We have toured the Chinese coast before but now we go inland—all the way into Tibet.
  • Day 20

    The Last Supper

    October 23, 2019 in China ⋅ 🌙 55 °F

    Some of our fellow travelers have already left for home, but a few of us got together tonight for dinner at Annie’s Italian Restaurant. Next door to Annie’s we happened upon the wait staff of a nearby restaurant standing on the sidewalk for a pre-dinner shift inspection. They were lined up, standing at attention, and barking responses to a supervisor. Had he been wearing a Smokey Bear hat, I would have sworn we were at Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot. China is full of surprises, and Annie’s was certainly a big surprise. The four-cheese pizza Glenda and I ordered was as good as any Italian food we have enjoyed either in Italy or outside of it. A short walk in downtown Beijing exposed us to some young folks who are keeping Armani, Ferragamo and Michael Kors in business. They looked as though they just stepped out of the pages of Cosmopolitan or GQ. The upscale neighborhood of our hotel glistened with lights and the sounds of a city that never sleeps.

    Tomorrow we leave for home, and we’re ready. That is not to say, however, that we are tiring of China. The visit has been wonderful and we have only good things to say about the Chinese people. They are a remarkable nation intent on moving forward economically and politically. China wants not just to take its place in the family of nations; China wants to take the lead. From all we have seen, they stand a fair chance of attaining their goal, but the rest of the world must be watchful to insure that all nations behave with equity and fairness toward one another. This is a remarkable nation, a determined people and a special time in their national history. We thank them for their excellent hospitality to us foreigners and wish them all the best for the future.
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    some fantastic Italian!!

  • Day 20

    A Gift Worth Remembering

    October 23, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 55 °F

    Yesterday afternoon in our hotel I met a worker named Gracie Yuan. I sensed that she wanted to practice her English, and I certainly needed to practice my Chinese. I told her a story I heard from one of my teachers, Mr. Richard Chen. His father was a landlord expelled from China in 1948. He had a friend who was an artist in Beijing who had painted pictures of bamboo, only bamboo, for his entire life.

    Mr. Chen asked the old artist, “When are you going to paint a picture of something other than bamboo?”

    The artist answered, “Once I have painted the perfect painting of bamboo, then I might try something else. So far, though, I have not yet painted the perfect picture of bamboo.”

    Using my best baby Chinese I told Gracie this story. This morning after breakfast she met us in the lobby.

    “I have a present for you,” she said. “Wait here.”

    In a few minutes she brought me a painting by an artist friend of hers, a painting of bamboo. The artist, whose name is Xie (pronounced Sheh), placed his personal chop on the painting. It is a rendition of bamboo made on rice paper using ink and a traditional Chinese mao bi, the brush used for writing Chinese characters. Many Chinese works of art contain a poem as well as a painting. I have delayed in purchasing art because I did not want to buy a work unless I understood the translation of the accompanying poem. Gracie gave me a rough translation of the poem.

    “The bamboo attempts to grow straight and tall,
    But many winds blow from many directions trying to bend it,
    Yet despite the winds, the bamboo continues to grow straight and tall.”

    Johnny Liu, our concierge, graciously agreed to carry the painting by taxi to have it mounted by an oriental framing shop here. I am grateful beyond words for this gracious gift.
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  • Day 19

    The Art of Moving and Shaking

    October 22, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 66 °F

    She poisoned her son. This much we know. It wasn’t mentioned during her lifetime, because to speak of it meant sudden death. But now, after exhuming her son’s body, we know it’s true. She fed him arsenic.

    She was never supposed to rule. She was only a concubine, a legalized harlot, a sexual plaything. But when the old emperor died, her son, the baby emperor, was only three years old, and she took the opportunity to rule in his name. It didn’t hurt that her lover was a powerful general who made it known that she was in charge. Of course, the arrangement worked to his benefit as well.

    Her son knew that he himself, not his mother, was the emperor, so at the age of nineteen he asked her to allow him to take his throne. She refused. He attempted a revolution to gain what was rightfully his. The general intervened and crushed the revolution. He captured the son and killed thousands of Chinese so that she might remain in power. She wanted to keep an eye on her son, so she arrested him and imprisoned him in a building next door to the fabulous estate we visited today. He was under arrest, that is, until the arsenic she fed him accumulated in his body enough to kill him.

