A Travellerspoint blog

China

Past and Future

Meandering Up the River of Time from Xi’an to Shanghai

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“Where you visit in China?” asked the middle-aged Chinese businessman with whom we shared a table at the Beijing airport café (a not-uncommon custom in China -- in a nation of a billion people, you don’t waste seats just because you don’t know someone).

“Only Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai,” we replied. “Not too much time, too short to see such a big country.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “But you see all times in China -- Beijing present, Xi’an past, Shanghai future.”

I had never heard it put that way, but I really like it. Xi’an (pronounced she-AHN) was the capital of China from before the time of Christ, under the first emperor to unify the country, Qin Shi Huang. He was a brilliant military strategist who brought China together at sword-point, but he lacked diplomacy and was a bit of a megalomaniac. He had a massive tomb built starting when he was still in his thirties, then had the architects killed (Dale Carnegie would not approve...) and ultimately was buried there with a huge army of life-size warriors fashioned from terra cotta, each completely unique. Rediscovered by local farmers digging a well in 1974, this has become one of China’s biggest tourist draws. And it is quite fascinating.

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Ever wonder how people forget there is something like this buried beneath them?

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”Boy, after two millenia, I really can’t wait to get out of this dirt and have a bath...”

While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Xi’an was the center of the world. It was the beginning and end of the Silk Road, and traders from all over the world made their way there. The present-day city walls, the best-preserved of any city in China, date from the Ming dynasty in the 1400s and stretch 14 miles around the city center. If you think that’s impressive, consider that the Tang dynasty walls in 800 A.D. were seven times larger.

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Fun to walk around; scaling, not so much

Xi’an today is unfortunately a not-all-that-picturesque city of 5 million. Inside the walls it is mostly broad boulevards and high-rise hotels...

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Looking toward the ancient Bell Tower

...but there are pockets of very beautiful and historic old houses built of the city’s distinctive gray brick.

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A bustling market street near the walls, restored to medievaly goodness

From Xi’an, we zipped forward in time what seemed about 4,000 years, to Shanghai, China’s bustling east coast metropolis and showcase of wildly futuristic architecture.

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The Pudong New Area, home to science fiction-style buildings like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Arriving at the airport, we took the world’s only implemented Maglev train (Magnetic Levitation for non-geeks, in which the train hovers over the track on big opposing magnets) into the city -- a 35km journey that takes 8 minutes. The cars driving toward the airport beside the track flash by so quickly, it looks like they are speeding in the opposite direction.

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I am not making this up

Shanghai has a rather interesting history; in the mid-1800s it became the Chinese colonial trade center for England, France, and America, and by the 1920s it was the greatest Western city in the East after Hong Kong. Home to banks and shipping companies, brothels and opium dens, it was the Paris of the Orient (or the Whore of the Orient, depending on whom you talked to). Stretching along the west bank of the Huangpu River opposite Pudong is the Bund, a street of beautiful Art Deco skyscrapers that rivalled New York in their day.

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Memories of Shanghai’s Jazz Age

Incidentally, Lynn’s sister Jane (a John Denver fan) inquired whether there were in fact “Shanghai Breezes,” as he sang about in a song. Standing on the promenade overlooking the Bund, we can categorically deny the existance of breezes in Shanghai -- gales is more like it; it was very windy.

The Roaring ‘20s in Shanghai weren’t all galas, gambling and gangsters, though. Shanghai was the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party, which “liberated” the city in 1949 during the Communist/Nationalist civil war. The Customs House on the Bund with its giant clock tower modelled after Big Ben, once a symbol of Western colonial profit-taking, became a broadcast tower for propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.

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The triumph of the people over capitalist oppression, Shanghai style

But those days are so far past in Shanghai they might as well be buried with Xi’an’s terra cotta warriors. Today, Shanghai’s streets are flooded with expats doing business and locals shopping for the latest handbags from Gucci or Coach (some of them even non-counterfeit!). Like Beijing, or perhaps even more so, Shanghai is a city firmly faced forward, proudly displaying its past, but rushing to embrace its future.

