Follow the trail of a prodigal son

This week has been unusually rough.  I won’t go into all the reasons, suffice it to say that I have a friend or two who is hurting and that hurts me.  In addition the second week of work is not necessarily stress free though must admit I am enjoying myself.  Fun, okay?  My new job is fun. *does jiggly happy dance around the cat*  *Cat is rightfully nervous*

So I had a visit with a friend or two and I tried to ease the pain if only briefly, for the hurting unit.  My spirits were lifting by Wednesday evening and when I arrived home I had been thinking about my friend Oly.

Olof Swanson.  I’ve known him since I was sixteen or so.  He was slightly younger than me, but already ancient in his soul. He was a wanderer then, leaving home at fifteen, not because he wasn’t loved, but I suspect because he was loved too well.  I don’t think he could abide the constrictions of Midwestern family life.  Think “Dude” in the big Lebowski, only at fourteen.  That’s Olof.  So what if he never attended high school, he took it under advisement and educated himself and quite well I’m sure.

He eventually ended up in Boston where he married briefly and had a daughter.  Erica as I recall.  I’m sure a lovely woman whom Olof would be so proud of.  (Erica, Olof’s friends in Kansas City would embrace you.)

I saw him once again years later as he passed through Kansas City on his way to “further”.  He was with a traveling companion who’s name didn’t stick.  He seemed healthy and happy and I was glad to see him.

He hasn’t been through since, though I’ve inquired after him on a number of occasions.  He visited me in a dream once and I mistakenly thought he must have died (because that’s usually who I see in dreams).  I think he would just pop in on a dream with that enormous grin tell me he was fine and head on down the road again. Just to jack with me.

So on a whim I googled Olof last night and damned if he didn’t surface again.  Like bigfoot, he appeared briefly, according to a third party report.  This sighting was new to me.  I last saw him back in the 90′s and had spoken to his brother William sometime around 2000.  I knew he was alive but the story by Kara K. Pearson in the Summit Daily News (as reported on that website link above) detailed more of his life than I knew about.

But it was the comments that really captured my heart.  His brother William’s public apology and birthday wishes really touched me.  And his daughter’s wistful greeting nearly broke my heart.  I expect I’ll continue to follow his adventures via google as the years pass.  I hope he continues to travel in good health as the self proclaimed “tramp” he is, and knowingly or not, spread his own special brand of joy.

Some might mark him as just one more among the homeless.  (I could be wrong, he might be an ace at finding free haircuts and be a righteously spiffy dude.)   But I suspect traveling has been hard on him physically, even if it feeds his spirit.

Two things Olof, if you’re watching.  First, happy birthday.  I believe you’re celebrating your semi-centennial this year or next, just one month past.  Second, I’d like to congratulate you on living your life out loud.  It’s not what I would have done, but you went along as you meant to go on.  There’s an integrity in that.  Just don’t be afraid to reach out and accept the love of those who miss you.  And stop through every now and then.  We still love you here.  Google yourself from time to time to get your mail.

I send love to the prodigal, and all the others who feel lost.




Day 8 – Bejing to Chicago To Kansas City – (via Omaha) WHEW!

The Plan:

Saturday, March 19, 2011 Depart for home (B)
4:00am Check-out of hotel
4:30am Transfer to Beijing’s International Airport. Boxed breakfast will be served
on coach
7:55am Depart Beijing
7:45am Arrive in Chicago
Group #1 (32 Passengers)
11:05am Depart Chicago
12:35pm Arrive in Kansas City
Group #2 (30 Passengers)
2:35pm Depart Chicago
4:00pm Arrive in Kansas City

The Execution:

The boxed breakfast was nothing to get excited about.  Having had a unhappy bug in a banana incident on the train the day before, I was understandably suspicious of fresh fruit. There may have been a biscuit of some kind included but it didn’t make an impression.

What I remember about this day was a lot of waiting as all the instruments were checked in, and more waiting once we headed off into the terminal.





But not before saying farewell to our guides Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee, and Jessica. If I remember correctly.





