From St. Petersburg to Beijing: Adventures with Middle School Students

From St. Petersburg to Beijing: Adventures with Middle School Students

Michele Rice, a former journalist, has been to Russia six times. She’s proud to admit that she has been followed by the KGB. Currently she is the costume shop manager at the Denver School of the Arts. 

Michele’s husband, Tom Rice, retired Chairman of the History Department at a private Denver middle school, has traveled with MIR more than 20 times. Ten of those trips involved leading groups of students on tours of Russia, Mongolia and China. His much-anticipated tour, “Around the World with Mr. Rice,” introduces them to the world beyond the classroom.

  • Days 1-4: St. Petersburg

    June 12-15, 2011

    It’s been a whirlwind two days, and tonight is the first chance I’ve had to relax in my “czarina” bathtub (as my friend Wendy and I call them). The tubs in St. Petersburg are very deep and must have been perfect for relaxing after a busy day in the 18th century, when Peter the Great built the city. I remembered to bring along bubble bath just for this occasion. As the tub is filling (and it will take a l-o-n-g time), I have some quiet time to reflect on our busy days.

    This is my sixth trip to Russia (well, actually three to the Soviet Union and three to Russia) and Tom’s 28th trip. But going to Russia with 14-year-olds who have never been to Russia even once is both exciting and challenging for all of us. So, we’d thought we’d jump right in to the rivers and canals that made this city a window to the West.

    We marshaled the kids into log boats that were replicas of an essential part of the Russian navy created by its founder, Peter the Great. We rowed… and rowed, giving the kids the chance to see and “feel” how this water-born city became Peter’s window and Russia’s treasure. Physically challenging? You bet, but the effort paid off in a better understanding of the difficulties of building a great city upon a once isolated and desolate watery expanse.

    Of course, kids being kids, they challenged each other to a race to see whose boat could most swiftly navigate this no-longer-desolate expanse: The losers claimed they were handicapped by the starboard lead rower who kept an irregular pace – that would have been Tom.

    That Peter met the challenge of the swampy terrain can readily be seen in the palaces, cathedrals, and fortresses we were to visit. And we left no time to waste in exploring those sites. Kids’ cameras clicked at a furious pace as we entered the grand staircase of the Winter Palace, and didn’t stop until we reached the final Picasso on the third floor.

    I am obsessed with the parquet floors in Russia. I can’t believe the museums let us walk on these beautiful pieces of art. Since I’ve been to the Hermitage before, while everyone else was looking straight ahead to the magnificent artworks, I was looking at the floors. I tell our friend (Little Sasha) that someone (like us) needs to publish a book showcasing these wooden masterpieces. He knows some parquet artisans – I know how to publish hardcover books. It’s a deal. We’ll both work on it and see what we come up with. Stay tuned.

    A video from this leg of the tour:

    Parquet floors in St. Petersburg

    Parquet floors in St. Petersburg

    Students meeting the legendary Sashas. Through “Sasha stories” they learned about the history of the Soviet Union and Russia

    Sasha, Michele, Tanya, Tom and “Little Sasha”, friends since the cold war days of 1976

    Our boat ride on the Neva River

    Dancing with Matisse in the Hermitage

    Rowing on the Neva River

    Group photo

    Parquet floors in St. Petersburg

  • Day 5: St. Petersburg

    June 16, 2011

    We have arrived in Moscow via an overnight train from St. Petersburg. Tom and I decided we really have to return to Peter’s city for a longer stay. It is always so much fun to arrive there and meet up with old friends and meet new ones. Our tour manager and St. Petersburg guide, Tanya, is terrific and the kids instantly fell in love with her.

    St. PetersburgOn our last day in St. Petersburg we visited Piskarev cemetery, where over half a million Leningraders are buried in mass graves. It is a somber moment, and the kids listen attentively to stories of the 900 days that Leningraders were under siege by the Nazis during World War II. Then we were off to Peterhof, Peter’s Summer Palace on the banks of the Gulf of Finland.

