Sunday, October 10, 2010

China - a View from the back of the bus - Travel Notes

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Travel notes, in no particular order:

  1. Chinese Safety: Brochure provided in hotel advises against prostitution, porn articles, drugs and using hotel rooms for “other purposes.” Also, no fighting or gambling and “follow no strangers to the fun places.” The pictograms were even better than the Chinese-English translations! I saved it!
  2. Business cards: You never know whom you will meet in your travels. Always carry cards and keep ‘em handy.
  3. Medicines: The Transderm-Scopolamine patch provided by my physician was the bees-knees! I’ve suffered motion sickness for years while flying and tried Dramamine, Vodka, you-name-it. The patch rocks! A small round band-aid like patch behind the ear, and I was good to go. Also used a homeopathic “jet lag prevention” from Magellan’s Travel, a pleasant-tasting chewable tablet every few hours while flying, coming and going. Changing my watch to get on the destination time as soon as I boarded the place was a great help, too. NO JET LAG! Rarely needed the first aid kit but glad to have it with me; the sinus meds came in handy due to rainforest-like conditions in some places.

  4. Ground transportation: Next time, I’d fly to JFK. The bus trip to/from was exhausting. Going to NY only took 7 hours, but the trip home was pushing 10 hours. Ugh.
  5. Flights: ALWAYS ensure we’re in our final departure city before last flight to U.S. Unfortunately, our itinerary had us flying from Shanghai, early in the morning (a domestic flight/different terminal and different security procedures), to Beijing where we would catch our flight (an international flight!) – the only one of the day – back to JFK in New York. ALSO get up and move around as much as you can; I made the mistake of sleeping way too long on the flight home and my feet and ankles swelled, taking more than two days to reduce to normal again.
  6. The tour company: Citslinc International, Inc., the Chamber’s Chinese partner, took care of all ticket purchases, including flights, as well as the required Chinese Visa. Very helpful. This is not a trip we would have attempted on our own. If you don’t speak Chinese, you’re out of luck.
  7. Pricing: The price for this trip was, in a word, cheap! I paid almost as much for airfare to Japan over seven years ago. We very soon realized the trip was underwritten by the many government-owned factory stores to which we were shuttled every day. While the lectures provided at the beginning of each tour was interesting, we were a bit irritated with all the selling. It was difficult to separate from the group, so we ended up waiting in the bus often. However, all of our bus-mates were in shopping heaven, making deals. So, we chalked up all of the shopping to keeping our trip price low. We didn’t make any factory store purchases (other than my Green Tea); we felt we supported the country by our many “Made in China” purchases in the U.S.
  8. Shopping: You will stop at several "factory tours" or other selling venues such as “China Town in Shanghai” every day. Capitalism is alive and well in China including street vendors in every tourist stop and restaurant, gift shops, and the "stuff" sold on our bus by our guides from custom-made suits to in-room massages to duffle bags to playing cards and postcards to special group photos and a DVD to loose leaf tea mugs (yes, I bought two). Thankfully, bottled water (2 for $1 USD) was available daily on the bus. Warm or not, it was needed.
  9. Food: Meals were often at the "factory tour" restaurant, served in family-sized bowls “Lazy Susan” style, with our entire group sitting together in a large room with other tour groups. We rarely saw locals eating in these places and assumed we were eating “Westernized” Chinese food. It began to be very repetitious with nearly the same dishes served at every stop, lunch or dinner. We’re on Chinese food-overload and will avoid it here in the U.S. Breakfast is the most “Western” and plentiful meal of the day. Enjoy and make the most of it. Also, if you crave a certain seasoning, be sure to carry packets with you to use. I carried Splenda to sweeten my tea; rarely finding even sugar to use other than in the hotels. Wish I had carried crushed red pepper as much of the food was bland; only during our last two meals were we offered soy or hot sauce.
  10. Clothing: Wish I had taken my waterproofed walking sandals, cargo shorts (with pockets) and more light-weight, loose-fitting tops. It was SO hot and humid that Hampton Roads feels cool in comparison. SO glad I carried my lightweight traveler’s rain jacket! When they say “China is a casual place,” they mean it. Don’t waste space carrying anything too nice. It rained almost constantly in Beijing, and the other cities were overly hot. China does have air conditioning in the form of upright units placed sporadically in select areas. But their idea of a cool temperature and mine are very different, including the temperature of drinks served. But we adapted.
  11. Personal hygiene: Take plenty of tissue packets and personal wet-wipes. You will need them in most, if not all, public toilets. Even some Western-style toilets were without paper for wiping or cleansing either end. Don’t be surprised by the Asian hole-in-the-floor toilet in the ladies room, and don’t be shocked if the locals don’t close the stall door and insist on using the stall with no door. No modesty in China when nature calls. Also, don’t hold up lines by waiting for the occasional handicapped stall with Western toilet and perhaps even rails for holding on. Suck it up and go native. And, most important of all, ladies and gentlemen: do NOT flush the paper in the toilet. All paper goes in the trash can provided in the stalls. I know, gross. I carried a hand sanitizer spray, too.

