A Journey to China, Part 4: Conclusion

To be clear, we’re actually still covering the remaining Hangzhou, Suzhou and Wuzhen content in this post, and then wrapping up with our day in Shanghai.

There was actually a stop between cities at a Buddha statue tourist attraction. The lotus in the fountain holds a musical baby Buddha while the gold adult version in the distance was something like 80 feet (meters?) tall.
We decided to focus on the temple in the complex instead.
They had smaller statues and paintings inside.
Watching the show. After this stop the whole group rebelled and instructed our guide and driver to skip the next park on the itinerary in favor of getting a rest.
We ventured out to what was by local standards a very upscale restaurant but would be a nice treat but not completely out of range for us at home. We wandered a bit after that. A young man came out of a storefront to ask if we were interested in buying real estate, and while we admitted we weren’t, we had a blast making small talk with him and his office mates. They really appreciated the English practice.
A large scale park was first on the docket the next morning.
Another bit of the park.
Statue there with beautifully draped clothing.
And an ornamental planting.
Then a stop at a tea plantation for another sales pitch.
In Shanghai we ditched our tour once again with our new friend. We visited a museum store instead of the whole museum, got two(!) massages, and wandered a wholesale district. This was a shop that clearly sold mannequins to other businesses.
We also visited an enormously tall upscale mall. Our friend bought a tea set there, but it seemed to take the salespeople by surprise, so getting it packaged up to take back was quite a process.

A Journey to China, Part 3: Hangzhou, Suzhou & Wuzhen

For the next stage of our tour, we all packed up and flew to Shanghai, then got bussed around the triangle of Hangzhou, Suzhou and Wuzhen. At this remove, I’m not sure I can keep straight which city was which, but each had a specific attraction.

First a quick shoutout for the hotel art. We really enjoyed checking the various floors at some of the hotels to see what little sculptures they had out on display.
The highlight of our first city was gardens. This is an interior shot of course!
Outside with framing trees and a reflecting pool.
Gorgeous red foliage on the other side.
Just when we thought maybe we were coming to the end, there was more garden!
A picturesque rock wall.
Same, but in miniature!
A stunning red gate surrounded by flowers.
A few other amusing highlights, with Batman joke, goose friend and a snack.
Next up a boat ride on the canal. These structures have been around for a very long time!
Yet another pavilion.
One of our best finds of the trip. We always enjoy popping into little stores and seeing what convenience foods are like. You would think these would be the equivalent of American gas station sandwiches. The labels were amusing. The taste was excellent. The price was even better. And best of all? The brown one, I kid you not, was cake. …how 2020.
Kentucky Friend Chicken was interestingly very aspirationally middle class, hence the gold suit etc. And by local standards, quite expensive.

A Journey to China, Part 2: The Great Wall

I think this new format is working nicely. Easier to edit procedurally, and more emphasis on the photos. So let’s stick with it.

Day 2 of our package took us mainly to the Great Wall, though there’s a little miscellany on either end.

First we stopped by some of the Olympic structures. We were fairly intrigued by this streetlight design, though, and you can still see “The Bird’s Nest” at the base.
We also tried some kind of candied fruit from one of the street vendors. We still don’t know what it is, really. But it was tasty! This one was a little bit frozen from being stored outside, which when we got another in the underground mall the following day, we decided we actually liked better than room temperature.
On the way up to the wall, we were all ushered through a jade factory. Aside from the piece we brought home, this collection of silk embroidery portraits was our favorite thing there.
The part of the wall we saw was a fortress surrounding a valley. So there was a loop there that people could walk if they had the time.
Various members of our group managed different amounts of the ascent.
The views were stunning. I was really pleased with how well the photo captures the color fade over distance. The lone electrical pole feels telling, too.
Little outpost.
Another distance shot.
We drove past a frankly terrifying amusement park on the way back.
And took the tour up on the add-on to see a performance that night. We critiqued it heavily on lighting, costumes, plot, choreography and such (with help from one of our fellow tour members regarding acrobatics). It was certainly heavy on spectacle and the incorporation of water onstage (pools and a waterfall) was nothing short of astounding. They had spared no expense.

