Wednesday, June 14, 2006

I've got pictures

I finally got our photos off of my daughters laptop and onto the web, and so I'm going to be linking them into my posts more. I've gone back to my first post and enhanced it with some photos, including one of the tour-guide guru herself.

I'd give you a link, but that posting seems to not be available individually any more. So click the April archive button and scroll down to the bottom to see them.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bussing Through Chunqing

After Xi'an, we spent a day in Chongqing, the crown city of Sichuan province. It used to be spelled Szechuan province, famed for its spicy food and Bertold Brecht's play, "The Good Person of Szecuan". Sichuan is a remote mountain province, roughly 1200 miles west of Shanghai, on China's coast, and the sort of place that an official would be sent to for exile if he fell into disfavor in the old days.

That being said, what we experienced was a set of contradictions. Chongqing may be somewhat difficult to get to because of sharp, if not high, mountains surrounding it, but the city proper has 12 million people, and the munincipality (it isn't part of any other Chinese province) has 34 million people. The Yangtze River is navigable as far as Chongqing, at least when the river level is up. After the Three Gorges Dam and locks are completed, it will be reachable by river traffic at all times.

It is definitely as hilly a city as Xi'an was flat. There are large beautiful bridges across the river gorge and the tributary gorges. There is lush vegetation everywhere too, and you might easily think of it as a mountain city. In spite of that, its elevation is only 1152 feet at river level.

When I think of mountain cities, I think of cool summers and snow-laden winters. This is not the case with Chongqing. The temperature is known to often reach 40 degrees Celsius and is listed as going as high as 47 degrees C. That's 115 Fahrenheit. What the guide said is that with so little air conditioning, when the temperature reaches 40, work officially shuts down, but it's amazing how often the temperature hovers at 39.

Fortunately for us, the temperature was very moderate on the day that we were there.

The images in this post are not mine, by the way. It's hard to take good pictures from a moving bus.

Historically, Chongqing is important as the seat of Chiang Kai-Shek's Chinese Nationalist government during World War II. The Japanese managed to conquer all of the lowland East of China, but were never able to force passage up the Three Gorges to Chongqing. But they were able to send aircraft, and bombed major portions of the city and its facilities. Consequently, there are very few historical buildings there, and much new construction.

One of the things we visited in Chongqing was a western-style supermarket. The first we'd seen. It was on an urban city street that seemed pretty familiar and western. It was mostly familiar, down to the candy and tabloids at the checkout stand, along with the laser scanners. Fixed pricing saves time, and that seemed important in Chungqing, where the container barges leave every day with more goods headed for the West, be they textiles or semiconductors. People still use cash, though. I bought some batteries for my camera.

As an aside, the overwhelming predominance of cash transactions gives the Chinese government a revenue problem. They have very little ability to collect, say, a sales tax, because so much of the business in China is conducted on a cash basis, with little paper trail. For instance, every meal we ate was paid for by the tour guides in cash. There were 49 people in our group. I didn't see the guides, who handled the transactions, stop at any ATM's to get more cash, either.

We also went to the Chunqing zoo and saw pandas. They were very cute. The pandas and the other animals at the zoo had an uncanny knack for showing me their backside every time I put my camera on them. I don't have a lot to say about pandas, though they were a big hit with our group. Oh, and that's actually a photo I took.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Flight to Chungqing

The morning after touring the terracotta warriors and Xi'an, we boarded the bus for the airport. Visibility was very poor, Rainbow called it a "sandstorm". Though I'd more call it a dust bowl. (That's not my photo, by the way. But it's pretty similar to what we saw.)

Our original itinerary had called for a later flight to Chungqing, but that flight had turned out to not have room, our tour director said. It made me wonder why it hadn't been booked 6 months ago when we had paid. So we had to get up quite early to catch an earlier flight.

This was our second of three internal flights in China. For these, the checked luggage was picked up at the hotel in a truck, and dropped off at our new hotel after the flight, so we didn't check them in ourselves. However, my daughter and I had deliberately packed so as to have only carry-on items. We routinely do this to avoid lost luggage, and extra time waiting for bags at the luggage carousel, though that wouldn't matter in these internal flights.

