Traveling by Train Through China on Our Trip Around the World

rest of china (100 of 111)We decided to save money and travel through China by train on our around the world trip. In addition to costing less than internal flights, we replaced the hassle of airports with the adventure of train stations! In the extreme, this decision meant a transit time of 26 hours from X’ian to Gualin instead of three hours had we traveled by air (a one-and-a-half-hour flight plus one and a half hours at the Xian airport.)

There are several classes of service on overnight trains in China. The highest class of service is a “soft sleeper” which is the way to go. Each compartment has four bunks (the two lower bunks serving as seats during the day.) As a family of four this was ideal. [This is a fairly good guide and description of the options.] The train code (K,T,Z,D reveals whether a train has a soft sleeper option.

The compartment has an insulated coffee pot and at the end of each carriage is a hot water boiler the size of an upright coffin bolted to the wall. Whenever a passenger needs hot water for tea, coffee, or noodles, they walk to the boiler at the end of the carriage with the thermos. The water coming out of these contraptions is often 50 percent steam! Any concerns about the water harboring stomach ache inducing bacteria evaporates in the billowing steam and seeing the scald marks on the floor of the train.
Every Chinese person we talked to about our train trips told us, even if we only had two or three words in common between their English and our Chinese, that the food on the trains was “not good” and “price high.” So, like every other Chinese passenger we boarded the train with bags of food. In our case, oreo cookies (easy to find in China) and popcorn tub sized containers of instant noodle soup. We survived on this combination for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Just before we left China we donated several tubs of noodles to fellow travelers at a youth hostel in Beijing. It will be awhile before instant noodles are appealing again.
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With only a few exceptions, every town we traveled through was surrounded by a ring of under construction apartment blocks. Mile after mile of multistory cinder and brick buildings, some complete but most between 25 and 80% finished. We would awaken in the morning, open the curtains and there they would be. The hollow dark holes that would (maybe) someday be apartments looking down on the passing train.
Operation “Opera No No”

As I was hauling our suitcases up to the overhead rack and the boys and Aleix were discussing bunk assignments, we were hit with a blast of militaristic Chinese music from a scratchy speaker above the window. As we settled in and waited for the train to get underway the music continued. We couldn’t understand it but the tone certainly sounded like the singer was encouraging us to be energetic and strong in pursuit of something. The sound was so scratchy that honestly I think even a fluent Chinese speaker would have had a tough time understanding the words.

This was about 7:00pm and you could see on everyone’s faces the growing concern that the music would be with us for the entirety of the 26-hour trip. Colin found the volume control and with a smile quickly turned it down to “zero.” Sadly, the knob just kept turning, after six or eight revolutions even Colin, often our optimist in these situations, had to admit it was having no effect.

Another five minutes passed and our hope that the train getting underway would stop the music hadn’t come to pass.

“Ok,” I said, “remember that cool leatherman tool we bought with the screwdriver that is TSA approved? And, that I debated buying because we probably wouldn’t use it. This is its moment. Colin, close the door, all of you face the door and get ready to stall if the conductor tries to open it.”

I dug around in the backpack and emerged with the tool.

leatherman tool

As I climbed up onto the upper bunk and positioned myself to unscrew the offending speaker, Colin coined a phrase that has become our touchstone when we are somewhere loud. He cheered, “Operation Opera No No is underway!”

It took a fair bit of effort to unscrew the speaker cover with dust and grim falling on the lower bunks and across the table. At one point we heard the conductor moving down the corridor. I scrambled to put the partially unscrewed cover back in place. For those of you who are old enough, the whole scene had its comedic qualities reminded me of the frequent scenes  in the TV show “Hogan’s Heroes” where Hogan and his crew would move quickly to block Sergeant Shultz from seeing the hidden trap door.

The conductor passed by and I went back to work. Inside was a half dozen wires but I was able to locate the poorly taped connection that was causing the static, and with a gentle tug, silenced the speaker. I screwed the cover back on and we enjoyed silence for the remaining 25 hours. Well, actually that isn’t quite true as every 20 or 30 minutes until late in the evening and starting again at 6:00 am the next morning a vendor would come down the aisle offering snacks, drinks, or trinkets at high enough volume to penetrate the compartment walls and doors.

