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Beijing Update.

It’s 4:30 AM, I can’t sleep.  I think I’m upset because I lost my camera and all the pictures of my visit to the Great Wall, video of insane China driving and other stuff I can’t even remember now.  Total bummer.

So far, Beijing has been awesome:

  • Flight was uneventful and totally manageable
  • The Beijing airport is enormous and beautiful – huge open space, high ceilings, clean, amazing art, friendly, easy to navigate.
  • An old woman on the airport tram was carrying a black, bedazzled, playboy bunny purse.
  • Got my luggage (yay)!
  • Exchanged some money.  $150 USD is over 900 RMB – that’s kinda fun!
  • Took a cab to the hotel (handed him a piece of paper with some Chinese on it, exchanged nods and it was done).
  • People bike and walk everywhere: across freeway ramps, on freeway ramps, on the freeway.
  • Nobody drives in a lane.  Everybody honks…constantly.
  • The city-street policy carry big, old-school, orange life preservers in the back of their cars.
  • Great Wall Sheraton is a great hotel.
  • Took a shower…a long shower.
  • Crashed.  Slept 12 hours (up in the middle of the night).
  • Ate free breakfast at the hotel: full, awesome, buffet with American and Chinese food.  Ate like 11,000 vegetable dumplings.
  • Met Cynthia in the lobby.  My friend Jeannie and Rob sent their driver to pick us up and take us to the Great Wall. 
  • Visited the Great Wall during a tropical storm and got drenched.  (No pics – lost my camera).  It was amazing. (Oh, and like Half Dome, people visit the Great Wall in stiletto high-heels).
  • Ate lunch in the middle of nowhere.  Picture this: enter restaurant through plastic flaps (like in a carwash or meat locker).  Looks like small, normal restaurant.  Few locals smoking and hanging out.  Escorted through doorway with cloth flaps into a labyrinth of enclosed courtyards joined by hallways. Enter hallway of private eating rooms: all glass windows and doors (like an outdoor porch) and tile walls and floors.  Anthropologie-style metal stand with porcelain basin, soap and towel.  Fresh wild mushrooms, noodles, rice, tea, and red pepper wild chicken (spicy).  I think I ate a chicken foot.
  • Jeannie took me to a spa for massage: you wear red, wool scrubs and they kneed you like dough.   It may not sound like it, but it was honestly the best massage I ever had.
  • Back to hotel. 
  • Crashed.

I love it here.  Wish I could speak Mandarin.

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Beijing. Barely.

If you’re reading this post that means I’ve landed in Beijing, made it to my hotel and figured out how to connect to the Internet and was actually able to publish to my blog.  As if that was the hardest part about traveling to Beijing.

Actually, it’s a miracle that I even made it Beijing.  All signs were pointing to "no" until I actually got on the plane.

Tuesday (Beijing take off, minus 3 days)

Things started to unfold on Tuesday when I received an email from CIBT (the place that was issuing my visa) saying they were not able to process my credit card to pay for the visa and that they would not be able to issue the visa without charging my card.  Despite my relentless attempts to contact the dude that sent me the email to take care of business I could not get a hold of him. 

Wednesday (Beijing take off, minus 2 days)

I tried again to get a hold of "CIBT dude" in the morning before I got to the office.

When it became Wednesday afternoon I was getting really concerned: my passport was in San Francisco, I’m in Seattle and supposed to be on a plane by 7 AM on Friday.  I realize that there is a thing call "same day" delivery – but that only works when someone actually puts something in the mail. I was finally able to call around and find someone other than "non-responsive CBIT dude" to help me out.  It turned out that my corporate AMEX was rejecting charges.  So I got them new card information and prayed that my passport would somehow make it to Seattle before I left.

Then I got on the phone with the people at AMEX to figure out what was going on with my card.  They claimed there was some charge (though they couldn’t be specific about the charge) that apparently was "4 months past due" and the account had been "canceled".  They said if I paid the disputed amount ($16.14) that all would be fine.  Of course, I paid it.  Then they said I would have to talk with the AMEX program manager at my company to open my account again (Wait!  That wasn’t part of the deal!).  They said they would be "happy to transfer me".  After waiting 10 minutes they informed me that due to high call volume (surprise) they were not able to connect me and that I should try contacting them directly myself.

