Wednesday, July 20, 2016


The last days of our trip were spent in Nanning, the town -- the very same hotel -- where we first held Anna in our arms. It has been 14 years since that day in 2002, and 7 years since we visited the last time, in 2009. (Should the next visit be in 7 years?) 

I am surprised at how little has changed. The town has more buildings (and residential high rises), and the airport is new, having just opened 2 years ago. But the hotel is very much the same. Many families stayed here in the 1990s and early 2000s when they came to adopt their children in Guangxi Province. Now it hosts returning families like us. We came as a large group last time, and our guide said "The Majestic" has already hosted a group of families this summer.

Our guide has also been host to returning families before. He has visited several orphanages in the area, including Anna's. We set out early our first morning here to visit Anna's orphanage in Yongning district, a suburb of Nanning. The Yongning Social Welfare Institute was brand new when Anna had arrived there in 2001 -- it had just opened in 1999. When we came in 2009, we weren't allowed to visit because the swine flu scare had China very concerned, and Social Welfare Institutes are also nursing homes. The orphanage director and doctor came to The Majestic instead. Both had been working at the orphanage in 2002 and remembered Anna.

This time, we pulled up to the orphanage itself, and again, it was remarkably similar to that very first visit in 2002, when we had had Anna for just 3 days. Just before this trip, we had watched the video of that time in 2002, and it was fresh in my mind. I had also brought some of the photos of the staff from way back in 2002, to see if any still worked there. Surprisingly, two still do, and people remembered the others in our photos. One even pulled out her copy of the photo she had taken of herself with Anna in 2002 at that farewell visit, which she had kept all these years. And the doctor still works there, and held Anna's hand or arm for almost all our visit. The director is new, but she was also very warm to Anna, also holding her hand. And many of the women stroked Anna's hair. I had managed to pull together some photos of Anna's life onto my phone (I had not prepared for this visit well, having really no idea what to expect). The women were all very interested. It was really quite moving. Anna came out of her shell a bit and shared photos on her phone of herself with friends and classmates. They wanted to know about Anna's interests and hobbies, what she wants to do when she grows up, what her relationship with her brother is like -- is he protective of her?

We posed for many photos, exchanged small gifts, and then it was time to go. 

We were both quite exhausted and slept much of the afternoon. I don't know if it is just exhaustion from a long trip or the emotion of the day that wore us out -- well, Anna is always tired; I rarely nap like I did that day, straight through dinner. We ate in the hotel at 9:00 pm, and I still fell back to sleep quickly that night!

The second morning, we drove out to the large industrial farm where Anna was found at 7 days old, on the doorstep of the hospital. We had also visited this place in 2002 and 2009. Both times, the staff remembered Anna (in 2002, it had only been one year since they had found her, and they described the day to us, and in 2009 they remembered us because the visit of two tall, very white, Americans was memorable. Also, in 2002 I had mailed back the photo we took together with the staff with a letter in Chinese that a friend had helped me with, and that apparently is still remembered at the hospital to this day).

This time, the site of the hospital seemed both the same and different. The location seemed correct, but the buildings were somewhat different. Indeed, the current hospital building is new and taller, built right behind the old, which had just been torn down recently -- we could still see the remnants of the foundation. I remembered construction going on in 2009, but some of the construction seemed not to have advanced much in the last 7 years. Maybe the rapid rebuilding of China is moving more slowly at Mingyang Industrial Farm.

It took a little waiting, but our guide was finally able to speak with one of the doctors and explain who we were, and they still remembered us and that I had mailed back that photo. Anna had been sitting back near the car, not understanding why we had even come to this place (perhaps it is a bit odd, but for some reason I think it is an important part of her story that should be kept alive). We again posed for some photos and were back on our way. I captured some video of the people coming and going in this busy, but remote, place. Today there are also sugar factories to process the sugar cane grown here, and large fields of eucalyptus are grown for paper. The area is now known as the Mingyang Industrial Zone and has its own website, which I had looked up before we left. But it still feels rural and remote, to me, an hour's drive outside of Nanning.

Tomorrow morning we board the first of our two flights home. Anna is very excited to finally head home and has claimed dibs on the washer and dryer! I am looking forward to clean clothes and familiar surroundings. But I am not anxious for the trip to be over. I have enjoyed (almost) all of it immensely (all but the heat and oppressive humidity, and I could have done without some of Anna's grumpiness). I don't know that I will ever get enough of the aliveness of traveling, when every day, every moment takes on a specialness and fullness, when time seems to last longer and mean more. In contrast, in the work-a-day mundaneness of regular life, days blur together and there is always the danger of moving from one thing to another like a zombie, without noticing your life as you live it, on autopilot. Traveling is anything but autopilot. 

