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A Week in China

In a single week, it’s impossible to see China as the enormous and diverse place it is. It’s the third-largest country in the world by land mass, and the largest by population. Flying in from New York over Alaska and Siberia, we started seeing Chinese city names on the GPS a good three hours before we landed in Shanghai, and we still only flew over a tiny fraction of the country. Our trip took us to four different cities, but thee’s so much more to see on a future trip.

Shanghai

Population of 25 million, making it the world’s third-largest, after Tokyo and Dehli. Shanghai’s population has doubled since the 1990s construction boom under Deng Xiao Ping, who developed the entire New Shanghai, with 8000 skyscrapers rising over what had been farmland. One of them is the world’s third-tallest building, scheduled to open in April 2016, just after our visit, at 125 storeys. The city is dense, but other than the Old Town, it doesn’t feel any more crowded than midtown Manhattan. There aren’t enough trees, but the ones we do see include a number of majestic sycamores, as well as lots of flowering cherry and magnolia.

We were told that a Shanghai motor vehicle license plate costs $12,000 to $15,000 US dollars, second in expense only to Singapore, but it’s good for a lifetime (of sitting in Shanghai’s endless traffic, apparently). Housing is extremely expensive as well. Young people who don’t inherit an apartment from older generations are basically out of luck. Our guide described growing up in one of the thousands of walk-up six-storey buildings with her parents in a 175 square-foot apartment, one of several on a floor that had such thin walls they could hear someone breaking wind in another apartment. Then they bought an apartment in a high-rise, but had to relocate when the government took the area for construction of the World Games. They saw this as a bonanza, with the government settlement offering a chance to improve their station. But her father lost most of the settlement in the stock market. She’s one of the lucky ones, though; a relative left them an apartment in another part of town.

National Museum of Art

A modern building abutting People’s Square and close to downtown, divided into several spacious and surprisingly rambling exhibit halls on each of four floors. Very strong collections of Chinese calligraphy and traditional brush painting, jade, and bronze. Photography without flash is allowed. This museum might have the most museum guards per hall of any museum I’ve ever visited. It has a particularly lovely exhibit of textiles and other artifacts from China’s numerous ethnic minorities. Several of these exhibits go chronologically, starting as far back as 13 centuries BCE.

We toured the obligatory carpet factory, where we got a lesson on the three qualities of silk carpet, thread counts ranging from 100 to 1700 per square inch. This workshop also produced silk embroidery tapestries, which had a 3D aura and a metallic glow, and were quite different. They ranged from stunning to kitsch; those of lotus flowers, ginkos, and birds were especially lovely. Reproductions of “A Starry Night” or tigers that almost looked like the velvet paintings you can buy on the street in New York were just silly.

Old Shanghai

It was only a few blocks to walk from the carpet shop to Old Shanghai, with its classic Chinese architecture of curved roof bottoms and thick wooden timbers.In a city that so values newness, it’s a miracle that these ancient and dramatic buildings have been preserved—even if many of the storefronts are now occupied by Western fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Papa John’s Pizza, Dairy Queen, and the ubiquitous Starbucks (Shanghai has over 180 of them).

We chose a less familiar lunch option: a no-meat noodle house on the main square of the Old City, where we shared vermicelli in a light curry with cooked celery, carrots, onions, and spinach and thick rice noodles in a brown sauce, in a place that catered to locals. Certainly edible, but oily and unexciting. Still, considering how many people had told us ahead that food in China is consistently horrible, this mediocre meal (the least satisfying we had on the entire trip) wasn’t bad. And several of our meals were just plain wonderful.

Day Trip to Suzhou

Old Suzhou is considered one of China’s two “paradise on Earth” cities. First settled about 2500 years ago, the current historic district includes some buildings dating back several hundred years—though the sprawling modern “small town” around it, with its 6 million residents, makes the Old City almost invisible until you’re in it. Old Suzhou (sometimes spelled Souchou, among other variations) is built along a network of canals, and the Chinese often compare it with Venice. Unlike Venice, most of the historic buildings are built of timber and plaster, not stone. Many of them feature the upturned-roof temple-style architecture so common in pictures of ancient China (and hard to find in high-rise-dominated modern Chinese cities ).

