Star Date: September 2005
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Greeting - Mandarin)
(May Joseph & Nancy travel with Dragon Luck through China)
" I was walking along a little road through a hilly landscape; the sun was shining and I had a wide view in all directions. I came to a small wayside chapel. The door was ajar. There were flowers on the altar. I then saw that on the floor in front of the alter, facing me, sat a yogi -in lotus posture, in deep meditation. When I looked at him more closely, I realized that he had my face. I started in profound fright, and awoke with the thought, 'Aha, so he is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream and I am it.' "
(Carl Jung - 'Chuang-tzu of the west' )
The Dragon IS Awakening!! With all the changes catapulting China into the 21st century there is no doubt that we will be seeing and hearing more of this once Sleeping Giant in the future. The world’s oldest surviving civilization had its doors closed to foreigners, for the most part, until the late 1970’s. China has woven its way through over 6000 years of emperors, dynasties and sieges producing majestic man made wonders such as the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. Ingenious inventions such as paper, printing, gunpowder, porcelain, silk, noodles and the compass originated in China and then spread to other parts of the world. Did I mention toilet paper (too bad clean toilets in some places weren’t on the list)? With only 55 years under communist rule Mao Zedong and his successors had the task of unifying almost 1.5 billion people. Aside from the horrific damage caused by the 10 year Cultural Revolution of the 70’s, the now apparent results of the one child decree has allowed China’s controlled population to embrace more western ways and willingly venture into capitalism. With sadness we ask, “Is this jump into materialism only marking a decline in this magnificent civilization and opening a Pandora’s Box?” Historically the Chinese have been shrewd and adept businessmen. This fact compounded by the insatiable desire by westerners to have a plethora of cheap manufactured goods to line our store shelves is devastating the culture and environment of China. Willing buyer, willing seller. Welcome to the 21st century China!
Xi’an is an example of the richness of China’s past. The western terminus for the caravans on the Silk Road, Xi’an was already a classic world city 2 centuries before Homer wrote the Illiad and the Odyssey, 5 centuries before Buddha’s enlightenment, and how many centuries before the inception of the “new kid on the block”, United States? Surrounded by a 6 km long, 60 ft high Ming Dynasty Wall, the blending of Buddhist temples, Islamic mosques, and narrow streets with market places in the shadows of skyscrapers, shows this city’s extraordinary ability to change with the times. The 2000 year old Army of Terracotta Warriors stands guard nearby with over 6000 life size figures, each with a unique face. A beehive of activity this is one of those archeological places you just have to see.
An overnight train ride away we stepped back in time to the 800 BC walled city that time forgot, Pinyao. One of our favorites to date this impoverished, ancient little town was undiscovered until a few years ago. Aside from several market lined streets, that cater to a few busloads of tourists daily, this village is a living example of the old days at every turn. We stayed in a family owned guesthouse that was “only 350 years new” (#29, next to the central Bell Tower). In typical style it had an elaborately carved Ming gate and peaceful tree filled inner courtyard. The room had an 8 x 6 foot brick lined bed which is filled with warm coals on a cold winter’s night. Boasting one of the only private bathrooms it was complete with a phantom hand dryer that randomly blared, no hands in site, in hilarious contrast of old meets new! Pinyao boasts the 18th century establishment of the first Qing Dynasty bank in existence, with a system of credits and debit checks set up for 56 of a dye company’s remote offices. Do you think these insightful businessmen would roll over if they saw how many modern people live only on credit? I can see the abacuses whirling now!
