Category Archives: China Trip 2016

China: Dance Dance Wherever You May Be

As someone who is making the transition to embracing my golden years and retirement, one of my more interesting observations was how Seniors in China approach aging and a post retirement lifestyle.  Before arriving in China I had some understanding of the important role the elder Chinese play lives of their children and more importantly their grandchildren. Chinese seniors traditionally provide child care for their grandchildren while the parents are at work. What I didn’t know was how my Chinese cohorts filled the rest of their day. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised with what I learned.

Beyond providing childcare and home support for their grandchildren it appears that seniors in China pursue three interest: fitness and health, social interaction with peers and finding spouses for unmarried children.

In China tradition and practicality dictate that the oldest male child maintains a lifelong responsibility for their parents. The trade off is that young families have worry free childcare and domestic support at home. But to fulfill their version of the dream lifestyle in their golden years, these senior need grandchildren. Consequently it is essential that their adult children find suitable mates and these perspective grandparents take charge when it comes to finding their children a spouse. To be clear this is not arranged marriage as the adult children have the final say but one can imagine that internal family pressure here is huge especially as biological clocks are ticking.

So how do parents find a spouse for their adult children. Well the simple answer is marketing and advertising in the traditional way. Each morning sellers and buyers gather at local parks. The sellers line up along pathways with prepared flyers that provide vital statistics and make the pitch. Shoppers stroll along checking out who is on the market. If they like what they read, a conversation ensues and the sellers eventually produces photographs to try and close the deal.

There are no guarantees with this process which can take months or longer only to have the adult child reject a perspective suitor. These matrimonial marketplaces also provide a social outlet for seniors to gather, chat and maybe even forge new friendships of their own.

Socializing for seniors in China is important. The time for socializing is usually when the grandchildren are in school or in the evening when the parents take over as primary caregivers. What was both interesting and surprising is how seniors combine socializing with fitness.

Based on both observation and anecdotal evidence from people we encountered, the fitness activity of choice for seniors in China is dance. Yes I said dance.

The affection Chinese Seniors have for dance can’t be overstayed. They love to dance. They literally dance from morning until night. They dance in parks, public spaces and even on sidewalks. They dance traditionally. They dance to salsa music, country country music and even rock music. In the morning, one public promenade we visited there were at least five separate dance groups, some with more than 50 participant. Our young tour guide referred to these daily gatherings as “weird old people morning disco dance party.”   Each group dancing a different style. Their dance is usually choreographed and looks like line dancing. Whether they are beginners or retired professional dancers, their passion and love for dancing uninhibited in public is blissful. They were also pleased to welcome visitors to their groups and patiently offered informal instruction.

Public parks are equipped with various apparatus to support fitness and exercise. From traditional gymnastics equipment to other equipment that helps with stretching and toning are readily available. Various groups practice yoga and Tai Chi. Power walking is also popular. However, dancing is by far the most popular. They dance dance whenever and wherever they maybe for in China seniors are truly the Lords and Ladies of the dance.


Group Touring Canadian Style

Later today we board a flight from Hong Kong to Toronto for our fifteen hour journey home. The past nineteen days have been spectacular and even life changing. I will write about the personal impact of this tour in a future article so keep checking in.

This is the second time I have taken a pre-packaged guided extended tour with a group of Canadians. Despite differences in age, status and where we grew up; when Canadians come together it usually results in a great experience. It always leaves me appreciating how lucky I am to come from this wonderful place called Canada.   

Nineteen days ago we boarded a bus at the Beijing airport as 23 random strangers and nineteen days later we are 23 friends who not only took something from our journey but also shared and left something of ourselves with those we met along the way.

There were times when I’m sure we got on each other’s nerves. But if we did it never resulted is harsh words or unkind gestures. If fact the opposite experience was true. The ability of our group to practice tolerance, patience, respect, compassion, cooperation and genuine caring in the interest of others fills me with pride and  unqualified satisfaction.  It seems when we travel abroad, it brings out the best of who we are as country. On this occasion, travelling with a group enhanced the experience through sharing past travel experiences, personal stories along with observations and opinions. I have very fond memories of my friends on bus number one.

