Rolling on the River

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On the Yangzi
Oct. 20-21

After our busy days in Beijing, many of us thought that this river trip would be a time to kick back and be lazy. I thought I would catch up on writing the blog, which anyone who is reading it carefully knows is being written several days after the events described. (I’m actually writing this in a hotel in Shanghai on the last day of the trip; the bus leaves for the airport in an hour. I’ll finish it on the plane to Chicago.) I will continue these posts for a few days after returning to the States, until my blog catches up with my body and my circadian clock has returned to normal. There is so much to write about and so little free time—even on a river cruise. Let’s pick up where we left off on the Yangzi.

After our first day on the river, we stopped for the night at Badong, a city that has a curious history. In ancient times, it was part Ba, an independent state, and was located on the north side of the river. During the Song Dynasty (920-1279), it was moved to the south bank. With the advent of the Three Gorges Dam, Badong was rebuilt about 2 miles upstream on the south bank, opposite Guandukou, with which it is now linked by a brand new cable-stayed bridge.

Badong Bridge

The cable-stayed bridge at Badong is one of many new spans over the Yangzi.

We saw a lot of new and under-construction bridges over the Yangzi. Raynor Shaw reports that the first bridge across the river, built by Russian engineers at Wuhan, opened in 1957. In 1989, there were just six spans between Shanghai and Chongqing—compared with 28 over the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and Minnesota. By 2003, there were 26 bridges over the Yangzi, with a dozen more in the planning stages. It appears that the Chinese have settled on a few basic bridge designs that are adapted to each site. They favor both classic suspension and modern cable-stayed bridges with similar concrete towers. I grew up in Pittsburgh, a city of rivers and bridges, and have always loved their various designs. One of the best primers on bridge types is a Pittsburgh-based Website.

There wasn’t an opportunity to go ashore at Badong; the ship was tied up at a floating dock about 25 meters off the riverbank. Later in the evening, just below our room’s balcony, some of the crew and the dockhands played mahjiang, laughing and shouting as the games progressed until about midnight. Mahjiang is a lively game, and everywhere it is played it seems to draw a crowd of six or eight onlookers who kibbitz in animated fashion. (The game does not seem to be played by women—at least in public—but is popular with men, who play it in parks and along city streets.)

On Oct. 20, we got underway around 6:45. Shortly after a buffet breakfast, we entered the Wu Gorge, where the waterway narrowed between steep cliffs—so narrow that a sign on shore announced a no-passing zone, for the ships. There was just enough room for one line each of upstream and downstream vessels. Looking at the slope of the mountains on either side, you can follow the angles in your imagination a couple hundred feet down to banks of a much different river.

The Victoria Queen fell in line behind a small freighter. Traffic on the Yangzi is heavy, and we saw all manner of craft.

Cruise boat

Cruise boat.


Fast hydrofoil river taxi, probably Russian built.

There are many coal mines in the hills outside the gorges, and their black product is brought by truck to the river for transport. Giant coal bins cling to the steep slopes, where barge-like freighters nose in to the shore to nestle under cantilevered conveyor belts spewing coal. A lot of hand labor is still involved, both in feeding the conveyors and distributing the heavy cargo, which rides in piles on the open decks of the freighters. In this way, the Yangzi transported nearly 900 million tons of coal in 2005—mostly to power plants.

Coal ship

Bulk carrier, unloaded, near Wuhan.

Loading Coal

Loading coal. The storage bins ar high above the ships, but that will change when the water level rises further.

Coal bins

More coal bins along the slopes.

The weather was fair and warm as we slid under the shadows of twelve peaks—six on each bank—that have names like Climbing Dragon, Facing Clouds, Gathered Immortals, Flying Phoenix, and Assembled Cranes. Each represents part of a myth about Shennu Feng (Goddess Peak), on the north side of the river. This goddess is the Yao Ji, the 23rd daughter of the Queen Mother of the West, who, with her 11 handmaidens and the aid of Da Yu the Great (who jumped over from the Yellow River to help out), tamed the 12 dragons that were making life difficult for boatmen on the Yangze.


Children make their way to a river landing for pickup by a ferry, probably headed to Guandukou or Badong for school. There was no sign of a village, so they must have hiked over the mountain.


I remember learning about atmospheric perspective in art school. Here’s the perfect example.

Steep Banks

The mountains rise steeply from the water. Again, you have to imagine this view from the river before the inundation—about 300 feet deeper in the gorge.


I had to tilt the camera to get this peak in the frame. The riverbank is at the lower right.

The Goddess Peak is near the upstream end of Wu Gorge, and the goddess herself is but a pillar of rock atop an escarpment—pretty hard to see in the prevailing haze. Considering the many disasters that befell river travelers before navigation improvements began in the 1950s—with the blasting of the worst rocks in the Xiling—the protection of a stony goddess was probably a good thing.


