Travel Journal – China; Part One
April 13-27, 2008
BEIJING AND THE GREAT WALL Days one and two: Beijing – which we have learned is actually pronounced Bay – jing (as in jingle. We got here after a very tiring and long flight. We met our ride, got to the Crowne Plaza Hotel and collapsed. The new terminal of the Beijing Airport opened one month ago and it’s gorgeous. Very large, beautiful design, waiting to make a good impression on the world during the Olympics. Right away we could see the difference in the labor force between China and America.
There are so many people in China, and the government has a program of full employment, so there were employees polishing every nook and cranny of that airport. Nothing actually needed polishing. At one place, we were the only people in a very wide corridor and there were four people dust mopping an already spotless floor.
Day three: The day started early with opening remarks. We’re on a National Geographic tour and our National Geographic expert, Diane Perushek, has been to China over 50 times, speaks the language, translates literature, knows everything about the country and culture, and works at the University of Hawaii. She was a librarian and now is the liaison to the chancellor for international affairs.
Also on the trip is the specialist from Academic Travel Abroad, the folks who run the details of the trip. Bob Xu is our expert and he is a whirlwind of a phenomenon – he works constantly on every single detail of the trip and he can get anything done. The folks on this trip are very interested that everything goes right for us. Then we have Jimmy Zhu, who is the China Tourist Agency representative. Jimmy works miracles. I believe that it is required that someone from this agency accompanies tours.
In each city, we pick up a local guide and they have been phenomenal. The bus drivers are the real heroes. In Beijing the traffic was rather orderly, but in the other cities – well, more about that later. Our Beijing local guide was Tony Xu and he was incredible.
So – our first full day. We met all these folks, had an orientation to the trip, and Diane spoke about the Chinese language. We were to have gone to the Panjiayuan flea market, which I really wanted to do, but we had been warned that in China things change minute to minute. Indeed, the government had just declared that the flea market would be open on weekends only and this was a Monday. So we were off to Tiananmen Square. Talk about big – gargantuan, really. It is a vast plaza, about 400 acres, which came into the world consciousness in 1989 with the huge student protests in which an undisclosed number of protestors were killed. One of the indelible photographic images of the time is the lone student standing in front of a tank. And we’ve all seen pictures of the soldiers filling the whole square, marching in total synchronization.
The square was teeming with people, and the line to visit Chairman Mao’s mausoleum was quite long. Chairman Mao is still very revered, and all the troubles from his time are attributed to others, not him. There is a great deal of tourism going on now within China, and most of the people in line were Chinese. Mao’s casket is raised from a refrigerated chamber every morning and afternoon and can be viewed then.
An original city gate, the China National Museum, the Great Hall of the People, and the Ming Dynasty Gate border the square. That is where Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and a 1½-ton portrait of him hangs outside the building. A new one is painted every year.
There are a few monuments to the workers but it is a pretty drab place overall. Soldiers are marching around and standing in front of statues, monuments, buildings, etc. and they stand ramrod straight and are very young. They can enter the army at 18 and most serve until their early 20s. Tony told me not to take a picture of the soldiers because they might take my camera – don’t know how likely that is. I did get some shots from a distance. The square is build on the north-south axis on which all the important buildings are situated, including the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and now the Olympic facilities. It is a feng shui principle that you want the front of your house to the south to expose you to the heat, and the back to the north to guard against the north winds. The other important place on this north-south axis is Jing Shan Park, which is a mountain built from the dirt excavated to dig the moat around the Forbidden City. It’s just behind the Forbidden City on the north, thus protecting from the north elements.
We got back in the bus and went to lunch at a restaurant that was good enough but not thrilling. Pretty standard fare. Then we went to the Temple of Heaven, Tian Tan. It was build in the Ming Dynasty and is stuffed with symbolism. The Chinese are very superstitious and everything is symbolic of something else. The Tian Tan is one of the largest temple complexes in China. The Emperor was considered to be the Son of Heaven, so he came here to pray to heaven and his ancestors at the winter solstice. The emperor was able to intercede with the gods and ask for a good harvest. Before he made his prayers, he spent the night at another building in the complex – the Hall of Abstinence. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, this temple was off-limits to common people.
