Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The Great Wall and More

We left Shanghai, a vibrant, twitchy city sporting both imperial architecture from the early 20th century and provocative new skyscrapers from the 21st, with the iconic Pearl Tower as an unmistakable exclamation point.  At 23 million, it’s China’s largest city, with 6,000 people per square kilometer (New York has only 1,800 but Singapore is twice as dense at 11,100).

When we arrived in Beijing on the bullet train, we saw a slightly dowdy city (only 17 million, 5,000 per km/sq), a little run down, maybe even a little down on its luck. Not as clean as Singapore, not as stylish as Shanghai, not as noisy as New York.  And under grey skies.  Maybe it was just the weather system – probably not – but the sky was grey and low all the way from Shanghai to Beijing. It wasn’t yellow like Los Angeles, but it didn’t smell good or feel good in the throat, either.

After we arrived and unpacked, we met Sam, our new Beijing guide, for a trip to the roasted duck restaurant for Peking duck in Peking.  As we passed to our table, we saw a chef using a long stick to hang dozens of raw prepared ducks in a big oven with a big fire.  When they came out, they shone a beautiful deep golden brown.Image

The first challenge of ordering a Chinese dinner is deciding on the dishes.  Meats, cold dishes, hot dishes, dim sum, soup, variety, contrast, quantity, likes, dislikes, things to reject on principle (no snake, no intestines) all have to be considered.  And the menu is typically a book that has to be browsed front to back and again to understand the range of choices. What we invariably discover is that no matter what group, a group decision is just impossible.  Someone has to play the host, order for the group, and hope that it all works out.  In this case, even though we were only three (Nancy, Sam the Guide, and me), the rule held. Sam played host, but only until the check came, when it became my turn.  Dinner was: a duck, of course; a cold dish – needle mushrooms; two hot dishes – Chinese broccoli with tree fungus, and pumpkin with lily; rice – the one invariant for a Chinese dinner; and a bottle of Great Wall cabernet sauvignon, which, contrary to all reasonable expectations, worked out just fine.  Good, but Nancy and I agreed that we’d had better Peking duck years ago in Atlanta.

The next morning’s sky was grey and cheerless with a threat of rain.  Our driver and Sam picked us up to drive out of the city to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. After an hour of passing through Beijing’s first through sixth circles (beltways, but might be described as circles of hell), we passed through countryside and finally stood at the foot of a steep hill of hawker stalls.  Everyone wanted to sell us a tee shirt and every other souvenir we wished for “only one dollar.” As we worked our way up the path, the rain started.  Slowly at first, but soon falling quite steadily.  Never mind, this might be our only chance to see the Wall, this section constructed in the 15th century by the Ming dynasty, and renovated in the mid-1980s.  This section stands along the ridge of a very steep hill, so we rode a modern cable car to get to it. A twisting pathway, a climb up steep steps and then …

… we finally stepped, out of breath but thrilled, onto the Great Wall of China.

Now the rain turned into a steady downpour, with our small umbrellas becoming ever less effective.

While not entirely treacherous in the rain, the walking path on the wall rises and falls sharply; the steps are uneven with tiny tops, huge risers, and no hand rails in the most problematic sections.  We hiked to the first watchtower.  A cloud settled over the hill, so we could see only a short section of the Wall at a time.  I thought it was going to be a disaster for pictures, but, with the Wall going on and on into the cloud, some of them turned out to be quite atmospheric.

The rain fell harder, but we hiked on the to next watch tower.  The wall was strangely quiet in the rain—few tourists.  By now, my shirt was wet  More rain, more refuge in the maze of mall rooms in watchtowers, more steps with 12-inch rises, more wet clothes. By the fifth or sixth watchtower, we were pretty well soaked, but not miserable because the rain was not cold, and standing where centuries of ancient warriors had defended the empire was enthralling.

Although we wanted to walk the mile to the end of this section, the rain cloud kept us from seeing any of the surrounding countryside, and after about 45 minutes, we turned back.  Most other visitors had done so as well; very few people remained on the Wall as we headed to the cable car for the trip down.  It was disappointment in the sense that we couldn’t see the whole, long, magnificent wall wind its way into the far horizon, nor could we see the forest that stretches toward the distant and once hostile plains.  On the other hand, most tourists had stayed away, and pictures of the Wall with no people are quite unusual.

We ran the gauntlet of hawkers on the way down, jumped into the car, and drove a little way down the mountain to a restaurant where, some time ago, a collection of heads of state ate dinner.  We thought that might mean over-priced and under-valued, but our roast fish (butterflied rainbow trout with a spicy dry rub roasted in an oven hot enough to crisp the skin), celery with lily, green beans with minced beef, and squash with lily was delightful and reasonable.  We said that this was a California Chinese dinner – a little meat and a lot of vegetables; Sam said that Chinese people typically do not eat much meat at a meal.

Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, Nancy asked Sam about a representative “Beijing” souvenir – I guess the hawkers had gotten her thinking.

“Silk, jade, and cloisonné,” he said, “but this is not a good place for jade.”

We’d already gotten silk in Shanghai, so off we went to the cloisonné factory. We stopped at a government-owned factory, a dozen and a half small rooms built around an antiquated central courtyard.  It looked like it had been built in the early 20th century and had not seen any refurbishment since then.

We watched artisans of each of the major cloisonné construction steps (except for the final glazing steps which we were told is secret), Wired, painted designs undergo weeks of preparation, layer after layer, before the objects are lowered into gas-flamed pits to be fired seven times.  Before the 1970s, the pits held coal fires.  We learned that all these craftsmen are now subsidized by the government to keep cloisonné making alive.   The work is tedious and only a few people older people still know and practice the art.

We ended at the showroom, of course, and saw a mixture of antique and new pieces—large and small.  It took a while to find our treasure, but we finally managed to provide some support to the Chinese artisan economy.


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Work in Shanghai ended Friday afternoon.

Next stop:   Beijing, to test the Peking Duck and inspect the Great Wall and Forbidden City. We had tickets for the 9 o’clock bullet train leaving from HongQiao station.

The hotel concierge suggested we get a taxi at 7:30 am, allowing an hour to get to the train station.  With a 5:45 wake up call, we tried to allow time to dress, finish packing, have breakfast, and get to the taxi stand by 7:15, no problem.

And it worked fine.  We were at the stand at 7:18 am, and the bellboy asked for our tickets so he could tell the driver where to take us.  The ticket said ShangHai HongQiao station to Beijing South station in both Chinese and English, and the train was the G2 leaving at 0900.  The bellboy said something to the effect of, “This isn’t the right station.  I know where it is.” After the chaos of getting two giant suitcases and assorted small baggage loaded into the car in the rain, I asked, “Are we going to HongQiao station?” and he replied, “I know where it is.  Don’t worry.”

Those famous last words: “Don’t worry.”

We piled into the car, and with the bell boy’s instructions, our driver pulled into light traffic. Through the winding streets of Pudong (new Shanghai).  Through the tunnel under the Pu river.  Through the winding streets of Puxi (old Shanghai).  And we were at the train station by 7:45, very comfortably early.

The taxi driver loaded all our baggage onto a cart run by a pair of energetic boys who charged us 80 RMB to take the bags from the taxi drop into the station.  We followed them at a quick trot through car traffic, through foot traffic, up an escalator, across the square in a light rain, and to a place where they could study the huge electronic departure board outside the station.


They looked at me, and it took a moment to figure out what they wanted.   I handed them one ticket, and they looked, handed it back, looked at the board, conferred, waited for the board to update, studied it, looked at their watches, and conferred again.  I began to study the board, too.  No G2.  Maybe I didn’t understand the system.


They needed another look.  After another consultation with each other, one of them began explaining the situation to us. Unfortunately, his English was almost as limited as our Chinese.  Frantic hand signals.  Nancy asked, “Taxi?  Wrong station?”  Pointing to his watch, one of them shook his head saying, “No.”  Everything came into sharp focus when they grabbed our bags and began to RUN across the drizzly plaza to a subway station.

We were at the wrong station.

Taking a subway anywhere was going to be a challenge because we were not travelling light.  In addition to two large rolling suitcases, we had my heavy computer bag, my small camera bag, Nancy’s handbag, Nancy’s travel bag, and a heavy bulky package consisting of one silk duvet, one silk duvet cover, silk sheets, and three silk pillow cases—all extra-king sized.

Back into the rain at another quick trot, following our bags into the station, through the halls, down the escalators, through more halls, and to the entry turnstiles.  It was still not obvious what the official position of these guys was, and a variety of unpleasant possibilities began to play in my mind.  Given that the clock was ticking down toward our departure time, our options were painfully limited.

One of the guys materialized two subway tickets, used one, encouraged Nancy through the gate, and followed with her bag.  As the gate closed behind them, I had only one choice left.  The second ticked opened the gate, and I passed through.  We were irrevocably in the hands of the Travel Gods. The trailing guy shoved my bag under the gate, hoisted himself over it, and we all were RUNNING through the station again, dodging and weaving around busy commuters.  I cannot begin to express the anxiety that Nancy felt as I tried to encourage her to “have faith and enjoy the adventure.”  Yeah, right.