I had gone to a luggage store before the trip and purchased a "international carryon-sized" bag that turned out to be a couple of inches taller than it really should have been. I was quite miffed at the vendor for selling it to me, but I only discovered the problem when I went to SFO to begin the trip, so there wasn't a lot I could do about it. However, I had no problems taking it aboard, even though it had
to be turned sideways to stow in the overhead compartment.

That is, I had no problems until we got to the Xi'an airport.

Before the security checkpoint, there was a roped gate with a guard. Our group got the word to go, and began to filter through this gate and into the security checkpoint, but the guard pointed at me and waved me over to the side. Quickly, the rest of my tour group disappeared, including my daughter. In the meantime, I'm standing there with no idea what the problem was, and not enough understanding of Chinese to figure it out.

The guard pointed to a sign and a carryon sizer. I presumed that my carryon bag was too big, but what should I do now? I didn't know the name of the airline, or where it's counter was, or how to ask to check in a flight. And why had it been ok to carry aboard earlier flights, but not this one? My paranoid fantasies took flight.

I had approached the guard from an angle that might have suggested that I wasn't a member of the tour group, but an American businessman traveling alone. Was this some sort of odd shakedown? Put me in a vulnerable position, and extract a few extra bucks from the rich American businessman? I don't know, I'll never know.

Eventually, Rainbow showed up, and took me over to the correct counter and my bag was checked. We hustled and caught up with the rest of the group, or at least, the majority of the group. This airport loaded directly from the tarmac, and you were transported to the aircraft from the terminal by shuttle busses. There were no loading ramps to shield you from the weather, much like a few terminals at the San Jose airport, though the ones in San Jose are within walking distance fromt the terminal. In any case, my daughter had already got on one of the shuttle busses, and I had to wait for the next one.

She doesn't like crowds much. She doesn't like getting split up from her group all that much either. In fact, she takes medication to deal with her anxiety. We had had trouble in the Forbidden City. In part, this was because the approximately 12-hour time change threw her off her medication schedule. And now she was separated from me, and her meds, as well as the ones I had brought to treat my high cholesterol, were in checked luggage. Not just any checked luggage, but luggage that had been handled via a different path than the luggage of the rest of our group, and was just asking to fall through the cracks.

I was worried.

I got on the plane ok and found my daughter. Check. Our next "hotel" was in fact a Yangtze River cruise ship. The cruise was to have departed from Chungqing, but the water wasn't high enough to bring the ship that far upstream, so we had a three-hour bus ride ahead of us that evening. So, I had all day to worry about whether the bag would arrive. But it did.

On our last internal flight, I checked through the carryon bag while retaining the medications on my person. For the flight home, I pulled out a laundry bag, put some dirty laundry in it, tied it up and checked it through. That left more room in my carryon for stuff I had purchased in China. But it meant an extra 20 minutes at SFO waiting for that laundry bag. But still, losing it wasn't going to be a big deal.

In most other ways, flying in China was about the same as flying in the US. Same checkpoints, same safety presentation (in English and Chinese), same drinks (but no ice), and different (cabbage and rice) but still mediocre food served. In a strange way, it was quite reassuring.

Nobody in our group lost a piece of luggage. But then, there were no complicated plane changes scheduled, which are the real vulnerabilities. All the flights we were on seemed pretty full, but with 47 of us in the group, we could fill most of the smaller aircraft we were on, which were Airbus and Boeing short-hop craft.

Anyway, I think they've got the airport-luggage-flying-thing down.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rainbow Lived in a Pretty How Town

Our overall tour director was named Hong, or in English, Rainbow. She was from Xi'an, so while we were in that city, she also acted as our local guide. And Xi'an was her town.

I really liked it. It was Beijing was more important, Chungching more beautiful, and Shanghai more, er, sexy, but I'm a small-town boy at heart. Not that Xi'an is small, but it had, for me, the feel of a city on the great plains. There's some room here to stretch out, and the city is laid out on what amounts to a plain, though there are rolling hills nearby. The streets were wide, with lots of traffic, but no traffic jams, and the pace of life seemed a lot more relaxed than in any other city we visited.

