Emmeline's China Journal

 
`My late mother, Emmeline, then aged 78, accompanied me on this visit to China, and kept the following journal.

 

 

IN XANADU DID KUBLA KHAN . . . 

 

Saturday 6th September 1986

 

Peking (nowadays Beijing) airport could almost be described as a stately pleasure dome. Having been on the go by car, bus and two planes over the past 26 hours, without sleep so far as I was concerned, it was a reviving experience to enter an almost empty immigration and customs area, scintillating in light and cleanliness, with lots of green plants around.  Green-uniformed officials, all youthfully casual, moved us onward as you might fitfully wave a fly or two that had interrupted your idle chat.  Ours appeared to be the only flight in or out.

 

Struck, too, we were by the long inviting row of deep armchairs where we could collapse, gratefully, watching the carousel disgorge our bags in its own good time.  When it did, it was quite a hardship to dislodge ourselves from this cool earthbound haven and venture out into the blaze of sunlight falling on a strange new land.

 

But immediately greeted by a smiling Professor WenRui Hu, and the Institute's driver, Yuan Shang, we were swept off in style in one of the comfortable official cars that we had been told wait upon most invited guests. It makes one feel rather regal, and at times in the next three weeks one felt an irresistible urge to try Royalty's inimitable wave, even if only to a telegraph pole.  . . .

 

From the airport, the road goes dead straight for ten miles or more, and we drove at only about 30 mph (which must account for the Royal Progress sensation).  It is lined all the way with lovely trees in impeccable order.  Plane trees with manicured trunks, the bark etched, like Chinese calligraphy, in black, and with silvery fluttering leaves.

Behind these, slender young willows chopped at about ten feet with only one drooping spray of palest green permitted.  In a third row as background, very tall stately poplars.  After a mile or two, the order would change to acacias, the national tree, backed by the solid grey-silver of spruce and again poplars.  First impression of China: orderliness, lack of hoardings, love of trees.

 

There was little traffic on this road, apart from an occasional mule-drawn cart and some lorries and buses.  But later we entered upon the Chang An Jai, the great six-lane thoroughfare that crosses the city from west to east for 40 km. Lined with the ferny-leafed acacia trees, it has wide cycle lanes on each side, where cyclists in the rush hour poured in a slow-moving steady flood.

 

Where were the blue Mao jackets?  "In the vast minority" said Keith. I doubt if we saw one.  There was a noticeable uniformity, white short-sleeved shirts and dark trousers in the main, though some girls adventurously sported colours.  After a few days, I was forced to note that my red cotton jacket was a trifle de trop.

 

But now we turned off into the shady campus of the Academica Sinica.  It was just the right time for a cup of Chinese tea.

THE  FRIENDSHIP  HOTEL

 

The 'hotel' consists of five blocks including a restaurant building, a store of small boutiques and a grocery, as well as the main reception block.

 

 

We were in No.5 building, and could not have been more comfortable.  The reception clerks were very helpful and understood sufficient English.  We got the English language newspaper "China Today" free each morning and found it very readable with its frank reporting and coverage - as good as the universal Herald Tribune in other world capitals.

 

 

We had a suite of a fine twin-bedded room, and a large sitting room (with single bed for Keith); also wardrobe, old-fashioned coat and hatstand, large desk, three armchairs, TV, and tea table.  The latter was provided with two huge thermos flasks of hot boiled water, a pack of China tea, and a flask of cold boiled water.  You sprinkle a good pinch of tea in the blue and white mugs, add the water and keep the lids on for about seven minutes to infuse the tea and allow the leaves to settle.  No milk or sugar required, and a delicious refreshing drink at any hour of day or night is at hand.

 

 

In this hotel and other guest accommodation, we found laundry bags supplied.  You hang the bag outside on the door handle by 8 am, and the clean linen is back by early evening beautifully ironed.  The first night after tea in our room with Professors Jai-fu and Hu and a Mr. Ma, all smiling broadly, the plans were discussed for the lectures Keith was to give, discussion periods fixed and our sightseeing programme outlined.  We were then invited to "just a light dinner of welcome". We had only half-an-hour to unpack for something fresh to wear, have a quick wash and set out for the restaurant at the unseemly, yet customary, Chinese hour of 6.30 for dinner.

 

 

We found a vast brilliantly lit room with all sizes of round tables seating from four up to twelve. White tablecloths and comfortable chairs with bright tangerine slipcovers made a gay impression.  Huge depictions of Chinese art, of jagged peaks, waterfalls, pines, pagodas and pensive scholars abounded all around on the walls and screens.

