Category Archives: Travel Diary

Bigger, Higher, Faster

Like most blogs, this publishes in reverse chronological order. Want to start reading at the beginning of the trip? Click here.

The New New China
Shanghai, Oct. 25-27

This is the final post in my Internet travel diary. I have been back in the States for more than two weeks, and any pretense that this is a daily account of a trip to China has been exposed as fiction. When I began this project, I thought it might take an hour or two each day along the way—a small price to pay for a subsidized trip to China. But the overwhelming input of information and images that any sort of travel provides made it impossible to keep up in a contemporaneous manner.

Readers who have followed all of these thousands of words and hundreds of pictures deserve a People’s Hero medal. I could have bought some, just off Tianamen Square, two for a dollar. I should have gotten you one.

The December 2007 Swarthmore College Bulletin will carry an article on our China adventure. In a few magazine pages, it won’t begin to capture the breadth of our group’s experiences during the past few weeks. I asked travelers to write down their “elevator speeches” about the trip—those one-minute encounters that occur when a friend or colleague asks, “How was China?”—and I’ll include some of those.

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The last leg of our trip brought us from Xi’an to Shanghai on a very crowded aircraft. Our knees-knocking flight arrived just after dark. The airport looked much like Xi’an’s, much like Chongqing’s—only much, much larger. As in each new city, we were met at the baggage claim by a cheerful guide. And, like ducklings in the famous children’s book about the Boston Common, we followed his flag through the airport. But thankfully, we were not headed for another bus. This time, we were to ride a very fast train—the Shanghai Mag-Lev, which would whisk us into the city (well, almost all the way) in less than 10 minutes. Top speed: 300 km/hour—just under 200 mph. Whoosh!

Maglev Poster

A Maglev poster.


The train—which has no engineer on board.


Speedo sign. We reached 300 km/h in less than two minutes. Higher speeds are reached in the daytime. Not sure what the difference is at night.

China is on the move. Fast. We saw the biggest dam in the world. We rode the fastest train in the world. If we come back to Shanghai in a few months, we could ascend the tallest building in the world. While we were in country, the Chinese put a satellite in orbit around the Moon. If there is any take-home message, it’s that, although the 20th century might have been the “American Century,” the 21st will belong to China.

This is not a defeatist observation. It is, however, a call to get over it, get used to it, and get ready for it. Those who believe that American leadership of the world’s economy, currency, geopolitics, military power, and culture are permanent conditions—or some sort of natural right—are fooling themselves. What we have seen is but a glimpse of the enormous power and creativity that will surely dominate the world during the next 100 years.

Our China experience was carefully choreographed—not so much by the Chinese themselves (though our guides were perfectly programmed) but by the larger sweep of culture and history—and by the desires of tourists like us—the perceptions of culture and history that shape everyone’s view of what’s important to see in China.


Beautiful old bronzes and ceramics in the art museum in Shanghai are the foundation of a culture that is 4,000 years old. Next door, a city planning exhibit shows the scope of the city, which locals claim is the world’s largest.

City Plan

Part of the planning exhibit was a huge scale model of the city. All I could think of was where to put the model trains. My old Lionel 027-gauge tracks would look pretty silly in this world.

Nanjing Rd.

Shanghai at night—along Nanjing Road, the main shopping street.



Dick and I took a long walk in the late afternoon. The street holds endless opportunities. We took the subway under the river to Pujong, opposite the old colonial district, where we emerged in a sea of high-rise towers.


The Bund—along the river where Western-style buildings give a hint of Paris or London.


Looking across the river to Pujong.

Objects of extraordinary beauty in the museum included this sculpture, which held my gaze for a long time.


Jade Buddha

This extraordinary Buddha, made of jade, about 1.5 meters tall, is not in a museum but rather in a working Buddhist temple, next door to a restaurant where we had a delicious vegetarian lunch. It glows as if alive. I was mesmerized and did not want to leave the room. (Not my photo.)

Some Final Thoughts

Being in China has presented a complicated dance of expectation and reality. Flying over the pole a couple weeks ago, I had no idea what I would find. All I had was an open-minded excitement—a nervous anticipation and desire to know. Most of us arrived in Beijing with no direct experience of this vast country (only two or three had ever been here—except for Haili Kong, who was born and raised in China), but it wasn’t an entirely blank slate, just a blurry one. There is no such thing as a blank slate. Each of us brought our own ideas of Chinese culture and history, from what the food would be like to how the people act to what we would encounter on the streets.

Few of these preconceptions turned out to be accurate. This is the whole reason to travel in this world: to replace preconceptions with reality—or at least as much reality as can be obtained on a superficial tour such as this. Which is to say that not everything we saw was “real.”

Our tour was scripted by many authors, not the least of which were our own preconceptions of what we ought to see in China. We followed a well-trod tourist track, seeing many of the same things that almost every visitor to China gets to see. Yet, had the Alumni College itinerary not promised those sights, few would have desired to spend thousands of dollars on this trip. Or any trip.