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Some of the People We Met On Our Travels With Our Kids Through China

As we hoped when we set off around the world with our kids, this trip is about the people we meet as much or more than the places we go. Traveling with two sons through China provides ample opportunity for conversations and interaction. Also, we elected to travel by train through China (rather than flying) and took the subway over taxis in Beijing, Shainghai, and Xian. These are photos of a few of the folks we met along the way.

Xian Mosque

I am in Luang Probang, Loas, editing photos of the boy’s encounter with the groundskeeper at one of the oldest mosques in China when I learn of the bombings in Paris. Much as the attackers of 9/11 hijacked planes full of innocents, these terrorists are hijacking an entire religion.

We came upon this kindly old man in the mid-afternoon in a quiet courtyard. We had wandered in from the adjacent alley as he was making his way across the open space. He stopped and admired the boys. He asked about the cost of travel from America. We debated which was farther Mecca, or California. He told us of his family and his eleven great-grand-kids. Our boys asked him questions and we all laughed when he made it clear that Aleix was clearly too young for me, with her beautiful smile and my white beard.

He had never been on Haj (one of the five pillars of Islam) as the cost was too great. Other than his travels to Xian from his village he hadn’t traveled in China.

I cannot reconcile our encounter with this gentleman at a beautiful and serene spot with the mayhem that men who claim to share the same beliefs are inflicting everyday elsewhere in the world.


Some of the Places I Visited in China as Part of our Trip Around the World

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The Buddhist Temple

A few days ago we went to the Wild Goose Pagoda and learned about Buddhist history and their religion. On the tour we went to the different shrines and heard the monks chant. We learned that the Pagoda leaned to one side because they had an earthquake a long time ago and when they built it they made the foundation so that it could move but not fall all the way over. It was built during the Tang Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty one of the emperors was Buddhist so the religion became very popular in China.

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The best bit of the tour was the art gallery at the end. The guide taught us calligraphy and we got to do some, then a bamboo artist painted, guess what? Bamboo!




We got to keep that, and then we picked out chops of our zodiac animals and the master carved our English and Chinese names into them!

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The Pagoda was full of culture and history and was amazing to see.





The Terracotta Warriors

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Earlier that day we saw the Terracotta Warriors. It was interesting that the  Emperor that built them built them out of fear, not ego.  He built them so he could continue to rule in the afterlife.  After the soldiers were built he buried the people who put the soldiers  there alive so no one knew where they were. He also killed the engineers who discovered chrome plating so we had to rediscover it thousands of years later. When he was 13 years old he began construction on his tomb. A few years after he died a peasant revolt rushed his tomb and stole the weapons from it and then burned and destroyed the Terracotta Warriors. The first time they were found was when a farmer was digging a well and found an arm. The other farmers told him it wasn’t important but he put the pieces he found in a wheelbarrow and took them to officials in the town. They recognized how important his find was. Many years later he stopped being a farmer and spent his days at the museum signing books.

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The Great wall

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The same emperor that built the the Terra Cotta Army started the construction process of the Great Wall of China.  Qin Shi Hungdi built the wall to defend the Chinese Empire from the Mongolian Nomads of the north. The Mongals were mounted soldiers who lived off the land though when they could not they reverted to stealing, burning, and pillaging the Northern Chinese villages. The Great Wall was also known as the great, or longest, grave yard. When workers died on the job they just buried them in the wall and built around them. Once it was finished they had a special system to signal the army; one signal fire meant 50 men, two signal fires meant 100, and so on. The Great Wall took over 500 years to finish building.

The wall in it of it self is not very high but most of it is built on mountains that were steep and treacherous. The mountains provided little fast escape for the soldiers but made it nigh impossible to scale, grapple, destroy, climb or, mount ladders on.  When we went to the great wall the it was incredibly crowded even though we had requested not to go to crowded areas. When we asked the guide why we had come where she said because it was the most important part but she never told us why. The Great Wall, like the Terracotta Warriors, was built out of fear, fear of the Huns, rather than ego as many people thought it was.