The food was great too. I liked it the best of any city we visited. Beyond all the yummy dumplings and noodles, the sauces were much lighter than other cities, and gave more weight to the natural, fresh taste of the meat and produce. This is a city where they grow the food they eat nearby.

Xi'an is one of the cities that retains its ancient walls. The city has, of course, spread beyond these walls, but we drove through the gates in the walls several times while touring the city. Really, they must be an impediment to development, I'm not sure why they were kept when Beijing's walls were torn down by Mao. But I liked them.

I've never visited a walled city before. Besides the Terracotta Warriors, we visited two important religious sites, remarkable in that they, like the city walls, seemed untouched by the cultural revolution. The first of these was the Wild Goose Pagoda.

The site of this pagoda celebrates the "Journey to the West" of a famous hermit and scholar who visited India and other places in the west, bringing back to Xi'an 60 scrolls containing Chinese translations of important Buddhist texts. The Wild Goose Pagoda was built to commemorate this trip and to house the scrolls.

But that was a different one, a smaller one, also in Xi'an, but, I'm guessing, not as impressive or in as good shape. The one we visited was about 400 years old, and still housed framed copies of those same texts. I climbed to the top and took a look at a greater portion of Xi'an. There are few skyscrapers in Xi'an, and it's flat, so the view was good, though the air was hazy with humidity, dust, and smog.

The Wild Goose Pagoda is part of a working Buddhist temple, and on the grounds one can light candles or incense, buying them for a modest fee. Also, freestanding on the grounds is a large bronze bowl with water in it. This is used for ritual purification, that is, when you've done something bad that you're sorry for, you come to the temple and wash your hands in the bowl to wash away the sin.

A lot simpler than confessing to a priest, though nearly as definite.

The other religious site that we visited in Xi'an was the Great Mosque of Xi'an. Xi'an was the first capital of China, and the terminus of the Silk Road. Many of the traders were Moslem, and they brought their religion with them. The Moslem faithful in Xi'an are all still Han peoples, though, it isn't really an ethnic distinction. And the architecture of the Mosque shows that.

To get to the Mosque, you must get off your bus and walk through the Bazaar, some very narrow streets with overhanging shades, and lined with open stalls. Our group had to walk single file through the street. We were warned to beware of pickpockets in the Bazaar, so I didn't bring my camera. The pictures of it were taken by someone else. Along the way was a public lavatory, Chinese style. Which was to say, it was enclosed and hidden from view, but otherwise was more like an outhouse than a water closet. The odor was distinctive and, er, quite a noticeable reminder that we were in another country.

Walking through those alleyways, I felt like I had just walked into the Arabian Nights or something. Many of the vendors wore more Middle-Eastern garb, and the narrowness and overhanginging tarps and covers added to that sense. I got the feeling that Ali Baba or the Forty Thieves might jump out from behind a corner and run off with my camera, if only I hadn't carefully left it on the tour bus.

One of the tenets of Islam is that representational art, or iconography, is forbidden within a mosque. This has led to a wonderful exploration of tiling and geometrical patterns in more western mosques. I found depictions of dragons on the outermost gate, and at the edge of the Visitor's Court, but no iconography anywhere further into the grounds.

The Chinese influence was obvious, of course, in the design of the gate shown above and this pagoda in the second court. The pagoda's floor plan is an octagon. Looking more closely, octogons are everywhere in the design. There are many small carved stone footstools or seats in the shape of octogons. And so on.

Well, I already knew that the octogon, or bagua, was important to Chinese thought. But it was on the grounds of the mosque that I realized why. To the Chinese, the square represents Earth, while the circle represents Heaven. If you cut the four corners off of a square, you make it more like a circle, and thus the octogon represents the position of humanity, both animal and spiritual being.

We saw the circle within a square at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. But no octogon there.

After a while, I strolled back into the Bazaar. With it less crowded now (our group by itself constituted a crowd in that space), I got a better sense of the place, and it seemed a lot less dangerous than it did before. A little boy walked his bicycle through the alleyways. A very little boy in diapers played in his mother's stall. The people tending the stalls were well dressed, if some were dressed exotically. And the stuff in the stalls was what I came to recognize as the usual tourist trap stuff.

In short, in China, as in the U.S. "Retail is Theater".

