.
Are the Chinese music-haters?
As the middle class in China experiences explosive
growth, more Chinese girls are wanting big fancy
weddings.  In the past, husbands would give their
new brides jade bracelets to symbolize their
commitment.  Now the girls are wanting
diamonds.  As part of this trend, Tongli has
become a favorite place for brides and grooms to
pose for their wedding photos.  In two instances
above, a wedding party is being photographed on
a pretty bridge over the canal as we were floating
by.  

At right, I stare and point at a pretty young bride
in pink.  (BTW, staring and pointing are two of
the things you're NOT supposed to do in China.)
So I wasn't drinking the water.  
While I could have taken better
advantage of the free bottles of water
that the hotels thoughtfully left in our
rooms for us, I chose to throw myself
into the arms of the Coca-Cola
Company.  At convenience stores in
Beijing and Shanghai, Cokes and Diet
Cokes cost between and two and three
yuen. (32-48 cents).  I drank about a
thousand of them.

No wonder the bear is smiling.
            FOUR QUICK NOTES
              ABOUT CHINA...

1. PEOPLE.  Despite all the bad blood over
  the past 150 years, the Chinese people
  LOVE Americans.  At every stop on our
  tour, members of our group were asked
  to be in the vacation photos of Chinese
  tourists, many of whom had never seen
  an American.  (Seriously, if that weren't
  the case, do you really think you'd see
  something like this...
And then we went shopping.  Our first stop was at what was charmingly referred to as "the knock-off mall."  In reality, it was
hundreds of small shops in a warren where you could easily get lost if you didn't pay attention.  At least once every 30
seconds, I had to fight off a new shopkeeper who wanted me to step inside her stall, or a hustler who wanted to be my friend
and find anything I might be looking for.  I ended up buying two things--first, panda hats for our team to wear at the Turkey
Trot next Thanksgiving.  Above, some of my fellow tourist/friends are modeling the hats on the bus.  My second purchase
was a new, larger suitcase.  I wasn't going home empty-handed.

Our second stop was a Saturday bazaar in an older part of the city.  There were just as many people there, but somehow it
seemed to have a little more dignity.  (It was also outdoors.)  While we were there, we watched workers putting up
decorations for the upcoming Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).  2013 will be the Year of the Snake (also my zodiac year,
by the way), so the decorators were working hard to make snakes look festive (above).

Our final stop was a night-time cruise along the spectacular Shanghai waterfront.  The tall buildings in the photos above line
one shore, and on the other side of the river is home to as beautiful an assortment of styles from the European Belle Epoque as
you will see anywhere in the world (below).  It really takes away your breath.

And as it turns out, it's a perfect metaphor for present day China--an unforgettable and  stunningly beautiful place where East
and West meet.
This is a picture of our tour group, taken on the first day of the trip in Tianamen Square, in front of the gate to the
Forbidden City.  There were 45 of us in the group, making it the largest group that Chinaspree, the tour company, had
ever taken on at one time.   As the 45th person to sign up for the trip, I was happy to know that they were willing to
think big.  Our sainted group leader, Mao Jim (not his real name) is at the far right on the first row.  ("Sainted" might be
over the top.  He was prepared to abandon me at the outlet mall from hell in Pudong on the last day of our trip.)

Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City are considered to be the "heart" of China,
and are usually the first place that Chinese tourist ever travel to see.
 ...50 feet from the Great Wall of China?
  Actually, I'd just be curious to know just
  what it is we have to teach them about
  noodles.   But seriously, it would be a
  shame if the ham-handed polices of both
  governments screwed things up.

2. Speaking of governments, I find it hard
  to believe that the current Chinese
  government can go on much longer
  without giving the people a more active
  role in their government.  If they don't,
  it could get ugly, which leads me to...

3. The Chinese are the most entrepreneurial
  people on Earth.  They'd sell you their
  mothers if you made them an offer.
  (Actually, I think I was asked to buy
  someone's mother on a couple of
  occasions--single Western guys leaving
  hotels alone are presumed to be on the
  prowl.) Trust me, the Chinese will buy
  and sell us all some day.  Communism
  never stood a chance with these people.

4. POLLUTION.  Believe the worst.  The
  cities I visited--notably Beijing--were
  toxic nightmares like this...
While visiting in the Beijing area, Chinese visitors (and all of us) want to be sure to see the Forbidden City (left), The
Summer Palace (center) and the Great Wall (right).  What's unusual about this photo of one of the Forbidden City is that
there are no people in it.  As tourists generally try to visit at some time other than mid-January, we had the place to
ourselves to a great extent.

