The twenty-eight of us who gathered in the waiting room for China Eastern at LAX airport around 11 AM for a 1:30 pm flight to Shanghai met each other with great anticipation and excitement. Our brightly colored plane resembled an exotic tropical bird and beckoned to us from the tarmac. Before long, we were on board and settled in for the long flight across the Pacific. It was a beautiful day for flying. Our route carried us north along the California coast before taking out over the northern Pacific. Some of us slept, some read, and some watched a continuous stream of movies. A few of us looked on with sympathy as a young Chinese couple and grandmother struggled with a new-born baby who was restless and fussy before finally sinking into a deep sleep. It was interesting to hear the crew’s announcements - first in Chinese – a preview of what was ahead - and then in English. Near the end of the trip, a Chinese video encouraged us to exercise by demonstrating how in such a cramped space a workout was possible. Suddenly, throughout the plane, to dulcet music, arms reached overhead, heads swiveled, torsos inclined, and backs arched. We were soon reinvigorated and ready for China.
After a smooth landing and relatively easy check through Chinese customs, we learned to our dismay that the connecting flight to Beijing was delayed due to fog. Finally, we boarded only to wait at least another forty-five minutes before taking off. We arrived exhausted, but relieved and happy at the Beijing Airport. Mike Zhao, our amazing guide and new-found friend, was there waiting for us with a big smile and warm welcome. He expertly saw to our bags and, having already checked us in to our hotel, dispensed our room keys on the bus. Mike told us a sobering bit of news - our flight from Shanghai had almost been cancelled. What a thought – to be perished immediately! At approximately, 3 AM, we arrived at the Beijing Hilton. And so to bed, at last.
We gathered at 11 am for a briefing with Mike and general introduction. Happily, we were joined by four new members, John and Linda Sarpy, and Lisa Leydon and Melissa Hamilton, who had taken separate flights.
After our meeting, we met our local tour guide, Bill, whom we were to see again in Shanghai. (By then, he was affectionately known as ‘Beijing Bill.’) We boarded a big bus and headed straight for Tiananmen Square often described as ‘the soul of China.’ Built by Mao Zedong, it is defined and flanked by a motley assortment of buildings and monuments. To the north is the Tiananmen Gate, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It is the entrance to the Forbidden City and the building from which Mao’s huge iconic portrait presides over all. To the south is Mao’s Mausoleum, on either side of which are socialist realist statues of Communist workers. The Great Hall of the People where China’s parliament meets is on the west side of the square and opposite is the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and History. Outside the Museum, a huge clock registers the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the 2008 Olympics begin.
Thousands came here to mourn the death of Zhou Enlai in 1976. Massive riots ensued and were branded a counter-revolutionary plot. In 1989, a student protest for democracy was brutally and mercilessly crushed. Not so long ago, members of the Falun Gong gathered peacefully in the square and were promptly arrested and imprisoned – not to be seen again. Nevertheless, we were struck by the numbers of casually strolling families and the festive atmosphere. Here and there, Chinese soldiers looked on, a sobering reminder of these past event.. It was hard to adhere to the official edict against photographing such young and handsome men in their immaculate uniforms.
From the Square, we walked into the Forbidden City, home to Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors and their courts. The second Ming Dynasty emperor, Yongle, moved the capital to Beijing in 1421 and built the Forbidden City on the site of the imperial palace of the preceding Yuan Dynasty. Most of the buildings remaining today were built during the 18th and 19th centuries. Off limits to ordinary people in the past, the Forbidden City signifies the remote and unattainable presence of the emperor. It is one of the great architectural masterpieces of ancient China, and is a vast complex of approximately 800 halls and buildings connected by passageways. European palaces, normally consisting of only one grand building, seem insignificant and puny by comparison.
Walking through the Forbidden City was a pleasure; stretching our legs felt good after so many hours on the plane, and there was a lot to see and learn. Restoration is in progress in preparation for the Olympic throngs. We marveled over the lively colors - the beautiful Chinese red of the buildings and the vibrant green, gold, and blue of the carved roof beams and pillars. Everywhere, there were large urns for water as fire was a constant threat to the wooden buildings. Incense burners made the air sweet for the Emperor. Multi-layered walkways and an absence of trees provided protection by removing potential access and hiding places for would-be assassins.
From the Forbidden City, we went straight to a Chinese restaurant for a welcome dinner of Peking Duck. We were led to a private dining room but couldn’t help but notice that the other customers were largely Chinese. We took their presence as a good sign, and indeed it was. The star-billed duck was delicious, but it was one of many fantastic entrees including shrimp, fish, scallops, and assorted vegetables. Replete and content, we returned to the hotel and a much-needed early night.
We awoke to a beautiful day, clear, cold, and sunny. A storm had passed through during the night and in its wake had eliminated all the fog that had so plagued our Beijing arrival. We boarded our bus early and headed straight for the old section of town. Rickshaws or pedicabs, as they are known today, took us through narrow, winding lanes called hutongs. These ancient back alleys, dating back to the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, were formed by the arrangement of quadrangular housing complexes. Aristocrats and imperial kinsmen inhabited such large dwellings east and west of the Forbidden City. North and south of the palace were simpler and cruder hutongs formed from more modest houses. The residents here were merchants and ordinary people. During the Cultural Revolution, many hutongs were destroyed and new high-rise apartment buildings erected in their place. Nevertheless, hutong houses still provide living quarters for a large number of Beijing’s residents.
In the hutongs, we visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Wu. We entered their modest dwelling through a small courtyard planted with flowers and pomegranate trees. The Wus share about 2000 square feet with the families of their two children. Mr. Wu answered all of our questions graciously and with a quiet dignity that charmed us. We learned that he had been selected by his neighbors to entertain foreign guests such as ourselves and that he supplements his income from these visits. Displayed throughout his house were gifts from other groups. However, taking pride of place was a large photograph of his beautiful young granddaughter, whose name in Chinese means ‘Wisdom.’ Mr. and Mrs. Wu take care of her each day when she returns from school as both of her parents are at work. In this case, the Chinese family is alive and well. Before we left, they posed for pictures with our various members. This visit was one we shall never forget.
From here, we went to a carpet factory where we learned about the manufacture of silk and wool rugs from Andy, the company engineer. In stentorian tones, he barked out the relevant details. He was informative, highly entertaining, and completely unforgettable. We were then allowed to browse, bargain, and buy. It was quite an experience, and we had a wonderful time! On to a delicious lunch and a welcome pause.