The genteel and urbane Howard Smith, our tour operator, is a 30-year China veteran specializing in custom trips for educational groups such as ours. With few exceptions, his choices of destinations, guides, accommodations, transport, and restaurants were masterful and delightful. But—and this is a criticism of tourism itself, not Howard—they merely reinforced a familiar story. With his long experience of contemporary China and many friends here, Howard could surely have told us a somewhat different story. But could he design a two-week tour to illustrate it? Doubtful. Could you impart the story of your last 30 years (not to mention your entire country’s) in a 14-day travel experience for 40 people?

I love travel, and in each place I visit, I hear a series of little stories that build like chapters in a book. But, I wonder, are they truth or fiction? Can any person know China’s whole story? Or America’s? It’s like meeting a friendly stranger on the street; you can talk for an hour (about as long as it seems we were in any one place in China), yet nothing is certain when you are done. You cannot be sure.

So it’s like any other place: You know what you think you know. Over a lifetime, you watch, read, listen, think, see, absorb, accept, believe, reject, and ultimately form a story—a few lines to repeat when someone asks you about your experience. How was your vacation? How was Christmas? How was China? are the questions you must answer when you see family, friends, and co-workers. How indeed?

Better to ask, “How are you after your two weeks in China? How has it changed you and your perception of the world?” It may seem like an easier question to answer, but it’s not. Travel enhances self-awareness—especially in a culture so different from ours as that of China. What you bring home is not new knowledge about the place you have seen but about the mind that has seen it.

I took 1,600 pictures on this trip. Some of them are quite beautiful as photographs; others document what we saw along the way; but none of them captures the changes that occur in the traveler. Travel is about change—in latitude, longitude, and attitude. After two short weeks in China, I have a new and different understanding of that country—yet one that may or may not correspond to reality there. The only truly new and different understanding that I can trust is the one I have brought home about myself.

How was China? Better to ask me, “How’s life?”

Thanks for reading.


Leaving It All Behind

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Xi’an to Shanghai

Oct. 25

The next day, just before leaving for the airport, it was time for another undergound experience: the mausoleum of LiuQi (188-141 BCE), the fourth emperor of the Western Han dynasty and his empress, Wang. Construction of two large funeral mounds began in 153 BCE near present-day Yangling.


One of the Han Dynasty burial mounds near Yangling. (Not my picture—the sky was never this clear while we were there.)


What it really looks like in late October.

Excavations around the edges of the mounds have revealed another huge underground collection of terra cotta figures—ranks upon ranks of them, representing not just warriors but ordinary men and women (complete with their genitals and other bodily orifices). They were painted and equipped with movable wooden arms, which have rotted away. They were even clothed for their journey—probably with items labeled “Made in China!”

Work at this site is even more recent than those at Bingmayong, beginning in the early 1990s. Another magnificent museum has been built around these excavations—which represent a fraction of the size of the entire complex. Underground imaging has revealed that the mound itself is like a palace inside—the perfect combination of palace and tomb, and therefore the perfect tourist site—but it is not clear whether archeologists will ever excavate it, because to do so might destroy it.

According to one Chinese Web site,

From a site which accounts for only one thirteenth of the total area of the sacrificial burial pits, about 600 color-painted pottery figurines and 4,000 pieces of various cultural relics were unearthed. The figurines included warriors escorting the imperial chariot, attendants watching over boxes and cases, cattle drovers and clerks. There were also animal models produced in different styles.

Here are a few pictures. It was, as you will see, very dark down there.


We were issued little blue booties before we entered the museum, which takes you underground by a series of ramps to stand on glass floors above the excavated burial chambers.


A model shows the sacrificial burial pits radiating out from the four sides of the mound.


Ashes to ashes, all fall down.

The wooden arms of the figures, which are about 60 cm tall, have rotted away over the centuries.



A chariot wheel—about a meter in diameter.


Livestock. The piggies are really cute.


Back outside, pots of chrysanthemums—just like fall at home.

The tombs near Xi’an are one of the top attractions in China, and I’m glad we got to see them. But I suspect that one reason we like to tour the world’s tombs and palaces is that, after all this packing for the afterlife, the aancient kings left it all behind. They are gone and their stuff remains. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowledge that they couldn’t take it with them after all. And, of course, there’s a lesson there for the rest of us: Pack light. A robe and a rice bowl may be all you need in this life—and you won’t even be able to take those simple things to the next.

We headed for the airport, where lunch was served in a large dining room set aside for tour groups. The modern air terminal will be taxed to its limits next year, during the Olympic, because every potential visitor to China has seen pictures or heard of the terra cotta army. They will all flock here, and the locals will house and feed and transport them, then cram them back on airplanes to the next stop. Our next (and last) stop: Shanghai. For those about to go to China, what you really should pack is a smaller set of legs, because there isn’t room for your current pair on Chinese airplanes. Be my witness:


This was before the person in front of me reclined his seat.

Packing for the Afterlife

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Xi’an, Oct. 24-25

Packing is a challenge for most folks—knowing what and how much to take for your journey. Regrettably, I’m of the packing school that figures, if there’s a 50-pound limit, see how close you can get without incurring excess-baggage charges. Sure, I can go on a two-day business trip with a bare minimum of gear—but packing to go to China? I might as well be packing to go to the Moon, though I suspect that has a stricter weight limit than United Airlines.

