Q: "How was the China trip?"

A: "Beyond superlatives…"



Basil J. Whiting

November 2 and 20, 2005


I write the first draft of this trip memoir about half way through recovery from the worst jet lag this planet can inflict. When we went to China three weeks ago, China was 12 hours behind U.S. east coast daylight savings time; and it took us most of the first week there to adjust to that difference. Coming back was a 13-hour differential, since the U.S. went back to standard time while we were gone, adding another hour to absorb.

We arrived home late on Sunday night, October 30, after almost 24 straight hours of travel—and collapsed into bed. I awoke early, of course, at 3 am (4 pm in China). I’m not sure what happened to Monday and Tuesday. Monday I recall being Zombie-like, in a dazed and slightly dizzy stupor. All I could do was laundry, distribute what seemed like two tons of mail into appropriate piles, and try to avoid hurting myself bumping into things. And Monday, too, was Halloween. As we tried to stay awake while dispensing candy from the stoop, the neighbors understandably started to ask how the trip was, a question also reflected in the dozens of emails that awaited me.

So, today (November 2), when I feel like I am less a clear and present danger to myself and the community at large, I thought I’d write out some thoughts on the China trip while memories are fresh and send them out to tripmates and interested others for comment and input.

Later, on November 20, I revisited the first draft to incorporate input and finalize the draft before sending it again to tripmates and interested people at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whose alumni association promoted the trip. The main changes:

In a phrase, the China trip was beyond superlatives in almost every respect—the trip of a lifetime. I’ll say more below on the tour company (Vantage) and the largely alumni group we went with. Suffice it here at the outset to say that Vantage was superb and the trip was nicely paced and wonderfully varied, with two to four nights in each of seven locations. Below are the itinerary and its highlights, followed by some general observations:


Fly to Beijing (day 1, Oct. 9): Thankfully uneventful, and with the gentlest landing I’ve ever experience in a huge 747.

Beijing (days 2-5, Oct. 10-13, four nights), where it seems everything is under construction for the 2008 Olympics. We endlessly walked Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, and the Great Wall. We saw an abbreviated version of the Peking Opera; had lunch in an old-town family’s home; and visited a fresh water pearl jewelry factory where our guide opened a huge fresh water clam to find almost two dozen pearls inside! And, naturally, many of us bought some pearl jewelry.

Xi’an (days 6-7, Oct. 14-15, two nights), a handsome, fully walled city an hour-and-a- half’s flight west of Beijing, where we saw a first class Tang Dynasty dinner show, visited a pagoda, toured a government-run jade carving center and shop (exquisite carvings and jewelry, leading to more purchases), had a memorable dim sum lunch, and spent an astonishing afternoon at the nearby massive terra cotta army museum.

Hangzhou (days 8-9, Oct. 16-17, two nights), back southeastwards near the coast to the south of Shanghai. We cruised lovely, famous West Lake, visited a tea plantation and Buddhist temple, and had lunch at a farmer’s home that doubles as a neighborhood restaurant.

Shanghai (days 10-12, Oct. 18-20, three nights). We traveled by train to China’s largest city (18 million population), its most modern, sophisticated, and Westernized—and the financial powerhouse of China. (This city merits more comment, below.) While there we visited a charming children’s day care and supplementary education center, then toured the Bund on one side of the Huangpu River, a district of pre-World War II buildings built by the then occupying Western powers. Across the river, where 20 years ago there were only rice paddies, is a new, huge, spectacular sector, Pudong, of high rises in a flashy, almost science-fiction, neon-lighted style.

We spent too short an afternoon at the magnificent collections of the Shanghai Museum (jade, ivory, porcelain, copper, brass, stone, etc., reflecting up to 10,000 and more years of Chinese history). Our visit to a silk factory took us from worms munching Mulberry leaves to pulling silk fibers off cocoons floating in boiling water (always wondered how that was done), to spinning nine fibers from as many cocoons into thread, to finished products of lustrous silk, some of which we, of course, bought. One afternoon was free and many of the group took Reflexology therapy to sooth aching feet and lower legs. Finally, we rode the world’s only operating magnetically levitated train from Pudong to Shanghai’s spanking new airport—at speeds up to 250 mph! ("Oh, everything’s up to date in Shanghai city; they’ve gone much further than you might expect…")

On the Yangtze River (days 13-16, Oct. 21-24, three days and four nights) on a cruise ship of the American-owned, mostly Chinese-staffed Victoria Cruise Line. This began at the largest hydroelectric dam project on earth, the Three Gorges Dam. It is in the late stages of construction and has already impounded a several-hundred mile long lake behind it. It already generates 6% of China’s electric power and makes the Yangtze fully navigable from Shanghai to Chongqing, flooding out what were hard-to-pass gorge rapids.

