Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Now that we've been home for three weeks,  I've had time to process my experience in China, and begin to connect the global dots.  I realize the trip was not just about seeing stunning scenery, photographing beautiful faces representing various ethnic minority groups, and meeting some of the country's nicest people.  It was also learning more about how China influences the world economically and politically, and how they affect critical decisions that other countries, especially our own, have to make.   To say that China is growing exponentially as an economic powerhouse is practically an understatement.  If you ask a young educated person on the street in Beijing, he or she would say that in ten years China will surpass the United States as the largest economy in the world.   And when you see the enormous development and explosive growth, it's hard to argue against that person's point of view, although I'm not convinced this will really happen.   Although China is a one-party system under strict Communist Party rule, there is increased government support for greater market-oriented economic policies, capitalistic in style, which gives Chinese citizens many opportunities to make money, become millionaires and realize the "Chinese Dream."  

Modern highways are built through forested land, devastating villages and
burrowing through mountains.  The Chinese want their highways to be
built in a straight line, and nothing will get in the way.

Even though the society is fraught with graft and corruption, the populace seems resigned to this as a fact of life, and many citizens use it to their advantage.   I learned this from a Chinese businessman, named John, whom I sat beside on the twelve hour flight from Beijing to San Francisco.  After three or four glasses of red wine, he was extremely chatty and willing to open up.  As a wealthy Chinese venture capitalist,  he has no problem with overt corruption or the fact that government officials line their own pockets by taking undercover bribes.    He told me he approves, and said it this way.   "Because of the corruption within the government,  I, a private citizen, am a very wealthy man.  Why begrudge a system that helps people make a lot of money and live a better life.  It's a win-win for everybody."   

When John was twelve,  he joined the Red Guard, but in 1989, he shed his nationalistic sentiments and joined with students to demonstrate in Tiananmen Square.   Educated both in Beijing and in the United States,  John became an American citizen, married a Chinese American, and their one son is receiving an education in both the U.S. and China, so he will learn about his Chinese heritage and Asian culture.  John began accumulating wealth in the clothing business. He and a business partner went to Europe to visit many of the famous fashion houses, so they could begin to copy the runway styles.  They were hugely successful in the knockoff business, giving John enough money to begin plowing it back into other profitable investments.   

As a VC, John only invests in new companies in China.  He employs the same copy-cat approach, taking already proven pharmaceutical and medical device technology, developed in the United States, back to China.   While John would like to sell some of these made-in-China products for a substantially lower price in the U.S. markets,  the barrier to entry is complicated by regulations.   American industry is always developing new technology, so John's Chinese companies are usually a few years behind.   Nonetheless, they are making money in China, and John is doing very well.   Incidentally, John cautioned me against personally investing in Chinese companies whose stock is sold as an ADR (American Depository Receipt) on a U.S. exchange because, as he put it, "Chinese management does not have a long term corporate strategy in place.  Instead, their personal exit strategy is based on making money for themselves, and when that happens,  they will leave the company, and the investors,  high and dry."

I talked to a young woman in Beijing who hesitated when I asked her about the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration, but replied saying,  "we don't talk about that."  When I asked whether the average Chinese "joe" knows what is happening in other parts of the world, like the civil war in Syria, her answer was  "a little, but not really," adding that "Chinese people are only concerned about what is going on in China." When we talked about the government's policy to deny internet users access to Facebook, she said "There is a giant firewall which makes it impossible," but was proud to say that her fiancee, an IT guru, had ways of getting around it.  She also said they could both get in trouble if somebody found out.  When we were in China, we heard that the government employs two million people to monitor and spy on Chinese internet users.

One of the college students I met in a rural village told me how much he loved China, and how proud he was of his country's position and influence in the world.  He obviously wasn't around during the time of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and I can only assume that his parents preferred to focus on the positive direction the country is moving and how their son will thrive, rather than dwell on the country's difficult past.   

Mao Ze Dong

Within the Communist ruling party, there have been recent discussions about loosening social restrictions as well:  possibly doing away with the one-child-per-family policy and supposedly eliminating the horrific labor camps that have existed since the Cultural Revolution.  My sense is that the one-family-one-child policy has a better chance of implementation because the government, realizing that the population is shrinking substantially, is facing a huge reduction in its work force.  As far as labor camps are concerned, I would bet they will continue to exist, but under a different moniker so as not to attract attention.    At the same time as the government builds more modern cities throughout China to accommodate the farmers, who will be transplanted from their farms and rural villages,  they are also discussing how to give farmers the ability to sublease their government-allocated plots, so that they can make more money and take advantage of the real estate boom underway in China.  