Leaving the Mosque for dinner, we walked a few blocks along the main streets of Xi'an. They also featured open stalls on the ground floors of multi-story buildings. These stalls were not up to Western standards of cleanliness and decor, but still I found myself wanting to sample them. After my immune system had adjusted, I decided.

It was the golden hour before sunset, and the light and smells and sounds of that street were real, and interesting. I think I liked the fact that this wasn't staged, it wasn't theater it was just a pretty how town that knew its business and was winding down after another day. With up so floating many pagodas down. (Apologies to e.e.cummings)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Emperor of the Clay Warriors

On the same day as our visit to the Great Wall, we flew to Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, established by a now familiar figure, the King of Qin, Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor.

The next day, we drove about an hour on our bus through the countryside to the most famous archeological site in China, the home of the Terracotta Warriors, constructed by Qin Shi Huang. The countryside we drove through looked a great deal like California's Central Valley. Except for the blooming locust trees. Open flat country with distant hills and a haze of humidity, dust and other particulates in the air. We saw a funeral procession during our drive as well. Northern China has always grown wheat, not rice, and it has meant that the northern Chinese are larger and stronger. Probably that has more to do with increased protein intake, but we'll let that go.

Qin Shi Huang broke with Confucian tradition by beginning construction of his own tomb almost immediately when he ascended to the throne of Qin at age 13. Confucius held that burial affairs should be conducted by the surviving children, who should strive to honor their father thereby. This isn't the only Confucian wisdom that Qin Shi Huang rejected. I can only suspect that the Confucian emphasis on being satisfied with your place in society was incompatible with his ambitions.

In any case, as part of his burial arrangements, Emperor Qin arranged for an entire army to be made of life-sized clay warriors and buried near his mausoleum, in formation, with weapons and armor, clay horses and bronze chariots.

This site was found in 1974 by a group of people digging a well. A museum and archeological site was authorized in 1975. Something like 7000 clay figures have been excavated from the four pits at the site. The figures are hollow and formed by castings in clay, which makes it even more remarkable that no two of them appear to be alike, each represents a specific person or animal, it appears.

The warriors are arranged in a battle formation. In pit 1, by far the largest pit, The warriors are arranged in seven columns with skirmishers on the flanks, and archers in the vanguard. Pit 1 is now covered over with the equivalent of a giant Quonset hut. It smells of clay with just a touch of moldiness inside. This photo will give you a very good sense of what that space is like, but it's too big to put inline here. Check it out.

The walls of the channels were made from rammed earth. The figures placed within them, and then wooden beams were used to hold up a ceiling of thatching and then sod. During the farmer's rebellion that overthrew the Qin dynasty, the chambers holding the warriors were entered, the figures smashed and the place set to the torch. In other pits you can see the remnants of the wooden beams where they had collapsed.

There's a strange parallel here to the Cultural Revolution, during which many antiquities were destroyed by the Red Guard, and intellectuals were sent to farms for "reeducation", since it was thought that their values were out of whack, and that rural values, farm values were better. Many works of art and culture were seen by the farmers as decadent, even degenerate.

This all seems familiar somehow.

While visiting the warriors, we ate lunch on-site. Xi'an, being in Northern China is a wheat culture, not a rice culture like Southern China is. And so they feature lots of dumplings and noodles and sticky buns. At the lunch room we had the best noodles I've ever had. The dining area was a large room with tables and two stalls where chefs were making noodles by hand. They would knead the dough and then draw it out by hand into an extremely long single strand. No pasta machine here.

After drawing out the noodles, they would get dumped, without being cut, into a boiling pot. In one case, it was a broth pot, and we were served bowls of it directly. In the other case, the noodles were drained and served with a thicker sauce with bits of pork in it. Both were fabulous.

The farmer who discovered the warriors works now at the gift shop. This wasn't always so. Apparently, he was given a small payment for the find, and went back to work in 1975. But when President Clinton visited China, he wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors, and asked if he could meet the person who found them. So they looked him up, and taught him a little English to greet the VIP with. However, it seems he got nervous when he met the President, so he said, "Who are you?"

Clinton, apparently trying to smooth things over, said, "I'm Hillary's husband." To which the man replied, "Me too!"