Eventually we made it onto the plane and into our assigned seats.  There was a bit of shifting around which was fine with me, I ended up in a pretty good spot next to one of the kids and it was a fine flight, not quite as bad as the way out since I only had to climb over one person to get to the aisle.

We were on the same flight with the people that flew out with us.  The ones that kept pissing off the flight attendants.  I was surprised to see them, I figured the secret police would have gotten to them by then.

Insert a really really really long flight here….I actually managed to sleep some on this flight and was glad to pass the time that way.

We made it back to Chicago where we changed to a final flight to Kansas City.  Well, that’s were it was supposed to go anyway.  Instead we diverted to Omaha because of weather and the made us a couple of hours late I think, or maybe through some fluke we were on time.  I don’t recall but it was the early part of tornado season and we were glad to make it back regardless of the time.

So what was my take away?  About 1700 photographs some new friends and shared experiences with my family. The second vacation of a lifetime. I can hardly wait for the next one.  For everyone who came along, thanks for making this so memorable.

Gretchen was here


Day 7 – Bejing

The Plan:

Friday, March 18, 2011 Xi’an/Beijing (B,L,D)
8:18am Arrive in Beijing
9:15am Breakfast at nearby Beijing West Train Station
10:00am Depart for Summer Palace
12:15pm Lunch inside the Summer Palace
2:00pm Visit Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City
5:15pm Attend Beijing Acrobatics Show
7:00pm Farewell dinner with a traditional Beijing Peking Roast Duck
8:30pm Check into the Super House International Hotel
10:00pm Bring down check-in luggage to the lobby

The Execution:

Woke up early on the train and managed to find all my gear, get it organized for the trip to the bus and like that.  I recall that there was some confusion about not being able to find something.  This time it might have been someone else’s lost item though.  I know our compartment mates left a video camera in Xi’an.  That was a sad thing.  Unfortunately I believe that Hector did manage to hang on to the chicken foot that he purchased on the train as a souvenir.  Assuming he didn’t get hungry on the flight back and eat it in desperation.  The train arrived on time I guess and everyone managed to get their gear up and out.

I don’t know if I mentioned before how unnerving the Bejing train station is.  Talk about a crowd of people.

That was the one place (and the Walmart I guess) where I got the sense of China that I always had seen on television.  You know the one where the people are endless?  It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, I recently saw a documentary where there were 40 thousand plus people waiting at the train station (several days of cancelled trains over a holiday due to power outages).  This wasn’t that bad but it made me glad to have my back to the wall.  So armed with the knowledge of how bad it was when we left we headed out into the train station and off to the buses.

We managed to make it back to the buses without incident.  We went directly to breakfast as I recall because the hotel wasn’t ready for us at that early hour. Then another round of touring would commence.  Off to the Summer Palace.

This was truly a lovely place.  It is not difficult to imagine how beautiful the gardens would have been or how peaceful a place it was back before the vendors began pushing the ethnic hats, panda bear head hats, and other chatychkes.

We dined in a restaurant for lunch in the summer palace and had a memorable visit overall.





Of course we couldn’t go a whole day without the kids being the center of attention and a crowd gathered in the courtyard to have their photos taken with the kids.




After lunch we departed for Tiananmen Square and  the Forbidden City.

This was the first time I felt that the tour guides were tense.  We had been warned by anyone who had visited there that every other person was a secret police type and to be very careful what you said.


I got the sense that it was as much an issue of safety for the tour guides as it was for any of the visitors.





We mostly behaved ourselves on a very windy and enormous plaza then headed across to the far side of the square to the Forbidden City and the last of our site seeing.   By this time I was running out of camera equipment so I have fewer photographs here than any other location.

We lost one student in the forbidden city but she finally turned up just as we were leaving the venue.  In spite of shortening tempers we made it back to the bus without anyone being bruised and headed off to a nice quiet time in the acrobatic show.  No exhaustion here.