Tian Tan is situated in what is now a large park, and it was fascinating because it was full of people doing different activities. There were groups twirling ribbons as in rhythmic gymnastics, singing, doing karaoke, playing traditional instruments, playing mah jong and cards, doing a balancing exercise as a group with paddles and balls, and on and on. It was a cacophony of sound but no one seemed to mind if the traditional instruments intruded on the vocal practice. Especially interesting was the man doing karaoke in a Santa hat. It was one of the good moments of the trip to see local people doing what they do. There is lots of communal activity.
The temple itself has a circular roof to symbolize the sky, is mostly red which is the imperial color, has dragon and phoenix motifs to symbolize the emperor and empress respectively. Twenty-eight decorated pillars support the roofs of the hall. The colors used are representative of yin and yang, the feminine and the masculine. I think the blues and greens are the female colors. Blue is also the color of heaven. Red and yellow are masculine colors. Four columns in the center represent the seasons, 24 other pillars represent the months in a year and the two-hour time periods in a day.
The entire circular building was constructed of wood without using a single nail. It is situated on a marble plinth, and the altar is on marble slabs in nine concentric circles. Nine is a very lucky number here. (In fact, the Forbidden City has 9,999 rooms and the doors for imperial use have 81 brass studs because the number 81 (nine times nine) is especially fortunate.) The center of the altar is supposed to be the center of the world. China always referred to itself as the Middle Kingdom and the center of the world between Heaven and Hell. Four is a very unlucky number and the hotels do not have a fourth floor.
After the Temple of Heaven we went to a hutong, one of the 1,100 remaining in Beijing. The hutongs are the old courtyard neighborhoods, and hutong is the Mongolian word for well. Each neighborhood once had a well in front, thus the name hutong. Beijing used to be a series of squares within squares and has been compared to a chessboard. The Hutongs have largely been demolished but some are being preserved and even reconstructed so people can continue living there. The neighborhoods are lively and full of shops and activity. But the conditions are deteriorating and there were even communal bathrooms. We had a lecture from a young Chinese man who is heading a preservation group and he showed us around a hutong where the courtyard homes were being rebuilt. The organization is very proud of the rebuilding process but Mark says the materials are not very good and the brick isn’t going to last long.
Everything in China is laid out according to the principles of feng shui, even today. The walls of the courtyards add privacy and keep out spirits, who are unable to turn corners. The entrance is at the southeastern corner, a feng shui mandate. The main hall was the most northerly and reserved for the eldest of the family.
Could we fit another excursion in on the afternoon of the first day, the first exhausting jet-lagged day? Of course. We went to the Lama Temple. This was constructed in the 17th century and in 1744 was converted to a Tibetan lamasery. There are five main halls, all on the north-south axis, although this complex is not part of the meridian line north-south axis of Beijing. The thresholds are elevated so you have to step over them because spirits are along the ground and can’t get over the threshold. All the halls are full of different Buddhas and altars, a couple having three Buddhas – the Current Buddha, the Future Buddha, and the most recent Past Buddha. The last hall, though, has a statue of the Future Buddha carved from a single block of sandalwood and it’s 55 feet high! Twenty of those feet are underground. It is in the Guinness Book of World Records, of which the Chinese are very proud. Lots of incense was burning everywhere and it’s so important because it is the incense that carries one’s prayers up to heaven.
We finished up with a welcome dinner and reception at a beautiful restaurant at the Ritan Inn. The day was a bit overwhelming being the first, and most of what we did was arranged on the spot because the Hutong was the only planned activity. The government’s changing of the flea markets days required this rearranging and all the guides were on their cell phones cementing new arrangements.
April 15 – only the fourth day: We were up early to go to the Great Wall. This too necessitated a change of plan, because National Geographic decided we wouldn’t go to the Simatai section because it was becoming too crowded, so instead went to the Jinshanling section. An American, David Spindler, accompanied us and he is the world’s foremost expert on the Great Wall. He has concentrated on the Ming Dynasty sections and he has a book coming out soon. Probably the only really good book intelligible for layman’s understanding according to him! He also has completed a project with a photographer, photographing the parts of the wall where battles took place during the Ming Dynasty, but doing so at the exact day and time of day of the original battles.
How to condense what he said? I won’t even try, but I will say that some of the common myths about the wall are not true. People were not buried alive in the wall, and the wall is not the only man-made object visible from the moon. In fact, this “fact” started in the 1920s or something like that when no one had conceived of going to the moon!
