Vicky Collins Online

A Blog With Superpowers


For the love of Panda Bears

Sunday in Beijing and I feel the city is mine.  The sky is a beautiful blue (yes, it does happen) and the sun is out.  In two and a half weeks I have found a French bakery for cappuccinos, a restaurant I love called Hutong Pizza and I rode the subway.  I’m making my way through the city with confidence.  Today I decide to visit the zoo.  Apparently so does the rest of China.  This is not something to do if you get claustrophobic. 


The Beijing Zoo is primitive with many animals in glass enclosures and cages.  Visitors throw food and there are no moats so the animals often come right up to the fences.   There are some very interesting antelope and a great collection of bugs and butterflies.  There is also something I have never seen in a zoo before.  Dogs!!  In the children’s zoo there are different breeds of dogs.  They are big and little and the kids can walk them.


I have come to the zoo to see the pandas.  They are smaller than I expected and adorable. Ever since I met Suzanne Braden in Denver I have been more interested in them.  Suzanne runs a non-profit organization called Pandas International ( and she is a force.  For years she has been raising money for the panda breeding facility in Wolong that is working to insure the survival of the species.  There are only 1600 left in the world and their habitat in Wolong took a terrible hit from the earthquake.


The pandas are a hugely popular attraction and people photograph them with cameras and cell phones even behind the glass.   My NBC colleague, Mark Mullen, had a chance to visit Wolong a couple of times.  The most recent experience was after the earthquake and his stories of hope and heartbreak appeared on Today and Nightly News with Brian Williams (  He did a great stand up.  He reported by a cute little bear and then he patted his head.  Sublime!!   

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Hot Pot of Thoughts

Brenda and I went to a restaurant with red lanterns in front that serves hot pot.  A hot pot is like sukiyaki.  It is a mish mash of meat, vegetables and noodles cooked at the table.  There was no English spoken and the menu was completely in Chinese.  For westerners there are pictures of the dishes.  We had trouble ordering so a waitress recommended something that looked safe.  It was very tasty.  Today we went back with our Chinese speaking friend, Eir Zhou.  Turns out the dish was donkey, a very popular meat throughout the country.  Sometimes it is better not to know what you are eating.   

Every time I tell a young man in Beijing that I am from Colorado his eyes light up and he goes “Aah, Denver Nuggets.”  When I mentioned this to Liu Yang he got excited and started talking about how much he likes Alan Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.  Kobe Bryant of the Lakers is also one of his favorites.  He wanted to make sure I knew Yao Ming plays for the Houston Rockets.  Chinese men love their basketball.  Not just Yao Ming but our NBA players too.  They seem particularly fond of the Denver Nuggets.   
Brenda and I went with Eir Zhou, our Chinese colleague, and her friend, Cranberry (she likes the band, The Cranberries, and picked it as her English name) to the Peking Opera.  This particular opera was a story about love and betrayal.  Visually they are stunning with glorious costumes but oh, the sound!!  The performance was extremely cacophonous.  One of these is enough for a lifetime.  During the performance Cranberry took a business call on her cell phone and talked in the theatre for 20 minutes.  Not one person in the audience complained.  Manners are different here in China. 
While videotaping in the International Broadcast Center a young Chinese woman came over to chat.  She introduced herself by her English name of Muffy.  She was a volunteer studying landscaping at her university and was helping to put up the banners that decorate the building.  She said the job was not very creative but she was very proud to do it because she was participating  in the Olympics.  There were 560,000 applicants for 100,000 Olympic volunteer opportunities. It was very competitive.   Most of those who applied had bachelor’s degrees or higher. 
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Surprising China

We have a new employee at work.  She hails from Guangzhou in the south of China and has been in Beijing for one and a half years.  She is a 30 something television producer and speaks excellent English.  During a lull in the action today we got to talking.  It was great to transcend the language barrier and have an in depth conversation with a local.  She said she thinks many people have misconceptions about China and asked me what I find surprising so far.  Wow!  There are so many things.


First of all, I feel much freer here than I expected to be.  I may be naïve but I doesn’t seem like anyone is looking over my shoulder or particularly cares what I say or write.  I also have access to almost all the things I want on the internet including newspapers from around the world.  Folks talk about the great firewall of China.  I haven’t really noticed it yet.      


There are many westerners living in Beijing.  Because of the explosive growth, people have come from all over the world to participate in the development.  There are parts of town like Shunyi and Gongti Beilu full of expatriates.  They live here with their families and send their kids to excellent schools.  They celebrate Canada Day and the 4th of July.  A friend of mine who has lived here for two years doesn’t want to leave. 


Young people here are hip and trendy.  They go out.  They enjoy clubs and western music like people their age around the world.  They dress like American or European youth.  Women wear funky, sparkly outfits and colorful shoes.  Men have longish hair.  They have style, money, cell phones, even cars.  What a difference a generation makes.


