[After the trip, my cousin Anne reminds me that our mothers were in China between 1927 and 1929 when her mother was a new bride and my mother was only nineteen.]
Days 1 & 2 (April 27-28)
With our calico cat at a friend's and the car at my son's, we hopped a cab to Logan for an 8 am departure for Chicago on a plane full of Hingham band and choir members. Since we were flying United, Jack suggested contacting my cousin Susan on arrival in Chicago. She was working that day and came to our gate for a short visit. The 13-hour flight to Beijing was tiring but uneventful. We glimpsed the snow-covered mountains of Siberia as our route took us across from Canada to Russia and then south. A Chinese-American octogenarian suggested "chops" as gifts, elaborate printing stamps in Chinese and English.
We met several others traveling with the same small tour group (Overseas Adventure Travel) whose representative, Susan/Na (English/Chinese names), met us at the airport and whisked us through gridlock to a handsome and stylish new hotel in Beijing, The Park Plaza. The smog and congestion and building boom were as expected. Susan said the usual fierce spring dust storms blowing Gobi Desert sands into the city seemed to have abated. It was 74° and hazy and we skipped dinner to bathe, watch CNN and sleep.
(Hotel amenities at the Park Plaza proved to be similar to other hotels in China. There were usually twin beds, modern bath with small toiletries and hair dryer, cable TV, in-room safe, and small refrigerator with two free bottles of water since the water is not potable, desk, & chairs.)
Day 3 (May 29)
The Forbidden City. After an excellent and elaborate breakfast buffet at the hotel with Chinese and western foods, we had an orientation meeting with Susan. The youngest members of our group of 16 are doctors in their thirties and the oldest is an 86 year-old Canadian from D.C. The rest are about our age and retired or semi-retired or self-employed. The professions vary from education, technology, medicine, business and of course architecture and music.
Our local guide, Sally, is lively if a bit flaky and joined Susan for our trip to the Forbidden City, 10 minutes away. The city is symmetrical and sited to satisfy principles of geomancy or feng shui to face away from the Siberian winds and towards the warm south. Building took place over many years under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). We entered through the Meridian Gate, crossed the Goldenwater River, and passed through the Gate of Supreme Harmony. (All the names are equally colorful.) We saw many wonderful bronze lions: the males with a paw on an orb (symbol of power) and the females with a paw on a cub (symbol of succession). The imperial number is nine so there are often groups of nine items such as nine animals at roof corners and 9 X 9 grids of bronze knobs on the doors. The Dragon Throne is in the largest building and was considered by the Chinese to be the center of the world. All Chinese had a place in the hierarchy. The eldest son of the Empress was the successor Emperor and other sons, including sons of the 3,000 concubines, held high status.
Much of the Forbidden City has been renovated and has brightly colored friezes. From the Imperial Gardens at the north end one can see the Bai Ta or White (Tibetan-style) Pagoda built in 1651 to honor the first visit of a Dalai Lama to Beijing. To the west is the "new Forbidden City" where Mao lived and worked, the home of the Politburo.
Lunch was at a restaurant in the National Museum and then we walked to Tiananmen Square where Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949. There is a huge picture of him on the Gate of Heavenly Peace (those deceptively picturesque names again) that is repainted yearly.
The square can hold a million people and is just south of the Forbidden City. On the west of the square is the Great Hall of the People (government assembly hall) and at the south is Mao's mausoleum which is now closed for "renovations" or is it just not politically correct to visit him? We had a group photo taken in the square that later was presented to us in a commemorative book that is actually very nice if a bit touristy.
After a rest and bath, we dressed up for our Peking Duck dinner, as almost always was to be the case, seated at two round tables with a large lazy susan. Scott, another young doctor who had been delayed arriving, joined us here. Starting with delicious jasmine tea, sweet red wine, and appetizers, we moved on to lemon chicken, beef and veggies, elaborate fish and rice, melon balls, shrimp cakes, deep fried vegetables (like tempura), mushroom dishes and on and on until finally the Peking Duck arrived whole and was carved with fanfare by the chef. We served it on small pancakes with sauce, spring onions, and cucumbers.
Dinner discussion revealed that China has no national health system and that education only recently became free in Beijing up to high school. We were to learn later that many places still charge for schooling.
Today we found many aggressive peddlers selling postcards and booklets at tourist spots but soon followed suggestions to ignore them. There were also beggars with either real or faked deformities like two children on low roller carts on which they sped around us at the Forbidden City. We rarely saw anything like these deformed people again--just once along the Yangtze when we disembarked.
On the way back from the hotel we saw a large open food market with many stalls. Red lanterns hung in restaurant entries, a characteristic sign all around China.
