Travels in China 1999

by Marc H. Mehlman

written 9 August 1999

May 28: Beijing

Friends and family,

I am in Beijing. It is a very interesting place. I think I am going to like it.

The email here is very slow so I am not correcting spleling mistakes.

The city (Beijing) has some very modern buildings - it is a substantial and growing place. The Chinese are very open and friendly. There is someone to help you at every turn: on every floor, at every door, even in the bathroom. Our Chinese tour guides seem real good too. I now have lots of money with Chairman Mao on it. We are going to see acrobats tonight. Beijing is very smoggy - like Los Angeles in the old days (maybe a little worst).

I loved my overnight in Japan. Must make it back. Last night in Japan I watched TV. They have different standards on TV. Some of their ordinary game shows have enough sex on them to do damage to American children (according to our politicians). I was only slightly damaged.

The 747 on the way over was mostly empty. I found four seats in a row and had a nice bed for the entire trip. I am well rested and feeling good.

I better sign off before I run out of money - I am paying by the minute.

Will try to stay in touch.


May 30

Friends and Family,

Today we went to the Great Wall. Hiking it was hard, but probably not quite as difficult as building it. One million of the 24 million Chinese at the time died building it. Nowadays, instead of marauding hordes of Mongols there are annoying hordes of hawkers. Some of the people on the bus feed the mercantile swarm and in return we are blessed with cheap hats, tee shirts and other valuable trinkets.

The Chinese had great quality control. After a work crew finished a section of the wall, an inspector tried to hammer a nail into the wall. If he succeeded, the entire work crew was put to death. If he failed, he was killed. This is much different from the quality control methods modern American academic administrators use. If the nail went in, American administrators would kill the inspector.

Our Chinese guides are very knowledgeable and nice. I like them. Our American tour leaders (who I like, too) feel that a common enemy causes all the troubles between our two countries. According to them, that enemy, of course, is white, right wing Republicans led by the religious right, who are still trying to embarrass Clinton (good luck).

China is a combination of very modern and wealthy, and very poor and backward. Yet it seems to be a very egalitarian place too. It is very crowded. There are people everywhere - reminds me of Pasadena on the day of the Rose Parade. The Chinese tend to be honest, hard working, friendly - a sympathetic 1/4 of humanity. One senses the future may be here; that China is improving in all important ways - economically and politically. I wish them well - time will tell.

There is a tremendous amount of construction. The new train station is bigger than Grand Central - everything is on a grand scale.

As usual, I ask lots of questions of the guides, but they don't seem to mind. I feel hyper and curious about everything. Our group is a somewhat mixed group. I'm friendly with everyone, but not close to anyone. The younger crowd (early twenties) is into drinking. They were trying to name the seven wonders of the ancient world today, and included Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Even with these two, they named only four. I was going to suggest the Empire State Building but wisely held back.

We walked into the kitchen of our restaurant tonight. They had a large snake in a cage. Everything is edible here. Haven't seen a cat or dog since I arrived. Most of stuff we eat tastes like chicken.

Tuesday (your Monday) we travel by train to Zhengzhou. Hopefully, the hotel will have email there too.

Healthy and happy,


June 3: Zhengzhou

Friends and Family,

On the train to Zhengzhou a drunken man tried to befriend our group. He was very obnoxious and scared some of the older women in our tour. We were traveling first class, but it is not like American first class. Lots of Chinese like to smoke and spit and the windows were filthy. The train attendants were selling coca-cola and pig snouts on a stick.

On arriving, we went to a banquet. The food was very good. Afterwards I learned the soup was turtle soup and one of the dishes was donkey. I'll never be able to look a donkey in the eye again. Are they kosher (I don't think so)?

At lunch today I was in a room with three American twenty-year-old guys and a bunch of Chinese assigned to our group. Our Chinese hosts were doing their best to get us drunk. They were not drinking much, but they were insisting we drink this Chinese firewater. They claimed we were insulting them and China by not drinking, and poured more firewater and even held it up to our mouths. The three Americans got amazingly drunk and happy. Everyone in the room then tried to get me drunk. I drank some, out of politeness, but then simply refused to drink anymore. This made everyone, even the waitresses angry with me. I felt it was rude for the Chinese to insist we get drunk for them (they were drinking hardly at all). Afterwards the American guys (with their hangovers) told everyone how impressed they were that I could stand up to everyone else.

