China – Way beyond the Vale
Great Wall of China
Part I - Digging to China
Growing up in Sonoma, I knew just a little about China. First of all, it was common knowledge that if I started digging a hole in the back yard and kept on digging, I could end up there. The other thing I knew was that I should always eat my vegetables because people were starving in China. My first real experiences with anything Chinese were the meals served to me by Freddie Wing, who was the Swiss Hotel’s chef for several decades. I grew up on Freddie’s cooking, so it might be fair to say that the way to China for me started with my stomach.
Although I dug several deep holes in the backyard, I actually never got to China until 1968, when as an officer in the Navy, I was able to spend a few days in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Then, the biggest part of the country, the one that was both mysterious and foreboding, “Mainland China,” was closed to Americans. But in 1972 President Richard Nixon went there and it began to open up to visitors from the west.
Americans now travel to China by the thousands every week. Not wishing to be left out, Dottie and I recently joined a couple of local friends, Ken and Pat McTaggart, for an up close and personal look at the world’s most populated country.
I traded a shovel for a passport and visa, signed on with Uniworld Tours for a 17-day Beijing to Hong Kong excursion, and just marched along with the precise instructions and itinerary that Uniworld provided. It was surprisingly easy and affordable.
There are lots of companies providing fully escorted tours from the U.S. They usually include air transportation, hotels, meals, transfers, English-speaking guides and lots of excursions to the most popular tourist sites. Dottie and I are not that keen on traveling in large groups, but learning enough Mandarin to do it on our own didn’t seem like a viable option.
The hardest thing in the beginning was figuring out how to cram 17-days worth of clothes as well as a full-pharmacy of drugs into one fairly small suitcase. There is a 40-pound per person, one-suit case per person weight limit for all of the China domestic airlines (our tour called for us to make five city-to-city plane flights in country). That may sound like a lot of time in airplanes, but China is a big country. Beijing, the capital, is at about the same latitude as Philadelphia. The latitude of Hong Kong, at the southern end, is just a little south of Miami’s.
About the drugs – We’ve all heard the horror stories about various illnesses that one can be exposed to in developing countries. And being an old Boy Scout, I thought that being prepared seemed like a good idea. So I packed a serious supply of over-the-counter medications such as Pepto Bismal, Imodium, liquid cork, snake oil, Tylenol, Advil, decongestants, antihistamines, along with ointments, lotions, faith healing tapes, Band Aids, tape, splints, needles, tweezers, scissors, as well as “just-in-case” supply of antibiotics, Tamiflu, and other prescription drugs. I couldn’t fit the defibulator, oxygen tank, portable field hospital or my doctor, Doug Campbell, in my suitcase.
Dottie and I thought we had gone over the top a little with our medical preparations until we spoke to the others in our group who had even more of that stuff than we did.
So, did we really need all those drugs? Stay tuned.
Part II- Are we there yet?
Did you know that your blood pools if you sit in an airplane seat for a long time? I have not done a lot of study on this subject, but a guy in a travel store sold me a pair of magic socks that would prevent my feet and lower legs from swelling up to the size of watermelons even if my large butt was stuck in a small airplane seat in economy class for an entire day.
This was, in the preparation for our trip to China, considered an “essential.” I’m happy to say that thanks to those magic socks my legs and feet at the end of the flight were approximately the same size as when we left San Francisco. But I do wonder if they got a proper test. The flight actually only took a half day (12 hours more or less), and I cheated a bit by going to the bathroom about six or seven times. During those trips down the aisle to the aft section of the Boeing 747, I saw lots of the Chinese passengers up and about doing Tai Chi and other exercises. I figured that they either knew something or didn’t know the guy selling the magic socks. Just to be safe, I followed a couple of them on tours around the cabin, imitating their movements. Other passengers noticed us and pretty soon we had a virtual “conga line” of Tai Chi-ers clogging up the aisles and upsetting the flight attendants. They’d tell us to sit down. We would, for a while, but then someone would get up, then another, and the whole thing would start over again.
This was actually more entertaining that the in-flight movies, which were edited re-runs of last year’s stinkers, de-enhanced by a “jumpy” video display that would make the hardiest sailor seasick after five minutes of attempted viewing. The sound, a muddy mix of half-completed sentences and static, was even worse. I prayed that the engines and navigation systems on this United Airlines flight worked better than the entertainment system.
One answer is to sleep for as much of the flight as possible. But you have to be really tired to sleep in a semi-sitting position, your knees pushed into your lap by the seat in front of you, and conga-line exercisers jostling your elbow every few minutes as they pass by your seat. Some travel advisors caution against consuming alcohol, but it turned out to be a valuable sleep aide. I did manage a few hours of shut-eye.
I won’t mention the food, because it was pretty unmentionable.
We left San Francisco International Airport at approximately 1 p.m. on a Tuesday and landed in Beijing, China at about 9 a.m. on Wednesday. We staggered out the jet way marginally sleep-deprived, crumpled, and only slightly hung over.
My advice for China travelers – buy the magic socks, wear them, bring some strong sleeping pills, eye cover and ear plugs. Take a heavy dose of the sleeping drugs after the plane takes off and try to sleep through as much of the flight as possible. Assuming that your blood doesn’t pool, you’ll have a great flight.
Part III- Welcome to China
The first thing you notice when you get off the plane in China is there are a lot of Chinese around; I mean a lot of Chinese – about 1.3 billion, plus or minus a 100 million. Beijing has a population of 15 million people. A few million were going through customs with us at Beijing Capital Airport. Clearly, local officials are used to handling huge crowds. The lines were not any longer than those we have experienced here in the U.S. customs and elsewhere.
Our Uniworld guide, Jiang Tao, was waiting for us as we exited customs. This charming, articulate, 32-year-old woman was to be our group’s escort, teacher, translator, and best friend for the next two weeks. Her English, including mastery of many of our colloquial expressions, was excellent, as was her sense of humor.
She asked us to call her Tao, which, if I understood it correctly, is her given (first) name, while her last name, which is often said first, is her family name.