Day 4 (April 30)
The Great Wall. Almost leaving Marguerite behind , we boarded our little bus and headed for the "Wild" Great Wall about 1.5 hours northwest of Beijing. Our first stop, however, was a cloisonné factory, the biggest in Beijing, run by the government and open to the public. First we saw women gluing wires to copper vases and bowls. Then we watched people inserting pastes of colored minerals into the lattice-patterns on the vases with eye-droppers. Then we saw the items being fired at 1500° for about 5 minutes. Next came a series of polishing procedures to make the product smooth and gleaming. Of course, we were prepped to buy the wares we saw in the new capitalist Chinese shop though we each had a chance to try Step 2 first using a medicine dropper to form the colored patterns. We learned that cloisonné was brought to China by Asian missionaries in the 14th century.
The Great Wall was built from 403-221 B.C. and was connected into a vast long wall under the first Qin Emperor by some 300,000 men under unspeakable conditions. Once 6,000 miles long, 3,750 miles now remain from the sea to the Gobi Desert. (By the way, it is an urban myth that the wall can be seen from space.) The part described as the Wild Great Wall is unrenovated. We re-grouped into two small vans for the dirt-road ride to the stairway. Then we began climbing to the first stage. I stopped at this point but Jack continued to the second very steep stage and his pictures were worth the trouble though he was pretty winded. Wild peach and cherry trees were in bloom but the trees were not quite in leaf and the mountains looked dry. There were few other people there.
After the descent, we had lunch near the famous renovated Badaling section of the wall. Lunch was the now familiar dizzy array of a dozen or more dishes from fried shrimp to beef and onions plus beer. We almost always have the beer instead of soft drinks and it is quite good, often local. A few of us went on to the renovated section that was mobbed by tourists and peddlers but was still impressive with the sight from one fort or outpost to another. The human toll paid during the original construction is unimaginable, the bones of some said to underlay the structure.
Day 5 (May 1)
We are spoiled by the elaborate breakfast at the hotel, much like that at the St. Julien in Malta minus the espresso. Anyway, we were all on the bus in good time at 8 am this morning, a good group in that and other ways. At our first stop, The #1 Carpet Factory, our guide explained about the small worms who eat mulberry leaves and spin fine silk a mile+ long in their cocoons and the fatter ones who eat oak leaves and spin fatter, shorter threads. We also learned about the dyes: vegetable (bark, flowers e.g.. saffron), and insects (cochineal). And we watched young women weaving fine patterns. The most handsome rugs were very expensive, e.g.. $2,000US for a small one taking 18 months to make. We did buy a woven Chinese landscape made of barely visible, super fine silk threads.
Then we were off to a Kung Fu school to watch a spectacular exhibition by kids in their early teens or younger: chopping sticks in two, balancing on pointed spikes, piling three on top of grids of nails (double-sided). The grace and acrobatics were amazing.
After another varied lunch and purchase of a jacket and oddments, we headed to the Summer Palace which was jammed because of the holiday week. Susan and Sally told us about the Dragon Lady, Empress Cixi, and her domination of policy. And we heard that courtiers were killed for such small infractions as speaking during her naps. The Long Corridor was partly closed but peonies, iris, and cherry trees were in bloom and it was especially nice around the lake on which we had a ride in a dragon boat.
After dinner we attended the Peking Opera at a theater next to the Children's Palace, a real highlight for me. In the lobby were some of the actors applying their fantastically patterned makeup. Although the performance was a potpourri of excerpts from various works and was designed for tourists, the acting seemed excellent, the singing style strange of course, and the costumes colorful and elaborate. Susan reminded us that the opera was banned during the Cultural Revolution but is now supported by the state except that women are encouraged to play female roles instead of males as was traditional. (Males playing female roles is considered perverse by the communist government.) It is interesting how men played female roles in both the east (Chinese and Japanese theater) as well as in western theater (as in the so-called "trouser roles" in Shakespeare and in Mozart operas).
The three Peking opera excerpts were funny at times, often acrobatic, sometimes bewildering, the music maddening and exhilarating by turns, the costumes exotic and fantastic. There were surtitles, like those in many western opera houses, but the translations were often more confusing than enlightening and sometimes hilarious.
Day 6 (May 2)
We had the morning free on our final day in Beijing so we opted for a long walk with six or seven others to see the Friendship Store, about a mile from the Park Plaza. We went straight into the instrument section and, after some consultation with the salesman who was also a musician, bought an erhu (two-stringed fiddle) for daughter Andrea made of rosewood and snakeskin. It is one of the classical instruments used in the opera orchestra, is tuned D—A, and has no frets. We also bought little boxes of opera masks, fantastic little things to remind of us the Peking Opera performances.
