Continued from yesterday’s blog post:
One particular January in 1988, my American friend and I started our trip to Hong Kong by traveling the east coast of China. Our first stop was Shan Hai Guan, the beginning of the Great Wall of China situated on the Bohai Sea. Interesting to take pictures of the frozen swirls of the tide. Looking at old pictures of this part of the amazing structure, you know why it is called the “Head of the Dragon.”
Both being single at the time, we sat on a famous rock with Chinese characters engraved into it reading: “Woman Waiting for Her Husband.” We learned of past horrors visited upon the Chinese people while men were building the Great Wall. Perhaps this rendition is more legend than true story, but just the same, I’m sure many men did die as they built this edifice that can be seen from the moon. Here is the summary:
Some newlyweds were about to enjoy their wedding night together when came a rude interruption. The groom was seized and ordered by the emperor to put in hard labor at the Great Wall. After his wife had waited for his return, she remembered that he did not have enough clothes to keep him warm in the colder weather. When she arrived with an extra bundle to where he was working on the Wall, his co-workers told her that her husband had already died. He had been buried alive under the rubble of the Great Wall. When hearing this tragic news, the young wife began to cry and the heavens opened up and it began to rain. It rained so hard that part of the Wall broke loose to reveal his remains.
Sad story yes, so my friend and I kept traveling south convinced that singleness might be better for us after all. We next traveled to the seaport city of Shanghai. We could hear a lot of the boat traffic on the river especially along the famous boulevard, the Bund. We were told that during Chairman Mao’s tyrannical reign, his wife was even obsessed with the power he had. Whenever she visited Shanghai, she would order that all river traffic stop so that she could sleep at night. Each boat gave its own toot, bellow, horn or whistle. What a welcome relief for the Chinese when Mao’s wife was sentenced to imprisonment for her many crimes against the people.
I always liked to listen to the music of the people who knew how to play their traditional Chinese instruments. The haunting, lilting sounds of the peepaw (my spelling) and the erho (er=two and ho= strings) instruments were so unusual to my western ears. We left Shanghai for Hengzhou, said to be one of the most beautiful cities in China. I was also informed that the most beautiful women were found in Hengzhou. Or was it Suzhou, obviously I wasn’t looking at women and I was still waiting for my husband…
I digress; we enjoyed seeing West Lake and also going high atop North Peak. At that time there was a cable car to give us an overlook of the sites of Hengzhou. My friend and I went to the famous Linyin temple where many brightly colored and freshly painted Buddhas were worshipped. Fortunately, from a tourist’s perspective, this temple was NOT destroyed because of all the history behind it. The Cultural Revolution found many Red Guards tearing down building structures and these vandals destroyed much other of their own Hengzhou history.
We were not allowed to take photos of the 50-foot statues of the Buddhas. Also, there was no way of capturing and bottling the smell of burning incense at the altars. The whole place was filled with an overpowering, thick smell of incense from years and years of worshipping the big guy sitting on his haunches.
We were fortunate to take a tour of the largest silk factory in Asia when we visited Hengzhou. At that time this factory employed 6,000 workers, using three shifts that worked around the clock. We were shown the cocoon that the silk worm uses. I still have the ones I bought as decorative pieces which were cut into small tulips on a stem. Our tour guide told us that the cocoons were boiled for 12 minutes before the girls gather eight together to spin into a single thread. They make sure that the single thread does not break before it gets on to the big spindles that kept rotating.
Trivia we learned: Did you know that it takes 700 cocoons to make one skein of silk? The thread is silky soft and pure white. This pure silk thread is dyed in different colors and put on smaller spools. What we observed was that a pattern like a computer punch out card was used with the appropriate color punched through the hole on the bolt of the red fabric. Whew, I wonder how many modern-day slaves are actually being used to do this manual labor or maybe it has all been mechanized by now.
We left Hengzhou to take a train to Xiamen or what had been formerly known as Amoy. We stayed on the island of Gulangyu, which is adjacent to Xiamen. Cars and motorcycles were prohibited on this place, not even bicycles were allowed. How nice to not have to worry about being run down by anyone while walking on this island. We were told that on the peak, you could see Taiwan on a clear day.
I felt like I could really relax at this place which used to be a resort island for the Europeans. One particular guesthouse on this tranquil island was a beautiful mansion in its day. It looked like it had earlier served as a private dwelling judging by the gate on the outside. It may have been owned by a British family with their family crest at the top of the gate, but you could only see the traces left that it had been built in 1935.
Naturally any other reminders of European habitation had been scratched out. We understood from the locals that the Red Guard had defaced many stately buildings and this particular mansion was no exception. The Cultural Revolution during 1966-76 was a dangerous time for any foreigner who remained in China. The buildings the Europeans left behind took quite a beating, I’m wondering how the former foreign owners of this building fared.
By the end of our trip with our destination as Hong Kong, we took another overnight 17 hours on an ocean liner from Xiamen. We had already logged in 70 hours by train from Harbin with all our other touristy stops along the East Coast of China. I can’t remember much about our return trip to Harbin but I’m sure it didn’t take as long if we took the direct train route from Guangzhou to Beijing and then from Beijing to Harbin. I DO remember that taking this trip one January was like doing a 100-degree drop in temperature almost from Harbin to Hong Kong.
(to be continued with my trip to China in 2000 and 2001 – what a change!)