Category Archives: Explore the World

Explore the World: China, First Impressions

In November 2009 Beaker and I traveled what seemed a million miles away to China.  One day I saw a trip being advertised on one of the travel websites and the price was incredible. It was $900 per person, and it included air tickets from San Francisco to Beijing, air from Beijing to Shanghai and back to San Francisco. The price also included hotels in both cities, airport transfers and daily breakfast. The dates were in late November which was all right with us. We consider off season the best time to travel: the prices are cheaper, you encounter less crowds and you are able to take advantage of travel opportunities.

When reading my new series of articles about China, please keep in mind that China has the most amazing contrastbetween modern and traditional, rural and new, communism and capitalism.

Air China
My pre-trip research told me that Air China is not a good airline to travel. People on the Internet complained about small leg space, tiny TVs that show movies in Chinese with English subtitles, horrible, smelly food and not enough place for the overhead luggage.

When we boarded the Air China plane in San Francisco, we were prepared for the worst. What we experienced was not bad at all. Our luggage fit in a overheard compartment just fine. The leg room was decent. Beaker is over six feet tall and I am 5’10″, so we do need some leg room. The food was bad but have you ever had a delicious meal on a plane?

The flight was a 12-hour non-stop direct flight from San Francisco to Beijing. TVs  indeed turned out to be small and were located only in the front section. Most of the films were in Chinese with English subtitles. If you didn’t have a portable DVD player, you pretty much had to entertain yourself.

Your entertainment options were not too bad. You could read, listen to your Ipod or go to the end of the plane and get to know some travelers over a drink or do some tai chi with Chinese folks. Chinese people know that it is important to move around during long flights, and indeed they do move around a lot.

Like most people I hate airplanes bathrooms: claustrophobic small rooms with dirty, smelly toilets that threaten to suck you in when you flush them. Now imagine about four hundred people on the big plane using a very few bathrooms over the period of twelve hours. You probably don’t want to imagine it, right? Air China had the cleanest bathrooms I ever saw. In fact, later on, I was impressed with the cleanness of all public bathrooms in China. I think Chinese make a point to clean their bathrooms. Some of us need to learn this from them.

It was bad. As soon as we were outside and started walking to our tour bus, I smelled something metallic in the air. This metallic taste slowly moved into my throat and settled there for the next ten days. Mistakenly I thought that something was burning. Finally, I realize that it was the infamous Chinese pollution.

The pollution was thick, heavy and had a life of its own. Early morning you could see blue sky but by noon all you could see was grey polluted air embracing the city. You could feel its metallic taste in your throat.

We noticed that a lot of Chinese people coughed a lot. They also hacked a lot. In fact, you had to be careful when someone hacked close to you. If you stood too close, some hacks may end up on your shoes. Not on purpose, and it would be your fault because you were not watching.

Chinese people didn’t say “excuse me”, “I am sorry”, “I didn’t mean to.” If you were in their way, they would push you, move you and would not look back to check if you are okay. In the airport when I was pushed aside, and Beaker almost got run over by a cart loaded with luggage, I felt like I was back home in the good old Soviet Union. More of this resemblance will come later.

Yes, you have read it right. In spite of the horrible pollution and traffic you could not possibly imagine, China is very conscious about their open space and … sustainability. For example, in Beijing we discovered that hotels in China make sure you don’t leave your room lights on when you leave your room. Your room key serves as a power trigger. You open your door, you put your room key in an allocated power pocket and the lights come on. You leave your room, you take out your key from the power pocket and your lights go off. Simple? Yes. Great? Absolutely.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Our vacation is over, and we are back from the sunny and warm Pacific coast to a grey and cold reality. It was even snowing yesterday morning. What a nice welcome back, Utah! I already can feel the vacation blues.

We went to a small resort town in Mexico, Mazatlan. It is on the Pacific coast, and it is much smaller that Cancun. Have you ever been there? It is a very poor town but it is still lovely. Just watch where you go and where you eat. We loved walking Mazatlan’s narrow cobblestone streets in the old town area. It felt safe. The Golden Zone (the center of Mazatlan) is a very commercial area with a lot of great restaurants. However, it was a little bit too commercial for us.

One night we walked to a restaurant that was supposed to be “walking distance” from our resort. The walk outside of our resort, close to the road and far from the beach, took us about thirty minutes and it was very… let’s say… unpleasant. The street was dimly lit and very lonely. The distress of the walk escalated when we passed by a freshly dug grave. Yes, I am not kidding. It was long and wide enough for a coffin, it was unmarked and it was in an odd place. When we finally reached the restaurant (which was great, by the way), I was ready to kiss the ground in front of it. I was THAT happy to be at the brightly lit place packed full with witnesses.

The good

Ocean! Beaches! Sunsets! It was our first beach vacation. We usually spend our vacations exploring, sightseeing, and end up exhausted from running around, visiting the attractions and, generally, working hard instead of relaxing. This time we rested, we slept in and we did not worry about anything but putting on enough sunscreen.

Our Beach


Our friend Iguana

Food! I think I gained at least ten pounds because I was constantly overeating. It was impossible to stop indulging because the food was delicious no matter where we ate. We did not have a bad meal. Not once.

The Bad.

Ocean! We left Mazatlan having a lot of respect for the ocean. The waves were huge, and the strength of them was amazing. The ocean made us feel little, weak and unimportant. It could knock us down easily, pull us into the deep, show us its power and pretty much do to us whatever it wished. It was scary. We wanted to do some snorkeling and boogie boarding, but after being knocked down a couple of times and falling into some holes, we decided to stick to developing our ocean survival skills close to the shore.

Timeshare salespeople! They spot you on the streets, in the restaurants, in the cabs and they hunt you down. The approaches they used to lure us into timeshare presentations were different every time: some of them were straight forward; some of them would start with showing beautiful pictures of the resorts; some of them would try to make small talk before bringing down on you their heavy sales pitches.

The Ugly.

Poverty! We all know that Mexico is a poor country, right? But how much about that poverty do we actually know? We thought we knew it all, but we were wrong. 

When we stepped off the plane thinking about sun, beaches and margaritas, we did not expect to step into the city filled with skinny children and people trying, struggling to survive. We saw houses with no roofs, huge holes in the walls, no glass in the windows and some even with no doors. Those were not abandoned houses! We saw children playing in dirt. We saw mothers nursing their babies in the streets. Everyone – the street vendors, the taxi drivers, the beggars, the waiters – are desperate for money. This money is us, the tourists.

We were not just shocked, we were deeply disturbed. It did not seem right to be in the five star resort, sipping margaritas, bathing in the sun, when outside the walls of the resort lies a city filled with people who live in such poverty. We bought a couple of cheap bracelets from a skinny boy on the street without bargaining because who would bargain with those hungry eyes?

If you ever go to a Mexican resort and lay on the beach, sipping margaritas, I promise, you will be contemplating a thought, the hope that the money you are putting into Mexican economy while vacationing there will help its people.