After showers and a rest, we boarded the bus for lunch in the hutong or "narrow alley" of traditional houses (300 years old) where we were hosted by an artist and his wife. Artist Yanzhen Zhang paints both traditional Chinese-style paintings on rice paper and more European-style paintings (though still of flowers and such). We couldn't resist the traditional black-ink landscapes. Too much buying!
The afternoon was spent traipsing among hordes of people at a lake and in a park with the white pagoda we saw from the Forbidden City. Here we saw a huge tiled Dragon Screen, a Buddhist temple and many many people on holiday. Interesting but tiring. After a superb dinner that included some sort of deep-fried candied apple pieces, we boarded the train for Xian, relieved to have some privacy and rest. Overseas Adventure Travel booked us 2 berths each so each couple would have an entire compartment. Sally led us through security and to the right track and car. Scott, the young doctor, and Marguerite, the 86-year-old Canadian, bunked together. Ron passed around wine and we settled in with kung fu movies on the little television. Naturally, I couldn't sleep but was comfortable and rested.
Day 7 (May 3)
First thing in the morning, stewards brought coffee and we sipped while watching the countryside go by: farms, oddly shaped hills, arroyos, burial plots with monuments, and factories. Arriving in Xian at 8 am, we boarded a bus for the Garden Hotel, a lovely place that has a huge tile mural at the reception desk and a large garden courtyard. Susan led us on a walk to the nearby park with fountains playing timed to music (like Bellagio in Las Vegas, of all places!).
Lunch was on the 20th floor of an hotel. Then we toured the Shaanxi History Museum, a fairly new structure with artifacts from 2000 B.C. through the Tang Dynasty. We bought a watercolor of three horses from an exhibit of local artists, the work full of life and action. Our excellent new local guide, Amber, arranged for the artist's booklet & catalogue to be delivered to the hotel since the exhibit had run out.
Dinner was "hot pot," each with our own boiling broth in which to cook meat, noodles and vegetables. One of our party, Don, tripped and fell on the uneven stairs of the restaurant (not up to code!), but his wife is a nurse and there were the three young docs at the table to suggest ice and aspirin for the bump on his forehead.
Day 8 (May 4)
Today was our first rainy day but it didn't much matter. Boarding the bus, we headed for a jade factory to see artisans at work and, of course, to shop (which we didn't for once). Shopping fatigue has set in, I guess. Next we set out for the archeological site of the Qin Dynasty 2,000-year-old terra cotta soldiers in Bingmayong, not far from Xian. The site was discovered by accident by a farmer in 1976; said farmer will now sign your book in the store if you buy one. The hawkers in the parking lot are quite aggressive.
It seemed that half of the 1.3 billion Chinese were in the buildings, but we elbowed our way and Jack got most of the photos he wanted. The crush was unpleasant but worth it as the main pit is truly amazing: 2,000 figures arranged in battle formation in 11 columns of officers, soldiers with spears and swords, and others steering horse-drawn chariots. Each head is unique. Two other pits or vaults have fewer but similar figures. Two half-sized sets of horses with gold and silver harness and drawing chariots are in a fourth building. The original paint on the figures oxidizes in 10 minutes after exposure so archeologists are leaving the last vault of figures buried while research continues on how to preserve the color.
We also saw an interesting 360° film re-enacting the events surrounding the building of the tomb along with comments on the tyrannical Qin, the first emperor of China who united the country for the first time and constructed the Great Wall.
Tonight was our dumpling banquet with many shaped like birds or fish or frogs (in accordance with the contents) or, my favorite, walnuts with walnuts inside. We also had hot rice wine, a pleasant but bland drink. The dinner was in a banquet hall of the hotel with a stage. Following the meal was a show with dancers and musicians. The women dancers did "ribbon" dances, the men acrobatics and athletic dance. Musical interludes included three instruments. The first was solo, a Chinese zither. The second was a kind of lute or guitar, a fretted string instrument called a pipa. The third was a double reed, quite short, with a mellow rich sound, a Chinese trumpet. The costumes were spectacular but it all felt rather touristy.
Afterwards we walked up toward the park to see the fireworks that apparently occur nightly.
Day 9 (May 5)
Our last morning in Xian began foggy with a first stop at the 600-year-old city wall, built with bricks and no mortar. We walked on top—people bike and use golf carts there—and saw a girl playing ping pong in 3" heels below us and the city in mist. Next stop was the lacquer factory. Lacquer comes from trees slashed to ooze a liquid that is then filtered and thinned. Lacquered wood does not burn or react to acid, we were told, and is not eaten by termites so it is very durable in tropical climates. The furniture we saw was quite handsome though not easily integrated into our furnishings, eclectic though they are. We did consider a small chest but decided instead on four lovely small plates and a small box.
