Yangtze River Cruise and China Revisited 2010
There are manifold reasons or excuses to do a China revisit, i.e., to experience a Yangtze River cruise, view the Shanghai World Expo and not the least of which was to visit the two living siblings of my father, my aunt who lives in Hong Kong and my uncle and his wife who live in Shanghai and to see what changes transpired if any, since three years ago in some of the places previously visited.
Our first stop is Beijing, the capital and Washington DC of China; after four days we flew to Xi’an for three nights then on to Chongqing for one night and took the Yangtze River Victoria Jenna Cruise for four days then disembarked at Yichang to catch our flight to Shanghai where we stayed for four nights then to Hong Kong for four days, the last leg of our trip. We spent half-a-day in Macau by ferry boating from Hong Kong. Passports are needed each way for visitors.
The City and Tiananmen Square
Chang’An Boulevard, “Long Peace” in Chinese, think of it as the Pennsylvania Avenue, is the main avenue of Beijing, immediately in front of Tiananmen Square; it can be as long a route as you want it to be it or it could be shortened depending on where you start and end. It is the road directly before Tiananmen Gate and to the North of the Square. At its full stretch, it starts from Shongjustun District to Tongshu District. It is historical, it is where military parades on important celebrations are held, it is also the site of the 1989 students’ protests, and it is the route taken by the hearse of Zhou EnLai on January 11, 1976 on its way to the cemetery, which was lined by 10 kilometers of 4-5 ft deep mourners on both sides of the boulevard, some gathered there two days earlier. The Gang of Four, led by Jiang Qing, an actress who became Mao’s 3rd wife tried their bitter best to have their local media underplay the funeral coverage and directives were issued to this effect; they discouraged the public from showing up, banned the use of black arm bands and other small silly maneuvers, but still the masses came, they mourned, they cried, and they bade farewell to a leader they all beloved and revered. Recall that Mao was already feeble and ill at this stage and later died in September of the same year, and his wife and her gang were ready to seize control of the government. She hated Zhou and vowed to fight his ghost even after his death. In the meantime in Shanghai there was a 37-minute gun salute and traffic lights stayed red and traffic stood still for the same period of time.
Our hotel is about a block or a broken U-turn away from this historical boulevard so that we passed it by car a few times during our stay. Beijing has changed since our first visit; maybe my perception is also colored by where we stayed the first time which was less central to the city. There are now more modern buildings, and these can be separated from the traditional ones by their pagoda-like roof tops. On the right are all of the important Central Government buildings and to the left are the new high risers, condos and private offices which must have sprouted the last three years and generally have a crew-cut roof. At nighttime the lighting effects of the buildings which are stylishly lit but understated make for a near perfect picture of a beautiful cityscape. Other buildings of note on this address are the Great Hall of Hope, ZhongNaiHai, National Museum of China, National Performing Arts and the Peoples Bank of China. The Beijing railway stations are situated underneath and we walked through the underground passage to get to our car. The Tiananmen Square is still as vast and flat as it was and Mao ZeDong’s annually renewed portrait (now I am told it is every three years) is still keeping an eye on it.(See travel section on prior visit.) I was told that the students protest in 1989 never made it to the Square which was then heavily guarded and they mainly stayed on Chang’An Boulevard during the peak-time of their demonstrations. Remember the
pas deux dance of an advancing tank and the brave young demonstrator shown repeatedly on TV?
The Worship of Heaven
China is an agrarian country and since ancient times the people believed that Heaven controls everything from above because it can throw down thunders, lightnings and rains and can cause famine if there is a drought, it can destroy crops if there is too much water resulting in floods, so it came to pass that a good harvest is solely dependent on what Heaven pleases to send. Consequently the worship of Heaven and the sending of prayers and supplications for a good harvest is equally an ancient ritual practiced by the lowly peasants to the mighty Emperors. It is for this reason that China built many places of worship, namely temples which also became places to honor, worship and pray to ones’ ancestors. The most famous of these temples is the The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a must visit place if one is in the City and is in fact listed in every tour menu and is second in popularity only to the Great Wall. Since Milan and I are the only ones in all segments of this trip, with a docent and a driver,(except for the Yangtze River Cruise where we joined a composite of tour groups) we had the flexibility to spend more time at areas of personal interest and have a one on one discourse with the guide and hence end up with a better appreciation of the Temple, as would happen subsequently in visits to other cities. As related later, there are also some drawbacks with this arrangement.
The Temple of Heaven
This awesome temple is distinct for its vertical tapered three-tiered perfectly circular dome with a pointed spire, the only one of its kind, which reflected the Emperor’s Crown. Its dome is supported by 24 circular wood beams, representing the 24 lunar terms and the circular wall is equally awesome in its rich, albeit with the expected red dominance of gaudy artistic colors, style and adornments. It was built by Zhu Di or simply JongLe (1420), the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty on the 18th year of his reign, and since has been enlarged, refurbished and rebuilt throughout two dynasties. For instance the exterior colors of the three-tiered dome used to be blue, gold, and green in that order were changed by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, (the last dynasty which ended in 1911,) to all blue, again to reflect Heaven’s significance. Actually JongLe was the fourth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, but because of the Chinese disdain towards the number 4, he moved his reign back a notch. I guess if you are the Emperor you can do anything, including moving the clock backwards. The temple became the Temple of worship of Heaven and Prayers for good harvest by the Emperors of both dynasties who paid pilgrimage annually for this purpose. In fact it is called, what else, the Altar of Worship for Good Harvest.
The Temple, which sits on 273 hectares of land, was opened to the public as a park in 1918, and it is the greenest of parks because of its well-maintained 60,000 trees, consisting mostly of 35,000 cypress trees planted in the 14th and 15th centuries by the Ming and Qing dynasties. In 1998 it was listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation by the organization committee. There are many smaller structures of historical significance within the park. These include The Vault of Heaven where the tablets of the god of Heaven are stored, and its three glazed arched gates. The Echo Wall is of acoustical interest because of its seamless circular wall around the Vault.(Incidentally there is a small echo wall on the way to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, just before the Oyster Bar, a Manhattan landmark, which some tourists know of, but not all newly transplanted New Yorkers.)
The large open air Circular Mound Altar (consisting of three levels with nine steps separating each level) to the south of the Temple is also of great interest because it is here that the Emperors worship during the winter solstice. At the top third circular terrace of the Altar is the Heavenly Stone Center where an official stands and reads aloud the prayers during the ceremonial worship. The words of pleas to the god of Heaven resonate loudly and are heard from afar. This stone center is a favorite photo shoot among visitors.
There is also the Fasting Palace built during the reign of JongLe where the Emperor fast before the ceremonies and an annex to the building where he meets his ministers before the fast. What makes it unusual is the building is beamless. There is Butcher Pavilion where the animals are slaughtered before they are offered at the Burning Stove Altar which is within view from the Circular Mound Altar. An aerial view of this entire complex outlines a compelling well-arranged piece of work.
The Forbidden City is in the center of Beijing and is the largest preserved classic Chinese Imperial Architectural Palace of China occupying 720,000 sq meters of land. It is intriguing as it is also deeply intertwined into China’s history. It is the Palace the Ming and Qing Emperors called home and it consists of the Front Court where ceremonies are held and Palace Court where the Emperors and their households, empress, wives (polygamy was accepted in those times)children, extended relatives, concubines, eunuchs and servants live in different quarters. The wives had their own palaces, six western and six eastern palaces. The Palace was ordered burnt down by Emperor Honshu in the early 14th century when he moved the capital of China from Beijing to Nanjing. When ZhuDi JongLe, his son became the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty,(1420) he moved the capital back to Beijing and the Forbidden City was rebuilt using 3 million workers, using the best materials , wood, rocks and marbles available and it was completed in 15 years. The Chinese name is Zijin Chang literally Purple Forbidden City which was its original name. There are 9000 rooms, although our docent insisted that there are 9,999 rooms in the Palace itself and the Emperor moved his sleeping quarters every night for fear of assassination. (Some paranoia reigned, I must say!) The Palace is over five hundred years old and received the UNESCO World Heritage Designation in 1987 as best preserved historical palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The six Eastern and six Western Palaces are so named because of their site orientation, and each has a separate courtyard, and was occupied by the Emperor’s concubines carefully guarded by eunuchs; in those times polygamy was part of the turf. These palaces have been converted to hold old calligraphies, artifacts and furniture of that period for current visitors to view. To move around its vast ground, walk around, and see its preserved magnificence, surrounding the Imperial Palace is to feel and walk with and through history. There is a huge rough rock weighing hundreds of tons cut out from the mountains, beautiful and imposing nonetheless that traveled 7 km; it was pulled and pushed manually by workers for several weeks during the heat of summer to reach the Forbidden City, which is displayed in one of the palace courtyards. The workers had to stop and dig for water to survive their assigned mission all for the pleasure of the ruling Emperor. Without knowing the history behind the huge rock, one can just pass it without even stopping to wonder how it got there. It is indeed almost forbidding an experience, and somewhat foreboding at the same time. You can indeed spend a couple of days here and not even absorb the significance of it all.
The Summer Palace is exemplary in the harmony of Man and his Environment. It is a perfect piece of work where structures of traditional Chinese designs served as examples that influenced future architecture of this genre. It was built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong, burned down during the British-French invasion in 1860 and was rebuilt in 1880 to 1902 but its trove of treasures had already been ransacked by the Eight Allied Powers during the so-called Boxer Rebellion. It was frequently used by CiXi, the Empress Dowager who misappropriated the Naval Defense funds to rebuild the Palace and a smaller palace to celebrate her birthday. At present it stands as a masterpiece of traditional classical Chinese architecture and gardening, surrounded by mountains (The Longevity Hill which is about 60 meters high) and the peaceful Lake Kunming. We took a motorized boat on the Kunming Lake to the other end for a closer look at the Pearl Water Tower, the water source restricted for the Emperors and their guests use when they visited; and got closer to the White Arch Bridge which can be crossed by foot. The Marble Boat stands white and majestic from a distance but is not accessible to the public. It is in the shape of multiple story boat anchored by a whole piece of white marble and the rest of the boat which is made of marble as well served as a resort place for the Emperors and his family. The Long Corridor described below is the longest of its kind; and the art work has recently been refurbished before the 2008 Olympics. Beijing is also unusually clear the day we visited, and most of the structures mentioned were obscured by smog on our first visit but are quite visible now even from afar. These made for a wonderful grand revisit. There is a legend that when a jug of treasures disappeared mysteriously from the Gold Mountain Palace which is atop the hill, it signaled the decline of the Ming Dynasty.
