Eat Your (Ox) Heart Out

by Brian Jewell 28. February 2011 17:15

We've enjoyed a number of over-the-top meals here in China, including hosted dinners last night in Xi'an and tonight in Shanghai. Chris Lee, owner of China Plus USA, is very well respected here in China, and so when he brings a FAM tour on a visit, his tourism friends pull out all the stops.

Last night's dinner included a number of colorful dumplings, many shaped to resemble frogs, ducks or other animals, as well as a variety of local delicacies. Among them were some foods that you won't find on western menus, such as ox hearts (I tried them -- not nearly as bad as you might think). But the meal also included many wonderful pork, chicken, beef and seafood dishes. All together, we counted some 37 dishes that were served family-style to our small group.

Tonight we're in Shanghai, China's business center, and staying in the brand new Sheraton hotel that is currently in its soft opening phase. The hotel management treated us to a wonderful dinner at their upscale Japanese restaurant on the 37th floor. The meal included beautiful sashimi --  raw tuna, salmon and shellfish -- as well as a number of traditional Japanese soups, salads and fried rice. The highlight, though, was the Wagyu beef, prepared in front of us on a tepenyaki grill. The cattle that Wagyu comes from are fed a premium diet, and caretakers massage them daily by hand to make their muscles extra soft and tender. The result was one of the best steak meals I've ever had, impossible tender and full of fresh flavor.

There are some perks that come along with working in the travel industry, and in China many of those are built on personal relationships. Here, as in so many other places, it's all about who you know.


A platter of ox heart and other delicacies... yum!

Frog-shaped dumplings in Xi'an.

Gathering around the tepenyaki table at the Sheraton in Shanghai. 

Fancy fingerwork makes dinner entertaining.

A splash of red wine turns beef preparation into fireworks.

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Wonders of China

An Underground Army

by Brian Jewell 27. February 2011 03:51

For tourists, Xi’an is best known as the home of the terra cotta warriors. Discovered by local farmers digging a well in the 1970s, the terra cotta warriors are part of the massive grave complex of Qin Shihuang, an emperor who ruled around 220 B.C.

Previously, Qin was known in history for unifying China (through a brutal military campaign) and beginning construction of the Great Wall. With the discovery in the 1970s, archaeologist soon came to learn about his massive tomb complex, for which he had craftsmen build more than 7,000 terra cotta figures of foot soldiers, archers, charioteers and horses.

Today, about three thousand of the figures are unearthed and reconstructed in the main viewing area of the Terra Cotta Army Museum. Excavation still continues at the site, where workers unearth more figures in dozens or sometimes hundreds of pieces. To reconstruct just one of the figures takes around three months.

The terra cotta warriors have become one of the most known symbols of China, and have given historians a lot of insight into the beliefs and burial habits of the ancient Chinese. This large, still-life army is a striking sight to see. Even more striking to me, though, is everything it says about Qin and the ancient Chinese attitudes. Hundreds of thousands of workers toiled for nearly 40 years to create this terra cotta army to escort Qin to his afterlife, along with many other yet-to-be-unearthed features of the burial site. Afterward, many of the workmen and artists were killed, so that grave robbers would not discover the location of the burial site.

China’s history is defined by the heavy-handed rule of its emperors, and pock-marked with millennia of human rights abuses. Though we in the West still take issue with many of the policies of the current Communist Party rule (I can’t access Facebook, Twitter or Google here, thanks to the government’s “Great Firewall“), through the long lens of history we can see now just how far China has come. Hopefully, continued openness, free trade and interaction with the West will help China to emerge from its cocoon of authoritarianism to show the world the beauty that waits inside.


Full-size replicas of the terrac cotta warriors are available in the on-site gift shop... for about $3,000.

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Wonders of China

Dinner with a Dynasty

by Brian Jewell 26. February 2011 13:47

In Xi’an, a city of six million people in central China, the legacy of ancient emperors is still alive today. For many years, Xi’an was the imperial capital of China (the current capital is Beijing).

After flying to the city this morning, we spend our evening attending the Tang Dynasty Dinner Show. The Tang emperors ruled China from 618-907, during a time that has become known as the golden age of Chinese culture and civilization. The show presents many of the traditions of the period -- including music, costume and dance -- in vivid color.

