Howell Big Trip across the Pacific (Andrew)

Hi folks… it’s Andrew Howell here with a quick update on the Howellbigtrip gang. They are aboard the Hanjin Copenhagen and are currently about 20 miles southeast of the South Korean city of Busan, between Korea and Japan. We know this thanks to the world of cargo ship-tracking technology: check this link out for yourself to see where they are in real time. As to how they are enjoying life in the belly of the Hanjin, I suppose we won’t know for another 2 weeks…fingers crossed…

Also a note that I have added a few photos into the last few blog posts that were sent to me by the intrepid travelers, with a few more to come.


Day 95 (Embry)

June 17


This is a bonus post, since our boat was delayed for a day. Since Joe has been under the weather, I have had several additional adventures in Shanghai without him, and he suggested I fill you in while we are waiting to be picked up and taken to our container ship for the trip home. As before, I am typing straight from my written diary on these last days in Shanghai, starting with the evening of June 13.

I left Joe at the hotel—still feeling “wiped out” and nauseous—while I went with our guide, Vivian, who is wonderful, across town to an acrobatic show at the Shanghai Center Stage Theater. It was sort of like a mini-version of the opening show for the Beijing Olympics in 2010. There were about 7-8 different “acts,” all with amazing costumes and backdrop of a movie screen with beautiful scenery, which changed during the act to add to the atmosphere. For example, for a tumbling act the guys were dressed as warriors and had a war-like landscape in the background. For a romantic scene—with two incredibly graceful acrobats who had a dance-like act climbing up and down scarf ropes—you had a moon and star-lit background and romantic American music. (I was the only American in the audience, I believe; in fact they translated the introductory commentary into English, perhaps for only my benefit. This has happened several times for us here in China.) All the acts were very well choreographed. The most far-out act was the 8 men on motorcycles—real motorcycles—riding around inside a giant ball, which had been wheeled onto the large stage. They were going at an incredibly fast speed in there!

The next day Vivian picked me up to see some more of Shanghai.  First, we went to one of the most interesting things I had seen in China—the “marriage market,” which takes place each Sunday in one of Shanghai’s local parks. Thousands of middle-aged parents (male and female, and sometimes elderly grandparents with them)stand behind a written description of their child who is in search of a mate. The sign (usually without a picture/sometimes with) describes the young person with their age and height (always—tall height is respected here as a sign of higher social status). Other characteristics are also usually listed, such as his/her education, job, and/or place of residence. The sign may also indicate the characteristics that the parents are seeking in their child’s mate. They want the girl, for example, to be of a relatively young age, perhaps in order to be likely to produce their only grandchild.

The indications of social status seem to be the most important basic ingredient for finding the right mate. Of course, the basic characteristics of social status (particularly education) and financial means are incredibly important in the U.S. marriage market, too, but seem to be the dominant factor here. The typical bio-sketch on would always have a picture and emphasize a person’s “extra curricular interests.” (I don’t think the Chinese care about whether their child’s mate likes “walks on the beach at sunset.”)

The question, of course, is what about the young people themselves? They were nowhere to be seen, and  have nothing to do with this phase of the process. Apparently the parents try to find a few eligible young people they approve of  and then introduce them to their children, who then have a “blind date.” They are then free to say “yes” or “no,” or choose their own mate another way (but then have to deal with parental pressure, if the person does not meet their expectations). This system is the modern version of the past practice of “matchmaking” that was prevalent before the Communist era when women became free to choose their own mate and divorce, with the same rights as men to do so.

Next we went to a “silk museum,” which turned out to be primarily a shopping opportunity, but it also provided interesting information on the silk industry in China both historically and today. (A British guy who was there with his tour group told me how the British had “stolen” the knowledge of silk production and taken it to England in the 18th century where it flourished for a while in his home village.) I was a good tourist and bought a silk comforter and a beautiful silk jacket. My suitcase is becoming very hard to close!

Our last stop for the day was the Yu Garden, built as a “Classical Chinese garden” in 1559, during the Ming Dynasty. As with all classical Chinese gardens, it has incredible rock displays representing the mountains (One of the rocks apparently dates to the Song Dynasty, around 1000 AD, and was purchased by the rich official who built the garden.)

This garden also has a famous large dragon statue. I have been fascinated by this architectural detail (the dragon) that adorns many pagoda roofs, particularly in the Forbidden City. It is not only the dragon that usually appears, but also a parade of figures that are described to me as the “dragon’s babies,” which are gargoyle-like figures led by a dignitary riding a “phoenix.” The imperial buildings have the full parade—dragon, 9 dragon babies, and the dignitary—but any other building must somehow modify the ornamentation, or else I was told, “the emperor would come and kill him.” So in the Yu garden the enormous dragon has only three toes; otherwise it looks just like the dragon at the Forbidden City, only bigger!

Another architectural detail from the garden, but also from all over China, are the two lions guarding the entrance to many buildings. They look very similar, and we can see them all over the U.S. as well as you enter a Chinese restaurant, for example. But have you ever noticed they are different? One is female (on the left) and one is male (on the right). The female holds in one of her paws a baby lion (in various shapes and sizes, depending on the statue), representing fertility. The male holds a ball, which represents power. They both represent, more generally, “good fortune,” or in a broader sense, “peace, happiness, and well-being.” It’s nice that it is being wished to one and all anywhere you walk in China!

The final architectural detail that is almost 100% pervasive in old buildings of all kinds including temples and houses is the raised wooden “step” at the entrance to most rooms. However, you must never “step” on that “step” (bad luck). Women should go over it raising their right foot (“women are always right”) and men with their left, although this is not strictly observed. The purpose of this is to “keep good spirits in and bad spirits out.” This is yet again one of the many Feng Shui Daoist customs that pervade Chinese architecture. (Others include: (1) never put a mirror in front of the bed; you might mistake yourself for a spirit when you get up in the night; and (2) never have the bathroom door open into the entrance hall, because the bad spirits in your bathroom might greet your guests!)

The next day I went alone by subway to the Shanghai Museum, which is a lovely mid-size (and therefore very accessible) museum that shows only ancient Chinese art. It has wonderful well-lit displays and signage (in Mandarin and English). The amazing thing is that for the scrolls and manuscripts, the lights only come on when you are near the display. This protects the ancient manuscripts from deterioration. I concentrated on the paintings and ceramics. (I brought along my class notes from my Chinese art class to refresh my memory of each era/dynasty.)

Yesterday we were happy to have a “down day,” spent mostly reading and writing, hence Joe’s great blog post wrapping up our trip. I am reading a great book, Frog, by China’s Nobel Prize winner of whom they are very proud, Mo Yan. I am surprised that he is “officially accepted” and not locked up as is their Peace Prize winner. The book, a novel, is very critical of some of the events in 20th century China, and is beautifully written.

We did have two final adventures. The first involved exchanging yuan into dollars, since we need some for our expenditures on the boat. It was a long process involving a long wait at the bank and various forms to fill out. We concluded that not many people do this transaction (no other Europeans or Americans were in the bank).


The final errand was to a jewelry store to purchase a ring for me to commemorate our trip and our 50th anniversary. I had noticed a large jewelry store on the big boulevard near the hotel and thought it would offer lots of choices. When we walked in, the atmosphere was a bit weird. We were the only customers in the large store, and there were about 12 salespeople so we expected someone to come right up to help us. Not so. They continued to chat with each other and ignore us. We walked around and looked at the merchandise, which was beautiful—all 18K gold (and up) jewelry of a variety of kinds. We were able (without help) to find the ring section and began pointing to a few. Finally, tentatively, one of the sales ladies (they all wore white uniforms) came up and opened the glass case with a key. Joe had his calculator, and they pointed to the prices, which were in numbers we could recognize. (All the signs were in Chinese.) I chose a pretty gold ring with six red stones. But what were the stones? No one in the store spoke a word of English, but by now all of them were gathered around talking loudly to each other exchanging ideas about what my question might be. Finally one got out her cell phone, which had a translator on it, and the word popped up “ruby.” I tried on the ring and it fit. Bingo! Joe gave them his credit card and a few minutes later I had my new wedding ring. Before we left, I gestured “50 years,” as best I could, and they got the message. There were a lot of smiles and thumbs up as we walked out the door.