Back on the bus, we headed north out of town for the Great Wall. We marveled at farms and hundreds of young trees, newly planted for the 2008 Olympics. All the while we climbed into the mountains, passing resort areas with newly built condominiums where wealthy Beijingers come for the weekend. Upon arrival, we ‘ran the gauntlet’ through assorted vendors and other hawkers. We were delighted by the sight of a contented, peaceful camel that quietly rested on his haunches by a small shop and ignored us with elegant disdain. A gondola took us up the mountain to a large terrace with a magnificent view. From there we walked up more steps to the wall itself, all the while imagining how on earth this incredible structure could have been built. WOW!!!! Mike and Bill advised us to walk west because that way was easier, but some of our more intrepid members walked east as well. We loved every minute.
Exhilarated, we returned to Beijing. What a day! Dinner that night was a buffet at the hotel. Some of us were too tired to eat. Sleep loomed large as did the morrow.
Again, the weather was clear and bright. It was a beautiful day for a walk in the park, and we headed out promptly at 9:00. A glimpse of real life in China awaited us. In spite of the early hour, the 660 acre park surrounding the Temple of Heaven was full of people doing their daily activities. We saw ribbon dancing and ballroom dancing all done to Chinese music. Some of us tried our hand at both activities, all to gales of laughter from the others in our group and some Chinese bystanders. We observed Tai Chi, Karaoke, Chinese opera, choral singing, and men walking their birds (!). Tai Chi paddle ball was particularly appealing. Participants danced while gracefully manipulating a paddle and keeping a ball balanced against it. Chinese chess was very popular and intensely played. We were told that when all was quiet an exciting game was in progress. A lot of noisy comments from kibitzers indicated inferior play. Some of us observed a beautiful, sleeping cat, so fat that he/she must have been doted upon.
We proceeded through the park to the spectacular Temple of Heaven, a classic example of Ming Dynasty architecture. Built in 1421 and rebuilt in 1750, it has now been almost completely restored for the 2008 Olympics. We were immediately struck by its bright red color with contrasting blue, green, and gold trim. The round temple, representing Heaven in Chinese cosmology, is superimposed on a marble square, representing the Earth. Here was where the emperor conducted the most significant ceremonies and rites of the seasons. Of particular importance were his prayers for a good harvest. To show his subservience to Heaven and the Gods, the emperor had to actually walk up the imposing stairs rather than being carried in a sedan chair as was customary everywhere else. The Temple is perched on one of the highest points in Beijing and provides magnificent views of the city with dramatic contrasts between the old and the new.
From here we drove to the Pearl Palace where we were instructed in the creation of cultured pearls. How many pearls does one oyster produce? Melou Piegari guessed correctly that there were at least 24. As a reward for her accuracy and astuteness, she was presented with two beautiful pearls from the oyster. Then everyone shopped for his/her favorite bracelets, necklaces, and pendants.
Mike directed those who finished early or were less interested to a nearby farmer’s market where locals buy fresh meat and produce. No wonder the place was so crowded with Chinese shoppers. There was a rich variety of beautiful veggies, some of which were unlike any that we had ever seen. The bright red radishes were enormous, at least as big as soft balls. The gleaming eggplants were round, not oval as in America, and the grapefruits were gigantic. We saw huge piles of lemon grass in startling contrast to the tiny packaged bunches available in American markets. Everywhere there was a feast for the eyes. At the meat counter, whole chickens with feet attached were available because feet are considered a delicacy. In addition, there were all sorts of nuts and prepared food for takeout including buns, dumplings, noodles, and rice. Fortunately, we immediately drove from here to lunch because our appetites were seriously whetted.
After another delicious and multi-course lunch, we drove past the 97,000 seat Olympic Stadium known appropriately as the “Bird’s Nest” because that is what it resembles - albeit in a space-age fashion. The Olympic swimming facilities were equally impressive and reminiscent of a gigantic mound of bubble wrap. The whole area bristled with frenetic activity. Bees in a hive, punctuated with gigantic cranes, came to mind. August 8, 2008, the opening day, looms large, but failure to complete the task is not an option. After all that we have seen, one cannot doubt the Chinese people’s ability to accomplish such a Herculean feat.
Our next stop was comparatively serene. A sprawling imperial compound of temples, pavilions, and halls. The Summer Palace is located in a park on Lake Kunming. Gardens were planted here as early as the 12th century. The property was initially used as a royal retreat to escape the summer heat. The site was completely transformed into a summer residence by the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795): the current buildings all date from the Qing Dynasty.
Cixi, the Qing Dynasty Empress often called ‘The Dragon Lady,” often presided and schemed from the Summer Palace. This remarkable woman began her career at court as a concubine but quickly ascended to power after giving birth with Xianfeng to the child who became the Tongzhi emperor. On his death, Cixi had her nephew Guangxu installed in his place, but she was the eminence grise and ruled China with an iron hand. Cixi was brashly acquisitive, and her supreme folly, a Marble Boat, is moored here. Built with money designated for the military, it symbolizes the decline of the Qing Dynasty. Its size and beauty were as impressive as the wastefulness and self-promotion it represents.
From here, we walked along the lake to a pier where we took a ride in a colorful dragon boat across the lake. The views of the pavilions and temples were even more beautiful than romantic western images of ‘Ancient Cathay’ and real to boot. On the boat and throughout the park, we were accompanied by many other tourists, particularly Chinese, who seemed to be as interested in and pleased by the sites as we were.
That night we were in for a treat, the Peking Opera, an appropriate finale to our time in Beijing. The theater was packed with tourists. Everyone’s favorite was the story of the Monkey King. It featured impressive acrobatic work that entranced all of us.
We were back to the hotel by 9:30 and, for most of us, it was a welcome early night. We wanted to be well rested for tomorrow when we would travel to Xian, home of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors.
Four of our group left early with Mike for the plane trip to Xian. The rest of us followed a little later. We joined forces, exactly as planned, at 1:30 in the Xian airport. Our bags were whisked off to our hotel, and we met our charming local guide, Miss Ma. On the bus, she gave us a brief introduction to the city. Although small by Chinese standards – only 7.9 million people - Xian has a venerable history. In Chinese mythology it was the capital for the apocryphal Yellow Emperor, from whom all Chinese claim descent. In fact, it was the capital for at least eleven other dynasties including the Qin Dynasty during which China was unified. Xian was most successful during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Silk Road began here and brought with it great prosperity as well as foreign religions including Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. In modern times, Xian had fallen into obscurity, but the discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors in 1974 catapulted the city back into the limelight. The warriors are one of China’s premier tourist attractions, along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Ma also generously shared some of her life’s story and with it a bit of Chinese culture. She was an only daughter, whose mother often told her as a child to study hard and forget about meeting boys. In her late twenties, a matchmaker proposed a suitable young man, also scholarly, for her consideration. Amazingly, both families agreed to the match in spite of the fact that, as Ma said, she “wore glasses and was not pretty.” (Today, she wears contact lenses, and is very attractive!) As a young bride in her mother-in-law’s house, she couldn’t cook but won the affection and respect of her husband’s family because of the energetic way she washed the dishes! She still enjoys a long and happy marriage from this early contract.