  12. Daily schedule: This is firm. It is not easy to leave the tour to go out on your own. Plan to go on "optional" tours offered as it is not convenient to NOT go on the optional tour. Your only option is usually to wait on the bus.
  13. Walking around money: The price of the trip can be kept to a minimum if you have the will-power to withstand the many shopping opportunities. We took only $1000 total made up of U.S. Dollars and Chinese Yuan and returned with change despite buying American food, a few gifts for the kids and all of the offered cash-only “optional” tours. Only used the credit card once for my $200 tea purchase.
  14. Fatigue: This is not your typical vacation. You will be tired every night and upon your return. With that said, we would never consider touring China without a group tour such as this. And, with the length of time and distance it takes to get to China, why not pack in all that you can? Schedule at least a long weekend to recuperate and get on a “regular” schedule again.
  15. Final thought: Don’t let our or anyone else’s experience dissuade you from taking this trip if it fits your time and budget. Definitely worth every penny. Just do it.

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China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Eight

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Eight (the end, almost)
Ah, the early morning bus-ride to the airport. You’d think one would become accustomed. Nope.

Getting back to the States was an adventure itself. We had to fly to Shanghai to get back to Beijing for the only flight of the day back to NYC. Not a good idea on any overseas trip, we now know. Be in your final departure city the night before! We sat on the plane in Shanghai for a long time before Air China finally decided the plane had a mechanical problem that could not be fixed, and they didn’t have another plane. Better to find out on the ground, I say.

We had a very short connection window for the Beijing flight. We’d never make it, even if we could find another flight to get us out of Shanghai. At this point, I’m envisioning sleeping on the floor of the airport. No worries, I had a pillow and blanket with me.

Now, Bert and I are at the back of the plane. By the time we had got through the jet way, the Chinese, other travelers and our group had crowded the gate ten or more people-deep. It brought to mind the craziness of New York Stock Exchange traders, so I stepped back and put in my iPod’s ear buds. After some harried negotiation via mobile phone between the President of the Hampton Roads Chamber, Jack Hornbeck, and the tour company, our group was divided up and given boarding passes to three different flights to Beijing. Run. They were ready to go. Luckily, our Chamber group was so large, the Beijing to NYC flight was held up for us to arrive.

So, after arriving in JFK several hours later than expected, we flew through U.S. Customs with ease despite what appeared to be a very long line, then boarded the bus – the last one I hope to ride on for a while – for the final trip home.

Our driver took us through New York’s Chinatown as we left JFK for the trip which would take us down the Eastern Shore. The entire bus chuckled. We’d just left that all behind. The driver seemed to take forever. He was Chinese and told us he couldn’t drive in China anymore. Too fast for him.

While Bert enjoyed taking pictures of me wearing my mask on the plane, I was the ONLY person on the bus ride home NOT hacking and coughing the entire way. We arrived home in Norfolk at 2:30am on Thursday. I slept, was showered and back to work by 11:30am, swollen feet and all. Bert took a long weekend.

After this trip, I think there are two Chinas. One is the China of my grade school history books with ornate gardens, pagodas and pavilions, gates and walls, farmland growing tea, dynasties and privileged emperors. The other is the China of today, fused somewhere between capitalism and communism, a people ready to embrace the dream of middle-class and to throw open the national doors to invite in shoppers of all race, color and creed. While I may never go back, I am certainly glad we did go. Not because the trip was not memorable. It was that, and more. I am glad I traveled to Japan first. I may have never gone, if not, based on this Asian experience. Just proves that one cannot judge an entire continent by one country, or even one city or person. We’re all different.

And there are just so many more places Bert and I want to explore. Suggestions?

