China Too

While this wasn't the China experience we'd thought we'd have, it did give us a taste. And what it tells us is that China needs to be a trip all on its own — one that we prepare for and arrange in some detail and are mentally ready to do.

A month before we left on our trip we met a wonderful Chinese physicist, Zhiping Zhao or "Ping," on a trip to Denali. She regaled us with stories of the Yellow Mountain and Bejing, and enticed us into putting China on our travel menu. She was living in the US, but her family is still in China. She called them, she called us, we communicated with her and with a professor of hers in Bejing via e-mail and fax. And with her kind help we began to plan to slip into this wonderful place and meet her friends, and perhaps her family.

However, the expense and logistics of getting to Beijing (Peking) or the Yellow Mountains from Hong Kong were a little more than we could handle. Airfare was too hard on our budget (remember, everything times four +++ and many months to go!), and to travel overland would mean a four-day wait in expensive Hong Kong while tickets were arranged. Again a budget-breaker.

We took a tour of several major sights, and got the politically correct version of things from our tour guide. We visited the Ching ancestral family temple — built when the rich were too rich and the poor were too poor. One of the many sparks for the revolution.

We were assured that trying to travel overland as non-Chinese readers and speakers would be very difficult—especially without pre-arranged tickets or guides. And then the train trip would be days long. But who knows? We hadn't contemplated this southern train trip with Ping — although she had told us she thought a Chinese train for those long stretches might be too hard for us. (The only thing we'd pre-arranged was our visas, having been told that travel arrangements would be easy to make in Hong Kong.)

And so the mystery and beauty of Bejing, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the terra cotta soldiers of Xi'an, the mountainous beauty and mystery of the Yellow Mountains would have to wait for another time. We opted instead for what we could afford, an excursion into the country, partially arranged through CTS, the Chinese government travel service. We only had to manage the overland transport between the Macau border and Guangzhou, and from Guangzhou back to Hong Kong. We were given railway time tables and some basic instructions. Piece of cake! So we thought. (see our article on the "Night Crossing into China")

What we have heard on the road from those who have had recent first-hand experience is that travel is difficult for the independent non-Chinese speaking traveler in China. But we have also heard from a few others that while travel as a non-Chinese speaker was not a snap, it was certainly do-able. Most found it to be a vast and interesting country, but that the travel itself was not particularly enjoyable. (I note, however, that several friends who attended the International Women's Conference in Beijing a year earlier had some wonderful experiences—some pre-arranged, some not.)

What we saw was essentially a small piece of a border-town - never the best or most accurate view of a country. It's like taking a snap-shot of your driveway to explain your home. Guangzhou (also known as Canton) has been the major trading and manufacturing port up the Pearl River from Macau and Hong Kong since at least Roman times. Westerners (Portuguese, British) first came to the port around the 16th century. It was here that the British decided to switch the balance of trade by dumping opium on the local populace, starting the Opium War. It is now hailed as the home of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the fomenter of the Chinese Revolution, and a major shopping stop for everything from Chinese antiques to western designer goods.

Statue of the Guangzhou's Five Rams

Any reference to things that might be considered superstitious (like the I-Ching) brought veils over our guide's eyes. On the other hand, she told us the legend of the Five Rams as she took us to the statue built to honor them. Celestial beings carrying rice stalks descended to earth saving the people from starvation. This statue is the symbol of the city of Guangzhou.

A statue of the
Great Doctor Sun Yat-Sen

From the outside the massive Sun Yat Sen Memorial is imposing, dominating the area where it's located. But its interior was shabby and in disrepair, which is unfortunate, since it is architecturally interesting. Most of our questions about Dr. Sun Yat Sen's life and the role he played in the revolution usually went unanswered. It wasn't in the script. Our guide was surprised at how much we knew about the revolution and Sun Yat Sen.And she seemed absolutely taken aback when we said we had read the "Little Red Book" in college.

Cassidy is dwarfed on the stairs leading into the
Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall.

Our guide spoke proudly of their local Olympic champion who is now safely back at work in a local factory. Not as a spokesperson, but on the assembly line. And she was surprised when I told her that gambling was illegal in most of the United States in answer to her questions.

Most of the people we met were in our hotel or in the local travel or food service. The only attempt at real conversation had been cut short. A waitress wanted to speak with us--and we with her. We wanted to share a bit about our countries, she wanted to practice her English. The manager hustled her off to the kitchen.

We found language difficulties, to be sure, but we also found that when we asked things like, "Where do we meet our tour guide?" we never got a straight answer. It would inevitably lead us on a wild goose chase but save face for the answerer. Our frustration level was high, and our desire to go on low. (We had contemplated heading on further north from Guangzhou on our own.)

There will be another time to fully explore the richness of China. We regret that it wasn't this trip. Ping's stories will just have to tantalize us for another time.

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