Two Weekends on the Outskirts of Shanghai

August is hot in Shanghai.  And like most places I have been there seem to be no holidays the whole long, hot month.

Shanghai municipality mapThis August is expected to be busier than last because of the G-20 Summit being held in Hangzhou, just an hour outside of Shanghai and within the Shanghai Consulate region.  Though the G-20 leaders meeting will be held in early September, advance teams and preparation begins weeks beforehand and a large number of staff from the Shanghai Consulate have key roles.  As a single mom of a young child I opted not to put my name forward to TDY (be sent temporary duty) to Hangzhou for potentially weeks, and instead volunteered to take on additional roles in Shanghai.  Before the madness would begin I wanted to spend two long weekends away with my daughter.  As I did not want to travel far I opted for two staycations, of sorts.  We would stay at hotels within Shanghai municipality (though outside the city proper) for some quality mom and daughter time, where I could also tick a few things off my Shanghai bucket list.  Thanks to a G-20 clean up campaign, we experienced days with some of the lowest AQI (air quality index) since we arrived, with the most startling blue skies I have ever seen in Shanghai.

Weekend One: Sheshan

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The Sofitel Sheshan swimming pool – C liked the hotel so much she asked if we could move there for 5 years

After lunch on Friday, August 12 we departed for Sheshan via metro.  C was not all that happy as she has a generally low opinion of traveling on the Shanghai subway.  Her preference is for taxis.  But with an hour ride ahead of us from Jing’An Station to Sheshan Station (with one change of lines), the 5 RMB metro fare (C rides free as all children under 1.4 meters tall do) was more attractive than the 150+ RMB taxi fare.  I thought it might take awhile too to find a taxi driver willing to make the one hour journey.  So it was worth it to me to drag C, the stroller, my bag, and our suitcase (full of enough toys and books for at least a week) the three blocks to the nearest subway station and through the transfer.  Thankfully an hour later I still had not regretted it.

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View of Sheshan with the basilica and observatory clear against the startling blue sky

We booked at the Sofitel Hotel Sheshan Oriental.  The plan was to arrive around 2 pm, check-in, and then head out to one of the nearby sights.  I should know by now that traveling with C never means we “just” check-in and we head out “immediately.”  It is almost laughable how much I persist in this fantasy.  C is a true traveler and hotel connoisseur; she likes to check-in and then check out the hotel.  We were wooed by our large corner suite room, the make-your-own-ice-cream-bar bar in the lobby (50 RMB but the front desk clerk gave me coupons for two free ones just because I asked about the ice cream stand), and the two swimming pools – one for kids and one for families.  In the evening after dinner, we went for a walk around the extensive grounds, stopping also at the two kids rooms — one an arcade of sorts and the other with ball pit and slides.

For day two I was determined to get some bucket list sightseeing done, so we were off to Sheshan – or She Hill (pronounced like “shuh”), which is the highest point in Shanghai.  How high seems to be the subject of much debate as I found 97, 99, and 100 meters online, but since most of Shanghai is quite flat, this hill stands out regardless how high it may be.

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C gets cheeky before we begin our climb

The hill is located in the Sheshan National Forest Park.  I find Shanghai to be a fairly leafy city; even in the heart of the concrete jungle of downtown, there are trees on every street and given my view from my 19th floor apartment, many high rises with rooftop gardens.  Still I was unprepared for the amount of greenery I found at Sheshan.  Entrance to the park is free, one only has to bring some energy to climb.  Ninety-seven to 100 meters may not sound like much, but if you are braving it with a 4 year old and a stroller (that you have to carry half the time and push up inclines the other half) in 95 degree weather with 80% humidity, then it does feel like the mountain the Shanghaiese sometimes jokingly call it.

I chose the wooden walkway vice the “difficult path” on the map located near the pagoda at the top of a steep flight of stairs from the parking area.  The boardwalk-like pathway was very nice.  Thick bamboo forest could be seen on one side of the hill.   I had a hard time believing we were still in Shanghai.  After some time – I lost track – we arrived at another rest area from where we could choose to visit the observatory or the basilica.  I could tell you we made it to the top without complaints, but I would be lying.  It was hot and C may have said a few times that she did not want to walk, did not want to see “Snake Hill” (“she” can mean snake, but it is not the character used for Sheshan), and that the whole thing was “boring.” A second Chinese popsicle might have helped us to get up the extra bit.

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The view from Sheshan including the hill with pagoda and the conservatory at Chenshan Botanical Garden

At the top we visited the small but interesting Shanghai Astronomical Museum and the pretty Sheshan basilica. The original observatory was built in 1900 by French missionaries and was one of the first modern observatories in China.  The basilica is purportedly “the largest cathedral in the Far East,” and a church has been on the site since 1863.  C seemed to rally for both the sites but I did reward her for her cooperation with a delicious lunch and more pool time once back at the hotel.

On the last morning I again had a plan – to arrive at the Chenshan Botanical Garden at 9 am, right when it opened.  We made it by 10. The gardens, at 207 hectares or 511 acres or 2 million square meters (whichever measurement makes the most sense to you), is one of the largest botanical gardens in the world and Shanghai’s largest green space.  Thank goodness I had a stroller and I sprang for the 10 RMB sightseeing bus.  We stopped first at the Children’s Garden, which of course is more a giant playground than a garden.  But it being the first weekend in August, at 10-something in the morning, it was already well over 80 degrees and climbing.  The playground had almost zero cover.  C played for about 10 minutes as I slowly melted into a puddle.  I found a double chair swing in the shade but I was antsy to get moving.  I spotted what appeared to be swans and used them to distract C, and we were off.

We visited the tree house island, where the water fowl were hanging out, and then headed over to the rose garden via the topiary garden and a long way around the western edge of West Lake.  The roses were naturally pretty and the perfume from the flowers extremely fragrant, but with no cover, the flowers and me were wilting.  C seemed happy enough though so we pressed on.  But as we walked (and C rode) I could feel my enthusiasm for the gardens diminishing.  It was too hot.  I planned on one last stop – the quarry garden (listed on the brochure as a “recommended attraction” during the summer months) – and then a ride on the shuttle bus back to the visitor’s center.  But once inside the abandoned quarry, now a large artificial lake with a floating walkway, complete with dual waterfalls cascading down from the top of Chenshan hill, I found my second wind.  The floating bridge led to a tunnel through the rock leading us from the Quarry Garden to the Rock Garden.  We walked on, until we found ourselves at the conservatory, a 12000 square meter greenhouse, the largest in Asia.

After about 45 minutes in the greenhouses we were on the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center.  We had survived three hours in the gardens, but now I was feeling concerned about getting back to the hotel and home.  The hotel had arranged an Uber driver for us to the garden, but at drop off it was clear this was not a location where taxis frequented.  It seemed we might have to wait for the bus that would take us to the Sheshan metro station from where we could catch a taxi back to the hotel to collect our belongings and then head home.  But as we crossed the vast parking and entrance area I spotted a taxi across the road, idling.  I began to sprint, pushing the stroller with an energy I was sure I had sweated away hours before.  We secured the taxi, one of the nice new caravan taxis with fully functioning A/C and no stench of stale cigarette smoke, back to the hotel.  Along the way, C fell asleep, hard.  I asked the driver if he was up to driving us all the way back to our home downtown with just a quick stop at the hotel to grab out bags.  He agreed much to my relief.

