Xie Xie China *

posted by Amy

Trying to be athletic in the Olympic Village

Time to sum up China.  I really cannot claim to be able to make generalizations about a country as huge and diverse and important as China, but I will at least attempt to sum up our time there.  I loved it.  For those of you who knew me back in my college days, I was something of a Sinophile.  I was very interested in China.  I wanted to go live/work/study in China, but Tiananmen Square and martial law prevented the trip.  Actually, I would have still gone, but Mom and Dad, who never said no to any of my ideas, said no to that one.  Anyway, all these years later, China did not dissapoint.

I found the people to be very welcoming and very interested in us.  No matter what you read in the papers, Chinese people love Americans.  Even with the huge language barrier, people still wanted to stop and try to talk with us.  And they love children.  They loved our children and we were constantly told how lucky we are to have three daughters.  But don’t we want a son?  By the way, the Chinese one child policy does have loopholes.  If you live in the countryside, and you have a daughter as your first child, you can try again for a son.  You are allowed two children if your first is a girl.  I don’t think this is true of the city folk.  Also, if you are one of China’s minority groups, you can have an extra child.  Finally, if you are willing and able to pay the fee, which also varies by where you reside, then you can have a second child.  Our guide in Xi’an, Clarence, had a son and then saved up something like 3000 dollars and had his daughter.  He said, “I think it is worth it.”  His friend who lives in Beijing, however, had to pay 30,000 dollars for his extra child.  And believe me, Chinese kids are cute.  They have to be.  They are their parents’ only child and four grandparent’s only grandchild.  I am sure there are some interesting social implications for all this attention and caregiving.  There were several Chinese people I met who thought the policy was very successful and wondered why India wouldn’t want to do this too.  What is India going to do with all those people?

Yes, it is true that people in China push in line.  I was never bothered by that.  David was, although I reminded him that Israel was the same way, He denied that truth.

The expats we met along the way in China were living a great life.  If you can imagine feeling like a pioneer in the middle of 1.3 billion people, that is how they feel.  There is a real optimism and an anything is possible feeling in China right now and these young expats are starting businesses left and right and doing things they probably couldn’t do back home or in Europe.  On the other hand, they see things changing so fast, they know what they appreciate right now will not last forever.

So, in summary:

Favorite food:  Beijing noodles

Favorite People: Debbi and David Zylberman, Craig Tafel, Uncle Ira and all of our friends at the Beijing Downtown backpackers accommodations (the only place you should stay if you are thinking of going to Beijing) our great guides, Clarence, Chairman Li, Lily , new friends Norm, Sarah and Casey and Sarah’s mom.  Ines and all her bike friends- Lao sun and Lao jiao.

Favorite historical site: Terra Cotta Warriors

Favorite activity: Rikki – mudcaves, David – trick biking with Ines and friends, Maya- Great Wall, Eva – trying weird foods, Amy – being bold enough to ride the uber-crowded subways in Beijing.

Least Favorite thing: the pollution, bad air quality

Next stop Thailand.

* Thank You China


Beijing Backpackers, so cool, they let you write on the walls

Categories: China | 4 Comments

Toilets of Asia

By Rikki and Eva (but mostly Rikki)

I know you have been waiting for a toilet blog for a loooooong time.  Now that we are in Asia it’s going to be a good one.

Before we got to China, toilets were either clean or dirty but now we know there are more ways to describe them!  They can be either a squat or sit toilet.  A squat toilet is a ceramic pot in the ground with foot grids on both sides.  Sometimes there’s a flush and sometimes you throw a bucket of water in to wash everything down.

Welcome to Asia

We have really worked on our thigh muscles squatting in China and Thailand.  Someone in our family, that shall remain nameless (but her name rhymes with peeva), takes off her pants entirely when she squats so she can keep dry.  But she improved, by the end of our time in China, she was only taking off one pant leg!

In the hutongs (these are old neighborhoods in Beijing) the people do not have toilets in the house so they have a hutong neighborhood toilet.

When you go to a 7-11 (they have those in China and Thailand!), you buy little Kleenex packages so you are prepared for the bathrooms.  But, you don’t throw toilet paper or Kleenex into the toilet you put it into the garbage can next to the toilet (Yuck) because the plumbing just can’t handle it.

In Thailand, they have little water hoses next to every toilet and you use it like a bidet.

