I had been debating on where to go on vacation when last June, on the anniversary of my mother's death, I read an article in the Miami Herald about the Yangtze River Dam 3 Gorges project. I was instantly reminded that Mom always said I should go to China. I called our travel buddy Seth (age 72) immediately and asked if he'd like to go and he said "Sure!" as he had just finished reading the same article. I wanted to do China independently without a tour, but Seth wasn't so sure about that so I checked the internet and found private tours available through China International Tourist Service (CITS) in Guilin, China. ( Our fourth person (as tours like to book in doubles) became my friend, Chie-Mie, when she learned that we were going to Tibet. My husband, Earl, could room with Seth; I with Chie-Mie.

The tour would run about $100 day, not including airfare. We booked 18 days and decided to take the airline with the shortest flight time rather than the cheapest airfare to China. Upon confirmation of our travel plans, we discovered that the airline had our departure day 3 days earlier than we originally thought, so we would have 21 days in China instead of 18. Okay, we'll go ahead and do 21 days and have more "free" days on our own at the end of the tour in Beijing. I started studying Mandarin and went once a week with Chie-Mie and Earl for lessons. After getting Visas, immunizations, travel guide books and map of Beijing, we're as ready as we're going to be.

Thursday, October 24th - Miami - Chicago - Beijing

Leave Miami 8:30 am on United Airlines. We carry on our luggage -- backpacks. I insisted that we all take backpacks as we will be traveling by plane, train, bus and boat. We arrive in Chicago at 11 am. We have exactly one hour to catch the next plane to Beijing. We fly over Alaska north of Fairbanks over Russia and down to Beijing, rather than over the Pacific Ocean. The total flight time is 17 hours from Miami to Beijing.

Friday, October 25th - Beijing

The plane is early and it's about 1:30 pm. The exit from customs is packed with people holding signs for arrivals, including Korean tours. We finally find our names on a sign and make contact with the travel agency representative. It is 40 mile ride to our hotel from the airport.

We unpack, relax and head out for dinner around 5 pm. It is already getting dark and I'm curious to see what's in the neighborhood. I had read on the internet, a fellow traveler's review of our hotel, Peixin, and the only complaint he had was that there were no nearby restaurants. There is a restaurant in the hotel, one right outside the hotel and two more the next block. We pick the fourth restaurant furthest from our hotel as the lady in the doorway beckons us in. Time to try out my Chinese as there are no English menus. The waitress is right on top of us and my first Chinese phrase is "Please…wait". I finally pick a few items out of the menu and they are served quickly. More Chinese gets practiced as we have to ask for everything - napkins, bowls, chopsticks, glasses, etc.

We have beef soup with noodles, meat stuffed dumplings, chicken lo mein and local beer for Yuan 20. This means that the four of us just had dinner for $2.50. The temperature is probably about 55 degrees Fahrenheit and it is now drizzling rain outside. I keep a plastic pancho in my vest so I don't have to worry about the rain.

The hotel sets out a large thermos of hot water in every room as one is not supposed to drink the tap water anywhere in China. The room is warm and it's very dry. I'm pouring myself glasses of water all night long.

Saturday, October 26th - Beijing

I set the alarm clock but was awake anyway by 6 am. Breakfast is a buffet in the hotel - one side of the buffet is Western style. We all opt for the Chinese buffet with its soup and steamed buns.

Our guide, Ju Ju, meets us with the van at 8 am. As warned in the guide book, Beijing is a large sprawling metropolis and our hotel is located in the Southeast side. It is about 15 minutes from the center of town where Tian'An Men and the Forbidden City lie.

There are long lines of people by the Mausoleum of Mao Tse Dong.

It is very crowded throughout this area and that is the main impression one gets visiting Tian'An Men--that of crowds of people.

At the city wall gate

Our guide tells us that trees have just been planted in the Forbidden City to make the grounds more beautiful. Supposedly, the emperors did not allow trees because trees would eventually become taller than the buildings.

The Forbidden City looks just like it does in the movie "The Last Emperor".

What you can't tell from the picture is the scale of the city. You pass through several courtyards like the one above. The city is about one square mile. Unfortunately, the insides of the buildings are closed off to the public. One can only look in through the doorways and it is dark inside.

Earl found a quiet spot in the smaller buildings on the eastern side and these buildings house some museum pieces.

Close up of the tiles on the doorway.

We bought postcards by the 4 star toilet. Yes, a toilet rated for tourist use. There are two types of toilets - the Eastern squat style which is rather efficient and the Western ones with the seats.

large cauldrons of water were kept throughout the Forbidden City in case of fire

Most of the buildings have these Ming Dynasty style of ornamentations on each roof corner.

Moat surrounding the Forbidden City

Our tour comes with a lunch at the Working People's Cultural Palace which is okay but not very interesting as it is caters to Western tastes. Chicken stir fried with peanuts, beef with green peppers, that sort of thing. Right outside of the restaurant in the same building, is a huge tourist "Friendship" store. We're not interested in buying anything right now and having to carry it with us for the next 3 weeks.

It's off to the Summer Palace and a walk around the grounds. There is a long corridor with many murals depicting legends and whatever else the artisans fancied - cats, birds, fish.

One of the thousands of murals inside the corridor.

We stop to look at the infamous marble boat where the Empress Cixi used to fish. Her attendants would swim under the boat and put fish on her hook.

Four tourists standing in front of the marble boat - Earl, Marisa, Chie-Mie & Seth.

There isn't enough time given to us to check out a temple on the grounds.

Okay, it's time for the official stop at the Pearl factory. Mom had mentioned how so many of the tours came with this sort of thing. They show us how they cultivate and open the pearls. After promising we wouldn't buy anything, Seth buys stuff for his girlfriend and relatives and Chie-Mie buys a necklace and earrings. Earl goes ahead and buys me a necklace for my birthday so I buy matching earrings. The factory serves us tea for our patronage.

Seth brags about his bargaining skills and Chie-Mie berates herself for not asking for a better discount.

Earl's too tired to eat, so Chie-Mie, Seth and I just go back to the same restaurant we ate at the night before. We explore the neighborhood another block or so, and find at least 3 more restaurants, one being particularly fancy with tanks of live fish.

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