Fourteen Days In China

It is said that if you want to learn 3000 years of Chinese history go to Beijing. If you want to learn 1000 years of Chinese culture go to Xian and if you want to learn 100 years of Chinese commerce go to Shanghai. Thus our 14-day visit started in Beijing with this in perspective.

Herein are disjointed impressions of the recent China trip written to fill the time of my jetlag.

Beijing is the center of power, just as Washington is; only it is much older. It has the massive Tianamen Square, the largest square in the world, with Chairman Mao’s huge portrait, which is replaced every year with a new painting, by the same artist for the last 39 years to keep his facsimile eternally looking fresh. The Square receives 30,000 visitors each day and in October, as it was last month the visitors averaged 80,000. We visited the Forbidden City, it is both forbidding and foreboding, and was home to the emperors, their families their concubines, and the eunuchs during the Qing and Ming dynasties. The Pin Yin spelling is now in use; it changed the old spelling of Ching to Qing but keeps the pronunciation. Similarly Chow is now Zhou, but again the pronunciation is retained. There is also the Summer Palace within the same compound, if you can call it such. It is within walking distance. It is frenziedly being restored to its old elegance for the 2008 Games. Kunming Lake where Mao spent many summers is tranquil and beautiful, but marred by the almost ever present smog. The locals call this fog; I guess they had it half right.

The Great Wall which is over 6000 miles long has 8 towers and we started our trek/climb at its midsection, I managed to do two towers. As one goes further from the site of entry, the incline gets steeper and can be hard on the back, but those more physically fit can easily do five towers, which were the number of towers open to the public. According to our tour guide no one had ever trekked the entire length of the Wall in recent memory, except for some Europeans in the 1950’s, who covered it from East to West. Its highest point is not known either. This man-made structure, one of two identifiable as such, by astronauts orbiting the outer space, is truly imposing, awesome and indeed a wonder. It is one thing to appreciate it in pictures and another to actually be there and feel its undulations and absorb its enormity. That afternoon was fairly clear, so that the Wall and its unending serpentine shape stood out against a backdrop of unparalleled pristine mountains pasted against a relatively clear sky. It is indeed the longest and most imposing of all dragons.  It was the Dragon of dragons.

After the Great Wall we visited the east side of the Ming Tombs where eleven emperors were buried. The tour bus was disabled on our way to the Tomb, but lucky for us, a backup bus from the tour company was available after it dropped off another group of tourists to the same destination. After a 20-minute delay we reached our destination. The gold and jade artifacts as well as crowns and costumes, long buried with the emperors were now, all lavishly displayed.

The following morning, we opted on a tour to the Hutongs of Beijing using twoseater Pedi cabs to ride through the very narrow alleys, which were not accessible by car. The Pedi cabs, in a parade-like fashion negotiated the alleys rather wildly. The Hutongs which were the ancient living quarters of the affluent are now a preserved landmark. Any construction or renovation must conform to the original façade and architecture of the old dwelling; this consists of a rectangular-shaped quarters and within it an open central court yard. As in the olden days, the façade of the dwellings show cylindrical bricks that partially jut out; the even-numbered painted bricks, indicated social ranks of the patriarch of the household. The more number of bricks, the higher was the status.

These quarters were confiscated from the original owners and used by the Red Army when they took control of the city but have now been returned to the rightful owners or their descendants. We visited one such dwelling and ate lunch, cooked by the lady of the House. The home had modern furniture and conveniences, albeit modest. This particular quarter was owned by the husband’s family for five generations. Usually, it was the oldest who inherits the house. A lot of construction was on-going making, the area rather dusty. Our typical home cooked lunch, consisted mostly of varietals of vegetables, freshly picked from the central court, now used as a vegetable garden; these were served along with dumplings which we helped prepare. Incidentally, our host conversed freely and was forthcoming about her experience and life under the Communist regime.

We visited a pre-kindergarten school in the area. The kids were cute and lovely and many not shy at all. Apparently visitors like us, come and mingle with them twice a day, and the school in turn receives some sort of support from this arrangement. It costs several hundred yuans per month per kid to attend this school, hence only the ones whose parents can afford are here. It was sad that in one class of 22 I counted only 7 girls. I asked the school guide about the gender disparity, she vehemently denied the existence of such disparity, saying that some of the girls looked like boys. With that assurance, I dropped the point. The kids like to do high fives; a gesture, they probably picked up by watching too much Yao Ming. The school was a version of the Montessori preschool.

