Changes in the East |

Changes in the East

This is the first of a two-part series.

When China opened its door a crack to look out, tourists, big chain hotels and fast-food restaurants rushed in. China was changed forever, as we discovered when we returned in May, 17 years after our last visit.

In 1984, our three objectives were to climb the Great Wall, see the terra-cotta warriors at Xian, and visit Guilin, an area made famous by Chinese poets and artists.

Last year, our objective was cruising a part of China’s longest river, the Yangtze, to see its beautiful gorges before they are flooded by the world’s largest dam, currently under construction.

Some of the things we saw were unbelievable. Bicycles are still used as a mode of transportation, but more than 2.3 million of them have been replaced by automobiles. Pedestrians beware: Although the automobiles have to obey the traffic signs, they seem to have the right of way.

Small houses and huts have been replaced by tall apartment buildings, in the larger cities and in the smaller towns and villages. Oh, there are still narrow dirty alleys, but not as many. There were plants, trees and colorful flowers everywhere, along the streets and on the highways. Our guide said the soldiers had helped plant the trees along the roads.

The Mao jackets and pajama-type clothing have disappeared. While the farmers and workers we saw were dressed in work clothing, in the cities, people were dressed in today’s Western-style clothing – business suits, leisure clothes and, yes, miniskirts.

Most of the hotels throughout our trip were pure luxury, five-Q hotels. (China’s hotel classification uses Q’s instead of stars.)

In Beijing, we visited all the regular tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square with its “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which is a symbol of Beijing; the People’s Assembly Hall, which holds 10,000 people and a banquet hall that has a capacity of 5,000; Chairman Mao’s tomb; and many other buildings and statues. Tiananmen Square is 100 acres, the world’s largest public square.

The Old Forbidden City, former home of the imperial family (1368-1911), is now called the Palace Museum. Tourist are shown highlights of the palaces, courtyards, pavilions and gardens that had been kept isolated behind 30-foot walls, off limits to commoners for 500 years. The emperors and their families seldom left this royal compound.

The painted corridor that leads to the summer palace is 2,366 feet long. Here the marble boat, built for one of the empresses, is “a must see.” Instead of walking back to the main entrance, we took a small, brightly decorated boat across Kinming Lake.

The architecture here, as well as in the tombs where 13 Ming emperors are buried, is all very similar. They have tiled, pointed roofs with tiny figures on them and lots of marble trim. A movie was being filmed at the tombs the day we were there, so the buildings were clean and the guards were dressed in fancy, bright red Chinese costumes.

There are several places to climb the Great Wall, but the most popular is still Badaling, located northeast of Beijing. This time, instead of climbing to the top, as we did in 1984, we visited the newly built museum telling the history of the wall. Most of our tour group did start the climb, but it was so hot that day, many turned around and came back.

What had been a small village with wooden souvenir stalls and a few buildings during our previous visit is now a town. It has a hotel, a bank, restaurants, stores, parking lots, the large museum and theater, and a very big entrance gate (where you pay an entrance fee) to start your climb.

Xian is a walled city. Its west gate is the start of the ancient Silk Road. The original excavation of the terra cotta warriors at the tomb of Emperor Quin has really grown in size to many buildings, with various stages of excavation. On the site is also the Panpo Museum, a Neolithic period matriarchal village I enjoyed seeing.

The main reason we decided to take this trip finally arrived: the Regal China cruise ship Princess Jeannie. The ship holds 250 passengers and has a lounge, bar, ballroom, health club and sun deck. The cabins have private bathrooms and panoramic windows.

Built in Germany, the ship is almost an exact duplicate of the ship we took from St. Petersburg to Moscow several years ago. The ship was tied up at the dock at Wuhan. It would be our home for five nights.

The Yangtze, like all busy rivers, is muddy with a lot of activity. Small sampans, barges, ferries, larger passenger ships and fishing boats of all sizes are right there in your picture window. Tiny villages, larger towns, steep limestone cliffs, lush green hills and mountain trails with people carrying their produce down to the river – they all pass before you.

Enchanting scenery passed before our eyes – temples, bridges spanning steep precipices and small, inconspicuous river guard stations that some people didn’t even notice.

The travel brochures were right – it was spectacular, but taking pictures was not an easy task. The weather was humid and hazy with swirling mist that enveloped the upper reaches of the mountains and rock formations.

To enter one gorge, we had to transfer to a small boat with two pole-men to get us up the gorge and back. We docked at Wanxian to see young acrobats at the local theater and a street market where people sold everything imaginable. In May, the water was low, so there were high steep steps to climb up to the levee to get to the town.

Jan Postell lives in Nevada City.

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