The characters and principals depicted in the stories of the Four Ancient Classical Novels in Chinese literature are painted in this longest corridor of its kind leading to the Summer Palace. These are The Story of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber (CiXi, The Dowager’s favorite novel) and The Journey to the West which has 100 chapters. These were written in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. The art remains intricate and edges on excellence. The portrayal of events and characters would even be better relished if one is conversant with the novels narrated in the four ancient classics. This of course, is a regret of mine.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall was started during the reign of JongLe, of the Ming dynasty. In wonder, in structure, in concept and in its execution it has no second. As a start point JongLe (Zhu Di) connected the already existing walls of the six states he vanquished, thus was the start point of building The Great Wall. All through Chinese history the rulers were always fearful of attacks from outsiders or uprisings by the abused masses, who were always the great majority (“uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”) but in the case of the Great Wall, it was also the fear of Northern invaders, the Mongols; and the Wall secondarily served to relay urgent messages to the Emperor from the North by horse relays, some sort of early Pony Express. To a much miniscule scale the erection of Intramuros in Manila, Philippines by the Spaniards during the colonization of the country served the same ulterior protective intent. The Spaniards segregated and fortified their own settlements in Manila by erecting the walls to keep away the compliant natives they enslaved, for fear of uprisings, which eventually happened 299 years later. ( A more descriptive experience at the Great Wall is in the 2007 travelogue.)
We were dropped off at what looked like the start of The Great Wall, with probably over 500 hundred steps looking down at us, to be climbed, to reach and view the Wall and its magnificent mountainous surroundings on a clear day. This became an issue when our guide told us after he was confronted, that where tourist normally get off (at the 6th tower area, we have been there before) is packed and the advice was to detour; which was a total fib, but I let it ride because this was our first day in China and we saw and walked up the Wall from a different perspective before. It was also the first issue which alerted me to his craftiness. This docent is young, smart, personable but overly sly. There were more to follow during this Beijing segment which left me with no choice but to register a typed report on his demeanor and performance to the Ritz Tours organization once we were in New York. (I finally received a “we’ll investigate” response after three failed attempts and this with the help of my travel agent.)There are pluses in being out of a sizable tour group, no waiting for other tourists, flexibility of time to linger in places of your interest, full attention of your docent. There are also some drawbacks, the want of others point of views during the tour, and having to remind the docent, very politely at the outset not to digress from the given itinerary unless instructed otherwise, and not vice versa and also make it known that you are allergic to souvenir shops, which are their favorites. Once this is cleared it will be smooth sailing.
The Ming Tombs
We missed this part during our 2007 visit because our bus broke down and had to keep on with the schedule of that tour. This tour made up for what we missed.
According to our docent 13 of the 15 Ming Emperors are entombed in what is collectively known are the Ming Tombs which is 50 km from Beijing. It is also one of the greenest parts of Beijing considering its proximity to the city proper. Beijing skies were clear throughout our stay, a far cry from our first visit when it was smoggy, gray and gloomy. I think the 2008 Olympics did Beijing a great good if this holds up.
The first two Ming Emperors are believed to be buried in Nanjing, the capital of China before Zhu Di or JongLe moved it back to Beijing. The exact coordinates of the 12 tombs are known but the government refuses permission for additional archaeological excavations of the remaining tombs. The only Ming tomb (DingLing Tomb) that was archeologically explored in 1956 is that of Wanli, the 13th Emperor. The distinction of being entombed with his two empresses was reason enough for its selection for excavation; his second marriage took place after the first wife died of natural causes. JongLe, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1420), chose the site of his own mausoleum which later became the subsequent burial grounds of all succeeding 13 emperors. He chose it based on favorable FengShui considerations, not least of which is the 40 square meter burial flatlands is surrounded by the auspicious Junhu Mountains with rivers running through it. Despite Zhou EnLai’s support to excavate JongLe’s tomb which is the largest of all, this did not happen because the archaeologists themselves went against it. The Dingling Tomb yielded a trove of treasures, but unfortunately the silk outfits along with other more fragile and vulnerable items were carelessly handled and are gone. To me, the most impressive treasure artifact I saw is an Empress gold crown stitched completely with a single continuous gold thread which remains intact. To appreciate the art is first to appreciate the process of how it came about, and this was some undertaking.
Pathway to Heaven
This is a long, wide flat concrete pathway that leads to the temple which houses the Ming Tablets. It is lined on each side by huge stone replicas of animals, real and mythical, and warriors with armors, and plain soldiers each placed carefully equidistant to the next statue and are perfectly aligned; they symbolically are to secure the pathway that the Emperors are supposed to take on their way to Heaven. It is about a kilometer long, is walkable or reachable by a driven cart for 10 RMB a person one way; we opted for the latter but stopping for photo shots of the large statues of interest to us, until we arrived at the end of the path, where the driver was waiting for us.
Enter CiXi, the Empress Dowager (1861-1908)
Cixi or the Empress Dowager, was never officially enthroned, but nonetheless ruled China for 48 years, from 1861 to 1908, through her cunning and manipulations behind the screen, and in Chinese history, her period of reign is considered the weakest point in China’s history. (Her title I believe was courtesy of Western press.) She rose to power because she was a favored concubine of XianFeng. She totally controlled her son Zaichun, (Tengshi)) who became the Emperor at the time, followed by her grandson Guangxu (Tonshu) who also became Emperor during the declining years of the Qing Dynasty. Despite her rule of almost 50 years Chinese history never accorded her the title of an Empress because of her egocentric innate corrupt character and her uncaring detachment towards the masses, something akin to Marie Antoinette, only perhaps worse. When she died in 1908, PuYi was the Last Emperor of Qing Dynasty, the last Emperor of China who was a mere 3-year old when installed to the throne; he officially abdicated on February 12, 1912 and fled to Manchukuo where he was a Japanese puppet. Later he was imprisoned in Shenyang when the Communist took over China but was pardoned by Mao in 1959. (The movie the Last Emperor is based closely on his life and is the first and last Western movie to be allowed to be filmed in the Forbidden City).
During Cixi’s reign she knew and learned of the affairs of the court by listening or spying behind the curtains at the Hall of Mental Cultivation, where the affairs of the state are discussed and thus had a heads up on state issues and assumed the power behind the throne. Cixi was a reader, and her favorite novel was Dream of the Red Mansions which resulted in a fresco being painted in the Long Corridor. (It is akin to Oprah Winfrey endorsing a book in her Book of the Month Club.) It was also during her rule that the Sino-Japanese war erupted whereby China sustained a humiliating naval defeat. She misappropriated defense funds to build a palace in the Summer Palace compound to celebrate her coming birthday. The defeat resulted in China ceding Taiwan to Japan in 1898. The Eight Allied Powers took advantage of China’s vulnerability and declared war against her. The countries were led by Britain, France, and included the United States, Japan, Germany, Portugal, Russia, and Hungary. It is not clear whether Italy was part of these Forces, but clearly it has a presence in China. China was brought to her knees and suffered further humiliations when she was forced to sign a unilateral Peace Treaty which stipulated the annexations of Hong Kong to Britain and Macau to Portugal for 99 years. Recall also that the initial internal weakening blows to China’s sovereignty occurred during the two Opium Wars courtesy of the British Empire; initially intended to make up for its trade deficits with China by importing opium from India and bringing it to China and eventually, the reason was to keep the Chinese, whose population multiplied immensely, under control, is by drugging them. In other words enslave the whole country through opium, and this will preclude or at least suppress any uprisings. The two wars were about a decade or so apart.
A visit to the City of Shanghai should also include a visit to its Museum which boasts of 120,000 pieces of art works and artifacts. As museums go, the Shanghai museum is small and relatively new. The current museum was built in 1993 and completed in1996. It used to be on Nanjing Road, and then moved to what used to be National Racehorse Club in 1959 and finally to its present location. Although small, it has some strong collections in calligraphy, artifacts from the Bronze Age or 4th Century B.C., and Chinese paintings, jade and ceramic collections in its permanent exhibits. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin and sometimes other elements are added such as phosphorus, manganese, zinc etc. The earliest Bronze artifacts found are in Iran and the etymology is variable, it maybe from bronzo, bruzi, and binyi, Italian, German, and Iranian respectively.
Collections for collections the museum is no match to the more extensive collections at the National Museum in Taipei whose overall treasures are believed to have been looted out of China when the Generalissimo Chiang Kai Sheik retreated to Taiwan after Mao Zedong took control of the reigns of China. It has the most extensive calligraphy collections in the world. Its artifacts and paintings are periodically rotated because the museum space limits a one-time exhibit.
The Bronze Age exhibits are fascinating, particularly the bronze bells with no clappers which are of ascending sizes; there is one set that is complete which played soft haunting tunes (reproduced in the ear phones made available to viewers) and the diverse wine vessels and cups that are in exhibit were expressive of the tedious steps taken by the artisans of that time. What remains puzzling is if the Chinese were acquainted with wine early on, as shown in its ancient history, why is it they are still struggling with their vineyard industry? One possible explanation, maybe they dealt with different sources of wine like using rice instead of grapes, or whatever prevailing grains were current in those times. Grapes are not endemically grown in China. Rice wine started in China but I would argue that the Japanese have the upper hand here, in the form of their sake. Chinese rice wine somehow has fallen as something for use to enhance flavor in certain types of cooking.
The calligraphy exhibits are very strong, if you have originals of the heavies like Wang XiShi (303-361), Zhang Xu (658-747), and Wang XiangZhi (the 7th son of Wang XiShi) and many others that I did not recognize in the permanent collections the Museum certainly has a lot of beef. The Chinese considered calligraphy as the highest form of art because of its innate abstract nature, history and an unforgiving styles and strokes when each character is inscribed. During holidays, the gifting among the literati consists in exchanging the Four Treasures i.e., the brush, the ink stick, rice paper and ink stone has been an ancient practice and tradition.
During this visit, I went through quickly a sizable temporary exhibit on loan from the Uffizi Gallery from Italy, owned by Arturo di Medici which was originally founded by the Medici family in 1521. China and Italy have had a close historical bond in trade and culture because it is the only foreign sovereign in China that did not abuse or ransack China’s treasures when war was declared by the Eight Allied Powers against China. In fact a well known Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci from Macerate, Italy born in 1552 came and lived in China for 27 years as a Jesuit missionary, and died in Beijing. He introduced Italian art to China, had formed a kinship with the Chinese people and its rulers, donned attires of the nobles, and hence became very influential in art, culture and science. Some Italian paintings like the Madonna and Child is still preserved in Beijing. He also confirmed that Cathay Marco Polo and China are one and the same land to another Italian Jesuit priest who came from India to visit him. Some of the paintings are loaned from his early Italian collections. He contributed in astronomy, altosphere, physics, mapping, and introduced Western culture and tried to bridge the same with Eastern philosophy. In China he is known and respected as Li Madou, a rough transliteration of his name. Chinese names are usually made up of three characters that conform to three anglicized syllables; the last syllable in Ricci was dropped and became Li since the letter R sound does not really exist in early Chinese literature and is written with surname as the first character. This mutual bond with Italy continued to the present, note that the recent huge bull bronze statue installed at the Park on the Bund recently, was sculpted by an Italian artist.