That’s it for my final China blog post! Hope to see everyone soon on the other side of the Pacific.

Day 94

June 16


Last post before we board the container ship, the Hanjin Copenhagen, to cross the Pacific Ocean, arriving in Seattle (hopefully) on July 3. Time for a few more concluding thoughts about China:


One could thoughtfully ask how I can be so generally positive about a country that is basically a totalitarian-lite state and a potential adversary of the U.S.? You might even suggest that I may have been duped by these nice guides who are actually Communist agents in disguise, feeding us gullible tourists a bill of goods, to which I have but one answer: come to China and see for yourself.

Do the extraordinary gains made by this country in the last 30 years mean that they are out of the woods? Far from it. China faces enormous challenges, and here are the top six in my view, in order of importance:

The environmental challenge. When you can’t breathe in your nation’s capital, it is not a good thing. Most of the big cities in north China are affected by extremely poor air quality because it is arid with not enough rain to wash out the pollution. There are two main culprits—low grade coal used as the main energy source and lower automobile emission control standards than we have in the U.S. The Chinese seem to understand they have to address environmental issues and are doing some important things like high speed rail, wind farms, and dams, but will that be enough? The consensus seems to be that until they radically reduce fossil fuel emissions, it is a stretch. Alternative energy sources are an essential piece of the puzzle. How successful they are affects the entire planet, not just China.

The demographic challenge. The one child policy is a two-sided coin. It has drastically reduced China’s population growth and that is a good thing, but it has been ruthlessly implemented by forcing abortions and has also produced a population where boys outnumber girls, 120 boys for every 100 girls. That one spells trouble for sure. It is also producing a demographic imbalance with not enough adult children to take care of aging parents and an adverse dependency ratio like you see in Japan and parts of Europe and even in the U.S.: too many seniors on social security and not enough wage earners to support them. The policy is now being relaxed but will need to be tweaked and monitored.

The one percent challenge. You have got to admit that when they do things in China, they do things in a big way—the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, Communism, Land Reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Three Gorges Dam. So when they decided in the 1980s to go “free market,” they pretty much opened the flood gates. The result has been capitalism on steroids with a relatively few people making a whole lot of money. The rising tide has lifted a lot of boats—literally hundreds of millions of people—but some boats have been lifted a lot higher than others. My guess is that their one percent problem is similar to ours, and we occasionally saw signs of resentment among average Chinese people with words like “justice” and “fairness” and “cronyism” popping up every now and then. If they are not careful, China may find itself going back to a kind of neo class system not all that dissimilar to what existed before the Communist Revolution. We heard lots of complaints about how rich people were able to pay for tutors for their kids and even send them to U.S. prep schools so they could get the high test scores and get into the prestigious colleges, in another words a meritocracy with strings. How familiar is this to us Americans?

The over building challenge. This one is related to the one percent challenge. I read somewhere that China has invested the highest percentage of its GDP in real estate and infrastructure development of any country, any time in history. The results are spellbinding—sparkling, dramatic skylines, high speed trains, vast subway systems, superhighways and no visible signs of poverty like deteriorating neighborhoods or informal settlements like you see in India, Latin America or Africa. They have nothing equivalent to an “American slum,” and believe me, I have looked for it.

There are also a lot of vacant, brand new (and not so new) buildings—a huge number—and yet tower cranes continue to dot the landscape everywhere. You don’t build a 50-story, 400-unit, high rise and watch it sit empty for a few years and put a lot of profits in the bank. In fact you lose your shirt, and somebody—no one has been able to tell me exactly who—has got to be absorbing massive losses. Many of these deals are supposedly joint ventures, with the government being not just the land owner but also co-developer, (Yes, the government still owns all the land in China and leases it back, long term, to private owners, developers, and farmers, really the only vestige of Communism left as far as I can tell.), so maybe the tax payer is the fall guy. One thing is for sure: somebody is taking a hit, and this can’t go on forever. Given the size of the population and the growth of cities, people tell us that there are plenty of people to buy or rent these units, it is a matter of affordability. Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed. The problem is that curtailing construction will mean substantial job losses impacting the entire economy.


The social safety net challenge. When you get down to it, it is amazing how many of the problems China is dealing with are similar to ours. We heard lots of complaining about mediocre health care and how it is paid for, inadequate social security and a safety net that is too thin. Sound familiar? Compared to European countries, China has a long way to go, a bit ironic when you think of China as a Communist Country, which of course it is not. They need to fix this issue too and hopefully will have better luck than we have had.

The governance challenge. Yes, there is a big governance issue. But I placed it last on the list. Why? Because for the average Chinese person this is simply not an issue. We have been told this again and again. Keep in mind that during their 2,500 plus year history, the Chinese people have never had a true democracy. They have no idea what they are missing or really how a true democracy works. What they do know, however, is that compared to what life was like before Deng’s reforms in the 1980s, they are far better off now. They have jobs, social and economic stability, good housing, freedom to travel, and yes, even freedom to express their opinion on virtually any subject provided it does not rise too far above the surface. So what if they don’t get to elect their leaders? As long as their leaders are doing a good job, isn’t that what counts? You could say that right now China is a “benign despotism,” the most efficient kind of “good governance.” Confucius would be proud.

But, alas, how do you assure that leaders will be enlightened forever, and how do you get rid of them when they aren’t? How do you assure an orderly and fair transition from one leader to the next.? How do you fight inevitable corruption, make necessary midcourse corrections and reforms? The Chinese leaders are struggling with this one. They look at the political system we have and what most of the developed countries have and conclude that it is pretty messy and disorderly and does not always produce good results. In fact, they may even conclude that democracy is the worst system ever created for governing. Except, of course, in the words of Winston Churchill (I think), when compared to every other kind of system we humans have come up with. Notwithstanding, they have to fix this one too. It surely will bite them if they don’t and could keep them from accomplishing all the other items on their ambitious agenda.

But you know what? The Chinese are smart. They are hard working and industrious. They have been around for a long time. They have had their ups and downs, the last two centuries being down periods. It is time for one of their up periods. They believe they can do it, and after spending a month here (I know, that is not very long.), I believe they can too. I am bullish on China. And let’s hope I am right because if I am not, we are all in trouble.


Now, off to the Hanjin Copenhagen for the penultimate leg! No internet  connections on board so the next post you get will not be until we reach Seattle around July 3 or 4. We have booked the train from Seattle to Chicago to DC, leaving on July 6 and arriving in DC around the 9th of July, if, as we say in Tennessee, God is willing and the creek don’t rise. Thank all of you who have followed us on the blog. As you probably can tell, I have loved doing it, as has Embry, and  knowing there are people out there reading it from time to time makes it a lot easier to keep going. But while our journey is nearing its end, I will have a lot of time on the container ship to try to pull some final thoughts together, so it ain’t over yet. Stay tuned…

Day 93

June 15


Photos to be posted when internet service permits.

I am sitting on the enclosed front porch of “Boutique Mansion Hotel,” a 35 room former residence around 150 years old, converted recently into a hotel, located in the old “French Concession ” district of Shanghai. It is an oasis of peace and quiet in what has got to be the world’s busiest city. A wall and small garden with a pond, fountain and gold fish, shaded by “plane trees” (look like sycamores) protect the hotel from the bustling streets on both sides. Above the trees are towering skyscrapers, which light up with blue and white lights after dark. A light rain is cooling the 90 degree temperature a bit, but the humidity is oppressive.