Even more poignant was the story of what happened to Ma’s parents during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was officially designated as a traitor by the Chinese government because she had been a translator for the Russians, now in disfavor. Her father’s fate was no better. He was declared a “capitalist roader” because he managed a manufacturing plant. Each was sent to a different part of the country to be rehabilitated and re-educated. Ma’s mother was allowed to return after seven years but her father was forced to remain far away from his family, working on an oil rig, for sixteen years. Ma’s grandmother looked after her during their absence.
Ma’s lessons continued at the Provincial Museum for Shangxi Province. She showed us objects from the Neolithic period through the Qing Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty bronzes were amazing and were clearly revered. Their dynamic shapes were reproduced later on in ceramics and we saw these as well. There was a wonderful collection of early ceramics including Han Dynasty figures and models and Tang Dynasty sancai (three-colored) wares and early porcelains. We also saw a reproduction of the bronze chariot found at the Xian archaeological site, a foretaste of tomorrow’s sights.
We returned to the hotel for a quick rest before going out for a Tang Dynasty show and dinner at a beautiful theater where a big surprise awaited us. Incredibly, emblazoned across the top of the stage, in gold letters on a red ground, were the words, “WELCOME WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY ALUMNI”! What a salutation – all engineered by our amazing guide Mike. It was great, and lots of people came up to our group and volunteered that their relative/friend had gone to the University, or V. M. I., and what a wonderful place Lexington, Virginia is. We concurred and beamed with pride.
Here we enjoyed a sumptuous five-course dinner followed by an unforgettable show. It was a beautiful extravaganza, a combination of China and the best Las Vegas has to offer. The costumes, choreography, singing, and acrobatics were out of this world. The music was outstanding and performed on ancient instruments. Thoroughly entertained, we returned to our hotel and a good night’s sleep.
We boarded the bus at 8 AM on Halloween ready for a major treat at the archaeological site of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Mike was determined that we would arrive early and beat the crowds. We were the first bus into the parking lot. Nothing could have prepared us for the impact of Pit # 1. Its size was staggering and the restored figures solemn and moving. Full of awe, we stood gaping. We could only begin to imagine the effect the discovery made on those peasants back in 1974. We had been somewhat prepared. For them, the pit was a total surprise.
A wonderful movie told the story of the Warriors on a 360 degree screen. The Emperor Qinshi Huangdi, who united China and began construction on the Great Wall, had another enormous project: his own tomb. The pottery warriors were created to stand guard over it. Each one is life-size, and the tallest is over 6 feet. Fashioned from molded clay, the figures were originally painted in vivid colors. The paint has now faded but the unique features of each soldier are clear. They carried a variety of bronze weapons, now removed to storage and exhibition areas. After the tomb’s completion, all of the workmen were killed to guard the secret. Inevitably, word of the ambitious scheme leaked out and after the Emperor’s death, his enemies sacked the tomb and set fire to it. Today, thousands of archaeologists work to restore the figures from a jig-saw puzzle of shards.
Pit # 2 was discovered in 1976 and is still being excavated. It contains chariots, cavalry, and statues of the infantrymen. Pit # 3 has three chambers, two of which have been excavated. They contain 68 soldiers and a chariot. The costumes on these figures are more elaborate than those found in Pit 1 and this difference has prompted some archaeologists to suggest that Pit 3 was the command center for the army.
From here we drove to a large store that sells jade. We were schooled in what constitutes good jade and the difference between jade and jadeite before being left to browse, admire, and buy. A dumpling lunch followed. We sampled seventeen types of dumplings, many in a variety of shapes that provided a clue to their contents. We indulged ourselves and had a wonderful time.
After lunch Ma took us to the Wild Goose Pagoda set in the middle of a park with beautiful gardens. Originally built during the Tang Dynasty to honor the emperor’s mother, it acted as a library and housed hundreds of ancient Buddhist scriptures brought from India. Before the Cultural Revolution, there were 700 monks officiating there but now, there are only about 70. When asked what happened to them, Ma replied that they had returned home and married!
From here we drove to the imposing city wall which surrounds downtown Xian. Built between 1370 and 1378 by Hongwu, founder of the Ming Dynasty, the wall is 8.5 miles long and has been well restored. Its height, an impressive 40 feet, a wide moat, watchtowers, and massive gates remind us that its original function was for defense. The upscale stores that it faces on one side today – Gucci, Cartier, and the like – are in startling contrast and speak eloquently of a new age and the new China.
We enjoyed a quiet dinner in the hotel and soon retired as we were scheduled for an early morning departure by plane for Chengdu.
We departed the hotel at 6:20 for the airport and our flight to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. Our local guide, Lin, was there to meet us and directed our bus past the huge modern city to the Szechuan Province Panda Preserve. En route, she introduced us to Chengdu’s history. Founded by the Qin before the unification of China in 221 B. C., it became a major commercial center and was particularly prosperous during the Tang Dynasty. Today, it is famous for its spicy hot Sichuan cuisine and for its textiles, particularly brocades and satins. Known as the “Brocade City,” it is also considered the gateway to Tibet. Chengdu is usually overcast, and a local proverb says that a dog would bark if the sun appears because it is such a strange sight. Our brief stay confirmed the truth of this old saying.
Lin also talked to us about the giant panda, perhaps the world’s most beloved animal celebrity. Over time, its natural habitat has been destroyed and fragmented. Furthermore, the solitary panda is extremely particular when choosing a mate, and numbers have declined. The Panda Preserve, which acts as a sanctuary, has been extremely successful in the conservation of the giant panda and of the red panda, another endangered species native to China.
