China


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Many of you already know about our October visit to the orphanage in Yangxi, China.   We fell in love with the girls during our time with them, and we really struggled with the fact that they slept (and, really, lived) in metal cribs with rough, wooden bottoms.  Overwhelmed by their many trying circumstances, we left determined to remedy at least one of them by purchasing mattresses for their cribs.  Such a task surely would have been impossible without the aid of our friends and family, who donated an incredibly generous amount of money to help with the task, and Wensi, an amazingly kind employee of the orphanage’s umbrella agency, who coordinated a Chinese factory’s production of the mattresses. 
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We’re so excited to report that 120 thick, washable mattresses have just been delivered to the orphanage and placed in the cribs.  As evidenced by the pictures, the before/after contrast is profound.  We really feel like Christmas has come early this year, as much for us as for the orphanage’s children.  Thank you, thank you to all who helped with our efforts!

Including Macau, Hong Kong and Tibet, we’ve spent almost a month and a half in China.  Along the way, we’ve observed many things that were different from our preconceptions of China and others that seemed just downright odd.  In no particular order, here’s a list of a few of them:

  • Items You Will Not Receive When Sitting Down at a Chinese Restaurant:
    • Napkins – Either the Chinese are the most careful eaters in the world, always inserting each bite into their mouth flawlessly, or they have a lot of dirty shirt sleeves.
    • Water – At home, we’re used to downing glass after glass of free water at any restaurant.  This is not the case here, where it seems as if the Chinese drink little, if any, fluids while eating.
    • Rice and Soy Sauce – Judging from restaurants back home, you would assume that these two are staples of the Chinese diet.  However, rice is rarely served in most restaurants that we’ve seen.  To get soy sauce (assuming they have it, which is rarer than you would think), you have to make a special request.
  • Spitting
    • You may have heard rumours that a lot of Chinese people spit in public.  We’re here to confirm that those rumours are 100% true.  Male or female, old or young, rural or urban — there seem to be no boundaries to letting the phlegm fly.  The Chinese are aware of Westerners’ discomfort with this habit, and have even started a campaign to hopefully eradicate the practice prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  We wish them luck!
  • Items Not Often Found in a Chinese Restroom:
    • Soap
    • Paper Towels
    • Toilet Paper
    • Western-Style Toilets

 We quickly learned to always come armed with our own soap and t.p.

  • Lines
    • Simply put, they don’t exist.  No matter what you’re in line for – a train ticket, an ATM machine, anything – there’s a good chance you will be elbowed by a tiny Chinese woman aiming to get in front of you.
  • Mattresses
    • A Chinese woman we met told us that many Chinese people believe that hard mattresses promote healthy bones.  If that’s the case, the Chinese have the strongest bones on the planet. 
  • Split Pants
    • Upon our arrival in China, we noticed a unique component of many toddlers’ pants.  They seemed to be split up the back.  Upon further observation, we came to understand that this feature was a way for parents to save money on diapers and save time spent on taking bathroom breaks.  In one swift movement, the child is free to relieve him or herself wherever and whenever the need arises.  We’ve witnessed this phenomenon in Tiananmen Square, on sidewalks, in parks, in trash cans and in the middle of the street.  Privacy and sanitation seem to be of no concern.

We’d love to see a similar list prepared by a Chinese tourist visiting America for the first time.  We’re sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

In the last few weeks, Derek and I have enjoyed one of the many benefits of long-term journeys: travel friends.  On short vacations, one’s priority is often to catch up on much-needed time with family and other loved ones.  When life on the road is more of a routine than it is a break from one, however, travelers have time to get to know each other–to share meals, stories and travel advice–without worrying about missing out on quality time with anyone from their “real lives” back at home.  This is one of the best ways to learn about must-see places and to begin to understand the different realities of living in a country other than our own. 
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We’ve been lucky to meet a lot of great people during our time on the road so far.  In Yangshuo, we met three Americans who live just outside of D.C.  Gene, Betsy and Kitty gave us some invaluable Tibet travel advice, without which we wouldn’t be staying in the wonderful hotel where I’m writing this.  

We met another pair of newlyweds, Peter and Regine (who are also doing a travel blog), on a bus from Ping’an to Guilin.  We later shared dinner with them in what turned out to be one of my favorite cafes on the planet–Prague Cafe in Lijiang.  The next morning, in the same place (yup, we went back!), we started talking to an Australian couple, Phil and Viv, and ended up spending most of the next two days with them.
Tea with Phil and Viv in Shuhe
And, in a small Naxi guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge, we got to know Martin and Martina, a Czech couple with whom we can’t wait to have dinner once we finally make it to Eastern Europe.  These great people and others have made our already great travel memories even better.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Better still is the knowledge that Michael and Kelly, some dear friends from Nashville, are meeting us in Nepal in four days (and counting!).   They come bearing new sticks of deodorant and clean socks.  That, indeed, is what friends are for.