The following morning, we ditched the optional tour with that same fellow member of the peanut gallery to do some (not vary savvy) haggling for souvenirs at a big outdoor market. At least we were able to navigate the subway very easily!

A Journey to China, Part 1: Beijing

I suppose I should preface: We took a package tour to China just after Thanksgiving 2017, having found a great deal on LivingSocial. We appreciated the opportunity to have a guide in a country where we wouldn’t be able to read or speak the language. Turns out that wouldn’t necessarily be a big concern for us on a return visit there, as the country was very user friendly. An interesting quirk of the package was that they took us to a lot of souvenir-oriented businesses…so just like the ads before videos, we got a sales pitch in addition to the main event.

When we arrived at the Beijing airport, our main task was to find the meeting point for our tour group, but we couldn’t help but be amused by the meeting point for unaccompanied minors. Good plan! We also wandered a little bit outside the hotel and found a hole in the wall takeout place catering to local college students. We fell in love with the dumplings and brought more tour people back each night.
Our first stop with the tour the next morning was Tiananmen Square. There was certainly an impressive military presence.
From there we went into the Forbidden City. The number of animal carvings on a building’s roof symbolized the importance of its inhabitants.
The restored detailing was absolutely beautiful. We were told it was done when the city hosted the Olympics. It was interesting to see deeper into the complex where they hadn’t yet been able to do so.
Here’s how it looks on a whole pavilion.

Let’s pause here for an itty bitty highlight of the tour group, since we had to bus to the next attraction. Our Beijing guide, Nina, was just adorable. Each family had a number to check in at the end of each stop. She called all of us her babies – which perhaps only once or twice caused a little confusion with the family who had their toddler along and thus typically used the moniker “baby family” rather than their number. We’d rather expected to have to curtail our international travel once we had our own kiddo, so seeing their successful (if occasionally extra burdened) experience was heartening.

Next stop Summer Palace. As noted, we were there in November, so there was not a lot of the verdant garden aspect. We would love to go back to see it in full bloom.
Another lake shot.
This barge was just gorgeous!
A curving covered walkway with more of the restored detailed paint work.
An ornate bridge.
On our next evening excursion, we saw the Olympic towers and construction cranes lit up.

The Grand Tour, Part 6: Barcelona

Our first day in Barcelona, we made our way out to the beach, with a stop in a little archaeological museum that hurt my brain with its Catalan labels. Once seaside, we discovered this structure we like to call the “bro station”.

We wandered through a large city park with lots of different attraction areas. This one was some kind of mythological monument, if I recall / interpreted correctly in the first place? Elsewhere, we saw some dancers practicing.

Same park, different part. They’ve got the ubiquitous victory arch in the distance, and the bicyclist is approaching a large map of the old city as enclosed by its walls.

There were plenty of small entertainments going on. The bubbles were lovely to see, though perhaps unsurprisingly the people releasing them were aiming for tips. We walked by the Sagrada Familia before calling it a night.

Just a bit of whimsy – we couldn’t get over the pigeon waiting in the subway!

We enjoyed a translation quirk at our hotel breakfast: we decided that what seemed to literally say “time fruit” was intended to imply “seasonal”.

On the final day of our trip we got up at…3? 4? to “ride ALL the tin cans” – bus, plane, train bus and finally come home.

The Grand Tour, Part 5: The South of France

Welcome to Nice! The red roof Mediterranean look is classic for a reason – it’s really how most buildings are capped. The beaches here are mostly stone, which makes for an interesting visit. It’s best not to leave your possessions unattended, either.

We got to take in some nature and archeology climbing the largest hill near the harbor. That’s where we spotted this lovely waterfall, and got to see some fancy pigeons, too.

While exploring the center city, we saw some capoeiristas showing off their skills at multiple tourist spots for tips. I’d learned a little bit in college, so it was fun to see again.