We are being treated as very, very, very important people here. For instance, there are two guards and two women outside my hotel door to help me anytime. The food is of the type they would serve Clinton - no one else in this city eats as well. We even have an escort of a police car (lights flashing) and an all terrain vehicle when we tour during the day. Very strange.

The Chinese have put a lot of effort into building first class hotels and tourist sites. Sadly, they don't know what first class is (or even second or third class). Our hotel has tons of workers and lots of marble, but the air vents are falling out of the ceiling everywhere (it is only a few years old) and the bathrooms smell. We went to a lookout of the Yellow river. You get to the top by a ski lift that looks worn out even though it is only a few years old. Below the lift they planted hundreds of pine trees all along the way. Even though the pine trees are still young, their tips scrape against the lift chairs and one's legs. At the lookout at the top they planted tall bushes all around the observation point so that the Yellow river is hardly visible. Everything here seems to have the same thoughtlessness. And furthermore, the level of cleanliness and hygiene is very, very low.

Driving through the countryside is interesting. One sees hundreds and hundreds of peasants working in the fields. They cover the roads with freshly cut wheat and toss it into the air to separate the grain from the chaff. All but one lane of most roads is closed for this purpose. In the evening there are large fires and lots of ground hugging smoke from the farmers burning the chaff. This just makes the already very bad air pollution worse.

Still, there is much to say in the Chinese's favor. They have all been very friendly. They very much want to improve their standard of living and work hard at it. And they are succeeding. The amount of construction everywhere is amazing. This is not a large Mexico.


June 5: Yanshi

Friends and family,

Yesterday we visited two monasteries and a temple. We are in Henan Province of China. While foreigners rarely visit this area, it is very important to the Chinese history. A number of Chinese dynasties had their capitals here.

We saw two monasteries, a Buddhist one and a Dao one. Several of the ladies on our trip mistook Daoism for Darwinism and were wondering why the Chinese were so interested in evolution over a thousand years before Charles was born.

The monasteries were huge and beautiful. One was damaged by the Red Guards. We visited the famous Shaolin Temple (Buddhist), birthplace of the martial arts. We had a fantastic martial arts demonstration by some of the monks. I'm sure any one of them could take on any rabbi alive.

The countryside is fascinating but inaccessible. We can see it only from the bus. The peasants are still harvesting wheat and burning their fields. Some are beginning to plow their burnt fields. Several times I saw a farmer plowing his fields with family members (instead of horses) pulling the plow. The peasants live in walled-in brick villages. They seem to be always working and always dirty from their hard labor. Every possible square foot of land is cultivated and carefully taken care of - by hand.

We are being treated like we are members of the United States Senate. We are escorted by police vehicles, lights flashing, horns blowing, and running red lights. Important government officials find time to eat with us. We are given fantastic meals (though some of our group are going out for pizza and hamburgers). Yesterday one of the dishes was an entire turtle. Only a few in our party would try it (I did, of course). I was the only one who would pick up the shell and eat the soft parts. We are also eating frogs. Today I had pigeon. Scorpions are considered a delicacy (sometimes eaten live). I think our group leader and I would be the only ones up to eating scorpions, but we haven't had the opportunity yet.

Yesterday night we went to see a children's performance. The entire auditorium waited until we arrived before the program began, and then they cheered us. They mobbed us afterwards. The streets are lined with waving people. I don't think many of these people have seen Westerners before. Everyone stares at us, but everyone loves us. We've been on Chinese TV. We visited some schools today. Even though it is Saturday, they made this a school day in all three schools just so we could spend our half hour at each school with the students in class. And the kids didn't even mind! They looked out at us as if we were visiting from another (friendly) planet.

