Tokyo and hotel comparisons, 6/25/14

The Beijing Airport is looking way too familiar.  No problems checking in and we arrive at our gate after security and customs with an hour to kill.  The flight leaves on time, and arrives a little early at Tokyo Narita Airport.  It’s a long ways into town, and I decided to try the Narita Express Train, the fastest route to downtown.  It takes almost an hour, with only one quick stop at another terminal.


The Tokyo Sky Tree. This photo was taken from the Narita Express train headed into town.

Now we get to find our way out of the station.  Tokyo is the largest city in the world, so it might be expected that the train station is HUGE!  We arrive on the 5th basement floor.  There are many escalators to maneuver through, with all our luggage.  I’ve deduced our exit gate, but it’s a serious hike to finally get there.  It took us time to figure out the signs.  Now that we’re out of the station, where’s our hotel?  The website instructions were vague, and the street signs are not in English.  One would think the Marriott Courtyard Tokyo Station would be close?  We finally stumble across a sign for the hotel, and walk into an office building?  Over in one corner is a small elevator with the “Courtyard” symbol.  The lobby desk is on the 4th floor, and after checking in, we move back to our rooms on the 3rd floor.

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Courtney’s room in the Beijing Courtyard was really big and nice, with lots of amenities.  Our rooms in the Xi’an Sheraton were huge, and new.  We are now in the smallest rooms I’ve ever seen.  Cruise ship rooms are bigger.  I guess this is a rehearsal for our cruise in July.  We started reading some of the online reviews on the hotel, and apparently, these are “par for the course” in Tokyo.  Man, these are little, and expensive.  Oh well, “when in Rome.”  When you check out the room pix below, notice the electronic command center by the toilet seat.  It’s pretty complicated and delivers all kinds of “services”.  This was not uncommon in many of the washrooms in Japan, and some included even more “activities”.


Tokyo Courtyard Marriott. It’s kinda tight!


Check out the “control panel” beside the toilet seat


This was actually one of the simple “toilet control panels” we experienced in Japan.

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Courtyard Beijing, Courtney’s room


Xi’an Sheraton

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After unpacking, Courtney is ready to head out to Tokyo Disney.  Judy and I walk her over to the train station where she’ll commute to the park.  When she leaves, we wander around trying to get our bearings, before heading back to the hotel, and finding dinner.  Courtney checks in later with us, and she’s having a blast.  When she gets back to the hotel at 10:40, she wakes us to let us know she’s safely back.  It took me quite a while to come out of my stupor to figure out what was going on.  It took me no time to get back to sleep.


The Tokyo version!

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A Visit to “The Warriors”, 6/24/14

After a big breakfast at the Sheraton, we meet our guide and driver. Today is “Terra Cotta Warriors Day.” Our first stop is the Provincial Museum where we get all the information about the various dynasties based in Xi’an. The last was the Tang, prior to the 1300s, when the Ming and Qing Dynasties were based in Beijing. It’s hard to keep track of them all. It does however help us understand more clearly about the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Next stop is the kiln demonstrating the process used to create the figures in similar fashion to the originals. It’s run by the government and has numerous items for sale. This is similar to the “Jade Factory” in Beijing, and the “Ginseng Factory” in Seoul. It’s a required stop for tour groups licensed by the government. We don’t have to buy anything, but there are some nice items for memorabilia. They aren’t going for my skilled bargaining technique developed in Beijing. It’s “their way or the highway.”

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Finally, we head out to the Terra Cotta Warriors, the main purpose of our visit. The site is about 40km outside of Xi’an. There’s a large, and newly developed shopping area as we walk to the gates. Inside one of the shops is a farmer (that’s how he’s described to us), one of the original four, that found the “Warriors” in 1974, while digging a well on their farm. He is signing books. This is a job the government has allowed him to have (instead of continuing to farm, I guess). The various founding farmers rotate in and out, taking turns at the autograph desk.


One of the farmers who discovered the site digging a well in 1974. Now he earns his income signing his autograph.

From the gate, it’s a long way to the buildings housing the pits. It doesn’t disappoint! It’s massive! There are three huge pits (inside buildings). There is still digging going on, as well as restoration of the figures. There is only one figure, out of all those currently found, that didn’t need any restoration, and he’s displayed in his own separate case.