In 221 BC at the age of 39 after conquering six other warring states, namely, Qi, Zhou, Yan, Han, Zhao and Wei, QinShiHuang declared himself the First Emperor of China, thus establishing the Qin Dynasty, the first of many dynasties to follow. His phobia of death, thrust him to a fixation of finding the elixir of life, but he died at the age of 50 anyway, making his rule one of the shortest in Chinese history but unarguably, it remains the most pivotal; he unified China for the first time and its people who are later to be known as the Hans, which to date are the 94% majority of China’s population. He was the first to abolished the feudal system, create a Central State of governance with several districts headed by his appointed leaders who report to him; the reports (written in seal style calligraphy) are inscribed on bamboo or wood which were literally submitted and read not by pages, but by weights; he standardized the system of weights, measures, currency and written language; promulgated his edicts and policies in inscribed tablets to every district, introduced extensive constructions of infrastructure, like roads, bridges, including, the building of the Great Wall (this was carried on by dynasties to come after him) and the construction of his own burial grounds, which he himself selected and where the terracotta warriors are later to surface. Despite all these contributions he also ordered the destruction of Confucian records (so that nothing counters his policies) and had three prominent Confucian scholars murdered. His tomb is about 1.5 km from Xi’an, the site was chosen based on its auspicious FengShui location, facing Mount Li or Li Shan mountains,(dragon) one rich in gold another in jade and the waters at the foot of these mountains running through it (phoenix.)
Update on the City Wall
The City Wall is as I remember it, it is still the best preserved fortified fortress of China smaller and second only to The Great Wall in its history. Its massive specifics are perfectly flat, long and wide and the strategic positions of the assigned defenders of the Emperors have to take to safeguard this city as the capital of China then are still evident by the structures of the wall itself. (See 2007 write-up on City Wall.) What I did not know until it was pointed out by our docent was the existence of an outer wall that surrounded this inner one which still exists as ruins, and which we did see. This is very much like the ruins of the walls, in Rome. To redo the outer wall is too prohibitive a price for the city to undertake now our guide asserted. At one point, and this was in the last two decades, the government planned to demolish the City Wall itself, but the long time thinking residents objected in unison to its destruction and they prevailed. Thus the construction of high risers never took a foothold within the City Wall but outside the Wall, high risers of all heights have sprouted. Thus the beauty of old Xi’an remains.
Terracotta Warrior Museum
We revisited the terracotta warriors, in Pit 1, and it just continues to amaze how these all came about. A few days before our visit, I read that another 114 terracotta soldiers have been unearthed and we saw the site of this new find. Our tour guide told us that it will take at least five years to restore them as close to what they used to be. He pointed out some charcoaled-burnt areas which were sites of fire. Two years ago the Museum was awarded the much coveted UNESCO World Heritage Designation. Two hands folded into a square represents Earth is circumscribed by a larger circle which represents Heaven, and the hands in supplication represent Man is my Chinese abstract interpretation and the other is simply Man holding gingerly the fate and future of the World in his hands. This simple piece of icon with the words World Heritage in English and French graces the ante-room leading to the main terracotta finds.
It is estimated that there are 6000 warriors in the largest Pit 1, arranged in rows as if poised for battle. Other smaller pits unearthed, are those of officials, generals, officers, archers and acrobats of the court, cavalry and their horses based on the design of their outfits which indicated their ranks and positions; some bronze rare birds and the two chariots each drawn by four horses one called High Chariot and the Comfort Chariot which are half the size of the actual models used. The human figures are distinguished by their outfit, postures, body size and the individual features of the facial structures possibly modeled after real people.
Yang Number 2
The Yang, one of four farmers, who fell into the well and subsequently led to the terracotta discovery died soon after the 2008 Olympics. This feisty elderly man was the designated first official terracotta book signer who at the time of our initial visit refused to be photographed and would snap out loud displeasures at tourist who dares click a photo of him. His replacement, let’s call him Yang 2, as all the farmers were named Yang, appears more civil and is now the designated book-signer for the second edition of the book on the terracotta soldiers. Since I did buy a signed copy of the first, I did cough up enough RMBs for a copy of the new edition. Yang 2, is calmer, more poised and even scribbled a semblance of his name in Pin Yin and in calligraphy plus he dated the book. He is more entrepreneurial, wears a ZhongShan suit and will pose for a photo shoot if asked, for a mere 20 RMB fee, which he literally openly pockets after a shot is taken. For me the new signed book is enough for a meaningful memento. I did not need a photo shoot with a male Chinese entrepreneurial amateur counterpart of Sarah Palin. Incidentally another Yang died earlier before the first Yang and of the original 4 discoverers of this world wonder only two are still alive.
The Second Pavilion
We visited a second pavilion which housed the two incredible horse drawn bronze chariots adorned with silver and gold. This implies that soldering different metals together was already known to the Chinese during that early period. The horses, men, and chariots are half the size of the actual models, and represent a symbolic Chinese belief that the departed emperor and empress needed rides on their travel to the next world. The replicas are accurate, intricate, and artistically a marvel of details. The belief of providing symbolic travel means is still carried on by some Chinese expatriates, especially if the departed is affluent, powerful or one of high standing politically; instead of bronze chariots miniaturized Papier Mache models of boats, Cadillac or Mercedes, maybe now, Lexus are part of funereal services.
A Film on the Warring States and the Unification
The first time I saw this 25 minute film I did not quite put into context its great significance in early Chinese history. It is about the QinShiHuang and his conquest of the six other warring states, and the first Emperor to unify China under one rule, a simulation of how the terracotta pottery figures were crafted, the construction of his own mausoleum, the craftsmen who were buried with him to keep the secrecy of the coordinates of the tomb, (not in the film) the order by the Second Emperor that all men without children follow QinShiHuang to his grave, who were either killed or buried alive with him. QinShiHuang was entombed only after his mausoleum was completed. At least some 100 human skeleton remains to date have been discovered.
Tower of Drums
In our first visit we missed this tower because the interior was undergoing renovations. This tower is shorter than the Tower of Bao which it faces. These two towers in the ancient times are used to tell time. When evening sets the huge Bell is rung by a dozen strong men using a huge piece of lumber to bang on it and its sound indicates nighttime and the Drum is banged, which had a different sound, to indicate sunrise or daytime and therefore work time. This was how the villagers and workers separated daytime from nighttime.
I explored with my guide the three storied building which has been converted into a tourist spot with a small entrance fee. The outside of the first floor is surrounded by colorful drums and four much larger ones interspersed among the small ones. A collection of various shapes and types of drums is displayed on the second floor, drums not only from China but from other countries like Africa, Egypt and Middle East countries. I looked but did not find any Native American Indian drum. (Perhaps this could be corrected.) The largest drum is a replica, because the original no longer exists; it is on the third floor and of course there is a souvenir shop, too. In China in every tourist spot the ubiquitous souvenir shop follows, except in Hong Kong where the souvenir shops are also part of the tourist attractions. There is also a balcony where this part of Xi’an can best be viewed. Milan preferred to people watch and viewed instead the wares of local vendors rather than climb up the steps which were not really that steep unlike those of the Bao Tower.
Chongqing is the most populous municipality in China with 36 million people, not necessarily by migration but by accretion of neighboring districts. Shanghai municipality is second with 18 million and Beijing third with 12 million people. Municipalities are directly accountable to and governed by the Central Ruling Party. This municipality is the youngest, only 13 years old and as Chinese ancient history goes it is relatively lusterless. It came on the map after Nanjing fell into the Japanese hands in 1937 during the Massacre of Nanjing (Nanking then, was the capital of China) or the Rape of Nanjing which officially recorded 300,000 civilians, women and children slaughtered in a 7-week continuous rampage of the city by the Japanese Imperial Army and where human biologic experiments were performed (sounds familiar?) without anesthesia for fear the latter would interfere with experimental data; and 20,000 to 30,000 women were raped. The whispered number of Chinese slaughtered is said to be under a million. This part of Sino-Japanese history is not recorded by conscious omission in Japanese history books used by their students because of selective revisionism of history, just as some Texas history books are now conveniently being revised, except in the latter, the subject gravity is of far lesser scale. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Sheik and his troops saw the futility of defending Nanjing and moved the capital to Chongqing. Remember also that China was concurrently in a debilitating civil war; the Kuomintang fighting the rebels of the People’s Red Army led by Mao Zedong. Out of necessity or because of it the Chongqing Agreement to unite and fight the Japanese was signed here by Chiang Kai Sheik and Mao Zedong, who by now was the undisputed leader of the People’s Army.
We had a fruitful full day in Chongqing which included seeing our first live panda, actually a number of them, small and big ones in their make-shift cave-like habitats in the City Zoo. They are mostly outside their caves to be viewed because the keepers made sure that their “table” is always supplied with bamboos of relatively thick stems and branches, their main staples; this makes me think they have strong teeth and a steely stomach to gnaw and crunch this steady diet. Our docent left us with a cute panda joke namely that pandas have only two dreams in life, one to eat (and all the ones we saw were all voraciously munching bamboo stems and branches,) and the other is a hope to catch up on their sleep but can’t because of their eyes. Newborn pandas are tiny and difficult to separate from a newborn mouse and not cute at all and if you are squeamish this feeling is enhanced. Where there are children there is joy, and where there are many children of varying ages it is festive and noisy, and usually they are accompanied by two generations of family members or perhaps even some aunts and uncles to boot. This is the panoramic picture we saw in the large zoo-park of Chongqing. It is always wonderful to see families enjoying quality time together.
The Immigration Association of Chongqing
The Immigration Building of the City is about 300 years old and it was built to honor the memory and history of the first immigrants to this city. It was initially funded by a rich immigrant merchant who made it in the city and was intended as a civic and meeting place of members of the community. Eventually it evolved into an association whereby the new immigrants are able to take small loans, instead of going to the banks that existed then which required more requisites. The borrowed money is usually used to buy seeds to plant crops for the following year and to be repaid at harvest time. A small theatre for folklore plays, with bench seats are still occasionally in use and we took the occasion and pretended to watch some Chinese plays or opera.
I believe that this is the origin of the ubiquitous family associations that exist in different Chinatowns in the United States and elsewhere. They have the same objective, to help new immigrants by loaning out money to members of the same surnames, hence it is known as a family association; for bonafide small businesses usually the interest is left at the discretion of the borrower when he repays the loan with the assumption that his business did pay off. This practice has since been adopted by Koreans in their own communities.
We stopped at the People’s Hall of Chongqing, a three-tiered crown roofed-building patterned after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing only this is not a place for prayers or worship but a new large commercial building intended for retail business; its base is on an elevated above the rest of the more expansive People’s Park which is at the foot of the mountain; it is at a lower level and evenly flat and made more comfortable by the shades thrown by the leafy trees. In this wide spacious area is the new Three Gorges Museum of the city which our docent encouraged us to visit. There are a few wide dozen steps to the museum. The economy of Chongqing benefited positively by the building of the Three Gorges Dam.