 

 

The 'light meal' consisted of some seven dishes served in relays from which you selected what you wanted with chopsticks to place on the small saucer in front of you.  Later we were to find that rice is not automatically served at a dinner or banquet but is reserved more for home use.  However, we found it essential to balance the richness of the food.  The idea of Chinese cuisine is to vary the dishes from sweet to sour, spicy or gingery.  Little pieces of, say, smoked duck or pork or thin slivers of beef, are combined with delicious green beans or mushrooms, peanuts or bamboo shoots, or water chestnuts, or squares of bean curd, or green shoots of garlic.  I liked the chicken in garlic sauce to excess, despite keith's warning not to take too much of any one thing as more was sure to follow.  As it did! A bowl of rather alarming fluid, tasted (gingerly) turned out to be no more than a clear soup with the true taste of fresh tomatoes although only a shred or two appeared. It was delicious.  The Chinese claim that such soup aids digestion at the end of a good meal and it certainly did for us.  beer and mineral water was available, and with animated conversation in English we forgot our jet lag and started our visit with a memorable impression of cultured and exceedingly hospitable people.

 

 

Sunday 7th September

 

 

Both very lethargic but wide awake at 6 am as it's midday by our body clock!  Enjoyed breakfast (Western) of good omelette, fried French toast with jam, and rather thick doughy toast.  Bread in China is steamed, not baked, - and there is rather curious butter - rancid? - or goats? Decided we could do without anyway.  Tea, of course, but it was black tea in tall glasses!  You must specifically ask for China tea in cups here.

 

 

Fell back on our beds for an hour or two and felt much better by lunchtime which is served from 11.30 am to 1.30 pm.  I just had biscuits and the Bleu Bresse cheese we'd bought in De Gaulle airport.  Keith went over for lunch where he met a chap from Penn. State University.

 

1 pm

 

To the Heavenly Temple.  Off on the dot (punctuality is all with the Chinese) with driver Yuan and Prof. Jai-fu who is a charming humorous chap.  A long drive beyond the city limits to the Temple where the Emperors proceeded to offer thanksgiving for harvest and again at the winter solstice for rain, and offer sacrifices.  Around the temple are several pavilions in courtyards all set within a high circular wall with a large park beyond squared within another fine wall. The round inner one has the peculiarity that a person with his ear against one side can hear what another speaks into the other side.  Or so they say!  It being Sunday, so many were doing this with children shouting that our efforts were in vain.

Other groups of Chinese in front of the Temple steps stood clapping their hands in order to hear something respond . . . Keith declared he thought he heard a humming sound.  Everyone appeared very happy anyway to hear him say this and clapped him!

 

The temple is truly splendid, three storeys high, roofed with purple blue tiles picked out in gold glittering in the sun, atop a very long steep flight of steps. 

 

It was by now quite humid and I sat on a bench under a shady cypress for a while as Keith and Jai-fu climbed up on the mound where the sacrifices took place.  I was glad to contemplate in heavenly tranquillity the Chinese men squatting under the trees reading their newspapers (something you would seldom see in British parks, only in commuter trains!), and the neatly dressed young parents with their one child passing quietly too and fro.  No hippies, no punks, no half-naked girls; only one foreign youth, probably Australian, with the flushed face of determined sightseeing, shorts and rucksack, striding by.

Emmeline_Heavenly_Temple.jpg

Photo: Emmeline at the Heavenly Temple 

On our way back, driving down the magnificent Chang-an-Jie boulevard, we arrived at Tiananmen Square, the biggest in the world, and, K. says, much larger than Red Square in Moscow.  It can hold up to a million people.  On 6th October, the week after we leave China, it will be the anniversary of Liberation in 1949, when this square will be packed.  It is enlivened by red silk flags all round, given by President Sihanouk of Thailand.  They fluttered beautifully in the light breeze and caused Keith to speculate mathematically (or fluid dynamically?) on the flow patterns, to the amusement of Prof. Jai-Fu who provided a theory of his own.  Mau Tse-tung's impressive mausoleum and the Heroes' Monument (of the Revolution and Long March) form one side of the square, the Congress Hall of the People and the History Museum containing the skull of Peking Man - dating back half a million years - the opposite side, and at the far end stretches right across the dull rusty red wall and low-tiled curlicued roofs of the Forbidden City itself.  Inside is the Imperial Palace and over the great doorway - the Meridien Gate - the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao.   

 

GETTING DOWN TO IT

 

 

THE FORBIDDEN CITY  (IMPERIAL PALACE)

 

Monday 8th September

 

Both up by 6.30 (having each enjoyed a good hot bath) and over to breakfast at 7 am, as Keith has to be off at 8.10 am for his first lecture.