We hiked up to the wall and on the wall, and this too was very interesting because there is a new, enterprising group whom we were told about, who accompany tourists. As you walk up the path toward the wall you see a whole contingent of people holding black bags and wearing red vests. They attach themselves one to a tourist and cannot be shaken. They walk with you wherever you go (they certainly get good exercise), warn you to be careful, take your arm when they think you might stumble, and you absolutely cannot divest yourself of your self-appointed guardian. At the end of course, they have merchandise in those black bags. I stopped climbing a little before Mark so I asked my guardian to show me his merchandise. After some hard bargaining I bought a tee shirt and Mark bought a book.
Being in the Peace Corps all those years ago has certainly helped our maneuvering in China. Bargaining is not difficult and the squat toilets, Eastern-style toilets, don’t bother me at all. But the other women on the tour wait until they find a Western-style toilet! And here’s an aside on toilets. Everything in Beijing was very clean. People are constantly sweeping the streets, there is no litter, and the toilets are very clean also. The flaw is that the Chinese don’t use soap or other cleansers in the toilets and so the odor is considerable. A couple I haven’t been able to enter at all. Like in the Xian airport – polished, clean, sparkling airport with a bathroom that I couldn’t even get into the door of because of the odor. Dianne says she teaches with a Chinese colleague at the University of Hawaii who doesn’t believe in dish soap. The Chinese think dish soap will poison them and this very educated woman cannot be convinced to use it, even in the United States.
We drove back from the wall past the Olympic complexes. Wow, are they gorgeous and impressive. China is ready. There are trees planted everywhere, thousands of them, and flowers and the buildings are innovative in their design, like the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. The aquatic center is fantastic. We couldn’t get out at the complex but the bus driver slowed down so we could at least get some pictures through the bus windows.
Another reason for the massive tree planting is to keep the dust down. China is in a severe drought and the Gobi Desert is encroaching on Beijing. They have dust storms and they are trying to combat some of this. One advantage to the system of government is that projects can be mounted quickly on a massive scale. Jimmy told us that the national bird of China is now the crane. There are building cranes all over Beijing and the people work on these things 24/7. It will all be done by August. Without rain, though, all the planting may be for naught.
Dinner – too tired, we ate in the hotel. But we felt we had to drag ourselves to the Night Market. It is a strip of food stalls on a big pedestrian mall near the hotel. The government actually established the night market as a way to preserve and showcase what they call the food delicacies from all over China. It’s amazing. Snake on a stick; scorpion on a stick; silkworm larvae, sheep testicles, octopus, squid, seahorse, everything on a stick. Starfish and spiny sea urchins. Many people, mostly Chinese, were standing around eating their snacks. I asked our guide Tony the next day if people really did eat these things and he said of course they do. In fact, he said that the common wisdom is that in China people eat anything with four legs except a table, anything that flies except airplanes, and anything that swims except submarines.
The pedestrian mall was interesting because it was jam packed with Chinese people walking, shopping, doing things on the park square, etc. Tourists also. We had another experience we had been warned about. We were told that young men might approach us saying they were wanting to practice their English, and the conversation would work around to how they were selling student art work, or had access to antiques or other art, to help them go to American, and we could come to their studio or apartment to see the work. On the way back from Night Market, someone approached Tim, another Nat’l Geo tour member we were with, and the scenario unfolded just as described!
April 16 – only on Day Five? And we’ve done and seen so much! Wow. The Forbidden City. This complex was completed in 1420 and it the symbolic center of the Chinese universe. It’s the huge palace where, over a period of 500 years, 24 emperors reigned. No one could enter the Forbidden City except the imperial court and other dignitaries, and it wasn’t opened to the public until 1949.
As you enter, there are five marble bridges that symbolize the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism. The water flows from west to east and is in a curved pattern, not straight – all principles of feng shui. The buildings are comprised of the emperor’s residence, the empress’s residence, living quarters of the concubines and the eunuchs, of whom there were hundreds and hundreds, temples, and living quarters for the emperor’s offspring. There are also buildings for meditating, for mental cultivation, and other occupations.
The huge courtyard that must be crossed to reach the imperial palace is large and sterile on purpose. It was to be intimidating to anyone who was granted entry and had to petition the emperor for anything. Also, it made it harder to smuggle something in, as the emperors were always subject to assassination. This large courtyard was also 15 layers of large bricks deep to make it harder to tunnel in.
