16 days in China

Originally serialized in my weblog, this is my journal account of our 16-day tourist trip to China in November, 2003. The entries are rearranged to match the date headings.


Part of flying across the Pacific Ocean to Asia is the great leap forward across the International Dateline. One date disappears -- poof! -- somewhere in the middle of a long, long day. The good news is that you get two of the same date on the way back; the bad news is you'll spend most of the bonus on airplanes and departure lounges. Our lounging on the outbound leg was minimized by a big hop from SFO to Shanghai.

I sat next to a Chinese woman with a persistent cough, hoping I wasn't going to catch something from her, but glad that I wasn't obsessing about it being SARS the way I might have if the trip had been on the original, April schedule. One of the movies was Finding Nemo, which seemed somehow well-suited to an airplane venue.

The entry card for foreign travellers asks your main reason for coming to China (one only):
Employment Settle down
Visiting friends or relatives
Outing/in leisure Study
Return Home Others

East Shanghai skyline, with the Jin Mao tower

They have infrared scanners in Shanghai's Pudong airport (and at every other airport we went through in Asia) to see if you're feverish on the way in, or out; I didn't see any hotheads get pulled out of line during our transits.

Shanghai has 13 million registered residents, and 3 million more "temps" by the official count. It's a big, bustling, gung-ho city-state, one of China's Municipalities that report directly to the central government, rather than a provincial government. It has one foot in the past, and two in the future. High-rise apartments and office buildings have sprung up and are still springing up as fast as lake-side weeds in early summer, their exuberance expressed in post-post-modern rooftops, capitals, shapes and styles, with all but the newest having ample clotheslines, racks and frames hanging off the sides. That tower in the distance on the right is the 3rd tallest building in the world, the Jin Mao tower.

It's late and we're tired by the time we bounce down the expressway and into the city, get tucked in at our first Chinese lodging, the 5-star Huating hotel. It's got everything an expensive big city hotel has in other big cities, except perhaps for potable tap water.


By 04:10, we've slept as much as we can, and get up to review schedules, maps, write in journals, peek outside. Traffic is quiet, an occasional bus or taxi, a pedestrian, a bicyclist in the dark. Our room overlooks the hotel's rooftop garden, and a substantial multi-level interchange beyond that. The elevated roadways have plant borders all along the guardrails, and garden plantings underneath, quite civilized. I'm looking forward to seeing lots of bicycle transportation, and as morning light filters in, and the Tuesday commute begins in earnest, I'm not disappointed. Pedestrian, bicycle, car and bus traffic seem to be evenly balanced. Long before our appointed breakfast hour, we head downstairs and out the lobby to experience the street directly.

As promised, the 24-hour convenience store next to the hotel parking lot has modestly priced drinking water to augment our daily allotment of two small bottles in the hotel, RMB 3 (about 35 cents US) for a liter and a half, only slightly more for a gallon. Shops are just getting open and little kiosks are cooking up breakfast for commuters. What looks like a breakfast burrito is going for a yuan and a half. (The "Renminbi" [RMB] is the People's Currency, and everyone knows her as yuan. It's pegged within a "usual trading band of 8.2760 to 8.2800," an issue of some contention for its trading partners.) Chocolate is a high-ticket item, beer is ¥3 for your choice of uninteresting pilsners.

Everything appears to need a good washing, or at the very least a rainstorm. Air conditioners sprout from many windows, exterior electrical cables looping to holes punched through tile and concrete as needed, no evidence of concern for closing off airflow or keeping out water. Clothes hang out to dry everywhere they can. Small knots of early shoppers crowd around vegetable and fruit vendors, and bicycle parking fills every available corner. I thought about taking a picture of one of the larger conglomerations, but didn't see a shot that I thought would be interesting, a pattern which continued for 2 weeks. Parked and moving bicycles are ubiquitous, everywhere, and after a short while, the masses of gray and black utility start to blend into the background.

Morning bicycle traffic at a Shanghai interchange

Up the busy street and down the quieter alley behind it, stopping to exchange smiles with a gardner tending his flowers, we faced up to our profound lack of local language ability, before continuing on to the heart of the interchange to just sit for a while and watch it go. Bikes and trikes carried commuters, couples, children being taken to school by parents going to work, towering loads of fruit and vegetables, recycled cardboard, 2 by 3m framed glass windows, construction materials, 5 meter sections of pipe and tubing, 5 gallon bottles of water (as many as 8 or 10 on a bicycle with a rear pannier rack designed for them). Again, over the time we were there we became so accustomed to it that I never got around to taking pictures of the most amazing loads, although I must have some on the not-quite-4 hours of video I collected.

The heart of this interchange was a simple right-angle intersection, but with mostly separate motorized and non-motorized traffic (bleating scooters go everywhere), that makes eight streams coming in and eight going out, and the process by which they were all sorted out was fascinating to watch, endlessly variable, even as it was more or less organized by traffic lights and a few traffic patrolmen as the flow thickened. Many of the trucks, buses and scooters are well on their way to decrepitude and the smog thickens as the commute does. It's fascinating and horrible at the same time, and the people in the midst of it are completely inured to what is profound novelty to us. Cars, bikes and buses interweave steadily, no one turns to look behind, almost no one signals, and somehow no one gets bumped, dinged, knocked down or run over. It apparently operates on the same principle as maritime right of way: avoid collision first of all, but keep moving.

We are fat, bare-skinned mammals at a mosquito feed, the hawkers gathering around the opening maw of tour buses to proffer post card sets, fans, 2-for-$5 copywatches. Survival Chinese starts with bu yao, "don't want," which you will repeat many, many times. Avoiding eye contact and staying in motion helps a little, but the purported Chinese aversion to physical contact does not apply to hawkers going after white tourists. Some of it borders on assault, but returning the favor didn't seem like a good strategy in a country where the police may not speak your language unless perhaps a sufficient "monetary incentive" is produced. The same thing that works for Idaho mosquitoes works here - keep moving, wave them away, and sprinkle bu yao liberally.

Koi in a pool at the Yuyuan garden in Shanghai

The zig-zag bridge at the entrance to the Yuyuan garden is said to keep the evil spirits at bay, but the ¥15 admission price to the garden itself is what actually does the trick. One enters a space where contemplation can actually be contemplated, in between the tour guides explaining selected highlights and waving their colored flags to herd their tourist groups from one viewpoint to the next. After our comfortably-paced tour from the local guide, we used our 45 minutes of free time to wander back through, shooting video and visiting the art gallery where paintings (prints?) of various sizes for various budgets by local (?) artists were for sale. They were cheerfully advertised by a more respectable tout, a cheerful old man with good English, keenly attuned to what caught the visitor's eye, and ready to share more information. "This is 480, but if you like it, the price could be 180" for one that is 8x10"-ish instead of 2 by 3 feet, in other words. This attentiveness and accommodation was novel at the moment, but it was a pattern we learned to expect from clerks everywhere we went; the least interest in something produces an immediate response and the start of price negotiation.