Weekend Two: Chongming Island

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The bridge linking Shanghai with Chongming island

Depending on whether or not you count Taiwan, Chongming is either the second or third largest island of China.  It is 1,267 square kilometers (489 square miles) with a population around 700,000 people.  Given that Shanghai total, the municipality including Chongming, has a population of 24 million, that means that the island makes up about a seventh of the total land area but has only 3% of the population.  High rises are few – though there appears to be a building boom on the island – and for now nature is the primary thing to see.

I had read about the Hyatt Regency Chongming in a Shanghai family magazine aimed at expats.  The island and the hotel sounded so nice I quickly added it to my bucket list and determined it would be my destination for my second weekend staycation.

The concierge at the Portman Ritz Carlton, part of our apartment complex, arranged an Uber for us to the hotel.  Even with an Uber it cost us 220 RMB for the hour plus ride including tolls.  Once we hit the tunnel to Changxing Island (in-between Shanghai proper and Chongming) it already felt like we were very far from the city.

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A room fit for my princess

I knew better this time than to make some big plans after our arrival.  There is less to do on the island than in Sheshan and this weekend was going to be more about relaxing.  Once again I shelled out the extra dough for an upgraded room that would include breakfast, a better room, and club access including “happy hour,” where we could fill up on a full dinner meal.  Still there was a bit of a mix-up with the room, but the helpful hotel staff arranged for us to have a further upgrade for one night to one of the kids’ character rooms.  C chose a Frozen-inspired room (though she was also quite taken with the Captain America room too).  The rest of the day was devoted to walking (ok, running) through the hotel’s sunlight wooden corridors and the extensive grounds, rocking in the comfy swing on our balcony listening to bird song, saying hello to dogs (it is a very dog friendly hotel, with specially designed rooms with enclosed patios for those who bring their furry companions), and swimming at the pool.

The next day my bubble was burst.  My plan was to rent one of the “mommy and me” bicycles available at the hotel for a nice bike ride to the Dongtan Nature Reserve.  When I explained my plan to the woman at the rental counter her draw dropped.  “But,” she stammered, “it is really hot right now.”  She had a point.  It was hot as blazes outside, again forecast to climb into the mid-90s.  But hey, I am fit and I wanted to ride the bicycle.  “But,” she explains patiently, as if talking to a child, “the reserve is very far away.”  The magazine I had read indicated the reserve was a “short trip from the hotel.”  She told me that it was not, it was actually about 20 minutes away by car.  She told me if I took a regular bicycle it would take me at least an hour, but with the mommy and me bicycle, it would take me about three because is is really sloooooooooow.  Yeah, three hours one way on a weird bicycle in 90 degree heat did sound like a terrible idea.  Scratch that.

Meanwhile C had already decided she wanted nothing to do with a bicycle that had her just sitting the whole time.  She had her eye on the children’s bikes with “stabilizers” (she watches a lot of Peppa Pig so does not even know the American term “training wheels”).  I asked instead about Dongping National Forest Park, also claimed to be “close to the hotel” in my trusty magazine.  The huge park is perfect for long walks and also apparently includes an area with horse rides, bumper carts, and other carnival type rides.  The helpful concierge could barely keep from snorting her incredulity at the proximity I believed the park to be.  She informed me it is AN HOUR taxi ride from the hotel.  We might as well head back to Shanghai.

So C got to ride a bicycle for the very first time for nearly two hours in the sweltering heat.  She was so happy I don’t think she noticed it was warm.   (When we returned the bike though, a bellman gave me props for our long time outdoors because he told me he could barely stand 5 minutes outside. C and I are dedicated to “relaxing” at all costs.)

I was determined to see some of the natural sites on Chongming – or any site at all other than the hotel.  After lunch and the heat of midday I again asked the concierge about a trip to Dongtan Nature Reserve, this time booking a taxi to pick us up.  Because there is no dedicated taxi stand at the hotel (it isn’t near anything other than a new retirement apartment complex on the one side and a new Tuscan-style housing complex on the other), she had to call a taxi to come from Chenjia town about 10km away.  And the meter starts from the taxi leaving the town, not picking us up.  So our 20 minute ride to the Dongtan parking lot cost 80 RMB, about four times more than a similar ride would cost in Shanghai.

The nearly empty gravel parking lot at Dongtan and small ticket shack did not give me much confidence that this had been a good idea.  At 2:30 in the afternoon it was still sweltering.  Again, there was no cover to be seen and I had decided to not bring the stroller, probably a poor decision on my part.  I shelled out an additional 10 RMB for the golf cart shuttle to take us from the parking lot to the furthest stop.  At 60,000 acres, the wetland reserve, is no small feat to get around.  Even had we brought the stroller there was simply no way for us to really get around to all the areas.  Bicycles are for rent, but there are no “mommy and me” ones here.  So I limited us to two areas – the far wetland marsh area where one can walk through the tall marsh grasses on a boardwalk and the area around the visitor’s center.

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This cannot possibly be Shanghai anymore – boardwalk through the wetlands at Dongtan

Though the reserve is a migratory location for some 1 million birds representing nearly 300 species, we heard only a few and saw even less.  Given it was 3 to 4 PM and around 1000 degrees outside, I think the birds had the right idea to lay low somewhere.  Yet the sheer size of the reserve, its layout, its mission, and the incredible scenery under those G-20 blue skies, made sweating away a few pounds of water while occasionally carrying a disgruntled 4-year-old worth the effort.

The following day, having decided that Dongping Forest was not worth the two hour round trip for a 50 RMB 5 minute pony ride (which I was sure what we would end up doing), was just for lazing around the room, swinging on the balcony, and snuggling with C.  I had planned to leave the hotel right after check out at noon, but I am glad I asked the concierge yet again about getting back to Shanghai.  Turns out it is no simple matter if you do not have a car.  Chongming taxis are local and only licensed for the island.  Therefore in order to return to Shanghai, the concierge would have to call a Shanghai taxi to pick us up, for which we would incur a steep fee and at least a 90 minute wait.  My other option was to hire a local taxi to come from Chenjia town to take us to the island bus station.  We would have to wait 30 minutes for that taxi and pay at least 80 RMB.  Then we would take a bus from the island to the Science and Technology Museum metro station in Pudong, then ride the metro seven stops to West Nanjing road, and then walk several blocks home.  Weighing my two options I decided the latter offered the greatest amount of adventure.

As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a couple traveling with their 18 month old son whom I had helped direct to the swimming pool the night before.  While I was in line for check-out, psyching myself up for our taxi-bus-subway-walk journey, the wife approached me and said they would be happy to drive us home.  It turned out the couple, both fluent in English and German, having studied in Germany and worked for German companies in Shanghai, live only a 10 minute walk from our own apartment.  They saved C and I from myself and my sense of “adventure” and we had a lovely trip home.

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July 4th Mini Holiday

June was over.  At last.  It is the busiest season for the Shanghai Consulate visa section.  And it had culminated with the Consulate’s July 4th event, our largest representational event of the year.  An event I had once again volunteered to help organize.

About a month before I had reserved one night at the JW Marriott Changfeng Park even though its location is only 15 minutes away from my apartment.  If I stay at home I find my weekends are often consumed with the little mundane things that capture one’s attention when you are at home.  Grocery shopping.  Meal preparation.  Facebook checking.  Watching meaningless shows on television (and I only have three English channels other than news channels so this can get pretty repetitive for me).    I wanted to be “away.”

