Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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My main goal in diverting so far north from Shanghai to Beijing was to sleep overnight on the Great Wall of China, but as long as I was in Beijing, I couldn’t leave without seeing a few of the other famous sights the city has to offer. The company who provided my Great Wall experience, The China Guide, incorporated a visit to the Olympic Village, site of the 2008 Olympics, to see the now-famous Bird’s Nest and Swim Cube architectural wonders, as well as a stop at the Ming Tombs, the final resting place of 13 Chinese Emperors, where we walked the Spirit Way and descended into the underground crypt of the Ding emperors.

Can’t view the above slide show of the Ming Tombs in Beijing, China? Click here.

After the Great Wall, with only one full day left, we rushed around to see as much as possible. Half a day (not nearly long enough) was devoted to the Forbidden City, which stood in the center of the ancient city of Beijing and was home to 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today these astounding structures are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. The site is visited by millions of people each year and I think they were all there on the day we toured. Unfortunately, the enormous crowds made it difficult to truly appreciate the Forbidden City as it should be; I could not get close enough to see inside any of the palaces, so I contented myself with appreciating them from afar. Eventually, we emerged at the front entrance, where Chairman Mao’s iconic giant portrait keeps a watchful eye over the Imperial Palace and Tiananmen Square, directly across the street.

Can’t view the above slide show of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China? Click here.

But my two most favorite sights probably don’t even make most guide books. Lovely, serene BeiHai Park, located in the city center adjacent to the Forbidden City, features scores of old temples and miles of Read More

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Part Two of Sleeping on the Great Wall of China; to begin at Part One click here…

From the plaza at the base of the mountains, we began the long climb to the upper ramparts of the Great Wall of China. At first, the well-maintained stone walkways and stairs were fairly easy to negotiate but about halfway up, that began to change. Most tourists choose to visit the Great Wall at places like Badaling, where it has been completely restored and commercialized with museums, carnival rides, and restaurants. Our point of access, Jinshanling, was much more remote and little frequented by tourists, thus portions of the Great Wall in this area have fallen into disrepair.

We picked our way up steep staircases littered with gaping holes from missing stones, and tried not to look over waist-high walls at vertigo-inducing drop-offs. Having recently returned from four months of climbing ancient pyramids in Mexico, I was pretty much an old hand at this but my cousin, Loretta, who is afraid of heights, was a bit panicked by the idea that one badly placed foothold would send her tumbling. “Easy does it,” I continually reassured her. “We’re not in any hurry.”

Can’t see the above YouTube video about sleeping on the Great Wall of China? Click HERE.

Finally, hand over hand we pulled ourselves up the last set of uber-steep stairs to the final stretch of walkway, a weed-choked strip leading up to a high watchtower where we would view the sunset. At the tower I dragged myself up the last few steps, flung my body over the threshold, and flopped down on the floor to rest. Out of breath, I was grateful we weren’t going any further, but I was doubly grateful when I saw the walkway on the other side of the tower; it was so broken down that the path was little more than a jumble of stones. From the narrow doorway of the watchtower I traced the Great Wall along the razor edge of the mountains; it stretched as far as I could see, and even when the wall faded into the haze, the square, squat towers that punctuate the wall at regular intervals could still be seen protruding from distant mountaintops.

We prolonged our departure as long as possible, but as the sun began its final descent we headed back down to the village for dinner while we still had light enough to see. Forty-five minutes later we were back in Jinshanling for dinner. I was adamant not eating a bite because I was still stuffed from the enormous lunch provided by our tour company, The China Guide, but I took a seat at the long wooden picnic table just to be sociable. Soon the Wong family began delivering plate after heaping plate of food, until every inch of the table was covered. Chicken and pork dishes appeared, along with vegetables and a special dumpling filled with Chinese cabbage for my vegetarian palate. Read More

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Nothing prepared me for my first sight of the Great Wall of China. It is included on almost every list of must-see sights around the world and although the claim that the Great Wall is visible from the moon is a myth, it is clearly visible in radar images from the Jet Propulsion Lab, offering indisputable proof of its immensity. Yet when the Great Wall first came into view through the windshield of our van the monolithic barrier defied comprehension. Up, down, around it snaked, following exposed rocky peaks, pierced every so often by crenelated watchtowers. I had not expected it to zig-zag along the razor-edge ridges of mountaintops, dominating the skyline for as far as the eye could see. The view of this wonder banished my frustrations with traveling in China over the past week; whatever I had had to endure, it was worth it to see this wonder of the world.

First close up look at the wall as we climb up to a watchtower to view the sunset

Our guide explained that at the height of its construction in the Qin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty in 221 B.C., one fifth of the entire population had worked on its ramparts and towers, and that many thousands died in its construction. Craning up, I could not imagine how it was built at all, regardless of the amount of human power thrown at it. The Great Wall was meant to provide protection from invasion by the northern Huns, but how did the ancient Chinese know where to build it? They had no accurate maps and couldn’t see the geography from the air; how did they know they weren’t building in circles? For that matter, how did they determine that these barren mountaintops could even support the wall’s massive weight? That it has not crumbled or slid down the barren rock is nothing short of amazing. Read More

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The “Sleeping Dragon” is wide awake and on the alert. After settling in to my hostel in Shanghai, I tried to connect to my blog. The connection was abysmally slow, but it was infinitely better than the connections to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which were nonexistent. To my chagrin, I soon discovered that social media in China has been totally blocked by the government.