Lunch was at the hotel and sumptuous as always. After that, we showered and packed up for the next stops: first an upscale model apartment ($125K price tag) and then a supermarket with everything. The doctors bought cipro for 18 cents (!) and we bought some wild pepper for Jack.
Next stop was the Farmers Painters Village. We were met by the wife of the family and, along with Martin and Andrea Levine, led to her home which was surprisingly spacious. She gave us jasmine tea and we tried to communicate using the language sheets given us. Then she took us to a separate small structure, the kitchen, and showed us noodle-making. Then she prepared and served us dinner while the family ate separately.
We four plus the wife—and neither the husband nor the sulky teenager who ate watching TV—then walked to the town square for traditional line and circle dancing. Lots of kids joined in. Many kids were also eager to try their English. Few men participated.
Day 10 (May 6)
This was our last day in Shaanxi Province and in Xi'an, which was the largest city in the world during the very prosperous Tang Dynasty and was also a link on the Silk Road.
I slept little at our Chinese host's house though we were reasonably comfortable. The bathroom was western style but rather primitive. Plumbing cannot accept toilet paper in such places and it seemed old and dirty but was probably quite clean judging from the rest of the house.
After an early walk and a little exercise on the equipment in the square (e.g.. balance beams on springs and elliptical-like contraptions), we had Chinese breakfast. The menu was zhou (soupy rice porridge), plain rolls, two vegetable dishes, and hard-boiled eggs. (I find I am not very adventuresome with food on this trip, partly fearing illness.)
We gathered in the square and walked from this new village of 900 (in the midst of a larger city) to the old one it is replacing. The old village is on a dusty little road with goats, little old houses with thatched roofs, and a small temple. One man invited us into his two-room house. It seemed dark and dirty however one tried to keep it clean. The new houses are palaces in comparison with maybe 4 bedrooms, LR, DR, kitchen, and two basic bathrooms. We also saw a sort of communal noodle "factory" (one room) with noodles being extruded from a machine, cut, and hung on lines to dry outside. Apparently people bring their grain here to have noodles made.
We presented our presents (my CD and a tiki) to our hostess as did Andrea and Martin (and their frisbee and cap were much more popular) and boarded the bus for the Xi'an airport which was large and very modern. Our flight to Chengdu on a Boeing 767 was a bit turbulent but we snacked on tea and seaweed coated peanuts anyway.
Arriving at another big modern airport, we were impressed with the modernity and prosperity of Chengdu (population 10 million). The climate is tropical and there are palm trees and other tropical vegetation. The Jinjiang Hotel is upscale (5-stars) with a "sheikh" doorman and a pool. The modern hotel bathroom is a relief after the peasant village though the bedroom is decidedly smaller than the one in the village.
Dinner was on a (concrete) "ship" on the Jin Jiang River (the Brocade River) and included some spicy Sichuan food. Some of us went on to the Shu Feng Ya Yun Teahouse where we had great seats for the show. Women poured jasmine tea from pots with meter-long spouts into our tri-partite teacups (cups, saucers & covers)
The program was colorful and varied, one of the best on the trip: Chinese opera scenes, puppets (called stick puppets), solos on erhus and Chinese trumpets or suonos, a wonderful hand shadow show, and "changing faces and spitting fire," rapid changing of masks and fire swallowing. It was great fun and there were many Chinese there. At teahouses they also provide ear-cleaning and massages!
Day 11 (May 7)
The hotel offered another excellent breakfast with omelets to order, many fruits and juices, yogurt, cereals and Chinese foods. Afterwards we set off for the Giant Panda Sanctuary in a very natural setting about 40 minutes from our hotel. Pandas have four strikes against them, we were told: dwindling habitat, dwindling supply of their favorite arrow bamboo, problems with mating, and problems raising young.
Alex and his almost bride, Lynn, arranged for her to have pictures taken patting a panda. The keepers kept the animal busy with choice tidbits throughout. All for a price, of course. (The Chinese seem pretty adept with their new capitalism.)
Anyway, we saw many single adult pandas chowing down on bamboo, stripping off the tough outer layer first. There were also some younger ones including a set of twins (fairly common, it seems). Gestation is from 80 to 180 days (depending on nutrition, probably) and the young are born helpless and hairless creatures of a few ounces. We saw a film also—in English alternating with Chinese.
I had started Diomax for the high altitude of Tibet so felt a little woozy. Still, we all enjoyed lunch and I bought a nice little jacket that seemed unusual to me but that Cherry, our local guide, said was very traditional. During the free afternoon we walked a bit along the river, saw a man washing himself and his clothes (homeless? our guide wouldn't confirm) and returned to the hotel for a welcome swim in the pool.