It was also there in the Beijing terminal baggage area that we met the rest of our Uniworld group. In addition to Dottie and me and Ken and Pat McTaggart, there were 14 Americans and two Canadians. None of us spoke Mandarin. Except for the Canadians and two folks from Hawaii, the rest of us spoke passable English. This is a good thing, because English is a mandatory subject in Chinese schools and we wanted to be able to communicate with the locals.
The Chinese are avid tourists in their own country. We saw lots of families traveling with their children, or more precisely, with a child. The Communist government still enforces a one-child policy. A typical family unit has two parents, one or two sets of grandparents, and one child. Needless to say, children are absolutely adored and indulged. They are also as cute as can be, although a little shy about talking to da bi zi (big nose) strangers.
On the way from the airport to our hotel, it was hard to ignore two significant characteristics of Beijing’s skyline. First, the place is growing like crazy. Even at the airport a huge new international terminal is under construction so that it will be ready for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. There are high-rise buildings being built everywhere you look. Tao joked that the “national bird of Beijing was the crane – the construction crane.”
The other thing was the sky itself. It wasn’t blue. Instead, there was a pall of thick, yellowish-brown “smaze” – part Gobi desert dust, coal-power plant fumes and automobile exhaust – hanging over the entire city. And this was a relatively “clear” day. Periodically, especially in the spring, dust storms sweep in from the Gobi making visibility and breathing extremely challenging.
None of this appears to slow down the Chinese, who continue building up their national capitol at a phenomenal pace with the summer 2008 Olympics as their deadline. It remains to be seen if the athletes will have to compete in dust masks.
There are plans to control pollution. If the Chinese apply the same industry and energy to that challenge, it would not surprise me if there was blue sky over Beijing in two years.
Part IV- Cappuccino with the Emperor
Tian’an Men Chuangchang – the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace – is anything but peaceful, and perhaps only a Communist would consider it heavenly, but it is a must-see experience for any first-time visitor to Beijing. A vast, open, 110-acre, concrete plaza upon which thousands of people assemble daily, its major features, besides being big, flat and grey, include Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Immediately across Chong An (Eternal Peace Avenue), hanging on Tian’an Men (the Gate of Heavenly Peace), which is also the entrance to the Forbidden City, is a gigantic portrait of China’s main deity, Mao Zedong. Tens of thousands of Chinese stand in line all day for a chance to pass by his tomb.
While he may have been the hero of the country’s long struggle to expel foreigners, defeat the Japanese, and drive the Nationalists to Taiwan, his rule after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was marked by disastrous policies. The “Great Leap Forward,” caused the worst famine in the history of mankind in which an estimated 45 million Chinese died.
The “Cultural Revolution,” which not only destroyed the economy, and left many of the relics, art and writings of China’s rich history in ashes, also destroyed the lives of millions of China’s most educated and skilled citizens. Schools and universities were closed for years, books were burned, and education was demeaned. People with skills, knowledge, expertise and ability were sent to virtual gulags in the countryside and mountains, while the ignorant and incompetent who worshiped Mao, tore apart the very fabric of civility, order and industry. It is hard to imagine that a foreign invader would have done worse.
Mao also persecuted Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader credited and revered by the Chinese for turning the country around after the chairman’s death.
Nevertheless today, Mao is a god to many people who worship him even as they enthusiastically embrace modern capitalism, against which he fought his entire life.
Mao’s portrait loomed over us as we passed through the gate into the grounds of the Forbidden City, which was completed in 1420, and from which 24 emperors ruled for nearly 500 years. It too would have been destroyed by Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution had it not been for the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai, who, although unfailingly loyal to Mao, exercised some independent power, and was said to be more moderate in his views.
Without a guide, map or guidebook, you’d be quickly lost within the walls of this ancient Imperial City. It has 9,999 rooms, and is a maze of walls within walls and gates beyond other gates, all designed to keep the imperial rulers safely away and hidden from the people. The architecture, sculpture and decoration are beautiful, exotic and fascinating. To most appreciate them one must understand the symbolism and religion of the times. Nevertheless, our guide Tao was most helpful in giving us a general appreciation of what we were looking at.
Just when I thought we couldn’t walk anymore, there, almost in the very center of this immense and sacred historical site was something I never expected to see – Starbucks. We’re not sure if any emperor ever rested and enjoyed a cappuccino on this spot, but I can assure you that many of us did that day.
Part V- So what do Chinese eat?
Our tour of the Forbidden City was enhanced by the explanations of our guide Tao, and by the intriguing names given to the many things we saw; for example: Gate of Heavenly Purity, Gate of Divine Prowess, Palace of Earthy Tranquility, Palace of External Harmony, Palace of Abstinence, Palace of Peaceful Longevity, and the Hall of Mental Cultivation.
You begin to wonder how they got their names, and ask questions like, “Did one enter the Palace of Abstinence before or after passing through the Gate of Divine Prowess?” and “Where can I buy the secret to Peaceful Longevity? They sell everything else here, including grandé nonfat cappuccinos.”
Tao tried to answer, even though she knew sometimes I was pulling her leg.
The Palace of Abstinence was where the emperor fasted before sacrificial ceremonies, which is something that we didn’t do in China (fast or conduct sacrificial ceremonies).
Having worked up a good appetite walking in, through or around 9999 doors and gates, we eventually made it back to our group’s bus, which took us to what would be the first of an endless series of Chinese style western-tourist-friendly restaurants.
What they all had in common was the only Chinese present were those serving the food, not eating it. They also had at least one “western-style” toilet (as opposed to a hole in the floor).
The first two or three meals were reasonably tasty and satisfying – sort of like “seniors all-you-can-eat Chinese night at Denny’s.” It was only after the same experience twice a day, day after day, that it got so that I never wanted to see another plate of rice, sweet and sour pork or soggy Bok Choy again.
Many of the restaurants were also connected to shops, in which one could purchase all manner of goods from silk fabrics to Mao wristwatches.
Dottie and I did break away from the group a few times, including one night in Beijing, when we had the pleasure of dining with Liu Shinan, Assistant Editor-in-Chief of the China Daly, the country’s largest English-language newspaper, and his wife Wu Jia, Director with China Radio International News. Our host for the evening was my friend, Eric Buskirk, owner of Verican, a Bay Area software company with an office in Beijing.
