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Orient Impressions: China


Susan-081012-Pagoda

We planned our schedule to allow us to be with Chabad for most Shabbatot, where we ate better than usual. At Chabad of Beijing we met tourists from the UK, Israel, South America, lawyers, business people, kashrut supervisors, high techies, students of Chinese and acupuncture, teachers at Chabad’s international school. One American couple on a vegetarian tour dined in Buddhist vegan restaurants.[1] We had packed a small electric ring and plenty of food from Israel and supplemented our supplies with fruits, vegetables, eggs, canned legumes and unshelled peanuts, though potatoes were too muddy to handle.

A refrigerator was a basic necessity. When we found no minibar at our Lijiang hotel, the manager rushed over early in the morning to help. Since his English was rudimentary, we used creative means to explain ourselves. After we showed him a minibar on the Internet, then clicked on the hotel ad, he finally got it. We were still unpacking when employees hauled in a brand new fridge and plugged it in! Anxious to please his Western guests, the manager also arranged vegetarian items for us at breakfast such as plain steamed rice, salad vegetables and hard-boiled eggs. “What does plain mean?” he asked. “Like this apple here,” I told him.

After Beijing we reached Xian, where we viewed the bell and drum towers and the restored city wall. After dark we took a bus to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda area with its fountains and music. The city layout has remained unchanged since the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), when Xian had a strategic position on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking Central Asia and China. The next day we saw the terracotta soldiers of lifelike size that were discovered in 1974. They were meant to accompany self-appointed Emperor Qin (246-210 B.C.E.) in his afterlife, along with 48 childless concubines who were buried alive to entertain him. Many workers and artisans were also entombed with him to preserve the secrets of the mausoleum. Qin’s main achievement was to unify northern China and expand his empire far southwards. However, within three years of his death, the oppressed masses revolted, burning and destroying much of his ceramic army. A movie was shown to provide a historical perspective.

The Shaanxi Province History Museum had an impressive collection, skillfully crafted artifacts of bronze, silver, agate, brocade and celadon — valuable greenish porcelain. Memorable also were a bronze garlic-head shaped flask from the Han dynasty and ancient paper made of hemp fiber and ramie. We ate our food in the museum’s souvenir shop. I ordered jasmine tea, which was fragrant, delicious and expensive. It comes unstrained with a stack of leaves at the bottom of the glass. As the Chinese reuse their tealeaves three times, I thriftily packed them away in a plastic bag for the long train ride. The waitress who came to clean up showed her consternation in an animated discussion with her colleague. We guessed the likely gist of her words, “I can’t believe it — that crazy white woman wolfed down all the tea leaves!” On overnight train trips, by the way, VIP tickets are best; otherwise you’ll have some strange bedfellows.

We proceeded to Shanghai, where the free museum has exhibitions showing pottery and jade throughout the ages and national costumes. We toured the old part of town, also venturing into back streets with courtyard houses and alleys. We boarded a night boat to see the spectacular riverside lights.

The last week in October brought us to the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan. Huang means yellow, though the hills are of dark granite. They are named for mountain-lover Emperor Huang who went up to heaven from here. At night in the urban center we braved a local spa where we had a Chinese massage, a rough stimulating treatment that includes a head massage. If dipping in the hot pools outdoors, one must guard one’s dry towel and rubber slippers religiously or they’ll be considered public property and exchanged for inferior articles.

Ellen, our young, energetic guide, led us on a rigorous climbing of the stairways up and down the heights to view the craggy peaks and stunted pine trees that penetrated the mist. The next morning, with some hesitation, we joined the throng who rose at dawn to view the sunrise. Unsure that visibility had returned, we listened for signals from the Chinese guests before venturing out. Ellen, who was ready and waiting at 5:30 a,m. was quite put out by our lateness. We apologized, and after she steered us to the vantage point, we sent her back to bed and admired the view. Before leaving we visited an ink factory in Tunxi and also watched a tea ceremony. As Ellen’s parents were tea farmers, she was knowledgeable on the theme.

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