 

I settled down to write up my diary, in the midst of which I was interrupted by a young man with a vacuum doing the carpets and a delightful girl with a mop to whom I supplied a few useful words in English, she pointing out objects like the ashtray or hat stand for me to elucidate. She must have quite a problem understanding guests of all nations.  When Keith returned, we made tea and I opened my pack of Café Nor biscuits.  He hadn't expected the students to have not only read his book, but also all recent published papers, so felt he had perhaps lowered the sights a bit.  Tomorrow they will get the works!

 

1.15 pm sharp found Yuan waiting with the car along with our guide Dr. Tang-Sui-mei, a researcher in Solar Physics. Small, bespectacled, diffident, with very limited English apart from the mathematical terms she works with.  So we struggled to understand each other, and she, poor soul, kept apologising incoherently for not being able to understand our questions.  Finally we lapsed into mutual silence.  Just as well for the guide book gives it all.  There are six Palaces, one behind the other, separated by vast sunlit courtyards.  All are reached by long flights of  steps (the Emperors moved through them in palanquins up ramps in the middle).  Someone, unkindly, described the buildings as gilded and glorified barns in structure!  The roofs are covered with rounded glazed tiles in green or purple or yellow, that glitter in sunlight.  There are 9000 rooms and the whole covers 720,000 sq. metres (The Congress Hall of the People with all its ramifications covers as much acreage).

 

I admit to quailing when another huge open expanse appeared, and another and another (perhaps a touch of agoraphobia?). Towards the back is the Garden round which are grouped the more domestic Imperial residences where the Emperor, the Empress, and the Imperial concubines lived and spent their leisure hours.  It is said the Emperor kept a pack of cards describing his 9000 concubines, and would turn a card each day to see which one he would choose that night.  yet only a few ever set eyes on him so he must have cheated a bit.  The rest saw no men, only the Palace eunuchs who were notorious for plotting and scheming.

 

The Emperor had one tiny garden, apart from the others, where he alone might go, and it was only opened to the public the month before we arrived.  About the size of a large square room,  it has an aged pine throwing shade on one side and in the centre of the paving a great rock mantled in greenery.  At its foot a carved stone base supports a huge hunk of pale green jade with lifelike carvings of horned sheep.  This was quite unprotected and was being fingered by all who passed, including me!

 

A group of young men, students, caught sight of me sitting meditatively on a step while Keith explored ahead. They indicated they would like to photograph me. I motioned them to join in, and they departed quite delighted thanking me with "Tse tse".  They obviously thought me a curiosity!

 

We now went through a pavilion of glass cases enshrining exquisite objects such as a tree delicately carved out of coral, tiny cherry trees of agate with petals of creamy jade, a horse of lapis lazuli, a lanscape about 18" high and 3' wide, all carved from different shades of jade with minute figures going about their work amidst flowers and trees.

 

In the next room were displayed Imperial mantles, heavy with gold and silver thread embroideries or peacock feathers, and encrusted with precious stones and pearls.

 

Not to mention a corridor displaying head-dresses worn on great occasions by Emperors, Empresses, favourite concubines, generals, etc., down to "head-dress for a no-good rascal of a spendthrift young man".  This looked very much more comfortable than the bucket-like headgear loaded with jewels and hung with silver fringes worn by the virtuous.  The Chinese have a keen sense of humour.

 

By now, somewhat wearied, we remained for a while pressed against a wall by the sightseeing Chinese gathering round a huge glass case containing the solid gold reliquary ordered by one Emperor in his Mother's memory.  It resembled a miniature temple studded with pearls, jade, turquoise and lapis.  Nearby there was the gold basin into which the Empress placed the combings of her hair!

 

As we watched the awed citizens gazing open-mouthed we reflected on how few people we know ever enter a museum.  Perhaps because we've always been free to do so?

 

One old lady in a shabby jacket and trousers, with sparse grey hair, pushed forward eager-eyed to press her nose against the glass, her son pointing out the inscription and reading it for her.  One could imagine her feelings to be in such a place when in her youth she would have had to make, on her bound feet, a huge detour to aoid being beaten if she dared so much as to glance towards the outside walls of the Forbidden City.

 

There was a final bizarre sight which we nearly missed because of the gesticulating laughing group of Chinese around an obscure corner as we made our way to the northern exit.  Our little guide, having inserted herself into the centre of them, made way for us to follow and explained the reason for their amusement.  Here was the opening, only some 15'' in diameter leading the the unplumbed depths of an ancient well.  And here it was that formidable Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, after the Boxer rising in 1900, seized the Emperor's favourite concubine and had her stuffed down this well.  The story goes that the girl pleaded to flee with the rest, but was refused permission.  The Empress commanded "Stay!" - and she did!  Down the well - despite the lamentations of the hapless Emperor.