We walked through the Forbidden City, exiting through the very beautiful Imperial Garden. The peonies, China’s national flower, are in bloom and as peonies are my favorite flower, I felt fortunate. The gardens exit into Bei Hai Park, a very beautiful public park with a large lake, boats – even a dragon boat – and a wonderful restaurant – the Fangshan Restaurant, where we had an imperial lunch. An empress named Cixi often held 120-course banquets on the grounds of Bei Hai Park, and so this restaurant recreates some of the dishes. It was magnificent, the best meal we have had so far. As usual, multiple courses of varied and delicious foods. So far nothing really exotic has been served to us, unless you consider jellyfish or all kinds of bean curd exotic.
After leaving the restaurant as a very happy group, we headed to the silk carpet factory. What it really is is a showroom to sell silk carpets or embroidery. The government requires that tours provide one shopping opportunity a day. It was interesting to see the silkworm process (which I knew about somewhat since I had raised silkworms in grammar school) and then to see the different grades of silk carpets and silk embroidery. We bought a very small carpet for what we hope was a good price, but who knows? They say not to bargain in the government store, but then the first thing the very well-organized sales force says is, “for you, we already take off 20%.” For me, they take off at least 40%.
Downstairs was the freshwater pearl showroom where again the well-organized sales force goes into the same spiel. Like Morocco so long ago, as soon as you walk away they meet your price. Or if they don’t, you still have to keep walking away. Anyhow, buying pearls was on my agenda, so I did.
I skipped the next activity – a talk from Lila Buckley of the Global Environmental Institute. I need down time and there is virtually none on this trip! So Mark got that info, and then we went to dinner at the Wangfujing Quanjude Restaurant. This restaurant serves over 500 ducks a day! Actually, they serve ducks to people and the Peking Duck was fantastic. Most of the restaurants are very big – four or five floors, and packed with people, Chinese and foreigners alike.
One nice aspect of the tour was that all we had to do for our flight to Xian the next day was have our suitcases outside the room at a particular time. Then we go to the airport, go through security and that’s it – baggage check already done, etc. Alter hauling our luggage up and down so many flights of stairs in Italy, this was a nice change.
April 17, Day 6 – Xian: We went to the airport and flew to Xian on Air China, partnered with Lufthansa. It was only a 1½ hour flight, but they actually served a meal! Very fast, very efficient. We didn’t eat it though because we were on our way to lunch at the Lao Sun Jia Restaurant. This is a Muslim restaurant. The food was outstanding – one of the top restaurants of the trip. The highlight was the mutton soup in which one breaks tiny pieces of what they called “kaik,” which wasn’t too far from hardtack, but when broken into the soup it was delicious. Akin to a brick-hard oyster cracker, I guess. We left that restaurant a happy crew and checked into the Hyatt Regency after a stop at that day’s tourism buying opportunity, the jade factory. We saw how jade is carved and learned about the different grades, etc. Xian is considered to have the best jade in China, and river jade is better than mountain jade. The more translucent it is, the better. We purchased a very nice but small river jade Buddha. Our purchases are always at the lower end of the spectrum – things that are excellent quality but small!
Our local guide in Xian uses Rainbow as her English name, so Rainbow provided our excellent commentary as we drove around. Xian was the capital of 11 dynasties, and had a history of being captured, sacked, and rebuilt many times – even by Tibetans in AD 763. Many religions entered Xian through the Silk Road and there is still a considerable Muslim population. Xian, by the way, is the starting point of the Silk Road.
April 18, Day 7 – Xian – the day we had all been waiting for. The Terra Cotta Warriors. We took a bus there – all the buses and drivers provided have been outstanding – but the traffic in Xian was a bit less orderly than in Beijing. In fact, it was hair-raising. The roads do have lanes marked but they are relatively meaningless. Cars, trucks, busses, and little three-wheeled affairs zoom around, in and out, while pedestrians try to cross at their peril and bicycles merge with the traffic. It is remarkable that there aren’t crashes on every block as well as dead pedestrians. It’s total chaos.
Anyhow, we drove out to the site of the warrior museum which is built right there at the excavation next to the burial mound Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor. The site was first discovered by some farmers who were digging and came up with an arm here, a leg there, and didn’t realized the significance of their discovery. Eventually, the importance of the site was realized and one of the farmers was given credit for the discovery – it was more or less an arbitrary decision as to which farmer would get the credit – and he still signs books in the museum gift shop but won’t allow pictures to be taken of him anymore since he almost went blind from the thousands of flashes. They say.