The preserve is located north of Chengdu and is a large area forested in bamboo and other kinds of trees that pandas love to eat. Paths meander throughout the lush, green groves and enable visitors to observe the elusive animals. Fortunately, we arrived early which meant that the pandas were awake and feeding. (Naps are a must after a big meal.) We walked a ways into the preserve before the first sighting. A large panda was sprawled on a bed of bamboo, contentedly feasting. Methodically, he stuffed the branches into his mouth. He paid us no attention as we gazed with wonder and delight. Signs cautioned us to be quiet because pandas dislike noise. (We were offended that other tourists, whose countries shall go unnamed here, were not so considerate!) After this early sighting, we saw one panda after the other – some feeding, some climbing, some sleeping. In an indoor facility that was reminiscent of a hospital nursery, we observed at least six baby pandas in a large playpen. The smallest ones were sleeping hard while the bigger, older ones played happily. It was an enchanting sight!
We then drove to a local restaurant for a delicious lunch followed by a free afternoon. Some of us took an optional tour of the city and were amazed at the variety and elegance of the stores and the shoppers. Others reported walking down alleyways where locals cooked – presumably the searing local fare - with large iron cauldrons over open fires. We met at 5:00 for an introductory lecture on Chinese ceramics and then enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner at the hotel.
We received early morning wake-up calls, had breakfast, and departed the hotel promptly at 6:15 for the airport and flight to Lhasa, in the ‘Rooftop of the World.’ We quickly left the polluted air of Chengdu behind. Our plane soared high over magnificent, rugged mountains, some of which had snow-capped peaks, while some were bare. We occasionally saw small dwellings in the narrow valleys between the mountains and marveled that anyone could eek out an existence in such a rugged and barren terrain. We later learned that 60% of Tibetans are nomads who live in such areas. They are dependent upon yaks for their primary sustenance. The yaks provide milk, butter (for yak butter tea), wool for rugs, clothing, and boots. They even use the horns and hooves for implements.
At the Lhasa Airport, we were met by our beautiful young guide, Tseten. Smiling, she presented each of us with a long white scarf, a traditional Tibetan welcome. She explained that we could keep the scarves or give them to monks at one of the temples. As we drove from the airport, the starkly beautiful but arid landscape filled us with wonder. Huge steep mountains towered above us, and a shallow river ran along one side of the road. It was very dry, cold and sunny with lots of blue sky. The air was apparently quite pure, though, as we had been warned, there was not much of it.
On the way to Lhasa, we were scheduled to visit the house of a Tibetan family. Before arriving, Mike asked if we would like to visit a provincial school for grades 1-6. There was a resounding YES! After he had spoken to the principal and obtained permission, we entered through the school gates on to a playground. We were greeted joyfully by beautiful laughing children who seemed delighted to see us. We spoke to the principal, a very young man, and observed the students hard at work in their classrooms. They were adorable!
On to a visit with a Tibetan family. The house was surrounded by fields of barley and winter wheat, the two main crops the family harvests. The architecture was typically Tibetan - square with a flat roof and built around a courtyard. We were welcomed graciously and invited inside the courtyard, where two cows and a sheep were tethered. There were piles of dried yak dung to be used for fuel in cooking and other piles of sheep wool being dried for spinning. Nevertheless, the area was surprisingly neat and clean. On a tall stand stood a large metal teakettle. We were told that the family was using solar power to heat water. Clearly, no resource was wasted. Downstairs was the kitchen and family rooms. We climbed a ladder to the flat roof, from which we entered a prayer room and several bedrooms. All was brightly painted in cheerful Tibetan style decoration. The prayer room was obviously well used, an indication of the family’s intense spiritual life.
From here we drove into Lhasa, holy city and bastion of ancient Tibetan Buddhism and culture. The huge Potala Palace dominates from the slopes of Red Mountain. Our hotel, the Xin Ding, was quite a surprise. The entry and lobby were opulently decorated. All around the top of the high ceiling, the Eight Buddhist Auspicious symbols were painted in bright colors. Over the next few days we were to become quite familiar with this iconography. The staff, a sophisticated mix of Tibetans, Han Chinese, and Nepalese, greeted us warmly. After lunch, most of us retired immediately to our rooms for a nap. We were beginning to feel the effects of the high altitude, one symptom of which is drowsiness. All of our rooms were supplied with oxygen tanks and a generous supply of bottled water that we were advised to use liberally. Each room had a magnificent view of the Palace, and it is brilliantly illuminated at night.
Following a buffet dinner at the hotel, most of us returned immediately to our rooms for more sleep.
After so much rest, most of us were adjusting to the altitude and feeling more energetic. We left the hotel in the early morning shadows and cold for the Summer Palace at Norbulinka in the western part of the city. From the bus, we saw numerous Tibetans walking clockwise (the only correct direction) around the city. As they walk, they spin their prayer wheels in their right hand and finger their beads with their left. At the same time, they chant mantras. We learned that the inside of the prayer wheel is lined with Buddhist scripture. Most Tibetans are illiterate but spinning the prayer wheel is the equivalent of reciting the holy written word.
To reach the palace we walked through a large park where there are beautiful gardens and where people gather for picnics in summer. Outside the palace, we noticed a fat, white rabbit that seemed very tame and was apparently someone’s well-cared for pet. The Dalai Lama’s family often stays here, and we visited their private rooms. The walls were all beautifully painted by famous Tibetan artists with stories of Buddha. The style was reminiscent of the folk art we had seen during our house visit the preceding day, yet it was much more sophisticated. Our guide proudly pointed out the “western-style bathroom especially installed for the Dalai Lama’s mother.”
From here we drove to the Barkor Bazaar outside of the Jokhang Monastery. The area was full of pilgrims prostrating themselves in front of the Monastery and walking clockwise around the temple. Elsewhere, Tibetan families wandered through the stalls of the bazaar and ogled the merchandise just as we did. Some of us went to a government store, which sold everything imaginable: rugs, jewelry, ceramics, scarves, and other crafts. Others took to the streets. Perhaps the most admired purchase was Sis Warner’s amazing ‘yaket’ fashioned from long yak fur and dyed white. Harry found it at the stand of a street vendor, and it suited Sis to a T!
From here we went to a local restaurant called ‘Snowland.’ We were preceded by actor, Stevan Seagal, whose picture, taken in the restaurant, was proudly displayed over the door to our special dining room. The lunch was delicious with an Italian(!) twist and included pureed vegetable soup, pizza, and spaghetti Bolognese. The bread, however, was 100% Tibetan. We loved it all!