In any case, you can now purchase a book in the gift shop that is signed by him, and shake his hand. However, he doesn't seem all that enthusiastic about his new position in life. When I shook his hand, he didn't look directly at me, but instead turned his head away. We were told that we were not to take flash pictures of him, that his eyes were bad, but I wonder if this wasn't just to save face for him.

Does he have a choice about working there? I don't know. When you think about it, sitting behind a table, shaking hands and signing your name, all day every day, for years on end could become, well, monotonous. Even if the alternative is farming. Probably especially if...

One final note about the warriors. They were painted before being placed in the pit. They have a few of the figures out of the pits in glass cases where they can be viewed closely. Remnants of the blue coloring on the clothing of one can still be seen.

If you've seen the film "Hero", the king depicted therein is in fact, the Qin Shi Huang. I'm going to spoil it, so don't read any more if that's a problem. In it, the film's hero, portrayed by Jet Li, must decide whether to allow Qin Shi Huang to live, knowing what a tyrant he is, in order to achieve the unification of China. To the positive tally of Qin Shi Huang must also be added these beautiful figures, made for his vanity, but now available to the world. However, in Jet Li's shoes, I don't think I would have made the same choice he did.

The political unification of China has contributed both to it's success and its stagnation. In the fourteenth century, Chinese explorers and sailors sailed far and wide, beating the Europeans to many places, perhaps even to the Americas. But then that Emperor died, and the next one repudiated exploration, had the ships burned, and even some of the ports. And hence China turned inward for several hundred years, emerging to find itself now backward and ignorant of the rest of the world. This would not have been possible if it were not for the political unification of China.

Monday, May 01, 2006

That is a Great Wall

When President Nixon visited China in 1972, he visited the same section of the wall as we did. This is known as the Badaling section of the Great Wall. We were told that his remark, upon seeing it, was, "that is a great wall!".

As inane as that sounds, I have to agree. It's very impressive. We had about an hour and a half busride out of Beijing to get there. The Badaling area takes us up a mountain valley to the Wall. There is an arched portal and gate through the wall at the bottom of the valley, with many buildings on the side we came up, which is the right side in the photograph above. There is an entrance onto the top of the wall there, and you can turn right for the easy climb, or left for the hard climb. Left takes you to the spot the photo was taken from.

Naturally, I chose left. On the top of the wall itself are many vendors, with their wares displayed on cardtables, hand-held, or draped on the crennelations. You can get a plaque that says "I climbed the Great Wall" engraved with your name. You can buy squares of polished stone from the man that is sitting there carving them as you walk by.

When I made it up to the top of the hard hill, in the enclosed watchtower I found some enterprising folks with a digital camera, a photo printer, a laminator and a bunch of preprinted certificates. They would take a photo of you on the wall, print it, have you sign the certificate and laminate the whole thing together. All for a modest fee. (Less than 20 bucks, US). They were doing a land-office business that Sunday.

One portion of the wall I walked went up the mountainside so steeply, I found myself wondering why it didn't simply slide off the mountain. I tookn a quick side trip down some stairs and out to where an portapotty stood so I could get a peek at the foundations, but they offered no clue. I guess that the foundations were cut into the rock of the mountain and the stones for the Wall laid upon them.

The claim is that the Great Wall is visible from outer space, though that seems a bit odd. It's about maybe wide enough for four people at most places, I'd guess that to be about 15 feet. But perhaps it stretches so far, it pops out against the background of the rugged wild country it passes through.

After standing on the wall for a while, I began to wonder about it's effectiveness. It's not all that high, maybe 15 feet, and would fall to scaling ladders pretty fast. And why did you even bother to make a wall on the top of some of these mountains? They were pretty impassable, all on their own. Fortifications on the road, down in the valley made more sense. And perhaps the guard/watch towers on the tops of the peaks.

Maybe it makes more sense as a road connecting the towers. But it seems to me to be overkill. But maybe that was the point. The Wall was first built by the King of Qin (pronounced like the English "chin") after he conquered all of China and became the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang. There were existing defense works, but he tied them all together into a great wall.

