CHINA JOURNAL---Saturday, June 8 through Friday, June 14, 2002
How old do I have to be before I learn that I should never permit myself to have even an itty-bitty gripe? I always get my come-uppance when I do. The train trips had some fascinating sights to see and some very interesting conversations so the time rolled along well.
Zhang Jie, Ding Bai, and I left the house at 1:30 and took a taxi (splurge) to the train station. We had planned on the 3:00 train, but got there in time for the 2:23 train so we hopped right on and arrived in Beijing and hour and fifteen minutes later. We took an hour bus ride from the Beijing Central Station to the Beijing West Station to catch our 33-hour train ride to Xian. Fortunately we were met by the two from the tour company who had our tickets for the train and escorted us to the proper waiting room. You have to work your way through a huge underground mall, four aisles deep and a city block long, to get to the proper area. There were people sitting and standing all over with a remarkable variety of big bundles. Ding Bai registered that the only seats available were at the shoeshine stand, so he treated me to a shoeshine and got one himself. If you have slip on shoes, the man puts a plastic bag over your sock-enclosed foot and puts your foot back in the shoe to protect the stockings. He uses Chinese polish unless you want to pay extra for Kiwi, which I've seen in several shoeshine boxes. The waiting area had a ``water room'' which is where you get hot water for your thermos or your instant noodles or wash out a dish.
When we walked to the train, I finally got to see the ``soft seat'' cars. They are arranged exactly like the hard seats in that one seat has two sides that share the same upright back, except the soft seats have some padding and the little built-in pillow bump, but there is no divider between the three seats other than at the shoulder and the seats cannot recline. Not easy for an overnight trip. Only a few trains offer that possibility. Ding Bai carried my bag most of the time, which was a great luxury. Normally you do all your own toting. The engines tend to stop right in front of the station so that you have to walk the length of the train to get on to your hard sleeper car. The hard sleepers have come to look very friendly and inviting to me. It is actually a great arrangement, but at this stage in America I don't think it could ever be started in spite of its offering a cheaper possibility. A trainman in uniform went through selling socks. A little moonlighting...but on the job. Interesting.
Lights are turned out on the train at 9:30 p.m. and the soft music starts at 7:00 in the morning. People respect the 9:30 lights out quiet until a load of people come on at another station. The first song that played on the first morning was ``Bridge Over Troubled Waters.'' We had two nights on this train.
The person in the lower bunk opposite me was Pi Xi Tian, a 25 year old doctor doing further study at Chongqing University. His home is in Yi Chang. (Chongqing is the beginning point of the Three Gorges trip and Yi Change is the ending point.) He had been in Beijing for a convention in which they were teaching about CT imaging (??) for cancer treatment. He was a delightful young thing who warmed up to the English once he got going in it and was so generous about answering my questions. I probably learned more details about Chinese life from him than I have from anyone. He has both traditional and Western medical training. His father and his grandfather before him were traditional Chinese doctors, and his great grandfather was a salesman of the herbs and roots used in traditional medicine.
Interesting bits of information from him. (An aside. As I'm typing this with my window open I can hear a piano student practicing by playing Silent Night.) They burn the wheat fields right after they are harvested for two reasons, to make fertilizer and so their legs don't get all scratched as they walk through the stubble. The peasants use the stalks that remain after threshing as their fuel for fires and cooking. (This explains why every house had a pile of hay next to it.) The cows and the pigs are also fed the left over stalks. We finally passed some Chinese style feed lots...a series of houses each with around eight cows fenced in. They can't spare rangeland for them.
When burials take place, the bodies are prepared (some form of embalming?) and the caskets are so thoroughly sealed that there is usually no deterioration. Burial items are put in with the body according to what the person did in life...their favorite fishing pole or hat or cooking items or jewelry. Whatever made them happy here. We were going through areas that had many burial mounds sprinkled throughout the planted fields. It would have been impossible to use big machinery around them. Pi Xi Tian said that starting in 1990 burying in the fields was prohibited for that very reason, but the old burial mounds remain at least in this part of China.
I asked Pi Xi Tian about altars in their houses. He said that most people have an altar for remembering and respecting (not worshipping) their ancestors. On special occasions they will cook a whole pig head and burn yellow papers. He confirmed my impression of the emphasis on memorization in schools and never questioning the teacher and the demanding attitude of parents and teachers toward school children. He felt that the mothers were the ones who most often made the big decisions in the family and passed on the traditions.
