BACKWARDS AND FORWARD IN TIME IN CHINA
ON A ‘FAREWELL-TO-THE-THREE GORGES’ TOUR
Ever since reading Paul Theroux’s tiny book Sailing Through China I’ve wanted to cruise China’s Yangtze River. I decided that in order to do that I would have to forego my usual freelance style travel and join a tour group ... something I had never done. I enjoy wandering from place to place without reservations ... though not necessarily without direction. The younger backpacking crowd praised China’s roughness but in a way that made me see that as negative rather than a positive. The cost of a group tour seemed an impediment to a person used to getting maximum value for every travel dollar ... but then a sense of urgency entered the picture. Construction of the dam which would flood the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges had begun in earnest and the date for closing its floodgates loomed closer. It was time to suck it up and fork over the big money for a tour.
For several years I had used Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine for travel ideas and used their tips to save money, but I had never really spent any money with their contributors or advertisers. I contacted three companies mentioned in the magazine as well as an alumni association sponsored tour. Trips to the internet were fruitless. Only one of the four tour companies were willing to help a single traveler such as myself hook up with another solitary soul to avoid the dreaded single supplement.
China Focus of San Francisco (1-800-868-7244) said they’d help ... “When did I want to go?” I said “Any time.” They said “How about the 23rd?” I said “OK.” And they said “We mean in 16 days.” and I said “Can do.” A quick call to Portland confirmed that their other solitary traveler and I could probably get along, so the ball began to roll. I had to overnight a copy of my passport so I could be added to the group visa by the deadline five days hence. A $2318 charge on my credit card sealed the deal and it was off the library for books on China.
The actual trip didn’t begin ideally. To get the cheap add-on fare to join the group in San Francisco I had to take a two-leg flight from St. Louis to Houston to San Francisco beginning at 6:30 AM. Knowing the havoc that the thirteen-hour time change would wreak on my sleep, I didn’t relish awakening at 4:00 AM. The first leg sped by as I made a new friend, but the second spent reading a four hundred-page volume on China had me a bit drowsy by the time I reached SFO.
The China Focus representative briefed me and introduced me to my tour roommate, Lee Smith, who was several turns ahead of me in the Air China check-in line. By the time I cleared the line he had disappeared. With no other China Focus badge wearers in sight, I settle in with my book for the final two-hour wait. As the boarding line dwindled, Lee reappeared. When we boarded we found that none of the group had been seated together ... even though our seats had been preassigned. As we were to learn later, even the three member Schuman family weren’t seated together.
The thirteen-hour flight to Shanghai left plenty of time to finish my book and get to know my seatmates in row 36 ... the last in the Air China 747 which had been configured to carry cargo in the rear half of the passenger compartment. Li was unhappily returning home to China after being unable to get his wife a visa to join him in America where he had stayed after college. Hank was a twenty-year-old “dude” being exiled to China by his Southern California-Chinese family. They were hoping that two years at a very rural kung fu school run by monks would get Hank on track to some sort of real life. Hank couldn’t wait to land so he could “have some smokes while downing a six-pack.” I didn’t tell him that the plane had beer on the beverage cart.
As we taxied up to the new Shanghai terminal I recognized it from architectural magazines (I’m an architect.) As we rushed to and through the receiving hall, I had little time to admire it. As our China Focus group of eight people gathered at the luggage carousel, we had our first, brief chance to meet. I think we were all more concerned about whether our local guide would in fact be waiting outside the gate or if we might be stranded in a very foreign country just after dark ... and thirty-seven hours after I had awakened that morning.
We need not have worried as Flo was just as relieved to see us as we were to see her. It was an even bigger relief for me to hear her nearly flawless English. My biggest worry had been that highly accented, poor English combined with my poor hearing would leave me in the dark. The rather long, dark trip into the city was made easier by Flo’s lessons in basic Chinese ... in one sleepy ear and out the other ... and her announcing our trip plans. We passed a lot of nice places and then a lot of not-so-nice ones on our way to the Ocean Hotel that, in the end, seemed to be well off the beaten tourist track. At least the room was up to the classes standard expected ... as were all subsequent ones.
By then it was nine o’clock Chinese Standard Time ... the whole 4000 mile wide country has one time zone. No matter what the room was like, it was into bed immediately. The next nine hours in bed could only be classified as light sleep. Much like the three or so hours of shut-eye I got on the plane, it would probably be better classified as deep rest rather than sleep.
The view out our ninth floor window was a broad cityscape. A long city street stretched into the distance ... which direction I couldn’t tell because the smog obscured the early morning sunrays. A park below was full of exercisers and the street lined with vendors. At 6:00 AM Shanghai was alive. By 6:15 I was out the door for a morning run.
Even though I run almost every day, training to run Master’s and Sr. Olympics track races, I almost never run in the morning. In fact, I hate running early so, if there is any trace of enthusiasm in my descriptions of my morning runs in China, it has to be attributed to the surroundings. On this morning the life on the street brought me to life. Street vendors offered tiny shrimp, octopus, live fish, melons, unknown vegetables, trinkets, shoe parts made of old tires, and a great assortment of pancake-like pastries baked on tiny, flaming grills. There were the anticipated bicycles, but not in overwhelming numbers. What took getting used to was that bikes, people, taxis, and buses made their own paths without regard to anyone else on the street. The only saving grace to this scene was the total lack of private cars. Apparently no one in this part of Shanghai owned one ... or else they were smart enough not to get it out on the street.
On the way back from my out-and-back run I found the little park I had seen from my hotel room window. It was a space not much bigger than an acre. I joined a couple hundred exercisers to do my stretching. Most did what I assumed to be tai chi, either in groups or alone. Some were doing aerobics to American disco tunes while others walked or just sat. The birds whose songs filled the air were caged, hanging from tree branches. Keeping pet song birds is a big-time hobby in a country in which polluted air and past, starving conditions has reduced the bird population to nil. The park’s population was a bit geriatric. As I would learn latter exercise is pretty much limited to the elderly ... which means those over fifty in China. The same group would be back in the afternoon and evening to dance in the park. The younger crowd would dance at night to a different beat in a different place.
By eight I had joined the former-Iowa, now California sisters, Diane Trewin and Beth Pitcher, in the dining room of the hotel for the first of thirteen “American” breakfast buffets. It would take nearly the whole trip before I was able to control the buffet part and just eat breakfast.
At nine we gathered for the start of the day’s activities. First thing on our itinerary was “Old Chinatown”. It struck me a bit strange that there would be a place in China called Chinatown. All too soon I learned why. The area, whose old name was Natao, rebuilt in 1985 in the style of ancient pagodas. It was the first tourist orientated shopping area to which we would be led. I don’t shop with jet lag so when we finally made our way to the adjacent Yu Yuan Gardens, I was happy.
The 16th Century summer home was an island of tranquility in the heart of bustling old Shanghai. It had survived the Cultural Revolution because in 1853 it had been the home of an anti-imperialist society, the Little Sword Society.
It was also our first introduction to the type of complete historical monologue that our guides would present at each stop on our trip. Because I love history I wasn’t too worried about the length of these presentations. In fact, I marveled at the store of information our guides were to have. If I were to pass on all we were told ... if I could remember it all ... this tale would turn into a full-length book.
It must be said that, in answer to our questions, our guides gave us what I believe was frank and open insight into life in China as they saw and lived it. While the on-sight presentations occasionally seemed to be following some sort of government or party line, their off-the-cuff answers seemed genuine and open. They were never-the-less all government employees and as such occasionally side-stepped attempts to elicit negative comments about the country’s leaders or systems.
As we drove to and from our first of thirteen lunch buffets in China we toured the street of the new Pu Doung section of Shanghai. Built up in the last ten to twelve years from rice paddies on the east bank of a branch of the Yangtze River’s delta, this area was a textbook of modern architecture. One after another, brilliantly designed skyscrapers crowded the now clearing mid-day sky. There wasn’t a single boxy glass office building in sight. Every building had unique design features ... mostly good ones. The dominant structures were the Jin Mao Building, the world’s fourth tallest, and the freestanding Oriental Pearl TV Tower that was nearly 1500 feet tall. As they race to join the 21st Century, China was chosen to spend its resources here rather than in recently annexed Hong Kong. Even some less-than-great apartment building could not diminish Pu Doung’s vibrant skyline.
Jin Mao Building
(Occasionally color pictures appear to be black and white due to China’s smoggy conditions.)
While the Chinese economy is catching up to the 21st Century it is said that only 300 million of its 1.3 billion people are economically active. What that means is that over 75 % of the people are really not part of the wage-earning picture. Basically they live in a rural setting, growing what they need to survive ... having no cash with which to buy anything. They are not yet costumers for the world’s goods.
We went to the Jade Budda Temple, Yofo Si, where many Chinese were praying. Much of the afternoon was spent at the Shanghai Museum. It was set, along with the Grand Theater and other well designed public buildings, in what is now called Renmin or People’s Square. The site, in the heart of the old city, became available when the Communist leadership declared its old use as a late 1800’s British-built horse race track to be incompatible with their vision of the people’s needs.
As we traveled around Shanghai there were frequent references to the Opium War (1839-42) in which England had overwhelmed Chinese forces along the Yangtze River and established trading concessions based in Shanghai. The city was to also have American, French, and German concessions before they were abolished in the early 20th century.