One way it is like Venice is the ability to charter a singing gondolier to take you a mile or two down one of the canals, starting at the Suzhou Museum—though the boats are of a very different design, with covered cabins.

We found the town quite pleasant and its laid-back pace very enjoyable after the bustle and noise and congestion of Shanghai. At both ends of the boat ride, small but interesting shopping districts offer good deals on silk (which the region is known for), and one shop at the downstream end offers amazing prices on high-quality jade.

Like many parts of China, Suzhou has its own dialect, very musical to the ears. Our guide let us compare the mellifluous sound of “get away from me” in Suzhou with the abrupt stacato of “I love you” in Mandarin.

Our tour also included two stops in the new town: Hong Yixin—a very decent and authentic Suzhou-style restaurant located on the second floor of a large office building, and the amazing Garden of the Master of the Nets. Abandoned hundreds of years ago by its wealthy owner, this turned out to be an estate with many ancient buildings elegantly furnished in a mix of Ming and Qing replica pieces—and several beautiful gardens built on Zen-like Feng Shui principles and incorporating man-made rock formations, beautiful old trees, and other tranquility features. The rock formations, we were told, are held together with sticky rice! But calling it a garden was rather a misnomer, as the tour focused much more on the buildings and (to our deep disappointment) there was no feeling of lushness in the actual gardens, which were dominated by stone.

Back in Shanghai for dinner, we met friends at Vegetarian Life Style, a small local chain with seven locations (we chose one a short walk from the People’s Square metro station). A lot of the choices are meat imitations, but done well and not offensively meaty. There are also many choices that are not trying to imitate meat, and the dumplings in particular are quite good. Prices are on the high side, but we delighted in being able to order anything on the menu without worry.

The Shanghai Metro is a wonder. Signs are bilingual and clear, all the exits are numbered, the trains are fast, frequent clean, and quiet—and crowded. Very inexpensive, too. It’s a zoned system. Our short-distance ride was just 3 yuan (about 40 cents). A ride all the way to the airport costs about 10 yuan. Advertisers are likely to be a factor in the low cost. This system is big on monetizing its captive audience; it’s the first subway I’ve ever encountered that redesigned the standee straps to fit ads, and also has ads projected on the walls of the tunnels as the trains pass through. Oddly, no ad placards in the usual place between the doors and the ceiling.

Shanghai’s highway system is so complex that in places, highways are stacked three and four high, with complex ramps that look like theme-park rides. The lanes are narrow and crowded. In fact, the city, and every major city, is very vertical. (China has ten cities with more than 10 million, most of whose names are completely unfamiliar to most westerners.) Tall, skinny buildings in large clusters are the norm. While most are built within the last 25 years, many already look rather tired.

Still, Shanghai for the most part feels like many modern western cities. Even most of the models on the ubiquitous billboards are mostly western.

Xian

Arriving at the Xian airport, I immediately felt the air pollution; my throat and eyes immediately got irritated. We reached for our face masks for the first time on this trip. Shanghai had left a dusty coating in my mouth, but I never felt the need for a mask there. But the problem seemed quite localized, and I didn’t need it in the old city.

This “small town” of  8.8 million people has more people than New York! Flying in, we saw forests of skyscraper apartment buildings going right to the city edge; farm fields bordered these high-rise neighborhoods, with no suburban buffer zone.

The imperial capital during seven of China’s 24 dynasties, Xian, settled about 2500 years ago, has the only remaining intact city wall in China—and within the wall, even the newer buildings are only eight or ten storeys (most are more like three or four). It was particularly important during the Q’in, Han, and Tang Dynasties, and the traditional Chinese architecture originated here.

Today, it’s known most for the thousands of terra cotta warriors found in an emperor’s tomb, discovered in 1974 by a farmer who was digging a well. In China, it’s also known as a foodie paradise: the home of noodles and dumplings. (More about the warriors in a moment.)

