Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fri, Sept 16th -- Shanghai... last day

Sights: none, unless you count shopping as sightseeing :-)

Our last day in China was planned from the outset to be a free day...
our first since arriving two and a half weeks ago. We had a lazy
morning, then met a venture finance colleague of mine, who had
recently relocated to Shanghai, for lunch at an excellent dumpling
restaurant in a trendy area of restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and
galleries called Xintiandi. It reminded us of Quincy Market in
Boston, which was, my colleague told us, not unsurprising: it was
designed by an architect who also worked on Quincy Market.

My colleague's fund has a number of investments in Shanghai startups,
one of which is doing a high-profile IPO and another of which, at the
same time, is going out of business... so he is a busy guy at the
moment. It was interesting to hear his description of the business
world in China: in a word, cut-throat. The winding down of the
second company shouldn't affect the IPO of the first -- VCs always
have companies that are going out of business, it's the nature of the
game -- but in China such a thing if it became known would be seized
on by competitors of the company doing the IPO to cast doubt upon its
financial viability and motives for going public... and this, whether
logical or not, might spook potential investors. So, after lunch he
left to do some dancing on eggs.

Afterwards Madeleine and Lidia wandered around Xintiandi and
Tianzifang (another similar area), while I weighed the alternatives of
doing some more sightseeing, or going back to the hotel and reading
and finishing up blogging the trip. No prize for guessing which
alternative won out :-).

Around 8PM the intrepid shoppers showed up, having (as they had pre-
announced) bought very little, their goal having been to see what was
fashionable in Shanghai and to get a better feel for the city.
Shortly thereafter Bella arrived to shepherd us to the maglev train to
the airport, which we had decided to take in preference to the
minivan. The fastest train in the world, the maglev takes under seven
and a half minutes to go 30km from the outskirts of Shanghai to Pudong
airport, hitting a top speed of 431kph (268mph). It was
simultaneously exciting and underwhelming, since, as I had sort of
expected, you can't really appreciate the speed from the train,
particularly at night.

The formalities were handled quickly and efficiently, and after a
dinner of noodles and fried rice in the business class lounge, at
11:40PM our plane took off for the eleven and a half hour night flight
back to Munich. Our Chinese trip was over.

I'm a little zonked as I write this, a few hours after getting home
after the night in the plane, so I'm not going to try to draw any deep
conclusions or to generate brilliant insights at this time (unlikely,
I'll grant you, even when I'm not zonked!). I'll just give my spur of
the moment response to the question I posed, and gave an interim
answer to, before Xi'an: would I come back to China again? And the
answer is (Madeleine is going to love this): yes and no. I didn't
really have any negative experiences, other than finding the poverty
and grime off-putting, so I would feel quite comfortable going back to
China, but I don't feel like I either have to or particularly want
to. On the one hand, I had enough positive experiences, particularly
in Xian, Chongqing and Shanghai, to outweigh the initial negative
impressions of Beijing and Shanxi, but on the other there was nowhere
I fell in love with, nothing which I really want to see or experience
again. I'm glad I went, it was thought-provoking, I saw some
beautiful things, and many interesting things, but given a week to
spend in Paris (or London, or the Alps, or northern Italy...) or a
week to spend in China, I'd go to Paris.

Thu, Sept 15th -- Shanghai

Sights: Shanghai Museum, 88th floor observation deck, Old Town, Yu garden, Huangpo cruise, acrobatic show, nightime walk along the Bund.

Despite the number of sights, Bella had suggested a later start -- 10AM -- so we were well rested by the time we got into the minivan the next morning. On the way to the museum she proceeded to tell us most of the things that she had told us the night before on the way to the hotel, so when we arrived and she proposed letting us wander around by ourselves for a couple of hours (saying that there were English labels and information panels) we didn't suggest that she accompany us to provide more explanation. A pity, because while the exhibits did indeed have English labels, they generally didn't provide any context or explain why the exhibits were important and/or interesting. On the other hand, with her version of the IvyIvy disease it isn't clear that it would have been better with Bella....

After a feeble lunch (not a tragedy because we had eaten breakfast... and buffet breakfasts followed by generally good restaurant lunches and dinners each and every day have been doing a number on my waistline -- as soon as we get back, I'm going on a diet!) we crossed the river to Pudong to be lofted to the 88th floor of a building for a panoramic view of the city. First, however, we had to negotiate a rather small revolving door, which wouldn't normally have presented much of a problem, had it not been for a gaggle of Chinese tourists (from the provinces, I'd guess), who were trying to enter at the same time.

Now, the Chinese, despite their many and manifest talents and achievements, have never learned how to queue, so despite the fact that there was no rush (the inside lobby was empty) they were all pushing and shoving to get into what should have been a one person at a time revolving door, with the result that, when six managed to cram in to one section together, it jammed. Sigh. I think it's about time to go home.

Eventually, though, we did manage to get in and up. For practically the first time during the whole trip the skies were blue and visibility excellent, so the views were stunning... except to the east, where an even taller building (another 22 stories, I believe) was in the way. And shortly the view to the south will also be affected, where yet another "tallest building in Asia!") is under construction. From which you may conclude that Shanghai is yet another Chinese city being modernized and developed at hyperspeed.

As in Xi'an, however, the urban planning department seems to be excellent. Pedestrian areas and small parks have been left along the riverside in many places, trees have been planted throughout the city, many of the new buildings are very attractive, and there are some lovely early 20th Century commercial and residential streets that have been left with plane trees on both sides. Shanghai, or at least the tiny part of it that we have seen, seems to be a very liveable city.

After an ear-popping descent in "the fastest elevator in China!", we drove over to and then wandered around the Old Town, a bazaar-like tourist trap of largely new Ming and Qing style buildings. In the middle of it, however, is a genuine Ming dynasty garden with a maze of paths, pavilions, rocky outcrops, and pools packed into two acres that achieves the unlikely feat of seeming much larger while remaining claustrophobic. The mid-afternoon heat and swarms of visitors didn't help -- this was one of the few times in China that we have felt crowded. Crowds aside, the garden was interesting, but not my style. I like rocks to be smoothly rounded and massive, points of interest in a garden of trees and plants, whereas the Chinese like their rocks full of holes and rough karstic surfaces, with the trees and plants as the foreground figures framed by artificial rocky outcrops.

One interesting thing that we did learn from Bella, however, is that the Chinese, among their many other superstitions, believe (or in this case, perhaps, believed) that zigzag paths are lucky because ghosts can only travel in straight lines. And just outside the Yu garden was a pool crossed by a nine zigzag bridge. Quite lovely.

