Editor’s note: This story is one in series by Dr. Robert Burke, a local doctor who is sharing his experiences from a recent trip to Asia.
Like the Taoist concept of Yin/Yang, China and the world chase after each other creating change. China changed little during the millennia of rule by imperial dynasties. Perhaps the cultural revolution and decades of communism invoked change, but the real drivers of westernization were the opening of its doors to foreign investment, embracing the internet, and allowing its people to travel freely. The 4.5 billion annual foreign visits by its citizens is likely to continue to drive this change not only for China but for the world. Already a current global economic, military, and political power, China pursues a liberal managed capitalism while clinging to a conservative, autocratic rule of “Marxist Socialism with Chinese characteristics” (President Xi Jinping). Curious about this China, Bonnie and I joined a 19-day Viking tour.
China is shaped like a rooster, and has a billion more people than America, within a similar area. Three-fourths of its people live in the dragon-shaped “belly” area defined by the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. Our itinerary began in Shanghai, followed an 800-mile journey up the Yangtze River to Chongqing, and explored much of central China before it ended in Beijing.
Shanghai is the financial heart of the rooster. Its Bund is a harbor area famous for its dazzling night lights, colonial architecture and modern cityscape. Despite a harsh rain, the Yuyuan Garden and pavilions of Old Shanghai, dating to the Ming Dynasty, were enjoyable. At the Shanghai Historical Development Museum, the growth of this city comes to life. A taste of Shanghai was experienced as we took in panoramic views of the city and its pollution from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, visited with silk-embroidery artisans, and enjoyed an incredible performance by the Shanghai acrobatic Troupe.
By Chinese standards, Wuhan is a second-tier city of only 11 million people, 10 percent of which are university students. Considered the “Chicago of China”, the world’s largest skyscraper is being built there in the “birthplace” of the Republic. Following an orchestral performance with traditional Chinese instruments and a visit to the Science Museum, we embarked here on our river journey. The Yangtze River is muddy and commercially congested. From the glacial mountains of Tibet, it carries a half-billion tons of sediment along its course to the China Sea. Pollution from factories and cities creates a persistent haze and has endangered much Yangtze wildlife. Our daily on-board routine included early morning Tai Chi lessons, and opportunities to play Chinese-style Majong, visit with artists, and attend lectures on Chinese culture.
Confucius, Buddhism, and Taoism have greatly influenced the Chinese with emphasis on virtues of saving face, humility, and propriety. Many Chinese embrace myths and legends, and believe in symbolism of animals, numbers, colors, and zodiac signs. Fireworks are used to celebrate births, marriages, deaths and major events. Social mores such as suppression of women and arrangement of marriages are changing slowly. Generations of families continue to live together for support. We also learned about the Chinese cuisine (eight types), language (500+ dialects), and economy. China is a cash and carry country, and its GDP is driven largely by construction. With a population of 1.4 billion, China has no true “socialism”. Education and healthcare are mostly available only to the wealthy and connected. Limited and poorly regulated healthcare is available, but only in the cities. Sixty percent of the educated wealthy leave this country because of its pollution, for opportunities, and to escape the law. This “brain drain” has led to many government incentives to return/keep these people.
The Three Gorges Dam area, and a lesser gorges area were the most beautiful regions along the river. Clearer skies, forested hills, terraced farms, and scenic limestone cliffs and coves were enjoyed from the ship, and also from a sampan boat excursion along a tributary of the Yangtze. This dam is huge and reportedly is the largest generator of power in the world. At Shibaozhai, we visited the picturesque “Precious Stone Fortress”. We engaged local vendors, walked over a suspension bridge, and climbed a tower to a beautiful Buddhist-style pagoda and temple built into the 164-ft rock which was believed to have been one of the stones used by the mythical goddess Nu Wa to save the universe.
