#6 – China’s Silk Roads

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Six different stories from China have been posted herein.  They are posted in reverse order, so if you desire to read them chronologically, you might wish to scroll all the way down and read them in reverse order.   Apologies for my lack of posting savvy in knowing how to reorganize them.  Remaining stories about my continued journeys along the Karakoram Highway toward Pakistan and about travel through northern Xinjiang to Altai/Russia and back to the Silk Road via Hami and Turpan have not yet been posted.


Back Tracking a Moment to Where I’ve Been and Setting the Stage for the West

Let me take just a moment to give you some sense of where I am and where I have been. Let’s draw a mental map juxtaposing the U.S. and China. China and the U.S. are similar in continental land mass size, though certainly not in population, wherein China weighs in at 1.3 billion compared to around 300 million for the US, a considerable difference. If we overlay the two maps, we could say I’ve zigged and zagged my way around the eastern coast and the Midwest, from the south to the north. That was the first part of my journey around inner China or Mainland China. The other half of China in the west is comprised largely of several provinces and two sizeable areas: the mountainous south formerly known as Tibet and a mostly desert north called Xinjiang (“x’s” are pronounced like “sh”). So after my exploration of the east, I then headed due west, traversing the east / west span of China to land in this northern quadrant of China officially called Xinjiang Autonomous Region (AR), one of several Autonomous Regions in China. AR’s are names given to those areas wrapped into China that are comprised of mostly culturally different, non-Han Chinese people. Tibet is another autonomous region, called Xizang Tibetan Autonomous Region to acknowledge the Tibetan people and culture, as is Inner Mongolia, but both regions are considered an official part of China and are not independent entities. The same is true for Xinjiang, which is far more like Central Asia than mainland China.


The Silk Road

The ancient Silk Road connected China to the Mediterranean via mostly camel caravan. It was yesteryear’s internet and eBay, all rolled into one. Just as there was no one Great Wall, there was also no single Silk Road, but rather a series of routes over deserts, mountains, and other challenging transit points. Goods and communication were transported by a vast array of camel caravans, doing segments of the journey. Caravans in one region would complete one leg of the journey and sell goods to another caravan, continuing this exchange and connecting disparate parts of the world. The entire route connected Eastern China to Rome, an unbelievable feat through unyielding terrain and often warring cultures.

It was the Silk Road that brought Islam into Buddhist China along routes that traversed Central Asia and Pakistan before spanning through the Middle East and touching in with Rome. In China, the Silk Road began in Xi’an (remember that “sh” sound), which we could say is perhaps the Chicago of China. Xi’an was an ancient capital of many Chinese emperors, but was also the historic city that linked East with West. I loved Xi’an, partly because I was finally able to escape the humidity and partly because it was terribly exciting to see the cultural mix where Islam literally meets Buddhism. I found Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter fascinating and was able to dive into my own vegetarian version of skewered, bbq’d vegetables while the rest dined on lamb.

Makeshift captions:  Xi’an Muslim Quarter by night:  Terra Cotta Warriors


From Xi’an west, the landscape begins to change, as eventual deserts take over the vast agricultural lands of eastern China. Towns ultimately become more sparse, situated around desert oases. I have flown, trained, and driven through part of this terrain and am awed when I transport myself back in time to the era of caravans.

In the West

Urumqi (“q’s” are pronounced like “ch”) is the capital of Xinjiang AR and has served as my tether point in the West. The city is hustling and bustling and is an intriguing cultural mix of primarily Han Chinese settlers and original Uyghur people (Wee gurr is the easiest way to give a sense of pronunciation for Uyghur), though it is also loaded with Mongols and other Central Asian peoples (think all those countries ending in “stan”). Xinjiang itself is split into deserts and mountains. Trending from north to south, picture first mountains, then a large desert basin (the Yanggar Basin in the western extension of the Gobi Desert), another range of mountains, another desert basin (the Tarim Basin of the Taklamakan Desert), and then more mountains continuing to give rise to the massive Tibetan Plateau (mostly Tibet) leading to the Himalayas. If that made any sense, you don’t’ need to pull out a map, though a map would make this lots easier. I’ll see if I can grab one from Wikipedia to insert in this post. Urumqi sits in the southern part of the first desert basin I described. North of Urumqi lie spectacular grasslands, more typical of what we might associate with nomadic Mongols or Kazakhs. I head there next week.

Red on map shows Xinjiang AR;  others give some sense of deserts and mountains


In order to experience more of this Muslim part of China and the Central Asian aspects of this region, I wanted to head down to another leg of the Silk Road, the Southern Silk Road. So driver, guide, and I headed south, crossing first through the mountains and passing through one of China’s large wind farms. We stopped at several regional towns/villages along the way and I, of course, have fallen in love with western China. This is a region of donkey carts and bazaars. All life takes place in the markets and bazaars where all items of exchange are displayed while donkeys, motorcycles, cars, and traditionally attired people walk the crowded paths to barter, socialize, flirt, and swat flies. It was one of those “other world” sorts of experiences, where I found myself walking amidst lambs on their way to new homes, children lulled to sleep by the hot sun sprawled on and under carts, and tired mules left to stand while the hub of humanity buzzed around them. At the same time, I was surrounded by colorful fruits, nuts, and vegetables, where sampling was encouraged and the juice of sweet melon ran down my arms.

Urumqi transportation;  bazaar scenes


While I had the camera in hand to capture images of those different from myself, I was more the object of stares. I passed no other westerners at the bazaar. In general, the people were exceedingly warm, allowing me to photograph them in all states of their market process. I have found that taking photos of a group of young boys is usually the way to break into a crowd. If I could engage them and show them their digital images, others were usually willing to be photographed. Wherever we stopped to enquire about an item for sale, the crowds immediately gathered to listen to the language of the tall foreign woman ! My guide said she would see me stop, momentarily seeing my shoes, and then within the next minute, couldn’t see my shoes at all since they were lost in a sea of local footwear. I could do little without her, however, since English was rare.

Bazaar scenes


The highlight of my time in the towns in the northern part of the Tarim Basin was meeting my guide’s family, who spent the day taking me to the local bazaars, buying vegetables and nan bread that they would later turn into one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in all of China. Being guest of honor amidst such a loving and beautiful family was an experience I will not top anywhere else on this trip. My guide is Uyghur, so meeting her family and visiting her home was an unexpected bonus on this trip. My meager gift of cookies for all of the awaiting children was a small offering for the experience I was given in return. I had been invited to spend the night with the family, an opportunity I was so looking forward to, but it seems their village was not one of the villages approved to host foreigners, so the overnight did not happen.

Proud Grandmother


The next day we began our journey across the Taklamakan Desert, fortunately by car rather than camel. We were blessed initially in that the day was overcast, protecting us from the relentless desert heat. But we were not able to escape the winds that harangue the deserts and move unfathomable amounts of sand and particulate across the landscape at random. I gained a profound appreciation for desert life. The sand is really a powder and no barrier prevents its entry. L’Oreal Mineral Powder cosmetic has nothing on the fine coating of dust that covered every exposed part of my body and more. The sandy powder coats one’s eyes and nostrils and covers everything in one’s possession with a fine film of powder. There were no rest stops along the five-hour route we took, so pit stops involved heading into the pummeling wind across the sands while a choking, fine blast of sand threatened to topple us over. I know now why desert women wear skirts and scarves.

The Desert;  a hut in the middle of nowhere (before the sandstorm !); stabilization grid.


But I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything, in spite of the screaming that went on inside my head, begging for the winds to stop and the sand to settle into otherwise beautiful dunes. My respect for the millions who have trod the desert paths throughout millennia increased multifold and I tried hard to grasp what it must have been like to be part of an endless procession of carts, carpets, and livestock crossing these vast spaces of nothingness, inhospitable in the best of circumstances and only marginally survivable under the worst. A highlight was seeing three wild camels emerge from nowhere and beat their way through the blowing sands. I could not imagine that any one spot was better than another, so wondered what mission called them to be roaming about in such winds. And I know our winds were mild compared to what the desert can dish out. Development of oil fields has brought life and asphalt to the Taklamakan, but its historic name of the “Death Sea” is still apt.

