Travels with the Grumpy Laowai

The dangers of traveling in China.

The dangers of traveling in China.

We finished Golden Week here in China in October, which means that once again Team Erickson hit the road to experience something other than Shanghai for a few days.  Mark usually has to work over Chinese holidays.  Like our trip to Beijing last year, this trip was short.  It turns out our sweet spot for travel within China is around 4 days, so our trip to Guilin turned out to be perfect.  Whenever I told any of my Chinese friends and colleagues that we were taking the kids to Guilin, I was met with positive responses.  People thought we were going to love Guilin!  It was beautiful!  So interesting!  When I mentioned it to my mother she had also heard great things about the city from the other people on her Chinese tour last year.  Not to disparage either of these groups, but my mother had pointed out—several times!—that the other travelers on their Chinese excursion were “older.”  And sometimes the recommendations from our Chinese neighbors are not always on par with the things we love in a travel experience.  So we basically had universal approval from the Chinese and the elderly.  Yet we continued on with our plans!  This either demonstrates that we are unable to see danger when it is staring us right in the face, or that we are too lazy to make changes once we realize our plans might be less than ideal.  Either way, in the real world, our entire family would have long ago been eaten by a Yeti or swallowed by a whale.  But it turns out Guilin isn’t the real world!  Sometimes Team Erickson gets lucky.DSC_0340

We anticipated having to run to catch our flight, but were pleasantly surprised when the flight was delayed just enough to let us buy beers (for the adults) and snacks (for the kids) before boarding.  We had decided to stay for one night in the city since we would be arriving late.  Mark and the kids spent the taxi ride (trunk open and our luggage flapping in the breeze) chatting with our driver in Chinese.  Even just on the drive from the airport we could see some of the land formations that make Guilin famous.  Already we had exceeded our expectations!  Our hotel had been highly rated on Trip Advisor, but was less than ideal.  Lucas actually called it “seedy” (a look in the bathroom at the numerous sexual aids confirmed this) and questioned its cleanliness.  I was forced to shock the children with anecdotes about our traveling experiences before they were born.  Sufficiently frightened, they all went quietly to brush their teeth.

Delicious, but not nutritious.

Delicious, but not nutritious.

There was a night market where Mark and I would have normally found ourselves before children, but on this trip it was Mark and Lucas who went exploring while I stayed in the room and watched the craziest singing competition on television.  Did it ever occur to you to sew a million fake flowers onto a dress shirt?  Or to cut a suit in half and then just wear it that way?  People apparently do these kinds of things on Chinese television.  When Mark returned with bottles of water and spicy peanuts, we were ready to call it a night.

The next morning we cobbled together a breakfast of various items for sale from our local street vendor near the hotel.  This is Mark’s dream breakfast and the kids always start out keen to impress him.  They will still try almost anything although their enthusiasm for mystery items is starting to wane.  They have now had more than a few bad surprises when it comes to food in China—errant bones, things that turn out to be pickled, insects and reptiles—and they are more cautious now.  Only Lucas managed to eat most of what he picked out.

Guilin Street Breakfast

Guilin Street Breakfast

The morning consisted of sight seeing and we made quite a stir in Guilin.  Once again the tiny troupe of blond imps caused a commotion as we walked around the town. We tried to walk around Elephant Hill.  We still have no idea why it is called Elephant Hill, there were probably signs that explained this, but we were too busy clogging up the entrance to be bothered with learning anything.  DSC_0324People had been commenting on the kids as soon as we left the hotel and by the time we got to the park the other tourists were secretly taking photos of us.  When it became common knowledge that the two older kids were available for pictures and could speak Chinese, there was a rush to get the best spots near them.  Henry is still adamantly opposed to having his picture taken with random Chinese people no matter how nicely they ask so he spent the first 20 minutes snarling and snapping.  Mark sat on a bench to wait it out and I tried to get a few photos of the giant goldfish swimming around the little bridge we were standing on.

Distracting fish make parenting difficult.

Distracting fish make parenting difficult.

DSC_0308You can see how this could go terribly wrong, but usually people are fine.  It is China, so the kids get manhandled a bit, and no one can believe I have three children.  They desperately want a photo of all the kids together, but Henry always refuses.  Mark is usually the one to decide he has had enough and to make us all move along.