Xian is considered the center of China, and the ancient bell tower is the center of Xian. This is a gorgeous old building with exquisite paintwork, elegant Ming Dynasty furniture, a small exhibit on the towers, a collection of clocks from around the world and many periods in history, and a spiffy view from the second-floor balcony. Tickets are 35 yuan (about $5 US) to tour either this or the sister Drum Tower two blocks away, or 50 yuan for both. The bells were rung in the morning to tell people it was time to go to work, and the drums were played in the evening when it was time to go home. One tower was enough for us, but we heard that the Drum Tower is equally spectacular.

Just beyond the Drum Tower (coming from the Bell Tower), take a right on the small plaza and then turn right again on Muslim Street, a pedestrian shopping area. This is where the foodie action is: Muslim-owned storefronts and street stalls offer tasty and exotic delicacies on this street and on a spur going off to the left: noodles with sesame sauce (known locally as biang biang noodles). I’ve always associated this dish with more southwestern parts of China (Szechuan and Hunan, in particular), but apparently it originates here. Also, tofu skins in spicy red pepper sauce, broad noodles, various kinds of dumplings, bagels, sunflower breads, meats on skewers, chicken feet, and a fried noodle that looks like cubed potatoes and tastes almost pudding-like (also served in a red pepper sauce), among other choices.

The spur street leads to an ancient shopping mall—think of Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, without the craziness and heavy buying pressure—with excellent prices on silks and pashminas, jade pieces, and more. Bring yuan; credit cards are not commonly accepted.

Another wonderful food surprise was the breakfast buffet at the Titan Times Hotel. Filling several walls and center stations of a large dining room, there must have been close to 200 different items, with about a 75/25 proportion of Chinese to Western. I tried about 20 different items and found all of them very well-prepared. As a vegetarian, I went for things like bean curd, mushrooms, snowpeas, bok choy, eggplant, rice with eggs, congee (a bland grain pudding) with assorted spicy pickles, and melon. Of course, there were plenty of meat and fish choices too. I’d rate it both the most exotic and the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced.

We got to work off that massive breakfast in a park where thousands of locals gather daily to work out. We meandered through overlapping groups doing Tai Chi, line dancing in colorful costumes, an unnamed exercise and vocal regime popularized by a certain doctor, and even hackysack, joining with each for a little while. The line dancers and their live band were particularly welcoming, and we danced with them for a good 20 minutes before our tour leader pulled us away.

It takes about an hour to drive out to the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum; Xian is a big sprawly place. Our route took us past the palace that Emperor Q’in Shua Huang built for himself and his concubine, as well as an adjacent hot springs resort. He is considered China’s first emperor: first to unite all of China (named for his Q’in kingdom, as the Q is pronounced “ch”) and the founder of the first dynasty, which only lasted four years into the reign of his son before a massive nationwide revolt crushed it.The tomb is so large that the soldiers were found about a mile away from the likely burial site, and contained everything the emperor might night on his journey in the next world: chariots, kitchenware—and 8000 fierce, armed, life-sized warriors, each with individual faces (no two are alike, so far), many with horses (also individual), and so carefully detailed that even the sole of a shoe has a pattern. The project was started while Q’in was still simply the king of his small kingdom, which he ruled for 39 years before unifying China. It took 700,000 workers many years. This same emperor initiated the Great Wall, ordering the various city walls to be connected over the open country between.

He was sufficiently hated that when the rebellion came four years after his weak son took over, the farmers smashed all the statues and burned the wooden support beams; only one kneeling archer was found unbroken. We were told that his inner sanctum is protected by automatic arrows—an astonishing technological feat for 2200 years ago. We were also told that the workers who knew the burial location were buried alive, so no one could ever reveal the secret.

The ceramic warriors were originally brightly colored, including different colors for different parts of clothing and skin. However, the first excavations did not prepare against oxidation, and about the first 2000 excavated lost their colors in a matter of weeks. Later excavations, of course, were more careful, and this is one reason why only one-quarter of the warriors have been uncovered so far. The emperor’s resting place also hasn’t been explored, though its probable location is a very visible artificial hill.

