My primary purpose in visiting China was as a tourist; to see the sights, taste the food, hear the sounds, experience the reality. It is after all a foreign place.
Is Canadian Chinese food really Chinese? Is the Great Wall really that great? What does Tiananmen Square really look like? Is the Forbidden City really that forbidden or is it just foreboding? Does the bullet train look like a bullet? Is Shanghai as futuristic as it looked in the James Bond movie Skyfall?
So many questions and only one way to find out. The essence of travel is to see and experience directly – time to check image against reality!
Beijing, with 26 million people, has six ring roads, we stayed just inside ring road #3. It is formidable; thick smog, jammed traffic, jumbles of rental bicycles at street corners, masses of people on the subway; more than a bit intimidating.
Tiananmen Square can accommodate a million people for the much-favored mass rallies held on special dates like October 1, the Chinese national Day. Hundreds of thousands are said to attend the morning ritual of flag raising. It is filled every day with thousands in an orderly queue to visit Mao’s tomb. No courageous boys standing up to tanks on the Square this day, only happy ‘ethnic’ Chinese dressed in their finest to pay homage to Mao. Shattered Image.
The Forbidden City, adjacent and two kilometers long in its own magnificent sprawl, dwarfs Tiannamen Square. While the Forbidden City is a must-see, I have to bring my imagination with me; we are allowed only to see the external buildings and read carefully edited signs, we are not allowed access to the interior. There are a few exceptions where doors are open and we may jostle our way to the front of deep crowds of selfie-seekers, an exercise in cultural politeness. Without a vivid imagination, I’m incapable of fully appreciating this icon. There doesn’t seem to be much there there. Shattered image.
The Great Wall fulfills its promise. It is GREAT. It doesn’t make sense; even in its visual grandeur, it seems to aimlessly meander off into both distant horizons. I try to imagine the sacrifice of those serfs, slaves and citizens in building it; I also try to imagine it being manned by an alert army of watchmen and defended from alien hordes who regularly breached its walls.
This section, Mutianyu, has been specifically rebuilt and maintained for tourists. Off in the distance, I see only rubble where wall used to be. It seems more a monument to some Emperor’s fear, hubris and folly than anything. Like other such exercises in hubris, the pyramids for example, it makes for a good tourist attraction. The Great Wall has finally achieved meaningful utility – as a tourist attraction! I guess that qualifies as a shattered image.
The bullet train does shatter my image for another reason; it is better than anything I expected – by a speedy margin. New, clean, comfortable, quiet, easy to board and exit, staffed (yes, and with enough attendants to notice) and fast. It makes the TGV and the Swiss train system look a decade or two out of date. No backward third world nation here – shattered image indeed.
Shanghai’s architecture exemplifies an interesting historical juxtaposition. On one side of the river is the Bund, a long boulevard of 1900’s buildings created by the European colonial powers to celebrate their superiority and their dominance of China for a period; across the river, the new Shanghai – postmodern architecture bursting with the vitality and exuberance of the 21st century. The only image shattered here is that New York, Tokyo and London are NOT the most interesting city skyscapes on earth.
Xi’an is the jumping off point for the most iconic Chinese image of all – the Terra Cota warriors. The display is truly magnificent; now four separate displays, the central one is breath-taking. Words will not do it justice – pictures help but being present and seeing, witnessing is necessary.
After all this, connected by the unexpected but memorable (I can’t think of a more polite descriptor) trip on a Chinese overnight train, we needed a break. Overnight trains are democratic; six bunks per partition, a few seats in the aisle, room to store a bag overhead, a pillow and a ‘comforter’, ample hot water for tea and noodles, one communal sink and Asian style toilet per car. The upper bunk is the most private, it takes a contortionist/gymnast to climb there, and even more dexterity to climb down. An adventure in its own right – shattered image – tourist friendly travel hasn’t arrived everywhere in China.
The Buddhist monastery at Baoguo Temple, Mount Emei provided our oasis of calm serenity. We were permitted to stay inside the monastery overnight – afforded access to the same luxuries as monks, (communal showers open 5:30-9:30 pm every night, ample hot water, comfortable beds, private rooms, shared toilets) and the opportunity to witness morning prayers – announced by gongs and chimes at 5am, prayers at 5:30.
It was a privilege, to some of us at least, and a refreshing change from the cacophony of the past week. Peace. calm, serenity; I now understand the attraction of Buddhism!
Godless communism never succeeded in inflicting itself on China or in wiping out Buddhism. I suspect the Chinese communists conceded defeat before trying, if they had tried it would have been a miserable failure. Everywhere we went, we saw Buddhist monuments, Buddhist temples, Buddhas in museums and practising Buddhists. Shattered image indeed!
The Pandas were, well, pandas. They eat, they sleep, they change positions occasionally to affirm they are alive. Pandas are only found in China; the Chinese have found gold in their exclusivity. I was cautioned that they were hard selling their exclusivity; Kristen specifically told me to NOT join the long lineups that allow visitors to cuddle a panda – for a fee. Shattered image, they have created an enviable parklike setting for their pandas, they seem to have developed a responsible program working with zoos around the world to display and support Pandas, the World Wildlife Fund uses the Panda as their international symbol and they discontinued their ‘cuddle’ program – the poor panda died from too much human contact and kindness. The Chinese have taken responsibility for Pandas, now cherished and protected. Shattered Image.
We cruise down the Yangtze River from Chongqing, a city engorged with the displaced peasants from the flooding of the Three Gorges Dam – now with a population greater than all of Canada. Yes, 30 million people in one “city”.
The cruise is all lemons into lemonade; flood a vast area to create the largest hydro-electric dam in the world and then charge people to see the vast engineering feat! Three days later at midnight we were lowered some 200 meters to the lower dam-site level and sent on our way. Such Chutzpa – image shattered!
Finally, Hong Kong. Glitz and glitter, hustle and bustle. Yet its impressive skyline is rivalled by Shanghai, it’s entrepreneurial activity dwarfed by dozens of mainland China cities, it’s faint hope for special status diminished regularly. Is the rest of China catching up or is Hong Kong being pulled back into the pot with the others?
Whatever the answer, the changes roiling through China are evident everywhere. Last shattered image – over 500 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade. Joseph Stiglitz called China a socialist market economy with Chinese Characteristics. Whatever it is, it shatters images everywhere I go. This is definitely not the third world Toto!