1 August 2002. Beijing, China
Half a world away from home, Alan, Wendi and I have just boarded a train to Shanghai and are leaving smoggy, sweltering Beijing behind, for the green countryside. We share a sleeper cabin with a young Chinese man who has little English but is very friendly. He shares large, lucious tomatoes with us, which I bite into, before noticing that he is carefully peeling his. We roll past settlements, marshes lined by crops, a misty river, nuclear power plants. The houses seem older and more charming than the anonymous monoliths, rubble and shanty towns near Beijing. Roof lines swirl up in pagoda-points, apt symbols of the phoenix rising.
11 August 2002.
Impressions: the Chinese do everything en masse. The boat trips up the Yangtze and the Li Rivers are intense cattle drives, where we have to do things exactly per schedule and sit at a certain tables (foreigners are relegated to the poorer locations, away from fans and windows). The point of tourism seems to be to take as many pictures as possible of oneself and one's family, at every location. How do they even find space to archive those photos, when apartments are sold by the square meter, and entire extended families may live in two small rooms?
The Chinese seem to have very little information about the outside world. A quarter of the earth's people crowd into this self-contained universe. We are finding here tremendous vitality; industriousness; wastefulness; extreme pollution of air, water and earth; an extravagance of decoration (often repeating the same motifs); friendliness; pushiness; much elbowing to the front of the mob; much laughter and even singing at meals; card and mahjong playing in small groups along the streets; dirt and spit everywhere; snakes, strange rodents and dragonfly larvae in cages outside restaurants - choose your meal.
In Guilin this evening after dinner, we walk the city streets, past life-sized strobing neon palm trees, karaoke on the street, music and dancing in the street, a pulsing throb of life.
Wendi parts ways with us today, heading back to Beijing for the Ornithological Congress. Alan and I continue on our own, with deep gratitude for Lonely Planet guides and Berlitz phrasebooks. We can't pronounce anything but "xie-xie," thank you, and "bu lada," not spicy, but we can point to the phrase in a book: What time does the train leave? Is this white stuff yogurt?
16 - 23 August 2002. Emei Shan, Sichuan Province