Video Montage of Our Travels Through the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon

We started our round the world trip in the western US in our converted school bus. We blogged a bit about the trip and some of our adventures, and I keep hoping to come back and put up a few more photos. We arrived in Laos from China last night, and I received this video from the team at As we travel through 25 countries on our family adventure my plan is to periodically upload video clips for riffreel to to turn into short video posts.


Traveling with Our Kids to the Great Wall and Deciding to Have a Great Time

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My father likes to say, “The difficulty with communication is the illusion it has been achieved.” In setting up our trip to The Great Wall we had asked to be taken to the least traveled portion of the wall that was accessible from Beijing. While we didn’t want to spend days getting to a remote section, we hoped that with a bit of effort we could get to a spot where we might sit quietly and ponder the architectural wonder in relative solitude.

Somehow what they heard was “we would like to see the most significant portion of the wall near Beijing.” As one might imagine, the “significant” section of something might be visited by a few more people than a “remote section.”

After a 90 minute drive we found ourselves in a traffic jam of buses full of tourists. A serious traffic jam, to the point where folks were bailing out of their buses to walk along the side of the road. As you can imagine we began to suspect we weren’t headed anywhere remote.

The guide explained that with all the VIP traffic to this section traffic can be a nightmare. Oh boy. Eventually we began crawling forward again. It reminded me a bit of arriving at the Disneyland parking lot but with more food stalls, no attendants providing directions, less space, and no lines painted in the parking lot.

After securing tickets, not a quick experience, we rode a gondola a short distance up to a higher point on the wall emerging into a crowd of Chinese tourists reminiscent of a group of SF Giants fans all in good spirits crowding through a tunnel jostling to get to their seats.

(As a side note, of the 1.3 billion citizens in China, my data indicates about 1/3 are armed with selfi sticks ready to be deployed at a moments notice.)

The guide pointed up the steep incline along the top of the wall (jam packed with folks making their way up) and said she would meet us “back here” when we were done. As she wandered off looking at her cell phone, we joined the masses (moving against the tide wasn’t really an option anyway) and slowly moved upward.

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A light moment in the traffic flow.


I think Aleix's face says it all.
I think Aleix’s face says it all.

About five minutes up the wall, I pulled everyone over to one side and we huddled against the railing. As the tide of happy tourists flowed around us I said, “Ok, clearly this is not what we envisioned.” Everyone’s eyes were a bit bugged out and Colin, being the shortest of us, was looking especially distraught. “We have two choices, we can be upset that this isn’t the experience we expected, which would be understandable. Or, we can decide to have a different experience, laugh at our predicament and embrace it.”

If I had hoped for a response along the lines of “Yes, Dad. Great idea, let’s do it!” I was disappointed. I could tell that if I called for a vote, option 1 was going to be a clear winner.

I tried again, “Look this is clearly a two on a scale of one to ten.” Colin’s quick response, “Really Dad, a two? I was thinking maybe one and half.” In my best Marty Feldman voice from Young Frankenstein I struck back with, “Well, it could be worse…could be raining.” That did it. We all laughed and the fun began.

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Embrace the chaos!
Embrace the chaos!








We merged in with the crowd, exchanging “ni haos” with our jostling neighbors. We stopped for photos with the boys leaning out over the wall, talked about the poor air quality (we should have been wearing masks according to the US Embassy monitoring system) and posed for photos with folks.

Colin opted to embrace having his hair ruffled by the ladies who were declaring him cute, rather than groaning, and Bryce was a hit with the teenage girls asking for photos with him.


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Aleix and I held hands (partly out of affection and partly to not get separated in the crowd) and I tried to take pictures of the portion of the wall not open to tourists so I would have them as a juxtaposition to the reality of our experience.

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The empty wall, from the full wall. The hazy one is what we say, the clear one is thanks to Adobe's "de-haze" filter
Hazy reality and “de-haze” filter.”








As we moved with the mass of humanity down the wall towards the exit we realized that we were headed away from where we had left our waiting guide. I mumbled to Aleix, “Holy cow, she thought we were going to go up the wall and then turn against the tide and make our way back to her? What the hell?”