We had spent the day with Eric checking out his operation in Beijing. The manager of his China office arranged for us to have dinner at an “authentic” restaurant.
Mr. Liu and his charming wife both spoke excellent English, and the food and conversation were interesting, although the cuisine challenged me to be a little more adept than usual with chopsticks. One of the dishes they served were small, whole, fried, unshelled shrimp. I kept trying to peel off the shell with my chopsticks. Mr. Liu, after watching me struggle, picked up one of the shrimps and put it directly into his mouth, shell and all. Although that was easier, I never could swallow the shells.
Part VI- Great wall, leaky border
The greatest thing about China’s “Great Wall,” is that it confirms the futility of building walls to keep unwanted people out. Before there was the Great Wall, there were a number of lesser walls built by various states along parts of China’s northern border. It took the warrior Emperor Gin Shi Huangdi (221-210 BC) to unite the entire country and build the structure that is known today as the Great Wall. It was also improved and enlarged by various dynasties that followed.
But neither the shorter, lower, smaller walls, nor Gin’s 5,600-kilometer marvel, averaging eight meters (26 feet) in height and seven meters in width, plus towers manned by bowmen, could keep unwanted invaders out. The Mongols in the 13th Century and the Manchu in the 17the Century made the most notable breaches.
Today, the wall, which runs east to west, has crumbled to piles of rubble in many places, but has been restored north of Beijing so that 21st Century invaders in the form of tourists can walk on, over, around and through it.
Nevertheless, a visit to the Great Wall today is not without peril. As we disembarked from our nice air condition bus at the Badaling section of the wall, about 70 km north of Beijing, we were nearly trampled and smothered by a vast hoard of screaming “Wandollahs.”
They came at us from all sides, their arms in the air, hands clutched around Great Wall tee shirts, hats, and umbrellas, fake silk purses, Mao statues, souvenir books and post cards. They shoved things toward our faces and shouted the Great Wall battle cry “Wandollah Wandollah!”
Our guide told us it was nearly fatal to make eye contact, and under no circumstances were we to stop or allow ourselves to be separated from the group. But we were tourists, not soldiers, and first one of us, then another accidentally made eye contact, or stopped briefly to look at a trinket, and then our whole squad was overtaken.
Those who caved in first were the shopping addicts (Dottie included). Only the strongest, most resolute, made it through without having his or her resistance broken. The cost, fortunately, was minimal. I paid one dollar for an adjustable walking cane, one dollar for a fake silk purse, one dollar for a Great Wall picture book, and one dollar for a book of postcards, all of which I then had to carry up and down the Great Wall.
The vendors, whose numbers are almost as great as the bricks in the wall, have learned that American visitors can be had for one dollar. And they keep hawking their wares with uncanny persistence until you either run out of dollars or learn to walk through them unblinking, unswerving, as though they do not exist.
I will say that the cane came in handy. The hills in the Badaling area are steep, and the walls are built on the steepest part. Walking even a quarter mile up the wall in this area is the equivalent of a half hour workout on a Stairmaster machine.
Fortunately there are lots of places to sit, purchase beer, soft drinks, tea and ice cream bars. We’re not sure that these amenities existed when Genghis Kahn led his Mongol hoard over the wall, but one thing is certain, had the Wandollahs been there, old Genghis and company would have never made it.
Part VII- Feng Shui goes large
On our way back from the Great Wall, we made a call on the Emperors Ming, who ruled China from 1368 to 1644. They were not up for conversation, but were receiving visitors at their tombs nevertheless.
Those who believe in the power of Qi (pronounced Chee) know that it is the main concept in the Daoist belief system. Qi is sort of like that “force” that Obi-wan Kenobi talked about (although I doubt he ever brandished his light saber in China). It is about the Yin and Yang (positive and negative) forces that run through all living things, and also has something do with interior decorating, architecture and landscape design. This is where Feng Shui comes in. It proposes that the layout of buildings and rooms, yards an gardens affects the flow of Qi, and that flow somehow also affects humans who inhabit such spaces, apparently even when they are dead.
Clearly, if you are a Daoist, you don’t want evil influences anywhere near your grave. The Mings believed this, and spent a good part of their lives finding exactly the right spot for repose after their death. And thus they managed to create one of the largest Feng Shui projects in the world north of Beijing.
The site they chose is in a narrow valley, which is said to have an “auspicious feng shui alignment.” There are 13 tombs are spread over 15 square miles. A ridge of mountains rises to north, protecting the tombs from the evil spirits that usually come from that direction (really bad live guys came from that direction too, including Genghis Kahn). The eastern and western sides are also well protected by hills, while the emperors have a nice sunny and warm southern exposure from which they receive visitors, and concubines, which I understand were buried close by, but not necessarily in with the emperors they served.
There are some very interesting restored temples, and lots of large structures, some of which one would assume are tombs, but are actually just monuments. Most of the emperors were buried way below ground in huge man-made mountains now completely overgrown by large trees, bushes and grasses. They look like hills from the distance. All of this was done very feng shui, of course, and I’m sure they looked a lot nicer when they were first completed.
Not all of the tombs and grounds are restored, but one of the nicest features is a well-landscaped 4-mile area called “Spirit Way.” It is lined with stone statues of officials, soldiers, animals and mythical beasts.
Only the tomb of Wanli (1573-1620) has been excavated and opened to the public. The others remain sealed, buried and undisturbed. Tomb raiders have not been successful in digging up the Mings, which says something for their faith in feng shui.
Still, I was disappointed that our guide Tao, could not direct me to the tomb of Emperor Ming of Mongo. I kept looking for statues of Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, or maybe even Doctor Zarkov, but no luck.
Part VIII – Panda-ing to tourists
No visit to China would be complete without seeing a giant panda, but there are only about 1200 of them left alive and the “wild” ones are protected in preserves well away from easily accessible tourist locations.
Our next best option was the Beijing Zoo. The panda hall is one of the zoo’s better enclosures, although it is still mostly concrete and glass. Watching the pandas sitting on the cement and munching bamboo made me sad. I’m sure they are well fed and cared for, but I’d rather see a wild life documentary in a theater than go to see these beautiful animals locked up in such a sterile and depressing environment.