Evening

 

Back at the hotel, we had to rush to change and go out to dinner at 6.30 with the Professors and some staff of the Institute.  Professor Zheng being unaviodably away for the day, the Deputy Director was host, along with Professors Hu and Jai-fu and three research assistants, including two women, Dr Tang and another.  

 

The Hang-Lui Restaurant in the main city boulevard specialises, as it always has done, in Peking Duck.  This was the main dish after innumerable other dishes such as small pieces of steamed oxtail, a heavenly cucumber dish, sundry kebabs, and Mandarin fish, as well as a great delicacy, 1000 yr eggs as they are called: ( actually only three months preserved in lime). Almost black and jellied, they were very, very delicious. A more attractive plate contained a yellow and white fretwork of hard-boiled eggs inexplicably arranged in 3" long tine slices - too pretty to disturb actually.  The final masterstroke before the duck itself was a dish greeted with tiny gasps of delight all round.  Looking like spoonfuls of whipped cream in a brownish sauce, it was explained to us as a speciality of the chef.  Chicken flesh is steamed and pounded until soft, then mixed with beaten white-of-egg, then poached in its special sauce.  It is truly ambrosial!

 

Next the Peking Duck!  Fed on sorghum for three months, it has had numberless things done to it before cooking, finally being lacquered in caramelized sauce and served in small pieces on a large platter.  With your chopsticks, you delicately seize a piece, draw it through apish of rich brown sauce, then place it on one of the tiny pancakes of which you have a pile on your plate at the ready.  Next a few green shoots of onion, roll up together and eat.  Personally, I preferred the mandarin fish.

 

Very good conversation going on despite these culinary intricacies.  Our host was in the States during the Cultural Revolution, speaks excellent English, and specialises in Combustion.  much talk of Air Pollution which is very bad here in winter when dust is rife as well (hence Peking throat!).

 

The Chines are assiduous hosts plying one with food and drink, whilst their own plates are empty.  Tiny glasses are continually refilled by the waiters with red wine, or the local beer, as well as the very potent white spirit, mao tai, of which one sip was enough to make me see double. Keith asked where it could be bought, and at the end of the meal found a bottle on the table for him as a present.

 

Poor Tang-Sui-mei knocked her beer over and was terribly upset.  She seems accident-prone, for when we were all saying our thankyous and good nights outside, she seemed to have disappeared.  I suspect she felt she had lost face with her seniors as they are so very correct in everything they do.

THE SUMMER PALACE

 

Tuesday 9th September

 

Keith gave his second lecture today which he was pleased with as there was a good response.  I had spent the morning writing, and reading up on this afternoon's jaunt.  There is always so much history. In this case one has to face the disturbing fact that in 1860, British and French troops smashed and looted their way through the fabulous gardens and pavilions of the Summer Palace, with the British finally setting fire to everything they could.  This was after the Opium Wars when the Emperor tried to ban foreigners bring in opium as trading exchange.  The finest treasures were seized for Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, the rest either smashed or carried off as loot.  (Thought - perhaps the Queen might bring one vase back as a gift on her forthcoming visit?  Then Deng could give it back as China's gift to her?!)

 

Our guide on this occasion was a pleasant young man from the Research Institute, who also seized his chance during the drive to put questions to Keith arising from the morning lecture.  These and the answers got very complex indeed.  Shutting my ears to the abstruse mathematical terms, my eyes became equally bemused by the incredible flow of cyclists escaping death by inches around our car. 

 

Where we parked, we saw a notice in English, "No littering, no spitting".  You see not a scrap of litter, some old woman with a switch broom works away to remove even one fallen leaf.  As for spitting, we saw this only occasionally, usually old men.  It is a habit now firmly discouraged though spittoons are still handily placed.

 

What is left of the Summer Palace was the part restored by the Empress Dowager, who raised the money ostensibly to restore the Chinese Navy at the turn of the century, and used it instead for the Summer Palace. As an amusing gesture however, she caused a full-sized marble boat (sort of pleasure steamer-cum-teahouse design) to be built at the end of the promenade by the lakeside.  This is a covered walkway 700 yards long made of a reddish wood with its roofing and side panels filled with exquisitely painted views of Hangzhou's West Lake as well as historical and mythological scenes.