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The view of Changfeng Park from the executive floor of the JW Marriott

 

On the morning of Sunday, July 3 my daughter and I headed downstairs for the taxi queue to head off on our adventure.  The taxi driver appeared to have an interest in making a go at breaking the land speed record, zig-zagging through traffic on the elevated highway with a fervor and intensity best suited to the Indianapolis Speedway.

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The Pudong aquarium might be the one everyone has heard of, but Changfeng has beluga whales.

But we made it to the hotel.  I cannot say for sure if it was the taxi ride, the beautifully appointed lobby, the thrill of having a night away, or the helpful bellhop with the English name Buttery (I kid you not) that led to my agreeing to a $70 upgrade on top of an already $150 room, but I did.  Probably it was the option letting me check in right away that appealed to me most.  With the upgrade we secured a room on a higher floor with inclusive pricey breakfast in the executive lounge as well as snacks throughout the day.  Worth every penny.

 

According to my plan though we had little time to dawdle.  It was off to Changfeng Park right away.  Because I wanted to take C to see the beluga whales.  Some months ago I bought her a book on whales and she has been fascinated by the idea of white whales since.  Watching Finding Dory recently only solidified her need to see them.  Imagine my surprise while Googling one day to come across the Changfeng Ocean World.  We had to go.

There was a show at noon.  We arrived at the ticket line at 11:40.  It seemed possible to make the show.  There were only about 25 people in front of us.  And yet at 12:30 we were still in line.  How is that even possible?  It could be that there was only ticket seller.  But I think the real reason behind the wait were the line jumpers.  There were a few people who were behind me in line who kept trying to move ahead of me, but I called them out and they edged back.  However there were other groups of people who went straight to the front of the line and after a short conversation with the person second in line, handed over money for that person to buy their tickets.  I saw one older woman mouth “you paidui” or “there is a line” as she motioned to all of us behind her and shook her head.  At first I was buoyed that she would turn them down, but then she agreed to buy their tickets.  Argh!

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Which one of these kids does not belong?

So by 12:35 we had the tickets.  I thought we could go in to see the aquarium first and then see the show.  We entered and went through a small section with fish.  It took about 5 minutes.  It turned out the rest of the aquarium was in a separate building on the other side of the park.  Also, although the next show began at 1:30, they would let people into the arena at 1:00 and at 12:45 a line was forming.  So once again we got in line.  Luckily we were able to snag a front row middle seat, right in front of the show tank.  Unluckily we were now there 30 minutes before the show.  More waiting.  I was forced to buy a light-up beluga whale toy on a necklace.  If you have kids and have ever had to wait for a show like this you know exactly why I had to do it.

 

The “show” started at 1:32.  Well some very loud screaming into a microphone began at 1:32 as the emcee welcomed us all.  Then six children were selected from the audience to participate in a quiz game that dragged on for 10 minutes.  C was selected after one of the show’s organizers confirmed with me she could understand Chinese.  Except the questions were rather complicated, aimed at upper elementary aged.  Poor C was likely chosen because of her blonde curls than her chance at winning.  The winner got to pet a seal.  C was not the winner, but she and the other runner-ups did each get a plush sea animal.

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The three belugas.  My daughter named them Cupcake, Sarah, and Wonder Woman

So there was a short show with a seal.  The winner of the kids quiz show and her mom got to pet a seal.  The rest of us watched them pet the seal.  Riveting.

 

And then six more kids were selected for another kids’ quiz.  Ten more minutes we watched.  Then the two winners of that quiz and their parents got to go in and touch the nose of a beluga whale.  We all watched them touch them.

Then FINALLY it was time for us all to watch the beluga whales do their thing.    They swam in formation.  There were one or two jumps.  They poked their heads out of the water and looked at us with their cute faces. My daughter was very happy and that made me happy.

Still when the whole show ended at 2:30 I wondered where the last 3 hours of my life had gone.  That as a lot of time for 10 minutes of beluga watching.  Part of me wanted to just go back to the hotel, get my things and go home.  But there was more aquarium to see.

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In my book an aquarium with information like this gets bonus points

Last year my daughter and I visited the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium in Pudong over the Chinese New Year holiday.  There we fought the crowds to catch a glimpse of anything at every single display.  The cacophony was deafening.  After some 30 minutes of the noise and the chaos I just wanted to get out of there.  The aquarium at Changfeng was busy; there were school groups, and yet you could still see everything.  I was quite impressed with the information placards, in both English and Chinese.  They had an impressive number of seahorses, one of my absolute favorite sea animal.  Equally impressive were the signs about protecting sea life.

 

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This was supposed to be a cool museum at one time

Then I wanted to shift into the mommy phase of this mini-vacay.  It was time to head over to an adjacent park for a visit to the Shanghai Matchbox and Brand Museum.  As we walked up to the building I saw what appeared to be a large amount of debris lining the sidewalks in front.  Piles and piles of abandoned desks and tables and filing cabinets.  And sure enough on the dusty front door was a sign indicating that the museum was closed.  Strange.  Just a month before I had found an online article about visiting the museum.   This is not the first time I have gone to visit a a sightseeing spot in Shanghai only to find it closed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

We had a great night at the hotel enjoying the cake and cheese desserts and beverages in the executive lounge and just being away.

On Monday morning we headed to the Parkside Plaza mall, right next door to the hotel.  Here is where you can find the Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center, which just opened in April.  They promised “2-3 hours of fun” and they were not kidding.  I think it was three hours and one minute of fun when I called “time.”

This was my first time to any Legoland, amusement park or discovery center, so I do not have a comparison, but this place was not only fun but really cool.  There were two rides, a play area with slides for toddlers and another for older kids, building areas, a car build and test drive space, an amazing miniature Shanghai built entirely of Legos (of course), a 15 minute 4D Lego movie (all in Chinese but after a few minutes even I was so into it I sort of forgot I could hardly understand the dialogue), a cafe, and more.

It was a great getaway and a good reminder that not only is Shanghai chock full of awesome things to see and do but also just a 1 1/2 days of fun and a night away from home can be enough to re-charge.  Long live the mini vacay.

Shanghai Disneyland Trials

I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events.  From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.

At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!

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We got the “golden” tickets

And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016.  Okay “few” might be stretching the truth.  The park opened in early May for a six week trial period.  Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse.  So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day.  By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park.   But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

C and I visited the park not just once, but twice!  Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate.  We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.

I am not a Disney expert.  I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks.  I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year.  We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go.  I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter.   There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them.  I have never even been on the Mine Train.  I am a single mom of a four year old girl.  We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh.  We meet a lot of Princesses.   And that is totally okay.  That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.

We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel.  The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit.  I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent.  I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her.  After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down.  C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area.  It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests.  It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove.  We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.  It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style.    Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200.  Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her.  Then she wanted to ride again.  (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)

I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida.  The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising.  So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows.  We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view.  (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze.  The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though.  You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.

If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit.  Of course international visitors will still come.  And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come.  But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom.    And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.

For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind.  You read that right.  And for the Chinese that is not a problem.  And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me.  I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option.  I am getting a bit old to squat.  Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be.  Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in.  That was not a fun day for me either.  So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints.  Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

Then there is the food.  If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you!  Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park.  If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place.  None of these float my boat.  If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind.  It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck.  Western food is not out completely though.  You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park.  The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads.  In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.

