From the moment we arrived, it felt so surreal to be here. The airport had a billboard with a huge picture of “your friend, Yao Ming.” Streets are wide and multi-laned. Lots of bicycles, mostly ridden slowly and cautiously. Two hours away, the Great Wall. And right in front of me on my trusty laptop, the Great Firewall.

No Wikipedia. No BBC. Google News works, though I’d heard it wouldn’t. And I can’t post to my blog. I can view it – after waiting several minutes for it to load – but I can’t get to my dashboard to change or post anything. So thanks go out to my girlfriend, who is posting this for me from the other side of the Pacific.

Our first Chinese meal was amazing. Incredible. Our hosts brought us to a Buddhist restaurant tucked into a tiny alley; the driver had to maneuver carefully just to get through the stone gate. They sat us in a private room at the back, with low-backed chairs and the radiator curving creatively up the wall.

Fragrant linden tea. Crispy mock chicken on a bed of hot peppers. Light salad of bamboo, celery, and other greens. Flavorful thin slices of mushrooms and carrots with a drizzle of lemon sauce. A massive crispy pumpkin pancake with an inner layer of cream cheese. Taro, ready to fall apart in a pot of hot, sweetened soy milk. Green tea mousse with a hint of chocolate sauce.

And my first squat toilet in China. The stall doors were so low I could see right over the top (awkward!), and I hit my head on the frame on my way out.

After lunch we went to a market, with floors and floors of vendors selling clothes, bags, wallets, shoes, knockoff designer pieces, silks, hats, belts, custom-made suits, and anything else you could ever wear or carry. Then to the Friendship Store, quiet, run by the government. We walked by glass cases of jade jewelry, shelves of Communist miscellany (from Little Red Books to Chairman Mao playing cards), chopsticks, fans, kites, chocolates, tea, cookies, tea sets, perfume. And that was just part of the first floor.

Finally, a night off. I wandered down to the hotel pool, lazed in my room, and fell asleep at nine. Sleep, glorious sleep.

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