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2003 China Trip Journal

Below you will find a transcription of a journal that I kept during my brief trip to China from January 20-27, 2003.  Yes, this is back when I bothered to keep a running diary on my trips.  Looking back at it ten years later, I realize it may not be very helpful to anyone thinking about visiting China today, both because the journal itself wasn’t anything special and also because China has change a lot since then.  After all, the Three Gorges area and some of the cities we visited are entirely under water now.  Also, I should warn you that the journal entries do contain course language.

1/20/03 – 12:30pm or so
Sitting on the plane, surrounded by infants and small children, cramped into a window seat with no leg room whatsoever, about to endure a nine-and-a-half hour flight. Our captain’s name is Lance. It can only get better from here, right?

Narita Airport

Sunset at Narita Airport

1/21/03 – 3:15pm or so
Arrived in Tokyo. It’s a clear day — the next day, I might add — and it appears to be the land of the setting sun. Flying in, we got a clear view of the Japanese landscape, which is tightly and neatly organized, as one might expect I guess. It seems that every inch of land is being used… neatly spaced fields fit snugly between tiny pockets of housing. Even the trees that dot the landscape are bunched tightly, and these small groves are placed perfectly within the patterned landscape. The little I saw from the plane didn’t seem particularly exciting or attractive, but even the evenly quilted shades of brown trees and tan fields offered something unique.

Narita Airport is very clean, spacious… and empty. Perhaps it’s the extremely high ceilings, or the giant windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. These grand panes are 75% shaded by mesh blinds, but they still manage to magnify the sinking sun, cranking the heat in here several extra degrees.

Checked out the bathroom too. Urinals seemed normal, as do the sinks, but I passed a stall that simply had a hole in the ground. I can’t be certain if this is some bidet-related entity, but my fear of falling in or being discovered while staring at this lavatorial (lavatorical?) marvel outweighed my curiosity.

Started wandering around the airport, and naturally didn’t bring my camera. Missed a couple of great photo ops… little girl standing in front of a diorama, and the sunlight pouring through the frosted glass and silhouetting the people in the smokers’ lounge. All the shops in the airport are lit incredibly bright, almost too bright. The girls working the different shops (Bulgari, Lancome) all have dyed hair and are actually pretty cute. Sumo is playing on all the plasma screens scattered throughout the airport. Though I can only wander through the terminal and check out the restaurants and shops, I still get a glimpse of a different culture, and I love it. I’m realizing, after getting my first taste of foreign culture in two years, that it doesn’t necessarily matter where I am… Europe or the far east… the exploration and adventure will always be there, and always add a touch of excitement to my travels.

Flight to Beijing was non-eventful, aside from the fact that I think Lisa Ling (from tv’s The View and National Geographic Explorer) was on our plane… couldn’t tell for sure though, as she was secluded in first class. Watched Almost Famous on the flight, arrived in a snowy Beijing.

We were met by our ‘guide,’ named Grace. Mousy voice, nice girl. A driver came to pick us up. First thing you notice about the car are the windows, which sport a serious illegal tint… kinda suspicious… nobody could see what’s going on inside the car if something were to happen. Get inside, and the tint is the same. You can’t see outside! All the windows are tinted, with the exception of the windshield and a small portion of the passenger and driver’s side windows (enough to see the side mirrors). I’d ask what the Chinese word for “blind spot” is, but apparently such a thing doesn’t exist.

Thanks goodness it was snowing. Everyone was driving no more than 30 miles per hour (I’m sure my mom felt right at home). Grace told us how brave the drivers in Beijing are (read: dangerous). I’m thinking the passengers need to get a little credit too, given the constant swerving, honking and complete lack of seat belts in the back.

Got to the hotel, which was fine, and finally managed to take my contacts out and fall fast asleep (10:30 or so).

Chinese military broom brigade

A broom brigade marches toward their next patch of snow.