While the trip to Xian went through the wheat growing area right at harvest time, this trip to Sanxia went through the rice planting area just at planting time. We saw all stages of it. The fields were flooded. In one an ox and a man were maneuvering a small plow through the water. Some fields were thick with green shoots. These were the seedling fields. Workers were in there carefully pulling up a handful of shoots which were somehow tied in a bundle and tossed into a separate spot on the water. Then women took one bundle and hand-planted each individual shoot into the water in the empty paddy. Sometimes it was a single woman working; sometimes about five were working side by side... picturesque, but back breaking. We also saw men walking in the flooded fields hand-scattering fertilizer in this wonderful rhythm that probably does it very evenly.
When we reached the mountains, there was much more travel inside tunnels than outside. After going through a long tunnel, there would be a short open spot in which you could always glimpse planted patches, a gorge, and a few houses, then back into another tunnel. For almost two hours we were in tunnels the majority of the time. Quite an engineering accomplishment. The birthplace of Taoism is in these mountains so they have a sacred aspect to them. In the mountains the graves were marked with a convex brick structure with a curved top going out to extensions on both sides. We passed one mountain village that must have all been constructed at the same time. All the outside walls were in white tile with blue windows and occasional red trim. At one spot people were gathering driftwood from the river. I wonder if perchance this is a resettlement village for the people being relocated from the Yangtze River.
The mountains were denuded of trees during the steel production days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1950s. They are now covered with green but with very few trees. The government is paying peasants to convert to trees any field they are farming that has a grade steeper than 40 degrees. We could see examples of that having been done. That reminded me of the many familiar trees and plants that I've seen, including catalpa, maple, oleander, banana, cannas, wild rose, pomegranate, apple, peach (nectarine), pear, magnolia, cannas, gingko bilobo (one of John's favorites), and Queen Anne's lace (one of my favorites from Girl Scout days.)
Pi Xi Tian explained that the population control measures are not the same in all areas. On all of these discussions he would say, ``The government suggests that....'' (I love the term ``suggest''.) The limit of one child, unless you want to pay big money, is suggested in the cities. In the countryside it is suggested that five years pass before bearing another child.
We crossed over many big rivers; one, the Han, was rushing with white water waves and most of the rivers were yellow with silt from last week's rain. All of these are tributaries of the Chang Jiang. Chang means `long' and jiang means `river'. The Chang Jiang is the longest river in China, about 3,900 miles long. (It is third longest in the world, topped only by the Nile and the Amazon.) It has 700 tributaries and drains one-quarter of China's arable land. It has different local names along its long path. The name as it nears the ocean is the Yangzi, or Yangtse as we westerners know it. We were headed toward Chongqing, about 1000 miles upstream from Shanghai. This means that the watertowns of Suzhou and Hangzhou that I visited on my first trip were part of the expansiveness of the Chang Jiang as it reaches toward the sea near Shanghai. That is the same area that was part of the Grand Canal. This is the river where, just east of Chongqing, Sanxia is located (san means `three' and xia means `gorge'.) And it is just east of Sanxia that the Great Dam is almost completed, with flooding beginning in less than a year.
We arrived in Chongqing at 5:00 in the morning and were taken to a hotel dining room, which became our headquarters for the day until we boarded the ship after dinner. The hotel was right at the Chaotianmen pavilion on Liberation Square in the old city, at the tip of the peninsula where the Jialing joins the Chang Jiang. The hills of Chongqing rise right from the water so, as might be expected in a town built on the mountainside, there were few bicycles. This affects both personal and delivery transportation. I was surprised that the replacement was plain old manpower on foot wearing plastic slip-ons and carrying shoulder poles with unbelievable weights (or just interesting items, like the two dozen chickens hanging by their feet.) The poles tend to be shorter than those in other places, probably necessitated by the sometimes steep inclines, and wood rather than bamboo. Men stand at the corners leaning on their poles, like taxis waiting to be engaged. Several times I saw a heavy piece of equipment hanging from the middle of a pole with a man at each end of the pole bearing the weight and a third man, apparently the salesman, trotting along to be sure the delivery was made. One time I saw a man carrying a full size, very heavy looking plywood on his back, with the salesman accompanying.