From this side of the planet earth to yours,


June 7: Luoyang

Friends and Family,

We made it to Xi'an today. It is the first time I have seen Westerners since leaving Beijing (except those in our own group). Being the only Westerners certainly has made us a center of attention. In Luoyang, just walking around is enough to cause an assortment of Chinese, on foot and bike, to discretely follow you. People stare everywhere. Children hide in bushes and follow you. When you wave to them they run away out of fear and shyness. And if you stop, a crowd of adults will "discretely" form around you. It is sort of like walking around Johnstown wearing only your underwear. Hardly any Chinese know any English. You are always on display except when you are in your hotel room. Most of our group hang out in the hotel bar or venture out in large groups for short shopping trips. I have been bolder and gone out a few times on my own. (I check with the guides to make sure it is safe first).

Luoyang was where the invading Japanese were finally turned back in World War II. Ironically, in Chinese, Luoyang means "setting sun".

Yesterday, in Luoyang, I met a nice 77-year-old Chinese man who could speak English. He invited me to his son's house for the evening. Our American guide encouraged me to go. None of our group would join me. I was going to go alone when our Chinese guide found me and warned me that this was not wise. I believe it was safe, but I will not accept any such offers in the future unless others come with me and the Chinese guides say it is all right. Instead I spent the evening talking to this man in the hotel lobby. We had a nice talk.

Our Chinese driver and helpers have gotten the younger males in our group (professional frat drinkers, all of them) drunk so often that they are now positively afraid of any Chinese with liquor nearby. And yes - our driver drinks too - at least until our group complained. His driving was pretty scary afterwards. Mayors and government officials are not much better when it comes to liquor. Apparently being able and eager to hold your liquor is a necessary trait for office.

We visited a Confucius school. It had a big sign over it saying "ccenic sput". It displayed a petrified cypress tree that the Chinese carbon dated as ten billion years old. Unfortunately, I did not find time to point out the scientific importance of this find to our Chinese hosts (the earth is only a little more than four billion years old).

Some of what we are shown is Potemkin village type stuff. We were taken to a model hospital that reminded me of the men's room in Greyhound bus stations (but bigger). We were shown some filthy labs with old equipment and then the outside of a building with a large MRI sign on it. They use mostly acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Of course they gave some herbs to some of our group for colds and such. I think I am the only one skeptical about Chinese herbs and animal parts. But then again, I am the only one on the trip who won't take Imodium.

Time to go to sleep,


June 8: Xi'an

Friends and Family,

Today we went to see the terra cotta warriors in Xi'an. It was truly spectacular. An entire army was frozen in time and clay. The statues are so realistic that one can sense the personality of each soldier. The faces of these soldiers tell of the great and horrible life under the cruel and magnificent Emperor Qin Shi Huang. If the faculty at UPJ could be frozen in clay like this, one wonders what future generations would decipher about UPJ?

Using both treachery and his armies, Qin Shi Huang gave birth to an unified China during the period of the Warring States (about 250 BCE) and made himself the first Chinese emperor. When it came to treachery, Qin could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two. In battle, Qin's armies slaughtered over 400,000 enemy soldiers in the Battle of Changping and that was but one of many battles. After unifying China, Qin mandated the "three unifications":

Out of a total Chinese population of about twenty million, Qin sent Hundreds of thousands of Chinese were worked to death. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese died fighting his wars. Concubines, palace guards and mausoleum artisans and architects were buried alive in the mausoleum when Qin died. What a great time to be alive and Chinese! Imagine what charisma Qin must have had in inspire so many Chinese to sacrifice so much.

We also stopped at one of the bricked-wall peasant villages and visited a home. The family puts animal dung under a large slab of rock in their one room house, lights it on fire, and they all sleep on it - five bodies in one bed - for warmth. Everyone and everything was very filthy. Everyone had bad teeth. There was no running water. The only water was from a well with a rope and bucket next to it for several families. The latrine is a hole in the ground about three feet from the well. Everyone was begging for money. Still, several of the homes had TV's.