Fortunately our spirits were lifted by a visit to Bei Hai Park. It was an imperial garden (meaning reserved only for the emperor and his family) for 1000 years before finally being opened to the public in 1925. Its largest and most impressive feature is Bei Hai Lake, and it also includes many artificial hills, pavilions and temples redesigned during the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294).
Upon entering the park, the first thing we saw were many large groups of people engaged a host of different activities. Just inside the entrance was a group of women waving large, colorful pendants and performing rhythmic gymnastics to music. To our left, was a ballroom dance group jitterbugging to a Glen Miller tune. Just beyond the dancers were several rows of men and women doing group exercise using what looked like oversized ping-pong mallets and a ball. Further on, another gathering sang patriotic songs. There were numerous Tai Chi exercise groups.
Everywhere we looked in the park’s expansive, tree-lined grounds there were people gathered in groups. Some folks where playing card games, or dominoes. There were musicians giving concerts, and others singing Chinese opera.
Our guide Tao told us that the majority were retired seniors who come to the park every day and spend the morning. Bei Hai Park appeared to be a giant, open-air senior activity center, in which the people were engaged, full of life and having a good time.
It was fascinating to watch on many levels. Some of the activities required considerable skill, agility, concentration and balance. The musicians and singers in particular were quite good. Conversation around the card and domino games was animated and cheerful.
I couldn’t help but think how great it would be to see our local seniors enjoying days like that in our own Plaza.
While we sat in the shade and people-watched, we were able to talk to some city residents who seemed as curious about us as we were about them. Their English was far better than my Mandarin. The conversations were light –where we/they were from, how did we like China, where are we going next, etc. Their body language and general tone was friendly and positive.
I got the impression that they liked Americans and wanted us to like them. My other impression, and this was not just from conversations in the park, but with people in business and our guides, that the Chinese are more like Americans in their entrepreneurial spirit than Europeans are, and given half a chance, the Chinese enterprise system will look very much like the American free enterprise system very soon.
Part IX – 2000 years of history
On our way to Beijing airport from which we would fly to Xi’an, our guide Tao, who is 32, talked about changes she has seen in her lifetime in Beijing. When she was a child growing up in the city, almost everyone rode a bicycle or walked. Cars were not common, although there were lots of trucks. Most of the buildings were single story. Today the streets are jammed with cars and most people live in high-rise apartments.
Tao called the typical things every Beijing resident wants “The Big Three.” In the 1970s they were a wristwatch, a bicycle and a sewing machine. In the 1980s that changed to a color television, refrigerator and a washing machine. Today they include a car, a computer and ownership of an apartment. The biggest expense (after housing) for most families is education Although basic elementary school is free, most parents who want their children to succeed pay to send them to after school programs and hire tutors for more instruction. All of that is preparation for the college entrance exam, which is a key to success in modern China. Still, almost 75 percent of the country’s population is peasant farmers. There is a dramatic difference in wealth between the educated people who live and work in the cities, and the majority of the people who have only a basic education and work in the countryside as farmers.
Chinese say that if you want to see the future of China, go to Shanghai. If you want to see the last 500 years, go to Beijing, and if you want to see 2000 years of Chinese history, go to Xi’an. Our flight from Beijing to Xi’an would take us back to 221 BC, when Qin Shi Huangdi pronounced himself the first emperor of China.
Xi’an (pronounced “She-an” locally) is an hour and a half plane flight southwest of Beijing. The first thing you notice is that it is a lot greener. Where Beijing is on the edge of a desert, Xi’an is in the middle of a rich agricultural region with plenty of water. It was the capital of 11 dynasties over a period of 4,000 years and traces its lineage back to a mythical “Yellow Emperor” who made Xianyang his capital 2200-1700 B.C. It is also located at the end of the Silk Road, a series of ancient routes between the east and the Roman Empire, used by merchants to trade and transport all manner of goods from spices, silk, porcelain, jade, gold, silver, wool, Arab horses and more.
As we left the new Xi’an airport and headed toward the city, we passed through many farming areas, in which stood unusual hill-like mounds often covered with trees. These are sites of ancient tombs. The larger the mound, the more important the person entombed there.
Xi’an spreads out for many miles in each direction around the old city, which stands inside a nine-mile-long rectangle of well-preserved ancient walls, 39-feet high with bases up to 59 feet thick.
The bus stopped before a massive red-lacquered wooden city gate studded with brass fittings. Our guide went forward and knocked. You won’t believe who answered.
Part X – Wow, that’s a big axe!
The enormous gate to the ancient walled city of Xi’an was at least 20 feet high. The walls rose above it, and rising still further was an enormous guard tower. Our tour group stood in the shadow of the wall as our guide knocked.
The doors began to open outward just as the sound of drums shattered the silence. A platoon of soldiers in the uniform of the Tang imperial guard (AD 618-907), spears and axes in hand marched toward us in step.
My first reaction was to grab Dottie and run for the hills. But I saw our guide smiling, so I stood fast, pulled out my camera and started taking photos.
The guards stopped just short of where we stood, performed a right and left face maneuver and created an opening through which a red carpet was being unrolled. Striding toward us gracefully on the carpet was a dignitary dressed brightly colored silks accompanied by a young woman, whose costume was equally brilliant and stunning.
He stopped in front of us, and began reading from a scroll. His address (in Mandarin) was translated into English by the woman.
“The times are prosperous and days are bright. Here welcome our guests from afar who are cordially invited to come into the city of Xi’an.” The welcome address went on for a few more minutes. We were to be the special guests of the city and were each issued a “passport” and gold key that testified to our honored status.
We were then invited to follow the royal party into the city.
We walked on the red carpet, passed the stern-faced, armed soldiers who refused to return our smiles, and entered a large courtyard in which stood a reception line of beautiful young women dressed as royal concubines. Before I could inquire about the quest services clause in my passport, we were led to some seats in front of a large stage, on which were seated the royal party and a Chinese orchestra.
For the next half hour graceful dancers and acrobatic soldiers performing to Tang dynasty music entertained us. It was a dazzling and captivating display of color, talent and skill.