Standing in front of the pit #1 building.




Excavations and restorations are still ongoing.

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This is the only figure that didn’t need restoration. Some of the color is still obvious on his back.


After the visit, we get a late lunch, and then make the long drive back to the airport. Our two-hour flight arrives in Beijing at 7:30. A driver is waiting for us, and hustles us out of the terminal. When we get home around 8:15, after dropping Courtney off at her hotel, we start the turn-around packing process. We have 5 nights in Japan, and the flight leaves tomorrow morning at 9:00 am. Traveling is hard work!

Bound for Xi’an, 6/23/14

We’re at the airport early for our flight to Xi’an. Our itinerary says it’s scheduled for 6:30am, but we can’t find it anywhere on the digital “Departures” board. We’re not even sure we’re at the correct terminal, but the ticket counter checks us in, and takes our luggage. We walk to the gate on our boarding pass, still pretty confused. It says now that we depart at 9:00 am. We have a lot of time to kill. Later we notice our gate has changed, so we pack up all our assorted junk and make the transition. By the time we finally board, we feel like it’s been a full day. Several other passengers experienced the same confusion we did.

It’s a two-hour flight to Xi’an, and our guide meets us at the gate. Of course, we’re two hours late. Our driver picks us up, and we begin to see the sites of Xi’an. Our first stop is the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the center of the city. These are not as tall as the Beijing versions, but the restoration is much better. Overall, we begin to notice the city is a little cleaner, and calmer than Beijing.

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Our next stop is the Xi’an City Wall. It’s been restored the entire circumference of the city (about 17 kilometers, I think she said).   It’s wide enough to drive a truck on. It’s amazing to look at, realizing the size of the entire project, and when it was built.

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Last on our list before our hotel and dinner is the “Wild Goose Pagoda”. It’s an active Buddhist temple. I’ve seen pictures before we arrived, but witnessing the actual size of the building is impressive. Xi’an was the imperial capital of China for a thousand years, before it moved to Beijing in the 1300’s, so there are many important buildings.

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We get checked into our hotel (a Sheraton). It’s a new hotel, with the nicest rooms we’ve ever stayed in, anywhere. They’re huge, with so many conveniences. It’s hard to leave, and we’re worn out, but we have tickets for a dinner show. We unpack and relax an hour before heading back out.

The dinner is a “Dumpling Banquet”, with many different kinds of traditional dumplings, from the Xi’an area. There are some unusual looking dumplings, but they are really good. The show is called a “Tang Dynasty Show”. It’s based on the costumes and traditions of the Tang Dynasty. The show is well done with lots of colorful costumes, sets, and beautiful, as well as athletic, dancing.

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The drive home afterwards is gorgeous. The City Wall is lit the entire length. As impressive as it was during the day, it’s even more impressive at night.


Recovery Weekend, 6/21-22/14

SATURDAY, 6/21/14

The first order of business today is to get Brad and Glenda to the airport for their return flight to the US. The driver picks them up at 9:00 am, and I join them, just to make sure they don’t have a problem. There aren’t any problems, and they quickly disappear through the first security area, bound for their gate. We hate to see them go. We’ve had a blast showing them around.

Judy takes Courtney out for another round of shopping at Yashow, including a snack at Crepanini, and later, lunch at Homeplate BBQ. She’s getting to visit all of our haunts. We relax in the apartment when they get back, until we get hungry. We want to make sure Courtney gets a chance to try some Peking Duck. We walk to a nearby restaurant, specializing in traditional style, and give her the full treatment. It’s great!


SUNDAY, 6/22/14

I’m late getting to these daily posts because we’ve been so worn out after our touring, and there is more touring to come. I’m actually writing this riding on a bullet train from Mt. Fuji to Kyoto (Friday, June 27).

Today is Courtney’s last chance to see Beijing (or at least what we know of it). We get her over to the Ladies Street Mkt., and the Flower Market for more shopping (or at least looking). We have so much stuff, when we finish, we have to go back to our apartment before we head back out. We taxi to Solana for a very late lunch, and some time walking around the huge mall area, then back to the apartment.