We had a morning tour through the city, which is one of the four municipalities directly controlled by the government, along with Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. The old parts are hung on the mountainside, with an entry from the street to the top floor and the lower floors below facing the river. A lot of renovation is being done on those. We went to a couple of sites that I'm curious to know if most westerner trips visit, both revolutionary sites. The Zhazidong Prison was originally a coal mine, where the Koumintang forces under Chiang Kai Shek, when he had turned from good guy to bad guy, imprisoned the Party forces and massacred them in November of 1949. The other similar place was Bai Gong Guan ``Mansion'', also a prison. Our two obligatory tour stops were the Regimen Tea Dispenser Clinic and the crystal factory. People's Square had a large impressive traditional style structure at the top of a long flight of stairs to the big open area, with very nicely kept gardens.
After lunch we walked to the Luohan Si, a Buddhist temple which reputedly has 500 painted terracotta sculptures called `arhat'. It was quite interesting because it is a temple that is about 1000 years old with two facing walls of Buddhist high-relief sculptures lining the walkway in, which are very much used as prayer stops now. The surprise was the huge modern two-story temple being built back in this old, tucked away corner of the city. The basement has big red columns and I feel sure is the future location of many of the sculptures which are probably in storage.
After dinner we left for the ship. Like the Chinese hotels, it is not fancy but serves the purpose. We were in second class, which gave us a toilet in the room...except that it never did work. There are two bunk beds and that's it...and air conditioning when the ship is moving, but it is placed so that the two bottom bunks freeze while the top ones sweat. Each room had a round wastebasket and a round spittoon, both lined with a plastic bag. We soon learned that to get to the best viewing areas where you can see forward, you pay a 30yuan fee ($3.75). It was worth every penny! I met a charming Chinese couple who are Canadians. She was raised in Hong Kong and he in Taiwan. They both spoke Mandarin so kept me posted on what we were seeing as well as being very interesting conversationalists. (Rose informed me that the villagers have to pay more fees for their children's `free' school than do those in the city, which helps to explain Pi Xi Tian's comment that their children's education was one of the biggest concerns of the villagers.) The two ladies who had been in our group in Chongqing were in a third class room...8 people (mixed sexes) and toilet down the hall. One of them saw me and took me by the arm to their room. One of the occupants was a German boy, Oliver from Hanover, who could speak some English but no Chinese. We got to be a funny group as we traveled together. The two ladies would have a message for the German boy, so they would tell Ding Bai and Zhang Jie whose limited English I can interpret. Then I would tell the German boy in English he could understand. It's a small world we live in. They were wonderful about looking after him and being sure he knew what was available and inviting him to join us.
On Tuesday morning we disembarked from the Hue He at 6:30 for our visit to Fengdu ghost or devil town. I had thought it was probably one of the abandoned cities to be flooded, but it is really one of the few cities that, starting back in the Tang Dynasty of the 700s, put sculptures of demons and devils in their temples. It is like one humongous Halloween haunted house. There are also sculptures that display very graphically all the various tortures of medieval times and the chambers of hell. I wouldn't want to spend too much time on those parts. Pretty gruesome even in stone. I've read and heard contradicting information...that it will all be submerged and that the waters will ``only'' come up to the entryway.
Along the hillside of Fengdu, a giant Buddha is built going up the mountainside with a huge head at the top. It is one of two Buddha statues in China that I've read are the ``largest in the world''. There is a chair lift that goes up the mountain to another temple, with sculptured gardens underneath the chair lift all the way. It would be a great view from the top if the air were clear.
Traveling on the Chang Jiang was quite interesting. I was surprised at how relatively little barge traffic there was and at the terrific air pollution from the ships that do go by, although another contributor is the smoke pouring from factories along the way. The ships also leave a lot of garbage filled with styrofoam in their paths. Our boat carried locals too so we stopped at several small towns to let people on or off. These people just sort of gathered in the entryways, playing cards or sleeping. One smoked a bamboo pipe that looked like a bassoon.
We saw some of the fancy cruise ships go by...Victoria 3 and several Princesses, among others. Everybody oohed and aahed over the crystal chandeliers we could see in the dining rooms and the big open viewing decks. There is one line that has ships that look like the Emperor's marble ship or a big dragon or a pagoda. Fun. Hydrofoil ships also go the whole length.
