Home Safe

As I grabbed our last bag off the carousel, my mobile rang with a call from my sister C.  This was the first I heard about the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, China.  We had considered traveling there, based on a recommendation from a Sichuan local we’d met while visiting the rice paddies, but the stomach flu cut our travel schedule a day or so short.  So, we were never anywhere really near the danger zone (though some did feel it in Beijing, I understand).

Thanks for everyone who contacted us to make sure we were safe.  This adds a sad note to our great experiences in China, with the warmth of the Chinese people and the beauty of the country.  When I visit a place, I get an emotional connection to it, making it more real for me, and I hope we can somehow help… though with so many lives lost, so much destruction, it’s a little hard knowing we can only help the survivors, and then only so much.  M and I feel really lucky.  (Sorry, this comes out rather clumsy, but I don’t really know what to say in the face of something like this… I guess I just wanted to let everyone know we’re safe.)

Back in Beijing

We stayed in sleek Shanghai for several days, recovering (first M had the stomach flu, then I played the copycat the next day, though with much milder symptoms).  We saw the impressive Shanghai Museum and the amusingly propagandistic Museum of Urban Planning, shopped in a trendy hutong and in the shops outside (and inside) Yuyuan Garden, walked the Bund and saw the Pearl from across the river, and spent a rainy day in art galleries, all with free lodgings, bikes, and frequent use of a driver.  Our hostess was very gracious, which I hope we can repay when she visits her daughter (our friend K) in Chapel Hill.  I worked a bit, too, attending a few telcons and answering some emergency emails.
But we’ve been back in Beijing for a few days, seeing a few sites we’d missed the first time we were here.  Today we saw a Taoist temple; it was quite a welcome novelty after seeing so many Buddhas in temples and museums… I’m as weary of images of Buddha as I was the ubiquitous “Madonna and Child” motif after months traveling Europe years back.  We also visited a small unrestored temple with gorgeous carvings and statues… they had the original intricate paints, not the cartoonish solid-colors of most of the refurbished temples we’ve seen here.

I was surprised at first to see so many active Buddhists praying in the temples here, since I thought most religion was wiped out in the Cultural Revolution, as it largely was in Soviet Russia.  But M pointed out that the larger number of religions here may have led to a more adaptable approach… Communism is just one more bureaucratic religion that will be absorbed into China, the latest of many.

We then went to a huge bookstore, bustling with hundreds of people; I was hoping to find some English-language translations of Chinese science fiction stories, having read some Soviet sci-fi stories in the past and being interested in the Chinese take on it.   No such luck, though we did get some music CDs and a novel about the Mongolian steppes.

Finally, we ended our stay in China in teahouses… first in one in a hotel, then, coincidentally, dinner at another in the lakes district.


We spent a day looking around Guilin, another day on the rice terraces, then took the bus down to Yangshuo.  Guilin was nice enough, and interesting to see (we spent most of the day in a natural amusement park of sorts, including the sad zoo, where we did get to see a panda), but the terraces and Yangshuo were spectacular.

Up in the mountains with the rice terraces, we saw the a show by the indigenous women (they have long hair, which they tie in buns atop their heads and wear like a turban), then climbed the peaks and even went a bit off the normal tourist-clogged hilltop onto the narrow trails between stepped paddies.  Here again, the lie was put to Chinese Communism, as these people were both poor and opportunistically capitalist, hawking their souvenirs aggressively in the villages and along the trails (not that we could blame them for preferring that to working the fields, and we did buy this and that).  But the sights were gorgeous, and I’d love to see more of it.

Then down to Yangshuo. This is the area of China with the striking narrow mountains, shrouded in mist.  The first day there, having started a bit late, we biked out to the river and took a bamboo raft back down, then climbed to the top of a small mountain called Moon Hill, a striking peak we’d unknowingly seen from the raft, with a semicircular arch through its middle.  At first, we got to the arch, where there was a scenic view.  But then we followed an unmarked, unpaved trail further out, and eventually up, to the top of the “hill”.  Up there, the sky and the mountains were even more spectacular.  The climb was a doozy, but it was worth it.

That night, we stayed in a place appropriately named Fawlty Towers; it was cheap, but we found out why, with a dubious bathroom, no topsheets or duvet covers for the musty and questionable blankets, and, worst of all, some bizarre wiring problem that caused the ceiling lamp to suddenly start flashing erratically (though it was turned off) at 3 AM.  When I stumbled downstairs to complain, they made us move rooms.  Don’t stay there.

The next day, we rented bikes again, and hired a guide to show us around on a bike tour of the local villages.  It rained most of the day, and I was covered in mud by the end.  We stopped at one of the villages for lunch, whereupon our guide tried to convert us… to Christianity!  I asked him to tell us about the countryside and the villages instead, but he kept coming back to religion, until I had to insist he stop it.  Truth to tell, he wasn’t much of a tour guide, showing us the path but not pointing out or explaining any of the sites unless we asked, and not even much then.  But we still had a good ride over bumpy country roads, and we cought a shower and a plane out to Shanghai.

… Where M promptly fell ill.  Luckily, we’re staying with the mother of a friend, who had their driver take us to a clinic.  Gastroenteritis, apparently, and a nasty case of it, so we are taking it easy today.