By Robert Ross

On China


"China is a sleeping giant. Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakes, she will astonish the world."

China has awoken. Her sleep has been long, and not without nightmares, but she is awake now, yawning and stretching . . . make no mistake, the sleeping giant is awake.

The flight on China Air from San Francisco to Shanghai was thirteen hours long. Thirteen hours of airline meals, thirteen hours of Fred Astaire and Debbie Reynolds' movies and thirteen hours of anticipating what would lie ahead. As I squirmed in my seat, attempting to make the long flight as tolerable as possible, images of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City drifted through my mind, visions of Chairman Mao and the Shanghai of old - of brothels and westerners being scurried about in rickshaws. Images that would prove to be false soon after we landed in Shanghai.

The wing of the airport in which we debarked was bleak - bathrooms without toilet paper, barren walls and fluorescent lighting that gave an eerie hue as it reflected off the concrete walls; austere conditions typical of other communist nations that I had visited in the past. But as we picked up our luggage I noticed something that was inconsistent with this scene - a well dressed American businessman picking up his golf clubs.

Shanghai is the largest city in China, with thirteen million people. Shanghai is also said to have the largest number of construction projects underway in the world, including the world's tallest building which is soon to be completed.

Over the last ten years, since the institution of market reforms, China, and more specifically Shanghai, has been on the top of the list for international companies looking for foreign opportunities. This was soon evident as we toured the city the following morning. First a MacDonalds was spotted, then another, then a Pizza Hut, then a Kentucky Fried Chicken, then a slew of western hotels and billboards selling various products. Streets were lined with businesses everywhere we looked. It was clear that not only were market reforms in place in China, but capitalism was in full bloom.

From my tenth-story hotel room I gazed out at a sea of concrete high-rise buildings that stretched as far as the eye could see. With a population of 1.2 billion, this sight of endless concrete skyscrapers would be a common scene as we toured China.

The following day we left Shanghai for Guilin. As we drove to the airport, Annie our tour guide, sang to us in Chinese. (Those Chinese people who are interested in making contact with the west usually have adopted western names along with their Chinese names. Obviously, Annie's western name was much easier to pronounce than her Chinese name.) I drifted off into my thoughts - with some impressions of Shanghai that would prove to be consistent throughout the trip.

First and foremost was the sheer number of people. People were everywhere in China . . . the streets were always filled and the most prized of all of those people were the children. With the one child per family policy well entrenched in the culture, that one child was, to quote our tour guide, "spoiled and pampered" but I also noticed that they were treasured and nurtured. Additionally bicycles, like people are everywhere. They are the dominant mode of transportation in all of China.

When Richard Nixon opened up China to western eyes and western thought, he, along with subsequent visits by U.S. presidents, toured the picturesque area of Guilin.

Guilin is an hour-and-a-half flight southeast of Shanghai. David, our tour guide met us at the airport. Friendly, with a sense of humor, David would typify what we would encounter on our journey - a friend-ly people, eager to participate in this new economy, eager to learn about the west and eager to speak English.

Our tour of Guilin, (and Shanghai, Xi'an and Beijing) was, more often than not, a reminder of Chinese history. A history of emperors and dynasties dating back over two-thousand years. Dynasties, emperors and uprisings, we would soon learn, were the reoccurring themes of Chinese history.

Guilin is especially noted for its beautiful mountainous scenery. Limestone hills jutted out of the earth like humps on the back of a camel. And, the famous trip down the Li River to view the spectacular sights was a must for the tourist. It was also on the river boat tour that it became abundantly clear that the market economy has its pitfalls. The last hundred yards to the boat were dubbed the "gauntlet" by our group. A couple of a dozen stalls on each side and vendors yelling "Hello, hello," coming on with a vengeance as we tried to make our way to the tour boat. Not only were the vendors loud, but aggressive as they followed us, grabbing our arms and waving whatever it was that they were selling in our faces. The problem was, the more they pestered, the more the tourists bought. This "gauntlet" scene would repeat itself at every tourist attraction we visited throughout China.

Xi'an, an hour-and-a-half flight north of Guilin, is home to the famous terra cotta soldiers that we've all seen in National Geographic or travel brochures. This was probably the most fascinating aspect of the trip - viewing the life-sized and lifelike terra cotta soldiers that were buried with the first Emperor. These soldiers were recently discovered and excavation is ongoing, with eight thousand soldiers expected to be excavated at the final count. It is said that the Emperor wanted to bury the actual garrison brigade but he feared an uprising if the word got out prematurely. So, he had life like replicas made to be buried with him upon his death.

We also visited a terra cotta factory where tourists could buy imitations (in various sizes) of the real terra cotta soldiers. My tour group shopped "hot and heavy" as they did at all of the shopping opportunities we were given.

Beijing, an hour and a half north by plane, was probably the least attractive of the cities we visited, with an endless sea of high-rise buildings and commerce galore. During our stay in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City and the now famous Tian-anmen Square. Tiananmen Square was nothing like I had seen or imaged (I thought is was more bleak and isolated) but in reality it abutted up against a major thoroughfare. We also attended a performance of Beijing opera, and of course were given various "opportunities" where we could shop (a cloisonne factory, etc.).

Our trip came to an end after two intensive weeks of traveling. I really didn't want to leave though. I was getting quite used to our routine of sightseeing and eating delicious Chinese meals for lunch and dinner (our breakfast was always western style).

China is a fascinating country and if you have any desire to visit, now is the time. The preferred times for traveling in China are the Spring and Fall months. Beijing can be oppressively hot and polluted during the summer. Our trip was quite inexpensive. Do shop around though, there are many companies offering package trips.

It is possible to travel on your own in China, but since most of us don't speak or read Chinese, having everything planned in advance saves a lot of time and energy.

Napoleon had it right with his prophecy - keep an eye on the giant, for after she stretches and yawns, you can rest assured that China will . . . astonish the world.

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at:    

Copyright 1999 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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