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This is joy!

There are a few downsides…

The FastPass system.  It kinda sucks.  When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online.   In other parks there are FastPass machines.  Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located.  The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself.  I much prefer the Disneyworld model.

Line Jumpers.  This was a disappointment.  Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly.  At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it.  At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me.  When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.”  When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China.  You are not going to be able to control us all.”  That does not bode well.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

Language.  Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese.  You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language.  i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean.  Not a chance.  Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese.  Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town.  We went to see the Stitch Encounter.  I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait.  In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.  In Paris, it’s in English or French.   In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese.  (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese).   My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again.  Ever.

And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests.  She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line.  She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters.  It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.

I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park.  It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney.  It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back.  Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving.  Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway.  I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl.  But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.

So did we have fun?  We sure did.  This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park.  Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California…  I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel.  Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.

 

Americana: A Californian Chinese New Year

I have heard the time around the Spring Festival, as the Chinese call it, referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world.  It is not only all the Chinese traveling to be with their families, but also the foreigners in China taking advantage of the long holiday to get away.

When we first arrived in China it was just three weeks before Chinese New Year.  I knew having just moved to China that 1. I would not have the energy to take a trip that soon, and 2. Even if I had wanted to, it was far too late to book a trip.

It was good to stay in Shanghai that first Chinese New Year.  My household effects (HHE) were delivered just the day before the holiday started so I could spend it putting my apartment in order. The streets were quiet and I had a week to get to know my new city.  But I told myself there was no way I would stay in Shanghai the following Lunar New Year.

The way the holiday shook out is February 6-10 (Saturday – Wednesday) were the Chinese national days off.  The following Monday, February 15 was President’s Day.  So I could take just two days of annual leave and have ten full days off.  I thought of going to Kenya or Jordan or Thailand.  Somewhere exotic.  That is what I used to do when I had a long holiday – take a long trip to someplace unexpected.  But what I really wanted to do was be in the US drinking in America.

A Huntington Half Marathon

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C gets in some pony riding in her Elsa dress and pink cowgirl boots.  Because that is how she rolls.

We started our holiday in the Newport / Huntington Beach area, about an hour south of Los Angeles.  Back in August I had signed up for the Surf City Half Marathon.  The heart issues had started but I positive that I could still train for and complete the half.  It was before the Medevac to Singapore and then Washington, DC.  It was before I had the heart procedure.  By November 11 I was back in Shanghai and determined to train.  My plan was a 5K before the end of November, then a 10K before the end of December and finally 15K by the end of January and then just try my luck.

I did the 10K by the end of December but it was really, really, really slow.  I had some serious doubts.  But my virtual group of runners trying to hit the roads and trails all around the world encouraged me to still try – that the time would not matter.  And a very good friend currently posted to Washington, DC said she would fly out to run with me.

Before the half C and I just sampled the joys of being back in the US.  Our first day in the States involved landing, renting a car, and then driving down the coast in Friday afternoon Orange County traffic.  So it was pretty great.

For our first full day I took my pony-loving daughter to Irvine Regional Park for pony rides and a visit to the zoo.  We had hot dogs and French Fries and sat outside in the glorious Southern California sunshine.  Such a change from the cold, overcast, smoggy skies of a Shanghai winter.

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I got me some race bling. And some running zen.

The morning of the half the sitter arrived from Mollycoddlers, an Orange County sitter and nanny service.  (I am sure lots of people have wondered how I do these half marathons in different parts of the country as a single mom.  The answer is a hotel babysitting service!).  I met my friend in the lobby of our Huntington Beach hotel for the race shuttle to Newport Beach.  We had a lot of time on the shuttle and at least an hour at the race hotel before the start to catch up.  It was important because although we have run several races together, we do not actually run side by side as her pace is a good two minutes per mile faster than mine.

I had no idea how the half would go.  My training had been haphazard.  I was jet lagged.

The temperatures were unseasonably warm.  Yet it was a good course.  Flat.  I did not care about my time.  I ran a half for the first time in a long time without a running watch (it had been in the unfortunately misappropriated bag lost to the taxi driver in December).  I walked through each water stop.  I had fun.  I told myself I could finish in three hours if I needed to.  But I didn’t.  It wasn’t even my slowest half.

I realize that many people might be shaking their heads – why in the world would anyone run a half marathon on their vacation?  For me though, when I run, when I was running, I was not a mom, I was not a visa adjudicator, it was just me running in the sunshine on a course with a bunch of other strangers – all of who have their own reasons and goals for running.  It’s liberating.

Afterwards, it being Superbowl Sunday, C, my friend, her boyfriend, and I sat in the hotel bar, watched part of the game and the half time show, and ate and drank.  If that isn’t Americana, then I don’t know what is.

Friends, Family, and Disney

When I was 11 years old my mom took my sisters and I to LA. I begged to go to the La Brea Tar Pits, but we didn’t. I had to close the circle.

After Newport Beach we headed south to Carlsbad to stay with my mother’s cousin who I had not seen since I was twelve years old.  Now I am….much older.  Yet despite the years, when I reached out to her she responded immediately to my email and invited C and I to stay with her.  We had such a wonderful time and her husband and their therapy dog.  We also drove down to San Diego to meet up with a friend from my Jakarta book club days and on another day we met a grad school friend at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Back in my pre-State, pre-mom days my vacation modus operandi was generally to fly solo to another country or another continent but rarely to visit home. Maybe it is age or being a mother or this particular career, but I have a strong desire to spend more time reacquainting myself not only with friends and family but also with my country.

I felt such incredible joy driving a car down US highways, listening to Top 40 radio stations, or lying awake jet lagged watching American television programming featuring tiny houses.  Even billboards featuring Serta mattresses make me deliriously happy.  There were several times when apropos of nothing I simply stretched out my arms and yelled “I love you America!”

But I am familiar with America.  For me a trip home is celebration of the things I love and miss (or even had no idea I missed) and want to revisit and carry back in me.  For my daughter though, it is not a place she knows well.  In her four years of life she has lived only a quarter of it in the States.

A few weeks before traveling to the US I read an online parenting article aimed at American parents and their propensity to take their kids to Disney on vacation.  The author’s goal is to encourage parents to broaden their children’s horizons, which is certainly admirable.  But there is nothing wrong with taking your kids to Disney.  Disney is the quintessential Americana.  And I very much want to give my child those kinds of experiences.  She may not always or even ever just be able to get on a bicycle and ride around a neighborhood.  So if I can give her Disney and quality zoos and snow cones and ballpark hot dogs on occasion, I will.

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This happy face needs no caption.

After nine days in beautiful Southern California it was time to head back to Shanghai.  I am not sure that I did this, but I hope I took a sufficiently long deep breath of the good air quality air and closed my eyes and savored the warm feel of the SoCal sun on my face.

Hong Kong Birthday

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At the Lantau Island Buddha in the summer of 1996. I look pretty stunned, which could explain why I have no recollection of this at all.

