China is a very large, very ancient country. We would not see most of the country, nor see most of the varied ethnic groups who live in China. Since we were only in the country for a short time, this log is almost a snapshot of a snapshot if you will. This is not a definitive work, just my impressions of what we saw while there.
I suspect that most of us get Travelzoo in our e-mail – you know – the one that offers you three days and two nights in downtown Tucson for only $125.00, and deals on other exotic places. Patsy got a promotion for a trip to China through a Canadian company named Sinorama. China has always been on my to-do list, not my bucket list, but on a list somewhere. The deal Sinorama pitched sounded great and so we went for it.
An interesting thing about the Sinorama people is that they are very helpful, however we would have an occasional communication disconnect when I worked with them. Once or twice, I thought I asked straightforward questions, but got unusual answers. Persistence pays off, so I kept asking the same question in different ways until I had the information I needed. I will say that they are a good deal, their program is exceptional, and their system of guides is very professional. I would use their services again.
Logic would say that, living in Las Vegas, we should have contacted the Chinese Embassy in Los Angeles for our visas. We were prepared to drive down there and stay with some friends while we got our paperwork done. However, and this is a big however, when I went on-line to get the address of the embassy, I found that people living in Las Vegas must go through the embassy in San Francisco.
It that bothered me that we would have to send our passports off to get our Chinese visas. I get antsy when we have to ship our little blue books somewhere so that we can enter another country. I start to worry that maybe somewhere someone is passing himself off as me by using my identification. How would I defend myself if the Feds came after me for some fraudulent international escapade unknown to me? Nevertheless, we had to do it and so we entrusted our passports and our identities to FedEx.
Apparently, there are companies whose sole purpose in life is to obtain visas for other people, at a price, of course. I thought their fee was a little high in this case, although not as expensive as traveling to San Francisco and the cost of spending time there. I will say that the company we chose got the job done in short order and we had our passports back with our brand-spanking new Chinese visas. I looked at my visa several times and wondered if it would be impolite to casually show it off to friends, or even to strangers standing next to me at the market. They would be amazed I’m sure, however, since this might have been a little over the top, I refrained.
The next step of our adventure began with a miscalculation. We had planned to use one of those free park-and-ride places next to the airport and fly down to L.A. for our connection to Vancouver, Canada. There was a snag to all this however: we needed to be at the airport some 90 minutes before our flight, and the bus service from the park-and-ride place did not even start until after the time when we should have been checked in. When I realized that we had a problem, I had visions of us running down the airport concourse, dragging our carry-ons, and elbowing people out of our way. Even then, the airline people probably would have been calling our names and warning us that the plane was in its final boarding stages.
Fortunately, we had friends who came to our rescue; they picked us up and ran us out to the airport at 4:45 in the morning. These are real friends. We got to McCarran Airport on time, checked through TSA, bought expensive cups of coffee, and read for a while.
When we fly, Patsy likes to sit next to the window, which puts me in the middle seat and I usually find myself next to a Sumo wrestler who promptly falls asleep. This time I was in luck, sort of; the plane was one of the smaller ones and I had an aisle seat. Although I didn’t have to squish over against Patsy in order to be comfortable, the legroom on the aircraft was short – I had to straddle the seat in front of me with a knee to either side. Thankfully, the person sitting there did not drop his seat back.
We spent the night in L.A. because our flight to Vancouver was very early the next morning. What is it with these flights that require one to get up before dawn?
The next morning we were up at 4:30 again and headed for the airport on our way to Canada. My luck held on the flight to Vancouver! There was ample legroom and while I still sat between my lady and another passenger, this time it was a small woman who might have weighed 90 pounds if you handed her a couple of bricks.
We got to Vancouver with an hour layover, but I misread the gate information and we had to move out smartly to find the right one. Too bad, because the Vancouver airport is pretty and we could have spent some time looking at all the artwork instead of hustling down the concourse.
Our flight from Vancouver to Beijing was on a Boing 737, called a ‘Dreamliner,’ and it is in some ways. If you are in first class, you get these sort-of booth compartments instead of the usual side-by-side seating. However, back in steerage where we were, all we got was more legroom. More leg room was fine with me, especially after someone told me how much it would cost the two of us to go from Vancouver to Beijing first class.
I thought I was in luck again, because although I was still in the middle seat, sitting on the aisle was a young Asian girl wearing an extremely short skirt and rhinestone high heel sneakers. I figured I would have no problems getting out when I needed to, but I was wrong. When we reached cruising altitude, the girl kicked off her shoes, put a pillow down on the pullout table in front of her, and promptly went to sleep. I was trapped again!
Fortunately, the airline fed us every couple of hours, so between getting food served to us, plus the occasional help from a flight attendant who spoke her language, I made it through the flight with no “pressing” needs.
Let me tell you that they do feed you on international flights. We had two full meals, a couple of snacks, and a sandwich during the sixteen hours it took to fly from Canada to China. We also had lots of water, which is why the sleeping beauty next to me was of such concern.
The flight itself was calm, with some turbulence, but not too much, and we got to Beijing on time. The airport there is very large and very hectic. We thought the New Delhi airport was confusing, but at least there, many people there spoke English. In Beijing, the most common phrase we heard was ‘no English.’
Patsy and I retrieved our bags and tried to find the exit, but since we do not read Chinese, we almost found ourselves on a domestic flight into Shanghai instead.
Normally, in these logs, I talk about the food we eat and/or the beer encountered along the way, but not this time. It would be some five or six days into the tour before I could transcribe my notes. By then we would have eaten so much Chinese food with various meats and vegetables, that if you asked me about any one particular thing, for instance pork, I would only nod my head and say, “Yup, had some of that.”
The same thing holds for my notes. I usually jot things down in a small notebook which, of course, I forgot to bring it along with us this time. I had been writing things down on scraps of paper that I cadged from the hotels where we stayed, and then I stuck them into wherever I find a place, in books, pockets, suitcases, and hoped for the best. At one point, I considered using toilet paper, but refrained; not only would the paper tear and the ink spread, but also my handwriting is sketchy at best. Writing down something like “Enclosed houses, grey bricks,” could have been interpreted as, “Encroached mouse, grey licks.” Please, as you read these notes, if something doesn’t make sense, be creative with your reading.
As for the beer, I won’t comment except to say that once we were on the tour, we had a glass of Tsing Tao beer as part of almost every meal except for breakfast. If we wanted more than the one glass of beer, we had to pay about $5 for a bottle of Tsing Tao. (Note: I am covering this after the trip, so I don’t remember if this is $5 Chinese, US, or Canadian.)
Eventually, our guide found us, and after a wait for the last of our group to arrive, we headed to our hotel. The drive should have taken forty minutes, but traffic was so heavy that it took us almost two hours to make the trip. Our guide explained this was the Beijing rush hour and that it lasts from seven in the morning until seven in the evening.
I should probably mention that our guide told us he spoke Chinglish, and that we would encounter Chinglish along the way. Much like Spanglish, the Chinese we met spoke good English, but they often put the em-fah-sis on the wrong syll-ah-bul. We would also see signs with unusual phrases like, “Wet step, slide carefully.” Our guides tended to repeat the last word or phrase they said, along with the word, ‘yeah.’ For example, they might say something like, ‘word, yeah, word.’ Having said that, I couldn’t imagine what we would come up with if we tried to speak or write Chinese.
Now back to the tour.
At the hotel, we turned in our passports, got a key for our room, and then went off for dinner. The hotel offered a buffet of Chinese food, but with nod to Western tastes as well. By the time we ate and got back to the room, we had been mostly awake for twenty-four hours, so we slept like babies. (Note: we understand there is a Chinese saying that we slept like dead pigs… I don’t know if I like that comparison or not, but we did it anyway.)
I should also mention that while we stayed in some nice hotels, it seems the Chinese like to watch people bathing. There were large windows between the bed areas and the bathtubs, and all the showers were glass enclosed as well. This probably doesn’t mean anything, but I thought it was worth noting.
By the way, since I am on bathrooms, I should mention that all the hotels had western style toilets, but elsewhere, we were likely to find squat toilets. One of our later guides said that this is healthier than sitting on a stool. She suggested that if we only used the western toilet, we really didn’t know squat.
We found out some things about our guide. Not only did he meet us at the airport, but would be with us throughout the tour. He told us his name was Jeff Wei, and then he told us his Chinese name… Jeff was an okay name for us.
All of our guides would have English names as well as their Chinese names. Apparently, taking an English name is part of what they do when learning the language. Our guide took his name from an instructor who he admired.
Jeff told us he would be our main guide, although there would be other local guides as well. After this introduction, he gave us a short lesson in Chinese, and showed us some basic Chinese characters. China is the Middle Kingdom, and the pictograph for Middle is a square with a vertical line drawn through it, simple, huh? Another character often goes along with this one, and together they say China (or Middle) Kingdom. The second character looks like three stacked horizontal lines with a vertical line down the middle of them, and a little tick at the end of the bottom line. The name China comes from the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), but to the Chinese, the name has always been Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom.
Like western lettering, there are block pictograms and those drawn in a cursive style. There are also different styles of lettering, some more blocky, some more relaxed. In western style letters, these are called fonts, but I don’t know if this term applies to pictograms.
I got good at recognizing some of the symbols. (Side note: this ability fell off rapidly. I learned the symbols for entry, exit, and bank, but never for toilets, which would have been more useful. Thank God, most of the important signs have English sub-titles.)
Beijing is large city of some 10 million people. My first reaction to it was that there were a lot of tall buildings, high-rises in fact, but even the tallest ones had some interesting architectural details so that the city wasn’t just Legoland on steroids. My second reaction to the high-rises was that once the architect settled on a design, the builders repeated it four, five, or six times.
What I think of as Chinese vernacular, that is the curved eaves with fancy end caps, was still around, but those places seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Mostly what we saw were the blocky high rises. There were exceptions to this however, such as the building with two towers and a four or five story bridge connecting them so that it looked like an upside-down ‘U,’ or another building with a swirl on top, like a soft ice cream cone.
Even though there was some very exciting architecture spotted around the city, the majority of the buildings seemed to be the high-rise apartment type. When you have 10 million people in a city, they all have to live somewhere.
By the way, there were cranes everywhere and I mean the lifting kind, not the feather bearing ones. Jeff told us the crane is the national bird of China, and then pointed to a cluster of the lifting type hovering on the skyline.
He went on to tell us that the government owns the land and that people can buy the apartments or live on the land for 70 years, but then they must pay a tax and get permission to stay longer. A farmer can build a house if he applies for permission (and later on, we saw a lot of these). He still has the 70- year rule, but I think there is some sort of dispensation. One of our guides said that the 70 -year rule is has been in effect for almost that long and she thought the government would change it soon.
I started to get an appreciation of the problems associated with providing food and shelter for 1.5+ billion people. A small town in China may have between 400,000 and 1.5 million people in it, while many of the larger towns have 20 million residents or more.
Paulo Solari, the architect, suggested that we create people hives, which is not the same thing they have done here, but the effect is similar. According to Solari, it is better to go up rather than to sprawl all over the place, using up arable land best used for growing food. Unfortunately, they don’t understand this concept in places where farmland and orange groves give way to shopping malls.