It was time to escape from the polluted cities of China.
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While I’ve always loved the city life, there is an unequalled joy of exiting the urban sprawl and heading to the mountains.  I guess that love started for me at an early age, as my family hooked up the pop-up camper and hit the road to explore national parks and KOAs throughout America.  Many of my fondest memories occurred by the campfire toasting hot dogs (we called them weenies) and marshmallows.  I would kill for just a couple of s’mores right now.

After a couple of days in Lijiang, we caught the 8:30 a.m. bus to Qiaotou, a small town near the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  During the 2 hour bus ride, the concrete buildings we were used to seeing started to disappear and snow-capped mountains soon followed.
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The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges (or canyons) in the world, having a depth of over 10,000 feet in some places – approximately twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.  The gorge, which only runs for 8 miles, is split by the great Yangtze River – the longest river in Asia and the third largest river in the world.  Tiger Leaping Gorge received its unusual name due to its width, which narrows to around 100 feet in at least one place.  Legend has it that a tiger jumped the river at its narrowest point to escape an approaching hunter.

From reports we’d heard, the hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge is not to be taken lightly.  In fact, several people have died in recent years attempting the hike during bad conditions.  The trail is very narrow at points, with huge drop-offs just inches away.  All the guidebooks insist that you only go when the weather is good.  Luckily, we avoided the rain.  Nonetheless, parts of the trail ran right under flowing waterfalls that required careful footwork in order to avoid a fatal slip.
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Upon arriving in Quaitou, we immediately hit the trail.  The trek can be easily done in 2 days; however, we had time on our hands and wanted to truly appreciate the beauty of the gorge.  After hiking 2 hours, we stopped at the Naxi Family Guesthouse, a small guesthouse in a village inhabited by the local Naxi people.  Our hosts set us up in a basic room with hot water (a huge plus).  While there wasn’t any heating, we were provided with an electric blanket and Shanna stole 2 extra blankets from an empty room down the hall.

We had a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring the local village and sharing travel stories and fried rice with our new friends from the Czech Republic and Boston.  We also met a family from Montreal, Canada who was traveling around the world for a year with 3 daughters (ranging in age from around 8 to 14)!  Very impressive!
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Day 2 of the hike was the most challenging, requiring us to climb the “24 bends” – bends that curve straight up the mountain.  After conquering the bends and reaching the summit, we were rewarded with an amazing view and a mostly flat to downhill hike for the rest of the day.  A few hours later, we arrived at Halfway Guesthouse.  This guesthouse  received some notoriety after Michael Pallin (a British actor made famous from Monty Python films and now a star of several series following him on journeys throughout the world) stayed here during his filming of “Himalaya” – a fantastic series that Shanna and I watched before we left on our trip (it’s available at the Green Hills Library in Nashville).  Day 3 was short – a 2-hour hike to a small town where we caught a ride back to Lijiang.
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For nature lovers, the hike is not to be missed.  The scenery is stunning.  At one point, I had Shanna convinced that the word “gorgeous” was coined by an English explorer who visited the Gorge hundreds of years ago.  The height of the gorge walls is hard to comprehend.  It wasn’t until I saw a bus – the size of an ant from our vantage point – driving along a road at the bottom of the gorge that its size fully sunk in.  I found myself torn between gazing at the impossible beauty of the gorge and watching the trail before me to ensure I didn’t slip down a 3,000 foot ravine – or run into one of the many mountain goats we spotted along the trail.

Like so many places I’ve encountered during my years of travel, Tiger Leaping Gorge is a place to be visited soon.  As we humans continue to feed our need for power and resources, many natural wonders are in danger.  Based on stories I’ve read, there is a strong chance that a dam will soon be built near the Gorge that will virtually stop the flow of the Yangtze River in the gorge and displace approximately 100,000 of the Naxi people who live in the area.  Hopefully, the powers that be will come to their wits and avoid destroying one of the truly “gorge”ous places on this planet.

Below is a video of our hike through the gorge, set to music.  I’m sure some of my guy friends (especially Kevin Howard and Jeremy Stephens) will be touched by the music, so you might want to have tissues nearby.

