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Linda-Marie Singer - Click to Enlarge "MAY I TOUCH YOUR HAIR?"
Travel to China can be a hair-raising experience
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By Linda-Marie Singer
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Beijing, China: THE HELLO PEOPLE

HELLO is the most popular word in Beijing. Like a scratchy phonograph needle, the "Hello" people never tire of greeting tourists with the same message and array of products priced from two dollars. "HELLO," they say, as merchandise whizzes by - everything from jade chopsticks, cashmere scarves and sculpted Buddha's, to hunter's fur hats and musical crickets. Did I mention the Chairman Mao glow-in-the-dark cigarette lighters?"

I bet when you go home and someone

BIG MAC - "The Hello People sell everything but Big Macs" - Photo by Alen Singer

says 'Hello,' you'll say 'How much?'" explains Lily, an official guide with Cameron Tours. "You can always answer 'Bull yow' which means 'No thanks,' but they bother you anyway."

Welcome to Beijing, population 5 million. With another 6 million living outside the city, China's capital is hopping and popping. Skyscrapers are as ubiquitous as chopsticks, and so are the splashes of colorful billboards promoting the country's 5,000 joint ventures with powerhouse companies like Motorola and Pfizer. "Beijing Is Waiting For You," proclaims the most common advertisement, and from the looks of the city's frenzied explosion of travelers, Beijing won't be kept waiting.

"Twenty years ago when I first began tours to China, there weren't enough hotels to accommodate us," remembers Joanna Cameron. "And service? My funniest memory is the first time I landed here. How about this? The pilot got off the plane before the passengers and rode away on his bicycle!"


Don't be surprised if you're stared at in China. On my first day in Beijing, I noticed a nicely dressed woman looking at me as if we had met somewhere before. She kept trailing me until I asked my guide what was going on. He just laughed. "It's your hair," he said. "It's yellow. She wants to know if it's possible for her to touch it." What could I do? I bent down and her hand glided over me in a light massage. "Why the rub?" I wondered aloud. "In China, when someone washes or fixes your hair, you must first give a massage," he replied.


Can Linda Evans Do This?

You'll need more than a casual workout at a Linda Evans health club (or maybe you should just take Linda along) to climb to the top of THE GREAT WALL (Changcheng), China's most prized historical site dating back to 500 BC. Taking 2,000 years to construct and eventually spanning 3,750 miles, the price in human life also proved monumental.

GREAT WALL - Not a plucky hero until one climbs the Great Wall - Photo: Ilona Muschenetz

Hundreds of thousands of "volunteers" built the great masterpiece which included garrisons for 1 million soldiers, 1,000 fortified passes, and 10,000 beacon towers. Many died from malnutrition and sheer exhaustion.

Today the walk is still strenuous. Steep and uneven, you'll need time and patience to reach your goal. If it's during winter, you won't have to fight the crowds, but you might have to fight the Siberian winds. Vendors are ready to help with bargains in fur-lined hats and gloves (under $5). Once you huff your way up, don't deprive yourself of the $2 certificate that will announce to all: "Not A Plucky Hero Until One Reaches The Great Wall."


Since 1651, people have been flocking to TIANANMEN (GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE) SQUARE (GUANGCHANG). Although you may not remember it well back then, no one's bound to forget the bloody vision of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the year of the notorious student uprising.

Today as you glance north to south, you'll find the Monument to the People's Heroes, and Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall where the communist leader lies in state in a crystal coffin. To the west is the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and Museum of Chinese History, one of the most important in China.


Imperial yellow roofs. Vermilion walls. In Mongol times THE FORBIDDEN CITY was termed "The Great Within" as it held in royalty and kept everyone else out.

FORBIDDEN CITY - "The Great Within" - Photo: Linda-Marie Singer

The official residence of the Emperor is a Coldwell Banker dream with 775,000-square-feet and 9,999 rooms. Should anyone try to crash, it's surrounded by a moat and a 33-foot high wall with a 4-mile perimeter.

With two groups of three palaces, Baohedian Hall (Hall of Preserving Harmony) is where the emperor gave banquets. Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) marked the emperor's ascension to the throne. Quianquinggong (Palace of Heavenly Purity) was his bedroom, while Kunninggong (Palace of Terrestrial Tranquillity) belonged to the empress. Keeping company were the emperor's 10,000 concubines who saw him only once giving way to the phrase "One night stand." The emperor undoubtedly was not amused to hear of someone suffering a headache which could lead to unwelcome consequences.


