After breakfast we checked out of the Trader's Hotel where we had stayed since arriving in China. We arrived on Saturday night June 9th, 2007. It is now Tuesday June 12th.
This morning Lifeng took us on a tour of the Summer Palace. The summer palace is actually a very large complex with many buildings. The grounds of the summer palace cover several hundred acres. The entire complex is situated around a large (300 acre?) reservoir called Kunming Lake. The lake was expanded at one point by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. We took our time walking around and taking in the sights. Lifeng told us that in the winter the lake freezes over and people ice skate on it.
We saw a stone bridge leading out to a small island in the middle of the lake. The bridge had seventeen arches. Lifeng asked us if we knew why the bridge had 17 arches. We had no idea of course. The reason is that the center arch, the largest, was the emperors arch. Only the emperor could pass through that arch on his boat. In China the number 9 is considered the emperors number. With 17 arches you could count from either end of the bridge and the center arch will be arch number 9.
There were many people on the grounds of the palace. People sightseeing, reading, playing chess or mahjong, exercising or just enjoying being outside in a beautiful setting. We saw men with "brushes" they had constructed by placing an inverted bottle of water at the bottom of a stick with a rag at the bottom to wick the water down and act as a brush. Using their "brush" they would slowly walk along backwards "writing" on the dark grey stone paths. They were writing in beautiful Chinese calligraphy. As they moved along the oldest characters they had created would slowly disappear as the water evaporated from the stone path. It was really fascinating to watch.
We walked to the far end of the palace grounds and then took a boat across the lake back to our starting point.
After visiting the Palace we drove to an area of Beijing in the middle of the site of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The games were scheduled to start in August of 2008. 8-8-8 to be exact. Even in selecting the start date of the Olympics you can see the Chinese fascination with numbers. Lifeng stopped at a local restaurant for lunch. Our meal was Chinese and very good. The only thing we really missed was ice for our drinks.
As we were leaving the area Lifeng pulled to the side of the road so I could take a picture of the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium. At this point the stadium was still under construction. With the games set to begin in only 14 months I didn't think they would be ready. Well, as we all now know, they were ready.
The picture of the stadium was taken at about 2pm. The day was cloudless, however the smog was bad as you can see. It looked like an overcast cloudy day. I estimated the visibility on the freeway at less than a mile. I asked Lifeng if the smog was always this bad. His response? "Oh no, in the winter it is much worse." I can't imagine!
Our time in Beijing was now over. After lunch Lifeng drove us to the Beijing airport. After helping us check in for our flight and making sure we made it through security and out to our gate Lifeng left us for the next part of our adventure. We were flying to Chongqing for a 4 day cruise on the Yangtze river.
While waiting on our flight we became keenly aware that for the first time in our lives we were the only Caucasian American people in a large place filled with hundreds, if not thousands of people. We attracted many looks and stares. I felt sure that we must be the first Caucasians that some of these people had ever seen. I was even approached by one man, who with a big smile on his face, proceeded to examine my face from about 10 inches away. We soon came to realize that the Chinese don't necessarily have the same concept of "personal space" as we Americans do.
After being extremely careful to make sure we did not miss our flight or get on the wrong one we finally boarded buses to be carried to our plane. All the flight announcements and boarding calls were being made in Chinese only.
Flying within China can be interesting to say the least. I can't remember now which airline we used to fly to Chongqing. I think it was Sezchuan Airlines and we used China Southern from Wuhan to Guangzhou. The flight was filled to capacity with what appeared to be working men returning to their homes after working in Beijing. You have never had bad airline food until you have had bad Chinese airline food. Some of the offerings were unidentifiable to us. Fortunately the flight was only a little over 2 hours.
Since he would not be with us during this part of our trip Lifeng had made arrangements for a colleague to meet us at the airport and arrange transfer to the cruise ship.
We made it through the airport and were able to meet up with our guide without incident. The guide showed us out to a van and we loaded our bags and began driving through Chongqing.
