Tuesday, September 24, 2013

3 Day Tour to Zhangjiajie National Forest

Last week was a pretty busy week. I had my first day of teaching, which was exhausting. Then, we celebrated the mid-Autumn festival (which goes all week it seems) with Richard and Lily last Wednesday. They showed us how to make dumplings, which is not too complicated, but there is a process with the folding of the dough that is a bit intricate. Once you fold the dough, you boil, cool, boil, cool, boil, cool and then they are ready to eat. They were delicious and I can't wait to show off my new skills when I get back to the U.S. Richard's mother was there as well as a family friend and her 16 year old daughter. She and Annie talked quite a bit and exchanged phone numbers so that they could hang out together. The whole meal was very casual and the food was delicious. The only somewhat awkward moment was when we all sat down for dinner. Chinese families are small and so the Tangs are used to only having themselves and their son, Joey, at dinner. The table was pretty big, though, and fit our family when we crowded around it, but there was clearly not room for anybody but the Steins. So, everyone graciously watched as we ate. The others ate standing up and then moved into the open spaces when the children were finished. Richard and Lily are so easygoing that it wasn't too bad of a situation. Apart from dumplings, there was a delicious cucumber dish, a seaweed salad with cilantro, a kind of stringy tofu dish, and bamboo shoots. I should add here that I always kind of liked tofu, but I wouldn't say I loved it. Now, however, I can't get enough of the stuff. I think my brother and sister-in-law (the Hansens) would be so proud of me.

After dinner, we went home and immediately started packing for our trip to Zhangjiajie. For those who aren't familiar with this park, it is the first area of China declared as a national park by the Chinese government. The terrain is very unique with tall, thin pillars of rock and trees everywhere. James Cameron was so struck by the beauty of this place that he used it as the backdrop for the flying scene in Avatar. He simply digitally removed the bottom parts of the pillars so that it would look like they were floating. The movie probably helped boost the tourism here because there are promotional materials for Avatar all over the place in the park.

We departed our apartment for Zhangjiajie at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning. We were all pretty exhausted. We took a bus across the city just to get to the location of the tour bus, boarded our bus, and then staked out a place near the back for our family. Jay and Katie Sorensen were with us and we were all glad to be together on this adventure. Our guide, since no one should really go anywhere too far from home without a native Chinese speaker, was Sophia Sun. Even though Zhangjiajie is only a 4.5 hour drive from Changsha, she had never been there before and was excited to go. After we boarded, our tour guide immediately started talking on this really loud microphone. He talked and talked and talked. I realize it's a tour and that he was probably telling the tourists some really interesting information, but to me it just sounded like the "wah wah wah" from the Peanuts cartoons for like 3 hours. I started to get a headache and wished he would stop, but he never really did. Part way through the trip, the tour guide walked down the aisle of the bus to collect money for those extra sites that tourists could pay to see. Not everything was included in the tour fee and so we had to decide what we wanted to do. We all clearly wanted to go up the Bailong Elevator, which is the tallest outdoor elevator in the world. But, there was a cruise around Baofeng Lake that many reviewers on Tripadvisor.com said was a complete waste of time and a dance performance in the evening that we knew the little ones wouldn't sit through. These latter two activities were very expensive and so we decided beforehand that we would pass on them. The travel agency told us they were optional, so we figured it would be easy to say "no" to them. However, when Sophia explained that we wouldn't be attending these activities, the tour guide became a little irritated with us. He refused to take our money for the elevator (which we did want to do) and just walked away. I asked Sophia what was going on and she said that he was going to leave and then come back in a few minutes to persuade us to do these activities. When he came back, we refused to pay for the activities again and he told Sophia that he wouldn't take us anywhere unless we paid and that everyone else was paying for them. Then, he left again. That was all we heard that day.

The next day, Sophia called the travel agency to confirm the activities were optional and they told her that what this guy was doing was illegal. He apparently was getting a kickback for all the "extras" he sold and so that's why he was mad. They apologized and told Sophia to tell us not to let it ruin our trip and that they hope we have a good time. So, we just let it go. In the end, we didn't pay for anything we didn't want to. Well, we did have to pay some extra fees for Nicolas because Sophia accidentally booked him as a child and he is over the Chinese standard for "child height." That was no big deal, though. It's funny how the Chinese don't go by age when determining price. They go by height. All of my children, except for Jeanie and Lucy, are considered adults over here based on height. It's hard being in a short culture sometimes. Stacie loves it, though. She feels a kinship with all these short people everywhere. For me, I kind of enjoy being able to look over the top of everyone whenever we are in a crowd. It makes me feel less claustrophobic.