I suspect that he did it to a) demonstrate his power and overawe both his subjects and his potential enemies, and b) keep his army busy. I'll have more to say about the King of Qin when I write about the Terracotta Warriors. But the pattern he established is one we can see echoed in the rest of Chinese history, in Western History, and in current events: The ability to conquer a country is not the same as the ability to rule it.

This dichotomy was noted even before the time of Qin Shi Huang, and was a motivator for early Chinse thinkers, such as Confucius and Lao Tse. Evidently, Qin Shi Huang could run an army very well. But Qin Shi Huang thought the intellectuals to be a nuisance (we don't know whether he considered them to be pointy-headed, but the odds are good) and put many of them to death, and burned many books. But he wasn't so good at running the country, or at institutionalizing what he did, and his dynasty was overthrown by a farmer's rebellion a few decades after his death.

As a demonstration of power, the Wall served its purpose. The men and materials moved are very impressive, comparable to the Three Gorges Dam. The section we visited was restored during the Ming Dynasty (who made Beijing their capital). There are further modern additions, such as a gondola for people unable or unwilling to walk to the top. One suspects that there might have been modern restoration work as well. For example, a European structure of that age would show wear on the steps, but I didn't see any. Why is that? Is the rock really that much resistant to wear?

Oh, and one further note. Cell phones can get signal on the Wall. So you can call your buddies in the US (with the right calling plan, that is) from the top of the Great Wall of China. China is probably going to bypass the whole land-line thing and embrace universal cellular service instead. Our tour guides certainly all had them, and used them frequently, regardless of where we were.

After climbing to the top and back down, I decided that I was going to try some interaction with some of the peddlers. I wanted to buy a T-shirt that said "I climbed the Great Wall" in English. There was Chinese on it as well, though I sometimes wondered if the Chinese said "I paid too much for this T-shirt".

You are expected to bargain, but I did it badly. I wanted the vendor to teach me the Chinese words for the colors offered, but she didn't understand me. She was an older woman, gray, well-fed, with wrinkles and bad teeth. Definitely peasant stock. I bargained badly and we agreed on 120 Yuan, which would be maybe $15 US. A reasonable price for a T-shirt in the US.

After buying the shirt, I held it, pointed to me, and said, "English", to the shirt, and said "red". She had demonstrated her knowledge of the English colors already. Then I pointed to her and said "Chung-wen" and pointed again to the shirt, as in question. She got it, smiled and said "hong-sa". I repeated it a few times until my teacher was happy with it. I was happy now, because I had bought with my money not just a T-shirt, but a language lesson, and I'd had a non-commercial interaction with someone.

Then, as I walked away, some other vendor decided I wanted more T-shirts and chased me. "Bu yao(No want)", I said, not looking at her and walking away quickly. Usually, they gave up when I did that, but she was persistent.

"2 for 100," she said.
"Bu yao!" I kept walking.
"3 for 100!"
"Bu yao!"
A pause.
"4 for 100!"

FOUR for 100? What an idiot easy mark I had been. That was maybe 3 dollars a shirt. I didn't know what I would do with them, but I couldn't say no. I bought them, and later sold some of them to students on our trip at what I bought them for. And brought a few home for friends. And I got another lesson in what things cost in China.

It truly is a great wall.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Beijing Duck

We had a large group, 47 people, and all our meals were pre-planned, and pre-paid. After a long day in Beijing, we went to a downtown restaurant for dinner of Peking Duck.

The restaurant, as were nearly all of those attended, fairly large and shiny. I expect that restaurants and menu details were chosen specifically to cater to Americans. My aunt and uncle visited China in the early 80's, and they reported being served dog at one point. We were never served dog.

The place setting was pretty much the same at every meal. A small plate, a small bowl with a soup spoon in it, chopsticks, usually the plastic kind, and a glass tumbler. We were quite confused about the bowl. Was it a rice bowl, or a soup bowl? We were always served a soup course, but in some cases it came with its own bowl, as it did that night in Beijing. Food was served family-style on a large lazy susan in the middle of the table. Just like all my favorite Chinese restaurants in the US.