Another superstition that the Chinese have is that the number four is unlucky. So, rather like with with the number 13 in the west, buildings don't have a fourth floor. But the Chinese go much farther. For example you rarely see a car license plate with a "4"... It would have near-zero resale value That is of course relatively harmless, but when expressed as an obsession with the healing properties of parts of rare and endangered animals such as tigers and rhinos, their superstitious nature can be very pernicious... Chinese demand for traditional medicinal remedies is one of the main forces behind illegal poaching the world over that is driving some species to the brink of extinction.

Next we took an hour-long cruise along the Huangpo River, with lovely views of the city from angles complementary to the panoramas we had seen from above. Here too Bella left us alone, explaining that it was hot outside on the open top deck, which is where we wanted to stand because it had the best views, and that anyway she had taken the cruise many times before. Not going to get the Guide of the Year award, I'm afraid....

Dinner was better than lunch, although not wonderful, and then we saw the acrobatic show which was. Wonderful, I mean. Cirque de Soleil caliber acts... entrancing. And we finished up the evening with a walk along the Bund -- the old European waterfront promenade that is the best place from which to watch the light shows on the Pudong skyscrapers on the other side of the river. Many other people, mostly Chinese, were doing the same, a few street vendors plied their wares, brighlty lit boats went back and forth along the river... and if it hadn't been for the incongruous larger than life statue of Mao, one wouldn't have known that one was in a communist autocracy.

Sent from my iPad

Friday, September 16, 2011

Weds, Sept 14th -- Three Gorges Dam and travel to Shanghai

Sights: the DAM

Last morning on the boat. Last batch of 7AM announcements. I don't think I'll miss IvyIvy. We packed and I settled the bill and decided on tips. Our itinerary for the day kindly laid out what was expected from us (about triple what the travel agency had told us should be the maximum), justifying their figures with a crew number (125) that had to be at least double, and maybe 4x, the actual crew size. In addition they wanted us to compensate IvyIvy separately... which wouldn't have left her a rich woman if she had not had a conversation with Lidia in which she explained what a hard life she had (which we believe -- she seemed to work around the clock), and which rendered her human in our eyes.

After breakfast we set off for our tour of the DAM... by many measures the largest in the world. After the amazing locks yesterday night, I was hopeful... but once again it was foggy/hazy, so we couldn't see that much. For example the other side of the dam was invisible, which rather limited its size wow factor. And the already poor visibility was not helped by the fact that the viewing sites were set quite far back from the dam itself. What we could see looked impressive, but I wasn't blown away. And the information center was (typically for China) primarily focussed on selling us stuff. So, disappointing.

We were met at the boat by our new guide Daniel, who reminded me a little of a relative of mine who can't stay still -- always jumping up and down or fiddling with something. He didn't have much to do -- basically to ferry us through town to the airport -- which was probably just as well, because I'm not sure that we would have gotten much of interest from him if he had had sights and history to explain to us. We are supposed to fill out and sign assessment forms for each guide, then sign and seal them in envelopes (with another signature over the seam) and give them back to the guide to be sent to the travel agency. Few guides actually followed through on the entire procedure... usually withholding the envelope, which left one a little inhibited about giving unvarnished feedback. Daniel was the winner in this department -- he just wanted the signature... said we didn't have to fill anything else out. Efficient, I suppose....

The plane was delayed an hour (which makes three of four flights in China -- something to bear in mind if you are planning a trip there), but once again books and iPad made the time (even if not the plane) fly. In Shanghai we were met as reliably as always at the exit from baggage claim by our next guide, Bella, one of those ageless Chinese women who could be 25 or 40. Her English seemed fairly good, but what we have come to call a "Chinese conversation" on the way to our hotel revealed limits.

A "Chinese conversation" is one in which you ask a question, and you get an unclear answer that leaves you unsure whether or not the question was understood. So you ask again, with different phrasing to try to make your question clearer... only to get another, usually different, response that leaves you as confused as before. We went around three times on the question as to whether she had ever taken the Maglev train from Shanghai to the new airport before I gave up. We've had a lot of these conversations during the trip....

We ran into some traffic on the way to our hotel, which was on the edge of the Old Town in the center of the city, an experience that was repeated several times the following day. Although Shanghai has clearly been building and widening roads at a frenetic pace, it hasn't kept up with traffic growth. Lots of of lights and color on the buildings, lots of advertizements for global brands... the first impression was that it was glitzy, but we couldn't see too much in the dark. We checked in, had an OK dinner in the hotel, and then spent the rest of the evening catching up on the world after three days without Internet access.

Tue, Sept 13th -- Yangtze

Sights: Gorges, Shennong Stream, Locks on Three Gorges Dam

We were woken again before 7AM by the dulcet tones of IvyIvy announcing breakfast (four times -- twice in Chinese, and twice in English). Since we weren't planning to go on the morning excursion to the nearby city, we could have gone back to sleep... except that we knew that there would be at least a dozen other announcements before the excursion left at 8, that breakfast would be cleared away by 7:45, and that lunch wasn't going to be until 1PM. So we threw on some clothes, had breakfast (with everyone else, none of whom planned to go on the excursion, but who had reached identical conclusions)... and then we all went back to bed. I'm not sure that repeat visitors is one of the metrics that the cruise ship company tracks....

We started the passage of the first gorge around 10:30AM, but I have to say that although I liked it I didn't find it dramatically more impressive than the river valley upstream. There were two main reasons: first, it was particularly foggy/hazy (as opposed to just normally foggy/hazy) so we couldn't see very far, and second, the dam downstream has raised the level of the water by 60-80 meters in the gorges, which perhaps isn't that much compared to the at times several hundred meters high rock walls, but which has eliminated any visible current, making it more like going through a fjord than a river gorge. On the other hand, perhaps it was just a case of having too-high expectations.

After lunch we went on an excursion up what was described as an idyllic side valley, first on a fair-sized ferry, then on a small wooden boat rowed by four or five men from the Tujia "minority people". The side valley and turned into a canyon and was quite scenic, although it too was much less impressive (at least in the parts we went through) than it would have been when the water level was much lower, and the men instead of rowing would have stripped almost naked and pulled the boat up rapids (as shown in the photo on the front of the brochure we were given...). Not the first time sights in China have been oversold.

And the idyllic nature of the area was also somewhat impacted by the astounding concrete towers (which soared at least a couple of hundred meters above the river) that are being built to support a new superhighway that will cross the side valley just before the entrance to the canyon. On the other hand, the construction was truly impressive!