Beijing has a park-like feeling, with lots of trees and gardens. We saw this park-like look repeated in all the cities we visited. Everything seemed neatly trimmed, which must take a huge number of gardeners to accomplish. Someone pointed out how, with 10 million people already living in the city, and with who knows how many kids leaving school every year, someone must find work for all these people. Maybe that’s the reason why there were so many parks: being a landscape worker was probably the default job for people who have not trained for something else.
One of our local guides told us that there is unemployment insurance, but that people are embarrassed to apply for it. I found this interesting because I thought everyone would have a job in a nominally Communist system.
There were a lot of colorful bits to the city, things like fanciful gates brilliantly painted with dragons, or bright red lanterns swinging under upturned eaves; things that would be hokey in someplace else but were right at home here. I saw one noble looking gate standing in front of a parking lot. In Las Vegas all you would see at a parking lot is a post telling you how much it costs to park there, and maybe a magazine rack on the street. Since I don’t read Chinese, the gate could have had parking information on it too, but I wouldn’t know.
We started out by learning how to say good morning. I think I remember it being ‘ne hao,’ and we were supposed to reply ‘ding hao’ or if we really felt good, ‘ding, ding hao.’
We had a printed itinerary, but our schedule shifted around as needed, so that we visited several places besides the Great Wall today. The Wall was one of the things we really wanted to see.
We made a brief stop along the way, where we had a lecture on pearls. This sounds boring but wasn’t. Although pearls have nothing to do with the Great Wall, they have everything to do with the tourist trade. Stopping at places where people can buy things helps to pay the bills and makes these cheaper tours possible.
I was surprised to learn that there are so many colors of pearls, including a gold color. Here is an interesting tit-bit: you can test pearls by rubbing them together. If they are real, you will find a little bit of white powder, even from the black pearls.
After the pearl presentation, we were off to see the Wall.
At our first sighting of it, the wall looked like a wandering line across some very rugged hills. As we got closer we could see the Wall was composed of dressed rocks topped with bricks, maybe fifteen or twenty feet tall. The tops were crenelated, which means there are regular gaps where archers can hide while they pull out the next arrow. There were carved openings spaced along the bottom of the Wall for drainage, but I suspect hot oil or even boiling soup could have been poured through them onto the invaders.
There were watchtowers or guard blocks spaced along the way. This is where soldiers would live while serving their time and where they could signal to the main army that things weren’t going well at their particular location and reinforcements would be a welcome thing.
Although the Wall did have some success, it did not work as well as intended; then again, most walls don’t. Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish border certainly didn’t keep the Picts out of England. I thought about Robert Frost’s line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”… in this case, the ‘something’ in this case were the Mongol hoards.
The Great Wall goes up and down some very serious terrain. We started walking, but soon found ourselves huffing and puffing before too long. Patsy and I fought our way through crowds of people until it was too much for us. We were still tired from the airline trip and so we walked/climbed a goodly distance that included two guard towers and then gave up.
I was amazed to see the amount of graffiti on the bricks. While not all of it was in Chinese, thankfully not all of it was in English either. Writing names on walls seems to be a human thing. We even saw graffiti in the Taj Mahal, and although I did not see a lot of it in Beijing, it was there. I did see a sign that said ‘No Scribbling,’ which I hoped sounded a bit stronger in Chinese. I could imagine what an American tagger could make of that sign.
The countryside near the Wall looked a lot like parts of California when there isn’t a drought going on. There were trees everywhere, although they looked evenly spaced, and the hills behind them seem to have terraces like the livestock paths one sees on hillsides. However, what might have been animal paths were too evenly spaced. I asked Jeff about this and he told me that during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, for some reason, they cut down all the trees on the hillsides, but then someone realized this was not a good idea. He said they were now replanting the trees. He didn’t tell me why they cut down the trees in the first place, but it did account for why they were so evenly spaced. I suspect the terracing helped cut down on erosion.
After visiting the Wall, we headed back to the Ming tombs, but made a stop at a cloisonné factory first. Cloisonné is a more complicated art than we realized. Each color has its own copper ‘collar’ or cell that holds liquid enamel in place until it dries. After the base is prepared by attaching the cells to the piece, an artist paints the color into its proper place and then fires the item in a kiln. When the piece is fired, a worker dips each one into a bath of molten metal to keep the copper from eroding and then fires it again. Afterwards, there is a long polishing process until everything is perfect. Wow!
Our next stop was at the tombs of some 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644), plus their wives and concubines (read ‘girlfriends’). The most important of the emperors was Zhu Di (or Judy as it sounds in English), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His was the largest tomb and the first of the lot.
When they replanted the hills around the tomb area, they included flowering trees, some that bloomed with pink blossoms while others were white. When we got off our bus, white blossoms were floating down like snowflakes.
There were many colored flags along the way, which, along with the flowering trees, added a festive look to what is basically, an up-scale graveyard.
I took several pictures at the tombs, but on looking back to what I shot, I was obviously impressed with the dragon-headed gargoyles, because I have half a dozen shots of those. I did get a shot of the great red gate, the entry into the tombs, and another of a large pink tomb, but mostly it was dragons. My fascination must be because we learned our Chinese Zodiac signs while on this trip, and mine was the Dragon.
There is a tour inside the tomb of the 13th Ming emperor, but we were out of time and did not go inside. We did take a walk past some of the animal carvings that line the way into the site, but those darned dragons got all my attention.
That night, we had a nice dinner at our hotel and turned in early because it had been a long day in very heavy traffic.
I need to say something about Beijing traffic. It is every bit as chaotic as that which we encountered in New Delhi, with drivers trying to merge lanes in front of our bus, trying to push their way past everyone else, and little three wheel buggies that tried to fill in any gaps. In India, they call these buggies ‘Tuk-Tuks,’ but in China, they call them ‘Boom-Booms.’
I should also mention that, given the amount of traffic, the air in Beijing was not nearly as polluted as I expected. I had visions of dark days and darker nights, but it was more like what we have experienced in LA. In addition, the people we saw wearing masks seemed to have them only covering their mouths and not their noses, so I suppose they were trying to guard against coughing or something.
Our highlights for this day were a visit to Tiananmen Square, a visit to the Forbidden City, and a performance at the Beijing Opera. This would be our most ambitious schedule and by the time we were done, we would have walked some eight miles.
Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world. I would agree with that, although I have not done a comparison with other squares around the world. There is a flag raising ceremony at the square in the morning and a flag lowering ceremony in the evening. When we drove past the square the night before, there were people lined up on both sides of the road, waiting to see the ceremony.
Because of the heavy traffic, our schedules shifted around a lot. For instance, the Great Wall visit should have been on the second day and the Forbidden City, the first. However, I digress.
Tiananmen Square has Mao Se Tung’s tomb in it, and his portrait hangs over the main gate to the Forbidden City. There are some heroic statues at the edge of the square, honoring the Long March when Mao led his Red Army away from the east and Nanjing, to the north and the Wall in 1934-1935 to escape Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army. The two enemies joined forces during WWII, but resumed the civil war afterwards.
There is a saying that one is not a hero unless one has been to the Great Wall. Again, this refers to the Long March. Since we had already seen the wall, and indeed strode upon it, Patsy and I might be somewhat heroic. This also explained the enterprising merchant on the edge of the shopping area at the Great Wall who offered to transcribe your name into Chinese characters and give you a Hero Certificate for a price; however, we modestly decided to keep our heroics private.
At Tiananmen, our tour group got together for a photograph before heading off to the Forbidden City. For those who do not know, this was the emperor’s palace, strictly off limits to commoners. The last emperor’s mom was a strong old bird they termed the ‘Dragon Lady,’ and like Elizabeth I of England, ruled for a long time, cutting off any, and all, opposition. I thought she must roll over in her tomb every time some of the unwashed masses trooped across her courtyards.
The roof tiles of the palaces are a golden color, which was strictly reserved for the emperor. Before we got to see those, we stopped at the Temple of Heaven. This is a magnificent structure with many levels to the outside staircase. Jeff told us that the emperor would stand at the top of the staircase, surrounded by enormous incense burners that made it look as though he was standing in clouds. Each level of the staircase had a landing holding a couple of these incense burners, reinforcing the idea, while the lesser folk stood in the courtyard looking up. Each landing also had to have a drain or gargoyle if you will just in case it rained, and of course, they were dragon shaped. I sensed a pattern here.
We walked past the temple and on into the palace grounds. The walls of the temple and of the palaces were mostly red in color, which I suppose was another one of those important ideological things with emperors and such. There were strings of animal figures at the end of the upturned eve – Jeff said they have something to do with water animals. Since the roofs and much of everything else was made of wood, it was wise to ask heaven to weigh-in and not let things burn down. Along those same lines, there were some huge pots for water set along the sides of the buildings, just in case a fire did break out and heaven was distracted at the moment.
There was a pattern of metal stud decorations on each of the big doors going through the gates. People have rubbed their hands over the studs so much that any paint or plating on them has worn off. Maybe the rubbing is for good luck or something. I noticed all the Fire Dog (dogs that look something like a lion) and other brass statues have shiny places on them from people rubbing them as well.
By the way, Fire Dogs are probably more common than dragons as decorations.
You see them outside hotels and banks as well as palaces. You can tell which one is female and which is male by looking at their front feet. The female dog has a pup under her paw while the male has a ball. It also turns out that the female is always on the right side of the gate, i.e. the gate’s right side.
Besides the dogs and the dragons, another common statue often seen is an animal with deer-like antlers, long teeth, and scales, but I think it is mythological. I suppose I should also mention the turtle with fangs although it was not as common… everything seemed toothy around there.
After we got through the Temple of Heaven, we were not finished by a long chalk. We had the emperor’s teahouse to get past, and various smaller palaces for his wife and concubines, not to mention other buildings associated with the palace (i.e. support staff). By the time we reached the meeting place for our bus, I had used up all my “Awe” for now and was just looking for a way out. We missed going into a beautiful pagoda because of time constraints, which was okay by me, I could not have climbed anymore stairs today.
I can’t recall our dinner this night; it was supposed to be Beijing Roast Duck, but we had that the following night. I have a special reason for remembering this, which I will tell about later.
Except for breakfast, when we ate a meal, we all sat at round tables with giant lazy-Susan turntables in the middle, loaded down with several dishes, usually seven, or eight. This led to some interesting times when person A wanted item B, while person C wanted item D. Sometimes A would start to take a portion of B, when C pushed the turntable along and moved B out of range. There was plenty of food, however, and nobody went hungry unless they chose to do so. We knew that the meal was over when the waiters brought us plates of watermelon slices.
Even though we didn’t have the duck dinner, we did visit the Beijing Opera, and as God is my witness, I believe this was a spoof. The Opera is supposed to be something the emperors enjoyed. Mostly it consisted of a central character wearing a beard that looked like something from a third rate Halloween costume shop, and standing on one foot much of the time. When he did that, he also managed to turn himself around with his other foot, sometimes more than once. We got to know the sole of that shoe quite well; I believe I could pick it out from a line-up of shoe soles.
What I could make of the story told was that a siege was going on somewhere, with big guns off to the side and an army on the other. Of course we never saw the guns, just heard the character sing about them while standing on that one foot. Fortunately, we did not have to stay for the whole performance.
