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September 25, 2001
Faces of China (Gail)

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The view from the train

Unknown to us before arriving here we seem to be on an ancient capital tour. Beijing, Xi'an, Luoyang and Nanjing have all served at one time or another as the capital of the Chinese emperors and also more modern rulers.

There is so much history here. We have wandered sacred ways, forbidden cities and spiritual caves. These are certainly what a tourist expects to see in China but what has made more of an impression on me has been the people.

Beijing is a very modern western style city and yet we still saw donkeys pulling carts laden with huge burdens going down the busy streets. Pedal power in the form of bicycles was everywhere. It was not unusual to see a bike stacked high with cardboard, the rider barely able to move along. People move furniture and appliances (saw a refrigerator and a whole bedroom set) from place to place. Three people on one bike was not uncommon. There is an entire street width lane just for the bicycles. They mix with the motor and foot traffic each merging and weaving with the other in a very seamless fashion that left me holding my breath. Cars come within inches of bikes and pedestrians yet no one seems to be aware the other is there and just continues on. On the way out to the Great Wall we saw men who were digging, with shovels, a new freeway ramp, a women sweeping the intersection as traffic whizzed by her and groups gathered next to the freeway edge oblivious to the traffic going by inches away. Every inch of ground seemed to be a place for people to gather including the median strips and merge lane areas where I saw a man flying a kite.

Behind the high rise buildings there were dirty alleys and run down buildings. We were still in a state of culture shock and I personally couldn't absorb all I saw. It was obvious though that Beijing is very proud to host the 2008 Olympics. There was a lot of new building going on and new parks were already in place.

Beijing was also our first experience with the stir the boys cause when we are out and about. It is not an unpleasant experience and they are getting used to it.

Xi'an was next and by now we had settled in a bit. The traffic no longer caused me to gasp and grip Russell's arm. We now realized that traffic lane markers really don't mean anything and it's pretty much a free for all with everyone watching out for everyone else. It couldn't be more fluid but by our standards it looks like organized chaos. Xi'an gave us a better look at the local way of life and I am glad we do not live in China. Once you are out of the tourist areas the amount of mud and trash is amazing yet the people are all well dressed and clean. I don't know how they do it. The shops look like no one ever goes inside, groups are clustered outside the doors, talking, playing cards, tending babies or just squatting, watching the world go by. At one point I thought I was looking at an abandoned town and then learned it wasn't abandoned. Very hard to tell when most of the buildings look like they are going to fall down and mud is everywhere.

In Luoyang we took a side tour to the Shoalin Temple. The drive there alone was worth the price we paid. This is an area not visited by many western tours. The drive is a long one going through many small towns along the way, up a steep mountain road with many large trucks competing with each other to get to the top or around the curve first. Have I mentioned that the tour vans do not have seat belts?

Two things seemed to be in great abundance, corn and bricks. Corn was everywhere, not growing, but drying. On rooftops, hung from trees, on the streets, in piles. Women were gathered in groups shucking the corn and tossing it in piles, then laying it out anywhere possible to dry. Once dried and off the cob the corn was piled along the road where the cars drove over it if they couldn't get around it. The dried corn is then used for next year's planting. Don't see how they get ahead this way, seems every ear is dried. Driving along we would see what looked like a huge pile of corn stalks then realize it was someone on a pedal bike. From the front you could barely see the person and sometimes there was someone on top adding even more weight.

Along with the piles of corn are the stacks of bricks. While traveling on the train I couldn't help but notice that every brick building I saw seemed to be falling down. Usually holding the window and door openings open were large logs and more bricks neatly stacked. Large piles of bricks lay everywhere looking for all the world like knocked down houses. But in front of these piles were neatly stacked piles of brick. There were people in small, motorized tractors hauling bricks up the hill where there were already stacks and still others bringing bricks down the same way. We have no idea where they were going or why but May, our guide, used the word recycling. We finally had to conclude that everyone gets a brick allotment and they move it around, build with it, knock the building down and start again. Uh, busy work we think but have no proof. We dubbed them Chinese Lego. May also explained that the man-made caves I kept seeing from the train were used as homes several years ago. Unbelievable the conditions these people have put up with and still do endure.

I have again tried to get to know a bit about the people we meet. My best opportunities are our guides. So far all have been young women. Sherry in Xi'an took a special liking to Joss. She was very sympathetic when she decided that we are strict parents, stating that Joss needs to play like Chinese boys. She especially liked his hair which she tried to tie up in a top knot for him.

Our Luoyang guide May was very talkative. She is 23 and has an older sister. They both live at home. She has a boyfriend who is also a tour guide. Playing Mom I asked her many questions about their life. She said her boyfriend wants to marry her and take her to America but there is not enough money. He is shy and funny, treats her well and will not let her do heavy work like the girls in the fields. We discussed how there seems to be two Chinas. She said her country is still developing but they very much like Western things. She was very sweet asking about our home, how much would an apartment cost (her face showed great shock and dismay) and whether people are like the movie "American Beauty." I assured her no. She then said "I want to say one thing, God bless America, from my heart" at which point I fought back the tears. Perhaps we could talk more because May was the guide we had when I heard my father had passed away. She saw the whole drama of me crying on the pay phone. We had to explain to her about my talk with my father before we left for this trip and my promise that we would still continue on. After a while she asked me how many generations were in my family. We talked a bit about American and Chinese fathers and I let her know I was a grandma and that my father was very proud of his new great grandbaby. We left her with two books the boys had finished, to help her practice her English and a postcard of Lombard Street. She gave small gifts to each boy.

Our guide in Nanjing is Christine. She is 22 and from the first "one baby only" generation. She has no siblings. She feels she will be a tour guide for many years and then maybe change but she does not know to what. At the Sun Yat Sen memorial she let me know that she climbs the 392 steps sometimes four times a week with different tour groups. Nanjing is a much larger city than I expected. We had one day here, I am sure we are missing a lot.

Before we arrived in China this was just a place, cities and historical monuments to be seen. Now China has a face, Kitty, Sherry, May and Christine, families on the streets, babies, school children, train food vendors. I will never be able to think of China without thinking of these people, never again will China be an impersonal place.

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Exploring the streets of Xi'an

 

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