The most interesting thing about the excursion was perhaps the thoughts it provoked about China's minority peoples. To start with, it may be a bit of cliché, but at least to this outsider they really do all look the same... or at least, similar: there's enough variety in appearance among the Han majority that (with a couple of exceptions) I wouldn't know that someone was a member of an ethnic minority unless they either dressed up in traditional garb or told me so.

Next, I suspect that for many members of minorities (with a couple of major exceptions, such as Tibetans or Uigurs), their ethnicity is irrelevant except in so far as it confers advantages. For one thing, it allows them to make money in ways that normal Chinese couldn't (such as by rowing boats up the Shennong stream... which may be hard work, but almost certainly is less hard and significantly more lucrative than working in the fields, which is probably what these guys would have been doing otherwise). For another, they are permitted two children instead of one (although this might be a bit misleading, since the one child policy was relaxed some years ago in the countryside (i.e., outside of towns and cities)... which is probably where most of the minorities live).

In sum, there may be pervasive discrimination in other ways against minorities in China, although I haven't seen or heard that this is the case, but on the surface it seems like their situation is not bad.

A last observation: we saw very little wildlife -- animals or birds -- while going up the side stream... and in fact we have seen very few animals or birds anywhere in China thus far, quite striking when compared with suburban and country areas in Europe or the US. Pollution? Hunting? Avoidance of noise? Too many people? All of the above?

In the evening after dinner we started our four-hour passage through the five-stage locks of the Three Gorges Dam. Each lock is 280m long, 35m wide, has gates over 40 meters high, and can raise or lower ships 20m (for a total of 100m). The scale is awe-inspiring, almost too big to take in until the ship was actually in the lock... along with five other large ships. I thought our cruise ship was fairly large... but it was dwarfed by the locks. Tremendously impressive.

But long, and with another 7AM wake-up ahead of us we went to sleep in mid-transit around midnight.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mon, Sept 12th -- Yangtze

Sights: the Ghost City of Fengdu

We were woken at 6:45AM by the ships PA system, thoughtfully piped into our cabins, announcing breakfastbreakfast (it was IvyIvy again), and so we (but not Madeleine... are you serious?) dressed and went to the restaurant. We had been assigned to a table, so we got our food and took stock of our table companions (who it turned out we were to sit with for the rest of the cruise). A motley bunch, but, it turned out, quite compatible -- the social interactions were perhaps the best part of the trip.

From youngest to oldest: a German student nearing the end of a two month summer internship teaching English in a Chinese Kindergarten in Chongquing, two tall and very blonde Norwegian nurses in the midst of a three month world tour (they had reached China on the Transsiberian railway), an Australian couple (the quietest of the group... I didn't learn much about them), and a retired American couple from Phoenix, he knowledgeable and charming, she funny, loud, very opionated (but not abrasively so), and very, very social (as she told us, you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but you can't take Brooklyn out of the girl!). We laughed a lot and also hung out together when away from the table.

About half the passengers were foreigners, and half Chinese, which was good, because although we didn't mingle, it didn't feel like a "made for foreign tourists" experience.

At 8:30AM we left the ship to see the Ghost City, which was mostly a disappointment -- despite being a real Buddhist temple, it felt a little Disneyfied (an impression which was heightened by our useless local guide, whom we abandoned shortly after getting into the site), and then the rest of the day we spent relaxing for almost the first time since getting to China. Madi and Lidia got pedicures or facials or massages or some such beauty treatments, I caught up on blogging (I had fallen behind due to the hectic pace of the previous days and to the fact that I had battled a cold for a couple of days, which left me with less energy for creative work... yes, this is both creative and work!), and from time to time we sat on our deck and admired the views.

The Yangtze is a huge river, and even when it isn't going through gorges, it has cut itself an impressive valley. On top of that, there were many towns along the banks, with stunning bridges from time to time across the Yangtze... almost all of which (towns and bridges) were new, because the construction of the Three Gorges dam (about which more later when we see it) raised the water level all the way back to Chongqing... some 450km upriver... flooding many old towns and roads, requiring them to be rebuilt higher up the valley sides. Officially some 1.3 million people were relocated... but I wouldn't be surprised if the figure was much higher. Although the valley is not as densely populated as other places we have seen in China (the terrain is often very rugged), there were a lot of good-sized towns along the way.

All in all, I found it very impressive... and again I found myself reaching for fantasy and science fiction for comparable images -- I can't think of anywhere else that I have seen in the real world that is quite like it. The books that came to mind was Robert Silverberg's Majipoor series, set on a world with an immense, world-girdling river, along which the main character makes his picaresque way. If you have read them, it felt a little like that. If not, forget this paragraph ;-).

In the evening before dinner there was the captain's welcome cocktail party. I've never been on a cruise before, so this sort of organized social event was new to me, but I suspect that even if I had been on cruises, I wouldn't have seen something quite like this. The captain after being introduced by IvyIvy, stepped forward and barked at us for a few minutes -- more Japanese than Chinese it seemed to me -- before signalling the end of his speech by applauding himself in the best communist style (or at least, so I am informed by Lidia, who saw many such events while growing up in Romania). Then some of the other crew members were introduced, and duly applauded. Then the individual cabins and groups were called up to have their pictures taken with the captain, with a beautifully dressed hostess kneeling on either side in front and holding up a gaudy banner with the name of the cruise ship. It was all quite surreal....

One last thing: unfortunately there is no Internet on the boat, so this, and the previous blog posts I have caught up on, won't be sent until we get to Shanghai. Sorry for the delay....

Sun, Sept 11th -- Chongqing, boarding the Yangtze Cruise boat

Sights: Dazu rock carvings, Huguang Family Association

After a short night we woke up and opened the curtains of our 30th floor window to enjoy the view only to see, well, not much, because we were surrounded by even higher buildings. Next door, for example, a 70 story building was being finished, but that, our new guide -- Alan -- informed us, was nothing special: the tallest building in Asia is under construction in Chongqing.

And that's the city in a nutshell: built, and being built, on a huge scale. For a start there are the two massive rivers coming together (it wasn't clear to me at first which was the Yangtze!), then there is the almost mountainous terrain upon which the city is built (from the rivers and the bridges the city rises up around you like a bowl -- so you can see much more of it than you can in a city built on flat ground), then there are the hundreds of skyscrapers and the massive new civic buildings, and lastly there is the sheer size of the central city -- some 8 or 9 million people, Alan said. Breath-taking. The only city that I've seen that is comparable, at least in size and setting, is Istanbul.

