We arrived in the week just prior to National Day, Oct 1st, the anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic, so colorful decorations were out, but the traffic on the freeways and in town was horrific.
On these trips I go seeking the exotic, quaint, and charming. In Beijing you have to look pretty hard for it. The first impression of Beijing is of a huge modern crowded city. Building cranes dominate the skies by day, and neon flashing lights dazzle the eye at night.
The standard tourist sites were exotic alright, steeped in Chinese history, but heavily visited, mostly by Chinese tourists. We made the requisite visits to the Forbidden City and to Tiananmen Square.
Fortunately OAT goes to some lengths to go to the non-standard places. For example the portion of the Great Wall we saw was off the beaten path, referred to as the Wild Wall. It's accessed via a narrow single lane road, and the wall at that portion is mostly unrestored. It feels more like you are discovering it yourself. We hiked and climbed around on the wall and there were very few other tourists to be found. The Wall itself is amazing, going for almost four thousand miles across very rough terrain. It was built from 400 to 200 BC. They say it was used as a highway as well as a barrier, but its steepness and steps would not have accommodated wheeled transport.
OAT arranged a tour of the Beijing Opera School, where we saw the young performers prep'ing for their careers in Peking Opera. This was rather unique and it's always a treat to see young folks applying themselves to their art.
We also visited one of the hutongs, the original neighborhoods in Beijing, now tucked between blocks of highrises. We visited a family and had lunch in their home. We were able to ask questions via our expert and charming guide Linda and get some idea of life in Beijing, at least from the view of our enterprising and obviously well situated host. Another surprise was a visit with one of the few surviving women who had wrapped feet. She was 90 years old and was quite willing to tell us (via the guide interpreter) of her experience having her feet wrapped, toes folded under and prevented from growing. This was done to achieve the desired "golden lotus" look of very small feet. She could walk, but obviously not well, though she was 90 after all. The practice of wrapping fee was outlawed in 1911, but hers were done at the age of 6 years in spite of the prohibition. This certainly qualifed as exotic and certainly interesting.
In our visit to the Summer Palace we encountered the unexpected. It's a lovely place, with beautiful structures built around a large lake. During our walk we heard singing in the distance, and as we approached we found a group of Chinese gathered in a shaded area singing a song they all seemed to know. During the song, others joined and left them. We heard beautiful singing behind us and saw a small woman walking to pass us and join the group. Her voice was birdlike in its clarity and sweetness. She passed close to us so we smiled and acknowledged her and she smiled and did the same. After the song was finished and we were walking away she reappeared alone next to us and began singing what sounded like Edelwiess. Since we knew the melody, Rebecca and I joined her and sang together for a few minutes. The woman seemed pleased that we knew her song. We had to hustle to catch up with the tour group, but our hearts were aglow with the charm of that little interaction.
The amount of building going on in Beijing is amazing and impressive. They are already preparing for the 2008 Olympics and by then it should be wall-to-wall high-rises. The new buildings are not the communist ulgy blocks, but rather very trendy, imaginatively architected buildings. My impression is that the Chinese are all marching in the same direction, building and growing their economy and nation, the direction being provided by their rather restrictive government. From a material wealth standpoint, they are on the fast track to catch up with the West, and it won't be long. Another observation is that Beijing, for all it's size and sophistication is still not an international city. Almost all of the people there are Han Chinese, and anyone else is either a "minority" (as they refer to the Mongolians, etc,) or a foreigner. If you don't speak Mandarin or know someone who does, you are forced to communicate in gestures. Pretty hard to discuss politics.
The tours have many advantages, but one of the down sides is that they inevitably take you to a local "factory" where you have the "opportunity" to buy stuff. We went to see silk rugs being woven, saw the workmanship, detail, and resultant beauty, and Rebecca was smitten. Most uncharacteristic of her, she broke out the credit card and bought one. The other tour members were impressed, I was amazed, and Rebecca was stunned. The rug was shipped home to her and now looks great.
After four nights in Beijing we boarded the train to Xi'an. We had a nice clean private compartment and slept quite well. I always enjoy train travel and this was a great way to get from one place to another. We had coffee in the dining car as the train pulled into Xi'an.
Xi'an is the location of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, unearthed only recently. This was a highlight for me, and they are truly stunning in appearance and extent. There are thousands of them, built life sized as an after-life stand-in for a real army. Archeologists are still working on the site and still uncovering more items. Some of the warriors are restored and standing as they did originally, and some are still in their newly unearthed broken status. There are several very large pits and we spent a long time gawking. The pits are covered by roofs to protect from rain, and the result is that it's a bit dark for easy photography.
