Other Voices: China bares its beauty during a week on the Yangtze
Grass Valley resident Dick Phillips recently returned from a trip to China. Here is his account:
A cruise on the Yangtze is a very comfortable way to see the four faces of China.
You fly into Shanghai, a glitzy metropolis where a new, strange-shaped high rise seems to go up every week. It’s New York City with a lot of dash and excitement in its new architecture – kind of like going from an opera to a disco house.
By contrast, just a few miles away, is canal-laced Suzhou, the city Marco Polo declared more beautiful than Venice. It’s filled with carefully built residential gardens. “Garden of the Master of Nets” is wonderful, even if you are in a crowd. It dates back to the Song Dynasty.
A few miles farther along the Yangtze, you’ll arrive at Nanjing, once the capital of the Ming Dynasty and the temporary capital of the Chinese National Army during World War II. I’m told that if you drive a Japanese-made car in the city, the gas stations won’t sell you gas. The Chinese have a long memory, and they have not forgotten the rape of Nanjing.
The 14th century walls are very impressive. The bricks are inscribed with their maker’s name. If a brick should fail, the maker, and his entire extended family, would be executed, as per the Emperor’s order (now that’s quality assurance).
Next, we stopped at Mt. Jiu Hua, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains. What really impressed me here was not the temple with its gold plated statues but the story our guide, Grant, told us about his mother who is such a devoted Buddhist that she goes to the market and buys live fish and foul and sets them free.
One day he went with her and they bought a bucket of fish and they took them to a nearby river, where his mother poured them gently into the water. The fish didn’t immediately swim away but hovered about his mother. Then, they circled her twice and swam off. (Is that how fish say “thank you”?)
Sailing overnight, we then stopped for a full day’s excursion into the countryside to see how ceramics were made in ancient times. All along the way, we saw hundreds of farmers planting rice by hand, each in small, water-filled plots, just as their ancestors had done thousands of years ago. There were no machines, just an occasional water buffalo.
Here was the China of the past- 50 percent of the country’s population still lives this way. But there was one difference from the past: The air was very polluted. We were headed toward a big industrial city.
The next morning we docked in Wuhan, a city of 7.5 million people, and the air was so polluted we kept our balcony door closed. To give one an idea of this country’s enormous population (1.3 billion), only urban areas with populations of over 1 million people can be called “cities”; urban areas with populations between one hundred thousand and one million are called “towns”; settlements with less than 100,000 people are “villages.”
Again, we sailed overnight and docked the next morning at Yueyang Tower. What impressed me here was not the tower that’s over 1,000 years old but the magnitude of fresh landscaping taking place. Hundreds of men were planting bushes and very large trees and repaving the walkway to the tower.
And this is not happening just here. All along the Yangtze, I must have seen a million newly planted trees on the river banks. China is gussying itself up for the ’08 Olympics and the tourist boom to follow. But with the pollution, this could be like putting lipstick on a pig. Even five-star hotels have stickers on their bathroom mirrors, warning you not to drink the water.
We awoke the next morning in Jingzhou and after breakfast, took a bus to an elementary school nearby. The children were so sweet and so happy to see us that it broke our heart that we couldn’t take two home with us.
Next came the big kahuna – the Three Gorges Dam. It’s B-I-G. It took us 3.5 hours and five locks to reach the level of the Yangtze upriver. The Yangtze has become a lake almost 400 miles long. Beneath us were innumerable towns, villages and farms.
We cruised the Three Gorges, some in smaller boats, and lunched along the river bank. They’re as beautiful as they’re said to be.
The next morning, we awoke in Fengdu, the site of one of the new towns the government has built for displaced Yangtze farmers. It was way above the water level (200 steps) and looked like something out of Russia: high-rise apartments, 10 to 20 stories, and mostly no elevators.
This gave rise to a whole new industry in this area, “stick men.” These guys will carry food, furniture (and maybe even you) up to your apartment on the umpteenth floor. Unemployment is high in these new cities (20 percent), but it is said the government is subsidizing the unemployed.
Nonetheless, the “hello, one dollar” ladies who sell kites, fans and who-knows-what attack your bus like all-American linebackers as soon as the door opens. It was hot in Fengdu (83 degrees in the morning in May) Regardless, the people are polite and hospitable.
Last stop on the Yangtze was Chongqing. This was Chiang Kai-shek’s fall-back capital in World War II and home to the Flying Tigers. It’s even hotter than Fengdu. We visited the zoo and saw several Panda bears. Some lie on their backs and eat. The baby Panda with his basket was the big attraction as he stumbled about and fell over and then climbed a tree.
Chongquin girls are called “spicy girls” because they like very, very spicy food. And, once their married, they do no work. Their working husbands cook, clean and take care of the children. (Hard to believe but a Chongquin woman told us this.)
And that’s a week on the Yangtze.
Dick Phillips lives in Grass Valley.
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