Obligatory peace sign

Obligatory peace sign

New friends!

New friends!

After lunch, it was time to move to our real accommodation.  I will let you in on a little secret—Team Erickson has discovered the best thing ever!  Those of you who have known us for a long time will remember Mark and I going on adventurous trips.  India!  Vietnam!  Cambodia!  Mark would just buy plane tickets and off we would go.  We never had reservations.  Never had much of a plan.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  Guilin has a new Club Med and that is where we stayed for the remainder of our time.  I didn’t have great expectations.  The Erickson kids usually hate any “Kids’ Club” kind of thing.  They might try it out, but ultimately it is mom and dad who end up entertaining them.  But this time they loved it!  They stayed all day!  They did archery, swung on a trapeze, and ran around with other kids.  We ate Western food and sat by the pool.  Not really “Chinese” maybe, but we will ignore that.  There were Chinese people there—does that make it more “authentic”?  Ok, I know it doesn’t.  But when we arrived at the resort even the kids visibly relaxed a little bit.  There is something to be said for making things easy.  And we all had a great time.  I welcome your scorn!  Feel free to pile it on.  A younger, kid free version of myself would have been appalled, but she never had to travel through Asia with a group of squabbling children.  The younger me would never have survived travels with the Erickson children.  She could not have imagined the planning and energy it takes to wrangle kids on a normal day much less while vacationing internationally.  So the older and wiser me took the kids to Club Med.  We can aim for authentic Chinese next week.  I am pretty sure I know where to find it.IMG_0499


Kids Gone Wild

So spring break has come and gone in Shanghai.  Where did the members of Team Erickson spend their holiday time?  We had a plan to visit Vietnam.  This plan, predictably, fell through.  Apparently, Mark needed to work!  Ridiculous.  I was very excited about the Vietnam trip and reacted badly to the realization that it was not going to happen.  I reacted very, very badly.  This had the effect of frightening Mark into agreeing to come with the rest of us on our second choice trip—Beijing.

Mark and I have been to Beijing and for us it wasn’t the trip of a lifetime.  But since we are living in China it would seem reasonable that the kids should see a few things outside of Shanghai.  That famous wall, for example. Tiananmen Square.  And who are we not to share our whining with the general Chinese population?  Why should the Shanghainese get all the good stuff?  Sometimes we have to take our unique blend of irritation on the road.  Poor, poor Beijing.

The trip started out with a bang once Lucas realized that many of his friends would be returning to our neighborhood from their trips just as we would be flying out.  Oh the injustice!  This after he had spent so much time earlier in the week moaning on the couch about his boredom.  Life is truly not fair.  So we began our trip out of Shanghai with at least one less than happy traveler.  But this would not stop us!  No!  We had some historical stuff to see.

The one thing that was sustaining any interest in this trip was the promise of riding the big slide down from the Great Wall.  Yes, the Wall is a marvel, wonderful and amazing to behold, blah, blah, blah.  Who cares about that?  What we really cared about was the slide.  Yes, there is a section of the Wall that has more than one option for going up (cable car, chair lift, hiking) and the most awesome option ever for coming back down–  a long metal slide that snakes down from the Wall to the bottom of the hill.  It gets hot as Hell in the sun and the brakes on the little sleds you sit in are basically doorstops, but no matter!  All the Erickson kids could think about was that slide.  Everyone else had ridden the slide!  The slide was the most awesome part!  There was no end to the magnificence of the slide.  If the early Chinese had any sense at all they would have saved all that time they spent building that giant wall and just built a giant slide instead.DSC_0086

Mark has already experienced the slide and can vouch for its awesomeness.  I, unfortunately, have never had the chance to ride down on the slide. The last time we went to the Wall I was about six months pregnant.  Apparently pregnant women are not allowed to sit on a tiny toboggan and hurtle themselves down a molten metal chute using a doorstop for brakes.  At least not visibly pregnant ones.  There are rules, you know.  There are safety concerns and even the Chinese have to draw the line somewhere.  This was also the trip where Mark’s Chinese colleagues insisted that I never take the stairs and scurried around hunting elevators in every building we ever entered.  I am surprised they even let me look at the Wall.  The slide?  No way.  Even if I was too stupid to know I should never have left the house the workers at the slide were never going to be a part of some foolhardy scheme.  I stood a safe distance away and was in charge of photos.