We visited the Summer Palace, a lovely spot on a manmade lake. I replenished some of my “Awe” overnight and so I could appreciate the beauty of the location and the artwork. Patsy and I made our way along the bank of the lake and down through a structure billed as ‘the Long Corridor,’ which it was. There were people sitting around all over the place doing things. Some people used big paintbrushes on long sticks and dipped in water, to write Chinese calligraphy on the paving stones. Senior citizens sat on the steps or straddled the balustrades to play cards or dominoes, to crochet and to play a game I did not recognize. The game is Xian qi or Chinese Chess, and looks like some version of checkers but with a bad attitude.
There was a place where singers performed karaoke near the lake. We had a ‘battle of the bands’ going on for a while, with the a cappella singers by the lake trying to drown out a woman who sang accompanied by a flute and a two string violin type instrument.
While we were standing on the bridge, a young girl came up and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. This would happen several times again during the trip, and I was always surprised when it did.
Now we come to an interesting part of the story: I can tell you this was the evening of the Beijing Roast Duck dinner.
Patsy and I were going through the Long Corridor when we heard music and singing going on up the hill from where we were. It sounded so nice that we decided to go see what was happening. By the time we got to the top of the hill however, the music had stopped and the musicians were packing their instruments down the hill. We decided to go back to the Long Corridor and the lake. The musicians were going down a ramp, and we decided that was easier than the way we had come up, so we followed them. This was our first mistake.
Instead of coming back to the lake, we found ourselves outside of the palace grounds. That didn’t seem like too big a problem – all we had to do was follow the road around to the entrance. Yeah, like it was going to be that easy.
We passed what we later came to realize was the main entry to the palace, but didn’t recognize it as such at the time. This is where we made our second mistake; we should have called Jeff, however in the end it would not have made any difference. He had given us his cell number and had us write it on the back of our identification cards. However, the noise level around him was so great when we did finally call, that he couldn’t hear his phone.
Although we did not recognize the entry to the palace grounds, we did see the bus parking lot across the street. By careful observation and a whole lot of stupid blind luck, we located our bus. Of course the driver did not speak English, why should he? It doesn’t take multilingual skills to drive a bus, just some common sense, nerves of steel, and an eye to opportunity.
Anyway, by some pantomiming and gesturing, we got it across that we wanted him to call Jeff and tell him where we were. Naturally, Jeff did not answer because the equivalent of a German Polka Band was holding forth near him about the time the bus driver called.
Now we made our third mistake. I thought we had about forty minutes before we were supposed to meet with the group. Since we knew where the bus was, it was just a hop skip and a jump to our assembly point and if for some reason we missed the group, we could always come back here. Why spend all that time just sitting in the bus, right?
We made our way back to the place where we were supposed to meet just a couple of minutes after Jeff and the rest of our crew left by another entry. We did not have forty minutes to get back to the site, we had no time at all, but I digress again. We were going into the grounds through one gate about the time the rest of the group was coming out a different one.
We waited at the no-longer-meeting-spot for a half hour and did not see anyone anywhere that looked even remotely like our group. It seemed like a good idea to go back to the parking lot and wait for everyone else. Of course, when we got back to where our bus had been, it was gone. So there we were, two senior citizens stranded in a country where not only did we not speak the language, we couldn’t even figure out what the symbols meant.
We walked over to a young man in a police uniform, standing in front of a police kiosk to ask if he would call Jeff for us. Not only did he not have a cell, he wasn’t even a real cop. He had the uniform and stuff, but when we tried to talk him, he got all flustered. A real cop doesn’t get flustered when an old person talks to him. He might get annoyed or even belligerent, but not flustered. The young man gestured toward the parking lot gatehouse and then turned away.
We finally asked the parking lot attendant to make the call. Jeff told us to stay where we were, that he would come to get us in a taxi, and we were saved.
We got to the restaurant in time for lunch, which featured a fungus soup and fish fries (they looked like French fries, but were actually thinly sliced fish. I have seen them advertised in this country, but never tried them here).
Now, how does all this relate to the Roast Beijing Duck you might ask; well, there is more to the story. After lunch, we were supposed to take a rickshaw ride to visit an old Beijing Hutong, which is a traditional enclosed neighborhood. We left the restaurant and walked to the place where we were supposed to meet the bus. The street crowds caused us to string out and separate at a traffic light.
When we got to the bus pick-up point, it was almost a three-ring circus. People tried to sell us Red Army fatigue caps or $10 Rolexes, and blind musicians wandered around playing on the two-string violin. Each musician had a person to help guide him while begging for money. I forgot to mention there was also a hawker who wore a derby hat and sold inflatable green moustaches. The moustaches were rolled up in a ball until you blew into a mouthpiece, then they extended out about a foot on either side until you stopped blowing on the mouthpiece, then they rolled back up into a ball. The seller caught my attention because I never saw anyone else selling these. When I told Patsy about it later, she asked me why I hadn’t bought one of those, and for the life of me, I didn’t have an answer.
We all stood around until it was almost the time when the bus either had to move or pay a fine, and that was when we realized another couple was missing. We waited as long as we could and then had to leave for the rickshaw ride into the Hutong. On the way to our next location, Jeff got a call from the absent tourists. There was no way that they could hook up with us because we were a long way from the original pick-up point and we were on a schedule, so they went directly to our hotel while the rest of us went forward.
Here is how I know about the duck dinner. We went to the restaurant and had the much heralded dinner. Afterwards, I saw that Jeff tried to make it up to the missing party by taking some of the food to the hotel with us. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?
Now that the tale of the duck dinner is out of the way, I should probably say a few words about some of the other stuff mentioned above. First, one of the two blind musicians and his crippled wife looked like something right out of a de La Tour painting, except that this blind man played a violin and de La Tour’s subject played a hurdy-gurdy.
The second musician was Muslim and he had something written in Arabic rather than Chinese on his skullcap, probably a Koranic verse. He didn’t play as well as the first man and his assistant was not crippled. Perhaps this was why the second team seemed less successful in their begging than the first.
We got to a place where a string of rickshaws waited for us. Our driver was a sturdy young man who could have played front line on an American football team. We had taken a rickshaw ride once, in New Delhi, and there I had to help the driver get his bike up a hill, but unlike there, this one did not need my help, although he was puffing a little toward the last. I fear that with all the rich food we have been eating, I am more of a man than I used to be.
The traditional enclosed Hutong has a wall around it; this one also sported a decorative gate with up-turned eaves. The houses shared walls between each other much like the Hopi pueblos. Grey brick was the building material of choice. As we rode past them, we saw many people sitting outside on their stoops, talking to one another. I think there was at least one small shop as well as the homes, although I can’t remember what it sold.
A woman called Mary waited for us in front of her house. She took us inside to give us some idea of what a Hutong home looked like, and gave us cups of Chinese tea. She showed us around the house and then took our pictures before escorting us back to our bus. She also gave us all small red Chinese good luck knots.
This would be our last night in Beijing. The next morning we flew from Beijing to the ancient capital city of Xi’an. At least this time we would fly at a decent time in the morning… well sort of. I think we had to be at the airport at about seven in the morning, which put us out of the hotel around five thirty, to beat the Beijing traffic.
Our first local tour guide was named Sarah. She told us about the history of the city and then about the local dialect. She spoke several words and phrases in Mandarin and then explained how people would say them here. The Xi’an dialect was much harder, more abrupt, and sounded angry to me. I bet that made a big difference when one whispered sweet nothings to one’s honey.
Xi’an is important for several reasons. First, the Emperor Qin’s large tomb is the one surrounded by the famous terra cotta army. Qin unified the whole of China around 210 B.C. by subjugating the other smaller states that had been warring against one another for a long, long time. We had seen a Nova special about all this, so Patsy and I were not totally in the dark. It seems Qin used advanced technology to defeat the other armies in that he armed his troops with mass produced crossbows. These weapons were much easier to master than the long bow, and so he had more of his soldiers shooting at the enemy from a longer distance than he would have otherwise.
As I said near the beginning of this log, the name China comes from Xi’an (I know, it doesn’t look that way, but it’s because we are using an alphabet rather than pictograms). The other thing is that Xi’an was the starting point of the famous Silk Road, where trade with the West brought new wealth to the emperors.
Before going to see the emperor’s tomb, we stopped to look at the Great Wild Goose pagoda and at the statue of the monk Xuan Zang, who went west to collect Buddhist scriptures. He convinced the emperor to build the pagoda to house the sutras and then spent the rest of his life translating them from Sanskrit to Chinese. We didn’t have time to go into the pagoda, nor was I in the mood for climbing more stairs. Instead, we went to sit outside in the sunlight, away from the ‘Madding Crowd.’ We had been going at a steady pace for the last four days, gotten up much too early to make our flight to Xi’an, and still hadn’t really recovered from the twenty-four hour airplane flights from LA to Beijing. By this time Patsy and I were feeling frazzled, but we knew we would eventually have to suck it up. We didn’t sign up on this tour to just sit around, even though that was what we were doing at the moment. Heck, we could have stayed home and done that
A small garden near Xuan Zang’s statue had a number of interesting stones that caught our attention. The Chinese use stones as important elements in their gardens. Throughout the tour, we would encounter oddly shaped stones in gardens, stones as monuments, and even large stones with poetry carved into them. I have to say the white and grey stones here were not particularly large, but lovely to look at and the right height for sitting, which we did for a while. After a short rest on the stones we retired to a near-by Starbucks.
There are so many American companies here in China, that sometimes it feels like we are still at home. The people using the Starbucks looked just like they do at home – young people texting on their phones, using their computers, reading, and just hanging out with their friends. One could even order a soymilk, salted caramel Frappuccino here if so desired. We were just happy to have regular coffee at the right time and the right place. (Note: along with Starbucks, there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and especially Kentucky Fried Chicken stores here – they are everywhere. KFC is so common that I believe Colonel Sanders has developed a slight Asian look to him, but then that could have been my imagination.)
Next to the Starbucks there was a rather intriguing place named “Mr. Prawn’s Holy Soup.” The shop wasn’t open yet, and it was too early for soup anyway even if it was a spiritual delight, so we could not report if it was ‘holy’ or not, but we did need the coffee.
When we got back on the bus to go to the tomb of Qin, Sarah told us that the reason for the terra cotta army was that the emperor originally planned to bury real soldiers alive. His advisors told him that if the soldiers learned about that, they would no longer fight for him. Instead of burying the soldiers themselves, the advisors suggested making the terra cotta army as guards for his after-life. (Note: My own thought was that there were some drawbacks to letting a bunch of heavily armed men know you plan to bury them alive.)
I think the argument worked okay for the soldiers, but I didn’t see any references to terra cotta concubines, so it might have sucked to be the emperor’s girlfriends.
On the way to the army, we stopped at a store where they sold jade and made replicas of the soldiers – everything from small desktop sized figures to full-sized pieces. There were a couple of life sized soldier bodies standing out in the courtyard. These had no heads on them, but there was a step behind them. People could stand behind the partial soldiers and put their heads on the statue’s shoulders for a novelty photograph. This was a lot cooler than the old stick-your-head-through-a-plywood-cutout.
Our store guide told us about the importance of jade and jadeite to the Chinese, she also told us that there were more colors to jade than green. Patsy and I thought that jadeite would be the lesser of the two stones, but as it turns out, is the more desirable because it is the harder one and therefore more durable. Behind the speaker were statues and other things made of stones, including fine, translucent bowls.