Beijing, the “Fire in the Belly of the Dragon”, has been the governmental center of China for centuries. Peking was annihilated by Genghis Khan, bragged about by Marco Polo, reshaped by the Ming Dynasty, and plunged into chaos by the Cultural Revolution. Currently being “spit polished” for the 2008 Olympics, expansion is non stop. Gone forever since my 1999 visit are the gobs of spit everywhere; the quirky “Chinglish” signs much to the dismay of my twisted humorous mind (such as in a bank: “Question Authority” i.e. talk to the teller, or proudly displayed outside one of our hotels “ Define Entertainment Character Esoteric Repast” i.e. anyone’s guess???); pet shop-like cages of dogs, cats, snakes, etc of potential delicacies out front of large restaurants; and simple markets or specialized shops being replaced by department stores full of Chinese produced products that no one really needs. And did I mention a McDonalds, KFC, or Starbucks on every major corner??? We preferred to buy our fruit and veggies from the local markets and eat at a small buffet style “hole in the wall” in our hutong for 3 Yuan each or 30 cents, including rice. The locals loved us and we didn’t see another westerner in there in 4 days. We chose to stay at a small local hotel, near Tiananmen Square (close to the Far East Hostel) down a hutong, or narrow alleyway, teeming with everyday Chinese life. Walking across Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square, symbolically the center of the Chinese Universe, we passed thousands standing under the scorching sun to see a glimpse of “Pickled Mao” and the historic monument where anti government student protesters were slaughtered in 1989. Up to a million people have gathered here at one time so no bicycles are allowed, only an occasional tank I guess, and closed circuit television cameras and plain clothed policemen ensure that any fire of dissent is quickly extinguished. The people are still closely monitored by the government but with international contact and exposure things are definitely loosening up. When entering the US as a foreigner, even transiting, under Homeland Security you are required to give fingerprints plus visa and photos. This is not the case in China. Is China relaxing and the US losing more freedoms? Human rights issues and the environment in China will also improve because of pressure from business with the international community. Our hats off to the progress in the New China!
At the far end of the square an enormous picture of the deified Mao Zedong marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. Home to the Ming and Qing Dynasties it was off limits for over 500 years. Containing 9999 ½ rooms (the number 10,000 belongs to Heaven) beautiful gardens, temples and a worthwhile museum (check out the jewelry and clock exhibits), no one was in a hurry to leave this enormous walled palace of pleasure. The 30 foot high wall alone contains over 12 million bricks. Here, as elsewhere in China, interesting names abound, with the Palace of Heavenly Purity standing next to The Divine Military Genius Gate. At the Taoist Dongyue Temple the Life and Death Department has been deciphered into many sub-departments such as the Dept for Wandering Ghosts, the Dept for Implementing 15 kinds of Violent Death, the Final Indictment Dept and finally the Dept of the Hell!! (maybe only for a teacher of English grammar!) We also caught the metro to visit the stunning lakes and gardens of the Summer Palace, climbed Longevity Hill and wound our way down through the old temples, villages and waterways.
Although not visible from space as earlier believed The Great Wall IS great! The Chinese people finally put this fallacy to rest when their first astronaut, in 2005, reluctantly admitted that it could not be seen while orbiting the earth. Started over 2000 years ago (221 BC) this wall stretches over 3000 miles from east of Beijing to west of Jiayuguan in the Gobi Desert. Through the ages segments were built by many separate kingdoms to ward off marauding enemies. Later joined together by the blood sweat and tears of hundreds of thousands of forced laborers, over 100 years, this wall’s fortification simply never worked. As Genghis Khan supposedly said, “The strength of a wall depends on the courage of those who defend it”. Sentries could be bribed. Just imagine “lowly Kim”, banished to the ends of the earth to defend a wall that hasn’t been attacked for decades. All of a sudden he is made an offer he can’t refuse and all that mind boggling engineering effort, for centuries, is for nothing. Well not exactly for nothing, it was also an important roadway over the mountainous terrain.
“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” (Mao Zedong) I guess we are true men because we chose to avoid the tourist circus at Badaling and bussed 110 km out to Simatai. Arriving into the parking lot and not seeing a single tour bus made it all worthwhile. Not for the faint of heart this rough 19km section of the wall, perched on mountaintops is very steep. With a 70 degree incline in places you have to actually scramble up in spots. Climbing up, then walking the wall for several kms. we rejoiced in our first crystal clear, pollution free day for some time. The views of the wall snaking along the mountains and valleys were absolutely breathtaking. On the way down we heard a scream and caught a glimpse of someone flying down along a 1/3 mile long wire from the wall to the lake below. Too good to pass up Joseph and I became birds and tried out the scary but easy way to get down. A boat ride across the lake put us back where we started, exhilarated and ready for the next adventure!
From the throngs of Beijing we headed 7 hours west by train to Datong. Even if you aren’t interested in ancient archeological sites, like we are, you cannot go away from the Cloud Ridge Caves "unwowed". Located next to the pass leading to Inner Mongolia these caves, that stretch for about 1 km., contain over 50,000 Buddhist statues, the largest being over 30 meters/ ninety feet tall (now the 2nd tallest in the world). About 75 km SW of Datong the 1400 year old Hanging Monastery is perched precariously on the sheer cliffs above Jinlong Canyon. One can only imagine what a peaceful existence the handful of reclusive monks had before the government turned this monastery into a tourist attraction. Luckily not all the country’s ancient relics were destroyed by the Cultural Revolution because the Chinese government has discovered that rather than “Religion is Poison” it is also worth big bucks from tourists.
