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Homecoming Tour Journal

The Phalen family will be returning to China in mid-November to early-December 2009 for a Homecoming Reunion tour to the orphanages of both girls. This trip is part of the program created and run by Bridge of Love Adoption Services (BLAS), a non-profit branch of the China Center of Adoption Affairs (CCAA). We will be visiting Beijing, Guangzhou, then Zhanjiang, Elaina's orphanage as part of the group, and then will add on a trip to Nanning, to visit Sheridan's orphanage.

November 18, 2009 -- Here we go! Flew from Washington National to Chicago O'Hare early this morning. Had Chicago dogs and killed some time in the Red Carpet Lounge. Lainey finished her thank you cards from her birthday party and mailed them off. Left Chicago on time at 12:37 for the 13+ hour trip over the top of the world. Watched movies, ate, read, napped, but the girls were great travelers and it was much better than the last trip from China - Jim never once thought anyone was going out the window! We saw the polar ice cap and the snow-covered mountains of Siberia, and the sun never set. It was big excitement when we crossed the international date line into Thursday.

November 19, 2009 -- We arrived in Beijing around 4PM local time, met up with the guide who took our welcome to China photo, and headed for the hotel - just in time for the most unbelievable rush hour ever seen! Makes DC traffic seem like a cake walk. We finally got to the hotel, checked in, did some exploring around the hotel and took naps, then found ourselves Bowling in Beijing around 1AM! I guess our bodies are still adjusting to the time change.

November 20, 2009 -- Had a breakast spread at the hotel restaurant, including noodles, dumplings, sushi, eggs, bacon, these yummy things called Bretzels (a cross between a bun and soft pretzel but with sesame seeds) and the freshest fresh-squeezed pineapple juice imaginable. Then it was off to the Beijing zoo, where we saw the pandas! They were awesome. Very active and playful and munching on bamboo, apples, carrots and these treats that they obviously loved. Great pictures! The rest of Beijing zoo paled in comparison, but we got really close up looks at bears, wolves, monkeys, elephants, rhinos (who knew that there are six different varieties!) and lots of other animals. Then it was back to the hotel where Elaina and I crashed while Jim and Sheridan headed off to the grocery store for pringles and oreos - some things never change - and then later napped as well. After our power naps, we had dinner at a Thai restaurant in the shopping mall connected to the hotel. (And yes, there is a Starbucks here in the mall and a Baskin Robbins, too!) Then we hung out for a while and headed off for bowling again. This time we are back in the room a little after midnight.

November 21, 2009 -- Today we truly saw Beijing, new and old. First we visited the Olympic Park, The Bird's Nest, and the Water Cube. The Bird's Nest was awesome but somehow smaller than we expected from seeing it on television. It was interesting to see that the entire Olympics complex was built around an ancient Buddhist temple, one of the few survivors of the village that until recently stood on the site. Then it was off to explore the Hutong area by rickshaw. This maze of ancient houses, shops, and alleyways (some 700 years old), gave you a feeling of really being in China with a glimpse into everyday life. Our guide even arranged for us to visit and have tea with a woman whose family has lived in their courtyard house in the Hutong for many generations. The visit was complete when Sheridan decided she had to go to the bathroom "bad" and she and Elaina got to experience a real "Chinese toilet" - let's just say that all that balance work in gymnastics finally paid off! Then it was back to the hotel for a rest, some yummy food from a small local noodle shop that Elaina found, and some laps in the pool.

November 22, 2009 -- Another exciting day of touring, this time with a couple of other families that have arrived. We visited the Temple of Heaven, a Ming Dynasty Temple of the emperor. We talked into the echo wall and climbed a lot of series of nine steps (nine is the symbol of the power of the emperor) and enjoyed the 15th century architecture. We toured Tian'anmen Square, where we saw the enormous portrait of Mao Zedong and soldiers guarding the flag. You can visit an online panarama of the square at www.roundtiananmensquare.com. We crossed under Chang'an Jie through the pedestrian tunnel to the Forbidden City, which is a series of courtyards that go on forever! No wonder it is "forbidden." On the north side of the Forbidden City we wakled through a park where locals performed traditional dance and music, played cards and Go, and wrote calligraphy on the sidewalk with enormous brushes dipped in water. In the evening, we met up with the remaining group members.

