Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Touring Changsha and Beijing with Garrett and Bethany

I deliberately waited to post an entry until after my brother Garrett and his wife Bethany came to visit us.  I knew I would have plenty to write about since they had never been to China (or anywhere in the Eastern hemisphere).  Plus, Stacie, the kids, and I had yet to venture outside of the Hunan Province since we arrived last August.  We had been to a few place in Hunan and I have written about those (Zhangjiajie, Jinggang, and Xiangtan), but never farther than that.  We were all looking forward to the visit from family and the opportunity to share in this experience with them. 

Garrett and Bethany arrived on a super late Sunday night flight on China Eastern Airlines that went through Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and then our new home city of Changsha.  I hired a driver to take me to the airport to pick them up.  Well, my fluent-in-Mandarin SUU assistant, Karisa, made the call initially.  I simply had to get picked up, tell the guy in Chinese what the flight number was (I'm getting very good at numbers) and that they were coming in on China Eastern.  I basically said in Chinese "China East airplane," but I think he got the idea.  The conversation was very limited for the 45 minutes to the airport.  I burned through all my Chinese in about 2 minutes and then watched a movie on my iPad while we drove.  When we got to the airport, the plane was delayed.  The driver seemed a little impatient, but he was very nice.  There were a few other foreigners wandering through the airport from other flights and my driver kept looking at me as if to say "Hey, there are some foreigners, how about them?" as if any foreigners would do.

Finally, after waiting an extra hour, Garrett and Bethany finally came through the gate.  I was so excited to see them.  It had been so long since we've seen any family that it was a bit emotional for me.  We had a difficult first semester adjusting to life in China and were just starting to do well in about January.  Personally, I worried a little that seeing family would trigger that "I want to go home now" impulse in me.  But, that didn't happen.  I was just excited to see my brother, who just dropped a fortune to come visit me.  Plus, anyone who thinks he may have come to Changsha for the vacation and planned to see our family on the side has never been to this place.  I did discover later that it was kind of their big anniversary trip.  How romantic!  I'm sure that staying in a small apartment with a family of 7 in a less-than-hygienic country killed the mood pretty quickly.  However, Garrett assured me that after all the island, Mexican, and Alaskan cruises they've been on, they were ready for a new kind of experience.

The morning after the arrival (Monday), they were pretty jet lagged.  I was kind enough to not plan anything that morning.  We woke them up just before noon and took them to Liu Jie's.  Garrett and Bethany had been reading about our favorite restaurant in this blog (we eat there about 4 times a week) and his favorite SUU teacher (besides me of course), Earl Mulderink, had just come to Hunan Normal University for a guest lecture and raved about the great hole in the wall restaurant I had taken him to.  So, Garrett was primed and ready to try the food there.  And the verdict...they loved it of course.  We ended up eating there twice during his stay because it's so good and so cheap.  After lunch, we took him over to the university and showed him the scenic spot on campus with the pagoda and the pond with the goldfish just at the base of Yuelu mountain.  We hiked the back side of the mountain and showed Garrett and Bethany the interesting grave sites and monuments on the mountain.  The Japanese had invaded many parts of China during what they call the War of Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), including the city of Changsha.  On the top of Yuelu is a monument of a Japanese soldier kneeling in apology.  Stacie's friend, Lily, told her that the monument was created by the Chinese to show what they think the Japanese response should be following the war.  We found it interesting and thought Garrett would too since he is a huge history buff.  Plus, Stacie and I have been a little surprised by the continuing level of hostility the older Chinese exhibit toward the Japanese people.  In fact, our friend Wouldbe told us that the characters for Japanese person (日本人) also mean (go f*&# yourself).  So, if you say "Japanese person" in the right context, you are using a profane expression.  And, it's probably no coincidence that they chose the Japanese as the basis for this slur.  