 

The remaining buildings of the Palace arise terrace upon terrace up the wooded hillside above the lake.  In the Palace of Regular Clouds, the Empress Dowager celebrated her birthdays.  One courtyard contains an old three-storey theatre with exotic decorations and whiskery roof, the open stages with trap doors above and below whence the actors erupted.  Tzu Hsi liked to sit in the Pavilion opposite to watch the show in which she occasionally acted herself, heavily disguised.  There was a very realistic wax figure of her reclining on a yellow satin couch looking out of the window.  Her nail shields were so long and so heavy with gilding she could hardly raise her hands and had to have everything done for her, even to being fed by handmaidens.

 

The book by Oswald Wynd  "The Ginger Tree" gives a perfect description of the Summer Palace in 1903 with an account of an audience by command of Tzu Hsi, which is illuminating.  She died a few years later (1908) only one day after her nephew, the Emperor she had kept imprisoned.  Her heir, Pu-Yi, the last Emperor of China, ended up as a City gardener under the communists.  His autobiography "From Emperor to Citizen" I must get.

THE GREAT WALL

 

Wednesday 10th September

 

Keith having completed his academic duties for the time being, we are free all day.  Just as well, for we're off at 8.30 driven in a comfortable car with an anxious-looking bespectacled young man from the Institute.  If he has read, as we have, that at the beginning of the century "a trip to the Wall has to be arranged with great care, especially when ladies are included", and if he considered, as all Chinese appear to, that any lady over 60 must be guarded like a fragile Ming vase, then he must needs be anxious.

 

A Chinese-American at our breakfast table, when Keith says we're doing the Wall today, looks at me in consternation, "Are YOU ok for the Wall?"  Adds that his Guide collapsed on it!

 

Arrived, after a two-hour drive on dusty roads through a vast plain towards beckoning mountains.  Suddenly at a turn out of a gorge - there it is!  The Wall!  A grey-white speckled snake incredibly crawling up a nearby peak.  But that is just an abandoned piece apparently.  Another turn or two and our necks crane to see it tower above us. The hills here are precipitous and march up and down, endlessly ribboned by the Wall that never goes around them or gives up, for 4,000 km east to west.

 

Started 1000 years before Christ, it was once spiked by 2,500 turrets, only four of which we are about to traverse. The Government keeps certain sections in repair for visitors, maintaining it no longer to keep the barbarian Mongols out, but rather to garner foreign cash in.

 

300,000 men toiled for 10 years to complete the ancient Wall; thousands died and were buried where they expired to keep evil spirits at bay. One expected to be haunted by this macabre fact, but the whole experience was so engrossing and demanded so much physically (in my case at least), as well as visually, one could only gasp and plod on. The climb, one in three at its steepest, is worse coming down due to the steep steps that give way to slippery ramps of stone slabs in places. Most of us glad to brace ourselves by clinging to the iron handrails and glad of the keen bracing air flowing though the outlook gaps from Inner Mongolia 'cross the way'!

THE GREAT WALL

 

Wednesday 10th September

 

Keith having completed his academic duties for the time being, we are free all day.  Just as well, for we're off at 8.30 driven in a comfortable car with an anxious-looking bespectacled young man from the Institute.  If he has read, as we have, that at the beginning of the century "a trip to the Wall has to be arranged with great care, especially when ladies are included", and if he considered, as all Chinese appear to, that any lady over 60 must be guarded like a fragile Ming vase, then he must needs be anxious.

 

A Chinese-American at our breakfast table, when Keith says we're doing the Wall today, looks at me in consternation, "Are YOU ok for the Wall?"  Adds that his Guide collapsed on it!

 

Arrived, after a two-hour drive on dusty roads through a vast plain towards beckoning mountains.  Suddenly at a turn out of a gorge - there it is!  The Wall!  A grey-white speckled snake incredibly crawling up a nearby peak.  But that is just an abandoned piece apparently.  Another turn or two and our necks crane to see it tower above us. The hills here are precipitous and march up and down, endlessly ribboned by the Wall that never goes around them or gives up, for 4,000 km east to west.

 

Started 1000 years before Christ, it was once spiked by 2,500 turrets, only four of which we are about to traverse. The Government keeps certain sections in repair for visitors, maintaining it no longer to keep the barbarian Mongols out, but rather to garner foreign cash in.

 

300,000 men toiled for 10 years to complete the ancient Wall; thousands died and were buried where they expired to keep evil spirits at bay. One expected to be haunted by this macabre fact, but the whole experience was so engrossing and demanded so much physically (in my case at least), as well as visually, one could only gasp and plod on. The climb, one in three at its steepest, is worse coming down due to the steep steps that give way to slippery ramps of stone slabs in places. Most of us glad to brace ourselves by clinging to the iron handrails and glad of the keen bracing air flowing though the outlook gaps from Inner Mongolia 'cross the way'!