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If you were to mix together one part Boulder, Colorado, one part Venice and one part Beijing, your result surely would look something like Lijiang, the lovely southwestern town where we just spent a few days.   Like Boulder, it’s situated in the foothills of snow-capped mountains.  Like Venice, its old city1 is crisscrossed by canals, many of which are still in use.  And like Beijing, it’s sometimes overrun by massive Chinese tour groups, which move down its streets seemingly without regard for anything in their path.  Lijiang is a quaint place, though sometimes more in the Disneyland sense that the charming-village one.  We had a wonderful time getting lost (Derek figuratively, me literally!) in its narrow, cobblestone streets.
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One afternoon, we tagged along with our new Aussie friends, Phil and Viv, and explored two nearby villages that were a bit removed from the normal tourist track.  In Baisha, we paused to watch Naxi2 locals playing a hot game of mahjong.  In Shuhe, I felt a deep appreciation for the relaxed, travelers’ lifestyle that we enjoy as we sat on a bridge and listened to songs played by a Frenchman and his band of Chinese hippies.  On a tighter schedule, we may have passed by this motley crew without a second thought.
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The next day, I paid a visit to the nearby Dongba Research Institute.  Over 1,000 years ago, Naxi shamans, or Dongba, created an incredible written language that is composed largely of pictograms.  The only hieroglyphic language still in use today, the Dongba language is a dying art.   A renowned Dongba scholar (who, incidentally, sports a very fantastic headpiece) was recruited to the institute to teach his ancient art to Chinese students.  I was lucky enough to encounter one pupil, who instructed me in the intricacies of the incredible pictographs.  I left the institute as the proud owner of a marriage certificate created for Derek and me by the scholar himself.  Our backpacks have little room for souvenirs, but we’ll make an exception for this one!

  1. Lijiang is divided into a charming old city and a traffic-filled new one.  Almost of all of the tourist attractions are located within the thankfully-off-limits-to-cars confines of the old city. []
  2. The Naxi are a Chinese ethnic minority based in Lijiang who, until recently, lived in largely matriarchal societies. []

Our time in China has been nothing if not a lesson in the relative brevity of our own country’s history.  This lesson really sunk in as, during our time in Xi’an, we stood in front of an army of terra cotta warriors and tried to wrap our minds around the fact that a Chinese emperor ordered their construction some 2,200 years ago.  (Kind of makes July 4, 1776 seem like yesterday!)
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The emperor, Qun Shi Huang (incidentally, the same guy who began construction of the Great Wall), reportedly decided that the army would suffice to guard his spirit in the afterlife, but only after one of his generals reportedly (and this is only according to our guide; I couldn’t substantiate it with research!) talked him out of his initial idea for spirit protection: burying alive 3,000 children whose spirits could keep him company.
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The army itself is notorious.  You may already know that each warrior’s face is unique. But did you also know that, before the tomb–with all of its warriors, its bronze weapons and its gold chariots–could be sealed, it was torched, either by the many members of the populace who resented the emperor’s cruelty or by the 700,000 workers who had been conscripted to build it all. (According to our guide, the workers, too, were to be buried alive in the tomb, so as to ensure that the knowledge about how to break into it would die with them.)  Whomever the cause, the fire destroyed the tomb’s roof, which crushed the warriors and created an intricate puzzle for archaeologists to assemble a couple of millenia later.
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Equally fascinating is the fact that the 7,000 warriors that have been uncovered so far represent only a fraction of those actually constructed.  Huge portions of the land surrounding the emperor’s tomb, as well as the tomb itself, remain unexcavated, in part because a river of mercury reportedly courses through it.  The frenzy that started in 1974, when a farmer digging a well accidentally uncovered a mysterious terra cotta head,1 surely will continue for a long time to come.

  1. What did the Chinese government pay the farmer for this discovery, which turned Xi’an into one of the top three tourist destinations in China? A whopping 30 yuan, or about $4 US.  In the government’s defense, that’s all that the farmer asked for; he wanted the equivalent of a day’s wages. So you don’t feel too sorry for the poor farmer, you should know that he and his family have reaped a handsome profit from  the book that tells the story of his discovery. []

I’ve been to hundreds of Chinese restaurants in my days. They seem to be everywhere in the States, with Chinese entrepreneurs setting up shop in every shopping mall or available street corner.  In many cases, the primary attraction of a Chinese restaurant is the buffet. After paying a nominal sum, you line up to gorge yourself on fried rice, eggs rolls, wanton soup and sweet and sour chicken.