Back to Bell Tower Square for a dumpling banquet, featuring a half a dozen non-dumpling appetizers plus 18 different types of exotic dumplings. We sat at a no-pork table with a Muslim family in our group and some others, and they provided vegetarian substitutes for all the pork and beef options. Dumpling fillings included mushrooms, carrots, sweet bean paste, persimmon, walnut, and more, each in its own shape and sometimes color. Yum!

Beijing

Temple of Heaven and the Nearby Hutongs

An easy walk from our hotel, the Temple of Heaven was our first stop during our free afternoon. We expected to spend about half an hour there and then move on to other sights; we were there almost three hours and enjoyed it thoroughly.

This beautiful park features several attractive ancient buildings from the 1400s and 1500s, done up in beautiful greens, blues, and reds, carefully placed amid orderly groves of cypress, including the 500-year-old Nine Dragons tree. Tickets are available either just to walk the grounds or to enter the buildings and their plazas; we definitely recommend the full ticket (28 yuan, or about USD $4.75). The central building, a stunning three-storey pagoda topped with a dome, surrounded by walkways and plazas, its outbuildings and plazas replicated in smaller proportions around the sprawling complex, is where the emperor went to pray for a good harvest. Most of the site is bilingually signed, so English-speaking visitors can understand what they’re looking at.

However, two areas—the Animal Sacrifice site and the Divine Kitchen—require a special ticket that doesn’t cost extra but requires foreigners to present a passport, and there are no English signs about this. It’s confusing and none of the staff had enough English to explain it to us; we were lucky that an English-speaking native was around to figure it out for us. Enter at the east gate, turn right toward the sacrifice building, and get the extra (blue) ticket. The yellow ticket is required for admission to the other gated areas. Be sure to visit the Heaven Stone and adjacent Echo Wall, among the prettiest parts besides the main temple.

The Temple of Heaven is one of the few attractions of Beijing that is not swarming with hucksters trying to sell everything from carved dragons to Mao’s Little Red Book—not to mention the ubiquitous $5 “Rolex” watches; we heard about someone who’d bought one and then discovered it had no mechanism! The tranquility here was a welcome respite.

On our way back, we got off the main street to explore two hutongs: the little neighborhoods of mostly two-storey homes around narrow alleys that were, for most of the city’s long history, the dominant lifestyle of old Beijing. Most of these have been knocked down for high-rises, to the city’s shame—but dozens (possibly hundreds) remain. Driving the wide, department store-lined boulevards of modern Beijing, you can often catch a glimpse of one if you peer down alleys you happen to pass. Our guide told us later that hutong is a Mongol word meaning horse, because the hutongs were built only wide enough to accommodate one person at a time on horseback.

We exited the temple at the East Gate, turned left, and spotted one a short distance up on the right. A few people were out in the mostly residential street, exchanging gossip and playing games.

When we retraced our steps and turned back to the boulevard, we crossed to the other side. Catching glimpses of another, more commercial, hutong on our left, we walked the thickness of one building to a lively street market full of food vendors. The next day, on the tour bus from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace, we passed a much larger hutong filled with activity. I wished we’d stopped to explore it.

Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City

The largest plaza in the world, Tiananmen Square is lined with many of the most important government buildings in China, as well as the vast Beijing City Museum. Mao’s tomb, the parliament, and more. Our guide in Beijing had been a supporter of the student movement, and had many stories to tell. He even witnessed (and knew) the man with a briefcase who stopped a tank, in one of the most famous images of the uprising. Ironically, Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.”

Passing through the Tiananmen Gate, we entered the Ming Dynasty Forbidden City, once only open to the royal family and their numerous servants. Construction began in 1402, when the emperor decided to fend off a power struggle by moving the capital from Nanjing (“Southern Capital”) to Beijing (“Northern Capital”). The original phase took sixteen years and tens of thousands of workers; many additional palaces were added over generations. In all, there are about 8800 rooms! Unfortunately, exactly one of those rooms is open to the public on the general ticket--the telephone operator’s office installed in 1902. Several of the ground floor palaces are at least available to peek in the windows and see the beautiful furnishings and architectural details, but for the most part we were relegated to viewing the exteriors of buildings--some restored and painted in their glory, and others with colors on the trim faded to a dull green after 600 years in the sun.