The acrobats were indeed spectacular as they intended. I don’t remember much except that the show had high production values (if I know what that means).  Lots of costumes, lights, fog, effects. etc. etc. etc.  Perhaps the most impactful impression made was by the rapturous aroma of popped corn in the lobby of the theatre.  It was a little bit of home that was most welcome by that time.  So we drank soda and ate popcorn and watched the people on the stage balance on their heads and stuff. Excellent time was had by all. Sitting down in air conditioning.  A pleasant interlude as I recall.

By this time my camera was out of battery, the video camera was out of battery and the flip camera had just enough left to record a few minutes of the acrobats.  Maybe I’ll post that later.  So that’s it for the photos today.

Our final dinner was at one of the many Peking Duck (or Bejing Duck) restaurants.  This was a traditional dinner and it was very good.  By the end we were ready to get back to the hotel, change clothes and get the luggage back downstairs for the trip to the airport the next day.  And everyone slept well that night.  Except those that didn’t sleep at all.

Day 6 – Xi’an to Bejing Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The Plan and Begorrah:

Thursday, March 17, 2011 Xi’an (B,L,D)
8:00am Bring down check-in luggage to the lobby, followed by breakfast
9:00am Check-out of hotel
9:30am Visit the Terracotta Warriors & Horses Museum
12:15pm Lunch inside the museum
1:30pm Continue the visit of the Terracotta Warrior & Horses Museum
4:30pm Dumpling Feast Dinner
5:30pm Depart for the Xi’an Train Station
7:30pm Board overnight train back to Beijing

The Execution:

Several Months later for some reason I am inspired to continue this story.  So on St. Patricks day we loaded up again and headed out, first to the factory where they make the reproductions of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses as well as fabulous lacquerware furniture and other decorative objects.  It began with breakfast at the hotel,  the obligatory bus ride and ended down an impossibly narrow road.


The kids waited patiently so that they could have their pictures taken “wearing” the terracotta warrior.  Some of the adults threw in as well.


Next we toured around the courtyard and looked at the kiln and some of the samples, then proceeded inside to see what opportunities we had to be relieved of our money.

The factory had every size and shape of terracotta warrior you can imagine.  They had stacks of them piled up drying and the larger ones were propped up with lumber to support them while they dried in preparation for firing.  Yes you too can own your own terracotta warrior.  In fact there’s one located in the lobby of the Plaza Library that was a sister city gift.

So we had an opportunity to see them in production, then the display area where it was possible to select your own terracotta warrior to take home.

Then up into the lacquer ware display area where they had some really lovely inlaid pieces and carved furniture.  I love the intricate filigree designs but resisted purchasing anything. 

Finally we stepped out into the ‘gift shop’ where I did pick up a small memento (a jadeite rat – representing my birth year).

The kids purchased a variety of items ranging from pocket sized warriors to swords, which caused speculation on exactly how they were going to get those on the plane and through the airports.

We re-boarded the buses and headed off to the museum and dig site.

This place was enormous.  I believe there must have been four large buildings covering the digs. These are permanent museum sites with some holding artifacts and presentation materials.  The scale was incredible.  The museums were fairly well lit so it was easy to see everything.  The entire process was documented from the initial excavation of a newly discovered warrior to the “hospital” where the broken pieces were reassembled and put on display.

After we had our fill of the museum most of the group scattered across the plaza and some of us wandered up to a shady area.  I could see a number of clumps of teenagers engaged in a variety of past times including sliding across a highly polished granite patio.  My brother Chris napped on a bench and we all soaked up the beautiful weather.







On the “way out”

we encountered a group of Buddhist monks visiting the site.  As usual we engaged with them as if they were there for our amusement.  The monks seemed to enjoy the interaction just as much. 








We returned to Xi’an and stopped at the dumpling feast restaurant where Mr. Martz exchanged gifts with the sister city representative from Xi’an.






We also did battle for the dumplings at least at our table things got a little rambunctious.





The thing that made this restaurant special (besides the food being really good) was that the dumplings in most cases looked like what they contained.

I give you : Chicken





And Walnuts:





So many photos later we headed back to the train station for the return trip to Bejing.


