China Adventure: Hong Kong, Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, June, 2010

Anya and I began our adventure in Hong Kong, a sparkling city of glass skyscrapers that reach toward the sky. Hong Kong is a very deep-water port and splits down the middle into Hong Kong Central and Kowloon. We stayed in Kowloon and took ferries across to the other side. I mentioned to Anya that a lot of people probably just stay in Kowloon and don’t get across that much. A day or so later, we realized both sides were connected by an extremely efficient, new, airconditioned metro, probably the most modern metro I’ve ever seen. It makes the New York City’s subway system seem like it’s in an underdeveloped country. At night if you stand in Kowloon you can see the “symphony of lights” considered the best laser light show on the planet. Totally spectacular. It is choreographed with music and visible and audible all along the shore.

Since Hong Kong is ablaze with skyscrapers one of the first things we did was to go to Victoria Peak where one takes a very steep tram to a beautiful place to see the whole panorama of the city. But it is also a buzzing international city half English, half Chinese with dozens of interesting shopping streets. One place, the Harbor Shopping Mall, was probably the biggest mall I was ever in. It seemed like it went on for close to a mile with air-conditioned shops from Gucci to Rolex all over. Such opulence and wealth. It was stunning. We didn’t have many good meals in China, but we did find

a place that was very elegant and yet absolutely packed with Chinese diners (Maxim’s Palace in Central Hong Kong). I had roasted suckling pig that was incredible. Anya had garlic spare ribs and eggplant, plus deep-fried stuffed shrimp in an orange-strawberry sauce). Delightful.

We met a man named Michael who explained why there are not more illegal immigrants in Hong Kong. When I asked why a person from the provinces just doesn’t get up and move to the more elegant Hong Kong for work, he said that one must have a visa, even for a Chinese citizen, and that every resident of China has a national identity card. It looks like our driver’s license. You get it at birth, and that is how illegal immigration is controlled. There are even posters in Hong Kong that say “if you are working here and are not legally entitled to live in Hong Kong, you will be arrested.” I looked it up: Belgium, Israel, Argentina, Brazil all have them. We’ve been taught that having a national identity card is an invasion of our privacy, but it makes you wonder.

The next day we went to see the “Big Buddha” the largest Buddha in the world. The tram ride up the hill was scary. I had to close my eyes. The Buddha was big all right. Built in 1973 primarily as a tourist attraction to raise money for the monks up there. Sorry we traveled so far to see that, but what the hell. We didn’t have a guide. Anyway it was nice to visit him and get scared half to death.

Hong Kong skyscrapers (up); Inside the Big Buddha monastery (below)

Next Stop Beijing:
Coming to the capital of China and hearing all the talk of this dynasty and then that, I decided I needed some clarification. So I took my history overview text and outlined all the dynasties. They wax and wane over the years, but it is incredible that China has been ruled consistently for almost 5,000 years! Here is the list: For us our trip began with our personal guide, Albert, who was really special and intelligent. We
Dynasties Yellow emperor 2700 BC Xia Dynasty 2205-1766 BC Shang 1700-1100 BC Zhou 1100-200BC Qin 200BC Han 200BC-200AD Jin 200-400 AD Sui 500-600AD Tang 600-900AD Song 960-1200 Yuan 1200-1350 Ming 1300-1600 Qing 1600-1910

started at the Forbidden City, which starts at Tiananmen Square and then just goes on forever. We began with Mao and then moved on (to capitalism!)

Above is the area where the paper mache Statue of Liberty was constructed and the famous Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Below is more of the never-ending Forbidden City. In the very inner sanctums lived the Emperor with his 108 concubines (that number was prescribed by law).

Certainly the great wall is a major attraction here. Constructed by over 300,000 soldiers and peasants starting about two hundred years before Christ, it runs a total of 3100 miles. Imagine a wall about the entire distance across the United States.

One of the unique things, though, is that the Great Wall is one of the seven wonders of the world, and people from all of the world are there. That is quite fascinating in itself.

From the Great Wall we stopped in a jade factory and pearl growing factory. I never saw pearls inside an oyster. Apparently if you inject a grain of sand inside the shell, a pearl will eventually form over it. Interesting! Our next stop was the summer palace. All days in Beijing, in fact in China, were accompanied either by a pervasive mist or air pollution, so our photos suffer from that. What is unique about the summer palace is that an empress from the last dynasty (The Dowager Empress) in the early 1900s decided to spend the money on herself and she created an artificial lake and incredible stone walk ways, and royal buildings for herself. She was supposed to spend the money building the empire and her navy. As a result the empire collapsed, foreigners started coming in, colonialism had its way with China (British, Russian, Japanese, American, Portuguese, English), and China has struggled for the last century to try to get its property back. It got Hong

Kong. It got Macao. It hopes to get Taiwan. Really, Chinese foreign policy seems so different from this perspective. China does not appear to have any real history of expansionism, no history of colonizing other parts of the world, and its whole collective psychology seems defensive. It wants to build walls around itself and keep the aliens out. I don’t really think it has aggressive and expansionist aims. That seems to cut against the grain of what China is. Japan occupied China, not vice versa. Anyway, here are some photos of this turning point in Chinese history: the summer palace.

