This is an extended version of an email I sent to a friend a few years ago. It's been two years since I took a trip to China and I've been revisiting it mentally.
A few years ago, I saw this PBS series with Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) called "Around the World in Eighty Days." One of their stops was in China with a boat trip down the Yangtze river, through an area called the Three Gorges. The program talked about this dam project that was displacing huge numbers of people and basically destroying the Three Gorges through flooding. I thought to myself, how cool would that be to see something that will soon be irrevocably changed.
So fast forward to March of 2003. I finally got enough vacation and cahones to actually take this trip. I bought a ticket and a guide book and went to China for three weeks.
The first day in Beijing had one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had traveling. I was up and out of the hotel by 5 am. It was foggy and snowy that morning with the city yet to awake. I walked at least three miles from my hotel to Tienanmen Square in the cold snow down a wide street. On the way all of these high-rise buildings loomed like giants, sleeping where the stood, eyes shut and unaware of this tiny American making his way through their lair.
The square itself was empty of people, closed off by police for one reason or another, so it was this large plane of monuments the where dimly visible in the snow and fog. It was a good introduction to three weeks pretty full of isolation in a crowded country.
I froze my ass off that morning, as beautiful as it was.
I did the usual tourist things, but given that March in Northern China is almost as cold as Minneapolis, there weren't a lot of tourists. At times I had the entire great wall to myself. I have some pictures with out a single soul walking along it for miles.
There are these little places that sell these giant pancakes. The cakes are more multi layered, like a dozen crepes stacked together. Half of one made for a decent breakfast. I made fool of myself trying to by one. First off, I didn't know how to ask for a half. So I just ordered a whole one. They looked at me skeptically. I made some signs for a half, a sort of chopping motion, while saying “half” in English. This got a number of giggles from the four other people in the six-by-six stall. One of them asked me a question that very much sounded like “Are you tall?” I grinned and nodded sheepishly, not really understand why one would ask a question that could be answered by visual inspection. This got a roar of laughter from the whole pancake crew.
When I returned to the States I asked a friend of mine, who spoke Chinese, what this might have been. It turns out they were basically asking me “Are you was stupid or something?” My answer of yes still stands.
I took a very long train ride down to the Yangtze's and caught a boat down the river through the gorges. Buying the ticket for the boat was a bit of a challenge. I really needed someone to write it down for me before hand. Instead, I had to point in the phrase book at various words and parts of sentences. I was trying to piece together the idea that I wanted to buy a second-class ticket on the next boat out of town. This took about twenty minutes to get the idea across. The woman pointed my in the direction of the correct ticket window. The woman behind the counter asked me, in perfect English, “How may I help you.”
The boat was a cool experience, due to the fact that there were only five native English speakers on the boat, all of whom stuck together, like out of some 19th-Century British Empire scene.
The trip down the river was fascinating. The cities along the river were mostly demolished, as if War had visited and left his mark. It made for eerie mornings. Skeleton cities with skeleton crews: a few residents in these cities still tried to maintain there life there. They just refused to go.
Looking just passed the ruins of the old cities, one would see the new cities. These gleaming white cities had been thrown up in under five years. Both the demolition and the construction were amazing. It always left me thinking what a force to be reckoned with the Chinese will be. Look what they can do by hand.
There was a small, side trip on a estuary through an area called the Little Three Gorges. This was a more claustrophobic set of canyons. It was beautiful. That's not what really sticks out in my mind when I think of the place.
We stopped for a few hours on a rocky beach. There were fifty or so tents where food was served (full menus) and trinkets were sold. Even with that, it was very pleasant place to sit and relax. When we got back on the boats and everyone was taking their seats, this man punched his wife in the stomach. He didn't say anything before he did this, just hit her. I was so angry and yet so stuck in my chair. I didn't know how to get involved. If it had been in any English speaking country, I'd like to think I would have done something (probably resulting in me getting my ass kicked). All that seemed to happen was another woman yelled at him for a while and he sat down.
