Hey, I’m in Vietnam, finally! The U.S. Government wanted to send me here in the late 1960s, but that plan fell through. However, as the barman Moustache said in the film Irma La Douce, “Cela c’est une autre histoire.”
My China days ended with a flight from Shanghai a few days ago. I had planned a much longer stay and was dismayed at first when my passport came back from the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul with a 15-day visa. No matter; I decided to schedule those days as tightly as possible so as to be able to visit the sites that conventional wisdom declares first-time travelers to China must see. This plan took me first to Beijing and then to Xi’an, Guilin, and Shanghai.
There are famous landmarks in each of these cities, and, good tourist that I am; I took in most of them. However, to detail my visits one by one would be too long and too boring. Instead I’ll use a more impressionistic approach.
Everything you’ve read is true. They’re big, traffic clogged, and air-polluted. And yet, among all the thousands of acres of new glass and concrete, there survive urban gems, pockets of a different China that have so far resisted its relentless modernization.
In Beijing there are the hutongs, neighborhoods of one and two-storey buildings connected by narrow streets and alleyways, some too narrow for automobiles. I explored these by bicycle led by a charming young tour guide named Ling Ling, who is in her last year of university. The residents of the hutongs are poor by modern standards. Groups of families share public toilets and baths. Judging from my single experience, these are kept very clean as are the alleys themselves. The hutong dwellers don’t live in squalor. In fact, nowhere in the cities did I witness squalor. I would probably have had to go to the countryside for that.
In the city of Xi’an I walked for several miles along wide avenues until I found the Muslim Quarter. Suddenly, I stepped out of the modern city and into an intimate neighborhood that has been home to a community of Chinese Muslims for centuries. Life there seemed more traditional. People knew each other and were even friendly towards me and my camera.
I was prepared not to like the southern city of Guilin, where I had come to take a boat ride on the Li River through a misty, karst-filled landscape that has inspired painters and poets for many generations. I had gone out looking in vain to rent a bicycle, and had returned to my hotel frustrated and footsore. It was not until I rethought my situation and looked around me that I realized the city’s greatest treasure lay just across the road from my hotel.
It is an urban lake (something found in several Chinese cities) whose narrow points were linked by fairy tale foot bridges and whose shores and tiny islands contained beautifully curving walks and tea houses surrounded by shrubs and flowering trees. All I had to do was sit on a bench, gaze at this beautiful scene, and watch the cream of Guilin pass by. It was in this setting that I found the Café Nissi, a creation of Patrick, a Hong Kong Chinese, who had learned his English as a student in Edmonton, Canada and his female Chinese cook and business partner.
Their café specialized in western dishes, and on the day of my arrival Patrick wanted to know my opinion of their latest creation – a bagel! It was smaller than its New York cousins, but with butter and fresh strawberry jam, it tasted like the real thing.
My methods of getting around besides my two feet varied by city. In Bejing I rode buses. These were cheap and I could observe the city through the windows as I went. They worked for me because a lovely, woman employee of the hotel patiently explained. which bus to take to get me where I wanted to go.
In Shanghai I quickly learned to use one of the nicest metro systems I’ve ever ridden.
In Xi’an, I had trouble finding the stops for the buses indicated in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. Several times I let myself be lured onto the back of some guy’s motorbike and, for a small sum, be driven to my destination.
In Beijing many people still ride bicycles. The city is absolutely flat so biking is a practical choice for the crowded streets and avenues. Along many avenues there are separate bike and motor bike lanes separated from the automobile and bus traffic. Many bikes and motor scooters in China are electric, something I had not seen in any number in any other country. As for the pedal-powered variety, they are not sport models. They are simple, inexpensive, single speed machines with kickstands and baskets at the front People ride at a slow, steady pace, and no one wears a helmet.
I quickly discovered that getting around China without any knowledge of either the written or spoken language is difficult. It’s probably a good thing that the length of my trip was curtailed and that I didn’t follow my plan to go into rural China. I doubt that I would have found many English speakers there.
As it was I developed different communication strategies when I was in a place or situation where no one spoke English. When I had a particular destination or other object in mind, I would get someone to write its name in Chinese so I could show it to a taxi driver or bus passenger to help me. I found the Chinese to be generally willing to help a foreigner; still, there were some tough moments.
In simple restaurants where I couldn’t read the menu, I would walk around to see what other customers were eating. When I saw something that looked good, I would point to it, indicating that’s what I wanted to order.
That thought brings me to the subject of Chinese cuisine. For me, the toughest times as an independent traveling alone are meals. In China especially, since other than at breakfast there are few buffets and I’ve never run across a combination plate. Ordering one dish doesn’t provide enough variety while ordering more brings way too much food.
Chinese menus are often only in Chinese, and even when they are illustrated with photographs, there is confusion. The English translations of many Chinese dishes are less than no help. Would you choose any of the following: fungus meat, sprinkle bullfrog, small farm fried chicken gristle, spicy ear wire, or green three virus.
I did have some wonderful meals in China. Early on, a Chinese policeman (about whom I’ll say more anon), his girlfriend, and I dined on the famous Peking Duck. Other times I made a delicious meal of dumplings — filled with pork and cabbage, for instance. They, along with noodles, are a popular favorite.