Not so frequently mentioned was the reason for the importance of the Shanghai Museum. The infamous Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 had destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage. Red Guards looted and burned, temples, museums, libraries, and schools. The treasures of the Shanghai Museum had been spirited out of the country during this dark period. The owners and guardians of these historical treasures voluntarily returned them to their homeland even though most of them didn’t personally return to the land of their birth.
Around five we returned to the hotel for a one-hour nap break ... one of only two pre-dinner respites we would get. I used much of the time to check on shops along the street, figuring correctly that we would be steered to tourist areas for our shopping trips. The prices seemed incredibly low, but as we were to learn more about wages later, they would seem to be out of reach for the ordinary Chinese worker.
Our first of thirteen buffet dinners was followed by a trip to the New Shanghai Circus which featured acrobats such as those who wow audiences in Las Vegas and across America. Girls with rubber spines, guys tumbling over, under, and through things, and motorcycle races in a huge steel-ball cage, all made for a great evening’s entertainment.
When I went to bed at 10:30 I was sure it was to a sound sleep. Guess again! I think I looked at the clock every 45 minutes. Surprisingly, when I got up at seven I felt OK.
Fifteen minutes later I was again out the door for a repeat of yesterday’s run. I ran a little further in the same amount of time but didn’t seem like nearly as much. There was much more traffic at this later hour, so I spent more time looking ‘out’ than looking up. I did notice that a couple of slow moving bikes that I passed were rigged up to haul ‘night soil’. It seems that most of the older apartments in Shanghai not only don’t have personal bathrooms; they don’t have any plumbing at all in the building, thus the need for the ancient trade of “night soil” collection.
Our morning rounds began with a quick stop at The Bund which is Shanghai’s waterfront promenade. It would have been a great place to run. Unfortunately our guide only allowed us twenty minutes to enjoy the riverfront views across the Huangpo River to Pu Doung. We even rushed through the “Friendship” store as we were hustled off to a silk rug ‘factory’.
It was a factory only in the sense that five or six artisans were working the looms there. Most of the production was safely tucked away somewhere out in the countryside. The real purpose of this factory was selling silk rugs and they were pretty good at it, scoring three sales to the eight members of our group. That stop was for nearly two hours before we moved upstairs for our luncheon buffet.
By 1:30 we were at the airport. I thought we were cutting it a bit close but apparently our guide already knew the flight would be at least an hour late. As we were to learn after three future flights, there aren’t too many internal flights in China. Scheduled layovers aren’t very realistic so, as the day progresses, the planes get further and further behind schedule. Two hours in the waiting lounge was more than enough to catch up on my diary and reading. A surprise in the bookshop was the number of architectural magazines available. I don’t know who buys them, but I enjoyed looking at the pictures. I hope nobody thought I was skimming through Playboy for a half hour.
On the flight I sat with Fritz Schuman from Alabama and learned a lot about the chicken breeding business. He had finally gotten out of that family business when success had taken all the free time out of his life. He and Violet now ran a big day care operation where he herded around 150 kids instead of 15,000 chickens. In the end it was to have been the longest conversation I had with any of our group members ... although a combination of conversations with my roommate Lee might have totaled more actual time. I suppose with a little more effort I might have gotten to know the rest a bit better but I chose to spend time with people that I met who were from other countries. It is these encounters that always make my trips a pleasure a well as learning experience.
By now it had been pretty well established that Fritz was a comedian. Whenever things would quiet down just a little he would say “Did you hear the one about...?” Most of his stories were relevant to recent conversation and all were amusing if not down right funny. I wish I could remember some of his stories to lighten up this narrative. Every group should have a Fritz.
At 5:30 we were at the gate of Wuhan’s new airport meeting our new guide, Mindy. It seems that when you study English in the Chinese school system either you or your teacher picks an English name. Those who have contact with English speakers retain these names to make it easier to remember their names. While its true that it is hard to remember some Chinese names, all of them have meanings such as “Little Flower”, “Smart One”, etc. It seems a shame to give up these names just for someone else’s convenience. Where Shanghai Flo had been outgoing and interested in nightlife, Wuhan Mindy was shy and proper ... maybe reflecting their hometowns.
Having had a snack on the plane, no one was too hungry, but our hour-long journey from the airport ended at a restaurant. The first spin of the food-full lazy susan at the table’s center knocked my Pepsi all over me. Eating while seated in a pool of Pepsi distracts one from the cuisine at hand.
While it was dark by the time we started to the hotel, I’m pretty sure we headed toward every point of the compass at least twice on our way to our hotel, the Holiday Inn. While I don’t mind that every hotel we stayed at was furnished like a Holiday Inn, it doesn’t seem right to be staying in one in another country. Some people may be comforted by the American names but I’d rather say a stayed at a place that sounds like it is in the country I’m visiting ... even if it looked like a Holiday Inn.
For the first time I slept well ... from 10:15 to 5:30. At 6:30 I gave up trying to sleep and went out for a run. The hotel was directly on the riverfront, although behind a big levee. I ran a little way along a path till I came to a stone promenade which ran nearly a mile around a bend on the Yangtze and up a tributary, the Han River, to a big bridge. This was a popular place for the tai chi crowd ... and a lone runner who didn’t seem to be enjoying the 80-degree temperature, 100% humidity, or choking smog any more than I was.
For the first time since Mexico City years ago, the rancid air burned my lungs. It wasn’t till our last day in the country that we would wake up to truly clear skies. While the world decries American as the great polluter, every place we went in China the air was heavy with the smell of burning coal or wood. Clouds of cement dust hung over the Three Gorges and dust billowed from road projects. Miles upstream, off the Yangtze, garbage floated by on the rivers that are meant to nourish the country’s future tourism. Apparently third world countries which attack the USA don’t feel it’s politically correct to mention China in the same breath.
Even though there was a major pagoda complex right next to the hotel, our morning destination was the Yellow Crane Tower, a pagoda across the river, high atop a hill, just barely visible through the smog. But first, maybe owing to the realization that there would be no view from the pagoda, we went past it and out to the edge of town. Our destination was the Hubei Provincial Museum which housed only the treasures from the burial vaults of Yi, the ruler of the Zeng State some 1000 years prior. All the stuff had been floating all those years in what was essentially an underground lake until its discovery in 1978. Unbelievably almost everything survived including a set of huge ceremonial bells. Replicas had been made and were played for visitors ... for an extra $4.
By the time we returned to the Yellow Crane Tower the smog had burned off enough to make the views from the top OK. Unfortunately we again seemed to be in a big hurry ... I guess the luncheon buffet just couldn’t wait. When it was pointed out that this ancient pagoda had an elevator, Mindy admitted that it was a 1985 replica. I asked if the original had been ‘sacrificed’ to the Cultural Revolution and took the silence of the answer to be an affirmative.
Wunan is divided into three parts ... almost three distinct cities. The Yangtze runs south to north here while the Han Rivercomes in from the west. The oldest part of the city, Wuchang, where the Yellow Crane Tower was situated, is on the east bank. Lying south of the Han and west of the Yangtze is Hanyang, the newer part, where our hotel was located North of the Han is Hanou, the industrial area.
Gardens the Yellow Crane Tower
Mindy said, “I’ll bet you are looking forward to our American-Style buffet.” which after only three days in China did conjure up thoughts of hamburgers or fried chicken. The American part of the buffet turned out to be the only lettuce we were to see on the trip and a big selection of deserts that were sadly missing the requisite amounts of sugar to be classified as American. An open beer tap mollified five of our group but the substitution of Tang for Coke left the rest of us less than satisfied.
When we left the restaurant it was raining, but by the time we got to the Bonsai Gardens it had abated a bit. The gardens featured some nice trees and a great collection of exotic rocks, which turned out to be the reason we were there. The Department of Agriculture might not let us bring bonsai trees back to America but it does not object to rocks. They had a great assortment of natural shapes and carved stones for sale. I purchased a chrysanthemum stone that, while natural, was polished up a bit to enhance its sales value. I might have been a bit more discerning if I had known the nice rocks I’d be able to pick up off the ground along the Lesser Three Gorges.
When we left the Gardens we stocked up on soda, beer, and bottled as the guide warned us that the price of those items on the boat was prohibitive. The truth was that the place she took us was high priced for the streets of Wuhan while the prices on the boat were cheap for the streets of America.
At the edge of Wuhan, as we passed a “new city’ area, it began to rain ... I mean really rain. By the time we reached the new interstate road, whose only purpose seems to have been to get tourists to the cruise boat docks three hours away ... I’m still not sure why they don’t come all the way down to Wuhan like they did in the days of Theroux’s tour ... the rain became a torrent. I’ve never been in a typhoon but it would be my guess that this was how it rained during one. Our mini-bus seemed to be barreling through it too fast but, in fact, we were only going 30 MPH. Thank goodness there were virtually no other cars out there.
When the rain finally stopped we could see miles and miles of rice fields. There were people hoeing in fields with not a house in sight. Occasionally water buffalo were being led through the fields, but not working. People were walking down the highway with great bundles on their head or shoulders. They would climb over the guardrails and down into the fields toward unseen houses. My travel mates ask how they got around with no local roads but they missed seeing the muddy double tracks through the fields. Holding ponds had irrigation pump heads sticking up in the middle like lily pads ... and speaking of lily pads, there were fields of lotus plants, which from the distance look like giant lily pads. The Chinese love the flower and eat the buds and stalks of the plant.