    Tom has been to Peterhof over 25 times, and I’ve been there six or seven, but this trip was the first time we got to see the fountains erupt first thing in the morning. It was quite impressive, with music playing and crowds lined up for the event.

    More than 150 gilded and sculpted fountains and cascades adorn the Lower Park. The gravity-fed collection pools in the Upper Garden discharge their waters nearly 50 feet down to the Lower Park’s cascades and jets, creating enormous force and powering fountains all over the park.

    What a show! We walked around the gardens and the kids played in the trick fountains that Peter the Great installed throughout the park. Peter is on my list of “if you could have dinner with any person, living or dead…” type of scenario. Imagine, this imposing (6’8″) man wanted to be a dentist, but ended up being the most celebrated of the Russian czars.

    Learning to paint matrioshka dolls

    He designed a great city on a marshland, and built beautiful palaces throughout the area, yet he preferred a “simple” life in a smaller palace on the Peterhof grounds. The same man who took special care in making sure his palace had shallow stairs for the comfort of women who visited in ballgowns also delighted in surprising them with bursts of water jetting up from the trick fountains in his gardens. There is an abundance of water in St. Petersburg – such a change of pace from our lives in Denver, where every drop of water is precious.

    After touring the palace grounds in the morning, and a quick lunch on the grounds, we drove to Shuvalovka, an outdoor museum that shows how life was in the countryside 200 years ago. I simply adore Russia’s open air museums. They are so well done, and the tours that tell about the different customs in the varied regions of Russia always add so much to our understanding the culture.

    Learning to paint matrioshka dolls

    At this particular place, a blacksmith shows us how to make a proper nail, and then a babushka (grandma) teaches us how to paint a matrioshka nesting doll. Kelly makes one that resembles herself, and Olivia blends her paint just right to make a beautiful pastel dress for her doll. Tom’s looks so much like Groucho Marx that Tanya takes pity on the poor doll and tries to paint the heavy brows and mustache into something more feminine.

    Then on to the Usupoff Palace. Such a gorgeous home with an enticing history – after seeing the Moorish Rooms, the grand staircase, the red boudoir with the secret door, the library with the hidden ladder, the dining room (which always had room for extra guests), and the private theater, we went to the basement and stood in the room where Grigory Rasputin ate his last (poisonous?) meal. Tanya fascinates us with the story of the plot to kill him, and we finally see a picture of him dead, after drowning in the Moika Canal, which runs in front of the palace.

    Yesterday we were at the banya. The popularity of the banya, or Russian bathhouse, has not diminished with the advent of universal running water. From the rustic log-cabin banyain the villages to the huge communal banyas of the cities, the traditional Russian bath is viewed as the epitome of a healthful experience. Long time family friend and our personal banya guide “Little” Sasha, explained how the process of the intense heat of the sauna expands the blood vessels and that the jump into the cold water contracts the blood vessels (or is it the other way around?), resulting in “an internal massage.”

    Strangely (and hilariously, to some of us), an important part of the experience is to beat oneself or one’s neighbor with a branch of birch leaves soaked in water, to stimulate blood flow and release toxins.

    St. PetersburgSasha was a pro at determining how hard he should beat a person with the birch branches. He started out gently with the girls, and then smacked the boys much harder. And they all kept coming back for more.

    There is an economic forum going on in St. Petersburg and the city is packed with dignitaries – and singing stars. Last night there was a *free* concert by Sting in Palace Square! We didn’t attend, but Sasha’s wife, Tanya, did and she said it was wonderful.

    We left our folk performance just as the crowds were spilling out on the streets. (A dancer had grabbed Joseph from the back of the crowd and had him dancing with her on stage.) It’s 11 at night, and after two-and-a-half days of drizzly rain, the sun peeps through the clouds and Nevsky Prospect is jammed with people celebrating the White Nights. It was such a festive environment for our send-off from this great city.

