyang in Henan province. I joined a tour group called Foreigners in China Network, designed for “laowai” like me to travel around without the hassle of booking train tickets, reserving hotels and navigating the changing landscape of post-pandemic tourism in China. There are still many places that foreigners are not welcome, and traveling with a Chinese guide just smooths out the lumps.
We met at the train station at 5:30 a.m. for the 4-hour high speed train to Luoyang, the jumping off point for the trip. Our group consisted in part of another American family, an Iraqi embassy cultural representative, a London IT guy, a couple from India, my Indonesian friend, and a guy who thinks Beijing winters are tropical compared to his hometown of Philly.
We packed a lot into 36 hours. I could tell you all about the Longmen Grottoes, with their 1,500 hundred year history and 100,000 buddhas carved into caves and niches along the river side.
We strolled the streets of Lijing Ancient City, passing vendors selling fresh pomegranate juice, traditional snacks and handicrafts.
We visited the Kung Fu training school in the Songshan mountains, made famous by the actor Bruce Lee in his 1970s martial arts films where he played a Shaolin monk. It’s currently home to hundreds of young martial arts practitioners who master their school work along with their leaps, kicks and splits.
And of course there is the Shaolin Temple itself, set in a tranquil forest with a view of the mountains. It’s history dates from around 500 A.D.
and the Stone Pagoda Forest, with over 250 stone stupas which serve as monuments for deceased monks.
As I worked my way through China’s greatest hits and checked off a few more UNESCO World Heritage sites, (China has 55), I realized my favorite part of the trip wasn’t something you could put on a magnet or T-shirt.
It was the people.
Like these ladies. We can’t always communicate, but a smile and thumbs up sign are universal, and I had a few encounters like that.
And then there’s this man practicing calligraphy on the street corner, who smiled when I pointed to a few characters I knew and then penned a poem for me.
And these dancers in their colorful costumes, who were happy to pose for a photo.
And this dude on the Segway who kept us company while we were waiting in line for tickets. He struck up a conversation in excellent English with the American family in our group, then quickly ran off to buy presents for their family before we all parted ways.
Outside of our group, we didn’t see any Western tourists. I felt like a rock star, with giggling teenage girls following me into the bathroom, and people asking for photos with me. Some parents pushed their kids to practice their English on me, which usually resulted in tears, since the kids were afraid of the “da bizi.” (Literally, “big nose” which is slang for foreigners, used in places where Westerners are rarely seen).
Other times, they were curious about us and wanted to know what we thought about China, like this man.
He told us he had seen some really bad things on social media about how Westerns hated Chinese people, and so he was surprised to see us. He wanted to know what we thought about his country. I could hear the earnestness in his voice. He wanted us to love China as much as he did.
I explained that I think China is a beautiful place, but right now it’s a little difficult to be here because there are places I can’t go, or I get questioned by the police. Finding a hotel is often problematic.
“Oh, it’s for your safety,” he told me. I think sometimes Chinese use the word “safety” when they really mean “security.”
“But no matter what the governments say or the politics are, I want to very much welcome you to my country. My family welcomes you too,” he said before reaching out to give me a big hug. Showing this kind of affection in public to a stranger ? A foreigner? It’s unheard of. I was moved, almost to tears.
This was the China I was hoping to see.
We left Jellyfish Lake three days ago, but the sting is still fresh in my mind.
We took a bullet train 20 minutes south of Beijing to the bedroom community of Zhuozhou so my sons could take a PADI scuba certification course. They completed the basic coursework online, and we found an English-speaking instructor to teach them the open water skills. It turned out it wasn’t just their diving skills that were put to the test.
We crossed the provincial border arriving in Zhuozhou and were immediately pulled aside by the police as we tried to exit the train station. Since we’re “waiguoren” (foreigners) this was not unusual but it’s always unsettling.
The questions (in Chinese of course), are routine enough in the beginning. “When did you arrive in China? Why are you here? What’s your phone number?”
