MORRISON TRIP TO OLD AND NEW CHINA (JUNE 2016)
In June we (David and Janet) took the 15-day Betchart Expeditions trip “China by High-Speed Rail.” Our excellent guide was Chris Carpenter, with whom we have travelled before, assisted by one Chinese guide plus one local guide in each area we visited. Our tour group was 14, mostly elderly (two 88 years old!), mostly retired scientists. We visited half a dozen areas in east-central China, all new to us except for Shanghai at the beginning and Xian at the end of the tour. Except in Shanghai and Xian, we encountered only a handful of non-Chinese tourists, and none on the trains.
This trip into central China was made possible by the amazing network of high-speed trains (equivalent to French TGV and Japanese Bullet trains) that link major Chinese cities. The high-speed trains normally travel at more than 300 kph (200 mph), and the ride is smooth as silk. Often the high-speed lines are elevated on high viaducts, soaring above other roads with minimum disturbance of the crops growing below. The extent of this rail network was demonstrated at the Hangzhou station, which had one high-speed train departure every 3 to 4 minutes, all day long.
In general, the transportation infrastructure in China is far better than ours. The multi-lane toll roads are beautifully landscaped and perfectly smooth, and the airports are huge and modern. In cities, traffic lights have countdown displays that show exactly when each light will change. The cities themselves have vastly increased in size since we were first in China 25 years ago. Both Hangzhou and Xian, for example, have each grown from less than one million to more than ten million (with accompanying air pollution and traffic gridlock). There are dozens of Chinese cities that are larger than any city in the USA. Bicycles have been mostly replaced by motorbikes, many of them electric powered. The rural scene has changed too, with no more animals or mini-tractors (“Chinese buffalo”) working the fields, just large modern tractors.
In China, blue sky is a rare sight in the daytime, and stars are mostly invisible at night. We were lucky to avoid the notorious (and dangerous) urban air pollution. But most of the time the sky was cloudy or hazy; even when the sun shown through, it was hardly bright enough to produce clear shadows. We shouldn’t complain, however, as our guide repeatedly told us that we were experiencing the clearest weather he had seen, especially in our visits to the sacred mountains. Daytime temperatures were generally in the upper 90s and even reached 100F (nearly 40C) several times.
One of the highlights of the trip was the great variety of food, including many local specialties. Every lunch and dinner was a multicourse extravaganza. We counted more than one hundred separate dishes, often including a whole fish to crown the meal. We ate in local restaurants, where we were the only non-Chinese, and ate local food, mostly vegetables (often unfamiliar), and rarely including any dessert other than watermelon. Our group sat 7 or 8 to a table, serving ourselves with chopsticks from the dishes in the center. We were impressed that everyone on the trip had sufficient chopstick facility to eat this way. Our hotels were all excellent, with adjustable AC, comfortable beds, and plenty of hot water. The hotels, trains, and airports all had universal electrical outlets that accepted any plugs, making it unnecessary to carry converters.
Our tour itinerary took us through east-central China, from the rice paddies of the Yangtze River in the south to the wheat farms of the Yellow River in the north. We began in Shanghai and Hangzhou, at the southern end of the Grand Canal, then crossed the Yangtze River and continued north to Qufu, where we turned west to parallel the Yellow River. In central China, we visited three Taoist sacred mountains and the ancient capitals of Dengfeng, Luoyang, and Xian, where the trip ended. Below are some highlights.
• Shanghai is the world’s largest city (24 million) and has the world’s second tallest building (121 floors). We reached the city from the airport using the unique mag-lev trains, achieving speeds of more that 400 kph (300 mph) — wow. We spent one day in Shanghai on our own, visiting the fabulous Shanghai Museum, the old Bund (European district on the waterfront), and the recently refurbished Jade Buddha Temple, where we watched a service conducted by orange-robed monks.
• Hangzhou is famous as the home of the beautiful West Lake, but in the thick haze we could see little except auto gridlock and thousands of Chinese on holiday. The highlight, however, was seeing the southern section of the 1500-km-long Grand Canal, an amazing engineering achievement that tied China together much as the road system did for the Roman Empire. Our hotel was on the Canal, with an ancient bridge and a restored neighborhood. We took a boat-trip to visit the town of Tangxi, restored to its nineteenth century appearance with a famous 7-arch bridge over the Grand Canal. Much more than a tourist attraction, the southern sections of the Grand Canal are fully operational and carry a steady stream of large barges.