    So much more going on, but I have to sign off now, as we are on our way to the Moscow Circus. Ryan is celebrating his 14th birthday tonight in Moscow. What a lucky kid!

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Usupoff Palace in St. Petersburg

    Group photo at the Usupoff Palace in St. Petersburg

    Group photo in St. Petersburg

    Traditional Peasant Hunt sign in St. Petersburg

    Touring St. Petersburg

    St. Petersburg

    Traditional Russian costumes

    Russian performance

  • Days 6-7: Moscow

    June 17-18, 2011

    We have arrived in Moscow via an overnight train from St. Petersburg. Tom and I decided we really have to return to Peter’s city for a longer stay. It is always so much fun to arrive there and meet up with old friends and meet new ones.

    Group photo in Moscow

    Group photo in Moscow.

    Ryan, a member of our travel group, turned 14 today and he celebrated with four cakes! Two cakes were awaiting him in his hotel room, and the other two were delivered to him on Red Square. The group happily (and quickly) devoured the cakes while sitting in front of the Kremlin.

    We toured the Kremlin and the famed Armory Museum. The collection of Faberge eggs was stunning, of course, but my favorite Faberge work of art is a single dandelion in a crystal vase. It’s the puffy dandelion, ready to scatter its seeds into the air. Diamonds are on the tips of every crystal stem of the seedhead. It is so simple and elegant. I don’t know why I favor it over the elaborate eggs, but Tania, our tour manager, explains that perhaps I have a connection to it from a past life.

    This afternoon we shop at Izmailovsky Park, a giant flea market on the outskirts of the city. I would have loved to bring home that old Corona typewriter with the Cyrillic alphabet keys, but It would cost a small fortune in excess baggage charges. I’ll stick with the delicately painted lacquer boxes which portray Russian fairy tale scenes. Our dinner is from the freshsashlik (kebab) stands and we have our choice of lamb, beef, pork, chicken or salmon cooked over an open fire.

    Tonight we board our overnight flight to Siberia, covering 3,000 miles, the same distance as between Boston and San Francisco. Tom reminds us that there are still 2,000 more miles in the expanse of Siberia.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Moscow cityscape

    Market stall in Moscow

  • Day 8: Ulan Ude

    June 19, 2011

    After a quick breakfast we have a walking tour of downtown Ulan Ude, a city of 500,000 in the middle of Siberia. One of the city’s proudest possessions is a giant sculpted Lenin head, which makes for great pictures.

    Sculpted Lenin head in Ulan Ude

    Sculpted Lenin head in Ulan Ude.

    The kids climb the serpent sculpture in the town square to deposit coins in its mouth, ensuring good luck. Then they head down the hill to visit the main Orthodox church. Tom and I stay back to rest and a Buryat woman strikes up a conversation. She tells Tom that the Buryats like President Obama.

    In the afternoon we travel to Tarbagatai, a village of Old Believers. Rebelling against Patriarch Nikon’s 1652 reforms of the Orthodox liturgy and ritual, the Old Believers fled or were exiled to Eastern Europe and then to Siberia. To this day they carry on the traditions of their ancestors. They use 300-year-old bibles, wear amber necklaces passed down through generations and live off the land as much as possible.

    Traditionally the families are large, and girls are expected to marry by age 14. Galina, our host, picks Ramsey to dress as a traditional bride, layering on clothes to make her look heavier and therefore more attractive. Galina and her friend sing as they braid Ramsey’s hair and wrap it around her head. In comes Landis, the husband chosen by her father, and Galina directs them in courting games. Dancing and singing follow the wedding ceremony.

    This is a very interesting part of the world, as there are distinctly separate cultures and religions. There’s a Buddhist Monastery nearby, with monks practicing the Yellow Hat sect of the religion. There is shamanism, an ancient religion very similar to the American Indians’ reverence for the earth and the skies. If you didn’t know what part of the world you were in, you’d mistake a shaman for a Native American medicine man.