As it seems is the case with most Chinese highways it just ended before it got where it was going ... although it’s possible it was going somewhere other than Sashi. There was little sign that the new economy had reached this port city on the Yangtze. It made an awful place to board the boat for our Three Gorges cruise. We climbed down a dirty wharf and clambered across an oil drum pontoon bridge. As would be the case at each stop, the uniformed girls of the boat’s cleaning staff lined up all along the plank way to welcome us aboard with a smile and a “Hello” which turned out to be the only English they knew.
From this dismal embankment, sitting in the rushing, muddy waters, our ship the Star Dipper didn’t look like the elegant four-star cruiser pictured in the catalogs. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t too great either. It had a great lobby but you boarded through a sort of back door. The hallways showed the wear of the ship’s full seven years of life ... and yet in the end it was a very pleasant place to spend three days and four nights.
We were the third of four groups to arrive. The big Asian Holiday group, mostly from California, and a group of fifteen from Hong Kong and already left the dining room by the time we arrived. As we ate, the eight o’clock castoff time past as the rainstorm had delayed another China Focus group. Long after they arrived and shortly before I went to bed at ten, we were under way.
It was another night without real sleep. I kept hearing rain pouring down and I just knew my main reason for being in China, The Three Gorges cruise, was going to be spoiled by it. When I looked out to see the rain at 6:30 AM, I discovered the sky smoggy but cloudless. The “rain” was in fact the sound of water rushing by the hull of the ship. If I had only known, it might have be a soothing sound which would have aided sleep. Oh well, I never claimed to be a sailor.
When I went out on the top deck, we had just arrived in Yichang at the Gezhouba Locks. For quite a while Silvia from Guadalajara, Mexico, and I were the only ones on deck. When Allen, the ship’s recreation director and resident butchered of the English language, alerted the passengers on the ship’s PA system to the spectacle of the locks, a steady stream of people came up to see.
As we glided into the main stream of the river, the breakfast buffet was served. It was the first without cereal and the first to need cereal. As with all meals on the ship, there was much to be desired but in fact little to complain about ... college dormitory food comes to mind. Seeing the developing scenery through the dining room window caused us all to hasten through the meal ... as did listening to “Silent Night” and other Christmas songs as part of the constant easy listening background music.
We were in the first of the Three Gorges, the forty-five mile long Xiling Gorge. I’m afraid I don’t have a good enough command of the English language to fully portray the beauty and power of what we would see over the next three days. For two hundred miles the Yangtze River is contained in between the steep walls of the Gorges. 99% of the time these walls, varying in steepness from thirty degrees to 90 degrees ... that’s straight up for those of you who had trouble in geometry. Occasionally the canyon walls would enter the water at a slope gentle enough for sampans or small barges to run aground in order to service the population living along the way.
Some areas were so steep and so remote that no one lived there. Generally there were small, tattered houses here and there. There were no roads to connect these farmers to nearby cities. The river was their lifeline and it was clogged with the necessities of their lives. Sampans ferried people and goods. They were platforms for fishermen ... and downstream of the new dam that also meant fishing for garbage. While the water was much cleaner above the dam, it seemed that the new, worker’s city just below the dam must have dumped everything into the river.
From first viewing one is struck by the brown color of the river. My group mates were surprised and even disappointed but I had been prepared. The Yangtze gathers its load of silt far to the west, near its source, so it is never clear. The small tributaries that enter it along the gorge are often clear, but they cannot hope to tint the mighty flow. The current in the river is constantly strong, even where it widens out. There are a couple of places where traffic is reduced to one way as the river narrows to less than a hundred yards, but it is also four or more hundred yards wide at some places.
Maybe I should be saying meters rather than yards. Virtually the whole trip I was doing arithmetic trying to convert metric to imperial ... sometimes it is a pain being a citizen of the world’s only non-metric country. Our guides were constantly feeding us statistics ... cost per square meter of apartments, hectares owned by farmers, kilometers from here to there ... and that on top of converting dollars to Yuan.
From more than a mile away the great new Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze looms up through the smog at a place called San Doupig. At first it seems more like a wall or cliff but then the maze of giant cranes appear. Even as the Star Dipper docked a half mile downstream the enormity of the project was not truly apparent.
The Yangtze River Dam at the Three Gorges was the reason my trip had to be now in 2002. Unlike other natural wonders of the world, the Three Gorges will not be there forever. When completed, the $28 billion dam will raise the water level in the Gorges over three hundred feet. While in many places that is far less than half the depth of the Gorges, their drama will be forever minimized. Signs indicating future water levels along the way only serve to taunt lovers of the Gorges’ beauty.
Our first sight of the dam from the tour bus was just of the five locks which will raise shipping past the finished dam. It was then that it dawned on me how big the thing must be. Cut through solid rock, these locks alone are an engineering marvel. Locals call it the forth gorge.
Around a corner, the first sight of the dam itself is awe-inspiring. For a moment the tragic consequences of the dam are forgotten as I marvel at the scale of the project. It is forty stories high and two hundred feet thick at the bottom. It’s nearly a mile long already ... and construction of the western-most 1000 feet is yet to begin ... a channel around the dam has been left open for river traffic. How many truckloads of concrete must that be? Trucks on the site look like ants from our vantage point. The whole site seems to be wiggling like Jello as thousands of practically unseen workers scamper about.
We got out of the bus briefly at a spot just above the dam’s top level and nearly parallel to it. It stretched out forever. We then went to a high overlook. After seeing a model of the completed project, we climbed up to a peak to see the whole thing. It’s pretty hard not to be impressed even when you know the sure consequences and the probable dangers of the project.
The dam is both a flood control and hydroelectric project. Each year many lives are lost when the lower Yangtze floods. Several times, catastrophic floods have taken over 100,000 lives ... and yet, other than at major cities, there are no downstream levees. Strategic levees would be much cheaper and effective. Once the reservoir is full, low lying areas will again be vulnerable to continuing rainfall.
The dam will increase the nation’s electric output by a full 10%. There is no denying the need for that either. Still, a series of smaller dams on Yangtze tributaries could produce just as much power at less cost and far less danger.
Despite our guide Betty’s denials, scientists say the dam sits on a minor fault line. As we find out all too often, today’s minor fault line is tomorrow’s disaster. She said the dam is design to withstand 7.0 earthquakes ... that’s not too much. Can it stand the effects of earthquakes a hundred miles upstream?
Some scientists say that the rising of the water level in the Gorges will destabilize the bases of the massive limestone cliffs. Water will act as a lubricant in crevices causing gigantic landslides. An ensuing tidal wave could sweep miles down the valley, overwhelming the dam.
The straight-line design of the dam has drawn criticism. All dams this long and all dams this high are arched against the weight of the water held behind them. Western engineers are unable to come up with a model in which this configuration can succeed and the dam’s Chinese engineers won’t release their figures for verification.
The final damnation of the project may not be questionable engineering or the catastrophic loss of a natural wonder. The greatest toll is probably in the human hardship wrought by the project. Somewhere between one and four million people will be displaced. The former number probably refers to the number of farmers living solitary lives along the cliffs of the Gorges. They know no other life, eking out a living hoeing their small plots wherever they can find a bit of soil on the rocky cliffs. Moved to flat land somewhere else; they might find their lives much easier. Unfortunately, in order to continue farming, most must accept relocation the far west country of China ... the area of the Gobi Desert. Their dream of a grand piece of the land in the west will become a nightmare of drought and famine.
Those who stay behind will be given a free apartment in one of the many huge building high up on the cliffs above existing cities. There they can complete with the educated city dwellers for nonexistent jobs. Cities that are now crowded into the few relatively flat spots at the river’s edge are being relocated above the waterline on half the acreage they occupied below. The gigantic housing blocks perched precariously on the cliff sides might have great views, but they will be of the river passing them by.
As of yet only one relocated city seems to have made provisions for connecting itself to the river’s lifeline. Existing sand ramps will be gone. The new, cliff-side water line will preclude running a boat ashore to off load it. Tying a boat up to hold it steady in the great river’s current will require infrastructure which to this point seems to have been neglected.
Massive road projects are being scarred into the hillsides just above the projected water line. New bridges are soaring above the river. It would appear that the new cities would be connected to the world, not by the river, but by highways. Maybe they are roads to the future, maybe not. Today it is quicker to take a boat the thousand miles downstream from Chongquig to Shanghai than it is to drive. Will the highway be better? Who knows?
I have a very bad feeling that in the little time I have left on this earth something really bad is going to happen along the Yangtze behind this dam. I hope I’m wrong.
Back on the river, Xiling Gorge, the longest at 120 kilometers, became much more dramatic ... more and more of what I had come to see. For a while it is so steep that there was no farming. Trees clung to cracks in the limestone cliff faces. Sometimes white, sometimes yellowish, the limestone is often streaked with black that might be coal. While the Three Gorges are often compared to the Grand Canyon, a more accurate comparison might be Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Estes Park’s Big Thompson Canyon. The truth is each of these places evokes its own mystique on your soul.