A few days before we left, I laid it all out on the bed in one of the kids’ rooms. (Our grown-up “kids” are no longer in residence.) I congratulated myself on being a smart packer when I decided I didn’t need a quantity of socks and underwear equal to the number of days I would be gone. I would do some laundry about halfway through China.

As I packed my Chinese-made suitcase, I observed that many of my toiletries, all of my shoes, and most of my clothing bore the “Made in China” label. I came to an important realization: The true purpose of going to China was to take my belongings home for a visit.

It was in this spirit that I approached the Qin emperor (221 BCE to 206 BCE) and his famous terra cotta warriors. As I had packed to the limit to go to China, so this long-dead emperor had packed for the afterlife—and there was no 50-pound limit for the emperor.


On the way…

Think how many of the places that tourists throng to are either palaces or tombs. The biggest attractions around the world are either places that great rulers built for themselves to live in—or places they built for themselves to be dead in. Of course, there are many great religious sites and, during the past couple of centuries, a few great museums. But nothing beats a palace, pyramid, or mausoleum as venue in which to marvel at how enormous wealth and power—especially combined with belief in the supernatural and a dash of hubris—has created a view of history that is all about these few men. (Face it, it’s all about the men.) The palace perspective is one with the human condition.

The museums that modern China has built to preserve and display its cultural patrimony are beautifully planned and executed. At the site of the terra cotta warrior excavations, huge pavilions have been constructed over three sites.

The Qin Emperor—the first warrior to unify all of China under a centralized feudal state—appears to have outdone all of the world’s former leaders with his recently discovered tomb complex at Bingmayong, near Xi’an. With the possible exception of the Great Pyramids, there’s nothing like it.

People had long been aware of the large funeral mounds in the foothills of the Lishang Hills outside the ancient walled city of Xi’an. But it wasn’t until 1974, after a farmer digging a well nearby unearthed some interesting pottery, that the world became aware of just how big the Qin tomb really was. You probably know that story—the subject of endless Discovery Channel programs: This funeral mound and underground mausoleum are the largest ever discovered.

Some quick facts:

• The entire complex covers a total of 2.18 million square meters—just under a square mile—with the tomb mound itself covering 220,000 square meters.

• The mausoleum originally consisted of inner and outer sections. The outer section had a circumference of 6,294 meters—almost 4 miles.

Some 8,000 life-sized terra cotta warriors have been unearthed, mostly in the outer section.

According to Records of the Historian, written over 2,000 years ago by Sima Qian, construction involved 700,000 laborers and took 36 years to complete.

Another fact: the Qin emperor was probably dead for quite a few years before he was entirely fixed up with his terra cotta army, which was to protect him in the afterlife. But, I wondered, what if his soul took off for the underworld before the whole thing was finished?

Pavilion 1

Outside the first pavilion—an enormous shed that probably could have docked the Graf Zeppelin.


Inside the first pavilion—breathtaking. These displays artfully blend “working” archeology and reconstructed artifacts. Most of the clay figures were broken or damaged by the collapse of the wooden roofs of the underground chambers where they were buried 2,200 years ago. Some can be seen as they were found, in pieces, and others have been painstakingly restored.




Fragments of statues show the condition of the warriors in areas still being excavated.


The stripes indicate where the timbered roofs of underground rooms collapsed. This site is part of the terra cotta warriors museum, where the army assembled for the imperial journey into the beyond.




Three soldiers in sepia. They were in glass cases in one of the pavilions, so you could see them up close.


These magnificent bronze horses and chariot—about a quarter of life size— are one of two sets uncovered with the clay figures.

As we sat on a curb waiting for the Swarthmore group to coalesce at the end of our visit to the terra cotta warriors, I asked Shao Yan, the national guide who had been with us since Beijing, whether she is a religious person. It seemed like the right place to have such a conversation—here, where an emperor had prepared for a life beyond this one.

She said that she didn’t belong to any particular movement, but that if her sympathies lay anywhere, it was with Buddhism. I told her a little about my own religious journey—and my spiritual experiences in China. (See “A Prayer for Peace.”)

Then I observed (as I had in that posting), that although there seemed to be a fair bit of religious freedom in China, the government definition of religion was narrow enough to exclude Falun Gong, which we had been told was a “cult.” I said the difference seemed to be that Falun Gong had crossed some sort of line, straying into politics. “They just tried to move too fast,” Shao Yan said. I had heard the same thing said of the 1988 pro-democracy movement when we were standing in Tianamen. “Too fast,” she repeated, a little ruefully perhaps.

Of course, the Dalai Lama, who is seen outside China as a major spiritual leader, is reviled by the Chinese government and press. While we were in China, President Bush invited him to the White House, and the press here (we read the official English-language China Daily almost every day, taking it with more than a grain if salt) was attacking both Bush and the exiled Tibetan Buddhist, who not only represents the Tibetan independence movement, but will be succeeded by own reincarnation.