We had seen the recently constructed version of a Suzhou-style garden in Suzhou's sister city, Portland, Oregon, in spring 2002, and it was very interesting to see this indigenous original of the type. If you can make it to Portland, but not China, a visit to the Portland Chinese Garden will be the next best thing.

The Yangpu bridge over the Huangpu river in Shanghai

In the afternoon, we strolled on the Huangpu river promenade (the Bund), and caught a river tour boat for the short tour in the open air on a warm, sunny day in November with views of the city's skyscrapers, shipbuilding, port and the big cable-stayed Yangpu suspension bridge. We joined the busy commercial traffic plying the murky water, Diesel-powered barges with their gunwales awash belching smoke, a fishing boat passing in a cloud of fish-stink. It was a nice opportunity to pull out the video camera and let the sound and scenery come to me. Can't capture the whole experience without smell-o-vision, though.

To round a full day (with three full meals I'm not telling you much about), we saw the acrobats, joining groups of foreign and domestic tourists for a bravura display of circus gymnastics, plate spinning that ended with an unplanned (but probably not unfamiliar) disaster, Cirque du Soleil inspired strength tricks, ropes, poles, dancers, and finally -- gratuitously -- a spherical steel cage with 1, two, THREE, and FOUR! motorcyclists driving around simultaneously, spinning, looping and (I loved this part) holding down the button on their bleating horns. We stayed awake for many parts of it (and the dreadful finale in its entirety), but not for the brief bus ride home. 8:30 and it's time for us to crash.


Supporting cast in a temple at the shrine of the Jade Buddha, Shanghai

Not so many of the religious sites and relics survived the advent of Communism in China, and the so-called Cultural Revolution. One whose centerpieces did survive is the temple of the Jade Buddhas in Shanghai, and it was heartening to see plenty of maintenance going on during our visit: stone work, plumbing, painting. Some of the big guardian statues, like the ones we'd seen in Japan, at Nikko National Park, were dusty and dim under roofs, but how could you keep it all clean, after all? The milky pale jade Buddha at the moment of enlightenment is clean, and cozy behind glass at a discreet distance from the nearest tourist. No photos! unlike most of what we saw in the country.

Our local guide had explained "big vehicle" and "small vehicle" Buddhism on the way over, the former with room for everybody and happy to proseltyze, the latter suited for the monastic, inner life of a dedicated few. The temple is "big vehicle," all the way. The pious were mixed in with we gentiles, praying for long life, or good fortune, perhaps, non-attachment and a happy death. (Or would that be an indifferent death?)

Sculpted 'engraving' in a silk rug

Our next stop was one of many commercial opportunities that were presented to us along the way, often with an introductory "factory tour," intended to give us an appreciation for the finer points of manufacturing quality. This isn't the sort of large-scale factory required to supply the prodigious inventories we saw in every shop, but rather a few (or at worst, one) representative workers in a demonstration setup, just outside the showroom with a small army of sales clerks.

After a brief overview of the life history of the silk moth, we saw a large rug in-process with one of their top artisans knotting and trimming a panoramic Great Wall scene, and learned about the differences between silk on cotton and silk on silk, and the varying densities of knots, up to 1,000 per foot (70,000 per square inch!). We saw the tidy backs of well-made silk rugs, and the "engraving" process with a clacking electric shears used to sculpt a rug into three dimensions.

In the showroom, we were treated to another feature of a silk rug: the colors change as the viewing angle does. A spin of a little demo rug produced a collective "Ah!" from our group, a little magic trick which I imagine never fails, and never fails to delight the salesman waiting for the tour guide to finish her introduction. Big silk rugs are amazing works of art and craft, and this place had an unbelievable inventory of them, two-foot high stacks filling room after room. There is more than can be appreciated in a couple of hours, even without digging past the first rug or two in the stacks of fifty. Each of them might represent a year or more of personal attention by one person, and for most we could afford only a passing glance. Offering prices and discounts (was it 40% at the tail end of the tourist season?) ticked by, if that's too much we have the same pattern in a slightly smaller rug, and smaller, smaller, smaller around the room until right next to the cash register, there were "baby rugs," not much more than handkerchief-sized mementoes of your moment at the silk rug "factory" in china, guaranteed to elicit quizzical looks from the uninitiated back home.

Yes, I would like to have several of these lovely 6 foot by 3 foot rugs, how beautiful they are! No, I'm not going to pony up hundreds or thousands of dollars to roll one up and take it with me (or have it shipped home). But thanks for asking.

Jeanette and I were at the cheapskate end of a group which proved to be more amenable to shopping opportunities. Our group didn't drop thousands, but hundreds, perhaps, before all was said and done. The pull at our heartstrings while the earnest salesman who'd attached to us followed us from the rich corner to the poor corner was intense, but somehow we escaped without buying anything. On the way out, there were three more rooms full of carpets, with time only for brief glances. One last salesman who already figured he wasn't in line for any deals chatted with us, we talked about how much a house -- our house -- cost in the US, compared it to some of the bigger rugs. A new 100 m2 (1100 sq.ft.) apartment in Shanghai is going for what a modest Boise house of twice that size costs these days. I don't think you can get one of either on a rug salesman's pay.

Preparing a vocal performance at the Children's Palace

Lunch was at a Mongolian BBQ, an exotic sort of thing that our local guide could not have imagined has been franchised, with 3 copies (as well as a Mongolian Stir Fry and a Grill) in Boise, Idaho. We didn't get the attached factory tour and buying opportunity for cashmere there; hey, you can't do everything.

After a traffic-induced early rest break, we made a late afternoon stop at the local Children's Palace, an arts school for gifted and talented students. We dropped in on music and dance rehearsals, sat next to parents sitting next to their only child, listened to exotic (to us!) instruments and music, and enjoyed the ebullience of the very cute kids. Sadly, I did not have the videocamera with me to capture 4 8-year-olds singing "It's a Small World" in Chinese while our tour group sang along in English.

For the evening, shopping on Nanjing Road, contrasting the brightly lit pedestrian mall of the postcard with the back alley pawing (Hello! Hello! Cheapa for you!); a bookstore; the Peace Hotel Jazz bar in dark wood and cigar smell, with a cabinet full of privately owned bottles of scotch and bourbon; another dinner spinning around a lazy Susan; and Shanghai night tour for the finale, with a Disney-esque cable car tunneling under the Huangpu river, a chance to view the city lights from an aesthetic distance, and a ride up to the top of the Jin Mao tower. We stopped to see the Opera House on the way home, but we were a bit late; a show was just getting out, and the guards at the sidewalk said no to our local guide with his flag up, our national guide talked a different guard into letting us go take a look, and the first official said no, no, no until the lights went out with us at a distance.