The famous Goddess Peak. The goddess is the single spike of rock to the right of the two sharp peaks on the left. There are lots better pictures of this in the guidebooks.

Exiting the gorge, the Victoria Queen docked at on the north bank at New Wushan. Old Wushan, a rough-and tumble river town that traced its history to the latter part of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1027 BCE), was abandoned in 2002. It’s impossible to travel this waterway without thinking of what has been lost beneath the milk chocolate colored waters of the Three Gorges reservoir.

Here, most of the ship’s passengers disembarked to explore the DaNing River, a tributary, and its Lesser Three Gorges. I stayed behind to write, so others will have to report on that adventure. (Hannah took care of that. Here’s the page.)

New Wushan

New Wushan. Notice the big sign that says “175M.” That’s where the high water mark will be when the Three Gorges reservoir is completely filled. Similar markers were seen all along the valley.

We were underway again by about 1:30 p.m. The scenery was less spectacular but no less interesting, especially the river craft and shore industries. The plan was to sail through the night to reach our next stop, Fengdu, by morning. Finally there was a chance to relax a bit. I did some more writing and spent some time on the ship’s computers, trying to send an earlier post over a dial-up connection that went through the cell phone system along the river. At 230 kbps, it was a tedious business. At dusk, I sat on my balcony with Ellen, sipping Chilean wine that I had bought in Yichang.


By a Dam Site

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Yichang to the Three Gorges Dam

Oct. 18

After visiting Dongyue Temple, we flew from Beijing to the Yangzi River town of Yichang, descending in thick haze (one cannot call it fog) in the late afternoon. A bus took us directly to the quay where the Victoria Queen—our home for the next four nights—was docked at the foot of a steep embankment. Well, almost directly. Several travelers, anticipating high prices for drinks aboard the ship, requested a liquor stop on the way into town. Imagine the shopkeeper’s delight when our bus of pulls up and 20 or so thirsty Americans with hundreds of yuan (about 7.5 to the dollar) in their pockets charge in to stock up on beer, wine, and spirits.

The Victoria Queen was built for the Yangzi. She is 4,587 gross tons, nearly 90 meters long, with four passenger decks and an observation deck—and a draft of less than three meters. She is one of dozens of cruise ships plying the upper river since the Three Gorges Dam at Sandouping (about 30 km above Yichang) eased navigation through the once-treacherous valleys and rapids of China’s longest river.

Falling from Tibet to the East China Sea, the 4,000-mile Yangzi is the third longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon. Not only does it drain much of Central China, it has provided both irrigation and transportation for centuries. Historically, the spectacular Three Gorges (going upstream, they are the Xiling, the Wu, and the Qutang) have not only provided Chinese storytellers, poets, and artists with some of their best subject matter, they have also been a barrier to invasion—most recently to the Japanese in the 1940s. After the bloody conquest of their capital Nanjing, the Chinese Nationalist government moved to Chongqing, where Chiang Kai-Shek conserved his forces, waiting out the war until the Japanese were defeated by the United States. Only then could he resume fighting his real enemy, the Red Army. (I must re-read Barbara Tuchman’s 1971 book, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which tells the entire story of General Joseph Stilwell, the Burma Road, the Flying Tigers, and American support of the Chinese war effort. More on Stilwell when we get to Chongqing.)

Our river trip began early on the morning of Oct. 19. I felt the rumble of the ship’s diesels and leapt out of bed before sunrise wanting to see us leave Yichang and make our way through the lock at the Gezhou Dam just above the city. Gezhou was the first dam on the Yangzi (completed 1989), built primarily for electrical power generation. But it also raised the water level in the lower Xiling Gorge and made navigation safer there. A shore visit to thmuch larger Three Gorges project is scheduled for after breakfast.

We approached Gezhou about 5:30 in the morning. The haze had not dissipated and the yawning gates of the lock were brightly lit in the gloom. I found Hannah on the forward observation deck, clutching a cup of coffee and her guidebook to the river (Three Gorges of the Yangtze River by Raynor Shaw, Odyssey, 2007), which is a great source of lore and information for the visitor and the facts for this post.


Approaching the Gezhou Dam shiplock before dawn. It is one of five locks we will pass through today.


The gates are open as we enter. The Victoria Queen was the only ship in the upstream lock.

We transited the lock in about 30 minutes. Like many early human inventions, locks are so simple as to cause a sense of delight. You drive in, shut the door, and let the water in from above. The boat bobs up like a cork on the rising flood, you open the upstream door, and drive out. It’s the bobbing-up part that seems simply amazing.

The day brightened in the east as we entered the lower part of the Xiling Gorge, the longest (76 km) and historically most dangerous of the Three Gorges—full of rapids and submerged rocks. But the Gezhou Dam raised the water level by 20 meters (to 62 meters above sea level), making navigation easy. We slid about 25 km through calm water to a landing on the south bank of the river at the shabby looking Huangling Temple, where we disembarked to see the big dam in person.