Equally memorable was the visit to the Bell Tower which was 158 meters high. It housed at its roof top the original huge bronze bell that weighed several tons; 400 years ago it was rung every two hours at night by at least six men using a huge and long piece of lumber, since the bell had no clapper. The bell apprised the villagers of time. Adjacent to this building was a second tower of about the same size that housed a huge drum, which was banged in the daytime, also every two hours again to serve as the daytime keeper. This building was under renovation at the time we were there. Both bell and drum were in turn dialed into a sundial.

The tower steps, 75 in all were about twice the height of the usual steps and were perpendicularly angled. Thus, in descending the steps, I had to use someone wider than me as a pick, so that I do not see the steep descent to counter acrophobia.

Xian is where the Silk Road began, and quite literally it was opened for China’s silk trade with its neighboring countries which had reached as far away as parts of Africa.

The Chinese introduced silk 4000 years ago and the City is still the center of this industry. The moth cocoons, not butterfly, feed only on mulberry leaves, that are said to make the best pupa feed in the region, thereby enabling the pupa to produce the best and most yardage of silk per cocoon. A precise methodical process, both intricate and interesting, not to say educational, was the harvest, preparation and subsequent weaving of the silk into commercial produce. We went through this demonstration. Of course the demonstration was aimed to soften and prime the visitors to make purchases afterwards.  And every visitor almost does. This industry is fully controlled by the Central government, along with cotton and a third item which I do not recall. Therefore there was no haggling of the price here. I tried but was reminded that no discount could be given, but if the purchases exceed a certain sum, a token gift will be included with the purchase.

Xian was the Old Capital for 11 of the 17 or 18 (if you include The Empress Dowager’s rule (Tzu Xi.)It remains a center of learning, as it was in the ancient times and had produced some of China’s foremost citizens in science, art, literature, architecture, mathematics, philosophy, calligraphy and now information technology. Students come from all over China to study in its many centers of learning. The city has a population of just fewer than 5 million and it has become one of my favorite cities in China and outside. At one time it was the most fortified city of China; a wall was built around the city to protect it from invaders. Aptly it was called the City Wall. The Wall was rectangular in shape and measured thousands of kilometers and to walk it was almost endless. Two-seater bicycles were available for rent. I took eight hundred long steps then turned back, not even catching a glimpse of the other end. Since cement was not invented yet, like the Great Wall, some kind of rice preparation was used to hold the bricks or stones together. 

The 6000 or so, so far, Terra Cotta warriors and horses that guard the tomb of QinShiHuang, the first Emperor of China was discovered in Xian by four illiterate farmers all named Yang, in March 1974. Three of the Yangs are still living, and in fact one Yang who received the most credit for this enormous discovery sits around signing and promoting his book at the Museum Store. The other two are in-charge of the food concession and administration. I bought a signed copy for $15, the author gets 49% for each copy sold and the government takes the rest.  This Yang was about 78 years old, feisty and nasty, covered his face with a fan and refused to be photographed. This was the Yang that fell into the well, while digging for water in his farm. For his discovery the government rewarded him the equivalent of $4 in Yuan or RMB roughly equal to a month’s salary at the time. A belated recognition by the government of this monumental find was granting his wish to build an on-site museum. This well-constructed on-site modern museum occupies six hectares or 10,000 square meters of what used to be farmland. The very concept, the execution, the subsequent discovery and unearthing, and restoration of the Terra Cotta, in each distinct instance was plainly mind boggling. Already the Chinese had proclaimed this find as the 8th wonder of the world, bumping Niagara Falls off the picture, I believe.

Apparently when Bill Clinton visited Xian, he wanted to meet Yang. There was a picture of them together. Yang was illiterate and only had a surname at the time. He was subsequently taught how to write his three- character full name in calligraphy, which he Hancocks on his book. Still he knew no English word. Supposedly he practiced for months and months when he was to meet Bill Clinton. He practiced and learned two phrases, “How are you?” and “Me too”, the latter phrase being the usual response to the one being greeted after he says, “I am fine.” So, armed with these two phrases he was prepared to meet Clinton. At the momentous day of the meeting, Yang’s greeting to Bill Clinton, came out as, “Who are you?” to which Clinton replied, “I am the President of the United States, I am surprised you do not know me. I am married to Hillary.” To which Yang replied, “Me, too.” Our guide swore this actually took place.

Our final destination in Xian that afternoon was the Wild Goose Pagoda. The four elements of a Chinese garden, in keeping with feng shui, were: water, trees, manmade structures like buildings (small pagodas) and bridges, and Karst limestone. These were pivotal to the concept of a Chinese garden. The limestone was unique to the area and was unique because it came in various size and shape, riddled by large porous openings and cavities, very much like a large unevenly gnawed Swiss cheese. During our visit the place was teeming with aspiring artists painting away at various well-appointed spots. Absent the man-made structures, the place could easily be Thoreau’s Walden in all its inherent peace and beauty.