Alan was in his early thirties, spoke pretty good English, was friendly and helpful, and didn't seem to be infectious (but it is probably still to early to tell for sure :-(. I asked about earthquakes, thinking of the major quake a couple of years ago next door in Sichuan, but he said that that the city isn't in a seismic zone and had suffered no damage from the quake. Since, however, it is surrounded by two concentric rings of mountains (which is odd geologically-speaking... I'll have to read up on it when I'm back) there must have been some serious upthrusting at some point. Hope it's over....

Dazu is about two and a half hours drive from central Chongqing, so we had plenty of time to observe the Sichuan countryside. Well, technically it isn't Sichuan, but that's only because the powers that be carved off eastern Sichuan and defined it as Chongqing... geographically and historically it is part of Sichuan -- a large and fertile low-lying region with a strong regional identity due to being cut off from northern China and the eastern coastal plains by high mountain ranges with 3000+ meter peaks, and with a lower, but still significant mountain range to the east, and steep hills to the south.

Anyway, the countryside seemed fairly prosperous, at least in comparison to Shanxi (which we had seen from the trains to Datong and Pingyao). Like Shanxi it was being intensively farmed, with every little bit of land, it seemed, in use. But unlike Shanxi, which has large flat areas, much of the land seemed very uneven -- unsuitable for modern, mechanized farming. Knowing that the young are abandoning the countryside for the cities I asked Alan who was working the farms these days. He said, mostly old people. As they retire, I wonder what is going to happen to China's agricultural production....

The carvings in Dazu were more amusing than stunning, educational rather than devotional. Made during the Ming dynasty, they were intended to teach visitors correct Buddhist behaviour (such as vegeterianism, teetotalism, and filial piety) as well as the consequences of not doing so. I've not seen depictions of hell in Buddhist art before... very amusing, with monstors sawing off legs, chewing on body parts, and doing various other depraved things with those flawed souls heading away rather than towards Nirvana. Heaven seemed very dull in comparison.

On the way back to Chongqing, when not napping, I tried to derive the rules underlying the apparent chaos of Chinese traffic etiquette. For while it appears chaotic, we have only seen the aftermath of one minor accident in forty plus hours of driving in China, so I figured there must be an underlying order. As far as I could tell the basic principles are:

o smaller should give way to larger unless ahead
o drive fairly slowly under normal circumstances, and more slowly if there is the possibility of misunderstanding
o beep your horn if there is any possibility that you has been overlooked, or might be overlooked, by other traffic participants
o overtake wherever and whenever -- somehow it will work out
o do not wait for a gap in traffic when joining flow, changing lanes, or crossing a road: a gap will form without fuss (perhaps due to the importance of community and conformity in Chinese society, other drivers are remarkably tolerant of this sort of thing)
o pedestrian crossings and indicators are only relevant for pedestrians -- cars turning right or left over pedestrian crossings have right of way
o however, stationary pedestrians and cyclists will be calmly detoured around even if in the middle of traffic
o everyone is calm -- nobody gets angry
o all traffic signs and controls, except for speed limits, are optional

Totally different from Western traffic culture... the first couple of trips in Beijing were nerve-racking, and even after getting used to it I wouldn't have wanted to drive myself. But it seems to work well for the most part. Only the last rule is impractical... at least in cities, where there is the possibility of gridlock (which we saw happen in Xi'an).

We had some time before we needed to board our Yangtze River cruise ship, so Alan suggested we go and see one of the few older buildings remaining in Chongqing (what Japanese bombing didn't destroy in the Second World War, or was "modernized" during the Cultural Revolution, has mostly been replaced by high-rise buildings during the frenetic development of the last 15 years).

The building, actually more a compound covering a couple of acres, was built by a family association in late 17th Century in the early years of the Qing dynasty when Chongqing was being repopulated after the war that ended the Ming. A family association was like a location-based guild: families moving to Chongqing from another city would live with and be helped by former immigrants from that city, and as they became more settled and prosperous they would do the same for those who came later. It was a beautiful place, in which descendants of the families had lived until it was turned into a museum in 2003, with large and elegant rooms for gatherings both formal and informal, and even a couple of small theaters. As the excellent museum guide explained, much of the original furniture and art had been preserved by the families, who buried it during the various upheavals and then dug it up again when things settled down, and it had avoided damage in the Cultural Revolution because it was used by the Red Guards as their headquarters.

The museum guide made one of the few political jokes, or even references, that we have heard in our time here in China. I'm not sure if our regular guides are schooled against it, or if people in China (as used to be the case in Eastern Europe and Russia) are afraid to talk about politics with foreigners, or if everyone is so focussed on getting ahead and making a living that politics is for the moment comparatively unimportant, but we have heard almost no political comments during our time here. The joke came as she pointed out a perspective in which we could see the old buildings, some 10-20 story apartment buildings from 70's (many of which, apparently, were built without elevators!), and new skyscrapers behind them. "Qing, Mao, and now", she said, "and Mao will be gone soon". Respect. We liked the guide.

For dinner we went to a popular restaurant to have hotpot -- a local specialty we know from France and Switzerland as fondue chinoise. The place was full, mostly of locals, and it was cacophonous. The Chinese are a noisy people -- and have a great tolerance for noise -- and for them a successful social gathering is a loud social gathering. Between the fiery spices, the steam rising from the hotpot, and the din on all sides, we felt quite battered afterwards as we drove down to the river.

We boarded our cruise ship, which was a decent size -- I'd guess 150 passengers (although it turned out to be only half-full) -- let ourselves be upsold to one of the Presidential Suites (much more space and a private deck at the front of the ship... well, we told ourselves, we'd probably only cruise the Yangtze once :-), and then attended an amusing orientation given by Ivy, a girl hardly older than Madeleine who was the hospitality director. We called her IvyIvy thereafter, due to her habit of repeating everything twice when speaking to a group. At 10PM we cast off and surrounded by the neon and laser nighttime lightshow of Chongqing (that science fiction feeling again) we motored off downriver.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sat, Sept 10th -- Guilin and travel to Chongqing

Sights: Yang Mountain temple, Reed Flute cave, and Elephant Trunk hill.

We were originally supposed to fly out to Chongqing in the late afternoon, but while on the boat the previous day (and five minutes after Madeleine had expressed a desire to get up late for a change), we received a call from the travel agency saying that our flight had been cancelled, they had rebooked us on a late evening flight, and so our morning program would be shifted to the afternoon. We asked Madeleine not to express any desires for exciting things like earthquakes or typhoons....

So after a lazy morning in the hotel Lily picked us up and over lunch discussed the plan for the day. Basically the problem was that the scheduled activities wouldn't fill the available time. So we added a cablecar trip up a nearby mountain (and turned down a several times reiterated offer to visit a government South Seas Pearl shop (we did the pearl thing in French Polynesia a few years ago...)), as well as a walk around downtown Guilin.