Looking astern in the lower Xiling Gorge as the sun rises.


According to “Gary” and “Campbell,” the ship’s river guides (with the exception of the ship’s officers, all of the Chinese crew members had adopted English names), it is almost always hazy on the river—a fact that explains a lot of traditional Chinese paintings of the area.


As we began our shore excursion, I saw this graphic for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Cute figures like these are often seen in ads that represent particular projects or enterprises, such as the Beijing Olympics.

The point of this excursion—at least from the Chinese point of view—was to impress us. It succeeded admirably. I could recite a lot of statistics about the project, but suffice it to say that it surpasses every other such project in size, cost, power generated, water impounded, etc. From its base in the granite bedrock to its final height of 185 meters, the dam is as tall as a 60-storey building. It was designed to generate about 15 percent of the country’s electricity, although this percentage has been revised downward as demand for electricity has rapidly increased. The relocation costs alone are estimated at USD 40 billion. And they’re not done yet. Currently, the high-water level of the Yangzi behind it is at 145 meters above sea level (more than 80 meters higher than the Gezhou reservoir on the downstream side of the dam); the target is 175 meters, to be achieved in 2009.

After running yet another gauntlet of street vendors and souvenir stalls, we boarded yet another bus and met yet another local guide. These guides are essential not only for full employment, but because the “national guide” who was accompanying us on behalf of the tour operator, could never be expected to have enough local knowledge—or to know the official message about each thing we were to see.


We crossed the river on this new suspension bridge below the dam—part of a construction project, which, at its peak, employed 27,000 laborers working 24 hours a day. On the north bank of the river, an entire town was built to house the workers.


Seen from the upstream side, the dam stretches off into the haze; it is 2,300 meters (1.4 miles) long. The water level behind the dam will rise another 30 meters by 2009.


A park and observation area has been built to accommodate the huge volume of visitors to the project. Everyone must get off their bus and go through military security before being allowed within a mile of the dam.

Our guide at the dam was thoroughly knowledgeable about the project, which we saw up close from two different vantage points, and willing to answer our questions about the impact of the dam. But she tended to lowball the number of people who lost their homes, villages, businesses, and and historic sites when the waters began to rise. The official number, which she quoted is 1.2 million. Shaw says that it’s “close to 1.9 million,” including two cities, 11 county towns, and 116 townships or villages. Other estimates put it as high as 4 million. Millions of acres of riverside and hillside farmland have also been inundated.

One third of China’s population lives in the Yangzi Basin, most of them below Three Gorges. For millennia, regular flooding of the Yangzi valley has replaced soil and replenished farmland—but three or four times each century, major floods have caused widespread destruction and loss of life. The worst flood in the last century occurred in 1931, killing 140,000 people. Flood control is said to be the primary benefit of the dam, which is designed to flush silt through its spillways in order to avoid siltation of the giant reservoir being created behind it. The final water level of the upstream basin will fluctuate between 145 and 175 meters on a seasonal basis to control flooding. Other benefits include improvement of navigation; the industrial city of Chongqing, 1,700 miles from the ocean, has essentially become a seaport.


From what we could see, the majority of visitors to the dam were Chinese, come to see this massive symbol of their nation’s might. This red-hatted group was taking advantage of “Senior Citizens Day,” a holiday like Mother’s Day, to tour the site. Note the stylish clothes of their guide (back to camera, holding the red flag).


Three men look at the dam from atop the platform.


What they saw.


Looking down on the shiplocks—one set for upstream traffic and the other down. There are ten locks at the big dam, eight in use now, with the last two to come on line in 2009, when the highest water level is reached. It appears that there are six ships in this lock, which is 900 feet long and 112 feet wide.

We were back on the ship before lunch and got underway seconds after the last passenger was back aboard. (We were issued re-boarding cards whenever we went ashore, and these were counted as we returned.) Passing through four giant locks took about three hours, and by mid-afternoon we were plowing through placid waters in the upper Xiling Gorge.

Here are some additional photos from that first day on the river.


After returning to the Victoria Queen, we entered the first lock, sharing it with four other ships.


Just a few feet separated our hull from the ship next to us.


The 900-ton doors closed and the water began to rise, lifting us quickly to the next level. Through four locks, the ship was lifted about 85 meters.


Soon, we were sailing in the upper Xiling Gorge. There are hundreds of feet of water beneath the keel of our ship—and, on the bottom, the former homes of over a million people. On the shores of the “new” Yangzi, brand new towns such as this one have been constructed.


The mountains on either side of the river were formed by steeply up-thrust sedimentary rock.


Many residents stayed in the valley and were given stipends to build new homes such as these, but others moved to cities such as Chongqing, Wushan, and Shanghai. On what were once the high slopes of the valley, erosion and landslide control are important priorities, and a reforestation plan has been implemented to reduce the amount of soil that enters the river.