The Peoples Reoublic has devised a perfect solution to the succession problem in Tibet—in August, they passed a law that makes it illegal to be reincarnated without the permission of the central government. Now, isn’t that laughable?

The object of this law is to enforce government control over the choosing of “soul boys,” the potential successors to the great lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, including the famously exiled supreme lama. Here’s how a PRC “white paper” on religious freedom explains the situation. Follow the logic carefully (italics are mine)…

The reincarnation of holy men, or “Living Buddhas,” is a unique form of succession in Tibetan Buddhism which has long been recognized and respected by the State. In 1992 the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council approved the succession of the 17th Karmapa Living Buddha. In 1995 China successfully concluded the search for and identification of the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama and the title-conferring and enthronement of the 11th Panchen Lama after lot-drawing from a golden urn according to the established religious rituals and historical conventions of Tibetan Buddhism, and with the approval of the State Council. These actions highlight the fact that the Tibetan people’s right to religious freedom is respected and protected, thus winning endorsement and support from the converts of Tibet.

Huh? This absurd document goes on to argue that the regulation of reincarnation has long historical precedent in Ming and Qing times—and is therefore historically legitimate. Of course, so was foot binding, but they don’t do that anymore!

Pandas and Progress

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Chongqing, Oct. 23

We started our second day in Chongqing with the attraction everyone had been waiting for—giant pandas. These quintessentially Chinese bears are found in three provinces in Western China and are most abundant in Sichuan. In 2005, the Chinese government and the conservation group WWF China did the first census of pandas in the wild since the 1980s, finding about 1,600 individuals in natural habitats. The previous count had been around 1,100, so the news was generally positive. (There are also about 160 pandas in captivity worldwide, about two-thirds of them at the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center and Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base.)

The Chongqing Zoo is a quiet oasis in the heart of this bustling city. There, we saw about a half-dozen pandas in large enclosures, including one juvenile lollygagging in a tree. In 2006, a Chongqing panda named Ya Ya gave birth to twin cubs at the zoo. Because twins are unusual, one of the babies was taken to Wolong to be raised there, but, sadly, Ya Ya rolled over in her sleep on the other cub, crushing it. Apparently, this is not uncommon with pandas, whose babies weigh just 3 to 5 ounces when born—about 1/900 of the mass of an adult female.

Official Chinese news outlets and Web sites love panda stories, like this one about the “bachelor panda” who was being welcomed home from the San Diego Zoo. I was delighted by the idea that Mei Sheng (whose name means both “born in the USA”—hey, Bruce!—and “happy life”) was the guest of honor at “an enthusiastic and grand welcoming ceremony as part of his homecoming.” Let’s hope they served plenty of fresh bamboo.

Apparently, almost all of the world’s pandas—including the ones in U.S. zoos—are owned by the Chinese government and can be recalled at will. This includes any cubs born of Chinese-owned pandas, once they reach maturity. Surely, there will be subsequent stories about Mei Shang’s sexual exploits. We were told by our somewhat embarrassed guide Rose that pandas have a low sex drive and have to be encouraged to get it on. One strategy has been to show mature male pandas videos of other pandas mating—which the media immediately dubbed “panda porn.” (Watch this CNN story on YouTube, in which a Chinese panda researcher says they also tried Viagra on the panda boys, who “stayed excited way too long.”)

Despite the increase in the number of pandas living in both artificial and wilderness habitats, only about 60 percent of the animals live in officially protected areas, where they are presumed to be safer from development and poachers. Yet, like many other species in China, pandas are threatened by the country’s rapid economic development. It was encouraging to hear that some Chinese are trying to do something about this—to balance development with nature. Another yin-yang moment in Chinese history.

Even in the official press, there is a line of thinking that questions the impact of unbridled development on the land and its inhabitants. The construction of additional hydroelectric power dams in the upper Yangzi basin has come under particular scrutiny after the controversy that surrounded the Three Gorges project—and it’s not just the impact on people that is of concern. A recent article on an official Web site complained that “hydroelectric power plants have altered the way water flows, killing rare aquatic inhabitants, including otters, giant salamanders and the Hucho Bleekeri Kimura [whatever that is]. They also have invaded into China’s southwestern nature reserves, such as the Fengyongzhai Reserve in Sichuan Province where wild giant pandas are living.”

Whether China will heed these calls for ecological restraint as it builds highways, factories, dams, and entire cities in these sensitive areas remains to be seen. The news out of the 17th Communist Party Congress, which took place in Beijing during our time there, was full of pledges by the Party to address air and water pollution, product safety, and income disparity between urban and rural Chinese. But there was not a lot of talk about nature itself as a resource. The Chinese are incredibly materialistic, and the connection between spitit and nature seems to be lost on the people who are making the economic decisions that, in a developing nation, are most crucial.

Yet giant pandas are a national symbol for China, and enormous effort has gone into both protecting the wild species—the bears occur naturally only in China—and promoting captive breeding. During one recent year, as many as 16 cubs were born in “artificial environments,” the euphemism for captivity. There have even been some efforts to reintroduce captive pandas into the natural environment.