Before coming to China, I had heard that the food here is completely different than the “Chinese” food found in America. That statement is as true as the statement that the Red Sox won the World Series this year (GO SOX!). We’ve been here for a month and haven’t spotted one plate of General Tso’s Chicken or Moo Goo Gai Pan (actually, I’d pay an untold sum for some General Tso’s Chicken right now, especially after the bland, and somewhat disgusting, meals Shanna and I have endured at times).  In fact, we’ve been completely shocked at how little rice we’ve seen consumed. You practically have to beg for rice at most restaurants here – and soy sauce?  forget about it.  You might as well be asking the waiter if you can drink your tea out of the holy grail.
Li Qun Roast Duck (with reflection)
The one item I’ve seen at Chinese restaurants in the States that I was confident I would find in Beijing is roast duck (or, as we call it back home, “Beijing Duck” or “Peking Duck”). You can find Peking Duck at many Chinese restaurants in the US. Unless you go to restaurants that specialize in Peking Duck (like the wonderful Peking Duck House in New York City’s Chinatown where I recently took my mom, who has become quite an adventurous eater in recent years), you may have to order your duck a day or two in advance.
Li Qun Roast Duck
After a little research, we discovered two restaurants that were reported to excel in roast duck in Beijing – Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant and Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant.  The former, Dadong, is an upscale joint that caters to wealthy Chinese and tourists. The white tablecloth restaurant is huge and gorgeous.  There must be a staff of a hundred catering to your every need. Once your duck arrives, a chef dressed in white meticulously carves the roasted goodness right in front of you.
Roast Duck and pancakes at Dadong
The second restaurant, Li Qun, has a completely different environment.  Hidden in the hutong (the old, historic neighborhoods) south of Tiananmen Square, Li Qun has a very rustic feel.  There are only a handful of tables and you must call in advance in order to ensure a duck has begun the roasting process.  A diner looking for immaculate conditions in their dining experience would be better off heading to Dadong.

The process of eating duck is the same at each restaurant. The duck, including the duck skin, is sliced in front of you. You might think – duck skin? Isn’t that disgusting? Actually, the crispy duck skin is easily the best part. Keep in mind that I also think fried pork skins are a culinary delight (which have been so slandered by high-browed diners that I prefer to eat them in solitude for fear of judgment).
Duck side dishes at Dadong
The sliced duck is accompanied by, at a minimum, three items – “pancakes”, sliced scallions and hoisin sauce (a delicious plum sauce).  The pancakes are thin, translucent and round; they have very little taste as they are primarily used as a vehicle for consuming the duck.  Similar to making a fajita, you stuff the pancake with duck, scallions and hoisin sauce. In some cases, additional items are available including sliced cucumbers, garlic paste and sugar (a crucial item, in our opinion). The stuffed duck pancake is nothing but fantastic.

After comparing the two restaurants, we couldn’t choose a favorite. While we liked the upscale atmosphere at Dadong, we also appreciated the old-school charm of Li Qun. The duck was exceptional at both.

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In virtually every guidebook you’ll read about China and other developing countries, there is a section describing the dos and don’ts (well, mostly the don’ts) of eating.   Cardinal sin number one in many books is eating the street food – that is, food sold by vendors that you can find on virtually every street in Beijing.  If you haven’t already guessed it, I don’t follow their advice.
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Street food is the essence of a city’s cuisine.  If you ask New Yorkers what their favorite dining memories are in NYC, a surprising number will tell you about a hot dog vendor on the Upper East Side or a gyro stand in Midtown.  I’m sure there are ongoing debates among the Hispanic immigrants in Nashville as to which taco truck on Nolenseville Road dishes out the best tacos (in my non-Hispanic opinion, the taco truck parked in a parking lot on the right side of Nolenseville Road just north of 1-440 is the best).    
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A substantial number of a city’s residents rely on these vendors to fill their belly on their way to work in the morning, to provide a much-needed snack during the afternoon or to provide a quick and cheap dinner after a hard day’s work.  If you love food, avoiding street food in a city is akin to an artist visiting Paris and skipping the Louvre. 

There are, of course, a few guidelines to follow.  You can’t just dive into the first beef skewer that’s being cooked on a makeshift grill on a side street because the downside of bad street food (especially in Asia, where the “facilities” are not quite 5-star in most places) can be so bad as to require professional counseling upon your return home.
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Without further adieu, I present to you the Hughey Street Food Guidelines:

