#10 China, October 25, 2002

Dear Everybody,

Jan and I worked in our last bit of sight seeing in Xian Friday morning by hopping a city bus—actually two city buses—to the Big Goose Pagoda. Well, there are pagodas and pagodas. This one was stellar with its many temples with Buddhist statues of marble, gold leaf, wood and bronze, and other scenes covering whole walls with beautiful woodcarvings and bronze ‘paintings.’ There were some monks around but with the huge number of tourists (mostly Chinese) it didn’t have much religious atmosphere. But oh, the artwork was beautiful.

Our last ‘sight’ was walking on the city walls in daylight. Unfortunately the air quality was so bad that day that it was difficult to see much of anything. Still they are impressive. They were built in Ming Dynasty times (14th to 17th C) over Tang foundations (7th to 10th C). The top of the wall is about 50 feet wide and the bottoms are wider yet.

After a final meal at ‘our’ restaurant (they had brand new English menus and we were the FIRST to use them!) we strapped on our packs and took bus # 603 to the train station. The place was packed but well signed so we knew where to sit and wait for our particular train.

While waiting, I thought I would go to the counter where they sell everything imaginable, to see if they had Scotch tape for Jan’s journal. I pantomimed taking off a piece of tape and putting it on something and the clerk understood! She dived into a drawer and came up with the tape! Some people are so astute at reading your mind and others, like some hotel clerks, don’t have the foggiest notion of what one would want at a hotel reception desk, like a room, maybe?

We boarded the train and easily found our hard sleeper bunks. Jan had a bottom bunk and I had a top bunk (of three) that was about a mile high. There was space for our packs on a rack opposite the beds. Ronald, a young man from Holland, was the only other Westerner in our car, and quickly offered to change beds with me as he had a middle bunk, and I quickly accepted.

The train left at 2:16 PM on the button. It had begun to rain so we didn’t see much of the scenery out of the window. We had a nice visit with Ronald who had taken three months off to travel after he had finished his Master’s Degree and before getting a job .

By 9:00 everybody was in bed so we turned in too. It didn’t take long to discover why they are called ‘hard sleepers.’ The train stopped frequently and lurched and jerked quite a bit on getting started again, so sleep was intermittent. We reached our destination of Chengdu at 6:45 AM.

We were met there and taxied to a bus which left immediately for Chongqing which is on the Yangtze River. That evening we got on our boat which pulled out of the harbor about 8:00 PM.

Our third class cabin had eight metal bunk beds. There were two Chinese couples about our age and two other men. The bathrooms were down the hall. There were only about four or five other Westerners on board and there must have been a couple hundred Chinese people.

The next morning most of the people went to see a ‘sight.’ They were all up about 4:00 AM and about five “Rhapsody in Blue” was playing over the PA system. After they left it gave Jan and me a chance to shower up without hoards of people around. We missed breakfast (was it at 5:00 AM?) but lunch was excellent. We ordered a chicken dish and some cabbage, but instead of the chicken we got excellent fish. We also uncorked a bottle of wine that we had brought on board and polished that off with the lunch.

The weather was cold, windy and occasionally misty, so we viewed the scenery from our cabin window for the most part. With the big dam being constructed here, this area will all be flooded in a few years. To think that 1.3 million people will loose their homes to the dam and will be relocated is sobering. There seems to be many good reasons for this huge dam (control flooding, generate power, improve navigation on the river, bring an economic boost to the area) but the cautions are serious (ecological damage, cost overruns, dislocation of the people, water weight could cause earthquakes) but apparently they are too far along in the project to quit now.

In the evening I began to play some Solitaire, which one of my roommates took a big interest in. He obviously knew how to play it. Then I showed him a card trick that my dad had taught me a thousand years ago, and we had lots of fun with that. The language barrier was part of the fun.

The next morning we got up at 4:00 AM to be ready to go to the Little Gorges at 7:00. We did have breakfast although it was mostly Chinese pickled veggies (ugh) but some eggs, too. We took off walking toward buses at 7:00 AM. The buses took us to smaller boats (the big boats can’t go in the Little Gorges) and off into the Little Gorges. The cliffs are so high and rugged, the water yellowish-brown and rushing so fast, the sky, thickly overcast, and the air, brisk. We had three opportunities to get off the boat and walk a bit, mostly past souvenir stalls and food stalls. Clearly the first time we got off it was because the boats couldn’t have made a tiny, narrow, rushing part with the people on board. We reboarded past this little point.

Even without the sun shining, the area is truly lovely and worth seeing before the flooding deepens the water by 175 meters (580 feet) which will cover large areas of this beautiful scene. The river, however, is pretty dirty with it’s yellowish brown silt, but also has city and industrial waste being dumped into it all the way along. It was only later that Jan and I wondered where that good fish that we had eaten came from! Near the end of the journey we actually saw somebody swimming in the river, ugh!

When we got back to the big boat, I helped myself to some plastic cups in the dining room (the thinnest little wobbly cups in existence—they are usually inserted in a plastic holder) and Jan and I uncorked our remaining bottle of Chinese dry red wine that we had brought on board. (Great Wall brand). We had a ‘wine party’ (puyaojiu shejiao juhui in pinyin) with our six bunkmates. Quite a rowdy party for eight people on one bottle of wine! One of the ladies contributed some crackery things; one of the men suggested taking pictures with the wine bottle and our glasses; this led to exchanging names and addresses all around (theirs in Chinese characters, of course)—a regular ‘hands around the world’ thing, all with essentially no knowledge of each others’ languages.