    It’s already been a very long day before we depart on a short flight to Ulaanbataar, the capital city of Mongolia. We check into our Mongolian hotel for a good nights sleep — the first in several days.

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Touring Ulan Ude

    A friendly Old Believer in Tarbagatai

    Touring Ulan Ude

    Students dressed as Old Believers

    Courtyard of an Old Believer’s home

    Old Believer church

  • Days 9-10: Terelj

    June 20-21, 2011

    Mongolian horseback rider

    A Mongolian horseback rider.

    Our rest and relaxation part of the trip began in the morning today when we head to the ger camp outside Terelj National Park, a sweeping alpine landscape of grassland and small pines dotted with rustic gers and grazing livestock. After a breakfast of coffee, tea, sausages, eggs and rice, the kids practiced making balloon animals, in preparation for our orphanage visit tomorrow. (Kyle was the champ and shows great career potential in this field.)

    We got a late start on our planned horseback ride. Unlike in the United States where the horses are kept in stables, the horses had to be rounded up from several different families living in surrounding gers. Last night’s rain had them scattered about.

    Our wranglers ranged from 11-year-old Muren (the name means “river”) to 53-year-old Timur (his name means “iron”). They were great saddling all the horses and matching the disposition of each horse to each rider. Ider, our 23-year-old MIR guide, gave some lessons on proper horsemanship before the kids took off slowly. They rode about five miles to the River Tuul where we rested and the horses drank river water.

    Tom and I followed the group in the minivan, driving along the bumpy ruts the Mongolians consider roads. We transported extra drinking water and the medical kit, just in case. Our drivers were playing a selection of calming music, such as a guitar rendition of “Ave Maria” and a jazz version of “Moscow Nights.” Outside of this music the only sounds to be heard were the pounding of horse hooves and the occasional bird. Everywhere we looked was an expanse of green rolling hills, dotted with the occasional ger.

    Posing with Mongolian children

    Posing with Mongolian children.

    Ider, an accomplished horseman, lived in a ger with his family of six until he was about 12 years old.

    “In our ger we were happier because we were so close,” he said. The separate rooms in the apartment somewhat distanced the family.

    “And in a ger you didn’t have to ask permission to go outside, ” piped in Enkhbayar (Eggy), our other tour guide.

    Ider and Eggy are both college educated. Ider graduated from the School of Economics at Mongolia State University. During his college years he was a foreign exchange student at the Luxembourg campus of Miami (Ohio) University. He also interned with the Massachusetts Audubon Society to study nature conservancy. He has been a MIR guide for six years, and he has instant rapport with the students. In our down time he had the kids all in a circle playing a game of cards. He has that perfect “camp counselor” personality.

    Eggy is warm and friendly, but a bit more quiet. She is a sophomore at the National University of Mongolia, majoring in German. She plans to go to law school in Germany because many Mongolian laws are based on the German legal system.

    Goat milking in a ger camp

    Goat milking in a ger camp

    Many Mongolians are respectful of the Soviet interference with their country because it brought a good education to many people. They are still dependent on Russia and China to process their oil. It must be difficult at times to be a landlocked country between these two large super powers.

    It is raining this afternoon at our ger camp. It doesn’t surprise me, though, as my family has a reputation of always bringing rain with us when we camped near the Wisconsin Dells. So, we skip the hike to the nearby shrine and continue on to visit a herder family in their ger home. We are immediately welcomed, as Mongolians traditionally welcome a stranger in need.

    This family of five explains their way of life as Ider translates. They serve us milk tea, yogurt, and doughnuts topped with urum, the skim off the top of boiled milk. It tastes somewhat like a bland custard. This family is wealthy for a herder family – they have over 700 animals, with the newest being a two-day-old baby goat resting under their table. This kid steals the show as he walks around the ger to the “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” of our kids. The family of five makes its living by selling off the byproducts of their sheep and goats – there are over 100 items, Ider explains. It’s nearing time to milk the goats, so we leave the coziness of the ger to rustle up the goats and milk them in the rain. It’s harder than you’d think – just picking the right goat and grabbing her horns is challenging, even for our able-bodied boys.