Day 5 – Xi’an

First, if you’re looking for the photos of the trip, check out the I’m with the band – China 2011 menu item.  Thx.

The Plan:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 Beijing/Xi’an (B,L,D)
7:50am Arrive Xi’an
Transfer to the hotel
8:30am Check into Grand Noble Hotel, followed by breakfast
10:00am Visit Big Wild Goose Pagoda
11:45am Lunch at local restaurant
1:15pm Rehearsal at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music
3:30pm Visit Ancient City Wall
5:00pm Dinner at the hotel
6:15pm Depart for the Xi’an Conservatory of Music
7:30pm Concert at the Xi’an conservatory of Music as part of the American
Celebration of Music in China
9:30pm Return to hotel

The Execution:

Okay, I still don’t know what B,L,D means. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks and finally have a few minutes to sit down and reflect.

The overnight train to Xi’an was really very interesting. The train itself was clean and comfortable though the common areas were limited to the hallway (tight) and a dining car. That didn’t keep the Chinese in their cabins.  On the way to the dining car walking though each car with people seated at the windows and on the bunks.  Here’s a look inside the train.

Hallway of the sleeper car

Hallway of the sleeper car

Our cabin on the train

Our cabin on the train

A lot of it was just imagining what all that shadowy landscape was about. That’s the rub about traveling by train at night. You really don’t get to see what the country is all about.

There were a few mysterious stops which woke me up and when I looked out the window without my glasses on the impression I got was pueblos. Not the sort of thing you’d expect in rural China.

From the Bejing to Xi'an train

From the Bejing to Xi'an train

In the early morning ladies brought coffee. Sweet no cream. instant.

In the early morning ladies brought coffee to the sleeper car. Sweet no cream. instant.

We arrived at the Xi’an train station at about 7am I’m guessing. After a parade of teenagers and the odd adult (emphasis on the odd and I count myself among them) We loaded onto buses and went straight to the hotel for breakfast, but couldn’t check in until later in the day.

Like many things in China the hotel was a bit of Alice through the looking glass. There were these very impressive chandeliers in the lobby

Lobby chandelier looked like alien spaceship in most of the pictures

Lobby chandelier looked like alien spaceship in most of the pictures

and in the restaurant.

The restaurant chandelier was huge

The restaurant chandelier was huge

Yet the apartments all around the area had each window and balcony harnessed in a grid of steel. All the people in China seemed to live in cages.

Kids on the street outside a restaurant notice the bars on the apartment behind them.

Kids on the street outside a restaurant notice the bars on the apartment behind them.

The breakfast was varied. A combination of eastern and the expected eastern interpretation of a western breakfast. I ate a lot of “French” toast in China. I suspect the wonder bread people have made inroads there. But they had wonderful buns at many of the venues stuffed with a bit of meat and watermelon at every buffet. We ate at a lot of buffets in China. I expect it was expedient given the size of our group. And frankly, what group of teenagers doesn’t descend on a buffet like a plague of locusts?

I arrived late for whatever reason and started out seated by myself by the hostess, but a couple of the other grownups invited me to join and it was a nice meal. Following the food we all lined up again to load on the buses and go to the first tour stop in Xi’an. We passed by the bell tower and the drum tower which were scenic and gave you a sense of what it might have been like back in the day.

one of the towers (bell? drum?)  Bell I think.

one of the towers (bell? drum?) Bell I think.

The first stop was at the big wild goose pagoda (yes, there was a small one), which I managed to screw up and lose all the pictures of. This pissed me off substantially, since it was a pretty awesome place. There was a plaza that we entered after running the usual gauntlet of vendors on the way in. BOO YOW. (don’t want).

A small central tower then a larger pavilion type place that had some very nice drawings. I did get those with the Flip (avoiding flash like a good girl around art works). They should be posted around here in a bit.

Lunch was another buffet which I forget. I suspect it was in one of the many Chinese restaurants in China. Or as they call them there (to paraphrase Mr. Bata) restaurants.