Three scenes of Shanghai by night: Nanjing Rd., the Oriental Bright Pearl TV Tower, the Bund


3 of 9? fantastic animals sculpted in front of the Shanghai Museum

The morning of the 6th was our chance to visit the Shanghai museum, which lived up to the local guide's assessment of "world class." The less-than-2-hour allotment was tough for us, though - we typically spend at least twice that in a good museum when we travel. Traveling in a tour group is nothing if not about making compromises. Both Jeanette and I devoted ourselves to the 4th floor, galleries for "Chinese Minority" artifacts, jade, coins, furniture. Next time we can see the bronze stuff, sculpture, and ceramics. The portable audio players were a big addition to the experience, easy to understand and use, and providing enriching commentary for many of the exhibits, in clear English. (They don't seem to have forwarded any of that English to their museum website, unfortunately.) Travel China Guide has a helpful introduction and guide. Given the low lighting level, I didn't take any indoor stills, but have video to sort through. This outdoor shot is of some of the fantastic animal sculptures lined up out front.

From the museum, as far as I can recall, we were off to the airport for a domestic flight into the interior. Being grouped -- and having our national tour guide to handle everything but the personal security scan -- was good for that! I remember being happy to fly on a 737, feeling cradled in good old American engineering. We flew to Wuhan, where our Yangtze cruise was supposed to have started, but with low water in mid-autumn it turned out to be a waypoint. It's a decidely more industrial place in the soggy heartland of the lower Yangtze, warm and humid the afternoon we arrived.

I don't think it's really possible to control tours to only the shiny and polished parts of cities and the country any more, even if the government were still trying to do that. For one thing, there are almost no exteriors that are shiny and polished; the skiff of smoggy coal and auto exhaust grime is ubiquitous. For another, there are many urban landscapes that pass relatively unnoticed by locals that are incredible or remarkable to us. Random views down dirt-paved side streets in Wuhan arrested my attention as we bused into our five-star hotel (the "Shangri-La," no less), but I doubt our local tour guide would have thought to distract us from them. (F.W. Schneider's pictures of everyday life in Wuhan have snippets of interest, the sorts of things you wouldn't think to try to keep people from seeing.) Wuhan has some tourist attractions, and the government buildings and apartments in the center of the city are close to spiffy, but the Shangri-La is not close to that nicer part of town.

Jeanette had a cold by this time (but no, not SARS), and we would share it for the rest of the trip. We had to pass on the after-dinner outing, which turned out to be a lengthy walk along the recently renovated riverfront park and a thrilling (we were told) taxi ride back to the hotel. We settled for the lightweight 3-block round trip outside the hotel, experiencing Wuhan's residential night life with some trepidation. Mostly it was just people hanging out in front of the apartments they lived in, and no hawkers or touts for a change, but on our own, we felt very foreign and out of place on a dark street. We crossed busy Jianshe Avenue at a street light with crosswalks and walk signs, but our return crossing was at an intersection with only "plain" signals. What an adventure! Everyone wants to avoid a collision (it seems), but no one wants to give up much advantage along the way. Pedestrians cross half way, or a third of the way when they can, then wait for another partial break as cars whiz by on both sides. Having the light your way helps a little, but turning traffic is as strong as straight-ahead, and as long as you wait, they go. You have to have some initiative in what one wag called "the national game of chicken" (for which the honking horn is the national anthem).


As we ate breakfast by a window onto the commute the next morning, I noticed a lot of jackets, which seemed a bit odd given how warm it was the night before. When I jaunted out into the morning with my shorts on, I discovered that a cold front had come down from Mongolia and made the weather autumnal. I toughed it out for our visit to a grocery store, where we provisioned for our 4-day boat trip on the Yangtze. Lots of ¥3 beers and drinking water, mostly, but it's an interesting adventure to try to figure out what some of the stuff for sale is.

Sign at the entrance to the restaurant where we ate dinner in Wuhan:



Chrys(anthemum) rock and Louise, in Wuhan

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, its name a combination of the three cities that were conglomerated into it: Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang. Its history goes back more than two millennia, with the "highly recommended" Hubei Provincial Museum showcasing a 2400-year old tomb from northern Hubei with musical instruments, models, an elegant self-referential exhibit hall, and a musical performance that's best when they avoid the kitschy versions of familiar Western "favorites." (Edelweiss was one that came up more than once on the trip, and would have been better left in the Austria of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's imagination.)

We visited a small museum with a bonsai garden and amazing rock collection without ever understanding what brought those two things together. The end of the tour included -- as almost always -- a gift shop, with lots of beautiful merchandise for sale at negotiable prices. I don't think this incredible exemplar of a Chrysanthemum Rock was for sale, though. (Well, maybe if the price is right...)

After lunch, we boarded our intercity bus for a 4-hour drive to Yichang, which gave us a chance to look at the countryside in some detail (and to be glad we were not outside in the cold overcast and rain showers, and to wish that the driver knew how to control the heater). All the small houses I saw are made out of concrete, most were unpainted, and uninviting to my color-expectant western eyes. Many didn't have glass in the windows, or closed doors. (Someone later explained that the windows typically open onto a bare hallway, and the lived-in rooms are off of that.) Every bit of available land seemed given over to agriculture, or canals, or dikes. Occasional clusters of monuments were crowded into spare nooks and crannies, on top of a dike, wherever. I was glued to the window trying to take all of the foreignness in, the grazing and working water bufallo, the small piles of slash burning, neighborhoods, villages, towns, for as long as there was enough light to see (which didn't extend quite long enough to get us into the mountains around Yichang). Having something go thwack along the highway and pulling over for an investigation, then continuing on with a new and growing rattle just added a bit of drama. A broken part, but not an essential one, apparently.

The bus ride ended at the parking lot by the docks, where we carefully made our way down the slippery steps to the gang plank, as the band (of multi-talented crew members, we later learned) struck up a suitably glorious "welcome aboard" to the Yangtze and the Victoria Queen. We were one of the first groups in, and I was sound asleep for the late arrival's welcoming fanfare.


There are actually four gorges in the Three Gorges of China's Yangtze river (Chang Jiang). Four's unlucky though (in Mandarin, it sounds like the word for "death"), so they call them Three Gorges. The longest, and lowest two are deemed the Xiling Gorge, and the Three Gorges Dam sits between the two "sections." Above them are the Wu gorge, and finally, the short but intense Qutang gorge. Before the dam slowed navigation, one could get through all three in one day; with 4 of 5 locks now required to get up to the reservoir, a half day is lost in queueing and the locks. For a 4-day/5-night cruise (upstream), there's a lot more river to see, even without visiting the lower or upper river. The Yantze is one of the longest river systems in the world, thousands of kilometers long. How many depends on who you ask, I guess, or how you measure. It might be the third longest river in the world (as the Chinese guides claim), after the Nile and Amazon. It might be the 4th or 5th, depending on how you sort the tributaries, the Missouri/Mississippi or if you go by annual discharge instead of length.