The afternoon haze in the mountains was like a traditional Chinese painting.

Beijing Underground (And a Visit With the Chairman)

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Notes from Beijing

Beijing has four subway lines. The oldest, built along the path of the former city wall, dates to the 1960s; the latest, which connects the Olympic Park with the Inner City, opened just a week before our arrival. Six more lines are planned to open by 2020—a program so ambitious that some subway maps show more lines “under construction” than actually in use. Despite the inclination of the tour leaders to protect us from the unknowns of public transportation in the Chinese capital, some of us wanted to explore the underground.

Hannah studies the subway map. There are four lines in operation and another six planned.

On Oct. 15, after we finished up at Peking University, Hannah, Sohail, Gerhardt, and I figured that there must be a subway stop nearby and asked Jack to arrange to drop us off. From there, we thought we could ride the old Red Line to the new No. 5 line, change trains, and head south to the Dengshikou stop, which was right under our hotel. Considering Beijing’s heavy street traffic, we were pretty sure we could beat the bus.

He said they would let us off at the first available stop, but after another half hour on the bus—including about 15 minutes on the fourth ring road—we knew we were being coddled. When the driver finally pulled up to a subway entrance, it was the No. 5 line—a straight shot to the hotel. We still beat the bus, but further underground exploration would have to be postponed. Later, we found out that tour buses cannot park or let people off anywhere. Police cameras are watching—as they are in every big city—and the bus operator will get a ticket if the bus stops in a forbidden place.

The No. 5 line is so new that its card-reading turnstiles are still under wraps. Tickets (2 yuan per ride—about 23 cents—recently reduced from 3 yuan to encourage greater use of public transportation) were purchased at a ticket booth and then torn in half by uniformed staff at the top of the escalator. (The Chinese love uniforms, but that could be the subject of another post.) Perhaps because it was so new, the line was surprisingly uncrowded, even at 5:30 p.m.

A glass wall with automatic gates separated the platform from the tracks, as in some U.S. airport shuttles, and lighted billboards brightened the opposite wall. An electronic display forecast the arrival of upcoming trains, and the next arrived precisely on time. The air-conditioned cars were of the most modern design, with LED displays showing the progress of the train from station to station and recorded announcements in both Chinese and English. We were the only Westerners on the subway. In three days of using the system, I saw just one other Caucasian. (The rest were confined to tour buses, I suppose.)

A platform on the new No. 5 line, which opened just a week before our arrival in Beijing.

Jim descends the stairs after having his ticket taken.

A subway ad for Internet service—“faster than a speeding bullet!” More later on advertising in China.

On Wednesday, after returning from the Great Wall, Carol, Jim, Hannah, Gerhart, and I decided to try to see Chairman Mao in his great mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. We had noted the hours: open until 4:30. We hopped on the No. 5 at Dengshikou and, after going one stop in the wrong direction, turned around and transferred to the No. 1, getting off at Tiananmen East. It was a short walk to the mausoleum, but we were disappointed. It had closed for the day. There would be just one more chance early the following morning, before the group left for Dongyue and the airport.

Tiananmen East is one of two stops for the square. It’s also the closest to the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where one can view his remains.

We were told that Mao wished to be cremated. Instead he got this massive mausoleum.

Monuments call for monumental sculpture. A pair of these flank the entrance to Mao’s memorial.

Carol and Jim headed back to the hotel to rest, but rest of us wanted to explore further, so we set ourselves a destination of the main Beijing railway station in the southeast corner of the city. (The day before, Jack had pointed out a monstrous Victorian station not far from the Front Gate, built by the British after the Boxer Rebellion. Like old railroad stations the world over, this one has been turned into a shopping mall and food court. No trains arrive there.)

We retraced our route on the No. 1, transferring to the Red Line. A few stops later, we emerged from the ground in the middle of yet another huge construction project surrounding the Beijing Station. Workers were renewing the streetscape in front of the station entrance. Inside, we found a large open space. Up the escalator was a long concourse with shops and gates to a dozen different train platforms.

The plaza in front of the main Beijing railway station is being reconstructed. There are hundreds of such infrastructure projects underway in Beijing in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics.

The main hall of the station. The train platforms are reached from a concourse upstairs.

On the concourse are a series of ceiling murals depicting past Olympic games. Note the flying kangaroo!

Once again, we were the only Westerners—a feeling that is strange and a little lonely, but never uncomfortable. Mostly, the Chinese ignore you as they go about their business. Direct eye contact is infrequent, but those who make it usually nod and sometimes smile in a friendly way. Younger people are more likely to engage in this kind of fleeting personal contact, which almost never occurs in tourist hotspots. There, the foreigners are either totally ignored or are the object of commercial interest.

On our last morning in Beijing, Carol, Jim, and I became the diehard seekers of Mao. Everyone else was packing and having breakfast as we headed out the door for Tiananmen. The mausoleum was scheduled to open at 8:30, and we hopped on the train at about 7:45. After checking my camera at a security desk (5 yuan), we got on line.

