From Hong Kong Island take the green line on the subway, past Disneyland, to the Tung Chung terminal on North Lantau Island and there, for twenty bucks, you can enjoy a great ride for a half hour (or more) covering the distance of three and a half mile on the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car. The view is fabulous and, as we found out, the weather in Hong Kong (and the nature of the ride) can change very quickly. When we climbed into our “private” cable car the sky was cloudy. Within a few minutes we are in the clouds -- and soon in a thunderstorm. All the cabs are stopped and for fifteen minutes we are suspended in another world.
When we move again and arrived a bit late to NgongPingVillage we are greeted by the huge statue of the Tian Tan Buddha, also in the clouds.
Once the fog lifts we find ourselves in NgongPingVillage, where the giant Buddha shares the real estate with a mythical monkey, various souvenir shops and some fast food places. After a stroll and a bowl of soup at Zen Noodle we climb back into a cable car to enjoy the panoramic view on the way down. Below us one hardy soul is making the trip up by foot.
July 24: Hong Kong
We flew into Hong Kong this afternoon and proceeded uneventfully past the health team taking every passenger's temperature with remote thermometers. It’s good to be here. Honk Kong is very much a Chinese city despite the years of British rule. But, because of that history, it is also easier for us to be on our own. The subway is modern, clean, easily negotiable ... and equipped with very accessible western toilets. (By now such facilities are not taken for granted). The employees are friendly and speak English. During non-rush hours a passenger gives Jen his seat. During rush hour it’s not too different from the New York subway.
Although it is a crowded jumbo sized city, it also has an "open" feel as a consequence of its geography: the green hills, the ocean and, most of all, clear skies and puffy white clouds not seen since Tibet. This is a center of international commerce with a skyline punctuated by many skyscrapers dedicated to finance and trade. It is one of the world’s great ports; a place where a large proportion of the containers that reach our shores are loaded and shipped. (It is also a place where contraband e-waste from the U.S.A. is illegally unloaded from these same containers to further poison China's land, water and air).
A panoramic view of Hong Kong is impressive by day and dramatic by night. To capture this city photographically in a unique way would require stalking it for a long time. We only have a couple of days.
These are three pictures which I took. Since one can literally see thousands of similar photos on line, I post them mainly to share how I briefly experienced this modern metropolis. I attach a link to one of many anonymous panoramic shots. This one, taken from Victoria Peak, where I took the two night photos, provides a good contrast to them.
We are cruising down the Yangtze on the one day where it is the place to be to best see a complete eclipse of the sun. I had not know about this event when we booked our trip ... and our tour company never mentioned it. I cannot look at the sun, nor aim my camera directly at it. As I look over the water I see several boats filled with tourists waiting for the big astronomical event to occur around at 9 AM. Then, when it does, the darkening happens very quickly and the river and the mountains look quite magical in the dimming light.
Later in the day we travel in a sanpan to explore one of the tributaries of Yangtze. The water is clear and the view is unspoiled.
Sometimes while cruising down the Yangtze one is reminded of the scenery on Chinese scroll paintings. More often one is faced with the reality of the modern world: development and population pressure have turned this great river, and the land and air around it, into a garbage dump.
In 2007, BBC News reported on a study which estimated that the Yangtze, which account for approximately 35% of China's fresh water supply, was the receptacle for fourteen billion tons of waste.
Unfortunately it's not just what one sees on the surface. In 2006 The China Daily was very forthright in declaring the that "the Yangtze river is cancerous with pollution and rapidly dying, threatening drinking drinking water supplies in 186 cities along its banks, including Shanghai...." The same article reported that 300 million people in China do not have access to drinkable water.
I don't think that drinking more Pepsi will fix that problem.
Yesterday we flew from Lhasa to Chonqing to board the ship on which we will spend the next three nights and two days cruising down the Yangtze. It was then that I found out there will be a complete eclipse of the sun tomorrow. I was disappointed that our tour company did not mention this event in their correspondence with us or their tour literature. Not knowing this before leaving the United States I made no preparations to take pictures of it. I went to the ship’s cruise director to ask if the ship will sell suitable dark glass or exposed film to look at the eclipse. He informed me that that ship management was unwilling to provide any such material for fear of liability. I rationalized that photographing what happens on the ground during the eclipse might be more interesting than looking directly at the eclipse. But I was not happy about this turn of events.
