China – May 2013

I’m trying to consolidate all my traveling experiences in this blog, thus I’m moving here the comments posted back 5 years ago in Facebook.

On May 6, my son Tony and I started a trip to China. He had been learning Mandarin and was interested in Chinese culture and I, through Marite’s studies in acupuncture, had also become attracted to this ancient culture. Thus, on that morning we left RDU for our first leg to the trip that took us to LA and then that afternoon we boarded the plane that took us to Beijing, non-stop in about 12 hours. When we arrived at the airport, (next day) we met our tour director, Ann, and our fellow travelers, a group of about 20 people from different places of the USA.

Ann took us to our hotel, where we were giving a room in one of the upper floors with a view of the hustle and bustle of that great metropolis.

Beijing

We spend two and a half days in Beijing, which is a hectic city of 21 million inhabitants. There are people anywhere: walking or riding bikes, mopeds, cars, buses and subways. It felt that the “rush hour” extended all day and part of the night. The traffic runs mostly on wide avenues and elevated highways, always packed full with vehicles. Skyscrapers are everywhere and so are apartment blocks. Even when you are in the outskirts of the city, miles away from downtown, you can see those massive apartment buildings near the highways, blocking the horizon.

And this overcrowding of humanity was also true for the other cities that we visited: Xi’an (population 7 million), Shanghai (24 million) and Suzhou (11 million). It was made clear to me that of the 1.3 billion inhabitants of China, like in other parts of the world, the majority live in the cities.

The apartment complexes have replaced most of the “siheyuans”, or traditional type of residence where a common courtyard is shared by the surrounding buildings; courtyards that are connected by narrow alleys called “hutongs”. However, we were able to see one of these neighborhoods (from the outside), which was close to the hotel where we stayed.

Tienanmen Square

The first day, it drizzled  and we visited Tienanmen Square, a vast open space (109 acres large) flanked by monumental buildings, including Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. At the

The Forbidden City

north side of the Square, lays the Forbidden City, a walled complex of more than 800 buildings and over 9000 rooms, which was started by the emperors of the Ming dynasty in 1406 and served as the residence of the emperors and their staff until the early 1900’s, when the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, of the Qing dynasty, was overthrown. In the afternoon we toured

A touring boat in the lake of the imperial Summer Gardens

the Summer Palace and magnificent gardens, NW of Beijing and in the evening we participated in a banquet, featuring roasted Peking Duck (delicious).

Next day we headed to the Great Wall, which I’m sure doesn’t require any explanations from me, especially when I wasn’t able to walk the wall proper, due to the steep climbing required to get to it, and my heart condition, which precluded such vigorous exercise. In the

Tony and I on the Great Wall, near Beijing

afternoon we stopped briefly at the Olympic Park and later we went to the Beijing Zoo, with the purpose of watching the famous Panda bears eating bamboo leaves.

On our third morning, Tony and I, headed to Tiantan Park, where hundreds of people (mostly seniors) where exercising and where we visited the

Temple of Heaven

splendid Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple build in the 15th century by the emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty, and which was used by the emperors to worship the Heavens and pray for bountiful harvests in the land.

 

Xi’an

In the afternoon we flew to Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China, with a 3,100 years of history, being the capital of China during several dynasties. Before getting

One of the many stalls at the Muslin Market

to the hotel, we stopped at  the Muslin quarter and walked down a street, which was basically a colorful open market of foodstuff (fresh, dried, cooked, fried and baked, for any taste and flavor). Different smells, some pungent, some sweet, some inciting, but also some strong and some even repellent filled the air. Quite a visual and olfactory experience.

Morning Dancing at Xingquing Park

Next morning, (a Saturday) we headed to Xingquing Park, which was a hub of early activity. Thousands of people, (again many seniors) were exercising, doing tai-chi, singing, dancing or playing (instruments and games) and doing their thing. A unique cultural occurrence.

In the afternoon, we toured the archeological site near the tomb of

Terracotta soldiers
Another view of the Terracotta soldiers

China’s first emperor, Qin   Shi Huang, who lived in the third century BC, and where more than 8,000 finely sculpted, life-size terracotta soldiers and horses were discovered by local farmers in 1974. One of the farmers still sits today at the souvenir shop signing books (for an additional fee) that describe the discovery.

The sight of the terracotta army in the archaeological pits and buildings that surround the excavation is breathtaking. One is able to see hundreds of the painstakingly rebuild statues lined up as an army ready to do battle, as well as figures still broken in hundreds of pieces waiting to be put back together. Definitely, a labor of love and patience for the enlightenment of today’s and future generations.

Tang Dynasty show

At the evening we were part of a sumptuous dinner and show with music and dancing, going back a thousand years to the Tang dynasty. Again, an incredible cultural experience.

Next morning we had a short visit to the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum. The artifacts displayed date to prehistoric times, continuing with objects from the 11th century BC, through the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and ending with the Tang dynasty (618-907 AC), with references to the Silk Roads, which united China with the rest of the world.

Shanghai

Tony, our Tour Director and I, with Pudong as a background

In the afternoon, we flew to Shanghai, which some say it’s the most Westernized city in China. However I found it as Chinese as any of the other few cities I visited. The one striking characteristic that hit me was its modern architecture, specifically seen in the Pudong area  (financial and commercial center of Shanghai) not seen in any city I have visited during all my travels.