Dinner at the hotel was western for a change (spicy soup, fruit salad, pepper steak, and chocolate mousse). It seemed heavy compared to our Chinese meals. We dined on a balcony at a table for three (our guide joined us) and there were three guitarists playing in the main room below.
Day 12 (May 8)
Tibet! Up at 5 am with our big suitcases stored in Chengdu. On the bus by 6 and onto the plane—another China Air flight— to Tibet. It was good that we breakfasted at the hotel as the plane's was rice mush plus poppy seed cake and jasmine tea. Jack and I were not seated together this time so I visited with Lynn (young doc) and Judy (from Minnesota). The flight was pleasant but when we heard the landing gear coming down, all we could see were mountains still. Well, the mountains rushed by and the plane landed safely on the plateau so we shifted to a bus with our new guide, John. John reported there will be a 1,000 mile train track from Shanghai to Tibet opening in July. Already there is a bridge and tunnel to Lhasa that shortens the trip from the airport by a half hour to one hour.
Our hotel, the Dhood Gu Hotel, is perhaps not so luxurious as the Jin Jiang but is very traditional with colorful decorative painting on the beams and around the sides. There is no elevator and we find ourselves breathless by the third floor. Buffet lunch is excellent: asparagus soup, spaghetti, cheesy veggies, yak stroganoff, chicken and mushrooms and chocolate pudding for dessert.
We nap as advised to try to adjust to the 12,000 foot altitude. Then a local English professor gives us some geographical and historical background along with her apparent acceptance of the Chinese "liberation" that our guidebook says killed 1 million. She has one point, though: the improved life span of the people through greater prosperity. However, the Chinese choose the Tibetan leaders and control much, even the numbers of monks in the monasteries. And more and more Chinese come to Tibet, leading inevitably to cultural genocide, especially since Chinese is now the required language in the schools.
After the talk, we wander nearby streets, buying two singing bowls, 2 small cymbals and some pretty T-shirts. The Tibetan people dress colorfully: women in long skirts with woven patterned aprons and wide hats to protect them from the strong sun in the thin air. Jack acquires a superb yak leather hat and Alex decides not to because Jack's looks so absolutely suave! (Next time, Alex.)
Dinner in the hotel is superb Indian fare: nan, curries, Tandoori chicken, veggies and a wonderful yogurt dessert with cherries, nuts, coconut, pepper and cardamon! We then check our email and I discover that the Pharos Group is performing Fantavia in New York City on May 20. They ask for an additional score and recording so I reply that in Tibet I have no access to copy machines much less my scores.
Day 13 (May 9)
Our hotel is in the heart of both the Lhasa commercial district with row upon row of vendors and the kora or pilgrimage circuit. The area is known as the Barkhor and contains the Johkang, the holiest temple in Tibet. Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front and there are giant prayer wheels along the side. Inside are many chanting pilgrims, yak butter candles burning, and statues of Buddha—most postdating the Cultural Revolution as the Chinese turned the temple into a pigsty then. There is also a main assembly hall. One always moves clockwise in such temples, by the way. It was interesting but intense and crowded so I was glad to leave.
Tang Ka Factory. Our next stop was a fairly upscale store with thangkas (paintings on cotton). jewelry, rugs and such. We bought three mandalas for us and our sons. And we took photos of the Potala from the rooftop cafe.
Lunch was at the Snowlands. Then after a rest we headed for the Sera Monastery outside of Lhasa where we watched red-robed monk novices having adamant but good-natured philosophical discussions in Sanskrit in a courtyard. This is a "yellow hat" sect. There are also red, brown and black sects that are part of Gelugpa Buddhism.
Afterwards we visited a small and very poor village of about 200 not far from the monastery. In the farmhouse we visited, there were three beds in one room and the wife slept in the gloomy dark kitchen, and there was no bathroom but a village communal toilet. John said they bathe once a year! Human waste is composted for fertilizer, a source of disease in much of China still; yak patties plaster the walls to dry and are used for fuel. A young woman was weaving a rug, hired by the farm wife, and made 15 yuan a day (about $2 US).
Dinner was yak burgers and bananas flambé for dessert. Some local performers in Tibetan costumes danced and sang, including a yak dance with two in a yak costume. The instruments were: a drum with a curved mallet, bells on a sort of tambourine, a kind of erhu and another stringed instrument with long fingerboard plus a psaltery.
Day 14 (May 10)
This morning was devoted to the Potala, which is both a temple and the massive winter palace of the Dalai Lama before he escaped to India. It is high on a hill with mountains behind, a beautiful setting and right in the city. Since the Dalai Lama left, the building is mostly a museum for tourists although it is still highly symbolic to Tibetans and is visited by many pilgrims. Getting tickets required our passports so China apparently keeps a close watch on visitors there. Photos are not allowed inside and there were soldiers in the courtyard and inside.