It was, with the exception of the caves, a forgettable day. The haze was back with a vengeance, so we couldn't see much from the top of Yang Mountain. The temple had fallen into ruin centuries earlier and so there was nothing else to see up there. Elephant Trunk hill was just a stone arch next to the Li River. The walk through downtown Guilin was unexciting. And the meals were so-so. On top of that I had the impression that Lily kept pushing souvenir purchase opportunities onto us... and she didn't do a particularly good job of informing and entertaining us either.

The caves were impressive in size and in the variety and complexity of the stalactite and stalagmite formations therein, but the technicolor lighting (very Chinese -- they love color) was a bit garish, and the local habit of spitting everywhere is even less attractive in the echoing location of a cave.

So, all in all we were pleased to have seen the landscape, but we weren't unhappy to leave Guilin... or Lily... behind us.

We arrived at Chongqing airport -- a massive place, as you'd expect for a city of 31 million -- around 11PM, picked up our luggage, met our driver (our guide sent a note apologizing for not being able to be present -- he had a fever, but promised to meet us the following morning (we weren't sure if that was a good thing, but what could we do?)), and were driven to our hotel. In the night Chongqing looked like something out of the movie Blade Runner -- built on a scale far too massive to be real. We checked into our hotel after midnight and were asleep 30 minutes later.

Fri, Sept 9th -- Guilin

Sights: Li River cruise, countryside visit

Our hotel in Guilin was fine, and after a good night's sleep and breakfast Lily picked us up and we drove through Guilin to the boat docks on the Li River. Guilin is a smaller city -- of some 700,000 -- and has the typical tropical/sub-tropical indoor/outdoor lifestyle with open storefronts and restaurants spilling out onto the street. It looks a little scruffy compared to Xi'an, and the town parks seem a little cheesy. But of course the city is not why one comes to Guilin: one comes for the landscape.

The area around Guilin is limestone, and something about the rock and the rainfall has resulted in the formation of thousands of steep sided hills, shaped like skinny watermelons, jutting at times several hundred meters out of the plain. The surreal landscape is one of the iconic images of China, and the boat trip down the Li River showcases many beautiful peaks.

We were fortunate with the weather -- it had rained the night before and the habitual haze had cleared somewhat, so we had good viewing conditions. Actually, aside from the nearly omnipresent haze and/or smog and a few hot days in Beijing at the beginning, we have been very fortunate with the weather on this trip. The only day that it rained was the first day in Xi'an, and then only in the morning and only lightly.

The boat, which could perhaps have seated about 125 people was half-full, with plenty of foreign tourists, and heavily air-conditioned. Fortunately there were several open decks so I spent most of the time outside in the warm breeze (the day was noticeably cooler and less humid than the night before). Sampans, sometimes made of bamboo, more often of PVC pipes (apparently the local authorities want to preserve the big bamboo stands), puttered past, water buffalo and their calves grazed freely in and out of the water on both sides, and a steady parade of tourist boats chugged down the river. I think I mentioned how popular the area is? And despite the parade it was a lovely cruise.

After about four hours we disembarked in Yangshuo, a small town that has developed into a backpacker and adventure tourism center. It was a zoo -- full of souvenir shops, aggressive street vendors, calls to come and see from all sides, and even some disfigured beggars. It wasn't pretty. After fighting our way up from the boat landing and along the main road we hopped into an open taxi for a drive into the countryside to "see rural life". Actually the tour offered us the option of renting bicycles or the taxi but "fortunately" I had hurt my knee again the previous day bicycling on Xi'an's walls (I'm going to have it looked at once we are back in Germany) and so we took the taxi. "Fortunately" because it was a hot and humid mid-afternoon, the traffic was heavy for a few kilometers along the main road until we turned off along a country lane, and the lane afterwards was appallingly bumpy: we wouldn't have had fun if we had cycled.

And suddenly we were in the deep countryside. Small plots of land on each side, some flooded (growing rice, lotuses (the roots are edible), and water chestnuts), some dry with all manner of crops. Many of the houses were still made of mud brick (although new brick and concrete ones were being erected here and there). There was even a farmer ploughing a small plot with a water buffalo. And at one corner there was a gaggle of old and not so old peasant women who punced upon the taxi and tried to sell us things. When that failed, they started to beg. Lidia, always empathic and with a good heart, wanted to give them something, but once she did their begging rose to a fever pitch and she was mobbed... she was almost crying at the end, so buffeted was she emotionally, and so bad she felt for not being able to help them more. I pointed out to her as we drove away that before she goes to India she is going to have to find a way to deal with her emotions as regards beggars... because if she starts to distribute money there, they will gather like flies, and she will end up being buried alive and/or torn apart: there is no end to beggars in India.

We drove off with the women running and screaming behind us, but they soon gave up, and after a few minutes more we turned into the yard of a small farm on the edge of a village. The tour company has an arrangement with the owner of this farm, a widow with more than a little business acumen (she had managed to bring up five children on her own after her husband died young, and now she has struck this deal...), that she keep it more or less in its original rural state (the "less" being the flatscreen TV on the wall of the main room) and welcome tourists like ourselves. In other words, it was real and not real, if you know what I mean.

There was a hand-powered stone mill outside, a similarly powered water pump, pigs in a pen, chickens wandering around, and a small market garden, while inside the walls were bare except for the aforementioned TV, cheap portraits of communist luminary (ultimately farmers did pretty well out of communist land reform compared to their previous status as serfs), and little pictures drawn by her grandchildren. Jars with pickled produce of various sorts and home-made spirits, lined the walls, and there was the absolute minimum of furniture. There was electricity (rural electrification was another major achievement of the Party), and in the kitchen she cooked with gas (produced from decomposing pig manure we were told!). Felt very authentic overall.

It had taken us perhaps 20 minutes along very bumpy roads to get to the farm, and I wasn't looking forward to doing them again, nor to seeing the peasant women once more, but I had a feeling that we might have taken a roundabout route to "set the scene". And indeed when we left the farm it took all of two minutes, along a well-surfaced lane, to get back to the main road. So, file this under "most things in China are both what they seem and not", along with the Xi'an Ming walls I talked about yesterday.

We drove back to the hotel and had dinner with a very nice Indian couple we had met and talked with on the boat earlier in the day. From New Delhi, well educated and with two daughters married and living in the USA, the conversation ranged widely and it was a charming evening.