We organize our plans for our early departure tomorrow (4:30 am). I’m going over to Court’s hotel to check her out, and Judy’s going straight to the airport. It’s going to be an early morning, so we finish our packing and head to bed.

Wearing out The Great Wall (or vice versa), 6/20/14

Day 3 is a big walking day. Judy and I join the kids at their hotel for breakfast. Then we’re picked up and head out to the Great Wall. It’s a clear, blue-sky day. We ride a cable car to the top (Tower 14). From there, Jonathan walks with us to Tower 6, describing history and interesting footnotes as we walk. It’s mostly downhill, but one of the interesting design aspects is the steps and walkway are not consistent in their spacing or height. This was done to make it difficult for an army to move along the top. It also makes it difficult for tourists with sore knees to traverse it.

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We finally get to Tower 6, and get a chance to ride a toboggan to the bottom. Judy is ready to get another ticket up, just to ride the toboggan, but maturity (and fatigue) wins out. At the bottom, there are a few aggressive vendors, and the family gets a chance to test their bargaining skills for some knick-knacks.

Lunch is at a beautiful little restaurant called “The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu”. Michelle Obama and her daughters ate here when they came to this section of the wall in April. The food is really good, and the dessert at the end was a welcome treat.


Our final tour stop is the Summer Palace. Jonathan took us thru a gate not used heavily by tourists. It required a longer walk, but most of it was through a beautiful garden and it was restful, in spite of the walk. The kids hike to the highest temple, but Judy and I opted not to join them. We made the trek to the top last fall, and didn’t “feel it.” (actually we were feeling it….in our legs)


The Summer Palace gardens.


The Summer Palace. It’s a pretty solid hike to the top.

When we get back to the van, the kids want to the get the full market shopping experience with some aggressive vendors at Yashow. It’s Friday afternoon, and the traffic is terrible, but we finally arrive. An hour later we walk out with a varied collection of Chinese memories. We won a few, and lost of few of the bargaining battles, but had a blast. We finish off the evening with a meal on the roof terrace at the Blue Frog. We taxi home and day 3 comes to a quick end on a pillow. Our legs have had it!

Around the town, Day 2, 6/19/14

Day 2 begins with a trip to Jingshan Park in the center of Beijing.  The park includes a large hill with temples at the top.  On a clear day, all of Beijing can be seen, in every direction.  It wasn’t clear today, a combination of mist (there have been hints of rain and clouds), and pollution.  There are several areas where people are dancing, and enjoying the comfortable morning air.  We also found an area with about 40 singers, a keyboard player, and a conductor, singing folk songs.  We’ve heard impromptu singing groups around town like this before, but none were quite this good.


The view from the top of Jingshan Park, looking at the back of the Forbidden City.


Some of the dancers in Jingshan Park behind us.

Our next stop is the “Disappearing Hutongs” tour.  This is a specialty of Stretch-a-Leg Travel, and the reason they were featured on CBS Sunday Morning in May 2013.  The brief (4 minutes) feature can be found at their website:

Jonathan walks us through some narrow back streets, discussing what used to be courtyard style homes, built for one family.  Since 1949 and Mao’s rule, the courtyards now have has many as 50 families, crowded into small rooms constructed inside the original structure, most with no running water.  Besides describing the evolution of the hutongs, Jonathan shows us some places where the original buildings walls and roofs are still in place.


Jonathan, giving us some of the history of this particular hutong. Judy is obviously thinking through how she might reorganize the area.


One of the walkways in the hutong area.


A propaganda wall painting, describing the the “good soldier”, and people doing good deeds, inspired by him.

 Lunchtime is at “Lost Heaven”.  They specialize in Yunnan style cooking.  We’re getting a visual, as well as “foodie” tour of Beijing.  The fruit plate at the end of the meal is really creative.  The building is in the Legation Quarter, at the site of the old US Embassy.


After lunch, we tour the Lama Temple, the largest active Buddhist temple in Beijing.  It contains a huge Buddha, and many small temples offering worship and incense burning sites.  A few blocks away, we walk through the Confucius Temple, another important site for the Chinese emperors hundreds of years ago.  Our last tour stop is the Drum Tower (of course, with Brad and Glenda along).  It’s a tall tower, centrally located in Beijing, with huge drums used to signal different times of the day.