I can’t get anyone on the phone, and end up trying to go through a service request through my company’s web site.  Then I get receive an email address to ME that says:

Hello AMEX,

I’m not sure why Becky’s card was canceled, she was not 90 days past due and has been using her card. Can you please reactivate her card?

Hmmm…..

Thursday (Beijing take off, minus 1 day)

My plan for today was to (a) pick up traveler checks (they were recommended for better exchange rate) and (b) pack.  That would have been nice if those were the only two things I had to do (on top of a full day of work).  But my passport has still not arrived and my credit card ordeal was not resolved.

Made some calls to check on progress.  My passport was in Seattle and arrived at my desk around 1 PM, phew!  Thought, heard nothing from AMEX.  I send another email to them:

This mail is very confusing.  This mail is addressed to AMEX, but I’m on the To: line (and I’m not AMEX <wink>).

Can someone please explain what is going on with my AMEX card and the status of getting it activated?

PLEASE NOTE: I leave for a business trip in Beijing tomorrow and need to be able to use my card. I have spoken with AMEX and my account is now up to date (please see attached confirmation).

I leave work at 6 PM.  All banks are closed…that’s going to make travelers checks hard.  I manage to figure out that the Bank of America inside QFE is open much later (great thing to know for the future) and is a fully functioning branch and issues travelers checks (why they keep standalone branches open anymore is a mystery to me).

I get home and make dinner with whatever food is in the fridge.  That meant cheese + egg pannini’s with potatoes and asparagus (more like breakfast – which I’m totally down with).  Then packed.

Now…a little know fact about me is that when I was little, I used to cry when my parents got suitcases out for a trip (even if I knew I was going on the trip).  This is a little paradoxical given that I love to travel and feel as though I was born on this earth to do very few things and one of them is travel and experience other people and the world.  This is all relevant because while I love to travel, packing is…well…a long process for me.  I started laying out clothes on Tuesday and it still took me 2.5 hours to pack.  Don’t ask, don’t judge.  Just laugh at me, because I can only laugh at myself for being such a dork-nut.

Friday (Beijing take off)

I wake up at 4 AM and take a long shower (I hate feeling dirty on planes) and pack up the last few items.  I called my dad.  Made some oatmeal.  Rob and I got in the car around 5:30 AM.  Got to the airport with no trouble.  I get in the line to do self-checkin.  When my turn comes up, a United attendant ushers me up the desk and beings to check me in herself.  This turned out to be a blessing: before printing my ticket she realizes that the ticket has been issued with my unmarried name (Rebecca Levine) while my visa and passport are issued under my married name (Rebecca Levine Pezely).  She expresses concern that I may have trouble getting out of China with this discrepancy and asks for me to wait while she goes through a security door behind the desk to check on the matter.

Sidebar: you might be wondering at this point, "um, didn’t you realize which name the ticket was booked under when you made the reservation?"  And the answer is: yes, I knew.  And, (a) I had never considered this detail when I booked the ticket plus (b) I’ve traveled a bunch of times domestically with this discrepancy before without a problem so I’ve become desensitized to the whole thing.  I realize now that international travel, especially to China, is a whole different story, but I don’t travel internationally frequently enough to make these sorts of considerations.  I guess my re-branding saga hasn’t really ended.

So Paul Benson (the United agent) comes back out and says that she can’t change my name on the ticket, that I might have problems but the only thing she can do is issue my ticket and risk it.  I throw in that I can call AMEX corporate travel to see if they can change the reservation.  And Paula says that I have enough time.  So I call emergency assistance and get Patrice on the phone.  I explain the situation and she asks me to hold.  I hold for 20 minutes.  She finally comes back and says that I won’t be allowed out of China with the name discrepancy and that she has an agent on the line and they’re trying to change my ticket.  That I should wait on hold.  I wait another 20 minutes.  She then comes back to verify a few bits of information (like how to spell my married last name) and then puts me on hold again, another 10 minutes.  Then she comes back and says they’re trying to reissue a new ticket for me but my corporate AMEX is denying charges.  F*$%!!!  I have to give her another card. 