After we hiked the back side of Yuelu, we went down the mountain and walked over to east entrance of the mountain, which is very near to our apartment.  We took the cable car to the top, enjoyed the views of the city since it was such a clear beautiful day, and then took the mountain chute/slide down to the bottom.  We kept joking that Garrett and Bethany were such good luck with the weather.  It was supposed to be raining the entire time they were in Changsha, but it didn't really rain at all.  Plus, the sky was blue and the pollution was minimal.  When you book a flight months in advance, you can't possibly know what kind of weather you're in for, so we were very fortunate in that regard.  After the mountain, everyone was tired.  We chose a very unique kind of dining experience for dinner, the local Pizza Hut.  Garrett really wanted to try this pizza they had with salmon and wasabi on it, but they were all out.  Must be in high demand or something!  Anyway, the food was very good and the Pizza Huts here in China are considered upscale dining.  The people look a bit better dressed when you go in there, which is strange compared to how the restaurants are in America.  

The next morning (Tuesday), we left very early to catch a high speed train to Beijing.  None of us had ever been on the high speed train before and it was quite a nice experience.  There was plenty of leg room, the chairs were pretty comfortable, and the ride was very smooth since we are obviously traveling on rails.  Plus, the security lines are a joke in China.  They figure that nobody would really dare do anything so they make you just put your bag on a conveyer belt and walk through the metal detector.  It takes about 5 seconds.  Then, you go right to your gate.  It's much easier than airport travel.  I was a little nervous about traveling so soon after the knife attack at the railway station in Kunming that killed 29 people and injured a 130 more, but most places in China are fairly safe. The high speed to Beijing takes about 6 hours compared to the slow train, which is more like 20 hours.  Stacie and I had talked about taking the slow train, but thought Garrett and Bethany would probably not want a 20 hour train ride after just getting off an 18 hour flight.  Originally, I thought we would be going to Beijing without a Chinese guide and I was scared to death.  My Chinese is NOT sufficient to get around, but I hoped the subway system would be easy (in most cities it is) and I thought the hotel staff could help us find our tours to the various sites.  However, we lucked out and our friend Wouldbe agreed to take us around Beijing.  He is from Changsha and couldn't afford the high speed train (and we couldn't afford to pay his fare), so he left a day early on the slow train and met us at the train station when we arrived.  Actually, he wasn't waiting for us when we got there.  We exited the train station and stood right out front for about 45 minutes as I tried to call Wouldbe and figure out where he was.  He kept saying, "I'm in the South Plaza" and I would reply "I'm in the South Plaza, just look for me."  Then, he would say "Tell me what you see" and then I would describe the surroundings.  Eventually, we discovered that Wouldbe had gone to the wrong train station and had to take the subway back to where we were.  It was frustrating at the time, but how do you get mad at a guy who slept on a wood slat for 20 hours so he could help your family have an easier time in Beijing.  Wouldbe is the best!  

We found our hotel, which is in a university district where Wouldbe's cousin Wu Kai is going to school.  We thought it would be easier for Wouldbe to be near his cousin and the subway provided very easy access to the city center.  We were very happy with our hotel accommodations, especially considering how cheap it was.  We paid 100 yuan per room per night (about $33).  Since we had three rooms for three nights, our total hotel bill was $300.  So cheap!  Plus, the beds were softer than the ones we've been sleeping on for 7 months and the toilet and shower were Western-style if you know what I mean (no squatting).  Garrett, Bethany, and Nicolas slept in one room (again, damper on any anniversary getaway stuff), Ezra, Wouldbe and I in one room, and all the girls in the other.  First thing Wouldbe said to me when we got in the room is "Do you care if I sleep in just my underwear?"  I said "Knock yourself out."  Wouldbe then said, "Huh?"  Wouldbe also very much enjoyed using the shower.  I think he showered morning and night during our stay because the water was "free."  In China, he explained to me that the students usually only shower once a week because they have to go to a special place and pay to shower.  Otherwise, they just clean themselves in the sink at their dorm room.  So, Wouldbe was living it up with his twice per day showers.  

