A Walk on The Wall

For the first time visitor to China, seeing the Great Wall is usually near the top of the list, and we were no different.  After having a fun meeting with the Airstream dealer (“Leo”), we had exactly one full day in Beijing for sightseeing. We could easily have spent the day just walking around central Beijing (with a little help from the subway, because this is a big city) but as Eleanor said, “How can you go to China and not see the Great Wall?”  I couldn’t argue with that.

The trick with visiting the Great Wall is that it is not close to Beijing, so any visit will consume most of your day.  The closest segment is about two hours drive away, and that part is overrun with tourists. If you can, imagine a fully reconstructed section of Wall, jam-packed with people, with snack bars and souvenir shops, queues and people dressed up as “Mongol invaders” who will pose with you for a tip. There’s even a cable car strung along it so you don’t have to do any actual walking.

I suppose this is great if you want the Epcot Center version of the Great Wall, or if you have mobility problems, but we were seeking a quieter experience and so it seemed worth while to hire a guide and travel 2.5 hours to the Mutianyu section. Once we escaped the traffic in Beijing, the drive became almost bucolic, along narrow roads that wander through the countryside and cleave tiny villages. The terrain starts to resemble the hills near California’s Bay Area, until you get to a village where the road drops to a single lane and you have to dodge a cluster of pedestrians who don’t seem to care at all that there’s a van coming.

For me, the best part of this was that for this one day–out of 15 days spent in China, Korea, and Japan—we were at last away from crowds and noise. (One of the reasons I like living in the desert southwest is that there’s lots of open space.) Being in major Asian cities was starting to get to me, but here in the foothills north of Beijing I could have a moment to absorb the scenery and soft sounds of the rural countryside.

Near our destination of Zhuangdaoku Village, I noticed cement koi ponds beside many of the houses, fed by streams running through, and asked our guide about this.  She said the people were accustomed to having fish because historically the village had a small river fishing industry, and now they kept koi ponds for a source of fresh fish.  They aren’t pets here.

Before our hike, we stopped to use the “country toilet” next to the restaurant where we’d be having lunch. We were prepared for this experience so it wasn’t too shocking, but I think most Americans would be horrified. It was outdoors, basically a partly-roofed cement bunker with three narrow chutes in the floor. Through the chutes we could see daylight.  You squat over the chutes and hopefully whatever you put in them slides down and into an open sewer below. There was no running water to flush it, and like most public toilets in China there was no toilet paper, but there was a garden hose outside nearby.

Often however, the air is far more scary than the toilets. Air pollution in Beijing is some of the worst in the world, second only to Delhi.  I was aware of this and had loaded an app on my phone which showed the real-time air quality ratings in and around several major Asian cities.  In the week before our arrival, the ratings for Beijing were phenomenally bad, reaching well over 500 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles (“PM 2.5”) for several days.  This receives a “HAZARDOUS” rating, the worst rating possible, and was far beyond anything we wanted to breathe.  So I was packing a few 3M air filtering masks (with the “N95” rating, available at hardware stores) just in case.

But we were incredibly lucky. The dense air pollution that normally obscures views had blown out the day before, and left us with a light breeze in cool fall temperatures that made a perfect day for hiking. The Mutianyu Great Wall is a scenic ribbon of pale stone running up and down the ridges of the foothills, and on this day the views were outstanding. It was so nice that even our guide, a woman who hikes the Great Wall five days a week, brought her camera along to capture the scenery.

Best of all, we were the only people there until we got to a particularly nice high vista and found a Chinese man and his son relaxing there. There is something really inspiring about walking on the stones of a Ming Dynasty-era wall on a beautiful day, with hardly another soul around. I stopped for a rest on the steps next to the older man, and he smiled at me and said “Tired!” in Chinese.  I could only smile back and nod, which is often all you need to do in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

We didn’t want to end our hike after about a mile on the Wall but because the Wall is so steep in places it had taken us a couple of hours to get that far, and it was time to break for lunch.  We hiked back down a dirt trail to town. Along the way I was stung by a Chinese bee or wasp near my elbow. Not far after on the dirt trail we walked past a sort of inn, really just someone’s house with rooms for rent, and the proprietors gave me a bottle of aromatic green lotion to smear on it. It didn’t do much for the pain but it smelled interesting.