The line outside Mao Zedong Memorial Hall was short at 8:15 a.m. It is controlled by military guards and a detail of the ubiquitous plainclothes police (man with back to camera) who are everywhere, just standing and watching.

Just as in Hanoi (where I viewed Ho Chi Minh’s “remains” in 2006), there were lots of guards shushing everyone and getting us lined up in ranks of four. The Chinese were a lot more casual about it, however, perhaps because although they respect Mao Zedong’s historical legacy—his face is on almost all the paper money—he is less and less relevant in today’s China.

The outer room of the mausoleum had a Lincolnesque statue of Mao sitting in an easy chair. Remember the chairs he and Nixon sat in in 1972? Same chair. Many Chinese visitors had purchased bouquets of flowers from a kiosk just outside the massive building, and they laid them in three neat piles before the statue. (We wondered whether they would be gathered up and resold.)

Ranks of four split into ranks of two. There was a huge tapestry behind the statue depicting the entire country from the Himalayas to the sea—quite beautiful, really. We filed slowly into doors on either side of the seated white jade Mao, and there he was inside a giant glass enclosure—a waxy, rosy-cheeked figure that looked surprisingly like the idealized portrait of that hangs on the Ti’an An Gate. If this is truly the mummified body of the Great Leader, it’s also a very consisten marketing effort. Brand Mao.

The flow of the line kept you moving; you wanted to look and, well, you didn’t, but no matter. In 20 seconds, bang, you were through the next door and—surprise—in the gift shop! After all the serious hero worship and history, Mao’s mausoleum turns out to be just another blockbuster exhibit with zig-zag lines and a souvenir stand, another Renoir or King Tut show. Welcome to the New New China: part developing nation, part theme park.

Me and Mao in the garden of a restaurant near the Great Wall. His image isn’t plastered all over, but kitschy representations like this are found everywhere. I bought a watch with a figure of Mao that waves his hand every second, and a deck of Mao playing cards.

Of course, each of us bought a souvenir. It was, all in all, a worthwhile experience, if only because we can say we’ve seen it. For me, it was No. 2 on a life list of what a friend on the Vietnam trip called the “Three Red Stiffs”—which, of course, begs a trip to Moscow.

A Prayer for Peace

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Note to readers: I was able to see the site and post the following from our current hotel in Chongqing. But your comments are definitely being blocked. Keep ’em coming and I’ll read them when I get back.


Beijing, Oct. 18

Something comes over me in Buddhist and Daoist temples. I find that they make me reverent and unaccountably prayerful. It first happened in Vietnam and Cambodia almost two years ago—a feeling deep within me that I was surrounded by spirit and that I could be a part of that spirit. This has never happened to me in a Christian church—one reason that I have not been a Christian since my youth. In recent years, as a Unitarian Universalist, I have strengthened my relationship to my fellow humans and to the Earth. But once again this morning, at the 800-year-old Dongyue Temple, I felt the pull. There is no other way to describe it—the pull.

I’m a tourist, not a pilgrim, and sometimes there’s a lot of static from the guides and the crowds. I haven’t felt the pull in every religious site we’ve visited, but at the Beijing Lamasery and again today, the signal was clearly there. I receive it for just seconds at a time, and then I go back to being a visitor, an outsider with a camera. I encounter this feeling as one might encounter a stranger on the street, with a glance and an nod. Still, I wonder what it might be like to embrace the stranger, to wrap myself in such a spirit for an hour or a day or a lifetime. It’s a powerful thing, and I’m not sure I can handle it; but when it comes, there is momentary peace.

I also have a strong urge to participate. At the Lamasery, I wanted to buy incense and follow the ritual: palms together, bow three times. Instead, I merely touched my palms in the style of a Cambodian greeting, lifting them to my forehead to acknowledge the Buddha. “Hello, Buddha,” I say to myself. “It’s Jeff.”

At Dongyue, I took the further step of buying a talisman. Daoists come here to pray for various benefits in their lives—health, longevity, many children (tough with the one-child policy), happiness, harmony, and peace. Each of these blessings requires a different talisman, and I chose one for peace. After a false start at one of the several statue-filled chapels, the temple guide directed me to the correct altar, where I stood quietly, trying to feel the pull amid the noise around me. The group was being hustled to the bus. People were pouring in and out of the temple behind me. By concentrating hard, I got centered; I felt the pull for a few seconds and hung my talisman on the rail before the altar. I knew I was asking for a lot—not peace within myself, but world peace, universal peace. “The peace which passeth all understanding,” as Christians say.

What a fool I am. Moments later, we were on the bus to the airport. All through this trip, I’ve been yanked away from things I want to spend some time with—one of the downsides of group travel. But I shouldn’t complain; I am so grateful to be here. If I were a Buddhist, these desires would mean nothing. Every time I feel the pull, I know it a little better. I must make time to explore it, I think … but now we’re off to the Yangzi River and another adventure.