After a brief rest at the hotel, we visited the Sera Monastery, a training school for young Buddhist monks. As we approached the courtyard, we heard what sounded like the popping of firecrackers. Inside, we found groups of young men dressed in maroon robes engaged in vigorous discourse. One older monk would question three or more novitiates regarding fine points of Buddhist doctrine. To indicate a correct answer, palms would be slapped together. For a wrong answer, the older monk would slap the back of his right hand against the open palm of his left. We now understood the “fireworks” sound. There was much laughter and shouting. All the young monks were red-cheeked and innocent looking. Most were teenagers, and the oldest was no more than twenty. Some of us noticed a very young boy, who, we were told, was only nine years old but had been chosen because he supposedly has ‘special gifts.’ Each of these young boys has an older monk with whom he shares a cell and who is his special mentor. In return, the young monk acts as a servant for his teacher.
After leaving the Sera Monastery, Mike asked us if we would like to visit ‘his monastery.’ Naturally, there was an enthusiastically positive response. Mike’s friend had told him about the monastery and had advised the monks that he was going to visit at a particular time. Mike arrived very late at night and was astounded to find the monks still up – waiting and praying for him. Since then, he has visited many times and the monks have become his special friends. When we arrived, they were happy to see Mike and ushered us into the sanctuary. Before a giant, golden Buddha, we sat and meditated on benches where they usually sit. Upstairs, there was a shop where we bought bracelets made of carved wooden beads, amulets for good luck and long life.
That evening we enjoyed a special dinner at the Shangri La Restaurant. Our bus driver was a magician. There was a tiny entryway from the street to the courtyard of the restaurant. Our bus was like the proverbial camel going through the eye of the needle, but our driver made it through with nary a hitch. Upon our safe arrival, we all cheered. Inside, the restaurant was charming and cozy. After a delicious dinner, we were treated to a show of Tibetan music performed by local singers. The grand finale was the ‘Dance of the Yak’ in which two people dressed as that august animal pranced through the audience and bestowed big sloppy yak kisses upon certain favored members of the audience. We were told that only the best looking ladies would be honored. Not so, because the only one of our group who proved worthy was Charlie! We all roared with laughter as he fought off – unsuccessfully - the amorous yak’s advances!
In the morning, most of us were completely adjusted to the high altitude. Again, we left the hotel early in the cold shadows of the surrounding mountains and headed for the park at the foot of the Potala Palace. With ace photographer Dennis Brack’s help, we shot a group picture. Dennis expertly arranged us and set up his camera. A kindly bystander actually took the photo. For one brief second, we held our breath and feared he might run off with Dennis top-of- the-line camera. Thankfully, he was an Honest John and returned it with a big smile. After this brief interlude we headed for the steps leading up to the Palace.
The climb was an arduous one, for we had to negotiate over 200 steps. Onward and upward we trudged, each at his/her own pace, until we all reached the top. Of course, we could not see every one of the 1000 rooms in the Palace complex. All tourists are limited to only one hour inside the Palace. We saw a number of rooms in the Dalai Lama’s living quarters in the White Palace. We were also conducted through some of the Red Palace which is filled with temples and spiritual rooms. We saw gilded stupas inside of which were the remains of former dalai lamas. We also saw magnificent gilded statues of Buddha. The surrounding walls held pigeon-hole shelves filled with Sanskrit scriptures. Many of the altars in front of the Buddhas and stupas were covered in white scarves and money. We deposited many of our white scarves here. These holy areas were illuminated by brightly burning wicks emerged in tubs of fragrant yak butter.
As we moved through these areas, pilgrim nomads from the hinterlands passed us. Humming mantras, they often paused to touch their heads to the statues and stupas. They would even lift their small children up and firmly press their small heads to the holy relic. There was an urgency to their movements, and they often quickly brushed by us in groups. Tseten, our guide, explained that they were from the countryside and unfamiliar with Lhasa. If separated from each other and their guide, they feared they would be lost in Lhasa and never be able to return to their homes.
From the Palace, we drove to a local restaurant for another Tibetan meal. Afterwards, two locals serenaded us with song, one a Tibetan working song, and the other a love song. The real highlight, a bonus, came from our charming Tseten. On being asked to sing, there were delightful, girlish peals of laughter. She finally consented with a lovely Tibetan melody. Her voice was clear, pure, and sweet. We were enchanted.
After lunch, we walked from the restaurant to the holiest of the holies, the oldest temple in Tibet, the Jokhang Temple and Monastery, built in 642 A.D. Everyday, thousands of pilgrims visit, and there were many outside prostrating themselves (face down on the pavement, often as many as 100 times daily). Others walk clockwise (always the correct direction) around the complex. We were guided through the monastery by a monk who pointed out a number of statues of Buddha in his different manifestations.
From here, we proceeded to the roof where we had a wonderful view of the bazaar and surrounding city. From here we walked back to the bus and returned to our hotel. Following a brief rest, we met for dinner at 7:00 p.m. We celebrated the fortieth wedding anniversary of Allen and Sandy Harrison. Had we been able to drink alcohol at such a high altitude, we would have raised a glass of wine in their honor. We settled for soft drinks and water. We also presented them with a special Tibetan prayer box filled with a small talisman for protection and good luck. Notably, this trip is their tenth with W & L. Not only are they true blue to each other but also to the University!
And so to bed. Tomorrow was a traveling day. We were headed back to Chengdu and a fresh infusion of normal air at a lower altitude.
We took the wings of the morning and the early flight to Chengdu. We arrived right on schedule at 12:45. Everyone pitched in with the bags and helped to pack the bus, which was loaded to the gills. By 1:35 we were on the road and headed for Chongqing. The six hour trip passed quickly. Thanks to Mike’s superb care, there was a continual flow of snacks. We enjoyed bananas, Oreo cookies (were they great or what?!), sugar wafers, potato chips, and lots of bottled water. We made several stops at gas stations, where the ladies did stretching exercises(!).
From the bus, we saw the real China, beautiful terraced hillsides, orange trees, rice paddies, ancient farm houses, mothers with children, and farmers with water buffalos working in the fields. Occasionally, we would spy a magnificent egret, or families of ducks. When darkness fell, we were entertained by a movie, The Adventures of Mr. Bean with Rowan Atkinson. It was hilarious. There were hoots of laughter!
We rolled into Chongqing around 7:00 PM. A huge industrial and port city with 31 million inhabitants, it is on the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers and will be at the end of the vast lake created by the Three Gorges Dam. A perpetual haze of pollution hangs over it, yet when we arrived at night, it was ablaze with light. Our hotel, the J. W. Marriott, was in the center of town. By 7:45 we had checked into elegant rooms. Here, we enjoyed a memorable buffet dinner in the hotel dining room. Everything was delicious. Many of us had homemade fresh pasta, expertly prepared by a smiling chef with special sauces. Tired from our trip, we were happy to have an early night. Tomorrow evening, we would begin our Yangtze cruise!
