I don’t believe in waiting until you retire for those once-in-a-lifetime-trips. So when the company I worked for offered me money towards a vacation in celebration of my 10-year anniversary with them, I had a list of places I wanted to go and China was at the top.“What do you want to go there for?” asked my shocked mother. “Isn’t it dangerous?” my husband’s military buddies ask him? “I get sick every time I go,” an engineering friend moaned. With our friends and families encouragement ringing in our ears, we booked our trip and started the count down.Loaded down with 10 different over the counter treatments for stomach ailments, half our permitted luggage weight in reading books, and a stash of power bars we excitedly embraced our adventure.
Landing in Hong Kong was a soft entry into China proper. A city of limited space it breathed opportunity and commerce. With terrific views of the city and harbor from Victoria peak, you feel like you really get China. But you would be wrong. Hong Kong was China-lite compared to what waited for us on the main land.
Shanghai was summed up by the look on the face of a weathered old man we saw squatting on the pavement among the historic buildings of the Bund. Wearing a faded blue uniform and cap he stared across the river at the angular buildings of modern Shanghai which used immense amounts of energy to project strobe lit advertisements into the night sky. As he smoked his cigarette down to ashes, the look on his face said, “my pension paid for that electricity”. The rest of the city was an engaging and amusing fusion of the traditional and modern.
To visit China and not leave the major cities, you miss most of the country’s soul, and the rest of the story of electricity. Our arrival into the countryside was through the manufacturing town of Yichang, the departure town for our cruise down the Yangtze River. While waiting for our foot-massage we watched “illegal” migrant workers from the country returning from their 12-hour construction shifts to ripped lean-to tent homes set on dirt patches in front of retails stores that were all set to serve the new towering apartment complexes being built. Everyone was working to scratch out a living in the new economy. Our local tour guide (who we nick-named “Party member Paul”) assured us that everyone in China got foot massages every day. “Do you?” I asked him, waiting for one of his gloriously patriotic answers. Instead he replied, “oh no, not me!”
Eventually we were able to board our boat, later nick-named the death ship. We staked out chairs on deck, eager to spend several days floating down the river seeing the insides of China. And it is here where we got sloppy. We ate the ice.
The new river’s edge was created for rising water a result of the worlds largest dam project, an unbelievable feat of human engineering and construction meant to power China and overshadowed by stories of human tragedy, forced relocations, and modern towns created with fabulous amenities and 60 percent unemployment. With the amazing history and beautiful scenery we spent 3 days in our cabin being horribly ill. The whole ship went down. Each night at dinner the survivors would gather and read off the list of the ill, “Sharron was taking care of Ed, then she got sick, but Ed is feeling better and thinks he will be back tomorrow.” “Blanche thought she had avoided it, but it hit in the middle of a tour yesterday.”
By the time we got off the ship in Chongqing we all kissed the ground and dragged ourselves to the zoo to see the pandas. All group outings were now started with an orientation on where the closest bathroom was.
According to our local guide Chongqing is the worlds largest city, at 50,000,000 people. I would like to mention that all statistics in this article were provided by our Chinese tour guides. If the statistic you need is not available, or not to your liking, they would be happy to create one to match your needs.
Pulling ourselves together for the best part of the trip, we caught our next flight to Guilin for a brief yet idyllic day cruise down the Li River through the limestone karst that grace so many Chinese silk paintings and then on to a flight to Xian for the Terra Cotta warriors.
Visiting one of the world’s most breathtaking archaeology finds is everything it is billed to be, and more. But what was surprising was the energy, drive, and commercialism of the modern smoggy city of Xian. We rode this wave of commercialism all the way to Beijing.
I had been shockingly under dressed the entire trip in my blue jeans, t-shirt, and pretty sweaters. In Beijing it became almost embarrassingly so. While I was pleased to have my running shoes on the walk up the great wall, one of the only days we saw blue-sky on our 3-week trip, they looked a little awkward with all the trendy dressed locals in Beijing. Even the kids, the little prince or princess that each adult couple would be catering to every whim of, were wearing more expensive shoes.
I’ve traveled in communist countries before, but this commercial version was not like anything I had expected. Which leads me to one of their surprising exports. Dogs. Our guide told us of some of the exciting changes in the city. While social media was frequently blocked, our Facebook accounts were not accessible during our visit, a recent story had broken of a truckload of dogs heading from a southern city to the northern China boarder. By using social media activists were able to alert their friends in Beijing who blockade the truck when going through the city and liberated the dogs from certain death.
As all our experiences in China, this story stuck with us. And six months after our trip we adopted an elderly golden retriever who had been rescued from the streets of Taiwan. Her name is Hope. And while we she doesn’t seem to understand a word of our mispronounced Mandarin. We love having her part of our story about our once-in-a-lifetime-trip.