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Captivating China
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Captivating China
  Beijing Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton
It's mid-morning and a silver haze softens the wall. It rises from the earth and curves and dips to the east and to the west. Two elderly gentlemen wearing baggy trousers and canvas slippers pass, faces wizened and wise. Their feet make a shuffling noise. Perhaps it's a ritual ... a ceremony. I catch up and fall into step, anxious to be part of a tradition.
This is China and I am walking on the Great Wall. How do I feel? I am numb. It's not that the wall startles me, it looks, after all, like a rock bridge cutting through a jungle wilderness. No. It is that it is so old.
Pieces of the wall are over twenty-five thousand years old! They were connected to one another by the first emperor of China, Shih Huang Ti, in 216 B.C., to guard against the Huns and as a way of communicating ( using fire signals at night and smoke signals by day ) with the capital city of Hsien-yang.
The wall seems to go on forever. Its present dimension -- 6000 km from the China Sea to the Gobi Desert -- was fortified during the Ming Dynasty.
I feel humble, vulnerable, and so ... transient.
One old man lights up a cigarette and spits on the ground. I fall back. Up the path a costumed soldier from another era strikes a menacing pose for a group of tourists stealing 16 century images with their minoltas. I join the group.
This is the 20th century, but it could be 200 B.C.!
Never mind that it is an electric cable car that deposits us at the wall's entrance. Never mind that it is a bunch of stalls ( selling t-shirts, key chains, plastic chopsticks, people's army hats and postcards of the wall ) and not a row of armed soldiers that guards the well-trodden path to the wall.
In the long run, it really doesn't change a thing.
The Chinese are an enduring and patient people. With more than 4000 years of recorded history, China is one of the few existing countries that flourished economically and culturally in the earliest stage of world civilization. This unbroken thread of existence is frayed with power struggles and upheavals and fallen or forgotten dynasties and kingdoms. At times, it seems, the struggle will never end. Yet somehow throughout their lives the Chinese people have maintained a strong believe in their own humanity.
Except for the tragic interlude in 1989, this Asian nation is a compelling destination for those of us fascinated with foreign cultures and the past. Since the late seventies, her self- imposed isolation has undergone enormous modifications. One example is the government's elaborate China Travel Fair '92 held in Beijing. It was an invitation to the rest of the world. And because it was attended by two thousand overseas travel agents, it means the rest of the world is interested.
Counting on this interest to continue, the government is acting accordingly. Several first class hotels offering first class service, with plush amenities and computerized electronics ( touch control lighting, etc.) are operating, others are under construction.
Museums such as silk museums, tea museums, and great explorer museums ( Marco Polo for one ) are opening.
Provincial food tours ( which include traditional feasts served in traditional costumes ), and other tours, such as tours through 2000 year-old palaces and 800 year-old gardens and 200 year-old markets and silk and tea factories are getting better organized.
Pearl diving programs, gondola excursions, and cruises down the Grand Canal are in place. Cultural itineraries include traditional song and dance festivals, local parades, plays, banquets, and walks through old towns, temples and mosques.
Now that the Soviet Union has dismantled, China is the second largest country in the world ( Canada is first ). The country has twenty-one provinces, three municipalities ( Beijing, Shanghai and Tientsin ) and five autonomous regions. Vast expanses of China are still relatively new to tourism; however, the east coast is vigorously promoted.
Hangzhou, the 2100 year-old city in the province of Zhejiang, is described by the Chinese as paradise on earth. It sits in view of scenic hills and on the banks of tranquil West Lake.
The city's streets are heavily treed like the streets in most cities in China. ( Sycamore trees were wisely planted in every city when the communist party took over in 1949. They are a breath of fresh air and a much needed umbrella when the sun is high. ) In the center of town, difficult to pinpoint, hotels poke their heads above the row upon row of nondescript flats.
The narrow side streets and alleys are a conglomerate of services and household goods above which the tenant lives. People, people, people are everywhere. On their bicycles, in their cars, on foot, in buses -- all moving in unison to an orchestrated honking song. They have to, it would be a catastrophe if one falls out of sync.
Several famous gardens and temples are located in Hangzhou, but the main attraction in Hangshou is West Lake.
There are 1,200,000,000 people living in China, so the chances of being alone are rare; however, the highway bordering West Lake on the city's outskirts was surprisingly bare. And the trip to the man-made island in the middle of the lake -- the "Three Towers Mirroring the Moon" - - on the gondola was actually calm and contemplative. The island didn't look man-made, either. Perhaps it's because nature's been reshaping it for over 800 years.