The greatest Chinese poet Li Po (Li Pai), who drowned at the Yangtze River while inebriated once wrote, “There is Heaven above, and there is Suzhou below, and there is Huangzhou, too,” and so it is and how right he was. To that quote I add Guilin. The four-hour slow cruise down the Li River in Guilin was so delightful and tranquilizing as any I have experienced. The unusually shaped mountains, vertical, narrow and majestic are just as the artist had painted them through the years. They stand tall and mighty and yet warm and embracing; it was easy to see how nature dwarfed man and the fishing and cruising boats that go by lazily through the river. Cruising was at very slow pace because of the shallow waters. Cormorants abound and are used by fishermen as helpers. They catch fish with their large beaks with adroitness and are trained to throw the catch back into a vessel specifically meant for that use. They do not themselves eat the catch but depend on what the fishermen later feed them.

We had a mediocre lunch here, but I supplemented the standard dishes served with some turtle soup, which was tasty but was served lukewarm; and tiny crispy deep fried crabs, which were the size of the first phalanx of my thumb. Edible all, they were eaten much like crispy Doritos. The final highlight was a trek thru the cavernous and beautifully but subtly lit Reed Flute Cave which boast of the best stalactites and stalagmites that I have ever seen. Some comparable ones are in New Zealand, although the latter were coarser and less delicate, lacking intricate structural details noted here. There was a soft flute music floating throughout the meandering path, lit by different colors of light, and which switches on and off every two minutes, enough for photo enthusiasts to clip a take of what nature managed to build in millions of years. The stalactites hanging from above and the stalagmites based below have so many varied and fine details that anything, animate or inanimate structures can be imagined. There was the face of an old man with long beard here, there was a lion with a ferocious groan there, there was a mother and her child welcoming her homing husband, and there was the Manhattan skyline, with the Empire State building and all.

A final touch for the day was the evening performance of the China’s Minority Folklore Dance. Speaking of minority, China has four recognized minorities and these are represented by the four small stars that surround a larger star as seen in its official colors. The large star represents the 97% Han majority, while the smaller stars stand for Mongolians, Manchurians, Tibetans and Muslims. The Jewish people traded quite a bit with China when the Silk Road opened but did not plant their roots here. Altogether the tour included three night shows, the folkdance, the acrobats and a Chinese opera.

From Guilin we flew to Shanghai but only to use its airport, as a step for our motor coach ride to Suzhou which was our next destination. It was a 90minute pleasant ride to Suzhou where we spent the night and the next full day. Suzhou is the Garden City, and that title defined it all. This city was immortalized by Li Po in his many poems.

The Humble Administrator Garden is the central attraction and the Garden itself was actually rebuilt in 1949 when the Red Army took over China. The original garden was destroyed by the Japanese during their occupation of the city. Like many cities in China it has a colorful story. It was privately owned by an ex-high ranking government minister who fell out of grace after he was found taking bribes from his underlings while in office. He was demoted to a low ranked officer in charge of the forestry. He built the garden with his own ill-gotten money. For decades it was the best kept garden until the owner retired and gave the garden to his son, who quickly squandered his inherited fortune in gambling. To support himself and his son, the father came out of retirement and started a dumpling place which eventually flourished beyond his expectations. To date the city is known for its dumplings. Suzhou is also a city of canals, at one time it was considered the Venice of the East, and one of the largest canals, the Grand Canal is also found here.

By coach, we went to Wuxi, a city of 500,000. Wuxi literally means No Tin. Over 400 years ago when the Chinese discovered the process of making bronze by mixing copper and tin with mercury as a catalyst, the mountains here had abundant amount of tin. Hence its old name was Yuxi which means Has Tin. The whole of China came to mine its tin, comparable to what happened later, 200 years ago, in California during the gold rush. The mining was not regulated and soon the mountains were depleted of its tin, and the rulers at the time then decided to change Yuxi to its current name of Wuxi.

Wuxi is now known for its cultured pearls; just about ready, to compete with the Japanese cultured pearl, which had been around for many, many years. Although the Chinese refer to oyster as the source of pearl as an oyster, the latter is an actually a large triangular clam, endemic only in the waters of Lake Tai. Lake Tai was a serene body of water, when we were there, surrounded by 40 very small but equally tranquil islands. Supposedly the clam fails to thrive elsewhere when transplanted. This clam, like other clams had a smooth shell surface and not the rugged, uneven coarse shell of the oyster. Each clam when opened yields several pearls, varying in hues, size and perfection; unlike the Japanese oyster which produces only one pearl per oyster. The clam that was opened for demonstration contained 11 pearls which were then given to us for souvenirs. Apparently only 20% of the harvested pearls are of jewelry quality and of these only 5% make up the coveted golden pearl. Whether this was all part of a marketing gimmick or not, the golden pearl did look different and beautiful. There are the white pearls, (most common), pink or lavender, black and now the golden one. The reject pearls were pulverized for cosmetics and medicinal preparations. What medicinal value the powdered pearls possess, only the Chinese know.

