Pieces Of Fine China

Mary McIntosh

© 2004 by Mary McIntosh

Photo property of the author.
Photo property of the author.

 Chinese magic helped make this trip a memorable one.

 I had always thought how wonderful it would be to visit China, but even after I started traveling extensively, a trip there seemed beyond my budget.  In 1992 I heard of a first-class tour that was quite inexpensive, so I decided to take it.  In August I left San Francisco––next stop Shanghai!

 For all the attention we received, the good meals and the superb hotels, I am fully convinced the Chinese government was footing the bill for our airfare. There was no other way this 10-day trip could have been accomplished for the price I paid. Since it was soon after the Tiananmen Square uprising, I think they were eager to get tourism back again.

 The superb attention to small details began on our China Air flight. After departure, the hostess handed me a travel kit and, inside, I found a bar of soap, washcloth, toothpaste, toothbrush, and comb.  In addition, she gave me a pair of socks so I could be comfortable without shoes.  Flying west, we had daylight the entire trip, with five consecutive free movies to help pass the time, when we were unable to sleep.

 We were met at the Shanghai airport by Mr. Wei, our guide for the entire trip.. When our group finally assembled, and we got through immigration and customs, we piled into a bus, nodding to each other. By the end of our tour we’d probably all be good friends. The group seemed as fascinated as I by the sights in Shanghai.

 “As it is getting late, and by the time we get to the Park Hotel the restaurant will be closed,” said Mr. Wei, “we are going to stop shortly for dinner at the “As You Wish.”  If you are not yet ready to experience authentic Chinese food, you can order Americanized Chinese meals, such as chow mein and chop suey.” We all smiled, but said nothing. Everyone looked exhausted after the long trip, for many had come from the east coast to San Francisco.  I was lucky––I’d only had to fly from Los Angeles.  Most of us did eat the Americanized Chinese meal; there would be time later to sample authentic Chinese food.

 After our meal, where we managed to chat a bit with each other, we climbed back into the bus and, in a short while, pulled up in front of the Park Hotel.  It looked just as luxurious as pictured in the brochure.  Yes, I thought, I’m going to like this trip.

 The next morning, from my room on the 24th floor, I took pictures, one looking down on a busy city street, and, from a different angle, ships on the Yangtze River.  I’m glad I took them, for when I began taking pictures during our tour of the city later in the day, nothing happened. The flashing light on my camera did not appear, and the film didn’t automatically advance.  I tried replacing the batteries, but even this didn’t help.  Here I was, in China, for the first––and probably the only––time, with no way to record my memories. The Great Wall was the one thing I really wanted to capture on film.  No one would believe I’d managed to scale it ––for I’d heard it was a difficult climb––if I didn’t have pictures to prove it. And, while most of the unique ideas for the manufacture of goods, such as cheap throwaway cameras, seem to originate in Taiwan, I couldn’t find that kind of camera, at least not where we were allowed to shop.

 But a broken camera wasn’t going to spoil my trip.  I wouldn’t be able to take any pictures, but I could still look at the bustling city out the window of the bus, and watch the thousands of Chinese hurrying about their daily lives.  I glimpsed some of the seven million bicycles darting in and out between cars, busses, and trucks, and wondered why there were not more accidents.  I tried to mentally capture the things that made this busy, overpopulated city so different from other large cities I’d visited.  I watched children riding on the backs of bicycles, old men pedaling tri-carts loaded with melons or bundles of wheat. I saw hundreds of black bikes parked at the side of a building, each looking like the one right next to it, and wondered how anyone would ever be able to find their own when they returned.  I often had trouble finding where I’d parked my car at a shopping mall, and, obviously, it would be easier to find than a black bike.  I noticed laundry hanging on bamboo poles out of second-story windows, above stores, and even on rope slung between two trees.  I watched old men hunched down in a circle on the sidewalk playing cards or mah jongg, and I marveled at their continued interest in the game, since no gambling is allowed in China.  And over the city, the scent of incense permeated the air.