The Big Buddha from the Lama Temple


Confucius statue.


The Drum Tower


Drum Tower stairs. It’s a serious climb


A performance in the Drum Tower. They weren’t performing today, so I posted a pix I took back in the fall.

We have the driver drop us at the apartment.  We tour the kids around, and then order pizza from Kro’s Nest.  It’s a relaxing evening catching up on activities back in DFW, and talking about Beijing, now that they’ve seen it.

Beijing Tours, Day 1, 6/18/20

Our whirlwind tour of Beijing starts today. Judy and I taxi over to the Courtyard Marriott where the kids are staying. We meet at 9:00 am in the lobby with our tour guide, Jonathan, from Stretch-a-Leg Travel. They specialize in custom tours. Judy traveled with them with a school group during “BISS On the Road”, back in late September, and loved the way everything was handled. We all climb into our Mercedes van (this is the way to travel in a small group), and off we go!

We took this pix of the CCTV building last night while we drove around Beijing.

We took this pix of the CCTV building last night while we drove around Beijing.

Our first stop is Tiananmen Square. It has to be seen and walked to appreciate the vast size. At one point, while we’re listening to Jonathan talk about some of the history, we turned around, and Judy was in the middle of a picture-taking session with a Chinese family. This happened to all of us (except me) at some point during our tours today.


Tiananmen: Monument to the People, and Mao’s Mausoleum in the distance


Tiananmen: It’s a big area, supposed to be able to hold 1 million people.


Forbidden City Gate, looking across from Tiananmen.

Then we walked over to the Forbidden City. IT’S HUGE! Again, it has to be experienced to appreciate it. Everyone enters under the big Mao portrait at the front gate, and then you wander through, all the way to the back. It’s not a straight shot. Lots of jogs left and right, through various rooms and temples until you cross the moat at the rear.


Forbidden City: It’s big! This is just a small section of the front half.


Glenda having her picture taken with a Chinese family.

Our driver is waiting for us at the closest point possible, and we load up, headed to lunch. Jonathan has set up lunch at a traditional Chinese restaurant. The food is great, and we get to try lots of different dishes.

After lunch we drive over to the Temple of Heaven. It’s another huge complex of temples and gardens. Jonathan has great information about how the complex was used. Walking it makes it even more meaningful and real.


The rock we’re standing on was considered by the emperors to be the “center of the universe”


The Temple of Heaven – main site of worship for many emperors.

We get dropped at the hotel and apartment around 4:30, with plans to meet later for dinner. We settle on Indian food at Taj Pavilion in Lido Park, near the kids hotel, walking over around 6:30. Shannon and Dom are waiting for us. We have a fun dinner with Shannon and Judy recounting Beijing stories and recollections from BISS. We head home around 9:00, and sleep happens really quickly. We’re beat and there are two more heavy days of tours ahead.

The family arrives! 6/17/14

We sleep really late, and then take care of some final travel and school loose ends before the kids arrive. We taxi over to the Marriott Courtyard and check in to make sure the rooms are ready. Then Judy and I taxi to Sanyuanjiao train station to catch the Airport Express. We’ve never had the chance to try it out, and we’re curious how convenient it is.   It’s really quick and easy, about 15 minutes to Terminal 3, the terminal for international flights.

We kill some time at Starbucks, waiting for their flight. The flight is a little early, and about 30 minutes after their arrival, Courtney, Brad, and Glenda come walking out. It’s great to see them. They are showing signs of fatigue from their 13-hour flight from Chicago. They had a four-hour layover in Chicago after their 2-hour flight from Dallas, which left DFW at 6:00 am. They didn’t go to bed the night before the trip. They could probably sleep standing up right now, Our driver is waiting (we hired a van so we could all ride together, taxis will only hold 4 riders). We get them to the hotel and up to their rooms, giving them about 90 minutes to unpack and freshen up before we go out to eat.


Our van arrives and we head out for Sanlitun. It rained hard earlier, but stopped before we arrived. We walk around the area a little, and then have sandwiches/wraps at Moka Bros. café. After dinner, we have the driver take us to the Tiananmen Square area. The Forbidden City looks great at night with the lights. Then we head to the Olympic Park area for a night view of the lights at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, and the Cube. The kids are sleeping while we drive, but we wake them up for the highlights. Back at the hotel, they bail out and head to their rooms. The driver takes us to our apartment, and it’s not too long before we’re knocked out, ourselves.