We started in a beautiful room with the curator of the museum, who came in on his day off to talk to us. We were served tea and had an informative talk about what the terra cotta warriors really mean. The entire complex was constructed around Emperor Qin’s burial mound so he would have everything he needed in heaven. The 8,000 soldiers and horses in pit # 1 were to guard him and ensure his safe journey. These soldiers are life-size, or perhaps a bit bigger than life-size, and they all have different faces. No two are alike. The skill used in the creation was exacting. The warriors were all broken, either a little or a lot, because of earthquakes but also because of a farmer uprising, in which they stormed the area and smashed everything. Emperor Qin was very despotic, and he was refusing to allow these farmers to pay their taxes late (they had a bad harvest) so the farmers knew two things could happen: they would all be killed for not paying on time, or they would all be killed but could get a little revenge on the emperor.
Despite those winning ways, Qin did accomplish quite a bit by standardizing weights and measures, standardizing the law based on Confucian principles, plus he united China for the first time. He also began the Great Wall, to which each dynasty felt compelled to add. But those who constructed his tomb, built during his lifetime, didn’t fare well. Those who were in on the secrets of construction were buried alive so they couldn’t reveal trade secrets to anyone. This was apparently the custom for quite some time until an emperor, I forget which one, realized this wasn’t all that nice, so he only used mutes for construction since they couldn’t tell and of course were illiterate and couldn’t write either. What many of us wondered was where did they get so many mutes – did they cut tongues out?
Anyhow, besides the privilege of having the museum curator talk to us, we were allowed to go down amongst the warriors in one part of the pit. This privilege is accorded only to people from National Geographic or the Smithsonian, or those who bribe the guards enough. Bob, our manager, said he was glad we couldn’t understand Chinese to hear what others were saying when we were allowed inside the red-carpet area. I think the word waigoren, or “foreign devils” came into play; Bob told them we were all archeologists!
It was amazing to spend so much time among the warriors, to look up close, examine everything, and imagine the accompanying history. I think this was a tour highlight for just about everyone.
The complex itself is so well-designed and beautiful. We saw the other pits also. One is semi-excavated but has more important warriors. They are believed to be the emperor’s personal guards because they are in groups facing each other instead of straight out. The tomb itself has not been touched yet because it is booby-trapped and they need more expertise before they can excavate. Real-life Indiana Jones! Also, all the warriors were originally painted and quite beautiful. Chinese experts tried to repaint, but the paint faded in a couple of weeks. Now some German experts have solved that problem and eventually they will be restored to their original condition, which is really quite stunning.
We had lunch in the museum complex at a noodle restaurant. The noodles were excellent and we watched the noodle-makers create the wide noodles and the thin spaghetti-like ones. It’s magic, really, the way they stretch and twirl the dough around and end up with separated strands. Our noodle-maker had an almost mystical expression on his face.
The day was already fantastic, but next we went to a mosque! A Chinese Muslim, beautiful, tranquil, old mosque. The Great Mosque is the most important mosque in Eastern China for the Hui minority. By the way, the one-child policy for China only applies to the Han people, the majority. The minority populations are allowed to have as many children as they want. Anyhow, back to the mosque. It was built in 742 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The area of the mosque is over 6,000 square meters and the minaret looks more like a Chinese pavilion. One of the leaders spoke to us and it was interesting, although he was very hard to understand. It was also such a disconnect to be in the Moslem Quarter but have everything in Chinese.
When we finished there, we walked through the covered market, which was just like the souks in Morocco. We were nostalgic! We didn’t have time to linger although that was where everyone really wanted to look around and shop.
We had to get to dinner, which was at the Defachang Restaurant, renowned for it’s dumplings. I had been waiting for this dumpling banquet and it didn’t disappoint. Reservations are made months in advance for this place, another multi-floored restaurant, so we really did have to get there on time.
Besides the starters – all kinds of samplings of meats, tofu, peanuts (common in Xian), various vegetables, etc., we had 16 courses of dumplings. All flavors, all shapes, all delicious, especially the walnut dumplings. I think those are a specialty of Xian also. Some of the chicken dumplings reminded me of Peeps! They were all steamed except for the last two, which were more like boiled potstickers. I never want a boiled or fried dumpling again, though, after eating all those wonderful steamed dumplings.
So – it was another spectacular and busy day.
