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…