That first night after we checked in, we headed over to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street where they sell all kinds of delicacies like silkworms, sea horses, star fish, and scorpions.  The place was at the very top of Ezra's To-Do list.  He REALLY wanted to go here and we all wanted to take him.  He made a special deal with his Uncle Garrett that he had to try everything that Ezra would eat.  I told him he needed to make a deal that he would eat anything Lucy would eat.  It's a much safer bet.  But, he was stuck.  If the kids ate it, he would have to man up and eat it too.  When we got to the snack street, I had a harder time wrapping my mind around what we were about to do.  I guess seeing the live scorpions squirming around on those sticks really brought it home for me.  I was carrying Lucy and she buried her face in my neck and said "I don't want to eat it."  I told her she didn't have to eat anything she didn't want to eat.  She felt better, but still would not look at the bugs.  We purchased a stick of scorpions for 25 yuan (about $6).  That's pretty pricey for food in China, but they know the foreigners will come and pay it.  And guess what, they were right.  Ezra took the first nibble and said he thought it was pretty good.  Then, it was my turn and I nearly put it in my mouth about 4 times before finally sticking it in there and chewing.  Then, Garrett ate one, Annie, and then Nicolas.  We all agreed that it tasted a lot like a potato chip and the battle was more psychological than anything else.  Next, we tried the starfish.  We all took a bite, but it was kind of hard to chew.  The consensus on that one was that it tasted like tree bark or wood of some kind.  That's all we tried.  We guessed the fried sea horses would probably also taste like potato chips and nobody really wanted to try the giant juicy looking bugs.  So, that was that.

The next morning (Wednesday), we got on the subway and headed to the train station to catch a train to the Badaling area of the Great Wall.  Wouldbe and Wu Kai (the boys and I kept calling him Wookie) were our guides.  I was concerned about going to the Badaling area since it is the most heavily visited part of the wall, but we were willing to go wherever they wanted to take us.  We waited at the train station for about an hour since we barely missed the earlier train.  As we waited, we noticed people forming a huge line to get to the train.  I asked Wouldbe what they were doing and he said that the seats were first come first serve.  This always makes me nervous since we had such a big group and the children needed to sit close to us on the train.  We got in line, but were kind of far back.  When they opened the gate everyone started pushing and shoving and running to the train.  Stacie told me not to worry and that we would get seats.  So, we walked quickly to the train, got on a car and there were still plenty of seats. I'm still not sure why the Chinese are so averse to forming real lines and to having reserved seating.  It's just nuts over here sometimes when you are trying to get on a bus, hail a cab, or do anything that normally requires a little bit of etiquette.

When we got to the entrance area to the wall, it was about 1 p.m. and everyone was hungry.  There really wasn't much to eat at the bottom of the wall since it was mostly souvenir shops.  We did find some fried rice and fried noodles that were pretty terrible, but we ate them anyway.  Plus, everything is overpriced as you might expect, like having to pay $1.25 for your noodles instead of 75 cents.  My favorite part of going to the tourist sites (apart from the sites themselves) is bartering for souvenirs.  I think the children would agree as we always give them their own money and let them loose to negotiate.  They've gotten really good at it too.  Annie and Nicol got a sweatshirt that says "I climbed the Great Wall,"  Lucy got a shirt that says "I love China" (she SO doesn't love China), Evelynn got a shirt that says "I love Beijing," Nicol and Ezra both got those conical straw peasant hats, and Lucy and Evelynn both got little stuffed animal Pandas (Lucy appropriately named hers Souvenir). Oh, the little girls also got a version of those Russian Matryoshka dolls (nesting dolls) that were Pandas (did I mention they love Pandas).  Lucy is so good at naming her souvenirs.  This one was called "Tons of Heads."  

