Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I really wish I were a good travel writer, but I'm not. I'm not very visual, and that's a lot of what makes for good travel writing-- being able to convey what you see. This isn't the first time I've noticed this; I've been on half a dozen really wonderful trips in my life, and I've never been satisfied with my ability to convey the experience. That is my excuse for why I wrote all that setup in the previous post and haven't written anything since. I would love to be able to type out something that would give you an idea of what China was like, because it was an amazing, amazing experience. I wish we could have stayed much longer. But there's just no way I will be able to do it justice.

But there are a few things to say before I move on (in the next post, which I hope will be soon) to the Michael Chabon book I read while we were gone, Maps and Legends. Sometimes you just want to pick up the phone and thank someone for writing something, and that's the way I felt while reading several of his essays. And that's saying something, because I hate talking on the phone and I almost never want to pick up the phone and call someone. But that's another post.

So back to the topic at hand, which is the trip to China. A friend once told me her approach to vacations: rather than expecting the whole time to be a mountain top experience and inevitably being disappointed, try to be on the lookout for particular moments that are good. It's an approach that has worked well for me. So in that spirit, I'll describe a few moments from our trip.

There was climbing on the Great Wall, of course, which happened the first full day we were there. It was far steeper than I was expecting, so it was a lot of work, and since I was with my husband and my son, of course we had to go up the steep side. I sent them on ahead and kept toiling along by myself, but there was no way I was going to stop until I got to the top. My quads were quivering, my knees were aching, my heart was pounding, and since it was quite warm, I was, um..., glowing, as they say. Not exactly the time to expect any great spiritual insights. But about three-quarters of the way up, I sat down on one of the (ramparts? I'm not sure the right word to use) to catch my breath, and got sucked right into one. Not an enlightenment type thing, I won't make any claims to that, but a moment of complete, utter peace. It was lovely. And that was just the first day. :-)

The third day we flew to Shanghai, and then drove to a town called Suzhou. After lunch we visited a former Buddhist temple turned public park called Tiger Hill. It was the only time on our entire trip that I was able to find a spot to be alone while we were out and about. (There are an amazing number of people in China!) I found a low wall to sit on in an out-of-the-way corner and watched the breeze move through the bamboo for about fifteen minutes (we didn't get to stay anywhere very long on this trip). And the same thing happened. As I sat and stilled myself, I was met by a vast sense of peace and deep silence. I wanted to stay right there for a very long time.

That deep sense of peacefulness was something I sensed several times on our trip, and I'm not sure how to explain it. My sense was that it was something to do with China-- the land and the Chinese culture. But I'm not sure. It could also have been as simple as being away from all the everyday chaos and stress of my usual life. But whatever it was, it was lovely. Delicious, even. I would be willing to pay the money over again just to go back and see if it would happen again. But I would want to stay longer next time.

On the downside, the trip was pretty well scripted. It was never outright stated, but it seemed clear that the trip had been subsidized by the Chinese government. They are unabashedly trying to improve the image of China in the world's eyes, as you could tell during the Olympics. So they've arranged these trips jointly with American Chambers of Commerce, and apparently thousands of people have visited China this way. It's not the kind of travel we usually do, but given the difficulties of travelling in China, we figured it was the only way we'd ever go.

My spouse and I had a very interesting conversation with our tour guide about human rights during the tedium of a long bus ride. He is 34, and has been a tour guide for about ten years. He seemed exasperated by the insistence of the foreign press on human rights. "Human rights, human rights, human rights, it's all we hear from them," he said at one point. "But we don't feel like we don't have human rights." His voice seemed honestly frustrated. He was very clear that he didn't like the way his government controls information, but he seemed to think that the human rights issue wasn't as big as all of us wanted to make it. There were more than a few very pointed questions from members of our group about Tibet, Tian'nanmen Square, etc, and he answered them all with what felt like a fair amount of openness, although it was clear that he was wording things carefully on occasion. It was very interesting, and thought provoking. He also spoke with a great deal of pride about the people of China, and how proud they are of how far their country has come. I had a brief but distinct picture of an ancient people with a long, long history, to whom the current government is simply another flash in the pan. They aren't all that disturbed by it, they are just waiting it out. (I got a bit of the same sense when my Chinese teacher told us that he feels many of the government's more repressive policies will change once the two remaining, elderly hardline party members pass away; no one wants to change any of their policies while they're still alive out of respect for them)(which is bizarre by American standards, but makes some sense when you understand a bit about the Chinese respect for tradition, their ancestors, and their elders.).

When I've tried to talk to people about this since we got back, there's been a fair amount of gently disdainful disbelief, as if we had naively succumbed to the propaganda of the Chinese government. And maybe we did. But I did come away from it thinking that the situation was, as seems always to be the case, far more complicated than we would like it to be. We want to believe that a Communist government is necessarily bad, and ignores human rights, and that's that. But like I said, having been there, it seems more complicated than that.

Anyway. I think that's all I have to say that I can put into words. It was a great trip. I knew I would be interested, even fascinated, by the different culture, but I didn't know I would fall in love, if it is possible to fall in love with a country. There is a warmth, a loveliness, that underlies the surface that draws you in, makes you want more. There's also a great deal of cruelty, both in the current government and their past history, but we'd be hypocritical indeed to hold that against them given our own record. I hope I get to go again, and next time stay several weeks.

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