Anticipating a long, steep climb up the stone ramp with sharp drop-offs, I was nervous about the ascent, but the slope on the back access was gradual and there was a wall. At the top there was a short narrow section without a wall, but it was not long so I made it though Andrea decided not and went back down. Inside was a courtyard and then access was by wide wooden ladders, three or four of them in the course of the tour.
The White Palace was closed for renovation so we only saw the Red palace and some of the 999 rooms. Tibet was a theocracy so the 5th Dalai Lama, probably the greatest, moved both government and religious centers to Lhasa in 1649 when the Red Palace was being built. His tomb is the largest, a huge box of many (3,700) kilos of solid gold and thousands of gems, especially turquoise and coral that are greatly prized here. The name Potala means "paradise" in Tibetan and the multi-purpose Potala served not only as home to the Dalai Lamas but as the seat of government, repository for tombs, temple with many chapels, assembly hall and school for religious training. Among the highlights were the Chapel of the Dalai Lamas tombs and the chapel of 3-D mandalas.
In 1959 the Potala was shelled during the uprising against the Chinese but not much damaged. Zhou Enlai reportedly sent his own troops to protect the structure during the Cultural Revolution which destroyed so many religious monuments and so much art.
Following the Potala experience, we opted out of lunch and had bananas, jasmine tea and a nap in our room. Our next stop was a visit with a Lhasa family who served us yak butter tea (which Jack loved and nobody else could stand), popped wheat, dried yak cheese, dates and other traditional snacks. This was an upper middle class family with a house of many rooms, some interesting fine furniture, wall hangings and their own Buddhist shrine. Only the women of the house were present—three generations.
Finally, we visited the De Ji Orphanage in Lhasa that houses some 80 children and was founded in 2002 by a lady named Dhadon. The place is a rented space of 14 "blocks." There are 8 on the staff with children ranging in age from an abandoned 1 month-old baby to those training in vocations to be independent. The children sang for us and our little group sang for them too. Then the 20 kids present (from about 3 to 10 years of age) each took one of us by the hand for a short tour. We ended up playing games with them. The little girl of about 3 who adopted me had a 7-year-old brother there who spoke good English. She liked me to swing her around and played a sort of jump rope with me. We brought a gift of a card game from the Louvre (maybe terrible but maybe not as some of the kids are slated for college if possible) and also gave $$ to the founder. I was near tears when we left, as was Jack, and many talked of sending clothes and school supplies through churches or synagogues.
Dinner was at a local restaurant: barbecued yak and curried yak but also veggie pizza, spring rolls, rice, noodles, and soup.
Day 15 (May 11)
Our departure from Lhasa to Chengdu was by China Air. There we met a new driver and bus with the big bags already stowed, heading to Chongqing, a city of a mere six million. En route we hit a 2-hour delay for road repairs or for VIPs to sail through, we were never quite sure which. Susan said the head person for this road was guilty of extreme corruption, that the road was a bumpy "tofu" road, and the guy had been caught fleeing with his family to Hong Kong and was sentenced to death. Ken Lay take note.
Everyone was good-natured about the delays and we all passed snacks around, got out of the bus and walked around, found an unspeakable bathroom in a nearby gas station (by all reports though I didn't go), and arrived in the dark at the Chongqing restaurant which provided probably the poorest meal on the trip. Then we were bussed in the rain to our ship and boarded, accompanied by "bong bong boys" who carried our bags on long bamboo poles.
Our cabins are on the top (4th) deck and are reasonably spacious with two lower berths and a private bath. There is a bar, an exercise room, card room, dining room (Deck 1), and observation deck (Deck 5, unroofed). The ship, called the Victoria Star, carries about 200 passengers and is U.S. owned. It is considered a first-class ship though perhaps not by American cruising standards. Still it is delightful for us.
Day 16 (May 12)
Yangtze (or the "Chang Jiang," to the Chinese) Cruise. Up at 6 and coffee in the fourth floor lounge. Tai Chi at 7 and breakfast at 7:30.
River Guide. Our river guide gave us a lecture in the lounge with slides detailing the history, features, animal life (river porpoises and dolphins, tiny jellyfish, and even small alligators and sturgeons—all endangered), and the Three Gorges Dam. He said there is the death penalty for alligator poachers! He also spoke of the trackers who pulled boats upstream, working naked, so ladies had to remain in their cabins for the trip in the olden days (peeking?).
Chinese Medicine. Next was a demonstration by the ship doc, trained also in western medicine. He demonstrated acupuncture on a guy with shoulder/neck pain and "cupping" on another man with similar complaints. Then he gave a neck massage to the first man. In addition he showed us 4 pressure points: 3 fingers in between 2 tendons on the wrist for motion sickness and nausea, in the "tiger's mouth" between thumb and first finger for headache and toothache, 2 indentations back of the skull for headache and dizziness, soft indentation on top of the head for insomnia and hypertension.