This is my first post in several days due to a bout with dehydration/stomach flu (from which I now have thankfully recovered) and will in all likelihood be the last post for some time if our container ship departs on time tomorrow afternoon as scheduled. We understand that no internet connection will be available the 17 days we are at sea. So here is a catch-up piece:

Today is Monday, June 15. The last time you heard from me was Thursday, June 11. Embry’s recent two posts have been topical rather than chronological so there is lots to describe:

Our next stop after the Huangshan Mountain adventure was Hangszhou (pronounced Hang-Joe) about a three hour drive through the mountains from the Westin Hotel where we spent the night. We said goodbye to Ellen, and our driver drove us through luxuriant valleys surrounded by tall, green mountains much like the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. By noon we had arrived at a small hotel where we were met by our new guide, “Tom,” and his driver. In fact the entire China leg has been one extended hand-off routine where we are gently passed from one guide (actually “handler” might be a more apt term) to another. Not once, however, has there ever been a fumble, which is pretty impressive.

Tom was different from the last several guides because he was a man and a bit older, late 40s. He has been a tour guide his entire adult life, speaks excellent English and picked up immediately on my various (lame) jokes and asides (not easy for most of the guides) though he is perhaps a bit battle-weary due to his many years on the job. He was also the most outspoken and candid of all the guides we have had.

After lunch at the hotel, we drove through downtown Hangzhou (population 10 million), which most Americans have never heard of, including me, until I suddenly realized that this was one of the cities I visited in 1986 when I was advising the Chinese that they should build more houses. It did not hit me until we were on a beautiful lake cruising on a tourist boat when Tom pointed out that the structure across the lake was the favorite hotel of Mao, who stayed there more than 60 times. Wait a minute! I had stayed in a hotel in 1986 where Mao had stayed 60-plus times, and it was on a lake, and that the lake looked like this one. Hangzhou! Yes, of course I have been here. Great to be back!

To be honest, at this stage of the trip I am stumbling to the finish line and am more or less so worn out that I am not fully able to appreciate all–or in some instances, any– of the terrific things we are seeing. During our two days in the city, we saw a thriving market, a huge restored mansion of a rich banker who eventually lost all his money and all but one of his dozen concubines, and probably a lot more stuff that I can’t remember. What I do remember, however, are some of the things Tom said as we drove around what by American standards was yet another huge city, just a ho-hum one for China. We discussed the one child policy and the easing of restrictions to permit two children in many instances, the importance of getting into a good university if you want to get ahead and the stress that causes (his daughter is in high school and the whole family really feels the pressure), and all the new apartment houses that have been built, for which I modestly took full credit because in 1986 I told them to build them. We also talked about the easing of restrictions regarding speech, and he insisted that if you were not famous or a member of the Communist Party and did not put anything in writing, you could say anything you wanted to about anyone or anything. There is no Big Brother looking over your shoulder in the New China and that as far as he was concerned, the average Chinese person feels free. Yes, there is censorship of the press. Yes, there is only one party and China does not have a Western-style Democracy, but he went on to remind us that over its 4,000 plus years of history (2,500 years as more or less the single country it is now), China has never been a Democracy. China, he admitted, is far from perfect and still faces many challenges, but what really bothers him is being bullied by the U.S. and Western Europe to do things their way rather than let China be China.

“What you need to understand,” he said, “is that we love the American people. It is your leaders we don’t like.”

The two days with Tom were a whirlwind. The second day we visited a tea plantation in the morning where an excellent sales woman inspired me to buy lots of green tea, which she convinced me cures all that ails you—and God knows I can use it. Then we spent the afternoon visiting one of the famous Chinese “water towns,” an ancient village built around canals and another World Heritage site, but very crowded with tourists, naturally all Chinese. The night separating the two days with Tom we stayed in Landison Lodging Resort, another one of the quaint boutique hotels with 30 or 40 rooms and located in the middle of tea plantations just outside of town. (And like most of these wonderful, small jewels, not many guests besides us. Not sure what that means.) All this was terrific except for the 90 degree heat, very high humidity and the exhaustion that was beginning to raise its ugly head again after three plus weeks of no letup.

The drive from the water town to our hotel in Shanghai where we are now took almost three hours. The surprise here was that about an hour before we got to the Shanghai city limits, we passed many new, single family housing subdivisions, the first and only we have seen in China—large, attractive new homes on small lots, very much like an upscale U.S. subdivision. Where did these come from?

The handoff in Shanghai was from Tom to “Vivian.” Vivian cheerfully showed up right on time to greet us the next morning as we were finishing our breakfast in the secluded garden. I was immediately relieved. She looked young. I have now given up all the formalities and go right to heart of the matter. The very first question I ask is whether you have a grandmother who is alive and how old she is. Bulls eye: still alive, age 72. Open for negotiations regarding adjustments to schedule.

I am not sure what the original schedule was supposed to be, but we ended up  visiting two extraordinary places in the morning. The first was Fuxing (pronounced Fuse-ing) Park, and the second was strolling along the waterfront of the river separating east Shanghai from west Shanghai. You will note that I have not tried to describe this city of 25 million.  Picture Manhattan, all constructed in the last 20 or 25 years, with stunning modern architecture, all kinds of colored lights on the buildings which at night give the appearance of a fairyland, crowded streets below which make New York City streets feel like Montana, and an energy level that is off the charts. The tallest building now stands at 117 stories and plans for bigger ones are in the works. I know this is sounding like a broken record: in 1986 there was no building over eight stories, no cars to speak of, only a handful of hotels.

The Fuxing Park experience was special. Vivian said that if we really wanted to understand Shanghai and could only visit one spot, this was the place to be. Our driver stopped in the heart of the city. We were surrounded by skyscrapers on one side and trees on the other. We got out and headed for the trees. After we had strolled through the park for about 15 minutes, Embry commented, “This is Central Park on steroids.”


In the first 15 or 20 minutes this is what we saw: dozens of couples—almost always a man and a woman—playing badminton with no nets and all very good; small groups of seniors doing Tai Chi; large groups of mainly seniors doing ballroom dancing, American style but to modern Chinese music; dozens of small groups singing with the live accompaniment of drums, stringed instruments, and horns—some sounding like church hymns, others like traditional Chinese music; scores of groups of men, many ages, sitting or standing around park benches with glasses of green tea stacked on tables, discussing the affairs of the day; artists sketching; mothers with small children; fathers with small children; grandparents with small children; kite flying; bubble blowing; families picnicking; Frisbee playing; jazz horn players playing along to dispirit tunes on boom boxes; card playing; chess playing; drum beating; juggling; more singing; more dancing; and then you turn a curve and it all repeats itself, the different kinds of music all blending together in what could be described either as cacophony or some brilliant modern masterpiece, a symphony titled “The New China.” Central Park on steroids.


We spent about an hour strolling through the park and then followed Vivian out of the park to the busy street, and, presto, our driver pulled up, as if by magic. You could never have pulled off a tour like the ones we have been having before the era of cell phones.

The next stop was the waterfront, which I actually recalled from my 1986 trip. As you may have guessed, it was now completely transformed. Where there were rundown houses, now there are 70-floor office buildings. Where there was a narrow sidewalk, now there is a wide promenade. We walked along this for awhile, gawking, with several thousand other tourists including a good number of Westerners, before heading to one of Vivian’s favorite lunch spots. By this time, however, I was wasted. The 90 degree heat, high humidity, and lack of enough water had pretty much finished me off, sending me into a tail spin with chills, no appetite (according to Embry, a sign I am in real trouble), followed by stomach flu symptoms, which knocked me out of commission for the next two days.


Always the trooper, Embry forged ahead. With Vivian as her guide, she attended an acrobat show that evening, then visited a silk museum the next day, toured a special classical Chinese garden of some sort, did some last minute souvenir shopping, and the following day toured on her own via subway (much newer and nicer than our Metro) the Shanghai Museum. I will leave it to her to describe all of that.