We came to a juncture in the path along a large barricade and boy do I wish I had photos of what we did next. If we could only get over the series of barricades we could get back to the entrance and then “flow” with the new arrivals back to our guide’s resting spot. A Chinese gentlemen was standing next to me, clearly pondering the same thing. Our eyes met and he jumped up on the wall and around the first barricade. Not hearing a shout from an authority figure I turned to my team and said,”OK, what the heck…Geronimo!” to which Colin responded with a grin as he jumped up on the barrier.

We took a shot of the barricades on our way out, not during our escape!
We took a shot of the barricades on our way out, not during our escape!
Just before our barricade jump
Just before the barricade jump








We all made it over the series of barricades! Not quite as fast as the other folks who joined us in our escape but with grins on our faces. The guide was a little surprised when she looked up from her cell phone to see us coming from the direction of the entrance.

We headed back down in the gondola to the parking lot area and started the search for our driver and his van. We asked the guide if this site was always this busy, “Oh yes, she said, very important to Chinese history, everyone comes here.”

A final note in the experience: As we made our way back to central Beijing we passed a section of wall that had only a few folks on it. Aleix asked the guide, who was texting in the front seat, “How come we didn’t go to that section?” Our guide’s response, “This part not so important.” The boys both giggled at their mother’s barley audible groan.

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Turning 50 En Route to China

We are in Montreal–a quick stop between the Bahamas and Beijing. I acknowledge that this may be the first time anyone has typed the previous sentence. When we were booking our flights from the Bahamas one of the most cost effective routes was via Montreal. Once we determined that, we did a little research and discovered that adding a few days in the city, versus four hours in the airport, actually brought the ticket price down.

That resulted in my turning 50 here, instead of in Beijing. I can’t imagine a better birthday. We started the day with a brisk walk (in 22 degree weather) to the nearest metro stop, about 1.5 miles away, followed by a 5 stop metro ride and another walk to the Chinese Consulate where we stood in line for an hour to follow up on some visa issues. Once that was done, it was off to breakfast and then a metro ride across town to buy dust masks from the Canadian equivalent of Home Depot and mosquito repellent and bigger Teva’s for the boys at MEC, the Canadian version of REI.

At one point, as we walked along an industrial street on the outskirts of town, we stopped and took a picture of ourselves reflected in a dark window (above.) We were part way into a two mile walk from the metro station to the MEC store along a multi-lane highway. We were all telling stories as we walked along–no cell phones, no internet, and in no real hurry. I can’t imagine a better hour than that.

We returned to our AirBNB apartment, dropped the boys off and headed back out into the cold to buy gyros from the pizza/greek joint a couple of blocks away. After a couple of hours of working on reservations and language apps (it turns out the roughly 70 percent of the words in Thai and Lao are the same, but pronouns, negatives and a lot of common words are not) I am writing this and going to bed.

Everything that I did today, I did with Aleix by my side. I can think of no better partner with which to explore the world, relive and laugh about the adventures of the past, and dream about the adventures of the future.

It was a great 50th birthday.

First Dive in the Bahamas

The descent below the surface is what sticks with me. As my eyes transition from sky to blue water my breath catches as my face sinks below the surface. I take my first breath as I look down at the bottom 60 feet below. It is as if I have walked into a pitch black room unsure of its size only to realize when the lights click on that it is far larger than I expected and filled with unexpected things.

Far below me lies a ship, partly on its side surrounded by a sand bottom with a reef in the distance just beyond the stern. I remember as a kid having dreams in which I would float above the characters in the dream swaying gently much like a kite or helium filled balloon tethered in a breeze.  This feeling is much the same.

I watch as Bryce and Colin descend below the surface for the first time. Within a minute you can see the joy coursing through each of them as they delight in this new three dimensional world. Bryce is spinning around while Colin has his hands out like Superman gliding through the sky. Their instructor, GiGi, signals them slowly to the bottom, reminding them to clear their ears by gently blowing against a pinched nose every few feet.

Aleix and I hover above them like thought bubbles hovering over characters in a cartoon. Every few minutes one or the other of the boys looks up and around, finds us, and gives us the “OK” sign.

GiGi taps gently on her airtank with her knife sending a loud sound rippling through the water and grabbing everyone’s attention. She signals the boys to sit on their knees and they begin “class” 45 feet under the water. The boys run through skills including clearing a flooded mask and most importantly sharing each other’s air should one of them run out. Later they will practice emergency ascents to the surface.