The food is great here.  You can eat Chinese food forever or you can go to outstanding restaurants in an evolving culinary environment that caters to more cosmopolitan palettes.  In our neighborhood alone we have Italian, Mexican, Korean, pizza, Cuban food, an Irish pub, Muslim food, etc.  The list goes on and on.  There are gourmet grocery stores, excellent wines and French bakeries with croissants and cappuccinos. 


It is inexpensive here.  You can ride a cab across town for $5 and get an hour massage at a really nice spa for $25.  A first class meal with drinks and wine costs less than $50.  You can have a good time at very little expense and you can shop till you drop.  There are bargains galore. 


It is safe.  I can walk on the street and no one bothers me.  People smile and greet you.  They let you take photos of their children.  The biggest hazards are traffic accidents (I heard there were 18,000 deaths in a three month period in 2007) and drinking too much at dinner.  The guide books warn that liquor flows freely at banquets.  One must watch out.   


I had many misconceptions before coming to China but being immersed in the culture gives me a different perspective.  It is an adventure living in a foreign land.  There are growing pains for sure in China, and they are being carefully chronicled by the press, but in my experience the truth is somewhere in between.  I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the things I discover every day in Beijing.  I’m sure my colleague would be pleased. 

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Bu Hao (Not Good) Taxi Rides

Living the expat life in Beijing requires a fair amount of getting around.  Upon arrival in the city I was given a Beijing Taxi Book.  The subtitle is “Helping Non-Chinese Speakers Get From A to B in Beijing, China.”  This is an essential resource.  Inside are locations such as restaurants, bars, hotels, shopping, embassies, Olympic venues, churches and sightseeing destinations frequented by travelers.  When one gets into a cab (more than likely with a non-English speaking driver) you simply show him the page with the place you hope to end up and he reads the Chinese translation and off you go.


According to one report, there are 66,000 taxis on the road in Beijing.  It does not take long to hail a cab, unless of course it is raining, and then I hear it is impossible.   Beijing is a very large city and it is congested with traffic.  Taxi drivers must dodge pedestrians and many, many bicycle riders.  There is much horn honking and many near misses.  It can take quite a bit of time to get around.  In addition, it is impossible for every taxi driver to know every street so passengers often have adventures. 


A recent ride went like this.  My friend shows our taxi driver the book.  He has an “aha” moment. We take off.  We jump on the 5th Ring Road where he proceeds to weave recklessly through traffic.  In two instances he comes precariously close to the vehicle in front of us then suddenly swerves into the next lane directly in the path of another car.  I cover my eyes as he creates a lane of his own between the two.  He then zips across several lanes only to discover he can’t get where he’s going any faster so he zips back to where he was originally.  As he is just about to pass the exit he crosses over two lanes quickly and gets off the freeway. 


He then pulls over to the side of the road to let us out, but we are not at our destination.  We try to explain that this is not the place we need to go but we do not speak Chinese and he does not speak English.  We show him the book again.  He looks confused.  He calls someone on the cell phone.  They can’t help.  He gets out of the cab to ask directions.  Someone points him down the road.  We drive a couple miles and stop again.  He looks at us hopefully.  My friend shakes her head.  He gets out of the car and asks for directions again.  He learns we have passed our exit.  We are now on a one way street.  It doesn’t matter.  We make a U-turn so we can proceed up the ramp behind us.  One more near miss and we finally arrive at our destination.  We exhale.


Another experience goes like this.  I pick up a cab outside the Westin in the Financial District and ask the cabbie to take me to my apartment.  He looks at the card and seems confused.  He barks something at me in a husky voice, puts the card under the light and looks confused again.  I am not feeling confident.  We take off.  Eventually he pulls to the curb and tells me we are here.  I do not recognize the neighborhood.  The cab fare is 50% more than the trip to the Westin and I have no idea where I am.  I do not want to pay the full fare for a ride with a driver who drops me off in the middle of an unfamiliar street.  I give him 25 yuan (the cost of the original trip out to the Westin) and gather my things.  He barks at me again and demands more money.  We argue with each other, neither of us understanding a word the other is saying.  I get out of the cab.  He gets out with me.  I try to walk away.  He grabs me by the arm.  I try to leave again.  He puts his hand in my purse and digs for my wallet.  I try to get translation help on the street.  Folks look sympathetic and amused.  A passerby suggests I just give him the money and hands him 5 more yuan.  With this gesture the cab driver saves face.  Turns out I was right where I needed to be.  The cab driver barks at me and storms off.


I just returned to my apartment from work at the International Broadcast Center.  My cabbie dodged and weaved through traffic and dropped me off in a somewhat familiar area.  I pay my fare, thank him, then confidently walk off in the wrong direction.   

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