Thursday, July 10, 2008


How to tell you about China? Do you have all week? First off, it’s is a long way away–exactly twelve hours different from the US east coast. And the whole country is one time zone, even though it’s about as big as the US–one of Chairman Mao’s not-so-brilliant ideas.

We’ve happily driven around England, France, Italy and New Zealand, but I’m not so confident about negotiating China. So we went with Grand Circle Tours. Our group had seventeen and a national guide, joined by a local guide in each city. Everybody in China has a Chinese name as well as a American name–the initial one picked in elementary school English class. Our guide was Len, who made things easy for us. He got us good seats on each of our plane trips around the country. Told us what dishes the restaurants had put on the turntables in the center of the round tables. And he even tried to fix the hard Chinese beds in one hotel by getting us comforters–which didn’t help much.

We saw most of the sights you’ve heard about. Tiananmen Square (a vast stretch of hot concrete). The Great Wall standing out against the always smoggy sky and the terra cotta army in Xian, both ordered by an emperor with mind-boggling arrogance. Those soldiers were the most impressive sight I saw–rows and rows of warriors to protect the emperor in death. He had everybody who worked on the project killed and buried there (to protect the location), along with his concubines, who were buried alive. But the soldiers were broken and burned a few years later by an invader–and forgotten until a farmer digging a well discovered them in 1974. Lucky that was just at the end of the Cultural Revolution. If the Red Guards had learned about them, they would have probably finished smashing them up in their zeal to destroy China’s past.

Len’s stories were as memorable as anything we saw. He told about how his father was banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and made to work with farmers who hated city people and forced him into hard labor with hardly any food.. He explained how his family finally got back to Shanghai and that his father and mother used to call each other "Comrade Chen," when they were dating. He also told about two defectors who got away from him while he was taking two separate groups of Chinese tourists to Australia. One slipped away in the middle of the night. The other jumped out a window at lunch and killed himself rather than go back home. Len told us he was happier when he believed everything his government told him. Getting to know westerners has broadened his perspective and made him question many of his government’s values. (He felt comfortable talking to us about this on the bus–but not in public.) Yet he’s basically an optimistic guy. And as China really does leap forward, the lives of the people are getting better.

Len also gave us some population statistics. China now has 1.3 billion people. That 0.3 is the population of the U.S., and it has been added only since 1991. It would have been 2 billion without the one child per family policy.

Weird fact: They’re hung up on "minority peoples." We were constantly being told which minorities live in which regions. There are 55 of these minorities, comprising about 5% of the population.

Of course, many of their customs are strange to us. Tiananmen Square was the first place I saw toddlers wearing standard Chinese little kid attire–pants with a cut out crotch. So when they squat down, their butts and other parts hang out. No diapers. They can just squat and shoot anywhere.

Which brings me to Chinese toilets. The traditional ones are "squatters." Many public bathrooms have both Chinese-style and western style. I was standing in line at an airport when a stall opened up. The next woman in line was Chinese, and when she saw the western toilet inside, she made a face and opted to wait for the next squatter. Apparently, it’s all what you’re used to. I conclude that the Chinese have better knees than we do.

The green spaces in Beijing and other big cities awed me. Obviously they put a lot of time and effort into manicured natural beauty. The parks are fantastic, with different color green and yellowish bushes made into curving hedges. Around them, and around many shrines, are lots of flowers–sometimes just in masses of pots–so they can be easily changed without the bother of planting. (They bring them in in truck loads like the racks of plants for sale at a Home Depot.) From the freeway bridges, you look down on stunning plantings.

The Forbidden City is VAST, and we had time to see only a fraction of it. I must watch THE LAST EMPEROR again to get a better look! One thing about tours--you can’t spend too much time anywhere. They rushed us to the zoo in Chongqing to see the Pandas. (Cute.) Then they wouldn’t let us stray to the bird flight cage.

Hum, well, there ARE places you’re forced to linger. You spend a lot of time in factory showrooms, after you get the lacquer demonstration, or the silk demonstration or the jade carving demonstration. The prices in the showrooms are high. You can do better at stands on the street–if you’re good at bargaining. I often let Norman bargain for me. He doesn’t care if he gets the thing or not–so he can be very hard-nosed.

I got some fantastic buys from people who came up to me on the street–selling stuff like 10 (4x5) silk purses for $5. I got them for $4. The best buys were at a market on the Yangtze River after we went to the Three Gorges Dam. I bought some beautiful silk jackets for $12 each.

Performances: The Peking Opera is very strange to western ears, even though we only got "Golden Moment" scenes from three operas. STABBING THE CLAM was pretty static, despite the title. THE MONKEY KING was better, with a lot of kung fu action. We also went to an acrobatic show–kind of Cirque de Soleil without as much background scenery. More like the way Ed Sullivan used to present variety acts. The Tang Dynasty show in Xian is like a Las Vegas review, down to the elaborately-decorated theater with dinner tables set perpendicular to the stage.