I was sorry not to be able to spend more time with Vivian, who wins the award for the “sweetest” guide and probably the most curious and inquisitive. When she could not answer a question that we asked, she was on the internet (not Google, thank you, since it is banned) to find the answer, which she usually was able to do. While our guides we have had have not always gotten the history or facts right (Embry read a couple of books on Chinese history before we came and knows more than they do in some areas.), they have all been highly professional and always got us where we were supposed to go. Even more important, because we were with them one-on-one for long drives, we got to know a lot about their personal lives and what it is like to grow up in the New China. And to have a living grandmother who is 70 years old!

So the final land leg before the Pacific Crossing is coming to an end. We are surely going to miss China, but frankly another few days at the pace we have been going and the horrid heat and humidity might just do us both in. In fact Embry had just come down with dreaded bronchitis. As my mother used to say, I think we may be getting a bit too old for this.

We just learned moments ago that the container ship is delayed indefinitely in Korea. First big glitch. More on that tomorrow. And there will be a few wrap-up China posts. Stay tuned…

Day 92 (Embry)

June 16


(Apologies: internet too weak for photos)

We are in Shanghai, our last city in China before we depart on the container ship day-after-tomorrow. Joe is under the weather and “wiped out,” so I am the one at the computer. Today I am going to write about a couple of very interesting topics and teach you some Chinese at the same time. The two topics are actually related in an indirect way.

The first topic is the hukuo, a person’s official place of residency. Your hukuo is stated on the “identity card” which each Chinese person carries. The interesting thing is that very often (for city-dwellers) this is not where you actually reside. Thus, because of the massive movement to cities in recent years, the official statistics on how many residents there are in certain urban places is incorrect (in Beijing and Shanghai understated by millions of people), and the population of rural areas is greatly overstated. Consequently planning for municipal services, especially schools, has lagged.

What is particularly puzzling for an American is the way that a person’s hukuo is determined. The system dates back to imperial times when the emperors wanted to count people for tax collection. Your hukuo is determined by your parents’ hukuo, not where you yourself are born. For example, both my parents were born in Georgia, so I am officially a resident of Georgia according to the Chinese system (for life, without very complicated paperwork to change it). You can change your hukuo to the place where you live, but only if you own property there and have a job there. (I believe you may also have to be married; I am not sure about that one.) Many (most) young people in their 20s and 30s cannot meet these requirements, because apartments are incredibly expensive in the cities, so they usually rent a place and double up just like they do at home.

Not having a correct hukuo is not very important when you are young and unmarried, but it becomes very important after you marry and have a kid. That is because (as I indicated) your child’s hukuo is determined by yours. (If parents have different hukuos then they can choose which to assign to their child; until about 15 years ago the hukuo was always assigned according to the mother’s hukuo (kind of like Judaism where the officials can never be sure of the paternity but they know the maternity for sure!)

If you live in a city, schools are in short supply and especially what are considered “good” schools.   (This is where the two topics of the day relate, which will become evident in a minute.) When you register your child for school, they can only go to the local public school if they have the hukuo for that municipality. If you are a low income migrant from a rural area, and cannot afford to buy property, you likely will have to send your child back to your home village to live with your parents or relatives so that they can go to school. Wealthier parents can pay very high fees to send their child to a good primary school (either public or private), or can afford to buy an apartment and change the hukuo.

Until the big changes about 30 years ago, people were not allowed to travel outside their place of residency, even within China. The changes were made to allow workers to travel for jobs, but the other consequence has been there are millions of Chinese now traveling for pleasure. It has taken this long for it to build up into a huge internal tourist enterprise, since people now have more vacation time (three mandatory weeks off) and they have more money to travel.

There are reasons why you might not want to give up your rural hukuo. When land reform happened under the Communists, village farmland, which had previously been owned by large landowners, was divided up into small plots and given to the village families. Later, all land was collectivized into large state-owned farms. After the Great Leap Forward and the associated famine, the land was again re-allocated back to the smaller plots.

While farmland is still owned by the state (as is all the land in China), families have the right to farm their land as long as their lease exists. (The leases are usually for 50 years, but we have heard different amounts of time, and we hare told “nobody knows what will happen with these leases run out; they haven’t told us.”) When families were large, two generations ago, these plots were divided into sub-plots, often very small. The rights to farm are passed down in the family.

You can only keep the right to your farmland if you have a rural hukuo for the village where it is located. The land can be valuable, sometimes very valuable. If the government decides to use that land for building, they will buy out your lease. There are many “rich farmers” on the outskirts of cities. If you do not want to farm your land you can lease it out to another farmer. There are now private companies that are putting together larger plots of agricultural land (which makes sense because farming such small plots can be inefficient) through multiple sub-leases. So keeping your plot can give you extra income. For this reason, a “mixed” couple might leave one parent’s hukuo in the village and give the child an urban hukuo through the other parent.

Health benefits are better for rural residents, in that it is cheaper to buy government-sponsored health insurance if you have a rural hukuo. This is another incentive to keep your rural residency, although you would have to return home to get health services (which are not considered to be as good). This resembles the Indian Health Service benefits and other aspects of tribal citizenship in the U.S.

The One Child Policy is tied up with the hukuo system. It has always been the case that a rural couple can legally have a second child if their first child is a girl. Of course the child would have a rural hukuo for sure! If you have a child illegally (outside the One Child Policy) that child does not get a hukuo at all until you pay a fine, which can be three times your annual salary. This is particularly hard to do for an unmarried mother. (Children of unmarried mothers are illegal.) So there are millions of “undocumented” children without an identity card, who cannot register for school or get any other benefits without it.

Are you confused or dismayed yet?

The next word I will teach you is gaokao, but only briefly because I am over my word budget for this blog post.

The gaokao is the annual college entrance exam, which occurs each June (it was last week) and ties Chinese families up in knots. These exams are the modern version of the Confucian exam system going back a thousand years. In those annual exams highly educated people were selected to work as officials in the imperial court on a merit basis. The gaokao has many similarities in that it is highly selective and is regularly corrupted.

Chinese primary and junior high schools are free (if you have the right hukuo), and are widely thought to be good quality, especially for literacy and numeracy. Then at about age 14 there is a first round of exams that determine which high school you can go to. This is where the intense selectivity comes into the system. There are “good high schools” and “not-so-good high schools.” If you do not get into a good high school your chances of going to a top university are close to nil. You can only apply to a high school that matches your hukuo, and the good high schools are in the cities, cutting out rural students from the best education after junior high. In Hangzhou, a medium sized Chinese city of 10 million, there are only 12 “good high schools” that admit only 45 people each per class per year, so a small fraction of those who want to attend.

Life for a highly motivated Chinese young person is very hard. There is lots of pressure. You are usually an only child, and so you must fulfill all the dreams of your parents and grandparents. You might not get into a high school near your home, so the commute can be up to 2 hours each way (or you stay in a dorm during the week). You might begin studying (“prep classes”) by 7 am, and then after school—which ends at 4 or 5—you have more studying, often ending at 11 pm. The lives of these young people are nothing like those of the typical U.S. high school student, who spends some time each day “hanging out” and “having fun.”

At about age 17 you take the gaokao, a three day exam of multiple subjects including (for everyone who aspires to go to college): Chinese, English (everyone!), math, geography, and history. There are three more subjects according to your expected major. The scores on these exams are the single factor determining which university you will be admitted to. We were told there are only 20 “good universities” in the country, many fewer than in the U.S., although our population is a third of China’s. If you do not get into one of those top schools, your chance at a good job, especially a job in government or a top private industry, is slim, and your parents and grandparents will be extremely disappointed. Hence the pressure. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with this system, since it cuts out a lot of talent early in life, but no serious reforms as yet.