THE MING TOMBS

 

Still Wednesday 10th September

 

The Great Wall had been quite enough for one day.  Anything else would have to be an anti-climax.

 

We had lunched beneath the Wall in a sort of esplanade full of tourist buses towards which the heroes and heroines of the wall tottered with aching legs and knees like jelly.  Once more in our car, we indulged visions of "home Yuan, and don't spare the donkeys", only to be told we now had to see the Ming Tombs.  At breakfast, a woman had warned us they were 'ghastly"!  But our guide had been instructed, and go we must.

 

Another long bumpy road void of habitation during which I read that the dead Emperor used to be carried in enormously heavy coffins all the way from Peking by forty bearers.  On top of the coffins rested a bowl brimming with water and if even a drop was spilt, the bearers would be beaten.  It might disturb the Emperor's rest!

 

Before you reach the necropolis proper, you traverse a mile-long avenue backed with lovely trees and lined with 24 huge stone carvings -- lions, camels, elephants, horses, sitting on one side, standing on the other, and culminating with Generals, high officials and Emperors. No-one was permitted to pass this way save the Emperor's cortège alone. 

 

The site of the tombs around the underground Palace is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the Peking area and worth travelling to if only for the basky peace of the cypress-clad copses and shady paths. It was forbidden territory to all save those who tended the grounds and passed the work on from generation to generation.  No trees might be cut down, no stones removed, no cultivation allowed.

 

THE BOWELS OF THE EARTH (OR THE DING LING TOMB!)

 

Trepidation uppermost, I followed K., our guide, and a solid mass of citizens into a dark vaulted hall of claustrophobic gloom.  The press of people behind, the lack of light and no idea of what lay ahead, there being no one, least of all our guide, to answer a question, made me quail, especially as we found ourselves going ever downwards, flight after flight, feeling for the damp walls in the dim light of an occasional high electric bulb.

 

"Don't worry" said K. in his soothing and basely filial way, "It's sure to have an outlet lower down the hill. You won't have to climb up again."  As it was true we had first climbed up in order to climb down, this reasoning seemed logical and I took heart.

 

But how wrong can you be?  Having traversed the subterranean stone-built palace, a grim and indeed fearful place with its side-alleys and now empty sarcophagi, we did indeed have to climb up again.  Well, I wouldn't choose to remain entombed with the Emperor Wan-Li, especially as he has been disinterred!  In the museum up above you can see a toothbrush intended to aid his ablutions in the other world!  The one cheerful thing about this tomb is its name!

LEAVING PEKING FOR HANGCHOW

 

Thursday 11th September

 

Very pleasant flight in Boeing 737.  Nice snacks and the surprise of a gift: a navy/white cotton shoulder bag depicting the Great Wall which was just the very thing we'd been wanting for everyday use.  Nice and light!  Can't think why Keith's Chinese Trinity Fellow told us the domestic flights were terrible.  This was A1.

Once more met on the dot by smiling host, Professor Ding, and whisked off by a curious little pigtailed, perfunctory, but skilful chauffeuse.  The airport concourse here is confused and it was steamy hot, but we drove on into a lovely country road embowered in trees.

 

HANGCHOU, CITY OF THE SONG EMPERORS

 

The saying goes that "there is heaven above, and on earth there are Hangchow and Soochow."

 

Hangchow is famed for many things, amongst which we encountered the following:  the most beautiful lake, the largest Buddhist Temple, the highest Pagoda (13 storeys), the first Communist-built iron bridge, the finest tea made with the purist water (Dragon Spring), and what must surely be the heaviest rainfall.  Not to mention its memorable cuisine, one of the four distinct ones in China.  A city wonderingly admired by Marco Polo.

 

Driving from the airport into the town, which struck me as less than beautiful even in sunshine, was hair-raising.  A conglomeration of bicycles in random motion, very different to Peking's orderly processions, being hooted at remorselessly by our female Jehu, came close to annihilation on the bonnet of our car.  "Get off or get dead" must be her motto!

 

Turning out of town however, we entered a tunnel of coolness formed by rows of beautifully arched trees interspersed with graceful pink-flowered shrubs like Deutzias but rather too late for them I think.  Then we were driving along the lakeside with misty mountains behind.

 

We passed the imposing entrance to the University and found ourselves alighting in a side street full of puddles and no pavement, where the University is to accommodate us in a comfortable flat with two double bedrooms, sittingroom, kitchen and bathroom.  We have to go out for meals and our first lunch was not propitious.  Walking quite a way in the heat, we were shown into a poky, rather squalid room, where cooking was going on loudly through an open door.  This was specially for "foreigners" and we sat down at a long sleazy table beside a group of Americans.   Immediately, even before we could order, we were attacked by a wild-looking woman with the customary barrage of "I'm so-and-so, who are you/  Whereya from? How long ya stayin? Whatdya do?"