We watched as artists worked with various stones including jasper and agate as well as the jade. There was one artist making the balls inside a ball thing. I didn’t get to see it all, but I have often wondered how they cut the stones away from each other so that the balls can move independently inside one another.
After our lecture, we were free to look around and purchase anything we wanted. I thought it would be cool to have one of those life-sized soldiers, but couldn’t figure out how I would get it into my suitcase, so we passed on that one.
(Note: I think the Chinese are missing something here. In India, whenever we stopped at an outlet, they gave us booze, which made it easier to sell us stuff. Dumb purchases make more sense when you have a buzz going.)
After our break, we moved on to see the army.
Three buildings shelter the terra cotta soldiers. The first and largest is about two football fields in length and looks like an airplane hangar. A walkway extends around the pit where the soldiers were standing in ranks, so you look down at them. There were large sections where the statues were in good shape, while in other places the cover above the soldiers has collapsed into a mixture of bodies, armor, and shelter material. This unreconstructed bit gives the viewer an idea of what the discovery first looked like. Teams of archeologists had pieced together the statues that were on display.
There are still large sections of the pit waiting for excavation, but you can tell that something is under there because the archeology teams have removed several feet of topsoil down to a ropy looking layer. The ropy look made me think that perhaps some sort of heavy woven mats, like Japanese tatamis, covered the timber supports under the dirt. Anyway, the ropy level is what remains of the cover meant to protect the soldiers.
By the way, there were horses in the pits as well. I suppose once the emperor agreed not to bury real soldiers he decided not to bury real horses either. This was good news for the horses.
Some of the interesting things about this army were that while the sculpted clay armor may have had a basic form, there were details such as arming ties, scarves, or belt buckles that made each suit a little different. Remarkably, each head had a different face, as if they represented the real soldier. So far, they have uncovered 8,000 statues. We understood that it originally took 36 years to make all of them, which sounds about right.
The statues were once polychrome, but some of the mineral colors reacted with the surrounding soil, while others broke down after exposure to light and air. A chemical analysis of statue surfaces determined which pigments were on each part of the statue. Based on that information, several restored statues have their original glorious color. The army must have been an amazing sight to see.
We stopped at all three pit sites, but the crowds were so thick that we decided to see what we could and then get out of there. I was not mentally prepared to fight my way through a bunch of people to get a glimpse of some of the displays in the museum, not to mention getting a decent photograph. This is not to say that people were rude or anything, it’s just there were so many of them, all wanting to see the same things.
Several signs asked people not to use flash when they took pictures. We could read the signs easily by all the flashes going off.
Since it was very warm and the air humid, and after we fought our way through the crowds, Patsy and I decided to have some ice cream while we waited for our next move. I did not ask her what her treat was like because it looked like a standard paper-wrapped cone such as we would find back at home. My cup was a little different. The ice cream had an odd texture to it, like a cross between ice cream and whipped cream from a can. The main body of the treat was more or less vanilla, but around the edges it tasted like butter rum. This was something new to me and I wondered if this was typical of Chinese ice cream. The next time we had ice cream , it was at a Häagen-Dazs, so I never did have anything to compare it with.
After visiting the terra cotta army, we headed back to town.
That evening we enjoyed a Tang Dynasty Dancing Show while we feasted on dumplings. The dinner was very nice, especially if you like dumplings (which we do). Some of them looked like what was inside them – for instance, the fish dumpling skins had wide fantails and green peas for eyes. The duck dumplings were a little less convincing, however… they looked vaguely like Hershey Kisses made out of white dough.
The show was colorful with lots of pretty girls swirling long silk sleeves into loops that they danced through. An excellent percussion group had things rocking for a while, but they were not the only musicians on the bill. One Chinese instrument sounds like a split reed, but otherwise looks like a soprano saxophone. A musician in Tang costume played two of these, alternating between them and a bird whistle he held in his mouth. He played a melody using one or the other instrument and interrupting the song with the bird whistle, smiling a goofy grin when he did. Overall, he was very funny.
The traffic Xi’an was not as heavy as in Beijing, but it had its own peculiarities. For instance, there was a heavy truck driver hauling a trailer, who cut off our bus just so that he could make a left turn from the right lane. Another car sped up and drove on the sidewalk to get around the car in front of him. The scattering pedestrians were less than thrilled.
We noticed that there were quite a few rooftop gardens on the tall buildings, which I thought was very cool. I’ve always been a fan of small gardens and things like rooftop oases. I wondered if they had early morning Tai Chi classes up there. The rooftop gardens also fit in with the pattern we had already seen in Beijing – a city full of parks.
On the way to the airport for the next leg of our tour, again way too early in the morning, Sarah sang us some songs. She had a very pleasant voice and taught us some Chinese verses to sing along with her. There is no way that I would remember the words after we left the bus, but they were fun to sing at the time.
Our flight this morning would take us to Chongqing where we would see the panda bears in the zoo, after which we would go to our boat for a trip down the Yangtze River. We had a snack of water or juice and some cream crackers on the plane. Cream crackers for those who don’t know, are about like Ritz crackers, and if one does not know about Ritz crackers, there isn’t much else to say except that it was an odd snack.
Chongqing is a city of 32 million people, but that includes outlying areas as well as the city itself so it technically wasn’t as large as Beijing. It is hard for me to get my head around some of these figures.
There were the ever-present tall Legoland buildings and the very pretty, very neat parks. Our local guide here called himself David, although part of his Chinese name included ‘Poo.” David was good enough for us.
David told us several things about the Pandas, how they were dying out in nature due to loss of habitat (they eat large quantities of bamboo, and when the forest becomes a housing development or a factory, the bears have to move on). There is also some difficulty with breeding them in captivity. David told us about how they use Panda porn to show the males what they are supposed to do when the females are in season, and said that the zookeepers were even experimenting with giving the males Viagra. (At this point, I had a vision of two Pandas sitting in bathtubs, holding paws, like in the Cialis commercials.)
A sign at the zoo told us that the animals are solitary except during mating season, so maybe the male Pandas are the equivalent of the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers that Garrison Keeler talks about on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
The zoo was large and we did not have time to take in much more of it than the Panda exhibit. However, there was an intriguing sign pointing to a Dinosaur section. I felt a certain affinity to this, being a bit of a dinosaur myself, but when I looked toward where the sign was pointing, I only saw shrubs trimmed like topiary dinosaurs.
There were both the black and white Panda Bears as well as Red Pandas at the exhibit. The Red Panda is no relation the Bears, and actually looks like an oversized rusty colored raccoon, complete with a long striped tail. Although originally classified as related to raccoons, Red Pandas aren’t related to them either, even though they look that way. I think this is good news for the raccoons.
Surprisingly, at least to me, the big bears are not completely white where they are not black. They do have white bits but also some dirty areas on their fur, which makes sense. I mean there are probably not Panda washing facilities in the wild, so why would there be at the zoo? Besides, if you sit a white furry object down onto the ground, it’s going to get dirty, and even if someone cleaned the bears daily, they would still get dirty.
Anyway, our first Panda sighting was of a large bear making himself comfortable in a tree (Does a Panda… nap in the woods?). For the rest of the time all we saw were Pandas napping, although we did catch one eating bamboo.
After the zoo, we went to the boat, grateful for some down time. We were on the move every day so far, touring or flying, and we were all looking forward to a little rest. I also hoped for some writing time to transcribe my notes since I seemed to be taking very sketchy ones and those that I had taken were crumpled and messy. I told myself that I would do better as I went along, but knew that was a lie.
We noticed several people walking around town, carrying bamboo poles over their shoulders. David told us that they were itinerate workers and that they were called the ‘Bamboo Army.’ Mostly, they were people displaced by various civic projects or by bumps in the economy. They came to the city to earn some money, but apparently, they don’t have permits to live in the city. This meant that they had to come into town, pick up whatever they could, and be gone at the end of the day.
Our guide said that we would see some down at the loading area, offering to carry our bags and even ourselves to the boat. The bags were already on the boat and there was no way I would let someone carry our small bags or us so we didn’t help the Bamboo Army much.
By the way, we weren’t sure how to pack for the weather. I packed three tee shirts and three long sleeved tees, but the weather was so warm that the long sleeved things were not that comfortable. I soon found myself the proud possessor of a bright red tee with a golden dragon on it and a black tee featuring a picture of a terra cotta archer.
Our boat glided along the Yangtze River – the third longest river in the world – through the famous Three Gorges. The Three Gorges are the Qutang the Wu, and the Xiling gorges. The combination of narrow canyons among high mountains with several turns in the river makes this a beautiful area. There is a place called the Chalk Wall, where there are Chinese characters carved into the rock, some of them dating back to the 900s.
The Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level in this portion of the Yangtze, so that the river is wider and the mountains appear lower. However, they still tower above the river and the gorges continue to offer spectacular views.
Our room on the boat had a small sitting area outside so that we could sit there and watch the scenery, which was very cool. The last time we had something like this, it was on another tour and the sliding door wouldn’t open. Even after the repairman fixed the door however,, we realized the balcony was only for looks, not for sitting.
We saw farming settlements along the banks of the river, with terraced fields and small orchards. There were also staircases that sometimes lead to villages, and sometimes to unseen places.
Because the gorge is narrow, there are regular channel markers that take the form of small rowboats supporting lights for nighttime navigation. At first, we weren’t sure what these were and why there were boats out there with no one in them. Finally, after seeing a dozen or so of these, the penny dropped. Back home, we would have had a floating ball of some sort, the folks here used a boat.
We visited the Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Fortress), and the famous Red Pagoda built into the cliff on the north side of the Yangtze. A temple sits at the top of the pagoda. The name Stone Treasure came from a legend of a hole in temple wall that trickled out enough rice daily to feed the monks, until one greedy monk tried to enlarge the hole so more would pour out. The rice stopped flowing at that point. We saw the basin where the rice was supposed to have fallen, and of course, it was empty.
On the approach to the pagoda, we came across some bronze zodiac signs. People have polished them all to a high sheen by rubbing them for good luck.
The pagoda is indeed red, with black, upturned eves. It is nine stories high and leans into the side of the cliff to make the climb to the cliff top temple easier. There is a grand entry gate to the staircase, all yellow and quite colorful, with the requisite firedogs and dragons guarding the entry of course. The same theme repeats at the entry to the temple on top of the cliff.
(Note: I get that building things on top of hills gets them closer to heaven, but it would be nice if the builders had an eye out for the eventual tourist trade as well. A smooth ramp or even easy riser stairs would have been nice.)
We managed to climb all the way to the top, although it was rough going at some points. The staircase was odd; some of the shorter stairs were so steep they might as well have been ladders. Fortunately, there were stops along the way so we could catch our breath.
Statues of various gods and their attendants were on several levels of the pagoda. The statues were heroic in size, and brightly painted. This is when I wished I had a better camera, because the flash on mine no longer worked, and I was in a dark place, but I took pictures of the statues anyway.
Before we even got to the pagoda, we had to pass through a row of very hopeful merchants, climb a hill, and cross a very shaky footbridge. The bridge was not very narrow, maybe three people could walk abreast, but there were periodic signs asking people not to rock the bridge. Also, one needed to keep an eye on the boards making up the bridge as they were not all nailed down at both ends. It’s interesting to watch someone step on a board in front of you, have it rock up, and find yourself looking at the stream several hundred feet below you.