Today I wake up early and I go on deck with my camera. I discover that Yangtze is quite scenic, especially at dawn.
In the morning we are taken by bus to visit one family relocated when their village was flooded as a result of the Three Gorges Damn Project. This happens to be a family which has made a new and quite successful life for itself. They own a nice apartment upstairs and have their own little convenience store below. Seeing one relatively successful family is of course almost useless data, but this particular village seems prosperous. The amount that each family has received from the government depended on their prior situation: the more land they owned and the larger the family, the more they got. These are also the families that were relocated early on. They have fared better than the more recently displaced families since the compensation amounts have not kept up with inflation in the price of new apartments.
It is evident as we walk through the village that the women take care of the stores (and the children) while the men are out farming or working in the factories. The atmosphere is one of modest prosperity and contentment. The people are, as usual, quite friendly. We are just the last of many tour buses that must stopped here before. I take a few pictures before we get back on the bus.
Encounter with Dr. Liu
In the afternoon the ship’s physician, Dr. Liu, gives a presentation on Chinese medicine that I attend. He ask for a volunteer and gets one willing subject who has upper back and neck pain very similar to the kind I get. My educated guess is that this is just the the sort of medical problem that a good massage and perhaps acupuncture can ameliorate. The volunteer is treated first to cupping, then acupuncture on his neck and back, followed by scrapping of an ointment on his back with a smooth piece of cow’s horn. The treatment is finished off with a fifteen minute back massage. At the end of the forty-five minute treatment the volunteer moves his neck left and right and claims to feel much better. He looks like a happy man. It is of course impossible to tell which, if any part of the treatment, has resulted in this felt improvement. At that moment I decide that I would like to experience this also in order to judge for myself. On the spot I make an appointment with Dr. Liu for later this evening.
After dinner I meet Dr. Liu in his small shipboard office. I tell him of my neck and upper back problem. After some polite chit chat he asks two questions in poor English: Where does it hurt? How long has it been hurting? He pokes around my neck and my back for about five minutes then sterilized the first acupuncture needle. He puts three needles in my upper back and one in he left side of my neck. Then he attaches wires to the four needles and connects these to a battery powered electrical devices that sends a pulsating currents to the four embedded needles. He positions a heat lamp and directs it toward my upper back and proceeds to read his newspaper for the next twenty minutes. We talk in short sentences while he removes the needles and applies a turpentine and camphor based ointment to my backs and proceeds to scrape away for about ten minutes. Then he massages my back and neck for twenty minutes. When all is done an hour later I can turn my neck left and right in a way that I have not been able to do for months. I thank him and we make an appointment for a second session tomorrow.
Chongquing Harbor at night
When I return from my treatment by Dr. Liu, Jen and I go upper deck to watch the boat traffic and the lights in the Chongqing harbor where we are anchored for the night.
Although we do not venture much beyond Lhasa, where one can see a billboard advertising Hummer cars, this part of our trip is the most exotic. We are far from home, geographically and culturally. All around there are signs of the unique Tibetan culture ... a large pot with burning incense in the marketplace, colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind on top of houses and buildings, and people in distinctly non-western dress. (At the same time the cowboy-style hats worn by the natives to protect them from the sun give the place an "old west" feel.)
It is a very poor country where customs which seem bizarre or even gruesome at first begin to make a lot of sense upon reflection.
In a village we visit outside of the city of Lhasa we can see piles of yak dung molded into various forms to be used as fuel in the winter: a sensible practice in a poor country where firewood and other fuels are scarce or expensive. Jen points out that Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C., commented on this practice in antiquity.
We also spot from a distance a large rock used for "burial." We are told about, but do not witness, the Tibetan customs of sky burial. When Tibetans die their bodies are cut into small pieces and placed outdoors for the vultures to eat. When one realizes that burial under the ground is out the question because of permafrost and that fuel for cremation is scarce, it turns out be a very practical custom.
July 19: Children
This morning we set out by bus to visit the De Ji orphanage. Each of us has brought a gift for the orphans. The first picture was taken right after the children were assembled in the courtyard to greet us.