 

The only bad meal so far! And going back to the flat, we saw a perfectly good Chinese restaurant where we might have eaten.  We also found a food store where we bought moon cakes -- for it will be the Moon Festival later this month, a great family occasion for the Chinese apparently.    We've decided to limit ourselves to only one big meal a day, preferably lunch.

 

K. gave his lecture this afternoon as we are to sightsee tomorrow.  He said "I'm going out now and may be away some time"  (cf Captain Oates!) and he certainly was.  He came back exhausted as there was no interpreter and the lecture promoted much confused discussion, in which the language problem loomed large.  As K. says, a tour like this is no boondoggle for him;  more like a boondraggle at times.

Friday 12th September

 

After humidity, thunder in the night and raining today.  Up at 6.30 and away at 8.30 with reticent young man as guide.

 

The cyclists were in full flood in both senses, all in colourful plastic capes reflecting a rainbow of colour in the streaming wet road.  K. began aptly to quote Wordsworth "beside the lake, beneath the trees . . . ten thousand saw I at a glance . . ." etc. etc. He is always ready with a quotation that has me laughing.

 

We viewed, with some foreboding, the joys of tramping round a lake in pouring rain.  But the cool air and the fragrance of the pines made a walk quite pleasant and there were few people apart from ourselves save women gardeners in big straw hats standing knee-deep in water with rakes among the lotus leaves.  Whole areas are solid with lotus plants and they have to be thinned or cleared out regularly or there'd be no lake left.

 

The large steamers were plying to and fro, but our guide found us a boat with a canopy, rather punish, with a girl paddling one end, a man the other. The water was quite choppy with a cool damp breeze but it was very enjoyable taking some twenty minutes to reach the lovely little island of Xia Ying Zhou.  Here you can idle on willow causeways and zig-zag bridges, pass through silent groves of bamboos dripping in the rain, see the ribbons of mist rising and the soft blue hills beyond.  In spring it must be a haze of pastel colours when peach and cherry trees flower everywhere and the great rhododendron trees light the pathway with showy candelabras.

 

As we paddled back to the shore, we passed the three miniature stone Pagodas rising from "the three pools that mirror the moon" commemorating, if we understood our guide correctly, the sad love story of the Song poet Lin Hejing. We were by now very ready for lunch in the lakeside pavilion.  This sounds very grand, but in China it is commonplace to eat in a building that is exotic outside and quite simply functional within. 

 

We sat down at a table with a once-white tablecloth, faced with chopsticks, minute saucerlike plates, and flimsy four-inch square paper serviettes, to deal with a variety of meat, fish and vegetables all in different sauces.  No wonder the cloth is stained.

 

K. is a wizard with these malevolent sticks.  But there must be something mechanically wrong with my fingers for the sticks fly apart when they should be closing on a tasty morsel; alas, greed wins and I seize the soup spoon in mortification.

 

The special dish is naturally West Lake Fish.  This is a tender creamy-pink flat fish in a rich brown soy-like sauce.  The fish has very fine bones which the Chinese disinter with ease. The remaining sauce is poured onto your bowl of rice. Like Dr. Johnson commenting favourably on his first experience of Scotch Broth "I don't mind how soon I eat it again", so we felt with West Lake Fish. We followed it with shredded chicken breast and bamboo shoots and tiny sprigs of celery tops (as we deduced them to be, but they could have been anything). This was followed by a huge bowl of clear soup floating with various fungi.

 

There are four main cuisines in China: Hangzhou (sweet); Szechuan 9spicy hot); Canton (bland); peking (duck, dumplings etc.).  Many dishes are gingery and divine.

 

Downstairs in this restaurant there was a pool with floating lily pads into which customers were tossing the almost valueless fen coin which is very light.  They float, unless you're very unlucky, as the Hangzhou water is so pure.  if the coin lands on a lily pad it's even luckier.  K. and I managed to float ours.

 

After lunch we would fain have gone back to the apartment, especially as it was still drizzling, but we were driven off through more tree-lined roads into a narrow gorge where we stopped to see the famous 600-year old cliff carvings of the Laughing Buddha and his close companions.  This Buddha is very obese, clearly a lover of good food and good company.  He is also very popular among present-day Chinese as a sort of Merry Old Soul rather than a deity.  He is called the Maitreya.

 

The Ling Yin Temple was hidden further up the gorge cuddled into a steep hillside smothered in huge trees. You climb up steep steps and through gloomy doorways, when an arresting sight greets you.  The golden figure of a more conventional Buddha, about the height of a two-storey house, looms up and over you, with a truly benign smile for us unbelievers.