I’m stopping here because I’m way over my “word budget.” Now you have expanded your Chinese vocabulary by two words!

Day 89 (Embry)

June 13


Last time I wrote about food. This time I will write about toilets. What goes in must come out. If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

Thus, when you travel one of the most important challenges is finding a toilet. One lucky fact is that, next to “OK,” probably the most recognizable word in the world is “toilet” (or some similar version of that word or the word “WC”). Adding a question mark or gesture creates, luckily, an understandable question: “Toilet?”

As we travel around the globe, we have confronted a variety of interesting situations toilet-wise. We eased into the “world of toilets” with the Holland-American Cruise line which was just like home. In Western Europe, the biggest question was how to find one. We soon learned in Spain, for example, that it was best to rely on buying an espresso. With that decision you had three benefits in one: a delicious espresso, some nice people-watching, and free access to the toilet. In the other European cities we visited there were actually some public toilets scattered around, but you had to know where they were, so cafes were the best bet there too.

We noticed a good technological innovation in Europe that has not reached home yet, the two-button flusher on the back of the toilet,: press one button to flush “number one” and two buttons (with more water) to flush “number two.” This saves water. Why don’t we have this?

There is also that extra bowl you find in many European bathrooms, especially in France. There is the sink, the toilet, and “that other thing” (called a bidet). Americans get perpetually confused with what to do with this item: pee, wash feet, wash clothes, or what? (I won’t go into it here…)


Toilets got more interesting as we crossed Asia and got into Siberia. There we confronted new toilet challenges, beyond where to find one, in particular the squatting toilet. With this toilet, you place your feet beside the bowl and squat down. This is probably the most prevalent form of toilet world-wide, and I have read that it is healthy. It certainly keeps you limber!

Tour guides must be constantly aware of how to plan for toilet availability. Not paying attention to this issue probably can lead to lots of complaints and fewer tips. (They must teach a course on getting clients to the toilet at the right time in “tour guide school.”) Our first Chinese tour guide gave a fifteen minute “toilet lecture” on our first day in the country. The Chinese do not seem to be a prudish people; she was very comfortable discussing toilets at length in front of a large mixed group of males and females. She said that she had a four level classification system for toilets, with those ranked “1” as the worst and those ranked “4” as the best. Grade 1 toilets are co-ed, squat toilets with no doors and no toilet paper. (“We don’t take our customers to those.”) Grade 2 toilets are co-ed, squat, and there are doors but no paper. (“We only take our customers there when someone is really desperate.”) Grade 3 toilets are single sex with doors,  but no paper.   (“This is what we usually have available for our customers.”) Grade 4 toilets are single sex,  and with paper. (“These are really great toilets!”)


We listened to her talk, and someone (a female) shyly raised her hand to ask this question. “What about sit toilets vs. squat toilets? Does that affect your grade?” Our guide laughed at that question and answered, “In China those sit toilets are for handicapped people or Westerners. They usually have those in big hotels, and you will find one or two in each big tourist bathroom. You can use it if you want to.”

It is amusing to me to see the American and Western European ladies lined up to use the “handicapped” toilet while there are empty stalls for the squat toilets. Perhaps because of my time in Africa and other less developed countries, I am usually happy for any kind of toilet. “When you got to go, you got to go.” Call it a free yoga class. (And I always carry a wad of tissues in my pocket.)

Day 88

June 10


Our river cruise boat made it through the five locks in the Three Gorges Dam in about five hours beginning around 10:00 pm, at which time, of course, we were asleep. The next morning we toured the dam along with everyone else on the boat. Big dam. Then we headed down stream for the last of the Three Gorges, the “most treacherous,” due to its fast current, completing the river journey in the “small town” of Yichang, population 1.5 million, and the place where most of the Yamaha pianos in the world are made. A transportation service met us and deposited us at the huge new, very crowded high speed rail station in time for the usual on-the-second departure, this time 2:30 pm. A good Samaritan helped getting the bags on the overhead rack.

We were off to Hefei. (or “He Fei,” you see it both ways.) What did I know about this city before hand or why we were going there? Nothing. You could ask how two elderly travelers could stumble through China with no idea where or why they were going to the next destination. In our weary defense all I can say is it is a pretty long trip, it is hard to keep up with all the moving parts, and we like surprises.

A bunch of surprises were ahead of us. We were met at 7:17 pm at another behemoth station by our new guide, “Ellen,” who was actually standing on the platform, a no-no in these stations, only passengers allowed. If you want to get an idea of how big the new, high speed rail stations are, think Dulles Airport terminal. She explained she “had connections,” and charged toward the exit with Embry’s bag in tow with Embry at her heals. I staggered not far behind. Hefei was only an overnight stop to allow us to go to the main attraction the next day, Huangshan, or the Yellow Mountains, said to be the most beautiful mountain range in China, which we learned from Ellen. She is in her early thirties, married with a three-year-old son, and does not have a seventy-year-old grandmother. In fact her grandmother died a few years ago in her early eighties. Could spell trouble, I thought, since we no longer had a compelling, anti-forced-march tactic. It turned out that of all the terrific guides we have had, Ellen was the most knowledgeable and the most honest; and since we traveled with her in the car for several hours, we learned a great deal about her personal life and about modern China, most of which I will have to save for a subsequent blog post.

That evening we collapsed after a good Chinese meal at our luxury Westin Hotel and were sort of rested and ready to go at 9:30 am the next day (negotiated down from an 8:00 am departure).

In checking out I heard an American voice at the spot next to me and commented to him, “Another American!”

“Not many of us here,” he said smiling. “In fact you are the first I have seen in the week I have been here.”

We briefly told each other what we were doing here, and it turns out he is a Harvard Business School professor (late 30s) on a Sabbatical and also going around the world, studying various economies, having spent the last several months in China.

To my question as to what he thought about the New China, he said, “This is frankly the most extraordinary thing that I have ever experienced. I still cannot believe it. Here we are in Hefei. Who ever heard of Hefei? Hell, there are over 7 million people who live here. It barely qualifies as a ‘medium sized’ city by Chinese standards. There has been nothing like the capital investment in housing and infrastructure in such a short period of time in all of world history.”

I asked,“Do you think this is going to bite them, all the overbuilding and whatnot?”

“You bet.”

But, sadly, there was no time to go into depth because Ellen and the driver were waiting, rested and raring to go. We wished each other good luck and off we went , headed to Huangshan.

Did we know anything about Huangshan? Of course not. But we learned from Ellen that it is a very beautiful mountain except that a good portion of the year it is shrouded in clouds, often with zero visibility. With rain two out of every three days and over 80 inches of annual rainfall, she could not promise anything.

Off we went. Three hours later we were at the tiny village at the base of the mountain, which naturally was invisible due to the clouds and rain. We took a bus going pretty much straight up for a half hour, then a cable car for 15 or 20 minutes up to where the mountain peak—1,700 meters or 5,500 feet–was supposed to be though nothing was visible. At the top we donned our rain outfits and started out in the fog and midst. (We had left our bags behind and carried only a small backpack with essentials.)  Our hotel was about a mile and a half away and accessible only on foot. Ellen said it was “a bit up and down” and usually took two hours. For seasoned walkers like us, a mile and a half in two hours seemed awfully long. We should be able to do this in maybe 40 or 50 minutes max.

Two hours later we finally reached the hotel, totally exhausted and in my case thankful I had not broken a leg or worse.


Shortly after we started the walk the magic began. If you looked closely, actually you could make out steep cliffs and high peeks, which at times became more visible. The whole experience had a fairyland feel to it. It rained on and off and toward the end of our walk was raining steadily. There were few people on the mountain besides us, and we were engulfed by a strange, eerie silence with the only sounds from an occasional bird or the wind sweeping clouds and mist past us. The name Huangshan means “yellow mountains,” but that has nothing to do with color but rather the association (somehow, I never fully understood it) with heaven. We were on a mountain considered by some to be heaven.