1/22/03 – 6:15am
Still snowing this morning. I went down for the complementary breakfast, and then got ready to head out and explore in the little time that was afforded to us this morning. The snow finally tailed off as I got out of the subway (which was packed, naturally). It was amazing how many people were out with makeshift shovels and brooms clearing snow off the sidewalks. Even the military had broom brigades marching in front of the Forbidden City, shovels and brooms resting on their shoulders in place of rifles. Wandered around Tiananmen Square and in front of the Forbidden City… took some pictures, rued many other missed photo ops.

Was approached by an English-speaking local and his friend. They were overly friendly, and immediately started playing tour guide. Suspicious enough, and it didn’t take long to see the payoff for them, as they led me to an art shop hoping I’d buy stuff. I did, though not for any great deals, and finally managed to get under way after turning down several offers for tea and food. I might have stayed if I wasn’t so pressed for time and eager to get a few more photos of city life before I had to leave.

Sitting in the airport, waiting for a flight to Chongqing that may never show up. We can’t get any info on whether it’s simply delayed, or is cancelled altogether. The hazards of flying a domestic Chinese airline…

Have hardly moved. The latest news is that supposedly our plane will be here and ready to depart by 8:20 or so… the boat will be held for us until midnight. Who knows if it’ll all work out. What I do know is that I’m kinda hungry. Breakfast @6:30 and no lunch or dinner yet. Some joint in the airport has faux pizza, but nobody’s touching it and it’s prolly been there for days. I think I’ll hold off a bit longer. This is completely opposite of yesterday, when I ate twice as many meals as necessary. Two breakfasts, two lunches on the first flight, two dinners on the second. Things are already far too bizarre.

Finally boarded, which doesn’t guarantee that we’ll reach the boat in time of course. Was just rereading the stat in the Lonely Planet guide about how 1/3 of the world’s air fatalities occurred on Chinese airlines. The plane we’re on is pretty beat up: cracked trays, flickering, broken lights…

Just got the in-flight meal. Two words: Butter Pie. This “really natural green food” contains “sorbital” and “aquavit” among its other healthy, natural ingredients. Oh, and it’s not green.

Made it to Chongqing, believe it or not. Chongqing is the largest city in the world. 31 million! Shanghai and Beijing are second and third. Crazy. It was very foggy, so we didn’t get to see much of the city as we drove to the boat. It was kind of eerie though. The city is very hilly, so all the skyscrapers, apartment buildings and condos are stacked tightly on the hillsides that rise above the river.

1/23/03 – 9:36am
We’re cruising on the river now. Fog still blankets the river, though the sun is finally peeking through to give me some decent shutter speeds. We’ll be disembarking at Fengdu later in the day for a couple of hours.

BTW- I should mention the rest of the TBI Tours group… all four of them. They’re retired United Airlines employees that travel together every so often. I can only hope that I have consistent traveling companions some day… once my friends manage to acquire a taste for adventure.

Just passed some markers on the shoreline, spaced vertically every 5 meters… undoubtedly indicating the level the water will rise once the dam project is complete.

Fog on the Yangtze River

Fog was a constant presence on the river.

The fog continues to permeate the river valley. Signs of civilization are constant. Signs of life are not. Buildings, new and old, dot the shoreline. In this haze, they all appear old and run down. The only sign of life or habitation is the occasional swatch of bright color… laundry hanging in a window, or a family washing their clothes in the muddy river. Construction continues higher up on the banks of the Yangtze, in anticipation of the flooding. Barges loaded with gravel, coal and construction materials float by. Dump trucks line the shore, awaiting this cargo, or maybe food supplies. At one site, workers sluggishly load a truck while being watched by a superior. This character towers above them, standing imperiously on the cab of the truck. I couldn’t be sure if he was trying to look powerful by maintaining his lofty perch, or just trying to avoid getting his suit dirty.