The project displaces 1.2 million people, most of whom have been or are being moved up the river slopes to new cities of high rises built for them. We traversed the four of the planned five locks that are now working (when the dam is finished and water rises further, the fifth lock will come into play).

This cruise was a welcome respite from walking and floated us through the spectacular scenery of the famed Three Gorges, with side trips each day, one to a set of "mini-gorges" that we explored via motorized sampan, another to a famous "Red Pagoda" rising to a mesa-top Buddhist temple (which we climbed to). The cruise was a high point of the trip, with entertainment by the ship’s staff each night, lectures on Chinese medicine and other subjects, Tai Chi each morning for those so inclined, and a long, open Q&A section with the river guide (a Victoria employee) on Chinese politics and anything else anyone wanted to bring up (and we brought up a lot).

Chongqing (day 17, Oct 25, not an overnight): We landed at and explored this bustling city at the western terminus of the new Yangtze lake. We saw five Panda’s at the zoo and some of us actually patted one while it was munching apples. One expects them to be fluffy; actually, I can testify that their fur is rough and coarse and feels like stroking a doormat. But cute anyway! And we visited the World War II headquarters of famed General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell, now a museum, before flying that evening to Guilin.

Guilin (days 17-18, Oct. 25-26, two nights). This is a lovely "small" city of only a half million located in the fantasyland of humpty-dumpty mountains that are iconic elements in so much Chinese art. I’d seen such oddly shaped mountains in Chinese paintings all my life and thought they must be imagined. But no, they’re very real. We spent a day on a river cruise through this stunning landscape.

That cruise turned into a hoot. The dry season was coming and the river seemed to have more cruise boats than water. We repeatedly got stuck and had to wait often for long times as cruise boats like ours lined up to negotiate shoals. But, the crews were intrepid, pushing us with long rods off the shoals and forward, and sometimes turning the ship backwards so that the propellers would have more purchase and maneuverability (a wag in our group called it getting "front wheel drive"). The mountains are limestone and honeycombed with caves; and we visited the massive Reed Flute Cave, reminiscent of Carlsbad or Howe Caverns in the U.S.

Hong Kong (days 19-21, Oct. 27-29, three nights). While now under Chinese jurisdiction, much is the same as under the British former colonizers because of a 50-year extension agreement to maintain "one country, two systems." You go through China exit and Hong Kong entry immigration and customs to get there, where driving is on the left and the Hong Kong dollar reigns. Indeed, Hong Kong is capitalism rampant, a world-class, sophisticated city with the very tallest residential and commercial buildings we encountered on the trip, marching up and down their San Francisco-like hills. We took a funicular up Victoria Peak, visited a fishing village and an open-air market, and shopped, shopped, shopped.

Flying back to the U.S. (day 22--plus). "Plus" because, well, you fly through the night, crossing the international dateline, so you leave on one day and arrive the next, but they’re both Oct. 30. It is the aforementioned 24 hours of travel time from hotel in Hong Kong to pulling up in front of our stoop in Brooklyn.


What did we find most impressive? I can speak only for myself at this point (I’ll be polling my trip-mates for input to an article for the RPI Alumni News), but I was blown away by two things and intrigued by a third.

  1. The economic advances in China are simply stunning. Any alert citizen of the U.S. has read about the growth of the Chinese economy, but I didn’t fully grasp it until seeing it. There was a first page headline in the government English-language Shanghai Daily that read, "Growth in third quarter slows to 9 percent," down from 9.2 percent or so. China has experienced two decades of at least nine percent per annum growth in GDP (!!!), three times greater than the U.S.—and than most everyone else, too.
  2. Every airport displays large signs about their local industrial and technology parks. We bussed through or past some of them, new building after new building, many sporting the names of Western firms. Joint ventures are the way, we were told, that China is learning how to do business the Western way.

