The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
China – a View from the Back of the Bus
By Missy Schmidt
The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence.
Fences have nothing to do with it.
The grass is greenest where it is watered.
Robert Fulghum, American author, 1937–
My trip to China was a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. Both Type-A personalities, my husband Bert and I are independent and not group tour types. However, the Chamber of Commerce in the region we live, Hampton Roads in Southeast Virginia, tempted us with a once in a lifetime experience at an unbelievably low price for a 9-day trip to China. China had been on neither of our bucket lists, but who could refuse such a deal!
In retrospect, we realized there was a price to pay for visiting on a government sponsored trip. We also returned home with another lesson, having learned what it feels like to be a minority, immersed in a totally foreign environment. It is scary traveling without knowing a language or culture. Ultimately, despite how exotic we found China, we experienced encounters that reminded us that the human condition knows no bounds, and saw evidence that globalization is impacting what makes cultures unique.
We arrived around 6 p.m. in Beijing, to the largest single terminal airport in the world, built specifically for the 2008 Olympics. The darkness, odd for the time of year and day is due to China having but one time zone for the entire country despite being larger in land mass than the U.S. We learned China experimented with Daylight Savings Time at one point but abandoned it quickly due to the ensuing national chaos.Our Beijing tour guide, Wei, or Jason — his chosen American moniker, taught us the most important words we would need. Nee-How (Hello) and Shay-Shay (Thank You). He warned us not to use the more familiar Nee-How-Mah (Hello, How are you?) as we’d have no idea what the typical 150-word Chinese response meant. Definitely good to know.
Traveling by tour bus, we opted to sit in the rear, where we had the best vantage point. We experienced the infamous Beijing traffic with no real rush hour; traffic is 24/7. I thought perhaps it had to do with the sheer magnitude of the population. Nope. Many people work around the clock, as evidenced by the special–and there were many–shopping opportunities offered by our tour guides.
While in Beijing, we visited one of many World Heritage Sites, the Temple of Heaven, a conglomeration of buildings built in the early 1400s used to pray for good harvests. Green space and people everywhere. Street vendors, taking advantage of the opportunity to exploit tourists, hawked their wares. Packed with people, most retired, enjoying self-organized fan dances, tai chi exercises, pick-up games of Hacky Sack and poker, mainly a male activity. What a great way to spend your retirement years!
Visits to “factory stores”–government underwriters of the trip–filled our itinerary with demonstrations from jade, silk and embroidery artisans. The demos were interesting but we never saw the actual factories. These shopping “opportunities” highlighted Chinese marketing acumen; they are an entrepreneurial people. However, time spent at stores took precedent over time spent at historic sites. Wei, a self-proclaimed capitalist, pitched us on additional side tours, custom-made suits and dresses, massages, all delivered to your room within 24 hours, by industrious 24/7 workers.
Wei told us Chinese are introverts, serving much of their food wrapped in dough to hide what is inside. The same does not hold true for street vendors, shoving products in our faces as we walked, staking out the bus and shouting if we did not walk close enough. While I appreciated the low cost of the trip, but there was a price to be paid with the endless shopping. I did feel a bit like prey.
After a long, yet lovely, walk in the rain-soaked Summer Palace (i.e., garden) in Beijing, we lunched in the home of a local Chinese Hutong family (which literally means “alleys”). We traveled by rickshaw at break-neck speeds through narrow back streets to see how the Chinese really live.
The man cooked and served lunch, his wife at work and young daughter at school. He served lunch to tourists only on his day off. After seeing the tiny kitchen, lack of refrigeration and no bathroom facilities in the house, I took some preventative stomachache medicine. The only toilet was a public one down the street, built by the government for the 2008 Olympics.
The house, in his wife’s family for four generations, was, by Western standards, tiny. The three rooms, dining/living, one sleeping area for the entire family and kitchen, could fit quite easily into our condo-sized living room at home. However, the family had a 50” flat screen TV with cable, a new desktop, flat screen computer and multiple cell phones and other electronic devices plugged into the wall.
On our last day in Beijing, we visited The Forbidden City, built in the early 1400s. The City covered so much ground, 9,999 rooms in all; we walked and walked, past once lush palaces. It was not until we passed through an enormous gate into the wide, cobbled square with three massive pagoda-shaped halls that I recognized where I stood: we walked where the last emperor of China had lived.
The last gate we walked through opened onto Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world. Soldiers, so young and gaunt, lined the small bridge leading over the moat into the Square. Behind us, Mao’s infamous and ever-watching gaze literally gave me chills.
Wei took us to the oldest pharmacy in China practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), “alternative medicine” in the West, with every herbal powder or ointment known to humanity. The doctor described how diagnoses were made by touching our wrists.
Outside, street vendors sold exotic “fast foods” from fried sea horses to dog meat pies, according to the sign. Raw squid and eel on sticks could be cooked to order.
