China Trip, March 2-11 2005
Royal Scenic Holidays treated us to an incredible taste of China.
Our guides were excellent, part comedians and answered all our questions.
It was a 10 day whirlwind trip filled with many highlights: 3 days each in Beijing,
Chengdu and Shanghai.
I can't believe how much it's changed in the last 9 years! China is quickly gearing up
to opening for the west, for the Beijing Olympics 2008 and Shanghai World Expo in 2010.
Everywhere you go, you can see phonetic translations of the Chinese characters and
then a translation into English! Most road signs are in both scripts, and many businesses
have all 3 versions. You've got to love names like 'Bei Jing Jing Chen Law firm'.
Can you imagine being the receptionist? :-)
I experienced a clash of cultures and time. Tradition and technology have meshed. It's
not unusual to see people riding 1 gear pushbikes while talking on cell phones, or glimpsing
a stooped grandmotherly lady sweeping the sidewalk with a traditional handmade broom
suddenly straighten up, pull out a cellphone and anser 'wei?'
Too funny. It's like being in the twilight zone!
Beijing is the administrative capital built on a grid structure and retains its traditional authority.
Beautiful old city walls, ancient structures contrast with communist box-style buildings.
For a place that's too serious, it's starting to show some colour and hints of vibrancy in the
60's style fashions the young people wear and the smiles they are reluctantly showing.
Hot pink is the colour of the day, seen in plastic knee-high go go boots and miniskirts over jeans.
Tiannamen square was blocked off to the public for 2 weeks due to the national congress
taking place. One evening, Wayland and I took the subway to a stop by the square and
were ushered out and away from the actual square by uniformed police guards, just like the
rest of the crowds. Then we walked around the largest square in the world across the street
up to a corner where a police truck was flashing its lights. We couldn't go any further so we
turned the corner onto a side street - and ended up right in front of the congress hall, watching
all the diplomats leaving the building, walking right past us, puzzling about The Penguin.
We started wondering if we were going to be arrested but no one raised an eyebrow.
I suspect that Tiannamen square was cordoned off to prevent public protests more than
protecting the diplomats inside. Congress voted for using violence and force to take back
Taiwan, oversaw the early retirement of Hong Kong's administrator, and agreed to hire
thousands more people to watch and report suspicious internet traffic. For all the surface
opening to the public, there still is an iron fist ruling in a velvet glove.
Beijing was sunny but felt bitterly cold in the Forbidden City and Summer palace because
of the wind (-3C). Hey, being a Westcoaster from lotusland I stand by my description.
Thankfully it warmed up to about +8 when we visited the Great Wall at Badaling. Wow,
have they ever fixed it up. Now there is a 15km loop from there that is connected and locals
hold an annual 'ironman' race. The record is 45 minutes but usually takes 2-3 hours. It covers
2 major hills up and down and a few smaller hills. Can we say step master from hell?
Imagine doing the Grouse Grind more than a few times!
While climbing The Wall, The Penguin was recognized by someone from California who had
seen our Penguin's website: www.thetravelingpenguin.com and offered to carry him up for me
as it would be an honour. How could I refuse? :) On the way down, I was stopped by some
cameramen and The Penguin was interviewed for Iran TV. I tell you, this bird gets around.
Before heading to Chengdu, we participated in a tea ceremony and then were taken to the
old part of Beijing to experience the Hutong alleys by rickshaw. We learned from a local
the history of these homes from the Ching dynasty, some over 200 years old that are still
in continuous use, by descendants of the original families. What a treat to have lunch inside
one of the local houses and talk to the locals (via interpreters).
Chengdu, in Sichuan province near the Himalayas was warmer (+12 to 15C) but so smogged in
we could barely see buildings 2 streets away let alone any mountains in the distance. In this
breadbasket valley they still use coal to heat homes and businesses. This is the region where
the pandas live. We visited a conservation park and saw lots of really cute pandas. Deb and I
got a chance to hold a red panda. A red panda was also quite intrigued with The Penguin.
We saw a Chinese opera, puppetry, shadow play and incredible face/mask-changing artists
who appear to change their face masks in split-second intervals. Itís a well guarded secret.
The food has improved dramatically. I can't even begin to expound on how much better
it has gotten. We tried regional foods from all over. Uighur lamb dishes from the northwest,
Yi food from the Yunan province which was very much like Thai food, Sichuan spicy dishes
in Chengdu, and a Mongolian hotpot in Shanghai where the ingredients were so fresh that
the live shrimp jumped from the bowl onto the table and flopped into Heidi's lap! That sure
caused a stir in the restaurant.
We were treated to a traditional Peking Duck dinner where all the courses consist of duck.
There was moo shoo duck wrap, roasted duck, deep fried duck, duck soup. Yes, every part,
even the duck feet were served. 9 years ago when I was in Beijing, they grilled the feet and
served it like ribs - chew whatever you can off the bone and don't mind the claw.
Now, it was deboned, served in a tasty sauce with mushrooms. A bit chewy like squid, but yummy!
I instantly fell in love with Shanghai - the fusion of architecture is incredible!
1930's European architecture interspersed with Chinese styles both old and new and punctured
with modern skyscrapers and subdivisions that I swear come from north of Toronto!
(thatís not too far off the mark since Canada was granted a building contract there).
I love the old winding streets and alleys where I want to explore what's around the next corner.
Despite the 4 level overpasses, the traffic, the noise, the smog, I love Shanghai.
It radiates a multicultural vibrancy and defies Beijing like a rebel. It is a cross between
Bangkok and New York. Everything you want is available. Shopping is the mantra.
Hate to say it but Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC, complete with an Asian looking Colonel
Sanders has arrived. You can find all the top of the line brands in malls - Lancome, Vuiton,
and all your latest electronics, but you'd do better pricewise to buy them in North America.
The local markets where one can barter are the real economic pulse of the city. Pashmina
scarves, pirated DVDs, prada bags, North Face jackets, watches and the like can be gotten
for a song, depending on how well you can barter. In the end the buyer is happy and so is
the seller. Free trade and creativity live on and thrive here.
Shanghai is built on a delta with the Huangpu river running through it. The Bund is the
financial district by the river and its 1930's European architecture reflects a bustling romantic era
with an international flavour when Shanghai was The international trade centre. Interestingly enough,
these buildings are sitting on bricks that float on barges in the mud. How clever is that?
We witnessed an acrobatics show like no other. It puts cirque du soleil to shame.
Incredible feats of the human body, timing and co-ordination produced gravity-defying stunts.
There is a phenomenal amount of building going on. So much so that Shanghai is now
beginning to sink under the sheer weight of the steel and concrete.
While we were on the tarmac waiting to take off from Beijing, I spotted 29 cranes from the plane window.
Then our plane turned to taxi and I could see 50 or 60 more! Yikes. It appears that the metal crane
has superseded the paper crane. Add to this immense traffic jams and it's no wonder that there's
a shortage of steel worldwide and Canada's steel company shares are going through the roof ;-)
It will be interesting to see how they resolve their new challenges.
Bernie & Brian, 308 - 1928 W. 2nd Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., V6J 1J3 Canada