In my next post, I’ll give you some overall impressions of Beijing, including a look at the subway system, the railway station, and Mao’s mausoleum. None of these were on the tour, but sometimes you just have to get off the bus. Meanwhile, here are some photos of Dongyue.

Exterior contrast

The Dongyue Daoist Temple was built in the 13th Century. Since the economic reforms of the early 1980s, the Chinese have relaxed restrictions on religious practice, and the temple has once again become a center for worship and community activity. But one of our guides made a clear distinction between “real” religions and “cults like Falun Gong,” which are “very bad.” Religion is OK as long as it does not stray across the line into politics.

Dongyue Gate

The temple takes its name from the Dongyue Gate across the street. It is one of the few remaining gates of the old walled Inner City.


Inside is an island of peace, with beautiful courtyards and old trees.


Confucian gods guard the way to the important altars. Each altar and god is representative of an aspiration or hope such as happiness, longevity, health, and harmony.


Another of the guards is a little more fierce.


At each altar, worshipers and supplicants have left bright red talisman that our guide said would be here “forever.” I have to doubt that. This place is 800 years old, and I didn’t seen any of these bright red, tassled talisman that were of that vintage.


Here are more talisman, hung on a railing along one of the exterior paths.

Peace Talisman

I chose this talisman—for peace. I signed the back with my own symbolic signature: Yin-yang, Sun-Moon, Male-Female, Love, Infinity.

My Signature

Great Wall

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Great Wall
North Of Beijing, Oct. 17

Before we got to the Great Wall of China, Jack warned us about the vendors. We were to climb a distance from the bus park to the gondola that would take us to the top of the mountain, and he said the vendor gauntlet along this path was particularly intense.

The vendor gauntlet is particularly intense at the Great Wall, but every hawker seems to be selling the same three ugly T-shirts that proclaim, “I Climbed the Great Wall.”

There are street vendors almost everywhere that tourists go in China, hawking hats, postcards, T-shirts, and a bizarre panoply of cheaply made souvenirs from Mao hats and medals to Amish-style quilts. If you make the slightest eye contact with the seller or cast a sidelong glance at the goods, they’re all over you—and will follow you for many paces, reciting their goods and prices, which always get lower as you walk away. “Postcard, one dollar,” a hawker will start, waving a pack of 8-10 postcards. As you pass by, the postcards will be thrust in your face and the price repeated, often with an adjective or question such as, “Very nice postcard, one dollar. You buy?” Avert your eyes and walk on, and the price instantly drops: “Hey sir, very nice, two for dollar.”

Except in the government-run “official” tourist stores (selling mostly Olympics goods) and higher-end shops, you can bargain for just about anything in China. My new Mao Zedong watch started at 20 USD and got knocked down to 5. I could have driven it even lower by feigning my departure, but there comes a point where the whole thing becomes embarrassing. The watch is a piece of junk as far as timepieces go, but the chairman waves his right arm once a second, as if exhorting the cadres, and the second hand has a bright little red star that circles Mao once a minute. The downside is that you have to wind it every four hours, but who’s counting?

I have bargained for postcards, seven-packs of Tsingtao (5 USD), fried dough, Diet Coke, and dried fish. American dollars are useful, but many vendors prefer Chinese yuan because of the proliferation of counterfeit foreign money, most of it printed right here in China. The exchange rate is about 7 yuan to the dollar, so it helps to be able divide by seven. I just think, “Seventy is $10” and extrapolate up or down from there. One night in Beijing, seven of us left the usual tourist streets and had dinner at a place that segregated us into a private dining room, served us a great meal with beer all around, and presented us with a bill for 176 yuan. Do the math.

Getting to the Great Wall from the bus was easy. None of the vendors expect you to buy on the way up. But they tout their wares as you trudge up the steep slope to the cable car, saying, “Remember me.” Rest assured that if you have paid the slightest attention to anything, they remember you.

The gondola ride was swift and exciting, and in about three minute, we were just a short climb from the wall. It was about 10:30, and the morning haze was just starting to burn off, promising a fine day. One Swarthmore traveler described the Great Wall as “preposterous,” and it was. How did this thing get here? It seemed almost like one of those conceptual art pieces by Christo, except this is permanent—and 2,000 miles long.

The gondola ride was swift and steep. We caught our first glimpse of the wall from the gondola, high on the ridge above.

We had about 90 minutes to explore. I got as far as the third blockhouse west of our entrance point. There were a lot of visitors on the wall that morning, but it wasn’t too crowded. It was such a privilege to be there that we were all pinching ourselves and exclaiming with awe. I still cannot believe that I was there, but I took these pictures, except the one that proves it.

At an elevation of about 2,000 feet, the trees were just beginning to turn. Quite pretty foliage—and oh, there’s this big wall that seems to have no beginning or end.