One moment you feel insignificant ... the next you feel like a explorer on a great adventure up an unknown river or a river captain weaving right to left in the river’s heavy traffic. In the middle of nowhere a cruise ship come downstream, tiny barges struggle upstream, and sampans ferry farmers across the mighty river. Waterfalls large and small spring out of nowhere ... but no matter how remote it seems, only a few birds are evident. The occasional hawks soars and a rare song is heard. I daily see more birds in back yard than I saw the entire length of the river.
If the air had been cleaner and the water clearer this would have been perfection. As it was, it was awesome. For hours, often in the hot sun, I sat mesmerized ... and this went on for three days, all day, every day. Somewhere along the way the Xiling Gorge had become the Wu Gorge which is 26 miles long. It had what were probably the steepest cliffs, some of which may have been over 2000 feet high.
A shower and supper was an excuse for a couple hours in the air conditioning but by dark I was back outside marveling at the scenery even in the dark. My one disappointment was that the full moon rose so late each night that I wasn’t out to see it. Of course, each night we approached a city where we would tie up for the night and pollution would have hampered the lunar picture. This second night aboard, we tied up along side several other tour boats at Wushan.
Six and a half hours of sound sleep has my best to date in China. Unfortunately that meant I was tossing a turning from 4:30 AM till 6:00 when an apparent self-imposed moratorium on boat horn honking expired and the river came alive. At 6:30 I went up to the deck wondering what I would do till our morning excursion which was scheduled for eight. There in front of me, amongst the ruins of demolition, and crawling with people, was a riverfront road about a half mile long ... a perfect place to run. Five minutes later I was jogging across the pontoon walkway toward shore. At the end of a plank across to shore the bubble burst. The only way to the street was up a mud embankment. Undeterred I scrambled up the hill only a bit concerned about the ingredients of the mud on my hands.
At the top of the bank I got another shock. The “street”, at its low point there, was, judging from the footprints in it, buried in mud at least a foot deep. Again I pressed on ... this time on a footpath paralleling the street. I slid down a wash and up the other side. At the second dip, reason was again overcome, but at the third, bigger one, it finally won out. I had an adventure to talk about, but no run. Back at the end of the pontoons, as I was scrapping off the mud from my shoes and socks, I decided that at least I could run on the pontoon bridge. For the next ten minutes I ran back and forth over the 200-yard length of the bridge, running fast toward the boat and easy away from it .. at least it seemed fast. I drew a lot of attention but I doubt much admiration. By the time I got all the mud washed off my shoes, with help of a couple crewmembers and their scrub brush, I had to scramble to shower and eat breakfast.
At eight o’clock we boarded small boats for a cruise up the Lesser Three Gorges which are on the Daning River which flows into the Yangtze at Wushan. No sooner did we get out of the main river flow, we entered into the very narrow canyons. It was then that I realized that most of the pictures of the narrow gorges pro ported to be on the Yangtze are in fact these side-water gorges. At places there wasn’t even fifty feet between canyon walls. Sometimes it seemed that the walls sloped together over our heads. All along the way square holes perforated the rocks. Two thousand years ago a wooden pathway had been cantilevered out over the raging river.
After the first gorge the Daning widened and a village sat on the hillside. Colorful umbrellas lined a winding path up to the village which sat on a bend in the river. In low water situations, we would have disembarked, climbed the path, and met our boat again on the other side of the ridge upon which the village sat. On this day recent rains raised the water level enough that we were able to challenge the rocky rapids and continue up stream. Sadly this whole village will be flooded by the reservoir. The strangest thing there was a brand new modern house built below the future water line. What had that guy been thinking?
In the midst of the second gorge we put ashore on a sand bar. They suggested we take a rock for a souvenir. I took eight ... each a different color and design ... to add to my collection of rocks from now unknown places.
Next was the highly touted Hanging Coffin. It took a bit of imagination to see it but then we were constantly being told to look at “horse lung and pig liver rock”. Each of the notable formations was beyond my imagination. Maybe drinking had been involved in their original discoveries. We were “lucky” to see a monkey in a tree. It made me think of Disneyland or Universal Studios. The monkey was so far away, and pointed out with such enthusiasm, that it could well have been a mechanical monkey.
Before the third gorge another soon to be deceased city sat awaiting the rising waters. A hanging footbridge remained nearby with hope that it too wouldn’t be drowned in the future. Our final site was the Mist Waterfalls, a series falls maybe two hundred feet high, which seem to erupt from the rock above in a cloud of mist.
Heading downstream we looked more closely at men using hoes to put sand into baskets attached to poles. They were loading a small barge to go upstream where others were off-loading and carrying the sand up a steep hillside to an unseen building site. As we exited the gorges a sampan was trying to corral the corpse of a pig floating toward the Yangtze.
Back on the Star Dipper and underway by one, I had the greatest lunch on the cruise, a bulging turkey sandwich on fresh baked bread ... my idea of a perfect lunch. Even the Tang drink couldn’t spoil that sandwich.
No matter how grand our buffet meals were, there was always a shortage of drink. We usually got a very small glass, maybe eight ounces, of coke, beer, or water ... the bottled kind that is required all over China. There would be a tiny bowl of green or jasmine tea but that could hardly be classified as drinking as each was at best two swallows. On the boat, the coke and beer was replaced by warm Tang .. in fairness we did get refills of it and they were often quite cold.
As we entered the third and final gorge, the Qutang Gorge, which, though only five miles long, is the most dramatic because at places it was only fifty meters wide, I sat talking to four Mexican women. While the conversation was mostly in English, I got to work on my Spanish a bit. In fact, by the time the cruise was over, I still didn’t know any Chinese but my Spanish was better. They were, from Guadalajda, an internist, and from Tiajuana, an optometrist, dentist and social worker. The later two had architects for son-in-laws. They were having fun even if Chinese accented English was nearly impossible for them to understand ... especially cruise director Allen’s garbled version.
I was glad to have enhanced my Spanish skills because from the outset it was apparent that I wasn’t going to pick up much Chinese. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t read the 40,000 characters that represent the spoken language ... 6000-8000 of which are used in daily speaking. There was no chance that even one would become familiar. The problem was, that for each word that I might have seen written in the Romanized Pinyin style, there are four different pronunciations or tones and thus four different meanings. The differences are far too subtle for a beginner to pick up on. There was a poem or joke-phrase that we were told which illustrated the four meaning of ma. I’m not sure if I got this right but I think that in the first or high tone ma means mother. In the second or rising tone it means sesame seed, while the third fall-rising tone means horse. In the final falling tone it means to scold. Thus you could mean to call someone mother but in fact call her horse ... best to avoid such a minefield.
When they retired to get ready for supper, I savored a few extra minutes on deck with Thomas Mak. The retired Hong Kong principal had moved to Vancouver before the 1997 takeover, fearing retaliation such as his parents suffered when they return to China from Indonesian just before the Cultural Revolution. Like many Chinese I met he was a bit reluctant to speak in English, feeling self-conscience about his abilities. I told both him and the young female bartender the same thing ... Americans are I awe of anyone who can even begin to speak two languages. We might correct their grammatical errors, but it was with greatest of respect. Go for it ... don’t worry about mistakes. And for Thomas I suggested morning coffee at Starbuck’s or MacDonald’s with English-only speaking retirees.
I hadn’t particularly looked forward to that evening’s talent show but it turned out to be a hoot. A guy seriously sang karaoke ... badly. Another mimicked the various guides’ offerings of propaganda-laced facts. My roommate Lee, with a Jimmy Stewart drawl, told a couple stories that Red Skelton would have been proud of ... or may have actually written. The crew did a couple of ethnic minority folk dances. The girls seemed happy to be there and some of the guys looked trapped. The show’s highlight was 14-year-old Ling Yi Yang. Watch for her name as piano soloist with your symphony some day soon. Who’d have thought I feel a talent show worth mentioning. I guess I’m getting in the swing of this tour group thing.
Lee and I talked on deck for an hour as the ship made its way to its evening moorings. I was unable to explain to him that running, while an individual sport, was one of shared experiences, just like team sports.
An earlier report from the Schuman’s of a body floating by the window of their cabinet didn’t interfere with me getting another pretty good night’s sleep ... five or six hours seemingly being the best I could do throughout the trip.
The day began hazier than the last two because we were now out of the steep walled gorges and into increasingly more populated areas. We were also in a traffic jam. All morning we followed two other ships of our size plus three smaller cruise ships, each of us passing barge after barge. Hovercraft sped down river ... they never seemed to be going up ... and sampans played chicken with them all. All the while the smell of burning coal and wood permeated the air.
Hillside fields seemed to be under expansion rather than contraction. Farmers were cutting trees and clearing land everywhere. Maybe they were just trying to get the lumber before it was flooded under. 6” diameter, ten foot long logs were being carried up the hillsides on shoulders. These were tiny men, bearing unbelievable loads.
After a beef sandwich luncheon, I talked with Alex Wong and his friends from Hong Kong about life their. Their biggest worry was the falling value of the housing market. His apartment had lost nearly half its value but the payments, which took all of his wife’s income, continued. While disaster might be just over the horizon, hope remained in the knowledge that the bank couldn’t sell the place if they did take it from them. Nevertheless they all felt Hong Kong had a great future ahead even if that wasn’t quite what it might have been under British rule.