Quickly, the sight of three foreigners draws a crowd and we are surrounded by four police officers and a few traffic cops looking for entertainment.
“Lai, Lai, lai,” one officer says, waving us to follow. Since he’s holding our passports, we have no choice but to follow him outside into a make-shift police station fashioned out of an old shipping container.
You know the feeling you get when you’re driving, and you see the red and blue lights flashing behind you and your stomach gets all tied up in knots? That’s how I feel.
Inside, a lady in a white coat and nurse’s hat perches on the edge of a cot. There’s a matching bed across from her, with a wok, electric kettle and cooking pot stored underneath. The windows are blacked out with pieces of cardboard boxes.
“Do they live here?” my son Timothy asks.
“It looks like it,” I say, as the nurse takes out her phone and starts filming us. Posting videos on social media of two tall, handsome blond teenagers being questioned by police will gain the nurse instant fame in this small town.
“Bu yao,” I tell her to stop, scowling. I feel enough like a circus freak already.
The officer continues to question us, asking for proof of quarantine (which wasn’t required), a virus test (which we don’t have) and a list of all of the places we’ve traveled since we moved to China (too many to count).
“I think he’s asking for our address in America,” my older son Daniel says. It’s a bit like Wheel of Fortune, where we guess the questions by knowing a few key words. I’d gladly pay for a vowel if it would help us out of this mess.
It’s been 45 minutes of interrogation and I’m reaching my breaking point. I don’t know how to write “Orangeshire Court” in Chinese and I really need to pee. I text our Chinese scuba instructors Lexie and Chris to ask for help. Eventually, the officer runs out of questions and reluctantly lets us go.
“That’s crazy. He asked so many questions. I told him it’s none of his f***ing business,” Lexie says as we walk to her car. I don’t know how to say that in Chinese, but it probably wouldn’t have helped.
I fan myself with our passports. I’m hot and frustrated and my stomach feels icky. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Covid-19 has been an easy excuse to keep foreigners from traveling around China, securing tickets to scenic spots and staying in hotels. I wonder if this is how my friends of color feel in the U.S.
We drive 25 minutes to Jellyfish Lake, stopping to pick up some pork stuffed buns since it’s already lunchtime.
“You guys want something to drink? Coke? Cold water?” Lexie asks when we stop. I really want a beer but I’m trying to set a good example for my kids, so I settle for water.
Lexie and Chris run their diving school out of an old farmhouse near the lake. Lexie helps the boys pick out wetsuits and loads them in a van with the oxygen tanks.
“Now we just need Chris,” Lexie says. “I think he’s in the toilet.”
On cue, we hear Chris retching from nearby bushes.
“Is he sick? I’m not really comfortable with this,” I tell her.
“Oh, don’t worry – he’s not sick,” she reassures us. “He’s just hungover. He drank too much sake last night.”
Great. The boys might drown from a hungover instructor, but at least they won’t catch the flu.
We drive the short distance to the lake, passing through a cornfield, paintball course and a cemetery. From a distance the lake looks pretty, its blue-green color reminding me of the glacier-fed lakes in Canada. But as we get closer, I see a dead fish and garbage floating near the shore.
“It doesn’t look too dirty,” Timothy says, noticing my concern.
“It’ll be ok as long as they don’t have any amoebas,” Daniel says.
Swimmers itch? E Coli? Water snakes? What should I worry about most?
“Remember all those shots we got before we left home? This is why,” I say.
I text my husband Mike a few pictures and tell him that we’re outnumbered, as a small group of locals has come to watch the foreign scuba divers.
He sees the photo of the dead fish and texts back “I hope the boys have fun and that you’ll forgive me one day.”
There’s a quick break after the first dive and Chris comes out of the water and starts dry heaving, sounding like a sick seal.
The boys laugh and Timothy asks, “How is that sound even human?”
“I don’t really think he’s fit to teach. Maybe he should rest this afternoon,” I tell Lexie as the noises from Chris’s belly grow louder. He must have been holding it in while they were underwater.