We tediously made our way up and down steps toward our destination. That for me was the problem. Before we finally reached our hotel, according to the iPhone 6 health app, we had climbed the equivalent of 15 flights of stairs and descended 25 flights. These steps were not typical of what we have in the U.S. They were narrower and steeper and very wet and slippery. In one instance looking down on what had to be at least 500, very steep steps with no hand rail on either side and cliffs below, I came very close to panicking. One false step and you were history. The solution to steady my shaky knees–and nerves– was to place one hand on Embry’s shoulder and one hand on Ellen’s and to inch down. A bit embarrassing, but that is the stage of life I am in. For the record for the two days we were on the mountain, I did not see a whole lot of people who looked like they were in their seventies.


We finally made it to a surprisingly elegant hotel (incredibly, one of six on the peak) and celebrated our victory at the fancy hotel lobby bar (like all hotel bars, never any Chinese customers and few customers of any nationality) with a triple Chevas Regal on the rocks for me, white wine for Embry. I had to explain how to fix the triple-on-the-rocks several times to the bartender (and so you won’t be alarmed, one shot of whisky in China is one-half ounce max.) That night I had trouble sleeping because of the fear of getting back the next day. Going up the steps was do-able, going down a nightmare.

As luck would have it, we awoke the next morning to blue skies overhead–the first blue sky we had seen the entire time we have been in China–and clouds beneath the mountains. Jackpot! You get this kind of weather only a handful of times each season. The scenery was beautiful the day before in the rain and mist, but on a day like this it was incomparable. The word must have gotten out because the mountain was packed with people. Where did they all come from?


All I can say is that Shangri La does exist, and it is here on Huangshan Mountain. Another one of these Chinese sleepers. Maybe most of the world knows about this place, but of course we didn’t. This was one of the most delightful surprises yet.

There are two perplexing questions about this magical place: how did they build six luxury hotels in the first place? They are on a mountain over 5,000 feet tall and 3,000 feet above the nearest road. Second, how do they get food up and trash down the mountain? There are over 2,000 hotel rooms up here. Can you imagine the food, beverage, and trash requirements? I never really got an answer to the first question, but as to the second, over 150 porters hike up the steep trails every day carrying up supplies and carrying down trash, a perilous hike of three hours each way.


After the hike back, which turned out to be much easier than the day before because the steps were not slippery and there were more steps up (25 flights) than down, we took the cable car down, then the local bus, which let us off near the restaurant where we had lunch the day before and had left our luggage. As always, our driver was patiently waiting.

That afternoon we took the back roads through lush valleys and tiny villages with white houses, mainly following a roaring stream. We made a stop at famous World Heritage site that afternoon (quaint and picturesque) and eventually arrived at our Crown Plaza Hotel alongside a wide river in Huangshan, a “small” town of about 200,000. This is also Ellen’s home town and she was proud to give us a quick tour of the gated community she lives in. This is a typical new development with many high rises and lots of stores, a kindergarten, a supermarket, and various community amenities. Her family of four (her mother is the live-in baby sitter for her three year old, and commutes every week from the farm where she and her husband live ) has lived here in their three bedroom, 1,200 square condominium for four years (original cost $50,000 plus around $15,000 for interior finishes, things we take for granted in the U.S. but not provided by builders in China.) She loves it.


“This is a dream come true. Just think, I grew up on a tiny farm in a tiny village and never dreamed I would ever leave. Then I got in a good university [in Shanghai], got a good education and have a career. Unlike my grandmother who did not meet her husband until the day of the marriage or even my parents who had sort of an arranged marriage, I married whom I wanted to. I am a professional. I live where I want to and can say and do what I want to. Tourists often ask me about the New China. The New China is great!”

We settled in early after a buffet dinner in order to be ready to head out early to Hangzhou the next morning. Every day is a new adventure in this county of infinite surprises.

Day 87

June 8

En route to He Fei Nan via high speed train

The three day cruise down the Yangtze is over. If you ever have a chance to go from Chongquin to Yichang on the Yangtze River, do it. There is nothing I can write or any photograph I can take that will do it justice.

Like everything else in China it is supersized—not quite as long as the Nile but much more water flow. The portion of the river we cruised on was about 700 kilometers or just over 400 miles, beginning in the largest city in China and flowing past perhaps a half dozen large towns or cities before we stopped in Yi Chang Dong. In the Yangtze River basin live almost half a billion people, over a third of China’s population. Most of the county’s fertile and productive farm land is here, producing more than half of all food in China. While you see a number of good size cities as you cruise along, because of the tall mountains, much of the time you think you are in the wilderness. In one sense the Yangtze River and its wide basin is the very soul of China. How goes the river, goes China.


The boat we were on—the “Victoria Grace”—is part of a fleet of seven ships owned by an American Company whose founder and CEO is a Chinese American. Our ship with a crew of 80, can accommodate 198 passengers but had only 119 on this cruise, due in part to the increasingly competitive nature of the river cruise business with lots of new boats owned by Chinese public/private joint ventures.


There are a number of things that stand out about Yangtze River journey. The first is that the trip is stunningly beautiful, in spite of–or perhaps because of–the mist and clouds that are forever changing the appearance of practically everything. The second is the several stops along the way for brief visits to pagodas, temples, or small tributaries. The third is the heavy commercial traffic that we continuously passed. And the last two are the special ones: coasting through the Three Gorges and seeing the Three Gorges Dam.

There are three areas on the river, the famous “gorges,” where it narrows and mountains and cliffs go straight up thousands of feet. Each gorge has a special Chinese name and varies in length, the first and “most beautiful” is only about 20 kilometers, the second, the “most magnificent,” is over twice that long and the third, below the dam and the “most treacherous is midway between the two The total amount of time spent marveling as you cruise through all three is probably only about three or four hours but time you will never forget.


After passing through the first two, which happens on Day 2, you hit the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2006, the largest dam in the world and the largest public works project of any type, taking 17 years to complete and costing over $60 billion. The dam was controversial from the first time it was proposed by Sun Yat-Sin in the 1920s and remains so today. Over 1.3 million people were displaced and permanently relocated. Numerous archeological sites were impacted. The natural beauty of the gorges was diminished by flooding the areas where rapids occurred. Some say enormous ecological damage was done.


At the same time it seems to have accomplished its most important objectives—flood control, promoting and facilitating commercial traffic, and producing hydro electricity. Since we had not experienced the river in its “before” state, it is hard to know if the negatives outweigh the positives. But what I can say is that while the natural beauty of the place may have been altered, it remains today one of the most beautiful and holy places on the planet Earth.


The trip was fun in other ways as well—getting to know the Indian family I talked about in my previous blog, watching all the Chinese passengers (and 20 Korean ladies) have such a good time, and enjoying evening entertainment by the crew—costume show, folk dancing and fabulous singing by Aalayah, the USC student from India.


We are now on another high speed train headed for He Fei Nan, which I know nothing about and look forward to more surprises.


Day 85

June 6

On the Yangtze

We made it! We are on a river cruise ship on the Yangtze with a 115 other passengers, all of them Chinese or Korean. Frank Sinatra is singing one of his classic ballads, “The Best Is Yet To Come,” as we wait for the captain to welcome everyone. It is misty with a little rain, and in the fog you can barely make out the giant mountains towering overhead or the ghost-like silhouettes of passing barges and small container ships. It is pure magic.

Getting here turned out not to be all that hard. The high speed train got us to Chongquin in less than two hours through hills and mountains similar to what we saw en route to Chengdu where on our second day there we did see the Pandas (about 40 or so) and were quite impressed with the Panda Park, the largest in the world. (What in China isn’t the largest in the world?) We gave in and agreed to eat the “hot pot” lunch Carol insisted on (delicious) but took the afternoon and evening off, said goodbye to her the next morning, and were met in Chongquin around noon by “Sue.” Like Carol, she is a cute 20-something, who also has a grandmother, who happens to be age seventy.