 

This Temple for the Rest of the Soul is said to have been built at the beginning of the 4th century AD. What I will remember is the wall of trees framed in every immensely high doorway.  The temple was drowning in trees that you felt might close over it altogether if not watched!

 

Later, supper consisted of Moon cakes and -- you've guessed it, tea!  And K.'s whisky!

Jade_elephant.jpg

PAGODA OF THE SIX HARMONIES

 

One has to hand it to the Chinese, they don't allow unpromising circumstances to abort an enterprise.  With the rain now absolutely lashing down, off we drove to see "something else", character unknown.  Only later did we learn that it was to be this pagoda with the felicitous name (another talent of the Chinese in naming things so poetically).

 

Parking by a steep wooded hillside above the banks of a wide river, we faced a huge flight of steps going heavenwards down which a waterfall gushed, fuelled with mud.  A descending procession of umbrellas dripped past.  K. had to tuck his trousers in his socks.  Our shoes were mud up to the ankles but up we waded nonetheless to emerge on a plateau set around with huge trees, hoary with age. Here this 13-story Pagoda, one of China's most famous monuments, has stood guard above the banks of the Qutangtang River for more than a thousand years.  Built in 970 AD, it was used as a lighthouse to the river's traffic.  It is covered with dark rusty-red paint hardly enlivened by the dull grey unglazed tiling of its many roofs. Even the first storey is high enough to get a fine view of the river which is crossed by a long iron bridge, the first of its kind to be built by the Chinese communists of which they are very proud.  Trains and motor traffic can cross the Qutangtang and, indeed, we will cross it this evening in the Shanghai Express!

ON THE SHANGHAI EXPRESS

 

Still Saturday 13th September

 

The Chinese do not believe in wasting valuable time, hence the religion of punctuality, and they plan things so you arrive at the station with precisely the amount of time it takes to reach the train as it leaves 9if you hurry!)  Prof. Wing and his baggage-carrying research assistant got us through to the platform like a knife through butter.

 

We were in a forward carriage of "soft class", very grand with lace antimacassars on the seat backs, and soft lights.  We sat back with a sigh of relief.  In the packed streets of the Saturday evening rush hour, it had seemed highly unlikely we would catch the train.  Now we could look out on the sodden grey landscape we were leaving with little regret.  We were going further south, the sun might shine.

 

Just as the train was about to leave, a party of about ten Japanese businessmen filled the empty space around us.  They were in jovial spirits, and laden with Chiang Lee beer cans and bottles of Ballantynes Scotch.  K. already had the near-empty bottle of Glenfiddich before us.

 

Later, enveloped in their cigarette smoke, we nevertheless viwed the proceedings with amusement.  As they had no glasses and had drunk all the beer, they had to pour their whisky into the empty cans.  K. had his small set of whisky glasses, so lent them the two spares whereupon they all insisted in offering us their Ballantyne's.  K. responded nobly with the last of his malt.  As our tongues loosened noticeably, spontaneous bonhomie ensued and conversational gambits were essayed in French, German, even Russian, but only to risible effect.

 

Now we were being showered with titbits to go with the drinks.  K. muttered asides to me that sounded like "dried dung", and "rabbit pellets", as we cautiously nibbled.  Something called "Sooramoy" resembled bits of used pipe cleaner but tasted good.  One young man kept jumping up from behind to present me with packets of Japanese candy.  These were to come in exceptionally useful when travelling home.

 

Then a jolly older man with prominent gold teeth, fanning himself with a paper fan, indicated with the utmost politeness (but no English) he wanted to know my age.  When I told him, everyone broke into clapping and delighted laughter, shaking my hand in apparent amazed incredulity.  One character, aged 58, had considered himself a patriarch until I came along.

 

K. was then given a fine sheet of Japanese stamps all depicting delectable maidens.  I was presented with a beautiful cigarette lighter.  It was all getting too much!

 

By now, K. had business cards from everyone with explanation of whom they worked for.  He had to give them his in return, and they all gathered, heads together, to pore over it and puzzle out the D.A.M.T.P. bit.  Finally they gave up, and pointing to their foreheads, indicated so.

 

Hilarity fuelled by whisky, the beer, the gifts, and final mugs of green tea, continued until we drew into Shanghai dead on time.  "Sayonaras" exchanged, and our party broke up in a frenzy of baggage and goodwill.

 

My final memory of these very jolly gentlemen was of one of them gathering up all the debris into a bag, and another meticulously dusting into his beer can the last tiny crumb off our table.  Would that this were the custom on British Rail!