The food in Beijing had the heaviest sauces of anywhere we ate. The duck was very good, mouth-melty and smoky in flavor. We wrapped it in a thin rice pancake. It was very fatty, so I didn't have much, on account of my body's propensity to turn fat into arterial blockage. A very marked propensity, that.

Nearly every lunch and dinner began with a few cold dishes already on the table. These were things like sliced cucumbers and precooked meat. The meat bits weren't smoked, really, they were more like bologna or something. Or maybe pickled roast pork or something. Not very spicy though, with little or no vinegar, either. So maybe pickled isn't a good word. I came to appreciate these more and more, at least the vegetables. Because there was very little oil in them, and the were a nice fresh taste, it was quite refreshing to snack on them while waiting to be served the hot dishes. Though I wish they'd throw in one or two with a bit more spice or vinegar.

This particular meal was unique in that at each table (we took up 5 tables) a few Chinese students were seated at each table and shared the meal with us. The students at our table mostly ignored them. They were tired and shy, and the room was quite noisy, making conversations difficult. The two Chinese students at our table were also somewhat younger, 13ish, than our students, who were 16ish, which didn't help things. They sat together, which didn't help in conversation starting, though I'm sure they felt shy, too.

Most meals came with one glass of beverage prepaid. This could be either beer or soda. The choices of soda were Coke or Sprite. The beer was quite good; occaisionally we were served wine, though it wasn't up to the standard of the beer. Lots of the land we saw would be excellent for growing grapes, though that isn't going to happen until the farmers stop subsistence farming on it.

We were warned to not drink the tap water, and to stay away from ice, which was made from the tap water. Rainbow, our tour director, said, "You aren't ready for it."

Chinese never drink cold water. They brew tea with it, which does two things. First, it boils the water, purifying it. Second, the tea infusion also acts as a preservative, and mild anti-biotic in and of itself. So tea was what we drank at meals, and at other times, we relied on bottled water. I didn't see much in the way of diet soft drinks.

But the strangest part of this meal came somewhere in the middle. The room was decorated with many pieces of Chinese-style art, in the form of the tall paintings affixed to scrolls hanging on the wall. A man who seemed to be in charge of the operation came over to our table and mentioned to one of the students that all the wall hangings in the room were for sale. As I've described before, the prices were very attractive, and so commenced about 20 minutes worth of a buying frenzy, wherein our group proceeded to buy about half of the art hung on the wall in the restaurant where we were eating a meal.

I didn't participate. It was just too touristy for me. Besides, I didn't think I had room to carry the scrolls in my luggage, either. The moment struck me as bizzare and surreal. I felt a little embarassed, honestly. That's just my stuff, I guess.

The volume of food we were served was far more than we could eat, this was an gesture of hospitality primarily, though I think there was another subtext as well: We have plenty of food now.

It wasn't always that way. As recently as 30 years ago, there wasn't enough food for everyone in China, and people starved. The food ingredients that we were served were all very familiar: corn, zucchini, tomatos, string beans. Not a lot of peas, but a few. We saw potatoes being grown on terraced hillsides where I would have imagined rice being grown. Potatoes seem a much better choice, though.

We weren't served much tofu, though this is probably because we were American. We had rice at every lunch and dinner, except in Xi'an, which has always been a wheat culture rather than a rice culture. There we got noodles and dumplings.

The bean paste in the baked items did not taste the same as what I've had here in the US. It lacked a certain edge of something; a something that I never quite liked about it. I don't know if that was to cater to us either, or merely the result of using fresher ingredients. Anyway, much better.

Finally, the soup course came. In Beijing and Xi'an the soup course came dead last, while in Chungqing and Shanghai it was about two thirds of the way through. At this meal, it was a corn soup. The broth was thickened with cornstarch, there were kernels of corn in the soup, and very little spice or even salt in it. I didn't find it as appealing as some of the other soups we were served.

The situation with the Chinese students improved near the end of the meal, as people got up and circulated among the tables. The Chinese students thought that one of our students (who is Chinese-American, and speaks Mandarin as her native language) reminded them of Cho Chang, a character in the latest Harry Potter movie. That seemed to loosen things up a bit. They all wanted a picture taken with her.

We got back on the bus, finally, and headed back to the hotel, falling asleep almost immediately. It had been a hard day.