Could this commitment to one signature (and totally adorable) species drive other efforts to save wildlife ecosystems? Could pandas be the canary in the Chinese ecological mineshaft? Let’s hope so—and let’s keep the pressure on whenever we get the chance.

OK, enough posturing. Here’s what you’ve been waiting for—my panda pictures. Oooooo! Cute!





Sichuan Heat

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Dinner in Chongqing, Oct. 22

Returning from Dazu after a long day on the bus, we checked in to our hotel (a Marriott) and had the evening to ourselves. John, Hannah, Carola, Dick, and I headed out about 6:30 with the name of a restaurant that someone had seen in the Rough Guide. It appeared to be just around the corner, but, after questing stops in several places and a lot of hand-gesture directions—people pointing down the street and, a few minutes later, back up the same street—we gave up on it and looked for something authentic, like a place where only Chinese people were eating.


Looking for the restaurant we never found.

In Sichuan, a province famous for its spicy food, there’s a local dish called “hot pot.” (There’s also Mongolian hot pot, which we sampled with Haili in Beijing.) Here, the emphasis is on the first of those two words—in more ways than one. The pot itself is a kettle of spiced broth at the center of the table, into which the diner dumps various uncooked items ranging from sliced raw pork, lamb, or chicken (or shrimp or whatever’s handy—it’s said that if it has four or more legs, it can be eaten in China) to tofu, bok choi, mushrooms, and noodles. If you’re thinking “fondue,” you’re in the ballpark, but the only real similarity is the novelty of cooking at the table. We are not at The Melting Pot.


Hot pot—not ours, but similar.

On a street that had several restaurants, we chose one pretty much at random. It was brightly lit (atmosphere is not a feature of Chinese eateries) and clearly featured hot pot. After we were seated in the middle of the room—soon to be a sort of theater in the round—a young waiter was assigned to our table because, apparently, he had been exposed to English, which is not to say that he could speak it. On our side of the language divide, John became our spokesperson because he had studied a year of Chinese in college, many years ago. (There was also a badly stained pidgin-English menu touting all sorts of delicacies, such as chicken feet and assorted internal organs of small rodents.) Relying on John and the eager waiter, we learned the basics—that there is a mild broth and a spicy broth—or you can get a combo with a portion of each. That sounded good. For comestibles, we ordered conservatively: pork, mushrooms, noodles, and some vegetables.


Getting help with our order.

All of the other diners watched us carefully. It was clear that we were to be the evening’s entertainment.

Two kettles arrived and an electric fire was lit beneath the center of the table, inches from our knees. The spicy broth must have had two pounds of chopped-up red peppers roiling around in it. Cascades of capsaicin climbed aboard the rising vapors, making our noses run even before we took a bite of food. The milder broth was milky opaque, so you couldn’t see what was lurking in its depths. Black pepper and onion, I think. And something else quite aromatic.

Noodles came first in little bricks (frozen? dried?) that the waiter, smiling helpfully, dropped into the hot broth. Apparently, they had to cook a while to escape from their blocky little prisons. When released, they puffed up into discrete strings as thick as your pinky and as long as your arm. What to do? By now, the broth was at a rolling boil; our noodles alternately swam to the surface and dove to the bottom faster than you could say “chopsticks.” Which, by the way, was what we were expected to use to extract them—and everything else—from the peppery depths.

Here’s how that went: Each of us was issued a rice bowl (sans rice) and another little bowl of dipping sauce, which started out mild but rapidly took on the character of the hot pot itself. None of us could get the damn noodles out of the pot until a patron from the next table kindly intervened with a demonstration.

Wielding John’s chopsticks like a kung-fu master, he snagged a noodle and threw a coil of it over the edge of the hot pot into John’s rice bowl. The secret technique came next: Quickly slide your chopsticks back down the noodle into the broth and tug a little bit more if it over the edge, repeating rapidly as if reeling in a fish (or an eel, as the case may be), until most of the enormous noodle rests in your bowl. At a certain point, by some sort of gravitational miracle, the rest of it siphons neatly out of the pot and plops into the bowl.

Once the entire yard-long thing is nestled in front of you, it’s a simple matter of letting it cool a bit, finding one end, inserting it in your mouth with the chopsticks, and slurping it in until your gorge is full. If there’s too much noodle for one mouthful, bite it off, swallow what you’ve got, find another end, and repeat.

In this way, we polished off three or four bricks of noodles. The neighborly demo was extremely helpful, but when attempted by unskilled Americans, this noodle exercise is akin to a one-year-old eating his first birthday cake. In other words, a big mess. Our friend from the next table kept nodding and smiling encouragingly, but we knew he had to be laughing inside.

After mastering noodles, cooking and eating the rest of our meal was easier. You tossed in what you wanted and pulled out something vaguely similar from another part of the pot. There was no way to know what was yours and what was someone else’s, but no matter. Before long, even the milder broth was contaminated with chili juice and there was no escaping the capsaicin. The bemused waiter kept bringing more beer to quench our fires—and more thin little paper napkins (except in better restaurants, napkins are hard to come by in China) to staunch the dripping mess we were making between the pot and our pathetic little bowls.