When we got to the train platform, “Money.”  Boy 1 asked for 400.  OK, S$80 ought to cover the cost of subway tickets and leave them plenty for their trouble.  Fine.  He took the money, motioned that Boy 2 would go with us, and disappeared.  Boy 2 stayed, wrestling both big bags and half our carry-ons.

Now we noticed the subway stations for this line were listed above the entry door.  Nothing even close to HongQiao.  The subway arrived, and Boy 2 and bags hopped aboard.  Of course we followed.  Nancy was beginning to look pale.  She was now aboard a crowded subway car, in a strange city in China, surrounded by people and signs with whom she cannot communicate, heading in some unknown direction, with a very good chance of missing our 5-hour trip to Beijing.  From her perspective, not good.

More hand signals between me and our guy, and I finally worked out that we were going to transfer to a different line at the third stop.  Nancy also does not like making subway connections in the best of conditions.  Our train stopped, we piled off, bags and all, and began RUNNING again, up one escalator, down a couple of halls, a pause while our boy worked out whether to go right, left, or down, another escalator, and onto a second subway.  With some great relief, I saw that this one ran to Hongqiao Train Station – all the way at the end of the line, one stop beyond Hongquiao Airport!  The clock began to tick even more loudly; it was now 8:10 am.  A trip to the airport in thirty minutes seemed very optimistic, and we had to go one stop further. The car sped along, door opening at a dozen stops, and arrived somewhere near our train station at 8:42 am.

Hongqiao Station is a big place.  Very big.  A major terminus for trains from all parts of China to Shanghai.  We RAN again.  Up more escalators, down more halls.  Our boy paused to look around, try to get his bearings, and off we went with him pulling both bags, smaller parcels balanced atop.  Tick, tick, tick.  He stopped at an information desk to ask for directions.  This way.  RUN.

8:46. Tick tick tick

He stopped at another information desk.  That way.  RUN.


Finally, we came to the transfer hall and saw the door for G2 at the far end of it.  RUN, dodging the crowd, through the door, and we finally saw the entry gate to our bullet train platform.


He typed a number into his cell phone to show me.  600.  Another S$120. Ow!

Sometimes, a graceful concession to the demands of the moment seems the best option.  It was 8:52.  This boy had managed to get us here in time, against all odds, with all our luggage.  In truth, he was asking for an outrageous payment, but I was grateful and didn’t have time to dicker, quibble, be outraged, or negotiate.  I paid. RMB, not dollars, but still a lot, even for the services rendered. He probably expected less than he asked, expecting me to haggle.  Sometimes, the role of the American businessman is to spoil the market.  I did.

He got us on the train, got our luggage put away, and got us settled into our seats by 8:57 am, at which point he waved and disappeared.

At exactly 9 am, the train pulled smoothly out of the station , as our heartbeats and breathing gradually returned  to normal.

Flying silently through Chinese countryside, the speed, prominently displayed in our car, vacillated between 300-315 km/hour.  That’s roughly 180 mph.

We pulled into Beijing South on time five hours later, primed to start our Beijing adventure.

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In chatting about Mike and my recent trip to China, a Singaporean friend (of Chinese descent) commented about his tough experiences doing business in China:  “They don’t think like us.  Maybe in another generation.”

Some of this may be language barriers – few Chinese speak English, and Mike’s business meetings in Shanghai all have interpreters.  To complicate things further, dialects of different regions are incomprehensible to other Chinese.  The only Chinese nationals we really converse with during our 12 days in Shanghai and Beijing are our two English-speaking guides.  Each has a degree in Tourism and Hospitality and 10+ years of tour-guide experience.  Both know dynasties and dates, heights of buildings and bridges, silk industry, agricultural past, industrial present  – amazing factual knowledge, but little unscripted – they have to pass government tests to keep up their licenses.

 Heidi is our Shanghai guide.  Proud to be Shanghai-born, Heidi is cute and stylish, wearing silk dresses with matching jackets and heels – aged 32 but could have passed for early twenties.

First, we definitely pick up a Shanghai-superior attitude toward Beijing in her contrast of these two metropolitan areas:

Heidi:  Shanghai is center of finance, shipping and commerce, media, technology, fashion, and largest city in China with over 23 million people.  Beijing is center for politics.  Many people say Shanghai is Asian Manhattan with so many skyscrapers.  When you go to Beijing, you will see it is low with mostly four-story buildings.  And what we eat is different.  Here in the south, we eat a rice-based diet – lighter food.  In Beijing diet is flour-based because it’s colder there.  Beijing people are taller and fatter, and men have big bellies from drinking.