Hong Kong. To me, it is one of those places the very name evokes a sense of adventure and excitement. I first visited in the summer of 1996, a vacation from my English teaching job at an after school cram school in Seoul, South Korea. It was part of a wildly concocted two week trip that would include Hong Kong, Macao, Guam, an unexpected stopover in Saipan due to a typhoon in my flight path, and Guangzhou. The most thrilling part I recall was running full speed down a pier in Hong Kong and jumping aboard the boat that would take me overnight to Guangzhou, the gangplank pulled in behind me. The second time was in the spring of 1999; I was an English teacher in the government-sponsored JET Program in Yamaguchi, Japan and spent a few days exploring Hong Kong while securing my visa to re-visit Beijing. I must have gone up Victoria Peak in the tram that second time. Yet all I have are a few vague memories of cold, bureaucratic, but quick formalities at the Chinese Consulate.

How had it been so very long ago since I had visited? I wanted to visit Hong Kong once again. After some research online – determining that January was one of the best months in the territory – I decided my daughter’s birthday over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend was the time to go.

Back in August, when I bought the tickets, it seemed quite reasonable and exciting to have trips planned for September/October (Dominican Republic), November (Chengdu), December (Sanya), and January (Hong Kong). By the time the Hong Kong trip was rolling around though I had instead come to the conclusion that I must have made these plans in a fit of insanity, possibly a function of having nearly survived a summer without leave through the biggest visa demand period in history. Maybe. Or maybe I just do crazy stuff like this all the time? (My past travel record would, I expect, point to the latter)

The Dominican Republic trip happened of course and it was wonderful. But Chengdu was cancelled because of my unanticipated month-long Medevac back to Washington, D.C. And Sanya, yeah, that one was far less restful than expected. (See Shanghai Escape, Derailed)

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A colder and wetter view than I had expected. Star Ferry ride over to Hong Kong Island.

Given the Sanya episode I approached the Hong Kong trip as a nervous travel maniac. I double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked the departure time of the flight daily on a travel website to make sure the flight time did not change. The last thing I wanted to do was miss a flight…again. I decided not to check a single piece of luggage. I hesitated to bring the newly purchases Kindle Fire Kids Edition (the replacement for the lost/stolen iPad), but in the end placed it and several other belongings into a new tote that would, I hoped, never leave my eyesight.

My soon-to-be four year old daughter too seemed traumatized by the Sanya episode. When a week before our trip she accidentally punctured a colorful sport ball we had had since Juarez and I informed her that we would need to throw it away, she broke down in sobs. “No,” she blubbered, “I don’t want to lose any more toys.” She insisted that the deflated ball was now her second most favorite toy in the world, after her beloved stuffed animal Black Cat, and that Pink Ball should also come with us to Hong Kong. I said no but then relented, imagining the hilarious pictures of Pink Ball in various Hong Kong locations. Unfortunately the day before departure I could not locate Pink Ball. <sigh>

The day before departure I wondered if maybe we needed to be at the airport earlier than expected? Sure enough I checked with a colleague who had just been and yes, we would be traveling through the international terminal and passport control on both ends. I thanked my lucky stars I knew that before rather than after the flight. Visions of Sanya, and the missed flight that started it all, swam through my brain.

Still the flight left late. I thought back to when I lived in China in 1994 and how foreigners fondly changed the acronym for the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to “China Airlines Always Cancel.” I have heard that every single commercial flight in China must be cleared before take-off through an office in Beijing. I do not know if it is true, but I have yet to be on a flight that departed on time. Only flights we were not on (i.e. to Sanya).

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Maybe it is Nathan Road or my own limited outings in Shanghai, but Hong Kong sort of felt more Chinese to me than China. Except with Facebook.

January is supposed to be one of the best months to visit Hong Kong. I read online, it has the lowest amount of rainfall and the most comfortable temperature. So imagine my dismay as I checked, and re-checked the weather report for our trip dates, and it was not only colder than expected but predicted to rain four out of the five days. Over 80% chance of rain each day, including our days at Disneyland and on C’s birthday.

Despite the late flight, the rain, the colder-than-expected temps, I felt pretty pumped when we landed and as we rode into town on an airport bus to central Kowloon. A very kind Indian woman, resident in Hong Kong for fifteen years, not only engaged my daughter in conversation on the bus, sharing photos of her own recent trip to Hong Kong Disneyland and explaining she was pretty good friends with the Princesses, but also helped us to get down from the crowded bus when we reached our stop. The ten minute walk down three long city blocks through the cold misty rain did not damper my spirits.

We arrived at our hotel, down a side street in Mongkok, somewhere near where I must have stayed in a cheap cramped guesthouse with friends in 1996, and in our room I posted direct to Facebook. Freedom. Hong Kong may have been returned to China, but with an international flight and immigration checks to get here and a very different Internet environment, it certainly did not feel like China.

On our first full day out in Hong Kong disaster struck.  C lost Black Cat, her much-adored stuffie who had been with us for over two years.  For a little stuffie Black Cat sure got around.  He or she, C referred to it as both, went with us everywhere from the grocery store to museums to across the globe.  Black Cat had been to seven countries and territories and approximately sixteen US states.  I thought Black Cat would be the stuffie that C would hold onto forever, into adulthood.  But Black Cat must have used up his nine lives.  He had been dropped, run over by the stroller, left behind and retrieved, so many times that our second chances had finally run out.

The last known location of Black Cat

The last known whereabouts of Black Cat

I took a picture of C sitting on a bollard near the Star Ferry terminal. She has Black Cat. Then she hops over to the stroller and informs me we need to make a pit stop before we head to the ferry. I spy a public bathroom just 50 feet away and off we go. By the time we make it to the stall she no longer has Black Cat. We run outside but in that space of time and physical space we have lost the stuffie; he/she is nowhere to be seen. C is inconsolable. She bawls loudly as I push her through the ferry terminal and onto the vessel. Huge tears roll down her face as she sits on the ferry. She sobs out loud “Black Cat, don’t leave me. Please come back. I miss you so much!” I tell her I am so sorry and ask if there is anything I can do. “Yes,” she tells me, “find my Black Cat.” There is nothing I can do. I tell her this. There is no reason to sugar coat it although I feel like the worst mom in the world.

On the other side, on Hong Kong Island, we meet up with my friend L who back in 2001 took a summer intensive Chinese class with me in Monterey, CA. We were roommates that summer and we both graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She has been living in Asia, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore for most of the intervening years. This is not how I wanted her and her children to meet my normally high-spirited, effervescent daughter, now in the throes of her greatest loss. But it is what it is. And surprisingly, C, after pouting for a good 30 minutes, warms up to them all and is in good spirits at lunch.

I should have known something was up. By the time we return to the hotel by 4 PM she is calm and rested, having napped in the stroller the whole walk back from Tsim Sha Tsui. However, when she wakes she informs me that she will simply ask Santa to bring her Old Black Cat next Christmas. I am amazed at her creativity and feel like the Grinch when I tell her this is beyond Santa’s powers.

The next day we wake. It is Sunday and C’s 4th birthday. I again feel pretty bad about letting Black Cat get away. However, when I ask C about it she informs me, “Black Cat likes Hong Kong and has decided to move here to be with his Grandma and Grandpa.” I am stunned. Four years old and already so grown up. Plus Black Cat is one very wise stuffie; I too want to move to Hong Kong.

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Hello wonderful Disney Hollywood Hotel.

We meet my friends D&B, who had come down from Guangzhou to visit Disneyland with us, down in the lobby. It is raining cats and dogs, heavy sheets of rain are shot down from the cold, steel grey sky. It looks like an unfortunate day to visit an amusement park. We cannot get a taxi. It is also the day of the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon and no taxis are able to get to our particular road. We wait. The rain lets up and we all decide to try to walk over to the MTR stop some fifteen minutes away to try to take the train to Disneyland (there is a stop at the park). We are lucky to find a nice taxi driver willing to give it a go.