It was a really tasty meal and the five of us had a lot of fun. The bill came in at 91 yuan—about $12—and that was mostly beer. We left a tip for the waiter—something he may not have expected because tipping is quite unusual in China, especially in a down-home place like this. I wish we could have tipped our helpful neighbor too, but I suspect he was already well compensated by the show we had provided.

After dining, we walked for an hour, looking at the bright lights and smart shops in the area near the Victory Monument—the heart of Chongqing’s downtown shopping district. As on Beijing’s Wangfujing St., the sidewalks were jammed with hip young Chinese in stylish outfits, strolling up and down the avenues. There were fewer Westerners than in Beijing, and I noticed more smiles and eye contact, a greater acknowledgment of our presence in the throng. Here are a few pictures of the kinds of things we saw on the street that night.


Bright lights, big city. That’s the Victory Monument on the left.


Funny, they don’t look Chinese.


A big department store. Buy a cell phone? Everyone has one.

Cat and Mouse

His-and-hers pajamas—cat and mouse theme. Cute!

About a block from the hotel, I noticed a barbecue stand with a short line of Chinese watching a cook prepare little meat-on-a-stick treats. We watched for a while, until I got up the nerve to order one. The cook nodded knowingly and the woman next to me gave me a sidelong glance. On the grill was a piece of processed meat, 1/8″ thick and about the size of a No. 10 envelope. As it sizzled on the hot brazier, various sauces were applied from squeeze bottles. I paid 4 yuan—about 75 cents—and waited for my piece to be done, but the woman next to me apparently wanted to get on with the fun and politely handed me one of the two skewers that she had just purchased. How kind, I thought, taking my first bite and nodding my thanks.

Jeff eats

About to make a big mistake.

My mouth exploded. I love spicy food, but this was the hottest, most electric thing that ever passed my lips. My tongue felt like it was on fire, buzzing with the peppery heat. I don’t remember the woman’s reaction—only my own. I retreated around the corner with my friends, giving Dick a bite. Then I sat down on a wall and ate the rest of the meat off the skewer. I wanted the full experience. It left me gasping and spitting. OK, I thought, the hot pot featured chili peppers to the max, but this is an order of magnitude more spicy. It was a feeling that I will never forget—like one never forgets the feeling of 110 volts from a light socket or the pain of slamming your finger in a car door. This was what I had come to Sichuan for—the authentic Sichuan heat.

Dazzled by Dazu

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Chongqing, Oct. 22

Our trip has already taken us to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Imperial Palace, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and Great Wall. Today we visited a fifth—the Dazu Rock Carvings, hidden in a leafy grotto near Chongqing. Here’s what the UNESCO Web site (if you go, be sure to check out the cool panoramic photos) has to say about it:

The steep hillsides of the Dazu area contain an exceptional series of rock carvings dating from the 9th to the 13th century. They are remarkable for their aesthetic quality, their rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, and the light that they shed on everyday life in China during this period. They provide outstanding evidence of the harmonious synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

None of us was prepared for the Dazu experience. After a 90-minute bus ride from the river landing, we stopped at a small village for an early lunch at a small hotel (the sign announced that it was a “hotle”), then walked across a village to enter the protected area. We were ferried in electric carts down a hill to the grotto entrance. Our local guide, Rose, had talked on the bus about Western China, Chongqing, and its history; she was also a font of information about the carvings at Dazu, but, not too far into the site, she found herself unable to hold the group together. The place was an incredible wonderland and we were so many Alices—so off we went to explore.

Rather than play Rose and be your overbearing guide to this marvel (I know, I write too much), I invite you to share in pictures what we experienced during our brief time at Dazu.
















The Old Is New

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Fengdu to Chongqing
Oct. 22

Sometime in the night, we docked at Fengdu,
the so-called “Ghost City.” In the morning, after a buffet breakfast, we went ashore. I mention breakfast because throughout our trip, a bountiful morning meal was provided—both aboard the Victoria Queen and at each hotel. The hotel breakfasts were a model of conspicuous consumption in a land where many people still don’t get enough to eat, and I had to wonder what happened with the leftovers. These all-you-can-eat meals featured breads, pastries, cold cuts, cheeses, bacon, sausage, potatoes, eggs to order, Chinese noodle soup, numerous fruits, hot and cold cereals, yoghurt, lox, sushi, sashimi, hot entrees, congee (a rice gruel), a half-dozen different juices (orange, grapefruit, watermelon, cucumber, mango, papaya), Chinese buns and dumplings, marinated vegetables, grilled tomatoes, etc. On the Victoria Queen, there were fewer selections, but there was still a lot to eat. Our Chinese hosts did not want any hungry foreign devils on their hands.

Breakfast Buffet

Breakfast buffet aboard the Victoria Queen.