    Everywhere one turns there is construction—modern superhighways; gleaming new airports, train stations, and government buildings; and, in city and country, massive high-rise offices and high-rise housing, housing, housing. On the train trip from Hangzhou to Shanghai, we passed forest after forest of housing complexes. Some were arrayed in matrices; I counted the columns and rows of high rises in a typical cluster—it was 18 by 20, meaning 360 buildings with three entrances/stairwells/elevator columns and 20 or more stories, with shopping and schools and other public faculties built in. We heard that one quarter of all the world’s construction cranes are at work in China. Believe it. (A friend pointed out to me that the scaffolding on this construction was built of bamboo—up to 70 stories and more high! I have pictures of this, but I still don’t understand how they put such weight loads on bamboo.)

    New high rises dominate, but there are thousands of new low rises and new single family homes for the better off. Low rises tend to stop at six stories; if a building is higher than that, Chinese codes require the installation of elevators, which means a lot of six-story (!) walk-ups. "Rich farmers" (yes, we were told there were a lot of them) in the vicinity of Hangzhou and Shanghai occupied large three- or four-story homes with odd cupolas on top.

    Both new and old housing is literally pockmarked by air conditioners; virtually everyone—even in apparently poor districts—seems to have them. External compressor A/C units are mounted up, down, and across facades, sometimes 70 stories up, with pipes carrying the refrigerant through the walls to cooling air distributors inside the rooms. These scar the facades of massive numbers of new and older buildings in ugly ways; only a few recent structures try to incorporate them nicely into their designs. But even older, poorer houses and office buildings have them.

    Housing is going up so fast in part because it is built as concrete shells that are sold to occupants who must then build out the shells themselves (or, rather, pay for a contractor do it). This means you put in your bathroom and kitchen appliances, HVAC, flooring, walls, and so on. So, a couple buys a one- to three-bedroom unit, which tend to be small—400-800-1200 or so square feet—and "decorates" it as their style, finances, and time allows. This gets a lot of housing up quickly and gets people invested in owning and finishing it for their use.

    This growth is evident everywhere we looked, but it peaks in stunning Shanghai. Shanghai has 4,000 skyscrapers of 18 stories or more—and is building 1,000 more! (New York City has only 2,000 buildings of that size.) And Shanghai is a shopper’s Mecca, with all the high-end retailers one could imagine, many with famous Western names. Similarly with restaurants, with all the world’s cuisines and many guru chefs well represented by pricy and classy eateries. I visited a grocery store that would compete very well, thank you, on Fifth Avenue.

    In sum, I’m a New Yorker and not easily blown away, but I have to admit that New York City might better now be described as "the Shanghai of North America" than Shanghai as the New York of China (which one often hears).

  3. The downside of this growth is environmental degradation. The smog in Beijing, actually just about everywhere, is like fog. But it is worst in Beijing, which is cupped by mountains on three sides, a natural trap for pollutants. You often can’t see buildings a few blocks away. We visited the Great Wall outside Beijing, which the postcards show marching across mountaintops—which is sadly visible only on rare clear days. On the day we were there we could barely see a peak or two’s worth. I climbed up toward the first mountaintop tower, but stopped when I realized I wouldn’t be able to see anything. Many of us found our throats and eyes burning. (The next day, which we were to spend in town, was somewhat clearer. Ah, well.)
  4. The air pollution comes from the usually suspect sources: Heating in the winter is mainly coal; and, year-round, 72% of China’s energy is from coal. To that add industry attracted because there is no real equivalent to our EPA; we drove past a factory spewing heavy grey emissions into the air that heavily shrouded the valley it sat in. And, in the last decade or two, "everyone is buying cars." Before that, "we didn’t really have many private vehicles—just busses and taxis." And these add to both the demand for world oil resources (driving prices up) and to the local pollution load.

    Beijing says it will have this all cleaned up (at least in Beijing) for the 2008 Olympics that it is hosting, but that seems simply impossible to me—the task is too enormous. How world-class athletes will react to these conditions will make for interesting reading at the time. To its credit, China seems aware of and is trying to ameliorate these conditions. The government-published English language papers are full of discussion on pollution. And, we were told plans are afoot to rein it in. For instance, 320 wastewater treatment facilities have been built up and down the Yangtze. But, there is a long, long way to go.

