(This is an epilogue to my recent travels in China. For a review of the China travel journal I kept while on the road, please click my travel journal link located in the blogroll section: www.travelpod.com/members/pecoskid located on right side.)
In life, as in one’s travels, timing can be everything. Apparently my recent stay in China this past December was occurring during respite calm, the type of calm that lingers tentatively while awaiting the next impending storm. As the clock ticks closer toward the upcoming Olympic games, the world’s attention will soon be focused on Beijing. Since I left China in late December, the country has garnered numerous world headlines, mostly tragic in form, in places I had briefly passed through during my travels: Lhasa, Tibet, where Tibetan protests against the Chinese government were met by subsequent brutal suppression by said same Chinese government, Guangzhou; in southern China, where abnormal snow storms stranded thousands during the busy Chinese New Year holiday; and Sichuan province, where a horrendous massive earthquake wreaked havoc, killing tens of thousands throughout the rural Sichuan countryside outside Chengdu.
Accurately predicting the foreseeable future may forever be mankind’s unattainable goal, save for a few seers like Nostradamus; yet, in retrospect, there were palpable signs that hinted at several of the unfortunate events’ outcomes. In Chengdu’s Tibetan neighborhood, as I strolled past the local Tibetans I sense a subtle tension in the streets, revealed in the facial responses, including by Tibetan monks, whereas I felt no tension or discerning looks from the other fellow Chinese, merely their bemusement at this goofy bearded guy walking in their midst. The Tibetan response may have been an indication of the growing frustration Tibetans were feeling toward their government and by some odd linkage to foreigners as well that, in less than two months, would manifest itself into national protests in the streets.
Another event, the unusual snowstorms in early February, may have been precipitated by a government program I was reading about during my travels. The article spoke about China’s governmental intervention in weather patterns, utilizing an advanced yet untested form of cloud seeding. When are we, the human race, going to learn not to mess with Mother Nature.
My first and final observations of China could easily serve as a metaphoric study in contrast for China both culturally and geographically. My initial impression came from high overhead. Leaving Kathmandu for China, our plane’s flight path would immediately take us across the massive Himalayan range, the mountains which form the political border that separates Nepal and Tibet. Inside Tibet, we briefly touched down in Lhasa then continued eastward across Tibet into mainland China’s Sichuan province, ultimately landing in Chengdu. The view crossing into Tibet was both dramatic and spectacular; the massive glistening white Himalayan range, with Everest rising at the range’s apex, gradually giving way to lesser yet no less imposing Tibetan barren peaks. Tibet’s desolate rugged terrain followed; endless sweeping vistas of sparse brown-colored mountains and valleys, only occasionally distinguished tonally by a layered of white snow at the higher elevations or by the brilliant aquamarine-hued mountain lakes. This Tibetan landscape was a no man’s land of wild natural beauty, inhospitable, with few indications of human settlements.
In sharp contrast, my farewell view of China rested at sea level, overlooking the bustling Hong Kong harbor. Here, every square inch of space is crammed with millions of Chinese sequestered within the confines of skyscraper walls. The population is so dense that even the skies are crowded, inundated with tall apartment buildings that house the humanity overflow.
As I settled in for my last evening in China, I leaned against the seawall railing that overlooked the Hong Kong harbor. Earlier I had spent most of the day in transport, either by metro, taxi or train, maneuvering myself through the noise and congestion of two premier Chinese cities. I will say the methods of transport in China today are very clean, modern and efficient, greatly reducing the exhausting effect of traveling. However, checking in at the lone source for cheap accommodations in Kowloon, the Chungking Mansions, was a stressful experience, a crass bombardment to the senses. Squeezed among the prime real estate along Nathan Road, the well worn Chungking Mansions still provide budget conscious travelers and recent immigrants alike with cheap albeit cramped, basic accommodations, as well as a slew of money changing and visa-oriented paperwork facilities, where eager overbearing hawkers accost you. I think every nationality in the world was represented on the crowded elevator that led to the narrow sweatshop-looking floors above. My apartment room managed to squeeze a bed, bathroom, and TV into one tiny space.
My seawall vantage thus provided the perfect respite, letting the sea air’s refreshing scent caress my face, allowing me to think calmer thoughts. Once Britain’s flagship for capitalism and commerce in the Asian theater, today Hong Kong and its neighboring Kowloon, where I currently stood, epitomize China’s recent transformation to a capitalistic economic powerhouse. An ironic twist considering the fears in the late ’90s that the former British colony would fall to ruin under Chinese communist rule. Instead, communist China transformed into a capitalistic mecca like Hong Kong. Seems money trumps ideology.
As dusk slowly faded into night, I watched Hong Kong’s skyline transform into a neon glow, each sign marking the location of another multinational corporation or bank that had established its presence in the city.
Suddenly a pang of nostalgia entered my thoughts. I had stood at this exact location over twenty five years ago as a U.S. Navy sailor. I could still picture my ship moored in that very same harbor, dwarfed by the shadows of the skyscrapers and the taller, ever-watchful Victoria Peak. One never knows where and how our future paths will crosslink with the past.
