Visiting China is a many layered cultural immersion. It is not a vacation. I've drawn this distinction in the past - there are vacations (lolling on the beach, cocktails, cabanas) and then there are trips (National parks, rafting, Europe, - anything that involves learning and thinking beyond whether I want to swim in the pool or the ocean.) China is a trip and I mean in that in all of it's layered meaning.
When you arrive, you hit the ground running and you don't stop until crawling into bed for the day. Our first tour day began with a western breakfast at the hotel (and thank goodness for them - I'll explain in another post) and BAM we were headed to Tianenman Square followed by the Forbidden City, The Summer Palace of the Dragon Lady and finally, the Pearl Market before heading back to the hotel with enough time to change, go to dinner and then to the Peking Opera. To sum up the sights, all I can say is 1987 Student Uprising is not a topic of discussion and watch The Last Emperor (you will see the Forbidden city AND get a feel for the Dragon Lady). What I really want to tell you is about the Opera because THAT was a trip.
We had VIP seating which meant we had a table upfront and we were served snacks and beer. Our tour guide told us the opera was an old tradition and truly a cultural experience. Then , he said he'd meet us at the door when it was over. . .he wasn't staying and now I know why. Our opera was made up of 3 stories that had nothing to do with each other. There was, for clarity, an electronic sign on one side of the stage that ran the dialogue and song (and I use that term loosely) in English and Chinese. The second story, perhaps the most memorable was about a girl trying to catch up to her lover who was on a boat going down the river. She hires a man of questionable character to taker her down the river after him and then spends 10 minutes singing, screaming and yelling for him to go faster so she can catch her lover. That's it. That and the instrumental. Between the music and singing, I felt like this assault on my ears was akin to watching what happens in my brain when too many glasses of wine produce a hangover. Here is a Link - you only need to watch the first minute - minute and a half to get the idea. It is no wonder our guide decided to find something else to do while we enjoyed the cultural experience.
Having a guide is beneficial for a number of reasons but, his ability to tell us in-depth history was a boon. . .until we realized not everything he (not just him - other guides we had, too) said seemed to stand to reason. It first occurred on our tour through a historic Hutong - a neighborhood that has remained untouched and is now preserved. We walked past a charming mail box and he stopped us and said, "That is the oldest post box in China." Many of us drank the koolaid but Moondoggy looked at the box and pointed to where above the slot it said LETTER in English, "But John," he said, "It says 'Letter'." To which our tour guide quickly changed the subject.
In Xian we saw the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. There is nothing I can say to describe the magnitude of these clay men. There are thousands. They all have different faces. It is simply overwhelming. Our guide in Xian (along with John) was CiCi. CiCi lived in Xian all of her life and was eager to share her city. On the way to the warriors she told us the story of their discovery:
A farmer was digging a well when at about six feet down, he unearthed a head. He thought he had dug up the devil and he was frightened. So, he called the government knowing they would know what to do. And they did. They moved him out and built him a new home and started excavating. . . then, because this farmer now had nothing to do. . .they gave him a job.
He is at the gift shop everyday to meet people (but no pictures unless you pay) and autograph a book about the warriors and their history. So, we met the farmer and bought the book and had him sign it. I mean, how many times do you get THAT opportunity? We even bought the new updated version. We know this because there was a yellow burst in the upper left hand corner that said "NEW".
Days later as we cruised the Yangtze River, we took an excursion up stream on the Shennong. It was beautiful, hilly, lush and green. Monkeys scurried along the river's edge and farmers worked their land. There were soaring cliffs and caves along the route and high in the crags from time to time were coffins - yes the kind that hold dead people. These coffins were perched in the crags balanced on two pieces of bamboo. They were, our guide said, two thousand years old. Well, looking at the coffins and the bamboo supporting them, it just didn't stand to reason so Moondoggy asked, "So those coffins have been up there for 2000 years?" The stream guide replied, "They weigh 500 pounds and have been up there for 2000 years. No one knows how they got them up there but it is believed being up there allowed them to be closer to God." Which is another interesting anomaly because most Chinese are Buddhist or Taoists so. . . . There is a picture attached of the coffin. I'll let you be the judge - does it look like it has survived 2000 years of time, weather and seismic movement?
When we returned home, we got together with our neighbors, who had been to China in the early 2000s, to compare the experience. At one point, during a discussion of the Terra Cotta Warriors, our neighbor disappeared and returned with a book she bought and yep. that's right, had signed by the farmer who discovered the first warrior.
Her book, too, had the yellow burst in the upper left hand corner and the word "NEW" splashed across it. Moreover, when we compared signatures - they were different. Makes me wonder how many "farmers" they have and how many shifts of autograph sessions they hold?
Because this was a trip and not a vacation (remember - no beach and no cocktail) what did I learn? Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.