City of Fengdu. After lunch we disembarked and took a bus to a primary school and to visit a family relocated because of the dam and rising water level. (1 million are being relocated.) The family of 7 had a cinder block house with pig sty in the basement, a general store on the first floor, surprisingly nice and spacious rooms and terrace with garden on the 2nd and still more rooms on the 3rd. The mother and daughter run the shop since the husband died; the other daughter and her husband work elsewhere. They paid for the shop with relocation money from the government plus a loan that they paid off. They are lucky. Susan knows a couple who married and then separated because their jobs are apart; they meet once a year!
Fashion show. After dinner the crew did a show of costumes from the Ming Dynasty to the present along with regional costumes. Very colorful. Andrea and Martin entertained beforehand with their well-schooled ballroom dancing that made us envy their grace.
I keep thinking of the "bong bong" men, the Tibetan orphans and the beggars on the steps on our way back to the ship. So many people with so little.
Just before dinner we spotted a pagoda perched on a hill, seven stories high.
Day 17 (May 13)
Three Gorges: Qutang, Wu and Xiling which are, in order, "the most spectacular, the most beautiful, and the most treacherous." The Qutang is the smallest and shortest (8 km), We transferred from the Victoria Star to a ferry to see the Little Three Gorges and were awed by their green peaks shrouded in mist and huge sheer cliffs. High in a niche we saw one of the "hanging coffins" and a wooden boat put there by the ancient Ba people. At various points monkeys leapt from the trees though they were not easy to spot.
Wu Gorge was after lunch and seen from the main ship. It is 40 km long and dramatic with jagged peaks including the 12-meter-high "goddess peak," a tiny finger atop the mountains. We had both mist and sun and were most fortunate as the area averages 10 sunny days annually! Much of the landscape almost seemed familiar because of Chinese landscape paintings we have seen at the MFA and Freer Galleries.
Xiling Gorge (80 km) was last and least interesting as the dangers have been eliminated by the rising water levels. The new Three Gorges Dam, however, was fascinating. The first of five locks is unused until the target 175-meter depth is reached. (It is now 135.) Three ships were ahead and our larger vessel nestled up aside two rusty barges and then three more barges came behind us before the massive gates closed. We watched the process from the roof deck and then had a farewell banquet during passage through the final three locks. The dam will displace 1.3 million people, provide 10% of China's power and, most important, prevent catastrophic flooding that has killed countless people over the ages.
Mid-afternoon we had a little party for Alex and Lynn whose wedding is in early June. We women draped Lynn in white Tibetan prayer shawls, then all of us toasted the couple and sang songs (new funny lyrics to old tunes) and generally made merry. Andrea, Judy and Martin were the instigators and organizers—a lovely idea. Tomorrow we disembark.
Day 18 (May 14)
This morning we set off from the ship by bus for a close-up view of the Three Gorges Dam, crossing the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) to do so. Our local guide gave us facts and figures and must have said 100 times that this will be the world's largest dam! Going through the locks was interesting but seeing the dam at close range is impressive but a little dull. There are parks and fountains all around and plans for many hotels to make this a tourist destination. (Yawn.)
We ran the gauntlet of people hawking their wares and had an elaborate lunch (again) on board that included hamburgers and eggplant parmesan and on and on. All women received a red carnation at breakfast for Mother's Day. (The ship is American owned.)
We also whiled away some time on the roof deck watching the more interesting parts of the Xiling Gorge pass by: pavilions, famous local resorts complete with cable cars, massive stone cliffs and distant mountains. Next came another lock near Yichang—the Gezhou Dam lock, a single one that crammed about 6 or 7 ships in with top decks at street level before dropping the water level 22 meters or so and opening the massive gates. Currently, this is one of China's largest dams though it is dwarfed by the Three Gorges project.
At Yichang we disembarked and boarded a bus for a five-hour trip to Wuhan. We were a little annoyed at having another local guide rant at us in poor English about things we already knew, but maybe we were just tired and cranky. After a doze and rest stop, the guide said something about the cost of education for the farm kids in the fertile flat lands we were crossing--rice fields, turtle and lotus ponds, fields of wheat and canola beans. Her words contradicted the CCTV (China TV) English-language propaganda we had been seeing and Susan's comments that education was starting to be free for grades 1 through 9 (although Susan clarified that she meant Beijing). The guide said the cost was 600 yuan per month for boarding students. (The Chinese don't bus children, apparently.) Otherwise, it is 400 yuan per semester. And kids buy their own books. It is certainly not as rosy as the government would have us believe and seems passing strange for a communist country when secondary education is free in capitalist countries.