Next, we flew to Shanghai and met our guide, Captain Jack, named after his favorite actor, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
After a long drive to our next city, Suzhou, we ate at a truly surreal German Biergarten next to the city’s architectural version of Beijing’s Olympic Bird’s Nest, the Science and Cultural Arts Center in the Suzhou Industrial Park (which means the city’s new section). The Biergarten offered a beautiful view of Vegas-like buildings constructed within the last ten years where rice paddies once stood. Entertainment was a Chinese band singing 80s easy-listening tunes.
We enjoyed the classical Lingering Garden, where peace and tranquility gathered from walking the gardens and pausing in places of contemplation truly makes one want to “linger.” Despite unyielding heat, locals were lingering. Chinese teenagers chatting amongst themselves under a pavilion could have just as easily been from America based on their typical teen attire and ubiquitous cell phones.
With only a few artisans at the government-owned factory stores, where does most work actually take place I wondered? We were told that most work is a “cottage industry” occurring within the home. Our favorite example of old meets new was the accountant at the Shanghai silk carpet factory who used an ancient abacus in “budget computing” while listening through headphones to his MP3 player.
The 1,300-year old, manmade Grand Canal was beautiful, and we also traveled a smaller side canal. Street vendors, severely disabled and bedraggled beggars are here, too, as the small boats are another popular tourist attraction. From the canal, the abject poverty was as oppressive as the heat. We could see inside small apartment-like houses that looked ready to crumble into the water. People on stone stairs leading into the water washed dishes and clothes in the canal.
We stopped to walk through a waterside market; the smells and sounds were even more oppressive than the view of the sad structures lining the canals. A small puppy licked my sweaty leg and followed me through the market until a kindly peddler pinched off a piece of meat from the unrefrigerated, open-air, fly-ridden display, letting him gobble it from her fingertips. Panting ducks and chickens huddled in cages next to large boiling cauldrons and mounds of boiled feathers and skin. Prepared foods for dinner-to-go under light bulbs for heat included pig snouts and snakes.
It was nothing to see a bike rider carrying an umbrella in one hand while steering the bike with the other or transporting a baby in a sling or a truck-sized pile of Styrofoam packing materials or broken wood pallets.
The drive from the city of Hangzhou into the villages reminded me of the dichotomy of architecture that is China. Everywhere, centuries old historic buildings share the landscape with the modern.
In Hangzhou, we saw “all the tea in China” at the Dragon Well Green Tea Farm. The gentleman drying tea leaves by hand in a giant heated caldron had been trained, as was custom, from the age of 12–developing his hands into hard, smooth alabaster with no sweat glands. Our guides talked a lot about lost arts. (No wonder. Tough gigs. Who would want calloused hands as hard as stone?)
After dinner, we toured The Bund, an elevated walkway facing the Huang Pu River waterfront and the Pudong District, the “Wall Street of the East” in Shanghai.
The next day we rode the world’s only commercial Maglev train, part of the city’s metro system, which goes to the Pudong International Airport. Powered by electromagnetism, suspended in air above the track on a magnetic cushion, it reaches a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour (about 277 MPH), much faster than the bullet trains in Japan. The entire round trip took about 15 minutes. If you blinked, you missed seeing the other train passing but could feel the exhilarating whoomp.
From the train station, we ventured on our own to the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower, seen from The Bund the night before. The OPT, once the tallest structure in China at 1,535 feet high, is still China’s tallest TV tower and third tallest in the world.
With the 360-degree view, we could see forever, or as far as smog would allow. It was as if someone had “Photoshopped” a Manhattan-like skyline repeatedly. As the only Western faces in the crowd, we’d become the attraction. Chinese tourists asked to have their pictures taken with us. We felt like rockstars!
The cab rides gave us a different perspective of Chinese life than did traveling in the back of the tour bus, up close and personal in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday people living everyday lives. While stopped in traffic, I glimpsed a small Chinese boy looking at me from the back of his cab. He shrank into the seat when he realized I had seen him, hiding under his mother’s arm. As he peeked back at me, I waved. He waved back with the biggest little boy smile. Some things transcend cultures.
In retrospect, there are two Chinas. One is the China of my grade school history books with ornate gardens, pagodas and pavilions, farmland and dynasties, privileged emperors, ceremonies and traditions. The other is the China of today, fused somewhere between capitalism and communism, a people ready to embrace the dream of middle-class and to throw open the national doors to invite in shoppers of all race, color and creed. Moreover, during our bus rides, the multitude of construction cranes amazed us. China is building around the clock, an economy on the verge of a reckoning.
The trip was more than just memorable. While I might not return, I am certainly glad we went. I am also glad I traveled to Japan first a few years ago and can appreciate the differences within Asia, much like the diversity within the U.S. One cannot judge an entire continent by one country, one city or one person. We are all different and that is a good thing.
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