This stretch has a bit of the feel of the Rhine River area, but the mountains are old rounded mountains, not the more rugged ones of the Rhine. Cultivation goes right to the water's edge, which makes you realize how much arable land will be lost when it disappears under the dam's flooding...and how many people have depended on that for their livelihood. Mines have bucket rails that go right to the river's edge for loading onto barges.
Many cities along the route have signs posted showing how high the water will be when the reservoir is filled. Quite a few of the larger cities will lose their old town areas but have a large, modern city up higher in back. Signs give the dates that demolition will be completed, by October of this year with flooding occurring next June; one sign said 354 days. In these towns the people from the lower regions have been moved out and their former apartments and businesses are being demolished; the thought being that if they are not destroyed people will just keep moving back in. In villages the roofs are taken off and the windows removed. In the larger cities I can see where this is one huge urban renewal operation. However, those people who lived in the old town were probably mostly laborers. Have they been moved out or up to the newer areas? What a massive project it is. Even huge bridges will be demolished because, as the water rises, there will no longer be adequate clearance for all the river traffic.
There were quite a few coal storage areas next to the water. One little village, that will be submerged, had about thirty people out loading a coal barge. Their legs and arms and clothes were all coal black, topped by the coolie hats, which somehow managed to stay reasonably clean. They were shoveling coal into two shoulder pole baskets and taking it to the barge. A remarkable procession of constant movement.
Two notes from on board ship: Men fan themselves with hand fans as much as women do. My favorite was a somewhat portly man who, instead of holding the edge toward his face, held the edge toward his body with his elbow out. This gave him a pretty good underarm cooling machine. The other was a woman with a one year, three month old toddler who was very thirsty. (It was quite hot.) The mother bought a bottle of water, but the child put her mouth all the way around the opening, which meant there was no air going in and she wasn't getting any water. The little girl kept fussing and the mother couldn't figure out why. I finally reached over to the bottle sitting on a table and did what I had seen a Chinese grandfather do for his grandson...poured a little into the small cap and held it to the little girl's lips. The girl delightedly took it all in...the first of many pours. By demonstrating on my own water bottle, I finally got the mother to see that the girl's mouth couldn't be all the way around the bottle, and all was well.
On the 12th I got up at 4:15 to be in a prime position when we started through the three gorges. There is a pretty competitive push to shove another chair or stool into place and I wanted to be clear of that. People get rather vocal about it too. The funny part was that as soon as they announced breakfast, they all got up to eat and left their seats. I stayed to enjoy it. The wind picked up as we entered the gorges and the slight sprinkle at 6:15 cleared the deck some more. We passed one area where a factory was pouring forth smoke and noted that unfortunately it was just above the water line. (The day before we passed a nuclear reactor just above the water line and next to a city.) The air throughout the gorge looks as if a milky veil is placed over it all...not clear.
Wushan is the big city where the Daninghe River joins the Chang Jiang. The Daninghe Jiang is the location of the ``Lesser Three Gorges''. They are lesser only because the river is smaller, only 20 meters wide at the maximum, but in beauty they are spectacular. This was the highlight of the trip for me. Such a variety and so dramatic. By the end I had seen scenes from Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Norwegian fiords, Zion National Park, the Frazier River canyon in Canada, Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, and the Cliff Dwellings. In one spot the layers of stone folded to the right and in another to the left.
To enjoy this, you join with every other cruise ship on the river, a major logistical challenge. Our ship pulled aside two others, which meant that to disembark we had to walk through those two ships. Then we went over some long wet, wiggly metal planks to muddy stairs and a slippery mud path. You ran the gauntlet of salespeople primarily with food...whole cooked chickens and ducks. And I mean whole...they took off the feathers and, I would hope, the innards and that was it. There were pigs' feet and whole fish and fish heads. We then came to docks (down more muddy steps) where all the small boats were lined up side by side. We walked over six boats to get to ours. They have a shallow draft and a raised, covered platform in back for the man who runs the motor with one hand and handles a tiller with the other. The boat is enclosed, but the top slides back if the weather is good...ours was closed a couple of times for rain but then opened again. The pole men ride in front. There are several areas where the pole men are absolutely essential in getting through some narrow or gravelly stretches. When the boat returns downstream, the poles are put away and a big rudder is put into place, which sticks way out in front and can be tilted into the water. That is used going through those same tricky spots.