Oh, so the highlight of the Great Wall was not souvenir shopping and eating bad fried rice.  The wall was absolutely incredible.  It's hard to describe how amazing it was.  The climb was pretty steep in places, but the weather was moderate, the crowd was pretty minimal, and we very much enjoyed the scenery in the area outside of Beijing.  It's always nice to get out of the city a little.  When we were in Zhangjiajie back in September, we felt rushed by our tour guide.  This time, we were able to go very slowly with the children and just enjoy the fact that we were on the FREAKIN' GREAT WALL OF CHINA.  I felt like father of the year taking my children to this glorious place.  You can look at pictures in a book or on the internet, but I was really looking forward to seeing how high the wall was and making some snap judgments about the viability of climbing over the thing during a siege.  Plus, the amount of labor that would go into building a wall that size that stretched across all of China is astounding.  As I walked along it, I kept thinking about how many of the workers were killed during its construction, either from exhaustion or from trying to run away and getting buried alive in the wall by their masters.  We kept asking Wouldbe questions about the wall and apparently he knows as much about his country's history as American students know about theirs. Anyway, we spent all day at the wall, which is what we really wanted to do.  When we got home, everyone commented that this was their favorite part of the trip.  After we returned to the city of Beijing, we found a very nice Japanese restaurant and had Japanese style tofu, hot pot, fresh sashimi, and some other dishes that were suspiciously like American dishes but we loved them.  For example, what kind of Japanese restaurant serves chicken fingers? Also, who serves tuna salad with garlic on white toast? We liked it, but the national origins of the food were a bit puzzling.  The restaurant owners took our picture with a Polaroid camera, we wrote some English sentiments on it, and posted it on the wall.  The Stein family is forever enshrined on the wall of a restaurant in Beijing.

The next day (Thursday), we intended to hit the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.  We ended up spending far too much time at the Forbidden City and never had the chance to get to the Summer Palace.  I really wanted to see it, but I've never been too big on rushing things.  Often what happens is you barely see a few things instead of seeing one thing really well.  Plus, everyone was enjoying the walk around the Forbidden City.  There was so much to see there and so many interesting stories about events that happened in each of the buildings.  The site is absolutely massive and I know we barely scratched the surface of what was there, but we feel like we saw a great deal.  One of our favorites was touring the Treasure Gallery where we got to see some really old relics from different dynasties.  I think sometimes I forget just how little history there is with my country compared to China.  I remember traveling to London in 2006 with Eric and we were amazed at some of the architecture from the 1500s.  The Forbidden City was even more fascinating because of the design of the buildings and the age of course.   My favorite moment from the Forbidden City, though, was when someone came up to Garrett and Bethany and tried to sell them a souvenir book with pictures of the Forbidden City.  I had taught Garrett that "Wo bu yao" means "I don't want" in Chinese.  With great confidence, Garrett said to the man, "Wo bu wow."  The man laughed and corrected him.  Then, I started helping Garrett to negotiate.  The man was persistent, but we ended up getting Garrett a pretty good deal on the book.  Then, the man made the mistake of trying to sell to me, but I'm a seasoned professional barterer now.  I'll tell you how the conversation went in English, but we spoke in Chinese (as much as I could anyway).  He said, "Do you want a book?"  I said, "I already have one."  He said, "Do you have this one?"  I said no and he offered to give it to me for 20 yuan.  I told him, "I'll give you 1 jiao for it" (less than a penny).  He pulled a coin out of his pocket and said "This is one jiao!"  I said, "I know!"  Then, he said something in Chinese I couldn't understand (probably called me a Japanese person if you know what I mean) and stormed off.  Maybe it was rude of me, but they are so pushy at these tourist sites and think they can take advantage of the foreigners.  One person actually tried to barter with Annie on some item and Annie offered her 50 yuan when the lady wanted a hundred.  Finally, she agreed to give it to Annie for 50, so Annie gave her a 100 yuan bill expecting change.  The lady gave her fake money in return.  But, Annie has been using Chinese money for months, so she refused to take it until the lady gave her the real change.  So, I don't really feel badly about offering the guy one penny for his book.  I do want to add that Garrett was picking up Chinese pretty well for only being here for just a few days.  Some of the words I heard him use in Chinese were: this, excuse me, thank you, hello, goodbye, one, I want, and how much is this?  Not bad, eh.  It was kind of funny how Garrett and Bethany thought our Chinese was good.  I tried to explain to him that it's terrible, but I guess a guy that knows a couple hundred words probably looks impressive to a guy who knows like 5 words.