    The mother and father tie the goats, tethering the heads like jigsaw puzzle pieces, creating a snug steady row, so the milker can easily go from one goat to another. Even grandma stops by to help. The two neighbor boys, ages 6 and 7, stop by to laugh at the inexperienced Americans and follow me into the ger, posing for my camera and asking for pictures saying “chlick, chlick.”

    The daughter of the house, also taking a break from herding and milking, shows me the English language book she is using in school. While we are warming ourselves in the ger, the mom, dad and grandma continue milking. We bring out the long balloons and Kyle quickly transforms into the master balloon maker. Kyle makes a dog for the six-year-old and after he plays with it a while, the young man carefully takes the balloon sculpture apart and reassembles it, time and time again. This kid certainly knows his animals! I make a mental note to send a pack of modeling balloons and a pump to the family when I return home.

    Inside a Mongolian ger

    Inside a Mongolian ger.

    So what did we learn about life in a ger?

    • While the ger is circular, there are two distinct sides. The men’s side is to the left, where the saddles are kept. The women’s side is to the right where the stove is located. They have separate beds in their area, and the kids and guests sleep on the floor.
    • They all live in the same room, so for privacy they go outside.
    • It is forbidden to step on the threshold – if you do, it symbolizes that you are stepping on the neck of the father.
    • You don’t point with one finger – that means you want to kill.
    • Each ger has two shrines, one to Buddha and the other to the family.
    • The ger has no corners, so there is no wasted space — every inch can be used.
    • An experienced herder can dismantle a ger is less than an hour. They usually move four times a year, depending on the weather and grazing conditions. They pack up everything they own and move themselves with all their animals.
    • We were hoping to get a taste of airag, fermented mare’s milk, but it is too early in the season to have it. Winter lasted too long into spring this year, and the first milk of the summer is reserved for the children. The extra milk hasn’t had the time to ferment.

    Eggy explains that in her college, it’s the students of business owners or of herders that are the rich kids. “I have a regular computer, but the herder kids all have Apple computers,” she said. “If you don’t know what to do with your life, go and buy some sheep. Your herd will double in two years.”

    Mongolian children with a newborn goat

    Mongolian children with a newborn goat.

    The Mongolian diet is mostly milk and dairy. They get their vitamins and other nutrients from mare’s milk in the winter, and in the summer from mutton or goat meat. They rarely eat beef, because a cow is so large that the meat would go bad before it could all be eaten. It has been easy for me to eat gluten-free in Mongolia. At the very least I could eat the wild rhubarb scattered throughout the grasses.

    A bonfire was planned for tonight, but because of the rain, Ider kept our group busy with a traditional Mongolian guessing game called shagai, which uses pig or goat ankle bones. There is a large cloth sack of the bones in the ger camp dining hall.

    Dinner was dumplings, carrot salad, stir-fried peppers and meat, fried meat pies and ice cream topped with red currants. Disco night begins at 9. The dining tables are moved off the floor, the lights dimmed and crazy red lights flash around the room like lasers while Ider plays disc jockey.

    So our much-needed two-day R&R stop in Mongolia ends tonight. Tomorrow is a full day of sightseeing in the nation’s capital. My 32 MB camera memory card is almost full and we still have a full day to go before we head to China.