Camels shown are from the Gobi Desert

The end of the desert brought us to Hotan, one of the most vibrant towns along the route. We spent the day first at a silk factory, where I saw the making of silk, from the caterpillared capsules that are then boiled to extract the fine silk fibers to the tedious weaving by tired and dirty hands and feet. Adjacent is a silk carpet-making area, where looms and beautiful carpets tempted me, but neither budget nor luggage space could accommodate such extravagance, even at those prices. My guide knew of a hand-made paper-making place where the tradition of making paper from mulberry tree skins has been passed on for years.

Silk Spinning;  lovely girls at the bazaar


We will head out to the market bazaar soon, after a bit of an afternoon rest that allowed me to type up this brief sketch of some recent experiences. I am blessed with the best driver and guide who are giving me such an incredible taste of Xinjiang. Stay tuned, for the journey continues. Tomorrow we head to Kashgar in preparation for the largest regional market and a later taste of the mountains that separate western China from Pakistan.

Typical street and bazaar scenes


Onward To Kashgar

Heading west again across the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert wove us in and out of desert land, oases, and villages. I have not yet figured out how to describe villages and their constant hum of life, but suggest you imagine whitened-beige adobe walls surrounded by the green blessings brought forth by various streams and rivers draining north toward the desert from the Kunlun Shan Mountains of the northernmost edge of the Tibetan Plateau (ok, so that got a little bit too geographic in its detail !). The adobe walls are broken only by a single front door, which is really more a large gate leading into a courtyard, from which the various rooms of the dwellings fan out. Some doors are ornate metal in their Central Asian decoration, while others are of weathered, sagging wood. Glimpses in often revealed a woman with broom, a pantless child, or several chickens. I felt both compelled to peak, yet circumspect enough to avoid invasion of privacy. My camera, however, yearned always to stand in the doorway.

Many of these homes are also businesses, so one might find motorcycle repair in the front yard, peach sales by the road side, or a cooler with cold drinks outside another. Donkey carts and cars vie for space on the roads, children dart about, and women in headscarves work busily at one task after another. There is often music playing from a central loudspeaker, accompanied by braying and endless horn honking. This goes on for blocks, while males in hats stand in small man-groups discussing the business of men and other children slip naked into water ditches to cool themselves from the heat. The villages are old, parched by poverty and desert, but remain Old World vibrant and exciting.

Our village interludes were interlinked by what I would call one of the worst roads in China (though I know it is not). It was paved, but pocked and bouncier than any four-wheel road I’ve experienced. Women who travel this road gain a bra size within the first hour, and not in a pretty sort of way ! Our mini, mini-van didn’t have the best shocks in the world, so about ten hours of this did not leave me blessing China’s division of road engineering. It was interesting to note, however, that a partial new road was being prepped parallel to our two-lane to make the frenzied road jockeying without rules a bit less hair raising with separated directional lanes. I know it is not easy to maintain roads under harsh desert conditions, but this was not the total desert crossing of our previous journey across the “Death Sea” and this was a heavily traveled commercial route that surely has already cost thousands of truck drivers their lower backs and kidneys.

Our last stop before Kashgar was Yengisar, knife-making center of Xinjiang. All the knives were handmade, adorned with decorative handles of metal (some precious metals, even), bone, or antler. I could not think of any one of my family or friends who might enjoy a 10-inch animal skinning knife as a gift, decoration or not, so passed on a purchase, much to the dismay of the expectant shop owner. Apologies if I forgot about someone’s special interests.

Kashgar itself is the second largest city in Xinjiang. Because this region lies at Xinjiang’s extreme western edge, it has been a melting pot of cultures from Uyghur, Kirgiz, and Kazakh to Tajik, Uzbek, Hui (Muslim Chinese) and Han settlers. It is the crossroads of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, each having crossed different desert parts to meet in Kashgar before taking other Silk Road routes through Pakistan or Central Asia. Kashgar holds Xinjiang’s largest mosque (and probably China’s largest), but a mere 40 km away lies the Three Immortals Cave, an 1800-year-old relic of Buddhism.

Kashgar Welcome sign;  Id Kah Mosque


Kashgar is known for its Sunday Market, especially the Livestock Market, wherein thousands of animals are brought to the market by certain families, via truck, cart, or hand led, and go home with other families, save the unfortunate few who found themselves on skewers to feed the hungry masses of traders. The market is one of the largest in the region, so large I gave up on seeing it all. I knew the livestock part would be hard for me to witness, and it was. Animals are the mainstay of these people, providing food, transport, and hide. I tried hard to push my Western precepts out of the way and was mostly successful, but do recall giving one man a less than pleasant look at his neglect of a gagging lamb in a too-tight tether (it is common to loop one rope around the continuous necks of many sheep, such that if one tugs in a different direction, it tightens the rope around the one next to it). My friend/driver politely pointed out the man’s errant way, and the rope was loosened. My look didn’t endear uninvited Westerners, however, and I wisely opted to keep my camera momentarily at rest (photo image is of a different man and his sheep).

The market is sectioned off into different animal types, divided only by the various groups of seriously examining and bartering buyers and sellers. The sheep are first and most plentiful, given mutton is the primary food of the entire AR. Goats, cattle, donkeys, and horses round out the rest of the livestock portion of the market, with donkeys and horses taken for test drives much like a car from the BMW showroom floor. Successful buyers pack, tie down, tether, and carry their new purchases homeward, amidst a cacophony of brays, moos, bleats, and horns. It was disturbing to see how carelessly and casually the livestock were handled, given the role these animals play in the lives of the people. Animals stood tied awkwardly and uncomfortably in the beating sun, panting and submissive in their fate.

On the other hand, I knew I was witnessing an ancient market tradition, one that was the lifeblood of the people and had allowed for their survival for thousands of years. Sweet melon, kabobs, and watermelon fed the enterprising crowds, and boys became men as they sold their first goat or helped aging fathers round up stray donkeys who had escaped amidst the bargaining.

I wish I had time to visit the Tajik village in Tashkorgan Tajik Autonomous County, where wild animals are revered and never killed, domestic animals are never beaten or kicked, and horseback riders never ride through the middle of a flock of sheep. Tomorrow we are to venture up into the spectacular Pamirs toward this Tajik region, so possibly I will have a taste of this experience with some of the lower lying Tajik people, often called the Eagles of the Highland.

Xinjiang continues to be a remarkable place. I would love to experience a full year of seasons amidst its beauty, watching the golds and reds of Autumn overtake the green oases and grasslands, seeing snow blanket the mountains and their otherwise resplendent valleys, and witnessing the re-emergence of life with the Spring pulse. I will never forget the people of the south, in their hats and head scarves, lips breaking into smiles, eyes already narrowed by years of sun, and skin weathered and toughened by arid skies. I find their tenacity, their vibrancy, and their warm pragmatism endearing.

After this time on the Southern Silk Road, we return north to Urumqi, where the plan is to visit just a bit more of the Northern Silk Road before heading northwest through the grasslands toward Kazakhstan, where Mongol and Kazakh herders dot the grassy and wild-flowered landscape with yurts and livestock.

The following are images from stories not yet written.

Journey up the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan;  Kyrghiz family and yurt


Grasslands of northern Xinjiang, land of Mongol and Kazakh nomads


Kanas River and Reserve, Altai, border area of China/Russia;  sunflower fields of northern Xinjiang


Kazakh camel;  Hami (note architectural blend of Islamic and traditional Chinese influences)


#5 – The Great Wall

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The Great Wall had not been high on my priority list, but I am certainly glad I had the opportunity to visit it, for it was a much more meaningful experience than I thought it would be.

Actually, there is no ONE Wall, but rather many segments of walls built at different times to fend off different warring neighbors. This 5,660 km miracle rides the ridgeline through deserts, grasslands, and mountains. Begun around the 7th Century BC, the various sections were unified by the Great Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the same emperor who had the terra cotta army constructed to protect him in his afterlife.