We had a leisurely morning at our stylish, comfortable hotel. Some of us went for a stroll and saw the beautiful flower market close by. At 12:00 we met Tony, our local guide, and boarded the bus once again, this time for the Stilwell Museum. Home and office for General Joseph W. Stilwell (1883-1946) during World War II, the museum is perched on a high hill and looks out over the Jialing River. It celebrates ‘Vinegar Joe’ (who seldom smiled) and his military campaign in China during World War II. We saw wonderful photographs of General Stilwell, Chang Kai Shek and his wife, General Chenault, the Flying Tigers, and the building of the Burma Road. Some of us found the museum almost as moving as the American cemetery at Normandy. We were disappointed that there were no Chinese visitors. However, we were told that lately there had been groups of Chinese school children because America’s warm friendship with China during and immediately after World War II is no longer politically incorrect.
Back on the bus, Dennis Brack regaled us with tales of his friend, Frank Caserelli, the talented photographer who took some of the World War II pictures in the museum. Caserelli was renowned for his work during the war and covered Nixon’s first trip to China. He also photographed American presidents from World War II through the Reagan era.
From the museum we drove to the Sichuan Art Institute which is located in a beautiful park above the Yangtze. The park boasts two important municipal buildings, one where one can marry and another where a divorce can be obtained. We saw several couples being photographed in their wedding finery but, fortunately, none who were obviously seeking a divorce. Everyone looked entirely too happy!
At the art gallery, we sat around a large table and saw a demonstration of Chinese calligraphy. We then got to look at the gallery’s holdings which were extensive. There were beautiful ceramics, including a permanent exhibition of early Han and Tang tomb figures, and paintings in the Chinese traditional style and as well as in the western style. For a few of us who had been slightly under the weather, this visit provided some much needed “retail therapy,” always welcome and highly effective.
From here, we drove back across the river to the old section of the city. On the way, our guide pointed out Coral Island where there was a U. S. landing strip for the Flying Tigers during World War II. It will be saved by means of a dike from the great lake created by the dam. Surely, this action on behalf of the Chinese government is a good sign for Sino/American relations!
In the Old Town, we left our bus behind. We wandered on foot through narrow streets and winding alleys, and enjoyed a glimpse of a China that is fast disappearing and is utterly unforgettable. Whole streets were crammed with people playing Mahjong and another game that was described as “dominoes with cards.” There were people of all ages, all with the character of China on their faces. Tiny babies and little children wore pants cut out to expose small bottoms and allow for easy eliminations. There was an array of vendors selling prepared food and stands with live chickens, ducks, fish, and eels. Across their shoulders, porters balanced bamboo poles from which were suspended beautiful baskets of fresh produce bussed in daily from the countryside. The graciousness and friendliness that we encountered was heartwarming. There were smiles galore and people waved or even saluted. These wonderful people were as glad to see us as we were to be with them. We could hardly tear ourselves away.
From here we drove to a nearby restaurant and feasted on another sumptuous meal before going to the wharf and our beautiful cruise ship, The Victoria Anna. The atmosphere at the dock was gay and festive, and our spirits were high. We were piped aboard by a band of handsome young men and women in crisp white uniforms. They played the Colonel Bogey March, and it was enough to put a spring in our step and make us laugh out loud! Our staterooms were elegant, and as usual, Mike had already dealt with the bags, which were there waiting for us. We got a warm welcome from Cruise Director, Dick Carpentier, formerly of Connecticut and Florida, and from River Guide, Daniel Li. Our 9:00 departure was somewhat delayed because we waited for the arrival of another group, unavoidably detained. As soon as they arrived, we shoved off and headed downstream on “The Long River.” From the Observation Deck, Chongqing’s lights were so spectacular they took our breath away. After gathering at the Yangtze Club on Deck 4 for a briefing about our journey, we happily retired full of anticipation for what was ahead.
Many of us were up at the crack, i.e., 6 AM, to view our beautiful surroundings. The weather was cool, damp, and foggy, but the scenery was magnificent. Those who were really energetic attended Tai Chi, shadow boxing lessons taught by Dr. Xu. We got our table assignments and feasted on a large breakfast. We couldn’t help but notice that W & L’s four tables were in an advantageous position at the back of the dining room and surrounded by a big bay window overlooking the stern of the boat. There were wonderful views of the receding river.
At 9:15, River Guide Daniel Li presented an introduction to the river, “Ancient Waters, the Timeless Yangtze.” We learned that the source of the Yangtze is in the mountains above Tibet. It is the third longest river in the world following the Nile and the Amazon, and is the third largest in terms of volume of water. One third of China’s population (450 million people) lives in the Yangtze Valley. Although highly fertile and the breadbasket of China, the region has been very dangerous because every fifty years or so there is a catastrophic flood. Supposedly the Three Gorges Dam will end such natural disasters.
At 11:00 we had another lecture, an introduction to Chinese medicine given by Dr. Xu, the ship’s physician. He performed acupuncture on a willing volunteer, our own Dick Shober, and alleviated the arthritis pain in his neck.
After lunch and a brief rest, we docked at Fengdu for an excursion on shore. Most passengers went to see the “City of Ghosts.” On Mike’s suggestion, we also visited a relocation village, a new town specially built six years ago for people whose homes had been flooded because of the dam. Our bus driver was very aggressive on the drive to our destination, tearing around curves and over pot-holed roads at a furious rate, as if he himself disapproved of the choice. It was a wild ride!
Upon arrival, we went immediately to the elementary school where large numbers of youngsters were out on the playground. They seemed overjoyed to see us. Some hugged our legs and others insisted on being picked up and held. One little girl, who clearly craved attention, repeatedly hit one of us. Their behavior, we later learned, probably stemmed from loneliness because their parents were all away working in the cities. Most of them were being raised by elderly grandparents. They clearly missed their parents whom they saw only once or twice a year.
In the classrooms, we saw pictures on the walls of Mao, Confucius, Lenin, and Zhou En Lai. One class was being taught new characters, which were written on the blackboard. A particularly conscientious little girl paid us no mind as she studiously concentrated on her notebook. Some of us sneaked a peak at her work. Her characters were beautiful!