    She and her consorts, including the general, lived in a fabulous estate called the Summer Palace. We saw it today. All of the resources of a great nation were concentrated in these buildings and grounds that are nothing less than an oriental dream world. She took the annual tax revenues earmarked for the navy. She said she wanted to use it to build a ship and to train sailors, so the Navy Department gave her the money. She used it to build a ship made of marble on her private man-made lake and to train sailors to work as her servants while she was onboard. And her people suffered, at the hands of the British, the French, the Dutch, the Germans.

    Her name was Ci Xi (pronounced Tsuh Shee), the Empress Dowager, and she ruled with a rod of iron. When the styles in Europe changed, she rebuilt her marble ship in the new Victorian fashion. Near the end of her life, she designated a nephew, another three-year old, to be the new emperor. He was only three, as was her son when he had risen to the throne. She had lots of time. And her people stayed high on opium to escape the pain of being enslaved to Europeans and to the corrupt Ci Xi.

    Before the French Revolution Louis XV said, “Apres moi, le deluge.” (“After me comes the storm.”) But these words could have been uttered by Ci Xi. She died in her bed in 1908, leaving three-year-old Pu Yi to deal with a century that began with two World Wars and the revolutions of Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung. Her heavenly fantasy, the Summer Palace, has been restored to its former glory, and today people from all over the world come to see what kind of opulence one person might create when cursed with limitless resources and an insatiable appetite. From every nation people still come to see it and to wonder at its beauty and its cost.
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  • Day 19

    The Connection

    October 22, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 59 °F

    While the Christian leaders of Europe stressed the divine right of kings, the Chinese emperor claimed the Mandate of Heaven. In some ways the Chinese way of thinking about it has some advantages over the Western notion. In Europe the idea of divine right was unconditional. The king could have the morals of an alley cat, lose half a dozen wars or murder his own subjects with absolute impunity. In China, on the other hand, the Mandate of Heaven was conditional. As long as crops fed the population and no foreign invaders disturbed the peace, the emperor was allowed to rule as an autocrat. If things got too bad—if famine, war or invasion made life too difficult for a large number of people, the pundits could conclude that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn, and the emperor had to resign. In a few instances, the emperor himself decided that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven, so he committed suicide. Knowing the frailties of politicians, all in all, the Chinese idea has some definite advantages.

    The Mandate of Heaven was renewed three times each year, once in the spring, once at the summer solstice, and once at the winter solstice. The rituals renewing the Mandate were carried out in the Temple of Heaven, the place where heaven and earth were connected through the person of the emperor. He was the connection. The temple still stands in Beijing today, and those of us on this Viking tour had the privilege of visiting it today. As though my WOW-meter had not already pegged out, we marveled at architecture and embellishment that defy description. This conical pagoda is certainly one of the most beautiful buildings one can imagine. Adjacent buildings offer explanations of how artisans built this magnificent structure with cantilevered beams so that its millions of wooden pieces all lock together. Paradoxically the building supports itself with its own weight, and each of the myriad of wooden members is decorated with embellishments that are themselves works of art. I know that we in the Western world think of God as beyond all human imagination and incapable of being impressed with any of the puny creations our hands can produce. Yet, as I marveled today at this building where the “Emperor of Heaven” visited His human counterpart thrice yearly, I couldn’t help thinking that He would be honored to dwell in such a place.
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  • Day 19

    Beijing's Front Yard

    October 22, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 57 °F

    Apartments in Beijing are tiny by North Carolina standards, and they have neither a front yard nor a back yard. On the one hand, this seems like a deficiency. On the other hand, the local government here has made sure that every resident is just a short walk from a beautiful park. These parks are the front yards of Beijingers. Every morning neighbors gather in the park for calisthenics. For older folk these may consist of simple exercises to maintain flexibility. However, I saw maybe a dozen men, my age or older, doing a routine on parallel bars that could impress judges at the Olympics. One man was doing pushups with his feet raised on a low wall. Another older Chinese guy was on an inclined bench doing sit-ups. I stopped counting at 200. When you finish your exercises, you can break out your musical instrument and join the volunteer neighborhood band. A group of saxophone players offered decent jazz for their neighbors who were still doing their exercises. A group of women gathered for their daily crocheting club. Two other men played chess.