Sowing Seeds 

So, while China may be growing quickly and developing a consumer economy of magnificent proportions,  how

Highway Construction in Rural China

long can this boom last?  After new mega-cities are constructed,  and more than a hundred thousand miles of new highways are built,  I wonder what China will do next.   How long will China's economy be based on being the workshop for the rest of the world, assembling parts for iPhones and iPads or making shoes for Nike?   Would they ever move on from producing medical compounds inexpensively for American drug companies or duplicating Western medical technology?  Could they begin to develop their own state-of-the-art health care system? (Although from what I heard, acupuncture and herbal medicines are still preferred over antibiotics and advanced surgical techniques by most citizens.) A recent article in Time magazine points out that true world leadership will only come when the driver of economic growth changes from cheap labor to innovation and invention. 


When I returned from China last month, I checked off the country on my list, and thought there was no reason to ever go back.  It's not because I didn't find China fascinating or that I didn't have a really good time.  It's just that I figured I'd seen enough.  After all we covered a lot of territory in 25 days.

At the same time, I was so tired of Chinese food that I couldn't conceive of eating it again for a very long time. But yet, last Saturday I found myself hankering for sauteed eggplant with garlic and pork, so we ate at a little Chinese place near our house, and the food tasted really, really good.  And then the next morning I buried my nose in the Sunday New York Times and read about an amazing adventure two journalist had while traveling on the Karokoram Highway,  the world's highest transnational highway  in China.  (Click on this link to read the NYT article.)  Taking more than two decades to build, the Karokoram Highway links the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang Province in Western China to Eastern Pakistan.  (Click on this link to see the photos.)   I've read the story several times and have sent the link to other traveling friends.  Now I find myself wondering if I want to experience another slice of life in China. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Here I am shopping in the market at the Matang Gejia Village in Guizhou Province, where I found an unusual pair of hand-made  earrings for sale.   The silver wire looked pretty thick, and I didn't think it would fit through the pierced holes in my ears.  The Gejia woman from the Miao tribe asked her friend to try and help her get the wire through the hole.  As hard as she tried, there was no way.  The earrings just didn't fit.


Maybe I should buy the pretty blue batik cloth, I thought to myself, but then I remembered all the hand-stamped fabric I bought in Mali and India that still sits unused in my dresser drawer.   

I wanted to take a picture of the Matang village from the top of the hill, so I followed a steep path that snaked through a neighborhood with small brick houses that were nicely maintained.  I had almost reached the summit when I saw a lovely Miao woman standing in front of her house, polishing an ornate silver necklace with a toothbrush and paste.   


Being first on the scene of what I thought would make a special photo, I crept closer until I was within   shooting range and began to focus my camera.  That's when I heard what sounded like a hoard of giggling teenagers coming up the path behind me.  The Miao woman heard them too, but at the same time she heard them, she noticed me, which meant I didn't get the award-winning photo I had hoped for, but at least the picture is in focus.  As it turned out, the teenagers were students on a field trip, and were exploring some of the Miao ethnic villages, like we were.  Rather than ignore the students, I decided to engage them, an experience which delighted not only me and them, but also the other travelers in our group, who weren't far behind.    The students gave us some semi-sweet Chinese candy to try, and I gave them  chocolate Tootsie Rolls I had tucked in my bag to hand out to children I met along the way.   I took a bunch of pictures of the happy-go-lucky group, and exchanged email addresses with a young girl, who, from the two emails she has sent me already, can only say "Hello" and "How are you?" in English.   Before departing, the students sang a Chinese folk song to our group, and we returned the favor by singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," to which they chimed in with their own version in Chinese.    Even if you can't speak their language,  laughter and music have a way of bringing people together.