When we pull up to our hotel, the Disneyland Hollywood Hotel, the whole place smells like fresh flowers after the rain; it is a lush desert oasis after a terrible sandstorm. There on the red carpet leading to the hotel I cancel my hotel the following night near the airport and book a second night at the Disney hotel. The magic of Disney was already working on me.

We store our bags and head straight to the park. The sun, believe it or not, comes out. I know I cannot believe it but I am thrilled. I may have even danced a jig. I may have thrown my arms out and thanked the Gods, Mother Nature, or Kismet for this blessed event. I had wanted this day to be perfect for C and though determined to make it so despite the rain, I was glad I did not have to contend with a soggy day.

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Of course we met with several princesses! Ariel wins for most awesome because she spent a lot of time with the birthday girl, even playing a little game of tag with her.

We rode the carousel, two times; it remains C’s favorite ride. We all took a spin on the tea cups, which by the way are not built for three adults and one child. Nor for someone my age who sometimes feels sick in the backseats of cars after spending so little time in them while living much of my adult life overseas. A trip on the Jungle River Cruise revealed that natives shooting arrows from an unfriendly village and a mountain that breathes fire are not four year old fare. I read the warning after the ride. Oops. Yet we even rode Space Mountain, C’s first roller coaster. I could scarcely believe that she met the height requirement, but she did. Just. Once the ride started I felt kind of bad to have brought her on, remembering my own fear riding this same attraction when I visited Disneyland California at age eleven. It was sort of hard to hear C crying over my own screams. Yet she surprised me once again when she declared at the end (after heaving a huge sigh of relief that we had survived), “I had to cry a little bit, but it was okay.”

We took a break, returned to the hotel, checked in and enjoyed a walk around the grounds and a rest before returning in the evening for the parade and fireworks show. I had expected just a good parade and then some good fireworks. Both were beyond anything I could have imagined. I sort of felt that other people who had been to Disney had been sworn to some secret oath not to reveal the true amazingness of the spectacle.

We said goodbye to D&B the following morning after breakfast and C and I returned to the park for another day of fun. The weather was even better than the day before. As a result, despite it being a Monday, the crowds were larger and the wait times for rides longer. More carousel time, a whirl on the Disneyland railroad, a visit with Anna and Elsa and Cinderella and we managed the Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo rides despite the longer lines. We called it an earlier day so I was very glad to be able to relax in our lovely Disney hotel room and catch the movie Up with C in the lobby bar and restaurant.

The next morning as we departed for the airport right after the 11 am check-out it had grown cold again, the fog so thick that visibility was very limited. Had we tried to head to the Lantau Buddha, my original plan until I realized that getting there would take more time than we had, we would not have seen much. Our flight was not until 4 pm but the man at the check-in counter moved us to a flight leaving an hour earlier. Of course though, this being a Chinese flight, it left an hour late…

All in all, even with the loss of Black Cat, Hong Kong turned out to be a wonderful getaway.

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The view from our Disney hotel room on a beautiful, clear Hong Kong morning

 

Shanghai Escape, Derailed

It is winter in Shanghai, which apparently translates to short, cold, gloomy, and overcast days. When it has not been raining the air quality has been poor. It is not Beijing Red Alert poor, but it has already warranted twice receiving this message:

Consulate Pollution message

The second time we received it was the day before our flight. It was time to get out of dodge.

The Plan: Leave the drab, choking skies of Shanghai behind for a beach resort in Sanya Bay, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii. The island is located at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands and is China’s only tropical beach destination. Blue skies, palm trees, warm weather, and a place in China where no one has to check the Air Quality Index. The perfect balmy Christmas getaway.

The Airport: We arrived at Pudong airport at 9:25 am for check in for our 10:45 am flight. Except it turns out that our flight time was moved up, to 10:05 am…and the flight closed 40 minutes before departure…so even before I stepped into the check-in line it was already too late. In all the years and places I have flown I have never missed a flight.

The airline was able to rebook us on a later flight departing at 3:50 pm. I felt rather thrilled we were still arriving the same day and I made sure to take advantage of the time at the airport. We had lunch and then C took a nap while I cracked open the 700+ page book for my January Book Club meeting. Then the flight was delayed two hours. No problem! There was a massage chair place located across from our gate – I had a massage and my daughter sat in the next chair playing nicely with her iPad.

Shanghai to Sanya flight

Just three hours by plane from wintry Shanghai to the balmy beaches of China’s southern most point

The Plane: Once on the plane I realize this is the first domestic Chinese flight I have taken since 1994.

I particularly remembered a flight from Chengdu to Urumuqi. There was no English to be found on the plane. Instead the information was in Chinese and Russian, the airplane seemed to be an old Aeroflot. The color scheme of the cabin was something like hospital white. Plane cabin temperature was set to somewhere around “sauna” and a leak of some sort dripped on me from the overhead compartment for the length of the flight. And smoking was allowed on the plane.

Fast forward to 2015 and the China Eastern flight is world-class. Comfortable seats, designer cabin colors in a palette of warm sand, professional flight attendants, English information. I sat back and relaxed, reading my book club book to page 345. We were on our way to vacation!

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The Holiday Inn Resort Sanya Bay. It is beautiful.

Arrival and Derailment: We land in Sanya at 8:30 pm, 5 ½ hours later than originally planned, but it is 77 degrees so I don’t care. Suitcases in hand we headed to the domestic airport legal taxi stand and wait.

Twenty-five minutes later we are in a taxi. Whew! We are soon to be on our way to the hotel to officially start this vacation. I feel so happy. I tell the driver the name of our hotel and she doesn’t understand. She confers with a taxi line attendant then she grunts in what I assume to mean “ok, yeah, I know where that is” and off we go–all of 20 feet before the driver pulls over, gets out of the taxi, and barks at the occupants of the back of the taxi line. Soon three additional passengers, two additional fares, are squeezed into the cab. I am forced to hold my daughter on my lap.

We stop and the driver tells the man in the front this is his stop. Then the driver gets out and opens my door, takes my daughter off my lap and places her in the street and tells me this is where I get out. “But where is my hotel?” I ask. The driver makes some noises that sound like “I don’t know” and “You can look around here.” She points to the suitcases in the back and I tell her the blue one. And then suddenly headlights are on us, a truck is heading our way, my daughter is in the middle of the street. I am distracted. The taxi driver takes off. I get my daughter to safety. I realize my other bag is in the taxi…with my new computer, my daughter’s iPad, and our jackets…

I walk two blocks with my daughter to the closest hotel. An English speaking manager helps to locate our hotel and takes us there by taxi. We had been nowhere nearby.

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Despite the rocky beginning, my daughter jumps for joy on the beach.

At our hotel the police are called. The officer who arrives is far more interested in my marital status than in my missing bag. He is fascinated that I am single, never married and have a child. He says he will return the next day, but I never see that cop again.

In the hotel room my daughter says, “Mom, I am sad about our bag, but this is a beautiful hotel.”

Fuel to the Fire: After breakfast and some beach time I head onto my first order of business to recover my vacation – obtaining chargers for my two phones (the chargers were unfortunately also in the bag).

