In China, Solo and Loving It

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Mary Ellen McMillen of the District is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to share the dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip can be the next guy's day-maker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near-miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: 18 days in China -- Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Guilin, Chongqing, Yangtze River cruise, Yichang, Shanghai, Beijing -- in March and April.

WHO WENT: I did. All by myself (I'm 72). Please don't tell me I'm brave! I like to travel on my own. Got burned many years ago -- perfectly nice person, but we weren't meant to travel together.

FAVORITE HOTEL EXPERIENCE: Looking out on the Pearl River from a deep, soft chair in the lounge at the White Swan in Guangzhou, with the two-story waterfall in the lobby splashing gently, the magnificent carved jade junk just inside the main entrance reflecting the late-afternoon light and the air conditioning perfectly calibrated.

OKAY, ONE MORE: Checking into the Peace Hotel in Shanghai and hearing the jazz band (traditional since the 1930s) playing, then looking down on the waterfront from the eighth-floor dining room. Thousands of lights shimmered above the harbor, and brightly lit excursion boats left glittering trails up and down the Huangpu River.

FAVORITE MEAL: Dim sum at Serenade in Hong Kong, on the harbor in Kowloon, across from the Peninsula Hotel. $20 for two lunch selections, a glass of wine, tax and tip. When one travels alone, one can't order a major Chinese meal. Many hotels serve buffets where you can go back for three servings, if you wish, of both Chinese and Western food.

BEST SHOW: The two-hour acrobatic performance at Shanghai Circus World in the Circular Theatre. Without asking me, my guide purchased tickets. Perhaps he should have checked, but thank you, Li, 35 times over!

FONDEST GUIDE MOMENT: In Guilin, while sailing the Li River, Lisa introduced me to the local osmanthus wine; it was slightly sweet but light. I thought of Chinese poets and painters who sipped wine as they contemplated the fantastic limestone formations along the Li. Lisa could not praise her parents enough for their advice and support of her ambitions, especially her father, also a guide. "Wouldn't you say he's a good father?" she asked. (Have relayed this to my children.)

UNANTICIPATED THRILL: Passing through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam. At the dam site, there is a beautiful park and a fine model of the dam.

UNANTICIPATED PROBLEM: At Yichang, where the Yangtze River cruise ends, I looked out and saw about 80 stairs -- or so it seemed -- climbing from the water's edge to the roadway. Yi! No railings. I took my guide's hand and pushed on and up.

PLEASANT SURPRISE: The soaring glass and steel and clear signs (in Chinese and English) at air terminals, and the cared-for parks and new tree plantings in various cities.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: A guide asked me what I thought of Chairman Mao.

BIGGEST CULTURE CLASH: Starbucks in the Forbidden City. It is there with the approval of the Chinese government, needless to say. My guide was indignant, I was embarrassed, and how many Chinese drink coffee, anyway?

GLASS HALF FULL: In Beijing, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the carved dragon carriageway in the Forbidden City were undergoing renovation -- covered with scaffolding and other barriers. I would have been terribly disappointed if I had not seen them before. But I walked among the maze of other buildings with their deep red walls and visited the museum of clocks, a real discovery.

GO AGAIN? For sure!

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Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report, along with a photo from the trip, on the last Sunday of the month. To enter, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own; for a complete list, go to and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; fax it to 202- 912-3609; or Entries chosen for publication become eligible to receive a Canon PowerShot A610 (or equivalent) digital camera at the end of the year. Entries will be chosen on the basis of humor, originality and usefulness; are subject to editing for space and clarity; and become property of The Post, which may edit, publish, distribute or republish them in any form. Employees of The Post and their immediate families are not eligible. No purchase necessary.

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