  1. Follow the Crowds.  If the locals are lining up to sample the offerings, you should be fine.  Not only do you have the natives’ seal of approval that the food is not poisonous and is probably delicious, you have better assurance that the food hasn’t been sitting around for hours (or days…).
  2. Is it Clean?  If the vendor takes pride in keeping his stall or cart clean, there is a better chance that he cares about the safety of the food.  Many people have an assumption that the kitchen at a restaurant is always better than street food, but you usually can’t see the kitchen at a restaurant.  For all you know, there is a local colony of rats residing behind the kitchen door.  With street food, it’s all out in the open.
  3. Do Your Research.  Try to find out the local delicacies of a city before you get there.  Not only will you get to sample the best the region has to offer, you’re more likely to get sanitary food because you’re eating what the locals eat (and not something the street vendor has cooked for an unknowing tourist).
  4. Know Your Limits.  Not everyone’s stomach has superpower bacteria-fighting abilities.  Even though Johnny is calling you a sissy while he downs a grilled seahorse (as we saw in Beijing the other day), you may want to stick to the fried noodles with vegetables.
  5. Small Doses.  The beauty of eating street food is that you can sample lots of different items because, in many cases, the street vendors huddle in groups.  If you pig out on one item, you may not leave room for that delicious fried caterpillar right down the street.
  6. Relax.  If you’ve traveled across the globe to visit an exotic land, don’t dampen the experience by always playing it safe by eating in the tourist restaurants or the local McDonald’s.  You’ll miss out on some great food and even better stories.

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According to Mao Zedong, “he who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.”  I’m not sure what this means for me, but Derek, at least, now qualifies.  We hiked a relatively rugged 10 km of the Wall yesterday, from a small town called Jinshanling to another one named Simatai.  I didn’t know what to expect before we arrived: Would it be overrun with tourists? Even more beautiful than we’d seen in pictures? Once we finally stepped onto its rocky surface, I was overcome by its majesty.  The structure alone is amazing, but its true beauty emerged for us when we saw it in the context of the barren, rolling hills that surrounded it.
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Construction of the Great Wall began over 2000 years ago, when emperor Qin Shi Huang organized (some would say conscripted) hundreds of thousands of workers to connect a series of separate walls that had been built by independent kingdoms.  While the Wall never really functioned as the impenetrable line of defense against northern invaders that it was intended to be, it ultimately worked very well as an elevated highway.  Legend has it that one of the building materials used in the Wall was the bones of deceased workers, earning it the gruesome nickname “the longest cemetery in the world.”  Oh, and you can’t actually see it from the moon (although astronauts have reported seeing it, as well as highways and railroads, from a low orbit of earth).
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The section of the Wall that we visited was fairly steep in parts, so it made for a great hike.  Although we encountered some other tourists and a handful of vendors (thanks, but no, we don’t want to buy shirts that say “I climbed the Great Wall…”), we were still able to explore the Wall and its watchtowers, where soldiers used to burn wolf dung to signal enemy movements, in relative privacy.  Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience…which is not to say that we won’t come back as soon as possible!

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Standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square a few days ago, I looked up at a monstrously huge portrait of Mao and finally began to understand that, although Beijing often feels a lot like New York, China and the US, in some ways, are still a world a part.  The sharp elbow to my ribs delivered by the elderly Chinese woman next to me only reinforced this point.   I don’t know if it’s simply tradition or if it’s a custom born of being in a country with so many other people (1.3 billion!), but Chinese people seem to have a very different concept of personal space than what I’m used to…i.e., they don’t seem to really believe in it.  My tiny assailant was trying to get by me in order to have a better view of the military guards who were lowering the Chinese flag in the square, as they do at every sundown.  I stood my ground, in part because we onlookers were packed so tightly together that I had nowhere to move, and she adapted by reaching around me and snapping  few pictures.  The ceremony itself was well worth the jostling, if only for the opportunity to photograph the Chinese military in action.
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The next day, we walked under Mao’s glaring countenance, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the Forbidden City.  Looking around the clusters of ancient buildings, which once housed two dynasties of emperors and was off-limits to the public for some 500 years (hence its name), it all felt a little surreal.  Although we soon discovered that the largest and most important structure, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was completely obscured by a web of scaffolding–sad!–nearly everything else was on full display.  Despite the cold (Beijing in late fall feels a lot like Michigan: crisp and chilly), we spent a happy few hours wandering the complex and learning as much as we could from our audio guides.  (Hey, no one ever said we were cool…)
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Later, after some fierce bargaining over the fare, we boarded a trishaw and journeyed into the narrow alleyways of Beijing’s hutong.  Hutong are warren-like clusters of ramshackle, one-storey houses that are scattered throughout the city.  Although 1/4 of Beijing’s residents currently live in them, a lot of hutong are facing demolition as part of the city’s pre-Olympic gentrification.  They’re run-down, but full of character; we quickly fell in love with them.  (In fact, as I write this, I’m tucked into a corner of a cozy coffee shop in our favorite hutong.)  I think pictures probably explain their beauty a lot better than my words can…
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A dearth of train tickets means that we’ll be in Beijing for a bit longer than we’d planned.  Frankly, I couldn’t be happier.  We could be here for months and still not take it all in.

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