Day 8 – April 20, Chongqing: After a morning talk on the religious life in Imperial China, we departed for the Xian airport via Yangling, the tomb of the Han emperor Jingdi. This is a very new world-class museum. It is build right on the excavation and the floors are glass. We all put little booties over our shoes and walked through and over the exhibit. Emperor Jingdi had terra cotta warriors also, but his were small. They were originally all dressed in silk garments, which have disappeared. Everything that one could need for the afterlife and the journey to heaven is in an emperor’s tomb. Besides the soldiers, there are animals – droves of dogs, goats, sheet, horses, chickens – whatever the emperor might need for food. And there are any type of artifact, chariot, etc. that he might also need. His wife, the empress, is there also – not voluntarily. Since he needed to be taken care of by his wife (not just Jingdi, but all emperors) she had to go with him. She could be buried alive or choose a glass of poison wine. I would opt for the wine, myself. Also in this tomb is the skeleton of a rhinoceros. Visiting dignitaries would bring gifts and someone had brought the emperor a rhino, so when the emperor died, into the tomb went the rhino. This was quite a remarkable museum.
Then to the airport for the flight to Chongqing. How to explain this town? By many accounts, it is the largest city in the world and certainly in China – 33,000,000 people. The weather here is mostly foggy, but in the summer it is known as “one of the three furnaces along the Yangtze.” I do not like large cities generally but I felt an immediate affinity with Chongqing. The town is a feast for the eyes – there are people everywhere, traffic more disorderly that can be adequately described, something is happening wherever you look. I loved it.
We went straight to the zoo to see the pandas. Again, we had some special treats. One of the keepers arranged to try to lure the panda closer to us with some choice bamboo, with limited success. But when we got to the baby panda, who is just six months old I think, he was brought out into the compound to the huge delight of everyone. A crowd gathered quickly – the zoo was busy. This baby played with a basketball, rolled off his platform, got back on and did a somersault by accident, fell off again and hugged a tree – famous baby panda, maybe, but he was basically just a baby and played like one.
At the zoo we had our shopping opportunity provided by a demonstration of Chinese art, which was very interesting, and then the well-trained sales force attacked. We didn’t buy anything there although there was some beautiful art. So back to the zoo entrance. This square was like a carnival. Food vendors cooking smelly bean curd, carving pineapples like artists, making cotton candy in fanciful shapes, running the kind of carnival games we would run in the backyard for a birthday party, selling balloons – I mean, this was indescribable. One of the people on the tour needed a new memory card for her camera so Bob, ever resourceful, found a store around the corner and she bought one. Sealed in a package. When she put it in, she found many pictures of the zoo – they had resold someone’s old card with the pictures still on it! Very China.
Our local guide, Chinese name Jeff, was actually a stand-up comedian in disguise. He was subtly funny at every move. As we drove through this huge, chaotic city, I wanted to get out and explore every sidewalk and alley. But we went to our restaurant, the Yangtze Island Restaurant, in one of the best parts of town. The food was some of the best – we are now into the spicy Schezuan style. We had turtle soup and other things I can’t remember but it was superb. Also very fancy. The wait staff all wore white gloves and served in a much more formal style than we had been used to. The bottles of beer were not on the turntable. But Chongqing had something no other town did – it’s a Pepsi town!!!
Outside the restaurant was a flower market – three streets of flower market. We got a few minutes to walk around and it was colorful but also full of fish for gardens. We went to the ship, the Victoria Katerina, with a stop at a convenience store to buy anything we wanted, alcohol especially, since it is expensive on the ship. The moment a bus pulls up anywhere, an army of vendors springs up selling maps, hats, anything they can. It’s a living – I can’t object.
On the ship, we had arranged for a large cabin (and paid for it) and we were so glad. Ours is at the back of the boat and we have solid windows on two sides, plus lots of room to walk around. It’s relaxing and pleasant. We had an introduction and the cruise director is a very formidable German woman whom I wouldn’t want to cross. In fact, I wouldn’t really like to cross paths even. I had an instant flash of how Nazi Germany must have been if I could be so intimidated by one cruise director.
Anyway, we cast off and went to sleep.