 Out of the moving bus I observed policemen standing in the middle of the road directing traffic, a seemingly impossible job.  I delighted in seeing the children playing the same games children seem to play all over the world––a similar form of hopscotch, and hitting a ball with a wooden stick––not quite baseball, but from the looks on the boys’ faces, they would soon be ready to join a team.  These pictures I tried to store in my memory, knowing there would be none on film.

 We stopped at the Jade Buddhist Temple, where I witnessed a Buddha ceremony. Six monks, in saffron-colored robes, chanted and walked around a room in the temple, while one beat a drum.  Large pictures of two deceased men stood on a table. Family members followed the monks in a circle for two hours, to honor the dead, and to help the deceased into heaven.  In the same Buddhist Temple, I smelled the pungent odor of incense, which continually burned before a large reclining jade Buddha.

 After a visit to a jade factory, where some of our group purchased small jade statues, we were driven to the Park Hotel for a brief rest and a drink. This was just the first full day of our visit to China. I was soon to learn that China International Travel Service, the sponsors of our trip, wanted us to see as much as we possibly could in our short visit, and so kept us busy each hour of every day. We seldom had a short respite, such as this afternoon at the Park Hotel.

 We were scheduled to fly out of Shanghai to Beijing in the evening.  Of course, we got to the airport in plenty of time, but still the plane was two and a half hours late leaving.

 Arriving at an airport was never easy or quick on group tours. Each person, and each piece of luggage, had to be accounted for, so it took awhile before everything was in order and we could walk out of the airport to our waiting bus. By the time we arrived at the Kunhen Hotel in Beijing, it was almost midnight.  As tired as I was, it seemed an interminable wait until our keys were handed out to us. And mine was the very last one.

 “Here’s your key,” said Mr. Wei.  “You are in Room Number 1920.”

 “That’s nice,” I replied in a sleepy voice.  “That happens to be the year I was born.”

 “That’s good luck,” he answered.  I smiled, and took the key.

 Before I tumbled into bed, I glanced at my camera, and noticed it had somehow moved from picture #4 to picture #5. Even though it had taken all day to do this, I decided to take the camera with me the next day, for we were going to the Great Wall, and I hoped I could get at least one picture.

 When I picked up the camera from the chair in the morning, I removed the cover.  Inexplicably, my camera was blinking at me, ready to go into action.

 I did not try to figure out what had happened. I’m no camera expert. Someone told me an experience like this can occur in cold weather, but it was hot and humid in Beijing. All I cared about was I now could begin to take pictures again, and the Great Wall was a good place to start.

 After I got into the bus, I turned to John.  He and his wife had traveled from Cincinnati.  “Did you hear my camera’s working fine now?”  John had suggested I try new batteries.  “I’ll be able to take pictures of the Wall––that is, if I can manage to get up to it.  I heard it’s a pretty rough climb.”

 “We’ll help you, if needed,” Mr. Wei chimed in.  I didn’t realize then how prophetic his statement was.

 But, there was more of Beijing for us to see before we got to the Wall.

 The tour itinerary stated only that we would be seeing the Ming Tombs, nothing more.  If I had known the details of what we’d be experiencing, and the difficulty of getting to the tombs, “no thanks, I’ll sit this one out,” I would have muttered.  Not only was it a long walk, from where the bus let us off, to the entrance to the Tombs, but, once we were inside, a series of steep descending stairs awaited us.  I clung onto the railings tightly because the place was damp, and poorly lit, and I was afraid of slipping.

 No matter what inconveniences I encountered on trips, there always seemed to be something amusing along the way.  I was grumbling and muttering to myself about why I was in this situation, when I passed a sign, in Chinese and English, which read: NO SMOKING AND NO SPITTING ALLOWED.  As I looked at the long way down, I wondered how many visitors were tempted to spit, and watch it splash when it hit  bottom.

 I finally made it, only to discover I was looking at just two of thirteen tombs. Built during the Ming Dynasty for thirteen emperors, I learned these tombs mean as much to the Chinese as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier means to Americans.

 The stairs out of the area were much shorter.  I was so glad to see daylight at the top.