The hotel furnished me with the location in Chinese where they promised up and down I could obtain chargers for both of my phones. I admit, I was skeptical, but I was thrilled when 30 minutes later we arrived at a phone supercenter, selling just about every phone and accessory you could imagine. Not only did they have a charger for my iPhone 4S but even for the Nokia dumb brick phone provided by the Consulate. I not only felt relief, I felt I had personally thwarted fate in a superhero kind of way.

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The Hui woman who sold us the Little Mermaid accessories, um, I mean, the shell necklaces.

We had lunch nearby and I bought C an ice cream cone that she nursed our two block walk to the beach and then as we walked along the waterfront. It actually sort of, kind of did remind me of the walkway in Waikiki. If I had been in Waikiki maybe in 1930? I bought C a shell necklace and conk shell whistle from an ethnic Hui woman on bicycle. Although the Muslim Hui are generally a northwestern minority, there is a large group on Hainan. I mused that perhaps there were more similarities between Hainan and Hawaii beyond their latitude and the letter “H.” There is also the military presence (with a base right in the middle of Sanya Bay fronting the beach, much like Waikiki’s Fort DeRussy) and an ethnic group subsumed and co-opted by tourism.

I had difficulty finding a taxi to take us back to our hotel – all the traffic on the beachfront road was heading in the wrong direction, all the cabs already with passengers. Even after turning up a side street to a crossroads, the taxis were few and already full. So I made the decision to take one of the two motorcycle taxis that had been vying for my business for ten minutes.

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What do you mean that airport is not a tourist spot? Doesn’t everyone hang out here on holiday?

I know, the parents amongst you may cringe and the Foreign Service Officers may tut-tut my decision. But the current and former backpackers might just give me a thumbs up. C, sandwiched between myself and the driver, yelling “wheee, wheee” as her hair blew in the wind. All was fine until we arrived back at the hotel. I got off the bike and burned my leg, badly as it turned out. Second degree. In all the times I was on motorcycles throughout Southeast Asia I was never burned before…

The Quest: My friends M&S from Shanghai also in Hainan for the weekend joined us for Christmas dinner for company and to get my mind off everything that had happened.  And as luck would have it, they hailed a blue colored cab on the way over and secured a telephone number for me. It turns out that there is only one dark blue taxi company in Sanya. How many female drivers could they have?

Bright and early on the second day I prepared for Operation: Get My Bag Back! I started up my iPhone – it was not connected to a phone network and had no VPN, but it could still connect to WiFi and I activated “Find My iPad.” Unfortunately it was offline, but I typed up a message in English and Chinese that would let someone know it was lost and how to reach me. Then I called the tourist complaint line number M&S had provided me and explained the situation in Chinese and then, almost unbelievably, the woman told me an English-speaking colleague would come in at 8 am and call me. Even more unbelievable is at 8 am an English-speaking person DID call me!

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Betel nut is popular in Hainan. I ironically found a bag of fresh betel nut left behind in taxi. I handed the bag over the driver and kept one for a photo.

At 9:30, after some checking she phoned me back and told me that I should phone the Airport Customer Service number. I did. Incredibly, they also had someone there who spoke English. That woman told me it would be best if I went down to the airport to talk with the Airport Police to locate the surveillance tape of the taxi line for the night in question. Of course! This is China and there are surveillance cameras everywhere!

Off we went to the airport. I located the police station on the second floor and again told my story in Chinese. The officer there did not seem too sympathetic as he stood in front of a four word police slogan that stated something like “integrity, honesty, service, hard work” – similar to one of those annoying motivational posters found in employee break rooms across the US. He informed me that in fact it was another police station that would be in charge of the taxi line and he gave me their number. I asked him, since I had just explained my whole story, if he could call for me. He shrugged and said he could not as it was my problem and not his.

I did call the number and explain again, in Chinese, my story of woe shouting in my phone above the airport and police station din. However, the policeman on the other end did seem nicer and told me he would see what he could do. A few minutes later my phone rang – an English-speaking woman who identified herself as Lisa and a friend of the second policeman. Lisa would prove to be not only sympathetic but incredibly resourceful.

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Despite the off-putting description of this area as a “Buddhist Theme Park” the landscaped grounds are quite nice and the statue is pretty cool. Not an amusement park ride to be seen.

While Lisa did whatever it was she was doing, I went in search of the surveillance tapes. Unfortunately, it turned out that due to airport construction the taxi line bay in the domestic terminal presently has no cameras. Of course it doesn’t! Despite this setback, I took advantage of our time at the airport to have lunch, visit the first aid center to have a nurse take care of my burn, and purchase the only thing resembling a diary from an airport book shop. (Yes, it turned out my diary too was in the bag. I have kept a diary since I was 12 years old and traveled with one all over the world and have never before lost one. Are you sensing a theme here?)

Back to the hotel. Lisa had sent the hotel duty officer the photos of the NINE female drivers employed by the dark blue taxi company for me to identify in a virtual line-up. I selected a few but emphasized that my driver had long black hair worn in a ponytail. We arranged to go to the taxi company the following morning to meet with the drivers and enjoyed the rest of the evening with pool time (well C was in the pool, I was sidelined with my second degree burn) and pizza in our hotel room watching either CNN or the Discovery Channel, our only two English options.

On Sunday we headed to the taxi company. I was quite disappointed to arrive to find only a single female drive in attendance – a woman with short, brown hair. When I explained my disappointment the two women at the taxi company appeared unphased. They said I had identified this woman as one of the possible drivers. I conceded I may have found the face similar from an employment photograph but in other aspects she did not resemble my driver at all. They suggested that perhaps I had confused dark blue with light blue as there was also a light blue taxi company in Sanya. They also incredulously suggested that perhaps I had mistaken a male driver for a woman? I stared at them.

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This taxi driver was worth his weight in gold – when C fell asleep on the way to the Goddess of Mercy, he offered to carry her.

I was told that this one female driver was the only one who had been to the airport on the day in question. Ms. Chen showed me the elaborate tracking system they use on all of their taxis – they could input a taxi driver number and a date and time and show exactly where the taxi had been. It seemed impressive but I could not help but feel they were trying to appear helpful without actually being so. In one final show of assistance they typed up a BOLO (Be On the LookOut) describing my lost bag and sent it out to all of their entire fleet of 200+ drivers. They suggested I also visit the Public Security Bureau, but I was done.

Instead back on the street I hailed a taxi to take us to the 108 meter high Goddess of Mercy statue located at the Nanshan Cultural District Buddhist Cultural Park. I may have lost a bag full of valuable items, received a second degree burn on my leg after an ill-advised motorcycle ride, and spent countless hours in fruitless pursuit of the aforementioned bag, but I was going to see one tourist site in Hainan! The funny part is that on the way I started to think about what I might see the next time we came.  If I was thinking about a next time, this time could not really be that bad, right?

I could have seen this as just a crappy vacation where everything went wrong or I could see it as a trip with some challenges and an epic quest, which though was ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining the sought after item, resulted instead in learning valuable lessons on what is truly valuable.  I did lose a lot of stuff (about $1300 worth) but I can replace them and am lucky to be in a position to say that.

In the taxi over to the taxi company, my almost-four-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I am sorry about our bag, but don’t worry, it is just games.” She was thinking about her lost iPad, but regardless, she had a point. And if my kid is telling me at this age, I have to be doing something right.

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The view of the South China Sea from our hotel balcony.