When seeing something as beautiful as Zhangjiajie, it's hard to really describe in a blog just how beautiful it really is. I will let the pictures speak for themselves. The children were such troopers and we walked so much over the course of those three days. We were all very tired. Lucy wanted to be carried most of the time and so Stacie and I would do that in shifts. The highlights of the trip for me were the visit to Yellow Dragon Cave, the top of "Avatar" mountain, and the walk through the bottom of the valley floors and looking up at the peaks. We also saw many museums with old relics from this area of China, which is apparently one of the earliest settled locations. We even got to see a preserved house from the Qing dynasty. It was pretty impressive! I think if I asked the children what parts they liked the best, they would probably say the cable car. We took the elevator to the top of the mountain, but we took a cable car to the bottom and it was absolutely frightening. We were so high up and it just seemed dangerous hanging off of a wire for about 10 minutes as we rode to the bottom. They weren't too impressed with the elevator ride on the way up because the Chinese people all pushed their way into it and the kids couldn't see well. I picked up Nicolas and Ezra for a few seconds for them to catch a glimpse, but they still didn't see much. I think we would all agree that the pushing and shoving here are starting to get on our nerves. There is absolutely no respect for lines. Every time we would get on the bus, we were always the last ones on because people would just shove us out of the way. In the line for the Bailong elevator, people kept cutting in front of us. When we neared the front, this old lady tried to get between me and Stacie. I had my big backpack on and so I strategically turned so that my backpack would knock her out of the way. Stacie said, "I can't believe you just hit that nice old lady with your bag." We kind of laughed because we were both frustrated. We absolutely HAD to have our family together when we stood in these lines because we didn't want to be put on separate elevators. In the end, we waited in that one line for 2 hours.

One fun moment at Zhangjiajie was when we reached the area on top of the mountain that has the world's tallest natural bridge. Along that path that leads up to this bridge is a collection of locks that people had put there to symbolize their love for each other. I saw them last year and the romantic in me wanted to prepare a lock for this trip. I had one all ready to go and placed it near the natural bridge. Annie was behind us with Sophia and didn't see me put the lock where I did. When she finally caught up to us, she said, "Hey, I was walking back there and I noticed one of the locks looked a lot newer than all the others. Then, I saw it said Kevin and Stacie on it. I was so surprised"