After that ordeal, I got personally ushered to the front of the security line (and they didn’t catch the Nalgene bottle full of water in my bag) and was the last person to board my flight from Seattle to San Francisco.

Once on the plane, I feel like things are going much smoother and try to start to be present and enjoy myself.  Honestly, as much as I’ve been excited to get to Beijing I’ve been really anxious about traveling so far alone, being away from Rob, not knowing the language and all that stuff that these other hiccups have been really distracting.

So, now the plane has taxied onto the runway and we’re waiting for takeoff. And we’re waiting….and we’re waiting….and we’re waiting…and then the flight attendant makes an announcement that if our cell phones are accessible we may use them…and we’re waiting…the the pilot comes on and says they’re conferencing with traffic control at SFO trying to work around delays…and we’re waiting.

My plane that was supposed to take off from Seattle at 7:20 takes off almost 1 hour late.  Meanwhile, I’m supposed to land by 9:30 and be able to make a connection through the SFO International Terminal to make a flight at 11:20 AM.  Sweet!

I make it to SFO by 10:20.  And figure out that I have to get a shuttle to the International terminal.  There is a long line and the people "managing" (hardly) the line tell me that not everyone will fit on the first trip.  Luckily there were a bunch of other folks like me on the same flight and they bumped us all to the front of the line.  However, this pissed one dude off so much that I fight nearly ensued.  Once I was on the shuttle it felt like I was already closer to Beijing.  Not because I was on the shuttle, but more because everyone around me was Chinese and not speaking English.

We all make it to our gate as it’s boarding and get on the plane.  So this was now really happening (although in the back of my mind I’m wondering if my luggage made it on the plane too).

As I type this I’m cruising at 34,000 ft at about 470 mph.  It’s been 7.5 hours on the plane and I’ve: read 1/2 my book (The Secret Life of Bees), napped, had lunch, watched August Rush (the movie sucked, but it was Keri Russell so I didn’t care), has a snack (Ramen noodles!  Even came with chopsticks), then tried to watch National Treasure (though the sound was all f’ed up).

Our route went over Alaska and I got some cool shots from the plane during that part:

China 061 China 069 China 070

Now I’m going to do some work.

How much longer do I have of this flight?  Actually, I don’t want to know.

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Mt. Rainier

My parents were in town last week and I took vacation to play around with them.  One of our excursions was to Mt. Rainier.  I knew it was going to be awesome and I was still in awe when we actually got to the park.

We went to the Sunrise Visitor Center, which is the highest place (6400′) in the park that is accessible by car (though we saw plenty of bikers making the trek).  The entrance to Sunrise is on the north-east side of the park off Rte. 410 and it about 10 miles up an wide, safe switch back road (with no guard rails – those with strong vertigo should beware).  Once you get up there you’re greeted with amazing views of the east side of the glacier, so close you feel like you could touch it.  There is a small gift shop and snack bar (get the chili and soft serve ice cream) and it’s worth going in the visitor center to see the 3D model of the park as well as look through the telescope to see the nooks and crannies of the glacier up close.

There are many choices for day hikes as well as overnight camping from the visitor center. There is a good range or trails from easy to difficult.  We did the loop around Sunrise Camp that goes out toward Frozen Lake, out to First Borroughs and then around Shadow Lake.  This was a manageable hike for people of all ages and ability: clear trails, no real elevation gain, good distance.  Anyone with bad ankles, knees or hips may want to bring a walking stick.  You definitely need to bring a small pack with water, nibbles and a jacket (weather can change dramatically).

It was so beautiful up there it was if I couldn’t take a bad picture.  Between the glacier, the wildflowers, and the mountains you couldn’t find a more beautiful landscape.  I couldn’t stop myself from taking shots.  Here’s a sampling (in the middle photo you can actually see Mt. Rainier except it looks like a cloud in the lower left part of the photo):

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Chuckanut Drive

DSC03236Last weekend, Rob and I were invited to Larrabee State Park for the weekend to celebrate the birthday of our friend Steve.  We drove up from Seattle on Saturday morning and arrived to the park around mid-day.  Larrabee State Park is well suited for a variety of people:

  • It is a manageable size: not nearly as large as other National and State parks)
  • Easy to access: easy drive in from I-5, pull your car or RV into the site parking space and setup camp – you’re done!
  • Very accommodating: there are toilets and warm-water showers (for $0.50), all wheel chair accessible.  They have a welcome booth, staffed with people and pamphlets, with information about how to enjoy the park.  They also sell firewood in case you forgot yours.
  • Many features to enjoy: there is a park with covered picnic areas and an amphitheater; as well as several beaches within walking distance of the campgrounds.