    Video of the boys “herding” the goats:

    Video of the students horseback riding:

    Photos from this leg of the tour: 

    Genghis Khan statue

    Group photo in front of a statue of Genghis Khan

    Posing in Mongolian costumes

    Mongolian ger camp

    Motorbiking the grass plains


    Enjoying the open air in Mongolia

    Group photo in Mongolia

    Learning to ride in Mongolia

    Learning to ride in Mongolia

    Posing for the camera in front of Mongolia’s rolling green hills

    Learning to ride in Mongolia

    Goat herd

    Milking time

    Posing with a Mongolian rider

    A Mongolian boy and his horse

    Mongolian horse and rider

    Mongolian landscape

    Making balloon animals in a Mongolian ger

    Mongolian family playing with balloon animals

    Mongolian grandma and goat

    Following the trail in a van

  • Days 11-12: Ulaanbaatar

    June 22-23, 2011

    Visiting an orphanage in UlaanBaatar

    Visiting an orphanage in Ulaanbaatar.

    We left the ger camp early, so we could catch morning services at the Gandan Monastery, located in the center of Ulaanbaatar.

    The monastary, home to 150 Buddhists monks, also houses one of the world’s largest Buddhas. We pause in the center courtyard to feed the pigeons to earn good luck, and then enter the main temple. The monks are of the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and they are permitted to marry.

    No pictures are allowed in the main temple during services. The chanting of the monks mesmerizes me and I wish we could stay longer. But we have a full day planned in Mongolia’s capital city.

    Making balloon animals

    We head across town, dodging the crazy city traffic, to visit a Mongolian orphanage. This visit may end up being the one that the students remember most. Tom’s students have been visiting this orphanage for the last six years and the 180 orphans know what happens when the director announces, “Tom Rice is coming!”

    The Mongolian pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners first put on a performance for us, singing traditional Mongolian songs and performing traditional Mongolian dances. Dressed in traditional Mongolian outfits, they have a remarkable stage presence (one year a 4-year-old, with a microphone almost as big as he was, performed a Frank Sinatra song dressed as the master crooner himself).

    Our kids were blown away. We then proceeded to blow them away by making balloon animals, blowing bubbles, distributing stickers, and giving away crayons and art supplies after we had colored and painted with them. It was such an interactive experience that even our rough and ready Mongolian van drivers joined in, making balloon animals for the first time in their lives.

    When we left there were tears all around. Eggy, one of our Mongolian tour guides broke down in tears as she told our kids, “You are truly doing such a wonderful thing,” after they had reached out to the Mongolian orphans in such a friendly and heartfelt manner. She went on to say this was the first time she had seen American kids interact with the orphans and she was immensely impressed by our selfless good nature – which was not the case, apparently, with student groups from other countries. Score one for the U.S.!

    As the director of the orphanage said, these kids are not unwanted, just unaffordable since the Mongolian economy collapsed after the fall of communism. Our kids definitely made them feel wanted, and contributed over $500.00 to the orphanage, enough to feed the kids for the rest of the summer as well as buy some needed medical supplies. There are very few highlights during the year for these orphans, and “Tom Rice is coming!” is definitely one – hopefully, in one form or another, that cry will continue.

    All smiles

    Lunch was at BD’s Mongolian BBQ, much like the Mongolian BBQ places in the United States, but with a few differences in food choices – like lamb or sheep’s kidney, for instance. I ask Ider if this is really a true Mongolian meal, and he explains that it is the modern version of traditional Mongolian hot pot meals.

    Mongolian throat singers and acrobats entertain us at the theater, and then we stop at a cashmere store, where one of our students purchases cashmere boxer shorts. The rest of us stick to more traditional gifts of scarves and sweaters. The cashmere here is so much softer and warmer than cashmere sold in the United States. Many herders don’t allow their children to wear cashmere, even in the coldest of winters, as it will spoil them and make them “soft.”

    Dinner was at “Mongolian’s Restaurant and Pub,” an elegant restaurant that has collected over 1,000 museum-quality artifacts as decorations. A man in a suit leaves his table and approaches ours. He introduces himself as the guide from Tom’s 2000 trip. It is so rewarding to be remembered after 10 years of touring in this country. It shows that our students have a tremendous impact on the other side of the world.