Another part of the trip that was very fun for the children was finally having an opportunity to barter. China is very much a bartering culture, but you don't really do it in the bigger stores. It has to be done with people on the street and we haven't dealt with too many street vendors in China (that aren't food vendors). In Zhangjiajie, there are people selling stuff everywhere. I told the boys to watch me bargain. I walked up to someone and said (in Chinese of course): "How much does this cost?" They responded, "30 yuan." I said, "How about 15?" They countered with 25. Then, I offered 20, which they took. I said to the boys, "Easy, right." So, Ezra goes up to a man and asks how much something costs. The man said, "20 yuan." Ezra said, "How about 50?" The man smiled and said, "No, twenty." Ezra then paid. I asked Ezra why he was trying to pay more than the man demanded, but he just looked puzzled and then laughed and said "Oops." Nicol wanted to buy a walking stick. I saw that the price listed on the stick was 40 yuan to begin with. Nicol walked up to the man and asked how much was the stick. The man told him 80 yuan. Apparently, they jack up the prices for the foreigners, so you have to be careful. Nicol negotiated him down to 40 and was really proud of himself. He did a good job of getting the price more reasonable, but he didn't save much because 40 was the normal price. Anyway, we really enjoyed trying to get things for as cheap as possible. I was prepared to step in if they were going to rip him off really badly, but I was fine with him just paying the list price since he was having fun. Now we are home and everyone is a little sick. Katie Sorensen was deathly ill for the whole last two days of our trip and Annie started to get something on the last day. When we got home, the rest of us started to show signs of sickness. We are exhausted and a little under the weather, but are proud of ourselves for surviving a 3 days jungle tour with our five children. I hope Beijing next year is easier. We will see, I guess.
Jeanie gets asked to take her picture with people all the time and she always is so accommodating. 
We are all born in the year of the rabbit, so we thought we would pose with him. 
We don't often get full family pics because we have to ask people to take them for us. 
Ezra is practicing his crane technique.
View from the Bailong elevator.
Personally, I think this stuff kind of ruins the park.  Zhangjiajie was already cool before Avatar came out.
View from the top.
Hey, American girl!  Can I take my picture with you?
Tallest natural bridge in the world.
Annie posing in front of the natural bridge.
Finally proved my love to Stacie.  It will be difficult to come back here and remove this thing if it doesn't work out between us.
Had a fun conversation with Annie (age 14) about this ancient chastity belt.
Old tea house from the distance.  Eventually, we would go up to it and climb to the top. 
Well, when you put it that way....Can I just add that don't is already a contraction.  You can't "contract" it anymore.
The kids' favorite part was this ride down from the top of the mountain in the cable car.
It was really high and pretty terrifying.
Making friends.  Annie is so cute with all the little Chinese kids.  She just loves them!
They made us get up at the crack of dawn for breakfast.  The kids pretty much hated most of the food they served on the tour.  Stacie and I thought most of it was good, but some of it was kind of like cafeteria food...if you can imagine a cafeteria version of tofu, seaweed soup, and other things.
Our hotel room.  Annie, Nicolas and Sophia stayed in the room with three beds.  Stacie and I stayed with Ezra and the two girls.  Jay and Katie took the third room.  I was hoping for a real mattress, but we got hard beds yet again.  Just can't catch a break.
This guy really wanted to take his picture with Annie.  I think he thought she was older.  Don't worry.  I was prepared to lay him out if need be, but he was a perfect gentlemen. 
Outside our hotel room in the city of Zhangjiajie.
Kids can't resist performing on any stage they can find.
The two hour line to the Bailong elevator.
Our tour guide held up a flag and we had to follow him around everywhere. It was kind of annoying to be on a tour because we were rushed through too many places where we wanted to spend more time.  It was sort of like that scene in Vacation where they get to the Grand Canyon, stop for two seconds and then head out.
Along the valley floor, which I thought was just as beautiful as up top.
We were told that if we were lucky, we might spot a monkey.  I felt like the father of the year when I yelled at the kids to come check this out.
We also spotted this baby monkey.  The mother from the previous picture started to get nervous and proceeded to come toward us (and a crowd of Chinese who had gathered around).  We snapped a few pictures and took off because we know monkeys bite and have rabies.  As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder and saw a Chinese man trying to feed the mother.  I should have stayed and recorded in case the dumb guy lost a finger, but I didn't. 
Ezra found this slug.  It was at least 6  inches long.  Big sucker. 
Here he is trying to touch it.  Gross.
Hey, American children.  Can I take your picture?
Beautiful mountains everywhere and all they want is a picture of us.
We really should start charging for this.
Katie was super sick the last day and she just chose to ignore all the attention.  I don't blame her.
I wish I could say Stacie took this romantic picture, but it was me.  I thought it was cool they came all the way into the park to take these lovely pictures. 
Let me guess, picture time?  This lady actually wanted Lucy's picture.  Lucy doesn't like to take pictures or talk to Chinese people.  She has successfully avoided it so far and honestly we don't make her do it.  Some people just smile and walk away when we tell them she is shy.  But, this woman was a little more pushy.  On a side note, that guy in the background is wearing a hat that says, "Daddy don't play" or something like that.  I also saw a shirt that says "Bananas help with cramps."  Not sure where they are getting these clothes. 
Our friend and guide, Sophia, with Nicol and Annie.  She is a very sweet girl.
Say cheese!  Well, in China they say, "Chee eh zi," which is the word for eggplant.  Anything to make the picture taker say the "ch" sound I guess.
Nicol and Ezra were nervous about eating these fried fish whole, but they ended up being their favorite food on the trip.
Grandma Marene sent a care package with Junior Mints.  If they weren't in a Junior Mints package, we would have not known what these were since they certainly didn't look like Junior Mints when they arrived.
Doritos!  Yes!!! We also got duct tape, oven pads, baking soda, baking powder, books, stickers, jerky, and crystal light packets. Thanks, Grandma!  It will probably be the only care package we receive all year since this is clearly not a financially viable option.  But, it certainly made our day!
Yes, you read that correctly.  It cost $77 to send an 11 pound package to China and it only took 13 days to get here. 


  1. i'm with you, the avatar stuff would annoy me.
    and i think you started too high for your price on the bartering :o) they always give a higher price to foreigners cuz if the foreigner is silly enough to pay it they make a bigger profit!

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