Under the White Gate bridge, looking upstream to The Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam, Nov. 8, 2003
Construction on the last section of the Three Gorges Dam, Nov. '03

It's huge either way. I've seen the mighty Salmon River in Idaho in a springtime rage over 100,000 cfs. The Yangtze averages 10 times that flow to discharge a thousand cubic kilometers of water in a year. We saw only a small part of it, at a relatively low flow. Because of river level, our tour started in Yichang rather than Wuhan, just above the 25-year-old Gezhou dam, formerly the largest hydroelectric project in China.

It was cool, misty and mysterious for the start of our cruise, an interesting shift from the flat agricultural lands we'd seen at last light the evening before. Motoring into the Xiling Gorge was none the less thrilling for the subdued overcast; it made photography difficult, but appreciation was easy with the tributary ravines and gorges alternately shrouded and revealed by the low clouds reshaping around and through them. (After three more days of mist, rain, fog and smog it wasn't quite so poetic, but it never got dull.)

The highlight and excursion for day #1 was the Three Gorges dam. We parked in the river for lunch, waiting for dock space at Sandouping, where we would have been near the shadow of the "White Gate" bridge if it had been wearing a shadow. A bus ride took us up to the viewpoint for the big picture view, a bit of guided tour in the "model room," access to the "Exhibition Hall" (read: gift shop full of aggressive clerks) and a brief walk around, then back down to the last construction area, where the southern third of the dam is being built in front of its temporary cofferdam. (In the picture at right, that little yellow blob at lower right is a bulldozer.)

It's massive, mighty, impressive, huge, the flow from the spillway a torrent even on a slow day.

Here's an awesome satellite photo, showing the stretch of the Yangtze that includes the two big dams, before the Three Gorges dam was closed, from NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and the U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

We reboarded and got in the queue for the locks, and as the guide predicted, the novelty wore off after the first one (and after the gray light faded to night). We parked somewhere up on the reservoir...


...and continued the amazing cruise through the western Xiling Gorge the next morning, then the Wu Gorge ("said to be the most beautiful"). I was one of the very few who wanted to see it badly enough that I stayed in the cold and rain on the "sun deck," for almost all of the morning tour.

The lead lake cruiser for our our tour of the Lesser Gorge out of Wushan

The 2nd day's excursion was to the "Lesser Gorges," out of Wushan where what was once the Dragon Gate bridge is now called the "Bye bye bridge" as the reservoir reaches up to its feet, and a larger one is being built to replace it. The fleet of more exciting, open river boats has been replaced, as of August, with larger, lake boats that can carry more passengers and don't need to resist a current to ply the reservoir. From a boating standpoint, that's spelled b-o-r-i-n-g, and more overcast gloom and occasional rain didn't dial up the excitement, but floating through a beautiful and foreign river gorge was still a thrill for me. I spent only as much time as I had to indoors to rest and warm up (which did little good, as there was no heater running), the rest of the time was bouncing from side to side and stem to stern to watch the verdant limestone cliffs glide by.

After returning to the big boat, we sail (as they say) for the last of the Three (as they say) main Gorges, Qutang Xia. We run into traffic control, delaying the celebratory Captain's Reception and subsequent dinner as we wait for traffic to clear the one-way section for most of an hour. Our transit of the "most magnificent" of the Gorges is pushed into dusk, saving me the trouble of trying to photograph or videotape any of the scenery, and making the once-in-a-lifetime trip... well, different. Duskier. The gorge was still magnificent, really. The free drink at the reception "in celebration of our passage" was a too-sweet local "champagne" (as they say), for which Captain Ran had the right idea; carry a glass for toasting, raise it to your lips, and let it stay full.

We motor on into the night, have another wonderful dinner with impeccable table service (there are 110 crew members to look after 140 passengers on this end-of-season ride), roll into bed early to nurse our continuing colds, too sick to even enjoy a beer. I read another chapter of Snow Falling On Cedars, the only reading I brought along that still seems interesting.

News from back home:
The states aren't going to give up on the Clean Air Act, even though the Bush Administration is rolling over big time, retroactively dropping enforcement as it embarks on its Orwellian "Clear Skies" program. "Industry officials said new lawsuits would be counterproductive and delay air quality improvements." (Did they also say "just trust us"?) After seeing the profoundly polluted air in China this month, the positive legacy of the environmental movement in the US is worth a moment's acknowledgement. I'm guessing the global situation would be best served by anything we can do to help the Chinese solve their problem of reliance on high-sulfur coal and sub-standard infrastructure, and their inability to accept the need for economic dislocation to make improvements. The Chinese government is loathe to put anyone out of a job, even if unproductive workers provide no useful output. Easing up on our own demonstrably successful regulations seems like a terrible idea, but their very success is what prompts the idea; if the commons is too clean, there are costs to be avoided and money to be made by changing the rules.


Morning on the Yangtze at Shibaozhai, November 2003

We awake to our mooring at Shibaozhai, layer after layer of gray forming morning light. I was admiring the scene, thinking about black and white Chinese watercolor scenes and mentally framing a picture when a sampan motored across my view, carving a gentle vee in the smooth water of the big lake. Oh, how nice, but my camera's two decks down, in the cabin. After I fetched it, I realized that the cloud of diesel from the idling motor of the cruise boat parked in front of us was adding a brown cloud to the mix that was less than appealing. Trouble in paradise, what can I say?

Shibaozhai is the site of a Taoist temple built in the 1700s, perched on a squareish chunk of rock. One way up is a wooden pagoda leaning against the rock, comprising 9 floors, because it's good luck (or 11 or 12, if you actually count them). The other way up (or the way down if you follow the "A route") is not so dramatic, down the sloping backside, but still a fair number of stairs involved. When the lake reaches its final level, Shibaozhai will be an island, but with enhanced moorage and roadway connections planned to keep the tourist thing going.

The bazaar, pagoda stairway and temple at Shibaozhai, Nov.'03

In between the gangplank and the temple, there is a gauntlet to run, or as described by the ship's nightly itinerary newsletter, "a small bazaar, with an array of Chinese goods!" On the way up, we were a more or less intact tour group, not to be greatly distracted by shopping. On the way down, we couldn't use that excuse, and I did finally enter into the spirit of commerce when I spotted a copy of Mao's little red book in German. The opening offer was $20, Jeanette was pretty sure it could be had for one-tenth that, and we worked our way down. I was prepared to walk away, so $15, ¥100, $10, and so on were not interesting proposals. We settled on ¥20, which by the vendor's reaction was just barely past disgusting, some sale better than no sale. (Who owns all the inventory, I wondered more than once? The vendors, or some invisible third party? It often seemed that the sellers were more intent on cash flow than breaking even on any particular item.)

