Wednesday, August 16, 2006

...And Northern China

Tokyo Narita Airport, Japan
Somehow a month just went by without my getting a chance to update you all. Time has truly been flying. I am on a long layover on my way back to New York, enjoying the free internet access in the Tokyo airport, which was a very nice surprise. I really can't believe that two months is over already. It seems like I just left for China, and I really feel like I could keep traveling happily for many more months here. Since that's not possible, though, I'll try to give you a rundown on what I've been up to for the last few weeks. First some fun facts I've learned about China (some have not been verified):
* China is the world's most populous country, with over 1.3 billion inhabitants.
* At any given moment, there are 10 million people in the trains alone in China.
* Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.
* Spending one day in Beijing (without smoking) is equivalent to smoking 50-60 packs of cigarettes.
* China produces over 1.8 trillion cigarettes per year, 99% of which are consumed in China.
* China consumes over one third of all of the world's cigarettes.
* A pack of cigarettes can be bought in China for as little as US$0.20.
All this means that I have not seen blue sky for the past four weeks, except for about four days total, and instead have been looking at yellowish to whitish haze, which gets really depressing after a while. It also means that my bronchitis is still pretty bad, because my lungs have not had a chance to rest at all from the constant irritation. And it means that if China continues this way for much longer, the country will soon be uninhabitable, without breathable air or drinkable water, but it wont matter, because everyone will be dying prematurely anyway. It's one thing to read about the pollution in the newspaper, but it's really quite stunning to see it firsthand.
Anyway, when I last wrote I was about to get on a 20 hour train ride to Shanghai. The ride wasn't so bad, and D.'s flight came in without any problems. We found a very cute place to stay in Shanghai, and I promptly got extremely sick and couldn't get out of bed for two days. Other than that, Shanghai was a big, modern city, and the best thing about it was the skyline at night and the extremely impressive acrobatics show we saw. Definitely something to see, if you ever get a chance.
From there we went to Hangzhou, where China's supposedly most famous attraction, the West Lake, is located. It was a big lake covered in smog, and I have to admit we were a little disappointed.
One of the reasons I came to China was a little silly - almost 10 years ago, I was at an arts fair, and there was a man there selling nicely-framed photographs of gorgeous misty mountains. I was smitten, and I asked him where the pictures were taken. He told me, in a very thick accent that I've since come to know well, that they were taken in the Yellow Mountains. At the time, I had never heard of them and had no idea where they were, but I filed it away and promised myself I'd go there someday. So that was our next destination... a long-time dream realized for me. Over two days, we estimated we climbed up and down over 20,000 steps to the top of the mountains and around and then back down again. The first day we got so much mist we couldn't see anything, and the second day was clear, so it didn't quite look like the picture that inspired me so long ago, but still it was breathtaking. We stayed overnight on top of the mountain in a very loud, smoky dorm, and got up at 4am to see the sunrise over the mountaintops. We were sore for several days after that, but it was totally worth it.
Next we had a horrible hard seat overnight train ride to Kaifeng, which originally was where the majority of the Jewish immigrants had settled when they came to China. Unfortunately there was not much evidence of that left, and the museum that supposedly had a nice exhibit about the history of the Jews in Kaifeng was, well, disappointing to say the least. From here we headed west to Luoyang, where there are famous Buddhist caves with tens of thousands of buddhas carved out of the rock. They were very impressive, although most of the statues were missing their heads, either due to foreign collectors or the government of China, which destroyed all sorts of religious and artistic objects during the Cultural Revolution, though they put a big propaganda sign in front of the caves explaining how the regime has been a big champion of preservation of the caves, as though that makes all the history of destruction disappear.
We also did a day trip to the Shaolin Temple, home of the famous Shaolin kung-fu monks, but though the grounds were still beautiful, the whole place has taken on an air of Disneyland, and we could only imagine how great it would have been to be able to visit it 15 years ago.
Our next stop was the famous city of Xi'an, with the largest mausoleum in the world, containing the famous Terracotta Warriors. This is the second most important sight to see in China after the Great Wall, according to most visitors. The first emperor of China had a humongous underground city created for himself, complete with over 6 thousand lifesize terracotta statues of warriors, each with a unique face, holding real weapons to guard the tomb. Something like 150 servants, as well as the emperor's sisters and brothers, were buried alive or sacrificed so that the emperor wouldn't have to enter the next life alone. A while back, the roof caved in and knocked down all the statues, so they are painstakingly reconstructing them all and putting them back in their original positions, but they have only done about a thousand so far. It will be stunning if and when they ever finish the job.
