Red Flags and Free Passes: China

March 2019

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that Guy is spending the month of March spandex-riding his bike up and down the palm-treed isle of Mallorca.

Sorry, you’re right. I mentioned it.

Guy texts us daily with news of his adventures. The updates are mainly photos of sunkissed beaches and coffees and croissants enjoyed at café tables. He usually includes a map with a line showing the route they biked and stats about kilometers and elevation gain.

The kilometer stats don’t do much for me because I don’t do metric, but the sun and the croissants red-cape me straight into the matador’s sword. Especially during a snowy March after a cold dark winter.

On the sixth day of photo updates, I exploded.

“Why is he doing this?!” I spluttered. I dropped the phone on the table.  “What does he want from me?”

“He probably thinks you love him and you care about what he’s doing,” Tavish said dispassionately.

“Hmph,” I answered and Tavish went into the other room.


After Guy bought his tickets to Spain, he asked if the rest  of us wanted to join him for spring break. We said Thanks, but Nah.  It’s too far to go in too short a time.  It just isn’t practical.

“I figured,” Guy said.

A few months later I spotted Scott’s Cheap Flights to China–635 bucks! –From Portland to Beijing! Toby and Tavish have been studying Mandarin at the high school for a couple of years.

“Toby,” I said, “Wanna go to Beijing for spring break?”

“Sure,” he answered. Tavish said he didn’t mind either.

I pushed a couple computer buttons and got us tickets.

We left Thursday and after a fifteen hour journey, now we’re in China and Guy is still in Spain.

I feel like the middle-aged woman from California we saw today who, probably recovering from a mid-life divorce, spread her arms and demanded to the world in her jarring American voice: “Someone take my picture to prove to my parents that I am HERE, on TOP of the Great Wall of CHINA!”

(Pretty obnoxious but her unabashed enthusiasm won her some fans.)

It was a process getting here. At first blush of trip planning, I imagined a low-key week; stay in Beijing and explore by ourselves, check out a couple museums and eat some spicy noodles. But the more I read, the more my head spun: Beijing population: 22 million, Air quality: dank, Traffic situation: dire, Visa application process: intimidating.  China looked hard.

And also big. Many possibilities. Why go all the way to China and then just stay in one place?img_20190324_104924

Why not include a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow, via Mongolia? I took Russian in college, don’t forget.

And if we’re going to be in Mongolia, why not explore the Silk Road countries, like Kyrgystan and Tajikistan? I like silk.

It’s only a 40 hour train ride from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet. When’s the next time we’re going to be a forty hour train ride from Tibet?

If my husband could leave for a month without fear of retribution, what could I do?

Meanwhile, sensing blood in the water, the boys developed plans of their own. They announced that they will be spending July in China with some of their friends, studying Mandarin and other cultural activities in some city I’ve never heard of.

Suddenly, there were no rules. The gloves were off.

I sat at my little computer desk every dark winter night and ignored the earnest essays written by my dedicated community college writers. I blew off tennis matches.  I dreamt and schemed and mapped and plotted, but I could not spin gold out of our 10 days of allotted spring break time.

I wanted to spin gold. My time with my boys, my time on this earth, is limited.

I looked at my credit card imploringly. It’s time for expert help, I told it.

I contacted a National Geographic award winning tour-company and asked for a 7 day family tour of China. We need to get out of Beijing, I told them. I want to see the terra cotta soldiers and also touch a panda. A bullet train would be cool, too.


The tour company was very receptive. In less than 24 hours, they enthusiastically hooked us up with itinerary that met all our needs, and cost a cool $4000 per person which did not include the price of our bargain airplane tickets.

“It’s a trip of a lifetime!” the booking agent explained.

“That’s very kind of you,” I answered, via email. “But we had a trip of lifetime last year when we went to Borneo, and we plan to have another trip of a lifetime this summer, if not sooner. I can’t afford multiple $12000 trips of a lifetime this year. Can you try again?”