As we neared Yicheng, our destination, we all ran up on deck to view the large dam project. Since it was dark, although artificially lit, we could see little except that it was monstrously huge.

Next came the locks. Our boat and another just as large, wiggled into it in tandem. I only stayed on deck for a few minutes because I was getting a cold and the wind was pretty frisky, but Jan watched while water was pumped out at a really rapid rate leaving the two boats at the bottom of towering cement walls that were at least double the height of the four-story boats.

After midnight we finally docked in Yicheng. We got a taxi to a hotel and fell into bed about 1:30 AM.

Next came Shanghai, a vibrant, sophisticated, rich busy city. We flew from Yichang to Shanghai and got a taxi to take us to the Hotel Piujiang, a noble Victorian building. On the way we passed the lighted Bund which is very dramatic.

The hotel had no rooms available but did have dorm beds and so, since it was already 7:00 PM and dark, we took those. These dorms were gender segregated so we were all women in two rooms, one with eight beds and one with four, and one bathroom. Our room was on the 6th floor; the elevator only went to the 5th and the showers were on the 3rd floor. The girls were pleasant—one from Japan had spent two months in St. Peter, MN.

That night we heard little ‘visitors’ rustling around in the trash in our wastebasket. (Why don’t they get some cats?) The next day when Jan and I were looking for a nearby restaurant for breakfast we spied a likely looking hotel and checked it out. We engaged a double room (so far, no visitors) and switched to the Piao Ying.

After doing errands (doing laundry, buying train tickets, getting opera tickets, changing money) we went to the Shanghai Museum. This museum takes ‘museuming’ to a whole new level. You had commented on this, Jeanne, but it far exceeded my expectations. We visited the ancient bronzes, the ancient sculpture, the ancient ceramics and the minority clothing display. The breadth of exhibitions, the English explanations, the lighting, the roominess, and the cleanliness, to say nothing of the beauty of the exhibits, were all superlative. The building itself was just gorgeous; even a small, lovely two-story granite building on the grounds was beautiful—the sign in English on the front said ‘Toilet.’

There are more modern, dramatic skyscrapers in Shanghai than you could imagine, except for those of you who have been here, of course. It’s really an exciting city. I can’t imagine what Minneapolitans would think if architects proposed building these fancy buildings. They seem never to build a plain rectangular building.

And the traffic! Crossing the street all over China is a major undertaking, but in Shanghai there are more cars, and they are more aggressive. The green ‘walk’ sign in a crosswalk means nothing at all to them. Jan and I clutch each other’s arms EVERY time we cross the street. Bicycles and motorcycles come from the wrong direction, FAST; buses turn left on the red lights right through pedestrians that have the green ‘walk’ sign; bicycles totally block the crosswalk so you can’t get through; nobody pays any attention to any kind of traffic signs; but once in a while a cop will blow a whistle at somebody to make them behave. That’s also at pedestrians sometimes, who walk against a red light. Well, we’re still alive!

We took a tour bus all day yesterday—you get on and off at whatever sights you want, of a choice of six. Then you get the next tour bus. The ticket is good all day. We visited the Pearl TV tower (no point in going up as the air quality was so bad you couldn’t see anything), the Yu Gardens and antique shops (with Taoist Temple thrown in), drove over the beautiful Napu Bridge, and then walked on the Bund along the water. The sun shone yesterday after four days of overcast skies but it was pretty smoggy.

From the Bund we took the psychodelic pedestrian tunnel under the water to Pudong in a cute little car-thing. What a clever idea—they needed a tunnel so when they made it they installed lots of neon colored lights with kind of a ‘show’ and now people pay to go through the tunnel just to see it, which I’m sure has paid for the construction of it. It was really fun!

In the evening we went to a Chinese opera, not like the Peking Opera, but rather modern. The opera was very enjoyable with great sets and beautiful costumes. Unfortunately there were no programs or signs in English so we weren’t able to even determine the title of the opera, or anything about it. Chinese operatic singing sounds strange to our ears—the sound is so concentrated in the mouth and front of the throat, rather than from the diaphragm, which makes it sound quite shrill. The star was beautiful and graceful and we really liked the two-hour performance.

However, the audience’s behavior was a major culture shock! Many were seated after the performance had begun and all were talking. They never did quiet down but talked among themselves, out loud, the whole time. Several went out and came back in and some left mid-performance. At the end about one-fourth of them left while the opera was concluding with the most dramatic scene. To top it off, two women that sat next to Jan visited during the whole show and steadily cracked and ate sunflower seeds!

We had had dinner before the opera in a lovely seafood restaurant nearby. I like to pour my own beer because I like to pour it directly into the glass, creating a head of foam. Chinese waitresses always carefully pour it down the side. I thought I was going to have to wrestle this Chinese waitress to the floor as we were both tugging on the bottle to pour it, but I finally won out, and poured my beer. To her credit, after I had drunk some, she quickly poured some more, and poured it the way that I had.

As you have heard me (and others) say, China has a severe air pollution problem. I hope that they can learn what other countries have done to start solving this problem and get ahead of the curve because in five years when many of the bicycles have evolved to cars, it is going to make these huge cities (and they’re all large) unlivable.

This morning we will leave Shanghai for nearby Suzhou and its environs. It’s a ‘small town’—only 3 ½ million! We’re still loving China!


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