Sunday, July 1, 2007

The White City

We are in Guanzhou, and have been here for several days. It is here that we shall end our trip, and me this journal. Nothing of interest happens at this point, at least nothing I shall tell you.

Our hotel is the White Swan. I could write to you of its placement and its decadence, but I’ll let the promotional materials speak for themselves:

The White Swan Hotel is set on the edge of Shamian Island. Originally a beach on the Pearl River facing the White Goose Pool, Shamian was separated from the mainland in the Qing Dynast and turned into an island which overlooks the River on one side and has the city at its back on the other.

It is very nice here. All the staff of the hotel and all the shopkeepers outside speak English, as this is a hotel where United States parents bring international adoptees on their way out of the country to get the proper certification from the consulate. And Americans are not exactly known for speaking Chinese.

I get a lot of compliments on my speaking from the shopkeepers. A few tell me that I have a Beijing accent. None of them say it believably; everybody’s just trying to make a living.

It is not appropriate to end an adventure without learning something. I have learned the following:

1. Parenting is hard. Do not think that there is wide agreement on what to do. There is not.

2. Great empires grow because the people there do things that are difficult. Great empires die because the people there refuse to do things that are difficult. People in the United States assume that if they go to work and do their job and pay their mortgage that things should just Magically Work Out For Them. Sorry kiddo, but no. Working really hard in something that many people can do is insufficient. Working for a long time is also insufficient. We have to do the things that are difficult to do. That said…

3. Chinese is not a difficult language to speak. Tones are not as hard as you think. Learn how to speak it. Yes, that means you. Now. I write to you from a bastion of Western opulence in the middle of the next great empire. Either you will learn to be a part of it, or outside of it. I have always enjoyed the inside, thanks.

4. Chinese is a difficult language to read and write. It is as hard as you think. Learn how to read and write it anyway. Children here start learning English from the age of six. Even the beggars even know enough to be polite. The least literate person of this century will not be the one who cannot read, but who cannot read fluently in more than one language.

I am among those who did not take 3 and 4 seriously in university, and now I have catching up to do.

Zhe shi Ba. Zai Zhongguo. Zaijian.

The Pass at Caradras, Part Three

The last portion of our Taiyuan Temple excursion is the Tian Bo, the Heavenly Dragon Mountain. It is decidedly heavenly; it takes nearly a half hour to climb in a van, on a narrow two-lane road. At one point we pass a massive compound and ask what it is. “A cemetery,” Niu Yun replies. That’s right: in China, you cannot be buried on the ground, but you can be buried on the side of a mountain. It’s like being taken straight to heaven!

When we arrive at the top, we are surrounded by junk. Junky restaurants, junky stores filled with, well, junk. There is no sage at the top of the mountain, only capitalists. I am disappointed; even I enjoy places where the market does not exist, even if I am impressed by its invasiveness.

There is a temple. We enter. It is calm, serene. There is no market here; it ends at the door. A division between the sacred and the secular. I look out to the proprietors of the junky little shops. They do an extraordinary job, to run junk shops at the edge of civilization.* I bow nine times to Guan Yin and return to the world.

* The edge of civilization is still in civilization. Dave sees two cell phone towers at the top of the mountain.

The Pass at Caradras, Part Two

The first temple is unremarkable, though it is very beautiful. I am not, nor have I ever been a student or admirer of architecture; my tastes are likely quite quotidian, even if I find unnecessary ornamentation interesting. Architecture or no, there are several good moments.

To start, within the compound dedicated to a long-deceased governor is the Temple of the Sacred Mother. The sacred mother, that is, of the governor. It is in the middle of a courtyard, and was built a few hundred years after the entire complex to memorialize the woman who raised the man that everybody thought was pretty swell. This reminds me of my own mother, which makes me happy, except that she wouldn’t like the giant wooden dragons that crawl up each of the columns of the temple. I guess even a sacred mother’s temple has her kid’s toys lying all around.

Next to this temple lies a tree. And “lies” is the proper word: if not for another similar tree (Cyprus, I think) and a good deal of manmade support, it would have fallen long ago. Niu Yun tells me the story of this tree, which I herein share with you.

It is called the Male tree; it once had a “wife”, the Female tree. Somebody planted both trees more than two thousand years ago. Several hundred years ago, the Female tree died from a disease, and the next year the Male tree slowly began to fall. But suddenly and without warning, a new Cyprus grew up next to the Male tree to support it.