    For more information on the orphanage, email kindergarten58 @ Americans can adopt from this orphanage, and it generally takes about six months.

    Video of a preformance by the children at the orphanage:

    Photos from this leg of the tour:

    Posing with a Mongolian girl at an orphanage

    Visiting a Mongolian orphanage

    Visiting a Mongolian orphanage

    Visiting a Mongolian orphanage

    Visiting a Mongolian orphanage

    Playing with the children at a Mongolian orphanage

    Playing with the children at a Mongolian orphanage

    Visiting a Mongolian orphanage

    Playing cards in a Mongolian orphanage.

    Visiting a Mongolian orphanage

    Visiting a Mongolian monastery

    Mongolian theater and acrobat

    Mongolian Buddhist monk

    Mongolian monastery

  • Days 13-15: Beijing

    June 24-26, 2011

    The rain has followed us to Beijing. But the introduction to the city is impressive – the Beijing International Airport is huge, new and very high tech. As you enter, you walk through scanners that detect your body temperature (two years ago it warned us of what was to come – one student had appendicitis and later had to have emergency surgery).

    Old meets new in Beijing

    Old meets new in Beijing.

    Passport control desks are outfitted with iPad-sized scanners that display your passport information and compare your passport picture with the real time photo of you as you enter the country. There’s a small nod to the old Chinese culture, however. As I enter the super clean and modern bathroom I notice I have a choice of stalls. I can sit on a toilet seat in some. In others I have the option of squatting. Ah yes, I forgot about the squat toilets.

    Our guide, Alan, a native of Beijing, meets us and he calls for our bus. The hour-long ride into the city takes us past blocks and blocks of new high-rise apartments. I don’t recognize the area around our hotel. On my last visit ten years ago our modern hotel was surrounded by hutongs (old one story neighborhoods of houses with courtyards) and small shops where you could haggle for the best price. These houses and shops have been torn down and replaced with upscale shops like Gucci and Dior. Gucci, really? Not my style. I hoped to haggle with a street savvy salesgirl over the price of a cheap imitation bag.

    Dinner is at a restaurant that offers traditional stir fried dishes placed on a huge lazy susan in the middle of the round table. Alan teaches us how to properly use chopsticks. Dinner starts with a clear lotus leaf soup and fragrant jasmine tea. Then we progress to rice, noodles and eight vegetable dishes. Three dishes have small pieces of meat, and one dish has fish. Alan says the fish dish is the most traditional dish of the region.

    View from atop the Great Wall

    The view from atop the Great Wall.

    We all split up when we get back to the hotel. Most of the kids go swimming. A small group checks out the room service menu and orders a burger, nachos and a chocolate cake. I browse through the hotel shops and neighboring restaurants, and Tom and Tania walk up Wan Fung Jin Road, past the upscale shops to the night market. At the night market they eat banana fritters, bypassing the deep fried scorpions, frogs and silkworm larvae that attract curious tourists. We’ll return there tomorrow night with the students.

    We head off to see the Great Wall in the morning. Our tour takes us to the Mutianyu site of the Wall, which is much less crowded than the Badaling site, closer to the city. Cable cars take us to the top. Some years we have been lucky enough to get a car that notes “The Dalai Lama took this car” or “Bill Clinton took this car” followed by the date (we weren’t that lucky this time).

    Our small group gets swallowed up by a much larger group (all wearing the same blue shirts), so when we get to the top of the wall we head in the opposite direction. As we view the rugged terrain, with the mountains and the wall reaching to the horizon, a student remarks, “You’d think these mountains would be barriers enough to keep out the enemy.” You know, he might have been right!

    Group photo on the Great Wall

    Group photo on the Great Wall.

    The kids quickly scatter up and down the course of the wall seeking the very best spot to take in the view, while Tom, Tanya, and Alan, our Chinese guide, settle into a corner under the shade of the Number 14 Tower to gaze and converse. Why run in the sun when you can sit in the shade? (But that’s how you can tell we’re “old!”)