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Whatever tomorrow holds, Shanghai is ready to embrace it

Posted by Bwinky 22:36 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

Addenda

Additional Thoughts on Boshintang and China's Young People

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Tomorrow, we leave Shanghai for Hanoi, Vietnam. There will be a post soon about our time in Xi'an and Shanghai. Meanwhile, these further thoughts/shamelss plugs related to recent posts:

1. Can't get enough appetizing mental images of me chewing on doggy stew in Seoul? Read our friend April's take on the evening. Her blog is really great, and she goes into even more yummy details...

http://aprilchristeen.blogspot.com/2008/10/boshintang.html

2. If you have not done so, check out our other blog. Flat Shunshi is a paper-thin Japanese boy who is accompying us on our travels (he is the Asian cousin of Flat Stanley, whom you may or may not have heard of). He is a school project for our seven-year-old nephew Josiah, and he has his own blog...

http://flatshunshi.travellerspoint.com

3. We are currently staying in Shanghai with a young man named Tiger (no, not that Tiger, though in his Couchsurfing profile pic he is wearing a red shirt). We spent some time talking tonight and conversation took a political turn. He had this to say about the attitudes of Chinese young people...

(paraphrasing)

"Most Chinese people are not really that interested in democracy. The government is opening up things so that they can make a lot of money and buy a nice home and a car, and that's more important to them so they want the government to keep doing what it's doing. They want the government to be more open and truthful with them, and they would like more freedom, but right now things are going well so they don't mind the status quo.

"I think that there will be democracy in China, maybe in five or ten years. But most of the people my age that I know are actually a little scared of democracy because we have never known anything but this. And we saw what happened in Taiwan when they went democratic, and there was a lot of corruption."

Posted by Bwinky 08:58 Archived in China Comments (2)

Bei-Bling

Portaits of a city in transition

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For two weeks in August, Beijing stepped to the front of the world stage, and served notice that it is a metropolis ready to join the ranks of the world’s alpha cities.

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The Bird’s Nest: it’s not just for soup anymore

There is perhaps no other nation on earth that is modernizing more rapidly, and today’s China is far less about...

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Long live the glorious people’s revolution

...than...

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The National Grand Theatre: the mothership has landed

Or so one would think from first impressions of the city, which has more newly-constructed glitzy skyscrapers and fantastic modern architecture than you can shake an Olympic gold medal at. Or would, if you could see them...

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Smog over Tian’anmen Square

We arrived here on Sunday the 12th from Seoul, and were immediately struck by how different Beijing is from our expectations. Oh, sure, the major tourist sights are the icons of its imperial past:

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The Forbidden City

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The Summer Palace

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The Great Wall at Jinshanling

But this is not your father’s China. Today, the subway is full of posters for LG and Toyota rather than communist propaganda. You only have to spend a few hours walking among Beijing’s fashionably-dressed young people, more interested in their cellphones than Chairman Mao’s little red book, to realize that this is a country that is undergoing a second Cultural Revolution -- and one that is potentially even greater in its impact on Chinese society.

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The future of China: you can’t fool the children of the revolution

The China of old, with its olive-drab uniform of communist conformity, has crumbled under the weight of a new consumer-driven culture that appears content to coexist with the totalitarian political system. This is really not surprising when you consider how deeply ingrained capitalism is in the soul of the Chinese people -- as the hoards of souvenir hawkers will attest. One old lady, “Ginger,” hiked with us for an hour on a very strenuous portion of the Great Wall, teaching us Chinese and "helping" Lynn up steep steps, all as prelude to pulling out a picture book and starting the sales pitch. That’s commitment to profit.

But step away from the neon and glitter of Beijing’s main thoroughfares, and you discover just how thin the veneer of modernity can be. For every brand-new modern edifice, there is a centuries-old hutong (alley) full of traditional courtyard houses, where life clings to the old ways of public baths and coal-burning stoves.

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Out for a late afternoon stroll

In this Beijing, old men still gather in doorways to play mah jong and haircuts are given on a stool in the square. We paused in a particularly evocative alley, and an old lady invited us in to see her two-room, coal-heated apartment (she didn’t seem to care that we spoke no Chinese, she happily carried both sides of the conversation).

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This hutong is home to at least 6 families

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A common tongue isn’t necessary for friendship

Beijing is a city in transition, and we found that most evident in the faces of her people. I will close this post by letting them tell their own stories.

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Posted by Bwinky 17:11 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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