There is great and growing wealth in China. There are wealthy Chinese, very modern buildings and factories. This is not incompatible with very cheap labor, even if this is contrary to our everyday American experience. Everything is overstaffed. Every railroad crossing has two human guards, a policeman, and sometimes a railway person also. Many streets are filled all day and all hours of the night with hundreds and hundreds of stalls selling food, trinkets, and jade - anything. Even cheap hotels have armies of bellboys, porters, etc. Anything that is labor intensive is dirt-cheap. I am paying many times market price for hand painted scrolls and painted perfume bottles, etc., and yet they are still cheap. So cheap that I am buying too much and spending too much money!

The poverty however does not fully explain the filth and low hygiene, or the low standards in some of the construction work here. I am not sure if it is a cultural thing or the effects of state ownership of everything in the past. At the moment about half of the economy is in the free sector. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. It is a good thing in China.

Shopping is a pain. And just walking down the street and glancing at a hawker constitutes shopping. At tourist sites one frequently attracts three or four hawkers peddling postcards and trinkets. Their technique is to shove their merchandise at you and try to negotiate. Ignoring them does not help. They will beg and beg. They will follow you for blocks never letting up. Their prices will gradually drop 60 or 70 percent as you walk on. It is so annoying that I frequently will get on the bus early. They still try to sell to you through the bus window, but they are easier to ignore. Bargaining is how all shopping is done. I bought a "$450 scroll" for $45 from a reputable store. In the better stores there are good looking Chinese girls who befriend you. They are interested in where you are from and how you like China. "And by the way, how about something for your wife?" Had I replied, "I murdered my wife before coming to China" I would get "Then how about something for your mistress?" It is impossible to look at anything in peace and quiet. And prices mean nothing because of bargaining. One can find one's self arguing over 75 cents with a poverty stricken Chinese shop owner for an item that is very cheap by American standards to begin with.

Our Chinese guides have been fantastic. They are real nice and interesting people. That has been my feelings toward all the educated Chinese I've met. I like them. The friendliness and honesty of all the Chinese, rich and poor, is fantastic.

Got to go,


June 11: Guilin

Friends and Family,

Flying out of Xi'an we saw blue sky again, but not until 20,000 feet. This was the first time I have seen a blue sky since coming to China! The air pollution in all of Northern China is awful. Leaving Xi'an, we drove past some nice condos (Beverly Hills by China standards - middle class by ours) and some very modern business parks.

We are now in Guilin, our introduction to Southern China. Southern China is vastly different than Northern China. This is rice country (the north is wheat). The air is clean (no burning of the fields). The south is also more prosperous and clean. Not rich and clean by American standards but much better than the north. The airport and roads are modern.

The terrain and countryside are beautiful. It is among the most beautiful places on earth. Everything is incredibly green and the terrain is like nowhere else. Overlooking flat plains filled with rice fields and water buffalo are giant karst limestone outcroppings. I always thought this landscape was the product of the imagination of Chinese artists. However, reality actually looks like the scrolls the artists draw!

It is much warmer here too. And humid.

The people are different too. They are somewhat shorter. Our guide in Xi'an explained that the south was more prosperous but northerners, like him, are more handsome. Historically the north is better at war too.

Unfortunately, there seem to be more con men among the southerners. Our guide warned us of "university students" wanting to practice their English might approach us and invite us to visit their English professor. These guys are not university students - they are con men. I have already run into two of these "university students". My guess is that they are not interested in mugging you. They are just trying to get you to buy someone a drink, which will turn out to cost much more than you expected. Some are paid a commission to get you into a shop. It is a real pain having all these "friendly" guys around. I'm being more careful here than elsewhere.

Another thing about the south, they eat unusual food. Anything with wings except airplanes. Anything with four legs except tables and chairs. All of the pig except the squeal. Tonight we are going to be given the opportunity to eat snake (cobra or tiger snake) and drink a cup of snake blood. I was the only one in our group of 23 who said yes. I'll let you know how it is. In the markets there are cats and dogs for eating - no kidding. I asked our Chinese tour guide if the locals eat water buffalo. He said only rarely and looked a little surprised at my question. Civilized people just don't eat buffalo!

Got to get ready for dinner - I'm feeling hungry.


