11.11.2009 - 11.17.2009 35 °F
China surprised us in ways that won't surprise you, because you already knew that it's ancient, immense, and developing at an incredible pace. But you see that antiquity more directly when you're gazing at jade pieces carved nearly 6,000 years ago and bronzes cast nearly 4,000 years ago. The immensity becomes a lived experience when you walk miles on a mountaintop wall that's 5,000 miles long, far longer than the width of the United States. And rapid development makes an impression when you sail down a river, as we're sailing right now, that cuts through a city with 20 million people, a population larger than that of some of the countries we've visited on this voyage.
That's Shanghai, our port of exit. Our port of entry for China was Hong Kong. We sailed into it early the morning of November 11. Hong Kong was the most spectacular port we've seen on this voyage. Like Cape Town's harbor, it combines mountainscape with waterscape and urbanscape.
We took a ferry to the tram that rides vertically up Victoria Peak to see the unbelievable views of the harbor below, walking for about an hour along a circular trail at the very top.
At first it was hard to make much progress, not only because of Eli's stomach issues (probably brought on by the Z-pack he was taking for possible strep, poor guy--all better now!), but also because of the views dropping our jaws to our ankles.
Dragging a reluctant group in my usual dragging-dad way, I was relieved that the boys loved the botanical and zoological garden in Hong Kong, especially the tirelessly acrobatic puff-cheeked gibbons and the riotously funny siamangs. Inflating their neck pouches, they made calls and yelps the likes of which we'd never heard.
We nearly took what's said to be the world's longest outdoor escalator through the city, except that it was going the wrong way. The boys were also disappointed that it was a series of escalators rather than one long run. So we cheered them up a bit by taking them up to the observation deck of the world's third tallest building, Hong Kong's International Financial Center.
From it, they could see the peak they'd circumambulated and the port where the ship was docked.
That evening, we looked out the back of the ship at that building and many others, their lights gyrating and shimmering at the nightly 8 p.m. display.
Our big trip to Beijing began the next day (3 1/2 hours by air), and Caroline was serving as trip leader this time, responsible for 50 faculty, staff members, and students on the excursion. Despite a few minor delays (late flights and late students), almost everything went beautifully. Our three nights and four days in Beijing, organized by SAS with the tour company Destination Asia, included the perfect balance of cultural and historical experiences (the highpoints for the likes of me) and service visits and shows (especially wonderful for the younger set).
Immediately on arrival in Beijing, we were taken to an old neighborhood of Beijing known as the Hutong area. Most of the hutongs have been bulldozed for skyscrapers, but a few remain, and their narrow, twisted lanes are indeed charming. Pairs of us piled into trishaws, or three-wheeled bicycles, which can snake their way through these alleys.
By then it was dark, and as our trishaw driver peddled furiously, and as we braced ourselves for the cold and the bumps, I felt transported back into Dickens's London, sinicized. As if in a scene from "A Christmas Carol," though in a different land and language, icicles dangled from the curving eaves and snow blanketed the hushed rooftops. A romantic introduction to the city.
Deposited at the home of a local family, a group of us ate a fabulous home-cooked meal of dumplings and rice and sundry Mandarin delicacies. After dinner, one of the daughters in the household showed us how to roll out the pastry for dumplings, stuff them with goodies, and pinch their corners.
The boys all tried their hand at it and did remarkably well. Then this same daughter showed us her remarkable skill at the delicate art of painting miniature scenes inside of bottles, using a tiny, bent brush.
The next day was a big day for us all, with the Forbidden City as the main attraction. Fortunately, we had a fantastic guide these four days in Beijing, a mild-mannered, sweet-tempered gentleman named Jing Sheng, re-christened Jason (almost sounds similar!) by his English teacher. Here's "Jason," as we called him, fronting not a shipful of Argonauts but a busload of SAS travelers.
As we made our way through Tiananmen Square, he was careful with what he said about its recent history. But he taught us a tremendous amount about this imperial capital. Beijing was cold, freakishly so for this time of year. The snow had made headlines all over China. After nearly passing out from the heat in the Saigon market just a few days earlier, we had some trouble adjusting to the need for two pairs of socks and five layers around our torsos. We were so chilled in Tiananmen Square that we made our first Beijing purchases from the ubiquitous street vendors: Red Army hats, soon to be followed by warm gloves, for the boys. In the world's largest square, where Chairman Mao had proclaimed the People's Republic in 1949, the boys took to their new identities with energy and humor.
But it was the Forbidden City that dazzled us with the imperial splendor of its yellow rooftops and immense courtyards. The whole complex is 170 acres in size, with nearly 1,000 buildings. In the place of the hundreds of tourists, we tried to imagine the hundreds of concubines, maids, and eunuchs who once tended to every desire and whim of the emperor, the only male allowed to sleep in its fortified boundaries. In the snow, the buildings were especially handsome. Extravagant lions guarded the outer court's buildings.