Wherever we travel, Bruce and I look for a special item or two or three to add to our growing collection at home.  We have a special penchant for tribal hats, and have several from Africa, Central and Southeast Asia and Egypt.  When we had a couple of hours to explore Zhaoxing, the largest ethnic Dong Village in China, we looked in a few shops that sold traditional Dong ornaments.  That's when we saw the unusual and decorative hat sitting on a table just waiting for us to come along.  The merchant, who looked a little like Genghis Khan, noticed that we paused and gave the hat a second look-see, picking it up, turning it around, and admiring the decorative elements that were quite unique.  Although his English was limited, he said the hat was for a child to wear for a special occasion, like a birthday.  He said the price was $200, which seemed rather high, even though we loved it.  We told him we didn't want to pay that much and could he lower the price.  He brought it down a little, but we shrugged and started looking at other things in his shop, knowing all the while that we really wanted to buy this hat.  Since our guide told us we should only pay about 50 percent of the asking price, our goal was to pay about $100, but Bruce told "Genghis" our price was $80.  He said, "No," and we said, "Sorry," and pulled the old walk-away gambit.  Suddenly "Genghis" was tapping Bruce on the shoulder, saying he would take the $80, which was probably what the hat was worth. 


Sunday, November 10, 2013


"Nehow," I said, as I made eye contact with the Chinese-American family walking towards me on the street in my California neighborhood.  They looked startled to hear a familiar greeting come out of the mouth of a non-Chinese person, but seemed pleased that someone made the effort to say "hello" in their language.  The greeting was not contrived on my part, purely spontaneous, which surprised me.    

I've been thinking a lot about our trip to China and trying to process all that we saw and did, even though we've been home for almost two weeks.   Sorting through the 2000 photos I took transported me back to the many villages we visited,  the landscapes we marveled over, and the exotic food we ate, which most of the time was a little too weird for me, except for the vegetables and ubiquitous sticky rice.   


From Beijing we flew three hours south to the town of Guilin in the southwest Province of Guanxi and joined a group organized by a Chinese-American, who leads trips to China a couple of times a year.  I'd seen photographs of the Guilin area before, since the scenic karst formations along the Li River seem to be one of the most popular tourist destinations, along with Beijing, Shanghai, and the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian.   


The primary objective of this trip was to visit the small villages where some of the 55 ethnic minority groups live in three provinces in China's southwest, and to see the beautiful landscapes in a region that many Western travelers don't even know about, let alone get to see.  Since tribal culture is an interest of ours, we jumped on the opportunity to have another authentic experience, like the ones we had with the Mursi and Hammer tribes in Ethiopia,  the Akha in Southeast Asia, and the Mud Men in Papua New Guinea.  Like so many other tribal cultures around the world, these unique minority groups in China will fade into the woodwork as more and more young people leave their rural villages to ride the wave of fortune currently going on in the booming cities.    At the same time, the government is constructing massive high rise apartments throughout the entire country in order to move hundreds of millions of people from the rural countryside, where they have always lived and farmed,  into an urban lifestyle that wreaks of social dysfunction.  


Our first opportunity to interact with ethnic minorities was a visit to Huangluo, a Yao village where we met the Long Hair people.   The girls are allowed to cut their hair only once in their lives, usually at age 16, when it's time for them to marry.   The cut hair isn't discarded, but instead is saved until her wedding, and then she gifts it to her new husband.   Later, the hair piece becomes a part of her everyday hairdo.   The elaborate hair styles tell an interesting story.   If the hair is simply wrapped around her head, it means she is married but has no children.  If she wears a small bun at the front, it means she is married and has children.  If she wears a scarf around her head, she is telling the village she is looking for a husband.   In the Yao culture, it is believed that long hair will bring longevity, good fortune and wealth. 


Although I've read my share of fortune cookies over the years, I guess I'd forgotten how much the Chinese rely on superstitions, spiritual energy, and ancient myths to bring them closer to a good life, good fortune, and good health.    Feng Shui, Ying Yang and the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) are still considered important in the way many Chinese live their lives, construct their buildings, marry each other, and bury their dead.  "Place your bed in your room in full view of the door."  "Don't go to the hospital on New Year's."   For the Yao women, it is "never cut your hair."



The village of Huangluo was a little touristy, but you can't blame the Yao for wanting to take advantage of people's curiosity.  After a half hour of watching the girls dance, sing, and show how they wrap their floor length hair, we began our trek up the mountain to the village of Ping'an, where we would spend the night.  We knew in advance that the trek would require us to either carry our luggage up the long trail ourselves or pay a porter $5-10 per bag to carry it for us.  