“I guess so,” she said, “but please remember that we only offer premium services. We are a National Geographic Award Winning Travel Agency.”

Two days later, the new offer arrived: $3899 per person.  My credit card has an interesting sense of humor.

“Ha ha ha,” I emailed. “Maybe you could book us at hotels that aren’t $400 a night? Here are a few examples you might choose from.”

There was a few days of silence, and then:

“I’m sorry we can’t help you,” she answered.

Do people really pay $12000 for a 10 day spring break trip?  THAT’S a travel door I’ve never opened. If I had $12000 laying around, I’d buy a better horse, especially if my husband were out of the country.

I went back to Google and found another tour company with lots of Trip Advisor laudits but no National Geographic awards that promised almost exactly the same activities as the first, for a mere $1800 per person.

“This looks fun,” I told the bargain tour company. “But can I book my own hotels? I have some ideas.”

“Sure,” Robert Hui at China Highlights answered, even though he was officially off work and celebrating Chinese New Year with his family. “Go for it.”

Our China trip includes airport pickups and transfers. We get a personal guide in three cities, dumpling cooking classes, paper cutting tutorials, several lunches at “locals only” restaurants and a day as an “assistant” scooping poop and feeding pandas.

Most importantly, there is always someone I can ask for help.

“That is quite an expensive trip, you know,” Guy told me, sternly, one evening when I asked him for some money to pay for it.


Our mild winter turned into an abnormally snowy February.  Our neighbor broke his tractor plowing our rental house’s driveway and we missed seven days of class at the college. No witchhazel sprung, no hellebores uncurled, no early crocus promised spring.

I kept emailing Robert Hui, hounding him for details of our trip, checking and crosschecking and confusing information from the two tour companies.  Robert was very patient:

“Dear Kristie Reference Number HY199205022,

Thanks for your mail. I am not sure where you got your info, but it is not correct. First of all, the Panda Volunteer Program that we arranged for you is at the Dujuangyan Panda Base, not Chengdu.

Hope it is all clear now,

Kind regards,


(That was a real email.) (Robert is nice.)

I was so intimidated by the Visa application process that I kept putting it off until we only had weeks to spare then I panicked and paid a company to complete and expedite the process for us.

Then I was sure I’d sent them the wrong information and filled out the applications myself.

Twice. It took six hours.

I emailed the company and told them I had the correct information standing by. They never answered, instead they efficiently mailed us three Visas.

Meanwhile, towards the end of February, Guy packed his spandex and his sunblock. He unearthed his short sleeved shirts and his flip flops and whistled while he packed like Snow White’s dwarves the day they discovered a massive chunk of diamond.
I fretted. I checked the weather.  It was a grim tableau of snow and ice, like my heart.



I worried that no one was worried but me. I always worry about that but this time I worried extra.

“How are you going to get to the airport if it’s still snowing and the the highway is closed?” I asked Guy a few days before he left. He looked surprised.

“And,” I said. “Who is going to plow our driveway when you’re gone?”

“Oh,” he said.

“And what if a tree falls on our house and we don’t have any electricity and no place to live and it’s still snowing?”


“And what will happen if you die?”

“Um,” he said.

“Do you still love me?” I asked, finally. “Are you coming home, after?”

Guy put his hands on my shoulders and held on. He looked at me in my stupid face.

“I am almost 60 years old,” he said. “I just want to ride my bike in Spain before I die.”

He hugged me hard. Almost hard enough.

Eventually, he put an envelope with some secret information into a safe deposit box and gave me a key. I don’t know what’s in that envelope. I hope it’s money.

I drifted around the house sighing until he finished packing and left. Then I broke out a bottle of the good wine and sat on the couch with my dogs who had not left, and drank it.

And now Guy is Spain and the Boys and I are in China, which is more or less where this blog post started, isn’t it.

Welcome to my world where everything happens but I never feel like I win, where I spin in circles like a yapping dog chasing a tetherball around a pole in an empty backyard.







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