To be able to actually see stone rather than just a sea of multi-colored T-shirts and the accents that go with them, I was driven for three hours outside of Beijing to visit less touristy parts of the Wall. My recently reconstructed achilles tendon wasn’t up for the task of strenuous treks in more challenging parts of the Wall, so I did a portion of the Wall at Simitai.

Underemployed farmers are today’s first line of defense surrounding the Wall. They are very poor and rely on almost bludgeoning the tourists with their for sale souvenirs. It is their livelihood, but from the moment you debark your bus or car, you are beset with catcalls: “Lady, Gleat Wall T-shilts,” “Ice Cleam,” “hats.” If you so much as make eye contact, you’ve lost.

I made it through the gauntlet of hawkers and soon found myself on a magic carpet ride up the mountainside. I don’t usually like gondolas or cable cars and tend to avoid them, but close to 100 degree heat/humidity and a stiff vertical climb were good motivators and I found the gondolas looking mighty fine. I rode partway up the mountain and was quickly captivated by the beauty of the sprawling green hills and farmland spanning most of the area.

The cable runs very slowly, so the ascent took about 23 minutes, taking me closer to portions of the Wall and its towers. I “oohed” and “ahhed” to myself and snapped away. Not only was the Wall captivating as it came in and out of viewing range, but so was the valley below with its terraces of corn and other crops. Corn is the local staple, grown as a dryland crop without irrigation, and little plots were strategically placed anywhere a farmer had been able to carve out sufficient semi-horizontal space for planting. It looked amazingly healthy. I marveled also at China’s effectiveness at stabilizing the hillsides with the small plugs of plant material drilled into the rock. In time this root system should help anchor the quickly eroding mountainsides.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) the gondola car does not go all the way up the mountain to the Wall itself, so one must endeavor and sweat to earn the right of passage. I dismounted the still-in-motion gondola quickly, since it neither slows nor stops for mere mortals, much like the cars, busses, and taxis in city traffic. If I wanted to make anything more of this experience, I needed to start climbing straight up, which I did. Within minutes I was a dripping mass and my knees were quivering. The steps and concrete of the pathway were irregular as they zigzagged up very vertical cliff faces, crowned by Wall and towers high above me.

Some of the more fit tourists flew by me, but most found themselves clinging to the rocksides or chain railing gasping for breath, faces flush with sweat and fingers puffy from whatever it is that happens to our bodies in this process of prolific exertion and dehydration. I finally succumbed to one of the locals. They are surely cousins to the hawkers and they hang out in the shade playing cards (one of the most common pastimes in rural areas), waiting for wobbly, panting tourists to struggle by, whereupon they suddenly appear at your side and become your best friend. It’s hard, if not impossible, to shake them off. Ignoring them doesn’t help and because outrunning them would be like escaping from a Sherpa on the way to Everest, they are yours for the duration. The expectation is that on the descent, you will buy souvenirs hidden in their little rucksacks, but those not forewarned by Lonely Planet or some other source are unaware of the philandering that awaits them and the inescapability from the photo books, fans, and little ceramic replicas of the Great Wall. You might even be fortunate enough to buy the very fan that was used to keep you alive on your ascent.

So I was followed up the route to the Wall, fanned at intervals and chatted to at others. My local was actually a delightful woman, mother of two, married to a poor farmer (who could just as easily have been playing cards in the shade rather than out tilling corn, for all I knew). I made it to the top finally, proud of my aging prowess, in spite of my not having tackled a more strenuous course.  I arrived at Tower 8, climbed the Wall down to 7 and then up to 9. The views were breathtaking and the magnitude of the achievement of the Wall really sunk in.

As a reflection of Chinese ingenuity, the Wall was built of local materials by local workers to maintain easier regionalized quality control and troubleshooting. For the most part, it was constructed of stone, usually granite. Some of the more desert, westernmost parts of the wall, however, are made of rammed earth and a straw-like material encased in a stucco/mud. Dimensions and styles of the Wall and its watchtowers vary greatly depending on locale. Multi-storied towers dot the eastern sections, while turrets are more common in the more deserty west. Some towers served as message centers (fire and smoke signals), while others served as warehouses. Certain Wall widths were wide enough to accommodate 5 horses or 10 soldiers abreast. Think about that, given some sections were built literally on razor-point edges with nothing but steep drops on either side. One western part of the Wall is inscribed with Chinese characters that say “Formidable pass under heaven.” That’s an apt statement.

Other sections espouse unusual building styles, driven by need mostly. The Simitai section I climbed contains single and double walls, some trapezoidal in shape to keep them stable atop a precarious ridge. One section sits on such a razor-sharp edge that is narrows to what is called “Sky Ladder.” A nearby section is made of stone bricks, etched with dates and code numbers of the armies who made them.

There are segments of the Wall that include great stone temples, battlements, barracks, and even moats, all looking “formidable and elegant at once,” as one of the souvenir books I was suckered into buying says. At places, the Wall stands proud at 17 meters (yes, that’s meters, not feet) and towers were placed strategically at 60- to 200-foot intervals, enabling observers to sight oncoming trouble and reinforcements to shift from segment to segment with ease. Invaders simply could not penetrate or climb the massive Wall, rendering the aggressors largely ineffective at maneuvering horse troops or armies into those protected regions of dynastic China.

I cannot conceive of how the building materials were kept in supply and portered to such inaccessible heights and locations. There must have been armies of workers camped on the hillsides, all needing not only stone to set, but food for sustenance. How this was choreographed is sufficient miracle in and of itself.

In centuries past, untold blood was shed at this impenetrable snake-like fortress. Today, however, it lies like a true crown on China’s head. It is China’s special dragon and it lures millions to its essence. Photographers long to capture a part of this dragon, hoping their lens will make it even more magical than it already is.

#4 – Beijing Airport 5 July, while the US celebrates the 4th

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In order to spice up this otherwise pictureless (foodless) story, I’ll insert some random images, mostly from Beijing, Shanghai, and the Central Asian west.


Up at 4:00 AM to catch a taxi to the T3 Beijing airport, I was rattled when I walked into a seething early-morning mass of people the approximate size of a small country, all vying for space at check-in counters.Not one attendant in sight, I had no idea where to check in amidst the total chaos.Counters were numbered J1 or K23 and it was clear I didn’t want to spend an hour fighting for space only to land at the check-in for southerly Shanghai when I was heading to the west.

China has not learned the concept of queuing/lining up, so it’s always a mass rush for any door, passage, or entrance.If you are not quick on your feet, you will be left behind;age, pregnancy, and load of packages make no difference in any way.Pushing and shoving is the norm.  When I finally figured out what seething group of people to get behind (it was a lucky guess, actually, but I was fully prepared to make quite a public scene had I not struck upon an agreeable agent), I was rammed, my feet were run over with luggage carts, and I spent over an hour using my height and elbows as moderately effective tools in keeping my place in the inching-forward mass.I was surprised when a real yelling match took place in the line next to me.Upon occasion, someone desperate for a cut into the front would work her/his way forward, beseeching admission into the invisible center of the group. In this airport, folks further back actually got belligerent at those trying to cut in (a procedure that would be commonplace anywhere outside of newly-learning-manners-in-prep-for-the-Olympics Beijing), and a yelling match would ensue.

When I finally got my turn at the counter, I was given a ticket and told something like “nuh gah.”  I asked where I needed to go and got “nuh gah’ again, accompanied by a broad gesture in one direction.  The man next to me pushed me aside and thrust his paperwork into the hands of the agent and I no longer existed.I gave up and started walking in the direction of the gesture, only after I had fought my way back through the waiting crowds whose educational efforts at queueing had become largely non-existent.I saw no overhead signs that were of any help and wandered unsuccessfully for a long while in quest of “nuh gah.”  In a rare moment of footwear absence, I found signage on the floor, saying, “Domestic check-in,”with arrows for different gates. There was no gate number on my ticket, so there I stood, at a directional center of the universe, with no clue as to what gate beckoned me.  And then, in a flash of brilliance, I finally figured out that “nuh gah” probably meant “no gate.”(Our expectation that everyone should speak some English is a bit absurd, isn’t it, but I found myself angry at a people unable to accommodate MY needs.)  A desperate check-in at a now-visible Info area revealed I was correct in my translation arts and sent me on the way through a security check-point.I then inquired about a gate at another Info desk, amidst a flock of angry travelers.Someone sort of pointed to a big electronic board, which I then found posted gate numbers.  Elation.  Forty-five minutes later and time for boarding, however, no gate was posted.  This was getting fun.