Instead of visiting the City Wall with the group, Chris and I went walkabout and had quite a good time. We headed toward the city wall (having eaten at a restaurant outside the city wall) and it was one of those experiences where you feel fairly safe, but don’t let your guard down. Well at least I didn’t. Sure enough, one of those annoying pick-pockets made an appearance. This was really pretty entertaining. Naturally they targeted me, because I was wearing my coat of many pockets (42 if you’re counting). Yes, a pick-pocket’s dream, but in this case more of a nightmare.

My Scott e-vest tactical jacket has so many pockets that I pretty much can’t ever figure out where I put stuff, so of course The poor little bastard who was assigned to victimize me never had a chance.

First a really annoying adult with a bamboo stick kept circling around me dragging his annoying clicky bamboo stick on the ground. Presumably to point the unfortunate trainee in the right direction.

The poor kid was maybe 12 though he looked more like 8. I felt his hand in my pocket and I turned around and yelled at him…”it’s not going to do you any good, all the good stuff is in the inside.” in retrospect, perhaps not the best response, telling him where my valuables were. But the poor bastard couldn’t get to them anyway. I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand any English anyway.

So, then we got away from that tricky pair and headed into the city wall where we shopped at a tea store that was lovely. in spite of the language barrier Chris and I managed to purchase some really nice Jasmine tea and sampled both black and green teas as well.

Then we moved along and found a street that was populated by mostly calligraphy supply stores. This was fascinating. There were more brushes than you could shake a stick at. We bought a few. Chris tried to play a musical egg, and we watched a woman make baby hair paint brushes. That was fascinating.

We wandered through an art gallery alleyway mall kind of thing and finally ended up in an open marketplace where calligraphists (is that a word?) painted signs and displayed their wares. It was very interesting.

We decided it was time to head back but happened across a shopping mall and of all things Chris was intrigued. It was full of teenagerish clothing, mostly cheap goods, and very crowded and very colorful.

It came out near a Walmart. We thought for a moment we had returned to the mothership. Until we tried to purchase something there and discovered that American credit cards are apparently not accepted in Chinese Walmarts. Very strange.

We managed to find our way back to the hotel without being mugged. ( we employed the walk fast and act like you know where you’re going method.) this was not a sure thing.

Dinner with the Chinese students who would play that night just before our kids did. That was a story in itself. I think I’ll end here and save the rest for another post.

Day 4 – Bejing to Xi’an

The Plan:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 Beijing (B,L,D)
7:00am Bring down your check-in luggage to the lobby
7:15am Breakfast at the hotel
8:00am Hotel check-out
8:15am Depart for the Great Wall of China
10:30am Concert on the Great Wall at Ju Yong Pass as part of the
American Celebration of Music in China
1:00pm Lunch in the nearby Friendship Restaurant
3:30pm Stop by 2008 Olympic venues for photo taking
5:15pm Dinner nearby Beijing Railway Station
6:30pm Depart for Beijing Railway Station
7:57pm Board overnight train to Xi’an

The Execution:

This was perhaps my favorite day of the trip.  Everyone bundled up for the trip to the great wall a couple of tens of miles outside of Bejing.  We boarded the bus after a breakfast of miscellaneous breakfast stuff including both traditional Chinese and American foods.  The kids were still pretty tentative about the food at this point but everyone managed to get fed.

Here’s a few images from the trip.


road sign 1

road sign 1


Then we arrived and debarked the bus.

The concert on the wall required a great deal of logistical support with several large instruments that were being rented for the trip carried up to the upper level.

I’d post pictures but I’m about to fall asleep in the lobby.  Need to be up at 4am for the flight home as well.

G’night.  More later.

We boarded the train in spite of the Bejing train station being the busiest train station perhaps in the world.  It worried me even.  People were packed in and the logistics of moving over sixty people, keeping them together with their carry on bags was a neat trick.  The kids stick together and with a few reminders stayed out of the way of the 30 million chinese also waiting.