Decompressing in the DR

I really, really, really needed this vacation with my daughter in the Dominican Republic.

Yeah, I said the Dominican Republic.

Usually when I mentioned that we were headed for the DR for the combination holiday of Mid-Autumn festival and the multi-day National Day together called Golden Week I heard: Why?

Well, why not?

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The Occidental Grand Punta Cana Resort. This will do.

I am aware it is nowhere near Shanghai. That is sort of the point. I have a history of traveling places nowhere near where I am living. When I lived in Jakarta I vacationed in Moldova, the south of France and South Africa. And when we lived in Juarez we visited places such as Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and the Isle of Man.

Do I have friends in the DR? Did family meet us? No and no. I just had a few criteria for this trip: warm weather, a beach, small child-friendly hotel, in a new-to-me country, and fairly far away. The DR met them all. Check. Check. Check.

It might seem a bit crazy to travel 27 hours and 45 minutes or so with a small child to get to a vacation destination. Maybe.

The population of Shanghai is approximately 24 million people squeezed into an area of 2,445 square miles. It is almost impossible to ever be alone in Shanghai (and as I have a small child any chance to be alone is already infinitesimally small). The DR on the other hand has a population of 10.7 million in an area many times larger than that of Shanghai. Even with the near constant music in the DR – the wonderful tipico band that greets arrivals at the Punta Cana airport and the Merengue or top 40 hits playing in the restaurants or during the nightly resort entertainment – it felt quieter than most any day in China. That most of the sounds were the soft roll of ocean waves and the rustle of the wind through palm fronds and laughter did not hurt either.

I also did not run into a single Chinese tourist. Not one.

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Sunrise. Not a Chinese visa applicant in sight.

I very much enjoyed hearing and speaking Spanish again. Granted I would be very hard-pressed to score above a 1+ (if even) on a Foreign Service Institute test in Spanish at this point, having forgotten terribly important words like nuclear non-proliferation or labor union. Yet I remembered the word for bacon so though FSI might not agree with me, I feel I am winning that balance sheet.

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Sunrise.

This was not my usual vacation. Any of my previous travel stories will tell you that much. I am not generally the stay in one place and do little kind of traveler. But strange times (adjudicating 16,000 visas and counting let’s say) call for strange measures, which to me is an all-inclusive resort with nine restaurants, three swimming pools, a Kids’ Club, nightly entertainment, tennis courts, archery, spa, gym, “Punta Cana’s best nightclub” and a bunch of other amenities. I’ll tell you I was so downright lazy that we went to only two swimming pools, ate in only four restaurants, and managed to do little else.

Most of my days went like this:
Wake up (and this started around 1 am due to jet lag and then gradually managed to move closer to 5:45). See sunrise. Eat breakfast. Laze around room. Laze around pool. Eat lunch. Laze around. Walk on beach. Eat dinner (though this was only once the jet lagged had eased and we did not fall asleep before sunset) . Sleep. It was magical. Once I had passed the half way point of my vacation I even began to wish I had booked two weeks of this instead of eight days.

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The oldest cathedral in the Americas

We did make it off the resort twice. The first time was for an all day tour to Santo Domingo. As a self-declared history buff, if there was anything I was going to do while in the Dominican Republic other than little-to-nothing at the hotel it was to see Colonial Santo Domingo, the first permanent settlement in the New World. Only the fourth day in of a twelve hour time difference, I was not sure how C or I would fair with the jet lag, but the trip went off without a hitch. Well, okay C woke up at 2:30 am and vomited for an hour or so, but hey that is just travel with kids, right? Right?? She fell back asleep, and then woke demanding bananas; 2.5 bananas later she was ready for our 2 ½ hour bus trip to Santo Domingo. We slept most of the way there and back and enjoyed all the sites for the day. They crammed a whole lot in and yet it did not feel particularly rushed. I would have liked more time at some places and to see others that were only drive-bys, but overall I was quite pleased with the trip. And C was not the only child on the trip. Another couple brought their one year old and there was also a two year old boy. All the kids did really well. Hooray for parents traveling and sightseeing with their kids!

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Our first view of Santo Domingo

Our second off-resort trip was to Manati Park so that C could see some animals. We were the first picked up in what C referred to as the “Rainbow Bus,” the colorful US-school-bus-like transport painted in the full pallet blasting energetic Merengue music as it made its way from resort to resort and then through a torrential downpour before arriving at the park. Four other similar buses disgorged their passengers at the same time and a brief flood of people poured in. It is not a particularly large park and not particularly awesome, but it is a good place to take a small child who loves animals and is too small to take part in other outings like swimming with dolphins or snorkeling or caving. And she got to not only ride some ponies (a lifelong dream even at age 3) but the staff even let her help them as they brushed and washed a pony. The guy even gave her the lead so C could take the pony back to his stall.

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At the Taino Village in Manati Park

It wasn’t a perfect vacation mind you. There was bored, beer-guzzling Bob from Chicago who took a little too much of an interest in my daughter and I, or maybe just in my mini-bar beer. On the evening of the lunar eclipse, I popped just outside my room for a look-see while C snoozed. It was just before 11 pm. The man I will call Bob appeared to be heading out but then stopped to comment on the moon. We got to chatting for a bit. He seemed friendly enough. He was headed to the all night pizzeria for a snack and, after I had mentioned I do not drink, he said he would come back to get my neglected mini-bar beers. Given the time, I expected he would head up to get pizza and then be back before 11:30 pm for the beers. He knocked on my door at 2:30 AM! And then asked if I would wake him for sunrise the next morning when we headed to the beach. It seemed harmless enough though he was drunk enough to be swaying dangerously as we made our way to the beach. And except that then he just kept stopping by at odd hours. Odd because it is an all-inclusive resort that includes free alcohol with most meals and at any of the seven bars open from as early as 9 am until 1 am. And odd because at no time did I say, hey Bob, my daughter and I would love to have you randomly insinuate yourself into our holiday.

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I was pleased as punch to not only see the lunar eclipse but to actually get a decent photo with my point and shoot. But beware those you meet under the lunar eclipse.

I suspect Bob is just a lonely guy who got his signals crossed (or is so numbed by alcohol he is unable to read them) but nonetheless I requested a room change. Thankfully it was granted. We still saw Bob around the resort at least once a day, but at least I did not have to keep sitting in my room pretending I did not hear the knocks on our hotel room door.

There was also Jorge who came to my room to check my air conditioning unit. He was only in the room for maybe five minutes before his pointed questions revealed I am a single mom and we live in China. Jorge graciously offered to move to Shanghai to take care of me and give C a father. As romantic a proposal from an overweight only-Spanish-speaking hotel maintenance guy I had just met sounds, I turned him down.

Our final day was my birthday. I spent it, in very uncharacteristic fashion, doing almost nothing. I even took my very fair-freckled self to the beach for over three hours. After several hours of play my daughter wrapped herself up in a towel, lay on a beach chair and watched the ocean. She then turned to me and said, “Mom, let’s go home.” “To the hotel room?” I asked. “No mom, to Shanghai.” I told her the following day we would head home (via a little overnight stop in Newark).

Traveling to the Dominican Republic reminded me why I love to travel and see new places. It reminded me how much I love tropical countries and beaches. And it gave me the opportunity to relax and spend quality time with my child.

Oh, and not a single Chinese tourist.

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Another sunrise.