April 21, Day 9 – the Yangtze River: Our stop today was the small city of Feng Du. Now we are learning about the Three Gorges dam and all the resettling and changes in the cities and towns along the banks. The reservoir the dam creates will by next year go all the way to Chongquig. In Feng Du, we visited the new city since everyone has been resettled already. Most people have unquestioningly accepted this. Our local guide, Alice, was resettled onto the 7th floor of her house and there is no elevator. They call them houses, even though they are in buildings like apartments. People can own their houses but they can’t own land. The land remains with the government. All the “house” buildings are quite nondescript – the simplest construction possible, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone either. Elderly people, by the way, were given first choice so they could have a lower floor. Feng Du gets very hot and humid in the summer, and Alice said they all have air conditioning but not heat. If they want heat, they buy an electric heater.
Feng Du is known as a ghost town because during the Eastern Han Dynasty, two officials from the imperial court got bored and came to Feng Du to practice Taoism. They became self-cultivated enough to become immortals, but their names, Yin and Wang, sound like “King of Hell” in Chinese. Thus, the city became the gateway to hell and the places have names like “No Way Out Bridge,” “Ghost Torturing Pass,” and “River of Blood.”
To backtrack a bit: Bob told us we were going to visit an elementary school so if anyone had brought anything for the children we could take it. Of course, no one brought anything for children because we had no idea we would be in this situation, although I guess it is common for visitors to bring lots of stuff to distribute. So I thought, what could I provide? Finally I looked around the ship gift store because there was nothing else and settled on candy – I bought out the supply of Snickers and M&Ms and made a special deal with the ship so I didn’t have to clean out my bank account.
So, we stop at the public square in Feng Du first, after getting to the bus, which meant running the gauntlet of street vendors. There was a group of senior citizens having their daily noontime chorus and very excited because they had been told the National Geographic group was coming. The Chinese seem to have trouble with the word “geographic” and insist on calling it National Geography. We got out and as we walked up they were singing Red River Valley in Chinese and then went into Clementine. That was a surprise. Anyhow, we gathered and watched, and then they sang some Chinese songs and then asked us to join them, us in English and them in Chinese, in Jingle Bells. A rousing rendition of Jingle Bells in May ensued! Then we were asked to sing a song for them, and Bob asked me to lead it – right! We quickly decided what to sing and someone suggested God Bless America, but many people nixed that. It did seem somewhat jingoistic and I guess lots of folks felt that way. (Bush, by the way, is not a popular person in this tour group.) Finally I suggested America the Beautiful because that is inoffensive, so off we went as I conducted.
That wasn’t the end of the surprises, though. They passed out scarves to us and we all danced in a line waving the scarves, and all of a sudden I found myself ballroom dancing with an old gentlemen. The others then started to dance in pairs but we were the only ballroom dancers. We all had a blast – Chinese and Americans alike. It was seriously fun.
Next – to the elementary school. Bob asked me to make a presentation to the principal since I had procured the gifts. We went to kindergarten classrooms where there are as many as 50 children to one teacher. Each room has a small organ and a teacher that can play it. I have never seen such well-behaved small children in my life. I almost don’t believe what I saw. They were singing and doing hand motions and dances, and the pure and total joy and abandon on those faces was incredible. They put every fiber of their being into those songs, which you will see in the pictures. In the first room, I was a bit puzzled by the kid who had on a t-shirt that said “Chocolate Jesus” on the back.
In the second room we went to, the teacher put a candy bar on everyone’s desk but four (she ran out but made it a lesson in sharing). When the kids saw it was candy, they gasped in delight, but as the teacher put a Snickers or M&Ms in front of each child, they sat quietly and politely. I could only imagine some of my classes – instant trades, opening and eating, complaining that they didn’t get one. We were all quite surprised. Then she had the class leader conduct some songs and exercises and we played some London Bridge. The teachers choose one or two students at the beginning of the year to be the class leaders, and they remain in that position for the entire year. Students are ranked by their grades and the rankings are posted every two weeks. Even in the kindergartens, they are ranked by class on such things as cooperation, hygiene, etc. And on the subject of hygiene, the classrooms did smell from that Chinese refusal or lack of knowledge of how to clean toilets. But otherwise the rooms were much like American rooms, with decorations and kid’s work everywhere.