    New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman visited Shanghai a few days after we left it and began his present series of columns on Chinese growth and the environment. We picked up his first two columns on this subject in the International Herald Tribune, readily available in hotels. In his first column, he notes that one Shanghai newsman proposed, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that China give up chopsticks and adopt metal forks—because China uses 45 BILLION pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks PER YEAR! Since China has banned much logging and is trying to reforest its landscape, the resulting international demand for wood (for construction as well as chopsticks) is denuding forests across South Asia and Brazil. Friedman says, and I agree, that China has reached the limits of rampant growth in terms of environmental impact.

  5. The intriguing thing about this trip is the political structure atop all this growth and the sociological impact of it. This was a tourist trip and we didn’t get as much into these issues as I would have liked, but it is clear that this is not a Communist country anymore. Nor is it a police state; none of the trappings of that are apparent. There is no fear at all. People are bustling, intent on making careers and improving their lives. They say they can go anywhere in the country, start their own businesses, buy their own apartments and whatever else they can afford. Young people party till dawn and then go to work. Farmers near the cities are getting rich. But family units are changing. The one birth per couple policy is in place, with some exceptions, meaning families are smaller. But, also, young adults are moving away from their parents, whether off the farm to the coastal regions (as millions are doing) or into different careers in different locations. The press included worried stories about the impact of this on the elderly. Villages are dispersing, as are the old clusters of urban homes around courtyards, where people intermixed and supported each other.
  6. What all this means isn’t clear. But people are very pleased—and understandably so—with the undeniable and very substantial progress of the last two decades. They can remember what it was like before—the dull grayness of the Mao years, marred by the craziness of the "cultural revolution" (though one of our local guides who experienced "re-education" in the countryside didn’t find that so bad an experience). People in general prefer the present "revolution" of rising expectations being met. So long as that continues, there is little impulse for dissent.

    But one of our group told of sitting on a flight beside a Chinese man, a Fulbright scholar educated in the U.S., who railed on about the need for dissent and dissenters, maintaining that corruption was rampant among the Party cadre, that local officials have too much power and abuse it. Elsewhere, we were told that the courts are of little help, being filled with cronies of officials. Checks and balances are needed.

    But, the English-language press is full of stories, editorials, and columns on democracy, corruption, and, as said, pollution. They included news that the government was soon to release a major white paper on democratization, which I’d be interested in seeing. I gather from some of what I read and heard that there will be slow experimentation with democratic reforms—some local rural villages, we were told, are now electing or soon would elect their own local officials. There is a growth in the number of appointed officials who are not Party members but who have expert skills.

    People we met say they can say whatever they want without fear of persecution—and they amply demonstrated that to us. But they can’t do so in a public forum and can’t organize protests. There are bookstores full of books, some critical of the Party (I bought one). But, I saw no newsstands in mainland cities, in sharp contrast to Hong Kong, where they are as frequent as in New York. And, we’ve all read stories about the persecution of dissidents—and we all saw what the Party did to those democracy demonstrators in Tian’anmen Square.

    So, the Party wants the boisterous prosperity of free-market capitalism with people owning their own businesses, farms, and homes—but without fully democratic institutions and freedoms. There is a contradiction there; many of us believe that eventually you can’t have the one without the other. For the time being, at least, it seems that growth and prosperity muffles that contradiction, but there is authoritarianism behind all that economic ferment.

    Also, all this growth comprises mainly over 300 million of China’s 1.3 billion people. There are reportedly 900 million people or so still in rural areas that are less prosperous. Still, the rural areas we saw looked pretty good, with high rises, well, rising--and with tidy, intensely cultivated land. An image that endures: bussing past a run-down looking, tin-roofed farmer’s house in the warm south of China, but with a satellite dish on the roof and a big-screen TV evident through the open door. Contradictions indeed.

    Finally, the economic progress is rapidly widening disparities in income. A new class of the truly rich is emerging, a consequence of free markets that the government-controlled English language press expresses concern about. They are addressing this through newly progressive taxation; athletes and show business stars making millions face the highest rates.

  7. The trip itself (Vantage, food, drink, health, shopping, and the group): A year ago, I received a notice from my college alumni association about this Vantage tour to China. Vantage runs dozens of China tours with this itinerary each year and has done so for 17 years, I was told—as well as all kinds of tours to dozens of other locales around the world. (You should check out their website.) One marketing strategy of such tour operators is to work through affinity groups, and alumni associations are ideal for that. Such associations offer a variety of services, like insurance, travel, and so on.