Despite the throngs, the immense courtyards seemed stilled and quieted by the snow.
I especially loved the swooping rooflines and the fanciful beasts arrayed on the rooftops.
Chilled to the bone, we ate perhaps our best Beijing meal at a swank hotel restaurant improbably named Wahaha, before reloading the bus for the journey to the Beijing outskirts and a visit to a migrant workers' school. We were incredibly lucky to have enjoyed a blue sky in central Beijing. But as we headed out to this factory-heavy area of the city, the air became increasingly gray and brown, fouled by coal and smelling of glue. The migrant workers toiling in these factors aren't permitted to send their kids to the local public schools, so instead they pay for the rather primitive facilities of these special schools. Even so, despite the cold concrete floors and 50 kids to the classroom and scant books and no greenspace, let alone the revolting outdoor toilets, the children seemed energetic, proud, and bright.
Their ability to solve algebraic equations dazzled one of the professors in our group.
We had a Q&A session with them. Caroline asked them why they thought China is a great country. They responded by citing the bravery, persistence, and intelligence of the Chinese--all of which they seemed to exemplify--as well as its 5,000 year history. [Caroline reporting here: They asked us lots of predictable questions about where we come from and what we like to do, as well as a couple of questions that American kids could never conceive of asking: do you like plum blossoms? and does America have any famous calligraphers? Yes, sure, we said, and um, no.]
Outdoors, we played various kinds of ball games with the kids. Their pingpong table may have lacked a net, but bricks seemed to work just fine for them, as for Gabriel and Eli.
That evening, we went to a heart-stopping show of Chinese acrobatics. How the gymnasts could contort their bodies like this we couldn't imagine, making arms and legs nearly indistinguishable.
Several acts involved acrobatics inside or on top of improbable mechanical contraptions--one like a giant, double hamster wheel, another a bicycle that eventually transported around a ring about 18 balancing ladies with extended, feathery orange fans.
As if the acrobatic show hadn't been dazzling enough, our third day in Beijing began with a trip to the Beijing International Kung Fu School en route to the Great Wall. One the way, we passed the 2008 Olympic Stadium and Water Cube. At the school, we didn't see fighting so much as dance (sometimes incorporating breakdance), sword displays, and flips. The kung fu artists broke wood blocks on their heads, wood rods on their arms, shoulders, and heads. They twisted iron rods around their necks. And as if that weren't all enough, one of them gulped down airplane fuel and spewed it back up in bursts of flame.
The boys posed afterward with some of these incredibly skilled performers.
After lunch at a glass-encased building where the Great Wall had begun to come into view, we had one of the most fantastic experiences of our whole voyage when we trekked for a couple of hours on the Mutianyu section of this immense edifice. Taking the cable car up, we felt blessed by the sunny skies and widening panorama of peaks behind peaks. Snaking its way along the back of the highest mountain ridge, the Great Wall beautifully gives definition to the natural landscape. As Caroline said, it reminded us of how the Greek temples were perfectly embedded into the mountainscape in such a way as to enhance the natural scene. The pictures can't capture the sublimity of the desolate mountains all around.
[Caroline here, for a few more words! I hadn’t realized that the terrain, the landscape itself, would be so fantastic. Standing atop the 20th tower (climbing the unbelievably steep steps to which, we were told, would make us heroes), we felt like we were at the top of the world, looking out on wave after wave of mountain ridges below, and at the wall ingeniously winding its way up and around those curves. The light coating of snow made it all the more beautiful, and walking in bright sunshine, under an unusually blue sky, on the snowy wall, was a matchless, exhilarating experience. Like the Taj Mahal, another human building triumph!]
Climbing our way up steps and steep snowy slopes from one guard tower to another, we tried to imagine the thunder of horse hooves along the spine of the wall, the warning signals flaring from the towers, the serried ranks of Mongolians and Manchurians attempting to overtop the nation's boundary. Begun by the Qin Dynasty that unified China in 221 BC but largely built in its current form by the same Ming Dynasty that built the Forbidden City in the 15th century, the wall is made of rammed earth held together by brick and stone retaining walls. No, it turns out it isn't visible by the naked eye from the moon, and no, it's not full of the bodies of dead builders, whose corpses would've made it unstable. But even so its immensity is still enormously impressive. To think that at one point one fifth of the Chinese population was toiling at its construction!
The boys bravely made their way up and down some of the steep steps and slopes, overcoming the inevitable vertigo. [But lest we feel too proud, at the top of the 20th tower, a woman selling postcards told us in halting English that she walked up to that spot every day, two hours, from the village we could faintly see below. "No cable car pass," she said.]
The next morning, sadly our last in Beijing, was bitterly cold, but we saved what might be the most beautiful building we've seen in China for this last morning, aptly named the Temple of Heaven. Its circular shape echoes the circular shape of the world and of the heavens. Its blue and gold surfaces are stunning.