Chongqing municipality is now the most populated "city" in China with over 34 million residents. Simply incomprehensible.
Our guide was great in telling us the history and customs of Chongqing. She told us that the city was where some of the American pilots were based during WWII. She was very proud of the fact that the pilots that flew "over the hump" flew in and out of her city.
We (I) only had one incident in China that left me very unnerved and at one point frightened. It happened in Chongqing on the way to board the cruise. Our guide suggested stopping at a store so that we could stock up on snacks and soft drinks for the cruise. She said it would be much cheaper than the prices on the ship. She had the driver pull over and park in front of what looked like a convenience store on a major downtown street. The driver and guide got out of the van followed by the 3 of us. Mary Louise and Greg Jr. followed the guide into the store while the driver walked up onto the sidewalk. I noticed that the van was unlocked and I was concerned that our luggage and carryons were all in the van. I decided to grab the backpack that I was using as a carryon since it contained the major portion of our cash. (We were required to pay the Chinese adoption fees in cash. Not just any cash, but brand new American 100 dollar bills. Thus we had several thousand dollars in cash on us.) I was now torn as to what to do. My wife and son were inside the store and here I stood on a street in China worried about our belongings. About this time I noticed 3 locals had walked up behind our van and had actually pressed their foreheads against the back window to look inside at our luggage. Concern was now approaching panic. I looked up on the side walk at the driver and fortunately I caught his eye and I think he could sense the concern on my face. He immediately threw down the cigarette he was smoking and walked to the van and locked all the doors. About this time Greg Jr. came out and said "mom needs you inside". Still very shaken and concerned I told him to go tell his mother to get out here we are leaving right now. Greg then said "but she needs money to pay, her bag is in the van." I handed him my wallet and told him to go pay and get back out here immediately. Upon exiting the store Mary Louise was understandably very annoyed with my actions since she had no idea what had transpired. Our guide was also confused and concerned but we all got in the van and drove off. Had the three men decided they wanted our bags things would have turned very ugly very fast. If we had lost that money we would have had no choice but to make arrangements to immediately return to the U.S. without Paul William. That was not going to happen. I would have defended our belongings, died trying or ended up in a Chinese prison. Thankfully nothing happened.
On the way to the cruise ship our guide explained that due to the very hilly terrain in Chongqing that there had developed a profession only found in this city in China. There are men who will carry things up and down the hills and many steps of this city. They will carry anything. Buy a new refrigerator, they will get it up the steps to your apartment. Need help getting your luggage down the steps to a cruise ship, they can do it. They are called "bong bong". I have no idea what that means, but for $10 they carried all of our luggage (except the carryon's of course) down the steep steps to the edge of the Yangtze River to our ship. I was happy to pay the $10.
We boarded the ship and checked in and were shown to our cabin. I guess you can call it a cabin. The ship was built in Germany for a Russian river cruise line. The little engraved name plates over the hatches and valves were all in Russian. I am pretty sure our "cabin" was originally intended as crew quarters. The cabin was located on the main deck of the ship. Most of the passenger cabins were on the 2 decks above. We entered the cabin and found 3 single beds in a long narrow room. 2 beds on the right side end to end and one on the left at the far end of the cabin. We did have a port hole. When you looked out you realized the surface of the Yangtze was about a foot below the bottom of the port hole. That meant that as you stood in our cabin the surface of the river was about level with your chest. The "bathroom" was about 4 x 4. The type where you can sit on the toilet, brush your teeth over the sink and take a shower, all at the same time. The quarters were tight with 3 of us and all our luggage but we didn't expect to be spending much time there other than sleeping. We were on a tight budget and this was the cheapest way to take the cruise. The website for the cruise line barely mentioned that they happened to have a couple of cabins that would accommodate 3 people and they didn't even show a floor plan or mention the location on the ship.
We settled in and relaxed a little before dinner. After dinner we explored the ship and turned in for a good nights sleep before the ship departed the next morning.
Next installment . . . The 3 Gorges and the Ghost City