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‘Passport' host heads to China

Samantha Brown shares her thoughts on Beijing, the culture, the food and the smog.

John Bordsen, Travel Editor
jbordsen@charlotteobserver.com

Samantha Brown, 39, is a host on the Travel Channel. Her “Passport to China” shows premiered Monday-Wednesday (July 28-30) and will be repeated between 5 and 8 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 7). Her “Passport” series is regularly shown at 10 p.m. Thursdays. (Details: www.travelchannel.com.) Brown's coverage is based on a one-month trip to China in September. It was her first trip there.

Q. What was your first impression?

That China was a country and a culture completely opposite to my own. Everyday life as I understood it was turned on its head.

The first thing was the ride into Beijing from the airport and the city's startling contrasts. It was like every building was on steroids – everything was bigger. And there were more people – people everywhere. It's almost like a football game had just gotten out … but it's like that everywhere you go.

Q. What do you wish you had known before going?

One thing they tell you is that when you travel in the city, you want to bring a card that has your hotel information on it – like a business card, with the address – in English on one side and in Chinese on the other. You can give it to the cab driver when you want to go back to your room.

So I got in the cab and gave the driver the card … and it turns out he doesn't read!

How did I get back to my hotel? Luckily, I had an old map of Beijing and guessed where the hotel was. He dropped me off there. It worked.

Q. How many cities did you visit, and how did you pick them?

Three: Beijing, Xian (archaeological site of the famed terra cotta soldiers) and Chengdu (the capital of western China's Sichuan province). I didn't pick them; Travel Channel did.

Q. In talking to people there, you probably heard about cities you would love to visit. What's the top contender?

There was a coastal city whose name escapes me. It's the vacation spot for a lot of Chinese, and is supposed to be beautiful. Also, I would've loved to go into the countryside, to get an idea of non-modern, untouched China.

Q. Were you always escorted by officials?

Absolutely. And we had almost an all-Chinese crew with us. We had a government official with us at all times. He traveled with us, ate with us and stayed with us.

On Day 1, I thought, “Oh-oh. He's listening to what I'm saying and is going to try to edit this.” But by the end of the trip we were great friends. He was definitely on our side, which was neat to see. He would go to battle for us when policemen would come up and say, “You're not supposed to be here,” and we'd have to show them the permits that were months in the making.

Q. So the government seemed omnipresent?

Only in Beijing did it seem heavy. Tiananmen Square, especially: We were stopped every 50 feet and had to get out our passports and show them again and again. The Forbidden Palace was like that, too. Other than that, the government presence didn't feel overwhelming.

Q. Did you get to meet the people you wanted? Or were you more directed toward people?

A little of both. I don't believe that to communicate you have to have a common language. I'd just go to situations – markets, shopping areas on the streets – and just engage people. And this worked well.

There'd be people enjoying tea and cookies in the park. We'd kind of smile, and they'd immediately start sharing their food and drink with me. I remember looking at a group of 560 people doing tai chi. A woman just waved me in – pointed in a “join us” way.

There's a mutual awe of each other's civilization and culture, a wonderful mutual inquisitiveness. They really want you to enjoy their day-to-day life, which they're as proud of as they are of the Great Wall of China.

Q. The awful stories about the smog: Are they true? Is it that awful?

Yeah. Unfortunately.

Q. What city's would you compare it to?

It's unlike anything anyone will experience (elsewhere). It's thick, ugly and affects your health. Every day, I felt mildly like I was getting sick – scratchy throat, ears ringing. I realized that it had to be caused by pollution. That's something that travelers need to be aware of.

Xian is where I noticed the smog was worse. I stupidly went out for a jog in it.

But there were also days when the smog wasn't there – when we were at the Great Wall, it was a crystal-clear, beautiful day. Maybe a third of the time there were beautiful days.

Q. The best places you ate?

I couldn't tell you the names; I have the cards, but they're printed in Chinese. Because we were with a Chinese crew, we went to their favorite local hangouts. I didn't eat a bad meal there. Even at the places I chose – where we'd just pop in.

Q. What's the Beijing site that got away – the place you wish you had gone to?

The Tea District – a whole district of people who just sell tea. I wanted to go there and buy tea the way some people elsewhere go to a district to buy Persian rugs. You sniff it. You feel it. That's the interaction I missed the most.

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