Chris sits the afternoon out, giving occasional instructions from the lakeshore between cigarettes.
The boys finish for the day and we head to the train station.
In the car, Lexie and Chris tear open small, colorful packages that look like candy.
“You guys want some? You just chew it and spit it out,” she says, holding it up for them to see.
“What is it?”
I type the words into my phone, wondering what kind of dried fruit or nuts she’s offering.
“It’s like, how do you say – chewing tabaco,” she says, happy to find the correct words.
“The areca palm tree seed known as Betel Nut or Bing Lang in Chinese produces a quick, cheap high but carries the risk of oral cancer, addiction, stained teeth and cardiovascular disease,” my phone tells me.
“No, that’s ok. We’ll pass,” I say.
We’re all a little nervous walking into the train station, but thankfully, leaving Zhuozhou rated about 3 on a 1 to 10 hassle-factor scale. I’m so ready to put this experience behind us, but we have to come back tomorrow since the class is a 4-part series.
I get ready for bed, tell the boys how proud I am of them and pray that tomorrow will be easier.
Make sure to subscribe to my blog to find out what happens next at Jellyfish Lake.
This is the second post in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak. You can read the first one here:
News alerts, emails, text messages, and We Chat notifications came fast and furious:
All employees are being offered voluntary evacuation…….The U.S. bans travelers from China….mandatory quarantine…..United Airlines ceases operation from mainland China starting February 5…..death toll rises…..Wuhan under lockdown…….countries close borders to visitors from China……WHO declares global health emergency…..
It was early February and we had a big decision to make, in a very short amount of time. We were wrapping up our ski vacation in Niseko, Japan and about to part ways, with Mike going back to Beijing and the boys and I planning to extend our holiday by flying on to Tokyo for a few days since schools were closed.
Suddenly, splitting up as a family didn’t seem like such a good idea. What if Mike makes it back to Beijing and 5 days later our flight from Tokyo is cancelled?
Do we stay in Japan as a family, with Mike setting up shop in Osaka, the closest Universal Park? Do the boys and I ditch our plans for Tokyo and head back to Beijing? Return to safety in Orlando?
Do we stay or do we go now? The Clash’s 80s punk rock song spins around and around in my head like a record on a turntable.
Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double.
Lead singer Mick Jones was perhaps singing about the torment of an indecisive lover, rather than fleeing a global health crisis, but our angst was the same.
We hurry to pack our bags two hours before our airport shuttle arrives, tossing around the pros and cons along with ski helmets and snow boots as we try make a decision.
If I go there will be trouble
If we decide to leave China, where will we go? Beijing is our home. We rented out our house in Orlando. Technically we’d be homeless. Friends and colleagues were quickly skattering around the globe, like cockroaches when the light is turned on. No one wants to be exposed to the virus. But I’m not a quitter. Pulling the plug less than halfway through our China adventure seems like giving up, like taking the cake out of the oven before it’s finished.
We could stay in Japan, but then I’d have to learn a new language, just when my Chinese was advancing from “Ni hao” to “can you please take me to the grocery store so I can stock up on toilet paper before the apocalypse?”
Plus, although I’m trying to like it, I’ll confess sushi’s really not my favorite and I’ve had enough pork cutlets in the last week to sink a ship. I miss Chinese food.
If we decide to fly to the US, we’d be stuck with only ski clothes and bathing suits we brought for the onsen (hot springs), which turned out to be unnecessary since Japanese bathe au naturel. We’d also be without all of the laptops we needed to keep up with work and school.
We called the airlines to discuss our options. Getting a seat back to the US on one of the major airlines was a bit like musical chairs at this point, with more players than seats. I always felt sorry for the kid who got left out, trying to wedge himself onto the edge of a seat as the music faded.
Even if we could get a seat, signing up for 14 hours on a flying Petri dish might not be the smartest move.
We also face unknown quarantines upon arrival, with information changing and rumors flying.
Two weeks in isolation? I didn’t download enough episodes of The Big Bang Theory or pack enough chocolate to survive that. And what will happen to my orchids if I don’t come back?