After the ceremony we were invited to tour the area and visit the gift shop in the tower.
One more thing about that tower: On the way from the Xi’an airport, the local guide, Ray, (in each city we had an extra guide for that location) was telling us about the old city wall and the big tower above the main gate, in which they had a “huge bear… that they beat every morning and evening.” After he concluded his description and because I was still feeling sorry for the Pandas in Beijing, I inquired, “Why would they keep a bear in a tower and beat it?”
“Bear! They didn’t beat a bear; they beat a bear” was Ray’s frustrated reply. Having spent five days in China, I finally got it. The letter L at the end of an English word, when spoken by a native Chinese, often sounds like an R. The guys in the tower were beating a huge bell, not a bear.
I felt much better. Now about those concubines…
Part XI – Terracotta tomb mates
Xi’an was the center of Chinese civilization for more than 4000 years, including the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), considered to be China’s “Golden Age.” Today however, most westerners, if they know of it at all, think of Xi’an’s “Terracotta army.”
Peasants digging a well in 1974 discovered part of one of the soldiers. The discovery of the one piece led to decades of careful excavation and research the results of which visitors see today in three football-field sized “pits” covered and protected from the weather by large warehouse-style buildings.
This faux army was built during the reign of emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (221 -210 BC), whose tomb is located one mile west of the dig sites inside a very large manmade hill that is now mostly overgrown with trees and brush, except for a visitor center at the top.
It took more 700,000 people decades to build his tomb, but according to historical records, shortly after his death and entombment, local peasants revolted against his successor, invaded the site in which the terracotta army was staged, stole the real weapons with which the terracotta soldiers were armed, and then burned and destroyed as much as they could.
As the years passed, layers of dirt covered the soldiers, many of which were broken into pieces, until all evidence of their existence was below ground, until that day in 1974.
The terracotta army site is now a favorite tourist destination for both foreigners and citizens of China. On the day we visited, our group was one of hundreds. The site is huge and the facilities are excellent. There is plenty of room to spread out, gaze in wonder and take photos of the soldiers, most of which were painstakingly restored one piece at a time by researchers and workers. The work is still going on.
Pit 1 is by far the largest area containing over 6,000 warriors arrayed in battle formation. Visitors are allowed close enough to see that the faces of each are individual and lifelike. It is said that they are all caricatures of soldiers in Qin’s army at the time.
What is even more amazing is that this one pit is only a third of what was built. Excavation and restoration continues.
Qin’s soldiers got off lucky. Only their “look-alikes” were buried with the emperor when he died. His concubines were not so fortunate. It is said that 48 of them were buried alive with him. The workers who built the tomb were also killed and buried, but not in the royal quarters.
As much of a tyrant old Qin was, one couldn’t fail to be impressed with the monumental effort that it took to create his tomb and army more than 2200 years ago.
The only things lost in the past excavation process were the rich colors with which the soldiers were painted. Once exposed to air, the colors vanish and the figures fade to a dusty grey. That is why many of them have been left unexcavated until a new process for preserving the colors can be perfected. It is said that will come soon.
Part XII – Tang is not an orange drink
The Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) created China’s Golden Age, in which the country enjoyed peace and prosperity. The arts flourished, trade with foreign nations was extensive, and the empire spread from Korea to Vietnam and across central Asia to southern Siberia. Christianity was tolerated, as was Daoism and Confucianism. Buddhism was even endorsed for a time by the emperors.
Xi’an (called Chang’an in those days) was the center of the dynasty. In the seventh century, it was considered the largest city in the world and had a cosmopolitan population of more than one million. Much of the best art that has been preserved comes from that period and the Tang period is still celebrated in Xi’an at a dinner theater called “The Tang Dynasty.”
It was in this large facility that our group was treated to an excellent feast of “Hearts of Dragon” and “Pearls of Cathay” washed down by plenty of local beer while we enjoyed a special presentation of music, dance and theater created more than a thousand years ago for the pleasure of Tang emperors.
In 618 AD, the performances staged for the emperors were in much more intimate settings. The large dinner theater in which we sat with a few hundred other people required some enhancements. The stage lighting and sound system were pure 21st Century, and the choreography and costumes seemed to be influenced by Hollywood and Las Vegas spectaculars.
The various acts are based on themes handed down through the centuries. One was entitled “The King of Ever,” and “celebrates the appreciation of the people towards their ruler who brought pace, wealth and tranquility to the kingdom.” Those fun-loving Tang emperors really knew how to party, as long as the party was about them.
The music was very good. In fact, it was hard to believe that musicians playing instruments that are more than a thousand years old were producing the incredibly rich and full sound we enjoyed. It was by far the best part of the show.
The arts and literature of the Tang are considered to be among China’s best. Poetry from the period often centered on the emperors and their successes and failures.
Toward the end of the dynasty, emperor Xuanzong became so infatuated with one of his concubines, Yang Guifei, that he neglected his royal duties, and many in his court became unhappy. At the same time, the dynasty was threatened by An Lushan, a renegade general from the north. An Lushan invaded and forced emperor Xuanzong to flee the capital. A few days later Xuanzong’s troops mutinied, grabbed Yang Guifei and strangled her before his eyes.
His mind back on the business of running the country, Zuanzong defeated Lushan, but the dynasty eventually went into decline anyway. Still, this lovely romantic episode is celebrated in poetry and song as part of the Tang dynasty’s heritage.
Part XIII – Journey on the long river
From Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, we flew south and west to ChongQing, China’s largest city with a population of 33 million. Founded in 1000 BC, it is located virtually in the center of the country in a valley carved by the Yangzi ( aka “Yangtze”) and Jialing Rivers. Known to the Chinese as “Chang Jiang” (long river), the waterway stretches from the Himalayas in Tibet to the East China Sea, a distance of more than 3,800 miles, making it the longest river in Asia, and third longest in the world.
Nearly 400 million people, one third of China’s population, live along the river, which runs west to east. ChongQing is 1500 miles from the coast and will be, by 2009, the farthest inland seaport in the world. 2009 is the year when the Three Gorges Dam will make the river navigable to sea-going ships.
