Wednesday, November 20, 2013

November 8, Hong Kong: last day

After a sashimi lunch I decided to spend my last afternoon in China just as I started this trip, at a Chinese garden.  Nan Lian is in Kowloon, the land across the Victoria Harbor. I took the Star Ferry, in service since the mid-1800s when the British took this area as spoils from the Opium War in 1840.

Do you know the story of the Opium War? It's a terrible one. The British public took to Chinese tea like mad and as a result the balance of trade was heavily in China's favor: they informed the British that England had nothing the Chinese wanted in trade. So the British brought opium from India, their other prime colony, and handed it out to the Chinese for free even though under Chinese law it was illegal. Free for a while, of course; after that, when people were good and addicted, they had to pay highly: opium was highly profitable for the British. Eventually there was a war over it which China lost, and this is how Hong Kong got to be British until 1997 when it was returned to China. In fact China has lost multiple modern wars: to Japan before World War II, to its ally the Soviet Union in World War II when the Soviet Union made China pay a huge amount of money for the weapons that had supposedly been donated to them, and the Korean War with its ally North Korea. Mike tells us all this matter-of-factly.

On the ferry I had a conversation with a Trinidadian couple living in Toronto. They were surprised to see me alone: “How brave of you!” It is so interesting that this is such a common reaction. I certainly don't feel brave, or not brave. Just normal. After all, the test is: will you die here? Of course not. On my own in an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar language, everything will just take longer and be inefficient. How awful can it be?

I don't know what the humidity measured but it had to be 80 to 90 percent. Even though the temperature is in the 70's this is very uncomfortable. On the way to the garden I saw many apartments with laundry hanging out to dry, which is common in China, but here I can't see how it dries.

I was very happy to be in a garden again – green and with very few people. I don't know which was more welcome. There were some mature and beautiful bonsai trees.

This woman was raking the sand into “ripples” around the rocks.

This man was trimming the tree into cloud shapes.

But it was really never possible to forget that these few acres of garden were created out of a noisy, bustling city. The traffic noise was loud everywhere.

This garden also cannot compare with the gardens in Suzhou. It was over-planted, emphasized wide walkways for people over the garden, and felt like a heavy hand had designed it.

This is a very controlled city: regulations and ordinances and rules are posted everywhere about everything. In this garden visitors were even told which direction to walk and which paths not to take. Naturally I walked in the other direction. While sitting on a stone retaining wall, an employee politely told me that the stone bench three feet away was for sitting, not the wall. It felt like kindergarten. I must have a problem with authority.

Our last dinner together tonight was in the hotel, and not Chinese food at all but Western food. Served in a basement dining room with exposed ventilation pipes in the ceiling, it was hardly a banquet.  At the table a woman said that she and her husband had traveled by themselves many times, especially to Italy where each of their families are from. Finally, getting older, they took a tour to Italy. She was astonished at how much more she learned about Italy on the tour than on her own.

I have learned quite a lot about China, surely more than I could have from chance acquaintances, and I have been happy to share that with you – which of course helped me learn it better. This trip has been an object lesson in how there is nothing all good or all bad. You have accompanied me through the good times and the bad times as they've occurred. 

I have also learned that this is not my preferred way to travel. I find the constant doing and going tiring, the enforced togetherness with people who are not my chosen friends a strain, the necessity of following someone else's schedule and timing frustrating, and the insulation from Chinese people sad.

On the other hand, the creature comforts of my luggage taken care of and the door-to-door transportation have been a blessing.  Most wonderful have been the opportunities to learn so much more than I could have on my own.  

Certainly I'd recommend Overseas Adventure Travel.  Their choices of what to visit,  their mastery of the logistics, the reasonable price, the (relatively) small groups, and the lack of a single room supplement charge made them a fine choice.  If you choose to do one of their trips, let me know:  I will get a discount on my next trip for referring you!

The opportunity to relive this trip with you as I've posted the blogs every day since I returned has served to emphasize for me just how much I have learned, about so many things.  All things considered, learning for me is even more important than following my own pace.  I'd do it again.  