As we walked from the school through the town, we encountered only very young children and elderly people. The village appeared nearly deserted, a veritable ghost town. From the school we walked through some fields. At a stream, we saw women washing clothes and beating them on rocks. The highlight of the stroll was a visit with the local noodle maker at his house. There we met his wife and granddaughter and saw all the machinery he had for his trade. The house was three stories high and very spacious with four bedrooms and two television sets. The noodle maker’s daughter and son-in-law had been living with them but were now away working in the city.
We returned to the boat and immediately pushed off down river. Around 4 PM we passed through a spectacular gorge. The scene recalled the Hudson River Valley School of painting. At 5 PM, Holly gave her second lecture on Chinese export porcelain and the China Trade. Afterwards, we sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Nina Ropes and presented her with a painting - birthday greetings written in Chinese calligraphy.
At the Captain’s welcome dinner, we enjoyed a special cake in Nina’s honor. After dinner, we were treated to a special Chinese fashion show performed by the talented crew. We saw costumes from different dynasties including some regional, minority dresses. There was wonderful music and fabulous dancing. A good time was had by all! Another wonderful day had passed.
Early in the morning, we entered the Qutang Gorge, the shortest at only five miles long. The river narrows dramatically with soaring cliffs that rise over 3300 feet above the water above. Cut in the side of the cliff faces were narrow pathways so that boats could be hauled by naked trackers above the dangerous currents below. During earlier times, many died from over-exertion and falling into the river. We could only imagine how frightening such a backbreaking task must have been.
After docking at Wushan, home of George, our local guide, we boarded a ferry and headed up the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. We were on our way to see the “Lesser Gorges.” It was a beautiful day, sunny and moderately cool. The further we traveled upstream, the clearer the weather became. For the first time since Tibet, we saw a bit of blue sky, enough, in fact, to “make a Dutchman’s britches,” as the old saying goes. It was a welcome sight.
We left the ferry and boarded a sampan to go up the Madu River, another tributary flowing through the three minor gorges. We saw sprightly monkeys on the shore and were treated to horn music that sounded like bagpipes from a local musician sitting high above us on the bank. Two women from a moored sampan serenaded us with local songs. Not to be outdone, our boatman donned the traditional palm leaf hat, and brandishing his bamboo pole, entertained us with more local folk music. He excelled and was at least the equal of a Venetian boatman on the Grand Canal.
This excursion was delightful and we returned in good spirits to the Victoria Anna and lunch. Soon thereafter we entered the famous Wu Gorge, twenty-five miles long and considered the most beautiful of the three. Its twelve majestic peaks towered above us to a height of 4200 feet. We were enchanted by their romantic names (Fairy Peak, Immortals Gathering Peak, Climbing Dragon Peak etc.). In this area, there is a lot of coal mining. Along the banks, there were large stations for off-loading the coal onto barges. From another era, high up on the cliffs, we saw caves with large coffins containing the remains of the ancient Ba people.
Around 4:00, we entered the Xiling Gorge, the last of the Three Gorges and the longest at forty-one miles. At 5:00 Holly gave her last lecture on Chinese porcelain. This one focused on types of decoration for export wares. Interestingly, Chinese motifs were always a favorite and the mainstay of the China Trade. Following the lecture, Mike showed us a fascinating PBS film on the Civil War and Cultural Revolution. It was surprising to some of us that a film somewhat critical of the Revolution could be shown so freely. Mike told us that it was available everywhere.
By this time, c. 6:00, we were approaching the Three Gorges Dam and the locks. The dam was shrouded in fog and mist, but it was obvious that it is huge. Our captain expertly navigated our big ship into position in the lock and brought us to a standstill only a few feet behind another large vessel. We went from the bow to the stern to see ships coming behind us and to the side. As the lock continued to fill up, we attended the Captain’s festive farewell dinner. Afterwards, there was another delightful show performed by our crew. What amazing young people they were!
After an early breakfast we met at 8:00 sharp to disembark and see “the damn dam” with Susan, our local guide. We boarded a bus, crossed a huge new bridge and went through security at the entryway to the visitors’ center. After 9/11, the Chinese are understandably very concerned about terrorism, and it is of national importance to protect the great dam. From the observation area, there was a commanding view of the dam, the bridge, and the locks that we had just gone through. Unfortunately, fog prevented us from seeing the entire project. However, we did see a large model in the visitors’ center which was helpful. This project is on a massive scale and involves construction as well as the relocation of millions of people. It is truly astonishing and awe-inspiring, a 21st century version of the Great Wall.
Back on the bus, we drove to a local hotel where we met another, larger bus, already packed with our luggage. We set off on a four hour drive to the Wuhan airport for our flight to Shanghai. At first, the scenery was mountainous, and we drove through long tunnels cut through the mountains until we reached the agricultural flatlands. Here we saw rice paddies, orange and grapefruit trees, and prosperous, well-tended farms. Surprisingly, water buffalos are still used to plow the fields. Mike told us that these venerable beasts are so important to the farmers, that they are considered members of the family. When they die, they are mourned and buried with honor. Mike waxed eloquently about the countryside, and the area evoked childhood memories, which he generously shared. During the Cultural Revolution, his family was exiled from the city to a rural area. His father had been an architect, but he and his wife were forced to work in a cement factory. During harvest time, they also had to work in the fields.
We arrived at the airport early but, alas, our departure was delayed. Nevertheless, we reached Shanghai only one half hour late. Our guide, Jin Jing, whose name translates ‘Crystal Gold’ met us at the airport and gave us an introduction to this vibrant city on the drive to the hotel. We briefly saw the famous and currently unique ‘Mag Lev’ train which runs on magnetic levitation. It was a real case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ because the train whizzed by us in a second. It took us an hour to drive into Shanghai from the airport. It takes the ‘Mag Lev’ only seven minutes! We had had dinner on the plane and so when we reached the elegant Shanghai Hilton at 9:00, we were able to go straight to bed.
We were up early to visit the Children’s Palace located in the elegant French concession that was built during the late 19th/ and early 20th century. This area of the city is characterized by tree-lined boulevards and beautiful western-style houses and buildings. The Children’s Palace was originally the residence of the mayor of Shanghai who donated it to the city for a public school. The school is open to all. Attendance is voluntary but must be in addition to the regular scholastic curriculum at another institution. Here, we saw a class of very young girls (five to nine years old) learning the dances and songs of the Peking Opera. Surprisingly, there was one twelve year old westerner in their midst. We were told that she is the daughter of Australians who are long-time residents of Shanghai.