That actually turned out to be a fun and surprising day. On the ship it was the captain’s reception and welcome dinner. I haven’t been on a cruise, but this three-day Yangtze affair was quite formal in that Brunhilda or German Lady or the Nazi – I heard those and more mentioned – conducted everything with great formality, dignity, and pomp. During the reception she brought the captain to each group and introduced him, and then at the dinner the same thing! The food on the boat has been fine – not great, not bad. I have to say that I really admire someone like this woman, or anyone who does a job and takes it quite seriously when I would have a really hard time according it any importance. Sort of like the news anchors who treat every story with importance even when it’s a stupid story. It takes guts and professionalism to do that I think. Anyway, the next day’s schedule was announced and we went off to bed.
Day 10 – April 22, on the Yangtze River and in the Three Gorges: The Victoria Katerina set off for the trip through the Three Gorges. This is the area on the Yangtze that elicited so much controversy when China announced the plan to dam the river. I’ll talk about that part for tomorrow’s journal. Today is just the ride through the Three Gorges. It is gorgeous, pardon the pun. We stood out on deck all morning taking photos and watching the scenery.
Along the river there are houses that are empty and will be underwater by the end of next year as the reservoir reaches full capacity. Over 1.3 million people have been resettled because of the dam. There were still some farmers throughout the gorges, some who will literally have waterfront property if they don’t resettle! The fields are planted with different crops, very picturesque, but it looks like a hard way to make a living. Occasionally we saw someone by the side of the water waiting for the water taxi. And we saw the river clean-up people. Crews traverse the river daily to clean up trash. They have long flat boats with a platform on the back that is lowered into the water. It looks as if they are standing on the bottom of the river because the water is almost to their knees, but they are really on this platform. They rake in the trash and put it on the boats using the smallest gathering devices imaginable. I guess if they became more efficient and used big pool strainers or something, they would get the work done too fast. China is a full-employment country.
The water in the Yangtze is very polluted. When China industrialized and build so many factories along the river, they didn’t make any provision for waste or run-off or toxic substances, so they all went in the river. Many people living on the riverbanks have cancer and different types of tumors. China seems to be making a big effort to clean up, and all the Chinese talk about it, there are signs everywhere exhorting everyone to do their part for the environment, but it’s too bad they didn’t think of this before hand. Nowhere in China can you drink the water. Even the poorest of people understand that they have to boil water. Not all of them do, but the word is out. Bottled water is in all the hotel rooms. Shanghai is addressing that problem, but more about that later.
A couple of places along the river we saw hanging coffins. The government has relocated most of the coffins that were in the cliffs, but some were unreachable. It is considered very auspicious to be buried as high as possible – closer to heaven, and rich people did this. The subject of ancestors is a tough one. It was probably the hardest part for people who were relocated. People revere their ancestors and take care of their graves. Several times a year they have festivals akin to Dia de los Muertos where they burn paper money over the graves to make sure their ancestor has enough to spend in heaven. Having to leave the ancestors to relocate because of the dam was extremely difficult, especially if the ancestors themselves couldn’t be relocated.
We went through the first of the Three Gorges, the “Windbox Gorge.” There were several caves along the way and they are apparently quite large, able to hold thousands of people. The Chinese people had to flee to caves at times during their history, such as the Japanese occupation during World War II. People actually live in caves today. We continued through Wu Gorge, the “Witch Gorge.” At the Daning River we loaded onto sampans to explore this section, called the Little Three Gorges. We saw monkeys!
The sampan trip was fun but a little hokey. For our enjoyment they had Chinese folk singers along the river as well as people playing old Chinese instruments. There was a sign on a rock that said “rescue,” and a lifeguard sort of fellow except that apparently he never rescues anyone. Whether the opportunity has arisen I do not know.
We continued down through the last of the gorges, Xiling Gorge. This ended with our arrival at the dam. The gorges are misty, foggy, and beautiful. I am sure they were more beautiful when the dam wasn’t there and will be less beautiful when the waters rise fully by the end of next year, but they will be spectacular nonetheless.
Just as we approached the end of Xiling Gorge it got very windy, but as soon as we entered the area where we were to go through the ship locks, it was still. We spent the rest of the evening having a little Nat’l Geo party on the upper deck while waiting for the doors of the first lock to close. They wait until the locks are full – they hold about six boats depending upon size. We watched a barge come in behind us but the pilot misjudged a bit and we saw this big plume of exhaust go up and the front of the barge hit the coal barge next to it at about a 45 degree angle. Oops! The crew of the coal barge actually helped them by pushing off their boat!
Several times during the night I got up and tried to determine if we were through the locks, but I couldn’t tell. It was an exciting evening nonetheless. Click here for more pictures of China.