    The remarkable thing about this morning gathering in the park is that people get to be with people. News is shared. Conversations sharpen the mind. Sorrows are softened as neighbors meet with neighbors. All in all, it’s not a bad way to begin every new day if you live in downtown Beijing.
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  • Day 18

    Kung Fu Fighting

    October 21, 2019 in China ⋅ ⛅ 46 °F

    We saw an action-packed show tonight incorporating martial arts and choreography at the Red Theater in Beijing. The Lenged of Kung Fu tells the story of a little boy whose mother gives him to a Buddhist monastery to be educated in the ways of Kung Fu, China’s ancient school of defensive martial arts. He overcomes his own fears and fantasies to wean himself from the attractions of the flesh and eventually becomes the abbot of the monastery. Great color and music made this show a wonderful night’s entertainment.Read more

  • Day 18

    Becoming a Hero

    October 21, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 55 °F

    There is a stone stele bearing an ancient inscription standing at the base of the Great Wall of China. It says, “You’re not a hero until you have climbed the Great Wall of China.” Ancient Chinese soldiers would recite this to one another when they were stationed at this remote string of fortresses separating China from the Hsung-nu barbarians to the north. Many battles were waged along these ramparts since 221 BC. Occasionally the wall was breached, as when Kublai Khan broke through to establish his Mongol Empire in China.

    Today we were not fighting, but rather enjoying a wonderful day with beautifully clear skies and the sun in exactly the right place for photographs. We spent over two hours of free time climbing up, climbing down, practicing Chinese, talking to children and soaking up some of the most glorious mountain views in the world. Glenda gets extra points for doing this with a nagging case of plantar fasciitis. But the morning was made for exceptional memories.
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    Spectacular view

  • Day 18

    In the Footsteps of Emperors

    October 21, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 64 °F

    We almost lost this excursion in the shadow of the Great Wall, but this afternoon we walked about a mile along the path of the Ming Dynasty tombs. After an interesting visit to a government-owned jade factory, we strolled for an hour past monuments and pavilions in the place where feng-shui (wind and water) dictated that the emperors of the early Christian Era should build their tombs. Actually the tombs themselves occupy an area about six kilometers around this spot, but this entryway is still maintained and has been restored after being damaged by the Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution. Some of the tombs have been unearthed, and the bodies inside were found to be in a remarkable state of preservation. Yet in a country whose recorded history goes back six thousand years, walking among tombs a mere two thousand years old seems like nothing unusual. That’s the thing about China—everything is unusual. In this country the extraordinary, the bizarre, the different is the norm. That’s why China is China. Everything about it is remarkable.Read more

  • Day 17

    Roast Duck

    October 20, 2019 in China ⋅ 🌙 68 °F

    Back in language school my teachers, all from Beijing, told us that if we ever had the chance we should sample Beijing Roast Duck. Last night I had my chance as we dined at a restaurant specializing in this traditional Chinese delicacy. Although I was not hungry because of the huge lunch I had eaten earlier, I sampled everything on the table and found it all delicious. The food here, both oriental and Western, has been superb.Read more

  • Day 17

    The Two Towers

    October 20, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 70 °F

    On this site in Old Beijing, Emperor Kublai Khan erected two towers, a bell tower and a drum tower. Of course, both were used as observation posts from which soldiers might keep an eye out for approaching intruders. Yet the towers served another purpose as well. The bell tower sounded every two hours to broadcast the time. On sunny days a sundial kept time, but on cloudy days a water clock served as a backup. This tower remained in service until the eighteenth century when European clocks were imported to serve as the timekeepers for Beijing’s residents. The drum tower served a similar purpose. It signaled the population about special events or warned them of fires or other impending dangers. In some Chinese cities a curfew was imposed at ten o’clock at night. About a quarter hour before curfew, the drummer would begin very slow beats. By the 150th beat everyone was expected to be in their home. Between the towers we saw young children in an art class, drawing both towers under the instruction of their teachers. The two towers we saw today were not the ancient ones built by Kublai Khan. These are new ones constructed around the year 1200 AD. Today neither tower performs its original function, but the bell tower houses a lovely tea house where a charming young woman introduced us to the elaborate arts of Chinese tea. We sampled oolong and jasmine tea, along with a couple of other varieties. There were exquisite tea pots for sale, some made of semi-precious jade. One small jade teapot cost over $3,000. We learned that tea can serve as a relaxing beverage that offers a wonderful excuse just for hanging out with friends and getting to know new ones.Read more