In another class, we were treated to several musical performances by middle schoolers playing traditional Chinese instruments. To the accompaniment of one, we sang a rousing rendition of “Oh Susannah” by that quintessential American song writer, Stephen Foster. Next, we were treated to a ballet demonstration by very young, little girls in pink leotards. They were adorable!
Our guide, Crystal Gold told us that one of the benefits of The Children’s Palace is that it teaches interaction with other children. Since the adoption of the ‘one child policy,’ Chinese children do not have the social benefits of growing up with many siblings as in the past. Graduates of this school tend to be more outgoing and more socially adept.
The halls were full of students and parents who looked well-dressed and prosperous. They contrasted dramatically with those we saw in Tibet and the relocation village. Shanghai is not the provinces, and its dynamism and affluence were apparent in the Children’s Palace.
From here, we drove to the Shanghai Museum, a modern version of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. It is a round building set on a square base representing the traditional Chinese idea of heaven hovering above the earth. Inside were world-class collections of Chinese bronzes, painting and calligraphy, furniture, costumes, jade, and ceramics. Interestingly, there was a very popular loan exhibition of Italian Renaissance painting with long lines of Chinese waiting to get in.
After touring the collections, many of us gravitated to the large museum shop. Mike had to tear us away to get to lunch at a local restaurant on time. Here we had a sumptuous meal of typical Shanghai cuisine. Delish!
After lunch, we drove southwest of the Bund to the old Chinese quarter. We visited the Yuyuan Bazaar, full of ersatz but beautiful ancient Chinese buildings. It was mobbed with shoppers, foreigners and Chinese alike. As a precaution, Mike gave each of us his cell phone number in case we were separated by the crush of the crowds. (Fortunately, no one was lost because we stuck together like glue.) We walked through the main thoroughfares and over a bridge to the beautiful Yu Gardens. We were told that the unusual zig-zag shape of the bridge prevented demons from crossing. They can only travel in a straight line, which was good to know.
At the entrance to the gardens was a beautiful meeting hall used for audiences by the Ming family of officials who built the complex. Paths meandered through the gardens and small houses. The walkways double back on each other and thus create the illusion of a much larger area. There was beautiful rockwork and many pine trees, symbols of longevity. Small pools teemed with golden carp and a large dragon writhed along the top of a wall.
We returned to the hotel for dinner on our own followed by an acrobatic show at a local theater. We were amazed by the jugglers, acrobats, and contortionists. If we had not seen them, many of us would not have believed that the human body was capable of such gymnastics. Of particular note was an older man, a pot juggler, who tossed a heavy ceramic pot high in the air before catching it and balancing it on his forehead. Later, we learned that he recently broke a pot on his head and had to be hospitalized. After a six month recovery, he is now back at work. We noticed that many of the performers are very young; the youngest that night was nine years old. The acrobats start training when they are only three or four and retire at the ripe old age of twenty-five! Early retirement prevents crippling joint problems in middle age. All in all, an unforgettable evening!
We left the hotel around 9:00 to visit a government store that specialized in silk. We saw how silk was manufactured from start to finish. Surprisingly, each strand that a cocoon produces is 3000 feet long! These strands are combined to produce silk thread which is then woven into cloth. A certain percentage of cocoons are double, but these cannot produce single strands. Instead, they are stretched to produce silk batts used in making quilts and comforters. After observing these processes, many of us ordered comforters which are lighter yet warmer and, at the same time, cooler (!) than cotton. Others shopped for silk clothes.
From here, we drove to the famous embankment familiarly known by the Anglo-Indian term, “the Bund.” Here, the shores of the Huangpu River are lined with elegant European architecture that bears the colonial stamp of Old Shanghai. Across the river is Fudong, resplendent with beautiful new skyscrapers and the famous Oriental Pearl TV Tower, signature of 21st century Shanghai. The Huangpu must be one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world. There is a constant stream of traffic going in both directions. We walked along the river enjoying the sights and the balmy weather. Then we crossed over the way to have a look at some of the buildings. At number 12 is one of the most famous buildings on the Bund, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, opened by Sir Ronald Macleay, English minister to China in 1923. Huge bronze recumbent lions flank the doorway. They were removed during the Cultural Revolution but have now been restored to their original places of honor. Above them, a red star is suspended from a pole because the building is now the property of the Shanghai Municipal Government. Inside, there are huge Corinthian columns made of Carrera marble and a magnificent mosaic floor. On the octagonal ceiling are depictions in mosaic of Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, Calcutta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, all the places where the bank had offices. Classical figures of the virtues necessary for business (Probity, Faith, Wisdom, Truth etc.) circle the walls.
From here we drove to a nearby restaurant for another delicious lunch of Shanghai cuisine. The remainder of the afternoon was free. Some of us went shopping while others returned to the Shanghai Museum or enjoyed our luxurious hotel.
At 7:00 we met for our farewell dinner, many of us dressed in newly acquired Chinese garb. It was hard to believe that our trip was ending and that tomorrow most of us would head for home. But on this final evening together we had a glorious time toasting each other and reminiscing about our marvelous journey. There were speeches and even a wonderful poem from Lisa Leydon. Mike Zhao, our incredible guide and new-found friend, was particularly celebrated and with good reason. The great success of our trip was largely due to Mike’s extraordinary skill and great care. He performed many favors small and large for each of us. He never stopped working and never refused a single request. In addition, he was a delightful traveling companion and a wonderful friend. We will never forget him.
Dana Prinz distilled our affection for Mike and China in a brief account of an episode on the bus earlier that day. In looking out the window she had spotted a small Chinese boy staring at her from the street. She remembered that she had smiled at him, and in return he had instantly raised his hand to blow her a kiss. Such good will, even in its quaintest of expression, can traverse the highest of cultural boundaries. Such a memory, shared now with all of us, would soon cross an ocean.
This was a day of farewells. At 9:00 A.M., we said goodbye to eight of our members, who departed early for the airport. Six others (the Harrisons, Piegaris, and Warners) would soon head for the post-extension trip to Hong Kong. The Sarpys would be returning to the U.S. via Korea.
At 10:30, twenty-two of us said goodbye to Melinda Hamilton and Lisa Leydon, who would not be leaving until the afternoon. We boarded the bus and headed for the airport, Los Angeles, and home. We had found, as Mike had said, that China is not just another country; it is another world. Our journey to this “other world” had enriched our lives in countless ways. The trip through Washington and Lee had the announced intention of deepening our understanding of a vastly different nation. In this, no doubt, the trip had succeeded. But perhaps its greatest reward would be found in the many new friendships it helped us to achieve, not only with our traveling companions but with the Chinese as well.