The empress built a “marble boat” pictured here. Quite opulent, but it doesn’t float.

Miscellany Now on our Beijing journey sometimes the miscellaneous things you do are more important than the major events. For example we went to a jade factory and learned that jade is an extremely hard stone. The artisans who carve it sometimes work for an entire year on a single piece of jade. Here is a jade statue that took well over a year to create:

We also had lunch with a family in the Hutongs. This is a neighborhood of small old homes right in the center of Beijing. The Hutongs were nice to visit and so was the little meal we had with our family.

We now prepare to leave Beijing with two last photos (a tree in the summer palace) and me at the Great Wall.

More miscellanea:
• We had a Chinese tea ceremony with special teas which blossom into flowers in your glass when you add hot water. Wonderful to see and taste. • • We had one of our best Peking ducks ever in a small restaurant. Delightful. However, when we got in our cab, he understood no English and we had not a single word in Chinese. When I said “Capital hotel” he looked blank. The hotel was only 6 blocks from our restaurant, but it took us half an hour to get home. The

Chinese driver was too proud to admit he didn’t know where he was going and wasn’t going to ask anyone for help. We were all rattled.

Very curious facts about China:
(1) If you kill someone while driving a car, even if you are not at fault, you will be assessed a financial penalty to pay to the victim’s family and that penalty will last your entire lifetime. (2) The largest immigration of human beings on planet earth occurred in the last twenty years in China as over 100 million person left the countryside and came to settle in the cities. (3) At Chinese New Year, a period of two weeks, one billion Chinese get on trains, buses, and cars and return home to see their families and relatives. It is the largest movement of human beings on earth.

Next stop, Xian.

This little city west of Beijing used to be the capital of the country. It is a little bit above Lanzhou on this map.

It is a strikingly pretty city with wellorganized boulevards. I rang the bell at the bell tower in the very center of the city where all the streets seem to intersect. The major attraction here is a protected UNESCO site and what people are now th calling the 8 wonder of the world, the terracotta warriors.

Some 2 thousand years ago, the last emperor of the Qin dynasty wanted to give himself peace throughout eternity, so he buried an army of terra cotta statues (horses, officers, regular soldiers), each unique and individually crafted. They were near his own monumental tomb and they were buried like he was to protect him. There were 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses buried in this way. This was discovered in 1970 and is being restored. What I found peculiar is that the next emperor came along and dug up many of his statues and broke them. Naively I said to my guide that this sort of seemed like someone buried all his toys with him, and then some bully came along and dug up the toys and broke them. Seemed, on the surface a tad childish. But then, I sort of realized that if you genuinely believe in an afterlife and eternity—and so does the bully—well then it makes a bit more sense.

Probably the most incredible thing about our trip to Xian was that we went to a museum where we learned how America was discovered. In 1421, fifty years before Columbus, emperor Zhu Di dispatched his favorite eunuch, a large man named Zheng He on an exploratory mission. Zheng He had lead a huge and gigantic fleet of Chinese ships (62 treasure ships and over 27,000 men) throughout the world. On his next voyage he is said to have discovered America. I took a picture of the gigantic ship that he sailed to our California shores. It was 120 meters long [Columbus’ Santa Maria was 18]. Sorry for the crummy photo. It is a bit of a shock, though, to realize America was discovered by a eunuch in 1421.

This is the museum of the emperor who dispatched his eunuch to America. We then went to Spirit Way, a gigantic mausoleum complex which is decidedly pretty.

My main purpose in going to Xian, however, was to see the White Pyramid. Most people in China don’t know what that is, and we were somewhat confused if we actually found it. This appears in my new book, Aliens and Man (working title) which will be out in Spring 2011. I’ll let you read about

it there. This man-made mound doesn’t look like much, and I’m not sure I found the real white pyramid, but this is what we did find. It is called the Maoling tomb. On the way out of Xian we passed a couple of amazing sites in this polluted country. Right is a nuclear power station, and below that are over 25 highrise apartment

building going up at once. These buildings are 30-40 stories tall. Can you imagine that kind of construction going on in Cleveland? Gives you a sense of the rapid changes and industrialization occurring in China.

Note that Xian was the gateway city for the famed “Silk Road.” It was from here that Marco Polo set out about 1269 from Venice and ended his journey here.