A magazine cover if I ever saw one.

Or maybe this one? The word “Swarthmore” will fit nicely in the upper right, don’t you think?

I made it to the second blockhouse shown in this photo before time ran out and I had to turn around. It was such a fine day that I could have tramped the wall for hours.


Pinch me. I’m standing on the Great Wall of China.

I think this guy with the flag was hired to make everyone’s pictures more colorful.



There is a blockhouse about every quarter mile.

The gauntlet again, this time on the way down.

On the way down from the gondola, I tried turning the tables on the vendors. I had brought some Swarthmore College postcards to give to people I met, so I tucked two in the cargo pocket in my shorts. When a postcard vendor approached me, I looked at what she was selling, then reached in my pocket. “American postcard,” I said, showing her one of Parrish Hall and another of the Scott Amphitheater. “Two for a dollar.” She looked puzzled until she realized what I was doing. Then she smiled and went on trying to sell her cards to me as if nothing had happened. It was a perverse game, so I stopped after the first try, but I managed to get down the hill with only one purchase in my hand—a Diet Coke. One dollar.


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Forbidden City
Beijing, Oct. 16

The Forbidden City is no longer forbidden. Throngs of tourists crowd through the south gate to see where the emperor of China ruled from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) until the fall of the monarchy in 1911. Walking north through its many plazas and buildings takes about 90 minutes. Often, I thought of what it must have been like for an official from the provinces to enter this place a few centuries ago, passing through gate after gate, like opening a box just to find another box, and another and another. When he finally saw the Hall of Preserving Harmony, that official must have been trembling with awe at the power of the emperor. Now it is known as the Palace Museum, and even during the Cultural Revolution, when many things ancient and imperial were destroyed or damaged, the top leadership of the Party managed to preserve its treasures. As with the Summer Palace, it’s better to look at the pictures, so here are a few.

At Tian’an Gate, thousands of tourists and Chinese citizens queue to cross a narrow bridge over the Forbidden City moat and enter the walled compound.

Once inside the palace wall, one first encounters the massive Meridian Gate. The Chinese called their civilization the Middle Kingdom, and the north-south line running through the Forbidden city gates—and right under the throne of the emperor—was their prime meridian.

Each courtyard in the palace is more grand and forbidding (no pun intended). Each is also more beautiful. These rooflines are part of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The giant courtyard of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Funny story: While traveling with a group of 35 men and women, occasional group bathroom stops are required. About halfway through our 2-hour walk through the Palace Museum, we found some public facilities. The men’s line was (as is often the case) shorter than the women’s—in this case, a lot shorter. Some women gave up when it appeared that it might take up to a half hour to reach stalls that, like most public bathrooms in China, featured squat-over-the-porcelain-hole-in-the-floor toilets. Fired by the desire for equality of treatment in loo lines in this worker’s paradise, Joan, Carol, Hannah, Marilyn, and Emel—with some assistance by Emel’s husband Sameer (far left)—caused several other men to zip up a little more quickly than usual by crashing the men’s room. They still had to squat in the private stalls on the male side, but the entire group was grateful to be on its way after we took this commemorative group picture.

An interior moat must be crossed to gain access to the next plaza.

Approaching the Hall of Preserving Harmony, one has to climb past these marble galleries. The emperor’s throne room is in this hall. North of the Hall of Preserving Harmony lie the royal residences.

The emperor’s throne, where he sat just four times each year, presumably preserving harmony. The monarchy fell in 1911, but many artifacts were preserved.

Huge bronze urns throughout the palace complex provided water for fighting fires.

A beautiful garden was part of the imperial residences.


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Beijing, Oct. 16

Publisher’s note: Here’s the full post. Enjoy!


Tacked to a wall, my map of greater Beijing looks like an archery target, with numbered “ring roads” marching in roughly concentric order away from the city center. The first ring is the perimeter of the ancient imperial compound, the Forbidden City. Inside this high wall, the dynasties unfolded and China’s history was made. And here, on Oct. 1, 1949, standing atop the front gate of the Forbidden City facing Tiananmen Square, Mao Zedong proclaimed the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). In the square in June 1988, the Red Army put a bloody stop to the China’s burgeoning democracy movement.

Each of the five stars on the Chinese flag represent 100 million people. The country’s population was a half billion in 1949.

The second ring follows the rectangular contour of the old inner-city wall, which was removed in the 1950s to make room for Beijing’s first subway line and a military-ready road above it. And so on out about 30 km to the latest complete ring, the sixth—a modern expressway that, like an irrigation canal, sprouts not crops but apartments and office buildings.

Our guide, Jack, joked with some pride that the crane is the new national bird—the construction crane. A seventh ring road is being built even farther from the city center and, as Beijing grows (the current population is about 22 million), there will likely be more circles on the map.