The best bits are her few “off-script” comments.

Nancy:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

H:  It must have been something Mao did.

After Heidi expresses disgust with cigarette smoke in one restaurant . . .

N:  Is the government doing anything to encourage people to stop smoking for health reasons—like they do in Singapore and the US?

H:  Not really . . . government doesn’t care what we do. (Later we notice “No Smoking” signs in restaurants – largely disregarded.)

Heidi shares extensively about her latest “cute boy” problem – lamenting that Shanghai boys are only interested in drinking, gambling, making money, and having fun with girls.  She thinks they’re spoiled from the one-child law.  (Heidi herself is an only child who lives with parents, and mother does all her cooking and laundry.)

N:  My brother once dated a woman from China, and she claimed that Chinese women today don’t like Chinese men for the same reasons you mention . . . and prefer Westerners.  Is that true?

H:  No, girls in Shanghai want a Shanghai boy because we speak the same language. . . . (thinking pause)  Your brother . . . is he married yet?  (Later our Beijing guide will tell us that the Shanghai dialect is very distinctive.)

Once we leave a silk museum in the rain and duck into a taxi.  The driver and Heidi in the front seat chat away in Chinese until Heidi turns around and says . . . our driver asked if you are film stars here for Shanghai Film Festival.

N:  Do any drivers speak English?

H:  No, if they could speak English, they wouldn’t drive taxis.

Sam takes over as our Beijing guide.  Married, he moved from a rural area 11 years ago and now lives in a high-rise with wife, mother, and nine-year-old daughter.  Like most Beijingers, Sam is less stylish and savvy with electronics than Heidi . . . and with a heavier accent, but he’s more measured in his responses and shows a bit of intellectual curiosity.

N:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

Sam:  It’s because of wars – the Anti-Japanese War [WWII], the invasion of the Eight Allied Powers [Boxer Rebellion], and other wars.  China was invaded many times over centuries. Thousands of Chinese people die in wars and also in many terrible earthquakes and floods.  And most provinces have agricultural economy until recently, and people needed children.

We ask Sam about the frightening driving we’ve seen.  Drivers regularly drive down the middle of lane markers, speed along expressway shoulders, and blare horns continually.  Stepping into pedestrian crosswalks with the “green man” is risky business  . . . cars sail through red lights, tooting and nudging pedestrians out of the way.  We explain that in both Singapore and the US, pedestrians have the right-of-way, but here cars seem to take it.

S:  No, in rules here also pedestrians have right-of-way.  But so many drivers are new here, and people with cars think they are more empowered than pedestrians.  When I move to Beijing eleven years ago, cars are rare – bicycles are everywhere.  Beijing is adjusting to so many drivers, and police start to enforce laws.

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace – all are swarming with tourists, but mostly Chinese nationals, and Mike and I do stand out (height,  coloring, clothes).   Student groups, often in uniforms, ogle us, and Sam tells us they often visit the capital city between junior and senior high.  He also says that rural citizens now can save enough money to travel to these revered sites, once hidden and now open to the public.  Older rural tourists frequently sport mismatches of patterns and prints along with colorful “group” matching hats.  Each place, Chinese tourists ask Sam to take pictures of our exoticness.

One time we watch a rare group of Caucasians emerge from a small tour bus, and I ask Sam what country he thinks they’re from – since he’s an experienced tour guide.

S:  I think from Sweden or Norway . . . because of their skin. 

N:  Really . . . you can tell from that?

S:  Oh, yes.  Weather is harsh there and show in their skin and hair.  Americans are special with good skin and hair because air and water are so good there.

N:  Since both you and your wife are English-speaking tour guides, do you speak English with your daughter at home?

S:  We mostly speak our home-town dialect – our daughter mostly understands, but can’t speak.  She speak Mandarin, and we have language tapes to teach her English.  In time Mandarin will become more common throughout China . . . television is making a difference.

N:  Have you yourself traveled much outside of China or to other parts of China?

S:  No, but I hope to go to Shanghai someday.  If I travel outside China, I want to go to Egypt to see pyramids before the writing on them disappears.

China is definitely catapulting from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first . . . we saw it everywhere.  Sam proudly stated that the standard of living is now on par with 1970s U.S. . . . a fair assessment from what we witnessed in Shanghai and Beijing.

Language barriers – swelling of cities – rapid industrialization – revolutionizing economy – national pride – no wonder they don’t think like us!  Mike and I are learning so much from Asia . . . and we’re looking back over our shoulders to the U.S. from this new perspective.

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