We had lunch alone in the restaurant that featured the country toilets from earlier. As patrons of the restaurant we were offered use of an outdoor cold-water sink and some soap to wash our hands before lunch–a considerable upgrade from the garden hose of earlier. I mentioned this meal in my previous blog about “Meals As Memories,” so I won’t recount it here, but suffice to say that it was a fitting end to a memorable day, and left us ready to doze on the 2.5 hour ride back to crowded Beijing.

I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but this is why I travel.  Everything: rural scenery, ancient masonry, modern air pollution, rustic toilets, koi fish and bee stings, local people, and yes—a simple Chinese lunch, all offer the chance to grow and learn.  Most people aren’t happiest when they are relaxing. They are happiest when they are growing.  The Wall was the inspiration, but as you can see, it was not the destination.

Meals as memories

One of the great pleasures of traveling, for us at least, is eating. I feel sorry for timid eaters who seek out McDonald’s as they roam, because food is a great adventure.  We explore through food. We’ve discovered clotted cream on scones in the Cotswolds of England, dry-rub barbecue in Texas, shrimp & grits in South Carolina, fresh soft tacos in Mexico, green-lipped mussels in Newfoundland, and many other tasty wonders.

Human brains have a strange affinity for remembering foods (whether we like them or not).  One whiff of a unique dish can instantly bring you back to the place you first tasted it, and that stirs up the rest of your memories. Moreover, Eleanor has a strangely photographic memory for food, and an unusual talent that comes from decades of serious attention to the art of cooking: she can dissect a meal just by tasting it, revealing every spice and ingredient for later re-creation at home.  Sometimes in the dark winter months when not much is happening, Eleanor will bring back an old favorite that we found during travel, and eating it will be almost as good as the original trip.

My memory is poorer but a photo or two will help, so when we go somewhere I bring my camera and an appetite. On our recent trip to China, South Korea, and Japan it was a quest to eat whatever came our way, in the hopes of building a few more culinary memories, and we were not disappointed.

Each country yielded a wonderful surprise. In China on the day we hiked the Mutianyu section of Great Wall north of Beijing, our guide “Sonia” took us to a local place where a five-course meal was laid out for us: Kung Pao, scallion pancakes, fried rice, a savory eggplant dish with sweet brown sauce, green beans with spices, and potatoes. Sonia put everything on one of those rotating platters in the center of our table and we all ate family-style.

Most of it was familiar to us from eating in Chinese restaurants in the US, but not everything. I was well into the spicy hot green beans when I noticed that my tongue was going numb. About that time Eleanor asked Sonia, “Do you eat the spice seeds in this?” Sonia said no, and added that if we did eat them our tongues would go numb.  A bit late for me, but we all picked around that spice thereafter. Even then we got a little tingle like licking a 9-volt battery. Eleanor asked for the name of the spice, and Sonia pulled up a translation on her phone. It came up as “Szechuan peppercorn,” and looks like a gray version of the black peppercorns we use in the US.

The restaurant was just a minimally decorated room with an open door, but through the windows we could see the Great Wall snaking its way along the ridgeline of the foothills.  And as we ate we knew we’d just hiked that amazing wall, virtually alone, in China. You don’t forget a meal like that.

The night before our friends Leo and Shirley took us out for a walk down Wangfujing Street in Beijing. This is a westernized boutique street full of famous brands, glitz, and lighted signs. Most of that wasn’t really exciting for us, since it looked much like any number of high-end shopping districts in America, and at times we had to remind ourselves that this was China. Emma and I even found ourselves noticing a piece of Chinese traditional architecture and thinking, “Oh look, there’s a Chinatown here.”

But there was a side street, or hutong (narrow alley) called the “Snack Street” that looked promising. We shoved and squeezed our way through a dense crowd to find dozens of food vendors selling all kinds of interesting things, and this became dinner.  We’d pause in the slowly moving sea of humanity and point at some dumpling, crepe, candied treat, bottled yogurt, or pastry, and for a few yuan it would be ours. If it wasn’t something that had to be made in advance like the yogurt, they’d cook it to order in just a minute or two while we waited, so most of what we ate was very fresh.