Near the top of the pagoda, there was a well of sorts. That is to say, the shape of the structure was like a well, but with a triangular hole in the bottom so that it cannot hold water. They called this the Duck Well because supposedly, if you dropped a duck down this hole, it would appear on the river sometime later on. No one explained why anyone would want to do this; perhaps the monks got bored and were looking for diversion. In any case, the local duck population did not support the idea.
Off to the side, there was what looked like a cannon, but with most of its muzzle gone, almost as if it blew up when fired. Why there would be cannon up here was a puzzle to me. Although it was a fortress, it just didn’t look like one. Maybe the pagoda kept me from seeing it as it had been hundreds of years before that addition.
We came to a tiny garden with a small pond and a humped bridge over it, in front of the temple. Each couple in our tour group took turns climbing up the bridge, the women on one side and the men on the other, and then kissing when they met in the middle. I don’t know if this was a tradition or just something someone decided to do as a photo op. We were often behind our group and sometimes missed any plans; maybe someone thought this would be fun. In any case, and despite the steep sides of the bridge, we climbed our sides of the bridge, met at the top, and I got my kiss from Patsy.
Going up the pagoda had been a real climb, what with the steps being narrow and steep. However, going back down was easy because there was a wide staircase with regularly spaced steps and a comfortable railing on the open side of the cliff. I suppose we could have come up this way, but it would have been less of an adventure.
On the way back to the boat, we passed some of those large streaked limestone rocks carved with poetry and, of course, dragons.
At this point, I have to make an addition. While we were in Beijing, we visited a most interesting place called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The building is 130 feet across, and rises in three levels, each covered with blue tiles to symbolize heaven. What makes this particularly interesting is that no nails are in the construction. I can only blame our residual tiredness for excluding this marvelous building from the earlier account.
Now, on with the current timeline:
Today we floated down the Yangtze on smaller boats into an area called Shennv Stream for a more intimate experience of the Three Gorge landscape. Our boats were small things with yellow roofs and dragon entwined pillars (more dragons!). The interior reminded me of the cable cars in San Francisco; all polished wooden slat benches.
Shennv Stream was a beautiful, primitive area (by the way, I have no idea why Shennv ends with a ‘v,’ it just seems to). The cliffs here were primarily white limestone, but their faces were streaked with black mineral run-off where not covered in greenery. While the beauty of the landscape does not have the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, it was lovely to see.
A constant mist hangs over the river, so that there was a dreamy quality about things. The gorge looked very much like an ink drawing.
Buildings with a similar, blocky sameness about them among stood among the terraced fields close to the river. Most likely the sameness was due to the many small towns that were flooded out when they built the Three Gorges Dam – they had to relocate a lot of people in a relatively short time. I think I heard that the project relocated more than a million people. The sheer numbers involved in this project boggled my brain. Every time I think I have come to grips with the size of this country, another figure comes up and I am amazed again.
As our boat drifted down the river, we saw an unusual thing – a light hung over the middle of the river. Our guide told us that this was for fish. At night, the light attracts insects, the fish rise to feed on the bugs, and the fisher-folk collect the fish. This is easier and probably cheaper than chumming.
The guide also pointed out some tea trees on top of the ridge and told us that the higher up the hill, the better the tea. (That would be interesting to remember when we visit a tea plantation later on in the trip.)
Besides the light hanging over the river, another interesting sight was a pair of wooden coffins in a small crevice high up on a cliff. During the Bronze Age, the Ba people put these coffins up there. Our guide had no explanation as to why people would go to that effort. Since the Ba people were conquered and absorbed into the Qin Dynasty over a couple of thousand years ago, perhaps nobody knows why they did it.
There were odd, rather grotesque algae or moss growths on the shaded side of the cliffs. Whichever it was, it created a thick mat that stuck several feet out away from the cliff, following water that ran down the side of the rock. I wondered if anyone had a use for this stuff since there was so much of it and the folks along the river seemed to use whatever came to hand.
After our river ride, we returned to our boat and learned that we would pass through five locks during the night. Not being all that interested in locks, I went to bed early. However, getting on toward midnight, there was a tremendous squealing noise that made me sit up in bed! The sound was the noise of our going through the locks. It happened several times later on, but after the first time, I just ignored it.
We visited the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam was an important project because the Yangtze had devastating floods that killed people, wiped out buildings, and swept away livestock about every ten years. When I first heard of the project, it was at home. Like many folks, I thought it was another dam on another wild river just because engineers do that sort of thing, not realizing how wild the river was. There were also many ecological concerns, including reservoir-induced earthquakes, loss of unique and rare habitat, and so on. However, none of this stopped the project. The Three Gorges Dam is currently the largest hydroelectric dam in the world (no pun intended).
I thought the idea of damming the Yangtze was a new one, but Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the first president of China, came up with the idea in the 1920s. Chairman Mao also wanted the project done, but did not live to see it happen.
We disembarked and walked to a grand building entry flanked by those deer/dragon things. (The term for our group being ‘all together’ sounded like “Two Dollah” Also, Jeff, our guide, liked to call us ‘sticky rice’ when we stayed together the way he wanted us to do.) When we were ready, Two Dollah, we strolled down a merchant area all covered in red awnings and surrounded by lots of things we could buy as souvenirs.
We took a bus up to the dam and the visitor center. There is a large model of the dam in the center lobby, and our guide used a laser pointer to draw our attention to different features of the project. Something the guide mentioned was that the Chinese government purchase several turbine generators from Europe and Canada, but with the stipulation that the technology on how to make the turbines came with them. Now, not only does China make its own turbines, Chinese engineers have improved on the designs by making them air-cooled rather than by water.
I found it interesting that the Chinese have gardens everywhere. There were even formal type gardens down in work areas as well as in the more public places. The lower gardens were not for casual visitors but for the workers. We saw a crew unloading a whole truckload of flowers when we arrived at the dam. Obviously the landscapers renewed the beds frequently, like they do at casinos. Can anyone imagine a flowerbed at Caesar’s Palace with dead or drooping flowers?
Something else that reminded me of a casino was the fountain in the plaza that featured a large inverted pyramid of black stone with something etched on its surface. The fountain had dancing waters (those things with timed water jets that jump up and make a pretty display) that splashed across the stone. I could imagine a fountain like that in front of the Bellagio or some other place back home in Las Vegas.
Many of the flowerbeds we saw had low borders made of split bamboo used to keep people from walking across them. It not only protected the beds, but also added a folksy touch to the neatly trimmed grass. (I almost said ‘barbered’ lawns, they were that neatly clipped.)
Like most big projects, there were heroic sized friezes and carvings celebrating the construction at the observation area. This seems to be another human thing; if you do something big enough, you need to make a statue or frieze to celebrate it
When we left the dam, we went back through the same shopping area where merchants again tried to sell us all sorts of things. One item for sale that aroused my curiosity was the fried fish, heads and all. I had no idea who the cooked fish were for, but there they were, toasty and ready to go. Could you imagine one of us munching a carp-on-a-stick while riding back to our boat? I have no idea why we always encountered food merchants at these places, we just did. Beer merchants I could understand, but who was going to buy a fried fish?
Several of us were standing outside, talking about nothing in particular, when our boat passed through the locks and headed down stream again, off to the next sight. One moment we were level with the top of the lock, the next, the boat started to drop down to the next level. It’s a strange sight to feel no movement at all, but to see the wall next to you rise.
After lunch, we took a special boat tour to see the Tribe of the Three Gorges. I first thought the community was a monastery because of the way the buildings that faced the river linked up together. They were all in the Chinese Vernacular style I keep mentioning – the upturned eves with fancy endings, the rounded tiles with ends that look like rolls of coins, and the funny animals along the end rooflines. I wondered if this was standard DIY roofing material you can get at a Chinese Home Depot (they must have Home Depots; after all, they have a ton of KFYs).
The row of buildings marked the entry to an enclave built along both sides of a stream that emptied into the Yangtze. There were three or four fishing boats in front of the village, their junk-type sails hoisted but allowed to flutter in the gentle breeze. When we disembarked, we saw a young girl dressed in red, standing in the bow of a small boat. Further up the stream, there was a young man dressed in blue pajama-like clothes, and playing a flute to attract the girl.
The banks of the stream were heavily wooded and very pleasant to walk through. Along the way, we saw houses and walkways on both sides of the water and more fishing boats, some with nets drying on their masts.
A sign along the path warned us to ‘be careful of that monkey.’ I was not sure if we could tell which one was ‘that’ monkey, but I was hoping we would luck out and meet a different one. Speaking of monkeys, we did meet a family of them along the trail where someone was selling peanuts to feed them. We probably didn’t have anything to be careful about, but you never know.
There were two young girls sitting on the far side of the stream from where we stood, washing clothes and singing a song. Our guide told us this is something young girls did to attract the attention of boys. It was all very pleasant, but I was suspicious: things couldn’t be all this peaceful. I mean, there were even some ducks quietly swimming past where the girls were working, acting as though no one ever threw something at them. However, I had to take it all at face value, because who knows, when you live next to a heavily forested stream, surrounded by ducks and monkeys, maybe things were this peaceful.
Further along the path, we stopped to listen to a young woman dressed in very fancy robes and playing a horizontal harp or Zheng (think large zither, like the Japanese Koto). This was more of the pastoral ‘forest and stream effect’ we experienced. I felt like we had stumbled into the land of the Lotus Eaters.
At the end of the walk, we looked at some particularly lovely waterfalls before returning to a show planned for us – we were going to witness a wedding ceremony. At the start, a series of pretty girls dressed in heavily embroidered red dresses came out and sang a song for us. Then, the headman of the village came out, greeted us in English, and never spoke another word of the language after that. He made a speech I figured was a welcome, since this is where that sort of thing would fit in the program.
After the speech, one young man from our group volunteered to act as the groom; he wore a dark blue robe and a fancy hat. A matchmaker dressed in a heavily embroidered robe and wearing large dangling earrings came out, made a long speech in Chinese, and introduced the couple. The girl went off and came back a few moments later, dolled up in wedding finery. The couple exchanged gifts, took a sip of liquor, and departed hastily up some stairs. A shadow play on the bedroom window curtain let us see the young bride strip the robe off the young man and then pull him down with her below the window sill.. Later on, when the ‘bridegroom’ joined us, he had a sheepish grin on his face.
When the show was over, we went back to our tour boat and had supper. We were supposed to have a passenger talent show that night, and I know Jeff had hoped someone in our group would join in, but it was not to be. It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized I could have sung “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” but by then it was too late.
(Here is the back-story about the song: we were having dinner in Shanghai – this would be after the “Tribe of the Three Gorges” trip – when the server brought a dish to the table. One of our fellow passengers asked what it was, and someone else said it was eggplant. The first person said that it didn’t look like any eggplant she had before, which brought the song back to mind, and so I sang it. Everyone was amazed… well, sort of)
Okay, now on with the tour.
The big event today was the visit to the museum and the ancient city walls of Jinzhou. The walls at Jinzhou are only some 500 years old, young for much of this country even though they would be rather old for the United States.
There was a guardhouse over the city gate with a statue of a local emperor (there were a lot of these mucky-mucks around at one time or another) and some of his buddies, all of them about three times life sized. The walls were similar to the Great Wall, complete with crenellations and places suitable for dumping things on the enemy.