The tree-shaded park is a central gathering for many adults, whiling the afternoons away and I guess the mornings too; some play cards, others mahjong (it used to be banned as decadent),and trading tales in small mixed groups. I did not see any public drinking of alcohol, brawls or altercations usually common in a busy, crowded place but I was drawn to the loud songs and music played with Chinese instruments by two competing mixed adult groups within ear shots of the other. They were singing folk songs and the more patriotic soundings ones are clearly, even to my untrained ears, old revolutionary songs which our young guide confirmed. Some participants, eyes misty, sang with gusto and nostalgia but still appeared to be enjoying the afternoon. Hearing the revolutionary songs, I asked our docent if there is a chance China will turn the back the clock and go to her old ways of repression, her quick answer was “Never!” Our docent, the best one so far, asserted that what we were witnessing was not the same scene of long ago; people did come to the park, not in these numbers but were glum, not laughing or smiling, not happy; and then she related how her parents constantly reminded her of the hard times they had experienced. She begrudges the fact that at the time of Mao her parents learned nothing more than the slogans and his teachings and the little red book was a required reading. My informal canvass as who among their leaders are most admired, they almost uniformly say Deng ShiaoPeng, and Zhou Enlai. The present leader Hu Jintao is also quite popular and respected. Our vibrant docent is local, a transplant from one of the villages that was evacuated by the government because of the Three Gorges Dam Project; is engaged to be married to an IT student this October, went to Beijing University, and returned to her new roots to be a docent, a popular and much sought position; she was able to get in because of her English fluency. She also said she bought an apartment with her fiancé, and I raised the question if the wedding does not go through what happens; she said she was not worried because the condo is in her name. Déjà veau experiences (not the condo) are to be repeated by three other young female docents during our ferryboat/sampan segments of the cruise to come. According to her, the course of learning a foreign language at her university is not optimum, because while they are taught the basics of a language it has no conversational component which she considered critical; she picked up English on her own by watching American TV shows and movies and speaking with foreigners. It is for this reason I think that their enunciation, if apparent, has mixed American TV derived accents, expressions and slangs along with some memorized responses; if you happen to deviate from the expected phraseology in your queries there can be trouble with the answers. Everyone however, asks, invites, welcomes and is eager to be corrected.
She guided me to the museum and walked through the modern history of the City, as we viewed old photos after photos of people who shaped its history. She pointed out the principal figures that belonged to the City’s history.
I enjoyed the museum more than I anticipated and took my time at very different bigger than life sculptures of two groupings of men. Poetry and calligraphy flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and the five most celebrated poets in ancient Chinese history are immortalized in one sculpture. I remember three, the poet Li Po (Li Biao) with a smile and his wine cup raised up in the air, Du Fu and perhaps Su Xie who was also a classic calligrapher; and the other sculpture, is a heart wrenching group of men simply known as trackers who earned a living for centuries by pulling boats loaded with heavy cargoes upstream of the Yangtze River to the shore, literally using their almost naked bodies by chaining themselves together with thick ropes to stay in track and unison while pulling. To keep going and keep their spirits up they sang, soft songs of misery, (perhaps similar to the blues of the South), but also left marks of their toil in the narrow stone paths they tracked, and cuts on the rocks and cliffs made by their ropes in the process of their pull. The anguished, despair, and absent looks of these wretched emaciated men, reminded me of a poem I once had to memorize, The Man with the Hoe by Edwin Markham. The small, narrowly stretched, palpable biceps and gastrocnemius muscles of the men which looked almost as slight as the tendons anchoring them to their equally peripatetic bones are now etched in my memory. The muscles and tendons seem ready to rupture at any given moment. The Markham poem is apropos to this art piece especially these lines:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans,
(Only in this case the men lean forwards and backwards)
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
(Instead of a hand held hoe a boat with heavy cargo is pulled, and they gaze not on the ground but on nothingness)
Who made him dead to rapture and despair
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back his brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within his brain?
(Who else but the merchants of avarice of the time and who have their current counterparts (try to catch American Greed on TV)
Our docent added, and this was repeated by the Cruise lecturer later, to avoid giving the Trackers their meager pay after their arduous work is done, heartless merchants cut them loose and let them drown in the River with no one even taking notice.)
…There is no shape more terrible than this—
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed-
More filled with signs and portents for the soul-
More packed with danger in the universe.
(Think for a moment about BP, what it has done, what It is not doing and Maddox, Koslowski, Enron, Adelphi, Cheney, Russfeld and the rest of the gang etc., etc.)
What gulfs between him and the seraphim?
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him are
Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
(The easy answer to the first is None and to the Second, is Nothing.)
….Through this dread shape the suffering ages look:
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited;
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream.
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, Immedicable woes?
Are we going to put back the light that we blunted? If there is a will, Maybe we’ll still find a way)
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings-
With those who shaped him to the thing he is-
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries.
(Can we wait for the silence of the centuries? It could besomewhat late wouldn’t it?)
I have seen prints of the Jean Millet’s The Man with the Hoe, but never the original (it is in Private Collection) which moved Markham to write this poem of the same title, but the sculpture of the group of trackers is more soul wrenching than any of its genre that I have seen. I must wonder what Markham, had he laid eyes on this particular piece of work, which the Met, Prado, Louvre, MOMA or Guggenheim would proudly own if they can, how much more would he have been moved, what words would have been spawned by his quilt or pen? I find it awkwardly embarrassing; I did not even take note of the artist’s name that did this moving masterpiece.
The Yangtze River Cruise
Victoria Jenna-An Overview:
We have never taken a cruise, and therefore did not know what to expect. The Victoria Jenna is a small ship, and is about 7 months old. The size of the ship is constrained by narrow path the vessel has to sail through. We were surprised by the large comfortable accommodation assigned to us, which can pass easily for a 5 star hotel room with all its amenities plus a private deck shared with Cabin 302 across us. There is a king-sized bed and the automated double drapes on the left side open to the waters and mountains while the front drapes open to the deck and the changing scenery as we sailed. At night the mountains are riddled by lit homes and buildings of the towns or cities we passed. There are altogether 376 diverse guests, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Asians from the Pacific Rim, and a father/daughters trio from Brooklyn and 153 crew members and staff. The dining room wait staff and others multi task in rotation as night entertainers and performers at nine in the evening. There are meaningful educational lectures (about the three gorges, the dam, acupuncture, and the cruise itself), interesting commentaries through the overhead audios as we are sailing and when we are getting close to a highlight; the daily shore excursions, what to expect, to see or experience, are pre-printed the night before; daily early morning tai chi exercises are scheduled and card and mahjong games could be set up, for those so inclined to participate. Since it is a relatively large group, specific tables are assigned to each guest for the entire trip based generally on country and language commonality which I thought made protocol sense but not necessarily inter-educational enrichment.
During the one hour acupuncture lecture by Dr Ou not only did I learn, about acupuncture meridians, cupping and scraping but I also experienced all three by volunteering to be the stage subject. I took my shirt off and at least 8 acupuncture needles are planted in my nape, left shoulder and back of my chest, and one near my left snuff box did cause pain, which the acupuncturist said is expected because it is a main meridian. Two cups suctioned my mid upper back muscles and left round red marks for a few days; I believe this is a form of moxibism and a large area of my upper back chest was scraped with a hard brush or scraper with some aromatic herbs; this felt like a relaxing deep massage; I could not see any of these demonstrations except for the needle inserted in my left hand. Needless to say, I survived with flying colors.
THE YANGTZE RIVER
In this trip it became crystal clear that Chang Jiang, meaning the “Long River” or simply known as, The Yangtze River is undoubtedly the life line of China. Come hell or high water, China will never cede its control, to any power or group, for whatever reasons; for whoever controls the Yangtze River, controls China. Water is vital to China’s viability. The World now fights for oil; wait till it fights for water. I do not think it has anything to do with religious suppression or the rejection solely of granting secession; it has to do with control of the River. Again, let me underscore that the Yangtze River is the life line of China.
Yangtze River, which measures 3900 miles (6,380 km) is the third longest and has the third largest volume of water (Nile, being the longest, followed by Amazon the second longest but with the largest volume) and Mississippi the 4th. Its apogee of water source is the rainfall in summer and the glacial melt that come from the Mt. Gelandong (20,000ft or 6621 miles of The Tanggula Mountain System on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The Valley is home to 30% of the people or roughly1/12th of the earth’s population, has over 700 tributaries and washes away 250 million tons of silt away annually.
The River is divided into the Upper, Middle and Lower Reaches depending on navigability. The Upper Reaches is un-navigable because of its drastic elevation and troughs and has four different segments namely the Murmuring Stream which starts from the very peak; River Leading to Heaven because it looks like a river coming from the sky, Golden Sand River which consists of Three Great Rivers, First Bend on the Yangtze, and Tiger Leaping Gorge; the fourth segment is the Sichuan River in the Sichuan basin from Yibin to Yichang where The Three Gorges are geographically located.
The Middle Reaches has smoother current but is constantly under severe flood threats and makes up the entire Jing River, and is the Breadbasket of China.
The Lower Reaches is easy sailing with two-way passages and this is where our tour started. It consists of the Xunyang River where it meets the Poyang Lake, “the land of fish and rice.” Finally the Yangtze River is the segment between Yangzhou and Shanghai (Huangpu River) which drains to the Eastern China Sea.
The Three Gorges (Known as Sanxia in Chinese)
Gorge as used in this context is a narrow passage of water, or a throat passage of water between two almost based-kissing mountains. The mountains along the Yangtze River on either side are as breathtaking as they are also massive; these are very unlike the mountains in Guilin which are typically taller and slimmer and seem to scrape closer the sky but their bases do not close together to create a gorge. The areas which used to be villages (now part of the river) that were uprooted were pointed out as we sailed through what is now a large water reservoir. Throughout the sail route new beautiful bridges of modern metallic designs, rich in red-orange colored accentuations and styles, some arch over from one side of the mountains to the opposite side; some arches support the bridge and still some arches are inverted and act lift up support of the bridge; the longest one connects directly to Chongqing which is yet to be completed; I do not recall seeing any two bridges that are designed and constructed identically although materially they are the same. The Mountains are a favorite foreground and backdrop of traditional Chinese paintings, and both are well represented. In fact the Qutang Gorge, which measures 5 miles (8km) long and considered the most magnificent is pictured on the back of the 10 RMB bill, and Mao on the front. This is the first Gorge we sailed through. When we disembarked we had to transfer to a motorized ferryboat to cross through the smallest gorge, namely Qutang. This is the closest we got to “touch” the mountains and the water is much clearer, almost green in color and silt-free. We even saw one brave soul swimming, most likely a local since we did not hear any missing tourist announced. High up in the mountains there are caves where the newly discovered hanging coffins of the Ba people were pointed out by the tour guide but barely visible because they were up so high. Many of the coffins have found new homes in some museums. This indeed is the most picturesque of the Lesser Gorges. From the ferryboats we were divided to even smaller groups and took to the waiting sampans where the ferryboat stopped to let us disembark. One of the attendants and our lovely docent sang some local folksongs while we sailed along one of the tributaries of Yangtze, the Daning River. This was as tranquilizing and at the same time as moving a sail experience as one could expect. As we came within earshot of the mountains, we heard welcoming music from the villagers and on our departure goodbye melodies were sang as well, in their native dialect; the music was soothing and haunting. We reversed the boarding process on our way back to the Jenna, the mother ship.