During our trip, we met others and observed others from all over the Western world. Without calling any one group out, let me say that our Canadian virtues are not a world wide phenomenon.  Sadly a lack of tolerance or condescending attitudes towards others including our host are still more prevalent than one would like believe. It is unbelievable how anyone could even spend two days in in China with the amazing Chinese people and still feel superior and entitled rather than gracious and humbled.

Along the way we were privileged to share time with local guides or specialist. Their ability to speak English or French varied from capable to fluent but their ability communicate with pride and genuine concern for our vacation experience could never be questioned.

Throughout our tour, the resilience of the Chinese people became self evident through and through. One of my favourite things is to listen to people’s personal stories. This is especially when I meet people from distant lands. Although to the Western observer the story of the Chinese is one of hardship and struggle, it is not the whole story. The remarkable thing about the Chinese , that we often fail to see, is that they don’t seem to view any kind of past pain and suffering as a hardship. Or as we say in the west ” they are not whiners.” On a personal level, where you come from or what your past is does not define you. It only seems to serve as motivation or strength to keep striving for a better life. Self pity and victimization seems to be rare amongst the Chinese people living in China.

The first person we met in China exemplifies the Chinese spirit of resilience. She has left a lasting impression on me. She was our first local guide, an energized women of about 28 years named Cherry. She immediately the self-disclosed that she knew her name was weird and that it was given to her by an English teacher who handed out names on the basis of academic standing. Because she claimed to a poor student, by the time the teacher got to her all the good names were taken.  (FYI. Most Chinese working in tourism have an English name). She could have changed her name and no one would be the wiser but instead she embraced it as it also serves a funny ice breaker for any new group she meets.

Cherry also shared with us that she was abandoned as a child by her birth parents because she was a girl. Sadly this practice was not unusual in China at one time especially amongst the poor. This seemed to be no more than an historical fact to her because she was eventually adopted by another family whom she spoke about with great affection and reverence. Nobody can question this young ladies devotion and unconditional love for her adopted family as she even left school to care for her mother when she became ill. Once again no self pity or regrets. She just moved to the next challenge.

Interestingly Cherry then disclosed that she had become what is known in China as a “leftover woman” or a woman who is unmarried after the age of 22. Again she wore this label as a badge of honour as she is one of a growing number of young Chinese women who choose to be independent and focused on their career. She is free to travel the world as as guide/translator and explore other paths.

She said she is actively dating but in in no way ready to settle down just yet. She recently purchased her own apartment. A huge accomplishment for a woman in China. Truly an amazing and strong young woman. We all appreciated her openness and infectious spirit.

I met many wonderful people during our Chinese adventure. Language was often a barrier but the universal language of smiles, laughter, warm gestures were sufficient to demonstrate that kindness and compassion are still at the heart of the human spirit in China. For example, Cherry told us that a simple wave and a smile from a foreigner, who was on a passing train, when she was a young child instilled a dream in her to explore the outside world. By being tour guide she is living that dream.  Now she wants everyone to smile and wave at children when they are in a foreign land.

My Canadian style tour was personally fulfilling and enriching because of having a chance to share the journey. To my new Canadian friends on bus number one, thank you for being representative of all that is good about our country. I not only learned much about China on this trip, I was also reminded of what Canadians can give the world when we put our best selves forward and that is really really awesome, especially when we smile and wave….

Cruising the Yangtzee

Yesterday we completed our five day cruise on the on China’s mighty Yangtzee River aboard the Century Diamond. Our trip, with 264 other passengers, began near the city of Wuhan and ended at this country’s largest city Shonshing with over 33 million inhabitants. Yes that’s right a city that has the population of Canada.

The Yangtzee River twist and turns 8000km between Tibet and Shanghai, is China’s largest River and has nearly 100 million people living on its shores. Our tour focused on an area known as the Three Gorges.