DSC03242 Since it was a surprise party, we managed to learn when other friends of Steve arrived to the park.  We met Jenny (of Jenny and Tom), Jenny and Patrick and set out for a hike to the beaches.

There is an amazing amount of history, archeology and ocean life to take in just from the coast line near the park.  We saw layers of sediment worn away by the ocean – it was almost as if we could see sand being made before our eyes.  We saw purple star fish (above) and baby crabs (below).  A lot of cool driftwood and other assorted beach treasures. 

There was a particularly cool rock with a face carved into the side (left).  We couldn’t tell if someone had carved it out of the rock or somehow molded it into one of the craters of the rock.  Either way, it was freaky and cool to discover.

DSC03241 From the beaches you get amazing views of the San Juan Islands and oyster farms along the coast.  One of the easier walk/hikes to do is the Interurban trail: it is a wide, flat trail (with exception of one part that drops off on to the beach).  It has a nice canopy of trees so you stay well shaded, even on a hot day.  The park appears to be pet friendly as we saw many with their dogs.  The beaches were all small and covered with blankets of kelp and seaweed.  We managed to find a plot of warm sand and take a nap in the afternoon sun.  There is also a train track that runs along the coast and you can see trains going by from time to time.

We met up with Rondelle in the park with the amphitheater.  Her brother and family and some friends were there.  Many friends arrived on bikes they rode from Bellingham.  And we all awaited Steve’s surprise arrival.  It was a fun evening of BBQ, tight rope walking, volleyball and the most AMAZING chocolate cake I’ve ever had in my life.  Apparently this cake is from the Mount Bakery in Bellingham, WA and well, let’s just say that I had an emotional and physical reaction to this cake.

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I’ve eaten other delectable food at the Mount Bakery before (like eggs benedict with fresh crab and asparagus) and never really knew about this chocolate cake thing.  If you make a trip to Bellingham for any reason, this is worth it!

Rondell and Steve (with his new gift: a walker)

After the main festivities we settled into our campsite, made a fire and cooked up s’mores and adult beverages.

On Sunday, we packed up camp and Rob and I took our road bikes for a tour of Chuckanut Drive, which despite it’s cool name, is famous in it’s own right.  It’s a beautiful stretch of road that connects Skagit Valley to Bellingham and crosses through some great towns.  My favorites, in particular, are Bow and Fairhaven.  First we rode north from Larrabee until we made it to Fairhaven.  Fairhaven is a town dating back to the 1880s that still has a ton of historical character despite the renovations to keep it’s main area in good condition.  This is a great place to mill around for a weekend.  They have a double decker cafe bus that serves fish and chips out the window, a quad lawn where you can enjoy music followed by a film on Saturday nights (in the summer) and a stretch of trail for walking and biking all along the coast line.  We had spent the day in Fairhaven once before and fell in love with it.  Today, we just passed through and then tracked back south, past the park again, as well as several of the Oyster restaurants along the coast until we got close to where the woods end and the farm land began.  At that point we turned around and headed back to the park.  All told we did about 25 miles.  The road was really fun to ride – rolling ups and downs, nothing too extreme and great ocean views.

We hit the showers at the park and got in the car for the ride home.

On the way toward I-5 we stopped in Bow for lunch at the Rhododendron Cafe – another amazing restaurant.  Head to this place with enough day light to sit in the back patio at dusk and get views of the garden with beautiful mountain backdrops.  The food is also amazing.  Most of our meals were topped with Nasturtium flowers – which are not only gorgeous, delicate and fragrant flowers, but also EDIBLE!!We completely indulged and got dessert after our lunch: brownie sundae and lemon pound cake with fresh blueberries from their garden.

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This was one of our best Seattle excursions since we’ve moved here.  Can’t wait to go back again!

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