There were several ``scenic stops'' along the way. Not all boats stopped at all spots, but each one was loaded with salesmen hawking food or souvenirs under their brightly colored umbrellas. It is amazing how they get set up with all their supplies. Where do they come from and to where do they disappear? When you come back down river they are all gone and their stands are covered up with plastic. I watched one worker flip a large live fish out of her washtub-sized bucket. The fish was flipping around on the ground, but she dispatched it with two blows to its head with the back of the cleaver, then picked it up to cook it. You saw people dipping water out of the river for cooking, bathing in the river, and washing clothes in the river. It looked considerably cleaner and greener than the Chang Jiang but I wouldn't risk a drink.
From an archeological standpoint, this is an area that has the ``hanging'' graves, which are coffins, placed way up on protruding sections of the river wall. There is no definitive explanation yet as to how they got there or who put them there. Even more interesting to me were the holes remaining from the plank roads. At the far end of the lesser gorges is a restored section of the plank road which was built in ancient times. Somehow, about 18 feet up all the way from the end to Wushan, at regular intervals people carved what look like almost perfect 4x4 square holes. Poles were placed in these holes perpendicular to the canyon wall and planks were placed between them. They were used for transporting goods, for hanging houses, and for simply a road above the water. I'd love to know how they cut the holes and how they hung themselves in position to do the work.
Back on ship, Rose told how their small boat guide lived in one of the villages that is being demolished. He told of the 93 year old woman whose family had lived there for generations. When everyone was being removed, she was carried to the dock on the back of her grandson. She sat at the dock for three hours and cried because she knew she would never see the village again before she died.
At the end of the gorges we reached the Grand Dam with its massive power station, and it is indeed grand in size. The river still flows around one end. I couldn't quite figure out how it was going to work and, since we didn't go to the visitor center, I'll need to read up on that.
We reached Yi Ching, where we were to disembark, at about 8:00 p.m. There is one lock there, which has an hour turn-around time. We were next in line so it was 9:30 before we got through. The bus, which picked us up, had starter problems so everyone (two of us were exceptions) got out to push to give it a start. We stayed at the Dong Xin Hotel.
We had Thursday morning and early afternoon free before our train left so we took a bus to Chang Yang village next to the Ching Jiang, which flows into the Chang Jiang. Got that? This was recommended by our doctor friend from the train who lives in this area. He said the Ching Jiang has the cleanest water in China (it is a nice green color) and the only river from which you can drink. (Of course, that was spoken by a proud native.) Driving in the country is similar to driving in Costa Rica...it is not uncommon for three cars to end up going abreast down a two lane highway. There seems to be a bit of competition associated with being the leader of the procession.
All along the Chang Jiang I noticed the use of burden baskets with two stiff shoulder straps rather than a forehead tump line. There were some interesting variations. One had a little platform inside for a child to sit. Another was shaped so that a child's seat was formed in the back. Still another had a built in cloth sling seat for a child. Usually however they were filled with tall greens rather than babies. More people both on ship and along the river were playing card games. In Chang Yang there is a lovely outdoor amphitheater in marble which faces the river, backed by green mountains on the other side. I'd love to hear a concert in that setting. In Yi Chang the garbage man rides along on his three wheeled bicycle, ringing a little bell in case you want to run out with your garbage.
The train to Beijing West was a little newer. This time the wool blanket was replaced with a blanket size terry cloth towel. Good for the current weather. I've learned to fold up my lower sheet and its pad on my lower bunk before everyone sits and eats on it. The 18 hour overnight trip took us through more rice paddies where there were some water buffalos working. The big city of Jing Men had four nuclear reactors right in town. We saw some lightening but very few sprinkles.
As we drew closer to Tianjin, the wheat harvest became more mechanized. At one point I counted 21 large harvesters in a procession going down the road with another 9 soon after. For the first time I spotted in the distance three orange grasshopper oil pumps. There were two giggly middle school girls in our bunk area. They were curious about me but didn't want to try their English. Another fellow had a little English and was a go between. I told them I wouldn't answer the questions through him; they had to ask me. Eventually we ended up playing a game I had not seen before and can't totally figure it out. (The man helped me with my hand.) The concept is funny. The game is called ``Landlord''. The landlord is the bad guy. I never could figure out how you got to be the landlord, but the other players are against the landlord. Play goes counterclockwise.
We got the bus to Beijing Central and the train to Tianjin, enjoying the nice piano music, and the bus home. Another good trip.