    Here, Alan speaks openly about the Chinese educational system. He is quick to tell our students they are very lucky to have time for sports and hobbies, as a Chinese student only has time for studies. Most classes consist of serious “by the book” learning, preparing the students to pass rigorous achievement tests. Because of this, however, a Chinese student of English, for example, could read English very well, but might not be able to speak to an Englishman or American in their everyday language. Alan said being a guide is what really made him fluent in the English language.

    Beautiful Beijing

    Beautiful Beijing

    He admires the American educational system that allows for a free exchange of ideas and he hopes his four-year-old son can be educated in the United States. The Montessori system is “becoming quite popular” in China for those who, like himself, can afford private preschool.

    “The Chinese system needs to have more free thinking and the American system needs more discipline,” he says. So, the Chinese educational system might well be changing – not as many “tiger moms” (and dads) as we may have thought! Certainly a big change from back in Mao’s day when Alan’s father, who went on to become one of the three top Russian language scholars in China, was sent to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution. He was lucky he wasn’t killed, as so many other educators were.

    I also asked Alan about China’s “one child” policy. He explained that his brother, who is employed by the state, has to follow the policy, but he, as an independently employed tour guide, could have as many children as he wanted – as long as he paid the $6,000 a year tax on each child after the first one. Alan, nearing 40, said if he were younger, he would have no qualms about having more children even though his firstborn was the much-coveted male child.

    Meanwhile, our kids are running, jumping, and racing up and down the steep steps of the wall until we manage to slow them down for a group picture before we get back on the cable cars to go down the mountain.

    An outdoor market stall in Beijing

    An outdoor market stall in Beijing

    Vendors line the pathway from the cable car all the way to the bus parking lot. They are all selling the same souvenirs. Only the prices are different. At the bottom we compare what we spent on the treasures we purchased. I notice a pattern – whether you are walking up the vendor’s alley or down, the items are priced highest at the place you begin your walk. As you get closer to your destination, prices quoted drop. The kids are shrewd bargainers. They end up paying less for things than I do, because I bought what I wanted at the beginning of the walk down.

    Lunch is at a restaurant next door to a pearl shop. Interesting how our lunch won’t be ready for at least a half an hour, so we have plenty of time to watch the fresh water pearl harvest demonstration. Just like the vendors at the Great Wall, everything has a special discount “just for us.” We all leave the store with some sort of pearl – either the free pearl from the harvested oyster or necklaces and bracelets as gifts for family and friends.

    Alan carefully watches what the kids eat so he can adjust meals along the way. Our lunch is in a tropical cafe, dotted with lush plants and Chinese sculptures. We have more meat dishes than our first dinner and rice is served sooner in the meal. During our entire stay, soy sauce will never grace the table, as it is Chinese custom to use it only when cooking. Alan checks every dish for me, to verify that it is gluten free. Here, the mainstay of the American Chinese diet, sweet and sour chicken, is dusted in cornstarch rather than wheat flour. I’m happy – and so is everyone else!

    Video of the Beijing market at night:

    Photos from this leg of the tour: 

    Sign to Mutianyu

    Great Wall of China

    Posing on the Great Wall of China

    Great Wall

    View from the Great Wall

    Great Wall

    Group photo on the Great Wall

    Chinese paper fans

    Chinese beetle snacks

    Chinese steamed buns

    Deep fried scorpions

    Chinese street food

    Chinese market stall in Beijing

    Chinese elder in Beijing

    Group photo at a Chinese restaurant

    Chinese cuisine

    Modern Chinese architecture

    Chinese cart

    Nice Rice sign in Beijing

    Traditional Chinese architecture

    Chinese pagoda

    Sidewalk painting in Beijing

    Chinese girl in yellow dress

    Forbidden City

    Group photo in Beijing

    Chinese dragon

    Chinese architecture in Beijing

    Palace in Beijing

    Traditional Chinese drama