So we really talked up the slide.  It was all the kids would get out of bed for once we were cocooned at the hotel.  I had hired a driver and from the forecast had decided that Thursday was the best day for reasonable weather.  We headed out for what should have been a 90 minute ride but instead participated in a 3 hour trek on back roads.  We were trying to get to the Wall on Qingming—Tomb Sweeping Day—and every other Chinese person was trying to get somewhere as well.  We arrived, and rode the cable car up to the top.  We actually rode in the same cable car that brought President Clinton up on his visit.  I thought that this was maybe a decal they had attached inside all the cable cars, but when we got out it turned out we were in THE actual car that had transported Bubba.  Of course, my enthusiasm was matched by no one.  You guys?!  President Clinton!  I might as well have been talking to myself.DSC_0078DSC_0075DSC_0082DSC_0085

I should add here that from the time we left the hotel, it had been cloudy.  But it wasn’t raining.  Once the kids were actually touching the Wall, they did the required amount of looking in “awe” before attempting to run directly to the slide.  DSC_0093DSC_0096There is no running on the Wall and as parents we had been hoping for a bit more interest.  About 5 minutes later it began to rain. DSC_0139DSC_0123DSC_0113Mark whispered that he thought they might not let people take the slide down in the rain. I immediately turned him to stone with my icy glare.  Then it began to hail. It wasn’t golf ball sized or anything, but it was difficult to ignore.  Suffice it to say that by the time we reached the slide (a mere 20 minutes later) it was pouring.  The slide was most certainly closed and, we were later told, would stay that way all day.  Certain members of our party reacted badly.  For once it wasn’t me!  Mark and I passed the time taking videos of Lucas’ meltdown and waiting for it to stop raining.  Both the meltdown and the rain continued unabated so we decided to take the chair lift down.

There was much tooth gnashing and eye rolling as Lucas decided he would only ride the chair lift ALONE.  One of the guys working at the chair lift pretended he was going to ride with Lucas and all the other workers laughed and laughed. Oh, China.  How I love it when you help contribute to the parental hazing.  Lucas managed to crack a small smile followed by a scowl directed at me and his younger sister.  Ava and I rode in the car behind him and heckled him until we were back on the ground.  We were wonderful representatives of our country.  And this was only our first day!  America, you are welcome.  Beijing, we apologize.

Explorations: Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall

My friend Shanghai Sue is lucky enough to have a driver.  Getting around in Shanghai isn’t too difficult by taxi or subway, but having the chance to tag along with her when she has the driver makes all that work just to get from place to place seem like such effort.   I miss being able to hop in my car and run a few errands without having each stop become a major production.  Using the driver is more complicated than driving yourself—you need to plan ahead and make arrangements that include someone else being part of everything—but I don’t think I would want to try driving in Shanghai.  For now I am content to let Sue be in charge of transportation every now and then.

Today’s stop—the former French Concession (you have to say former or face the wrath of the Chinese government) and the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall.

Sue has relatives that are into fabric and she wanted to check out the Chinese style indigo batik.  There is allegedly a museum with all the information you would need about the process of making the cloth and the history of nankeen in China, but we never managed to get to any museum.  Maybe because the lane we had to walk down to find the place looked like this.

We pushed past all the laundry and wandered down the alley.  Sue’s driver had a difficult time finding the lane we needed so there was always that sliver of possibility that we were completely in the wrong place.  There had been a sign that seemed to say we were headed in the right direction, but when the alley got extremely narrow and the only indication that we should keep going was a handwritten sign all in characters, well, I was tempted to give up.

Sue:  “How is your reading these days?”

Me:  “Not great.  Poor.”

Sue:  “Hmm.”

At one point Sue tried a random door hoping we weren’t about to burst in on someone’s afternoon bath.  Luckily, the door was locked and we avoided arrest for breaking and entering.

Suddenly we were in someone’s back yard with the most beautiful laundry you have ever seen hanging on the line.  After some confusion with where exactly the entrance might be, we were in!  We had found it! 

They have beautiful things, but I resisted making any purchases right before we leave for vacation.  Maybe next time…

Changle Lu 637, House 24, Shanghai