We were in ChongQing to board the Victoria Katarina, a river cruise ship.
Our voyage was to be a look at China’s past, present and future –the reality of life along its largest river that was virtually changing the country and the Chinese people as we floated downstream toward the sea.
One can still see signs of the past along the banks, including villages now abandoned in anticipation of the rising water. The present is reflected in makeshift docks and riverbank reinforcement projects in preparation for a rise in the water level of 175 meters.
We drove from the airport to one of those makeshift points through atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke. Even if coal was not the major source of power production, the mountains surrounding the region trap the air and compound the pollution problem.
Our bus stopped at a lot high above the Yangzi. From there, a long and steep series of old stone steps led down to the ancient riverbank on which a long dock stretched over mud and water to where the Katarina was moored.
The steep steps were difficult enough without baggage, but thanks to the presence of a cadre of “stick-stick soldiers,” we would descend with little more than our light carry-ons in our hands. These men, suns burnt, weathered, and wiry, clad only in shorts and armed with a long pole, are the “bus boys” of the riverbank. They inserted each end of the pole through the handles of a couple of heavy bags, positioned it across their shoulders, rose up and take off.
More swiftly and deftly than those of us without baggage, they virtually jogged down six or seven stories worth of steps and along several hundred yards of rickety dock out to the boat. They made several trips for our group, earning an average of about $1 per bag.
In another couple of years, the river will fill, a new pier will be finished and the steep steps will be under water. I don’t know if the stick-stick guys have thought about what will happen to their source of income when that happens, but the rising waters are having a dramatic, life-changing, effect on millions of people who call the river banks their home.
Part XIV – Life on the river
One of the first people we met as we boarded the river cruiser Victoria Katrina was Kevin Hart, the Senior Cruise Director. Victoria Cruises is privately-owned and American manage. The ship’s captain is Chinese as were most of the crew. Kevin, a Canadian who speaks fluent Mandarin and has worked for the line since 1996, was the only westerner we saw who was part of the crew. He and his wife have a home in ChongQing.
A linguistic major at the University of Ontario, he also spent three years studying Chinese in Taiwan, but now calls China his home, although he still visits Canada in the off season. He is also an entertainer and has the lead in the ships entertainment programs.
A student of local history, he gave a detailed bilingual seminar on the history of the river and the Three Gorges Dam Project.
For many centuries the Yangzi was the only viable means to reach the Sichuan Province. Heavy rapids and hazardous rocky shoals marked many steep-sided narrow points. Many boats and people were lost.
Before boats were powered by machine, people powered them. As we cruised downstream, some of the evidence of people-power was still visible along the gorges through which the rapids tumbled. Foot worn pathways along the banks marked the points from which workers pulled boats upstream against the current with heavy ropes. Sometimes the ropes broke, the ships would sink and the people on them would drown. No areas were more dangerous than the now famous “Three Gorges,” through which our ship would travel in relative safety, thanks to the fact that many of the shoals were removed, and because the water is rising behind the almost completed dam.
At the local level, boats were (and still are) used for getting around. Few roads exist, and the best way to get from one point to another, even if it is relatively close, is on the water. Boats of every size and vintage serve as taxis, which people use to regularly cross to the other side or move up or down stream.
I also noticed quite a few fishermen, but it didn’t look like they were catching much. Kevin said that heavy fishing pressure combined with pollution and the disruptive impact of the dam has done a lot of damage to the fishery.
For most of China’s history, the river exacted a high price in human life and misery for passage and for the commerce in the towns along its banks. The high price continues, but the currency is slightly different.
Everywhere there were signs of new construction above the 175-meter mark, which is where the water level will be by 2009. Entire villages have been dynamited, and their occupants moved to brand new cities built higher up. The move affects millions. Many farms will have to be abandoned, and the farmers will have to find a new way to make a living.
Still the Chinese people seem more accepting of these negative consequences than not, perhaps because the economic “progress” that the dam project brings outweighs the adversity they must endure.
Part XV – The gorgeous gorges
River cruise ships like the Victoria Katarina are not to be confused with large luxury ocean liners. Because of the need for a shallow draft and to navigate fairly narrow gorges in the river, the Katarina, built in 2004, is a little more than 300 feet long, and 40 feet wide, with a draft of only about 10 feet.
It has about 131 staterooms and accommodates up to 266 passengers. The rooms are relatively small, but nice, and each one has a small outdoor balcony from which you can watch the scenery as the ship meanders its way downstream.
The ship has a big, nicely furnished dining room in which all meals are served primarily buffet style. The food was excellent, with enough variety that it was a great relief from the steady diet of Americanized Chinese food that we had been fed on the days preceding the river cruise. We even had hamburgers one day at lunch.
The top deck includes a cocktail area and large lounge and dance floor where the evening entertainment takes place.
During the day there are also various activities offered, including Tai Chi classes taught by the ship’s doctor. The routines are something like Kung Fu in slow motion, where balance, body and breath control appear to be assets.
Above the lounge is an open-air deck from which some folks tried to fly kites. This exercise however was made difficult by the wind created by the ship’s movement amplified by a prevailing breeze that was blowing upriver. There was a kite master on board (yes a kite master), who offered demonstrations, but most of his fancier kites could not be used, lest they be torn apart by the stiff breeze.
Each day we stopped or a “shore excursion,” one of which was not actually on shore up a ride on a smaller boat up where called the “Three Mini Gorges.” These were formed by the clear flowing Daning River, which feeds into the Yangzi. From our open boats we could see wild monkeys frolicking in the lush vegetation that lined the steep canyon walls.
High up on these cliffs are the remnants of “hanging coffins,” which the ancient Bai people mortised into the cliffs for the repose of their dead.
Coffins hanging from cliffs is probably not the kind of décor that Martha Stewart would choose, but the mini gorges were the most gorgeous of the trip, while the three larger gorges could be called semi-gorgeous gorges.
To help you appreciate the challenges that existed for boaters in these gorges before big dam was built, you have to imagine trying to move large wooden boats, loaded with people and goods upstream against the rapids of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. “Trackers,” teams of poorly paid men, pulled each craft up, inch by inch over sharp rocks and against raging torrents. It is doubtful that the passengers in those days relaxed and enjoyed the view the way we did. They were probably watching every painful step those trackers took, hoping that they didn’t falter and the ropes didn’t break.