Summer Palace

After lunch and a visit to a pearl shop that most of the males on the trip could have easily dispensed with, we arrived at the beautiful and extensive park that holds the Summer  Palace, a nature retreat built around a lake by the Qing emperors, who followed the Ming and ruled China until the 1911-12 revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Accessible by subway, this should be part of any traveler’s Beijing itinerary. A really tranquil place, it includes several visitable buildings (one of which is now a cloisonné shop) at the lake level, a remarkable pair of marble boats the size of large yachts (no, they don’t sail), and my favorite part—a small steep hiking hill accessible by either a winding path or a staircase. Going up the path felt like walking into a Chinese brush painting of a mountain scene, or pictures I’ve seen of the mountains at Ku-ling, hundreds of miles up the Yangtze River from Shanghai. From the summit, you can see downtown Beijing. A tower at the top can be toured for 10 yuan, and we’d have happily paid, but we thought we didn’t have enough time before we had to meet up with our group again—not realizing that the stairs would get us back to the marble boat in about seven minutes.

Olympic Village

Our route back to town took us along the wide highway that runs along the main site of the 2008 Olympics. We made a quick stop to walk across a vendor-lined overpass and gawk at the Bird’s Nest stadium (still used for sports and cultural events), something that looks like a nest of air traffic control towers that apparently shows the five-ring Olympic logo from the air, and a few other buildings. On the bus side of the highway, we caught glimpses of a theme park that recreates the architecture of every place in this vast country.

Night Market

A few stops on the subway brought us to Wanfuying, a district of glitzy western name-brand boutiques and department stores. Our goal was the Night Market, a left turn off Wanfuying through a dramatic traditional Chinese painted archway, and into a dizzying, jam-packed alley crammed with vendors and shoppers. Here, you can sample such treats and fried scorpion, along with the usual dumplings and tofu dishes. It’s also a great place to shop for cheap clothing, with several shops about halfway down on the right. Don’t come if you have a fear of crowds or claustrophobia; it’s one of only three places where we felt human traffic jams (the others were Old City Shanghai and one particular raised area outside the main palace in Forbidden City).

When we’d had enough, we sought refuge in the tranquil, Buddhist Fuhuiciyuan Vegetarian Restaurant, a long block down a quiet hutong (several blocks down Wanfuying, first alley on the left after passing the Prada store on the right). The food was extremely fresh and very well-prepared and served in generous portions, though two of the three dishes we ordered (tofu clay pot and sautéd green vegetable) were very bland. I liked it much better once we finally communicated our desire for hot sauce. No one in the restaurant spoke any English, but our waiter recognized the word “chilis.” The third dish, pumpkin soup, was a delicious, velvety concoction of pumpkin, coconut milk, aromatic spices, and probably some kind of sweetener (or else a VERY sweet pumpkin) with a few pine nuts thrown in. Prices range widely. The soup was only 10 yuan. Our other two dishes were 22 and 28 yuan, but other menu items were in the hundreds.

The Great Wall and Ming Tombs

 Our last day in Beijing started with a long bus ride to a jade shop near the Great Wall. The only interesting part for me was accidentally discovering another whole showroom designed for people from Central Asia, and selling things like prayer mats and gold Taoist (I think) icons mounted on jade pendants. In this showroom, the salespeople spoke languages I didn’t even recognize; on the American side, of course, English was the official language. Other than the practical lesson in market segmentation, I could have skipped this stop, but lots of tour buses stop there.

But then, we drove just minutes to the Wall itself, which was magnificent. Once again proving his worth, our Gate 1 guide took us to a less busy section, Jiankou, where we were not hassled by pushy sales vendors—we’ve heard this is a real problem at Badaling, which is accessible by subway—and where stretches of the paths were nearly empty. We parked at lot 3 and turned right just inside the gate (there’s also a left-turn option, which was described as steeper and less scenic). Keeping to the main path, we went up to a small store, then past it to a view of a section that had not been restored. The two rows of stones marking the two sides of the wall were extremely evocative. On our way back down, we made a left half-way and went a short distance past a couple of towers. In this direction (a right turn after the first left, if coming from the parking lot), you can walk quite some distance.