My wife and I were at a point in our lives—our mid-sixties—where I was trying to slow down a bit: keep on working but at a reduced level and do more travel. The tour looked interesting and didn’t seem terribly expensive for so expansive a trip—about $5,000 per person for 23 days (double that for Business Class flights). So I checked it out with an old classmate active in the alumni association who had signed the notice and with the travel coordinator of the association. They gave it high marks and we signed up. Not without some trepidation. I didn’t want cattle-car treatment and lousy service, food, and facilities.

Well, I needn’t have worried. I now recommend both Vantage and this tour unreservedly. I have no other tour experience to compare Vantage to, but others in our group who were veteran users of tours said they found Vantage to be the best they had experienced. In any event, I think most if not all of us thought that Vantage was just superb; they have the big things down pat, but also the little things, too. They provided ample, thorough, thoughtful information ahead of time and spent a lot of time answering questions on the phone with us. Once on the way, we found them tremendously responsive and helpful. Once we checked our luggage in for the first flight, we never handled it again until the last flight out of Hong Kong. Vantage had contractors pick it up at airports and train stations and deliver it to our hotels, where it was deposited in our rooms. On departure days we just put it outside our doors at the appointed hour.

As for the itinerary, it seemed to me as we considered it and then went through it that it was both thoughtful and well balanced. Two to four nights in each locale meant we weren’t repacking and moving each day. As for substance, well, it covered just about all the major subjects and sights most people associate with China and then some. If you’re going to spend three weeks in China, you’ll be disappointed not having had some encounter with pearls, jade, tea, and silk, with the major sights like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Three Gorges, the terra cotta army, and so on, with the people and the landscape and the riverways, and with both antiquity and the new cities. Some of our group thought five boat rides was maybe one or two too many; but I didn’t mind. Some could have dispensed with the silk factory; for me it was a highlight. I’d have liked more exposure to politics, economics, and sociology, and others would have liked more time on their differing professional and personal interests. But, you can’t please everyone on something like this, and I think Vantage did the best it could to balance out the coverage of substance. I would not recommend changing the itinerary much if at all, though others in our group might.

The time of year to travel is important, depending on your destination. For China, we were told that fall or spring was best, as temperatures in winter are freezing and in summer often well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and, in the south, with high humidity (hence the readily apparent early purchase of home/room air-conditioners by those with newly available amounts of disposable income). Trip pricing reflects this fact, being highest in October, the best month. The downside of this is that you have to pack for warm and for cool days in October (you’ll have both). It is best to wear "layers," things you wear in the chill of mornings or afternoons but that you can take off and carry or leave in the bus in the warmer middays. China is quite informal; I wore a blazer or a suit to the fanciest restaurants, but never a tie. Generally I and others toured in jeans and sometimes shorts.

Key to the whole operation is the local "program manager," the tour guide who meets you at the airport in Beijing and accompanies you throughout the 20-odd days. Ours was 31-year-old Kelly Wei, an eight-year veteran of Vantage with quite a reputation that proved well merited. She was just fabulous—informed, a good manager on top of all the details, humorous, responsive, and helpful (I’m six feet six inches tall and have a problem with airplane seats—she got me bulkhead or exit row seats on every flight).

She and other tour guides hired by Kelly for Vantage in each city helped us even with little things ("Tip this much, not any more; buy that souvenir here, not there; on your open evenings, here are some restaurants I’d recommend—and I’ll call and make a reservation for you and give you the address on a card written in Chinese for the cab driver—as well as the address of the hotel for the return trip; or, Oh, you want to go to that restaurant from your own research? Well I’ll set that up for you. Let me know how it is. Etc., etc.") Kelly handed out the next day’s itinerary every night, replete with the weather forecast. Needless to say, Kelly got a well-earned standing ovation from our group at the farewell dinner. She has multiple invitations to visit members of our group whenever she comes to the U.S. I even promised to adopt her!