The tour brochure encouraged us to bring small gifts for the families with whom we would be staying in our "home stay". Rebecca had bought a nice San Francisco T shirt and I intended to buy a SF Giants baseball cap. I expected to find one at the airport but bombed out (oops, shouldn't say those words so close together). We did however buy a SFPD cap at the SFO airport police kiosk, and that was to be my gift. When we arrived in China however, our guide said that the gifts weren't necessary and that she thought it better if the "home stay" families didn't come to expect the gifts.
Our guide Linda lived in Xi'an and when we arrived we met her husband and daughter. It turned out her husband is a policeman in Xi'an (Chief of Police actually). So I brought out the SFPD cap and presented it to him as a gift. He is a quiet man with little English, but he seemed pleased. Later Linda said he was very pleased and was posing with the cap in the hotel room.
There were many weddings happening, timed to coincide with National Day which incudes a weeklong holiday. There was a wedding at our hotel also. Rebecca peeked in, was beconned in and joined the festivities for a while. Later she retrieved the T shirt and was able to present it to the bride as a gift. We felt pleased that our gifts were well given and well received.
On Sept 30th, just before National Day, the streets in Xi'an were alive with celebrants and the city wall was decorated colorfully.
We wandered from our hotel to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda where they were putting on a light show with a huge fountain and music. There don't seem to be any actual fireworks, but the fountains were spurting in time to the music (William Tell Overture oddly) and the effect was dramatic. We saw lots of Chinese familes strolling about with their boy children; a few girls too.
Part of the trip was a "Home stay", where we would be housed in peoples homes for a night to get an idea of actual Chinese families. We were dropped off with our family and tried to communicate. The daughter and son knew only a bit of English, and the Mandarin I had tried to learn before the trip turned out to be useless. I think the daughter knew more English than she was willing to try, judging from her English schoolbooks we examined. Struggling to communicate is tiring. We showed them where we had come from on their map, then finally showed the digital pictures of our trip so far on their TV. This engaged us all happily until it was time to retire.The village where the home stay was located was presented initially as a "Farmer Village", where we might help bringing in the harvest, etc. In reality, each family only has a small plot and it doesn't take them any time to do whatever work is needed. They all make their living working outside the village. Our host was a cab driver. We concluded that the village is somewhat contrived for tourists, with the corn drying on the pavement mostly for show.
The babies we saw in the countryside wore crotchless pants and no diapers, with their little bottoms and other equipment hanging out in the breeze. When it's time to go, they just squat over the ground and water the plants. Very practical. I wanted get a documentary photo of this but even with the long lens it didn't seem quite the thing. We bought a baby outfit for Rebecca's friend in the U.S. who is going to adopt a Chinese baby. This should solve the dilemma of cloth versus disposable.
We flew from Xi'an to Chengdu. I must confess I'd never heard of Chengdu before, but here in the middle of China is a city of almost 10 million people if you include the outskirts. Again new high-rise buildings were popping up all over, the airport was new, and the infrastructure highways were in place and ready for the expanding economy. It's almost a bit scary to see change happening this fast. I'm convinced that whatever they decide to do, they will succeed. The only worry is if they are doing the right thing.
The main attraction in Chengdu is the Giant Panda sanctuary. I skipped this tour since I was ailing, but Rebecca went and enjoyed it. I was glad to have a "down day" since there had been little time for pause. After two nights in Chengdu we flew to Lhasa, Tibet.
Tibet was my favorite part of the trip. This despite the fact that I had gotten a cold and in Tibet had a headache most of the time. Lhasa is 12,000 feet above sea level, and the headache didn't go away until we went back down. But it is quite a different place. The elevation and geographical setting contribute to its uniqueness, plus the Tibetan Buddhism that is in evidence everywhere. We had a Tibetan local guide, Chanba, who charmed us all and was as frank as politically possible about the Chinese occupation. A Chinese local guide gave us a one hour lecture and repeated the phrase "Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" enough times that we were almost tempted to ask embarrasing but pointless questions (from whom were they liberated? does peaceful mean the over 1 million dead Tibetans died peacefully?) She claimed that Han Chinese currently represent 5% of the population in Tibet. I couldn't help myself and asked if that figure included army personnel. She said she didn't know the number of Chinese army in Tibet. From my observation in Lhasa, the impact of Han Chinese is much greater than a figure of 5% would indicate. Most of the shopkeepers we saw were Han, and Chinese language signs are everywhere. Supposedly public signs are required to be in two languages, but in some cases this meant Chinese and English, though there were many signs in Chinese and Tibetan.