Details, details, and the bikes arrive! 6/16/14

We spend much of the morning taking care of final details before Courtney, Brad, and Glenda arrive tomorrow.  There’s a pretty strong chance of rain when they get here.  We were planning on taking taxis to eat dinner, but getting a taxi in the rain, at Sanlitun is a nightmare.  We start scrambling trying to get a van to take us around, and maybe even drive around and see some of the lights of Beijing after dark.  I also have to pick up my Chinese visa. It’s been at the passport office for three weeks. Then Judy and I go over to Metro for some grocery shopping.

We get back in time to meet Deb and Graham. They’re giving us their bikes (which were given to them). We’re excited to have them. It should make some of our local travel a little less daunting. Lots of things we do in the area requires a pretty long hike, but too short to justify a taxi.

The four of us taxi over to Sanlitun, where we’re meeting a group at Luga’s, an Italian/Mexican/German food restaurant. The Mexican food is really good, and, as so many things in Beijing, the “set lunch” special is really cheap.

We enjoy a couple of hours eating and visiting, and eventually say our goodbyes, and depart. Deb and Graham are off to Cambodia, via Bali. They “adopted” us when we arrived and took us around to lots of great restaurants. They also specialized in finding good “street food”. I’ve enjoyed eating in some really interesting places with them. They’ll be missed!

Judy and I head to the Marriott. I’m get in a swim session, and Judy walks over to the Lady Street Market. She needs to get some kind of curling iron for Glenda. It’ll keep Glenda from hauling one from home, and possibly burning it up on the current over here. Converters are not much good on items that create heat, we’ve been told. She finds a good one, and has fun bargaining the price down.

We get home in time to message the kids back in the US. They’re at the airport, and boarding has begun. We’re excited!  We’ll see them in 21 hours!

A “Leavers” Weekend, 6/14-15/14

SATURDAY, 6/14/14

Judy heads off to school for what turns out to be a half-day of meetings, and final check-out.  She and Shannon start off for Lily Nails after the teachers are dismissed, but they get detoured to “The Local”, a popular watering hole for many of BISS faculty.  It specializes in sports TV for Australian/New Zealand expats.  Judy has a slight gaffe when she describes the game playing on all the televisions as part of the World Cup (innocent enough) to one of the Chinese teachers who’s hanging out, and knows nothing about soccer.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the World Cup.  In fact, it wasn’t even soccer.  It was a rugby game.  An understandable mistake, since it was a bunch of guys running around in shorts, chasing a ball.

Judy and Shannon eventually made it to Lily Nails.  Afterwards, Dom, Shannon’s husband, and I meet them at Homeplate BBQ in the Sanlitun area.  We enjoyed a fun evening of food and conversation.  As we were leaving, around 9:00, in walked a big group of faculty from BISS.  They had just left “The Local”, around the corner.  They are definitely making a night of it.  It’s a mix of “leavers” and “stayers”, and most of the group is leaving town tomorrow, for very scattered destinations.

SUNDAY, 6/15/14

Judy suffers today from post-school year-syndrome.  She can’t get motivated to do anything but read.  We have a very relaxing morning and afternoon, discussing our summer plans.  Judy’s heard it all before, but she hasn’t had time to digest everything that’s about to happen, and it begins Tuesday.

We manage to make ourselves presentable in time to walk over to the neighborhood “Duck Restaurant” (I don’t know the real name).  We meet a group of 14 BISS faculty for a big dinner.  Again, there’s a mix of “leavers” and “stayers”.  We eat and talk and eat some more, for about three hours.  The cost for the two of us was $22 USD.  I still can’t get used to how cheap it can be here.


The chef is working on one of the Peking Ducks ordered for the group. They do the trimming near the table. It’s part of the tradition and experience!


There are several tearful goodbyes.  Everyone knows it will take a trip to an exotic (by my standards) destination to ever see each other again.  We’ve spent quite a bit time with these people, outside of school, enjoying their company, and absorbing their stories and culture.  There will be new faces next year, but we’re definitely going to miss the old faces.