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China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Seven

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Seven
Our last full day in China, so we decided to stay with the group only until the Maglev train ride. Shanghai’s silk carpet factory was our first stop. They were just too picture-perfect and beautiful – and expensive (in the tens of thousands for a small hanging) – to consider walking on. Again, only a few artisans were on display weaving in the factory, and our factory guide attributed this to the cottage industry of China. Most of her artisans had looms at home, she said. Some of the high quality carpets could take months, even years, to complete. The more knots per square inch, the more expensive, and the more exquisite and detailed. Many of our fellow travelers made big ticket purchases.

Where does most of the artisans' work actually occur? Only a few craftsmen were at work at any of the government-owned factory stores to which we were shuttled. We were told that most work is a “cottage industry” occurring within the person’s home. I wonder? True or third-world factory conditions somewhere out of the view of Westerners intolerant of such things?

Our favorite part of the carpet factory, though, was the accountant labeled “budget computing”… using an ancient abacus as his computer… while listening to his MP3 player.

We thought we were in for a special treat at a Mongolian BBQ for lunch. We enjoy these in the U.S. At first glance, the set-up was very similar: with bowl in hand, go down a buffet line and choose your ingredients, then deliver o a short order cook who grills on a common circular cook top. A few differences. The choices included goat meat, and the grill cooks threw the food around so much that our all meals tended to look alike.

As part of my job at the Hampton Roads Partnership, I monitor transportation efforts and simply had to ride on the world’s only commercial Maglev train ( These trains are powered by electromagnetism and suspended in air above the track on a magnetic cushion.

It did not disappoint as we ran from Shanghai’s Longyang Road station to Pudong International Airport as part of the metro system. Reaching a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour (just under 277 miles per hour), it is much faster than the bullet trains in Japan I enjoyed during my visit there. The entire round trip only took about 15 minutes. The rushing whoomp felt on the return trip when passing the other train was exhilarating. If you blinked, you missed seeing it altogether.

We were fortunate to meet Jerry Roper, President and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and his wife on the train. Chicago is a Shanghai Sister City, and the Chamber along with Chicago Mayor Daley had been visiting at the same time we were in China.

After the Maglev trip, we bailed on our travel mates and skipped the last shopping experience of our trip, the Yu Garden Bazaar or Shanghai’s “China Town” and the circus later that night. Before catching our first non-rickshaw Chinese cab, we stopped at the train station’s McDonalds for a taste of home. That Micky D’s cheeseburger tasted just like the good ole’ U.S. of A, but the French fries had a very distinctive Chinese food oily taste. Looking around the fast food restaurant, we could have easily been at home based on the patrons, many speaking English and all dressed on modern Western garb. The décor, including the bathroom and the Café McD, were exactly like home!

We had obtained a business card at the hotel with both English and Chinese information and also asked Capt. Jack to write down where we wanted to go in Chinese. Despite a false start with a cabbie who couldn’t understand his Chinese character, we asked a guard at the taxi stop. He understood our destination: the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower ( which we had seen from The Bund the night before.

The OPT, as the English-speaking Chinese referred to it, was once the tallest structure in China (1,535 feet high). Although it is still the tallest TV tower in China and third tallest TV tower in the world, at least as of the date we visited. Bert, TV guy, needed to get up in that tower as high as he could, so we took the cramped – Chinese know no personal space limitations – elevator up.

The 360-degree view was extraordinary. We could see forever, or as far as the smog would allow, on both sides of the Huang Pu River. It was almost as if one had “photoshopped” the Manhattan skyline over and over and over. We walked around the glass-enclosed observation deck noting the city we faced stenciled in English and Chinese on the window.

We’d heard there was a glass floored observation deck somewhere, so we stood in line for the elevator only to find we needed to pay more Yuan to go up. These were some of the best pictures of the trip; we even captured the shadow of the OPT and another group of teenagers who certainly looked no different than Bert’s daughter Jillian and her pals.

As we were the only Western faces in the crowd, we’d become the tourist attraction in the OPT. Chinese tourists cozied up to us, and their guide explained they’d like to have their pictures taken with us. We felt like rockstars!

After the OPT, we hailed a cab and handed him our hotel card. After a bit of shoulder shrugging, he finally called the hotel, we’re assuming to get directions. After what seemed like an eternal cab ride (and cheap!) which took us through an amazing tunnel system under the Huang Pu River, we arrived back in older Shanghai. The cab gave us a much closer perspective of Chinese life – and driving – than did the back of the bus. We saw a woman using a foot-pump sewing machine under an umbrella on the street, a city wall whose top was embedded with glass shards, and the hustle, bustle of everyday people living everyday lives.