The Yangtzee Three Gorges Tour is a balance of natural beauty and man-made marvels.  The natural beauty of the Gorges is spectacular. Towering cliffs rise from the water’s edge toward the China sky. Mountains that tower hundreds of feet high feature abundant greenery with plenty of exposed gray rock for contrast. Mountain side  farmhouses  with orange groves and linier gardens extend high on the on the hillsides are common and seen regularly.  Some animal life can be seen on the shores. We were fortunate to see monkeys and goats from our private balconies. I have to admit I was not expecting discover this level of natural beauty on this trip. It is definitely one of many highlights for me thus far.

The other feature of the cruise was once again witnessing the technological prowess and determination of the Chinese people. The Chinese completed the Three Gorges Hydro Electric Dam in 2010 almost 20 years after is was started.

This massive dam, perhaps the biggest in the world, raised the water on  upstream side by 110 metres. This meant that 1.3 million who lived upstream of the dam were permanently displaced because of the resulting flooding.  New homes built at higher elevations allowed many to continue life on the river like generations before them. Other opted to be relocated to nearby cities or other parts of the country.

This dam, with more than thirty turbines, will provide China with  three percent of their electricity needs. As unimpressive as that sounds we need to remember that three percent in China means that 39 million people will benefit from the power produced by this world class facility. In relative terms, this dam could provide all of Canada’s electricity needs which is truly remarkable.

But as impressive as the dam is, the adjacent lock system that has been carved out of the mountain is also a modern day marvel. Shipping of manufactured goods and natural resources is a vital transportation link all along the Yangtzee. Boat traffic is heavy in both directions. We estimated that one ship we passed was carrying about 1700 new automobiles. The growing cruise ship business is becoming and important economic engine with hundreds of cruise ships carrying thousands of Chinese and International Tourist weekly.

The five step twined locks (one set for upstream traffic and one set for downstream traffic) is designed to lift ships over 30 metric tons 110 meters. Each step raises the ships 22 meters in about about 45 minutes. The entire lift is completed in three hours and forty five minutes. 100 ships in both directions can be moved through the locks each day. Passenger vessels get priority which means that some cargo ships can wait up 36 hours before getting passage through the locks.  I have been through locks in Canada. The shear size and capacity of each lock here impressive. The it is the height of each lift that is exceptional. Truly a modern technological marvel.

For smaller ships less than 30 tons, they have built a lift lock to raise these boats the full 110 meters in about 30 minutes. It is the largest lift lock of this type in the world. There is no charge to pass through the locks for any ship.

The quality of service and accommodation on the Century Diamond is excellent. Staff and crew on the ship were gracious and efficient. All provided exceptional service. Excursions were well timed, varied and interesting.

But the icing on this River adventure is the sights and sounds experienced along the way. Technical marvels and mountain vistas were  impressive and pleasing to the eye respectively.  Night views from the water of tall buildings and bridges with their choreographed multi-coloured light shows had us smiling with child like delight.

The sounds of ships motoring by and distant fog horns provided our nautical background music for our journey. Hearing the young mother, who was our River guide for the day, proudly sing century old folks songs about love and family was endearing and enchanting. Finally the sound of the children laughing and at play, in the small river side communities we visited, is a reminder that regardless of borders, language or culture, there are joyful sounds that make us all the same.


Thus far on our Chinese journey we have visited three major cities. The historic and political capital Beijing, Beautiful Xi’an which is the gateway city to the one of the truly modern wonders the Terra Cotta Warriors and the spectacular Shanghai the business and commerce centre of China. All of these cities are experiencing a building boom of unprecedented growth and development. The sheer number, size and modern over the top design of these new buildings is mind numbing. The level of my astonishment and amazement is beyond description. Everywhere you look you see modern architecture that causes your jaw to drop in wonder.

