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Bruce in China

Visiting temples was one of the things about a trip to China. Looking for something to eat? Not so much.

I hope I never eat rice again.

After downing it three times a day for nine days, I’ve more than had my fill.

Even worse? I was in the Gluten Capital of China (Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors) and folks there couldn’t believe I needed to be gluten-free. When I gave them a letter that detailed my allergy, they looked at it like I had just handed them a ransom note for more tea than there is in China (and, yeah, they do tell that joke there). Rather than take a chance, restaurant managers assured me they’d find me something to eat.

That, of course, was rice.

When I casually mentioned I’d like to go to McDonald’s, the tour guide did everything but block my path. (Eventually, I won.)

Eating, for me, was definitely the worst part of visiting China.

The best was seeing all sorts of history. While I couldn’t keep the dynasties apart (most ended in disaster and involved double-crossing relatives), I did enjoy viewing the relics, temples and homes they left behind.

I also liked the Great Wall of China, which involved the skill of an American Ninja Warrior to climb. Snaking all over the countryside (you can see it from an airplane), it appeared more walker-friendly than it actually is.

The problem: Those wall builders didn’t exactly measure well. They created steps that ran the gamut of rise. Some were more than a foot tall, others mere inches, so you could never get a climbing rhythm. Once you got to a platform, you were just glad you avoided a heart attack. I went high enough to make the Christmas card picture look impressive and then I bailed.

At the bottom, vendors practically assaulted you with hats and other trinkets that say “The Great Wall” on them. I spent $3 on a stocking cap (look for it, I’ll be wearing it this winter) and a guide told me I paid too much. I got a China military hat in Tiananmen Square, too, but I’m sure any photos of that will come back to haunt me when I run for Woodbury County weed commissioner. As Communist as it looked, it did keep the sun out of my eyes.

Selling, it seems, is a national pastime in China. Everywhere we went, someone was hawking something. Food on a stick is big (and vile, for the most part); “factory” tours are nothing more than a way for salespeople to size up buyers. After hitting jade and pearl factories, I was ready for the game elsewhere and I got pretty good at it. I didn’t get a hat for less than $3, but I went home with two sets of Terracotta Warriors that cost me less than the contraband fries I got at McDonald’s.

When we got to a Chinese medicine place (which also included a foot massage – don’t ask), I was more than willing to shut down the conversation when the “doctor” suggested I needed a prescription to deal with my “abdominal problems.” He said he could solve them for $240. I said my physician wouldn’t appreciate me taking anything he hadn’t approved and, besides, how would I get a refill? Would I have to make a return visit? Quickly, he moved on to another person and diagnosed a fatty liver.

The foot massage – one of several I had over the course of a week – was hardly something to write home about. It started with a tea bath and ended with me taking a shower at the hotel, just to make sure some strange thing didn’t enter my system.

Walking more than 10,000 steps a day did produce sore feet, but I’m not sure any number of salves or potions could have fixed that.

Instead, I marveled at the things ancient (and we’re talking thousands of years ancient) folks built in service to their emperors. The temples and shrines are incredible. In Xi’an, those Terracotta Warriors are pretty impressive, too.

Interestingly, they wouldn’t have been discovered if some farmers hadn’t been digging a well in the 1970s. They bumped into these statues and, soon, a cottage industry emerged. Archaeologists unearthed thousands of them and created a tourist attraction that’s impressive. There, in the ground, you can see the soldiers lined up. There’s a story that goes with them (and the work that continues), but the one that surprised me the most was at a nearby restaurant. There, the last original digger was signing copies of his book and posing for pictures with Americans who didn’t go to McDonald’s.

While I didn’t go to some of the rural areas where tourists could see how rice was harvested, I did get to Shanghai Disneyland – one of the highlights of my trip. There, I got to enjoy rides that American Disney parks don’t have and, nearby, I got to go to a Cheesecake Factory.

When I brought out my gluten allergy letter, the manager said, “I’ll take care of you. I trained in Orlando and I know how to deal with Americans.”

Instead of dishing up a bowl of rice, he brought out a burger and fries and poured a tall Coke.

Even without a bun, it was heaven.

And, for once, I didn’t even think about haggling over price.

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