I went back to another hostile crowd at the Info booth and asked again for information. The Info person was not able to help, but a kind passenger stepped up and offered to translate.Seems my flight had been delayed for another 2 hours;  no one had bothered to enter that info on the electronic display board wherein I could have spared my feet (with backpack) those 45 minutes of standing.I checked the board periodically;it took more than one hour after the original departure time for the board to finally show an updated time.“Delayed” was not an option.If you were one of the lucky ones with delayed flights, you simply waited for corrected information, usually until several hours after the purported departure. It was so totally frustrating to be in an airport and have no idea where to go.It was not like the comfort of home where I could have at least headed to a certain concourse used regularly by my airline. I was clearly pouting a bit.

So there I sat.  Well, that’s not totally true.  Hungry, I tried to find food.  It was in very limited supply, unless I wanted coffee, a ham sandwich, or a $7 bottle of water.There were no snack shops (unlike our Western airports stocked full of nuts, candies, and any imaginable food for our hefty travelers), but the Olympics souvenir shops were loaded, if I wanted a pin, a mug, or a shirt for an event that was still over one month away.  I had to settle for orange juice in frozen yoghurt with those little multicolored sugar bits on the top.And I had to buy that if I wanted to find a place to sit down comfortably.

Having nursed the TCBY yoghurt as long as possible, making sport out of sucking up each colored bit of sugar through the straw as I calmed my frustration, I wandered off for other seating.I found some distant gate area, though not my own gate since that was still an unknown.  It took a while to find a seat since most of the rows of seating were occupied by sleeping men, stretched in full abandon, giving themselves over to the land of snores and dreams.

I had a long while to go still in my wait, since the OJ slurping had only clocked in at about 17 minutes, in spite of my efforts to look fully engaged in my task under the watchful eyes of TCBY security.I hoped we would be able to take off at the newly scheduled time at the unknown gate.  I have to admit to being greatly tempted to just catch the first flight to anywhere.  The crowds had been harrowing and the inefficient AC in that section of the airport had sent my hair limp again.

I suppose I should not complain overly much, however, since I did find wifi, something I had not been able to connect to during my entire time thus far in China (have had to physically plug in via cable).  It was a bit sporadic, but functional, allowing me to wile away some challenging time.I really had no idea if the flight would happen or not that day, having heard that flights to some of the less common areas could be cancelled at whim, either due to someone’s decision or dust storms, and I was heading in that sort of direction.The thought of making my way back into Beijing for another night or day of sweltering heat and humidity was almost worse than the thought of wandering aimlessly around a mostly foodless airport for the next 24 hours.

But a gate number finally appeared on screen and I headed that way.There was a bit of a mob at the gate, so I assumed I’d missed one of those “Now boarding passengers in rows 32 through 54” announcements.Ha !Instead I landed myself back in a sea of shoving and yelling.Seems there was one angry contingent on one side of the gate area, vocalizing their complaints to some poor agent in front of a computer.I hope she wins Olympic Gold, because I did not know it was humanly possible to stare at a computer screen for so long in avoidance of an angry surrounding mob.Her focus was amazing, though she may have been reading an on-screen version of Les Miserable in Mandarin for all I knew.The mobs pushed and shoved.Carts are readily used to haul luggage around the airport (a nice feature AND they are free, not requiring one to fumble for quarters like in the West), but amidst a melee, carts leave one bruised and battered and allow for feeble little old ladies or reckless teens to ram their way closer to the front of the crowd.

Other parts of the waiting group jeered back at the initiating group and rather heated yelling matches ensued.I have no idea what it was all about, but sensed some ethnic tension (which could have been totally imaginary and prompted by the fact that I was heading into the ethnically diverse part of China) and anger over what were probably cancelled flights from last night’s storm.This group must have felt that yelling at the agents and one another would make the plane appear more quickly.It seemed as if part of the yelling was suggesting the possibility of not enough seats, so that made me hesitant to leave the crowd and sit out the free-for-all.Silly me.I lost my power of positive thinking amidst the heat and instead stood for another hour (without benefit of battering ram cart) trying to figure out just what might be going on.

There were announcements, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them, since haranguing the agents was more fun.The announcements played like “Ang shing goon flah ba lah…” anyway, and those were the ones in English.It was incredibly frustrating to stand there amidst all of the conversation, be it yelling or shouting, and not understand a word.I vowed to learn every language in the world at that moment, so I would no longer travel through countries where I felt cut off from genuine communication, let alone from important logistical information, “nuh gah” not withstanding.I thought of my handy little book of phrases that was tucked away in my already-checked-in backpack.Another English speaker had snaked his way to where I was to ask if I had any idea what the ruckus was all about.I gave him my take on things and he said the scenario was not uncommon.

And then suddenly, Moses parted the waters, and the crowd moved forward toward the ramp.I wasn’t certain if they had just broken through or if this was a legitimate progression, but we decided to move forward with the group.Eventually someone actually took our tickets and we were allowed passage down to the awaiting plane.

And then once again, the Air China plane was guided through the skies by beautiful ladies, hair and makeup perfectly done and skills as gracious as one could ever ask for.Another meal appeared, either because this was part of the regular service or because this was to appease us in the tardiness that had cost us all a missed breakfast and lunch.And once again a vegetarian dish was available for me, something that has never happened on Western airlines unless ordered well in advance (and even then it could be iffy).My meal was marked “Muslim meal,” a reminder that I was heading into a different part of this amazing country.

I had noticed on all Air China flights that food was served almost immediately upon takeoff, most likely to fill the bellies and send everyone off into sleepy land, which seemed to work based on the “zzzz’s” and open mouths I saw throughout the plane.It’s not a bad strategy and one that perhaps should have been used at the gate !

I don’t know what the Beijing airport is typically like.Had the previous night’s storm with all of the flight cancellations been the cause of the debauchery or was wiggling and maneuvering through initial check-in lines common?My original transfer at the same airport a month earlier had been flawless and devoid of people, as I recall writing.Well, now I know they were all in a different section of the airport.I don’t see how the airport will cope with the masses coming in for the Olympics (there are actually three airports all adjacent to one another apparently).There was little foreign language guidance, not a single visible airport attendant on the floor anywhere to guide someone to the correct line, and the volumes of people made it close to impossible to read signage.But I am just now struck with the realization that my baggage was indeed waiting for me on the carousel on the other side of the country, an accomplishment often underachieved in Western airports.

While used sparklers and spent firecrackers dotted American streets, my adventure in “Central Asian” China had begun.


The following photos are just snaps taken later on the streets of Urumqi, western multi-ethnic China.  Stories to follow in next post.


#3 – Hubei Province: The Yangtze and The Three Gorges

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I sit presently on the upper deck of our ship, cruising the Yangtze River, while steep, wetted rock walls embrace our path along this green river and waterfalls toss themselves down the cliff sides in narrow ribbons of white against black and white walls covered in clinging green. We are in the Three Gorges area and it is indeed magical. We are above the now infamous, though not yet fully operational, Three Gorges Dam, where already rising water has flooded the river valley in its quest to become a 385-mile-long reservoir that has tamed an otherwise wild river.