Thu, Sept 8th -- Xi'an and travel to Guilin

Sights: Xian City Walls, Great Mosque

After a jam-packed day yesterday we were pleased to have a more relaxed program today. Our first stop was at the imposing Ming dynasty city walls -- 15+ meters high and 12 meters wide at the top -- that completely surround the old city (they are 17 km long). Actually, although they are called "Ming dynasty", like many things in China their actual age is a matter of definition. They were originally built in the Ming (1368-1644) but large stretches had become half-ruined, or even dismantled entirely, prior to being renovated and rebuilt in recent years. So, are they Ming or modern?

And if you think the answer is Ming, what about the Tang imperial palace -- four times larger than the Forbidden City in Beijing -- that has recently been rebuilt north of the city? It was apparently so completely ruined that it was rebuilt from foundation traces and contemporary pictures and documents... one can't talk about renovation here. So, is it new or is it Tang? And in many temples the cult buildings are made of wood with tile roofs... which are regularly rebuilt after destruction by fire or rot. How old are they?

It seems to me that in some ways the question "how old" doesn't really make sense for many things in China, and after a while one gives up asking it and just learns to recognize period styles. At any rate, the Chinese don't seem to worry much about whether or not something is original or rebuilt... the Tang palace mentioned above is a major attraction for Chinese tourists (although apparently not (yet?) for Westerners...).

Interesting side note (or, at any rate, interesting to me) -- I've never been that concerned about the antiquity or lack thereof of things I own. I'm just as happy with a new edition of an old work as I would be with a first edition; it makes no difference for me whether a piece of furniture is antique or a modern reproduction (as long as the quality is the same). I must be Chinese at heart :-).

Returning to the walls... very impressive. We rented bicycles (Madeleine and Koko initially sharing a tandem and much laughter -- they are about the same age) and rode along the top of the wall enjoying the views on the inside and the outside. The walls are surrounded by a wide moat, full of water, set within a beautifully landscaped park... just well done, like many other things seen and glimpsed in Xi'an.

Afterwards we had lunch and then drove to the Great Mosque in the center of the city, which, it turns out, is an Islamic quarter (there are about 40,000 Muslims in Xi'an). Once again, very interesting... although this time less for what it was than for what it wasn't: at first look, one doesn't realize that it is a mosque. Architecturally it is very similar to Daoist and Buddhist temples. And then one notices the occasional piece of Arabic script (among the many Chinese inscriptions), and the absence of figurative sculpture, then one sees the washroom.... Apparently when Islam came to China the then Emperor was unconcerned about the religious choices of his subjects... but he cared a great deal about aesthetics. "You can worship who you want, but you'll do it in my architecture" seems to have been his attitude! Says something quite profound about China, actually.

And then it was time to leave Xi'an and, more difficult, to say goodbye to Koko. We really bonded with her over the course of the two days we spent there -- such a sunny character, full of youthful energy but suprisingly wise in many ways. I think we would have liked Xi'an anyway, but Xi'an with Koko we loved. We exchanged cards, promised to stay in touch, and separated with a few tears on both sides.

The flight to Guilin was delayed an hour or so, as Koko had said it probably would be -- the airline (one of several domestic ones) apparently having a poor reputation for being ontime -- but with books and the iPad we weren't bored. There were many other foreigners on the flight... the first time since Beijing that we had seen more than the occasional Westerner: Xi'an and Guilin are two of the "must see" destinations on any tour of China and tourists often make up a significant proportion of the airline passengers between the two cities. In Guilin we were met by our new local guide, Lily, a Chinese woman in her mid-forties, married to an American from Oregon, who did not impress at first, or, unfortunately, later. We came out of the terminal into the late evening and ran into a stifling wall of hot humidity... Miami in summer, we said to one another. Already we missed Xi'an.

Weds, Sept 7th -- Xi'an

Sights: a government souvenir factory, the Terracotta Warriors, the Shaanxi Province museum, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda temple, and the Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show. In other words, a very full day!

Koko picked us up after breakfast and we headed off to the Terracotta Warriors (or, in Koko-speak, the "Turtle" Warriors... there were a few words she had difficulty with :-). This is one of several sights around the world that tout themselves as being the Eighth Wonder... but Xi'an really has a good case to make. More than 8000 larger than life-size pottery statues of soldiers have been unearthed at the burial site of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi -- the first ruler of a united China. But before I talk more about them there is the drive through Xi'an and the government souvenir factory visit to recount.

I like Xi'an! It is furiously modernizing like other large Chinese cities, but here the old seems less run down and the new seems more harmonious. There is a lot of green -- trees and parks -- and the overall impression is of elegant relative prosperity. Very different from Beijing. Perhaps it is just further along the path of modernization, but I don't think that that is the explanation. I may be anthropomorphizing, but it feels to me as if being the capital city of 13 dynasties over 1100 years has left Xi'an with a combination of relaxed self-confidence and good taste that the other cities we have seen so far in China just don't have. Of course, the revenues from the streams of tourists coming to see the Terracotta Warriors probably don't hurt either....

Before we got to the excavation site, we stopped at a dingy-looking building, ostensibly because there one can see scale reproductions of the terracotta warriors being made with the same techniques that were used over two thousand years ago. In reality, of course, it was a shopping opportunity. Our tour company has actually handled that aspect of things pretty well overall -- taking us to a fairly high-class and (important in China!) reputable shop every few days, usually with some sort of educational spin. And despite its dingy exterior the government souvenir shop was actually very good indeed, with some beautiful furniture that, had we had more time and measurements from home, we would have been sorely tempted to buy.

And now, ladies and gentlemen... the Terracotta Warriors! Stunning. First you walk along winding stone paths through beautifully landscaped grounds, then you come upon several large buildings. You go in the first and there, in front of you, in serried ranks in partially excavated pits under an arching roof as big as a football stadium, are thousands of 2+ meter high clay figures. Each figure has a different face, both in features and expression, and there are many different body types. Archaeologists believe that the figures are modelled on real soldiers in the Qin Emperor's army, and they are all lined up facing his tomb mound a few kilometers away, ready to accompany him in the afterlife.

That tomb mound is also fascinating, because despite knowing exactly where it is, and despite having historical accounts testifying to the wonders that are interred within, it has not been excavated. The official reason is that archaeological techniques are insufficiently advanced to guarantee the preservation and protection of what would be unearthed. Apparently the clay figures come out of the ground brightly painted, but almost all of the paint quickly flakes off when exposed to oxygen and humidity, and they want to avoid similar things happening when they open up the tomb. And, who knows, this might indeed be the real reason. But the self-control required of Chinese archaeologists, or, perhaps more likely, their acquiescence when faced with the dictatorial powers invested in the long-tenured site director who refuses to allow the dig to commence, is remarkable.