The best part of the harrowing cab trip happened while we were stopped in traffic. I glimpsed a small Chinese boy looking at me from the back of his cab. He shrank down into the seat when he saw that I had seen him, timidly cradling himself under his mother’s arm. Then, as he peeked back at me, I waved to him. He waved back with the biggest little boy smile. Some things transcend cultures.

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China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Six

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Six
We checked out of our Hangzhou hotel and enjoyed the usual American hotel breakfast which consists of Western fare, such as eggs to order, pancakes and/or waffles, pastries, fried potatoes, bacon, dry cereals, etc. Add to that some Chinese staples of eggs hard-boiled in tea and the usual Lazy Susan dishes for lunch and dinner, etc. A strange assortment, to say the least, but a hardy meal to get us started for our travel-packed days.

Neither Hangzhou nor Suzhou has subways, like Shanghai or Beijing. Capt. Jack proudly told us his city of Suzhou would have a system built within five years, though. Bikes were much more visible. Of course, no bike helmets or knee pads or safety lights as in America. It was nothing to see a rider carrying an umbrella in one hand while steering the bike with the other or transporting a baby in a sling or a truck-sized pile of Styrofoam packing materials or broken wood pallets.

The drive from the city of Hangzhou into the villages reminded me of the dichotomy of architecture which is China. Everywhere, centuries old historic buildings share the landscape with the modern.

Our first stop was the Dragon Well Green Tea Farm in Meijiawu village (, as Jack joked, where we would see all the tea in China.

I made the only purchase of the trip here: premium tea from the very tender first spring shoots of the tea bushes grown on tiered hillsides and dried by hand. Our lecturer was the lovely lady, Plum Ling; first name “Ling” and surname “Plum” whose family had owned and worked the farm for many generations. The tea was fantastic and with the promise of quality green tea encouraging weight loss, how could I resist?

The gentleman drying the tea leaves by hand in the giant heated caldron had been trained, as was the custom, from the early age of 12 developing his hands into hard, smooth alabaster with no sweat glands. Our guides talked a lot about lost arts. No wonder. Tough gig.

Next stop, Lingyin Temple (, a 1600-year old Buddhist temple where monks still lived and worshipers burned incense and bowed heads in prayer. Tall rock pagodas and rock wall carvings of the many faces of Buddha lined the path to the temple proper. One hall enclosed five hundred different statues of the many interpretations of Buddha. Not sure why this wasn’t on the World Heritage list, although I think the buildings may have been rebuilt many times since the monastery's founding.

The boat cruise on West Lake after Lingyin Temple was a welcome relief with a bit of breeze blowing off the water. No one attempted to give us tour info, though. While we saw various boats and structures in the water and on the shore and islands, we still have no idea what we were experiencing. Took lots of pictures, though. The lake was smooth as glass. Really no need for the pre-cautionary Dramamine I took. It did afford us a great photo opp of the skyline of the city of Hangzhou.

The drive to Shanghai took about 2 hours or so. We stayed semi-awake, especially to enjoy the “rest stop” along the highway. Hoping to enjoy some American fast food, we were instead faced with extremely blackened, mystery to-go foods similar to the market in Suzhou. Back to snacks we brought from home.

Capt. Jack also told us about Chinese porta-potties, used before the advent of such rest areas and still today by some. Pull over, open four umbrellas, and lay on ground to form a square; then squat. Innovative, those Chinese.

The long drive back to Shanghai brought us more urban traffic experiences. I enjoyed taking pictures of traffic and the multi-levels of roads. All in appreciation of the little traffic we actually have in Hampton Roads despite daily complaints. After fighting through traffic, dinner. Every restaurant served my favorite drink for lunch and dinner, beer. For medicinal purposes, of course.

For a short time after dinner, we toured The Bund (, an elevated walkway facing the Huang Pu River waterfront. Behind us were historic buildings and across the river, the Pudong District, the “Wall Street of the East” as it is known. Bert and I were intrigued and decided we would finally break free of the tour the next day and venture to Pudong on our own.