No matter how many pictures you see, it does not prepare you for the reality of this enormous man-made ribbon stretching 4000 miles from the Gobi Desert to the sea. The steps are steep and of uneven height (but many sections have handrails); the mountain scenery is simply magnificent. The Trans Siberian Railroad runs a few hundred feet below.

I felt an incredible awareness of my own smallness, of the greater planet and greater cosmos, walking on a work of this magnitude, feeling the solitary beauty of the wanderer—at least in the sections where we got away from all other visitors. I hadn’t expected it to feel so magical, but it did.

Ming Tombs and Spiritual Walk

Our last formal activity in China was a visit to the Ming Tombs and the Spiritual Walk on its grounds. The tomb buildings were in the same beautiful traditional style as so many of the antique sites we’d seen; the actual tomb was a man-made hill behind them. The spiritual walk was more fun, walking between two matching rows of large sculptures of warriors, horses, camels, elephants, cats, lions, and one animal I couldn’t identify. However, I could have skipped this stop.

For our last meal in Beijing, we took the subway out to Andingmen, in hopes of exploring the sprawling hutong we’d seen from the bus. We couldn’t find it in the dark, however (it turned out that we probably got off one stop too early), and ended up at a restaurant where the food looked very interesting—much of it sizzling in large communal metal tubs. It was a fun, atmospheric place, with waitresses coming to the big fish tank near our table to catch fish with a net, sometimes getting splashed in the process, and all sorts of fascinating looking things emerging from the kitchen, which was also right by our table.

No one spoke any English, but we pulled out our well-worn paper about being vegetarian and let the waitress help us choose. She was quite insistent that we order a certain dish that looked like it contained meat according to the picture on the menu. We decided to trust her and got a dish of scrambled eggs and unidentifiable lightly pickled vegetables with three different types of chilis: fresh green, fresh red (both relatively mild), and dried red (spicy). Unfortunately, there was no name outside and we neglected to get a business card. But it was great, and felt like an adventure.

Overall Impressions

It’s risky to generalize about an entire country based on four cites, especially one as populous (1.4 billion) and diverse as China. Note: this diversity is not ethnic; although China recognizes more than 40 ethnic groups, Han Chinese make up 92 percent of the country. Considering that some areas, like Tibet or the Muslim Uigur area bordering Central Asia, are majority non-Han, that means the cities I visited are almost monoethnic. As white westerners, we were constantly gawked at and asked to pose for selfies, especially by Chinese tourists from far-away regions. A young blonde in our group got it far more often than the rest of us. But within the Han supermajority, we found (or heard about) great diversity in regional cooking styles, weather patterns, lifestyles, and more. As an example, one of our guides had no siblings because of the one-child-per-family policy in the 1980s, but the other, about the same age, was raised on a farm; her family was exempt (as were many other types of people, for a wide assortment of reasons) and she has a sibling.

Still, some patterns—and many contradictions—emerge:

         The streets are amazingly free of litter. Public spaces (including bathrooms in nice restaurants or places like airports) are cleaned constantly. Both food and sanitation were far better than what we’d been warned repeatedly to expect. However, every place we visited tasted like dust. In fairness, on our return, I noticed the same dusty taste in Queens, NYC.

         China used to be widely known for its massive reliance on bicycles. There are still plenty of bikes and bike riders, and even a public bikeshare system—but fewer than in many major US and especially European cities. Bikes are far, far more noticeable in Amsterdam or Copenhagen; Beijing seems to have fewer bikers than even New York City. The bikes have largely been displaced by electric mopeds, which are allowed to use the special bike lanes and make the bike lanes unsafe for pedalers. And frankly, the way people drive, I’d feel pretty nervous on a bike, even with a helmet (something I didn’t see on a single Chinese bicyclist, and rarely enough even for the moped riders).