The biggest concern cruising up or down the Yangzi these days is what’s for dinner.
Part XVI – The dam through the “smaze”
Our cruise down the Yangzi was to end just downriver from the Three Gorges Dam at the city of Yichang. We actually arrived at the dam after dark and proceeded through the locks. From river and lock level there wasn’t much to see. Lights in the smoky haze, concrete walls, and the sound of water were the only things available to our senses.
It was virtually impossible to get any kind of visual perspective on what we were going through.
The guidebooks say that the dam, which is more than 600 feet high and more than a mile across, includes a five-level, double ship lock system over a mile long. It is the largest lock system in the world and takes nearly three hours to pass through as ships rise or drop 370 feet.
Dottie and I went out on the very top deck of the ship to observe our passage. The air was so thick you could taste it (a sooty combination of dust, coal smoke and diesel exhaust). Before we started dropping down, all we could see were large concrete structures that were apparently part of the dame complex. Once the water level in the lock began to drop, all we could see were the vertical walls of the lock itself. Our cruise ship, although one of the larger craft on the river did not fill the lock completely, and we had other smaller craft taking the ride down with us.
After about a half hour, we decided that there really wasn’t much to see and turned in for the night.
The morning saw us moored at a dock below the dam. Our next adventure was a bus ride to a viewing point above the dam, where we hoped to get a better appreciation for its size. We didn’t. The air was just too thick, and we could only see a short distance. The part we saw was certainly big, but there was no way to truly appreciate what is said to be the largest water project in the world.
Here are some interesting numbers: It took 28 million cubic meters of concrete, enough to build a sidewalk encircling the earth twice. More than 27,000 people have worked on the dam so far.
When complete it will provide 10 percent of China’s total power needs, the equivalent of 15 medium-sized nuclear power plants.
While it will also function as a means to prevent devastating downstream floods, it also creates an enormous challenge of dealing with 500,000,000 tons of silt per year.
It will create a reservoir almost 600 kilometers long, which will displace 1.3 to 2 million people. Environmentalists fear that because of the lack of proper controls and facilities the reservoir could become a foul, polluted soup within a few years.
In spite of these challenges, Kevin Hart, the ship’s cruise director, expressed his admiration for the industry and enterprise of the Chinese, and the hope that they would find a way to deal with the environmental issues before the worst fears were realized.
China Part XVII – Is Shanghai China’s future?
The Chinese say that if you want to see China’s past, go to Xi’an. If you want to see China’s present, go to Beijing. And, if you want to see China’s future, go to Shanghai.
There are at least three ways to travel from the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai. The old fashioned way would be a slow boat down the Yangzi. A new highway will also take you there by car or bus.
From observation alone, I wouldn’t want to drive a car in China. I’m not suggesting that the Chinese are bad drivers, but their interpretation of traffic laws (the meaning of stop signs and traffic lights for example) are different. Walking can also be hazardous. As near as I can tell, pedestrians have absolutely no rights (even in crosswalks).
We flew to Shanghai.
In the mid-19th Century, the British briefly went to war with China to protect its commercial interests. The result of that conflict was the Treaty of Nanking, an agreement very much resented by the Chinese, that allowed the Brits and other foreign governments to trade freely from certain “treaty ports,” including Shanghai. Evidence of the colonial influence can be seen today along “The Bund,” a riverside area lined with buildings from a time when Shanghai was the third largest financial center in the world.
Much of the old-world charm was stripped from the Bund when the Chinese Communists took over the city in 1949. It became a grey and dull shell of its former self for several decades until Mao’s death and the rebirth of the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit.
This is especially evident across the river from the Bund, in a Special Economic Zone called Pudong. From the Bund, Pudong looks like a real live recreation of the city of Oz. The only thing absent is the yellow brick road leading to it.
With the change in China’s leadership and the recognition that the country needed to move forward economically, foreign investors were invited back, and Shanghai has become the place where the partnership between American, European and other countries with the Chinese is most dramatically visible. Other cities in China also have experienced large and rapid growth through the development of factories and related enterprises in which multi-national corporations play a significant role.
We met one American who know spends at least half of his time in China running factories that make virtually all of the wooden garden and patio furniture in the world. He said that Chinese factories run by multinational corporations now totally dominate in the area of furniture manufacturing.
Shanghai is where you can really tell that the Chinese are so much more like us (Americans) than Europeans when it comes to their love of commerce and free enterprise. The government may be communist, but the people sure talk and behave like capitalists.
Prices in Shanghai are closer to those in Hong Kong and other world-class cities around the globe. There are shopping bargains, but only on some items and in illegal knock offs of popular international brands (Gucci, Rolex, and ET. Al). And speaking of those famous brands, Shanghai has its share of fancy, high-end shopping malls and blocks that rival those anywhere with prices to match.
China Part XVIII – The children of Oz
If Pudong, Shanghai’s futuristic-looking special enterprise zone, is a real-life creation of the modern city of Oz, then the city’s children are the among China’s most prized Munchkins.
The country’s one-child policy means that children are highly valued, indulged and groomed for a better life than their parents enjoy. In China’s many cities, and especially in Shanghai, education is the key to climbing the socio-economic ladder. Although it probably matters in some jobs, membership in the Communist Party doesn’t seem as important as getting into a good university.
Insuring that their child passes the required exams and gets into the best school is a major off-the-job activity of parents. In addition to the regular school hours, many parents also enroll their children in special after-hours schools for instruction in traditional Chinese subjects like calligraphy, music and dance. After that training comes many additional hours of homework and home study, which requires children to stay up late to complete.
At one of the cultural arts schools, we observed young girls being taught the art of dance as seen in Chinese opera, and in another part of the school we were treated to a brief concert by students using ancient musical instruments. In both classes we were impressed with the quality of the students’ performance, but wondered if the less accomplished were not allowed to perform for visitors.