• We traveled by high speed train from the Yangzi River and the rice growing center of China north nearly 800 km to the wheat-fields of the Yellow River basin and to Qufu, the home town of Confucius. China is currently promoting Confucianism with its respect for tradition, a reversal from the revolutionary ideals of Mao. We visited the Confucius Temple and grave. We also watched impressive ceremonies at the city walls with dozens of costumed participants supposedly reenacting the old rite of opening and closing the city gates.
• Our tour included three of the five sacred mountains — isolated, glacially eroded granite ranges rising about 2000m above the flat North China plain. They have been places of pilgrimage (including by Emperors) for two millennia. Traditionally pilgrims climbed or were carried on sedan chairs to the summits, but today we go up by ski-lift-style gondolas. The three mountains are quite varied. Tai Shan (West Mountain) has a well developed summit area of Taoist and Buddhist temples and tourist facilities. Song Shan (Middle Mountain) has nearly vertical walls of white granite, with trails clinging to the cliffs. Hua Shan (East Mountain) has multiple peaks that are even steeper and more difficult to reach. We did not do much hiking but were content to see the dramatic scenery from a few viewpoints. The weather was unusually clear; these mountains are mostly depicted in Chinese art shrouded in clouds.
• We visited a series of ancient Chinese capitals along the Yellow River Valley Dengfeng, Luoyang, and Xian. These lie in the agricultural heartland of North China, but disastrous Yellow River floods ultimately forced relocation of the capital to Beijing. Dengfeng is popular for foreign as well as Chinese visitors thanks primarily to the huge Shaolin Zen Buddhist temple, which has attracted many martial arts schools. We saw a spectacular demonstration by students of one of the Kungfu schools.
• One of the highlights for us was the complex of hundreds of Buddhist sculptures carved into the cliffs at Longmen, on the Li River near Louyang. Created between 500 and 1000 CE, they rlefect the import of Buddhism to China along the Silk Road. Although exposed to a millennium of wear, many sculptures retain their beauty and majesty. The largest statues are 17m tall. Louyang also has a beautiful new museum, second only to Shanghai.
• Xian made a great ending to our trip. It is a university town with many young people and thriving street markets (where David ate three roasted scorpions). Xian's Ming-dynasty city wall and moat have been refurbished, as were the famous Bell Tower and Drum Tower, all beautifully illuminated at night. The one part of the city that has not been extensively rebuilt is the Muslim Quarter, with its narrow streets, souks, and the Great Mosque (the largest in China east of Xinjiang). The Big Wild Goose Pagoda dates to the introduction of Buddhism from India, and a large complex of new religious buildings surrounds it another example of the investment China is making in Buddhist sites. Rather weird was a day-trip to Famen, colossal new complex outside Xian that houses a finger bone from Lord Buddha. Finally, of course, Xian is the home of the Terracotta Army in the tomb complex of the first Emperor (210 BCE). The site has been heavily developed and the crowds are immense, however, the actual excavation and reconstruction of the statues has not progressed a great deal since we were last here in 1990.
This tour took is to parts of China that we would never visit on our own. It was possible because we had two experienced Chinese-speaking guides, further enabled by the ubiquitous cell phones that allowed real-time coordination with buses and restaurants. Our guides were even able to use cell-phones to retrieve a bag left on the high-speed train; they called the train, where the bag was quickly found, off-loaded at the next stop, and put on the next train headed back toward us.
On this tour, we had to handle our own luggage, with only a couple of minutes allowed to get on or off at train stops. Fortunately we took only one modest sized roller bag, less luggage than any others in our group. We were stressed almost to our limits by some of the walking requirements, especially in humid 100-degree heat. The Chinese expect people to be able to walk and climb stairs, with few escalators. In one case, we had to climb more than 300 stairs to get from the parking lot to the cable lift up Song Shan Mountain. But we survived!
China is promoting not only Buddhism and Confucianism, but also old-style architectural decoration. We saw many recently refurbished or newly constructed buildings with the same tile roof designs and brightly painted interior beams. These designs have also found their way into many modern buildings, especially on their facades. They may be made of steel and masonry underneath, but their exteriors pay homage to architects of the Ming Dynasty.
The new China immensely impressed us. The cities have grown at an incredible rate, and the associated infrastructure seems to have kept pace. In addition, many new cities are being built from scratch. At Qufu we were shown empty fields where a new city of a million would be ready in four years. Even in rural areas, the horizon was frequently marked by clusters of 20+ story apartments under construction. The high-speed rail network is one of the wonders of the world, playing the same role in China that the Interstate Highways did in the US, but mostly constructed in less than a decade. Although we went primarily to see old China, we came away with a new appreciation for the new.
David & Janet Morrison
16 July 2016
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