Once class is over we head as a group towards the ship. We fly above the ship, with the deck just inches below us. Small fish squirt out of the openings.

Swimming around the wreck the boys’ excitement is matched by ours. It is like being in a movie, either James Bond (the next day we dove on the wrecks used in Thunderball in 1965) or maybe the Discovery Channel.

When we pop to the surface, the boys are chattering almost before their regulators are out of their mouths.

A fantastic day.

Diving in the Bahamas

This week I was certified as a PADI Open Water Diver. When we first arrived we had to do tons of paper work, get our gear, and get into the pool. In the pool we practiced and learned skills that we needed to dive; we spent all day in the pool doing this so that we could go on a open water dive the next day.

The next day we got on a boat and went out to the David Tucker wreck first–it was amazing–my first look into the under water world. From the moment I did that first giant stride into the water to when I hauled myself back out I was in a whole different world. We were the only humans there, visitors in an amazing new world in which the corals were the plant life and the fish were the dominant species of the reef with crabs scuttling around feeding and hiding. The human race knows more about the surface of Mars than about what lies beneath the waves of our oceans.

The next dive we did that day was called “James Bond” because they sunk the ships for the James Bond movies, Never Say Never Again and another one. One of the wrecks used to be a plane but we could not tell because it was so old and covered in beautiful coral. After we saw the wrecks we swam through a coral tree forest that our instructor had planted.

The next day we got back on a boat and went out to the sand chute. We swam along a 6,500 foot drop off that went from 60 feet to 6,500 like a cliff. It was slightly terrifying but awesome. After that we went to one of the of the only natural wrecks here. We swam up to the propeller and the rudder, saw the breach in the hull, took pictures of us holding femurs (don’t worry they were fake. a prop from a movie shot years ago) and saw a Caribbean reef shark.

Getting Certified in the Bahamas (Padi Diving)

“Hello! Welcome to Stuart Cove’s dive shop!” The first words I heard on my journey to becoming a diver. My family and I walked into the shop and registered for my and my brother’s dive lessons. The first thing we did was a bunch of medical forms and various paperwork. Then we got our gear and went to the pool. After learning how to put on our gear properly we jumped into the pool. The first confined water dive was fairly basic. We reviewed skills that we had learned in the e-learning section. We were also taught new skills. We did the rest of the confined water dives that day, they ranged from easy skills to more advanced skills that we couldn’t complete in confined water. The next day we dove in the ocean.

Breath, pause, breath, pause. Everything moved in slow motion. Sluggishly, I swam onward, breathing deeply, looking around me. That was my first dive in the ocean. I was amazed; I had only seen coral in aquariums and models.

Diving felt dream-like, nothing felt real under the water, but it was very very real. I felt weightless, like I was in space. However, it took a few more dives in order to get used to maneuvering in a three dimensional environment. After riding on a boat for a half hour we geared up and jumped in the water. After our descent we, my family and GG our brilliant instructor, gathered in a circle on the bottom and practiced certain skills that we had to do in the ocean. For example, I had to take a deep breath and take my regulator out of my mouth, breathing small bubbles, I let go of my regulator. Then, leaning to my right side I windmilled my arm and found the regulator, I placed it back in my mouth and cleared it by blowing forcefully into the regulator. I then breathed a cautious breath. Luckily I had successfully cleared it of water, I was able to breathe normally. After exploring the wreck that we were diving near, we surfaced and got back on the boat.

The second dive that day was much like the first, except we were at the two James Bond wrecks from Never Say Never Again and Thunderball.

That night I slept very well.

The next day we dove on “The Wall.” The Wall is essentially a, well, wall. It goes from 60 feet to 6,500 feet. It starts shallow, then it becomes a void. We dove along the wall after doing skills and it was freaky. There were fish everywhere and corals growing along the wall, it was very impressive.

The last open water dive we needed for our certification was amazing. We dove on a huge natural wreck of a transport ship. We first had to do a few final skills like a swim test, but after that we were able to descend onto the ship. We could see inside the hull of the ship because there was a large hole on the top of it. There was coral growing inside the ship and on the hull. We even saw a shark swim by the ship! This dive was the best so far.