Trailing far behind whatever organization might have remained of our original tour, we fell in with another tour that was preparing to break out of the bazaar, for a side trip into the old, mostly abandoned and soon to be flooded town, along a muddy lane. Here's adventure! We walked between plots under cultivation for a few more rotations, squash, sesame, greens, sweet potatoes. Some of the concrete hulks slated for (or in process of) destruction were still in use, is that a restaurant? Oh my. Eight or 10 of us wandered on up the hill, over the hill and out of site of the boats, piqueing the curiosity of locals passing on daily errands, moving construction materials, produce, people. One three wheel scooter/truck went by with two big, pink pigs in the back, and we all lamented not being fast enough with a camera to catch that. Our adopted local guide was prepared to walk us around the peninsula, but a few less hardy travellers were getting skittish from being too far from comfort, and the national guide reined in the vanguard to return the way we came.

Back at the bazaar, a new tourist group was on its way up as we came down, but these were Chinese tourists. I stopped to let the group pass, and watched to see how the vendors interacted with them. It was amazingly different. No "Hello! Hello!", no in-your-face proffering of the merchandise, no touching or grabbing. They stood quietly as the visitors walked by, all in silence. One tourist tossed out a comment to a vendor who replied chattily; nothing to do with buying or selling, just a comment on the day, the white guys in the neighborhood, whatever. Interesting. Once the group was by, and I continued down, the Hello! chatter resumed.


Veteran's Day back home, it passed without special ceremony over here in China. They have a different view of what we call WWII; it was the war of Japanese aggression from the Chinese perspective, starting in 1937. They do have a positive memory of the American role, though; the "Flying Tigers" came to their aid against the Japanese. While we were in China, the discovery of an old crash site made the news, and gave reason to recall the heroism of the American volunteers.

Yesterday afternoon and again today, our small group's national guide gave us a brief introduction to Chinese history and culture and her background, using one of the vacant 2nd deck suites as a meeting room. She worked on language basics (still struggling to count to shi), taught us a dozen or two ideograms (only a thousand or two more to get to elementary school literacy), gave us the capsule history of Mao, the so-called Cultural Revolution, the relief of Deng Xiaoping, the opening to the West, the government's successful suppression of the student uprising at Tian'anmen Square in 1989, the dawning of capitalism and a sense of renewed ascendency of a great country. It's a fascinating work in progress, and the personal insights she had to offer were much appreciated. In the interests of privacy, my account here is necessarily abbreviated.

Last night's capper was the ship's Cabaret Show, featuring the perky, fresh-faced crew members in a wardrobe of colorful silk costumes doing pop song and dance numbers on the 4th deck Yangtze Club stage, under the pastel dome. Passengers were invited to contact the cruise director ahead of time if they had some talent they wished to share, but it doesn't appear that there were auditions. The irregular contributions were closer to the Gong Show than a cabaret, unfortunately. One of the national guides got talked into giving "Edelweiss" a go, without anyone informing him that the 'w' is hard, or that stage presence might matter. He had a side view of a television with karaoke prompting, and his gaze was fixed on it the whole time, a surprisingly long duration. We had a big group out of Salt Lake City which coughed up two offerings: an avuncular elder who's been doing a shamelessly plagiarized Bob Hope schtick for too many years, and a group effort at "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that was premature.

(I just know I could have done something better, but in the middle of a cold, I wasn't about to sign up. I could've played Dixie with fingernails on my teeth, though; that woulda been a crowd pleaser, and I can't keep it going for more than a minute or two, so mercifully short.)

The crew's numbers made up for it all, though, and it was great fun to see the waitresses and stewards and hallway greeters costumed up, singing and dancing with youthful enthusiasm and without a bit of self-consciousness.

175m mark on the steps up to Fengdu's temples

The shore excursion for day 4 was "the Ghost City," Fengdu. There are depth markers all along the river, with 175m the magic number showing the final lake level. Skipping the ¥20 chairlift ride for the needed exercise of climbing the 700 or so steps, we got to face up to one of the markers. It's above the old town (now relocated across the river, for the most part), above the Propaganda Window, entrance wicket and the base of the chairlift, but below the hilltop shrines combining Taoism, Buddhism and assorted local superstitions, much of the statuary rebuilt after the vandalism of the Cultural Revolution. Heavy equipment is scraping and leveling the future tour boot moorage in the forebay, anticipating Fengdu's future as an island destination.

Our local guide gave us procedural information, which threshold should be stepped over left-foot-first for men, right foot for women; cross the center bridge with 9 steps and holding hands and you'll be married forever. On the way out, choose between the left bridge for Wealth, the right bridge for Health. The tourist highlight seems to be the dioramic depiction of hell, with particular tortures chosen to match one's sins. Bigamy, in particular, should be avoided, trust me. (Our tour didn't include the right-hand side aisle, which symmetry demands should be heaven. I glanced in, but just briefly enough to note that it was as dusty as hell, not particularly well-lit or attractive.) captures the scene nicely: "To Chinese, the social structure in the hell is exactly like that in this world. In hell, a sprit would go through a whole and complete bureaucracy to get the final sentence. The pure spirits would be rewarded and the sinful ones would be severely tortures."

The Propaganda Window at the entrance to Fengdu's temples

In upper, not-yet-flooded portion of the old city, life and commerce are continuing in the not-yet-razed buildings. We were bused through it between dock and shrine entrance, had to settle for too-quick looks around. The burst of hawkers at the parking lot included some trying to sell food, innocent of the absurdity of that attempt for passengers off a cruise boat. They can't imagine how much we've been leaving on the buffet and tables, let alone how much we're eating. Lunch was next on the agenda after our return, in fact; we should have hiked up and down the hill twice.

Once we were all aboard, it was time to motor - 107 miles upstream to the end of our cruise at Chongqing. It would take the rest of the day and into the night, working against the muddy current of the river above the reservoir. Above the lake, the channel is narrower, seems a bit cozy when we pass another cruiser or freighter, and we have to wind back and forth to follow the meanders. For part of the afternoon entertainment, we got to visit the ship's bridge, watch the first and second mates and two assistants driving the boat. The head man stands in the middle, watching the scene and giving silent hand signals to the assistant with his hand on the steering lever. One finger, steer right. Two fingers, steer left. Thumb up, straight ahead. The river guide's description ended with the humorous observation that it seems simple, "but takes years to learn." In stressful moments, maybe the code pays off, but while we watched it seemed idiomatic of having too many people for every job.

For our last afternoon on the boat, we had a lecture from our Australian cruise director, Tim Powell, on the advantages and disadvantages of the Three Gorges project. It was remarkable for its candor and thoroughness, examining the calculations that had proven wrong, the Chinese standard of peformance (in poorly built dikes exacerbating the 1998 flood disaster on the lower Yangtze, for example) where 60 to 80% is considered "well done," and what seems to be the real reason driving the project: economic development of western China. That flood was not controllable with the upstream Gezhou dam, nor would the (further upstream) Three Gorges Dam have been able to help. Powell noted that flood control on the lower river, and on flooding that will affect the whole river (Tibetan plateau to Chongqing, to Sandouping, to Yichang and thence through Wuhan and to the sea at Shanghai), the new dam will not solve the problem. Neither will the 18,000 MW of new generation capacity be applied to shuttering polluting coal-fired plants, which would put too many people out of work.