The arrival to the River was less pleasant than other segments of the journey. A long train ride on what was definitely NOT one of China’s finest found me in soft sleepers, this time 4-person berths with compartment doors that actually can be closed. None of the lights worked, the bedding had been used multiple times, the squat toilet areas were a fright, and the kitchen was of such concern that we all opted for packaged food. Seems there are considerable variations in trains, even though I was in the best compartment with the soft sleeper ticket rather than the previous hard sleeper of 6 berths and no compartment door (then there is hard seat, which is no more than benches – a difficult way to travel on overnight journeys and one that finds passengers sleeping in piles on floors anywhere possible). Ah, spoiled I had been by earlier railed transport. Though “No Smoking” signs abounded, they were totally ignored by staff and passengers as ash flicking on the carpeting within one’s cabin seemed to rival card playing as the best pastime.

Each compartment does come equipped with a thermos, which will actually keep water hot for hours. So there we have a trade off: marvelous thermos on lousy train. But passengers and hundreds of thermoses all arrived safely at our destination, so all was not lost.

Travel through the countryside continues to amaze me. Even as a Geographer, I had not grasped the extent of agriculture in China. I have only traveled so far through the temperate southern provinces that are sandwiched between the Li and Yangtze River Valleys, but I just don’t know when I’ve seen so much continuous green. I think I had expected more isolated groups of farming villages, not the seemingly uninterrupted agricultural endeavor that is the mainstay of this amazing country.

Agriculture is always tidy and organized in neat rows and small plots of a variety of produce. While I have not seen vast amounts of farm product prepared for transport to elsewhere in the country, it must be. I have only seen it flood into different local markets and onto street stands and carts, where it somehow disappears with the passage of the day. The volume of produce grown and consumed is beyond imagination, but makes sense when understanding that it is the mainstay for China’s 1.3 billion people (estimates run as high a 1.6).

I arrived in Yichang, a bustling hub of 4 million people. I headed into the local supermarket, and it was indeed a supermarket a la western style (with a few live fish to top things off), to stock up on snacks and fruit for the cruise. Each department in the market had numerous attendants, and had I known a bit more Mandarin, my label reading could have been enhanced by their knowledge. Were it not for the occasional label photos, I would have been totally lost.

Those bound for the cruise then boarded a small bus for our one and a half hour drive to our awaiting ship. The route took us through yet more farmland, even though we are now approximately 1500 km inland. It is still green everywhere and we have not yet escaped the humidity, a fondness for which I’ve never quite acquired. We passed through towns big and small, as people, dogs, occasional beasts of burden, and an array of motorized vehicles from scooters, to trucks, to what looked like lawnmowers with buggies all turned themselves lose on the asphalt in a frenetic display of daring and skill.

We boarded the ship at night and set sail around 10:00 PM (22:00 – how I have come to appreciate the logic of this much more useful system of time). I felt rather childishly excited to think I was sailing the Yangtze, river of legends.

So I have now caught up to where I began this entry, from the decks of the ship. It has rained on and off, leaving bands of mist to dance along the cliff sides in constantly changing patterns. We spent the morning in the first gorge, Xiling Gorge, wherein we transferred from our larger cruiser to a smaller boat to navigate the Xiangxi tributary. Several hours upstream, we debarked and boarded very small 18-person wooden boats, manned by 6 rowers (four bow and two astern). These rowers stand, rowing with single oars that look more like planking than oars. One stands on the bow with a bamboo pole, prodding the bottom when near the shallows, while the captain mans the back oar that is both tiller and oar. It’s a tradition that is centuries old.

When we reached an area too shallow for the oars, four of the oarsmen hopped into the water, donning cane-woven rope and harnesses, wherein they began the even older tradition of tracking, pulling the boat upriver through treacherous rapids or shallow waters. As they struggled for footing in the waters, I was reminded of a video I show in my classes that reveals early 1900’s loin-clothed, sinewy “trackers” climbing high on the cliff sides, perhaps a hundred of them, all roped together, bent nearly horizontal in a slow motion lunge as they drag along whatever ship would not make it upriver on its own accord. If one were to slip and fall, which obviously was not uncommon in this misted land, the others were obliged to cut his ropes, sending him to death down the cliff and into the river. I was surprised that remnants of this mode of passage still exist.



We cruise now along the second gorge, Wu Gorge, created by jagged peaks with names such as Goddess Peak. Its banks are lined with farms, clinging like vines to hillsides seeming untillable. Coal mining has been the economic mainstay of this area, several mines of which have been recently dismantled and abandoned in preparation for the full activation of the dam and the filling of the reservoir. Some of these mines will find themselves submerged, a disturbing thought to environmentalists worldwide. But evidence of rather thoughtful dismantling was apparent.

The third gorge, Qutang Gorge, was as spectacular as the others and is the narrowest of the three. Sadly, many of the historic sites, inscriptions, and all have been submerged, drowning thousands of years of maritime history.

I will write a much longer story for publication about the River at a later time, but here is an encapsulated version of the River and the controversial dam. In order to control flooding and provide hydroelectric power generation, China has for decades looked for ways to tame the Yangtze. Needing a suitable location with just the right contours and geology, the task did involve extensive analysis. It seems the hard, granitic composition of the mountainsides near Yichang provided the best option. The problem was the proximity to the famed and beautiful Three Gorges, whose rugged narrowness made them one of China’s national treasures. Just how their flooding and the subsequent rise in water level would affect these gems was of enormous concern. But the project is now one year from completion and is hailed as the world’s largest dam.

The River has been tamed, much to the dismay of many, even to many Chinese, mostly because of the enormous environmental impacts. But that awaits another story. The project itself is impressive and involves a dam not so massive in height as some of the Western US dams, but certainly massive in width, at what was originally designed to be 1.3 miles. Upon seeing the span, however, I have found that its touted width is broken by several sections of carved-out land. A five-lock canal system operates much like the famed Panama Canal, allowing for major barges and ocean-going vessels to travel up river in about five hours. No such provision was made for the imperiled sturgeon fish, however, which are currently bussed upriver due to nonexistent fish ladders. A lift (small boat elevator) is scheduled for completion by 2012.

Looking merely at the achievement this dam represents, China is certainly to be applauded. It is an engineering marvel whose costs rolled it at $27 billion. Our cruise was comprised of mostly Chinese tourists, both a statement about increasing Chinese wealth and about the fame of this project and the Gorges.

The tour of the dam itself was a let down and I was laughed at when I asked if there was not a component that included viewing the massive French turbines. Apparently security is a big factor and no flights are allowed over the area for a broad distance. Our belongings were x-rayed upon park admission. I call it a park because it was really more a monument to the achievement rather than an explanation of the science behind it all (note the at-least 10-foot-tall book sculpture that was more of a photo draw than the dam itself). A viewing area held a massive display model of the whole project and other sites had viewing points of the dam itself, dotted with an environment garden touting the accomplishments of this project, including how it will significantly improve the overall environment. This latter concept is a bit lost on those of us who have studied the extinction of a dolphin species, the submerging of unexplored archeological sites dating back to some of China’s earliest history, the major problem of sediment load, and endless other consequences of damming the world’s third longest river (Nile, then Amazon).

But this is part of China’s development and it has already brought promise to a previously more isolated interior. That it has flooded out the livelihoods and homes of 1.3 million people so far is part of the ongoing history. Relocation has brought about some unexpected benefits and probably helps the young more than the old, who have lost their ancestral history.

But I have run out of time for more details. Our ship has since landed and I have finished this tale from the comfort of an air conditioned hotel.

Because of the tragic earthquake, my route has been changed some, since I cannot get into Sichuan Province and Chengdu. I leave today by northbound train for Xi’an, home of the terra cotta warriors, and then head east again to the infamous Shoulin Monastery and later Shanghai. From Shanghai I will head for Beijing. And from that point I will head west along the Silk Road to meet with my guide there. That will take me all the way across China into a very different part of China, a part that is more Central Asian in character than Chinese and where the culture is predominantly Muslim. On my return, I will also explore the more Buddhist parts of Tibetan China, without making the journey into Tibet itself, given its current controversy at Olympics time. But the culture extends down the Tibetan Plateau and I will be able to immerse myself in its wonders.

I will continue to make postings like this when time permits, but am saving the details and more complex analysis for futures essays.

