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China flabbergasts...
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September 18 to 22, 2007 

China flabbergasts...

 Back when I was a professional compulsive instead of just a recreational neurotic, I investigated every trip exhaustively--pored over guidebooks, read historical and cultural sources, selected touring sites, made lists of restaurants--all so that we could, quite literally, hit the ground running.

 This sort of obsessive commitment to future pleasure at the expense of the Zen present once got Gary and I very lost in the British countryside, trudging across big fields in our open sandals, dodging mounds of cow-flops. We were searching for Maiden Castle, an ancient fortification some guidebook had touted as enormously sophisticated for its day. How could we be missing something so massive, something likely to be a cross between Stonehenge and the Acropolis?

 Gary, who generally insists on doing everything himself (hence all generator and costume jewelry repairs) finally gave in and asked a passing English bloke.

 “You’re standing in it, guv’nor,” he said.

 Now, had we helicoptered in, as any truly useful guidebook would have suggested, we’d have realized that we’d already been scrambling in and out of Maiden Castle for hours. This not-to-be-missed sightseeing coup was a series of deep circular troughs designed to repel invading enemies—in fact, a very early example of modern trench warfare. Mitigating our disappointment, we decided maybe ungallant knights used it on foggy nights attempting to deflower local maidens. 

 Such experiences, coupled with the laziness of the happily retired, led me to do absolutely NO research on China--a daunting investigative project anyway--but instead to merely glom onto the itinerary of a couple I’ve never met.

 Rose and Hal Hull are friends of our son, Bobby. Their routine trip prep apparently included studying all available scientific, geological, historical and cultural material, plus thorough dips into World Heritage websites. 

Bobby, with 3 China trips under his belt, pronounced their 40-day China itinerary an excellent bet. After lengthy email consultations with Rose, I managed to shave five days off their trip—by eliminating the Yangtze River cruise, despite the fact that it is the sine qua non of almost everyone else’s China trip.

 “Most of the stops are really hokey,” Rose wrote in dismissal.

 So I ticked off the 5 days and went with the rest. (Would that toiling Christian missionaries were rewarded with such slavish devotion.)

 At the time we had neither a China guidebook nor a map--we might have known we’d be all over it. Though we subsequently acquired both, we never consulted either. Neither did the Schulman’s, pleading preparations for their daughter’s wedding, which included a thorough overhall of their house and pool area.

 Thus, except for Beijing and Shanghai, not one of us recognized the name of a single Chinese city, town or province on the itinerary, nor, except for the Terracotta Warriors, did we have any idea what we might see. We also forgot to notice we'd be taking 9 interior flights and staying in 18 different hotels.

Can you top this?

Let me say that any preparation would have been a total waste of time. The entire 35-dayOdyssey was an exercise in “China, can You top this?”

"Yeah, no problem...Mei wenti," in Mandarin.

 China delivers Stonehenges and Acropoli, World Heritage must-sees and less documented generic shockers, one after another. Ornate palaces, lavish temples, colossal walls, imposing towers--constructed wonders for the most part impossible to build without the country’s incredible ingenuity and apparently endlessly disposable population.

 Just as surprising are the stupendous natural phenomena: immense gorges, fabulous caves, magnificent mountains, picturesque waterways and lush scenery. 

 For example:

 Between Kashgar and our next stop, Turpan, we breezed back into the Urumqi Museum to view 10 mummies, preserved down to hair and fingernails by a 3,000-year uncoffined rest atop Gobi Desert sand.  Here we also got our first introduction to the costumes and customs of many of the 56 other Chinese ethnic minorities we subsequently encountered along the way. Whoever expected Chinese minorities  And 56 of them!

 We expected little from Turpan--which sounded like little more than some Arabic headgear--but it actually was a Stonehenge of sorts--as well as the lowest (and hottest) city in China. We toured two fortified cities (each more elaborate than Maiden Castle) dating back to the first and second centuries BC. They were stone (Gary would probably say preserved mud) garrisons, one for the troops, one for the king, at the confluence of what were, at the time, two rivers. These amazingly preserved (again by the dry desert heat) ghost towns included government buildings, palaces, a monastery, a pagoda, homes for the citizenry and even a Buddhist temple.