Bruce and I downsized our belongings into two simple backpacks, taking just enough out of our regular suitcases for one night in the mountain village, but we still opted for porters to do the heavy lifting when we realized we could  help the villagers economically.   As soon as we arrived at the point where the steep climb began, we were rushed by a group of tiny, middle-aged ladies,  wearing wicker baskets on their back, eager to help us, and earn a few Yuan.  Two women about five feet tall and wearing pink hats grabbed our heavy packs, tossed them in their baskets, and scurried off, as soon as we made a deal and agreed to pay them $10 each.   After walking on a paved path through a maze of touristy shops selling kitsch, we began climbing the narrow stone steps with no guard rail and steep drop offs on one side.  We were told that our hotel was at the mountain's summit near the two flags we could see at the top.   It looked like a long way up to us.


After thirty minutes of climbing one steep and narrow step after another, I stopped to rest, thinking it would take me another hour to reach the flags, and I didn't want to burn out.   That's when  I heard someone call out my name.  "Hey Pam, over here."  I looked to my right and sitting on the porch of someone's house and drinking a beer was one of our traveling companions.  "What are you doing there?" I queried.  "This is our hotel,"  he shouted back.  "I thought we had to walk up to the flags," I replied.  "Nope, this is where we are staying, and there's a cold beer waiting for you."   

Something wet and cold was exactly what I needed after a schlepp on a very hot day.   Even though I'd ridden my bike up Mount Tamalpais just the week before, climbing steep stone steps used different muscles, and I was already beginning to feel the burn.  Thrilled that we didn't have to go any further,  Bruce and I quickly made our way over to the hotel's entrance where the two porter ladies were waiting for us with big grins, eager to be paid.   Using sign language and much nodding of heads, we thanked them profusely and made arrangements for them to come back the next morning to carry our packs down the hill.   We were told these porter ladies make eight to ten round trips per day, so they were eager to get to the bottom and wait for their next fare.   A couple of others in our group focused on the two flags and overshot the hotel completely.  It took an hour for our guide to find them wandering about near the flags, wondering where the hotel was.  Thankfully, they were found pretty quickly because they didn't know the name of the hotel, and even if they did, I'm not sure they would have found it since I don't remember seeing a sign.   The views looking down on the terraced rice fields were gorgeous, especially in the early morning light.  

Stories like this tend to find a permanent spot somewhere in my brain's cache of travel memories.  I will always remember the sweet faces of those two porter ladies and envy the speed at which they were able to negotiate those steep stone steps.  

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


It's not surprising that I'm still in culture shock.  After all, I just returned from 25 days traveling in China, immersed in a way of life that is a far cry from how I live in California.  While it was a worthwhile experience, and I'm glad we went, I'm also very happy to be home, where I can sit rather than squat to pee, and brush my teeth using water directly from the tap and not from a bottle.  And, as for the food?  Well, look at it this way:  Think what it would be like to eat at a mediocre Chinese restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 25 days.  

Pam & Bruce wearing a flower hat in Tiananmen Square

Unfortunately, I couldn't access my Biker Chick blog in China, so I was only able to send emails and photos to friends and family to keep them updated regularly about our trip.    I don't think one  post on 25 days will do my trip justice,  so I will share more stories and photos on my blog in the days and weeks ahead.   

Three Days in Beijing

This trip opened my eyes and gave me a whole new outlook on China, a country about which I had a lot of opinions and preconceptions.  Many of them are still valid.   Before going to Beijing, we worried about the gross air pollution, wondered if we'd be swallowed up by a population of 23 million people all speaking gibberish, and hoped the major tourist sites wouldn't be overcrowded because our visit coincided with the week the entire country goes on vacation.  

Tiananmen Square smogged in

Considering all of the above, the only real downside was the pollution, which was pretty bad, but only on one of the three days we were there.  I didn't wear the face mask I brought, although I  still have a box of 249 masks remaining here at home, in case anyone needs one.   My eyes stung from the smoky air, and it was difficult to see the historic buildings around Tiananmen Square.  With an expert guide and a somewhat sloppy driver, we visited many of the key highlights in Beijing:  The Summer Palace, an 18th century royal garden with 3000 man-made ancient structures, and the Temple of Heaven, where we watched groups of elderly Chinese do their classic morning exercises, play mahjong, and practice their operatic singing accompanied by off-key accordion players.   

