Tales from the Heart of China

June 15, 2011
Thursday,  we finally disembarked from the Yangzi Explorer. We did boat-to-funicular-to-bus-to-plane-to-bus-to-boat-to-bus--starting in the city of Chongqing (pronounced "chun-ching" which used to be known as "Chungking". Remember those cans of Chinese food?). The city is located where the Yangzi and two tributaries meet, so the city is divided into three parts. This is another large (7 million+) city which is experiencing major growth (see below). There are blocks of huge apartment buildings, many multi-level expressways, and a monorail to various parts of the city. We were treated to a spontaneous panda visit.  As it was early in the morning, we actually saw them moving around (much closer than at the San Diego Zoo!). 

The people at the zoo were just as fascinating--groups dancing to music (men and women couples and same sex couples), tai chi, or playing cards.  Our guide explained that all of these in some way encourage socializing, a big part of Chinese culture (he also attributed the loud talking to this need to socialize).

Then on to Guilin. This area is known for its karst geography. It is filled with many miles of large limestone mountains. Of particular note are those located along the Li River. Use your imagination here--when you see Chinese watercolors of mountains partially hidden magically in the mist, that's where we were and precisely what we saw. The beauty was absolutely spiritual. Of course, like most cultures, the Chinese have given almost every mountain a name based on some perceived shape or "picture" on its face. There is the Phoenix mountain and the Dragon mountain (what a coincidence!). Soon we were all trying to imagine things that wee saw on the mountains; two monkeys looking over a cliff, a witch's face, etc. It was really a magical mystery tour.

After about an hour it was time to get off, but, since the river was already approaching flood stage, the normal dock was unusable. So we had to find a clear (but muddy) spot on the bank and kind of run aground there and walk over the water on the gang plank. Then up the embankment and we were in a tiny town (yes! Less than 1 million people!!! Probably about 100). We saw how a small village really looks.

An unrelated aside.  Our guide told us today that 92-5% of Chinese are of Han ethnic roots, there are 55 other ethnicities (you will recall that the one child rule does not apply to families among these minority ethnicities).  The many decoratively dressed dolls in the gift shops represent these different ethnicities.  The area surrounding Guilin is populated by many ethnic Chinese.

Friday morning we were off to the airport for Xian. There is a beautiful new 8 lane highway that travels the last 10 km to the airport. Our guide explained that this is how they make a good first impression when dignitaries come here. It shows how prosperous and productive and happy the people are. It was somewhat pride and somewhat party line).  We arrived in Xi'an at about . This is another city (of 7 million give or take 100,000) that has seen explosive growth in the last 30 years, much of it due to the discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors --to be described in our next update.

After landing we were taken to the (Buddhist) Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built 1,300 years ago! In front of this is a compound which was built "only" 300 years ago. This used to be the heart of the old city which was surrounded by a wall (now it is surrounded by a Papa John's, a Dairy Queen, a Starbuck's, and other examples of a booming "socialist market economy").  In the compound are several large temples with golden Buddhas inside. There are also two smaller buildings: the Bell Building and the Drum Building. In the old days, the bell would sound at and the gates to the city would be opened to let people go to the fields, etc. At the drums would sound and the gates were closed for the night. If you were late, too bad. Sounds just like bus departure time on the tour! While the majority of Chinese don't practice any religion at all (a hold-over from Mao's reign) the primary religions that are practiced in China are Buddhism and Daosim (same as Taoism).

Note, as we were heading down to the business center prior to dinner, we ran into a group of well-dressed Chinese gentlemen coming out of an adjoining conference room. One of them we recognized as Chinese President Hu!!!!! We asked the business center personnel "Who were those people" and she replied "Our government"! Earlier this week (was it just this week!) our Shanghai guide had given us a Chinese government primer that sounded like it was straight out of an Abbott and Costello routine.  She asked us:  "do you know who is the Chinese president?" and we all said:  "no, who?"  And she said:  "Hu! that's right" and we said "who?"  You get it.  The gentleman who is the second in command is Wen (though our own wen-wen thought it was HOW).  Perhaps you have to be here to appreciate this joke (or be drinking copious amounts of Chinese beer)...but we thought this was very funny.

Now, a dinner synopsis. We had a choice of restaurants in the hotel this evening (all of which are excellent (and one of which was Chinese).  Ironically, we were the only ones in our group to choose the Chinese restaurant as most members of our group claim they will never eat Chinese food again (and we have another week of touring and eating left!).  Anyone, we dined at Tian Jiang Ge which is an upscale elegant restaurant in the Shangri-La Xian. Based on our guides' talks, the Chinese use every possible part of every possible animal and this was apparent on our menu (though not with our choices).  So, for the record, we did  NOT order:  durian puff pastry, sliced pig stomach with leek and vinegar, roast pigeon with head and beak, abalone and sea cucumber combination plates (over two pages in the menu dedicated to these dishes alone), stir-fried pork knuckle with peanuts, tossed jellyfish with garlic, chicken feet marinated with rock salt, sliced fish skin with vinegar sauce, mashed garlic with pig ear terrine, or braised goose feet with abalone sauce. Our selections were rather conservative, but still very delicious. We started with wild mushrooms with minced garlic.  This dish was not described as being hot but we almost needed to call in the fire department for way-way.  Next, we feasted on stir-fried French green beans with minced pork, sauteed prawns and scallops with black bean sauce, and fried vermicelli Singapore style with barbeque pork.  Our dessert was ice cream (OK, we caved but we needed something to cool the heat) and baked cream honeycomb puff--which looked like three huge hairy tater tots with a warm sweet crunchy filling.)  In our defense, while our choices were conservative, the presentation and flavors were very different from what we would have had in the States.

More observations and learnings since our last posting.  Per the latest census, the population is now almost evenly split between urban and rural. Almost all farms are managed (the government owns the land) by individual farmer families. Their plots are about 1 or 2 acres. Nearly all of the farm work is done by hand.  Many young people are leaving the farms for the city. They estimate that about 40 million people are on the move. This is reflected in the tremendous amount of building going on across the country. At one point a few years ago, 50% of all the heavy cranes in the world were in Shanghai (not just in China, but in that one city!). Couples may move from the countryside to a city and leave their (one) child with the grandparents. They work to make money and may be gone for several YEARS at a time! We described the toilets at the Waldorf. Well, outside of the hotels, everywhere else has "eastern" toilets (i,e,, a hole in the floor). This did not seem to be the case elsewhere in Asia (at least not where we stopped--India, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Japan), but the Eastern toilets are unavoidable in China in public places. However, they always have one "handicap" stall which has a "western" toilet--usually out of order.  By the way, very few of these stalls (east or west) have toilet paper! In the men's room at one airport for example there was one toilet paper dispenser on the wall as you entered. Apparently you're supposed to guess how much you'll need and tear off that amount BEFORE entering the stall! Luckily, we learned many years ago to always carry a roll with us, so we are prepared. And, needless to say, wen-wen's extensive workouts throughout the years (resulting in very powerful quads) have come in quite handy!  Another observation...there are collection boxes in the hotels and museums for donations to help the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. We found this to be very strange after continuously hearing of all of the times Japan has aggressively attacked China. But our guide explained that many Japanese companies are getting many supplies from China to fill their gaps, so it seems like both sides are benefiting.      

Off to the Terra-cotta warriors early tomorrow!

wen-wen and way-way

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