The Wu Gorge, considered the most beautiful measures 27 miles (45km) while the longest which measures 47 miles (78km); the overhead audible calls attention to the highlights of the tour as we sail through them along with salient commentaries. When we reached the Goddess Peak which stood out as an oversized phallus from our deck; he narrated that legend has it that there used to be 9 evil dragons once roaming this area, and raised havoc to the local mountain villagers. Then there is this beautiful woman who took the plight of the tribes and with her unusual powers, slew dead all the dragons and the large mountains on both sides of the Yangtze River are the remains or backs of the slain dragons and meanwhile she became a goddess and immortalized at the Goddess Peak which to date stands. Considered as the most dangerous is the Xiling Gorge; we sailed through multiple ship locks during the evening sail, the most dramatic and deepest ship lock we crossed had a water level drop of 15 meters in a matter of five minutes and this occurred at 1:30 a.m. of our third night on board.
The Three Gorges Dam Project
On our fourth day we disembarked at Sandouping where we visited the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) site, which to date is still a controversial hydroelectric station that is the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Man’s history. The site of The Three Gorges Dam includes Sandouping Village, Xiling Gorge, and YiChang City in Hubei province. This project is the biggest and boldest attempt by Man to change the course of nature to serve him, in this case The Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, specifically controlling seasonally the flow of the Yangtze River itself.
The TGP project concept was first proposed and put on the table to be built by ZhongShangSan (Dr. Sun Yet Sen), the first president of the Republic of China in 1919. In 1944 John L.Savage, an American civil engineer suggested Sandouping, as the principal dam site because of its solid granite foundation after surveying the area. Savage is credited as having supervised the design and construction of the Hoover and Coulee dams in the United States. Other considerations included the naturally occurring conditions, high average annual water runoff and a large drainage basin. In 1956 Mao ZeDong presented the first blueprint of the Dam. In 1970, prior to the start of the TGP Project Zhou Enlai astutely proposed the construction of a smaller dam, the Gezhouba Dam as a cautionary measure to test how a dam will handle the currents and silt in the Yangtze River. Gezhouba Dam was started in 1981, completed and became successfully operational in 1988. On April 3, 1992 the National People’s Congress passed the resolution on the Construction of the Three Gorges Project. This success, prompted in 1997 the first phase of the TGP project, the construction of the cofferdams blocking main channel were completed, and ships were able to pass through the diversion channel created. In 2003 the second phase of construction was completed with 14 generators and 5 step ship locks in operation. In the meantime the water level changes were noted, initially it was at 135 M asi (2003) to 156 M asi (2006), to 172, 3M asi (2008) and in 2009 it should reach its peak of 175 M asi level as called for by the plan. The question is will this level hold, and if it does not what happens; The 175 M asi, is based on historical water level data of the Yangtze River and there is a 5 M asi window of safety valve. Let us hope the brains of the project are right. (The Project is operational but not fully as yet; I believe we were told it may take up to another 2 years before its actual completion.)
Statistics and Data of Interest on the TGP Project (For statisticians and students only, otherwise it may bore.)
When the Three Gorges Dam project is completed it will be the world’s largest source of hydroelectric power. It is almost 4 times larger than the Hoover Dam. The largest dam at present is the Guri Dam in Venezuela while the largest hydroelectric power station is on the Paraguay-Brazilian border, called Itapúa Dam, which produces 71 billion KWH of power annually. The TGD will produce 9 billion KWH power more annually when completed. I do not thing China built this dam to have the bragging rights of owning the largest Dam in the world, I think it believes that it can do it and do it well, because it seriously needs the power that needs to be generated for generations to come.
The concrete gravity dam height is 185m/607 above sea level and has a length of 2310 meters (1.4 miles) and a width of 19 m at the top and 130m at the bottom. The navigational locks consists of twin 5-stage locks, each measures 280x34xx5m allowing a 10,000barge fleet (50 million tons annually and a passage time of 3 hours. The ship elevator is 120x18x3.5m and 3000T ships. There are 26 generators that weigh 400 tons each. The total generating capacity is 18,200 MW (18.2 KW). The annual electrical output is 84.7 billion KWH which is12 times that of Niagara Falls.
The projected reservoir water level during dry season is 175 M a.s.i and during flood season is 145 M a.s.i. The reservoir length is approximately 600km/ 373 miles backwater to Chongqing, and width is 1,100 m while reservoir area is 1,084 km. The reservoir storage capacity is 39.3 billion m to the 3rd, of which 22.15 billion m to the same power is for flood control. The land area submerged is 632 sq km which would include 24,500 hectares of cultivated land. Area partially or totally submerged would be 13 cities, 140 towns, 1352 villages and 657 factories. The population to be resettled is over 1.4 million.
The Three Gorges Dam: Debate and Decisions
The debate to build or not to build this behemoth of a project went on for decades from the time Dr. Sun Yet Sen came up with the concept in 1919. There are strong compelling reasons to build and there are equally compelling reasons not to build the dam. At the center of this debate is the financing alone which obviously had been resolved. The projected estimated cost by the government is 180 billion RMB (US$23 billion) of which 40% of the cost is relocation of the population from the villages that will disappear. 90% of the financing would come from a domestic source of which 50% from a new tax of 0.3-0.7 cent/KWH that was levied from 1992, on the power networks all over China; the revenues from the Gezhouba Dam which are about 10 billion RMB and the Dam itself can produce 290 billion KWH or equal to 60 billion RMB.
Possibly the most compelling of reasons to build is flood control of the Yangtze River which historically and periodically causes devastating floods not only to properties but also to thousands of lives per occurrence. The object of project is to control or cut down flooding by 90%. The second reason is the Dam will be a source of energy which will give China 15% of its electricity, mostly in the Yangtze River Basin area. The total output will be equal to approximately 50 million tons of coal and it will also produce 84 billion kilowatts per year. Navigation, is the third reason, it will allow the passage of 10,000 tons fleet to Chongqing instead of the current 3000 ton ships.
Possibly the most compelling counterpoint not to build the Dam is the potential environmental impacts which include sedimentation formation, landslides and earthquakes. Dam safety itself is an innate problem. Other flooding can happen elsewhere, water pollution and water loss. Possible new water-borne disease, hazards to fish and animals and its impact on Shanghai can surface. Equally compelling counterpoint is the possible collective potential social, economic and cultural impacts brought about by population relocation; loss of cultural heritage, less land availability, National defense concern, and diversion of funds from other priorities, and its effect on tourism. Tourism however is actually being helped by the building of the Dam. From where we stood, to appreciate this modern mindboggling modern wonderment, this monumental structure, although not fully completed (it is passed its 2009 target date) is a true feat of triumph in engineering and science, human sweat and brains. If Hoover Dam is awesome and breathtaking, and it is, this Dam is four times that because it is four times its size. It made a huge lake reservoir out of the villages destroyed and vanished and a large lake reservoir which is now integral to the Yangtze River. The arguments against building the dam are frightening and can be potentially damming and a nagging question that I could not find an answer raised by a knowledgeable Indian engineer that I met during the tour, who is very much interested in this particular field, what difference would it make if a few or several smaller dams were constructed instead of one mammoth one. I see his point but I have no answer. During the early constructions of the dam, because of the amount of funding flowing to the project some corrupt officials, depending on the gravity of their offenses were executed and some are still in jail. Some locals deny this happened but I surmised it did.
(The preceding except for opinion expressed is lifted from lecture notes taken at the Yangtze River Cruise presentation given by Mr. Daniel Li, an engineer.)
Fengdu, the Ghost City of China, its Necropolis has mostly disappeared because of Three Gorges Dam Project where about 750,000 villagers from this city alone have been relocated but their stories and legends live on. Now only the mountainous region, specifically MingShan exists as a separate island which we scaled by cable cars after the Jenna anchored for our first shore excursion since boarding. The mountain is accessible by foot, if one is able to take the several hundred steps to our appointed walk start, which some of the younger tourists did. At the very top is a huge beautiful White Emperor Statue, (sort of Corcovado but shorter in scale) made of marble I believe, which we caught good glimpses of from below. It is in Baidichang, also known as what else, White Emperor City and dates back 1800 years ago and has long been a refuge of kings and poets. It is famous for the story of The Three Emperor Period of LiuBei and his advisor Zhu Geliang, It is here that the Hanging Coffins of the Ba people buried their dead, high up in the mountains and closer to Heaven 2000 years ago. Again the belief and worship of Heaven hold. These coffins about 100 of them are now in museums and are a new find. An optional tour to the Statue at 6:30 a.m. the next day was offered, which we did not take. There are hotels, lodgings and restaurants in the area. In this City of Ghosts, history, legends, myths and superstitions intermingle and overlap. The wiping out of ancestral burial grounds, one of the main objections of the villagers, when the reservoir was built, only added to more ghosts and supernatural stories. Villagers who were about to be uprooted brought with their meager belongings bottled soil of their town. There are many Buddhist and Taoist temples in the MingShan, area since it is a known Taoists burial ground in the Tang Dynasty; because the burning of incenses seemed ubiquitous and I am allergic to the smoke, I stayed behind in a shaded bench, waited for the group and chatted with a lady from India who also had reason not to join this segment of the tour. Milan later filled me in on what they saw.
Amenities and Meals (Victoria Jenna)
The Jenna had 376 paying guests plus its crew as captive diners for three nights and four days and someone is responsible for making sure that the food and drink supplies are not exhausted prior to the end of the trip. Perhaps an easy feat now with everything is being computerized. This is of course of a nanoscale when compared to the concept, planning, and execution of the TGD project. (See Section on TGD Project.) The guests had a Welcome Wine Reception the first evening before dinner and a Farewell Champagne dinner on the last night on board hosted by Captain Li. Chinese wine including what is passed for as champagne, (this is the first time I tried their champagne equivalence) is still not accepted internationally by sommeliers, hence it does not show in the radar wine lists of fine restaurants; the libations served for both evenings did not do anything to enhance that reputation. This is almost inexplicable because the Chinese knew about wine since the Bronze Age as evidenced by the diverse wine vessels that had been unearthed in China some of which are now exhibited at the Shanghai Museum. Could the wine source be other than grapes? China is not known to grow grapes. One wine I got acquainted with and liked, as did a couple from Spain who I introduced it to, was a robust full body Cabernet Sauvignon not from China, Chile, California or France but from South Africa; incidentally the Jenna bar makes good martinis and their special promotional mixed drinks for each day are popular.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner to simplify their ratings get a B-, and I am trying to think of anything of note on the dishes served, but at this point I cannot; this is not to say that the food is not plentiful or diverse, because in both counts they were. Service throughout the trip is A in all departments. The two night shows, remember these are performed by amateurs, is B plus and maybe an A for the Tang DynastyFashion Show because of the unusually appealing young women and their melodious voices. Educational lectures and the blow by blow accounts during the sail are A. There is no swimming pool because of the size of the ship; massage is reasonably priced and great.