November 23, 2009 -- As a kick off to the official beginning of the group tour, we attended a formal Welcoming Ceremony at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, where the girls received stuffed pandas and a special official letter. Jim and I were given a beautiful crystal block with the Great Wall carved into it. CCTV4, a national news channel in China, was there and filmed. Then the group, with press in tow, visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall, where we saw beautiful scenery after climbing steep stairs and slopes that in some places went practically straight up and down like a ladder. On the way back to Beijing we had lunch and visited a Cloisonne Factory. Then it was on to the Summer Palace, on Kunming lake. There we saw the 17-Arches Bridge and the Marble Boat, and strolled down the Long Corridor and through lovely gardens. After a group dinner in the Sichuan restaurant near the hotel, we watched ourselves on the China TV news (see it at http://www.megavideo.com/?v=0RL2WCG3 - it is in Chinese of course)!

November 24, 2009 -- Today we visited the China Center for Adoption Affairs and Bridge of Love Adoption Services. We visited the Match Room and meet the lovely people who make adoption in China possible. After touring the offices, the girls learned Chinese songs and how to write "happiness" in a Chinese calligraphy class. They also received a beautiful gift of a collection of papercut art. We had a Thai lunch and then went back to the hotel to pack for our flight to Guangzhou. On the plane (and all other China domestic flights), they showed a hilarious little cartoon about Swine Flu - you can check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4uEJIsbVyI. After arriving at the White Swan Hotel, we explored the hotel and the riverside park on Shaiman Island by night. Things have changed a bit since we were last there 7 years ago; the waterfront park after dark was full of teenage couples, complete with public displays of affection and open beer drinking. Wow! Although, this time the girls should actually be able to remember being there!

November 25, 2009 -- Got up early and headed off to the bakery for a taste of those yummy Chinese pastries! Then we took some photos around the hotel, which had been magically transformed over night with a four story Christmas tree by the indoor waterfall, gingerbread houses and other Christmas decorations. Apparently, Santa has some busy elves in Guangzhou. Then it was off to visit the Provincial Institute of Archives to see Elaina's original adoption file as well as a collection of extravagant and interesting gifts presented to the Chinese government from other officials, including a 6-foot ivory carving and a key to the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. Then it was some quick shopping on Shaimin Island where we bought some traditional Chinese musical instruments, including a Ba Wa and a Xun. Back at the White Swan, we lucked out and actually ran into Aiyi Alice, who was our guide on both trips to get the girls! Nice to see a familiar face. The group had lunch at a Cantonese restaurant and said good bye to Guangzhou (too soon!) for a quick flight to Zhanjiang. We had a quick but delicious group dinner of local dishes, checked into hotel and did a little exploring.

November 26, 2009 -- Today was the big day that we have all been waiting for; this morning we went to the Zhanjiang Social Welfare Institute (SWI), Elaina's orphanage. A huge Welcome banner and singing children greeted us inside the gate. There was an official Welcoming ceremony with speeches, preformances, and gift exchanging. We got to go play with the babies and fed them, and enjoyed fresh clementines and bananas before lunch - which included local chinese dishes but also some turkey legs and pumpkin pancakes as a nod to our American Thankgiving celebration. After lunch the older kids came out and played games with us, like jumprope, basketball, tug-o-war, badminton, three-legged race, and hawk and chicken, a chinese tag game. Jim was challenged to a game of wheelchair basketball - it wasn't his best game! It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed relaxing and playing with the kids. We said our goodbyes and then headed over to Cunjin Park, where we enjoyed a nice stroll through the gardens and monuments. The water lilies and bougenvillas were spectacularly in bloom. We ended the day with another group dinner (where Elaina tried and liked eel) and then headed back to the hotel. All in all it was a very special Thanksgiving day. You can view some pictures of our day at the orphanage on the site of this Chinese news organization.

November 27, 2009 -- Today we went to Donghai Island beach on the South China Sea. We collected sea shells, played with hermit crabs, and enjoyed a picnic on the beach. Elaina rode a camel with her dad; she said it was bumpy and the were squished between the two humps. She also rode an ATV with her dad, and she even got to drive it! Sheridan enjoyed doing cartwheels on the beach and bought a big clam shell. It was a really great day at the beach, even if mom did get a sunburned nose. After the beach, we shopped in an antique market, and then visited Zhong'ao Friendship Park, a really neat park at the foot of the Bay Bridge. There we saw a bride and groom having pictures taken and we took some pictures of them - so now our trip is official (we have photos from weddings from both of our other trips to China.) Then we had a group dinner on the Ocean Liner, a large boat permanently docked in the harbor. Walking up the ramp to the boat we saw a man breaking open shellfish and there were large tanks of fish on the deck below the dining room so the seafood at dinner was certainly quite fresh and delicious.