After seeing the bathrooms (and streets) in China and Thailand, we understand why people take off their shoes before going into their houses.

When we went into the bathrooms in China and Thailand, we were not fully pleased.  There was no soap.  When I came into the bathroom to do my hair, I saw at least 20 people that did not wash their hands with soap!

There have been some very interesting toilets in China and Thailand and I learned some very important things:

1)   Don’t get pee on yourself when you squat

2)   Hold your nose while you’re going because the toilets often smell like fish balls (a favorite Chinese street food)

3)   Bring hand sanitizer and Kleenex packages everywhere you go

Stay tuned for the next edition of the Asian toilet diaries.

Categories: China, Toilets | 7 Comments

Wow Moment

posted by Maya

All five of us knew going into this trip that there would be challenges. The challenge of living with less (although I’m not so sure we’re actually living with LESS, considering all of the souvenirs we’ve picked up in China); the challenge of homeschooling; the challenge of keeping in touch with friends; even the challenge of just being together 24 hours a day. Of course, we’ve been having so much fun, too, but there are many times when I just want to go home. “What am I doing here, in the middle of China in November? We’re crazy,” I think.

Being 13, it seems that these challenges are hitting me the hardest. It’s much more difficult for me to live with less than my sisters or parents. Really, what 13 year old girl wants to wear the same thing every day? Homeschooling is extremely frustrating for me too. How do I find time everyday to do an entire math class worth of lessons plus the days homework, plus required reading, PLUS journaling and blogging? Then there’s the situation of keeping in touch. Trying to call friends and cousins 12 time zones away is not easy. It’s always the middle of the night somewhere! And of course, the challenge of being together all the time. There’s nowhere to go for alone time. It’s usually just us, 24/7, which can get a little annoying.

When China rolled around, three months in, we were all feeling the difficulties of the trip pretty hard. There was more bickering and silly disputes. We all were craving more alone time, which was nearly impossible in the hostel room with six bunk beds where we had been staying. By the time we got to Beijing, the weather in Northern China was cold and dreary, which didn’t do much for group harmony.

The Great Wall goes through Beijing. It is not something to be missed (or so all of the guide books said), so we signed up for a tour with our hostel. The weather the day of our tour was particularly ugly, and we were already annoyed at each other by the time the bus dropped us and the other guests off. But it was too late to back out now. Our tour bus drove away and the five of us (a young Finnish couple, a friendly Spanish/Puerto Rican couple from Chicago, a thirtyish Filipino guy, and our bubbly tour guide Emily) were left shivering in the freezing rain.

There was a rare quiet moment when we stopped our bickering and stared up at the enormous wall looming above us. It stretched so far that we couldn’t even see the ends. This was when the magic began. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I found myself standing on top of the Great Wall of China. Let’s take a minute to appreciate this: the Great Wall is the longest man made structure in the world, and can (allegedly) be seen from space. From outside of the Earth! I just couldn’t believe it. I was standing on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA, something that, at this time last year, I had been reading about in a textbook! All of the stress of the trip melted away as I stood there, in the rain, gazing out at China. Finally, this trip seemed real. I was glad I was where I was. Of course, I knew this didn’t mean I wasn’t going to fight with my sisters or parents. I knew it wouldn’t make trying to fit a year’s worth of clothes in my pack any easier. I knew it couldn’t change the time difference between wherever we were and home. But I did know that everything would be okay, and that I would definitely benefit from this trip in the long run. And at that moment, I was happy. I was alive. I was in awe. I was in China!