From 2:30 to 4:00 we went ashore to see the Shi Boa Pagoda. Twelve stories high (56 meters) it was attached to the face of a giant stone escarpment. About 1000 feet wide, 300 feet deep, and 200 feet high, it stood straight up out of one of the few more or less flat pieces of riverside ground anywhere on the cruise. The climb to the top, which began with a pretty good climb just to get to the front gate, was done in tremendous heat ... it was surely one hundred degrees. We were rewarded with a great view and a bit of a breeze at the top.
Despite their monopoly on cold drinks, the vendors that lined the walkway between the dock and temple were quite reasonable in their pricing. I bought an ice-cold Pepsi and a genuine Mao’s Little Red Book complete with the important passages being underlined. I think one said “Always wear clean underwear when you travel because you never know...”
Back on the ship it was fifteen minutes of recovery in the air conditioning, then back on deck. I was later joined by two couples of Minnesota schoolteachers. We played “move the deck chairs into the shade” for an hour or so till dinnertime. The Captain’s Farewell Dinner was different from the others only in that he dressed up in his finest, gold-trimmed whites ... which were a bit too big for him ... and came by each table to toast our happiness. Too bad he didn’t break out the good food.
After supper out on the deck, as I was talking to her father, piano playing Yi Yang came out all happy about goals being scored in the World Cup Final she was watching in her room. I wasn’t watching because I thought my VCR was recording it back home ... key word, thought. I realized her English was a lot better when she was trying to tell me something she wanted to talk about. I got the idea that she might be able to communicate with the California girls who were about her age. I went and found them and talked them into going with me to Yi Yang’s cabin. Just as I had hoped, they all hit it off right away and went bubbling off to the piano in the lounge. Unfortunately it was a bit late by then so they only got an hour or so together that last night of cruising. As they all wandered off, I found Lee at the bar getting a Chinese government lesson from George, one of the guides. Despite having an intense interest in the conversation, I soon was so tired I couldn’t stand up.
The night before I had asked Allen if he could get me on the bridge of the ship. At breakfast he told me to bring my group and meet him there at 9:30. Our brief tour of the bridge was interesting if not encouraging. The ship had all the navigational equipment one would expect ... sitting pretty much unnoticed. The first mate proudly steered onward with his knowledge of the river as his guide ... just as captains have done for hundreds of years.
Over the last two days, as the number of cities had increased, we had more opportunities to see urban life along the river. I don’t know whether to say what I saw was shocking, eye opening, or just surprising. I knew that rural China was, at best, operating a century in the past. I had assumed that urban workers were a little more up-to-date. Along the Yangtze are two cities of over 100,000 people that will have to be totally relocated because of the dam. One would think that at least here modern methods would be powering the changes. What we saw along the river was medieval.
Barges fill of bags of cement were off-loaded to trucks by lines of shirt-less collies ... or least men in collie hats. On sand bars men filled baskets with sand which they carried over a plank onto a barge. At cities the loads of these barges were shoveled off on to waiting trucks with their wheels partially in the river’s waters.
Big trucks brought coal along roads high above the riverfront. They dumped their loads over the edge of the steep hillside where it plunged down a hundred or more feet. From the bottom it was shoveled into smaller trucks, which drove it to barges run ashore on the sand. There the coal was shoveled onto the waiting barge to be hauled off to who knows where. Only two of the coal tips had front loaders and one barge operation had a tilt-ramp to unload the trucks ... this among maybe fifty or sixty operations that I observed. If they only had more machinery ... if they did, what would happen to the hundreds of men with their shovels?
Two places I saw machines knocking down buildings. The predominant method was sledgehammer and 12” cold chisel. Eight and ten story-building coming down, one swing at a time. Each resulting lump was hand loaded on a truck or rickshaw to be recycled somewhere. In finished areas, every whole and half brick were gone. Tiny barges full of bricks scuttled in all directions. Men with baskets full of bricks climbed the hillsides. The rubble that remained looked pulverized.
Sitting at the junction of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers, Chongqing was the nation’s capitol during the Japanese occupation of the country’s eastern half during WW II. It wasn’t hard to figure out when we neared Chongqing. The air got denser than the buildings. Horrible looking suet-streaked buildings, less than twenty years old judging by their style, would have seemed long abandoned except for the drying laundry fluttering on balcony rails. Unidentifiable factories didn’t just belch smoke, they irrupted it. Dry docks echoed with the sounds of boats being hammer back into shape. And the number of bridges told us that cars ruled this city. In fact every guidebook mentions that there are few bicycles there due to the city’s hilly nature.
And surely it was. Within fifteen minutes of docking were heading through the traffic jambs of the hilly city, trying to get to the countryside. We were rushing off to Dazhu and its famous Stone Buddas ... I forgot to mention that we first got a lunch buffet. Never mind that the local Sichuan food can be a bit spicy. at least it wasn’t ship’s food.
Along the way our guide, Eva, tried to explain to us how rural land transfer worked in China. All land belongs to the State. Only the improvements belong to the people. The average farmer ... in this case Eva’s hypothetical Grandmother with all her kids off in the city ... may “own” a half acre to an acre of farm land per adult family member. These pieces may or may not be adjacent, and are very unlikely to be near her actual residence. When Grandma dies her pieces of farmland go back to the State for redistribution. Her house could be sold but the guy buying it wouldn’t necessarily get the farmland with it. The family could keep title to the farmhouse, but only keep the farmland if one of them moved back to the farm ... and then maybe not. The value of the house is greatly restricted by the fact that farmers seldom have any actual money. Only if they worked off the books in the city during slow farming seasons would they have any cash.
The fact is that many, if not most, do work in town. Construction crews and the street vendors selling seemingly unsalable stuff are all farmers. They are all off the books because, if they registered to live in cities, as the law requires, they would lose their farms.
When the city population of Chongqing is given as 14 million and Shanghai as 16.3 million, and Wuhan as 9 million and Xi’an as 6 million and Beijing as 11 million, this does not include these day laborers or street vendors who are in fact everywhere. At nine o’clock at night they are already on the designated street corners where labor brokers will come looking for them in the morning.
The Stone Buddas of Dazhu are carved out of rock in situ, meaning, in place. Virtually every statue is living stone. The actual number ... 10,000 ... or was it 50,000 ... escapes me but, like all numbers in China, it was huge. Way off in the country and high above the city of Dazhu, one would have thought it would be cool there ... no such luck. While learning way more than I ever wanted to know about the Buddhist faith ... much of it for the third time ... I could barely breath the super-heated air. And yet it was the trip back to Chongqing that truly took my breath away.
A proper interstate type highway left Chongqing heading north ... I think, as again the cloudless but polluted sky was unable to reveal the true location of the sun. Off of it, a new toll road went nearly straight to Dazhu ... or at least the edge of town where it ended for now, giving local merchants a last chance at the tourists. This road was four undivided lanes with unlimited access ... in other words, only tourists were charged to use it. On our return trip it was the site of a live virtual reality game of dodge-em.
The lack of rural traffic police meant that every driver, bike and pedestrian created his own set of rules. Actually all the rules contained a similar tenant ... were ever I am, I do what I want as if no one else existed. Put yourself in the front seat of a mini-bus and picture this ... and you’ll see why my group mates willingly allowed me complete use of that seat.
To begin with, the exterior lanes were pretty much given over to bicycles, pedicab-rickshaws, and pedestrians. Each used the lane with no particular regard for each other nor for vehicles. Movement on either side of the road was in both directions. Within each lane no pattern of direction was established. Furthermore, the concept of giving way seemed not to exist.
As in the city, pedestrians seemed to be unaware that cars used roads. They would saunter into traffic, head on or back toward it. When they crossed the road their first notice of traffic was the blare of a horn. At that time they would stand frozen where ever they were while the driver plotted his course around them. Children's hands were only grabbed after the horn had sounded, but they were never pulled back out of traffic. Their parents just left them standing out there while holding their hand ... do you suppose this is a sort of birth control? Occasionally a wiser pedestrian would run for her life ... notice I said her as no man would ever chicken out.
Drivers of the various vehicles stopped to rest without pulling over. Vendors set up in the middle of the lane. Broken down rickshaws and vehicles sat wherever their motors died. Local mini-buses seemed loath to penetrate the lane. They collected and discharged passengers while barely crossing into the inside lane. Going to the shoulder seemed to be an unthinkable concept.
Now transfer this entire disregard for the rules of the road ... and simple common sense ... to BMWs, trucks, and busses of all sizes. We were going 100 KmPH or 60 MPH which I guess was the speed limit or at least the norm. At that speed horn blowing was much more essential than at city speeds. That meant honking on every single approach of another vehicle. All would occasionally venture into that chaotic inside lane to pass or to get out of the way if the driver was chicken. Most drivers held their ground directly against the road’s centerline.
Drivers like ours with the good sense not to try to pass on the inside took to the only passing lane available ... that on the other side of the double centerline. Not to worry ... everyone expected it because they too were doing it. At one memorable moment while we were across that line, struggling to generate enough power and speed to get around a truck full of chickens, an on coming driver was attempting the same maneuver around a tour bus. I’m not sure exactly how this situation was resolved as I flinched. Fritz thought he saw a puddle under my seat when the maneuver was over.
A further minor inconvenience was provided by local farmers. One had taken delivery of a load of bricks for his new house ... dumped right on the highway. Farmers were most pleased by the roadway because it gave them a place to dry their rice. Rice was spread, piled, and basketed at various points along the way, inconveniencing cyclists and pedestrians more than motorists.