They got us on the train which was very fancy actually.  Each compartment had either four or six berths.  We were in two cars with four bunks in each compartment.   The rooms were very nice with silk coverings and comfortable bedding.  A tiny table hung from the way and a shelf over each berth to hold the little bits.  I’ll have more pictures later for this.  Short on time this morning since it’s really 3:30 am saturday and we’re getting ready to head for the airport as I write this.  later.  GJ

Day 3 – Bejing

The Plan:

Monday, March 14, 2011 Beijing (B,L,D)

9:00am Breakfast at the hotel

10:00am Depart for Temple of Heaven

12:30pm Lunch at local restaurant

2:00pm Hutong Rickshaw Tour

3:30pm Rehearsal at Music School of Central Conservatory

5:30pm Dinner at local restaurant

6:30pm Prepare for performance

7:30pm Joint concert at the Central Conservatory of Music as part of the

American Celebration of Music in China

9:30pm Return to hotel

The Execution:

The first day in Bejing, my brother Chris and I took off early in the morning and took a long walk into the city.  All sorts of Interesting things happened.  The boy who was sent home, while seated on the next flight back to the USA got the call that his passport had been found.  There was way more drama involved but that’s what I’m getting done today.

Temple of Heaven was our first tourist stop.  This was a beautiful location and I took many many photographs.  The group learned exactly why knowing how to say Boo Yow (phonetic, my apologies to the chinese) which means Don’t Want, was so useful.  There were so many vendors chasing us around trying to sell us souvenirs that the kids actually came up with what they call the Boo Yow Rap.  I’ll post a video later when I’ve got the bandwidth to do it.

Creepy Kiddie Rides in Bejing

Creepy Kiddie Rides in Bejing

Awesome concert Monday night.  The kids played after another group of students at the conservatory in Bejing and it was pretty darned good.

The kid who had been sent back by the Chinese found his passport in the nick of time (he was on another plane waiting to close the doors and send him back to the USA. The airline pulled him off, called his parents, got him reunited, through customs and he was able to play the concert much to everyone’s relief).

We spent the morning at the Temple of Heaven and then took a rickshaw ride into the hu ton area (old neighborhood).  There we visited with a local resident and inquired as to his general situation which he reported was just dandy.

The rickshaw lineup prior to our ride

The rickshaw lineup prior to our ride

Derek (I think) hamming it up for the camera prior to the trip

Derek (I think) hamming it up for the camera prior to the trip


Rehearsal for the Bejing concert.
Rehearsal for the Bejing concert.
The concert that night was recorded.  I’ll work on publishing that later.
Making this brief so I can get another day or two done prior to the return trip tomorrow.

Day 2 – Bejing, China

The plan:

Sunday, March 13, 2011 Beijing (D)
11:30pm Arrive in Beijing Airport, where you will be met by MCI’s Chinese
staff who assists the group to awaiting chartered motorcoaches for the
transfer to hotel

The Execution:

I’m writing this several days after it happened but I wanted to catch you up as quickly as possible.  No wifi as promised in Bejing, so the posting of updates is dicey at best.  In case you were wondering.

Day 1 – Kansas City to Chicago, Chicago to Bejing

The Plan:

Saturday, March 12, 2011
1:50pm Check-in at airport
4:50pm Depart Kansas City
6:20pm Arrive in Chicago
7:55pm Depart Chicago

The Execution:

We made it out of Kansas City with  a minimum of fuss and a minimum of personal space.  On time arrival and almost all of us made it through customs.  One of the kids managed to lose a passport and was sent home.  His parents were along so not to worry it wasn’t your kid.

We made it into the hotel about 2:30 AM  took a shower and crashed.

That was the end of day one.


At the Kansas City Airport


Getting the luggage into security


So long for now from Bejing, China.

It’s here, finally. We leave today for Bejing.

Didn’t think we’d ever make it to departure day but we have.  Watch here for updates on what was planned and what we actually did on our trip to China.

Hopefully we’ll have photos to go along with the narration.  Got a looooooong day of travel ahead of us.  Wish me luck!  Posts should go up at 11pm central time each night.

Later all.