So many ghostly buildings passed, so many small rows of vegetables and small families… I wish we could stop the boat at any of these small communities, rather than in a larger city like Fengdu.

There’s an Australian couple on the boat that sits at our table at meals. Nice folks. They run a company that specializes in puzzles and games, which leads them all over the world meeting collectors and searching for new products. Best casino games for Australian players. They had business in Hong Kong and will be on the lookout for goods in Shanghai, but the trip is mostly a vacation.

It appears we’ve arrived in Fengdu. I won’t be going to the top of the mountain, as recommended. It’s too foggy, so there won’t be much of a view. Fengdu is known as the “Ghost City.” I’m pretty certain that the only apparitions here are your friends whom you can barely see two feet in front of you through the fog.


Statues of demons and other spirits adorn Fengdu’s temples.

Have you ever seen a dying city? I have now. Fengdu, current day Fengdu that is, is on its last legs. The gray skeletons that rise on the north side of the river are mirrored by the stark white relocation complexes being built to the south. As our bus drives to the base of the small mountains (which are home to the temples we’re supposed to tour), you can’t help but notice that Fengdu lies on a sea of rubble. There is no greenery… the gray buildings blend with the gray carpet of broken concrete, which is in turn blanketed by gray fog. The residents of Fengdu don’t tend to their crops or work in the fields. They are helping take their city apart. Men and women are everywhere with hammers and chisels, breaking down buildings and taking apart stone minarets. Why they do it is anyone’s guess. I assume they’re paid, but why anyone wants to break down a city that will be underwater in two years, unless it’s for the raw materials, is beyond me.

Unfortunately, I decided to visit the temples for a bit. They were somewhat interesting, but we had so little time (1:30), that it would have been better spent exploring the city. To get to the temples, one can either hike or take a chairlift. I chose to save time by taking the lift. A quick 7 minute ride through bamboo shoots and over laborers gets one to the top. The temples themselves didn’t thrill me a great deal. I was more interested in photographing the locals at work. There were some interesting statues though. Demons, monsters and succubi keeping with the haunted theme of this place.

I only made it to the city with 25 minutes to spare. As you make your way up the dirt road that leads to the city, the mounds of rubble grow. Old women chip away while complaining to their husbands. Small children start small fires among the stones, occasionally wandering about in search of fresh tinder.

Couple working in rubble

Fengdu’s people hammer away at the rubble that surrounds them.

As barren and lifeless as Fengdu seems from afar, you begin to feel a pulse when you step into the shadows of its buildings. Reach the first intersection and the place comes to life. Traffic, both automotive and pedestrian, fills the narrow side streets. Walking down these streets and through the market, you come across the inhabitants, sitting around. Some are selling, but most are just socializing. It’s as though there’s not much else to do (aside from chipping away at concrete), so they sit around and wait for the Yangtze to rise.

The standard of living here is so alien that it is shocking. Their homes are literally crumbling around them, in some cases with the help of the people who reside in those same homes. The flood can’t come soon enough. This city is dying… a Ghost City.

It’s a long day tomorrow. Waking up early to catch the first of the Three Gorges. Then we’ll be taking a sampan to see the Lesser Gorges. I hope the fog doesn’t completely obscure everything.

Boy fishing for money

Children fish for money on the Daning.

1/24/03 – 1:25pm
Woke up early this morning (6:30) to catch the first of the Three Gorges. Nothing too spectacular. Hella windy though. We arrived at Wushan for the Lesser Gorges sampan excursion. I was debating whether to skip the sampan trip and explore the city instead. As someone pointed out, the Lesser Gorges will be gone in a year or two, so this will be my only chance to visit them.

Armed with that excuse, I decided on the boats, and instantly began to regret it on the bus ride through the outskirts of town to the Daning River. Several missed photo ops of course, and another crumbling city that looked all too inviting.