The second picture, of a Tibetan mother and her little girl, is one I took on our way to Barkhor Bazaar yesterday. That one is “posed:” some of the people on our tour had stopped to admire a Tibetan child. Both she and the mother were enjoying the attention as we clicked and clicked.
July 18: Bakhor Bazaar
Today we visit Bakhor Bazaar. It remains a showplace of Buddhist culture and religious expression in the old section of Lhasa, near our hotel. Throughout our tour our guides make a big point of emphasizing contemporary Chinese tolerance for religious expression -- as long, of course, that it does not challenge the power of the State.
Buddhism in Tibet, like all religions, has supported ignorance and wasted human energy in the perpetuation of mind numbing rituals; for centuries it has enshrined a privileged priestly class. But in the hierarchies of human stupidity and cruelty Buddhism is a lesser offender than the religion of Communism as practiced under Mao Zedong. The soldiers who stand guard everywhere, as hundreds of American tourists, wander in the marketplace are a testament to contemporary China’s hunger for the resources and land of others.
I like the first picture a lot. It captures a modern Tibetan woman, stylish, yet traditional. She has prayer beads in one hand, a cell phone in the other and the ever popular Chinese “swine flu mask” dangling from her ear. Two of the soldiers standing guards are seen in the background.
July 17: Arrival in Lhasa, Tibet
We fly in from Chengdu and arrive in Lhasa in the early afternoon. Prior to our departure and on the way from the airport we have received our instructions from our tour leader: 1) Tibet is part of China. 2) Don’t take pictures of the Chinese soldiers you’ll see on the streets, under penalty of arrest. 3) If anyone wants to give you a written message to take back to President Obama, don’t take it. If you do, it will end the tour and make it difficult for our tour company to ever lead tours in Tibet.
While I’m adapting to the new altitude, the first point somehow clashes with the fact that our Tibetan local guide spends much of the one hour bus trip from the airport trying to teach us new ways of saying “hello,” “thank you,” “how are you?” and “very, very well, thank you.” Bye bye to “ni hao” and “xie xie.”
But the most remarkable thing at this point is that we can see the sun, the blue sky and the big white billowing clouds. In truth we have left China and are now in the occupied territory of Tibet. Soon our bus halts and we are herded out briefly for one of those dreaded “Kodak moments,” then quickly back on the bus since we are parked illegally by the side of the road. Into the sun I shoot a few hurried shots at a herd of yaks. The results are not great, but when will I ever do that again?
We fly to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province for one purpose: to see the inhabitants of the large panda preserve. From our bus window the city appears to be another sprawling urban area with look alike buildings crowded together. Given the heat and smog there is minimal desire to get out of the bus to see the city, even if we had the choice. According to our guide Chengdu is known for its many fine restaurants; a major form of entertainment is eating out. (Our food that evening is fine but nothing compared to the wonderful meal we will have later in the trip at the hotel in Wuhan.)
The Chengdu and Woolong panda preserves are the two major tourist shrines where one can see large numbers of pampered pandas in captivity. There are about 1000 pandas left, most living in Sichuan province. Breeding, in or out of captivity, seems to be one of their two big problems. The other is humans who want to kill them.
These two shots are totally out of context. There was so much to see and do on this trip I did not think of focusing on food and how it is cooked. But someone could easily spend months traveling through China doing just that. This is my small contribution to the project. The first was shot in a market we visited somewhere along the Yangtze. The second in the kitchen of a Tibetan monastery. I would have much preferred to photograph the monks using the pots. Unfortunately we did not have that option.
The night before we stayed at a "farmer's house," a bed & breakfast in the community of Hu Xian. I didn't see many farmers in the village, or many men for that matter. My sense was that the women were the ones who maintained the community and managed the small shops and homes that have been converted to bed & breakfast joints for the tourists. The the men are away at work. If one has some means of support other than farming, such as the folk painter, whose studio we visited, then life is relatively good. Indeed, the people we met in this village seem well off by the standards of rural life in China. But we learn the next morning that the less affluent ones, the elderly, are mostly still residing in the old village.-- certainly more photographically interesting, but not a very desirable place in which to live. The children have escaped but the elderly are spending the remains of their lives in decrepitude. The extended family support network seems to have broken down as China leaps forward. Without safety nets growing old in a one child per couple society can be very unpleasant.