Powell recommended the ThreeGorgesProbe website as a good source of balanced information. has an excellent independent summary as well. He's had the unique opportunity to experience the life of the river for the past 4 years, and the brief time we had for q&a didn't do justice to the depth of his knowledge of the subject.

Our final dinner was no less wonderful than the previous 3, but being the "Captain's Farwell Banquet," we could dig out our nicer clothes, and enjoy another round of toasting with that sweet champagne-like substance. Well-done, Captain Ran, and here's to the 109 members of your crew, too. For those not interested in hanging out at the bar for a last round of karaoke afterwards, The Last Emperor played on our in-cabin TVs at 9. The historical epic had more staying power than we did, ready to doze a third of the way in. Good movie to rent for a two-night run (before you go to Beijing and see the Forbidden City).


With one last breakfast buffet tucked away, our luggage sent ahead, and the band playing to send us off, we walked the plank for the last time, and climbed the long stairway out of the river at low water in Chongqing. The city at the high end of big boat navigation on the Yangtze is built on hills, and nobody bicycles here: too steep. The role that human-powered vehicles play in the lower cities is provided by (mostly) men with bamboo shoulder poles, bringing in produce from the country, moving things across town, maybe carrying some things back to the country, too. There are also plenty of trucks, buses, cars, taxis, motorcycles, and scooters. Highways pierce the hills with tunnels, traversing the buildings perched on every possible bit of real estate. Chongqing has been promoted to city-state, one of the four Municipalities, although a look at the map suggests that most or at least much of its 30 million people are outside the urban center at the confluence of the Yangtze and its major tributary, the Jialing river.

An adult panda at the Chongqing zoo

One website offers a selection of what to see that includes a museum, grotto art, a two hot springs parks, the People's Assembly Hall, Pipashan (Loquat Hill) Park and the residence of General Joseph W. Stilwell. Our local guide took us to the zoo to see pandas and a few other trophy animals, and an art "museum" (of gallery caliber) there with a brief introduction to Chinese watercolors and ample opportunity to buy, buy, buy. It was interesting to unload about a six-pack of our grocery-bought beers that survived the cruise, to bribe the pandas' keeper to bring out a yearling for our entertainment. After a bit of initial reluctance, he scratched his belly on a projecting corner of the concrete wall, and settled down to relax where the zoo-goers could enjoy looking at him.

While negotiations in the gallery were underway, a few less-interested shoppers did a breakaway and found an animal show, with hundreds of noisy and enthusiastic schoolkids for an audience. Seeing one of the lions getting poked in the balls to goad him into a trick made me think about the story of Siegfried and Roy, but nothing got out of hand while we were there. I got a real charge out of the energy of the kids; monkeys doing handstands on goats horns while the goats walk a balance beam is not quite as riveting.

On the way to lunch we had a "photo opportunity" stop in front of the People's Assembly hall (the smoggy day did not invite photography), and then a turn through a local food market that was not on the sanctioned tour, but came at our US leader's urging. It was dark and smelly and genuinely creepy in the seafood, blood and meat section. The aged eggs were just gross, the vegetable section a welcome relief. After a lunch, the plan was a for an "optional" (¥150) session at a local reflexology massage parlor before delivering us to the airport. Quite a deal for 90 minutes, we were assured. Those who didn't care for the option... were invited to "watch," as it's "quite interesting." Jeanette and I didn't think so. All but one of the rest of our party went with the flow though (and the singleton ended up watching), while guides and bus driver conferred on what they could do with the resistance.

I had an errand to run, finding some mini DV tapes to augment the stock I'd brought from home. Done on foot, it provided a bit of real-life city tour, good exercise going up and down the hills, and some of what passes for fresh air in central China. Our local guide was drafted to walk us to a department store ("would you like to take a taxi?"), and ended up a little surprised that Americans could or would show a preference for walking a couple miles. After being misdirected by a clerk near the entrance and going up escalators to the 5th floor, we came back down to the right department and completed the transaction with the help of 3 clerks. (The tapes were pricey, ¥80 each, or about twice the $5 I'd expect to pay at retail back home; I later saw blank tapes in the Narita airport in Japan for less than half as much.)

Along the walk, the crowds of pedestrians and the local construction were fascinating. Chipping away concrete at a demolition site with hammers and chisels, putting in tile sidewalks and digging out planter boxes by hand -- lots of people doing small jobs. And everywhere the porters sitting around with their bamboo poles, waiting with a strong back and shoulder to carry something, for somebody. The department store insides looked like any busy western city, well-dressed office workers and shoppers in the middle of a business district.

Sign at the Chongqing zoo, on a recent sculpture painted in rainbow colors:



The Terra Cotta army in Xi'an

Our local guide in Xi'an was the best we had -- good English, great humor, flexible and competent. At one point, he enumerated the major religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism (not really a religion, more of a philosophy). There's a new religion, he tells us, that everyone believes in: tourism.

There were still the obligatory shopping opportunities, the jade "factory" (this time it was one guy on a bench grinder in the hallway to the showroom) in the morning and another art "museum" at the big goose pagoda. After a quick tour of 3 or 4 unheated exhibit rooms with a few artifacts and buidling models, we got the identical brief introduction to Chinese watercolors that we'd had at the Chongqing zoo. Our two best shoppers decided to walk away from a negotiation, leaving the salesgirl on the verge of tears; she got permission from the manager to run after us and accept the lower price, two more deals better than nothing.

We Americans learn this wheeling & dealing pretty quickly. There isn't much we need and we know there are many, many souvenir opportunities to come. Our willingness to walk away is not feigned. The prices are mostly absurdly cheap, but we're not satisfied now unless we've worked the price way down. In the "free markets," Jeanette has figured that the right price is 1/10th the initial offer. The government stores don't have that much room, but 50% less than whatever's listed is probably the most you need to pay.

We did get an unhurried look at Xi'an's star attraction, the Terra Cotta warriors. We saw master Yang, the (apocryphal?) discoverer, ready to sign books, but no photographs unless you're paying, please. (Seeing a picture of some other guy signing books, makes me wonder if this is a shift job for locals.) We saw the Imax-surround movie, which is an interesting novelty and must be a lot of work, but not quite the pinnacle of moving picture entertainment. And we saw the three big pits, impressive in their vastness and slightly numbing in their unheatedness; north of the mountains, now, closer to that continental polar weather coming over Mongolia.

And our morning visit to the park by the Little Goose Pagoda was enjoyable. Locals were out for a walk, some tai chi, sword play, singing, and nobody was trying to sell us anything. Swinging the big wooden bell ringer into the bronze bell was completely optional, but 9 hits for ¥5 was an attractive deal. Two of our group bought, and we all got to enjoy the sound and scene.