We stumbled upon a graffiti artist with very interesting technique! He made a lot of use of circular items to create the appropriate borders for the base layer. He’d manipulate the spray paint with brushes, too. We bought a fantasy scene of elephants and baobabs.

That same evening, we saw lots of vendors with more or less the same kitsch for sale. Possibly our favorite story of the trip centers on the one who claimed his wares were hand-carved from real ebony, and I think there was a sob story about how his family needs the income, too? Anyway, I was pretty uncomfortable with the hard sell but Jeff knew what was going on and decided to buy a mass produced turtle carving anyway, saying the amount we were overcharged was for the guy’s time really selling it without giving any hint that it was bogus.

Also we tried a McDonald’s smoothie to see how it was different there!

The next day we took a bus out to the next town east. It’s one of the few sandier beaches in the vicinity, by which mostly I mean better pulverized stone. We had several floral flavors of gelato, and assembled lunch from the village grocery.

For dinner – another favorite story – we had a very intriguing visit to a cafe that made an “American” sandwich – burger chopped up, put in a wrap with lettuce, tomato and Big Mac sauce, and then panini pressed. Their “pizza” was interesting too. Note we were very close to Italy. It was more like bruschetta I think? In either case both were delicious if not exactly what was advertised. We decided to stop while we were ahead, though, and NOT try the tacos and burritos you could order with the meats chicken tenders and chicken fingers if you wanted…

We finished out the evening with sunset on the beach, then hurried back to the bus stop. We were a little worried we were too late, as was the family waiting with us, but luckily there was indeed at least one more bus that came for us all.

Thanks to my cousin who booked the trip for us, we added an overnight in Carcassone. That’s right, I get nerd points for staying in a town that inspired a board game. The castle was cool, the couple cosplaying even cooler.

Jeff, of course, was a big fan of the fountain in the town that lights up at night. There was some great statuary there, and we were a little disappointed we didn’t have time to see the art museum that bordered the square.

As we got ready to head back to the hotel, we could see that when you look back across the river, the whole castle and walled city lit up. A great view for a great end of the night!

The Grand Tour, Part 4: A Little More Paris, Versailles and Giverny

Having completed our two full day trips, we decided to slow down a little. First of all, we were exhausted. Second of all, we needed to take a laundry day in the middle of the trip. We got to explore our immediate neighborhood, trying out the patisserie.

Better rested, we ventured out once more. The portal in the first picture above was one of the inventions displayed in a metro station; the whole look was very nearly steampunk. Here, I think we are looking at the Hotel du Ville?

At picture, place or both, we saw an exhibit on the history of Paris, its public services, etc. It was clearly for Parisians, all in French with very complex grammar. In comparison, the newspaper announcement they displayed from the 1800s explaining every person had a right to vote was much easier to comprehend!

Needing some greenery, we visited the Bois du Boulogne and met this muskrat!

Our first half day trip was the obligatory Versailles. We only got to see the palace itself, no time for the gardens. This was my second viewing, and with another decade and a half of theatre under my belt, the false marble painted in the restored rooms was much easier to spot!

Later in the evening, we checked out the Paris Plage. That’s the beach, folks. Now it’s not natural, they cart a bunch of sand to one of the Seine’s canals. It was quite the attraction! Zip lines, bumper boats, sunbathing, bars.

There were also three levels of French as a second language class for immigrants! One group was drilling colors, one was doing something with verb tenses, and the third was practicing writing letters.

Our other half day trip was to Giverny, and Monet’s gardens. They were beautiful! It was really interesting to go inside and see some of the replica paintings – having seen the original just a few days before, we could tell the difference!

It’s possible we were homesick for our chickens, because Jeff couldn’t help but snap a photo of this confident bird. We rounded out this part of the voyage by buying a little modern impressionist piece from an artist in the village.

The Grand Tour, Part 3: Mont St Michel and the Loire Valley

Remember how I mentioned fleeing to the country? Granted it was planned ahead of time, since we signed up for a few day trips to see some key places outside of Paris, but this first stop was it:

Mont St Michel was fascinating. An island only intermittently connected to the maintain. World Heritage site. Monastery. Little village souvenir shops. An art exhibit juxtaposing medieval architecture and modern art. Er… is that right?