We also visited seven storied pagoda and I took this picture of a monk relaxing. Strangely, Anya took the same photo on her iphone, and neither of us knew that until we got home.

Final stop: Shanghai
Shanghai has a population approaching 20 million. I was taken by this glittering jewel of a city. It is modern to the extreme, beyond anything we have in the U.S., but as usual it was cloudy, or smoggy, or misty and visibility was minimal.

We took a trip up the TV tower (left), and went up like 70 stories to view the city.

While up there we stood on a glass floor and looked down 70 floors. Scary!

That’s my tennis shoe.

There is a beautiful, long, waterfront boardwalk called the Bund which we found delightful, even though the weather was muggy and 92 degrees. Here at the Bund there was just a tiny bit of respite.
More gigantic skyscrapers as viewed from the TV tower.

We also visited a quaint tea garden in the center of the city and found a Starbucks nearby to chill out.

We were most taken, however, by just strolling down Shanghai’s incredible

shopping streets….probably running 2-3 miles and filled with Gucci, Rolex and other upscale stores. We most enjoyed going along the side streets and finding incredible things (shoes, tea, craw fish, etc).

Saw some weird things too. Why were all these women picnicking and playing cards in a subway station?

Turns out they are all from the Philippines. It is Sunday, their day off, and there are very few parks in Shanghai, so they bring their cards, sandwiches, and sit for the whole afternoon gossiping and giggling. Lots and lots of these.

This is the upscale part of Shanghai’s shopping streets.

It was so incredibly hot, we went to an old hotel, the Astor, right in downtown. It was air-conditioned so we stayed for coffee in this historic spot. Here Charlie Chaplin stayed (left), Albert Einstein and other notables. Our guide, Andy, was articulate and fun. He taught us a lot. First, he described himself as part of the “Lost Generation,” the disaffected, young, bright new generation of China. He was in love with the United States and all its values. He said that the most popular writer in China was named Han Han, a young, Chinese adventurer-thinker-philosopher. He said 600 million Chinese regularly read Han Han. And we never heard of him!

We attended the Shanghai Acrobat’s performance, thought to be the most advanced gymnastic-acrobat show in the world. It was stunning.

This completes our photo trip, but there are some historic and philosophical matters I want to discuss. [You can skip this next part. This is more for me and my need to record certain important facts for myself].

Interesting historic footnotes • Opera: Chinese opera captures some of the most outrageous aspects of Chinese history. In one tale, thought to be true, an emperor hated a certain revolutionary and wanted his head. The revolutionary similarly wanted to kill and depose the emperor. Our revolutionary one day met a man who also hated the emperor. A deal was hatched. Our revolutionary offered to kill himself so that this man could take his head to the emperor and ‘get close to him.’ They agreed. The suicide happened, and the other man brought his head to the emperor,. The emperor was overjoyed and celebrated this great man for ridding the empire of this evil revolutionary. In thus getting close to the emperor, he found the right time and place to slay him. So goes the story. • Mata Hari is the name of Xi Shi, allegedly the most beautiful girl in Chinese history. The state of Wu lost a war to the state of Yue. Mata Hari was trained for a double mission to charm the Wu king so that he would neglect the affairs of state. Xi Shi carried out her role and the king was conquered. Wui and Xi Shi lived happily ever after. Mata Hari was also the stage name of Margaretha Macleod a Dutch exotic dancer who was thought to be a spy and executed by the French in World War I. • In the expanse of Chinese history, many ideas and preconceptions get tarnished. For example, I always thought Vietnam struggled fiercely for its independence. It did, but that does not take away the fact that Vietnam was a Chinese “protectorate” for over 18 centuries. Tibet was similarly a protectorate of China for over 200 years. • I never knew that Mao and Chaing Kai Shek were once allies in their attempts to throw out the foreign invaders and influences in China. • One of the possible reasons for China’s long history is that in 589 it introduced civil service examinations which continued throughout its history. Instead of relatives and the wealthy occupying significant positions, China established a meritocracy to govern itself, and only the most intelligent and talented gained important positions in government. Kind of cool.

• The Chinese invented the compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder, but strangely they never used gunpowder in guns! It was merely an explosive agent to them. They also invented the ship rudder, stirrups, the crossbow, the iron plough, the wheelbarrow, hot air balloons and the folding umbrella. • I also found it interesting that some of the world’s greatest minds were all born around the same time. All within 191 years of each other. Confucius 551 BC Lao Tzu 575 BC Buddha/Siddhartha/Sakyamuni 563BC Socrates 469 BC Plato 429 BC Aristotle 384 BC

So completes our interesting journey. If you got this far, thanks for sharing in this virtual reconstruction. Here are some random concluding photos of China that just fit nowhere and everywhere.