November 7, Hong Kong

This morning at breakfast I took a copy of a Hong Kong newspaper. What a shock! On the front page there was an article about how seven bombs went off yesterday in Shaanxi Province in front of a building housing a high-level Communist Party policy meeting. A week ago there was a suicide bomber on Tianmen Square in Beijing, which, not being a television watcher I didn't find out about from CNN in the hotels. There is obviously considerably more resistance to the government than most Chinese, at least officially, know about.

Because Hong Kong is so populated – seven million people – so hilly and so cramped, there is a long series of covered escalators that lead down to the central business district. They run downhill until 10 AM and uphill after that. This delivery person is standing next to the covered escalators.

We passed a real estate company. People pay (to buy or rent) for apartments according to gross square footage (G) which includes common areas but actually live in the net square footage (N). At 7.7 Hong Kong dollars = 1 US dollar, the monthly rents shown are pretty substantial for such small apartments. To buy an ordinary-sized apartment in a lousy building costs hundreds of thousands of US dollars; a nice apartment in a decent building runs millions.

During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), two million Mainland Chinese fled China and came to Hong Kong. They climbed over mountains and swam here from as far as 40 miles away. Hong Kong now has seven million people; I can't imagine how it could have absorbed all those refugees. It certainly made housing even scarcer than ever.


Next on the list was a visit to a Taoist temple.  

I watched a young woman bring a small armful of supplies she had purchased in front of the temple and place them carefully on a table. First she lit two long candles and stuck them in a bowl of sand. Then she lit three fat incense sticks and stuck those in a different pot of sand. Then she lit what looked like two dozen thin incense sticks and put them in their sand pot. Finally she prayed to the figure to the right holding dozens of pieces of paper. When she was finished, she gave them to someone outside who put them, one by one, into a very large oven where her wishes ascended to wherever wishes go.


Another room of this temple held ancestors' ashes. Certainly in such a crowded place it makes perfect sense.

The British, when they ruled this place starting in 1841, had a great deal of social clout and insisted on burying their dead. I am wondering how many developers have tried to build on perfectly good cemetery land.

The next place was Hong Kong harbor, where we took a boat ride on a sampan that looked like this. 

All kinds of boats were crammed into this harbor, from multi-million yachts to houseboats to fishing boats.


The last picture shows a boat with rows of lights are for night fishing. There used to be many more fishermen in this harbor, but now the water is so polluted that fishermen must travel at least three days away to catch unpoisoned fish. They've figured out easier ways of making a living.


These beautiful trees are blooming all over Hong Kong. They're called bauhinia trees and are native to this area. This is the best picture I could get, so if you want to see the flowers better – they look like orchids – look up “bauhinia flowers.”

The local tour guide is giving me a headache: nonstop talking. Even when the bus stops at the next place on the list, she holds us inside ten more minutes so she can talk some more. Some people in the group are so obedient that they shush others for conversing while the guide talks. People's behavior in groups is fascinating.

I'm resuming writing this after a full evening. Hong Kong must have fifty trillion stores and five trillion restaurants. Actually, for someone like me who considers shopping a necessity and not an entertainment, this place is an orgy of consumerism and makes me gag. After dinner at a Thai restaurant we went to an outdoor evening market for more shopping. We were warned about “three-generation T-shirts” – of such poor quality that you wear it, wash it, and it shrinks so you give it to your son. Then he wears it, washes it, it shrinks again, so he gives it to his son. I took a look at the stalls and then waited in the bus. I think I have seen more jade and fake jade dragons than I ever want to see again.

The bus then took us to the ferry terminal at Victoria Harbor and zip zip, met us at the other side while we took the ferry across.  Hong Kong isn't quite as glitzy as Shanghai at night was, but the intense compression of this city seems more evident at night. 

Then the bus drove up and up and up a narrow winding road to Victoria Peak – Queen Victoria's heyday coincided with the heyday of the British in Hong Kong, so there are lots of places named Victoria this or Victoria that. From down below yesterday I estimated that the highest mountain was the height of the tallest buildings, but I wasn't quite right. There is one building, a new one of 119 stories, that seemed higher. It was quite a sight.