Front seat anyone?
It was 7:30 when we first saw our Chongqing home, the Hoi Tak Hotel. While the others rested, I got in my first afternoon run. I hate morning running so this was a treat ... even if it did involve running up hill the first half mile. I turned around at a huge shopping mall ... in China malls are usually multi-storied buildings occupying whole city blocks ... which, as a lure to come in, was draining air conditioned air out on to the ninety plus degree city streets. The downhill portion back to the hotel was the fastest and freest that I ran in China. I then snuck in a couple cooling laps in the hotel’s full size indoor pool.
I met the group in the bar where they were taking advantage of their free drink coupons. At nine we went to the dinner buffet which may have been the best buffet I have ever eaten. There was duck, crab, fish, mutton, and even steak. Some were prepared in the local style; others in American style. Everything was excellent. To top it all off, they had real deserts made with sugar. To really top it off, they had ice cream with fudge or caramel topping. Unfortunately we only had an hour to eat before the place closed. The staff was not pushing us ... they seemed to be enjoying our gluttony. I reluctantly left only slightly short of my personal 10,000-calorie limit.
I slept well for maybe five hours but woke up feeling bloated. How did that happen?
Not feeling like running and knowing there wouldn’t time that evening, I opted for a morning swim. Swimming is much easier than running in the morning. The cool water awakened me, but the air ... polluted even indoors ... choked me. Nevertheless it was too bad we were only staying a single night here. By the way ... we stayed on the 13th floor. I’ve ever been in a hotel that had a 13th floor.
Our first stop was the Chongqing Zoo where their pandas are the star attraction. The pandas, which in the wild live high up on mountains, are smart enough want to get out of Chongqing’s summer heat so they have to be locked out of their dens. Unfortunately this means they stay near its door and far away from zoo visitors. Oh well. At least we got a long unencumbered look at a couple of them. With time to kill before our next stop we lingered in the Zoo looking at things I see regularly at the St. Louis Zoo. Still, I love zoos and this was a good one.
Hanging around the zoo spared us being pestered too long by salesmen at our next stop, the Art Institute. It was again interesting watching the artists at work ... in this case a watercolor calligrapher. We had to wander back and forth avoiding salesmen for quite awhile before it was time for our on-premises luncheon buffet. Since it was only three hours after the hotel’s great breakfast buffet, none of us were too hungry.
I think maybe it was at that meal that we began to rethink the wisdom of trying every single thing put before us ... which was a minimum of twelve dishes per meal. Four to six appetizers were followed by a like main course and of vegetables. Usually the ingredients were unrecognizable but we ate first and asked later. Every meal included a different, good-looking “green vegetable” that had no English translation but tasted like dirty grass. Most other veggies were quite good. At no time did I taste a dish that tasted similar to Chinese food in America.
The afternoon’s activities seemed suspiciously unplanned and consequently much more fun. It was much as if I were on my own again, just choosing activities on a whim. We went to the big Monument Circle shopping district at the heart of Chongqing. Liberation Monument commemorates the communists driving the Goumingdang from Chongqing. The entire group but me headed to the mall. I headed to the street alone. I bought a couple maps in a bookstore and a pair of pants in a little shop. Back at the mall I bought a pair of shorts ... I had somehow forgotten to pack shorts and had been wearing a pair borrowed from my roommate Lee.
Shopping bags full, we headed to the airport at 4:30. When we arrived there our plane for Xi’an still hadn’t left from Xi’an ... an apparent regular occurrence. Time passed fairly quickly though and our 5:45 flight was airborne at 7:10. One would have thought our late arrival would have found a guide pacing at the gate. But no ... we slowly progressed through gates all the way to the pick-up curb finding no guide. We noticed a guy, who seemed to be organizing things, giving us the eye. He was on and off his cell phone, giving orders so we hoped he has the local state tourism director. Apparently he was because when May finally showed up ten minutes later she seemed to apologize to him before to us. She would later confide that she was tried of the guide business and was thinking about going into law. Wherever we went in Xi’an, she rattled off her speech and sent us on our way to explore alone.
We were so late in arriving that we had to eat in the airport. Surprisingly they too had a buffet, and a very good one at that. The local specialty seemed to be potatoes fried in sugar ... the cuisine find of the trip.
During the long ride into the city ... another airport built miles from anywhere ... we had to stop for a car coming head-on down our lane of the highway in the dark. The guy seemed loath to make a U-turn and save his own life. Our driver, who was a total opposite of our Chongqing driver, without raising his voice or honking his horn, suggested the other guy might be a country hick. When we got to the Jianguo Hotel at eleven our luggage wasn’t there. The scare was brief as it arrived before May could dial her cell phone. Apparently someone from the Chinese Tourism Service (CTS) is on call 24/7 to help the guides serve their tourists.
After my best night’s sleep in China, I was ready to hit the streets of Xi’an. I ran down the broad boulevard toward the old city wall. With its separate bike lane, it was much more mundane than the streets of Shanghai ... and I seemed to be wearing down a bit.
At breakfast I enjoyed sweet rolls for the second consecutive day. I thought about having cereal but the milk was thicker than whole cream .. or maybe that is what it was. When it got packaged yogurt in Beijing it was this same consistency.
At nine we began the hour ride out to see the Terra Cotta Soldiers, one of China’s best man-made attractions. The route could be compared to that from Chongqing to Dazhu but in this case our driver and the others seemed to have a much better sense of the rules of the road. We arrived with anticipation rather than tension.
My not-so-new guidebooks had led me to believe the soldiers were protected from the elements by a metal shed so I was quite surprised to see a collection of big modern buildings. The newer ones housed more recent discoveries. Visitors and archeologist alike could now view the treasures in cooled air, if not true air conditioning.
After he became the first person to unify china in 220 BC, emperor Qinshi Haungdi decided that in his after life he would need to be protected from those he had ruthlessly pursued on earth. He created a 6000 or 8000 man force of terra cotta soldiers to surround his pyramidal tomb. Unfortunately his earthly enemies plundered the buried army immediately after his death. They stole the weapons of the clay army, smashing a few soldiers in the process. They then set fire to the roof and the overhead soil crashed down on the lifeless army.
It had never been made clear to me that the 1977 discovery had been not intact rows of terra cotta soldiers but piles of smashed sculptures. The Chinese’ work in reassembling these soldiers is amazing. Two thousand again stand guard while another few hundred more stand partially restored at the back of the great hall that houses them. Knowing the work behind the exhibit makes the whole scene even more amazing. The theory that each statue represented an actual person and therefore all 6000 are unique is about as easy to prove as that all snowflakes are different ... still, despite all Chinese looking alike, all the soldiers did look different.
As with every stop our guide warned us not to buy from street vendors. Here that meant warding off a thousand peasants ... although without their ice cold Cokes we might have perished. Their innumerable trinkets we could probably due without. Still I had to purchase a set of tiny terra cotta soldiers. Their $1 price seemed a bit better than the $15 museum price. The fact that dark, aged part of the little soldiers turned out to be charcoal that came off on my hands when I got home was but a minor inconvenience. I was less than thrilled when the first agreed upon price of $1 turned out not to be for the box of five but for one. Arbitrations settled upon $2 for box.
Everywhere you look around Xi’an there are burial mounds that have as yet been unopened or explored. The area’s future in the tourist industry seems secure. Additionally the city seemed much more laid back than the others we had been to. There was less competitiveness and less building. Xi’an was modern but not mad.
The quality of food had picked up. There would be little to complain about the rest of the trip ... except the quantities. We were told by guides that in China to get the amount of food exactly right are to insult your guest. Furthermore, to clean your plate is to indicate you were not given enough. By that time we were eating more wisely ... that is less ... and we left a bit here and there.
The afternoon was anticlimactic. The Banfu Neolithic Village may have been 5000 years old but it aroused little passion in our guide or us. It turns out the real reason we were there was probably the gift shop. I was constantly amazed that my fellow travelers ... actually all the American groups ... could be continually interested shopping over and over with the same basic selection.
My diversion here came in the form of a darling little six-year-old girl, Yin Meng Fei. She surprised me when she answered my “hello” with her own “hello”. With the help of an American flag key chain, many of which I carry for just such an occasion, I coaxed a bit more out of her. I’d ask her something and she’d get that kid’s “Ah. Sucks” look. Her dad would say something in Chinese and she’d answer in English. Noticing my companions were gone, I went outside to find them at a lower level shop. Meng Fei followed me outside to say hello again. Her aunt coaxed her into doing a little song and dance she learned in kindergarten. She captivated her audience which was by then growing. After a bit more squirming, she did an Indian dance that might be provocative if she is still doing it when she is fifteen or twenty. Her final selection was “Jingle Bells”. It was the kind of time that I treasure.
We had a bit of a break before supper and a show. I used the time to swim in the 3’ by 40’ pool. My back needed it, as did my body temperature. For the first time on the trip I laid down to nap ... for 35 minutes. Then it was off to a dinner theater.
This diner was to be special as we had agreed to spend $10 extra to get a dumpling dinner ... now we knew why Xi’an’s specialty dumplings had been mysteriously absent from our buffets. We were served either 19 or 21 different kinds of dumplings ... you can understand why I may have lost count. Two or three were really good. The rest were at least OK ... at least the first ten or twelve varieties. Someone pointed out later that if we had been served only the stuffing we might well have still been hungry. My assessment: six or eight in a bowl of soup would have been great. By the way ... we had eight appetizers too.