The Terracotta Warriors were found by chance some 37 years ago by a group of farmers sinking a well. They -- and we -- were very lucky: had the well been 3 meters to one side, it would have missed the pit and the soldiers might still be slumbering underground. Unlike with the emperor's tomb, there were no contemporary accounts of the Warriors that might have led archaeologists to search for them. They actually have no idea how many soldiers are still underground... they have identified over 50 pits... but only a few have been excavated so far. The whole complex, including the tomb mound itself, may be over 50 square kilometers large... the vast majority of which has yet to be explored. The emperor was clearly a world-class megalomaniac. Pretty damn impressive.

On the way back into town to go to the Shaanxi Province museum we stopped for lunch, which was once again very good. Actually, as with shopping opportunities, this is another thing that the tour company has done very well. The tour price includes lunches most days, but rather than pre-ordering fixed "take it or leave it" meals, instead the agency has selected good clean restaurants, set a per-head budget, and then lets us order a la carte from the menu. If we go over the budget, we pay the difference... but the amounts have been so generous that we have, I think, only gone over once... and since we are always trying new things, we usually end up leaving food on the table. It's an excellent system, and we have been very pleased with the quality (and taste!) of almost all of the food we have ordered.

The museum was large, modern, with a good collection and well laid out, but it paled a little in comparison with the sights before and after. The most interesting thing, for me, was how similar the development of Chinese civilization seems to have been to the apparently independent and roughly contemporaneous development of civilization in the Middle East and Meso-America. Why, despite being anatomically modern tool-makers with rituals and art some 50,000 years ago, was it only several thousand years ago that more or less at the same time multiple geographically dispersed groups of humans began putting together the technologies that enable modern civilization (phew! Long sentence...)? Did climatic factors block earlier development (but in places as far apart as Mexico, Egypt, and China?)? Or did it take that long for genetic selection to produce sufficiently sophisticated intelligence (but in parallel in different isolated populations?)? Or were the initial discoveries so unlikely that it took over 40,000 years for someone to make them (in the Middle East), and then subsequently there much more interchange than we know about between the different areas? At any rate, it is an intriguing question....

After the museum came the Great Wild Goose Pagoda -- a delightful Buddhist temple with monks (the first we have seen) and an active community of believers. We climbed the 7 story, 64 meter high pagoda for a great view over the city... which is huge! In fact, despite the temple being at the intersection of several long boulevards (allowing us to see great distances), and despite knowing that the buildings in the sixteen square kilometer old city center were zoned to be much lower than elsewhere, I could not tell in which direction the city center was. As far as one could see, in every direction, there were skyscrapers. Impressive. I think the city has 9 million inhabitants... which isn't large in comparison with Beijing (20+ million) or Chongqing (30+ million), but city population figures are always difficult to compare: sometimes they include vast suburban hinterlands and satellite towns and cities, sometimes they are just the metropolitan core. At any rate, from the top of the pagoda Xi'an seemed no smaller than Beijing. Funny Koko anecdote: at some point she told us that she wouldn't like to live in a big city like Shanghai... :-).

On the way out we passed through the temple gift shop (a standard and unavoidable gauntlet) and, for a change, were captivated. Local artists support the temple by donating paintings and other works that the temple gift shop then sells... and there were some excellent works on display. We ended up buying a beautiful painting of a village in spring-time in what feels to me to be a classic spare style... I'll be interested to hear what you think about it when you see it. We also were given a fascinating short calligraphic demonstration of the development and composition of Chinese characters. Some characters are made up of other, simpler characters. Some "words" or concepts are expressed by multiple separate characters that each have their own meaning but whose meanings are subsumed in the larger "word" (but without obvious boundaries delineating the "word"). And then there are the, to us almost indistinguishable, vowel "tones" (that aren't musical tones) and the fact that despite all these tones so many characters are homophones of one another, and the parallel existence of a (unique?) Pinyin representation (using Latin letters) for each character that Chinese speakers also know.... It was all so interesting that Lidia the linguist has vowed to learn Chinese... or at least enough to have an understanding of how the language works and to say and understand some simple phrases.

The last stop of the long day was at a Las Vegas style custom-built theater where we had dinner and saw a performance of Tang Dynasty music and dance (the Tang was Xi'an's golden age, when for a couple of hundred years it was the largest city in the world). For a change, the food was distinctly unimpressive, being a fixed menu that they had unsuccessfully tried to adapt to Western tastes, but the delightful show more than made up for it. Very graceful dancers, and some virtuoso musicians.

We didn't stay up long after getting back to our hotel around 11PM....

Tue, Sept 6th -- Taiyuan and travel to Xian

Sights: a noble family complex in the countryside on the way to the Taiyuan airport.

We took our leave of Pingyao and drove north towards the capital of Shanxi province, Taiyuan, where we would catch a plane to Xi'an. We were originally scheduled to visit the Double Pagoda Temple in the center of Taiyuan, but we had seen enough from the train to be less than enthralled by the idea of braving the traffic going into and coming out of the city, and Lidia had read in our guidebook about a large family compound with 300 rooms on the way that one could visit. Our guide, Joan, told us that that compound wasn't so interesting, but that there was another compound nearby that was good... so we went there instead.

And indeed it was very interesting. Such family compounds seem to have been comparable to Roman villas, or stately homes in the English countryside -- noble residences with all the comforts available at the time. And in this case with a fair amount of the original furniture and art collection of the family that had lived there. Very impressive, and devoid of tourists since it doesn't yet seem to have made it into guidebooks or travel agency itineraries. We were also fortunate that there was a TV crew filming a period piece there when we arrived, and they had decked the place out with objects and costumed extras that brought the place to life.

Speaking of film stars, we have discovered that we have one in the family, at least according to the Chinese. People are continually coming up to Madeleine and asking if they can either take a picture of her, or have someone else take a picture of them standing next to her. From time to time Lidia and I are hired on as extras, but most of the time it is just Madi. One theory is that those who ask have never seen foreigners before, and indeed it seems like there are more photo requests in places with few Western tourists, or from Chinese tourists at major sights (such as the Great Wall) who probably have come from untouristed places. However, the focus on Madeleine and the fact that a disproportionate number of the requests come from young Chinese men suggests a more flattering explanation. At least, flattering for Madeleine :-(

The flight from Taiyuan to Xi'an, our first in China, went without a hitch. We were met at the exit from baggage claim by our new guide, Koko.. who looked suspiciously young and was in fact just 23, and, as she told us, the youngest employee of her company! Not a good sign, I thought... but fortunately it turned out that I was totally wrong: Koko was a gem. Pretty good English, very well prepared to show and explain things to us, very funny at times, charming, engaging, said when she didn't know the answer to a question (an infuriating habit of many guides is to give you an answer to any question you ask... regardless of whether or not they actually know the answer!) and then checked on the Internet either right then or later to find out what the answer was. As said, a gem.