         The electric mopeds are one reason why China’s cities are so quiet. Beijing, especially, was a welcome respite from the constant noise pollution of many cities. It was a pleasure to use the subways and airports and NOT have to experience the constant bombardment of utterly useless announcements (there are plenty of announcements, but they’re germane: a train is arriving, last call for this flight, etc.). The streets are amazingly quiet considering how full of vehicles they are, with no roaring trucks or motorcycles. China’s fleet seems to have a higher percentage of electric vehicles than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Not too many horns or sirens, either.

         Chinese are willing to be crowded—even jammed—when the reward is perceived as worth it. Yet most of the time, there were fewer people on the streets and at the monuments than we might encounter in similar situations in, say, Boston. Many times, there was hardly anyone around.

         China is actively courting both tourism and Western business. Yet most Chinese we encountered have zero foreign language skills. It was not surprising to go into restaurants and stores in real-people neighborhoods and have to gesture and point, but it was a bit of a shock that many of the hotel and airline staff we encountered had only a few words. The hucksters, of course, had learned some basic vocabulary but it didn’t go much beyond how much and what is it made of. Despite the language gap, we felt that we could actually manage a trip on our own next time (we hadn’t been sure of that, and went with an organized tour, but one that gave us a lot of freedom to explore on our own).

         Although the society is far more open now than under Mao, most Chinese we spoke with were quietly but clearly critical of the government, and still felt oppressed by it. Yet, a casual visitor sees a large police presence that appears benign, and almost no visible evidence of totalitarianism. Shanghai, especially, feels like a western city.

         Communism has definitely brought up the standard of living. Most people have the basic necessities, and some have much, much more—like those who drive Ferraris and Porches and buy Prada fashions. Western luxury goods are easy to find, and so expensive (taxed at about 300 percent) that people visiting the US buy lavishly to provide bargains for their friends. Yet, we saw quite a few beggars, some of them in filthy rags and several with severe deformities, so some people obviously fall through the cracks. Compared to anywhere in Latin America, however, the begging is much less noticeable.

         Rapid transit is awesome and much-used; yet hundreds of thousands of cars crowd the streets, despite the difficulty of getting a license, a vehicle, and a plate.

         To my surprise, I had three cups of coffee, and enjoyed all three. One was quite good and the other two (one in a fancy hotel and the other in a restaurant operated as a training center by a business school) were superior. Tea varied in quality, was often grain-based, and was not automatically served in the homestyle restaurants; boiled plain water was, however.

         The Chinese visual aesthetic is highly tuned. Yin-Yang and male/female balance are key parts of the ancient sensibility, as is Feng Shui. Yet, the architecture of the early Communist period is horrible, much of the cultural history was destroyed, and even the new buildings—those forests of skyscrapers—are for the most part quite ugly to my eye.

         Chinese language is extremely poetic and metaphorical (a bathroom is a happy room, the entrance to Forbidden City is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, a common menu item in New York Chinese restaurants is Ants Climbing Tree, the slogan on the toilet paper wrapper in our Shanghai hotel read “Tender, For You From Heart!”)—yet harsh on my western ears.

Note: If you’re considering a China trip, we recommend our tour company, Gate 1. They hire great guides, tour managers, and drivers (and believe me, you DON’T want to do your own driving in these cities, nor do you want a driver who is as aggressive as so many others on the road). Our tour manager, Yuan, handled all the logistics from pickup at the airport in Shanghai to dropping us off at the Beijing airport (we were on our own to navigate the rather confusing transfer in Shanghai), booked us into excellent hotels, hired excellent local guides, took care of meals during all but one of the day trips, and provided excellent advice both individually and to the group as a whole—all for probably less money than we would have done on our own using lower quality hotels. Even tips for the chambermaids were included. All we had to pay for were a few meals and admission fees on our own and tips to the Gate 1 staff. We had a similarly positive experience with them in Ecuador.

Shel Horowitz’s 10th book, Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World, shows how to create and market profitable products and services that turn hunger and poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance. Reach him at http://transformpreneur.com

 


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