Interestingly, there are four gateways, each of them with double gates. Lowering both gates at the same time would trap the invaders in between them. However, I did not see a ‘murder-hole,’ which is an opening in the roof of the gateways where archers could pick off the unfortunate soldiers trapped between the gates. This is standard feature in most Medieval European gated cities. Maybe there was a hole but someone patched it up or something, because the opportunity for a good rousing slaughter would be too much to pass up.
On top of the wall were statues of soldiers, only 1.5 life-sized, and in full living color so people could take pictures of themselves with the troopers. There was even a life-sized statue of a horse with mounting blocks standing next to a soldier. People could climb up on the horse to have their picture taken.
When we were finished with the wall, etc., we headed over to the museum. The museum looked like a cross between a great hall and a pagoda, fronted by a pond. The building was white, with a green tiled roof. There was a small container garden in front of the pond with a rather large tree growing in it. The tree and container are too big to be considered bonsai, or (Penjing, in Chinese), but the effect is similar: ten pounds of whatever in a five pound bag.
The tombs excavated around Jinzhou had especially exquisite lacquer-ware in them, much of which was on display, but the main attraction in the museum seemed to be the 2,000 year-old man. He rested on a platform below floor surface so that we looked down at him. He looked remarkably fresh for someone of his age. Our guide, Jeff, said that the body had been incased in two coffins, which we saw at another location, had liquid mercury between them.
Earlier, my hearing aids gave out and so I was not hearing everything said, but I think that Jeff told us someone painted the man’s body with cinnabar as well (cinnabar is just the raw form of mercury). Either way, he told us the man’s joints were still flexible and his muscles resilient. Apparently, someone performed an autopsy on the body and removed the organs, because they were on display next to the body. I, for one, would not want mess with a 2,000 year-old man, but hey, it’s a dirty job and someone had to do it.
(Side note: my camera had crapped out on me earlier. Any pictures I got after that point were either very blurry or under-exposed. I wondered about my personal technology: my hearing aids were gone, and now my camera followed. What was going to go next, I worried. Maybe my knees or something worse… it didn’t bear thinking about.)
Now, back to the museum displays
There were excellent examples of lacquer ware and bits of furniture in the showcases. In another room, there was one model of a funeral procession, with several mourners leading a chariot, which in turn held the deceased. Surprisingly, these weren’t as nice as some of the other works on display. The effigies were almost simple blocks of painted wood. I thought this was interesting because there were some nicely carved pieces in other display cases. Maybe they were not for viewing but for representing, much like the paper money that the relatives of the dearly departed burn at funerals.
That night was our last on our boat, so the captain threw us a bang-up dinner. Our waitress, the one that I had privately dubbed our ‘coffee goddess’ normally wore the standard waiter/waitress uniform of a white shirt and black skirt. Tonight she was all dolled up in one of those heavily embroidered dresses, called Cheongsam, the Suzy Wong style dress with the high necks and slits up the side. Instead of our usual turntable, we had individual services. All of this added to the feeling that the night was special. Our boat captain gave us a toast and went back to the bridge while we all sat down to dinner.
(Side note: So far, I haven’t been saying much about clothing, but I’m going to take a moment to do so now. Generally, people wore the same clothes we would expect to see in the United States, although many of the girls seemed to favor Madonna as their clothing model.
I guess I thought we would see a lot of Mao jackets or something like that, but no. Tee shirts and baseball caps were very noticeable. Many of the tee shirts were the standard logo things like Tommy Hilfiger, but others had messages on them that fell into the Chinglish category. (I wondered if the Chinese character tee shirts and tattoos we get here in the United States are Chinglish.)
(Yet another side-side Note: I had a whole list of funny tee shirts, but like several of my notes, they have disappeared. You have to take my word that there were some very strange legends on some of the shirts)
The folk costumes we did see were generally bright; we mostly saw blue or red, and blue, often with lovely embroidery. We only saw the Cheongsam that once at the captain’s dinner, and we saw some colorful headgear on workers elsewhere. However, no Mao jackets, and the only Red Star caps we saw were the ones hawkers tried to sell us along the way.
Now, back to the tour
This may have been the morning the hotel would not be open early enough for breakfast, but Jeff improvised by bringing us bacon and egg breakfasts from McDonalds. We ate while we traveled to the airport for yet another flight, this time to Shanghai. Once again, we appreciated having a guide with us every step of the way because if nothing else, airports are very confusing.
Because our one guide, Sarah, sang to us on the way to the airport, we asked if our current local guide was going to sing to us as well. We all joined him in singing “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s nice to know we share a folk song with the Chinese.
Shanghai is one heck of a city. It has the 4th and 13th highest buildings in the world, as well as some well-preserved famous landmark structures including the 19th century Russian Embassy that looks like it did when the Czars were still around.
We had time to go to the park and walk around, looking at local attractions such as the Hero’s Monument. This is where we had the eggplant lunch mentioned above.
It is one thing to bandy about terms like fourteen million people in a city, and another to be out amongst those fourteen million. The park was jammed to the gills (this was the start of the Mayday holiday and many people were on vacation). While we were there, two very charming young tweens asked if they could take my picture. Before I let them, I said I had to take their picture as well. I still haven’t figured out the attraction, because I am not famous nor am I very special looking. Perhaps it’s because I look like a Caucasian version of a Shar-Pei dog, you know, the one with all the wrinkles.
That night, we had dinner in a place that reminded me of a high school gymnasium, but the food was as good as ever. Afterwards we went to an acrobatic show that featured human pyramids, a couple who did an aerial ballet using long streamers hanging down from the ceiling, a Globe of Death (the one where six motorcycles whirled around inside a large wire cage),and various other feats of strength and daring-do. Of course, no show would be complete without one of those people who can put their butts on top of their head. The woman who did this was beautiful and as sinuous as expected, but she made my back hurt just watching her. After that, we were off to the hotel (again, one with a window next to the bathtub).
We had rain while we were in Shanghai. We should have gone to the museum there, however, what with the rain and the crowds standing in line, we voted to give it a miss. Instead, we went to a silk factory where we saw the worms before they started to spin their cocoons, and then on to the final cocoon stage.
Silk is interesting stuff that has had a profound effect on the cultures of China and the various European countries that dealt in the fabric. The Silk Road (or roads, because there were many routes) was the main trade route between East and West. The ‘road’ still exists, but it is now more of a tourist destination than its original purpose.
A guide at the facility showed us a spinning jenny that unraveled many cocoons at the same time, and at a high rate of speed. She let us feel the silk fibers as they unspun. The individual strands are so fine that you can hardly see them. (I started to say they were delicate but they are not at all, just very fine.)
Apparently, each cocoon can hold one or two silkworm pupae, but the threads from a double are much coarser than the single. Our facility guide showed us how workers turn the heavier thread into mats for heavy use. Mattress covers, comforters and pillow covers come from these stretched mats. The finer singleton cocoons produce fabric for clothing and such.
We could buy comforters and other large items at the retail part of the factory. These things are bulky, and I wondered how anyone would get their purchases home. However, the factory compressed the otherwise unwieldy objects into nice tight bundles, no bigger than carry-on luggage. Again, silk is some special stuff.
(Side note: I had always heard that ancient Chinese cavalry wore silk cloaks during their Middle Ages. Since the cloak did not tear, a rider shot with an arrow could use the silk to work the shaft out of his wound. I asked the guide about this, and she said that the story was true.)
When we were done with the silk factory, we went directly to the Nanjing Road shopping district. This was another mixing into the crowds; literally, a sea of people walked through the mall. Since we were not interested in shopping, we made our way to the friendly neighborhood Haagen-Dazs store for ice cream.
When the rain stared coming down hard, the street bloomed with umbrellas of all sizes and colors. The umbrella salespeople made out like bandits. People were buying umbrellas as fast as they could give the salesperson their money. I liked the transparent ones because you could keep them down over our head and still see where you were going.
The Shanghai folks take their rain seriously. Not only did a gully-buster rain not stop people from walking in the mall, there were even people riding on bicycles and scooters on the nearby streets, wearing ponchos that covered themselves and their vehicles. By the way, I have no idea what the Chinese word is for poncho, but I bet it isn’t poncho.
Later on in the afternoon, we took a boat ride along the Huangpu River to see the best panorama of the city. The tallest buildings were in the clouds, which was pretty, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be in one of them at that point. It’s one thing to have your head in the clouds and another to have the floor beneath your feet in there as well.
A sign on the boat asked us not to climb on the railing. The sign read, “Non ClimBing.”
The Bund is the main boulevard in Shanghai that faces the port. The park we walked along, where I got my picture taken and which was awash with people, stands between the Bund and the port. (Bund is an Anglo-Indian word meaning an embankment.) I thought Bund was a German word, but apparently, the name dates back to the Sino-British Opium war of the 1840s, a rather complicated affair. The English wanted to push opium in China but people objected to outsiders turning their country into a doper’s heaven. By the time resistance broke out, there were an estimated 20 million Chinese addicted to opium.
(The British outgunned the Chinese and forced the empress to capitulate, which eventually opened the country up to the West. This was an early example of the market place reshaping society.)
There are some beautiful and historic buildings facing the port. The Chinese government refurbished many of them a couple of years ago and now they almost looked new. This was especially true of one that sported a naked man partially covered with a carefully draped cloth and a young woman, not so carefully draped. The building might have been in London, an Admiralty building perhaps, or something like that. The naked man could have been Poseidon, while the woman a sea-nymph. Either way, the man and woman above the entry to the building were ‘Art.’ However, you know if a real person tried to walk around in public like that… well you get the picture.
We visited another shopping place, this one with narrow streets amid Chinese Vernacular buildings. This may have been the Huaihai Road and Former French Concession area, I did not catch all that information because as I mentioned, my hearing aids were out. I just know the place was very crowded.
Two interesting things happened while we were here. First, I was standing with Patsy next to a bridge when I felt something touch my shoulder. I turned and saw a young woman having her picture taken with me, so I posed with her as boyfriend took the photo. After that, he gave the camera to the woman and stood next to me while she shot another picture. Thankfully, nobody asked for autographs.
The next interesting thing happened while I looked around the square. I saw some statues on the eve of one building and decided to take a picture of them when I noticed a police officer looking at us from one of the second story windows. He kept his eye on us the whole time we waited there. I don’t know why he would keep watch on us, who knows, maybe he wanted a picture with me too.
I don’t recall what we did that evening, but it might have been an early one, because we had to fly out again the next morning, on our way to Guilin. This tour was becoming very ‘flighty.’
Guilin would turn out to be one of our more interesting stops. It is in Karst country, which means the mountains are limestone, but somewhat softer than what we had seen in the Three gorges. They were just as tall, the tree cover just as thick, but instead of more or less blocky mountains, these have a softer, more pointed look to them. Imagine if you will, that a giant child took a pile of sand and let it trickle through its fingers to form soft cone-shaped mounds. The landscape has that kind of odd look to it.
However, the Karst-type mountains are not the only thing that made our trip to Guilin interesting; it just laid the groundwork so to speak (no pun intended).
On the way to our hotel, we stopped to visit a tea plantation. It was raining, but only slightly, much like what the Irish call a ‘soft day.’ At the plantation, our host handed us wide bamboo hats to wear. He talked us about the tealeaves and told us what we should look for. Then we went out into the field to collect leaves. For those of us who thought tea only came in bags, this was quite an experience.