The city of Wuhan is in the special free economic zone and one sees Mercedes, Audi, Toyota and other dealerships along with other familiar company names. The Wuhan Business Hotel had huge rooms and rock-hard beds. They fed us royally with jellyfish, fish in rice wine, pepper beef sliced thinly, fruit salad (all appetizers) and sweet and sour chicken, deep fried fish, lima beans and corn and peppers (almost like southern succotash), deep fried lotus root (delicious), sweet potato, rice (of course), sweet egg drop soup and finally plates of the ever-present (but welcome) watermelon and honeydew for dessert along with local beer with the meal.
Day 19 (May 15)
After an early breakfast, we were taken to the airport (with Jack's favorite blue shirt miraculously sent down to the bus at the last minute by the cleaning staff!). Our flight to Hong Kong included a light meal of noodles with vegetables and beef of the usual airline food quality, plus many exit and entry forms.
Our new local guide, Stella, led us to our bus which drove from the new airport in Kowloon across a huge suspension bridge (longest in the world?) and through a tunnel to Hong Kong island. The contrasts are marked: rows and rows of high-rise buildings and a hilly terrain versus the flatland of Wuhan.
After settling in our own high-rise "L'Hotel" near Causeway Road, our guide took us on a walking tour and introduced us to the marvelous Hong Kong subway system ending near the Grand Peninsula Hotel on the waterfront. Andrea and Martin were kind enough to help me in my quest for a wedding outfit for Jack's daughter's wedding and after a few false starts we found the Chinese Arts and Crafts building which had nearly priceless art works on the ground floor but some rather handsome and affordable clothing on the second. My new Chinese-style black linen jacket with golden phoenixes embroidered on it will do quite well with a long black skirt or silk pants since it is a black and white wedding.
The waterfront in this area is spectacular with so much of the cityscape across the harbor and the Star ferries coming and going. We rested at an outdoor cafe and later found an Italian place for dinner.
Day 20 (May 16)
This morning we rode down the world's longest escalator (in China, everything is the world's biggest or longest) that is in stages so people can exit at their street. And we walked through a busy street market with live fish, hunks of meat hanging, huge carrots, live koi, bitter melons...
Then we entered the smoky Buddhist Man Mo Temple surrounded by skyscrapers, and later a jewelry factory where we watched pieces being fabricated before being ushered into the oh-so-capitalist shop where many of us purchased gold earrings or pearls.
Tired of too many big meals, we had fruit and yogurt in the hotel and later walked through Victoria Park, around a busy fashion district, a hospital, and home to L'Hotel which the guides call "L" Hotel. China TV had its usual rosy stories but the BBC caught us up on world news.
Later we walked back to a recommended Indian restaurant in the fashion district for dinner: chicken korma, chicken curry, nan with fruit, and a bottle of white wine. This was our only dinner alone in China and it was exceptional, probably the best Indian food we have ever eaten.
Day 21 (May 17)
On our last day, with a Level 1 Typhoon Alert announced in the hotel lobby (later changed to a Level 3), we joined Andrea and Martin, Judy and Bill, and Charlotte and Dick for the MTR ride from Tin Hau station via Admiralty to the unpronounceable station near the History Museum.
The History Museum is on a large scale with films on the geology of Hong Kong, on the Opium Wars, the Japanese Occupation, and includes elaborate displays of local animals, typical fishing vessels, folk costumes, opera and festival costumes, archeological digs, life during the dynasties, peoples of the islands, life during the occupation and much more.
We all had lunch together and then we went off to the art museum where we ran into Ron and Joy. The art museum windows look out on the spectacular harbor cityscape, a threatening view today with the typhoon warning moving up to Level 3 (winds and rain but the worst of it skirting Hong Kong). There were antiquities (gold, jade, porcelain, bronzes, and scrolls), a Mark Rothko exhibit and a contemporary Chinese exhibit (video, paintings, and one interactive picture with film). It was surprising to me that the quality of the art work at the Boston MFA or the D.C. Freer Gallery is at least as good as what we saw here and maybe much better. Of course, the oriental art collection at the MFA is exceptional, but still, this is China.
The farewell banquet was at 6:30 so we all gathered at two tables once again for the festivities—an elaborate buffet of soups, appetizers, salads, main courses, and a huge array of desserts plus wine and coffee and a birthday cake for Susan. We gave Susan her tip plus a scarf of the Paris metro, saying we hope she will be able to travel there sometime. Everyone agreed it has been a wonderful trip and a wonderfully congenial group of people.
Before an early night, we went briefly to Andrea and Martin's room to consult on the music for Lynn and Alex's wedding (everyone take note— please no Pachelbel Canon!) and packed for the early departure for home tomorrow.