The Great Wall is MASSIVE. The day we went was cold and windy. Probably better than being hot, though. The steps are uneven, so climbing is difficult, and when you’re going back down, the view is scary if you hate heights, which I do. Just seeing the wall snake along the top of the mountain ridge is exciting.

Grand Circle makes sure you don’t just see national monuments. So we went to a sanitized street market and several people’s homes. Who knows how representative they are? One woman’s family had been resettled because of the Three Gorges Dam. Their family status was changed from farm to city. She lived in a "townhouse" with a beautifully cared-for garden terrace in back, a little grocery story in front and pigs in the walk-out basement.

The Grand Circle Foundation gives money to an elementary school in Xian. We visited, and the kids were all excited to see us. "What’s your name?" "How old are you?" They gave us Chinese flags they’d made and "snowflake" cut-outs from their art class. And they sang and had us dance with them in the music room. (One selection was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, in Chinese.) I decided that our group should serenade them with Old MacDonald Had a Farm. They knew the chorus.

As often as possible, Norman, I, and another woman kept "escaping" into various city neighborhoods. The tour would drop us off in a park or shrine, and we’d wander down streets and alleys, going into shops and stopping at stands. We saw live fish swimming in tubs, ducks and rabbits in baskets and cages. I assume they weren’t there to become pets.

The Three Gorges Dam will be the biggest in the world and is supposed to provide ten percent of the electric power in China. 1.3 million people will have to be resettled because it’s making a huge reservoir between the dam and Chongqing, and their villages have been or will be flooded. Would you believe they’re building this thing in an earthquake area? Keep your fingers crossed. There’s a lot of national pride wrapped up in the dam. The scale of the project is mindboggling. A boat takes four hours to get through the locks. The dam has flooded part of the famous Three Gorges scenery along the river. But you still motor past massive cliffs towering over your 200-passenger boat. Our boat was built for Chairman Mao so the windows were supposed to be bulletproof.

Shanghai has a population of 20 million, masses of skyscrapers, and masses of upscale shops. (Along with the usual narrow lanes with little shops and stands.)

In Chongqing we visited the Stillwell and Flying Tiger Museums and got some of the history of the Americans who kept the Burma Road open.
Guilin is a country town with only about 700,000 people (tiny by Chinese standards) and those startlingly steep hills you see in Chinese paintings. I couldn’t face the tea plantation that was an optional tour, so Norman and I wandered around town while most of the group had their tea demonstration. The sidewalks in every city and town are lined with what look like garage doors. Inside might be little shops, piles of junk, construction materials, or people shooting the breeze. In one "garage shop" on a major street in Guilin I saw a bunch of people pawing through piles of clothing on tables. I joined the scramble and found some cool looking tee shirts–for seventy-five cents each.

The tour ended in Hong Kong where we had a lot of free time to explore. You can’t walk twenty yards without some guy asking if you want to have a suit made. We got a recommendation from the local guide and went to a tailor shop–where we got a suit and sport coat for Norman. Nice quality. The weather was very clear and bright. I could see the smog rolling in from China, but it just hung over the mountains and didn’t invade the city. So we got a great view of the harbor and sky scrapers from Victoria Peak. (And got to do more shopping at the mall there–where the prices were surprisingly good..) At night, Hong Kong puts on a 20-minute light show similar to the one at Epcot, of all places. The buildings have lights up and down the sides. They blink on and off in patterns–to music–along with lasers. Afterwards, for something different, we went to an Indian-Thai-Malaysian restaurant in a "restaurant mall" up a narrow side alley. I’m a sucker for Indian bread, so we started with a cheese Nan and a rosemary Nan.

The next day was a wonderful ending to the trip. Norman and I and another couple spent hours in the Hong Kong museum learning about the history of the area, from prehistoric times through the Japanese invasion and occupation, the birth of the modern city, and the turn over to China. (In the film clips, Prince Charles looked pretty glum about it.) Before we picked up Norman’s suit, we went to the 18th floor of the Sheraton and had dim sum and iced tea, then "sweets," while sitting at a window-side table where we could look out over the harbor. (Too far up to see the trash floating in the water.)

I had an early flight out, so I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to fly to Tokyo, then Minneapolis, where I had to sit around for seven hours. Hum, I think I didn’t explain that Norman and I flew separately, since I wanted to go business class (for my back), and he didn’t care. The night before I left, we divided up the stuff we’d bought, so we’d distribute the weight and the booty. The good news is that I got through customs with his sport coat and no problem.

The bad news is that I’m writing this at midnight, and I’m not tired!

You can see more pictures from my China trip in the Gallery on my Web site.