Most items were 10 or 15 yuan ($1.60 – $2.40) and I think the most expensive thing we bought all evening was the fried scorpions for 25 yuan. The scorpions were for me, because I’d been challenged by my barber back in Tucson to eat a scorpion on a stick. (I sent him this photo as proof.) They were quite tasty and now I wish I’d also tried the fried grasshoppers.  Another favorite was a huge sort of scallion pancake with egg that Eleanor ordered and we all shared.  My favorite thing was a whole fish on a stick, about 10 inches long, fried and sprinkled with spices. Absolutely delicious, but it took a while to work around the little bones.

You don’t forget a meal like that quickly, either.

In Seoul, South Korea, our host Sungsoo took us for Korean barbecue. You can get something like that in the US, but it’s really great the way they do it in Korea. The meal starts with the waiter bringing over some damp towels and a huge array of small dishes.  Our table was covered with kimchee with octopus, seaweed salad, green salad, marinated onion salad, hot bean paste, cellophane noodles, and some green vegetables in a red broth.  Sungsoo ordered two kinds of beef for the barbecue, plain and marinated.

After the table is packed to the very edges with all the side dishes, the waiter brings over a steel bin with hot coals, which are dumped into the stove at the center of the table.  A small hood hanging from the ceiling collects the smoke. The waiter brings over the beef, which is sliced thin, and cuts it up into bite-sized pieces with kitchen scissors. These go on the fire, and the waiter returns periodically to turn them over and cut more beef. As patron, your only job at first is to eat the beef and side dishes in any combination you like, perhaps smearing a little hot bean paste on the beef and rolling it in a lettuce leaf. The waiter returns less frequently as you get the hang of grilling the beef yourself, but the side dishes get replaced whenever you ask for more.

Sungsoo felt we should have the full experience, so after we’d cleared most of the table he ordered cold noodles in broth with rice vinegar and hot mustard. The broth was so cold it had chunks of ice in it, another thing we’d never experienced.  It reminded me of eating maple sugar on snow as a kid. It was all wonderful.

We liked the Korean barbecue so much that we had it again the next day on our own.  Thanks to Sungsoo’s lesson the day before, we were able to navigate the process by ourselves, even though each restaurant does it a little differently and our resident Korean translator (Emma) only knows the words that she needed to learn for karate class. This made the second meal nearly as memorable as the first.

Finally, in Japan we had one meal that really stood out over all the others in Japan. It’s an expensive country, and it was a daily struggle to find restaurants that wouldn’t blow the budget. On our final day in Yokohama we discovered a noodle place that was buried in the lower level of a shopping center. I loved this place. We were seated at a large rectangular table with eight other diners, all Japanese. In front of us were containers with chopsticks, kimchi, pickled ginger, sauces, and a large jug of cold tea. We each picked out a noodle bowl and we ordered sides of rice and dumplings to share.

It was fantastic. I wish I could go back. The noodle bowls came topped with a melange of floating spices like nothing I’ve ever had before. The iced tea had a certain astringency and flavor that was the perfect complement to the spicy broth in our bowls. The dumplings were perfect: not greasy or bland, but lively and fresh. I peeked over at the other diners at our table to get some hints about the proper slurping etiquette, and then we dug in with our chopsticks. While we ate, a huge line began to form outside. Apparently we had found the good place to get lunch, and arrived just in time.  The bill was about $26 for all three of us. Considering prices in Japan I would have considered it a bargain at twice the price.

So you see what I mean.  There was a KFC and Starbucks on every corner in China, but any meal we had there would have been a non-event.  We were traveling to find something different and exciting. Choosing to push your own boundaries in any way is a path to growth (even if you hate the result, you’ve learned something). Expanding your food resumé is one of the most rewarding and memorable ways you can do it.

How does this relate to Airstream?  Well, one of the great things about traveling by RV is that you can prepare your own meals.  But sometimes it’s also the worst thing, because it is so seductive to cozy up inside and miss out on the fresh experiences outside your door. Once in a while, it’s important to get out of the comfortable bubble that your motorhome or travel trailer allows, and have a taste of something else. I predict the successes will far outweigh the disappointments.

Airstreaming in Asia

We are back in the USA after three weeks of travel in China, Korea, and Japan (and a stopover in Hawaii).