Definitely modern art, at least. Click to embiggen the birds. We had lunch on the way up with the bus. Sat with a family from…somewhere else. Drank some scumble. No that’s the Pratchett name. Norman apple liquor. Calvados. We bought a tiny bottle to share with Jeff’s mom.

Exiting through the gift shop (and walking back to the bus) entailed walking past some painted cow statues reminiscent of a campaign I saw in Chicago growing up. I’ve always like world maps, so of course I’m featuring this one.

And now for documentary evidence of the aforementioned fireworks. I think that’s really all there is else to say.

Our next day trip was an outing to three Loire Valley castles. Amboise first, where da Vinci stayed before his death. The park there includes several of his machines. Fascinating! And an adorable turtle sculpture in a fountain as we returned to the bus.

Of course, we were able to get sorbet, too, which was lovely. Especially when served two flavored in the shape of a flower!

Stop two, Chenonceau. The estate includes two beautiful gardens. The arches over the river were right on the line between Vichy France and occupied territory. It allowed for movement by both refugees and the French resistance!

Finally, Chambord. Architecturally ridiculous, but home of the famous eponymous raspberry liqueur, which is delicious. The modern art displayed inside was interesting, too. All in all a good day.

The Grand Tour, Part 2: A Whirlwind in Paris

Oh hello, has it been almost three years? And now I have three trips to type up? Good grief. Jeff has been begging for me to finish recounting these stories, or at least this one in particular, and since I got started storytelling something else but this feels easier to pick up than moving to the second installment of the next, let’s give it a shot.

In Paris, of course, one must see the major landmarks. We perhaps started our first half day off with a wander? At some point we started our four day Paris Pass – with only a three day window in which to use it. I was determined to get the maximum possible value out of it. Thus began the death march of art.

Our first act upon redeeming the Paris Pass (which I recall being annoyingly difficult) was to take the bus around the major landmarks. Here, of course, the Arc de Triomph, where some few days later our erstwhile President followed us (oh the joys of a military parade) and we fled the City for a peaceful day in the countryside. Admittedly we returned to the riverside for the Bastille Day fireworks.

One of our favorite finds proved to be the Petit Palais, which houses a lovely art collection, a cafe and a central courtyard. The back portion was challenging to navigate, though, with enticing staircases that may have drawn me out of bounds. Across the way, we visited a science museum and the aquarium. I enjoyed finding hands on exhibits to share with my sister.

We finished the evening with a cruise on the Seine, taking sunset photos of Notre Dame and coming back to find the Tour Eiffel lit up (and blinking?). We saw some of the ubiquitous merchandise vendors flying light up toys to entice buyers as well, but demurred and returned – via metro, of course – to our lovely hotel handily close to grocery stores, cafes, patisseries, and a laundromat.

The next day was truly a slog, and the death march of art resumed in earnest. We began at L’Orangerie, where we saw the enormous and rightly famous Monet waterlilies, as well as a mesmerizing temporary exhibit.

Across the river, security theatre was in full force at the Musee D’Orsay. I was entranced by the scale models of the Opera sets. We accidentally went through the Impressionist exhibit backwards – we wondered why the paintings got worse!

We took a well-deserved break and attempted to learn about wine. We didn’t finish any of the offerings, but the final dark vintage with a mushroom aftertaste was definitely the loser of the bunch. Then we dashed back for one more museum as fast as we could… and I biffed it on the sidewalk. Just full on sprawled, lengthwise on the sidewalk. Someone kindly asked (in French) if I was alright. I was!

Our final museum for the night was, you guessed it, the Louvre. Despite it being their late night, the glass pyramid entrance was nearly deserted. I loved seeing the excavations of the oldest layer of the castle.

We bustled through as many sections as we could. Luckily, it was less our era than the other two museums we’d visited. Still, this painting of the life of Jesus caught our eyes – it was weird enough we practically expected to be a Bosch!