In 1902, the SUMMER PALACE was reconstructed from the 12th century and became a classical Chinese garden. The main entrance leads to the Hall of Benevolenceand Longevity where the affairs of state were conducted by the empress Cixi. At the Deheyuan (Court of Virtuous Harmony), she watched the performance of the Peking Opera in the largest theater in China.

SUMMER PALACE - "Classic.  Calm.  Theme from a Summer Palace." Photo: Linda-Marie Singer

Leshoutang (Hall of Joyful Longevity) became the residence of the Dowager Empress between May and November. It is said that when she traveled to see the renovation in 1905, it was with a retinue of 1,000. Nearly 500 eunuchs turned out to welcome her.

Today you won't get such a grand welcome, but you will find the Summer Palace welcoming. There's the man-made Kunming Lake and a Marble Boat at the end of your tour, but it's the LONG CORRIDOR that has become world famous with its 800-yard walkway. Look upwards at the beams and you'll see more than 8,000 paintings depicting stories from Chinese classic novels, folk tales, and landscapes.


China gives the tourist so many ways of reaching heaven with monuments being called "heavenly peace" or "heavenly purity."

TEMPLE OF HEAVEN - "Kunming Lake will charm even the most reluctant tourist." - Photo: Linda-Marie Singer

But you'll want to visit the TEMPLE OF HEAVEN (TIANTAN) constructed in 1420, the country's most famous temple within a 667-acre park. Enclosed by a wall, the northern portion is round which represents heaven, while the southern is square signifying earth.

The Temple of Heaven marks the spot where the emperor came to pray for a good harvest, and a sacrifice to heaven was made in the Quiniandian (Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests). By the way, if you hear an echo, you won't be imagining things. A short distance away is Echo Wall with acoustic powers to pick up what someone says in a faint whisper. Moral: Be careful what you say!

THE MING TOMBS (SHISANLING) contain 13 out of 16 tombs of the Ming emperors. Only three are open, but that should give you time in the museum with its priceless artifacts. Don't miss the commemorative gateway leading to 24 stone animals arranged in pairs.

HUTONGS - "Boy salutes the Hutongs!" - Photo: Linda-Marie Singer All right, so it may be hokey, but you won't be able to resist a brief tour of the HUTONGS, dwellings that resemble ancient cities. Dating as far back as the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, hutongs were planned and then ruled over by emperors who commanded supreme power.  They were lived in by two types of classes: the aristocrats and Imperial kinsmen, and the merchants and ordinary people.  The main buildings in the hutong were almost all quadrangles with four houses standing on the four sides.  The big quadrangles of the high ranking officials were built with roof beams and pillars all

beautifully carved and painted.  However, the ordinary people had small gates and low houses. Not for everyone, especially not for newlyweds, there are still those families who prefer the tight knit grip of a Hutong where your neighbors are right beside you in the courtyard and corridors.

Rickshaw drivers will cart you around and you'll definitely chat with the locals. The day we visited, a toddler seemed "planted" outside in a full military regalia. A man greeted us who appeared to be about 200-years-old, and cheerfully showed off his model Hutong. Who knows, maybe he lived in a villa in the heart of town and appeared daily for casting calls. IN BEIJING, CALL: 66159097.

LI LI will make your heart sing. That is, if you can get into the remarkable LI LI'S FAMILY RESTAURANT located in a residential corner of Beijing. What sets Li Li's apart from all fine dining establishments throughout China is her family lineage. During the time of the Empress Cixi (grandmother of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China), it was her great grandfather who was responsible for the Imperial Court and the Imperial kitchens. Meals for the Emperor included a selection of over 100 dishes, and it wasn't uncommon for some recipes to run up to 2,000 words. Li Li's Family Restaurant - "Li Li and her dad cook up Imperial dishes fit for an emperor." - Photo: Linda-Marie Singer

Fortunately, many of these treasures were passed down to the family, and it was no wonder that her father, Li Shanlin, became fascinated with the idea of recreating the Imperial menus and opening a restaurant. His timing was bad as the Red Guards confiscated his Imperial secrets. Fortunately, he kept a spare and then waited for the political climate to change. Today Li Li's Family Restaurant is hailed as the finest and most difficult for reservations. You will have to book months in advance, but you can always call and take your chances. Unpretentious, Li Li still cooks daily, while her father, in between tempting morsels, regales the company with stories and secrets of the Imperial Palace.