Off for another train, hopefully one more like the first. No time to pretty up this entry with its mixed tenses or to catch the typos.  Below are a variety of images of places not yet written about…especially Shanghai, Shaolin area, and other eastern/central locales.


#2 – Guangxi Province: Karst Country

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My departure from Hong Kong in the SE of China sent me west out of adjacent Shenzhen, the much-touted area that was tiny fishing villages just several years back before becoming a bustling early success story of China’s economic boom. I boarded my first overnight sleeper train and headed for Guilin in hard sleeper births of six people. In that section, there are only sleeper births, no seats, and one is intermixed with other travelers in these mini dorm sleepers. The trains are actually quite an excellent mode of travel and I found this first one clean and comfortable, though squat toilets on a moving vehicle while fumbling for folded tissue in one’s pocket is an experience not for the timid.

Guilin lies in Guangxi Province amidst spectacular karst topography, created when water, dissolution, and erosion leave unique geologic features such as peaks or sinkholes. In Guangxi Province, it is the vertical peaks standing like green-robed chess players amidst the landscape that are breathtaking. Because Guilin has become quite touristy, I boarded a bus and headed through the countryside to the picturesque Yangshuo, a must on anyone’s journey to China.

The bus ride took me through agricultural expanses that seem to blanket all of southeast and south central China. My earlier comment about the driving etiquette seen in Hong Kong was instantly tossed out the window once we crossed into Mainland China. It became apparent that yellow lines are merely decorative features to breakup the long span of black asphalt, that the horn is the prime navigational tool, and that it is possible to fit sideways one water buffalo, one old man and cart, one motorcycle carrying three, a tourist bus, and a car all pointed one direction while an array of the same attempt to go the opposite direction on what would otherwise be called a single-lane, two way road. One must occasionally dodge the small vegetable stands set up along the roadside, but somehow the whole array of motion seems to swerve in unison like hand-holding ice skaters and continue on their march forward. I found it best to just look at the agriculture.

Yangshuo was just recovering from a flood that moved anywhere from 2 feet to 7 feet of water down the city streets and raised the river level to flood proportions. Poor China has had a slew of natural disasters of recent, but I must say the town has taken all in stride.

The waters have receded, but while on a river cruise, I saw all sorts of trash and clothing pieces embedded high in the brush and trees, recent transports from upriver swept from homes and yards in a flurry of angry waters. Persistent rain has taken its toll on the southeast and a local dam was forced to release waters down its spillway, adding to the already swollen Li River, but apparently a lesser catastrophe than having the dam overtop itself under less controlled circumstances.

Despite the water, this was a charming town. It’s old downtown reminded me of Aguas Caliente, Peru, the touristy but quaint town at the base of Machu Picchu, dotted with hotels that appeal to backpackers, and lined with tempting but probably overpriced tourist shops. I succumbed to only a few !

The Li River winds its way through the karst topography in ways that earned it a place on one of the yuan bills. While drifting down the Li on handmade rafts, I was tapped on the shoulder by our guide/driver/pilot who proudly pointed downriver and then to the yuan note held in his hand. We were indeed at that same noteworthy spot and the pride of China was reflected in his grin.

It was hard to imagine I was in that part of China that lends itself so well to those postcards depicting farmers in pointed hats wading through their rice paddies with individual mist-shrouded mountains framing the background. But we indeed biked through these living postcards, past water buffalo sludging through muddy fields while farmers spoke to them in voice and gesture as comfortably as if speaking to a family member at home. It worked, for the beasts obeyed and turned upon command. We passed fields of wading men and women hunting for snails, a delicacy I have declined.

Bike ride scene

An afternoon cooking class found me in a room with about ten others, each of us at our own workstation complete with wok. The cooking adventure had begun with a tour through one of the local markets, a sort of indoor farmers market complete with vegetables, fruits, live swimming and clucking creatures, and other staples of the local diet. These markets are always a marvel to behold and evoke times when food was always fresh.

The wok experience was great fun and we had an absolutely wonderful young fellow instructing us on recipes, proper chopping technique, and wok flame control, an art in and of itself. We cooked four or five different dishes and then dined on the results, eating outdoors overlooking the karst countryside.

On our last morning in Yangshuo, we were treated to a special experience, one reminding me of my previous experience in Hong Kong with the women of bez & oho. Seems a husband and wife team have opened their hearts and home to 43 or so orphans, abandoned children, or otherwise seriously impoverished youth. Mike has long been a kung fu master and had begun offering free kung fu training to some of these local youth as a way for them to find a footing in life and chart some sort of future for themselves. With his wife Amanda’s assistance, the two turned this offering into a multipronged program: one a residential/school facility for orphans and the other a martial arts training program that has morphed into a performing arts program.

The children range from 3 to about 17 in age. If they were not “registered” at birth, they cannot access health care or education, and many of these children have fallen between the cracks. Angel’s Home offers love, training, and respite from an otherwise unrelenting world of poverty and Amanda has dedicated her recent years to making this possible for many of the area’s abandoned. Mike has trained many of the mostly young men in the finer martial arts and these boys (and one young girl!) put on a performance for us to rival any professional show. It was a jaw dropper and we were captivated. Mike did several tai chi pieces and the boys (and the girl) performed a dazzling array of routines involving sword, stick, and kick fighting and a two-person dragon fight, where front and tail end of the dragon were two different boys jumping high on platforms while fighting with another such dragon.

The boys and their dragons

Accompanied by drums and music, this performance was spellbinding and should be seen worldwide. The ultimate beauty of such a performance, however, was not just its choreographed brilliance and level of skill, but the story behind it. Each of these young people has stood with one foot dangling over a great abyss and that they have come so far and acquired such a finely honed skill and life purpose is just an exquisite expression about the good that can be grasped in this world.

After the performance, Mike gave us a taste of what his young protégées had been through by putting us through the paces of an hour-long tai chi lesson that had us dripping. He’s a master at what he does, as was reflected in the grace and power of each move and gesture. Later that day, I spent several hours interviewing Amanda to learn more about the children and Angel’s Home. That is a story still in the making for me, but Amanda and I bonded and shed tears together as we discussed the bittersweetness of Angel’s Home.

Image is of Amanda, sipping tea.

And then I was off to catch another train.

Travel and Info Tips:

Yangshuo Cooking School: http://www.yangshuocookingschool.com/index.html


#1 – TransPacific Journey and First Few Days in Hong Kong

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A journey begins.


I knew I had arrived when a blast of humid air hit me like a vacuum cleaner in reverse. After nearly two days in airports and planes, I’d lost touch with what real air felt like, but wasn’t feeling terribly appreciative of THIS air or the cockroach-like critters scurrying in front of my path. If this was midnight, what was daytime like in Hong Kong.

The journey had been long, but uneventful, except for the momentary start given when Air China couldn’t find me in their reservation system, after I’d already departed Boulder at 3:00 AM to fly to San Francisco. Seems there are still a few kinks with the relatively new Star Alliance between United and Air China. Someone’s reservation system doesn’t have a forward button. Forty-five minutes later the problem was resolved, but of course my return flight still has the same glitch, yet to be resolved. So if you don’t see me by the start of the semester, you’ll know I am arduously studying Mandarin and house hunting somewhere in China.
While a few folks grumble about United, I’ve never had a single problem with them in all my years of flying (except whatever caused the current glitch). Luggage has always arrived with me and in one piece. I’d heard murmurs about Air China and am pleased to report that flying their airline took me back several decades to when the flight crews (dare I use that verboten word stewardesses?) wore heals and dresses and pampered customers in every class. Elegant and poised, each attendant had hair pulled back in a stylish bun-like doo, and gestured towards seats and drink carts with that certain slow-motion hand movement associated usually with royalty and Rose Parade queens. I felt as if I were watching a ballet. While the flight captains were men, it was this incredibly efficient crew of young women who navigated us over the ocean, feeding us two robust meals, and keeping us supplied with beverages, blankets, pillows, and even warm towelettes. Should we have nodded off, they would leave neatly presented piles of whatever we had missed on our laps or in the next seat so we would not go without anything. We were even treated to little ice cream containers as a late night dessert. I haven’t seen airplane treatment like that in economy class for decades.