That's become my memory of that place. Not the beauty of the gorge, or the serenity of the
place, but this awful aspect of human nature.
The boat trip stopped short of Wuhan, my destination. The damn was nearing completion, so it was no longer possible to travel all the way through. Only three weeks or so after I returned to the States, the Chinese began flooding the Gorges.
Eating was one of my travel fears in China. I had been basically eating pot noodle for about three days, and finally saw how skinny I had become. I probably had dropped down to a buck-forty-five. Not really where I wanted to be.
Wuhan was one of the only cities that really made me feel uncomfortable. It was more of a center for farmers, and for me, just a place to kill some time.
I was taking a train to Shanghai. I went to the train station a little too early and spent a lot of time. Most of the time was spent reading and being stared at by all the farmers. There is no cultural stigma with staring in China. Being the only Westerner in the train station, I was definitely different and, therefore, interesting. This took some getting used to. I was taking the advice of the older British ex patriot from the boat trip. Just stare back. This would stop them from staring after a while.
This experience, as well as the fact that a majority of the passengers-in-waiting had packed there belongings in seed bags, should have hinted at the experience to come on the train to Shanghai. I shared a six-person sleeper “cabin” with one other gentleman who spent most of the time sleeping or quietly reading his paper. There were very few other people in the sleeper cars. And no-one spoke English.
There were a couple of little kids on the train; brothers, I think. The younger of the two decided that I was interesting enough to talk to. He began to speak to me in rapid (i.e. standard speed) Chinese. My reply to this was, in English, “I don't speak Chinese.” This seemed to make the boy very angry (well, as angry as a five- or six-year-old can get). He got very close and pointed his finger in my face and began, as I could only imagine, to lecture me on the thoughtlessness of visiting a country with out learning the language.
All this lecturing made the older of the two very embarrassed. It made me highly amused.
Something like thirty-nine hours later I made it to Shanghai. Thirty-nine hours on a train with no one to speak to and only copies of Hamlet and Henry V to read is a totally alienating experience. This speaks to the whole trip, but I've never journaled more then when I had no-one but myself to talk to. At least I didn't' become totally crazy and talk out loud.
Most of my time in Shanghai was pretty mundane. Shanghai is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in China. That being said, I spent most of my time eating and drinking coffee. I needed the relaxation time after all the more adventurous things of the past two weeks. And, yes, I admit that I went to Starbucks. The employees there spoke some of the best English I had encountered.
I stayed at a beautiful old hotel-turned-hostel right on the river. The Astor Hotel is on the Chinese equivalent of the Historic Registry. For seven bucks a night, I highly recommend it.
It was there, in the bar, that a young English woman explained to me that the English are completely useless. This was not the first time on this trip that this was explained to me. A young lawyer on the boat trip had put mentioned this as well. I wonder if this is an opinion of the younger generation. It has stuck with me though.
Don't get me wrong. I love the English, as I love the Irish, the Aussies and the New Zealanders. I just like this self-deprecation about an entire group of people.
At this point in the trip, things were on an inevitable slide towards completion. I had been traveling for two weeks, with a week remaining. I have always maintained that in order for a vacation to be a true vacation it must be at least two weeks. It takes a week to decompress from normal life and then the rest of the time is spent enjoying the holiday. The last week is spent anticipated the return to normal life. One is ready for this return and welcomes it. This feeling permeated my last week.
I did more of the touristy things in Beijing (thank God for express trains). Nothing was that memorable at that point. I was certainly more comfortable with the city and the people. This allowed my to push a little deeper into the side streets. I didn't really look as much, though. I was ready to go home.
All in all, I have very fond memories of the trip. I felt very much like a savvy traveler. While I was there, SARS had broke out in southern China and we had just invaded Iraq. These things made feel even more like an intrepid traveler. They kept me watching what was going on in the world while I was enjoying the escapist experience of the tourist. Even though the dangers of the worlds seemed close, I still felt the need to continue on.