But I start a new job and a new life when I get back. That will keep me from falling into a rut too quickly. I'm going to need a few more long naps before that next great adventure!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yangtze River Cruise

This is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world, with the largest dam in the world. There were no permanent bridges across it until 1957; today there are 76 bridges across the Yangtze, including 3 of the world's 10 longest suspension bridges and the world's third highest bridge (8 of the top 10 highest bridges are in China). China doesn't do things by half.

Much of our time here has continued to be hot and muggy, and the day we toured the Three Gorges Dam, the mist hung low over the river so we couldn't see much of the section with the hydroelectric power turbines. We did have nice views of the ship locks, but not as amazing as we were going to have when we actually went through onboard the ship.

The locks are in 5 stages, lifting the ships about 20 meters at each stage. When our ship entered the various stages, we were accompanied by two other ships, neatly positioned to fit within the massive steel walls, with huge doors keeping a 20-meter wall of water from crashing down on us. But once our stage filled with water and lifted us up, the huge doors opened and we passed through to the next stage. It was indeed impressive. And slightly terrifying, almost like a dystopian movie -- trapped within a massive, massive steel cage.

Our cruise is upstream, so once we were through the dam, we saw all the vast area of China that was flooded by its construction. It was started in 1996, so those first 10 years of construction also involved the building of new cities on higher ground and the forced relocation of 1.4 million people before their homes were flooded. Many of these towns have clear demarcations of where the new city was started, above the flood line. They say that on some days one can see the remnants of homes down below the water line. And of course, as we come upon larger cities along the coastline: residential high rises. Always residential high rises.

There are also small fishing boats and fisherman along the shore of the river as well. And cargo ships. And shipbuilding plants. And residential high rises.

We've had three excursions: the tour of the dam, a small-boat tour of one of the Yangtze's tributaries, and a tour of a 400-year-old, 9-story wooden pagoda . There is a couple from Sri Lanka by way of Australia who speak English and a family from Britain whose company we have really enjoyed, but otherwise we are mostly with Chinese speakers. The ship staff is absolutely lovely, and not only serve us all day but also entertain us at night, staging dances and modeling the styles of dress from various eras of Chinese history and from the different minority's groups of China.

And they want to know why Anna doesn't speak Chinese.

Downstream of the dam: the ancient architecture and ways of life are better preserved

Top: Touring the dam. China has made an incredible effort to make the dam tourist-friendly. They want you to see this amazing accomplishment. Bottom: Going through the ship locks.

Touring a tributary by small boat

Village street scenes

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How To House a Billion People

I find it difficult to convey my awe at the forest of residential high rises that dominate every city in China. Every city, for miles before and miles after we pass through it by train. Row after row after row. Some are new -- so new they are still under construction -- and some are older -- so old they rise a mere 5 or 6 stories compared to the 30 or 40+ of the newer buildings. I tried again and again from the train to get the quintessential photo that would capture it, but I soon realized I could take pictures all day (Anna would probably say I did). There are just so many.

As we sped further into China's interior, we did see farmland, and then suddenly a huge solar farm appeared, spreading across the rolling hills. Then a small village. And then back to residential high rises, as far as the eye could see.

We had no wifi, but GPS placed our blue dot -- somewhere smack in the middle of the PRC.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Night and Day

Japan and China are such radically different countries that it's a real culture shock having gone from one to the other.

Before trying to describe the China we are experiencing (with, granted, our own cultural biases), I want to remember a few of the amazing things I enjoyed about Japan.

I have already written about the efficient taxi stand, the taxi doors that open and close themselves, the timely public transportation system, and the unwavering helpfulness of the people. Then there were the traffic cops that appeared on Saturday to assure safe pedestrian passage (we couldn't decide if that was because it was Saturday or because it was raining or for some other reason, but it was nice to safely cross the street, especially because the Japanese drive on the "wrong" side of the road and I was always looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic). And Japanese toilets have been written about plenty by others, but clean, and clean-smelling, public restrooms are particularly missed from here in China.

Other "little things" that left me feeling that the Japanese have really got things figured out:
  • The pushbutton/doorbell thing at our table at one large restaurant to let the waitress know we were ready to order
  • The baskets under the chairs in restaurants for storing your purse
  • The lazy-susan-style turntable for cars pulling out of crowded parking garages and onto the crowded Tokyo streets
  • The train seats that automatically rotate at the end of the line so that the next group of passengers will be facing forward when the train pulls out going the opposite direction
  • The refillable cash card that not only works on all the subway lines but also at vending machines and even some convenience stores
  • The subway ticket gates that stay open as long as you wave your ticket over the sensor and close only if you try to pass without a ticket -- this keeps the human traffic moving quickly so the crowded subways don't clog as people try to get through these potential bottlenecks (and reinforces paying, and shaming if you don't -- no one doesn't pay)
They've got shit figured out. Really.