From here we headed to Pingyao, a cute, well-preserved Ming Dynasty town with lots of huge old houses that have been turned into museums so we can see how people lived hundreds of years ago. And then on to Datong, which is in the center of the coal mining area and one of the most polluted cities in China, but also is home to the Hanging Monastery - a Buddhist monastery built on the side of a cliff - and the Yungang Grottoes, a series of breathtaking caves carved out of rock with statues of buddhas up to 17 meters high. Tens of thousands of people (slaves) labored for a very long time to make them, and since they are a bit out of the way, they weren't destroyed like the other caves we saw. Incidentally, these were built first (around 470AD), but when the capital of the empire was moved to Luoyang, they just gave up construction of the caves in the middle and started over at Luoyang. So much of what we saw these weeks is so wasteful. It's really quite amazing how wasteful people are when they have thousands of slaves to do whatever they want.
And lastly we came to Beijing, where we spent 6 days. We did the obligatory visits to the Forbidden City (the old imperial palace) and the Temple of Heaven, which are being restored for the Olympics, so some of the buildings look shiny and new and some are totally covered in scaffolding. We spent one day at the Great Wall and did a 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, and basically had the wall to ourselves (and the others in our bus). It was a beautiful hike and definitely the best way to do the Wall these days, as the most famous portion is entirely overrun by tour groups. And obviously seeing the Great Wall was one of those weird and amazing experiences of something you've heard about so much that it sounds almost mythical until you are finally face to face with it.
Beijing was very interesting. It was quite modern and quite touristy. In fact, it, too, is starting to feel a little like Disneyland. Additionally, probably the majority of the city is under construction. Much of what we saw will not exist within a couple years. It's a weird thought, but I'm glad we could see it now. Already many of the restaurants and stores in the guidebook, from 2005, have disappeared. It was a little frustrating to get around, but the city has quite a bit of character for a big city.
So in summary, China is a fascinating place to visit. It is changing faster than any country I have ever seen. They have a long way to go, though. Having been there and really feeling like I've gotten to know the place a bit, I'm worried for the future of the country. The people and the government are extremely nearsighted as a general rule. They want to jump ahead, but they don't think about the consequences of their actions. Seeing how individual people act, it's not surprising to me that they have become so polluted. As a culture, people are generally quite rude. There doesn't seem to be a way to say 'excuse me' - instead you just shove people out of the way. Poking them in the face with your umbrella and hitting them with the side of your vehicle also apparently don't warrant a second thought. People don't form lines to wait for things - instead there is wild pushing and shoving and whoever gets his hand or face in front first gets helped first. Most people seem to think most about the immediate benefit to themselves of their actions, rather than the impact on others or even on themselves in 5 or 10 years. On an individual level it's simply annoying, but as a country, it means they are so excited to be modernizing that they don't care that it's slowly killing them.
And the place is full of propaganda. The government is making a great effort to show the people of China and the rest of the world how great and modern they are. Plus, since the news is heavily censored, the people of China have no way to find out how bad it really is. But in trying to modernize so fast, China is skipping the steps that will allow it to sustain the modernization in the long term. And that's scary for them and for the rest of the world that will also be living with the environmental consequences.
So I've rambled on once again, but it's been a month and lots has happened. There's lots more, but I wont write it all here. Just wanted to share with you all a few thoughts and observations from my time here. I've been very fortunate to get the opportunity to see China now and to really immerse myself in the place. I only wish I could stay a few more months and see even more, though preferably the less polluted parts.
I'll be in New York for the next two days, so anyone who is in town should please contact me and hopefully I'll be able to see a few of you. I'll send another update once we've made some progress on the apartment search in Brussels, where you will all be welcome to visit once we have a place of our own.
Please let me know about all your summer adventures. Hope you've enjoyed the season as much as I have.

Adventure map for 2009...