The bus drove us back downtown where we got on a trolley – original tracks from 19th century, trolley car from after World War II – and rode on the upper decks for a few stops, swaying and creaking and squealing. I was on an upper deck yesterday on my sightseeing bus trip and loved it, but for most of the others it was a new experience. Then a short bus detour to Hong Kong's red light district: the girls looked so terribly young. Then back to the hotel at 10:45 PM.

Mike has apparently decided that this group has more free time than they know what to do with, and invited people to join him (on our nickel and public transportation) to see more markets and temples. You can imagine what a lovely prospect that is for me, but many people in the group were thrilled. So tomorrow I'll see them at dinner, billed of course as a banquet since it's the last one. Good night!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 6, Hong Kong

This morning was an early flight to Hong Kong, the last stop on this trip before I fly home on Saturday. After a month I am ready, especially to get out of big cities. At least the air here is much better than it is in China. On the plane I saw an English-language Chinese paper that had a story on how the Chinese are planning to improve their air pollution in five or ten years. Literally.

For virtually the first time in this entire trip, we have “free” unscheduled time in Hong Kong. In fact of the three days here, this afternoon, tomorrow afternoon, and all day Friday until dinner are free. The cynic in me suspects Overseas Adventure Travel is sharing the costs of a high-cost city, but maybe not. Hong Kong is jammed with people apparently of all nationalities. Typical:

Today I saw three different high-class Rolex watch stores – not the knockoff carts on the streets, but real stores, with doormen no less – and those are only the ones I happened to see. 
There is every luxury brand here known to humankind. What a peculiar identity for a city, “a shopper's paradise.” 

 Much more interesting to me are the little shops, including this farmer's market.

The shrimp here are at least nine inches long: who knew they grow like that? Plus fish of all colors and soft-shell crabs. Some fish were so fresh they were literally still thrashing in their container.

There are open-air stall shops in the hillside alleys that go up the hills in which steps are necessary, sometimes at the end of a street that has gotten too steep to continue as a street. I saw one little jewelry store that was literally three feet wide, just enough for a showcase and a couple of seats for the personnel and customers. The town is filled with antique stores and more jewelry stores than 47th Street in New York, plus zillions of every kind of store imaginable.

Such a joy, near my hotel was a small sushi restaurant. It's been a long time since I've been able to gratify my sashimi jones, with large pieces of salmon, scallop, and shrimp. After lunch I did one of my favorite things in a new city, to take a sightseeing bus tour to get a sense of the place. My hotel is on the southern Hong Kong Island side, not the northern Kowloon side, and I could see the extent to which this city is squashed between the water and the steep mountains behind: it can only go up. The skyscrapers, I think, are not higher than the hill behind. In the picture at the left you can just about make out a house or two perched at the very top of the hill.

The architecture has kept pace with the prestigious international offices of multinational companies here.

In many places the streets are unbelievably curvy and narrow, and they split in unpredictable directions. Intersections commonly have five or six streets meeting and then curving away up- or downhill. There aren't many right angles in the hilly parts of the city. Look down and you see hundreds of shops and people. Look up and you see hundreds of rich or poor apartments, the latter with clothes hung out to dry outside the windows. I can't imagine how one learns one's way around except by walking the streets, but then if you want to drive you don't know the one-way streets.

As you probably know, Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese in 1997 from its 150-year takeover by the British. It's in an odd in-between state now: it is and it isn't part of China. Technically it's one of five Chinese “Special Autonomous Regions,” another being Tibet. Mainland Chinese need a passport to come here, and the currency is not Chinese yuan but Hong Kong dollars. I am told that part of the handover was an agreement to keep life unchanged for fifty more years, but I am not clear on what this includes and what it excludes.

I was pre-warned: my hotel room measures maybe 8' X 10', a function of how crowded this city is and what a premium space is at. But I have excellent wifi in my room, which is a luxury that makes up for it.

When we arrived Mike walked us around the neighborhood and showed us the essentials: where to change money, where to buy chocolate – the local 7-11 store, literally; there are also Circle K and other American junk food stores here. Every meal in China has had one single dessert: watermelon. Great, but it does generate a need for chocolate! He took us to the nearest subway and I understood this city goes not only up but down. We took escalators down three floors of shops before we finally reached the subway. 

Here's a picture I took of Mike today – I wanted you to see the source of all the good stories.