I had contemplated posting a series of day-by-day blog entries, but even then it would be hard to capture the breadth of the experience.  Traveling to places that are utterly foreign is at first intimidating, then exhilarating, occasionally overwhelming, and finally satisfying.  Much like other things in life that are outside one’s comfort zone, it will take time to process and absorb.  So instead of describing everything we saw and did, I’m going to put together a few essays about specific aspects of the trip.

Airstream-wise, the most obvious thing I learned is that Airstreamers don’t know how good we have it in North America.  Cheap fuel, open spaces, endless camping, minimal legal barriers, dealerships and service centers everywhere, and a large community of fellow travelers.  In Asia, Airstream is a luxury brand like Land Rover, affordable and practical only to a very small percentage of citizens.  Imagine if you had to pay $181,000 for a 23-foot Airstream, another $100k for the tow vehicle, $6 per gallon for fuel, and after that you found there were virtually no campsites in your country, nobody else to meet, and you had no room at your home to park it.

The Asian Airstream dealers have brought in Airstream as a luxury import, to places where there is little understanding of “RV culture.” As a result, they have to work hard to market Airstream and the concept of RV travel/recreation.  They can’t just sit at their showroom and expect customers to come in with much knowledge of Airstreams or what you do with one of them. It’s a tough challenge and I admire the effort that the dealers are putting into this. They bring Airstreams to events all over their region, spending the day showing the product and explaining what it does. The Beijing dealership has even opened a “try before you buy” camping facility in Inner Mongolia with six Airstreams parked near a golf course and ready for use. It’s the only campground in Inner Mongolia.

I was surprised to learn that the dealers hadn’t seen Airstream Life magazine yet, nor did they have much of a grasp of the strong Airstream communities that exist in North America and Europe. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Airstream Life is not published in their language, and the nature of the Asian Airstream community, if one ever develops, will undoubtedly be something unique rather than a copy of American culture. Airstreams have been sold in Japan for over a decade so there is a small owner community there, but it’s not much like ours.

One thing that is the same: the enthusiasm.  Everyone loves Airstreams. I’m sure that the dealers are gradually building an audience of people who now aspire to Airstream ownership, and that will serve them well over time.  The problem is that it will take a lot of time.  Wally Byam solved that problem by running high-profile caravans, which generated far more positive publicity for the brand than he could have done by any other method.  I think that if Asia is to become more than a niche market, caravans will become a key part of the marketing strategy eventually.

I knew that this trip would include just about every form of travel other than Airstreaming, but looking back on it I’m still amazed at the crazy procession of planes, trains, automobiles, and ships that we had to take to get around.  In sum, six flights, numerous taxis and shuttle buses, one ship, the Shanghai Maglev, bullet trains in China and Japan, subways in four cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Kobe, Tokyo), and light rail. (It would have been only five flights but leaving Honolulu we got a three hour tour of the Pacific and then returned to Honolulu due to a hydraulic problem with the Boeing 767.) And for the most part, we saw only the metropolises, rarely the beautiful countryside.

While riding the bullet trains and especially the Shanghai Maglev was exciting (the Maglev gets up to 288 MPH) I would have enjoyed the trip more if we were able to tow an Airstream around. Asia’s just not quite ready for that yet.  Massive traffic in the cities makes towing a trailer impractical, and in the country there’s not much infrastructure to support RV travel.  You can’t hope to find service centers conveniently, and the dearth of campgrounds means you have to be creative about finding places to stay.  (I am told by “Airstream Leo” in Beijing that he has sold one Airstream to a customer who is full-timing. I have no idea how that is working out.)

Each country has its own challenges. South Korea is essentially an island, cut off from the rest of Asia by that backward mess called North Korea, so while Korea has the most parks and campsites, road travelers are limited to a country only the size of southern California, with 50 million people to share it with. China is huge but good luck finding any sort of established RV campground. There’s also little precedent for licensing and regulating travel trailers in that country. Japan is the most organized and has the longest experience with Airstream, but it is also crowded and expensive. You’d want to think twice before towing in any major Asian city.

My assessment overall is that Airstream travel in most of Asia is practical only for the adventurous, self-supporting, and wealthy. But that will change. I’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how that’s evolving, with the hopes of being able to return and really see the countries the same way we’ve been able to see America. Despite the challenges, I don’t think that day is too far in the future.