Categories: China | 16 Comments

China Fun Facts and Observations

postedc by David

THE Great Wall

  • Xi’an is a city that you never hear about outside of China but it has 8mm people in the metropolitan area.  This is similar to the population of Greater Chicagoland and it’s not even in the top five biggest cities in China ( I think it’s the fourteenth largest in terms of population)
  • Guangzhou (formerly Canton) is the largest city you’ve never heard of.  Depending on how you read the statistics, they have 12mm or 40mm – including the surrounding areas.
  • Mandarin is the official language but Cantonese is used in Hong Kong and the largest city which is Guangzhou
  • There are 56 recognized minority groups in China but the majority of people are Han (over 91%).  Some of the other minority groups include the long-haired Yao women and the long neck people.  The Kaifeng Jews were a minority group but have all but disappeared and were officially absorbed into the Han majority sometime in the 1990’s
  • There are at least two Muslim minority groups including the Uyghur people who are of Turkic extraction (pronounced either weeger or ooger) of which there are over 8mm.  The Uyghur people have their own language based on Turkish but they also speak Mandarin and pray in Arabic.  The other group is called the Hui Muslims and live in Xi’an among other places.
  • Hong Kong, although officially part of China since 1997, is completely independent financially (they have their own currency), politically and economically
  • Taiwan is not part of China but they have been in a very long dispute about this as China insists that Taiwan is indeed part of the Mainland
  • The Cultural Revolution lasted officially from 1966 to 1976 when Mao Tse Tong died.  During this time the educated elite and those who owned land and had any financial means were severely persecuted and many were sent for re-education in the countryside after being stripped of their jobs and homes.  There was a severe famine during this time as the Government attempted and failed to transform the way in which food was grown and delivered to the people.  Some people say that more than 70mm people died during this period
  • Chairman Mao is revered to this day.  Most people when asked do not speak about this period in Chinese history and it is not officially taught in schools
  • Even though China is a communist country, families are charged for public school and healthcare
  • Chinese people follow both Buddhist and Taoist traditions and may go to a Taoist temple one day and a Buddhist temple the next.  There are also Muslims, Christians and some other religions too
  • There are about 3,000 Jews in Shanghai today, mostly expats from the West
  • We have met many Chinese people who sleep on hard planks of wood instead of a traditional Western style mattress like we use in America
  • Dogs, crickets, bats, and frogs are part of the every day culinary experience in China…these more exotic foods are eaten in the South it seems
  • Beijing was a lot calmer than Shanghai which had tremendous building going on and lots of very fancy stores and apartments in various states of construction


  • Chinese currency is called the Yuan which is pronounced Yen and the current exchange rate is approximately six Yen to the U.S. dollar
  • Most Chinese people we talked to were satisfied with their current Communist government
  • In Beijing, the old neighborhoods are called Hutongs and there are many still in existence.  They are a sort-of cloistered-town-house type affair but each Hutong has public bathrooms as many of the living spaces lack indoor plumbing.  We stayed in a hutong that was a mix of old housing and new hip stores and restaurants catering to tourists many of whom are Chinese and young, rich Beijingers
  • The Chinese outside of the major cities still have a subsistence style life with a 1/3rd acre farm and perhaps a pig, a cow, or some chickens to look after
  • Most people retire at 60.  The elderly we saw are quite active looking after grandchildren, exercising in the park (vigorously), dancing in public dance sessions (traditional Chinese folk dances as well as swing dance), and of course, working doing lots of other things than the jobs that kept them busy until they were 60

    Seniors playing Chinese version of hackeysack

Categories: China | 3 Comments

Bikes to Buicks

Posted by:  David

 First things first, the streets of China are not filled with nearly as many people riding bicycles as you’d imagine and many of those that do ride bikes have retrofitted them with electric motors.  Ten years ago the average Chinese citizen aspired for a Flying Pigeon bicycle.  Now they aspire for a Buick.

Clarence showing us the cavehouse

One of the craziest things about China is the contrast between ancient and new.  Yesterday we visited an 80-year old woman who lived outside of the city of Xi’an in a cave that her husband’s family has inhabited for hundreds of years.  It’s located a few hundred yards from the largest luxury resort development I have ever seen.  The resort will have two huge man-made lakes; several golf courses and tens of thousands of apartments and houses.  It spans about 10 square miles and more than 50,000 people were relocated to make room for this project.  The resort will be completed in a total of three years.

The elderly cave-dweller woman knows that she is about to be relocated out of her cave and into a brand new government-built apartment complete with electricity and plumbing; she is literally leaping from antiquity to modernity in real time.

The little village that she lives in knows that they are about to be relocated and the government will be giving them a new apartment as compensation.  Their new homes will be based on what they currently inhabit/own.  As a result, the people in this old village are building new buildings as quickly as they can, not to live in as they will be destroyed within a year, but so the government will provide them with a larger or even multiple apartments.  This will both raise their standard of living and possibly even allow them to live in one apartment and sell another that they are given.

