A Trip to China with a Twist

By Marie Bruce

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I am alone now, my husband of 45 years died three years ago.  We were wonderful travel partners, I came up with the ideas and between us we researched and booked our trips and in that way we traveled all over the world.  We didn't make it to China together but browsing through the week end paper's I noticed a three week to China including airfare. More importantly it was a fully guided tour, which allowed me to travel alone and yet with a group.  For the first time in my traveling life I did not take out travel insurance, I was on standby for the trip and betwixt and between I neglected to do it. This would prove to be a very expensive mistake on my part.  

October 15th rolled around pretty fast as time does now and I found myself landing in Beijing in the middle of the night. I was more than relieved when I saw my name on a card, I was met by a wonderful reassuring young man called Andrew and soon I was in a taxi and heading to my hotel. The trip more than fulfilled my expectations, the hotels were wonderful, and the sights were downright amazing, the company good and our guides young and lively and informative.  China is a very old country with an ancient civilization but nowadays we think of it as modern, fast, materialistic and polluted. Yet, China has an old heart and the remnants of that ancient civilization is very much in evidence as we travelled around.  Nowadays China is proud of it ancient roots and as tourists we marveled at the history and on the other hand at the frenetic building going on today. The population is massive and they have to be housed in modern china. Even today in the most modern and upscale areas in Beijing and Shanghai, one can wander off the main streets into the lanes and byways and happen upon scene straight out of village China. These back lanes are where the other half or poorer Chinese crowd around huge aluminum vats of noodles and dumplings all for a few yuan – street food without frills.

I cannot expound on the great wall – much has been written about it but it is a huge thrill to climb up its worn uneven steps and look out into the countryside beyond. Red Square and the Imperial palace and the vast Olympic sites were all included in our tour of Beijing. Chinese are very good at dealing with tourism, the busses are parked very close to the sites, we were very grateful because there was enough walking around the sites without parking miles away. Everyone (35) on the tour reckoned they became much fitter on the trip, it required stamina, 90% of the tour were young seniors and the pace was fast and furious.  We covered Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Leshan and finally we flew home from Shanghai.

I loved every minute of the trip and the Chinese people we met were wonderful, kind and very welcoming. They were curious and open about us and loved to take our pictures and despite language barriers we all had a lovely time smiling and greeting each other. We joined a Tai chi session early one morning in a park in Beijing and then wandered to another locations to watch the ballroom dancing.  People of all ages were making good use of the open spaces in the park, most of the women were dressed for dancing and obviously enjoying themselves immensely,  it was before 9.00am and we were amazed at their “get up and go” at  that time in the morning. I doubt Chinese people would understand the western notion of privacy and space.    

 It is hard to choose a favorite part of the trip but on reflection it had to be Xi’an.  The Terra cotta Warriors are truly amazing in situ. The tomb of Emperor Qui was built back in the 5th century. It is one man’s vision to ensure his welfare in the next world.   The ancient site passed into the mist of time covered in sand and earth, it was only rediscovered by chance by a local farmer in the 1970s.  What a treasure trove of ancient history for China.  The area is huge and very well laid out, comprising of three hanger like structure. The terracotta warriors are all different and they stand in rows along with their horses and chariots.  We were well briefed on the site before we arrived so we knew what to look for i.e.  the difference between the ranks of the warriors. We also had time to wander around on our own and take photographs.

We bussed to the historic and charming walled town of Xi’an with its old town center and the colorful Moslen Street market. We managed a quick visit to the market - frustrating because we could have spent hours there - I have never seen such a variety of exotic street food.  Some of the barbequed food on sticks looked suspiciously like small animals we would not eat.  Quails eggs were very temptingly cooked in specially designed pans and sold at most of the stands. Being a picky street food person and mindful of my dodgy stomach I only bought a bag of beautiful dried fruit.

 We drove to the ancient walls of the old city and some of us rented bikes to ride along the old walls. It was a highlight for me biking along the cobbled path looking out over the tiled roofs as the sun slipped lower over Xian and painted the sky pink. Then on to Chengdu to see those very cute Panda bears. It wasn’t high on my list but those bears are so adorable and the Panda Breeding Station was well worth a visit.

Finally into the amazing city of Shanghai, China’s very vibrant financial and artistic center.  We had two days to visit the city and on my very last day against all the advice of the tour guides and because I was changing money I had my passport and money belt in my rucksack instead of the hotel safe and somehow it was stolen. 

The unthinkable happened and I discovered my loss at the end of a very long day as I packed to come back to Canada the next morning. It was heart attack material; I had to phone the guide at 2.00am and endured an agonizing night. What followed was another story, the entire tour left the next morning for the airport without me. I was alone in Shanghai – a city of more than 30 million people without money, connections, passport or the very precious exit visa. Fortunately my son Derek via skype came to my rescue and paid for the extra nights at my hotel and arranged for money to be given to me by the wonderful SNA tour company. It took 8 long days and for me a very tense time as I tried to cope with the Canadian Consulate. I had a copies of my passport, airline ticket, exit visa etc. which proved useless, as far as they were concerned I was a person non gratis. Perhaps even a potential drug dealer trying to forge my way into Canada.  It was beyond me why they could not see my predicament. I am a senior, I was on a package tour and I had a copies of all my documents, I felt this should be enough for them to proceed.  Daily I went to the consulate and filled out reams of forms, I had photos taken, every single person I gave as a reference was phoned and interrogated.  Time differences and a week-end caused more delays, it was a lengthy process finding address and phone numbers - I only had a few email addresses in my very old notebook computer.  My wonderful tour company SNA Tours were very helpful and rebooked my flight back to Vancouver. They also allowed me to hire one of their guides for two days to tackle the Consulates and Police station. The Chinese Consulate were easier to deal with. I did have to follow the stringent guidelines for lost – never stolen Exit Visas. I appreciate that governments have to be picky about procedures but considering I’ve had a Canadian passport for 40 years and in this electronic computer age, it should have been easy to verify my particulars very quickly.  Instead it was frightening, expensive and really stressful for me. I am home now and I am trying hard to separate the trip into two parts. My wonderful tour of China and the nightmare episode at the consulate trying to get a temporary passport. In fact I had two trips one was a holiday and the other a nightmare.

The only bonus of this saga was that I learned to get myself around on the vast Shanghai metro and it gave me great insight into the daily life in the city. The Chinese people I met were wonderful to me - a stranger in their midst. Every day I met and talked to  people on the metro or in coffee shops  who practiced their English on me – it was a comfort to me to tell my story because at one point I felt I might disappear into a black hole in that vast city –  I was a senior woman  wandering alone in Shanghai without language or identity, it does  sounds alarming but it wasn’t, I felt the local people on the metro were all kindly and offered me a seat (not usual  on the metro unless you have a baby)  they looked out for me and  made sure I got off at the right stations, took my photo with their cell phones. It was a warm and caring experience. The moral of this travel saga is always use the hotel safe as we were told because the consequences of having travel documents stolen is dire indeed.


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