After we saw the Forbidden City, we took a bus to Tiananmen Square.  I really wanted to see the scene of the 1989 student demonstrations.  We had to go through security to get into the square.  The square looked very massive and we could see Mao's mausoleum in the distance.  However, we took a wrong turn and ended up back inside the Forbidden City.  Unfortunately, once you've entered the Forbidden City, they will not allow you to go back through to Tiananmen.  So, we were stuck and said "Well, at least we kind of saw Tiananmen Square.  That night for dinner, we went to an amazing restaurant and had Peking Duck. Stacie really wanted to try the world famous Peking Duck and so we made it a priority to try this.  In the end, we all loved it, but Stacie thought it was just ok.  She said, "Next to the bacon wrapped duck at the Painted Pony in St. George, this is nothing."  I would probably agree, but this was pretty good stuff. Also, the duck came with a sauce that everyone thought was amazing.  They were like "What is this sauce???"  Finally, I told them "It's just hoisin sauce, haven't you ever had that before."  Apparently, they hadn't.  

The next morning (Friday), we departed from Beijing.  I won't bore you with the details about how we missed our first train and had to take a later train.  It was quite stressful, but I refused to let it ruin the trip.  We had a glorious time and nothing will ever take away from it.  I think this blog has gotten long enough, so I won't tell you about our Saturday outing to Orange Island in Changsha, the Hunan University barbecue where we ate oysters, snails, eggplant, and stinky tofu, or Garrett and Bethany's first experience having church by conference call.  I'll let them tell you about it if you ever have a chance to ask them.  Garrett tells me he is working on a blog entry himself to add to my commentary.  I think that will be wonderful to hear his perspective on the trip too.  When he sends it to me, I will add it to the bottom of this blog and repost the link for everyone. 

Garrett, Bethany and I with Liu Jie and her husband.  They own the restaurant together and they work very long hours. 

Evelynn apparently LOVES Beijing.  We like how her shirt has English and Chinese or what we call "Chinglish."

Garrett and Bethany on Orange Island in Changsha.

Our entire travel party at the bottom of the Great Wall.

It's not often I get a picture with so much love between these two.  They do like each other, but arms draped around each other?  A definite keeper.

Out to eat with Garrett and Beth.  The chopsticks were difficult for them and I think they started getting mad every time we would ask for a spoon for them to use.

The view from the top of Yuelu Mountain in Changsha.  It was such a nice day even though the forecast predicted rain.

We gave up our bedroom to our guests.  Hope they enjoyed the most comfortable bed in the house with it's whopping 2 inches of padding on top of a wood slat.

Kids are obviously psyched about our hotel in Beijing.

Here we are at the Forbidden City.

Maybe their anniversary was a bit romantic after all.

I introduced Garrett to my motto for China, which is "close enough."  The maps, the translations on T-shirts, the quality of products.  Everything to me seems to point to this motto that close is good enough.  In this case, calling South America "South Afarica" is clearly NOT close enough.

Of course we had to play ping pong while Garrett was here.  We often had people walk by and watch us as we played.  For those wondering the score.  I won the first two games and Garrett won the third.  His argument was that he was just getting warmed up those first two games.  My argument was that I started getting tired the third game and that's why he won. 

The cable car ride up to the top of Yuelu Mountain is always so beautiful and relaxing.