We watched a woman ‘wither’ the tealeaves we had gathered; after that, she shook them in a bamboo basket to make them oxidize better. These were steps I had no idea were necessary. Some tea is allowed to ferment (another step I did not know about) while other types are unfermented. We learned that tea can be green, yellow, Oolong (and white), and black, all from the same plant – it depends on which leaves are plucked and how they are handled as to what they will become. No one mentioned Orange Pekoe, by the way.
We stepped into the tearoom where our host would serve us different kinds of tea and explain what flavors we should look for.
The room was a long white walled space with a high ceiling and what I suspect was a poem on the forward wall, written in elegant calligraphy. Our host’s low wooden table had all sorts of utensils on it because his making tea would be somewhat different from my making tea (again, I use bags). There were several low benches arranged around the room, with a number of polished tree stumps behind them. The benches were tree trunks split in half, but otherwise left in their natural state except for a little polish and some stubby legs under them. All the slight twists and bumps the trees had when they were alive were still there.
Our host made a joke: he told us he could tell we had never been in a tearoom before because we were sitting on the tales! What we thought were benches were actually tables – we should have been sitting on the polished stumps.
When we sat down properly (me with my knees almost to my shoulders), our host proceeded to show us the correct way to brew tea. There are different kinds of pots to use for each type of tea. This blew away my experience that you just dropped the bag into a cup of hot water and giggled it up and down a couple of times – you didn’t need a stinking pot to do it, either.
After the lecture and tasting, we had time to buy the tea and some of the utensils, such as cups, if we wanted.
I forgot to mention that blocks of compressed tea were available. Tea blocks are for long-term storage and easier transportation. Although it was tempting to buy some of that, we didn’t have that much room in our suitcases. In addition, I thought about how it might look to a TSA agent if I came through customs with a compressed block of some dark substance and tried to explain it was only tea.
After the presentation, we had lunch and then went to the hotel for some down time. The rain followed us for most of the week, but it finally cleared up by evening, which cheered us greatly.
The reason we were happy about the weather was that we were going to see a very special show outdoors, and the producers would have cancelled it if it rained. In fact, they cancelled the show the night before because of rain, and would again the night after we were there. Patsy and I are usually lucky about weather and this time the whole team profited by our good fortune. (Yes, we are lucky, but don’t try to rub our tummies.)
That night the extravaganza we went to see was “Impressions of Liu San Jie.” Liu is the man who put together the opening for the China Olympics. The only way to describe what we saw was spectacular; although to get the full effect, you should say it like this: spec-tac-u-lar! (The number of exclamation points after this would depend on how much one liked the show)
We sat in an open-air amphitheater that could hold hundreds, but even so, there were people standing along the staircase. In front of us was a large lake or reservoir, backed by some of those soft Karst mountains. We could just make out people rowing boats (rafts actually) out on the lake as the sun went down. The traditional way to row in China appears to be standing up; that seems to be the only way it’s done here. Even in regularly shaped craft using two oars, we saw boatmen row standing up.
We could just barely make out six or seven men standing on their boats, moving out away from the shore. Suddenly, when the night was very dark and we were getting restless, spotlights hit the cliffs on the far side of the lake and some nearer ones that acted as proscenia. Imagine if you will, a mountain hundreds of feet tall and almost a mile away, light up and reflected in the black water of the lake. The cliffs near us were not as tall as the central backdrop and not as close as they first appeared, but in contrast, they seemed more intimate.
Now we could see the men rowing the boats clearly. They were dressed in black high collar jackets and wearing large straw hats. This was a subtle beginning to an extravagant display of lights, music, and coordinated people. There were also low platforms that came up out of the water as needed, and sank back down again when they were not. This would give the impression that people were walking on the water.
Shortly after the lights came up and the boatmen made their appearance, some twenty or thirty young girls dressed in colorful native costumes ran out on a platform to sing us a song. Things were starting to pick up.
By the time the show was finished, we had seen some eight or nine long rows of boatmen holding cables draped in red plastic that stretched clear across the lake. The fishermen lifted and dropped the plastic sheets in coordination with music, making them look as if they were waves of water.
A huge crescent moon floated on the lake behind them like a giant child’s night light. A young woman in a flowing outfit danced on the moon and sang to us.
Nearer, some dozen or more young women swayed on one of the platforms that came up out of the water, and sang to us as well. Then a woman singer drew our attention to the front of the lake.
As her song progressed, some of the swaying women came to the solo singer and stripped off her dress. She wore a body stocking, so she appeared nude when they did this. After stripping her, they dressed her in the same kind of red wedding dress we had seen at the earlier show in the Three Gorges. When she was dressed for a wedding, all of the swaying women stripped off their own dresses and continued to dance. They were all wearing the body stockings as well. When they did this, the young woman dancing on the moon also stripped off her clothes, so we saw what appeared to be a number of very flexible naked women swaying in the night air. After a further moment or two of swaying, the women also put on red bridesmaids dresses.
While the swaying and singing was going on, another group came down one side of the lake and sang as they held torches. Finally, the young woman, the soloist, stepped into a covered boat where she met a young man and the two of them sailed off. On analysis, I think what we saw was supposed to be an allegorical wedding and the singers were celebrating the young lovers.
(Note: if this seems disjointed and skipping all over the place, it is because the show did the same thing. We had fishermen walking across the front of the stage, carrying poles with cormorants sitting on them, only to walk off stage without any reason except to show us they had birds. I mean, how ‘skipping all over the place’ was that. )
While all this was going on in the foreground, the spotlights on the mountains would come on and then go off to reinforce what was happening on the lake or to draw our attention to something else. The finale was a long line of singers and dancers, all lit up with red lights, crossing and re-crossing the lake on the submersible platforms. While the long serpentine line seemed to go on and on, fishermen rowed their boats around in the foreground.
Overall, there were over 600 performers, and now they were all on stage together. The only thing that could have made this even more overwhelming would have been if someone rode a zip line between the mountains, crossing over the lake while holding a torch in their teeth. This may happen in the future, who knows.
It started to sprinkle slightly when we made our way out to the bus parking lot. Even so, there were people coming in to see the show. We hoped for their sakes that the rain did not come down hard enough to stop the performance.
One more interesting thing was that the producers used real fishermen from around the area, which gave them, the fishers, an extra income. Later on, we would see some very nice houses that belonged to these fishers-cum-actors, so the extravaganza did help the local economy.
It was raining lightly once more when we started on our day’s adventures. We walked past a school where we heard children singing their lesson. As usual, we walked through a merchant area on our way for a boat ride along the Li River. I took photographs of the details carved on a bridge next to the water. There were all sorts of little embellishments on bannisters, pillar bases, and places where you might least expect them.
Our boat this time was a large thing that almost looked like a floating restaurant (we would visit one of those later). Along the banks of the Li we saw the traditional rafts the fishermen use, and some that were not so traditional. The basic raft was made of five or six giant bamboo poles lashed together, with the front end tilted up slightly. I suppose like most organic things, these rafts eventually rotted out, so we also saw rafts that were made of large diameter PVC water pipe, sealed at both ends and again, with the forward end tilted up.
We passed some other enclosed boats that were larger than the rafts but smaller than ours were. We thought these boats were for tourists because they were decorated up with large dragonheads on their bows – fishermen would probably not bother with all that.
A small building that looked like a pagoda stood at the boat loading area, but was really just a viewing area. We sat inside it while we waited for our boat.
As we sailed along the Li, we saw some very nice houses along the banks. Our local guide told us that these belonged to the fishermen who worked at the light show. Their extra income allowed them to build these nice houses.
After our cruise on the river, our next stop was at a farm village. Two elderly men greeted us, leading their water buffalos so we could take pictures of them and their animals. Since this was part of the tour, we understood that the men wanted something for that. It was okay with me, since these folks obviously did not have much, unless they were part of the lightshow, of course.
While we watched, one of the farmers led his buffalo down to a rice paddy where the animal relieved itself. Two things; first urine is ammonium nitrate on the hoof some to speak, Mother Nature’s own fertilizer, and second, you cannot imagine how long a water buffalo can whiz! This animal must have produced five gallons of nutrient! We could have taken a National Geographic type movie and people would have had time to go make popcorn before the clip ended.
Along with the buffaloes and the usual team of ducks, there were multi-colored chickens running free. I had to take a couple of pictures of them, because why not? Chickens came from Asia, and these could have been direct decedents of those original jungle birds. (When you think about that logically, I suppose they were.)
I suppose I need to correct something here. Some of the farmers did have money, since they either lived in houses made of fired bricks, or were building houses of the same material. However, there were also adobe brick buildings painted over to protect them from the weather. For those who con’t know, adobe is mud mixed with straw or other vegetable material to hold them together into sun-dried blocks.
There was a small shrine near the entry to the village, which was probably a funerary monument. We would see many of these later on in our trip. One of those large, oddly shaped stones we saw from time to time, marked the entry to the village. There were Chinese characters carved into the stone, but I did not ask anyone what they meant. Who knows; they could have been the name of the village or maybe even that this road had no exit. Either way, I have a picture of it and may someday ask someone who reads Chinese to tell me what it means.
On our way back to town, I noticed that many of the bicycles along of side our bus had umbrellas over them, with a long tail to cover the rider behind the cyclist. Imagine if you will a circle with a square attached to it. We had seen ponchos used earlier, but here was a new way of dealing with the rain.
That afternoon, we visited another pearl museum/store, where we learned about salt-water pearls. Since I am not a fan of pearls, I found their coffee bar more interesting than the merchandise. In my defense, I have to say we were steadily moving almost the whole tour. An occasional quiet sit down and a good cup of coffee were welcome breaks.
Along with displays of regular oysters that produce the pearls, there were several giant clamshells in cases around the lobby (you know, the kind that Tarzan gets his foot caught in and then has to wrestle free.) This was strange because clams don’t produce peals, but hey, why quibble – the shells were interesting to look at.
That afternoon we had some time to kick around the city before took our next flight to Guangzhou. Naturally, we had to go to a merchant area. One cannot have too many tee shirts or chopstick sets.
Patsy and I took a walk around and looked at the Sun and Moon pagodas out on a lake, then went back to our hotel.
Today’s adventure would be to fly to Guangzhou and see the Chen family Ancestral Hall. Jeff, our regular guide, told us there were only about one hundred names in China, so we should not be surprised to see the same name over again. Chen was a prominent name.
The 72 Chen clans built the hall in 1894 to give a place for their junior relatives’ to stay while preparing for their imperial examinations. The examinations ended in the early part of the twentieth century, but the family still used the hall until the Guangzhou City People’s Committee appropriated it as a City preserve In 1957. It is now a cultural center/museum with classrooms for teaching art.
The original carved prayer table or alter sat in the main hall, with a wall behind it that once held the names of Chen ancestors. The government removed the names when the hall became the People’s preserve; otherwise, the whole complex was intact.
There are some nineteen buildings in the complex, all highly ornamented and with their own garden areas. One of the small gardens held a number of Penjing or Bonsai trees, lovingly cared for. Many of the trees looked old, but who knows how old they really were. If well done, even young bonsais look ancient.