Accommodations were generally five-star hotels—modern, air-conditioned, full service (including laundry), with ample English speaking personnel and not much to really complain about. Buses were modern and air-conditioned. The tour boat on the Yangtze was first class. Vantage provided most meals, with only a half dozen lunches or dinners "on your own" (I might have liked more). The food ranged from good to excellent. We shared the breakfasts provided by the hotels to all their guests, usually a huge buffet of Western, Japanese, and Chinese options, including a cook frying eggs and making omelets at the buffet table—and pretty good coffee. Lunch was usually at a hotel or restaurant along the way, and was usually Chinese, served to round tables seating ten, surrounding a rotating lazy Susan. Dinners were the same, though some were Western food.

The Chinese food would comprise half-dozen appetizers followed by that many or more main courses. Usually a dish or two at each stage was "spicy," which we tended to like so long as we didn’t eat one of the red pepper shells, which a friend quickly dubbed "dragon claws." (I find that eating ample rice generally adequately absorbs the fire.) Others didn’t care for the spicy fare at all and avoided it. The majority of non-spicy dishes were varied and well-prepared, but for us curiously bland (they don’t use much in the way of intermediate spicing, herbs, or other flavorings).

On nights and lunches "on your own," we came prepared with scouting reports, lists of interesting possibilities in each locale, gleaned from perusing Fodor’s guide (which we have long used as the best guide series), the website of The New York Times or general Googling. These were supplemented by Kelly’s or a local guide’s recommendations or by research done by other group members. We used all of these sources of "intelligence" on restaurants to great effect—we ate fabulously "on our own."

For instance, a lovely lakeside table at a restaurant in Beijing where we negotiated satisfactorily with a staff with little English; the fabulous, world class "M on the Bund" in Shanghai, with high Continental cuisine with oriental influences (and good Martinis) overlooking the new Pudon district awash in lights; also in Shanghai, a new, modish Chinese restaurant with great food in an English menu; and, to top it off, a world-class Italian/Japanese restaurant high in a skyscraper in Hong Kong with a sheer glass wall open to the city’s evening laser and light show (as recommended by our friend’s daughter, a fashion designer who often travels there).

For drinks, Western booze was often available if sometimes weirdly mixed. We found Chinese beer to be fine. European/American wines were exorbitantly priced, but those from more neighborly Australia and New Zealand were ample and good and not too expensive. Anyway, we almost always explored native Chinese wines, once we found them to be quite satisfactory.

Health was not as much an issue as we had been warned to fear. No, you don’t drink the water out of the tap (but do shower in it). You use bottled, purified water for drinking and teeth cleaning. Hotels provide it gratis; elsewhere it is universally available at the controlled price of 10 Yuan for three 12-ounce or so bottles (that’s about a buck and a half). Don’t eat at street vendors, however great the food looks. You don’t have to bring your own chopsticks. The hotels wash their veggies in purified water and use that for the ice they serve or deliver to your room for use with the mini-bar offerings. Anyway, following these rules, Montezuma’s (or, there, Mao’s) revenge was kept at bay for what I understand was the majority of us.

(While we’re on that subject, at least one of the women in our group wants mention of, uh, Chinese toilets. Most toilets we encountered outside of hotels, top-tier restaurants, and some major tourist attractions were of the "squat-John" type you might be familiar with from some eastern Mediterranean countries—that is, a ceramic slab on the floor, with two slighlty raised pedestals for your feet, straddling a hole. Now, Westerners, especially in their sixties with raspy knees, don’t squat very well. Fairly often there was a handicapped stall with a western sit-down toilet, usually with a long line of westerners in front of it. Oh, and most of these toilets don’t provide toilet paper; you bring your own!)

Shopping was great from shops, open-air markets, and street vendors. The latter were ubiquitous, surrounding you at every stop. The universal greeting was "Hallo, Hallo, one dollah, one dollah," which is worth about eight Yuan and for which you could get an astonishing array of stuff, some of it very worth having. Our guides called them "the one-dollar people" and you learned not to make eye contact if you didn’t want to deal with them. Their persistence made most of us learn at least two words of Chinese: "Bu Yao," meaning, "I don’t want that." "Stuff" in all these venues ranged from tacky and not-so-tacky souvenirs through antiques, crafts, and art works, to the posh offerings of international designers, generally at what seemed to me quite low prices. You bought what you could carry or had it shipped. Prices in most (but not all) places were just the starting point for bargaining. Asking about something then starting to walk away would lead to a back-and-forth bilingual "discussion" in which the price often quickly fell to half or less of what was posted.