As a tourist attraction, Fengdu dates to the time of Christ, when two Daoist recluses, Yin and Wang, set up shop on a mountain along the Yangzi. Combined, their names mean “King of the Underworld,” and for centuries, the place has been a destination for pilgrims—or, more precisely, relatives of the dead (aren’t we all?)—seeking to erase human memories before rebirth.

Here, in a typically charming translation from the Chinese, is how Gao Rongmiao, Chief of Fengdu County, explains it on the Web site

“Wang Fangping and Yin Changsheng, scholars of the Han Dynasty, were mistaken for the King of the Hell, which has been served as the foundation that Fengdu is believed to be the City of Ghosts. As time goes by, Mt.Mingshan of Fengdu was fabled as a celestial mountain inhabited by the King of the Hell and his entire institution of the Hell existing in the human world on the basis of abundant and colorful imagination.

“And it is believed that after death people would have their spirits registered at the Hell of Fengdu, and the dead spirit would be sent by the two Impermanence to the City of Ghosts – passing the Naihe Bridge, obtaining his “Guide” (entrance permit) issued by the ” Hell Government” before entering the Gate of the Hell, being reviewed and questioned by 10 Yama officials, and finally waiting for the decision of delivery from the King of the Hell. Sinful people are downgraded to suffer at the Hell with 18 stories, and they will be reborn to the next world as animals or cattle; sinless people will be reborn as human beings after having a wonderful time up in the paradise, and before they are allowed to return to the human world, they are given the last chance to look at his folks living in the human world at the Home-Looking Platform, and required to drink a memory-kill soup thus to forget all his past memories and experiences.”

After disembarking in morning fog and a brief bus ride that deposited us at the end of a street of shops selling fruit, dried fish, sweaty sausages, and the usual useless trinkets, we had a choice of climbing 600 steps for free or taking a chair lift for 15 yuan. About a dozen of us chose to walk up to the temples in a light drizzle (the only significant rain we had the entire two weeks in China). Shao Yan, our national guide, hiked up with us.


Going ashore at Fengdu.

Chinese grapefruit

Fresh grapefruit at a vendor’s stand.

Shao Yan, young-looking Beijing mother in her 40s, always took up her position at the rear of the group, watching our every move—not in a bad way, but more in the manner of a vigilant teacher keeping track of her class on a field trip. She didn’t want to lose anyone. Because I frequently dropped back to get one more photo or explore some interesting alley, she got to know me pretty well. And, in a good-natured way, got to know my bad habits too—which include leaving things behind just about everywhere I go.

For instance, after landing in Yichang, she helped me retrieve my computer from the plane. While waiting for my suitcase at the baggage claim, I noticed that my backpack seemed a little too light. I immediately realized that the Millennium Falcon (my beat-up 7-year-old Powerbook G4) was still on the plane—under the seat in front of where I had been sitting. Fortunately, it was a small airport and both the plane and computer were still there. Shao Yan and I hurried back to the jetway and, in a minute, I had my computer. Unfortunately, in my hurry to recover the Falcon, I forgot a small notebook that I had left in the seat pocket. Despite Shao Yan’s later calls to the airline, it was never seen again.

[Note: I lost the Falcon for good in early 2008. Yep. Left it on an airplane—this time a USAirways flight from Charlotte to Philadelphia. There was no Shao Yan this time. The old Millennium Mac owed me nothing. As her second pilot, I had many of the same troubles with her as did Han. Check out this description from

The Falcon pays a heavy price for its augmented performance, though. It is extremely recalcitrant and often unpredictable. Its reconditioned hyperdrive often fails. Its current captain, Han Solo, has even been seen to restart a failed ignition sequence with a hard rap on the bulkhead with his fist.

Now back to our story.]

At the top of the Fengdu chair lift, the stair-climbers rejoined the group and were conducted further upward by our local guide, whose patter was so pat that it sounded like a recording. (It must be mind numbing to conduct three or four of these tours every day.) We passed through a series of gates and shrines with cheerful names like Ghost Torturing Pass, Last Glance at Home Tower, Nothing to Be Done Bridge. The complex offered a comfortable combination of Buddhist and Daoist venues—something for everyone who likes to toy with torture, death, ghosts, and the underworld.
Climbing to the shrine

A light rain was falling as we climbed the mountain.

Circle door

A graceful doorway in a part of the complex that was rebuilt in the 1980s after having been destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

At one point, our guide (call him Pat) cautioned us not to rub up against the yellow walls because the paint might stain our clothing. It turned out that, although the original Ghost City had been built centuries ago, these buildings dated from sometime in the 1980s. With the exception of the last and highest of the structures, all of the Fengdu complex had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (like, before the chairlift was built to haul tourists up the mountain) and then rebuilt—just for us—using poured concrete and other shoddy materials, including cheap paint, so that in just 20 years it became instantly ancient. Fake and real balanced perfectly, like yin and yang.


A Buddha in one of the Fengdu shrines.


One of the new gates. Most of the new buildings and sculptures are made of concrete. Still, they have achieved a sort of traditional beauty—and an almost instant appearance of age.