But we weren’t truly done yet! We headed south to the Tour Montparnasse and enjoyed a wide view of the lit up city at night, the boulevards creating rivers of light.

We resumed our trek rejuvenated the next morning at the Rodin museum. The man truly understood the human form. There was a study of hips and legs in a dance pose there that was amazingly athletic. I wished I could take it home.

We joined a tour of the Paris Opera House – where the Phantom of the Opera is set. I didn’t particularly care for the new ceiling fresco (just not my style) but we got some shots for my mother. The costumes archived in niches of the lobby were more to my taste. It’s funny but now I don’t remember what language we chose for the tour. Probably English, though.

We hit a couple more places with the Paris Pass – the Wax Museum (where I sparred with Jackie Chan) and the Chocolate Museum. You actually get to sample different types of chocolate as you go. These are chocolate statues!


The Grand Tour, Part 1: Amsterdam

Last summer, Jeff and I took a trip to Europe. Three weeks, three countries…though really we only spent a couple of nights each in two of them. We both studied French and therefore chose to keep most of the trip in France, including nearly half based out of Paris. Since I’m writing this just after returning from our second major trip of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to finish paring down the old photos for the blog before we start on the new set. We (mostly Jeff) took about 4000 pictures in Europe. Thank goodness for digital cameras! We got it down to roughly 250 for general family and friends viewing. And it looks like I will be able to tell our story here using about 50 of those.

Note that third button on the left!

So let’s take a metaphorical journey back to July, where we started off with a very long journey: an attempted four hour train ride to Chicago – blocked by downed trees – replaced with a shared Uber ride, followed by a couple hours of down time and a seven or eight hour flight. We arrived in the Netherlands shortly after the crack of dawn, and were delighted to find that the Amsterdam airport had a beautiful shortcut for buying a train ticket into town. Unfortunately, we were so exhausted that we forgot upon arrival at the train station that we meant to take additional public transit to our hotel, so dragged ourselves and our luggage on a meandering yet beautiful walking trip through the central city.

I love the northern European port architectural style of tall, narrow buildings. Some of them still have hooks at the top for using ropes (and pulleys?) to bring loads of supplies upstairs. Amsterdam’s canal layout makes it easier to tell where you are, too. While I liked the city’s bike lanes in principle, I found that my instinctual way of crossing streets wasn’t compatible with the new traffic pattern. It would have taken maybe a week or two to adjust my movement habits, but we only had two days in town. We found an outdoor market and a hole-in-the-wall cafe with delicious food on our way to the hotel, then I succumbed to a nap while Jeff went out hunting for a European sim card. He ultimately got one, but was never successful in getting it to work.

We spent the majority of our time in town wandering and eating, not entering any of the major attractions. We stumbled into a free organ concert in a local cathedral (Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals may never be the same again). We perused two separate outdoor markets – one food, one art. We tried a cone of Belgian fries and ate waffles with ice cream. Come evening, we sought out a restaurant whose discount card was stocked at our hotel for rijsttafel – essentially Indonesian tapas, which I finally picked up enough Dutch to translate as “rice table”. We strolled past many of the notable landmarks (even hearing some street musicians in the amazing acoustics central tunnel of the Rijksmuseum), and breezed past the many outdoor shops (finding the fish mosaic pictured above).

We learned that the train station (left) was built as the East India Trading Company’s headquarters. The next day, we walked around part of the exterior of the zoo, had more food and art adventures, discovered that tulip bulbs souvenirs destined for the US have to be specially certified and can only be purchased at the flower market or the airport. We got a bit lost past the red light district trying to find local art galleries.

We don’t normally do food pictures, but our last dinner in town was translated as “beef stew” and served with a wedge of the local sausage on top.  Although it was delicious, we felt there was something off about the label. See if you agree – it’s pictured on the left. We also don’t tend to drink very much, but there again we felt it was worth doing something special in each European country, so we tried some stroopwafel liqueur  – it was nicely smooth and sweet.