And the hotel was good too, and dinner the best so far (finally a good Kung Pao chicken!). China seemed better already....

Mon, Sept 5th -- Pingyao

Sights: Pingyao Old Town, an early bank, a couple of temples, and the town administration complex.

We spent the day walking around Pingyao with our guide, Joan. Pingyao, both Joan and our guidebook told us, is one of the best preserved old towns in China, and, if you can ignore the profusion of souvenir stores and hotels and restaurants along the main streets, I suppose that it is, in that there are very few modern buildings within the old city walls. But well-preserved doesn't mean attractive... unless you are attracted (or at least not bothered) by grime and mess and people spitting, and children pissing in the street and the omnipresent reek of coal smoke!

Soooo... this is probably a good moment to give an interim answer to the key question to be posed about anywhere one visits: would you go there again? And for now, for me, the answer for China is no. I didn't much like Beijing as a city, Datong was objectively pretty ugly, and now I'm not exactly loving Pingyao. The Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven were impressive, and I'm glad I have seen them, but I'm generally not interested in seeing sights a second time. Landscapes such as the American West, the Alps, and the English country-side draw me back time and again, as do beautiful and/or fascinating cities such as Paris, London, or San Francisco. But I haven't yet seen any such beautiful landscapes or cities in China. Early days of course -- we are only a third of the way through -- so let's hope it gets better!

Back to Pingyao: the early bank was quite interesting, especially the map showing the network of branches across China... and further -- they even had a branch in London by the mid-19th Century. The Daoist temple was also amusing, because in contrast with the low-key, no-pressure approach of Buddhist temples it seemed much more, well, Chinese. Incense sticks were pressed into my hands, after lighting them I was led through a triple bow in front of the cult figure, and my fortune was read from a book (in Chinese and English) where I was invited to riffle the pages, choose one, and then was shown how that page contained a good fortune while the pages before and after did not. Nice bit of sleight of hand, whose effect was slightly diminished by being repeated... perhaps to show me that it wasn't chance? And then I was invited to sign a guestbook that listed next to each guest's name the amount they had donated :-).

The town god's temple was interesting, both because I hadn't realized that every town in China had a local god to protect it, and also because there was a small shrine to one side dedicated to the architect who had, during Ming times, designed most of the major town structures (wall, administrator's complex, etc.). A very pragmatic people, the Chinese.

And, at times, quite brutal. The town administrator's complex had three main functions: to store taxes, mete out justice, and house the administrator himself. There was a rather unpleasant display of corporal punishment tools and techniques, kindly divided into two sections -- one for normal crimes and one for those meriting the death penalty. They were, apparently, not content with simply killing the condemned... no, they had various ways of almost indefinitely prolonging agony (one panel proudly told us that they could inflict more than 3000 wounds with a knife before the prisoner succumbed). The jail was in use until the latter part of the 20th Century, although one hopes that punishment techniques had become more humane by that time. One last interesting thing: if judgement went against you in a non-capital case, soldiers would beat you with heavy sticks shaped like oars. If your relatives bribed the soldiers, they would beat you with the flat sides, if not, the edges. As said above, a very pragmatic people, the Chinese.

Lunch was good, dinner was better, and once again we went to bed early.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

radio-silent ?

No WiFi in hotel in Chongqing, boat cruise on Yangtze starts tomorrow, may be radio-silent until Sept 15th.

Sun, Sept 4th -- Datong to Pingyao

Travel day to Pingyao.

Up early -- we left the hotel at 7:30AM to catch the train to Pingyao. We probably should have travelled during the night, so as to have an extra day of sightseeing, but when we reviewed the travel agent's itinerary before the trip we didn't realize that "soft sleeper" was a class of travel that could be taken at any time of the day. However, since I have always enjoyed seeing a country from a train, I didn't mind much.

It took almost 8 hours to reach Pingyao, which is towards the southern end of Shanxi province (Datong being at the northern end). Now, Shanxi is big, but it isn't that big -- the train just wasn't that fast. Apparently the same journey can be done in 5 hours by car (but the train is much more comfortable). There is a growing network of high-speed rail lines in China, but they are spreading out from the coast and don't yet link most interior cities.

We went through some hilly and mountainous areas, but for the most part we crossed intensively farmed plains, dotted with grimy and dilapidated-looking villages and small towns. The uneven pace of modernization in China was very evident. In the countryside, except for frequent half-finished interstates (autoroutes / Autobahnen / motorways) there wasn't much sign of progress -- the villages looking like they hadn't changed since imperial times, and the small towns stuck in a gray, dispiriting mid-20th Century communist time warp. The few larger cities along the way, in contrast, seemed to be being developed at a breakneck pace, with forests of cranes throwing up modern buildings and roads in all directions. It is easy to understand why hundreds of millions of people have left the countryside to try their luck in the cities.

As to the land, it was thick flood-plain soil, primarily growing corn. We aren't quite sure what the Chinese do with it all, since it doesn't seem to play a large role in their cuisine as far as we can tell from eating in restaurants, but at least this year there won't be a shortage -- every field was full and green.

We arrived in Pingyao in the middle of the afternoon. Our Datong guide, Joan, had travelled with us (although in a different compartment), and she quickly identified our new driver. Before going to the hotel we visited the Shuanglin Buddhist monastery, which, like every temple and monastery we have seen so far seems to be devoid of monks and priests, and is now primarily being used as a storage place for wooden sculptures and friezes that are unfortunately falling apart. On the plus side there was a gaggle of art students making clay copies, some of them very good, as a way of learning sculpture and the Buddhist tradition in China. They had been there for a week, and perhaps one can hope that somewhere a seed was planted in an artistic temperament that will later lead to better care and maintenance of the country's religious heritage.

Pingyao is a small town of about 100,000, and its outskirts were like those of the small towns we had seen from the train -- dispiriting. Things perked up a little as we got closer to the old town in the center, which is surrounded by an impressive 7km long and 10m high Ming dynasty wall, and the old town itself seems to be being, for the most part, tastefully renovated, although the renovations don't yet seem to have penetrated more than a few steps off the main streets.

Our hotel, the Yide Guesthouse, was a renovated old village house with 18 rooms scattered around a few atmospheric courtyards -- a couple of categories lower than the hotels we had stayed in in Beijing and Datong, but charming and very clean. I took a nap while Lidia and Madeleine went for a short walk, then after a pleasant dinner in the hotel we went to bed early.