We stayed at probably the most beautiful of the hotels on our trip, the Renaissance Shanghai Putuo ( So much is squeezed into the day that we just had no energy to venture out after dinner to explore the cities on our own. When I mentioned this to our guide, he said it was really not a good idea anyway after to go out after dark, which stopped me in my tracks. We attempted to do the metropolitan thing and have cocktails in the lounge. After being denied entrance to the penthouse bar (I’m sure we looked dreadful), we opted for the lobby bar where we watched the nightly news and ordered drinks … while dozing off. Crashed after a long day again.

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China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Five

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Five (I think?)
Waking early again for a VERY full day in Suzhou (, the view of the city from our hotel was breath-taking.

We first stopped to climb through the lovely gardens up Tiger Hill (,_Suzhou) to see the leaning seven-story Buddhist pagoda which predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa by at least 100 years. Not a World Heritage site, but worth the climb. Jack, a native and resident of Suzhou, was very good at sharing interesting historical tidbits as we wandered the grounds.

As the day heated up, Jack steered us to an “indoor activity” and we visited the DongLing Silk Shopping Center in the Suzhou Jiangsu Province ( where we learned about the process, from the removal of the silkworm pupae from cocoons to the unwinding of cocoons to create spools of thread. We also learned the government requires local 4- and 5-star hotels in Suzhou to use silk comforters from the center to promote the industry. The interesting marketing pitch for the silk comforters entertained me as well. Messages approved by the Chinese FDA?

The day would not have been complete without another shopping opportunity, so off we went to the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute where a few artisans displayed their very tedious – and beautiful – techniques. ( The artistry was amazing, especially the double-sided pieces. Based on the prices, though, these very large works of art are for the serious collector only.

Lingering Garden (, one of the “Classical Chinese Gardens” of Suzhou and the 6th World Heritage site of our trip, was next on our tour. Our guide, Jack, told us the peace and tranquility one gathers from walking the gardens and pausing in places of contemplation truly makes one want to “linger” there. Despite the unyielding heat, many locals were lingering outside in the gardens.

Chinese teenagers chatting among themselves under a pavilion could have just as easily been from America. A group of older women and men played cards under an open pagoda. Tea service was available for us in one of the few air-conditioned, enclosed pagodas which just happened to also house another shopping experience full of drawings with Chinese characters. Outside we walked the paths through bonsai of every type and magically-shaped rocks which we learned were obtained from a nearby lake and placed very specifically according to feng shui. A special cobbled path of tiny river-smoothed stones was said to provide an invigorating foot massage. I kicked off my sneakers to test the premise and wholeheartedly agreed.

A Close Tie for Best single event of the trip
Our second optional side trip was a canal boat ride. While the 1,300-year old, man-made Grand Canal ( was beautiful as we viewed it from the back of the bus, our boat ride took us along the smaller side canals to really see how those in Suzhou live.

Street vendors – and our first encounter with severely disabled and bedraggled beggars – are here, too, as the small, air-conditioned boats are another popular tourist attraction. As our guide, Wei, did in Beijing, Jack cautioned us to avoid them, saying their business was lucrative, and they were not as poor as they appeared.

The abject poverty was as oppressive as the heat. From the boat, we could see quite easily inside small apartment-like houses that looked as if they would crumble into the water. People were on stone stairs –formerly used for shopping from the now-banned (for "environmental" reasons) floating markets – leading into the water washing dishes and clothes. And, amid the squalor, we watched professional photography shoots along the canal, including what appeared to be a wedding party.

The smells and sounds of the market were even more oppressive than the view of the sad structures lining the canals. A small beagle-mix pup licked my sweaty leg and then followed me through the market until a kindly peddler pinched off a piece of meat from the unrefrigerated, open-air display, letting him gobble it from her fingertips. Small children played on tiny amusement rides. Panting ducks and chickens huddled in cages next to large boiling cauldrons and mounds of boiled feathers and skin. Prepared foods for dinner-to-go under light bulbs for heat. Pig snouts and snakes. Chinese Lottery outlet, too.

One thought after my encounter with the puppy: we rarely saw dogs of any kind, only a handful of small pet dogs on leashes, unusual in comparison to urban America. Cats? Never saw a one. I know friends tell me I’m thinking of Korean-based dishes, but I wasn’t so sure.

After returning to the boat, we met the boat captain, an endearing haggle-toothed old gentleman, who offered yet another shopping opportunity. Among all the trinkets he offered us before we left the boat, we couldn’t resist buying playing cards from him with pictures from the canals and the gardens of Suzhou. $1 USD, of course.