Our first landing was in Beijing, an airport I am destined to see several times over on this odyssey. On our approach, I noticed endless fields and rows of what seemed like hot houses. I mean hundreds.  The airport itself is an all-glass structure, strutted and trussed by orange-red metal. Instead of being scattered about the tarmac as I’m used to seeing in other airports, the ground crews were all neatly lined up next to awaiting baggage trains. A noteworthy orderliness caught my attention, though I could not pinpoint all of the differences. Most of the ramps connecting planes to gates were glass also, creating a glass house feeling. I had been told to scurry to my connecting flight, which was at a very distant gate, and was a bit dismayed when I rounded a corner to encounter a long line for customs. I flagged down one airline person and asked what I might do and she gestured I might ask an immigration official at the empty line for Non Aliens. I’m not sure if it was my tired look, my feminine wiles, or my gesturing to my approaching departure time that prompted him to process an Alien through his gate and stamp my passport with the appropriate entries, but he did so with silent efficiency.
My walk through the spotless Beijing airport was startling, not because anything unusual happened, but because no other travelers seemed to be around. I was in the international section, so perhaps the domestic area was abuzz with activity. Instead of people, I was surrounded still by glass, as both exterior walls and interior dividers. It was tasteful, not gaudy, but coupled with highly polished granite floors made for a mausoleum feel. The array of shiny surfaces was broken by vast expanses of potted plants lining walkways everywhere. At different turns in the various concourses, women sat scrubbing the floors with tiny brushes, removing bits of whatever might have blemished these otherwise lovely surfaces. Mop people glided past to further ensure my pathway was clear of tarnish and debris, and I found myself genuinely appreciating this level of caring and cleanliness, and further reflecting on trashcans in home airports where travelers thought they got points for simply getting “close.”

After stretches of granite, I would encounter retail areas that appeared more like brilliantly lighted movie sets than shops. In their blinding lights, they were also devoid of people, save for the young clerks dressed either alike in gray or black with boots and spiky hair or by women in thematically based dresses with some regional representation that eluded me. It was a bit like a Rod Serling script where the clerks didn’t quite realize they should be waiting on customers rather than walking about in the lights like live mannequins. I do not know where the customers were and sometimes wondered if I had wandered down a wrong concourse and was watching a rehearsal for something not intended to be real. It was just a bit bizarre in this vast hub of humanity to have such an empty segment of the airport.
And then, one escalator flight down, I was suddenly amidst people again, as if they had emerged from the glass like holograms coming to life. We boarded and began the last leg to Hong Kong. I must admit to dozing through much of the flight, as I had over most of the trans-Pacific flight, given the several sleepless nights at the computer that had preceded the trip. During one waking interval close to landing, I was treated to glimpses of lighted boats as they made their way up or down a river below us. Some of the boats were large in size, their decks flooded with light, casting dancing patterns on the waters underneath, while others were small, evoking images of a family huddled together in the hold of their floating home with lanterns swinging astern. It was a memorable introduction to Hong Kong, far better than the awaiting blast of hot air.
Customs awaited again, since Hong Kong is both part of China now and still its own entity, but this went smoothly and sent me out into the hallways wondering how I would navigate my way an hour across a town I did not know to a hotel booked on line. Ray, with his good looks and crisp suit, saved the night by being one of those handy taxi/van services that appeared just seconds before the “what am I doing” panic set in. Ten years in a business he must have then begun at age twelve, he and driver courteously shuttled me through the night streets. I sighed with relief when the driver showed great decorum at following speed limits and not playing “chicken” with other passing vehicles, much as is done with shuttle drivers in Los Angeles and the cities I am used to in South America (see article about Lima embedded somewhere in this soon-to-be website). My hotel superseded even Ray’s efficiency, though Ray’s Jetlink service is recommended to anyone needing transportation of any kind in the area.

I was greeted curbside by a doorman/concierge/bellboy at The Dorsett Far East at 1:00 AM and shown to a nicely appointed, albeit tiny, room in a city known for tiny rooms where square footage is at a premium. Having considered some dubious-sounding, money-saving guest houses during my on-line search, I was grateful for the fortuitousness of my selection. It was a handsome respite from the journey and my bed lay right next to a wall of window overlooking a quaint treed/ponded park, dazzling night-lighted skyscrapers, and those stacked digital signs that seem to climb the walls of buildings in their promotion of banks, airlines, and food in uniquely Asian ways. I had indeed arrived and the bed looked inviting.
I was in Tsuen Wan, an area of Kowloon deemed less touristy than the inner workings of the sprawl that had become greater Hong Kong. I had a phone number for one person in the area, whose email had indicated I would probably need to hop a train to meet her since I was staying in an outlying area. Yeh, just hop a train. In blind faith I ventured out into that same blast of chokingly humid air that had somehow managed to follow me all the way from the airport. I bought an octopus pass as advised and quickly found myself amidst one of the world’s most efficient train systems (I’d call it a subway, since it’s not really a train, but I learned the folly of that when I followed a “subway” sign and found that simply meant underground pathways beneath the streets rather than any form of transport.). The MTR is an efficient people moving network that crawls below and above ground and even tunnels under the harbor waters that separate Hong Kong proper from Kowloon and other metro areas. Lighted route maps above every train door blink to let you know precisely where you are on the route and when you are approaching a connecting branch just steps across the platform. The Octopus card was a blessing. For a small fee I had a magnetized pass that I waved over the many turnstiles that granted me passage on what quickly became numerous train rides all around town. But I am ahead of my story here in my delight over the mass transit system that carries an array of men in suits to men with construction buckets and school children in uniforms to women with bags and tired feet.

I was off to meet the sister of someone I hardly even knew back home in Boulder because I happened to have been having my hair cut one day when a box of handmade bags arrived from Hong Kong at the hair salon. These unique bags immediately caught my eye and further piqued my interest when I eavesdropped at the snippets of conversation that accompanied their unpacking. Sister…women addicts from streets of Hong Kong…handcrafted bags as part of new life directions. As a professor of Cultural Geography, I was ON this one, quickly asking how I might contact the sister because I was intrigued with the bags and the project. At the time of this encounter I was headed to Mongolia, a far cry from Hong Kong. But several months later and an array of changed plans, I was on the MTR about to meet “the sister,” a true heaven- sent blessing for me since I was flying solo in Hong Kong for several days.
A brief struggle with a foreign pay phone and what turned out to be a small donation of oddly rimmed coinage to the local phone company finally brought me face to face with Annalisa, who led me down several blocks of the factory area of Kowloon and into the belly of a concrete building long overdue its meeting with the wrecking ball. Annalisa was charming, someone who had settled in Hong Kong ten years ago as she had been called to work with the St. Stephen’s Society, an organization committed to being the light at the end of the tunnel for many in life who found themselves too far down a road of addiction. This impressive organization has its own story, which can be better found at their own website. Its Christian premise and genuine support structure resonates with folks who have often tried and failed at numerous other programs.
In today’s world, addiction means not only to drugs, but to too much time hooked on hand-held gaming machines in a younger generation’s flight from the stresses of the world around them. Many pressures can fall upon young people today in a one-child policy country, since they are expected to work hard and be the providers for their parents in the years to come. And many a loving parent has sent a child off to the city for work, never knowing that the realities of the cities don’t always land the right kind of work for a desperate and naïve child. St. Stephen’s Society deals with these children and thousands of adults who have lost their footing in this precarious world. The program serves all willing to embrace its context and has changed the lives of many around the world.

