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.
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.
Getting down to politics. We were killing time in Yichang, our departure point for our Yangtze River cruise, so we scheduled foot-massages. While waiting we watched “illegal” migrant workers from the country side returning from 12-hour construction shifts. They entered the ripped tent homes adjacent to the towering apartment complexes they were building. Our local guide, which we nicknamed “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 boarded 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 we got sloppy. We ate the ice.
The new river’s edge was created from rising water, a result of the worlds largest dam project. This un unbelievable feat of human engineering was meant to power China yet was overshadowed by stories of human tragedy and forced relocations. With all this amazing history and beautiful around us, 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 fallen.
By the time we got off the ship in Chongqing we kissed the ground and dragged ourselves to the zoo to see the pandas. All group outings were now started with an orientation to the closest bathroom. Chongqing appeared to be one enormous construction site. Empty, half-built skyscrapers with bamboo scaffolding rising up the sides crowned over decaying old apartments blocks.
Pulling ourselves together for the best part of the trip, we flew to Guilin for a brief yet idyllic day cruise down the Li River through the limestone karsts that grace so many Chinese silk paintings and then 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. What surprised us was the energy, drive, and commercialism of the modern smoggy city of Xian. We rode this wave of commercialism all the way to Beijing.
In blue jeans and t-shirts, I was shockingly under-dressed the entire trip, but in Beijing it became almost embarrassing. Though I was glad to have my running shoes on the walk up the great wall, I felt a little awkward around the trendy locals in Beijing.
I’ve traveled in communist countries before, but this commercial version was unexpected. Which leads me to one of China’s surprising exports: Dogs. Our guide shared a story of a truckload of dogs heading from a southern city to the northern China boarder to be sold to restaurants. Through social media activists were able to alert friends in Beijing who blockaded the truck and liberated the dogs from certain death.
As with all our experiences in China, this story stuck with us. Six months after our trip we adopted an elderly golden retriever named Hope who had been rescued from the streets of Taiwan. 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.