Archive | April 2013

Homeward Bound

It is still dark when Amy and Mr. Su retrieve us from our hotel and start us on the long journey back to the US from China.  I am happy to be going home, as I was terribly homesick during much of the trip.  On the other hand, I am sad to be leaving, because there was so much that I wanted to see and do that there simply was not enough time for.

More time in Shanghai, more time in Yunnan, definitely more hiking in Yunnan, more time at the Great Wall, more massages, more hot springs, more temples (while we visited many Buddhist temples and a mosque, we did not see any Taoist ones or Christian churches), more museums, more time in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, more time to visit with the Chinese people, more tea, more art, more Chinese roofs.  Every place we visited, I felt as if I needed at least twice as much time.  And we didn’t go to Hong Kong, or Guangzhou or Yan’an, or any of the places associated with Chairman Mao.

And I will probably never go back because it’s so far to travel and it’s so hard to function in China if you can’t speak and read the language.

I looked out the window of our 767 as the land fell away.  As we climbed over the mountains, I searched for one final glimpse of the Great Wall snaking away on the borders below us.  Vision eluded me, but I know it was there, riding along the ridgelines, eternal, watchful. ready.  

China is a formidable country, and it owns a part of me after my time there.  There’s a lot we can learn.  They’re not perfect, but they do a lot of things better than we do – right now anyway.  I will watch and wait, and see how they are in ten years.  They are learning all of the wrong things from the West.  I hope they can maintain those things that make China unique and magical.  If I ever return, will I need to hike the High Road at Tiger Leaping Gorge to experience the vast wonder of the Gorge, or will it be filled with roads and guest houses along those roads, so that no one hikes any more?  If I ever return, will the Guanxi farms lie fallow because all the people have gone to the cities?  If I ever return, will I visit a massive tower city filled with people, children, schools, merchants; or will the tower cities be falling to ruin, with no one to care for them or live in them?  If I ever return, will internal air and rail travel still be wonderful, easy and cheap?

Lots of questions, all of which got put aside, when my flight from Chicago to Hartford was cancelled after we had spent 14 or 16 hours in transit from Beijing.  In the end we abandoned the airlines and fled to home on Amtrak, only to be delayed again, by some would-be terrorists being captured in Boston.

A great journey.  More to come. . .


The Guinness Book of World Records

One of the stranger things we saw was this sign, in the Lama Temple (a large active Buddhist Temple) in Beijing:



The statue is one of the largest we saw.  In fact it’s head is so high above the viewer that is is hard to see the Buddha’s benevolent visage.  But world record it is. . .

China is so strange.

Cixi and the Hutongs


Before leaving for China, I had read a memoir written in the early 20th century by one of the Dowager Empress’s ladies in waiting.  Much of the book was set in the Sea Palace (near the Forbidden City, and now a government building off limits to visitors) and the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace had been largely destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion, but Cixi rebuilt it to her opulent specifications when she reclaimed Beijing for the Qing dynasty.  I wanted to visit there (and the Sea Palace and the Forbidden City) to acquire some context for the book I had read.

We were able to convince our guide that we should visit the newly restored theater where many days of the book took place.  Sorry that I could not photo Cixi’s seat and resting bed, covered in the brilliant yellow embroidered silk she loved so well, nor the two young women dressed in the period who kept guard over the lushness.

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We even got part of a Peking Opera performance.


Cixi was unquestionably a mean, arrogant and probably amoral person, but she had a marvelous sense of aesthetics and her rebuilt palace reflects this in many ways.  The 700 meter long covered promenade is graced with hundreds of paintings, all different, all beautiful.




The palace lake is designed almost exactly after West Lake in Hangzhou.


It even has its own marble boat:


And my favorite gate in all Beijing:


I cannot imagine living this way. . .

At the other end of the spectrum are the hutongs.  There is no translation for this term, but after seeing them and listening to our guide’s description of these places, they have a name: ghetto.  They are rabbit warrens of tiny streets, bordered by tiny houses.  Many were built 1000 years ago, and reflect the early Mongol culture of the region.  The Communists destroyed many of them in the process of upgrading the city of Beijing until various groups convinced the government of their historical significance.

The hutongs sport many, many government subsidized “houses,” living spaces of may 100 square feet, wherein live whole families.  Available houses are advertised with wall posts.


The traditional courtyards around which hutong houses were originally built have been filled in with more houses for more poor people.


Most of the hutong houses do not have plumbing so people must walk a certain distance down the street for a toilet, and a certain longer distance to a community shower.  In the 21st century.

We were forced to ride in a rickshaw pedaled by a local man, and had our pictures taken by the insistent local guide.


It was very embarassing.  And became more so.  We visited the home of a local middle class person, a kung fu master who is quite well-to-do.  His family have lived in the hutong for generations, and he and his wife occupy a fancy house that might be 300 square feet in total.  He apparently has money: a 50+ inch flat screen TV in the living/dining/meeting/training/sitting room; and a small fortune in ancient kung fu weapons displayed in the other room.  (I thought I took a photo of is weapons collection, but can’t find it. . .)  And his house is in a very prestigious location in the shadow of the bell tower built in 1272, and the slightly newer drum tower.

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I cannot imagine living this way. . .

Unanswered Questions

Each guide we met, I asked about these things.  None of them knew the answers.  I wonder how I will find out about these things.
1.  The big nests?  All around China (except in Shanghai) we saw huge bird nests made of rough sticks built up in the trees.  Many trees had more than one nest, although there was always one grand-daddy nest.  A couple of guides said “bird’s nest.”  What kind of bird?  Shrug.
2.  What’s growing in the ponds?  All over the south of China there are small square ponds in which people are growing things.  What I never found out was what was being grown:  fish?  crabs?  crawfish?  what kind of whatever?  veggies?
3.  Roof decorations?  My eyes will miss the beautiful lines of the Chinese roofs at home.  First, Chinese roofs are either clay tiles (mostly) or ceramic tiles (on really rich buildings).  The roofs, sweep upwards at the ends of the ridge pole.  The peak construction also sweeps slightly outwards, creating a slight concave arch between the ridge pole and the top of the walls.  Like the Chinese character “ren” (which means people).
In various parts of China the upswept ends of the ridge  pole – and sometimes the middle of the ridge pole are topped with effigies.  I tried and tried to get an explanation of the regional differences.
Some roofs have dragons;
Some roofs have boats;
Some roofs have just the lonely upturn;
Some roofs have something else altogether;
There are the pointy roofs  with their lightning rods;
And the square roofs with their cupolas.
But none one could explain the symbolism or the differences.  Except Jack knew about the Naxi “roof cat.”  A very stylized screeching cat, mouth improbably wide opened, all teeth showing, that sits in the middle of the ridge pole on a Naxi house.  This creature, whom I wish I had bought one of, eats up all the bad stuff before it gets into the house.  He would have gone well with my Peruvian toros.
4.  Interesting Buildings?  I would like an RMB for every building I asked a guide about – “What is that building?” – and got either no answer, a diversionary answer, or an I don’t know answer.  I’d be rich.

Peking Duck

The last night in China, for what turned out to be our last meal in China, we treated ourselves to Peking Duck.  The meal was served in a tiny restaurant on a tiny street, in a tiny hutong, not far from our hotel.  You find it by following the ducks painted on the wall down the alley to the restaurant.



At this particular place – I did not find out if this was universal – the ducks are cooked over a wood fire, and must be ordered in advance if you want them.

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The ducks are carved into thin pieces which you place in a thin pancake with scallions, cucumber and hoisin sauce. Munch.  We chose to take our with boiled duck liver and chopped wing meat.  Both served cold, the liver plain, the wing meat spiced with hot peppers, onions and seasoned oil.   If we had known better (or our guide, whom we think had never seen Peking duck before), we would also have ordered the stir fried duck bones – the final official course for the meal.  We almost expired from the good smell of someone else’s fried bones as we left the restaurant.  Our most expensive meal and one of the tastiest.


Not Speaking Chinese – 8

When we arrived in Beijing we were treated to a day to rest up from the long overnight train.  At the end of the day, we decided to go out to eat.  The hotel concierge had given us two choices, one nearby and the other a cab ride.  She had written the name down in Chinese characters for us.  The two drivers parked out front refused to take us, so we went to the nearby place.  Took trial and error to find it on the top floor of a shopping mall/cineplex.  Picture menus are at each table on an iPad, that you scroll easily through if you are competent and just mess up if you’re not.  Finally looked around the room and pointed to someone else’s food.  “We’ll have that.”  Shrimp and veggies cooked at the table in that same bean sauce we got on noodles the next day and Peking duck the day after that.  And not a word of English was spoken. . .

A Very Great Wall, Indeed

We spent a mostly glorious day (but for the sometimes view obscuring pollution) visiting the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.  For me the Wall is a much greater marvel than I imagined, and I wish we had had more time.  The climbing is quite strenuous in places.  I ascended one staircase that I believe exceeded 60 degrees in pitch!  From every point you can see the serpentine battlements stretching away along the ridgelines, peppered regularly with square watchtowers.  Cliched perhaps, but there is no other way to describe this.


Looking down from Tower 14 towards Tower 6 where we took a ski lift down.  We first climbed up in the other direction; I got all the way  toTower 20.


looking up and below, looking down from the highest point I reached:



It extends to the top of this peak and beyond to Badaling,


and along the top of this ridge as well:


Every where you look, the wall is there,



and during our visit, enhanced by all the plum blossoms on the mountain:

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A Very Great Wall, Indeed:

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