On the way to visit the woman in the cave, our guide, Clarence (this is his adopted English name given to him by some British tourists.  I told him that I only knew of two other people named Clarence…..Clarence Darrow of the Scopes Monkey Trial and Clarence Clemmons of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band) told us that there were more than 40 million Chinese living in caves like the one we saw today.  The cave was actually pretty cool as far as caves go.  It is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, there is very little in construction or maintenance costs and because there is not a toilet, shower, or sink, there’s never a need to call a plumber.  The refrigerator was a very deep pit outside of the cave with foot holes on either side making it possible to climb down into in order to retrieve food.  So on the one hand there are people living in very primitive conditions and on the other hand development and consumption are on a scale that the world has never seen.  The amount of building going on in Xi’an, Shanghai and Guilin is phenomenal (and I’m sure other places in China but these are the places we have been to so far).  I’m not talking about strip malls or residential subdivisions but large-scale high-rise apartment buildings one after the other after the other with no-end in site.  The speed of construction is astounding.  The infrastructure in terms of roads is tremendous.  We have been told in each place we go that 10 years ago there were crude, two lane roads where now very modern expressways lie.  People are still getting used to driving and what the various colors of traffic lights indicate, but overall it’s amazing to see what is happening.  China has almost exactly the same land-mass as the United States with over 4 times the population.

Clarence, our guide, was an interesting case.  He is 46 and one of five children.  He grew up in a two-room house (that’s two rooms, not two bedrooms) with his four siblings, mother and father, and maternal grandmother.  His father worked as a material-purchasing agent for an architectural firm and when Clarence was 14 the company (of course it was run by the government) gave him an apartment that had more room as well as indoor plumbing.  He came of age at the end of the Cultural Revolution. He told me that his father’s parents’ were from the country but were also land owners.  Their land was taken and they were severely persecuted.  Like many others of this time, they committed suicide. I asked him why Chairman Mao is still so revered given that so many millions of Chinese suffered and died (I have read figures that claim anywhere from 30-70 million died between during Mao’s reign) including his father whose parent’s killed themselves as a direct result of how the government treated them.  Clarence simply said that this is how it is.  One does not criticize the government, even now.

But Clarence is different.  He calls himself a taxi driver but he’s being modest.  He owns five apartment units, three that are elaborately decorated with a Terra Cotta Soldier theme to match the antiquities of which he is an expert and two decorated with a panda theme.  He rents these units for about $100 a night to tourists who come to Xi’an. His wife cleans and manages the day to day of the units.  He built a website to advertise the business and said that Trip-Advisor has been a major source of business for both his rental units and tour-guide business.  Discovery channel recently came to interview him about his apartments.

Clarence put down 50% of the cost on each unit and took 30-year mortgages at about 6% for the balance.  I don’t know how much the units cost but he said that they have increased in value five fold since he bought the first three in 2005. He also is a tour guide and has educated himself on the region and particularly on the Terra Cotta Soldiers. He taught himself English and became an expert on these ruins.  He earns about $350 for a full-day private tour.  He said that he is booked every day between May and October and then about 3-4 days a week the rest of the year.   He drives a brand new Ford van for his tour business.

In addition to all of this, he has a competing theory to that of the Chinese government about the Terra Cotta soldiers and how they were buried by the emperor over 2,200 years ago.  The official story claims that the clay soldiers were destroyed by marauders after the emperor died.  Clarence disagrees and he is bold enough to write his theory down and self-publish it in a book that he gave to us as part of the tour.  His theory is pretty compelling but when I asked him if any academics or government officials have embraced it, he laughed and said that he is merely a taxi driver.  Clarence is one of the new breed of Chinese.

Categories: China | Leave a comment

Eva’s Strange Foods

posted by Eva 
Hello from China! One of my goals this year is to try new food. China has been a great place to work on this goal because they eat some pretty strange food in this country.
My first meal in China was FISH EYEBALLS AND FISH CHEEKS! I probally wouldn’t have ordered this if I wasn’t with somebody who knew what she was getting me into, a Chinese native. Outside the restaurant they had huge tubs of water with fish in them. We got to pick the fish out.  I also had frog legs, head, and other unidentified parts. It tasted a little bit like fish, in a good way.