Near the authentic temple at the top of the hill, the walls were painted a brilliant blue that, our guide explained, Chinese people find terrifying. Being from a culture that thinks the color blue is pacific and comforting, I was curious to notice how, as the blue walls neared the ground, their paint was peeling and mossy from the dampness. Here, at the margin of our two cultures, I found the day’s best images—little close-ups of green, white, and blue that seemed like landscape paintings. People stared at me as I got down on my knees with the camera to capture them with my macro lens, composing carefully as I saw mountains, sky, trees, and lush green fields. If we are here celebrating the underworld, I thought, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Blue Alley

While everyone else was looking through the windows at the right at a chamber of horrors, I got interested in the blue-washed wall on the left. Below is one of the close-up landscapes I found there—a combination of peeling blue paint and mossy algae. Pretty, huh?


At the top of the mountain, we reached a pagoda-like tower and, nearby, the only truly ancient building of the day. Clearly, there was something to this erasure-of-memory business, because somewhere along the way, I had forgotten my hat. I informed Shao Yan, who shook her head, laughing at my childlike ways.

The last pavilion, which was guarded by some fearsome figures, housed a golden statue representing the King of the Underworld—plus a bizarre roomful doll-like wood figures depicting horrific torture scenes, like something out of Dante or Breughel. Haili declared the whole thing to be “pretty scary,” but by now my spiritual receptors had been overwhelmed. I couldn’t wait to get to the bottom of the hill again—back to the rough brown reality of the river.


Guardians at the Temple of Hell.

King of Hell

The King of Hell.

Instead of taking the steps (or the chair lift) all the way down to the vendor street and the bus park, a few of us found the service road a little off to the right. Across a narrow valley to the west, perched high on another hill, was a four- or five-storey building with a white plaster facade meant to look like the face of some sort of ancient god. Its eyes were hollow windows and there were other signs that it was actually an abandoned building, not the ninth wonder of the world. I learned later from Raynor Shaw’s book that it was a hotel and restaurant that had never opened. Too bad, really; it would have added immeasurably to the kitch of Fengdu.

The Victoria Queen drove west for the remainder of the day. The spectacle of the Three Gorges was behind us and we began to notice a strengthened current in the Yangzi. Hundreds of kilometers above the big dam, the reservoir ended and the river came alive, buffeting the ship as it zig-zagged from one bank to the other, following the navigation channel. For the first time, we could feel the water beneath the keel and hear the straining propellers as the ship pushed against the thick brown moving mass of the Yangzi. This slowed our upstream progress significantly, but the downstream traffic was fairly flying.

In the early afternoon, the river guides announced that we had entered the municipality of Chongqing—a vast political subdivision. An estimated 32 million people live within this municipal boundary, allowing Chongqing to claim that it is the largest city in the world. (Later, a guide in Shanghai would make a similar claim, but for a much more compact land area.) Activity along the riverbanks was becoming increasingly industrial and the already hazy afternoon air began to fill with smoke and smog until visibility dropped to a few dozen meters.


This giant cement factory was barely visible in the haze from about 200 meters offshore. I took this picture using the sepia-tone feature of my camera, which accentuates the contrast. There wasn’t much point in photographing this in color.

Shortly after dinner, we went on deck to see the lights of central Chongqing as we approached our dock there. It was lit up like Las Vegas—with almost every skyscraper (there were scores) illuminated with some sort of pattern, many of them flashing and moving. Along the south bank of the Yangzi, neon animations danced along the shore and music blared across the water.

Chongqing Lights

Lights of Chongqing. At 10:00 p.m., after we were docked nearby, loudspeakers blared the Chinese national anthem as neon lights displayed the musical score and the words across the river. This was repeated at 10:30, and then the entire lighting display was turned off for the night.

As I stood watching all of this in the bow, the crew executed a tricky docking maneuver in the swift current. We approached our starboard-side dock with considerable headway against the current—forward motion that was clearly needed in order to maintain steerage with the ship’s rudder. (Rudders are useless if a boat is standing still, and any current quickly takes over and turns a vessel to its own will.)

I was surprised when we passed our dock at a speed of three or four knots—and even more surprised when, with a huge clatter, the ship’s anchor was loosed from the deck just below where I was standing. As the anchor bit into the river bottom, the Victoria Queen came to a halt about 75 meters upriver from the dock. Then, the rudder was put over to port and the stern of the ship began a slow drift to starboard in the strong current, swinging on the anchor chain. A meter or two at a time, the great chain was payed out, allowing the ship to back up and swing further toward the dock. Before long, messenger lines were thrown ashore and thick steel cables were pulled across, first at the stern and then at the bow. The cables were made fast to winches, and, while the anchor chain was kept taut against the power of the river, we were drawn into the dock.

We spent the night aboard the ship and went ashore in the morning—after yet another buffet breakfast. A uniformed brass band played as we went down the gangway. Their tune, “Marching Through Georgia,” and the straining porters who carried our luggage at the end of stout bamboo poles up the steep steps to the buses, evoked another era.


While the band played “Marching Through Georgia” …


… porters known as bang bang jun (pole- or stick-army) still ply their trade along the waterfront, hauling heavy loads from the dock to the top of the riverbank.