Night view of Pudong, Shanghai

That night we took a boat ride along the Huangpu River, and enjoyed the magnificent views of both sides of the river. The old Bund, with its early 20th century westernized “art deco” buildings on one side of the river and the futuristic skyline of Pudong’s side.

Jade Buddha

Next morning we visited the Jade Buddha Temple, a very active Buddhist temple in Shanghai. Here one can realize that even a mind centered philosophy like Buddhism, is also tainted by superstition and commercialism. We also walked along the river on the Bund side. There, I was approached by a young man and his father, who wanted to have its picture taking with a Westerner. I agreed, of course, as I had the previous night at the boat cruise, when another aging gentlemen wanted to have a picture taking with me (another aging Caucasian fellow). Tony, being much younger and handsomer than me, was also approached earlier in Beijing by a young girl, who wanted her picture to be taken with this blond Viking (my assumption here) type. So, now somewhere in China our faces are  being ogled and/or laughed at, by some Chinese individuals.

Yuyuan Gardens

On the afternoon we visited the Yuyuan Gardens, build during the Ming dynasty by a high-ranking government officer of that era. The gardens where build as a sanctuary for the officer’s aging parents and have continued to be a restful place for people to enjoy in the last 400 years.

Afterwards we went to an open walking mall, with lots of little shops and restaurants, even some Western type ones, such as Häagen-Dazs, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and others. That night we had another cultural experience watching a unique acrobatic show in a Shanghai theater. It was very enjoyable.

Picturesque canal in Suzhou

Next day we went to another metropolis, not far from Shanghai, Suzhou. It is another ancient city, with many canals, which made it to be named the “Venice of the East”. Although, it has the longest man made canal in the World, personally, I wouldn’t compare it to the famous Italian city on the Adriatic. However, we took a ride in a covered boat, wider than a gondola, but also driven by a lady “gondolier”, who did delighted us with a couple of (romantic?) songs.

Earlier in the morning we visited the Master-of-Nets Garden, a small but delightful and elegant place, build under the Southern Song Dynasty, which we were told is one of the finest garden in China. One of the characteristics of the garden is that it combines living quarters with the landscaped garden

Next day, on what we thought would be our last day in China, we took a ride on the subway in Shanghai and went to Century Park, the largest one in the city, where the Science and Technology Museum and the Arts Center are also located. (Due to time constraints we weren’t able to visit the museum). The subway is very modern; the recorded announcements are in Chinese and English, and the instructions in the ticket vending machines are also written in both languages, so that even foreigners can use the system without problem.

In the afternoon, we were taking a flight to Beijing, where we had to connect with another flight that would take us to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, due to weather conditions in Shanghai the plane was delayed three hours, and when we got to Beijing, our connecting flight had already departed. So, Air China accommodated us in a hotel near the airport, but in the middle of nowhere. There, we waited for our next day flight. That extra day Tony and I stayed mostly in our room, both nursing colds that we had caught days earlier.

In LA we were again delayed, as Air China had misplaced my luggage, which didn’t arrive until the next afternoon. (But arrive it did.) Thus, ended our Chinese adventure.

Some personal comments about the China trip

It was a very civilized adventure. We flew (always in packed planes) from city to city, and then were taken to our local destinations by air-conditioned motor coaches. We stayed in 4 star hotels. Our tour was led by expert and very helpful guides that spoke decent English. They gave us background information and advice, but rushed us from place to place. So, we didn’t have many chances to mingle with the native population and less to engage in any conversation. Of course there was the language barrier. Tony spoke a very basic Chinese and I only learned two words. On the other hand, it appears that still few Chinese speak English. Even in hotels, restaurants and shops – supposedly catering to tourists – we found that English was not easily understood.

People, also (with a few exceptions) didn’t act very friendly. They, always seemed to be very busy and in a hurry, thus when one would not move fast enough, say when a crossing light changed, they would push you or try to get in front of you in the line.

There were lots, and lots, of street vendors that would try to sell you their fake watches or cheap trinkets. In a shop, when a price was quoted, it was always high, so you were expected to bargain it down, until a middle price was agreed to.

Pollution, during our stay, wasn’t high. However, we saw many people wearing surgical masks to filter pollutants and/or bacteria in the air. Downtown areas were kept very clean, and there were lots of trees and flower arrangements in the principal avenues. Surprisingly for me, there were many beggars and some homeless people in the streets, especially in Shanghai.

Food, broadly speaking, was good. While with the group, we would be seated in round tables, with “Lazy Susan” trays in the middle, where they would place many dishes, and always rice. Many would look (and taste) exotic, but in general they were full of flavor and wholesome. The drinks of choice were tea and beer. (Domestic wine is not recommended and imported wine extremely expensive.) It would appear that Montezuma had also reigned in China and for some reason, tap water is not potable there and in the hotels as well as during our daily excursions, we were always offered bottled water.

With the exception of Beijing, where we saw many soldiers in the streets and parks, the other places we visited where devoid of military presence. One of our tour guides, surprisingly, was very open about the political climate, and commented about the Cultural Revolution and the massacre at Tiananmen. Although, after her comments, she said that she expected that what “was said in the bus, would stay in the bus.”

Finally, I was somehow surprised about the interest and reverence that the Chinese people seem to have to their imperial past. All the historical sites and monuments we visited were packed by Chinese tourists and school children. In very few places, one saw pictures or depictions of Mao, or other past or present communist leaders. It is clear that the government has found that personal cult doesn’t help to keep the people in check, but trying to better their social and economic conditions does.