Finally, the group: it comprised 39 people, with Kelly making 40, just filling four ten-person tables at most meals—and leaving a few open seats in most tour busses. This is neither too big nor too small. Most were alumni of RPI or spouses or widows thereof, with a few friends thrown in as welcome interlopers (we invited two lifelong non-RPI friends). There were no chronic complainers or pains-in-the-butt in the group, which melded well as we got to know each other. This was very much an AARP-aged group, people in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s, either late in their careers and slowing down or globetrotting retirees (younger people, we quickly concluded, were too busy with careers or kids to be able to come on a three-week trip like this—or perhaps to afford it). There was a lot of walking everywhere, plus much stair climbing in pagodas, temples, and the Great Wall. Most of us negotiated this with alacrity, often led by an intrepid 78-year old woman.

Enough said, so this is where I’ll end this memoir. It may be too long, but then it was a long and complicated and richly fulfilling trip. I will be happy to talk with anyone who wants to explore any of this further.

Basil J. ("Baze") Whiting, ‘60

Consultant on Workforce, Community, and Economic Development

194 Warren Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Office Tel/Fax: 718-935-0351. Home Tel.: 718-935-0852. Cell: 347-495-3942.


Appendix I: Meeting with Beijing Chapter—by Bob Forman, President, Rensselaer Alumni Association

On October 12th Kelly Wei arranged a private dinner for our first International RPI Alumni Conference. This was an opportunity for our group to meet with members of the Beijing Chapter. Beginning in 1993, the Lally School had a specialized MBA program focused on China. Most of the members of the Chapter are graduates of this program. Now these young Alumni, mostly in their 30’s have assumed a leading role in both government and industry.

Twenty of the members of the Beijing Chapter joined us for a buffet dinner. At dinner the Beijing Alumni split up so that they had a presence at each table. I had the pleasure of having dinner with Xu Shufeng and Johnny Zhang. Shufeng is the Chairman of the Hebei District CATV station. His daughter Bing Xin Xu is currently an MBA student at RPI. Johnny Zhang has the responsibility of developing a healthcare practice for Intel in China. Guobin Zhao acted as our host and master of ceremonies. Guo is the founder and Chairman of a training company. It was a wonderful opportunity to swap RPI stories and for us to learn from some of those who were making the China miracle happen.

To commemorate the occasion I presented a copy of Gavin Menzies book 1421 which describes the voyages of Zhung He and his exploration of the east and west coasts of North and South America to Graham Wang. The book was signed by Dr. Jackson. Graham is the Chairman of the TEDA Chemical Industrial Park at Tianjin. TEDA is one of the economic development zones that have been set up by the Chinese Government to develop industry in China.


Appendix II: Below is a summary of the responses to a brief questionnaire sent to all participants in the China trip:


  1. What single word or short phrase would you use to describe our trip?
  1. Overall, how would you rate the trip (check one)
  2. ( ) A poor experience