There is very little to write about Yichang since we did not stay here except to be driven through it for about 45 minutes on our way to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Its significance to this trip is that the Three Gorges are in and between Yichang and Fengii a distance of 125 miles (193 km.) Yichang is also one of the villages whose people were uprooted relocated to the more elevated mountain regions. The old homes, factories, stores and every every other man-made structures were destroyed to smaller pieces to mitigate their removal by sending them down the river as silts. The lively and lovely guide is a local girl, who left to study and came back to be a tour guide. She is also very happy and satisfied about her relocation although she felt badly and sadly for the older generation who lived all their lives in the village, and most of which is now consumed by water. Yichang like most parts of the region is agricultural land and therefore this land, the source of their livelihood, also completely disappeared and replaced by the water and became part of the River; but because of the Yangtze cruises some tourism money has trickled down to its economy. She is happy that now she has her own place to live and furnish, whereas before the relocation she had nothing. One gets the sense of a tremendous trade-offs in the lives of those who were uprooted. The older people had tougher time adjusting to their new environs especially if they live on a sixth floor of an apartment house without an elevator. Each villager was given 100,000 RMB and an unfurnished apartment by the government. Some of these displaced villagers opened small shops, eateries, and now greatly depend on tourists. What was really heartbreakingly unfair was the villagers to be relocated were informed only two years before their actual uprooting leaving most dumbfounded. Only in a regime as China could 1.4 million people be relocated from their roots and with almost zero say. At the airport our docent accompanied as up to security, as all the docents did throughout the tour and she made sure we got to the right gate of departure, foreign airports can sometimes be confusing.
Shanghai this time around, during our entire stay in both cities, has the upper hand in smog (pollution) over Beijing and our local guide, albeit not proud of it, reluctantly agreed. I would like to think that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing contributed to this change, how long it stays like this, who knows. Where the Beijing skies are blue and clear, those of Shanghai are gray and dreary. It seemed as if the smog from Beijing has migrated to Shanghai, but just to be fair, during our initial visit we stayed in Pudong a more recently developed part of Shanghai and probably did not notice the present state of pollution at the center of Shanghai. Another noticeable change is the bicycle lanes are narrower and barely adequate for bicycle riders, but there are more cars crowding their lanes as was in Beijing. The municipality population is 22 million against Beijing’s 18 million but not close to Chongqing which is 36 million. (More on this, see section on Chongqing.)
Shanghai is one of the oldest cities in the world having been founded in the 10th century and until 11th century had only 1127 households but when Keifeng was conquered migration swelled the population to 250.000.It is strategically located because it is at the mouth of the Yangtze River which drains into the HuangPu River. In 1936 the population reached 3 million and 35,000 were foreigners of European origins.Hence the architectural buildings and homes of the foreign settlement were mostly Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Japanese, Austrian and Hungarian styles. There was a time in history when the settlements are exclusive to foreigners only, and the Chinese were not allowed to settle in this part of their own country. It was the cotton industry that pushed Shanghai into the commercial map and stayed a free port.
The ZhongShangSan Dong Yi Road which faces the Bund is lined by rows of beautiful buildings built in the early 20th century which are of foreign in architecture and design and present an imposing different backdrop for the city even when viewed from different angles .The long straight forward linearity of the settlements on the Bund of Gothic, Renaissance, British and Baroque styles brought a European atmosphere to the area. Starting at 6 pm in the evening it is an uplifting feeling to see one building lit after another along and around the Bund. Milan and I had such a romantic opportunity to witness this transitional spectacle while sipping wine at the terrace balcony of the Peace Hotel during our 2007 visit. The historical significance of where we were that evening did not dawn on us then. The linearity of the long stretch of the main road contributes a certain disciplined juxtapositions and blend of the same historical buildings. During this visit we viewed the interiors of the many of these historical buildings, and one can certainly sense the Old World feel that resonates in the magnificence of their decors and constructions.
Before viewing the individual early European style edifices built in the 1920s and 1930s, let me just point to a statue of the first mayor of Shanghai appointed in 1951, a Mao Zedong loyalist and a military leader named Chen Yi. It stands in now what looks like a large park teeming with tourists mostly locals ( but a[[ear tp be in fact visiting because they snap pictures as most tourists do)and local families with children; not far from it is the new addition of a prominent huge bronze bull statue almost replica of the famous Meryl Lynch bull in poise and and ready to charge, on Wall Street, only this is at least four times larger in scale and looks more ferocious and its balls are consistent with the statue scale; this commissioned work is by Italian artist, Arturo di Modica installed less than a year ago. It is isolated by a surrounding wiring to discourage any would-be touchers. Newly added potted flowers and plants are seen align against the base of the short wall that separates the embankment from the shoreline giving it a park-like feel and concurrently wall vines shaped no doubt to to promote the on-going World Expo are scaling the walls, sort of flat topiary.
Shanghai was an open port for year s and hence many developed European countries took advantage of this, particularly when China was most vulnerable at that point in her history. As a consequence residual Old World influences, evident along the Bund remain well-preserved and today it is considered the Wall Street of China.
Some of the buildings have undergone renovations but their interior, ceilings and domes are decorated with exquisite old paintings are typical of era past; additionally various adornments like wood carved accents on the inside walls, retain their original motifs and schemes. These include the HSBC, the Customs, North and South Buildings of the Peace Hotel, Shanghai Light Industry Bureau Senior Citizens Activities Center, China’s First Steam Shipping Company, etc. just to name a few.
Three Places of Worship
As per Milan’s routine wish in our travels when we find ourselves in a new city and have our own schedule we try to visit three different places of worship. Since we did have time, and the tour guide and driver still owe us half a day we visited St Theresa’s of Jesus of Lieseaux,a Catholic Church; the oldest existing Synagogue on Seymour Road and The Moore Memorial Church.
The Catholic Church of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, Liseaux
This is located at 40 Dalian Road and was constructed in 1930 and finished the following year erected in memory of a 24 year old Catholic saint. The interior is described as Gothic style, but we did not get to see it because the entrance was padlocked. Supposedly there are services every Sunday, but what we saw in the anteroom of the Church is a make-shift garage for at least one car. The façade of the Church is beautiful, but looked like it had been given a recent makeover at least exteriorly.
The Synagogue on Seymour Road
It was built by a rich merchant named Jacob Sassoon in memory of his wife Othel Rachel and designed by a Stewardson in Neoclassical architecture. It is the oldest synagogue in Shanghai and has been declared a landmark in 2002.It holds records of early Jewish life in Shanghai and was the center of religious and social activities of the Jewish community at the time. According to the guard, it is still used for services on Saturdays and special occasions, but one has to show certificates of Jewish heritage to get in, which of course we did not bring, but even if brought them we came to visit on the wrong day anyhow. We merely saw the outside of a sturdy concrete period building and its surrounding gardens and is well preserved exteriorly.
Moore Memorial Church
This Church was designed by a Hungarian architect named Hudec and is located at 316 Middle Tibet Road; was founded by the Christian Missionary Supervision and built in 1929 to 1931 and is one magnificent church in Shanghai of any denomination. The interior shows multiple Gothic style flame-shaped arches and the angel windows referred as such to give it some kind of a romanticized mystery. It seats 1000 and this is one place of worship we were able to get in, courtesy of the kind gentleman who must be one of the pastors .There was another Caucasian couple seated on the left side of the pews .The silence and tranquility of a place of worship were palpable. This concluded our visit to our three places of worship
World Expo 2010
We opted to spend a full day at the Shanghai World Expo instead of revisiting beautiful Suzhou which was a two-hour drive each way from our hotel as was originally planned. This was a huge mistake, a blunder, and a great disappointment. The Expo opened on May 1st and its multiple gates opened at 9 AM and were already teeming with people four or five across each lane all queued to gain entrance. These lanes are for those with pre-purchased tickets only as we did. We were told by our guide to bring our passports because once in, the senior citizen lines to the pavilions are shorter and faster moving. It turned out the passports are only selectively recognized. We made plans to see the U.S., China, U.K., Thailand and the Saudi pavilions which are heralded as among the should-visit, As it turned out we did not see any of these but instead only got inside the Australian, Philippines and Hong Kong pavilions. Hong Kong was the only one that allowed us to jump to the shorter senior line while the other two had fast moving lines because there were very few people. We started, since it was nearest to our entrance gate, with Thailand but after almost an hour wait surrendered because of the ugly heated altercations at the entrance between a young boor in-charge and the companions of wheel-chaired bound seniors. The imposing China Pavilion is good for photo shoots, and the crystal like huge plastic blossom next to it called Sunshine is impressive; that was the closest we got to see the China Pavilion; China had a five hour wait line and a 2-hr wait on the senior line. No thank you! The smaller SAR (Special Administrative Regions) pavilions Hong Kong and Macau are adjacent to the China pavilion by design. We went thru Hong Kong in no time because what is inside, consisted mainly of video presentations of future technology. Both structures present better on the exterior. After having the worst lunch in the trip, in frustration we told the guide to proceed back to the hotel direction do something of more interest. If you visit Shanghai go because of Shanghai, but do skip the Expo, unless you want to be frustrated, annoyed or angered; it is not worth it. Maybe, just maybe before it closes on October 31st the attendance drops and one can explore any of the 200 pavilions more leisurely. To assure attendance success the Municipality of Shanghai distributed gratis entrance tickets to all its residents. My uncle and his family did not use their courtesy tickets. What contributes to the long lines is the security check (although it moves faster than the airport ones in the U.S.) and the stamping of pavilion souvenir passports from collectors. The latter sold out before the Expo opened. The passport is stamped in each pavilion visited. I am sure this is a clever idea, at 30 RMB a passport and added to the revenues.
The EXPO estimated 170,000 persons per day attendance, but they were clocking 240,000 a day since opening. Clearly not to revisit Suzhou was a blunderous error. The EXPO was a total dud. I think World Expos, with the advent of advance media and communication technology should be declared passé. China spent $45 billion on this Expo, but most of it was to build lasting infrastructures. All pavilions will be demolished except for the China Pavilion and another structure which will form the focus of a planned new huge park, post EXPO. In the meantime the elegant looking tall high risers, whose owners had the foresight, the insight or the inside information, before the World Expo 2010 was even conceived made out very well on their investments.
Dr.SunYet Sen’s (ZhongShangSan) Old Home, now a Museum
Dr. Sun Yet Sen who is a Western educated physician was the founder of the First Republic of China in 1951 but his term lasted only about six years. The Chinese do not name bridges, squares, airports, roads or buildings of note after political leaders or figures of note as is common in the West. He, however, has the distinction of being the only leader, to have the main street at the Bund named after him, the ZhongShangShan Dong Yi Road. None of the Communist Party leaders have any place of historic import named after them. A case in point, TianNamMen could be easily renamed Mao Zedong Square and yet it is not. I asked this of the many docents I encountered, why this is so, I can’t get any satisfactory clear explanation.
The engagement of ZhongShangSan to Song ChingLing, was held at the Peace Hotel where the date is clearly etched. This Hotel is believed to be the earliest and possibly the first western hotel in Shanghai. There is now a North and South Wing, the former was a later addition. The first hotel was built by Vidal Sassoon not to be confused with a hair salon fellow. Sun Yet Sen as soon as he came to power banned the practice of binding feet among Chinese women. Historically many women perished in fires because of their bound feet.