Traveling to a new world of Airstream

Wally Byam never led a caravan in Asia as far as I know, but since his time Airstreamers have roamed around that continent a few times.  There was a very notable exchange program with China in the 1980s, where Americans were able to travel in the country by Airstream and some Chinese came here, but otherwise not much has happened there, Airstream-wise.

That has been changing recently. Airstreams have been sold in Japan in small numbers for over ten years, and in the past two years Airstream has opened dealerships in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul.  They are also selling Interstate motorhomes in Thailand, to wealthy types who spend a lot of time in traffic. Korea is interesting because there’s already an established RV culture in that country, but of course even though China has virtually no RV infrastructure you can’t disregard it. With billions of people and centralized policy-making, you never know. Tomorrow they could announce a huge initiative to build 100,000 campgrounds.

To me, the really interesting part of Airstream in Asia is that anything might happen.  Applying North American or even European expectations to Asia is an exercise in futility, so undoubtedly we will all be surprised by how the Asians interpret our “American icon.”  Already a high-end Airstream glamping site has been built in Inner Mongolia (next to the only golf course in Inner Mongolia, I’m told), and none of us saw that coming.

I decided last winter that this was the year to go to Asia and see the early sprouts of a new Airstream culture emerging.  We are leaving on Friday. I will meet with two or three of the Asia dealers and pick their brains about what is happening.  I’ll take photos and notes, and slurp noodles while contemplating it all.  I don’t yet know what I’m going to do with this knowledge (politicians call this a “fact-finding mission”) but I don’t think that matters.  Sometimes you have to go seek answers even when you don’t know the questions yet.

Planning this trip has been without a doubt the most intense trip-prep we’ve ever done as a family. It has been months of scheduling, saving, and research.  Our itinerary calls for seven major stops including Shanghai, Beijing, Incheon/Seoul, and Tokyo, plus lesser stops in Kobe Japan, Vancouver Canada, and Honolulu Hawaii.  And for most of it we’ve had to arrange planes, trains, automobiles, and ships from 12 to 13 time zones away.

I’ve got instructions for taxicabs in three different languages and hotel reservations in three different currencies, plus subway and rail maps for five cities, and meetings set up with people I’ve never met.  We’ve got new Passports, new luggage, Chinese Visas, trip insurance, an envelope full of renminbi (Chinese money) many useful apps on the iPhone, and typhoid vaccine in our tummies.

We didn’t do this much work getting ready to travel full-time for a year in our Airstream.  But I expect it will be worth the effort.  (I plan to keep telling myself that as we bounce through four airports for about twenty hours this weekend.)

People have been giving me lots of advice and warnings  for this trip.  I’ve been warned about protests in Hong Kong, typhoons in the Pacific, malaria in the countryside, dishonest cabbies in Seoul, air pollution and traffic jams in Beijing, crowded subways in Tokyo, and the importance of bringing one’s own toilet paper. Toilet paper, mosquito repellant, air-filtering mask: CHECK!

Some of the most useful advice has been regarding gifts, which are an important part of business in Asia.  After careful consideration, we are bringing some nice art for the people we meet.  I’ve selected some cover art from prior issues of Airstream Life and asked the artists to provide matted prints, which fit well in our luggage and are relatively light & unbreakable.  Eleanor wrapped them in red paper in such a way that border agents can examine them if needed without tearing them open.  I’ll be bringing works by Michael Depraida, Michael Lambert (below), and Don Lake, and they will be hanging in Airstream offices in Asia after we leave.

We chose red wrapping because it’s considered an auspicious color.  And speaking of colors, one tip that kept me out of trouble was about green hats.  Apparently there’s a saying in Chinese about a man who wears a green hat, which implies his wife is cheating on him.  Before I heard that I was very close to bringing a few Airstream Life hats (some of which are green), and even wearing mine while traveling, but I guess I’ll choose headwear that doesn’t malign our marriage.

It’s all very interesting to me.  The hassle of setting up the trip is really already worth it, because I’ve learned so much.  There will be much more to share as we go.

Internet will be at a premium during this trip, so my blog entries will be infrequent, but I do hope to at least post once or twice.  If that doesn’t work, I’ll post after the trip is over and pre-date all the entries as I did on last summer’s motorcycle trip.  I hope you enjoy following along!