We spent a good portion of May 2014 in China. I had been there in 1975 and Barbara went in 1979. This time we went together. On our first venture there, one had to be part of a group and then “invited” to come. Now one can go on one’s own or as part of a travel group. When I went in 1975, I was part of an educational group and one of the requirements was writing a summary of the experience which was 33 typed pages, single spaced. As a result of the educational focus, we visited many schools.
This time it was a bit more touristy and while we repeated some things like The Great Wall, The Forbidden Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, there were new experiences, such as the Olympic Park and climbing to the top of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in Beijing. In ancient times, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower helped people with time. No access to cheap watches then.
Our tour group was Odysseys and the name of the tour was “China In Depth”. Since we arrived early, we took the time to see Mao’s Mausoleum and the National Museum. We learned later that Mao’s body was just a duplicate, but the guards still make us march quickly through the facility.
We did lots of climbing. A cable car took us to the top of the Great Wall, but we got lots of exercise once we reached the top.
The highlight of the trip was the Terra Cotta Warriors (7000 plus) in Xi’an. Did not realize that most, if not all, of them were damaged shortly after they were built. Today experts carefully reconstruct them. Guaranteed lifetime employment for those selected to work there.
The Three Gorges Dam was impressive and cruising the Yangtze River brought us some wonderful views. At Fengdu or was it Shibaozhai, we climbed to a Temple that was up 441 steps? Yes, we counted them.
Chongqing was the largest city (34 million) but it was the place where we were privileged to observe the indulged life of a Panda Bear. A boat trip on the Li River at Guilin was pleasant. Landscape artists have been inspired by this scenery. We were able to observe traditional cormorant fishermen. We also went through Reed Flutes Cave (cool at last) and a traditional village.
We flew on five different Chinese airlines to get from city to city. It was 93 in Hong Kong. Need I say more?
Now for a few contrasts.
1. In 1975, Chinese citizens had to work very hard to get permission to travel. Today travel is encouraged and everywhere we went there were many Chinese tourists, seeing their own country.
2. And they have learned how to be pushy. In 1975, we probably had handlers making sure that people gave us the best views of historical sights. That is no longer true. It is every person for themselves. On our last flight, we were in a line and 30 people went in front of us instead of going to the end of the line. In this case, airline personnel requested that they go to the end of the line.
3. In 1975 there were no “hawkers” in China and they were awful in Hong Kong. This time there were hawkers everywhere in China. At the Great Wall it was like a gauntlet we had to pass through. Now it appears that hawkers are illegal in Hong Kong. We were approached by watch salespersons and tailors (in Hong Kong), but it was very low key compared to mainline China.
4. In 1975, adults wore plain clothing. Now there is great variety and the shops are very upscale in Shanghai. I felt like we were in New York City.
5. I had the impression that people were very afraid to speak out in 1975. Now they may be cautious, but individuals are willing to speak their mind about many subjects. The society is much more open. Newspaper articles were slanted, but then that is true everywhere in the world.
6. In 1975, I had the feeling that we were the first white persons that many Chinese people had ever seen. Some individuals would press their faces against our bus windows to stare at us. There was none of that now. A few high school or college students asked us to stand with them for photographs with their phones, but only a few. In 1975 no one had cameras. Now everyone has some piece of electronic equipment.
7. This would summarize what we saw in each city: Skyscrapers and high rise apartment buildings. Even in what we might consider the suburbs. One municipality had the population of thirty-three million. A bit misleading, as it would have taken eight hours to drive across the city, so it would have been a wee bit like combining Portland and Seattle into the same municipality. One jokester said that the national bird was the “crane”, as in cranes for building tall buildings. There was some evidence that many of these buildings are not being utilized fully: no visible evidence of people.
8. In 1975 we were actually allowed into the operating room in a cancer hospital where the surgery was done with acupuncture. We didn’t have access to that sort of thing in 2014, but several of us did experience “foot massages”.
9. Food was bountiful in 1975 and 2014. Too bountiful, but we got to experience several items that bring pride to Chinese cuisine. During most of meals, we barely touched the last dishes delivered to our tables. I found Peking Duck to be less exciting than I remembered. Breakfasts were special. Tipping was not encouraged. When I tried it once, the waiters tried to give the money back to me. We adjusted.
10, China is in the midst of an economic boom. I have no understanding as to how they are doing it, but the contrast between 1975 and 2014 was stark. Their experiment with capitalism seems to be working.