I'm sure the Summer Palace is stunning in the summer, but in mid-winter, it's a long walk in the cold.   That's not really a
boat in the picture.  It's the "Marble Boat".  (Only the bottom part of the "boat" is marble.  The top is wood.)  Anyway, it
was built to give the empress a quiet place to sit and watch the lake.)

And that's me on the Wall.  (Tip of the Day:  If you're planning a visit, bring walking sure.  It's steep!)
When I saw on our itinerary that we were going to the
massive Hong Qiao pearl market in Beijing, I fished
around for someone who actually wanted me to shop
for some.  Mary Jane Marcantel took me up on the
offer, and I was off.  

We didn't get to see the biggest part of the market
because we were taken to a government-owned stores
where visitors to the country are frequently taken.  
Naturally, they didn't seem to have anything like what
Mary Jane requested.  They were very happy to make
a necklace that might be something she would like,
and they gave me a good "deal" (I guess) on it.

When I got home, I was delighted that Mary Jane
loved them.
As pretty as it is, Tongli can still be a tourist trap (above).  I'm not
sure what the message is at left, but it sounds like something that
was well meant.
In a respite from the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai, we spent a day in Suzhow and Tongli.  Tongli, in particular, has been
called "The Venice of the East."  We even took a gondola ride on one the city's many canals.  Sometimes, friendly schoolkids
(below) would gather on bridges to wave to tourists.  It was nice.

When we were there, we caught up with Jennifer and her friend Mark, who had met up with a former student of hers (below
right) and were taking a "private tour" of the town.
FOOD

I think it's fair to say that the
Chinese will eat anything, from
"delicious gruel" (above) to whatever
that is below.






















Most of what we were served on the
trip was pretty tasty, but frankly, I
have to say that my favorite meal on
the trip was the anchovy pizza I had at
a restaurant called Bellagio in
Shanghai.
.
"Liao Liao!"

Apparently, it means "puppy".

This is actually the dog I ever saw in
China that was on a leash.
No, they just don't want you to honk
your car horn in the hotel driveway.
The Temple of Heaven was a highlight of our last day in Beijing.  In
addition to its historical significance, its location on a vast tract in the
middle of the city makes it a magnet for retirees and others looking
for escape from the house.  While we were there, we heard several a
capella singing groups singing what we were told were folk songs.  
Jim, our guide, said that in China, people just like to get together and
sing.   (That sounds suspicious to me.)

Also, people with something on their mind, like the gentleman in the
photo above right, will grab a paint brush and write a message on the
sidewalk in water.   The message freezes into ice and remains in place
for as long as the freeze lasts.

Each of the shrines at the Temple of Heaven has a money box out
front so that visitors could drop a yuen or two as a "sacrifice".   
Could it be that the boxes were strategically placed so folks like the
idiot at left could actually worship money?
I     China!
I knew I liked the Chinese.  The most
popular American car in China is the
Buick.  They were everywhere.

This one was actually on display in the
wax museum at the Pearl TV Tower in
Shanghai.
AND THEN THERE WAS
SHANGHAI...

Where Beijing has the history, Shanghai
has the culture...and the fun.  Speaking of
fun, if American visitors or ex-pats in
Shanghai who were wont to observe the
Inauguration of President Obama, which
happened during our trip, they could do so
at the Obama Club, a very swanky
gentlemen's club across the street from
our hotel.
Our Shanghai journey began at the Pearl of the
Orient, the tower in the nighttime photo at right.   
They were so friendly, they even had a brass band
greeting us in the courtyard!

At bottom right, those are my shoes hovering in
space about a thousand feet over Shanghai with
nothing between my soles and concrete but a thin
layer of plexiglass.  I never thought of myself as
being afraid of heights, but that was kind of creepy.

While Shanghai, already boasts one of the ten tallest
building in the world, it will soon have the second
tallest building on the planet.  The new Shanghai
Financial Center building (in the middle, below) will
be taller than anything besides the Burj Khalifa in
Dubai.
My favorite outing in Shanghai was to the
White Jade Buddha temple on the first day
of the full moon (right).  The story is that
young girls go there to burn incense and
pray for a husband.  While there does
seem to be some of that going on, there
were people there of all ages, burning an
entire forest of incense and praying for all
kinds of things.  It was kind of wonderful.

The temple also had great koi pond
(below) for children of all ages to enjoy.
This is one of my few regrets from the
trip.  This photo doesn't do justice to
this painting, which I could have
looked at for hours.  I loved it--but not
enough to drag it halfway around the
world.