I knew communications might be difficult from China, so I had taken some steps in preparation. One of my cousins, Len, with whom I will be traveling for a couple of weeks in China, set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on his home server, and sent me instructions how to set it up it on my Macbook Pro. A very simplified explanation of this setup is that China blocks access to sites based on ip addresses, the numerical equivalent of website names (urls). So if I try to access Facebook.com, China sees that as an ip address like, and they don’t allow Internet traffic to get to that site. However, by setting up the VPN, when I type Facebook.com into my browser address field, I actually go to my cousin’s server back in Los Angeles first, and it redirects to Facebook, so China can’t see that I am trying to access a social network.

Len set up what is known as a PPTP VPN, which worked fine when we tested it from the U.S. Unfortunately, neither of us were aware that China has figured out a way to block select traffic being rerouted through PPTP VPN’s; the only kind of VPN that works in China is an SSL. Frantic emails back and forth between Len and I ensued; thank God China hasn’t (yet) blocked access to Google and my gmail account. He found a company, WiTopia, that offers subscriptions to a VPN SSL service that provides Read More

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I should have gone right to bed when I arrived at the hostel in Shanghai, China late yesterday afternoon. During the week prior to my departure I’d had a total of perhaps 20 hours of sleep; in the final three days, only four hours. So much remained to be done and I was running out of time. As I counted sown the final 48 hours I learned that RBC Bank had arbitrarily canceled one of my two debit cards on my checking account and an insurance company informed me that a refund they’d promised me would not be forthcoming. I fought those battles successfully, but that left other crucial things undone, forcing me to stay up around the clock on my final night, trying to check everything off my to do list. Just as I thought I might make it, the Internet went out for two hours. In the end, I finished what I could and just got on the plane. Everything else would have to wait.

Despite being dead tired, I couldn’t sleep on the plane to Chicago, and during my three hour layover I was afraid to sleep for fear I would snooze right through the call for my connecting flight. No worries. There would be ample time to catch up on my sleep during the 14-hour flight to Shanghai. Wrong. Perhaps I was too excited by the prospect of my first visit to China, but sleep simply would not come. Two bad movies and three worse meals later, insufficiently wrapped in a postage stamp-sized blanket to ward off the frigid cabin temperature, I was wriggling in my not-designed-for-comfort airline seat, trying to find a comfortable position for the final three torturous hours.

My intention to hit the sack immediately after checking in evaporated instantly during the taxi ride from the airport, which carried me past Shanghai’s stunning skyline along the Huangpu River; as darkness fell and the lights of the city winked on, I simply could not control my urge to explore. In my sleep-deprived state I hunched into my backpack, grousing about the unaccustomed weight of a tripod I had decided to haul along on this trip. Four blocks later I climbed the steps of  The Bund, a wide elevated promenade that runs for a mile along the western shore of the Huangpu River, and gazed across dappled waters that reflected myriad gold, red and purple neon-lights that outlined the skyscrapers of the city’s famous skyline. My decision to carry a tripod suddenly seemed inspired.

Shanghai’s stunning skyline on the east bank of the Huangpu River

West bank of the Huangpu River, along Shanghai’s famous Bund pedestrian rivetfront walkway

After taking my fill of photos I walked south along The Bund to Nanjing Road East, Shanghai’s premier pedestrian shopping street, intending to walk only four blocks of its 3.4-mile length on my way back to the hostel. I turned the corner at the eastern terminus of Read More

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I went to see the new movie Eat, Pray, Love a couple of weeks ago. The movie wasn’t fabulous, it wasn’t even as good as the book, but it threw me into reminiscing. Nearly four years ago, like the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, I too made the decision to abandon my existing life and job to travel around the world for six months in pursuit of my true passions of travel, photography, and writing. The book had just been released at that time and I read it from cover to cover during the 36 hours and three layovers required to get to Vietnam. I remember being intrigued by the fact that I had previously visited India and would be going to Italy and Bali on that trip, meaning I would be retracing the steps of the author.

My situation wasn’t exactly the same as Gilbert’s. I wasn’t coming out of a divorce or a bad relationship. But I was spiritually bereft. I had built numerous successful careers in corporate environments, only to abandon them to search for something that would make me happy. I knew deep down that corporate life, with its appurtenant stress and soul-sucking politics was not for me, but I kept returning to it because it paid the bills. By the time I’d turned 50 I was a lost soul. I didn’t know who I was, but I knew I had to find a way to make myself happy, to escape from the endlessness of it all.

At the conclusion of my six months on the road I decided to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer which, frankly, were the only things I’d ever really wanted to do. Now, four years later, I’ve accomplished that goal. I travel 9-10 months per year and have no permanent home. Although I do not suggest that this life is for everyone, one part of my process – the six month career break – was a valuable tool that can benefit anyone. It is not uncommon for Europeans and Australians to take mid-career breaks; employers in these countries seem to understand that employees return to the workplace renewed and brimming with new ideas following such a hiatus. Unfortunately, in the U.S. the mid-career break is not an accepted part of our culture, but there is now a movement afoot to change all that.

Join us and find out how to take a mid-career break

Two weeks from today, on September 14th, the developers of the website Briefcase to Backpack will hold a FREE series of events in major cities across the U.S.and in Canada, titled “Meet, Plan, Go!” With the goal of Read More