 What a full day it had already been.  We now drove to see an outdoor Chinese herbal medicine exhibition. We watched as a man purposely burned his hand on a red-hot chain, then immediately put a special cream on his hand, and instantly the burn disappeared.  He reminded me of someone I once heard at our county fair who was trying to sell his magical potion to the public.  I smiled at the comparison, and realized we humans are so much alike in so many ways, no matter where we live.

 Next stop, the Great Wall.  On our way, our bus driver received a ticket for passing a car on an area of the road where passing was not permitted.  It cost him twenty yuan, about $4.00, so we took up a collection, each contributing two yuan, roughly twenty cents. We figured the fine might be a good chunk out of his day’s pay.

 The bus parked not far from the Wall. In spite of the morning’s experience, I was determined I was going to make it, but I hadn’t realized what a difficult climb it would be.

 Many stone stairs led up to that section of the Wall where tourists were permitted. For a moment, I hesitated. They looked so steep, and they were steep, and there was no railing on either side to hold onto. The steps were crowded with people going up and down, sometimes jostling one another, or stopping suddenly to look at something in the many shops that lined each side.

 I took a deep breath and started out. Part way up Mr.Wei came alongside and helped me by offering his arm. We finally got up to a landing area.  “There are only a few more steps here. Do you think you can handle it on your own?  I’ve been up so many times.  You don’t mind if I stay here?” asked the ever-polite Mr. Wei.

 I thanked him for his help, and proudly climbed up to the level portion of the Great Wall, now crowded with tourists. On each side of that section, the Wall rises to watchtowers. Many people were climbing that high, and I was sure from there they’d be able to see the long stretch of Wall in the distance on either side.  I was content with what I had already accomplished. Before I started my descent, I made sure someone took my picture.

 After the photo, I walked slowly down the short incline to the landing, where I sat for awhile, enjoyed the warm day, and watched hundreds of people pass by. As I rested, I recalled reading that the Great Wall of China was one of the few things that could be seen from the moon. That seemed to make my feat all the more impressive for me.

 “Would you like me to help you back down the steep stairs?” Mr. Wei asked.  How nice of him, I thought. The people on this tour were all so kind to me.

 “Thanks, but I think I’ll be okay.  I’m sure it will be much easier than coming up.”

 I managed it fine, though slowly. When we all got back into the bus, I made a big point of bragging that I’d got up to the Wall, even though I hadn’t climbed farther, as some had.  “And I’ve got a picture to prove it,” I said. They all clapped.

 I was ready to go back to the hotel for our usual everyday-on-this-tour-authentic-Chinese dinner, but we were not finished sightseeing yet.

 We stopped for a short time at a cloisonné factory. Actually this was quite interesting, for I owned some cloisonné pieces, and I hadn’t realized how they were made. We learned copper wire is used to put the design on a vase, then it’s hand painted, fired, and polished.  I didn’t purchase a cloisonné item, but a few from our group did.

 We finally got back to our hotel in time for a quick swim in the hotel pool before bedtime, and that really felt good.

 I woke up to another hot, humid day. It was August, and I had to expect it.  I picked up the paper on which was listed the schedule for the day––a visit to Tiananmen Square, just a short bus ride away, and then the Forbidden City.

 Tiananmen Square was not a prolonged stop on our tour that day. We simply disembarked at one corner for a brief view.  It is the largest square in the world.  As I looked across the vast expanse, I could barely make out the government buildings across the way.  According to our guide, and what I knew from newspaper accounts, one million dissidents had filled the Square on those fateful days in 1989, when one lone student defied the government, and stood in front of an armored tank. Despite the tragedy in the story of the uprising, all I could think of was what a wonderful place it would be to roller skate!

 The Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Chinese History, and many government buildings are located on all four sides.  In a small ceremony each morning at sunrise, the flag of China, bright red background with semicircle of gold stars, is raised, and lowered each evening, at sundown.