The Empress swirling her costume in the Tang Dynasty show

After dinner (a somewhat rushed and forgettable buffet arrangement in a revolving restaurant that moved too slowly to be interesting), we went to the Tang Dynasty Show, which various tourist sites will tell you was "recreated in accordance with various historical records as well as ancient art and relics discovered in Xi'an, the capital of the empire during the Tang Dynasty." Jeanette's take was Tang Dynasty tomb frescoes meets Busby Berkeley, guessing that Mr. and Mrs. Tang didn't have smoke machines, chorus lines, big hats for the rank and file, or a trapeze and side elevators for their finale.


Our bus ride out of Xi'an had a little excitement, as traffic jam was piled on top of thick fog. The driver pulled a U-turn on the "farewell highway," then diverted around a huge oversized load behind us by driving on the sidewalk for a while. Zhang paused his narrative to call ahead for rerouting advice, and assured us that, improbably, it was sunny at the airport and we wouldn't be fogged in. That's why the airport is a ways out of town, as it happens, up and out of the foggy bottom of the Yellow River.

We flew over snow-dusted mountains to our final destination in China, Beijing. (A week earlier, the city had had a big snowfall, and remnants were in the shadows and north-facing roofs while we visited.) The fog and smog were up there, too, and our day at the Forbidden City was most unphotogenic (or was it? Alison Stuebe took some great photographs on a rainy day). I decided to leave the cameras on the bus and just enjoy it real-time. If you go through it the regular way, from south to north, make sure you leave enough time to enjoy the fine Yuhuayuan (Imperial Garden) just before you exit on the north end.

Upon exiting, the most aggressive hawkers we'd yet come across flew to us like (fill in your favorite metaphor here). Forget about what you've heard of the Chinese aversion to touching others; this team was all over us, not to be shooed. After being warned about minding one's wallet against pick-pockets, that was foremost on my mind, and I tried to watch out for other members of our group as they were cut from the herd and surrounded by individual clusters between the exit gate and nearest possible bus pick-up site. (Nearest possible without paying someone a parking bribe, that is.)

My concern for Jeanette was misplaced, though; I should have been offering to help the poor guy who ended up selling her a watercolor ink and brush set. She worked him hard from his $20 starting price (we later saw the same set, less shopworn and with a finished chop, for three times that) down to the final moment before boarding the bus when he said "ok ok ok" for $1 and everything left in Jeanette's coin purse. She'd pre-trimmed that to a 5 yuan note and 3 yuan coins, and a crowd of little men peered into the purse and insisted she turn it upside down and shake it.

From city center to Presidential Plaza State Guest Hotel check-in (requiring the maximum coercion of the counter staff by our national guide to slice through the red tape), to a good (but rushed) dinner (that we can't quite remember now), to the Beijing Opera to round out a full half-day in the big city. Whew.


Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven park

SUNSHINE and blue sky! Thank you Mongolia for sending some clear (brisk!) weather down for our last two days in China. I'd resigned myself to seeing nothing but dun smog skies up north, and this was an unexpected treat. Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven and we happily joined the throng of locals who were out for a morning in the park. Ballroom dancing (to a boombox), a drum and flag corps of middle-aged women, singing, Chinese tennis, paddle ball, dominos, cards, musicians, sidewalk calligraphy and people watching people. We did the emperor's buildings, all the admission-required snippets that the regulars don't need (but lots of Chinese visitors do), mostly enjoyed being outside in the sun with lots of our fellow humans.

After we stopped to listen to (and I videotaped) one group of singers, accompanied by a man with a flute, he started Frère Jacques, and we joined in English and French while they sang Chinese. Then Auld Lang Syne, in English and Chinese, and cheery round of applause for all of us, from all of us. What a nice country. A pair playing paddle ball (solid paddles about the size of squash racquets, with a lightweight crochet-covered ball, the apparent object being an artful game of "catch") offered to give us a try, and some of our party discovered it was harder than it looked, but enjoyed the trying.

Then off to the day's first shopping, the "Silk Monopoly Store," government-backed quality and discounts (but not necessarily low prices) for all. We bought 6 meters of nice yardage, others got quilts, scarves, jackets and everybody was happy except perhaps the helpful clerk who waited on me while I inspected all the embroidery art but bought nothing.

For lunch, something completely different: tricycle rickshaw rides into Beijing's hutongs, the narrow streets between the semi-communal quadrangles of the low-rent housing of half the city's 16 million inhabitants. This area was off-limits to tourists until a photographer brought the living conditions to public awareness and through some inexplicable government process, it became a home visit program. We split into two groups of 6, and had lunch at real people's homes -- not with them, a bit oddly, but by them; preparing a standard (or at least common between these two) menu and serving us, then joining us for (translated) conversation. Where we had lunch, the wife was gone on a week-long holiday to Hong Kong (!), the grandmother hovering while the man cooked. The 12-year-old daughter made an appearance after lunch, showed us her room, featuring a new personal computer. It wasn't exactly clear how the four of them split up the three small rooms of living space...

We swapped families afterwards, the 2nd couple in an even humbler two-room flat, the wife laughing from the next room while the 5 of us and our national guide talked with the mister in a bedroom / dining room. An amazing, unexpected and pretty strange bridge across disparate cultures and circumstances. Both places had TVs, and computers for the one child.

Heroic workers under Mao's standard, Tiananmen Square, Beijing

On the return ride, our rickshaws dodged into a more main street's traffic, and to an actor's guild hall, the Huguang assembly hall where the coup against the last emperor was plotted. It had a modest museum for performers, and a local opera production in process that was more interesting as a snippet after last night's full-blown version.

Bruce had the wonderful notion to change places with his rickshaw driver, and all we men followed suit for a brief turn in the parking lot. I put the lap blanket on my "passenger" first, which greatly amused him. Afterwards, he put his hand on his heart, showing in sign language and expression that he was moved by the gesture -- we are not master and servant, but both human, and by pedalling him about, I was acknowledging his work on my behalf as having dignity.

Tian'anmen square! Too much time at the pearl shop! "Hot pot" dinner with the adventurous half of us, (unfortunately for me, centered on a peanut sauce) for all of ¥139, for 7 ($2.50 apiece), a subway ride (Beijing's is simple, easy to understand and clean) and a short walk "home." Big day.

News from home:
My 9 week "job search" period ended yesterday, and I officially fell off the rolls of HP employees. I'm a free man. Since I've been leaning into this jobless thing for 9 weeks now, it doesn't feel a whole lot different. Just that little *ding* of the timer running out.


Mongolia delivered one more sunny, crisp fall day for our visit to the mountains outside Beijing and the Great Wall. A cloissoné factory was conveniently on our way, and we stopped for a slightly more authentic factory tour than most, followed by -- you guessed it -- a serious shopping opportunity. (There's also a Disneyland[-esque?] amusement park under construction along the way... where work has stopped due to a lack of funds, apparently.)