And if I stay it will be double
Returning to Beijing and riding out the virus presented challenges as well. We’d already heard about a shortage of face masks and other hygiene supplies. What if there’s run on rice, meat or vegetables? (Don’t worry – I got the toilet paper). Finding food and cooking a decent meal is always a challenge for me in China. Would it be even harder now in the wake of the epidemic?
Then there’s the thought of weeks of inactivity, with schools, restaurants, museums, shops and even ski resorts and hiking trails being closed indefinitely in and around Beijing. And of course, there’s the unlikely chance that we could catch the virus (although in all honesty I think I was more worried about being trapped at home).
So come on and let me know. Should I cool it or should I blow?
With the Clash still spinning in my head, we zipped up the duffel bags with a week’s worth of slightly damp ski clothes (which will probably smell as bad as stinky tofu when we finally unpack) and grabbed a box of Ritz crackers from the vending machine down the hall in case we get stuck somewhere.
Sometimes in a relationship you just need time to clear your mind, to figure out what to do next. It’s the same facing a voluntary evacuation. We decided to buy ourselves time, so we headed on to Tokyo as a family to find the best ramen, sample Waygu beef and gorge on Kit Kats. Everything’s clearer on a full stomach, right?
Stay tuned to hear what happens next. You can sign up for updates delivered by email by hitting the subscribe menu at the top. Thanks for joining our adventure.
Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.
Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.
We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.
This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.
The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.
The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.
Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).
Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.
We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).
Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.
It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt, bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.
After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.
We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.
We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.
Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?
In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of secondary importance.
We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.
Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.
Each set of stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.
The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.
And there was only one way to go – up. We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.
The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.
What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.
This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.
It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.
We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.
In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness. They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.
Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.
We travelled on small country roads, passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.
I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.
But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a 360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.
I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.
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Staying healthy while living in China is one of my main concerns as we prepare to move. So I logged onto the Center for Disease Control website, clicked on China, and the following helpful information came up:
- Get vaccinated
- Eat and drink safely
- Keep away from animals
- Prevent bug bites
- Avoid sharing bodily fluid.
Ok, I think we can manage this. To tackle the vaccines, we headed to Passport Health in Orlando, rolled up our sleeves and emptied our wallets. One hour, 9 shots, $1,925 and a stop at Chick-fil-A later, the boys and I are sufficiently armed against Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid and Hepatitis. We decided to pass on the rabies vaccine (I thought those were for dogs?) vowing instead to duck and cover if we are attacked by a swarm of rabid bats (or rats for that matter).
Stocking the pharmacy
With the shots out of the way, I turned my attention to gathering inhalers, Epi-pens, allergy medicine and enough over the counter meds to give CVS or Walgreens a run for their money.
Tums, Tylenol, Sudafed, Benadryl, cold medicine and other soothing remedies readily available in the U.S. are hard to come by in China outside of a hospital setting, as no Western-style drug stores exist. I’ll probably throw in some hand-sanitizer and sunscreen for good measure.
And then of course there is the infamous air pollution problem. Some studies suggest that living in Beijing on a bad air quality day is the equivalent to smoking 25-40 cigarettes a day. Well, I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and don’t intend to start now.
So we are bringing our Vogmasks, super comfy, stylish cotton face masks that filter out the harmful particles in the air.
I have this pretty floral one, but I am thinking about ordering a few more. Don’t you think a girl should have a mask for each outfit, kind of like shoes?
While we are prepared enough to make any Boy Scout proud, it’s highly unlikely we will be swarmed by encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes or suffer permanent damage from a few smoggy days. More than likely our biggest risks are painful fingers from Chopstick Overuse Syndrome (COS) common to new expats and Beijing belly (gastric upset from too many stuffed buns)
You made it this far. Thanks for reading! What’s your go-to home remedy or OTC medicine when you are sick? I’d love to hear so I can bring it along. Comment below or send me a message. Best suggestion wins a prize (pollution mask or Pepto Bismal, your choice.)