From there it was north across the waving grass steppes and big sky country of Inner Mongolia, where horses supposedly outnumbered people until recently. Starting in 1211, Genghis Khan and later his grandson Kublai Khan conquered not only China but most of the Eurasian continent. Stretching from Russia to Vietnam to the Middle East to Hungary, the largest nation ever known was ruled by Kublai Khan who became the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. He ruled his empire from Beijing and improved China in many ways. After a series of incompetent rulers this super Mongol power degenerated, once again, into many disorganized feudal tribes by the end of the 14th century. We breathed in the fresh air and enjoyed our 2 day trip across these wide open spaces. We decided to stop in Hohat. Arriving after midnight we found that all the hotels were full and only the whorehouses around the train station had “free beds”. Like a scene from the wild, wild west we walked the streets watching as the 2am cast of wild Mongolian characters drank beer, yelled and ate meat roasted over fires on the streets. We gave up on the idea of finding a room when a fist fight broke out in front of us and a woman chased a man down the hall hitting him with a 2 by 4. We found a quiet corner of the nearly deserted train station and bedded down for a few hours. We were awakened to blaring Chinese party patriotic music. The further away from the east coast you get the further back in time it gets with more Mao hats and coats, more political music and party slogans painted and more control of the masses. Hey, they don’t know that things are modernizing in the east! After rubbing elbows with these Mongolians I don’t think they were ever really controlled that much anyways.
With a lot of territory to cover and the autumn chill looming on the horizon we hopped on the first train and ended up 14 hours later in Yinchuan. After days of not seeing another westerner or speaking English we spotted L’Ardina over a wagon full of watermelons. She is from Ohio and has been teaching English here for over 2 years. Together we hired a driver and car for the day and explored the Helan (Shan) Mountains. Not on the tourist route we were virtually alone as we discovered a rock strewn gorge with 10,000 rock carvings from ancient nomadic tribes depicting animals, faces, and even aliens as claimed by the locals. Like space ships the ancient twin 14 storey Baisikou Pagodas, in the next valley, stand ready to blast off. Up in the mountains we passed the afternoon in the historic pass village of Gunzhongkou. We spent time observing Buddhist pujas and watching an 86 year old Taoist temple painter and kundalini magician display his skill. The sweet sunset light led us to the western Xia Tombs or the Great Western Pyramids. Unique 80 ft high mounds in the middle of a deserted plain have stories to tell of ancient rulers buried here. The next day we stopped by the 108 Dagobas or stupas on a hill overlooking the Yellow River. Further downstream we came to Shapotou on the edge of the Tengger Desert. Our taxi driver brought us to the wrong guesthouse which turned out to be a lovely respite from the tourists 2 miles down the road. Located in the middle of a vineyard we feasted on free organic veggies, plums, apples, peaches, and 10 types of grapes. Joseph not only tries to plan on hitting the best weather but also the growing seasons of an area. We were surrounded by munching 2 humped Bactrian camels (1 humped are Arabian or Dromedary), mud huts with 6 foot sand drifts lapping at their compound walls and desert yurts. We even saw yangpi fazi or leather rafts made from about 14 sheep skins soaked in oil then inflated like balloons. Tied together under a wooden frame 4 people can catch a ride down the wide muddy river. People get creative utilizing the materials at hand. Twice, once in the heat of the day and once in the cool evening, we went out playing on the dunes, climbing up then rolling or jumping down. When will we grow up???
And so it goes........................................................... Next Ancient Corpses and Kidnapped by Kazakhs - following the Silk Road through Xinjang! Until then Keep Smiling and Enjoy Your Dream! Take care.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
A very proud, rural Chinese couple, at the Forbidden City.
The Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an.
Within the ancient walls of Pinyao.
Mao still stands guard over the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
A delicate Chinese flower in Ming Dynasty dress.
Joseph hiking the Great Wall at Simatai. It
actually follows along
Little Budding Buddhas at Cloud Ridge Caves near Datong.
The 14 storey Baisikou Pagodas.
Enchanting and mischievous 86 yr old Taoist
A small Buddhist courtyard, with ceremony, in the Helan (Shan) Mountains.