Ever wonder what the Chinese eat for breakfast? Here’s a pretty standard bill of fare: a hard-boiled egg; steamed buns, some with a filling; some kind of pickled vegetable such as green beans or beets; a vegetable melange served warm, fried rice; and juice made from powder or concentrate.(On one occasion someone used hot water for my orange juice.) Most interesting is that typically the Chinese don’t drink tea or coffee for breakfast. They get their liquid nourishment from congee, which in its simplest form is a flavorless hot mix of water and rice.
Another fact: Nowhere in china did I see salt and pepper dispensers on a dining table.
McDonald’s restaurants are plentiful in the big cities, and on a couple occasions when I couldn’t face the Chinese breakfast fare, I went to them. An Egg McMuffin never tasted better.
The franchise with the greatest oversea penetration and not just in China is probably KFC. The locals call it Kung Fu Chicken.
I had many interesting experiences during my two weeks In China. Three were standouts:
No first visit to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall. I chose Jinshanling, a spot more remote than most, assuming correctly that I would encounter fewer tourists. For me the most impressive thing, apart from the Wall’s massive physicality, is that standing on it facing west, I realized that it continued for more than 2,000 kilometers. It was built over centuries, and yet I can’t imagine what it took in terms of human life and imperial will to accomplish it. How did they live those millions of conscripts that built it? How were they provisioned? The landscape around Jinshanling is mountainous and desolate.
Near the city of Xi’an is certainly one of the most unusual archeological sites on Earth. In 1974 a farmer was digging a well and broke through into an underground vault. So far today, that discovery has yielded three separate pits containing an army of life-size terracotta figures, each one as unique as any army of human beings would be. Their faces, armor, even their footwear is highly detailed. There are infantry, archers, charioteers, and officers up to the rank of general. And astonishingly, there are 8,000 of them!
The man who commissioned this fantastic force lived 2,300 years ago and was named Qin Shi Huang. Besides creating a terracotta army, this tyrant was responsible for conquering of six major kingdoms, the building of thousands of kilometers of roads and canals, and a unified and efficient government to administrate his kingdom. He enslaved hundreds of thousands to realize his visions. He must have had the army built in the belief he would have a second life after death and wanted to dominate it as he had his first.
The modern city of Shanghai may be the greatest testament to the phenomenon that is China today. From its skyscrapers, to its metro system, to its accelerating expansion, Shanghai shows what can be done in 30 years with enough resources and single-minded determination. I made a point to take a ride on the city’s maglev train that connects a point in Pudong with its international airport 30 kilometers away. This train’s maximum speed in the evening is 300 kilometers per hour. It’s the fastest I’ve ever traveled on land. The trip lasts only eight minutes.
The Shanghai Museum is a very special place. In its architecture, collections, installations, and interpretations, it is world-class. Its mission is to present the very best examples of China’s traditional arts and crafts. Each separate gallery of bronzes, sculpture, painting, ceramics, and furniture is as eye-popping as the next.
I can’t end this account without acknowledging some individuals who helped make my journey easier and more memorable.
I met Frank (his western name) the moment I entered my hotel in the late evening of my arrival. I came in questioning the desk clerk about how much was fair to pay for my taxi ride from the airport because I had the feeling I was being overcharged. Frank was standing at the counter and since he spoke much better English than the desk clerk, took charge of the situation. He spoke with the taxi driver and learned that I was in fact being overcharged a bit. He even negotiated a ten-Yuan discount for me.
I thanked Frank and while we chatted, I asked him his occupation. He replied evasively at first but finally confessed that he was a policeman and that that particular hotel lobby was his beat. His mission was to nab prostitutes as they entered to service their clients. As this task didn’t keep him terribly busy, he has time on his hands most nights.
Besides eating roast duck together, Frank, his girlfriend Maggie, her father, and I visited Beijing’s Summer Palace, a former imperial retreat in a distant corner of the great city.
On another night I dined with Andres Vargas, a friend of a friend of mine and a Colombian working in Beijing. Once we became comfortable with each other, he asked politely why I was staying in such an obscure and out-of-the-way hotel All I could think of was that if I weren’t staying there, I would have met neither Frank nor my guide Ling Ling.
Sometimes a chance meeting can make an interesting day even better. On the bus to see the terracotta warriors, I fell into easy conversation with another retired couple. The Georges from the Washington, DC area enjoy travel in ways similar to mine. We ended up not only touring the archeological site in each other’s company but spending the rest of the day together in Xi’an. It was a very pleasant encounter.
The old Cold-War epithet “Red China” seems quaint today. Yes, the country is nominally a Communist state with a single, authoritarian political party; It’s definitely not a democracy. However, despite the lack of political freedom, Capitalism is rampant there. Everyone, in the big cities at least, seems intent on getting and spending. China’s young people look and act a lot like youth in the West, and some dress with even more style I haven’t seen so many women in high heels since the early 1960s. I look forward to coming back another time with a longer visa and a basic knowledge of Mandarin It will be fun.