This former residence is of European College style house at No.7 Xianshan Road and was funded by the Canadian Chinese for Sun Yet-Sen and his wife Soong Ching Ling in June 1918.The wife lived at this address until 1937 after Sun died from liver cancer. We viewed the original bedroom, the study, the sitting room and many relics and mementoes which included his Zhongshan suit, the Command Sword and the Bronze Statue by Paul Landowski, a famous French sculptor at the time.
The Soong Sisters:
Soong (Song) Al Ling, the oldest married H. H. Kung the richest banker in China during the early 20th century. Soong Ching Ling, the youngest married Dr. Sun Yet Sen (ZhongShangSan) and the Soong Mai Ling was married to Chiang Kai Sheik. They all married well and hence the Chinese saying that the three sisters, all beautiful, married for love of money, love of country and love of power respectively. Their father a Methodist preacher educated in the West, was initially opposed to the marriage of Ching Ling to Dr Sun Yet Sen because he was 27 years her senior. She was widowed at age 32 and never remarried and had no children. The three sisters were all intelligent and very much sought after and were in unique positions to positively influence the shaping of the early 20th history of China and its people. Only the eldest died in China and two outside China and Mei Ling lived her later years and died in Long Island, New York. From a personal view, I first learned of Sun from my father, who was an ardent admirer. Not far from the Sun museum, is the former temporary residence of Zhou EnLai, a French style home when he lived in Shanghai. It just closed its gate for the day as we were ready to access it.
Each time I visit Hong Kong one can’t be helped but be fascinated by its sustained verve, vitality and vivacity. It remains a Mecca for foodies and a paradise for shoppers. If you want shopping bargains, forget Stanley Market, the place to go is Mong Kok where the locals go for their bargains. But one must be prepared to haggle. Go to what is known as Women’s Alley (a little sexism here?), where endless rows of stalls of any goods are aligned on each side of the street with another row in the middle street serving as a dividing island. The vendors do not generally smile nor are they inviting but become friendly only when you stop to look at their wares, because they like to impress how tough they are as negotiators, but haggle the price just the same. Even if you do not buy anything just go for the experience of having been there. We found identical items here that are half the price we paid in Xi’an. Judging by the hotels, the stores, the streams of pedestrians and shoppers, the restaurant diners at any given time, Hong Kong did not seem to be touched by recession.
One thing that became apparent on this visit are the visibility of new faces of minorities from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand who generally migrate as domestic or household helps. Migrants from India and possibly Pakistan open small shops or businesses. Apparently it is easy to secure foreign help via agencies that handle this type of positions. The workers receive a contract agreement for two years and if this mutually works out with the employer, the contract is extended on a periodic basis. Very much like what Dubai does, the difference being the positions in Dubai are not limited to domestic help since its citizenry make up only 13% of the population. The worker has a one month vacation and a prepaid transportation home every two years. If she/he opts to go home annually she pays on her own for one of the trips.
The entire Hong Kong is Feng Shui driven and the whole city is a Chinatown. I told my cousin that one would be hard pressed to find a Chinese restaurant that is subpar, even the small off the wall ones, which I was hoping we would try but did not by design. The branded restaurants with followings are housed at different levels of commercial downtown buildings, and many times in the same building. Competition appears to be keen; still they all appear to be making it. International cuisines, of almost any type imaginable, are available albeit we focused on local cuisines based on the limited time we had. There is a Ruth Chris near our hotel which does brisk business and US steaks are a favorite in Hong Kong especially among the local trendy diners. Overall, I remain partial to cuisine in Hong Kong as opposed to the fares served in China, particularly if it is a tourist fare.
I did not realize how huge the new Hong Kong airport was until we walked, used the escalators, and walked, used the shuttle bus from Gate 580 something , then walked-ran to catch our Dragon Air flight to Beijing because the departure gate was changed to Gate 26. Incidentally, immigration and customs, and security clearance are outstandingly efficient. Also you do not have to take your shoes off during security check. (This is true throughout our trip) With the thousands of returning and departing residents and tourists the airport is superbly efficient in handling them by all measures. If any city avows that time is money, Hong Kong personifies it, and does it with finesse, flawless and yet courteous service.
Macau showed many more changes in three years; it is denser with casinos and hotels as well as diverse business establishments. During this visit because of time constraint we focused on the Cotai section and did not bother with the older casinos. Just as an example, one specific casino, The Venetian (partly owned by LVS an NYSE publicly traded company) was yet to be finished and stood lonely alone in that segment of Cotai, but is now surrounded by new other casinos and all the opulence of modernity that such progress brings with it, with the drawback that The Venetian is now barely visible from a distance, being obscured and crowded by the new structures. The Sands also owned by the same outfit is smaller and is in the older section of the island.
The one hour ferry boat ride from Hong Kong was pleasant and comfortable. A passport is needed since, like Hong Kong is an SAR or Special Autonomous Regions. Once one disembarks, land transportation is provided by and to all the casinos; young men and women wearing their casino emblazoned outfits are lined in a row carrying placards of their casinos stand waiting, to direct the new arrivals to their respective casino shuttles. One does not have to be a registered guest to use the free rides. The buses leave as soon as it reaches a critical number which takes no more than fifteen minutes. Casino hopping can be done the same way. We spent nothing for local transportation, how long the casinos can keep this up is another matter and remains to be seen.
A quick once over of the Cotai Venetian shows a meek replica of the Venetian in Vegas. Let’s start with the existing small bodies of water, which were incorporated into the concept and execution of the resort with the gondolas and their singers and the hotel gets away with the same charge per person for a 15 minute sail, which is line with Vegas. This is a big plus financially in execution of the hotel resort; just imagine not having to create a flowing river in a desert as in Las Vegas. The faux blue sky canopy is limited by the constraint of the area it domes. Instead of concrete balustrades on the small bridges crossing the water, iron-wrought rails, I guess to make it less bulky looking are used. There are many stores and are busy with traffic, many are electronic and watch stores, less restaurants in what would be the piazza. Instead of a white Liberty human statue, there was a greenish colored gowned man that attracted little fuss, did not see any walking performers either. The large casino is busy with mostly Asian players, from Hong Kong and China, and this was on a Monday noon. My niece who was no doubt instructed by my cousin, ordered a litany of dim sum for lunch on the second floor restaurant at the Venetian, comparable to those available in Chinatown, New York but less greasy and as good as those served in Hong Kong. She added squabs, half what it would cost in New York, only smaller but just as juicy and tasty. Altogether it was a generous lunch.
Venetian is tastefully decorated, and there is a large spruced up garden with a large bird cage with live small birds chirping and flying within it, two restaurants overlooking it from each side of the garden. No craps tables are to be found. A dice game called High/Low is very popular.
Within walk distance we went to look at the newly opened City of Dreams, a well-conceived and tastefully decorated large casino hotel worthy of the Vegas Strip scene. The choice of color scheme is a blend of aquamarine, blue to indigo to burgundy, the lights, and the interior design are all in this spectrum. I guess this is how dreams should be colored. Instead of green, as most people would want their dreams to be. What was pleasantly surprising were the two craps tables, one half-busy with players and the other with absent players and croupiers. (I guess this is how they cut the overhead, no players, no croupier, no overhead.) I was excited to see these tables, because they were thought to be extinct during our last visit. We stopped to watch, but as soon as we did the lady shooter sevened out, and the next player also a lady threw a six as her point to make. Her second throw was a seven and this was enough I said to myself, we did enough damage and walked to explore the rest of the place.
Adjacent and slightly setback to the City of Dreams is another mega casino, its exterior is completed and looks imposing enough to be called The Galaxy. Across these three casinos are other structures in various stages of construction that will house more stores, more hotels and more restaurants. The once empty Cotai is now a separate attraction of its own. It was time for us to catch the MGM bus which will drop us to the other side of Macau. The ride through the connecting highway was pleasant. The expressway lined by palms and trees and some small bodies of water on either side and the foreground of not so tall almost squatty range of beautiful mountains made for quieting ride.
The three tiered wavy sigmoid-shaped building of copper, silver and gold color which is no reminder of MGM Vegas sparkles in the sunlight and conspicuously absent is the roaring lion, (whose roaring mien had to be redone at the Vegas MGM if you recall, because of its hostile Feng Shui implications.) The metallic colors of the building are all friendly Feng Shui attributes, for all are valued metals with the last two heavily used industrially and I am sure this was based on the advice of their Feng Shui Specialist. The lion logo appears almost inconspicuous as a full head and body silhouette drawn stationery rendition, just a subtle reminder in case you forget, that this in fact is an MGM casino. We sauntered around the casino and its premises. The interior design, style and decorations are well coordinated, absent are the loud colors, ostentatious distractions, and tacky unexpected intrusions giant slot machines. Again for an early Monday afternoon, yes the tables were busy whereas in Vegas this would be a dead shift.
As we motored back to catch our ferry boat, (we had to pass through the earlier developed part of Macau) are the two Wynn casinos, I am not sure if they are so named. The smaller older one is dwarfed by the much larger casino of the same signature curved shaped building with same colors as those in Vegas. Wynn clearly underestimated the potentials of Macau as a gaming Mecca of the Pacific Rim and China when it built its first casino, otherwise, it would have replicated the twins from Vegas, on the get-go, instead of building a pair of DeVito-Schwarzenegger twins as is done belatedly.
An Aunt and an Uncle
A personal slant to this trip is the visit to the only two siblings of my father, his younger sister who lives in Hong Kong and his brother who lives in Shanghai and his wife. They are my sole relatives of that generation, inclusive of extended relatives. So in that context this borders on a sentimental journey .My aunt is 97 and her younger brother and his wife are both 95. My aunt by marriage retired decades ago as the Director of the First Children’s Hospital of Shanghai while my uncle is a retired botanist. Both are lucid, aware of past and current events, political or otherwise and we conversed in English, Mandarin, and Fukien mix and I think we all understood what we were saying and hearing to and from each other. And of course, I made use of my Italian hands. Two years ago, my uncle almost died from acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis, but somehow survived, although two weeks before our arrival, he fell and broke his right shoulder which was in a sling when we got together for dinner.
As for my aunt who is 97 and lives in Hong Kong there is much to tell .Let me touch on some highlights as I remember and see them. I first met her in 1963 in Hong Kong on my way to the United States and her two sons the younger was 15 then. She was loquacious, full of kinesics, but at the same time appeared hurried and haggard and showed signs of what she underwent on her way to Hong Kong. She managed singlehandedly fled China when it went Red with her two sons, age 10 and 12 then. She took on any menial job available. Hard work never had its toll on her health. On this visit, as in other visits, she joined us at all restaurant meals. She is upright in posture, slim, no hint of kyphosis, her symmetric mien is totally serene and unbelievably free of the writings of hard times; her long full hair is equally gray and white with no coloring aid, and the straight soft aquiline nose, common to all the siblings but seemed to have jumped a generation holds her facial symmetry. Her face is a total mien of serenity and suggest quiet pride without having to say so, of blest life, especially the achievements of her younger son.(He just broke ground for seven 80-story buildings in Yangzhou.) She consistently made sure that Milan and I were taken cared off during our meals. She walks with some manual arms support, but uses no wheelchair or cane. She picks up adroitly peanuts, which she loves, using chopsticks with her steady fingers, and she also loves plain white sugar and there is always a small dish of that in front for her to pick during our meals. She is not diabetic. In fact she is on two benign medications, a multivitamin pill and another vitamin pill. There is certainly no Dorian Gray painting hidden in her closet, but if there is one it is impeccably cared and preserved. This to me is a most memorable visit, and my cousin took pictures of the occasions with her but what I saw is more poignant and it is saved in the pixels of my brain. Her Nursing Home is the home of her son and daughter-in-law and their house helpers.