In many ways, the children of Shanghai’s upwardly mobile educated class are little different than those of any modern American city, where parents put their newborn children on a waiting list for the best preschools and private schools, years in advance.
What is different perhaps is the determination and drive that motivates the Chinese parents. Most of them were children during or just after the horror that was the Cultural Revolution. It was a time when young students, unrestrained by tradition, law, common decency and family, were allowed to run amuck exhibiting behavior like that described in the novel Lord of Flies.
Schools were closed down, ancient and valued art and literature was destroyed, parents and grandparents were abused by their children or the children of others, talented, well-educated people were sent to work as peasants, while the incompetent and ignorant make a shambles of the country’s infrastructure and economy. Many died, many more lost everything, and for many more the opportunity to have control over their own destiny was lost for a significant part of their young lives.
When Mao died, and the country began to recover from his madness, it may have been too late for many of the children of that revolution to completely realize their dreams, but not so for their children.
If their parents and grandparents have anything to say about it, and today in China they do, these children of a modern Oz will achieve the “Chinese dream,” which is not unlike the classic American dream that our parents sought to make real for us.
China Part XIX – Pretty as a postcard
Many people who have never been to China have a picture of the countryside there in their minds. It is a semi-tropical image of misty clouds nestled against steep-sided, tooth-shaped peaks surrounding a lush, green valley, through which winds a river lined with giant bamboo. Some hillsides are terraced and flooded for rice growing, and in one, a barefooted, shirtless farmer wearing a cone-shaped straw hat follows behind a large brown water buffalo pulling a crude plow. Out on the river, men floating on small rafts of bamboo work in pairs, one polling, and one casting a net for fish.
This image exists for two reasons. The first is there is such a place. The second reason is because it has been the subject of countless paintings, poetry and postcards for decades. That place is in southern China in the autonomous region of Guangxi. It was the next to last stop on our three-week tour and by far the most naturally scenic. It was also the least impacted by chronic air and water pollution.
Located near China’s border with Vietnam, this area is noted for its karst (limestone) rock peaks, some of which rise to 7,000 feet. More than 350 million years ago the region was a seabed with calcium deposits 3,000 feet thick. Continental shifting and the earth’s upheaval lifted up the deposit and then wind and rain wore it down, leaving dramatic peaks and valleys covered with subtropical foliage.
The climate today is warm and humid. It is home to cinnamon trees, banyan trees and camphor trees.
We stayed one night in the city of Quilin, which serves as the primary visitor center for the region. There are many limestone caves in the region, but only a few are set up to safely receive visitors. We took a one-hour walk through Reed Flute Cave, which features many dramatic formations and pools and a constant and comfortable cellar temperature, a relief from the hot and muggy outdoor climate on the day we were there.
As one of China’s five autonomous regions, it is also the home of the ancient Zhuang people, a minority recognized and somewhat protected by the government from exploitation and discrimination. Unlike the majority of Chinese, who are allowed only one child per family, the Zhuang are allowed two.
The climate, scenery, cultural heritage and general atmosphere of the area gives one a sense that this is more like the “ancient” China of our imagination.
No trip to this area would be considered complete without a float down the Li River. It is by far the best way to appreciate the natural beauty and otherworld ambience that gives you the feeling you are drifting along the edges of a dreamscape.
There are dozens of boats a day that take visitors (foreign and Chinese) on three to four our trips. They serve drinks, snacks and meals. Have bathrooms, seats and lots of observation deck space from which to take photos.
I liked this part of China and would have enjoyed a few more days here. But a few hours after our float down the Li, we were boarding a jet liner at the Quilin airport and heading for our final destination before heading home.
China Part XX – Fast forward to Hong Kong
Time travel is not science fiction. It really happens. It took Dottie and me just one hour to pass from the 19th century ambiance of Guanxi to the, fast-paced, multinational, 21st century atmosphere of Hong Kong.
Ceded to the British following the Opium War of 1841, it is the major shipping port for Chinese goods. Chinese citizens fleeing other parts of China in the early 20th Century made Hong Kong the bustling, industrious city it is today. By 1997 when the colony was ceded back to China, it was decades ahead of the rest of country economically and still is.
I last visited Hong Kong in 1968 as a young LTJG aboard the USS Jerome County. It was a bargain-hunter’s paradise. Stereo equipment, cameras, and tailor-made clothes were a fraction of what they cost in the U.S.
Today you can still find some good bargains in Hong Kong, especially in the area of tailor made clothes, but the prices on other things, including electronics and camera equipment, have gone up to very near what you pay here.
The harbor is surrounded by steep-sided hills and reminds me of San Francisco Bay. It is a picturesque, bustling port with the largest cargo ship facility in Asia. Ferries run almost every 15 minutes between the island and the peninsula and it is from them (or from a host of harbor cruise boats) that you can really get a view of Hong Kong’s dramatic landscape.
Modern office buildings built in partnership with international corporations rise all along the shore, as do many modern hotels. Large indoor shopping malls offer a variety of local products along with the top designer brands from Europe and the United States.
The dining is far superior to anything we enjoyed in the rest of China. Before we arrived, we had been consuming a steady diet of buffet-style Chinese cuisine (created for the American palate).
By the time we checked into our hotel, the Sheraton in Kowloon, it was past dinnertime. We took the elevator to the fourth floor, which houses Morton’s Steak House, and for the first time in almost three weeks enjoyed a dinner that did not include rice, gung pao chicken or bok choi. It was fabulous. The next night we dined at an Indian restaurant. Our stay in Hong Kong was a whirlwind of window-shopping, getting measured for tailored clothes, and enjoying the city sights. There are many good tailors in the area. We chose A Timeless Tailor, which was located right in the hotel arcade. Their prices were good and the quality was excellent.
We also took a bus around the island to the Stanley Market, which turned out to be a large collection of junky tourist shops, hardly worth the trip.
Our return flight home was 12 hours. We were happy to be back in Sonoma, but we found China to be a fascinating, vibrant and industrious country. Its people are friendly and seem to like Americans. Travel there is easy, safe and economical. If you plan to go, consider a guided tour if you can tolerate the forced regimentation. It is possible to travel in China without a tour group, and we know Sonnomans who have done it with great success.
Images of China