Chongquing is the largest city in China. Its thirty-four million people are spread over an area that is 300 miles wide by 350 miles long and boasts over 20,000 high-rise apartment buildings and 13,000 bridges. Air pollution here is bad, as it is in Shanghai and Beijing. Here is where we disembarked, with an overnight stay. Its General Stilwell and Flying Tigers museums honor America for its role in supporting China in the war against Japan. Nearby in the hillsides of Dazu, there are 75 sites of incredible ancient stone sculptures (over 50,000) and paintings that depict Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist beliefs. We visited the Baodingshan site where statues had been carved from the cliffs and caves during the fourteenth century.
The main attraction in Lijiang is the 800 years-old Dayan (Old Town) which preserves the Naxi people’s culture. The Residence of Dr. Joseph Rock, author who introduced the world to the Naxi culture, is located in the Yuhu Village on its outskirts. In the Dayan market, there are incredible displays of vegetables, grains, fish, eggs, and other goods. Most dramatic is the meat market, where an array of small animals (chickens, rabbits, ducks, quail) can be chosen alive from their cages for fresh slaughter and preparation. The local restaurants in the old town feature very popular hot-pot cuisine. The Mu Family (founders of ancient Lijiang) residence is a beautifully preserved acreage of landscaped ponds, bonsai trees, and ornate pagoda style buildings. On the hill above is the Wangu Tower, the epitome of Chinese pagoda architecture with much Naxi culture symbolism. Constructed in memory of the 1996 earthquake, it provides panoramic views of Lijiang, contrasting the Dayan in the East with modern Lijiang in the West.
Best known for its Panda research and preservation base, Chengdu is a second-tier city of fifteen million people with much history. The Sanxingdui museum exhibits bronze masks, statues, pottery and many historic relics of jade, stone, and gold from the Shu kingdom of the 12th century BC. Recent archaeological findings here date back 5,000 years, supporting that Chinese civilization developed from several centers, not just the plains of the yellow river. Our tour of the panda center was fascinating and informative. There were dozens of adult and baby pandas being lazy, primarily moving only to get bamboo to eat. By contrast, several rare red pandas, which resemble the raccoons to which they are related, were quite active. Pandas are endangered in part because many (70% females; 90% males) are sterile. Researchers have developed 64 species of bamboo to safeguard against disease and subsequent panda starvation. Before leaving Chengdu, we enjoyed a Sichuan opera performance replete with colorful costumes, magical mask-changing acts, acrobatics, fire-breathing dragons, and the traditional music of a two-stringed muqin and a gong.
Our comfortable bullet train ride through four long mountain tunnels and past beautiful countryside ended three to four hours later in Xian, home of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. Xian was the geographic terminus of the 6,000-mile “silk road” that influenced so much of civilizations in Europe, Asia, and Africa. It reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum is an active archeological dig where pieces of warriors, chariots, horses and other statues are meticulously dug, pieced together, and lacquered. There are four main buildings, one of which houses over 6,000 terra cotta warriors in original trenches, said to have been built to accompany the emperor in the hereafter. Two displays of a warrior in a chariot with horses took thirty archeologists six years to re-construct. The discovery of this site in 1974 may have been missed if the farmer digging a well had shifted it by several feet!
Our sojourn ended in Beijing, formerly Peking, capital of China. First, we took a traditional rickshaw ride through the old town to visit a resident in the Hutong area. Afterwards, we enjoyed a tea ceremony at the historic bell tower. History came to mind as we visited the famous Tiananmen Square, which can hold a million people and lies in front of the Great Hall of the People and Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. It is the “front door” to the Forbidden City, once an imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties, but now is a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex with 980 buildings and 9,999 rooms, all protected by a moat and high wall. Although we also strolled along the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs, visited artisans at a jade carving factory, feasted on Peking duck, and attended an acrobatic performance of Kung Fu, nothing was more exhilarating than to hike along the top of the Great Wall. This thirty-foot-high, twenty-foot-thick engineering marvel was started in 200 BC. At least 4,000 miles of its original 6,200 miles has been preserved. We hiked several miles along the Badaling Hills area, reportedly the most scenic and best-preserved portion of the wall, at the highest point of the Guangou gorge. Here the air seemed fresh, the skies were blue, and the serpiginous course of the wall with its towers along the mountain ridges resembled a dragon. That is perhaps a fitting symbol of the power, strength, and mystique of modern day China.