I took only one picture of the "boring" new village and a couple dozen of the old.
Note that the ever present haze is a main element in all these pictures.
A typical new home
One of the old homes, in good condition
This woman lives alone in the old village.
She is nearly blind.
Change of Pace: I'm taking a break from the chronological order
I've come to the conclusion that photography and tourism don't mix well. Photography, at least of a certain kind, requires the time to see. Tourism, particularly as part of a tour group, rushes people, forcing too many experiences in too short a time. So I looked at the photos I had taken on the last day of our China trip, when we were away from our tour guide and the other tour members. Yes, there is a difference. These two images are more in my style.
In my limited experience with tour companies, it seems that all of them manage to procure customers for local stores that purport to sell authentic native crafts, fairly priced. On this trip the luxury items included silk rugs, pearl jewelry, jade statues and lacquered furniture. At each store a few demonstration persons were toiling away, at some cost to their eyesight and posture, to satisfy the curiosity of the tourists. But the most important function of these shops, particularly in third world or hybrid countries like China, is to provide tourists with clean western toilets. Although, in China, most of the goods displayed in these showrooms were well beyond the means of the average tourist, a sufficient number of sales of the lower priced items seemed to keep these rest rooms in operations even in these hard economic times. The "lacquerware factory" also offered an interesting array of colorful patterns to photograph.
July 14 (Cont.): The English lesson
Every Chinese child is required to learn some English in elementary school. I don't how well enforced this rule is or how successful it will be. But it's clear that China places a high value on learning English and that it is an avenue to better jobs.
This evening we stayed at a bed and breakfast. At night there was music and dancing in the village square, with American tourists, including the "Student Ambassadors" group we had encountered at the night club, mingling and communicating with the locals. The language barrier is huge, but both Jen and I were approached by two Chinese teenagers who spoke quite good English. As noted earlier their main interest in the US was contemporary pop music and the NBA. The generation gap, more than language, seems to have been the major barrier to our communication.
Today in a sense is "the big day." We are seeing the famous Terra Cotta Army, one of the most impressive archeological discoveries of modern time. I realize that doing any photographic justice to this display, especially without a tripod is impossible. Yet the compulsion to shoot away along with thousands of other tourists, some of whom have in fact brought tripods, is irresistible. In a sense taking pictures of the Terra Cotta Army is redundant. One can buy any one of a dozen of books which pictorially document this remarkable discovery. The desire, to which I succumb, is, of course, to show and tell: I was there.
This failure to even begin to capture the phenomenon forces me to reflect on the functions of tourism and especially tourism in a police state like China. There are thousands of tourists all around us. They come from all over the world, but mostly from China and the United States. The vast majority, especially the Americans, who could not possibly negotiate this country on their own, are being managed by tour companies that are, wittingly or not, tools of a totalitarian regime. For China, American tourists are big business. They are also an important instrument of propaganda. So far on this journey (and on the rest of this trip) we have seen the sights that the government wants us to see. By Chinese standards we have been treated remarkably well. The hotels we stay at are luxurious. And in the lobby we are provided with an English speaking newspaper, the China Daily, which, gives us vivid accounts of the "Al Qaeda sponsored terrorists" in Urumqi who are disrupting the peace and forcing a benevolent government to kill them. I remind myself that I did not come to China just to be a tourist but to see for myself this so-called "communist country" which produces so much of the stuff we consume and in the process has become our ally in global pollution. Viewing the Terra Cotta Army is great. But seeing little bits of this behemoth, unfiltered, is even more interesting.
July 13 (Cont.): Dinner and night club
After seeing the Terra Cotta army we returned to Xian Garden, our very lovely hotel. At dinner time we were driven by bus to a large restaurant for what was simply described in the OAT literature as "cultural show and dinner." This was an understatement. The diner was very good and the show was a lot of fun. One thing I have learned on this trip is that the Chinese love colorful spectacles. (They do provide us with most of our fireworks). We were almost as well seated as we were the night of the opera and I was able to take many photos. This is just a small sample. The music was also interesting and the trumpet player was quite amusing. As the last picture indicates we were on what I like to think is the great tourist route. The "student ambassadors" were a touring group of young Americans. Our paths would cross again.