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
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
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
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
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