We were right down front for the show that followed. Regional- Tang Dynasty folk dance and music made for a colorful and entertaining evening ... especially a group of musicians who seemed to love every minute on stage.
Apparently dumplings make great sleeping pills because that night was the only one during which I would sleep straight through for eight hours, my usual amount of sleep at home.
Well rested, I was ready for my morning run. As I stretched at the hotel gate, a guy ran past me so I took off after him. We settled in at a slow pace and got to know each other. Claudio Valentino was a refrigerant piping salesman from Verona, Italy, which are just a couple hours from where my grandpa grew up. Although we looked about the same age, he was only 48. His stories about jumping into marathons that he came across as he traveled on business made me long for my forties again. We ran all the way to the old city wall that wasn’t any where near the three kilometers away we had been told. On the way back we silently picked up the pace, returning in a minute and a half less than we ran out. No matter what I feel like, running with someone is a great pick-me-up. It was one of those times of shared individual experiences that I couldn’t convince Lee existed.
May, our guide, had totally run out of enthusiasm for her job. Her rushed description of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Dayan, seemed like a record on the wrong speed. I practically had to race walk to get through most of the compound and back to our meeting place in the half hour she allowed. I had sensed the need for speed so I had struck out without my group mates. Everyone else was already sitting there so I’m guessing they missed a lot.
Apparently the rush was so that we could get to a Lacquer Furniture Factory. Even though they had some really nice furniture at very good prices, by now I was just a little annoyed that “factory” stops seemed to be more important than tourist attractions. I was in China as a tourist not a shopper.
We then went to the South Gate of the Old City Wall. Xi’an had needed its wall because it had been China’s capitol off and on during eleven dynasties from 206BC to 907 AD. After an even shorter talk than previous ones, we were deposited in the gift shop. I walked around outside, longing to get on one of the bicycles which were for rent there. The twelve kilometer, 7.5 mile loop of the city would have made a great run too ... even if I don’t normally run that far. We just sort of hung around there for quite a while as it was still too early to go to lunch.
After another good lunch we sat around talking to May about how the travel business is set up in China. In a nutshell, once you touch down in China, every thing is orchestrated by the government. All the guides are trained and licensed with their job on the line every day. The job pays poorly but their tips make them rich ... especially if they get groups of forty rather than of eight ... maybe that’s what she was pissed about. Her day lasted from 6 AM when she got up in order to catch a bus to our hotel, till ten or eleven when she taxied home and checked in with her supervisor.
The drivers rent out themselves and their own busses on a daily basis. They don’t get a separate paycheck but the tips are gravy to them. Americans are apparently more generous than Germans or Japanese, the other two major tourist nationalities ... or maybe she was just buttering us up. I shouldn’t complain about her too much because, at least for this hour, she was open and personable. We repeatedly ask our guides to eat with us but apparently they were required to sit apart with the driver ... or maybe they just wanted a well-deserved moment alone.
Customs hall at South Gate of Xi’an
The flight to Beijing was on time although as we waited we never really knew for sure. There are only six gates at the Xi’an airport and each serves a flight from a skyway and one from the ground. Our flight came on the board at the same time boarding was announced. Since I was talking to a British expatriate, I wasn’t as worried as the others. While her husband was trying to strike a deal for Chinese oil, she was seeing the sites with her visiting daughter. At the gate we started out the skyway only to be diverted down steps and across the tarmac to a plane setting ten feet from the skyway.
Since the flight was on an Air China 767, the same type plane my son Mark flies for Delta, I ask the flight attendant if I might talk to the Captain. It was too close to flight time then, but she talked to me a couple different times before and during the flight. Fu Hui Fang may not have had a pretty sounding name but she was the kind of stewardess men fantasize about. Her smile could smooth out the roughest flight.
When we landed she said to wait in my seat and she would take me up to the cockpit. Captain Zhong and First Officer Li were most gracious. Li had trained in Miami at the same facility that my son had. When I got off the plane the only bus was the crew bus which I wasn’t allowed on, but Li had already called ahead for a car to take me to the receiving hall. As I pulled up, my tour group was just de-boarding their bus so I didn’t delay them as I had feared I might. The delay came at the baggage carousel. Our bags were the last off the huge plane, giving us some anxious moments. Our new guide Johnathan Geng was worried too.
We had all eaten the disagreeable food on the plane so we didn’t really want to face another buffet. Our pleas to substitute an ice cream shop for the buffet fell on deaf ears ... surely we didn’t want to miss the restaurant gift shop.
Our 6:30 Beijing wake up call at the Landmark Towers Hotel came quickly, and when it did come, I was too tired to get up. Sleep was hard to come by on a pillow that was filled with either sand or partially hardened cement. One of these rocks was too thin and two were too thick. I can’t imagine why anyone would manufacture let alone buy such a pillow. From the night before I left home to this night, I had missed enough sleep to have genuine concerns about suddenly crashing. Thankfully, as is so often the case with travel sleep deprivation, it didn’t hit till three hours after I got home.
Today it was number three on my list of China’s four best tourist spots, The Great Wall of China. Soaring anticipation came crashing down as we pulled into a jade factory along the way. Thank God there is only one more day that they can drag us to another factory. Fritz really wanted to buy a ring to go along with the one his wife had purchased, but again they none big enough to fit him. Shoe stores couldn’t fit me and some places the large T-shirts were at best smallish mediums. Sometimes you couldn't spend money even if you wanted to.
It was 10:15 by the time we reached the wall at a place called Badling, which at 45 miles is, I guess, the nearest it comes to Beijing. While the original wall may be nearly 2000 years old, this four or five mile-rebuilt section was opened in 1957 for the benefit of the tourist trade. Other sections have since been opened as this one became over-run by success. The project has four or five thousand kilometers to go to completion.
Looking up a seeming unending flight of stairs ... 17,000 by someone’s count ... we were told to be back at the bus in two hours ... at least we’d get a few more minutes than at the jade factory. Before beginning the climb, we all ponyed up $10 for group photo in an album. I had planned on a personal group photo on the wall but it was obvious all of us weren't gong to make it to the top ... especially with a two hour time limit.
For once the sky was very clear and as usual the temperature was in the nineties. Within a couple minutes the endless line of tourist-climbers had slowed to a crawl ...the steepest part was at the bottom. The steps varied in height from three to eighteen inches in a vary random pattern. Old ladies moaned, kids ran by, fat guys gasp for air, and everyone prayed for a breath of fresh, cool air ... none of which could penetrate the crowd.
The first of five guard stations didn’t come too soon for most. Past it the crowd thinned noticeably. The steps weren’t quite as steep but the heat and altitude were taking their toll. The next station reduced the number to only the hardy survivors. What looked to be the last station was too far up for most to have any hope of getting there. Actually they made good decisions because what we could see from there was not in fact the top of the mountain. By the time I got there, the guide’s thirty-minute trip had extended to forty minutes ... and I had hardly paused on the way up.
Smiling and soaking with sweat, I scrambled the final steps to the top of that final tower. The reward was a refreshing breeze and spectacular views, only slightly obscured by haze ... and lots of fun people celebrating their accomplishment. Most of them were American soldiers who were stationed in Korea, here on a week’s leave. They climbed on the roof, shouted slogans, and took sky-cam pictures for the rest of us. Half my time was spent talking to a runner-soldier ... somehow we knew that each other were a runner.
Twenty minutes after I got there, Fritz and Beth showed up. Our stupid timetable forced us all to leave ten minutes later. As we left Diane was just arriving so we quit rushing. I ended up going down pretty quick anyway. I hooked up with Lt. Misty Coronett from Illinois, another runner. We walked and talked, plunging down and down. Just before the really steep part at the bottom, we paused and she said, “My legs are trembling.” Mine were too because going down is harder than going up even though you breath easier. We immediately continued on ... two runners heading for the finish line.
At the bottom I bought a snow cone and savored each bite ... oblivious to the warning we had been given about eating ice anywhere other than at a restaurant. It was a bit of a wait for Diane to get down, but I was happy for her and her accomplishment.
Our photo albums were waiting for us in the bus. None of us could be too upset with the results. Guess where we ate lunch ... the Friendship Store. That meant a half hour to shop after lunch. Lucky us.
Next stop was the Ming Tombs ... actually just the pagoda in front of one of the thirteen unexplored tombs in that particular valley. The pagoda was now a museum housing the relics from the tomb of Ding Ling ... I swear ... the Tyrant. Only a couple of us choose to go up in the tower with Jonathan.
A short ride from Ding Ling’s place, we disembarked from the bus to walk the Sacred Way, a half-mile of shaded walk lined with animal statues. Each pair symbolized something ... everything in China symbolizes something. The first would be standing and the second sitting as if resting while waiting his turn to guard the emperor. It was one of the few places the whole trip where we just quietly strolled.
Jonathan was probably the most entertaining of our guides simply because of his interest in English idioms and sayings. He had been an English teacher but at 35 had switched to travel guide. Would you believe that Chinese schoolteachers are unpaid and under appreciated? He had an uncanny ability to remember every saying he had over heard from his tour groups. Every free minute with him we were translating crazy sayings into understandable thoughts. “What does it mean to “get up” for something? Why say, “she’s a fox”?”