One way that China finances the building of new roads is to hand the job over to entrepreneurs who build highways with private capital and then get the right to collect the tolls for 20 to 30 years before handing control back to the government. (This reminded one Swarthmore traveler that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has proposed handing the Pa. Turnpike over to private operators.) Currently, there are five such toll expressways forming the spokes of the ring roads, each heading in a different direction away from central Beijing.

Tiananmen Square is so big that it has two subway stops—T. East and T. West. Here, in June 1989, the Red Army put a bloody stop to the China’s burgeoning democracy movement—an event that Jack avoided talking about, except to say that it was a “necessary step” in achieving the current level of economic freedom enjoyed in China. But, as I reported from Vietnam two years ago, the Chinese seem to have struck a bargain that trades political democracy for their newfound prosperity.

Tiananmen is truly enormous—the largest urban public square in the world, able to accommodate more than a million people. It wasn’t always this big, but the PRC gradually expanded the square as it built a new seat of government around it. In 1949, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the “Red Chinese,” as we used to call them, would adopt the old imperial city as its capital, but Mao’s men were drawn to Beijing not only by its symbolism but by its ready supply of government buildings and experienced bureaucrats. Their revolutionary movement had begun in the South, but China had been ruled from the North for since the Yuan Dynasty.

The Manchus began construction of the city in 1271 in precise NSEW manner, according to their habit on the steppes. Their traditional quadrangle houses—which later found expression in the hutong—were entered from the south and fortified on the north. Thus, the southern gate to the heavily guarded imperial city was known as Tian’an or “front gate” because it served as the compound’s front door.

Chinese tourists outnumber Westerners in Tiananmen Square. All of us lined up for pictures with the Tian’an gate in the background.

Imperial China called itself the Middle Kingdom. Their ancient civilization and culture were thought to be the center of the known (and probably the unknown) world, and, for practical purposes, this seemed to be true for a long time. A few years ago, I visited Greenwich, England. Like every tourist who visits the Royal Observatory there, I straddled the prime meridian, with one foot in each hemisphere. It is easy to imaging the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) on his throne, seated astride his own prime meridian. This is how China thought of itself then—and how it may soon think of itself again.

Directly of Tian’an on the Chinese zero meridian are two other gates, the Daqing and the Zhengyang, the latter of which was one of nine gates that controlled access to the walled Inner City, where the Manchu rulers’ privileged “banners” or family groups lived. The Outer City, to the South of Zhenyang, was also walled and gated, though not as well fortified as the Inner City or, especially, the Forbidden City at the very center, which had a moat in addition to a high wall. The Outer City was where commoners lives and conducted the city’s commerce. It was also the location of the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor went each year to kowtow to Heaven on behalf of the nation.

The entrance to the Forbidden City through the Tian’an Gate has tight security. There are police and army everywhere in Beijing, but especially around government buildings.

We arrived at Tiananmen by bus at around 9 a.m. The October sun was slanting from the southeast, casting sharp shadows away from the massive Monument of the People’s Heroes in the middle of the square. To the north, a giant portrait of a rosy-cheeked Chairman Mao hangs over the arched entrance to the Forbidden City—now known as the Palace Museum. To the South, the chairman’s huge mausoleum looms, with hundreds of curious and faithful visitors in a line that disappears around the corner. To the east is the National Museum. Opposite it, festooned with red flags and guarded by Red Army sentries stands the Great Hall of the People.

The Monument to the Peoples Heroes stands at the center of the square.

While we were in Beijing, the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was taking place at the Great Hall, which has an auditorium that seats 10,000 people. More than 2,000 delegates from all over China were in town for the congress, which takes place every five years. To read the China Daily, an English language paper that was outside our hotel room each morning, one would think that this congress was actually running the country. Its primary job, however, was to discuss and approve various five-year plans that had already been worked out by the Party leadership. Jack told us that there are about a dozen political parties in China, and that may be true, but there is only one Party with a capital “p.”

A Peoples Liberation Army sentry stands guard across the street from the Great Hall of the People. The street in front of the building was closed because of the 17th Party Congress, in session during our visit.

On the perimeter of Tiananmen were some delightful topiary sculptures that had been erected for the anniversary of Mao’s announcement, which is China’s National Day. In fact, every day here seems like a national day, so pervasive is the advertising for the upcoming Olympics. The games are an enormous point of pride for the Chinese, and they are touted on posters and billboards everywhere, and on many consumer products.

All of China is preparing for the Olympics, but Beijing is particularly excited. This topiary Great Wall was near a topiary Parthenon at the edge of Tiananmen.

Reminders of the 2008 Beijing Olympics are everywhere. This poster was in the No. 5 subway, the city’s newest line, which opened just a week before our arrival. More later on our adventures in the subway system.

We walked around the square for a while, had a group picture taken (and were sold commemorative books in which the picture would be inserted), then headed for the Forbidden City, which will be the subject of my next post.