Jazz Journalist Abroad -- Svirchev's China Journal
Beijing, after being constantly stared at by the people of Inner Mongolia, and the long distances from place to place, was a relief. But I was sad to leave the blue skies and the village with no electricity and change it for the hustle, sultry heat and the absolute pollution of a big city. China, as part of its bid for the Olympics, promised to rid the city of the scourge of pollution. I really don't care about the Olympics, but I can tell you the lungs and eyes of the population will be well served by this promise.
I have traveled with Fan Qing for almost two weeks, and we get along quite well. So we went for a walk in a distant park called "Fragrant Hills." The park is peaceful, full of old temples, and people walking up the mountain, and youngsters scampering around the pools (sometimes translation is funny, see the photo "Funny Sign"). We took a cable car to the top, holding hands, and when I got to view the back side of the fragrant hills, there were about six coal-fired power plants pumping smoke into the air. Beijing and every other city will have to drastically modify the controls of these plants, not to mention the two cycle internal combustion engines that proliferate the country.
But if I have learned one thing about the Chinese, it is that they are scrupulously honest: when they say they will do something, they get it done. (When they do not want to commit themselves, they change the subject -- no face is lost by admitting an unadmittable. Or at least that is the way this amateur China observer sees it).
One day I went to Tian Tan. It is essentially a huge park, in feudal times off limits to anyone but the Emperor, family, and retainers. In the old days, Tian Tan was used to uphold the Heavenly Mandate. Chinese ancient philosophy said that humans, the middle kingdom, were subject to the Mandate of Heaven. The emperors, as part of their duties, were to hold ceremonies for good harvests, wisdom in governing, military successes, and whatever the middle kingdom needed for success. Tian Tan was the place the emperor made his ritual sacrifices.
Today the mandate of heaven has turned into tourist hell. It is next to impossible to get a photo without 10,000 people stepping in front of you. Nevertheless, I waited until the end of the day. Miraculously, the clouds cleared and with them the tourists went to get their dinners. I got the shot to show the scope of the main temple ("Tian Tan 1"). But when I left the temple grounds, I spotted Mom and two kids eating some chicken and thought, "My, 70 years ago this family would not have gotten near this place." Besides, the angle of the photo outside the gates gives a lot for the imagination.
From Beijing I went south to meet a pen pal, a young arts student named I will name GG. She was cute and had some cute friends. The city was three hours south of Beijing, and no foreigners go there, so I got to be scared at again. But another pattern became clear. Everyone treated GG as "my transl ator." Her constant reply was, "I am not his translator, I am his friend." Her pride was lovely and her attempts to teach me Mandarin and her desires to learn English were commendable. She told me at one point that she was different from most of her friends, and thought she would do better in life in a western country. I could only tell her that if I could help her in any way, that I would. And further, she should try and visit or study in another country to improve her ability to see the world and China for what they are.
One day all four of us went to see some tombs. An ancient Emperor knew his end (and the end of his wife) was coming. In preparation for his death, he had a tomb dug. And secretly, he had the real burial spots carved into the stone of a mountain. This guy knew about grave-robbers! He lived out his last days in the cave, and when he died, his burial suit was made of thousands of pieces of jade sewn together. A couple of decades ago, construction workers found the entrance; of course the grain in the pots had long go rotted, and the weight of the jade collapsed his bones.
We arrived in the area to the sounds of explosions from the nearby granite and stone quarries, and amidst the stink of a manufacturing plant belching coal exhaust into the air. The burial caves, however, were deep and cool, immune from the booms and the nitrogen oxides. The suits were facsimiles, the real-deal contained in Beijing museums.
>From this city I went south to the deep south: Guilin in Guanxi Province. I am living with another friend and her basketball-playing daughter. We went to Tien Tou Zhai on the Long Ji Terraces. This is an area in the mountains, its documented history going back 600 years. Here the people have built amazing terraces for growing rice in the mountains. I will not describe it in words, just give you some pictures. We walked four hours into the mountains to get to the guest house, no cars, no noisy karaoke or TV, the air fresh as a British Columbia mountain meadow. For four nights, two of us ate and slept for 480 yuan ($100). In the photos you will see the male owners of the guest house killing the snake I had for dinner the first night (snake and chicken soup, both freshly slaughtered). You will also see a woman working in the fields, her work clothes a contrast to the never-ending green of the rice fields. There is also to smiling wife of the owner. She and the men are from the Yi minority, and the women -- at least the older ones -- wear this distinctive headdress.
One annoyance was the women waiting at the bus stop yammering in pidgin English, "Hello-hello, long-hair photo 5 yuan!" Me: "5 yuan photo no hair!" Of course they don't understand a word.
These people work hard: no chainsaws, just tough feet and strong shoulders.
copyright © 2001 Laurence Svirchev