 Another luxury is spending three nights in this room: laundry time and time to organize my suitcase. The small but important pleasures of life.

A propos of nothing: have you heard this expression? I thought it was Japanese but it turns out it's common throughout China as well. “Happy wife, happy life.” Just so.

November 5, Yangtze River / Wuhan

This morning when I woke up the ship was past the locks in the Three Gorges Dam and moored at the side of the river for an excursion back to see the dam. Nothing so massive can be imagined – it is 1.4 miles wide from side to side. Here's a model, looking upriver.

The sluiceway is in the middle, the turbines on both sides of that. There is a small “ship elevator” for small boats and a series of four locks for larger boats. Four huge freighters fit easily into one of the locks with room to spare, as in the picture below.

The river level changes so much – 113 meters, from 175 on the top to 62 on the bottom – a 203-foot drop from a high of 574 to 223 feet – that four locks are required. I wonder who got the concrete contract.

As always in China, beautiful plantings, especially at places where tourists go. As Americans our group is very much in the minority: most groups are Chinese, and most of them are large.

At many “official” places in China I've seen soldiers standing stiffly at attention without a motion, hardly breathing. I'm told their shifts are two hours. I cannot imagine doing this for two hours. It took courage to snap this picture – I risked jail for it!

Back on the cruise ship we continued downriver two or three hours, through the third gorge and docking at Yichan. A kilometer or two past the dam, as opposed to 360 miles upriver, people's homes and lives continued just as before. Here are homes that did not wind up under 200 feet of water.


At Yichan we boarded a bus for a six-hour drive to Wuhan. Long but interesting. We passed many prosperous-looking village houses, lined up in neat rows and separate even if only by a few inches, near large fish ponds and/or fields growing vegetables. Because it's so far south here farmers can grow three crops a year, including winter wheat. In all the fields I noticed a tractor only once and it was not moving; the rest of the time there were one or two people bent over in farm plots that looked like they were an acre or two at most. Rows of vegetables were perfectly straight, cared for, and lushly green.

Many houses had smallish solar collectors, maybe 4' X 6', attached to their roofs; Mike told us they cost about 500 yuan, about $83, quite a bargain. But if it freezes in the winter some of the glass pipes burst and must be replaced.

Wuhan is an industrial city that is so large it has absorbed two other nearby cities. It is the Chinese center of car manufacturing and other factories, and there are zillions of cars here. There are no exclusively Chinese cars but instead they are manufactured as joint ventures with just about every car manufacturer you can think of from the US and Europe. The Citroen holdings alone went on for miles.

Even though I haven't seen real sun since Lhasa (as you can tell from the pictures from the Three Gorges), as soon as we entered the industrial area I started to cough and my throat felt scratchy: on went my mask. The air pollution is not to be believed. I took this picture of the sun through the bus window.  It looked like a dull egg yolk. Yet I saw no one on the street with a face mask.

One of the people in the group early in the trip had asked Mike, given all the elaborate neon ads, luxury goods, and generally capitalist trappings, if this was a communist country or a capitalist country. Today he decided to answer by telling us about Deng Xiao Ping, who started the Open Door policy in China in 1979. Deng told people two stories to explain why China had to change its ways and allow foreigners, foreign capital, and foreign ways into the country. Among the eight languages Deng spoke was French from when he studied in France. In France, he told the Chinese, the first thing you do in the morning is throw open the window to let in the fresh air and see what kind of a day it is outside. China has been in a closed room for far too long; it is time to let in the fresh air.

The other story Deng told is about a Chinese woman whose house was plagued with mice, so she decided to borrow one of her neighbor's cats. Her neighbor asked whether she wanted to borrow the black cat or the white one. She couldn't decide. The neighbor explained that both cats were excellent at catching mice, so either one would serve her purpose fine.

Finally, Mike told a story to answer the question about what kind of society this is now, a bit outdated but you'll get the idea. An American businessman, a Russian businessman, and a Chinese businessman were having a high-level meeting. At the end of the meeting, each got into his limousine while the three drivers asked for directions. The American's driver was told that at the intersection the capitalist area was to the left, so the driver signaled left and turned left as instructed. The Russian's driver was told that the Communist area was to the right; he signaled right and turned right at the intersection. And the Chinese driver? He signaled right and turned left.