Have you ever heard of Chongquin? We hadn’t, and if nothing else this trip has reminded us just how provincial we Americans are. The official number for the people who live here is 32 million, probably closer to 40 million unofficial, making it the largest city in China and perhaps the world. Its history goes back some 2,500 years. What is perhaps more remarkable is that the city is built on hills, most of them steep—much like San Francisco. Like everywhere else we have been, buildings are new and tall and often stunning, the opera house especially. It is probably the most dramatic cityscape we have seen yet. Because we planned to board the cruise ship around four, we only had time to visit the Three Gorges Museum (very impressive), stroll around the large central plaza in 90 degree heat and high humidity and grab a Chinese fast food lunch (not very good) in a national chain restaurant located between a Walmart and a KFC.


If you are confused by “official” population counts and the “unofficial,” it all has to do with a centuries-old government policy of requiring everyone in China to register according to where they were born (or in some instances where their parents were born), not where they actually live. In the past this requirement has been used by the dynasty or government in power to control mobility and enforce rigid laws, but during the past 35 years of unprecedented urbanization, the system has slowly been relaxed, and now people can live anywhere they can find a job and a place to live. Because actually changing your official place of residence is more complicated, many people do not do it, hence the two numbers.

We were driven to the Yangtze through horrendous traffic and parked at the top of an embankment several hundred feet above the fast flowing, brown river. Sue hired a porter to carry both suitcases, over 100 pounds, down the steep steps leading to the riverboat, which we boarded a little after four, spending the rest of the afternoon resting in our cozy cabin. At dinner all passengers were assigned a table, and because we were the only two English speakers, we got a large table to ourselves.


During the orientation presentations, the talks were translated into English so all the English speakers could understand. The presenter would talk for awhile and then there would be applause. Then the English translation would happen (barely understandable) and we would applaud at the same points in the speech when the Chinese had applauded minutes before, only the two of us, which drew a few chuckles from the Chinese audience.

We later learned that Chinese tourism is actually a very new phenomena since until a few years ago, few Chinese were allowed to travel at all. Only five years ago according to the ship’s tour director (a Bulgarian), 90% of the passengers on a river cruise ship like ours would be American or European. Now almost everyone is Chinese (and there are many more ships). In fact everywhere we have been so far, almost all the tourists are Chinese, most, we presume, touring for the first time. You can sense it as you see families of two and sometimes three generations traveling together with looks of astonishment and awe. Most middle aged tourists will be holding the hand of their aging parent on a shore visit. This is their country and they have never seen it before. The vastness and wonder of this extraordinary country is as new to them as it is to us.


The fact that we were the only English speakers on the ship caused us to think about it, and since our Siberian tour group split up, we could not recall a single conversation with a European or American. In fact we could not recall even seeing more than a handful of people who looked like us. For the past three weeks when we have looked around we have seen only Asian faces. In one sense it is like we have just blended in, now look just like everyone else and have lived here all our lives. At the same time it is another reminder that we Americans are a tiny minority on a planet of close to seven billion people.

That reminder was hammered in again at the evening meal when we were joined at our table by a second English speaking group, a family of four from India, who had joined the cruise at a stop we made that afternoon. Actually for me it was a poignant  moment. The father and mother were probably late forties, two beautiful daughters , the oldest, Shaazia, in her early twenties, who works for her father’s company and the second, Aaliyah, a college student studying at the University of Southern California. They spoke perfect English with only the slightest “typical” Indian accent (no accent from Aaliyah, who it turns out is a terrific singer of US pop songs) due to the fact that English is the language they have always spoken at home (Mumbai). Talk about sophistication, intelligence, and charm! They were like people you would expect to meet at a fancy cocktail party in a posh apartment in the Upper East Side in New York or in Georgetown. The father, Saif, owns an energy firm (manufacturing transformers) employing over a thousand people and went to a prep school in Pennsylvania. The mother, Rauzat, is an acupuncturist.

Why was this a special moment? Because it illustrates the other side of the coin: just how small this planet is and despite cultural differences, how much we humans have in common. We are so much more like each other than we are different.

The other thing that hit me was that we were with people from the two countries which will determine the fate of the planet Earth. When it comes to climate change and the environment, they are holding the cards. We are now merely bit players. That does not mean we do not have to do our part or show leadership, but with India and China accounting for almost half of the world’s population and with their economies coming into their own in terms of wealth, improved living standards and energy use, this one is a no-brainer. Can they do it? We discussed world affairs, politics and values with this extraordinary Indian family and learned that India has made great strides since we visited there in 2005. They are very excited and optimistic about their country’s future. Since my visit to China in 1986, the changes that have happened in China are nothing short of extraordinary, as must be apparent to all readers by now.


Who knows what the future will hold, but after this trip I am surely more optimistic than I was before we started.

But what about the Yangtze? That will be the subject of the next blog.


Day 82

June 3


So here is the story of a 48-hour period of time, which in some respects is a poster-child for the entire Chinese leg. The day began at 4:00 am at our high end Hilton Hotel in X’ian so we would have time to pack and meet our guide at 4:30 am to take us to the train station for a 6:00 am train boarding to the village of Chengdu.

While the village was on our carefully prepared itinerary by Asia Transpacific, we knew very little about it except that it was on the way to Chongqing where we would board a ship to take us down the Yangtze, was near another small village (Leshan) where the world’s largest Buddha could be found and contained a large Panda Park with over 100 Pandas. Sounded like a nice place to stop before reaching the mighty Yangtze for our three-day river cruise.

Always punctual, our friendly guide met us and got us to the train station in plenty of time. This station was one of the older stations and not designed for bullet trains. Since there was no elevator or escalator, Embry and I had to haul our 50 pound suitcases down at least a hundred , very steep steps and then back up another hundred to get to Platform 2. After struggling for 15 or 20 steps and creating a bit of a roadblock for the hundreds of passengers racing for the train (which paused for only a few minutes in X’ian), a friendly hand appeared, lifted the bag from me and kindly left it at the bottom of the stairs. I wanted to thank him and shake his hand, but he was gone. Embry had similar luck. The same thing happened going up the stairs to Platform 2. This unsolicited, merciful aid has occurred every single time—both up and down stairs—when we have been confronted with this challenge. Would this have happened in the US?

So we made it to Platform 2 and there was our train, on time to the minute and pausing for desperate passengers to board. The train must have had at least 20 cars and we were assigned to “carriage 8,” probably somewhere in the middle. So that was where we bolted with luggage in tow, miraculously found the carriage where it should have been, and dragged ourselves and suitcases (again, with help from a lady conductor) up the steps into the carriage. Less than a minute later—on time to the second—the train pulled out.

Now there are a lot of things that our travel agents have done right in setting up this trip—terrific boutique hotels, excellent guides and tours, fine dining experiences, occasional evening entertainment with local dancing and singing—but nothing ranks higher on my list that buying four tickets for us for a “soft sleeper” compartment. That meant we had the entire sleeper compartment to ourselves on a sold out train. There is no way we could have gotten ourselves and our baggage into the tiny compartment if we were sharing it with two other people. Some of the compartments even had six berths instead of our four! Way to go, Asia Transpacific!