[Caroline here: the park below the Temple of Heaven was a fun and even hilarious sight: large groups of adults exercising together, following leaders and sometimes loud taped music. Apparently it is _the_ place to come and exercise in the morning in Beijing—no matter how cold! Our tour guides had brought little kicking toys for us to play with—feathery, hackysack-like things that get kicked from person to person, and many joined in, while others went dancing in lines or circles with the Chinese.]
The pace of development in Beijing, as in the rest of China we saw, is astonishing. I kept remembering Emily's pictures of the hundreds of bicycles in Beijing streets from her and Bob's trip some sixteen years ago. Now there are scarcely any bicycles to be seen. Instead, cars and buses fill the best-developed infrastructure of maybe any country we've visited, and the sky is pierced by exciting skyscrapers like "The Pants."
The Chinese seem to have taken to the market economy with the zeal of converts.
[And here Jahan's narration gives way to Caroline's.] At the airport, we were truly sad to leave our dear guide, Jason, a kind, modest person who brought us to love China. But we flew on to Shanghai, which from the first moment astonished us with its ultra-modern, cosmopolitan feel. A new elevated highway brought us into the center of the city, where we found our own ship docked in an extraordinary site: directly opposite the wildest piece of architecture imaginable, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which looks to me like the capitol building of Mars. Several other inventively shaped buildings populate the area, as well. Here's the Shanghai skyline by night.
And here's a spaceship-like building that landed right next to our ship.
Unfortunately, the weather in Shanghai, while a little warmer than frozen Beijing, was gray and wet, and the air was terribly polluted as well. Jahan and I went out in the afternoon leaving the kids to do what they like best: play computer games on the ship. We found ourselves in an enchanting shopping district,
surrounding the 450-year old Yu Garden, the loveliest place I’ve seen in China. I could have stayed all day (except that it was already darkening and drizzling when we got there), wandering among the pavilions, wonderful rock formations, trees, fish-filled ponds, and waterfalls, all most artfully composed in charming little courtyards, each a little different from the next.
The four elements of Chinese gardens, we learned, are plants, water, rocks, and buildings, and the person who built this garden as a gift for his father upon his retirement managed endless beautiful juxtapositions of the four.
The next day was utterly rainy, so there was no choice but China indoors, and no better place than the Shanghai Museum, said to house one of the finest collections in Asia. Many other people had the same good idea, including masses of uniformed school children, so we spent 20 minutes or so standing under umbrellas with the crowd waiting to pass through security. The museum itself is a beautiful, modern building with galleries posed around a central atrium. Most impressive were the bronzes--wine vessels dating back to the 15th century B.C.,
and wonderfully lifelike sculptures from the Ming or Qing periods (i.e., late medieval and and after).
There was also an exquisite gallery of landscape paintings, ethereal compositions of mountains, trees, water, and calligraphy.
For part of the museum time we released the boys to go eat Chinese cookies and do Mad Libs in the museum tea room. But all were still hungry for lunch when we emerged near 3 pm, so luckily, a fast food dumpling shop appeared just across the street, and we savored this wonderful, everyday Chinese experience. The noodle soup was less favored, because of suspicious unidentifiable floating ingredients.
We were supposed to have sailed from Shanghai that night, but because of stormy weather between China and Japan, the captain decided to extend our stay to assure us smoother seas. Sailing out of Shanghai was a passage through an architectural wonderland, at least for the first half-hour or so, until we came to industrial sections containing one smoke-spewing plant after another, which then went on, and on, and on for the next two hours, in the bleakest polluted air we have ever seen. This was a grim sight, and as I sat watching with many others in the glassed-in faculty lounge, an environmental engineer said to me, "This is the scariest city I have ever seen." I asked him what it would take for the Chinese government to put emissions controls in place, and he said probably a massive health crisis--lung diseases, cancer, etc.--which they could no longer endure.
During our stay in China we had several fascinating conversations about Chinese rule, its problems and advantages, and its future. After several days with Jason, our Chinese guide, I spoke with him about how the Indians we met preferred their democratic system even if it meant slower development and slower eradication of poverty. Jason expressed horror at the poverty in India and more so, at the nearly intractable social system that keeps masses believing they belong at the bottom of the scale. We Chinese prefer our own system, he said, smiling; we know that we need a strong emperor. We need someone to make the big decisions for the whole country. But what, I said, if the emperor does not actually have the people’s interest at heart? That’s why we have dynasty change, he replied, still smiling.
Our colleague the engineer said that one reason the Chinese government hasn’t set about making anti-pollution improvements in industry is that it can’t risk idling large numbers of workers in the meantime. Idle workers might spend too much time watching TV about the outside world. Part of China’s incredible growth rate, he said, is artificial—China must keep growing, because it must keep its workers busy. An instructive conundrum.
A giant with--in Jason’s words--a brilliant history, China has undergone transformation after transformation. We felt we were witnessing, in China’s belated embrace of gleaming capitalist modernity, very delicate management of change by the dynasty currently in power. We hope we can return to this amazing country to see what happens next.