 When the rivers dried up some 2000 years ago (early instance of global warming) the Turpanians proved themselves adept at irrigation. They engineered and hand dug more than 1,000 subterranean wells, which still today draw runoff from the surrounding mountains.




Close by Turpan, we visited the Thousand Buddha Caves, a group of mountain caves dating back 1,800 years, where several gigantic Buddhas, two and three stories high, beamed benevolently down on us. In other nearby caves merely giant Buddha figures sat on altars surrounded by walls painted with thousands of smaller Buddhas, many of their faces gauged during the Cultural Revolution by the marauding Red Guards, who had Chairman Mao’s blanket government permission to erase and deface all bourgeois capitalist traces.

Given that we were in the midst of the Gobi Desert, second largest on earth, why not a camel ride?


 Next came Dunhuang. We expected not much more than a series of camel droppings but found instead a huge canyon wall with hundreds of even more elaborately statued and frescoed caves—many huge cross-legged and reclining Buddhas, flanked by their attendant retinue of bodhisattvas--Buddha-wannabees--and hideously grinning guard figures. The caves were once used by Silk Road traders and as the private prayer sites of wealthy Han Dynasty families.

For sale…

We crossed between Turpan and Dunhuang—about 1,000 miles of empty desert—on an overnight sleeper train. At the Turpan railroad station we got a physical demonstration of China’s incredible population density. (Even a trip to the bathroom here involves passing more people than I’ve ever met in my whole life.)

 Since there were no elevators, escalators or ramps we hauled our 4 overweight suitcases, plus assorted carryon luggage—through a maelstrom of people, up 3 flights of stairs and into an ill-lit waiting room closely resembling every painting we’ve ever seen of the damned consigned to purgatory.

 Our small insistent guide, Hebib, waved us ardently through—as if we were actually alone in the room. Since the Chinese are a pushy people when on line themselves and when waiting give way for nobody, this meant shoving our way through, dragging the wheels of our suitcases over many, many feet as well as banging into an assortment of bony knees.

 Also known as parting the Red Seas.

 At the far end of the room, Hebib flashed some tickets at a guard. To our shock we were ushered into a separate waiting room filled with a serious bar and upholstered easy chairs. Within seconds a table was whisked before us. Four cups of coffee and a plate of peanuts appeared…after which we were invited…to shop! 

 The space also offered an elaborate shopping arcade for privileged first-class travelers—lined with shelves and illuminated glass cases, crammed with necklaces, bracelets, statues and fanciful Fu dogs.  

 Communist China, much to our shock, is a case study in rampant capitalism. Wherever we go we are urged, exhorted, begged and cajoled to buy. And it’s not just “I Climbed the Great Wall” tee shirts. Every guided tour, every trip to an important historic site and virtually every museum trip ends in a vaulted room of “antiques” to buy—and salespeople who stick to you like Lakers’ guards.

 Even a second kid is buyable. Despite China’s one-child policy, if you’ve got the dough you can have a second or even third. It costs extra if you want that child officially registered—the equivalent of our social security number.  

We discovered that even freedom is for sale.

Our Tibetan guide, Nyima, told us his activist older brother was arrested three years ago. For wearing a Dalai Lama medal, he got 14 years in jail.  But every 10,000-yuan ($1,333 US dollars) can reduce his sentence by a year. Half goes to the government, half to the guards.

 That’s about $15,000 for the 11 years he’s got left. For nomadic hill people this will amount to selling just about everything, down to the last yak and turquoise bead, but the family is determined to get him out.

 Love of “stuff” runs very deep in Chinese society. For example, the famous Xi’an Terracotta Warriors, which we visited next, actually amount to an emperor insisting on taking it all with him. Not just his gold and jewelry but his entire army—6.000 strong—plus assorted horses and chariots.

 Oh, and all the people who toiled to create these marvelous stone beings got buried alive so no one would ever find the tomb and destroy the king’s sleep.

 Better than my trying to describe this wondrous place, take a look… 





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