Even though it was only 6:00 am, I collapsed, went sound to sleep and when I woke up around nine found myself in a different world. The scenery was now lush and green with no hint of the mainly semiarid landscapes we had been witnessing for the last several weeks, starting in Mongolia. We were in fact in what resembled a rain forest—and it was appropriately raining outside—with towering peaks above us on both sides and no sign of any roads or houses, only occasional mountain goats perched precariously on steep cliffs. This breathtaking scenery would be with us for the next 12 hours with no letup. The only changes would be that a tiny village would appear every now and then, many with no apparent roads to connect them to the rest of the world. Valleys would also emerge below occasionally with cultivated fields—rice fields, which we were seeing for the first time—and larger village clusters. After a few hours of chugging up hill at 40 or 50 miles per hour, we started to head down the mountain, picking up speed and following numerous rivers and streams, some with many class 2 and 3 rapids. Occasionally we would see flimsy foot bridges and when there was a calm spot in the river, a small barge serving as a ferry. And toward the end of the journey—which lasted for some 17 hours—larger towns appeared, a few with large factories. We learned after arriving Chengdu that we had crossed the second tallest mountain range in China, separating north China from south China, with peaks in excess of 4,000 meters or over 12,000 feet.


The only frustrating thing about the journey was that about half of it was through tunnels. Just as you were marveling over the most beautiful landscape you had ever seen, bingo, all black, and you were in a tunnel for a good five minutes before you emerged, and it all repeated itself minutes later. Perhaps the biggest surprise was lunch in the dining carriage, which turned out to be spectacular though we had no idea what we had ordered since nothing was in English. And the most disgusting? The rest rooms, which were filthy, in stark contrast to the spotless rest rooms on the bullet trains.

Since it got dark at 8:30 and we did not arrive in Chengdu until almost 11:00 pm, we missed a lot of the dramatic scenery for the last one hundred miles or so. As we approached the village, I was aware that there were a lot of lights outside and that the village was probably not really all that small. When we rolled into the station and dragged ourselves and baggage off the train and then, with good Samaritan help, got the bags down and then up steep staircases, we found ourselves in what could easily have been Penn Station. It was almost midnight, and the huge station was jammed packed. A bit disoriented, we stumbled to the exit hoping to find a smiling guide holding up a “Howell” sign, and there she was—a petite, 20-something with a broad grin. How could anyone do a trip like this without a guide?

As we crossed the huge plaza, buzzing with people and with many people sleeping in sleeping bags along the side (Aha—so there is homelessness in China after all, I said to myself, only to discover later they were college students with a very early train to catch the next day), I asked the obvious question as to the size of this “town.”

“Carol” replied, “Officially only 16 million. Unofficially probably a lot more, maybe 20 million. We are a middle sized city in China.”

That moment you could say was my Epiphany. It was finally dawning on me just how big this country is.

By now we were pretty familiar with the protocol. The guide charges ahead. We follow as best as we can, but I usually fall back so far I fear I will get lost and will never be seen again. She momentarily stops—this time on a street more jammed with honking cars than Times Square—and a car and driver mysteriously appear out of nowhere. The driver takes the bags, throws them in the trunk , we hop in, and off we charge to the hotel, honking madly, swerving to miss jay walking pedestrians, swerving again to miss pedestrians on cross walks but, God forbid, never stopping for them, which as far as I can tell is some kind of unwritten rule, and dodging in front of a smaller car when you need to change lanes. Then there are the countless bicycles and electric motor bikes heading at us in our lane, going in the wrong direction and dipping in the tiny spaces between two cars stuck in traffic. Somehow the driver manages to miss them too and the hundreds of people legally crossing on a red light for us when we make a frantic right-on-red and plow through them as they scamper to give us room. You would think I would be getting used to this by now, but frankly it is having the opposite effect; and when we get back to the US, I am certain I will have to check myself in to Kaiser with Level I Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

But I have got to say, the Chinese drivers have to be the best in the world. Over three weeks in this country, observing more near head-on collisions and pedestrian wipe outs than I can count and not one sighting of an accident of any type.

We arrived at our hotel after midnight. A quaint, 35-room traditional Chinese hotel, it is nestled in one of the historic, protected areas, which is quiet and peaceful with narrow streets, which during the day fill up with vendors. There is a large, active Buddhist temple and monastery around the corner. We were completely wiped out and collapsed and fell into bed at close to one in the morning.

day82-4 after hotel

But we were in a new city. When you get to a new city, your guides are rested and ready. They are bursting with enthusiasm and energy, and they want you to see everything. That is their job. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and you want to see it all too.

So before we headed to our room, Carol suggested we start early in the morning. She would pick us up at eight and we would head out for the two hour plus drive to Leshan were we would see the world’s biggest sitting Buddha, followed by a nice lunch and then a full tour of Chengdu and then dinner and authentic entertainment at the world famous Chengdu Opera. All on the itinerary, all paid for in advance. Sound like a plan?

While she was going over all this at one in the morning, it already was the next day, and I was wondering how I would get through the night, let alone tomorrow. It is times like these when we had young guides, that Embry would pull out her grandmother routine. It usually went something like this:

Embry: ”Is your grandmother still alive?”

Guide: “Yes.”

Embry: “How old is she?”

Guide: “Seventy.”

Embry: “That is my age and my husband is almost four years older. Do you think your grandmother could do all this?”

Argument over. Worked every time. We settled for departing at 9:30, a half day visit to see the great Buddha and no afternoon activities, no dinner and entertainment to be discussed later.

It would have been nice if it had turned out this way. But actually it was our fault that it didn’t.

First the Buddha. My idea of what the day would be like was that we would take an ancient, two lane road through villages arriving at an isolated and holy spot in the middle of nowhere. As we inched our way in heavy traffic out of Chengdu, we made it onto an eight lane, super highway that was like the New Jersey Turnpike except more crowded. For almost the entire two hours we were on that road (which eventually did narrow to four lanes), passing through rice fields and tiny, prosperous looking villages. As we got closer to the tiny village of Leshan, first a 30 –story, modern apartment appeared, then another and soon the landscape was covered with towering high rises and tower cranes.

“What is all this about?” I asked Carol, who promptly responded that we were now in Leshan, a small city of three plus million people official, maybe four or five unofficial. So much for the tiny village idea until I realized that in modern day China, Leshan actually is a small village.


The Buddha was great. It was something like 275 meters high, carved out of a mountain side over a thousand years ago. We boarded a boat carrying about 50 passengers, all Chinese except for us, and viewed this ancient wonder from the water. Peter, our son-in-law who is himself a Buddhist, emailed us that this famous Buddha is not only the world’s largest, it is the largest pre modern sculpture of any kind in the world.


We then had lunch at a nice riverside restaurant before heading back. Our strategic error with regard to scheduling was that on the way to Leshan we had passed by a huge structure that looked like FedEx Field (100,000 seat football stadium) cubed. When we asked Carol what it was, she said it was “Global Center,” the world’s largest building, which opened about a year ago and was primarily a shopping mall with a hotel and a water park. We had to see it. Though it was not on the itinerary, we made the side trip, which was worth it. We counted the stories: 27. We estimated the footprint: at least twelve football fields. The size and scope of the mall inside is indescribable—every multinational chain store in the world represented with huge stores, a water park similar in size and scale to something you would find at Six Flags or Disney World, regulation size ice hockey rink, health clubs, restaurants, an Imax movie complex of something like 50 theaters, escalators going up eight or nine levels, a floor made from precious jade that resulted in the leveling of an entire mountain in Burma. The list could go on. And at 5:00 pm on a week day, plenty of people were walking around, ogling just like we were. Marx and Mao, is this what you had in mind?

globalctr          day82-8

So that is why we did not get back to our hotel until around six, just in time to shower and change clothes for the Chengdu Opera, which did not disappoint. We returned to our hotel around ten.

As we were getting out of the car to head for the hotel, Carol enthusiastically reviewed the next day’s agenda. Start at eight, morning spent visiting the Pandas, special “hot pot” lunch, tour of the city….

Time for Embry’s grandmother speech again. And if you are counting, at 10:O0 pm, we were only on hour 42. The 48-hour mark would not arrive until 4:00 am. Not a typical two day period but one close enough to give you the flavor of our Chinese experience.