From childhood, I have always dreamed of going to China. Though it may be a destination of little interest to some, I was captivated by the classic novel The Good Earth, and managed to sustain my interest through other literary and theatrical works, including the mid-1976-78 T.V. series, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, starring Joseph Conrad as the United States Marine Corps aviator, Pappy Boyington. Based in Chongqing, China, his World War II “American Volunteer Air Group” – a.k.a. “The Black Sheep Squadron” — fiercely defended the Chinese people from the Japanese invaders, a piece of history that remains legendary in China to this day.
Finally, in mid-August of 2012, I could wait no longer. My wife and I launched a 17-day, epic journey to the other side of the world. The Chinese Consulate in Washington, D.C. had added full-page Visas to our passports, so we packed our bags, flew to Los Angeles, spent the night, and then continued across the North Pacific, en route to Tokyo, Japan, and, from there, to Shanghai, China.
Upon arrival, we were immediately introduced to the glaring difference between China’s “Mega-Cities” and our American concept of “a big city.” I have visited all of America’s major cities at one time or another — some more than once. And, I’ve traveled internationally through much of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Prior to this trip, though, I’d only made it as far east as Istanbul.
To me, the sheer MAGNITUDE of modern-day China is overwhelming. With over 23 million residents, the port city of Shanghai is a beautiful, gleaming metropolis of steel and glass skyscrapers, mostly built within the last decade and a half. Visits to a number of other Chinese cities (like Chongqing, with over 32 million residents) left similar impressions. To the Chinese, New York City would seem of average size, similar to a number of their own “lesser” metropolises.
We began our journey through the heart of China with a 10-day, 1200-mile riverboat trip up the fresh-water Yangtze River, their primary east-west shipping artery. We stopped daily to visit any number of cultural delights and “National Geographic”-type treasures. We passed through five sets of locks at the huge “Three Gorges Dam,” which boasts the largest hydro-electrical output of any dam in the world. We explored The Snow Jade Caves of Fengdu, the famous Shibaozhai Pagota, and the Lesser Three Gorges. Later, we visited a public-school classroom of fifth-graders in Jingzhou. They sang for us, and then requested that we do the same. Put on the spot, my wife and I went to the front of the class and sang (with all the familiar gestures) “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” Surprisingly, they loved it!
We climbed the famous Yueyang Tower, visited a museum of ancient relics in Wuhan, toured their silk factories, went up Mt. Jiu Hua to visit an active Buddhist temple, saw master potters making amazing porcelain pieces at Jingdezhen, and finally disembarked our riverboat in Chongqing. A morning trip to The Chongqing Zoo introduced us to their world-renowned pandas, who were uncharacteristically active, putting on quite a show as they consumed bamboo and studied us.
Over the next seven days, we climbed The Great Wall of China at Badaling, attended a magnificent Tang Dynasty dinner theatre performance in Xian, ate Peking Duck and “made it through” the famous Peking Opera performance in Beijing. Throughout the trip, we visited a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the magnificent Terra Cotta Army in Xian and the peaceful gardens of The Ming Tombs. A visit to Tiananmen Square, and a long walk through the massive Forbidden City, immersed us in the cultural and political history of China’s 5,000 years of dynastic struggles and triumphs.
These days, most of the people of modern China prefer to call themselves “Capitalists” as opposed to “Communists,” though their government would surely disagree. To me, it’s a title they have clearly earned. (Check the label on most of the things you own.) Even so, for the Chinese, the concept of “private ownership” remains distant. An individual’s apartment, condo, or house may only be “purchased” for a maximum of 70 years, at which point it must be returned to the government. Forget inheritance – think leasing.
The Chinese people are warm and welcoming. They possess an intriguing calmness in the midst of their incredible numbers, with a population of 1.3 BILLION! Comparing that to America’s 350 million residents, one can begin to understand why their “1-child-per-family” law remains in effect. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism remain their dominant religions/philosophies. Modern construction continues everywhere, and, in the last 20 years, their cities have gone from 80% bicycle traffic to 80% new-car traffic, of every make and model found throughout the world. Along with this transition has come air pollution, further aggravated by the fact that 60% of China’s electricity is generated by coal-burning plants. All their manufacturing and exporting of goods has made their government wealthy, but there’s been an unmistakable environmental price to pay.
Having witnessed this, I have come to think of China as a beautiful dream, teetering on the brink of ecological disaster. Hopefully, they will find ways to manage their air pollution problems to assure future generations of a more sustainable environment.
(For additional photos, see http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.415746748488682.94038.100001600805576&type=3&l=51a701d57f )
A graduate of Guilford College and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Mike Leach began his career in secondary education as a guidance counselor and A. P. English teacher. Seven years later, he transitioned to the high-tech world of large computer system support at AT&T. A quarter century later, Mike retired from AT&T as a Senior Systems Manager. While pursuing his love of writing, he divides his time between Central Florida and The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. He is a member of ASU’s Institute for Senior Scholars and the High Country Writers group in Boone, NC.
“I grew up in St. Cloud, Florida — the ‘Veterans of Foreign Wars’ town referenced in Lords of Circumstance. Much of my childhood was spent on the front-porch steps of local ‘cracker homes’ where retired veterans of World War II and the Korean War had settled. Fortunately, some of those veterans shared their stories. Others could not speak of their military experience. I heard every word they said – or didn’t.
“They taught me about service and sacrifice, imparting a deep respect for those who protect our country. Most importantly, they instilled in me the timeless reminder that ‘freedom is not free’ and that perpetual vigilance is the price of maintaining it. Even as a child, I understood that these were lessons that I would take to the grave.”
Link to Lords of Circumstance www.amazon.com