Niu Yun seems to want me to see the beauty of this story, but all I can think is, “So the Male tree’s a widower for a whole year before he finds a new Babe tree to fall back on? Wow.” Sometimes it is better not to exchange one’s thoughts on culture.

The Chairman sees stairs leading downward towards water and bolts for them. He is caught and regretfully restrained, but on to a good idea. There is a little creek down there, with small stone walkways, a pagoda, and a little stone Buddha sitting beneath water pouring from the wall. I learn that this water bubbles up from a spring that has flowed for over a thousand years. Its water is now, and has been for some time, considered a source of longevity.

I have to touch it. I wait for the Chairman to lose interest (he leaves for the bathroom), then I creep down the staircase to the spring water. There is a crowd in the pagoda; some take pictures while others dip their hands, arms, and head it the water and touch the white head of the grayed stone Buddha. From my position, I can touch the water, but I cannot reach the Buddha; the crowd gestures that I must touch the Buddha. Three times. Three is always better in China. It means that things are finished.

I gingerly make my way across a wet stone walkway in the middle of the creek to arrive at the pagoda. I move through the throng of a dozen or so people, who enthusiastically push me forward. I get to touch the Buddha; I “baptize” him three times. The crowd smiles. I smile. One woman holds a bag filled with water and mandarin oranges. She offers me one. No thanks, I say.

Even I have a limit to enthusiastic participation in cross-cultural experience.

When I get out of the creek, Niu Yun informs me that touching the Buddha three times makes one clever. The water gives longevity. I wonder aloud: does the experience give people longevity and cleverness, or just weed out those who can’t walk carefully on wet stone?

“It’s a melding of philosophies,” says Dave. “Buddhism and Darwinism.”


Each time we approach a change of scenery that suggests a place less grandiose or wealthy than where we have been, somebody says, “So this is China.” As if this is the real China, and the rest is all a show or a movie set.

On the trip to the temples near Taiyuan, we pass through towns I that deserve the name of village. A few hundred people or less. Old-style houses with courtyards. Little community farm plots. Gripping poverty. All of it and more, just a few kilometers from cities bigger than any to be found in my home state. All of it in a country with high rise buildings that scrape an ever lower sky.

It’s all China.

The Pass at Caradras

To pass the time in Taiyuan, we visit temples. There isn’t a whole lot to do in that part of Shanxi Province, or, as Andrea says, “if the most exciting thing in Dodge is a double pagoda, we’re gonna go see a double pagoda.” The double pagoda is beautiful but ultimately not at all story-worthy. The other temples we visit, however, are.

We begin the journey by taking an hour or so ride. Normally I choose not to mention our driving. The drivers thus far have all be excellent, strong-silent types, and I have liked each one. But our driver in Taiyuan goes above and beyond the call of duty, and thus his actions deserve mention.

Normally, our drive would take an hour. It involves taking one relatively new road to another relatively new road that leads more or less to our first destination, a temple dedicated to a former governor of the province (and by former, I mean several centuries former.). The first road, however, is under reconstruction, and thus we need to take a detour. We do, straight through the woods to the side of the roadblock.

No, I am not kidding.

The driver takes us off-roading in an eight-passenger van. And he is not alone. Several other drivers follow suit, including a small truck that somehow ends up in front of us. As we approach a place to re-enter the blocked-off roadway (the road, by the by, is totally fine, completely useful, and has almost no workers on it. Yet it is blocked off. Hmmm….), some laborers from a little nearby village appear. We are using their little road onto the main road. They want compensation.

Again: no I am not kidding.

The driver and Niu Yun, along with the drivers of other vehicles, begin bargaining with the villagers. We sit for fifteen or so minutes. All parties strike a deal; Coasian bargaining works even with transaction costs. Yay!

As we pull out of the woods, our driver hands payment to the villagers. Five yuan; a little less than seventy U.S. cents.

[Had I known, I would have offered to pay everybody’s toll, just to get moving. By my reckoning, that little stop cost me seven dollars as is!]

We ride to the main highway. The driver enters the highway. As we approach a toll booth (most, perhaps all?, main highways are toll roads), he turns around and begins to drive backwards on the highway. Let me emphasize this.

He drives backwards on a highway. Got that? Good.

We pull off down an entrance ramp. The driver drives us back around the “roadblock” on the other side of the road. The side where the village isn’t.

The whole point of the exercise is to turn around on the non-village side of the road. He knows this the entire time, but we don’t. “This is why China will rule the world!” Andrea exclaims. Indeed.

That kind of ingenuity to avoid a roadblock? They can do anything.