    ( ) A fair experience

    ( ) A good experience

    (X )An excellent experience

    1. Do you have any complaints about the trip? What?
    1. What two or three things would you most like other alumni to know about from our trip:
      1. About China
      1. About the trip (logistics, guides, etc.)
        • The project manager representing Vantage Travel was great.  She communicated well and kept all of us on schedule.  The local guides were good. The travel arrangements and hotel accomodations were excellent.—Matt Bielaska
        • Mary and I have travelled quite a bit in both Europe and Japan on our own, but I cannot imagine doing anywhere this much without the guides.—Charles Byrne
        • The only downside was the LOOONG flights to and from, with connections in Chicago. I'd recommend an intermediate stop of a day or two on the West coast to cut down on jet lag. The option of business class cost as much as the entire tour.  Airlines are clearly gleaning all they can get out of those precious seats. –Mary Byrne
        • Have the confidence that Vantage Travel will provide a great value, and will pack more into the trip's 2 or 3 weeks' duration than any individual traveler could accomplish in his/her first trip to China.—Ferd Boyce
        • Some pre trip concerns about group travel (we had never been on a "tour" before) were replaced with delightful experiences, wonderful memories and new friends.  Everything about the trip exceeded our expectations.—Arthur Cohen
        • Vantage in general and Wei Man in particular—are the ones to travel with!—Shirley Gloss-Soler
        • Accommodations were first class along with a great tour guide.—Joe Kostolansky
        • Our guide was the best I’ve ever had with Vantage—Bertarie Tindall
        • Every aspect was well-planned—tours, food, special events, transfers, baggage handling, and, especially the guide, "Kelly" Wei Man, and all the local guides.—Frank Tobiasz
        • Pack less. Leave room for gifts. Take plenty of film or memory sticks—Sallie Waters
        • That the trip involves considerable walking but even those with knee replacements can do it.  The guides were phenomenal in every way--helpful, answered questions, facilitated things you wanted to do in your free time, etc. –Eunice Whiting
        1. Is it a good thing for the Rensselaer Alumni Association to offer trips like this? Should the RAA continue to do so? Do you have any comments or recommendations to make to the RAA about this trip or trips in general?
            • It is a very good idea for the RAA to offer trips like this and I would like them to continue this effort.—Matt Bielaska
            • This was an excellent idea, because it established an instant  core  of  experience among  us. I do not know if a future trip would attract the same people, less people, or new people.  Possibly joint sponsorship with other alumni associations might be an interesting idea.  –Charles Byrne
            • Keep it up.  It brought together a homogeneous group who got along well.—Mary Byrne
            • Yes, it is, and they should continue to look for opportunities to
              create/strengthen ties with RPI grads around the world.—Ferd Boyce
            • YES - If Vantage Travel offers the same value and excellence in tour guides to those we experienced on this trips, they should be a prime candidate for other RPI sponsored trips.  Other Alumni should be made aware of the great time we had and the wonders of China we had a chance to experience.—Arthur Cohen
            • I think it is a great thing that the RAA is looking out for our educations in another arena, even after several decades. I think the RAA ought to continue offering this trip. I can’t wait until we can afford to try some of the others they are offering.—Shirley Gloss-Soler
            • We went specifically because the trip was sponsored by RPI. YES. It is nice to meet alumni from other classes that you would not normally not have the opportunity to do so.—Joe Kostolansky
            • Definitely continue. (And put me and my husband on the list if possible.)—Bertarie Tindall
            • I think it is a great idea for the RAA to offer these trips because it gives the alumni from different classes a chance to get together where they otherwise might not have a chance. Everything about this trip was sensational and I highly recommend visiting China. Please keep on offering these great trips. We have only just begun our travels.—Frank Tobiasz
            • Yes. Yes. This is my second trip with an RAA group (the first was Southeast Asia in 1992). Both were good values.—Sallie Waters
            • Should continue this; it's good PR.—Eunice Whiting
          1. What other comments would you make of any length on any aspect of the trip? (insert here or append separately).
              • The trip extension to Thailand was also excellent.  It is too bad that sometimes we Americans are so caught up in our little area of the world that we never realize that other areas have a longer history are are also very beautiful.—Matt Bielaska
              • I  plan to comment on  your  longer  notes on economics.—Charles Byrne
              • We're lucky to have been included in the group. . . to have experienced our first visit to China, and to have that experience magnified by being able to interact with a group of interesting, articulate and fun people.  By way of example, the visit to the Children's primary school was made so much more enjoyable when Debbie lead us into "eensy weensy spider" in response to the children's song for us. That, and the impromptu dance that followed, is the kind of "magic" this group provided, which would have been absent in a "normal" tour or visit to China.—Ferd Boyce
              • Baze - you've said it all so well, we can only say - "everything that Baze has said is true". Let us know if you need your trip description certified or notarized. –Arthur Cohen
              • I particularly enjoyed the historical treatment from a personal level—the talk with Mr. & Mrs. Mu in their home in the huton in Beijing and the experience of our guide, Gong, who had been swept into the Cultural Revolution. I loved the recreations of the traditional dance and opera and being able to see so much in the Shanghair Museum. I was astonished at the pace of modernization and the mushrooming high rises, even in the countryside.—Shirley Gloss-Soler
              • We were totally satisfied with the cost of the trip and what the trip provided us. We have a new respect for China. –Joe Kostolansky
              • I’m not an alumnus. I got lucky and Vantage put me and Lee [Barit] with your wonderful group!—Bertarie Tindall
              • The best part of the trip was the group we traveled with. We all just got along great. To combine this along with the marvelous sights was a tremendous package.—Frank Tobiasz
              • I would like to have attended a ritual tea ceremony.—Sallie Waters