It's always nice to have a little English on the menus.  It helps you know what you are in for.  In this case, Garrett and I really wanted to try this pizza, but they were all out of them.

Something tells me Ezra will remember this for the rest of his life.

We had to eat something and to our not so great surprise, they had noodles and rice.  It wasn't very good.

We got this a lot in Zhangjiajie National Park too.  People are at one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire world and what do they want to take a picture of?  That's right, the famous Stein family children!

Our wonderful guides.  That's Wouldbe on the left and Wu Kai aka Wookie on the right.

Uncle Garrett was absolutely amazing with his little nieces.  They absolutely adored him and cried when they had to say goodbye. 

The children wanted to touch the Great Wall.  You can walk on top (which we did most of the time) and you can walk on these sidewalks next to the wall.

It cost us 20 yuan to dress each kid up in traditional Chinese clothing.  Everyone liked it except for Lucy, of course. 

Garrett found this shop with all these traditional Chinese instruments.  He ended up purchasing this one and bringing it home to America.  The guy also had a regular violin hanging on the wall to the left of where Garrett is in this picture.  Garrett motioned to the man that he knew how to play it and the guy pulled it off the wall and handed it to him.  Garrett played a little music for him (even though he had a hard time with it being out of tune), but the people around us were all impressed.  I think it gave Garrett some added credibility in buying this Chinese instrument that he at least has some familiarity with music and isn't just another dumb tourist.  The man taught Garrett some techniques for playing and he plans to practice when he gets home.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Kev. Beth and I will always treasure our memories with you and your family in China. I will send you my blog on our visit as soon as I am able. --Garrett

  2. very awesome. always nice when family comes to visit. bret and i enjoyed our trip to beijing as well. had to laugh about the hoisin sauce. :o)
    and i'm not surprised at all at the animosity towards the japanese after some of what i've read about the war time activities!

  3. I think the photos speak for themselves! It's amazing what a fascinating culture you had the opportunity of encountering and discovering. My personal favourite was the photo of the children dressed in traditional costumes, they looked really nice.

  4. Where's Garrett's post? Yours was excellent but I was left wanting to read more. I wish I could have gone too, but I'm no scorpion eater. I especially enjoyed the photo of Garrett in front of the "South Afarica" map. I have a couple from my mission: (1) graffiti that says: "Red Army go home, Lenin is suck!" and (2) a movie poster titled, "People In Black Clothing" (Men in Black).

    Anyway, I love all the little details you include. Like the thickness of mattresses, the counterfeit change, the taste of starfish, the stress of not speaking Chinese, and the fascination of people with your kids.

  5. Dear Stein Suu & Family,

    My team and I are producing a video series right now, and are focused on teaching Chinese through idioms in a fun and memorable way with our short videos and clever scripts. From your posts I believe you and your readers might find what we provide useful!

    Would you be interested in writing a post or review on our videos?
    Here’s a link to one of our videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hfmr17p63_E

    We look forward to working together, thank you for your time!


    Patrick Bresnahan

    Learn a Chinese Phrase Team
    Wayne State University
    Detroit, Michigan
    E-mail us anytime! chinesephrase@wayne.edu

  6. Nice post,, i'm very enjoyed to visit this site :D

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  10. Nice post. After looking at your pictures I must think about my china trip seriously. It seems that you people had enjoyed a lot. Hope so that I will also be able to enjoy my next travelling experience.
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  11. I travelled to China a few years ago and it was certainly very expensive when I went – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with citing improved cost-effectiveness as a reason to visit! Your lovely photos remind me of my travel to China – thanks.

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  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Hey guys, I really enjoyed reading this blog this morning and it was great to see how your kids adapted so well to the hectic crazy culture shock of China. Thanks for sharing. Great blog.
    Ben from Nottingham, UK
    TEFL in China

  17. he he he its nice pictures who you taked :D