The bag project is the creative output of Annalisa who rather boldly launched this solo enterprise on her own as she faced a desire to employ some of the women who came through the St. Stephen’s Society program, since most of the work programs were more geared toward men gaining employable skills in construction or food canteen vending. She is a great believer that people have many skills and, given the opportunity, will find constructive ways to utilize those skills. Starting with handmade cards from her own photos and handbound journal-like books, Bez & Oho now employs women in the design and making of a variety of purses and bags, using recycled materials such as rice sacks and silk remnants. The bags are jaunty, crafty, and clever, serving a variety of needs from function to fun gift-giving. More important, though, are the women who put the fabric of their soul into their making. I was privy to spend most of the day with Annalisa and these delightful and remarkable women as they showed me their craft and let me accompany them on a supply-buying journey into the streets of Mong Kok, one of Kowloon’s districts known for its shopping. It’s a live version of a merchandize mart, except it’s on the streets and tucked into tiny stores.
Each woman has her story, something I hope to write about when I have more time to digest all that they taught me. Meeting them several years clean and deeply embedded in productive and meaningful lives was about as good of a beginning to any journey as one could ask for. For their own protection, their names and photos shall remain in my heart, but not on these pages. They have wandered down some dark roads in life and have seen their own lives or those of their loved ones shattered by what can linger in the darkness, but each has reached out to grab a hold of that greater essence behind this vast universe and each has found her own personal resurrections. Annalisa has listened to her guidance, which she clearly credits to her Christian foundation, and has in her own way turned water into wine by launching her small enterprise based on a faith that has carried her far and opened doors of opportunity for others willing to walk the line of belief and hard work. <bezandoho.com>
I returned to my hotel nourished by the day, enjoying my bed immediately adjacent to a large window overlooking a park where gaps in trees allowed for glimpses of soft lights reflecting on the many ponds dotting the park with its traditional Chinese style buildings. It was mesmerizing and I lay for hours looking out at this calming view backdropped by skyscrapers and lights.


The next morning at breakfast, a young couple caught my eye as the husband helped his wife be seated at a table near me before heading to the buffet line. I thought to myself how sweet it was to see the man dishing up a plate for his wife, but was quickly bought back to reality when I saw that he instead proceeded to pull out his own chair and be seated with the newly filled plate. The patient wife was then free to get up and serve herself. I saw this repeated over several breakfasts by different couples and was dismayed each time to realize we are still a planet of evolving people and have many miles to tread before we reach full enlightenment. I could not ascertain the cultural background of any of the couples, but was reminded over and over of the deference to male preference in this particular cultural arena.

On the trains I had noticed numerous mothers doting on their young sons, most of which they held in their laps as the sons fondled their mothers’ faces, laughed with, or otherwise squirmed in the safety of their mother’s embrace. The doting caught my eye, contrasted by relatively few sightings of similarly doting mothers on their young girls. Most of the young girls helped schlep bags or in turn dote on a younger brother in a stroller. Not to say, of course, that there were not numbers of parents tending to their feminine offspring, but overall I was struck by the affection displayed toward the young boys.
Perhaps this affection stood out on trains where most riders doze off or drop into serious contemplation of the floor. We don’t have subways in Colorado, so I don’t have that commuter frame of reference, but I just sensed something different in that so many riders seemed to take this opportunity to drop into the inner levels of their being, briefly taking leave of the bodies seated on slick metal train seats while the soul sought nourishment or repose in quieter places. Teenagers, of course, fidgeted with cell phones or electronic gadgets, even continuing the game playing on the escalator rides out of the bowels of the train system, though I saw many an adult doing so also. Actually, cell phones were the tool of many riders, either checking messages or adding to the din of sounds that echoed through the trains moving like bullets through Hong Kong’s underground.
I had thought I might be an anomaly, standing out as a near-six-foot western woman, but I was largely ignored, even though any train of fifty only held one to three westerners at any given time. The array of intermixed faces bespoke of centuries of British occupation of the area coupled with the economic opportunity that Hong Kong used to represent to peoples from other parts of Asia. There was certainly no one look but a vast presentation of faces from all walks of life and experience.

My last few days were spent exploring nooks and crannies of shopping districts, from the more sophisticated Central area of Hong Kong with stores fronted by doormen in suits and white gloves to some dark back alleys where sweating women in old clothing scrub crates and other items in places not meant for human eyes, let alone human occupation. Vendors of all types offer their wares for sale, from crock pots of boiling eggs (some chicken and others smaller black and white spotted affairs) to magazines and from jewelry to dried fish.

Greater Hong Kong is comprised of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories, and a series of outlying islands, all sub-cities of their own strung together in what is known as Hong Kong. Accessed by train, they simply seem an interconnected array of commercial districts, wherein one loses sight of what side of the harbor they might lie on. And this approach to Hong Kong does make the area seem like nothing more than a repeating den of stores, bounded by what used to be the world’s largest container port (shipping harbor).

I have never in my life seen more shopping in one area. As one big shopping opportunity, one store front is actually the entrance to hundreds of different shops scattered on floors connected by escalator, Hong Kong’s other people moving wonder found in almost greater abundance than asphalt. In stores, there isn’t, say, a typical luggage department, but is instead a luggage area in the store where different sales staff represent different brands of luggage. I suppose it’s like the cosmetics sections of major US department stores, separated by brand names and staffed by trendy people in white coats. But imagine this setup for every product conceivable. The same is found out on the streets and is so very typical of developing world commerce wherein all of certain types of shops are clustered together in one area. I’ve seen this worldwide and recall it from South America in particular. While on the supply run for Bez & Oho, we went to a section of shops dedicated to beads, buttons, and hooks and then to another section dedicated solely to fabric.

The underground train hallways are also lined with stores and shops, the streets are an endless hub of commercial activity, and inside nearly every building is an inner sanctum of some sort of retail enterprise. Hong Kong is a veritable warren of shops, from slick and glamorous cosmetics and sequined jackets to shelves lined with cameras or jars of Chinese medicine. Some interior malls are so large they could house aircraft carriers.
Upscale hotels and trendy restaurants abut Mrs. Song’s tiny storefront lined with pastries, dried food, and very old-looking bottles of beverage. The streets are an endless symphony of noise, not necessarily discordant and somehow rhythmic in its cacophony of unrelated sounds. Overhead signage abounds, decking streets and buildings much like 3-d graffiti. These are the images most of us have of Chinatowns worldwide and Hong Kong does not disappoint. Signs in Chinese character vie for space with signs in English and together create this sort of visceral array of colorful stalactites.
I suspect 80% of Hong Kong’s working youth are employed in retail sales…in stores where the exact same outlet can have several branches in the very same block…block after block. There must be millions of cell phones for sale in this one mega city, and millions of cameras, face powders, and designer T-shirts. Of Hong Kong’s 1103 square kilometers, 1102 must comprise one enormous interconnected shopping mall. Well, obviously that’s not quite true since part of Hong Kong is actually comprised of green covered mountains as a surprisingly immediate backdrop to the city’s famed skyline.

Travel and Info Tips: Since I spent months reading Lonely Planet and the likes in preparation for travel, I know the value in getting personal tips about certain places or services. When I feel they are noteworthy, I will mention some herein.
• Do purchase an Octopus Card for 150 HK$ (US$19) that will take you everywhere around the area (train, ferries, etc.) and even let you make purchases at convenient stores. Next to your passport, it will be your greatest traveling companion.
• Dorsett Far East Hotel: since this is located in the more outlying Tsuen Wan district at the end of the Island line, the prices are less than in the more heavily concentrated centralized districts of Hong Kong or Kowloon. I found it to be superb and well worth the extra bit of train time to give me ultra comfortable accommodations, easy access to shopping (shops, banks, food, etc. just outside the door), a wonderful breakfast buffet, and only a two-block walk to the MTR (with immediate access to a major bus staging hub right outside the hotel). The staff were all top end, my view was an absolute delight to return to after the bustle of each day, and I was close enough to but pleasantly away from some of the squash of hectic enterprise found in most of the other districts. I can’t say enough about the place, which I booked through Direct Rooms, an online hotel booking agency that also went the extra mile in prompt, courteous, and reliable service. < http://directrooms.com/>
• Airport taxi: Jetlink Limousine Service, Ray Hue, hiaceray@yahoo.com.hk 852.6770.3880.
• St. Stephen’s Society: <http://www.ststephenssociety.com/>
• Bez & Oho – the wonderful bags: bezandoho.com