Anyone who missed this side trip, missed seeing the real China, despite being immediately before dinner. Our guide, Jack, brought us back to the Embroidery Institute for dinner, and then we bid Suzhou farewell and embarked on the three hour bus-ride to Hangzhou (, another “country” town of close to seven million, where we checked into the Holiday Inn Xiaoshan Hangzhou.

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China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Four

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Four (Saturday in China)

Today brought us a very early morning flight to the nearly 20 million in population Shanghai (, another lengthy bus ride, and another tour guide, a young man from Suzhou. We never could understand his real Chinese name, although his nickname was something like Fo-Fung. His chosen American name was Jack, so he asked us to call him Captain Jack after his favorite actor in his favorite movie, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean. And, thus, the name of our bus for the remainder of the trip was christened, the Black Pearl, Cap. Jack’s ship.

From the Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, we detoured to a Howard Johnson Hotel (no resemblance to American HO-JOs) and another, you guessed it, Lazy Susan lunch. After lunch, our bus driver would bring us to the 2010 World Expo (, open from May 1 to Oct 31st.

The World Expo (or World’s Fair) started in London in 1851, moving around the world sometimes every year, sometimes a span of up to five years between events. According to Captain Jack, upwards of 400,000 people attend the Shanghai expo every DAY.

The funniest thing happened as we waited outside the Expo entrance for Capt. Jack to return with our tickets. The men of bus #3 rushed over to the giant map. Men and directions.

Why anyone thought a Saturday would be the best day to visit the Expo is beyond my comprehension. With school children available to attend, Chinese nationals and tourists from all over the globe, were queuing up (i.e, getting in long, long lines under water-spritzing tents!) to enter the various pavilions. After finding the only location in China to buy Bert’s favorite drink, Mountain Dew, then attempting to get into the U.S. Chamber-sponsored American Pavilion in 100-degree/100% humidity not-a-cloud-in-the-sky weather, we relented and found the first Americanized food possible, Papa John’s. Oh, Papa, pizza never tasted so goooood! And it was exactly like U.S. restaurants. Bert was grateful he had foregone ordering the wings. After we saw them… Chinese definitely do chicken differently.

We were warned away from KFC China, too, as they do NOT use the Colonel’s secret flavor recipe of 11 herbs and spices that creates the famous "finger lickin' good" chicken.

We were allotted only four hours in the World Expo, but it meant freedom from group-think/speak/walk for a while! After the most delicious pizza ever, we wandered along the elevated walkway into the European section. The huge shiny green globe, Greenopolis, is Romania's pavilion.

Still unable to enter any pavilion without standing in a too-long line, we stumbled upon the Porterhouse Brewery, offering a quaint Irish pub experience ( The Expo should have taken line-moving lessons from Disney. We enjoyed the pub… the barkeeps spoke Irish brogue-laden English, the entertainment consisted of an American guitar player/singer, the Western toilet was just a few steps away inside the pub, and we could order chips, i.e. French fries. Ah, bliss!

Eighteen heat-weary tour companions dragged themselves back past uniformed military guards onto Bus #3, or the Black Pearl, for the 1-1/2 hour drive to Suzhou.

Bert stayed awake for the drive and was amazed construction cranes were a constant part of the landscape during the entire journey from Shanghai to Suzhou. Note to my fellow Americans: China doesn’t stop building 24/7.

Much to our surprise, our first stop in Suzhou was a German Biergarten ( next door to the city’s architectural version of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, the Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Center ( on Lake Jin Ji. The Biergarten served a German-styled dinner with, of course, chicken and offered a beautiful view of the buildings constructed within the last ten years where rice paddies were once farmed, a view that could rival the Vegas strip. Entertainment consisted of a karaoke-like band of Chinese singing 80s easy listening tunes. Truly surreal.

We stayed at the Grand Metro Park Hotel ( in the Suzhou Industrial Park (which, as we were told, means the new section of the city) built with the help of Singapore. This hotel room was by far the best of the bunch with a spacious suite-style room. Only issue, the bed was hard as a rock… Chinese-style, we were told by Jack. This princess (me!) had to pile pillows on top of the silk-stuffed comforter on her side of the bed to get any sleep. The hotel had a very cool Tetris-styled action-lighting theme on the side of the building, too.

I was surprised to find Suzhou as a bustling metropolis of nearly seven million people; I’d always heard it described as the “country” which meant “rural” to me.

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