November 28, 2009 -- This morning while cleaning shells we had gathered yesterday at the beach, we fdiscovered that we brought home a couple little friends - two hermit crabs. We packed them up and took them with us on a visit to Huguangyan National Scenic Spot, which is a large lake created by volcanos. It had a beach, likely fresh water, but we let the crabs out there any way. Better chance of surving there than flushed out the hotel toilet! We rode a train around the lake, saw peacocks, and drummed on a big Chinese drum. Some of the kids from the orphanage went with us and then on to lunch, where we were served lots of crazy dishes, including octopus, tripe, and jellyfish. Some was okay; others not so much. Later we toured the Pearl Factory. There we got to see ladies sorting and stringing pearls and the kids got to put their arms into big buckets of pearls. After that, some families went back to the orphanage. Elaina got to meet with one of the nannies that took care of her when she was a baby at the orphanage. This was the nanny that had handed us baby Lainey so long ago and is in those pictures. She still looks pretty much the same. It was good to see her again and talk with her through an interpretor. And now we have a name for her which is nice. We got to go to the baby room again and even see and hold the littlest babies. then it was back to the hotel to start packing. The evening ended with an amazing Farwell Dinner in the hotel.

November 29, 2009 -- This morning we said goodbye to some of the group and traveled with others back to Guangzhou. Then we seperated from the rest of the group and traveled on to Nanning, in Guangxi province, where Sheridan's orphanage is located. After arriving in Nanning and settling into our hotel, we went out to explore the city. We went to a department store where the girls got themselves some snazzy Miffy boots and we found an awesome pastry shop. I think that Nanning may have some of the best pastries in the world - no offense Paris! After dark, Sheridan spotted out the hotel window a street where multi-colored lights decorated the trees, so we headed out to explore that. I turned out to be a really neat street with all sorts of shops and this amazing new 3 story supermarket called Ren Ren Le where you could get really fresh seafood - I mean dip your own out of the tanks - and all sorts of live and exotic foods, such as frogs, turtles, eels, squid, octopus, whole pig snouts and cheeks, pig's feet. But unlike the open air markets, this was all contained in a fresh, new upscale supermarket. Pretty wild!

November 30, 2009 -- Today we visited Nanning SWI, Sheridan's orphanage and it was very nice. We had not gone there before when we got her, so this was a real treat. Even though the guide had told us that we would only get to visit the Assistant Director and Sheridan's nanny in a conference room, when we got there it turned out that they let us go see the rooms where the babies were when Sheridan was there, as well as the new school building, gardens, and we even saw babies that were outside playing. Then we had a really nice restaurant lunch with Mrs. Xu, Sheridan's nanny, and some others from the orphanage. Mrs. Xu thought that Sheridan was too skinny and kept piling food on her plate. She also thought she wasn't warmly dressed - guess that doesn't change no matter how old they are! Even though it was in the 70s, they were wearing winter coats. Of course, the average summer temperature there is above 100F, so comparatively speaking, I suppose they were cold! After lunch, we had the driver drop us at a music store where we bought Elaina an Erhu (Chinese 2-string violin) and Sheridan a Dizi, a bamboo flute. Then we saw the Bronze drums of the Guangxi Minority Museum and the Great Hall on our way walking to the SuperWalMart. Like Ren Ren Le, the WalMart had live animals for sale (for food), and just about everything else that you could imagine. In the adjacent shopping mall we stopped in for our first taste of American food since we've been in China - some McDonald's fries and shakes; the fries tasted the same but not the shake. Then on to the People's Park and then back to the hotel. After dinner in the hotel, we went to Ren Ren Le again, just because we could!

December 1, 2009 -- Today it was a quick trip to the Nanning Wild Animal Park where we saw bear, tiger and dolphin shows, as well as a brief Chinese acrobat show. Then it was back to the hotel to pack and get ready to fly to Beijing. Even though we got to our Beijing hotel late, we decided that the girls needed a late night swim and Bowling-in-Beijing one more time.

December 2, 2009 -- Not much time before we had to leave for the airport, but we did manage to sneak in a little shopping before we headed home. Our flight from Beijing to San Francisco was 11 1/2 hours, but we enjoyed traveling with a couple of other families from the group who had done touring elsewhere since we left them in Guangzhou and we got a really close-up look at Mount Fuji while flying over Japan. From San Fran it was on to Chicago and finally to DC. All told, the trip home was 24 hours, door to door!

 

 
We are so glad to be able to share our journey with you all. Be sure and sign up for our email list on the home page and we will continue to alert you to new postings.

Photos that we posted of the trip are in our Reunion Photo Gallery. Photos taken by other families on the tour can be found at Cory's pics, and Starr family photos. Also, see photos on the official BLAS site, the Zhanjiang Kids Organization site.


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