I miss Japan so much, because in China:
  • spitting
  • salespeople who latch onto you and follow you like a (very nearby) shadow as you try to shop
  • the constant feeling that someone is trying to trick you into spending much more than the actual price (ex.: our "cab ride" from the airport)
  • garbage on the streets
  • puddles of you're-not-sure-what that you have to dodge
  • lane lines on the road that are really merely suggestions
  • outdoor cooking stands that smell like, well, I didn't at first think it even smelled like food; I had to see it cooking before I realized that was the smell
  • The masses of people, which also exist in Tokyo, but here who push and shove and yell and barely allow you to dodge out of the way of honking motor scooters
  • also, spitting
Anna is having a particularly difficult time with the fact that every single person we encounter here expects her to speak Chinese. Even when she's with me: they look at me, then turn to her and start speaking Chinese. If they speak enough English, they will then say, when they see she doesn't speak Chinese: "But she is a Chinese girl." She wants me always by her side to fend off what she sees as being judged; I say, in English: "Yes, she is a Chinese girl. She is Chinese-American." A few venture further and ask if her father is Chinese, but I am so very white, and she is so obviously not mixed race, that even they know this won't solve the puzzle. By this point, we've moved on to the next store.

But by far the most difficult thing in Shanghai is the unbearable, oppressive, torturous humidity. You can literally see it in the air, feel the weight of it on your body; you can't drink enough water to defend against it. Imagine the steamy sauna at your gym; now imagine a city-sized sauna. I'm not exaggerating.

The best time to see Shanghai is at night. It's still crowded and hot and steamy, but the darkness hides some of the negatives and the city lights are a definite positive, and they really glow through the steam hanging in the air. Our hotel is right on the Bund (the riverfront facing the famous Shanghai skyline), with lit-up river-dinner-cruise ships and party boats going by (there are also untold numbers of barges going up river in the morning and downriver at night, but they are not lit up; I still haven't figured out what they're hauling).

We leave today for the next leg: an all-day bullet train to where we embark on our Yangtze River cruise. Not sure if we'll have access to the outside world at all from there!

A handful of pictures of Shanghai, by day (Yuyuan Garden) and by night (the Bund):

Monday, July 11, 2016

Last Days in Tokyo

We arrived in Shanghai two days ago, and I immediately had the sense, à la Dorothy and Toto: We're not in Tokyo anymore.

For one thing, I had to smuggle this post out of China. I use Blogger, a Google service, as well as gmail, Google Drive to store photos, Google Maps to get around and choose subway lines/routes, and ALL Google services are blocked in China, as well as Facebook and, especially devastating to Anna, Snapchat. I had to set up a Yahoo account to reach the outside world and Apple maps to navigate.... It's the Great Firewall of China.

Our last days in Tokyo were filled with more shopping, but also some fun people watching, and I got to see at least one historical thing (left Anna at the hotel snapchatting and texting): I went to the Sensoji Buddhist Temple, an active temple with many worshippers coming and going. I snapped a few photos of people placing incense sticks in a big cauldron and bowing and praying and wafting the smoke onto themselves before I thought: Woops, Erin, this is super inappropriate; they are praying and you're taking their picture!!

One other exciting thing for me (I bought two tickets but again Anna stayed behind in the hotel): I went to a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. It was really fun and amusing: fans of the respective teams have distinctive chants, and many signs as well as the text on the "big screen" are in English, and they have cheerleaders between innings (cheerleaders in baseball?!), AND the home team is the Giants, with similar logo and same colors as my hometown Giants.

To smuggle out more photos at once, I used this collage thingy Anna showed me:

Tokyo street scenes

People-watching in Harajuku

Tokyo Yomiuri Giants
Sensoji Buddhist Temple (the famous 5-story pagoda is undergoing renovation and was shrouded in scaffolding)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Shop 'til Mom Drops

held on as long as I could, but to give you a sense of the full sensory overload:

Yet another Pokemon store. This one had just had its "Grand Open" [sic] two days earlier.

And also, bunnies (look up "Cat Cafe" as a hint of what this was, but otherwise, offered without comment):


Our 2-day journey outside of Tokyo was a loop of sorts that involved multiple means of transportation: train, to electric tram that zig-zags up the mountains (2 times it literally pulls into a dead end, they pull a track switch, and we pull out going the other way to continue up), to "cable car" (a tram that is at about a 40-degree angle but the seats are level---to get from one end of seats to the other you have to climb stairs---and it is pulled up the mountain by a cable), to a "roapway" (I would call it a gondola), to a boat across Lake Ashi, to a bus, and back to train again.

People do the whole circuit in one day, but as I said we stayed a night at the Fujiya Hotel. After checking in, Anna stayed to rest while I explored a sculpture garden (they call it the "Open Air Museum"). Here are some photos of the journey:

On the grounds of the Fujiya Hotel. It is made up of several buildings from different eras, as well as many gardens and thermal pools. The area is famous for hot springs.

Hydrangeas in bloom all over the area.

The sculpture garden had a natural spring footbath from the thermal springs -- 65 degrees Celsius, Erin, Celsius. It was hot!

Our chef at the tempura house, cooking before his audience. I loved this little place.