The Potala Palace is the landmark that signifies Tibet. It would be the home of the Dalai Lama if he were not in exile and refusing to comply with the Chinese occupation. It's a giant structure that dominates the Lhasa landscape and is impressive in every sense of the word. We toured inside and got wonderful views of Lhasa from the rooftop.
The Tibetan language fascinated me. Apparently the 5th Dalai Lama introduced the written language and alphabet, basing it on Sanscrit letters. When we toured a Budhist Temple, we saw original Tibetan Budhist texts dating back hundreds of years stored in a vast library. Later at the temple we saw copys of the text being printed for study by the current monks. Printing is a very manual process. Apparently the ancient original text is transcribed and carved in reverse into wooden blocks. The wooden blocks are then used in a manual process to print the narrow strips that form the books. Later in the street we happened across a "bookstore" specializing in Tibetan Budhist texts. We were so intrigued we brought a few "books" and book holders to take home with us.
We saw monks "debating" as part of their studies. This was quite dramatic and noisy as they all shouted their questions, answers, and rebuttals, clapping and extending their hands to post the questions.
We were told (and I subsequently confirmed) that in the Tibetan countryside, the practice of Polyandry is widespread. Apparently to ensure the family land is not divided and that there will be enough male help to work the land, brothers often share a common wife. Neither the men nor the women in our tour group liked the sound of that. The Chinese are trying to outlaw this practice saying it leads to promiscuity and fatherless children among the resultant unwed women.
We did see farmers in the countryside using yaks to plough the land, the woman following behind planting seeds. We also visited a school and enjoyed exchanging smiles with the kids. The kids are supposedly taught by Tibetan teachers, but they are learning Mandarin as well as English and Tibetan. The signs, schedules, menus, etc. were all in Chinese. I believe that the influence of language is one of the most powerful forces that is working to erase their cultural identity. But it's certainly happening; and the Chinese are in charge.
We flew from Lhasa back to Chengdu, then had a 5 hour bus ride to Chongqing where we boarded our Yangtze riverboat. The boat was new and posh, and our cabin was very nice. We began sailing downriver toward the Three Gorges Dam the moment we were aboard. In the morning, still above the dam, we went ashore to tour the Red Pagoda, a very handsome structure build into the side of a cliff. The rising water is threatening the Pagoda and there is talk of moving it to higher ground. To get to the Pagoda we had to run the gauntlet of vendors pushing their wares for cheapy cheapy prices, often one dolla. For awhile it was fun, but after a bit it was great to return to the tranquility of our riverboat.
We continued downriver, seeing spectacular scenery, high hills, sometimes populated, sometimes farmed, and often untouched. In many cases we saw new housing built above the final high-water line, and older, often very nice houses being demolished or abandoned before the rising water engulfs it. Houses are being replaced by housing. Whole villages have been relocated to new "better" housing. Depending on who you ask, between 1 and 2 million people are being displaced by the rising waters.
In truth I lost track of which gorge we were in. Perhaps we did cruise in all three. They are all quite spectacular, sometimes narrow with steep hills projecting on either side. At Wushan we took a smaller boat to cruise in the Lesser Three Gorges, too narrow to accommodate our riverboat. These were most spectacular. Although they were probably more spectacular before the flooding (it's already 2/3 full), they are still worth seeing and will be even after the flooding is done.
The second evening on the boat we reached the Three Gorges Dam Site and went into the multistage locks needed to get below the dam. There are 5 locks in each direction (upstream and downstream), each with a vertical change of about 60 feet. We only needed four of the five since the water is not yet at its maximum abouve the dam. The locks seemed massive. We watched in awe as 6 boats of our size pulled in, the gates closed, the water dropped, the lower gates opened, and we motored into the next. It's not as warm and fuzzy a feeling as I got working the old locks ourselves on the River Barrow in Ireland. But it sure was impressive.
The next day we toured the dam. It's impressive, but ugly as can be. We disembarked and took a 5 hour bus ride to Wuhan. We stayed overnight in Wuhan, a very industrial city, and home of the only hotel we encountered with no hot water. We flew the next morning to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong seemed like a step back into the West. We had to change our Chinese Yuan into Hong Kong Dollars. Signs were in English as well as Chinese. Our hotel was the Miramar, on Nathan Road on the Kowloon peninsula. We toured the various sights including Victoria Peak, Hong Kong Island, the New Territories, and Aberdeen Harbor. I had a suit made. The highlight for me in Hong Kong was the Bird Garden, where the Chinese men bring their pet birds to be on display. There was one pet bird which had been let out of its cage and was poking around in the garden foliage. Great fun!
On the evening of October 13th we had our farewell dinner, saying goodbye to the new friends we had met. It was sad to say goodbye, but it was good to be heading home. A very nice trip all in all.