He could be considered among the new upwardly mobile of China. He had chosen a new career. His wife, a college professor, had a one year appointment in Maine coning up, but he and their son couldn’t go ... they were pretty much being held hostage to guarantee her return. They had recently been able to get their own apartment after living with his parents for the first seven years of their marriage. They had purchased a place on the sixteenth floor of a new, first-class building ... unlike in the USA; higher floors were undesirable because of greater heat and smog. Each month payments cost them her entire salary. They had 15 square meters ... 150 square feet ... 10 x 15 ... with no bath or kitchen of their own. Those were communal facilities shared by all six apartments on the floor. He was very happy.
Back in Beijing it was Friday night rush hour. The city has three ring roads and all were jammed. Traffic jams we saw, but no bicycle jams. There were lots of bicycles, but not the thousands you see in old documentaries. It took forever to get to our special Peking duck meal. While the duck was very good, it was still a bit over-hyped ...it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. Actually the special sauce and sesame seed tortillas detracted from it ... I made up the part about sesame seeds, not the sauce. As usual we pretty much closed the place. Chinese don’t eat out late.
Back at the hotel I figured I needed a swim to sooth the aches from all the day’s climbing. Much to my surprise they wanted to charge $6 to use the pool which was a three-stroke pool ... one so short that you really can’t properly swim in it. I found the night manager and suggested that a four-star hotel didn’t charge for such amenities, but refrained from telling him where he could shove his $6. A long shower and a little CNN-Asia would have to do. Again sleep didn’t come easy on my cement bag pillows ... not too four-star either.
My day began with a run down the nearby embassy row. The mile of the tree shade avenue was lined by the embassies of Togo, Malaysia, and South Africa, among others. Only Australia’s had any touch of the individuality that you normally expect of embassies. Barbed wire was evident and soldiers everywhere. They were a friendly lot though. My nods drew smiling responses and even a thumbs-up.
Major Beijing streets like this one have a separated lane for bicycles. On the Saturday and Sunday that I ran there were very few bikes ... there are more in St. Louis’ Forest Park on the weekend. Maybe one of the reasons for less bikes is that over one million are stolen each year in Beijing alone ... China’s only admission to the existence of crime. Actually there were few cars out either. Our travels that day were much easier.
Modern Beijing was laid out after the Communists took over China in 1949. Only then were the boulevards and ring roads built. It had first been China’s capitol in 1206, but has been so continuously only since 1949. Even though people aren’t supposed to move from country to city or city to city without permission, Beijing continues to grow out of control like all third-world major cities.
When I wrote in my diary that evening I noted that I couldn’t remember what factory we went to that morning. Lee or the others couldn’t remember either. Jonathan later said we didn’t go to any. I guess it just seemed like we were always stopping at one.
Our last day in China began at Tian’anmen Square, a place of infamy in American minds and the site of glorious celebrations in Chinese minds. On the flight over the Chinese man in the seat next to me suggested that one should look at the Tian’anmen Square incident in the historical context of what happened twenty years earlier in the Cultural Revolution. Begun as a student protest which was twisted into horror, the Cultural Revolution scars the mind of everyone whose family was effected by it ... and that’s just about everyone. He suggested that the 1989 government feared another such aberration of youthful fervor. Maybe to us it doesn’t justify what happened. Maybe to them it is an understandable rationalization.
Tian’anmen is huge ... just like it looks on TV except for one thing. At the south end is the grand Mausoleum of Mao. I’ve never seen it as a backdrop for a CNN report and yet hundreds if not thousands were in line to view the glass-enclosed remains of the Father of the Country ... what is it with the communists and their glass coffins? No one seems to deny Mao’s excesses, yet he is revered for having founded modern China. China’s “New Economy” is Deng’s legacy, but he was seldom mentioned without our prompting.
The whole the north end of the Square is walled by the entry gate of the Forbidden City. Mao’s picture still hangs over the main entrance. Behind the walls lie acres of buildings and courtyards. We passed through, I think, three precincts or courtyards before finally reaching the living quarters several blocks to the rear. There the scale became human, and intricate details were more important than massive structures. At the rear gate an intimate garden seemed a world apart from the city and the palace itself. Begun in 1420 the Palace has 999 rooms. It was occupied by the royal family up until the last Ming emperor, Pu Yi, was evicted by Steven Spielberg during the filming of the movie “the Last Emperor” ... just kidding about that.
Lunch features some incredible fried pork strips. The joy of fine eating was soon past as we watched a clam being ripped open at a pearl factory. A dozen or so tiny pearls fell into our hands as souvenirs ... and then we were offered the chance to buy some quality pearl jewelry. More fun.
It was probably three o’clock by the time we reached the Summer Palace, Yihe Yuan. It was the most important residence of Ci Xi, the Dowager Empress in the late 1800s. Today it is a huge park drawing more locals than tourists ... and every tourist in town was there. Despite what I would think would be prohibitive entrance fees for them, the Chinese people flock to their parks. Even though packed, being in here was better than the 15 square meters back home. We walked the 800-meter long lakeside Corridor and ended the visit with a boat ride back across Kunming Lake.
As it was our last stop I was ready to but a couple souvenirs. I got a 2008 Beijing Olympics T-shirt but the hat guys weren’t there ... and nowhere all day had we seen the guys with the $1 CDs we’d been promised. Apparently the extra soldiers and police we had seen were responsible for the dearth of salesman of genuine knock-offs. Only the sellers of “fine” watches had been out that day.
That evening, in a shop across the street from our trip’s final entertainment, I picked up six CDs at $1.75 each and a DVD of the as yet unreleased in the USA Lord of the Rings for $6.50 ... from a shop. not a street vendor. When I told Jonathan what I had found, he makes it clear that if customs asked, I had never heard of him.
Our going away treat was the Peking Opera. Judging by the undercurrent in the balcony I would guess that most found it little less than a treat. To capsulate a parody-review of it I wrote that night in my hotel room ... ‘the opening band uniquely combined a bunch of notes into serious noise. Two operatic segments featured singing that rivaled fingernails on a chalkboard. Only the final act caught anyone’s imagination. Acrobats tumbled and a girl kicked spears back at her aggressors with uncanny skill. Her husband should not start any arguments in the kitchen.’ Luckily beer was served during the performance ... although the dropped bottles were a bit distracting.
Using my bedspread as a pillow, I got a bit more sleep than the past couple nights. Lee’s snoring seemed worse than usual but it never woke me ... only kept me more awake when I couldn’t sleep anyway. Still, I probably couldn’t have had a better roommate if he had been my life-long friend.
July 7, 2002. My 63rd birthday .. the longest of my life ... it would last 39 hours as I winged eastward across time zones.
The day began with another nice run on embassy row and a cool-down walk. Then the day deteriorated quickly.
At the airport most of the check-in lines were closed. There were plenty of agents sitting around .. they just weren’t checking in our flight. Every flight apparently had its own counter and ours was on break waiting for 9:30. At 10:00 they sort of opened the line by making us change counters. The first guy in the other line had two babies that the agents refused to seat with either he or his wife. The agent sat passively and the line waited while a supervisor disappeared for thirty minutes. He managed to get two sets of two seats together. Meanwhile my line moved right along and I got a requested front row seat thanks to the help of a Chinese citizen ,,. apparently only citizens can choose seats. While it was obvious that there was no way the fight would leave on time, no mention was ever made of that fact. About the scheduled flight time, a 50-minute delay was posted.
We took off one hour and twenty minutes late. We had to disembark in Shanghai to go through exit customs. By the time we reached San Francisco I had read a whole book, sort of slept for five hours, and eaten the same meal twice ... it wasn’t any better the second time. By now I had less than an hour to make my connecting flight to Cincinnati which I did easily, but not without some serious walking.
I even made it on time for my 20-minute connection in Cincinnati. The problem there was they had overbooked that flight and I didn’t get on. If I had a ticket that might not have been a problem, but for me and four other Delta employee, standby passengers, it meant a night in the airport. Even though I was some thirty hours into my day, sleep didn’t come easily. The carpeted floor hasn’t too badly, but midnight maintenance work was louder than daytime passengers would have been. I got up when CNN came on the monitors at 5 AM. At that point I was doing pretty good ...just anxious to get on my way.
My 7:50 flight got me to St. Louis on time but public transportation lived up to its bad rap. It took me two hours to cover the 25 miles home. I arrived home at 10:15 in the middle of the year’s worst heat wave ... just 40 short hours after arising on my birthday.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: When rereading this text realized that I was probably a bit short on descriptions of natural wonders and man made sites I visited. The truth is even the pictures I took don’t convey fully what I saw. Everything remains perfectly clear in my mind’s eye ... I have a gift of retaining virtually everything I see as though it were a video. I find it much easier to recall in words my meetings and encounters. No matter how spectacular a country may be, it is its people who make the place come alive. I try to pass on these experiences and leave the scenery to photographers and wordsmiths.
That being said, you’ve got to take this trip before the Gorges are flooded and China moves fully into the 21st Century ... and joining a tour group is the only logical way of seeing China.
17,000 words written in July 2002, about travel in June 2002, by:
Bob Hyten, Jr.
1025 Randle St.
Edwardsville, IL, 62025-1339