The Lesser Gorges journey was unremarkable, with three exceptions. First, we saw a man fall in the river. Second were the children who followed us along the river bank, wading out with long poles that had nets on the end… made to catch money from tourists. They’d snag some cash, then run upstream and wade out again to get more.

The final highlight of the trip was our navigator. Old, grizzled and blind in one eye, but friendly… He obliged us with a few songs while we were floating down the river.

1/25/03 – 8:31am
Last night was uneventful. We had the “Farewell Banquet”… replete with “sugar water” champagne, birthday gifts (for January birthdays) and cake. The cake made a WWE-style entrance, with the lights turned out and techno music blaring in the background. I skipped the post-dinner cabaret and read for a bit instead.

Three Gorges Dam

Oh boy. A dam.

Woke up at 5:30… seem to be waking up earlier each day. We disembarked and headed to Maoping (easy to remember: Mao + [Deng Xiao] Ping) to visit the dam facility. It’s finally raining steadily. I’m starting to think we lucked out with the weather the last few days. The dam visit wasn’t particularly thrilling… rain, cold and fog.

We reached Yanching, which was a very clean, decent-looking city. Unfortunately, this is where the boat group had to split up and head our separate ways. The TBI group piled onto a small bus for the 4 hour trek to Wuhan.

Our escort, Richard, arranged a meal stop for us in Shashi. This was my first real Chinese meal on the trip. Took long enough. Lotus root soup, beef, water chestnuts, bok choi, bread with bean paste, and supposedly chicken (but what some at the table suspect was dog). All pretty good. No complaints.

We parted ways with the 4 United guys in Wuhan. The drivers (in China) provide some comedy, as I may have mentioned in Beijing. No turn signals, excessive honking (even honking at someone after we’ve passed them), no seat belts (unless the cops drive by), and my favorite: driving in two lanes at once. I suppose driving in the middle of the road like that gives them the greatest tactical advantage when forced to choose only one lane to pass someone.

So, here we are, in the Wuhan airport. A Japanese guy from the boat showed up after paying 1000 Yuan for a cab ride from Yanching. Not bad for a four hour ride. When our escort to the airport (Dina) was about to leave, I asked her if we could have her contact info in case our flight was delayed/cancelled and we had a repeat of the Beijing incident. She insisted that it would be on time and bolted.

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai at night. So pretty.

It’s 6:15 — 15 minutes to original departure — and the flight’s been delayed. At least they announced that in English this time. Still, I see a pattern with these Chinese airlines. Looking at the board, 2 flights are boarding, 4 have been delayed and 2 have been cancelled. As of now, our delay is only 15 minutes, but I’ll wager we’ll be here a lot longer than that…

Amazingly, the delay wasn’t too long. Arrived in Shanghai… my goodness, the town is bright! Neon everywhere. The sky shines brighter at night here than it does in Vegas. Of course, here it’s all advertisements and billboards. I wandered out by the water for a while taking pictures tonight. We’re staying at the Peace Hotel. Very old, very nice, great location. 15 foot high ceilings in our room… crazy.

Tomorrow, we’re supposed to take an all-day tour of the city. Fuuuuuuck. I’d better not miss out on more photo ops because of this…

1/26/03 – 3:45pm
Holy shit, I threw up. In the Silk Factory. First time I’ve vomited in prolly 15 years. That’s all I feel like writing now. Oh, I might actually be able to catch the Super Bowl tomorrow at 6:30am. Let’s hope I survive the rest of the night, not to mention the flight home tomorrow…

Editor’s Note: Max recovered relatively quickly, without the help of his mother’s suggested vodka cure-all. He even managed to wake up in time to watch the big game, but alas, it wasn’t being shown. Max survived the flight home, marked once again by a Lisa Ling sighting (she was on assignment for Explorer). China made for an enjoyable trip, and some decent photos… but Max hopes that the next time he returns, he’ll be able to concentrate on exploring more of the culture, and avoid so many tourist activities… particularly visiting silk factories.

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