This is a particularly appropriate story for Wuhan, with its omnipresent big four (Starbucks, MacDonalds's, Pizza Hut, and Kung Fu Chicken) as well as luxury shops such as Gucci, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton, and with the Chinese national bird, the crane. The construction crane, of course.

As I was writing the last paragraph the doorbell rang (doorbells in Chinese hotels at every room!). It was Mike delivering a present he and his wife had made for everyone on the trip.

His wife had cut the paper, an ancient Chinese art, of a ram to correspond to my birthday, and Mike had made the frame. On the back it says,

To Jo, from Mike Ma, China (and his email address).
02/17/43 (my birthday), ram, pronounced yang, with the Chinese character for ram.
Character: unpredictable, charming, trusting, often expose themselves to great risks

Mike has been nothing but kind, helpful, patient, knowledgeable, and efficient. I could not have done his job, twenty-four hours a day for over three weeks, and I must remember to take a good picture of him. I am so glad I had an extra handmade purse from Mexico to give him for his wife; too bad I have nothing for his three-year-old son, whom he calls my dumpling. We ask often how Dumpling is. I'm sure that's a direct translation!

Monday, November 18, 2013

November 4, Yangtze River

Earlier today we went through the first two of the three gorges. It is one thing to say that the water level is now 175 meters above sea level -- 575 feet -- and created a lake behind it 360 miles long – not just the Yangtze but all its backed-up tributaries.

Floating along it is possible to imagine a much narrower Yangtze before the valley was flooded, but what really is a shock is to see many houses like these:

Then I truly realize that the boat is sailing right over many more of them, houses that were people's homes for generations and where their ancestors are buried. According to information given to us today, the Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, almost four times larger than the Hoover Dam, submerged 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, and about 75,000 acres of farmland. It relocated 1.3 million people. It is staggering.

Because the water level is so high right now, almost at the maximum the dam was designed to hold back, the gorges seem relatively wide, with steep rock or wooded sides.

After the second gorge we came to Badong, a “new city,” a euphemism for a large relocation site.

In Badong everyone on the cruise boat boarded a smaller ferry that went a few kilometers under and past a cable-stayed bridge. The ferry is a smaller boat so is able to go farther into the tributary than the cruise ship could have. Here the water gets narrower, down to perhaps a couple of hundred yards. We were in mountains thousands of feet high.

Not enough. The ferry docked at a floating building where we transferred to sampans.  All these sampans were waiting for the various cruise ships to bring their passengers for this excursion.

Now the sides of the mountains were sometimes only a hundred feet wide and as before, thousands of feet high. 

 The mountains were made of limestone, so there were caves. Being of limestone, there were rocks formed over the millenia in strange shapes due to water and wind, and sure enough, the guide insisted on telling us that this one looks like an elephant, that one like a goddess or a dragon. What is it with people across the world who can't appreciate a rock cliff just for what it is?

Before the age of motors, boats going upriver used sails, rowers, and most harrowing, trackers – thousands of men who dragged the boats, even big ships, upriver with ropes. Because of the heat and humidity they were naked to protect their skin from chafing. These men demonstrated a bit with the sampan. The sampan rowers traveled two and a half hours to get to their job of rowing the tourists through the narrow gorges.

Still today in the rural areas work is done with human muscle power. Imagine the leg muscles that people have who live in houses high up in the mountains, like this one.

Why so high up? They live there because their ancestors did. Children walk an hour and a half to get to school, including across this swaying bridge.

How privileged I am, that my eyes have seen such things, and how humbled I feel seeing people work so terribly hard to earn a living.

And now perhaps you would like a lesson in Mandarin, which is a tonal language. It has four tone patterns.

Ma said flat means mother.
Ma with a rising inflection means numb.
Ma with an inflection that falls and then rises means horse.
Ma with a falling inflection means to scold.
Ni hao means you (ni) good (hao) = hello. Ni is flat, hao starts high, drops, and comes back up.
Ni hao ma? With “ma” going up, means how are you?

Now we can all speak Mandarin.