Street entertainer

We walked for hours in The Forbidden City and took photographs of the Chinese tourists who dressed up in historical costumes and posed as though they lived in ancient times.   Is this a local thing or do American tourists who visit Plymouth Rock dress up as Pilgrims and pose for pictures?   

The Little Emperor 

One of the sections of The Forbidden City

Mao is still revered by some (note his photo on the building wall)

On the food front, the variety of steamed dumplings we tasted were delicious, but I have to say Peking Duck is definitely over-rated.  The most unusual dish we tried in Beijing was mashed potato with blueberry sauce, and believe it or not, it was really good.  A belly-filling lunch for four people, including beer, came to $28 --  food in this city seems to be a good deal.    As consummate tourists, we attended an astounding acrobatic show,  took a neighborhood tour in a bicycle rickshaw,  joined the crowd watching entertainers on the street, and did a little shopping at Beijing's Panjiayuan Market.

Delicious Mashed Potato with Blueberry Sauce (honest)

Panjiayuan Market --- a great place to see local color

Another impression of Beijing was gleaned by walking the narrow streets and twisted alleyways of a few remaining neighborhoods called hutongs, most of which were torn down at record speed to make way for modern shopping centers, fancy Western-style hotels, expensive high rise office buildings, apartments and condominiums and four and five lane city streets.  Hundreds of thousands of families who had lived in these cultural relics for many generations were displaced and relocated in the new high rise apartments that were foreign to them and did not represent their heritage.  Then in the 1990s, the Chinese government realized the historical and cultural value of the hutong, so rather than continue tearing them down , they labeled them endangered species and put a halt to the demolition.  Today most of Beijing's remaining hutong neighborhoods are where the retired and elderly live, and where small family businesses exist to support them.  

Other hutong neighborhoods have become a mecca for Chinese tourists and young people looking for a vibrant nightlife and a place to meet up and hang out.  The narrow alleys are lined with smoky bars, noisy restaurants, and tacky shops hawking kitsch.  Outside on the street, merchants compete by selling cheap trinkets, like plastic headbands supporting fuzzy lion cub ears that all the giggling teenage girls like to wear.  

Skewered Squid

Outside people who cook street food offer you a  squid shish-ka-bob that is sizzling on a small grill over smoky hot coals or want to squeeze you a cup of juice made from fresh pomegranates or oranges.   One hutong street was so jam-packed with bar hoppers and window shoppers that Bruce and I could barely make our way.    In fact, we were so worn out from fighting the crowds (and a little jet lagged) that we walked back to our hotel and skipped dinner.  I was reminded of the bargain sale days at Filene's basement in Boston, but only much worse.   In the modern sections of the city, most commercial high rise buildings were lit up like Christmas trees with neon lights flashing in every color of the rainbow.  BMWs, Audi's and Mercedes, all costing around a quarter to a half a million dollars each, were bumper to bumper on five lane city streets,  everyone trying to get somewhere in a hurry.

Standing on The Great Wall was an emotional experience that resembled the same feeling I had when I saw the Grand Canyon and Machu Picchu.   It was hard to believe that I was walking on a stone fortification that had been built between the Eighth and Fifth Century BC.  As I touched the cold stone wall, I thought of the millions of people before me doing the same thing.
The Great Wall 
Photographs in books and magazines don't fully prepare you for the actual experience.  It was very moving.  On a lighter side, I must tell you that while we took a fairly long chair-lift to get up to the wall and start our walk, we bravely took the toboggan shoot down.  I was a little skeptical at first, but Bruce talked me into it.  We each had our own sit-down toboggan, and it was  really fun,  except that the woman in front of the line of riders was a scaredy cat and went so slowly that she took the thrill out of the steep descent for all of the riders behind her.  

Bruce at The Great Wall 

We rode the toboggan for a thrilling descent 

Stuffing pork dumplings

Ten girls riding a bicycle at the acrobatic show

The Birds Nest Stadium at Olympic Park

As one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Beijing is an amazing contrast in which the "haves" are driving expensive cars like BMWs and living in luxurious apartments, while the "have nots" live in modest housing and subsist on fruits and vegetables they grow in their small garden plots.   There is no middle class in Beijing.  A marriage proposal will only be accepted if the young man has a car, an apartment and a job, and this standard exists throughout China.   Except for the ethnic minority groups, the one child per family policy still remains. If you have more than one child, a fine is imposed, but that doesn't seem to deter rich couples from having as many as they want

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues.