Just back from a nearly three week tour of China and Tibet, with a Duke University Alumni group. Whatever you think you know about China, you are astonished and impressed and overwhelmed. The contrasts alone are breathtaking; from the Beijing Ritz Carlton to Li River rice paddies; from the gigantic solid gold Buddhas of the Potala Palace in Tibet to the irrational exuberance of the futuristic skyline of Shanghai; from the Pandas of Chengdu to the Silk Road city wall of ancient Xian.
It can be hard to breathe in China: too much pollution in Beijing, too little oxygen in Tibet.
I experienced two near heart attacks: in Tibet, a high, both literally and figuratively, as I raced up a flight of stairs, oblivious of the lack of oxygen in the thin air; in Beijing Airport, as I experienced every traveler's worst nightmare, finding myself without passport, I.D., or money in a foreign country where I could not make myself understood.
Here are my unfiltered, admittedly personal, impressions of an astoundingly energetic country that is rewriting its history as it is writing its future- and the world's.
Beijing Airport: like ,
new, modern, vast. Very little indications or instructions. Curiously
uncrowded. Zipped thru passport control and immigration, doesn’t feel at all
like a closed society, none of Beijing ’s
paranoid scrutiny of passports. Bathrooms clean but as many squat toilets as
Western style. First thing you notice when you step outside is the dense smog .
Apparently it was even worse a few years
ago. India is vast, modern, gleaming, wide ring roads
and boulevards, new cars. All new infrastructure dating 30 years back at the
earliest. Fanciful buildings that look like the Titanic, or a feather, or some
other product of an unbridled imagination. Beijing
It can be hard to breathe in China: too much pollution in Beijing, too little oxygen in Tibet.
I experienced two near heart attacks: in Tibet, a high, both literally and figuratively, as I raced up a flight of stairs, oblivious of the lack of oxygen in the thin air; in Beijing Airport, as I experienced every traveler's worst nightmare, finding myself without passport, I.D., or money in a foreign country where I could not make myself understood.
Here are my unfiltered, admittedly personal, impressions of an astoundingly energetic country that is rewriting its history as it is writing its future- and the world's.
A Duck a Day Beijing
Wed Oct 5
China Air takes off twenty minutes late for our scheduled 4:30 pm flight from NY JFK direct to
. The seats seem roomier than some American
carriers, and there’s a more original choice in dinner entrees: duck. Actually sliced duck breast, quite good. All
entertainment in Chinese, but then most of the passengers are Chinese; announcements in Chinese, little English.
Hostesses polite but perfunctory. I took Melatonin and slept a lot more than I
normally do on plane. “Breakfast” a couple of hours
before we landed in Beijing
consisted of beef and broccoli. China
Thursday October 6th.
After a fourteen hour flight, we land at 7 pm local time. No need to change time on watch, as it’s a 12 hr difference.
We meet up with our Duke group and board the bus. We stop for dinner at a basic Chinese place on way back from airport; not really hungry myself as we had eaten on plane a couple of hours earlier, but most of the fellow passengers ate with gusto, as did our Duke host and his wife, who had been in Australia and met us at Beijing airport. Two guides, one for the trip, Wang Xiao Fei, otherwise known as Mark, a small, wide-eyed, lively man, and one guide for Beijing only, Chen, who goes by Wally, and has the typical wide flat Asian face. Not sure how I feel about using these nicknames; it reminds me of Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, joking that the American tourists insisted on calling all tour guides, from Italy to Istanbul, “Ferguson."
The Hotel Ritz Carlton in the Financial District seems to be the ultimate in luxury. Very fast elevators, modern security measures with key card to activate elevator floors. Hotel room entirely automated by console next to bedside table to open drapes, lights, etc; huge TV set, but all channels in Chinese except for CNN, BBC, MNBC and TV 5 Monde.
Friday October 7: Of Emperors and Concubines
Breakfast the next morning is an excellent buffet, all the usual western options plus dim sum and a full menu of cooked Chinese food. I’m already eager to find fruit and yogurt.
Internet supposedly free in lobby but in effect works best in café only. $20 in room for the day.
Our guides have thoughtfully provided bottled water on bus for 50 c bottle.
We start off in Tian'anmen Square; it is vast, with a wide screen projecting videos of China's history and glories. All around, the iconic red flag, of course, but also some of the most creative topiary I have ever seen, trees pruned to fanciful shapes and flowers appliqued onto the topiary to create entire scenes. Next we continue to the
Forbidden City, so-called by tourists but not by the Chinese themselves, who call it the Imperial or Emerald City. It is
impressive by sheer size of successive courtyards but the actual architecture not
so much, especially compared to Indian palaces with their ruby-encrusted marble
walls. Museum closed as it was holiday. Outside along the moat as we walked
back to the bus, first and last beggars we saw in , mutilated, handicapped, dwarf, etc,
sitting or lying on sidewalk. Beijing
Otherwise, no beggars, and amazingly uncrowded for a city of 20 million. Orderly city, buses, cars, bicycles, scooters, mostly new and in good condition, sharing the road. No jaywalking, unlike NYC. Clean, clean. We were told that fines are imposed on littering and spitting. All started with sprucing up for Olympics.
Hutong area: lunch in the back-alley home of a woman who does this for a living. There is some discussion of her life story and it becomes apparent that the cultural revolution is still being fought by our two guides, Mark being critical of it, as befits a ‘black-root’ (bourgeois) and Wally, who had earlier repeated ‘all China cried when Mao died’, ambivalent. Lunch was simple but good, marred only by an awkward moment when the hostess snatched a $20 bill out of my husband’s hand as he was asking our Duke host for change for the mandatory rickshaw ride scheduled after lunch. At least the rickshaws are newer and the drivers look healthy and strong enough to be up to the job, unlike their skinny straining skeleton counterparts in
Hutong alleys are clean, with expensive cars parked (Chinese made VW, etc) in contrast to the modest dimensions of the freshly cemented and white-washed houses; toilets every few intersections, marked ‘men’ and ‘women’ in English, oddly enough, as well as Chinese, as if for tourists. Little squares where old people play checkers and young kids play in sand by the street. But open doorways show a very different picture of poverty, dinginess, rags, rotted old bikes. Very much the feeling of seeing behind a stage set.
There are one or two signs in green Arabic lettering, advertising Islamic food. According to the
guide book I downloaded on Kindle, a
mosque nearby is listed as a main attraction. But our guide Wally avoided all
references to religion in the Forbidden City, and did not point out the various
shamanistic Manchu, Taoist, Confucian and other temples that the guide book
says represented the beliefs of the successive dynasties that ruled there for
500 years. Wally entertained us exclusively with stories about concubines. Beijing
Wally apparently believes in entertaining the troops in the most extravagantly tour guide style, singing for us- he is a frustrated singer who was given no choice in his current profession- and recounting heart-warming tales of the Mongolian girl he has adopted by long distance. The one-child policy creates an imbalance in the population, to the advantage of the prospective bride who can demand an apartment, a car, and a honeymoon in the
Both our guides emphasize the expensive standard of living of US , and Mark, in particular, laments the
materialism of the young. Beijing
Both of our guides are not particularly tactful about the appearance of Westerners, emphasizing that the Chinese are thin as opposed to Americans. I feel like asking if they have looked around them lately: the Chinese we see seem to be getting taller but also noticeably heavier. Someone asks Wally about bound feet and he responds that although that is no longer the custom, Chinese still would not like to marry ‘big foot lady.’
Peking Duck dinner that evening in a pedestrian shopping street with huge Sephora and Rolex shops. Dinner itself in a traditional restaurant that oddly enough closes at 8 pm. We went up to the second floor where three tables for 8 were reserved for us. Good appetizers, if somewhat bewildering, but the featured highlight, the Peking Duck, not nearly as good as Mr Chow’s in
So this was duck dinner number 2; we
will be having one every day in London .
Several of the Jewish members of the group expressed an interest in attending a synagogue for the start of the high holy days, said they would inquire with the Israeli embassy. If so, next day plans would be changed. Apparently it didn’t work out as plans were unchanged. One couple had one of their bags left behind at NY, Delta’s fault from
, not China Air, but at least she had
some of her clothes in the other bag, so not entirely without a change in
outfits. They are a younger couple; he used to work in media. I offered to lend
her clothes, but she said she would wait. Atlanta
At dinner we were seated with a very tall fair-haired couple, both bigger eaters than talkers; also a nice woman who was worried about altitude sickness when we get to
and advises laying off coffee
and tea and alcohol; and a stylish older German woman who speaks French. She is
one of at least two people to ask me about Lagnado’s book; the German woman met
Lagnado at a writing course. I think several people in the group, all of whom
must know by now we are of Egyptian origin, are curious about our background and our Duke connection. Tibet
At our table also that night, a couple of southern women, both with that pleasant Southern social manner and accent, one an older woman with a sense of humor, one younger, a Baptist who volunteered at an orphanage in Morocco. Another woman, a New York lawyer with long reddish hair, who looks to be in her late thirties but turns out to be celebrating her fiftieth birthday, swims every morning, more power to her.
There are a couple of other women around that age, but the majority of the tour members, as to be expected, are retirees; there are half a dozen women traveling alone.
Saturday October 8
Went on internet this morning at breakfast, but no Face Book or Blogger; I could only use email and log onto my personal website. Afterward attended our Duke host’s talk- Bill Chafe is a historian of the US- mostly reminiscing about his first visit to china in 1980. Opted out of visit to pearl market and another one of those lunches- no regrets, although I might have enjoyed the rest of the program, the visit to the Summer Palace, all on the West side of town. I wanted to go to the east side to the Hard Rock Café to buy my son a souvenir cap. Took a taxi, with instructions and map from guide and concierge. The city gets more dismal as you go east but especially aware of the pollution today, could hardly breathe and my chest burned. Jumped into and out of the shop, they charged 22 dollars for a cap. Then we wanted to buy batteries and we went into a nearby shop, they were helpful. Also found a place to buy a sim card but didn’t have the phone with us and it is 50c a minute to call US.
Went back to hotel; my husband was supposed to rejoin the group but he didn’t, he wandered around and explored, found Starbucks, McDonald, huge Costco. I explored the spa, very tempting, but felt too tired for some reason, didn’t sleep last night or perhaps jet lag kicked in; spent afternoon in bed reading and caught up on the news on TV. A little hungry but glad I skipped lunch.
We were driven for dinner to an imposing traditional restaurant at the far end of side street that crosses over a bridge. The willow trees wilting over the lake on both sides of the bridge and the lanterns twinkling through the mist made for my most memorable and evocative image of Beijing . Inside the restaurant, our group split up among 3 round tables- we still do this at random, no set patterns yet; I made the case that spouses should not be seated right next to each other, at least. I had our Duke host on one side and a Connecticut retired finance man on the other. Dinner was billed as a royal banquet and did not disappoint, it was the best we’d had in Beijing. It was served as usual, dishes placed in succession on a lazy susan and each guest helping himself with chopsticks or spoons; we had small plates, but given the many helpings of multiple plates, I doubt we ate less. The duck was much better than that of the dinner last night- as it should be, the meat was moist and the skin crisp. So duck dinner number 3.
Sunday October 9: The Great Wall
Woke up very early today for the visit to the Great Wall, over an hour to the north west of Beijing. So another grand buffet breakfast, then on the bus, and heading out in the worse pollution yet. We visited the Badaling section of the wall, the most accessible to Beijing, and of more recent construction, dating to the Ming dynasty. The wall is as iconic as advertised when viewed from a distance, the crenellated walls winding up and down with the rolling hills covered in autumnal trees. My husband and I made the mistake of taking the more ‘accessible’ of the two hikes up the wall, and although we got quite far quite fast, it was anything but a reflective experience, as we shared the narrow steps with a couple of spare million of the 20 million residents of Beijing, all of whom managed to climb, shout, and eat non-stop at the same time. It also got hot quite quickly.
We soon headed back down, and did not see the rest of the group, who had opted for the steeper path less taken; we sat in a dismal coffee shop and bought souvenir t-shirts until the agreed upon meeting time, upon which we discovered that the rest of the group had also tired of the wall early and were waiting for us on the bus.
The rest of that afternoon was a somewhat disorganized experiment in group management; some people wanted to visit the Bird’s Nest at the Olympic Village, according to schedule; some wanted to visit a gallery exhibiting Sun Young Sen memorabilia; some wanted to go shopping. We drove around amid rising heat, pollution, traffic (first day back to work for most employees) and frustration. The Bird’s Nest turned out to be closed, and the bus circled around in vain looking for a vantage point for photographing. One priority the entire group could agree on was lunch, and our guides duly took us to a restaurant that seemed under construction but was otherwise fine; the menu featured chicken nuggets but also a good deal of vegetables and whole steamed fish.
My husband joined the group that were dropped off at the gallery, while I went back to the hotel, and still others headed out to shop and others to prepare for an evening at a show of Chinese gymnastics. As for me, I could only think of getting out of the sticky street and into the spa. Now I am normally the last person to go to the spa at a hotel, as I always find something more interesting to do when I’m traveling, but yesterday evening it was just what I needed. The spa at the Ritz is one of the most luxurious I’ve seen: corridor after corridor of dimly lit pool area, changing rooms, massage rooms, Jacuzzi, sauna, and curtained Chinese-style beds and comfort rooms. For hotel guests, free, including robe, slippers, cap, shampoos, water, etc. The large pool has a huge screen on the far wall to entertain swimmers, and there is a wet trough swimmers must go through to enter pool area to ensure no one goes in with shoes. The screen was projecting ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ starring Spencer Tracy, with the sound off, Chinese subtitles, while incongruous, faint zen music played in the background.
After a swim and a very brisk hot Jacuzzi, showered and sat at one of the vanities in the dressing room. There were two women there, one a Korean woman of forty, and the other a soft-faced young Chinese woman who worked for Google and told us she got two hours off a day to breastfeed her baby, ‘by Chinese government request’ as she put it, rather than any policy of Google’s. The Korean woman and I wore our robes while we did our hair but the Chinese woman was totally unselfconscious about being in the nude.
Skipped dinner, with no regrets, although it ruined my half-hearted experiment in experiencing a ‘duck a day’ while in Beijing. In any case, we have to get up at an unearthly hour to take a plane for Lhasa, Tibet. I am very much looking forward to the pure air we are promised in Tibet, but also heedful of the warnings of the effects of altitude sickness in the oxygen-poor atmosphere. One should avoid alcohol, apparently, which for us in China so far has been beer, something I never drink anyway; but also coffee and tea, and that I am unwilling to sacrifice unless absolutely necessary. I have some mild over-the-counter diuretic in my bag, but should really have stocked up on Diemark and Advil.
Part II: Lhasa, The Land of Pure Air but too little of it
Monday October 10
In the morning, after getting up at 5 am for a breakfast that included neither fruit or yoghurt, my breakfast choices, we head out to the airport. I had asked our Duke host the night before what we were doing about a gratuity for Wally, who is leaving us at this point, and he told us at breakfast that he would offer it on behalf of everyone in the group. Actually Bill did better; when Wally sang a farewell song to us on the bus on the way to the airport, Bill responded with a farewell song of his own. As for Mark, he is coming with us to Lhasa and staying with the group at the hotel. He seems as skeptical of the reputed piety of Tibetan monks as he is of all religion; but he did make a rather interesting point, that the Chinese considered they are ‘liberating’ the Tibetan commons from the repressive rule of their feudal lords, rather, it seems to me, as the U.S. ‘liberated’ Iraqis from Saddam.
On the flight to Cheng Du, our short stop on the way to Lhasa, we are served a second breakfast, of which the less said, the better. Lunch on the second leg of the flight is unexciting. I am very glad I bought a bag of pears at Beijing Airport .
Lhasa: Yak a Day and Yabo Daba Do
As we step outside the Lhasa Airport, it feels like suddenly seeing a film in 3-D after flat, color after gray; after the smog of Beijing and Chengdu, it’s like a gray veil has been lifted. The mountains detach themselves crisply against a solid cerulean sky, the sun is so bright that although it is 18 degrees C it feels hot. Our guides have been super-efficient, and before we even leave the airport we are handed out our room keys and number-coordinated stickers to identify our luggage.
We load ourselves onto a bright green bus for the hour-long trip to Lhasa on a new superhighway. In addition to our now familiar Mark, we have a local Tibetan guide called Pasan. He is quite emphatic about his name, and not at all willing to be called by a nickname; fair enough, since Tibetans only get one name each, no middle or patronym or family name. He is typically Tibetan, very small and fine-boned, with dark tanned skin, longer face, prominent teeth, shiny black hair. His English is excellent if heavily accented; he claims to have learnt it in Lhasa. Our Duke host speculates on how old he might be, as he looks about 25, according to Bill; I’m not so sure he looks younger than his age, as all that sun and dry air must be very aging to the skin.
“Yabo Daba Do”, it turns out, is Tibetan for “Everything is hunky-dory”. And here we all were thinking Fred Flintstone had made up a nonsense exclamation! Pasan has not heard of the Flintstones. He makes no bones about his Tibetan nationalism or his Sinophobia; he is critical of all things Chinese, even the airline. Awkward for poor Mark, but it’s rather a good thing that our guides feel they can air their differences and grievances. As we drive along the impression I got from the plane is confirmed: Tibet is indeed going through several years of drought and the land is parched. Here and there are cows and of course yaks, with their splendidly silly long hair and horns. A huge billboard announcing the Tibet yoghurt festival apparently refers to a major national event. I am looking forward to trying yak yoghurt, although Mark has warned me that all of Tibet, according to him, smells of yak butter. I thought I imagined a faint pervasive whiff at the airport, but that could have been the power of suggestion.
The main crops here, Pasan tells us, are barley, wheat, legumes, and the main animals cultivated are yaks, cows, pigs. Interestingly, Buddhists, who frown on taking life even for food, prefer to kill large animals like yaks for meat rather than chicken or fish, as the former would feed a family for so much longer than the latter, and a life is a life. So according to that logic a flea’s life should be worth a horse’s. No distinction between higher animals and lower. Interesting.
Lhasa is a new-looking city, with a wide central avenue lined with billboards and stores in three-story buildings. The people are a mixture: the traditional Tibetans, with their hats and long braids, the women in long skirts and striped aprons , down to their facial features looking so very much like Peruvian mountain people. Many of the Tibetan women have their faces covered with surgical masks or with scarves, which Pasan explains as either protection from the sun and elements or a form of traditional dress. The Tibetan women walk energetically, with long free strides, very different from the little girl steps many ‘mainland’ Chinese affect. There are a good many Han Chinese on the streets and in the shops and in the tourist industry in particular in Tibet, looking much like they do elsewhere in China. There are also soldiers in uniform at quite regular intervals; our guide has warned us not to photograph them.
We arrive at our hotel; it’s not the Ritz, by a long shot, but perfectly adequate, and I for one am enchanted by the weather and our perfectly adequate and well-equipped room. I do feel a bit of a headache, but nothing like the dire warnings we have been given about altitude sickness, so I take a couple of aspirin and slip on the bathrobe and just stretch out for a few minutes on the bed. Next thing I know, it is 6:30, and we are supposed to meet at the bus at 6:45 to go to a restaurant. My husband and I are the last to scramble onto the bus, but everyone is very gracious about it.
At the traditional restaurant downtown we have our first taste of yak: a little chewy, easily mistaken for beef. Also excellent nan bread, curried chicken, delicious tomato soup, vegetables, all just a bit salty for my bland taste.
Back at the hotel, switch on the news on TV, BBC has sickening news about sectarian violence in Cairo. I’m heart-sick. It’s clearly a very complicated situation and bodes no good for the elections.
So tired we fall asleep anyway, easiest sleep I’ve had since we traveled to China. Altitude apparently agrees with me better than pollution. Not the case with several people in the group, unfortunately, and oddly enough it’s the women who seem to be falling sick.
Tuesday October 11.
Woke up bright and early, in fact it was still dark and very cool, as Lhasa is at least three time zones behind Beijing, but all of China operates on Beijing time. So 6 am in Lhasa is probably the equivalent of 4 am longitude-wise. We were among a handful of early birds in the dining room before 8 am, but the staff had a super breakfast buffet spread out, to rival the Ritz’s. I got to try Yak yoghurt, and it is excellent, very rich, not a hint of an off smell; it was pre-sweetened, I would rather have been able to sweeten it to taste, but delicious.
This time we were the first on the bus, but when we left we were minus two of the group. Our first stop was the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace; very pretty informal gardens, tended by uniformed gardeners, not monks or lay friars. In fact didn’t see any monks at all, except for a seven-year-old monk in training, a cute little boy in robes and an orange hat with a bill that stuck out like a cap. His traditionally-dressed family were with him, including his mother, who had highly rouged cheeks. I asked if I could photograph, she shook her head. Other people in our group had the same experience with old women in braids and traditional dress. I rather respect them for it.
It was delightful to take deep breaths of the pure air in the garden against a backdrop of mountains. The palace itself is a two-story building, a bewildering succession of highly decorated rooms: your eye doesn’t know where to rest amid the riot of colors, paintings, sculptures, vases, artificial flowers, benches, hanging tapestries, reclining beds; the rooms are generally somewhat dim in contrast to the blinding sunshine outside, and the scent of incense is everywhere, so it can feel a little stuffy, and several of us ducked out into the courtyards from time to time to catch a breath of fresh air. Our poor guide Pasan went into detailed explanations of every last Tangka in his soft voice.
There are actually two palaces, a modest one the Dalai Lama uses and a more elaborate one completed in the mid-fifties and abandoned as two luxurious by the D.L. The living quarters actually seem quite modest to Western eyes; the Pope’s villa it is not.
From there we head on to the Museum close by. Problem is, we have been touring the Summer Palace for 3 hours, during which we were not allowed to bring our water to drink, or use the restroom. By the time we get to the museum we are all desperate. I sprint through security- without bag, hat, sunglasses, or water bottle, all verboten- and dash up three flights of very steep stairs to the restroom. Only when my heart starts to beat madly do I remember the injunction against rapid motion while adjusting to altitude. Too late.
The museum itself is full of immensely interesting artifacts, from cunning jade carvings to crazy giant masks, but marred by galleries of sheer Chinese propaganda. I am unable to take in all the glorious stuff because Pasan has allotted us too little time but also because I am gasping for water, and to have a drink I must get out of the museum and go back on the bus. Sometimes the human body is such a burden.
Next stop, the market quarter and a local dive for lunch. My husband, who feels sick, has gone back to the hotel by cab to join the three other incapacitated members of our group- we are dropping like flies. The rest of us sit along a long table and are served tomato soup, nan bread, spinach, beef stir fry, curry chicken, rice- essentially the same menu as yesterday but low on salt, perhaps Pasan has warned them beforehand. The apple fritters are the first edible dessert so far in China. The restroom is a real challenge which several members of our group find insurmountable; not just 'squat' but wet and slippery. I borrow someone else’s husband to hold my handbag as I need both hands free- lucky there are so many gentlemen on this tour.
Next comes the big spiritual highlight of the day: The Jokhang Temple, dating to the 8th C, the holiest shrine in all of Buddhism. It is walking distance from our lunch place. This being a holy day on the Buddhist calendar, there are more pilgrims than ever, and the place is packed with Buddhist worshipers squeezing by each other shoulder to shoulder, men, women, babies, mostly typically Tibetan in appearance. There are very few tourists like us, but we run the gauntlet and get in and out in a single file, hanging on to each other’s hands, slipping along the waxy uneven stone floor, craning our necks at the painted ceilings and the gigantic statues of various deities, some distinctly stern in appearance. I covered my head and face with my scarf and swallowed my claustrophobia till we emerged.
Mostly I felt bad for the genuine, simple-hearted worshippers, that there were these foreign skeptical critical presences among them. There is something to the system followed in many churches and all mosques, where tourists are not allowed during service times.
After God we were to worship Mammon, but I opted out of the visit to the bazaar to go back to the hotel with another member of the group in a taxi; I really felt I should check on my husband.
As it turns out, he doesn’t feel too brilliant, and the hotel suggests calling a doctor to administer oxygen. The doctor, a Chinese woman who speaks not a word of English, promptly shows up and there is an interesting experiment in using the computer to translate; but eventually the services of the handsome young receptionist are required and offered with the best good humor. The oxygen tank is left with rather summary instructions, as well as several ampoules of dark liquid oral medication that smells very much like roach traps. We order room service for dinner instead of yak dinner number 2.
Wednesday October 12
At breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, there is some discussion of the day’s program, and a more a la carte option is offered. After a talk by our Tibetan guide on his native culture, the bus will take the main group to visit a traditional Tibetan home; another group will be dropped off for shopping; yet another couple of people will stay behind at the hotel to take oxygen- everyone wants to be in shape for the highlight of the Tibetan trip and probably the whole tour, the Potala Palace, 500 steps and thirteen stories high.
I opt for the Tibetan family option. A low house, with large peonies in the courtyard, and a long low room with a long low table on which a tasty selection of toasted seeds and beans are spread. Our hostess is a dignified woman in her fifties, with a cute teenage grand-daughter who serves us little cups of yak butter tea. I donate mine to Bob, a large man with upturned mustaches who is fearless about food. We sit around and ask questions, most of which are answered by our guide Pasan rather than the host family, which speaks no English. They have come from the countryside. Pasan, in a discussion of marriage, admits that his mother would be dismayed if he were to marry a Han Chinese woman but would object much less to a Western daughter-in-law. We buy a few of the fabric goods the family makes: aprons, pouches, all colorful and typical.
Following the visit and the opportunity to photograph the stunning Potala Palace from a vantage point across the square, the bus takes off for a restaurant for lunch. My husband and I and another three people pass up lunch and take taxis back to the hotel. The palace is built more like a fortress on top of a hillside.
At 1 pm we leave for the Potala Palace climb; everyone, even Carole and Maria, who were ailing, are on the bus. At the Potala, we looked up at the iconic soaring walls with their regularly-spaced, curtained windows and took a deep breath and gave up our passports in exchange for tickets into the hallowed halls. Tickets to the Potala are timed, but our guide had us moving at a brisk pace. We made the 500 step climb in less than the forty minutes allowed, under blazing sun, without water. There was water available for sale at the top, as well as totally unacceptable toilet facilities.
Once inside the palace we jostled a couple of other tour groups through chamber after high-ceilinged, highly-decorated chamber, hanging on to railings as we stepped up and down slippery stairs and over shiny brass door sills. Finally we reached the inner sanctum where the dalai lamas are buried, in mind-boggling solid gold sarcophagi next to giant solid gold statues depicting the departed lamas, statues encrusted with turquoise and jewels.
After the stark simplicity of the life of Tibetans and in contrast to the unimposing architecture of the ‘palaces’, nothing prepares you for this unbridled opulence of crude gold. Nothing comes close, not even King Tut’s treasures, except of course that the Potala Palace’s treasures date from the fifteenth century rather than 1500 B.C.. It was a revelation to me that the Dalai Lamas, associated in my mind at least with Buddhist renunciation of earthly affairs, should have accumulated these unimaginable riches and been commemorated with such extravagant idols.
It is especially obscene in view of the fact that all this gold comes from the donations of the people of Tibet, who are generally poor. Later our guide himself, for all his lauding of Tibetan piety, puts some of the blame for Tibet’s underdevelopment on the religious devotion of the people. His mother, for example, he says, instead of putting money aside for the future of her children, keeps just enough to cover the next year’s expenses and donates all the surplus to the Buddhist church.
As our time inside the palace is limited, we move briskly along, but as the smaller rooms, and the corridors between the grand halls, are narrow, dark, and stuffy, I personally was not tempted to linger past our allotted time. In any case, Pasan had another adventure scheduled for us immediately after: the bus drove us a way out of town to a monastery where we entered a tree-shaded courtyard and watched scores of maroon-robed young monks in training ‘debating’ with elaborate hand gestures. They looked like they were having fun and couldn’t help grinning as they caught the eyes of the tourists all around video-taping them.
Back to the hotel for a lightning quick change in time to get on the bus again for dinner and a show at ‘The Crazy Yak.” Dinner was buffet-style, a bit of a scramble with the other tourists around the very large dining hall; the food was authentically Tibetan, and included sheep tongue soup and yak meat dumplings. Steamed pumpkin actually seemed like the best choice, at least for me, but I tried a taste of ‘barley wine.’ The entertainment was typical Tibetan dances, with yak-costumed dancers, and men and women in colorful costumes singing and dancing. The finale was a sort of Conga line dance around the room, and when Lori, who was sitting right next to me at table, got up and joined the Tibetan dancers on stage, several of our group members did the same, and danced around the room. As someone said, ‘what happens in Lhasa stays in Lhasa.’
Tomorrow, off to Cheng Du and the giant Pandas.
Part III Chengdu: Panda a Day
Thursday October 13
Chengdu the Spicy City
Up very early to fly from Tibet to Chengdu, a smooth 2-hour flight. Cheng du, capital of Szechuan, is an ancient city of some 10 million people and lies in the dead heart of China; once a crossroad on the silk road, it is traditionally known as the brocade city, as well as the hibiscus city. I haven’t seen any hibiscus, but there are flowers and trees and parks and greenery everywhere, a sign of its humid, subtropical, perpetually overcast climate. That absence of sun is credited with the pale complexion of the women, who are known both for their beauty and for their ‘spicy’ temper, whereas the men of Chengdu are known to be hen-pecked husbands. All this local lore is relayed to us with an absolute straight face both by Mark, our permanent guide, so to speak, and by Jiji, our local guide, who exemplifies the reputation of Chengdu women: a contrast of white and black, as round and pretty and cute as a small panda.
The other reputation of Chengdu is for being the most ‘laid back’ city of China. Perhaps that is the reason we have to wait for twenty minutes for our bus at the airport, and another couple of hours in the lobby of the Jin Jiang Hotel to check into our rooms. The hotel itself is a large, opulent, old-fashioned government-run hotel with a Sikh doorman. It is centrally located by the Brocade river and apart from the check-in snafu, the hotel staff are prompt and helpful.
Chengdu may have a reputation for being laid back, but on the street people are moving along at a brisk pace, the women in short skirts and skinny jeans; many scooters as well as small local cars. Taxis here are lime-green, in contrast to the blue and white taxis in Lhasa. Chengdu is an intel industry hub, and the downtown is dominated by the great luxury brands from Louis Vuitton to Gucci.
We have a free evening, and my husband and I take advantage of it to have a Western meal at one of the hotel’s restaurants: it is a nice change to have a perfectly-cooked pan-seared salmon fillet in red pepper cream sauce. Later most of the group go to a local, outdoor theatre show featuring Chengdu’s typical theatre arts: face-changing, puppets, comic skits, etc. While they watch, the spectators are served tea, peanuts, and an optional foot massage or ear-picking.
Friday October 13
After breakfast we take the bus for the hour’s drive to the Panda Reserve outside of Chengdu. We arrive at the same time as wave upon wave of impossibly cute elementary school-children, wearing red, yellow or white caps to distinguish each school group; holding hands two by two, boy and girl, waving and calling to us in English: “Hello, good morning!”
The pandas themselves can barely compete in cuteness. As we walk along bamboo-shaded alleys, we stop to photograph the small groups of pandas we see mostly lying around scratching or lolling on tree branches. Whenever one of them turns over or summons the energy to move around or chew on a bamboo shoot, the whole audience of spectators exclaims and applauds and cameras click away for all the world as if we were watching the biggest movie star. The pandas themselves are more beige than white, although the yin yang coloring of the panda- black and white- is part of its importance to Chinese lore. Our guide Jiji entertains us with riddles: What does a panda dream of? Taking pictures in color.
And lying around dreaming seems to be mainly what pandas do. They need to conserve e energy as they absorb very little nutrition from their 14 kilos of bamboo a day.
Pandas seem to be clueless: they have no interest in mating or even an instinctive knowledge of how it is done; they need to be shown panda porn, so to speak, to instruct them on the process. Artificial insemination is the default method of reproduction at the reserve. But even when a female panda, who is fertile only 5 days a year and can carry only one cub every 2 years, actually does deliver a tiny one-pound slithery foetus, she has no maternal instinct to guide her, and often swats away at the poor infant until the reserve staff intervene to save it.
Just as you begin to wonder if the panda is a species worth going to so much trouble to save, you visit the panda baby nursery: there are four adorable, furry little babies lying on a wooden baby crib, nuzzling each other, baby scales and baby bottles and Similac milk in the room, for all the world like human babies. For a mere 180 dollars, you can have ‘private time’ with a baby panda and be photographed holding it. In our group, only one couple goes in for the ultimate panda baby bonding experience.
Lunch at a restaurant in the reserve features several bamboo dishes. After lunch, we group around long tables on the banks of the swan lake to listen to our Duke faculty host, Bill Chafe, talk about Nixon’s legacy and his visit to China. At first there is too much noise from the surrounding school children noshing on what looked like the Chinese equivalent of Twinkies, but Mark hushes them and they obligingly wander further off, so that in the end it is a satisfactory experience and rather a pleasant change, to listen to the lecture in the open air while sipping jasmine blossom tea.
It occurs to me, as we recalled the years before China opened up to the world, when in the West we thought of the Chinese as an undifferentiated mass of automatons marching in lockstep to the orders of Chairman Mao, that all the time they were people just like us, individualistic, materialistic, ambitious, family-loving, very much aware of their regional differences and distinctions and proud of them. The ‘other’ is always dehumanized, always seen as a monolithic mass until you get to know them personally. That hasn’t changed, even if the designation of the ‘other’ has.
After a final stop at the Museum souvenir shop, we board the bus for the hotel. A couple of hours later we are picked up again to go to dinner at a local Szechuan restaurant. It is very much a local dive sort of place, and the service is somewhat brusque. There are some Szechuan cuisine dishes on the table, but as they tend to be very spicy, there are few takers. There is a dramatic dish called rice cake soup, which is not bad, but there are also other dishes that are unfamiliar in texture or presentation that are less successful.
The problem is that most of us are tired of Chinese food after 10 days. Our guides try to vary it with regional dishes, but to us it is still Chinese food, and we are all bored with it and longing for Western cuisine. It’s an insoluble problem.
Saturday October 15
Last day in Chengdu, indulged in a lazy start to the day, and checked out of our hotel at noon. We went to lunch, went for a walk in the pet and flower market- amazing fish, birds, bonsai- visited the stunning Brocade Museum- embroidery on silk so fine that, backlit, you see the hairs on a panda’s back. Bought a couple of scarves. Went for another walk, to the Wide and Narrow Street pedestrian neighborhood, lined on both sides of the streets with cafes and restaurants, clearly a hangout for locals and tourists alike. Some fun trompe l’oeil three-dimensional murals.
Finally off to the airport for our late flight to Xian, a short flight of an hour, but I was exhausted.
Part IV: Xian, The Terra Cotta Warriors
Sunday, October 16
Xian is the home town of our tour guide Mark and he is visibly excited when we land late last night. It is an ancient city that was once the capital of China, and is today a bustling city of 8 million revitalized by the tourist boom after the discovery of the thousands of terra cotta warriors put it on the map for the west. Its other claim to fame is the largely intact city walls that surround the modern downtown with its incongruous high-rise buildings.
Our hotel in Xian, the Metropark, is a high rise and our room is adequate but unattractive. The weather, though, is splendid, sunny, crisp, cool, and everyone’s spirits are up as we meet at 9 am for our first day’s tour. We visit the Buddhist Big Wild Goose Temple, a large garden complex comprising a 1300 year old temple surrounded by construction of new ancillary buildings. Inside the temple, a gigantic gilded Buddha, but none of the incense-stuffiness we remembered from Tibet. Ten percent of Chinese are Buddhists, we are told.
Back on the bus for the hour-long ride outside the city walls to the site of the discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors. The museum is a vast complex built on a large esplanade with three main halls representing the three ‘pits’ in which the fragments of the 7000 lifesize terra cotta warriors and horses buried two thousand years ago were discovered by a peasant in 1974. The existing warriors on show were pieced and glued together for the exhibition. I found it somewhat disappointing, perhaps because I had in mind the colossal statues of Upper Egypt, three thousand years older than the small warriors of Xian.
We had lunch in the museum restaurant, which featured a chef hand-stretching noodles from fresh dough as easily as a pizza chef tosses pizza dough. Some of the other offerings on the buffet were dodgier, including ‘roast bowel with eggs’.
By the time we got back to the hotel we had barely 30 minutes to shower and dress up for a gala dinner and theatre show, but it was worth the scramble: we had a sumptuous Dim Sum banquet at a fancy restaurant with hostesses dressed up in fantastic headdresses. The walnut-filled dim sum, cunningly shaped like walnuts, and the bean paste purses, were my favorite on a seemingly endless succession of delicious varieties.
Outside the restaurant two glamorous policewomen in miniskirts and white Courreges style boots stood on platforms, rigid as statues.
We arrived just before the lights went out for the program to start at the theatre, where we sat around tables and had coffee or wine while the show went on stage. Astounding costumes, lightning costume changes and scenery changes, special effects from rain to fog, lights, action, singing, dancing, a tremendous show that left us breathless.
Our guide Mark had explained that when someone comes to a city, he is served noodles, as a sign of a long stretched out stay, and when he leaves, Dim Sum, so it was appropriate that our last night in Xian was a dim sum banquet.
The next morning we visited the city wall surrounding Xian, where we had interesting vistas contrasting the new ultramodern city with the ancient, and where in the distance we could see high-density projects with shockingly high buildings going up for the working class.
Our Duke host gave us a talk on the Vietnam war at the city hotel followed by a Mongolian hot pot lunch, where we were each given a small pot of boiling broth over a Bunsen burner and dipped small slices of raw meat or mostly vegetable into the water just long enough to cook it and fish it out again to eat. Very light, and a change, though not nearly as good as the ones I’ve had before.
In the afternoon we visited the mosque in Xian, which is home to 100,000 Muslims, apparently one of the largest communities. Those people came with the opening of the Silk Road in the early second century AD, according to Mark, although he refers to them as Muslims and of course in 200 AD there was no Islam and therefore they may have been Arab but not Muslim. Later they went with Ghenghis Khan on his campaigns and then returned to China, so they are called the ‘returned’ people or Uighurs. Of course he mentioned nothing of the tensions surrounding that community.
There are four mosques in China worth visiting. I was curious to see the architecture compared to the mosques I’ve seen around the world, but the Xian mosque is by far the most exotic, entirely in the pagoda style, with nothing remotely suggesting a mosque other than the Arabic inscriptions on one or two walls: ‘temples are the houses of the pious’, I deciphered on one. There are several pagoda style buildings in a succession of courtyards culminating in a large hall that is the prayer area and is closed to non-worshippers. There are traces of blue paint on the roof and Mark tells us that blue is a royal color in China but that the emperor at the time made a concession allowing the mosque roof to be painted blue in part as a sign of favor.
The one thing the mosque seemed to have in common with other mosques is a sense of stillness, of quiet, especially compared to the overwhelming busyness and sensory overload of Buddhist temples where every inch is decorated and gilded and the hum and crowding and incense are an integral part of the experience. There are wash rooms, too, our guide told us, and although I didn’t try them out myself, my husband did and found them impeccable.
Mark also told us that Muslims, like other minorities, are allowed to have more than one child, but that Muslim children are kept in separate schools because, ostensibly, they do not eat pork and cannot have school lunch with other Chinese children. I wonder how that excuse would go down with our Jewish friends in the US, or if the Chinese government does not realize how segregating minority children precludes socializing them.
We were then given free time to visit ‘the Muslim street’, which is basically the same as any other commercial bazaar in China, with the same goods, so-called pashminas, table runners, silk scarves, embroidered cushion covers, etc. and the same look to the salespeople, with only a handful of veiled women in sight, and those seem to be tourists from Malaysia. I bought a few souvenirs and then went to have Hagen Daz ice cream, at $5 a scoop, in the square outside. There were some delicious looking big red dates in baskets on the fruit stands, wonderful looking fruit in general in China, including gigantic grapefruit and pears, but I didn’t dare buy any.
Our guide Mark had warned us to beware of pickpockets in ‘the Muslim street’ but there were none, and in fact I was surprised at the lack of pressure on the part of salespeople. Very different, from my experience in Cairo or Istanbul or elsewhere where you are solicited at every corner.
Another woman in the group had another observation. “It’s odd that the people here don’t make eye contact, the men don’t harass you at all.“ She had been travelling alone, a vibrant woman with long reddish hair who looked a decade younger than her avowed fifty years. She had been having trouble with the food, and been out of things for a while, and seemed generally to sit alone, although she gave me the impression of doing so by choice. I was surprised when she told me that afternoon in Xian that she was thinking of going home. She wasn't enjoying herself, she was homesick, she couldn’t eat the food, China wasn’t what she expected. I didn’t want to probe, or to ask what her expectations had been; or her reasons for traveling alone when she apparently had young children at home that she missed. But I tried to encourage her to stay for the remaining three days. I could see, though, that she was ‘mal dans sa peau’, as the French say, on this trip, and it was too late to change that. Perhaps she came to China in the wrong frame of mind, or perhaps she didn’t find in the group a clique that was a comfortable fit, and wanted to keep aloof from the ‘salon des refuses.’ Sad, because I’m sure many people would have welcomed the opportunity to know her better.
Back on the bus for the airport at Xian, crowded and noisy. Had a quick meal at the airport restaurant, not bad per se, in fact most people ate it, but I was not in the mood for it and just had fruit. Crowded flight to Guilin, plenty of Flemish and other tourists.
Part V: Guilin: Joie de Vivre and Rice Paddies
Guilin reminds me immediately of Egypt, something about the vegetation, the climate, the Li River running through it, the shaded board walks along the river banks, the liveliness of the street life late in the evening, with people sitting at cafes or strolling around, the shops open, bright lights everywhere. Also, on the side alleys on our way to town from the airport, the dingy little mechanic’s shops and small houses with laundry hanging from the windows.
Our Sheraton Hotel is right on the river bank in the nicest part of town, with a wide lobby and high atrium, and we are happy to check into our impeccable rooms, with tub as well as shower, and French press coffee pot. The hotel seems exclusively occupied by Westerners, as do all the restaurants we are to eat in while in Guilin. Apparently this is a very popular tourist destination, and moreover 100,000 foreigners have made their homes here according to our guide.
In the morning, along the river bank, you see the locals in great number taking exercise in the warm morning air, not so much traditional Tai Chi as variations with paddles, with swords, and especially ‘Western’ dancing to loud speakers. Others seem to be using the monkey bars and other equipment that I would have thought were children’s playground objects. There is a sense of laissez vivre in this town that I find very pleasant, almost French style joie de vivre.
On the other hand, even in this resort city, traffic moves briskly, on scooters, in cars. China is a country on the move, and the flaneurs during the day are rare, apart from the retired.
We take the bus for a 60 kilometer drive to Gongshuo, a river town from which we will board the ferry for our four hour cruise on the river Li. We are on the lower deck of the boat with a party of Flemish tourists, whereas the Asian tourists seem to have congregated on the upper deck. It is quite warm but there is a breeze on the open deck and inside the air conditioning keeps things pleasant. The Li is much narrower and more shallow than I imagined- for some reason I must have had the Luxor-Aswan cruise in mind- and the Li is flanked by high, vegetation-covered limestone hills on each side. The typical Chinese print landscape, we are advised by our local guide Jo, is the Li river with the gorges in the background and a water buffalo and a cormorant fisherman in the foreground. That is the scene depicted on the 20 Yuan bill.
Our guide, Jo, a thirty something who looks twenty, is a skinny young man with a backpack and a phone earpiece who speaks perfect English in a way-cool voice. His offhand demeanor when he tries to quiz the group on what they know about Guilin grates on one person who rather pointedly quips back that we are paying him precisely to tell us about Guilin.
That he does, but rather in the detached, cool way of Miss Panda back in Chengdu, and I wonder if that is a generational gap, in comparison to the impassioned, personally intimate outreach of our two forty-something guides, Wally and Mark.
The cruise is relaxed but not boring. We slip along, crossing many other boats. The water buffalo are less big and bony than the ones in Egypt. Lunch is an interesting mix of which I partake only the angel food and watermelon dessert; I brought along a pain au chocolat from breakfast. The restroom situation is probably the most challenging of this entire three weeks, and that unfortunately colors my memory of the cruise.
We get off at the tourist town of Guongjo and wander around the market stalls. It costs 5 Yuan for a photo with a fisherman carrying a stick on which two large black cormorant are perched. The old man is so skinny and deformed that it is more than worth it. Apparently a trained fishing cormorant is so valuable that it might cost more than a water buffalo. It is trained to fish but not to swallow the fish, rather to spit it out to the fisherman.
From the market stalls- where even the KFC has only squat toilets- we take four golf carts- 6 people per golf cart- to visit the rice paddies, about an hour away. The road all the way into the village is entirely paved and smooth. We stop briefly at a rice paddy where the backdrop of the sun dipping behind the black limestone mountains makes for the perfect picture. Then we stop in a village where the rest of the group walks into a house to visit the lifestyle of the locals. I stay in the cart and observe village life on ‘main street.’ There is a female butcher in a polo shirt, jeans and wellington boots who sits behind a meager counter and combs her hair. Our golf cart driver, also a woman, gets out with her white driver’s gloves and handbag and buys some meat or fat from the butcher. A man guts and washes two fish at the tap and sink, followed by a woman who kills, plucks and washes a chicken at the same tap. There is no other running water, apparently, as I see an old woman and a young one carrying heavy pails of water suspended from each end of a stick across their shoulders, exactly like traditional Chinese prints were it not for the incongruous ‘modern’ clothing. Unlike India or Egypt, where peasants still wear traditional dress, the Chinese villagers are dressed in what could pass for western style, except for the ‘coolie’ hat, which I’ve only seen in this part of the country. I still remember the touches of saffron and fuchsia of the Indian peasant women flaming out of the green fields.
The children are coming home from school, very cute and neat-looking, while older people play cards or watch grandchildren; toddlers wear slit underwear.
Finally our group reassembles and we board the golf carts again for the drive back to the town where our bus awaits. Then another hour and a half drive back to Guilin where we shower and change before a five minute walk to a restaurant where we are served one of the better meals of the trip, with pretty place settings and Chinese cuisine more adapted to Western tastes- understandably, as the clientele is Western.
A walk around town after dinner is very pleasant, such an active street life, young people strolling and eating from street stalls or from the ice cream and other western franchises along the street. There were two weddings going on at our Sheraton hotel, and I noticed that although the food seemed lavish the guests were not dressed up. Perhaps after sixty years of communism they did not know how to dress appropriately, but that doesn’t seem a satisfactory explanation. I see people on the street dressed quite extravagantly, including women in miniskirts and fishnet stockings on scooters who, in other cultures, would be assumed to be ‘fast’ to put it mildly.
Wednesday October 19
This morning took a brisk walk at 8 am along the river to watch the locals at their exercise, then went back to pack up and sit down to a very lavish breakfast. The papaya, the persimmons, the dragon fruit, are all so tempting here, and of course the variety of breads and cheeses. There is also Chinese breakfast food, of course, but that is not at all what I want for breakfast.
We leave the hotel around 11:30 for a restaurant where we spend the first hour or so exchanging views on our China experience under the direction of our Duke host. Most people’s impressions were of how Western China was, how impressive, how advanced, how insular the West was in its lack of knowledge of China, but also of the discrepancy between the big cities like Beijing and the rural back country around Guilin. I share some of the same views but my own points of reference are wider, encompassing Egypt and India as well as the US and Europe, and I can see where the role of women in China is different; where parts of Guilin reminded me of Egypt, and Beijing of a cleaner, wider New York. I also focused on China’s foreign policy, and its growing influence in Africa, for instance; even in Egypt, there are Chinese workers.
After lunch, which was good but I could barely touch after such a humongous breakfast, we set off for a tea institute where we attended a tea ceremony which taught us a great deal about the different kinds of tea, their prices, their benefits, their taste. First we were given coolie hats to wear to visit a tea plant garden. The inner shoot of the tea plant is the most precious, used for white tea, which is caffeine free. The two closest leaves make yellow or green tea, again light and low in caffeine, high in anti-oxidants. These teas are not fermented, just dried. Next comes Oolong tea, the highest grade of fermented tea, which is rolled into tiny balls by hand. Next the outer leaves make black tea, or tea-bag tea, which is highly fermented and rolled and chopped. All the leaf picking and curing is done by hand, mostly by women who earn about $15 a day.
The blossom of the tea is used for honey, and the fruit is pressed for ‘tea oil.’
Next we entered the museum to attend the tea ceremony, which involved various tea pots, both clay (good for fermented teas) and porcelain (good for all teas) and a tea tray with a plastic drawer to catch the overflow of tea that is poured over the pots and cups to warm them. The young man who conducted the tea ceremony with such delicacy and dexterity seemed very knowledgeable. We were given tiny tasted of yellow tea- no white, too expensive- which was very pale and sweet; then oolong, which smelled of apricot and was also sweet; and then compressed tea, which is a mixture of teas pressed into cakes that are then used for tea. We were told that good quality loose tea can be used in very small quantities- half a teaspoon per person- and re-used up to five times in the same day and steeped a minute or so more than the original 2 minutes for the first time.
All of which made me appreciate as never before the good tea that our Chinese friends gave us.
Following that we were ushered into the gift shop, where the typical tea mug/pot/strainer combination was on sale for the equivalent of $40 whereas I’ve seen them on sale at Southern Season in Chapel Hill for half that.
But the tea ceremony was a very pleasant interlude, after which we boarded the bus again for the airport, where we sat down to our third meal in 8 hours; I can hardly believe I tasted the chicken strips and the lotus flower root and the soup; some people at my table actually ate very heartily.
Now for Shanghai, our last stop. We’ve saved the best for last.
Part VI: Shanghai: Irrational Exuberance and Futuristic Skyline
Thursday, October 20th.
Shanghai’s new airport is huge, brand-new, the bathrooms are luxurious, there is not a squat toilet in sight; it is our first indication that we have left the third world far behind. But the terminal is interminable, and we drag our luggage for miles along corridors and up and down escalators to reach baggage claim and then again to get out to the parking lot.
Shanghai by night as we drive from the hotel to downtown is futuristic and fantastic. The bus whizzes along a maze of spaghetti junction overpasses that float over a neon-lit skyline that looks as if a creative child had been let loose to draw: round pink globes atop needle towers and a staggered building like a stylized cartoon sketch. Everything is new and shiny and humming along smoothly, not a scooter or a bicycle in evidence. The city is still lively at nearly midnight.
Our local guide for the short Shanghai leg of the trip is a young woman called Yolanda with a square face, a bowl cut, and earnest eyeglasses, who greets us with a red flag. Her English is the hardest to follow of any of our guides so far. The bus is a few minutes late, and our Chengdu experience comes to mind, since we will be staying at the same government-run Jin Jiang Hotel chain, but this time around when we arrive at the hotel our room keys are available instantly, and we gratefully repair to our rooms. Late as it is, I wash my hair and go to bed, and in the morning attempt to dry it with the hairdryer in the room, but since the only dryer outlet is under the desk, this requires a contortionist skill I do not possess.
Breakfast is at a civilized hour, since we are given the unprecedented leisure of setting off at 10 am on our tour of the city. Our first stop is the museum, a four-story treasure house of bronze sculptures, ceramics, paintings, calligraphy and more, probably the best general museum in China. According to the dating of some of the artifacts, all civilization begins with the Chinese, a claim disputed by the Indians, the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians. Regardless, there are examples of Bronze Age pottery stunning in imagination, detail and skill, like the cunning bowl topped with life-like yaks, flanked by two handles in the form of tigers attempting to climb up onto the rim of the bowl to get at the yaks.
But I truly lost myself in the ceramics gallery: the purity of the shapes, the delicacy of the design, the sheer eye candy of the celadon, the blanc de Chine, the rose red; the traditional blue and white, so popular in the Islamic world; the over-the-top green, pink and gold; from the tiny pots to the enormous planters and plates, from the horse to the camels, with the wild eyes and straining mouths typical to animal depiction in Chinese art, your eye keeps going back and forth, from astonishment to astonishment. For me, my coup de Coeur, my moments of actual covetousness as opposed to mere aesthetic admiration, came for two pieces, both 18th C: one was a pair of small rose petal pots with delicate lid topped with a golden stopper. I actually found, not a replica, but a piece inspired by them in the gift shop. The other coup de Coeur was for an equestrienne on a horse: the horse so alive, so perfect in proportions, and the lady so dignified, young, beautiful, with a wimple headdress and high-waisted dress reminiscent of early Renaissance women were it not for the fact that she is riding astride, not side-saddle. Her hands are lost in her voluminous sleeves but you can see that she must have been holding reins that did not survive the centuries.
After the museum we are driven to the waterfront, where the Bund, the European quarter of the French concession with its stately fin de siècle buildings, confronts across the river the futuristic new Shanghai with its fantastic skyscrapers, all built over the past thirty years. The boardwalk is alive with tourists taking pictures, an invigorating freshness to the cool air and overcast but clean sky. There are many Westerners in evidence, and quite a few who seem to be living in Shanghai as opposed to merely visiting. Indeed it does seem to be a livable city, at least for those who can afford it, as it is beyond the means of most Chinese, according to the laments of our guide Yolanda.
I get photographed taking by the horns the big bull on the boardwalk. Shanghai is to Beijing as New York is to Washington D.C., apparently; people there are all about money and hypocrisy, according to the guide, who like our other guides seems curiously uninhibited, indeed eager, to give stereotypical regional characterizations of the denizens of each city we visit.
A member of our group, Peter from Durham, points out to us the grand colonial building where his uncle had his business office in the forties. He has visited inside and has even visited the house his uncle rented in town, now an upscale bed and breakfast.
After the visit to the waterfront we go to a Chinese restaurant for lunch, and since it is late we are hungry and eat heartily, although we should be saving our appetites for the special farewell dinner promised for the evening. We walk off our lunch in the Yu Yuan Gardens, which we can only access, according to our guide Yolanda, by walking through small commercial back-alleys lined with cheap souvenir shops. It is a twenty-minute walk to the gardens themselves, in the best Chinese style, Tang dynasty Pagoda style buildings interspersed among the maze of walled gardens with their traditional landscape elements of willows dripping over pools of red carp, small bridges, and rock arrangements. There are interesting details of sculptures on the roofs. The gardens are quite crowded with Chinese locals or visitors, at 40 Yuan the entry ticket.
A long walk back to the bus followed by a tense negotiation when the group realizes that our special restaurant for the farewell dinner this evening lies in the same YuYuan neighborhood and requires the same 20 minute walk through the back alleys. Finally a compromise is reached: the driver will try to deposit us a little closer to the restaurant, although he cannot park there. After a welcome respite in our hotel rooms, we reassemble in the lobby, somewhat dressed up for the evening; I forsake the outfit I had planned, which would have involved a skirt and high heels, for a more practical flat shoes and trousers.
The walk to the restaurant is more pleasant than that earlier in the afternoon; we take an alternative route through a picturesque pagoda-style commercial area, but it is raining and quite muggy. The restaurant itself is quite festive, with an absolutely stunning view over the Shanghai skyline. I am finally ‘excited’, realizing that I am in Shanghai! In China! Not in Chinatown! The dinner is also more elaborate, with some new dishes to discover: rice-stuffed whole duck, for instance. But it is all quite heavy food.
We repair to a private room where our Duke host, Bill, sings a farewell song to ‘Mark’ our guide for the whole trip, in which we all join whole-heartedly. He also presents him with an envelope containing a collective gift from the group. Mark is touched and tells us he will save the donation for his daughter’s education, and that he is encouraging her to eventually attend Duke University if at all possible. There are several people in our group who certainly have some influence over making things possible at Duke. Mark is very popular with the group, particularly, I think, because he speaks fondly and often of his daughter, his wife, his family, and makes fun of himself and of them. Perhaps also because he deprecates China’s power and expresses his admiration for the U.S., quite sincerely, I believe.
Next come the tributes to our Duke host and his wife. Three members of the group sing songs and read poems in his honor, and he responds with his inimitable imitation of JFK’s ‘ask not’ speech.
It is a sentimental, happy and replete group that treks back to the bus, takes a final look at the Shanghai by night skyline, hugs our Duke hosts goodbye in the lobby- they are taking a direct flight to the US later in the evening while the rest of us brace for a 4 a.m. wake-up call to head back to the airport for the long flight home. Little do I know that a traveler's worst nightmare is in store for me at Beijing Airport.
Part VII: Beijing Airport: I Experience a Traveler's Worst Nightmare
Friday 21 October
We load onto the bus at 5:30 a.m., some of us well-rested, some, like me, groggy from only a couple of hours sleep. On the bus Mark hands us breakfast boxes, which some people tuck into heartily, and I leave untouched. The ham sandwich I don’t want, the coke can won’t make it past security, but I save the boiled eggs and Danish pastries for later.
We are leaving from the older of Shanghai’s two airports, for the first leg of our long trip: Shanghai to Beijing at 7:55 a.m., Beijing to JFK at 1 pm. By the time we get into New York at about 3 pm local time, we would have been travelling for 19 hours, and then most of us will still be taking connecting flights out of JFK for our final destinations. For me, the connecting flight to Raleigh-Durham should have me back in North Carolina by 10 pm, and with any luck in my own home before midnight Friday, that is, around noon of Saturday in China, where my body clock will be set.
Once our luggage has been checked in and our boarding passes issued, Mark bids us adieu and disappears, and we go through the line for passport check and security. I am asked to open my carry-on bag: the violation turns out to be the small container of yoghurt included in my breakfast box. But the young security man is nice about it; when I ask if I can drink it, he agrees readily, but it’s neither easy nor elegant to drink down yoghurt without a spoon as you stand in a security line.
After security we have a couple of hours to spare and I wander around, looking for a horseshoe-shaped neck-support cushion, looking through the Duty Free shops, visiting the restroom. I prefer to keep moving as I know I will be sitting for hours on end, and also because I am so sleepy that if I sit down I might be overcome. By the time I get back to the gate and find my husband and the other members of the group, our flight is boarding, and I stand in line and think to bring out my boarding pass.
That is when I realize I don’t have my handbag with my boarding pass, my passport, my credit cards, driver’s license, cash- everything. I have been pulling along my carry-on case and slinging my jacket over my shoulder, but my handbag, my all-important handbag, is missing. At first I can hardly believe it, and run back to the last place I sat down to see if I left it there. It isn’t there. I run to the last restroom I used, and check the hooks on the stalls, where I would have hung my bag. It isn’t there. I run back to my husband in line at the boarding gate and ask him to wait for me and rush back like a madwoman to retrace my steps to the Duty Free area. I see one of those airport golf carts and get on but the driver asks me for money and I have not a cent on me; I hop off.
I run on and find two security guards, both young women, and stop them, trying to explain my problem. They don’t understand, and finally walk me to the information desk to explain to the girl behind the desk in a yellow silk outfit. She is sweetly sympathetic but speaks very little English. I am frantic and have a hard time conveying the urgency of the situation: my flight is boarding, I have not a cent or a piece of I.D. on me, and time is being wasted. Either a thief is getting away with my bag, in which case there is no hope, or someone has turned it in, which would be a miracle. I ask the security women and the information clerk over and over to inquire at Lost and Found, or whoever in security is responsible for turning in unattended luggage, but they shake their head and say there is no such thing here. I ask them to call the police; the information girl finally does but five then ten minutes pass and the police do not show up; be patient, she advises me, the police is in another building, it will take a while for theme to come. I ask her to call the boarding gate, E-31, and ask if anyone has turned my bag in there; after all the boarding pass would indicate the flight. I ask them to hold the flight, to contact my husband. But the language barrier is insurmountable. The security women ask me what color the bag is, and I tell them brown, which conveys nothing, so I point to my shoes, but that does not help much. They wander away and leave me at the Information desk, increasingly desperate.
Finally I am resigned to missing my flight, but I need to tell my husband; I ask the information clerk if I can go fetch my husband, and make her promise to keep the police agent at the desk if they show up. I run again like a madwoman back to the gate, and find my husband and run back to the information desk. A young policewoman finally shows up, but by then the two security women have come back and the information clerk is getting busy on the phone in Chinese. They ask me again what color my bag was and I again say brown and they ask: “Coffee?” “Yes, yes, coffee color, dark brown,” I confirm. I hardly dare believe there is a glimmer of hope, but they tell me to go to the boarding gate and wait.
My husband and I head back, this time on a golf cart, as he has cash to pay the 10 Yuan per person, and wait at the gate. In a few moments a woman dressed like airport staff, not security, comes panting up with my bag, and I am so grateful to find my passport, boarding pass, wallet, that I give her a very substantial cash expression of my gratitude. My husband and I board the plane and find our seats; a couple of people in our group who realized what had happened ask me if I found my bag and who had taken it, and I am still too rattled and unsure myself to give a satisfactory answer. I can imagine what would have happened if indeed my husband and I had had to miss the flight; it would have been delayed till our luggage had been pulled off, and that would have meant a considerable delay for the other passengers. As it was, the flight takes off almost on time.
Finally, take-off. A little later, around 2 p.m., we are served lunch, with the pleasant surprise of fruit and yoghurt. I sleep for a while, exhausted with the adrenalin rush and the preceding sleepless night. Then I read on my Kindle, then I catch up on my travel log on my husband's laptop. It is eight o’clock p.m., Beijing-time, and eight a.m. New York time when we are served our second meal, this time a sandwich. Still six hours to go before we land. We are going flying across Asia and over the North Pole and the U.S. West Coast, but there is nothing to see out of the plane's windows, only cloud. Another dinner. Finally we land in New York, 2 p.m. local time, 2 a.m. Beijing time and my body clock time. At baggage claim, the Duke group regroups for the last time, hugs and goodbyes all round, but everyone already preoccupied with luggage, with picking up the thread of their lives. For the seven or so New York, Connecticut or Philadelphia residents, this is the end of the line. For the rest of us, it is connecting flights to Charlotte, to Milwaukee, to Raleigh-Durham.
For me, it is Saturday morning when I finally stumble into my bed in North Carolina. I half-wake up a couple of hours later and think: this hotel bed looks a lot like my bed back home. Then I wake up completely and realize: it really is my own bed. I really am home, not in China. And it's a gorgeous sunny cool Carolina autumn day!