Li Li's Family Restaurant

  • No. 11 Yang Fang Hutong, Xi Cheng, Beijing

  • Phone: 661-80-107


China is one of the hottest destinations this year, but you'll need an expert guide to show you the ropes. Unlike Europe which is well traveled and used to tourists, the Chinese are still discovering foreigners and what to do with them. That's why the tour operator is the key in planning a successful, adventuresome journey.

Cameron Tours out of McLean, Virginia is my No. #1 choice for their expertise and flexibility. For over 20 years, long before it became fashionable, they were discovering the country and booking independent travelers who wanted to explore but also see the "in" places with in-depth facts. Joanna Cameron, president, has recruited experienced guides who understand English and the American traveler. Remember that the majority of Chinese do not speak English unless you count the HELLO people, but all they say is hello.


Stick to the finest establishments and you won't be disappointed. Even so, you won't be able to do much about the bathrooms in restaurants, theaters, and stores. Bring a noseclip, toilet paper, and wet wipes. Restrooms in China are just the "pits."

China is a country on the go! You'll see very few homeless, but what you'll notice is how the young and old work and live in harmony. Grandma often cares for the children while the parents work.

Early mornings you'll find people doing Tai Chi and ballroom dancing. The Chinese thrive on exercise. You can tell by their seemingly easy way of pedaling their bikes. However, unless you're suicidal, do not rent one for you won't be able to keep up or comprehend the flow of traffic. It's also not advisable to rent a car (see suicide reason above). You'll notice how the people on bikes look as though they're about to crash into the people in buses, who look like they may go head into a flow of people crossing the grand boulevards that are three times the size of les Champs-Elysées.

China is not France. Beijing is not Paris. But you already know that, so what are you waiting for?


Circle September 7th for the historic premiere of Puccini's Turandot in Beijing's Forbidden City. The story tells of the cold-hearted Chinese Princess Turandot who lived in Beijing's Forbidden City. Any suitor who wished to marry her first had to answer three riddles correctly or die.  I will not solve any riddles for you. You can do that when you attend the concert in style.   Zubin Mehta conducts this spectacular opera that will surely be "the" event of the year in China.



The craziest thing happened while we were waiting for our Japan Air Lines flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. The rain never let up and all flights were delayed for hours. What to do? Like everyone else, I headed for the snack bar and drowned my sorrows in Freetos, then turned on my Walkman and tuned into my favorite friendly guru, Dr. Laura. So many people were calling in that day with a wild assortment of problems, and Dr. Laura, always confident and cool, chucked out zippy answers. As usual, I tried to guess what the good doctor would say to some of the callers who ranged from delusional to delightful.

While keeping score, I noticed many hostesses milling around our gate. They approached each passenger and then bowed. "So sorry," I heard one say. I caught up with her and asked the question she had been hearing all morning long, "When are we leaving?" For a moment she looked rather worried and then put on her best smile. "I am so sorry for the delay," she told me. "So sorry." I comforted her. "It's all right," I heard myself saying. "I'm in no hurry." WHAT? She bowed and I bowed. We both exchanged sincere apologetic looks and then faded away from one another.

Two hours later we boarded our flight for Tokyo where we would overnight (courtesy of Nikko Hotels) in Narita, about 20 minutes from the airport. The next morning we would fly to Beijing. But for now, I headed upstairs to Economy Class on JAL's 747 and smiled.

"Royal Wedding?  All weddings are regal in China." - Photo: Linda-Marie Singer As we were tiptoeing down the runway, I noticed something peculiar happening from the window. One of the Japan Airlines crew from San Francisco drove a pick-up truck parallel to the plane and then turned to face the captain's window.

I fell into a small panic thinking, oh no, we would be delayed once more. But he simply waited. As we revved up, he quickly hopped out of the truck, caught the pilot's attention, and then bowed. Just bowed. Then we were off.

Japan Airlines information: 800-525-3663


6249 North Kensington Street
McLean, Virginia 22101

Phone: 800-648-4635
Fax: 703-538-7124

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Linda-Marie Singer "The LIVEWIRE" for Travel Watch. Former President of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association, and created the national writers conference, "The Days of Wine & Proses." She is a travel and entertainment reporter living in the San Francisco Bay Area. (More about this writer.)

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Last Revised: Friday, May 15, 2015 06:38:58 AM
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