With three times the population of New York City, Shanghai is New York on steroids and still growing as skyscrapers can seen to be sprouting in any direction you look. The tallest building in the world was recently completed in Shanghai dominates the skyline with its twisting form.  It stands as a beacon the center of Shanghai’s exploding financial and business hub. But the supporting cast of surrounding builds emblazoned with the names of some the world’s foremost financial companies are equally impressive and appealing to the eye. But what is most impressive is that twenty years ago the amazing cityscape that is “New Shanghai” or “East Shanghai” did not exist. Since the mid-nineties a financial district has been built that would rival any in the world has emerged from nothing.

But Shanghai is just not about unrestrained development. Like most cities in China space is at a premium but supporting infrastructure has not been sacrificed. In the last twenty years three new subways connecting East and West Shanghai under the Yangtzee River have been put into service with with several more under construction or in planning stages. In a joint venture with venture with Simmens of Germany, a thirty kilometer electro-magnetic train line has been built that will get you from Shanghai’s new airport to downtown is seven minutes and twenty seconds.

Traffic congestion is a major problem in Shanghai. A number of road construction and traffic management strategies have been undertaken to address this difficult problem. For instance when major city traffic arteries become congested they simply build another roadway above the existing one. The result is an elevated eight lane freeway above the eight lanes below it taking up half that space of a similar expressway in North America. There are hundreds of kilometers of elevated highways around Shanghai alone. When another suspension bridge was required to handle automobile traffic across the Yangtzee River, a bridge with a spiraling or corkscrew bridge approach was built to minimize the space that is required to descend about a twenty meter drop in elevation from the top of the bridge to ground level.

Not all traffic problems can be handled with a construction based solution so traffic is also strictly managed.  Only cars with certain license plate numbers can drive in cities on designated days. For example if your plate number ends with a one or a three you can not drive your care in the city on a Monday.  Roads tolls are also heavily used throughout the country. In fact a major highway without a toll would be an exception.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that life in a city like Shanghai is wonderful and problem free. It is not. Population density, smog, traffic congestion, water and waste management are real issues here like any major cities in the world. Moreover many struggle to make ends meet with locals paying rents that can consume most of their salary in rent. The difference in China is they are open to radical creative solutions to address problems they face. Also they are an action oriented society. Once they review the options and decide on a course of action work begins immediately without looking back or bureaucratic reviews or inefficiency. Consequently the result is unprecedented rapid growth and economic expansion that would be astonishing to the average Canadian.

Trans-Arctic? Yes please!

Our flight between Toronto and Beijing followed a Trans-Arctic flight path. Below are a couple of photos I took of the Arctic landscape near Resolute in the Canadian Arctic. Without a doubt a beautiful piece of our planet to behold.

The Arctic has always been a fascination for me. As a young person I often pointed to the North Pole as the one place I would like to see and any movies or documentaries set in the high Arctic usually get my attention.

Most of our flight was above the clouds but there were short periods where there was a clear view below us where I was able snap a few pics. I must say that being able to view the Arctic even for a few moments was a real thrill even if it was from 30,000 ft.



Beijing Wow!

Wow! Just wow! After two full days in Beijing China that is the impression I’m left with. The mixture of history, culture and booming progress is almost too much to grasp. I don’t know that I had any expectations of what I would find here, but I do know that any cultural and economic stereotypes I had before I got here have vaporized.

It is not my intention to write a play by play narrative about this experience. Frankly there is plenty of stuff written on the internet about various tourist destinations throughout China so there is no point in me trying to add to that already cluttered space. Besides my writing skills would not do it justice. So I will focus on my impressions, what I’m learning from my adventure and my reactions to this experience.

You don’t have to be an economics scholar to appreciate what an economic power house China is both as a producer and as a consumer. My observations on the ride from the airport to the hotel pretty much confirmed that. Just one qualifier here. Beijing has experienced a huge construction and modernization boom that began with the preparations for the summer Olympics and really has not stopped. So I’m not sure that my first impressions will hold true for the rest of China. But time will tell.

Depending on who you speaking the population of the city of Beijing is about 30 million give or take. The exact number is difficult to pin down because of how they do the population count here. For example, unmarried women who move the this city are not counted in it’s population until they find a husband. It is estimated that there may be millions of these women alone who have been living in the city for years. But the important issue here is that this one city’s population may match that of Canada which, from an  economic standpoint is mind blowing for me.