June 12

Friends and family,

The snake snack turned out to more gruesome than I anticipated. First we ate at a dinner show - great ethnic dancing and acrobats. Then nine of us along with one of our American guides and our Chinese guide went to a special restaurant that serves snake, expensive by Chinese standards.

Outside the restaurant there were a collection of animals in cages. Along with the snakes were turtles, bamboo rats, ferrets and several types of birds. The Chinese eat mice too. These were not happy animals as they had witnessed many of their cage mates killed. We selected an eight-foot long snake that the Chinese refer to as a five-step snake. If such a snake bites you, you can take at most five steps before dropping dead. A waitress caught the snake with large thongs behind its head and then, using scissors, cut the head off. She then extended the snake vertically and drained the blood into a glass.

We had the snake upstairs. The snake meat, fried and salty, was quite good. A soup was also made from the snake and a chicken. It was good too. The skin was served with salsa. I was the only one who liked it. The blood was cut with liquor and we toasted in small shot glasses. Only four or five of us would do it. They also served green bile, also cut with liquor, and drank from shot glasses. Both of our toasts tasted like liquor - nothing else.

Today we visited a Chinese market. Lots of animals, alive, slaughtered and butchered. The killing and butchering is all done on site. It was a covered market, but not air-conditioned and no refrigeration anywhere. You can imagine how it smelled. One of our American guides warned us that if we were members of N.A.A.C.P. we might not want to go. Instead of N.A.A.C.P. (National Association of Colored People) he meant S.P.C.A. (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). We saw some freshly killed dogs along with a few waiting to be killed. This is a different place.

Guilin is a tourist city. We took a 4-hour river cruise. It was so beautiful that I shot 2 rolls of film. I even skipped part of lunch so I could view the incredible countryside.

We also visited a cave. Our guide could make out all types of dragons and monkeys and buffalo in the cave formations. I am good at Rorschach tests too. I saw a formation that looked exactly like my third grade teacher, wearing nothing but fish net tights and with a whip in her left hand.

The city, itself, is quit nice. People swim in the river due to the great heat of day. There are a large number of minorities here (91% of China are Han people, the rest are minorities). There is a large amount of affirmative action for the minorities. For instance, minorities can have as many children as they want (which makes minority women very desirable) and they are given preference in jobs and schools. The national government (as ours) tries to buy off the minorities at the expense of the citizen rights of other citizens.

Got to get ready for dinner tonight. Hong Kong tomorrow.


June 13

Friends and Family,

Woke up today as always to music. Starting at about 6AM music is broadcasted into all the streets, squares and parks. The Chinese, mostly women, come out to dance and do Tai Chi. It is really pretty nice, though if I was asked how to improve Chinese culture, I would move this activity to the evening in deference to those who like to sleep late. However, no one has asked me for suggestions yet.

There are a lot of these group activities. When visiting one of the elementary schools I was impressed how all the kids were drawing the same picture. There are no outward signs of oppression anywhere. There are very few police. They are all unarmed and no one pays them much attention. However, whether it is the culture or the recent past or something else, the Chinese seem to be happier from birth complying with local PC. It is also clear that government officials set the norms of Chinese PC from above. This is in contrast to the USA where PC seems to be set by campus radicals, Hollywood, gangs in the inner city (teenage fashion) and women libbers.

Chinese TV still reminds everyone about the NATO aggression and mourns the three Chinese journalists who were killed in the Chinese embassy bombing. To a person, the Chinese all believe we bombed their embassy on purpose - even the smarter, more informed Chinese believe this. We saw one or two anti-NATO demonstrations. They were state organized and intended for domestic consumption.

One of the interesting aspects of the Chinese is that they did not seem to hold the embassy bombing against us personally - just our government. They compartmentalize everything. We accidentally got stuck in a huge crowd of student demonstrators in Xi'an. Even my taking photographs of them did not seem to make them upset.