If you’re a frequent group traveler, you’ve likely lost count of all the different dinner shows you’ve attended; this one though, was unforgettable. More than 100 dancers and musicians are involved in the production, playing Chinese instruments and music that date back more than 1,000 years. Though the sights and sounds were completely foreign to us Westerners, they were also beautiful and captivating.

This show is a first-rate production as well, with intricate staging and lighting. At one point, it actually rains on the stage; in the ending finale, actors representing the Tang emperor and his entourage parade majestically through the audience.

The more I travel in this country, the more I realize how much of its national identity comes from the imperial attitudes and dynasties of old. Perhaps understanding more of China’s past will inform the way we interact with them today.


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Wonders of China

A Home in the Hutong

by Brian Jewell 26. February 2011 13:38

As a city, Beijing is a sprawling mass of high-rise buildings, many of them apartment and condo towers built to house the 19 million people who live here. But in the Hutong area of the city, just a block behind the skyscrapers on busy city streets, quiet neighborhoods and charming one-story homes maintain a semblance of the old life in Beijing.

We toured the Hutong by rickshaw today, going two-by-two in carts powered by a bicycle driver. It’s about the only way to go -- motorcoaches can’t navigate the narrow passages, and the labyrinth of streets and alleys makes trekking through on foot an intimidating prospects.

Our drivers brought us to the home of a local family, where the mother invited us in, served us tea, and talked to us about her family’s life in the small Hutong home. The house, she said, has been in her husbands family for four generations. The couple currently live there with their youngest son, as well as her father. Like most of her husband’s family, her oldest son is a kung fu master, and he now teaches in the United States. No on asked how the family managed to get around China’s infamous one-child policy.

The home was modest and crowded, but lovingly decorated in celebratory Chinese symbols. Though the Hutong is much beloved by residents, its days are probably numbered -- as Beijing’s population continues to grow, the government is tearing down the one-story buildings to construct more high-rises. The lady tells us that by the end of this year, she and her family will have to relocated, as their home is being demolished to create a public garden and a wider road.

There is one upside for the family, though: Because traditional homes in the Hutong are highly coveted by locals, their values have skyrocketed relative to other real estate in China. When it is time for the family to move, the government will reimburse them for their tiny home, which should be worth about $600,000. That will buy a great condo somewhere else in Beijing.

 Jasmine tea with the lady of the house.


Visiting in the family room.

The family's display of Kung Fu weapons.

Enjoying a rickshaw ride through the Hutong.

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Wonders of China

Walking on the Great Wall

by Brian Jewell 25. February 2011 04:00

It's not every day that you get to take a walk along a 2,700-year old wonder of the world. So for me as a traveler, today's visit to the Great Wall of China was pretty special.

We've all seen pictures of the wall, and probably heard various tidbits about it, such as the fact that it is the only man-made object visible from space. On our drive to the mountains outside of Beijing, where sections of the 4,000-mile wall are most accessible to visitors, our local guide Eddy gave us more details about the creation of this landmark.

"The emperors built the wall to keep out the Mongols from the north," he said. "Over one million workers were involved. Many of them died while they were building it. Most of the workers were prisoners, so if they got sick or wounded, nobody cared. They just buried them inside the wall."

Today, the wall is still as spectacular as it must have been back then. It snakes along the tops of ridges like a spine on the mountain range. In the sections near Beijing, the wall is wide, tall and easily walkable -- even on a late winter day, the place is buzzing with tourists, most of them Chinese nationals visiting from other parts of this large country.

We had two hours to spend exploring the Great Wall.  I chose to take the challenging hike from our starting place to the Eighth Tower of the North, the wall's highest point near Beijing. The journey included a lot of steps and no small amount of heavy breathing, but the views from the top, and the accompanying sense of accomplishment, were more than worthwhile.

After all, this is one of the great accomplishments of ancient humanity. Eight thousand miles away from home, it only makes sense to me to make the most of the opportunity. So the Great Wall of China, and its Eighth Tower of the North, is officially checked off the bucket list.


A steep hike from the bottom

Brian stops for a photo on the wall... with hair wind-whipped into a frenzy.

A remnant of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, fixed just beside the Great Wall.

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Wonders of China

Forbidden City in the Mist

by Brian Jewell 23. February 2011 17:44

It's a foggy day in Beijing, dreary weather for touring. But it will take more than mist to dampen my spirits -- today, my first in China, we are visiting the Forbidden City, one of the most renown sites in the whole country.