So getting back back to the ride from the airport. What you see is large multi-lane superhighways that are filled with high end luxury automobiles. Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Lexus, Buick, Bentley and even Tesla vehicles dominate the roadways. I have never witnessed anything like it anywhere else including New York City. But what makes this even more astounding is that these vehicles cost three times more to purchase here than in North America yet they still fill the roads.  Consumers my have to wait up to ten years to even purchase car because of supply realities. Thankfully for us rednecks who love our pickup trucks, owning one is not a trend here….yet.

My second observation during my ride from the airport is the amazing buildings that are common place throughout the city. So much of the modern architecture defies what I believed was possible. Like most amazing architecture, the true impact does happen until you are standing in front of it. In other words two dimensional photos you find on the internet don’t do them justice. Futuristic, innovative modern design is common place.

So my first impressions of China have pretty much dispelled any notion or myth that this country that is stuck in time and stereotypes. To the contrary in terms of progress on many fronts, this country is clearly a world pacesetter/leader that rest of us need to be aware of and engaged with to ensure our own economic prosperity.

Oh the Wonder…

I flew for the first time as a pre-teen in four seater CESNA. I have been fortunate that I have continued to have the opportunity to fly on many types of aircraft throughout my life. I must say that in my 59th year I still marvel at the wonders of flight.

As a baby boomer, I am the first generation in my family to be able to enjoy the benefits of air travel. My generation is the first where air travel is truly affordable and accessible. Consequently I have been able to see the world in ways my parents could only dream of.

As I sit here waiting to board my flight to Beijing I am filled both excitement and anticipation at the prospect of flying at nearly 1000 kmph at 30,000 feet for 12 hours to reach a far away continent. It is like I’m that kid again flying for the first time.  This same voyage taken twenty years before my birth would have taken months of extremely difficult travel without the benefit of five star accommodation at the other end. I never take for granted the gift of flight we have been afforded.

At times I listen to other travellers complain about the perils of modern jet travel. They are often angered by delays, poor service, a rough ride or the exhaustion experienced after a long flight. Then I often smile to myself and reflect at how this generation sometimes views the wonders of air travel and everything it has to offer with so little reverence. They fail to realize that we are living in a wondrous time where travelling to all corners of the earth is possible. It is a pity that our obsession with first world problems associated with modern flight get in the way of appreciating, experiencing and marvelling at this wonderful gift we have been given. Every time I fly I take comfort in knowing that an old guy like me can become that wide eyed kid again…

Heading West to get East

Today I embark on the longest journey of my life by aeroplane. Twelve and a half hours of flight from Toronto to Beijing on AC31. Interestingly we will be flying West to reach the far East. Bejiing is exactly 12 hours or 12 time zones ahead of Toronto. Our flight leaves today at 15:00 hours and arrives the next day at about 16:00 hours local time. Admittedly getting my head around this time zone stuff is somewhat of an achievement for someone like me who has never been a numbers guy. But getting the concept that there is a half a clock difference between our two countries does simplify this brain puzzle for an old dude like me.

So why China and why now?

The answer is quite simple. Travelling to China from Canada has never been so affordable. When we booked our “post retirement trip” the Canadian dollar was severely slumping. Originally our focus had been on a European river cruise. But my wife’s colleague had recently returned from her second trip to China and raved about the quality and the affordability of a China trip. So we did a little research on both the trip and tour company Sinorama. It was difficult to find any negative reviews. In fact we didn’t so we booked.

So here are the economics of travelling to China now. For less than the cost of a seven day European river cruise we got a 19 day tour of China that includes return flight from Toronto, four domestic flights while we are there with 4 or 5 star accommodation and most meals throughout. Also included is a four day cruise of the Yangtzee River. So you can see the value here, especially now that we have the time.

Although China was not the first choice, I have always had an interest in Asian culture. So given current economic realities and this country’s significance in the world along with it’s rich cultural history, it was not a hard choice to make.