They did have a large area marked "Self Service," amazingly enough, but of course the best items were guarded by an army of neat, young clerks, eagerly following the buyer's eyes. It was a big shop, though, and we wandered unmolested into the far reaches, then slipped up the back stairs (under the big GO UPSTAIRS sign) to the furniture department. We got halfway through before we were spotted. Our salesman's English was good, and we used him shamelessly to learn more about the wide range of their huge inventory, while the real buyers in our group focused on the designated craft downstairs.

Bruce Fenwick on the steepest stair in the restored Badaling section of the Great Wall, Nov. 2003

Then up into the impressive, close-by limestone mountains, we got to the Badaling section of the Wall before noon, had the "special shop" among the rows of similar stalls pointed out, got our group photo with certificate of heroism taken (with orders for later pickup) and then were turned loose for 2+ hours of free time. The Fenwick boys & I made a beeline for the "more difficult" section, powered through the incessant buzz of hawkers to enjoy the day, views and experience as fully as possible. The amazing Louise kept up with no problem, but stopped at a steep, icy stretch that required wall assistance to get up, and a bit of excitement coming back down. We walked to the end of the restored section on the left, appreciated the continuing view of the unrestored part (and a few hardy hawkers far beyond the main tourist run). After taking my time coming back down, I tried the first pitch of the right side, which was more populated (being merely "difficult") and warmer, with a more southerly exposure. The enjoyment of everyone there was contagious for me. I provided some entertainment by skipping through the crowd down the steeper ramps.

Back at our 2 o'clock rendezvous café, increasingly bold shopping forays were launched, with the faux (but good fakes, our national guide assured us) North Face bags and clothing a big draw. Jeanette worked to get her price on cloisonné bracelets -- $1 -- then got an offer of 3 for $2, at which Suzanne loaded up a dozen. A couple of the "single brush stroke" koi paintings that had caught my eye at the Yuyuan garden in Shanghai were hanging in the government shop attached to the café and when I let a clerk see me look at one, the opening offer of ¥800 was proffered, one brought down for a closer look, and the eager clerk trailed me like a duckling trying to find a price I'd accept. Even half that price was twice what I'd pay, especially after Jeanette pointed out that this was a silk-screened print of mediocre quality, a distant bastard cousin of the original work it imitated. Getting the point across to the clerk that "no" meant "no" in this case was protracted and painful.

On the Badaling section of the Great Wall, Nov. 2003

Lunch was big bowls of noodles at a quiet restaurant across the street, ¥11 apiece for God's own plenty. Once we'd finished that and shopping, the bus ride down was jolly, as we sang camp and folk songs to amuse ourselves and our national guide (who was doing double-duty as our local Beijing guide). My joking proposal of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall started it off, then Home on the Range, Old McDonald's Farm, I've Been Working on the Railroad, Kumbaya, more. "We all know these songs," we told her, and she listened and watched with some astonishment.

Into the city as the day was melting back into smog, we went to silk alley for our final free-wheeling shopping excursion of what was for some a two week near non-stop shop. I got into the spirit of it, finally, bought a little velvet bag with Hmong-style embroidery from a young woman working the loose periphery on her own, then a $5 copywatch, and a pair of rose-colored (my favorite tint, sadly gone out of style back home) sunglasses, "Oakleys" for another $5. Should've bought two (or five!) of both those things.

Jeanette got the price she wanted on the little embroidered silk money bags at the last minute, as night was closing in and the police were finishing their 6pm closing-time sweep. After getting insulted responses for her 3-for-a-dollar offers for a week, 10 for $3 produced an "ok, ok," and the woman sold out her inventory (augmented by another woman's) to our group at the "market" price thus established.

Change of clothes and brief respite at the hotel, then bus to our final dinner, Beijing Duck at a round table for 11, no rush for a change, and a whole bottle of whatever we were drinking instead of "one (shrinking) glass included, refill is extra." 640ml of Nanjing beer for me, too much food, as always, and too much fat on the duck. I had more than I should have, or needed (by far!), but less than made me sick. As we walked into the hotel lobby after the bus ride home, the lounge duo, two women on acoustic guitars were singing Leavin' on a Jet Plane, and we all joined in maudlin chorus as the patrons swiveled to see who the rowdies were. We gave them and ourselves a big round of applause.

Our last responsibility was to get packed and put our luggage out for the porter by 5:45am, try to get some sleep before tomorrow's early start. One site, lauded the "20th-century touches" of our hotel's "mist-free bathroom mirrors and in-room computerized controls for lighting and air-conditioning." Yeah, the mist-free mirror is nifty, but our "computerized" A/C control provided a choice of off/too-warm and on/way too warm, dessicated either eay. I tried ratcheting it down the first night, 21°C, 20°C, 18°C, with no effect. Apparently they've shuttered the chillers for the season and haven't figured out HVAC economizers. Our room's window looked onto an interior dining atrium, did not open. Five-star is no luxury if you're not comfortable sleeping. (Our itinerary was changed from the "CEO choice" Radisson without explanation. Try that instead, or get adventurous and go with fewer stars.)


Long (two) day's journey home: put our bags out, checked out, breakfasted, bused to the airport ahead of Monday's rush hour, shared our last stories from and with our national guide, had our last group instructions and deadlines (everyone on time -- ahead of time, finally -- at the crucial moment), cleared immigration, health checks (half of us lying about coughs and colds), airport tax, security and triple check of boarding pass, off to Narita on a triple-7 overwater. Brief bad moments when Suzanne followed a blue flag off into the crowd at a different entrance to the Beijing airport, and when Gale discovered his passport missing when he walked off the plane at Narita. (After insisting that it could not be anywhere on the plane, someone did find it there.)

Near the end of the line at Narita, on the way home

Our 3-hour layover in Japan was a pleasant visit to the foreign first world, their state-of-the-art "happy rooms" more deserving of the name than anything we found in China. Spotless (and kept that way by a young female attendant), a spritz of foamy soap for the temperature-adjustable auto-faucets, a hand-dryer that actually dried hands. United's home in Terminal 1 is greatly improved since the first time I visited in 1996, still growing and full of jolly shops with souvenirs, rice cakes, sweet bean paste, Poky chocolate pretzel sticks, electronics, high fashion, duty free!

The next/same day, at the SFO customs/agricultural inspection, one gal looking at our immigration form asked if we were bringing back any homeopathic remedies. What's up with that? She said "some people aren't aware of what some of those can contain." Or what they cannot contain. Does US Customs believe homeopathic medecine actually has some content they should care about? Kind of funny, actually.

Bused over to the ratty commuter terminal, most of us still had our parting gift lucky charms around our necks, some looked worse for the wear of a too-short overnight in coach (hot tip: horseshoe neck pillow, eye shades, ear plugs, exit row), we were ready to get home. My cold had segued to a sinus infection, thankfully cleared enough to keep the descents from being painful, and helped by the last drop stopping at Boise's 2600'. It would've been a more enjoyable trip if we'd stayed (or got) healthy, but oh well. It was an incomparable, amazing, incredible trip as it was; it would seem unreasonable to ask for even more.

Tom von Alten

Saturday, 29-Nov-2003