Just in the few hours since my arrival, I noticed that numerous changes had occurred in those twenty five years: first, Hong Kong was no longer a British colony, instead an autonomous economic zone under the auspice of the Chinese government. Second, an ever greater concentration of monolithic giants existed, both in Hong and Kowloon. Gone was the aromatic colorful open air food market I remembered in downtown Kowloon, replaced by an upscale enclosed retail district. The famous luxuriant Peninsula Hotel still shined, though the years had taken their toll on its former grandeur.
The most significant change, however, existed further up harbor. On my final day while taking the metro to the outlying Hong Kong airport, we passed for what seemed an eternity the massive Hong Kong/Kowloon industrial port facility. Extending for miles was a sea of cargo containers and freighters, their presence representing the final launching point for the millions of goods now produced in China. All shipments were destined for overseas markets, America the primary recipient. Later, back in the States, while driving back home, I may see those same cargo containers neatly stacked on a Santa Fe/Burlington Northern railroad car hurtling through the New Mexico landscape, eastward bound toward awaiting American cities, thus completing their economic symmetrical journey known as global commerce. Won’t WalMart be happy.
My China experience had been brief, less than three weeks, yet sufficient at least as an introductory taste of life today in China. The Chinese I met are very friendly, very polite, very modern and eager to learn Western ways including English, which had become a mandatory subject in China’s public schools. All personal encounters were pleasant with several distinguishing themselves above the rest. Such a case was Lilly, an ebullient young Chinese woman, who was very anxious to join her boyfriend in LA someday soon and experience the American dream.
There was the Chinese American gentleman who was living the American dream in San Diego. He was back in China visiting his mother in Chengdu.
There were the young Chinese girls in Lijiang, who were eager to practice their English skills and learn about American culture and an American’s response to their culture.
There were the smiling Chinese girls that worked in a Yangshuo restaurant who loved the American CD soundtracks that regularly played, especially the songs referencing California: California Dreaming and Have You Gone To San Francisco.
They wanted assistance with the English lyrics so together through the efficient beauty of the Internet, we printed a copy of the lyrics and began singing the songs.
With the exception of backpackers like myself, the foreign travelers I met were primarily on business, they the cogs that contributed to the growing wheel of China’s global economy: the American Iranian on business in Shanghai looking for cheap clothing supplies, admittedly tentative to venture away from his four star accommodations, and a young American looking to outsource cheap light bulbs for business.
The Chinese countryside offers the most in terms of natural beauty ands serenity as well as a break from the city pollutants. Here is where you still find Chinese culture’s traditional ways at as envisioned by foreigners and described in books. Even in the depths of winter I can imagine a winter’s blanket of snow must look idyllic in the Chinese countryside, whether in Lijiang or the upper Li River valley.
And in the cities, it’s greatest charm exists in the unique character of the Chinese faces and the colorful earthy variety of shops and stalls that line the busy streets. Still, I would not recommend traveling in China during the winter months. Like Europe and North America, China shares the same geographical disadvantages the approaching winter months bring to the landscape: a bleak permeating gray tone and an uncomfortable damp chill which clings to your body. Beginning in Chengdu and following me southward, this chill was rapidly descending from the Mongolian steppes to China’s northern and central interior regions. This oppressive condition is most pronounced in the big cities like Beijing, Xian, and Chengdu, where no matter what the season the blue skies are rarely witnessed. I met travelers who had spent several months in these cities without observing a clear blue sky, thanks to the uncontrolled growth of urban pollution. I do not envy the Olympic athletes visiting Beijing’s unhealthy skies, no matte what last minute attempts are made to improve conditions. Ha the recent rush to emulate the American way of life by China’s leaders and their obliging society proven to be a less than utopian path to follow? Is China’s society just beginning to recognize the adverse effects a robust industrial revolution can create both for the environment and the people?
Of course, certainly as a whole, conditions have dramatically improved for the average Chinese citizen since Chairman Mao’s Communist State reign and his disastrous policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And, as an American, one might say who am I to criticize any other society when one can observe in Nepal and China areas where they are opening their societies to new ideas and greater societal freedoms, and most South American countries are implementing greater democratic processes, yet the United States is constricting its citizens’ social freedoms. My response…I still like Cantonese style Chinese cuisine over spicy scary Sichuan cuisine, for freedom of expression and how we choose to live our lives is really what we’re all striving for isn’t it?
So, in less than two weeks the Olympic games will shine a spotlight on a China not seen by most foreigners, a China that has gone through a dramatic transformation, for better or for worse, in relative obscurity. The Chinese government has already shown an oppressive hand in demonstrating what lengths it will go to present a favorable impression including a spit and polish massive makeover and PR promotion as well as a strict media censorship and civil liberty crackdown against any overt criticism. We’ll see how willing and how able the world press will be toward presenting an honest picture in their coverage of today’s Chinese society.
I did observe a genuine pride by the Chinese people in their country and heritage and I’m sure they feel an honest portrayal would be most beneficial.
I do wish the good people of China well and hope to return someday.
(To see my photos images of China, my travel books, and more, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com
listed in the links section.)