Now back to Shanghai, this time to stay for a couple of nights. Shanghai is truly China’s window to the world. It is modern, it is vibrant, and it is a bustling metropolis. Puxi is old Shanghai proper and Pudong is the new area that is aggressively being developed as the Free Zone Trade Center. It used to be not easily accessible because there were no conduits between Downtown and Pudong, until the government built six toll free bridges and six toll free channels connecting the two areas in the last two years. The real estate currently is more expensive in Pudong, because of less air pollution. This we did see. Five hundred of the world’s largest international corporations all have an office in Shanghai. It is a city of 17 million, 8 million of whom are said to be transient. The buildings in Puxi are very sleek, very modern, well-spaced, not boxy, and each attains an individual personality. I did not see any two buildings quite alike. Architecture is definitely futuristic. There is the TV tower, the Gema tower, the tallest, about 80 floors and Hyatt Hotel operates from the 30th to the 80th floor, with rooms per night for $290-2600, Incentives for foreign investors: no taxes for three years. Land can be purchased with little red tape, but had to revert to the government after 50 years. The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Pudong, where we stayed and which just opened last April can compete with any international five-star hotel. The Peace Hotel on Nanjing Road, built and owned by Victor Sassoon in the 30’s, (no relation to Vidal, the hair stylist) has a beautiful view of the Bund and Shanghai skyline. Milan and I had a Singapore sling at its roof garden, while watching the Bund lights lit up the skyline. The sling is definitely better at the Raffles in Singapore but the night view was infinitely better here. The hotel itself had seen better days, it is old and unfortunately had not aged gracefully, but it is still a popular destination among Europeans.

The Trip: Excellent primer for anyone who has never been to China. Hectic, six cities in 14 days, actually 13.

Hotels: All 5 stars, New Otani, the weakest 5-star.

Meals: Breakfast: Good to excellent. Western and Eastern available.

Lunch: All Taken outside of Hotels so as to fit into the schedule of the day. Acceptable to good, perhaps one lunch was very good. Quantity, more than enough, tends to be repetitive, lots of vegetable dishes, sometimes variety of dishes served for the sake of variety, generally standard fare, but then what does one expect for $3 per person for lunch. Served with tea, soda, or a local beer, taste does not measure up to Tsing Tao at home. Low Point: the servings of shrimp chips and French fries each passed as a separate dish. Lunch consists of 10-12 varieties of dishes exclusive of the ubiquitous watermelon which was dessert. Dinners: very good to excellent especially the buffets, despite not being a buffet buff. One continental sit down dinner was acceptable.

Service: Hotels and restaurants generally excellent; staff aims to please, but there is still that language barrier.

Tipping: Included in the service charge at hotels and restaurants. Off-tour restaurants, staff do not expect but will accept tips.

Walking: More than anticipated. A pair of good sneakers, a must.

Washrooms: Hotels, museums and restaurants are clean and conform to conventional standards. Public washrooms are something else. Paper is not provided, so be “papered” (prepared that is.)

Public ones ammoniacally hypercharged, and when combined with hydrogen sulfide, methane gas, scatole and indole, a potent gas potion offensive to olfactory nerve endings is experienced. Only place in the world where WCs are rated, a la Zagat. The highest rated one we saw had a merciful 3-star and this was only for the women side.

Amusing Incident: There are occasional urinals for men consisting of long common urinal with running water at its base with a low elevation just above ones ankle and no privacy. A few feet away from me was a man holding his little cigar with the left hand and water streaming downwards from it while his right hand held a cigarette to his mouth puffing smoke upwards continually. I thought the juxtaposition of cigar and cigarette along with water and smoke, left and right hands, up and down positions was comical.

Shopping: Everywhere one goes, the shops, large and small are well-stocked. Everything beckons to be bought. Every city has something different, something from its area that is offered for you to take home. Haggle, always haggle. If you cannot do it, ask someone who can do it for you. Start at 25 to 30% of initial asking price. The seller will usually feign anger or offense by the size of your offer, but stick to it and be patient. Shanghai has everything. There are instant antiques, and genuine fakes. Vendors and hawkers are about the most universally aggressive and tenacious you will ever encounter. If you ignore them they will follow and at the same time keep dropping their price even before you make your first offer.     

Conclusion: It was a real grand tour, a trip to be experienced.