We fed the gold fish and admired the gardens, lily ponds and tea houses; then we sipped green tea and listened to the legends that lurk under every rock-shaped dragon and sculptured shrub in every garden in China -- and to the simple way in which titles are chosen. For example, the island is named "Three Towers Mirroring the Moon" because people came and still come on moon-lit nights and place candles inside the three 371 year-old towers. They then cover the holes with rice paper. The lights reflect on the surface of the water and look like three moons.
China's menus read like story books, too: " Assorted Cold Dish Delicately Arranged with Spring Charm." " Assorted Dish Shaped Like Crying Frogs in a Lotus Pond."
One night we ate at a herbal restaurant. Ironically, after a feast of health-healing herb- drenched vegetables, fish and meat, the medicine men lit up their Marlboro's. ( Smoking is still prevalent in China, especially among the men. )
The country was celebrating a food fair when we were there. I tasted turtle, snake, fish intestines, sea cucumbers, duck's tongue, eel, pigeon eggs, seaweed and jellyfish. The turtle was very fishy, the intestines were very salty, and the seaweed was very good. The rest of the dishes were palatable and if I was a meat eater I would have no problem adding them to my diet.
Before you say, egh! think about the last time you cleaned sardines, or ate escargot (snails), oysters, liver, kidney or sausage. Nevertheless, restaurants do serve foods we're used to -- sweet and sour pork, ginger beef, shelled shrimps, Peking Duck, scallops, vegetables -- such as asparagus, green beans and spinach -- and of course, rice and noodles.
In Suzhou we were invited to the kitchen of the Bamboo Grove Hotel to watch the cooks prepare a banquet. One cook pulls out a live bass from a bucket of water. He immediately slits its underside and removes its intestines.
Now I know the fish is dead -- it's empty, isn't it? But its mouth is still opening and closing and its tail is still wiggling.
He flops it on a slab of a tree trunk ( that's what they use for cutting boards ) and with a few quick strokes puts six or so cuts on either side. Then he picks it up by the tail and shakes it. The fish fans out like a christmas tree, still moving its mouth and wiggling its tail.
Next he slathers it with a special batter and drops it into a gigantic steel wok of hot oil smoking on an open flame. As it sizzles, he shapes it into an arch with the head and tail looking up. The batter caramelizes and the fish is hard as rock candy. It sits like an ornament in the center of our formal dinner later that night.
Another cook prepares noodles. He kneads the dough until it looks like a blob of silly putty. Then he flips it in the air and with every flip doubles the strands until he has a handful of long-stringed noodles.
Ceremony, tradition, ritual ... by what ever name, it wraps China like a second skin. It's in the food and in its preparation; it's in the story-telling dance and song; it's in the protest of the children; it's in the chanting of the monks; it embraces the future.
It isn't living independently side by side; nor is it melted together beyond distinction. Rather, it's in the black coal pot on the sidewalk that's lit with a Bic lighter. It's in the bamboo pole where nylon stockings dry. It's in the plastic bags covering the feet of those visiting the temples. It's in the calculator lying on the bolts of raw silk.
It's in the diesel trains bound for industry past flooded fields of familiar straw hats tipped over rice paddies. It's in the business man reading the paper while the farmer maneuvers an ox plow through the mud.
China is outside my window and I stare intently wanting to sense it one more time before I go home. The sycamore trees look like rows of carrot tops between the earth-colored rectangles. The hotel grounds are manicured with shrubs, trees and fancy fountains. A footpath twists through it all. A man wearing a dark suit walks from the hotel and finds a private place between the bushes. What's he going to do, I wonder?
My eyes wander to the canal at the edge of the property. It looks like it's undergoing restoration. It's hard to tell. Construction shacks crowd the bank. Steam rises from the rice pots boiling on pails of hot coals in front of every crooked doorway. A water kettle cries out for a handful of green tea.
Men emerge from the shanties, stretching and yawning. One man removes his shirt and dives into the canal. Another man gobbles rice before turning to the wheelbarrow, a third man fills a jar with tea and carries it to the hydraulic crane.
I watch the man in the bushes. He takes off his jacket and starts a ritual of strectches and swings. My hand brushes across the electronic eye and the room darkens. I mimic him, trying hard to be part of a tradition.
* Travel in China requires a passport and a visa. See your travel agent for tours and fares.

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