Accommodations and Meals
The hotels used by the tour sponsor lived up to their star-studded status except for the The InterContinental Stanford at Mody Road on Tsiamtsui District in Hong Kong which should be rated a 3.5 star and not a 5. This is a 35 year-old Holiday Inn before it was rebranded an Intercontinental property 13 years ago. The service is excellent but its blueprint by present measures is small; the lobby which should be a first welcoming impression is not, but a negative one, yes. The difference from the last hotel in Shanghai which is also owned and run by the same Hong Kong concern is stark, because the other is new with all the associated new amenities. As we enter our quarters at the Shanghai Intercontinental, the TV automatically turns on with a personalized greeting and soft background music. I marveled most at the smartly equipped electronics that control the bathroom facilities. As soon as the toilet bowl senses a would-be user the cover automatically lifts itself up and a warm soft seat awaits you. Should you sit, there are three different operator controlled streams from below of soothing warm water which are timed-flow at the touch of an icon, carefully pointed frontally, vertically and close to the rear, all aimed at specific targets. Once done there is an effective soothing finale of dry air blowing which is initiated by the touch of separate icon, also operator controlled. This is the closest to a paperless John and without ever touching oneself at that. Once done it self-flushes. This definitely makes sitting on the throne a most pleasantly pleasurable, relaxing and relieving experience. One possible drawback, if you think of installing this at home, think twice, because you may find yourself on the throne longer than you intended, but then you may finish your read of the first section of the New York Times. The contraption is by TOTO, a Japanese company. Somehow I thought TOTO was from a small town in Kansas originally, but just the same TOTO has cornered China’s bath and beyond market. Come to think of it I did not see American Standard in either private or public WC facilities in China The question then is not why but why not?
Solfitel, a French outfit has a modern spread out East and West wing 12 floor buildings in Xi’an. Within the walls of the City Wall buildings are limited in heights of structure by code but outside the Wall high risers can be built. There is an underground isthmus connecting the two wings (reminiscent of Wynn and Encore) which is lined with modern and traditional paintings for sale by local artists; this is a must stop and see if you are staying in one of the wings because it is a welcoming lit passageway which is further brightened the art pieces. Some modern ones are really exquisite. I always take the connecting path rather than use the guest’s cart that is driven to and from the wings. This hotel deserved all its stars. It is also remarkable however during a buffet dinner at the Azur, its main restaurant on the East Wing that while slicing a piece of tenderloin strip, I was able to make our two glasses of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon dance in waves albeit the table did not appear wobbly.
Last notable note, next to the hotel are two period looking buildings, well built, sturdy but cold, and drab-looking exteriorly. They are the old Opera House and the Xi’an Peoples Hotel which used to be the hotel used by Chinese and Russian government bigwigs when they were then hand-in-hand comrades. The Hotel is operative so I went inside, and it is as drab as the outside except for four outstanding seal style calligraphy frames on one of the lobby walls. The place appeared lifeless except for the receptionists at the registration desk who moved now and then; no one accosted or bothered me, I did not see any guest, but I looked around and I left as quietly as I came in. The Opera House is used only on specific special occasions but looked under scaled by every measure. The lobby by present measures is miniscule. Both were built by Russians.
The Grand Millennium, in Beijing, a Singapore concern deserved all its stars and more. If one were to pick the best breakfast buffet for this trip, this would be it. But as is common to all Chinese internationally bent restaurants even Sofitel (French) somehow they all fall short in the bread, Danish and pastries department.
The J C Marriot at Chongqing was the first 5-star hotel built 13 years ago. Let’s subtract half a star because it needs a major makeover and I think management is aware of this and will start work within the next 12 months. It remains a grand hotel with its wide receiving lobby and dated symmetric welcoming curvilinear stairways still look elegant. Bathroom hardware and the double plastic shower drapes are dated, but otherwise staff is excellent.
Initially I wrote that the large star and the four small ones partially circling it in the Red Flag represented the four major minorities based on what our tour guide told us then. As it turns out there are at least 56 minorities representing 6% of the population. The correct version : the central big star represents the Party, the smaller four represent the worker or laborer, the soldier, the educator and the fourth star, all others (physicians, bankers, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, and intellectuals, etc.) in that order. The source for this includes three separate tour guides. The symbolic representation as given makes more sense.
Public washrooms are greatly improved and can be used without trepidation. Gone are the odoriferous and wet floors; and the urinals are equipped with sensors all manufactured in Japan. In front of the urinals is a common bilingual sign that reads “one step up closer will help keep this a cleaner place;” this is all thanks to the 2008 Olympics. What difference the Olympic Games made. I do not know if there is any counterpart sign on the women side. Incidentally many restrooms proudly display plaque ratings near their entrances, as to how many stars, 3, 4 or even a 5 it merited. I know of no other city that does a “Michelin” rating of their WC facilities. Also the make-sure-bring- your own paper no longer prevails, because paper is now provided but occasionally it is located in one common entrance.
Dishes of Note (Some New)
I have learned at least three ways to prepare black fungi as a cold appetizer one preparation combines white fungi with it and gives the dish a color contrast.
I tried for the first time squash (pumpkin) as a dumpling (encased in yellowish glutinous rice wrapping shaped like a tiny pumpkin with a tiny edible protruding stems all of bite size. Similarly, a pureed pumpkin soup served lightly sweetened as a dessert, very much like a gazpacho only it is served warm. (Hong Kong.) Unusual delicious grape tomatoes with some chopped nuts spicy dumplings were memorable. A whole pang tou yi, (literally means fat head fish) which I think is pompano steamed Xinchiang style in Chongqing (30-minute preparation) swimming and covered in finely chopped local chili with sweetish after taste but unusually fiery spicy oily sauce which leaves the palate and buccal mucosa numb. Another cuisine savored was, the hot pot style, is a must try if you are in Chongqing. Actually there is a smaller center broth pot that is not fiery, but with fresh local herbs and many varieties of mushrooms which can be used alternately for cooking what has been ordered. The large drunken shrimps at JUMBO Restaurant (Hong Kong) are always attention grabbing among other diners because the poor shrimps still jump for their lives after being anaesthetized with liquor before being inflamed to serve the course.
One breakfast item of interest is the gelatinous rice with abundant short pork ribs cooked and wrapped in lotus leaves served on two occasions as an item at the Grand Millennium in Beijing. In New York Chinatown, more rice and small chunks of pork with either beans or peanuts are the usual ingredients.
Beijing has 400,000 vehicles and it is the car manufacturing center of China. We were told that all cars local and those with foreign brands are manufactured in Beijing. Ford, GM, Audi, Mercedes, and any other brand have established factories here in partnership with the government. The traffic flow despite the number of vehicles at any given time appears to move and flow nicely, unlike in Shanghai where the traffic is more comparable to Manhattan at rush hours. Beijing adopted two measures to mitigate the traffic congestion: 1. there is a one hour differential in the start time of public and private employees and therefore a one hour difference also prevails in their quit time.2. The last digit of the car plates determine which days the respective owners may drive their cars. In other words a ration of drive time is in place. (This was tried in Manila, but it failed. The rich just purchased another car to counter the odd or even number ordinance.) It seems to work in Beijing. Overall the traffic in Shanghai is worse (particularly on our way to the World Expo) than Beijing but not as bad as Bangkok or Manila.
If one is tempted to try Chinese wine, and some are sophisticatedly priced, don’t. The wine as it is now is indefinable and therefore difficult to assess. This is somewhat surprising, because various antiquities of wine vessels have been unearthed dating back to the Bronze Age were found in China (26th to 11th century B.C.) which are in partial exhibit at the Shanghai Museum. Long before everyone else, (yes even before the Roman emperors) wine was already known among the rulers of the early dynasties judging by the vessels discovered. For whatever reason wine as an industry never took off. The Dynasty vineyards appear to be the most prevalently served under the name Dynasty. Grapes were never endemic in China.
If you order beer make sure you specify you want it cold, otherwise you will be served room temperature beer. I almost had an argument on this one.
Don’t be surprised if paper napkins are not readily available even in otherwise fine looking restaurants in China. If available they are thinly double folded 3”x 4”.
Despite the transliteration of Chinese names for roads or streets driving on your own is a big No, No. I don’t think there is a Hertz or Avis concern in China, so that takes care of the situation. Taxi is cheap. Negotiated car and driver for a full day is also inexpensive if one must go this route. Just make sure the driver speaks English.
If one uses domestic flights, invariably everyone does when in China; watch out for departure gate changes. This happened in three out of four flights, and we missed the flight in one but luckily that particular flight was half-hour delayed.
The Flight to Hong Kong and Back
For some who are unable to sleep on this 15-hr or so stretch flights there is the dividend of catching up with movies you missed, especially those released recently. I watched nine movies altogether and many were outstanding; like Nine,(all the ladies deserved an Oscar) Avatar, (Should have won some Oscars) It’s Complicated,( Hilarious Streep, Baldwin and Martin) About My Brother (Japanese), Up in the Air, (As usual a cool Clooney) and some mediocre ones like Everyone’s Fine, (surprisingly dull De Niro or was it the script?) Sherlock Holmes, (Downey and Law, no “it’s elementary my dear Watson” here) Shutter Island (which I shut off half way as too dark or maybe because of DiCaprio), and one other not worth recalling.
Attention and service by flight attendants flawless, meals with no exception were very good, champagne and wines flowed on demand but the seats were most uncomfortable. We went back to Cathay Pacific as our carrier for this trip because three years ago the seats were most comfortable but somehow management managed to fix what was not broken in the name of giving more privacy to the travelers. Privacy it did give, to the extent of not being able to converse or see your companion or spouse, because of the tall slanted cubicles you literally have to hold onto, just to get up. I felt like an egg being incubated with atop part blown off; there is elbow room only for one arm, when the seats are in a reclined mode they remind me of the slab hotels in Tokyo that I had read about. I asked randomly two other flyers and these ladies are not corpulent by any means, they felt the same way. The words used were “awful” and “terrible” I eyeballed the row of seats; it was evident that by slanting the seats as they did, in a neat row, more seats were inserted. Privacy, Baloney! No more Cathay Pacific for me unless this is corrected. The designer of the seats and the one who bought into the design should have their paychecks scissored .Bye, bye Cathay!
The preceding is based on a May 2010 China and Hong Kong trip. To be linked to www.fengshui888artsltd.com under Author’s Travels.