This is not a free country. The media is well controlled. When sitting in the hotel lobby it is best not to talk politics as the Chinese man/women sleeping in the chair next to you might be a spy working for the government. Still, this is not a terror state. The Chinese feel free to criticize their government officials in private as long as they are not too harsh and do not advocate the overthrow of Communist party rule. Typically complaints are against corruption and the fact that government officials and their children are converting their power into wealth. While such complaints are legitimate, this is not kleptoacracy that has become Russia. Of course, my read on the political situation here is only conjecture. I do not see all that is going on here. From my perspective, most Chinese feel things are improving on the freedom front. However, there are no institutions (and none are being created) to insure political freedoms will continue to improve. Most Chinese feel another Culture Revolution is impossible, but I don't know of any structural barriers to keep such craziness from happening again.

Still the Chinese seem very happy with their current leaders.


PS: This email is being sent from Singapore.

June 16: Hong Kong

Friends and family,

A little Chinese history: A new emperor takes power - a new dynasty begins. He is pretty smart. His successors turn out to be less smart, more corrupt and more evil. They are more cut off from the peasants. Then the peasants revolt, ending the dynasty. The problem is that the peasants are backward and anti- intellectual. They destroy a great deal of the civilization and culture that the previous dynasty had accomplished. The Culture Revolution was essentially a "controlled" peasant revolt organized by Mao. The current leaders are very much aware of peasant revolts. There are 700 million or more peasants. Their lives are much different from those who live in the cities.

Rising prosperity is a two-edge sword here. A few peasants now can (and do) pool their life savings and buy a beat up, used combine. They then can do the work of thousands of other peasants - making those other peasants unemployed. As a result China has over 100 million peasants that have now become migrant workers. China keeps these workers busy with public work projects that seem to be active 24 hours a day - 7 days a week.

Hong Kong was great. Just as Eurasian women can sometimes be prettier than either of their components, so too Hong Kong is greater than the sum of its British and Chinese parts. Everyone wears western cloths here. The women are very pretty. It is a wealthy, modern, well-thought-out and clean (about as clean as Manhattan) city. The harbor is breathtaking.

We had only one day for Hong Kong. The women shoppers on the trip kept complaining when our Chinese guide took us anywhere interesting. They wanted places where they could shop. Many of them had been dropping from $300 to $5,000 a day in shopping. Consider what it would be like if 23 Chinese came to the USA and each spent $30,000 to $300,000 a day (one to ten average American yearly incomes) on stuff that had been marked up by 10 times what locals pay. You can see the craziness of it.

Hong Kong is hot and humid and has large parts that are like Rodeo drive with Wal-Mart prices. I got pissed with our shoppers and went out on my own to find the real Hong Kong. The shoppers stayed in Kowloon, on the mainland, where our hotel was. I'm the only one who saw Hong Kong, which is on an island. Hong Kong has beautiful parks in the midst of some of the largest buildings in the world. One senses that things still work here as portrayed in John Clavell's novels. Here, as on the mainland, the rules matter less than one's connections. The stakes are huge, as are the risks and gamesmanship. One recent billion- dollar skyscraper here was built so it could be dismantled and moved in modules in case the reunion with China did not go well.

All in all, at the moment Hong Kong still has it freedoms, its economic health and it is confident about it future. This is definitely a place to revisit.

I did not have a chance to visit the Hong Kong bird market. From Beijing onward, I noticed the Chinese have a thing for birds. They buy a young bird that does not know how to sing. They then educate their bird by taking it to the park where the bird learns to sing from wild birds or from other captive birds. The Chinese can then sell their educated birds for up to eight times what they originally paid for them. What the new owner does with the bird I can on only guess. Soup? Anyway, I only wish we had as much success educating our students at UPJ.

The last day of the tour nine of us went out to dinner. We were the only ones who would eat Chinese. The others in our group had long ago started complaining about our Chinese meals - which were superb. Our American guide ordered the food. We had bird's nest soup (it is not made from twigs but from the bird spit that keeps the nest together), shark fin soup and some abalone. To my horror the bill came to $100 a person. My previous most expensive meal was $35. Everyone else at the table was rich and didn't care. I faked not caring, but I did.

Currently living off of street vendors,


Copyright 1999 Marc Mehlman
Last revised: 14 August 1999

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