 At the entrance to the Forbidden City, right next to Tiananmen Square, hangs a huge portrait of Chairman Mao. In 1949, at Tiananmen Gate, a building at the entrance to the Forbidden City, Chairman Mao declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

The Forbidden City, where the Palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties are located, is familiar, as it is often used as a background in movies.  Known as the Palace Museum, it is the largest palace complex in the world, with an aggregate total of 9,999 rooms.  No one I asked seemed to know if that number of rooms had any significance.

 Wherever I looked, I saw palace, after palace, after palace, and pagoda after pagoda, each one very ornate, with red and gold cupolas, and ornamental roofs with dragons and dogs. Within the Forbidden City are located the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, the Golden Throne, and many bronze statues of lions and cranes. All the buildings looked so familiar, like those in our American Chinatowns.  I took pictures of the palaces and pagodas, and I caught images of the people milling around.

We had been promised an authentic Chinese meal of Peking duck, and I was now ready for it. Throughout our 10-day trip, except for breakfast, where we had an American buffet, we had been served Chinese family-style meals in large bowls on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. This dinner was different. Along with the ever-present rice dishes, we were given squab, fresh water shrimp, and fish. When the duck arrived, it had been cut up into small pieces. The waiter came to the table, took what looked like a taco shell, though I learned it was a pancake, dabbed some plum sauce on it, added spears of cucumbers, shredded scallions, and the duck and crisp skin, rolled the pancake over, and handed it to us. It sure tasted good. For dessert we had small cakes and cut up watermelon. At the very end, another large bowl of soup was placed in the middle of the table. Soup is traditionally served again at the end of a meal, often thin, watery soup in the hot weather, and thicker soup in winter.  An interesting and delicious meal.

After our short visit in Beijing, we flew to Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors.

In 1974, two farmers, who were digging a well, didn’t like the quality of the first water they found. They dug deeper, and uncovered a stone head.  Because they were superstitious, the farmers ran away screaming. An American newspaper correspondent, in the area to gather information about the ancient city of Xian, heard about the discovery, and concluded they’d found something important.

Besides notifying his newspaper, he also alerted the Chinese authorities. Archaeologists soon began excavating, and discovered thousands of full-sized terracotta soldiers.

I walked into a huge building built specifically to house the soldiers.  In front of me, a massive array of terracotta warriors stood four abreast in full battle formation.  Originally, brightly painted, they now show a red-clay appearance, their wooden bows, arrows, and spears have disintegrated over time.  It is believed the craftsmen, who fashioned the soldiers, were sealed alive in the tomb, to keep the entrance a secret. Buried for 2,000 years, the statues now stand silently, on, and on, and on, as far as the eye can see. The huge room was completely filled with seven thousand life-size warriors, with their chariots and horses at half-size.  The grandeur of the exhibition, and knowing their age, and their still good condition, literally took my breath away.  It is probably the most amazing scene I’ve ever been privileged to look upon.

When Ching became emperor at the age of 13, he began preparing for his death.  More than 70,000 workers were employed to build his underground mausoleum, and create the terracotta warriors, horses and chariots. They would be there to always guard his tomb and protect him in death, just as his real army protected him in life. Archeologists now believe the tomb may spread over a twenty square mile area. For lack of money, the actual tomb of Ching has not yet been found.

This multitude of soldiers, each with different facial expressions, has been preserved. It was an overwhelming experience.  Unfortunately, no photos of the Terra Cotta Warriors were allowed, so I had to settle with buying postcards.

All too soon my 10-day visit to China was coming to an end. A few of our group had extended their trip to include Hong Kong, but I’m glad I decided to go directly back home.  I had done a lot of walking, especially when visiting Beijing––the stairs down into the Ming Tombs, the steps up to the Great Wall, and the great distance we covered at the Forbidden City, wandering into one palace after another.  I was ready to relax back at work!

But I wouldn’t have missed my experience of seeing China for anything. Because my camera didn’t abide by the laws of science, and because I was lucky enough to have slept in Room 1920 in the Beijing hotel, I now have pictures of the Great Wall, the Imperial Palace, and the fascinating Chinese people.

It is a trip I’ll long remember.

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