This elaborate complex of palaces and accompanying buildings was constructed more than 600 years ago, and occupied by members of the Ming Dynasty -- China's last emperors -- until 1921. During that time, it was strictly off-limits to commoners. Only emperors, their entourages and other public officials were allowed inside this massive and ornate complex. Thus the royal palace came to be known as the "Forbidden City."

After the fall of the dynasty, the new Chinese government opened the complex as the Palace Museum, but it is still widely known as the Forbidden City. Throngs of visitors come to see the craftsmanship and artwork on the palace walls and roofs, to walk in the footsteps of former emperors, and to learn more about this fascinating era in Chinese history. For a 600-year old attraction, the Forbidden City is huge -- our group spent several hours walking through from the north end to the south side. Along the way, Chris Lee, owner of China Plus, and our local guide Eddy told us stories of the emperors who lived in the city, as well as their harems and armies. All told, there are 9,999 rooms in the city, they tell us.  This was by design, as ancient Chinese beliefs held that there are 10,000 rooms in heaven.

The history is fascinating, but for me, it was the art of the Forbidden City that was truly stunning. The painting, carving and architecture represent the best work of the Mind dynasty, and have been remarkably well preserved over 600 years. With eye-catching designs and brilliant colors, the wonders of this city shine bright on even the foggiest of days.


 One of the Emperor's many thrones.

The Royal Hall

Iconic brass orbs adorn the gates to the Forbidden City.

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Wonders of China

Desert architecture

by Bob Hoelscher 4. February 2011 19:04

Taliesin West, acclaimed as one of the finest works of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, is a National Historic Landmark situated on 550 acres of Sonoran desert.  Begun in 1937, the sprawling complex began life as Wright’s “desert camp,” eventually becoming his winter home, studio, and the international headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which operates one of the world’s most exclusive schools of architecture. 

 Wright’s design integrates splendid outdoor features, including terraces, gardens and walkways with a remarkable set of buildings designed around open spaces, light and views of the desert valley.  The beauty and unusual form of the complex, as well as fascinating stories of Wright’s somewhat eccentric genius are all showcased in six different guided tours, of which the 90-minute “Insights Tour” is the most popular and ideal for groups.  Don’t miss it!       

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at
or by calling (435) 590-1553.

All photos of Taliesin West



Wintering in Arizona

A must-hear museum

by Bob Hoelscher 2. February 2011 20:09

Having already had more than enough snow to last me a lifetime, I decided to take advantage of my newly acquired condition of being (semi-) retired and spend the winter in Phoenix and the surrounding “Valley of the Sun.”  Considering the wrath which Mother Nature directed at most of the rest of the country in January, this turned out to be a very propitious decision. The entire month here featured bright sunshine and daytime temperatures between 65 and 72 degrees! 

In addition to finding some part-time work to help out a good friend, Sue Arko of Free Spirit Vacations & Events during her “busy” season, I’m eagerly awaiting the start of “Cactus League” spring training baseball, the games of which are scheduled to begin on February 25 (more about that next month).

Those who have visited Arizona’s largest metropolitan area are likely aware that there is a wealth of sights and activities available to the vacationer here.  However, most probably do not know that one of the area’s most important new man-made attractions is located but a few miles of one of the oldest, not counting ruins left behind by ancestral Puebloan civilizations, of course.

Both are off of Loop 101 in the Northeastern part of the valley: the sparkling new Musical Instrument Museum at Tatum Blvd., and historic Taliesin West, accessible from both the Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd. and Cactus Road exits. 

These two outstanding sites are “musts” for any groups planning to explore Phoenix and Scottsdale.

The Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM, which opened to the public just last spring, bills itself as “the most extraordinary museum you’ll ever hear.”  In fact, it is somewhat of a surprise to find this attraction in Phoenix, a city which has never been noted as one of the world’s great music capitals. But rest assured that this is truly a world-class facility. 

Here the cultures of the world are explored in depth through mankind’s universal language of music, enhanced by fascinating displays showcasing virtually every type of musical instrument imaginable and quite a few that are not.  In fact, the collection contains some 10,000 instruments, only 3,000 of which are on display, grouped regionally from origins around the globe. 

In addition to group-friendly food facilities and gift shops, the center also contains the 299-seat MIM Music Theatre, which schedules musical programs as diverse as the world’s peoples themselves.  And where else can you see a 12-foot “Octobass,” which requires a ladder to be played? 

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at or by calling (435) 590-1553.


All photos are of the Musical Instrument Museum


Wintering in Arizona

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