Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Beijing Military Attache Corps Spouse (BMACS) Trip

March 2-5, I took part in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Ministry of National Defense, Foreign Affairs Office (MNDFAO) sponsored trip for the BMACS group. There were 70 of us on the trip. In addition to the 8 Americans, there were women from Belgium, Singapore, Italy, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Zambia, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Mali, Kenya, Burundi, Finland, Ukraine, Japan, Turkey, Netherlands, Switzerland, Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia, Belarus, South Korea, North Korea, Australia, Germany, Austria, Greece, India, Slovak Republic, UK, Poland, Chile, Brazil, Spain, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. There were also 17 PLA officers and some spouses. The trip occurs every year, to coincide with International Women's Day. March 8.

We took an overnight train to Taiyuan. The station was very crowded. Getting in was a major chore. Chinese do not like to line up. It is not in their culture to do so. There was just a huge crowd shoving in to the building. Getting from the entrance down to the train was also a challenge. There are no elevators. The only way down was two flights of cement stairs. One had a narrow ramp to the side so one could pull a wheeled bag down the stairs but the other had no such thing. At the train, there were people in their pajamas getting on, pushing their way... The train left at 9:45 pm on Friday and we arrived in Taiyuan at 7 in the morning. We travelled in what they call a soft sleeper, 4 people per compartment. I was in a compartment with 3 women from our embassy. It was a lot of fun. There were two toilets for every two cars. One was a western style toilet and the other a squatty potty. The western one, though, had a cloth cover so it was pretty gross. As the evening wore on, people started to get prepared for sleep and if one ventured out of her compartment at an inopportune time, you might see a Chinese man in his underwear!!! You can see pictures of many of these things at the link in the other post.

The PLA kept us busy. They put together a very nice trip. We stayed in a lovely hotel and the meals were very nice Chinese feasts. We travelled by 3 buses, in a motorcade with several black cars and flashing lights. The PLA being the PLA, they could not resist treating the American women to their typical antics. In Chinese, the word for the number 4 is "si" as is the word for death, they two words are just said with different tones. The number 4 is therefore thought to be bad luck.(people don't want phone numbers or house numbers with 4 and you can even pay extra to get a mobile phone number without a 4) The color white is the color of mourning. So, it goes without saying that our bus would be number 4 and be white. This might seem like I am really being negative and searching for problems, but I must tell you that there were only THREE buses (makes a bit more sense to call them 1, 2, and 3 rather than3, 4 and 5) and the other two buses were green. Hmmm. I understand that our governments cannot always agree on certain matters but we wives have very little to do with that, so it would be nice to be left alone. We enjoyed the time on the bus, though, it was fun to be with all the women. We deduced that our tour guide must be a struggling singer/actress. She took several opportunities to sing for us during drives.

After breakfast at our hotel, we went to visit Taiyuan Social and Children's Welfare Center, an orphanage. I was prepared for depression at this point, but I must say the children appear to be well cared for. I noticed a little girl with nail polish that was coming off a bit, indicating that it was they were not just painted for our visit. The children were all smiling, as were their caregivers. The center has 300 children in its care but most have been placed with foster families or adopted. Most have some special needs but the physical problems are treated with therapy and the defects are corrected with surgery. I took American Flag pins and lollipops to give to the kids and as a group, we presented them with new toys and clothing.

Our visit to the orphanage was covered by press, as you can see in the pictures and we were on the cover of the city paper as well as the province paper. We were in Shanxi province.

We had lunch a traditional Chinese restaurant. It was enormous and had live fish and reptiles one could choose for a meal. Several of the Americans decided to sit together at a table in the corner. A PLA officer informed us that the table we'd chosen was a tenth table but we were only allowed to have nine. We pointed out that our table was full while others had some empty seats. We went back and forth and he became somewhat irate, imploring us to cooperate. Finally, we conceded and moved. After we'd all found seats throughout the room, we looked and saw the PLA officers had seated THEMSELVES at our table. I'd say this was UNBELIEVABLE, but I can't say any of us were truly surprised.

We also visited a temple and a vinegar making facility and cultural museum and in the evening, we were hosted at a reception given by the Commander of the Shanxi Provincial military region. The dinner was very nice. We were notified ahead of time that we were expected to provide entertainment for the evening. The spouse group sang the song, "Ode to Joy" in English, Russian, German, Spanish and Chinese. We also sang another song in English, French and Chinese. Then, several national groups sang songs from their own countries. The American women repeated last year's lip sync of the Supreme's song, "Stop in the Name of Love." I joined them, against my better judgement, after being strongly coerced.

On Sunday, we visited the ancient town of Pingyao. It is one of the four ancient cities preserved here. It is a beautiful, preserved or rebuilt, town. The city is walled and has 6 gates. From a bird's eye view, the city is shaped like a turtle, which is a symbol for longevity. Each gate is a part of the turtle: 4 legs, a head and a tail. It would have been a lovely day had it not been for the terrible weather. All weekend, we had rain, snow, high winds and brutal cold. So, sightseeing was not the most fun. It made for some nice pictures, though. We had lunch in a hotel in Pingyao. As we were leaving, we noticed the staff had carried two wash bins to the tables and were washing the dishes at the table! We tried to get pictures, but every time we tried, the women would run from the tables! Finally, we visited the Qiao Family Mansion, which was featured in the movie, "Raise the Red Lantern."

We passed many taxis and our guide pointed out there are different colored lights on the taxis. She explained that the red light cabs are very good, blue lights are good and yellow are normal. If you lose something in a red cab, the driver will get it back to you!

We flew back to Beijing on a flight that was delayed by weather. We departed at about 11:30 pm. It was the worst take off and landing I've ever experienced. I don't know if the pilot had been drinking or what was going on, but for the first time ever, on an airplane, I thought we might die. I was VERY glad to be back in Beijing... Who'd have thought that would happen???

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