Fresh Fish, market near Yangshuo

Fresh Fish, market near Yangshuo

Another thing I’ve notice is that although in China, they have some of the the same restaurants as in America, the menus have been changed to fit the culture here. For example, at Dairy Queen they have Green Tea Oreo Blizzards and at Starbucks they have Green Tea Lattes!
Some foods are just too strange for me to eat. They eat fried bugs, such as, grasshoppers and scorpions, they put them on a stick while they are still alive and then dunk them in extremely hot oil. Some of the strangest things are, bats on a stick, cats, and dogs! I’ve never actually seen bats on a stick but when my uncle lived here he said that he tasted them.

Bee larva, waiting to be fried...yum

Bee larva, waiting to be fried...yum

These strange foods are probably what their ancestors had available to eat, and so the tradition sort of carried on. Of course today in China they have almost every type of food available to them, but maybe they still keep these other foods around because they don’t want to forget about their ancestors.

Snakes, I think

Categories: China | 3 Comments

Email from China

*This was originally sent as an email, sorry for those of you who already read this.

Hi all,

Chop Sticks!

Since we are in mainland China now, we have discovered that the Communists have a thing against foreign social networking websites.  No Facebook, no Youtube, No Ebay and apparently no WordPress which is the site where we post our blogs.  I thought you might like a short update on China until we get back to Hong Kong and can post a more detailed account on our blog.

China is an exciting and shocking place to travel.  We are right now in a very beautiful part of the country called Yangshuo in Guangxi province.  Think of the haystack shaped mountains that you see when you picture Chinese paintings.  This is exactly where we are.  Those mountains are called the Karst landscape.  We haven’t figured out exactly what Karst means yet, but the landscape is incredible.  This town is known for its rock climbing and biking.  In many ways it reminds us of a Colorado ski town.   Except for that in Colorado, you don’t have toothless old ladies come up to you at breakfast and aggressively try to sell you postcards, flowered headbands and whatever else they may be hawking.  We have tried saying no politely, we have tried buying a little something and we have even tried being rude.  Nothing seems to stop them from their job of selling.  And if it’s not the old ladies, it is someone else.  Selling is the main business here in China.  And yes, most of it is knock offs.  We saw an addiron store right next to an addidas store.  We have seen more variations of the Nike swish than I can count.  We bought a couple of “Kipling” bags from these two girls who were cousins and sealed the deal by speaking in Hebrew to us.  They had learned every language of their tourists so they could better sell to them.  It worked on us!  Yes, we way overpaid.

pumping water, old school

So, here in Yangshuo we took a bamboo raft trip down the Li River.  We visited an 340 year old house from the Qing dynasty where two elderly brothers and their wives still live in the same house their family has lived for 12 generations.  They show the tourists around their traditional home and accept donations so that they can keep the house from being torn down.  We toured caves and played in the mud baths and hot springs.  There was a biking day through small small villages where we had to take a ferry across the river and a tuk tuk ride (basically a motorcycle engine in a small bus frame) to get to market day in a town called Fu li.  At the market, we found out that the Chinese really do eat dog.  We are all becoming vegetarians and that is all I am going to say about that.

Yesterday we took a side trip to the Longxi rice terraces.  These are the pictures that we all saw in our social studies books explaining how farmers must adapt to their environments and these farmers learned how to turn mountains into growing fields.  We also saw some Yao woman here who wear the long, long hair and for a fee they will take their hair down and show you how they wrap it up on top of their heads.  They only cut their hair twice.  Once when they are 18 and once when they are 36.  Somehow this must be related to the Jewish tradition of Chai, but how I can’t even imagine.

Yao Long Haired WomanMaya shlepping in the rice paddies

In the middle of all this beauty we are also seeing a lot of craziness.  People spit all the time!  They eat strange food, fried bee larva for example.  The toilets, just forget about it.  They are just ceramic holes in the ground.  Even the beds are strange.  They sleep on hard beds.  Not just firm, but actually hard like a board of wood.  And, they love foreigners.  They want to take our picture.  They especially want to take Rikki’s pictures.  It is like being a celebrity.  It’s fun being an exotic oddity.  Oh, and Mao is still a hero.  The Cultural Revolution was apparently all his wife’s idea, not his.  He’s still number one at least here in the country.

Tomorrow we fly off to Shanghai for a few days for a totally different view of China.  I am sure we will continue the shock and awe campaign and we will try to keep you up to date through email if we can.

Love and miss you,


Categories: China | 3 Comments

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