To no one’s surprise, I haven’t written as much as I had hoped.
Since leaving Shanghai we:
– Took a high-speed train to Hangzhou (2 hrs south-west)
The trains are everything they’re cracked up to be. Super smooth, fast as hell, and a beautiful way to see rural China at ~200+ kph. Hangzhou was incredibly beautiful and shockingly crowded. We caught it on a Sunday, which is apparently the worst, but the main “causeway” (very nice pedestrian walkway through the middle of the river) was packed with people. Felt a bit like Disneyland (a recurring theme when visiting touristy areas).
The crowds make clear what I’ve heard a couple times now: domestic tourism dwarfs international tourism. Maybe we were the only foreigners foolish enough to try West Lake on a Sunday, but in either case the domestic tourists outnumbered the foreigners that day, a whole lot to four.
– Moved on to Nanjing (2 hrs west) for two days
I was under the impression that most of the cities no longer had their traditional walls – that Xi’an was the exception in this regard. While portions of Nanjing’s wall are now gone, much of it still remains and it’s quite impressive. I had a mental image of something like a European castle wall (not that I really know what that would look like). Nanjing’s wall is monstrous. If I had to guess I’d say it’s still standing because these aren’t the type of walls you can just knock down. There’s a photo from after the Japanese bombed the wall and captured the city in 1937 – the pile of rubble and bricks was easily 30 feet tall. The only way these walls were ever going to come down is brick by brick.
Many of the tourist spots have been recently reconstructed. I have found myself never quite sure whether I’m looking at some ancient inscription or a recent and well-done reconstruction for our sake. For some reason I continued to get hung up on this. With the elevators through the park to the pagoda, Lion Hill is obvious enough that I could accept it as a reconstruction and move on, but other gardens and temples were less clear.
In Nanjing I started to piece together more of the 1911 – 1949 history. By this point I’ve heard a fair amount about the Opium Wars (~1842), the founding of the republic (1911), the Japanese & WWII (1937 ~ ’42), the end of the civil war (1949), the great leap forward (~1958), and the Cultural Revolution (1966 – ’76) . Also learned in some detail about the obscure Taiping Heavily Kingdom – centered around of Nanjing (1850 – ’64) – apparently the leader claimed to be the brother of Jesus. Oddly missing from this narrative is the Boxer Rebellion, one of the few bits of Chinese history I remember studying in school (although every detail escapes me).
Some of the public spaces that aren’t targeted at tourists are beautiful. Nanjing sits on a lake, and while the city wall often blocks a view of the water, it’s also allows one to stroll through the trees along the lake-shore and barely hear the sounds of the bustling city just over the wall. Out for a morning run I saw women doing the local version of jazzercise, people walking to work with briefcases, and plenty of old folks who seemed to be just out for a stroll. Really well done public space.
– Flew to Guilin (2 hrs south)
We’ve heard this town name pronounced about six different ways. We spent a night in town – another nice little city built right on a beautiful waterway. More nice public space surrounding the water. More blocks upon blocks of high-rise apartments going up on the edge of town.
It’s made me wonder who’s going to move into all these places. 7.5% economic growth is huge, but just looking at how much housing is being built makes me wonder where those future tenants are sleeping tonight. If they’re already in the area, what will come of the apartments they vacate? If they move into a city like Guilin, what will they do?
– Quickly moved on to Yangshou (1 hr south)
From what I understand, the region is semiautonomous from Beijing and they’ve become famous for high-quality duty-free pearls. So we made a “10 minute stop” (a joke of a term with my family) at the pearl museum. The tour guide gave us the 90 second crash course in pearls and then shucked a live sea-oyster and ripped a pearl right out of its flesh. That made it real in a hurry. It’s the third example I’ve seen of a museum that explains the “how” as well as the “what”. The Shanghai Museum (which is really well done) had an awesome explanation of the steps necessary to mine, smelt, mold, pour, and polish an ancient bronze – not something I can recall seeing in an American museum.
We then took a ride on the Li River in a “bamboo raft”. It’s neither made of bamboo (PVC piping painted to look like bamboo), nor really a raft (which is good, because we were headed up-river) but a beautiful ride nonetheless. I’ve been using my camera with the intention of figuring out the basics – my goal is to understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. The river ride provided endless opportunities to try and fail to do better than that damn auto setting. As usual, eventually I put the camera down and just enjoyed the remainder of the ride.
In Yangshou we spent yesterday cruising around on bikes – inhaling truck fumes in the city and enjoying some great single track through the country. Mike and I shocked our guide by jumping in the river just beneath a small dam, and later we hiked up to Moon Hill and Mike was near tears to be there and not climbing (he hurt his shoulder – more on that later). Lunch at a “Farmer Restaurant” was some of the best, and least greasy, food we’ve had yet.
This morning I took a cooking class. It was great – I now know exactly how much oil I’ve been consuming with every dumpling and just how quickly I’ll set off the smoke alarm if I try any of this at home. But the food was good.
Those are some of the high-lights to date.
Tomorrow we fly north to Xi’an for two days before moving on to Beijing. It’s been a whirlwind but really nice and fascinating. I have to say I’d love a salad right about now, but at the expense of my health that can wait another two weeks.
If you’re still reading, I’m impressed. I wish I had posted each section as it happened, but here it is.
ps: sorry, I’ll have to do curated photos once I’m home – the VPN / WordPress situation is enough of a pain with just plain text.