The usual motif of dragons and Fire Dogs writhed and threatened all over the place. There was even a small ornamental carving of what looked like a frog exhaling a cloud of something. I didn’t know that frogs smoked, but maybe they do here in China.
After visiting the Chen Hall, we had an afternoon free. Normally, Patsy and I are not big fans of shopping, but we did some here. We wandered into an enclave of shops and watched a woman doing tablet weaving in front of her shop. The work was lovely and Patsy bought a shawl one of the women had on display.
We started back toward the hotel, but passed a shop full of large black pots with red cloth tied around their tops. They looked intriguing, so we went inside. The smell immediately told me we were in a wine shop. Each pot must have held thirty or more gallons of wine, but they were large ceramic things, not stainless steel or glass, and sealed with the red covers and not with corks or screw tops, so we were not sure what we were seeing right at first. I don’t think they could have made corks or screw tops that would have fit anyway.
We returned to the hotel Starbucks. Patsy went on with her reading and I tried to catch up on my notes.
Our next stop was the ferry that would take us to Macau. Along the way to the port, our bus passed many small fish farms and rice paddies mixed in with freeways and other modern structures, which made for a time jumble – a mixing of old and new. Most of the fish farms had small rustic huts next to them, with tall stacks of poles. Our guide said that the pole stacks helped in drying fish, which made sense.
We got to the port and took the ferry to Macau. There were so many people crammed on the ferry that we wondered about how safe it was. The boat was wall to wall with people; I had to stand between four people who were sitting down on a ledge, and a bulkhead. One hears about the huge numbers of people lost when a ferry sinks, and now we could see how this could happen. Fortunately, the trip only took a few minutes, but hey, how long does it take for a ferry to tip over and sink?
I am pleased to say that we arrived in Macau safely. As an interesting note, we off-loaded next to the headquarters of a fireworks manufacturer. I hoped that this was not an omen.
We must have bused down to Colane Village where we visited the A-Ma Daoism Temple. (I say ‘must have’ because my sense of direction isn’t working as well as it might. I thought we sailed in almost a straight line to Macao, but according to a map, we probably sailed at an angle to the south before landing.)
The temple stood on a hill, and as we climbed the steps to the pink buildings, we noticed large sand trays filled with smoking incense. Some of the incense sticks were small, maybe a bit larger than we might use at home, but other sticks were as thick as ballpark hot dogs and several feet long.
After walking around the temple, we walked back down to a small tree shaded plaza and stopped at a place that sold cookies and cream tarts. I saw some cookies that looked as though they had chocolate dripped across them. I started to buy them when our guide told me not to buy chocolate while I was in China. I pointed to the cookies and she said they were not chocolate. Puzzled, I took one of the sample cookies off the counter and tried it. What I thought was chocolate was seaweed wrapped around the bar… so much for that.
Macau is on a peninsula where the Portuguese set up as a trading post in the 1550s, when they rented the colony during the Ming Dynasty. Portugal returned it to China in 1999.
We visited the Fortaleza do Monte, one of the old city fortresses, and walked around looking at Banyan trees and out cannon ports. Below, we saw what looked like the very fancy front of a church, but with no church behind it. Later on, we would learn that this is the front of Sao Paulo, or St. Paul’s church which burnt down first in 1601, and again in 1835. The second fire also took out an adjacent college and library. There was some interest in rebuilding the church, but nothing ever came of that and now there is only the lovely front.
Macau is famous as a tourist/casino town. Indeed, one casino building, the Grand Lisboan, looks like a giant feather duster exploding. There is a lot to see in the old town; therefore, our main interest in the casinos was where to find washrooms. The one we most visited was the Venetian, and I have to say it was not nearly as grand as the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. I suppose this was a copy of a copy with something left out after each copy.
We visited St. Paul’s to take pictures, and then moved on to the old town. In old town Macau, there are streets with swirling mosaics of black and white patterns. The street names were on tiles set into building walls, written in both Portuguese and Chinese.
The day was warm and we had some down time, so we all sat around a small park on Largo de S. Domingos Street. On our way to here, we paused by the statue of Luís Vaz de Camões, the chief warrant officer in Macau around 1556 or so. Although I had never heard of him before, I learned that many consider Camões Portugal’s greatest poet. Some say he ranks up there with Shakespeare himself, which is high praise indeed.
We had to wait for a while at the park until we could go to our bus. Since it was a hot day, we wanted something cool to drink. I spotted a nearby McDonalds down the street so I went there to get something and immediately ran into a couple of problems: first, the counter person started asking me things in Chinese, and second, all the money I had was Chines Yuan. I had to return to our group and beg for some Macau money. When I went back to McDonalds, the young man who wanted to help me patiently watched me as I went through some pointing and other hand gestures. Finally, we arrived at my buying two chocolate covered sundaes even though our guide said not to buy chocolate in China. If you can’t trust McDonalds, who can you trust?
Macau and Hong Kong currency is different from Chinese and from each other, which is troublesome since they only accept their own. I liked the one-dollar coin because it had frilly edges. Since money flies away, as it does, why not make it look frilly?
The McDonalds offered two specialties you most likely won’t find in the States: a black and a white hamburger. The black burger was on a bun darker than pumpernickel, while the white was on a bun that looked like a Dim Sum dumpling. I have no idea what these tasted like, but their descriptions were in both Chinese and English. I read that the white burger came with a choice of special sauces, one of which was a crab sauce… I don’t think we will see either of these at home anytime soon.
After a wait made longer by the hot weather, we caught our bus to the port for our trip to Hong Kong. We had to show our passports as we were technically leaving China. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region, like Macau. Why we did not have to present our passports when we went to Macau, I don’t know, but we didn’t. Special Administrative Region means that they can elect their own government for the time being. However, the Chinese Government has to approve list of candidates for office.
(Side note: since this has come up, I thought the Party had tight control over everything, but apparently, at least according to two of our guides, the Party only controls about 30% of things. In fact, we saw a public demonstration in Macau, well, one man protesting anyway. Our guide didn’t explain what he was against, but just that he often had posters and a loudspeaker out in the plaza. She also said that people thought he was crazy because he was always protesting something.)
Now back to the tour
We made our trip to Hong Kong on a very sleek, very fast hydrofoil. I guess I should actually call it a jetfoil, since it uses jets to rise up out of the water. Rising out of the water cuts down on drag and allows the boat to go faster. Once it gets up and starts moving, the large catamaran cruised at about forty miles an hour.
We were not in Hong Kong for very long before we noticed dealerships for Mercedes, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and other high-end cars. Not only were there showrooms for these expensive machines, there were several dealerships for each. We already knew there was a lot of money in Hong Kong, but this was more than I expected.
Our local guide who was a real comedian, his patter kept us laughing all the way to our hotel, the L’Hotel Nana Tower. (Note: Although the name is Nana Tower, singular, the hotel consists of two towers.)
Our guide told a joke as we passed the local racetrack, he explained about how they cared for the horses there. He said that, as a Buddhist, he believed in reincarnation and that because of the way they pamper racehorses here, he wanted to come back as one. Then he rubbed his shoulder and said he always got a twinge in his left arm when the tours passed by the track. He wondered if maybe he had in fact been a racehorse in a former life, and if he had broken his leg there or something. He went on to say that if that were the case, he had re-incarnated into a guide for Sinorama, and maybe the exchange hadn’t been worth it.
We finally reached the hotel to check in. The first tower at L’Hotel was 41 floors high. We had to take the elevator to this floor and cross over an enclosed bridge to the second tower, which was some 80 stories high – our room was on the 59th floor. Now we wondered what was happening lower down in this tower that we couldn’t just take one elevator up to our room. I will say more about that later, but first an observation.
One has to understand that Hong Kong, like the rest of the east coast of China, is in the “Ring of Fire,” the Pacific earthquake zone. The next thing one has to understand is that much of Hong Kong sits on fill, i.e. dirt and rock taken from one place and put into the harbor to make more land. Finally, that our very high hotel stood on landfill. We asked several people about earthquakes, but they all denied quakes ever happened here. I think those same people had a bridge in Hong Kong they might want to sell me.
Now, on to our hotel:
We found that there was a whole world under our feet. An escalator rose from the lobby to a multi-level shopping mall complete with upscale shops and places to eat, which was okay with us. However, the next day, when we got off on a lower floor than the ones dedicated to food and shopping, we wandered into a massive meat store, with butcher shops working at high capacity. How many hotels have you ever stayed in that had both shopping malls and butcher shops in them? This explained why we couldn’t take an elevator directly from the lobby to our room… we might have had to share it with a side of beef.
I believe we went up to Victoria Mountain the next morning because I have a picture of me kissing Patsy on a city over-look. If so, we went to the top of the mountain and visited… the shopping area there.
Victoria Mountain is named after Queen Victoria (this used to be British territory, remember), as was the harbor and a couple of streets. Our guide pointed out several mansions along the way, including one that belonged to his very close and personal friend Jackie Chan (ba-da-dum).
He told us that the higher up the mountain we went, the more the mansions cost. It must have been true, because when we were at the top of the mountain, the air smelled like money (okay, not really, but you get my point). This was Ex-Pat country, and as we stood around looking over the hillside, a couple who looked like they stepped out of a Jordache advertisement ,came walking past us, leading one of the largest dogs I have ever seen.
We went to Aberdeen Harbor to ride around looking at the boats. There are whole communities that live on the boats in the harbor, some in smaller ones while the larger ones looked as though they could go out to sea. As we passed a dry dock where a boat was in for repairs, I wondered what the family that lived on the boat did while it was there. Did they go to a floating motel or something?
After our tour, we went to have lunch at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, which as the name implies, is on a very large raft. The restaurant is several stories high and rests on piers so that we did not feel any motion of the water.
Very large dragons, twisted around multi-colored pillars, greeted us at the entryway along with peacock wall murals and lots of gold trim. Oh yes, a small hostess met us there as well.
We climbed up the stairs to the third floor where a sumptuous lunch awaited us. The décor of the place was just as over the top as expected. Red lanterns hung everywhere and the dining room seemed to be as long as a football field.
After lunch, we returned to the island on our ferry (decorated with dragons that spit water from their mouths) and on to some free time.
Patsy and I walked down to a small park in front of the hotel before we started our journey back home. A woman was there, sweeping the street with a broom made of bamboo with twigs. I tried to get a picture of the broom because I had seen that sort of thing used elsewhere, but the woman turned just as I pressed the button. I did get a shot of her very large hat that could almost double as a tent.
That afternoon we got to the airport with very little difficulty, and flew back home.
There is not a whole lot more to say at this point except that our Canadian friends told us Air Canada hands out free drinks even in steerage, something I did not know before. Suffice it to say, I had to test this out. It is true, and our flight home was much pleasanter than our flight to China.
Oh, there was something else… I mentioned that things had fallen apart and I was worried that more things might follow. During our flight to Vancouver, I got up to use the lavatory and had to go back to stand near the flight attendants’ area. As I was talking to one of them, the left lens of my glasses fell out of the frame. Fortunately, the screw didn’t come out as well, and I put everything back together more or less. At least my efforts got us back home before the lens came out again.
Well, that is the Dinosaur log for our trip to China. I hope you all enjoyed the somewhat long and rambling dialogue. I also hope I will be able to post my photo album so you can see some of the things I have mentioned. Until the next time, have a safe trip wherever you go.