Once upon a time in China – part two
After a reasonably short flight from Kunming, we arrived in the fantastic city of Guilin, which is situated on the beautiful Li River. Once we found a hotel, we set off for a day cruise down this spectacular river that winds its way through tens of thousands of karst mountains created by millions of years of water erosion and weathering. This area is among the oldest and most beautiful natural wonders in China. During the cruise, numerous Chinese tourists asked to be photographed standing next to my 10-year-old son. Wanting to be polite and considerate “Laowai” (foreign) tourists, we always consented but never understood what the attraction was. Later on, we found out that long ear lobes – which my son has – are considered very lucky as the Buddha had them. Once back at the hotel, it was time to find a place to eat, hopefully, a restaurant with English menus, which was a quest in itself back then.
A talented waitress
After walking by restaurant after restaurant offering cute, living puppies you could select to eat, we chose the only place that didn’t offer dogs. Mind you, it offered just about every other living creature in cages out front. A joke we heard while there was that the Cantonese eat anything that has four legs other than a table or chair, anything that flies other than an airplane and anything that swims other than a submarine. Based on what we saw, that was spot on. There were no menus in English at this restaurant, of course. But much to our surprise, we were served by a very talented young waitress who spoke excellent English. With her help, we waded through the menu before deciding on turtle stew for dinner. Little did we know that turtle stew included bite-size pieces of chopped-up turtle shell that we had to remove. Oh well, live and learn. Thanks to our waitress’ fantastic English, the yummy food and no puppies on the menu, we ate nearly every meal at this quaint little place.
One day during a leisurely lunch at our favorite place, our favorite waitress noticed that I was struggling with my chopsticks, and she kindly offered to show me how to use them. I told her I knew how but the problem was that I couldn’t bend the joint on the end of my index finger. I had broken my collarbone in a rugby match a few months earlier and had apparently also injured my finger when I hit the ground. A Swedish physician diagnosed me with a torn ligament, adding that I’d just have to live with it. Great, thanks a lot, I thought at the time. Anyway, when I showed my finger problem to our waitress, she asked if I had recently injured my shoulder or any surrounding area. When I said yes, she said I can fix this for you if you’re willing to wait. She returned later and began massaging my shoulder area. After 30 minutes, she said, now you can move your finger – and I could. I was shocked! She explained that I had an “energy jam” between some meridians that she had “unclogged.” I haven’t had a problem with it since then. My Swedish doctor said he couldn’t explain it.
English homework help
We noticed a young boy in the restaurant every evening who was struggling with his English homework. My son offered to help him, and they struck up a friendship. Every day, they sat and worked on his English. This was back when the Swatch watch was all the rage in Europe. I noticed that the young boy couldn’t take his eyes off my son’s Swatch. As they were inexpensive and our next stop was Hong Kong, I suggested that he give the boy his Swatch and we could get another later. The young boy was delighted and returned with his father the next day, who presented my son with a stopwatch, which I’m guessing was pretty cool in Guilin back then. And then came the next shock; he wanted to treat us to dinner there. Not wishing to unwittingly offend someone by saying no, we agreed. I checked with our waitress to see if she could stay and translate.
A right “piss-up”
She then proceeded to tell me what an honor it would be because the boy’s father was so important. “Is he the mayor,” I asked? “No, he’s much more important than that. He’s the head of the Guilin branch of the Communist Party here.” So, there we were, an American tourist with a military background who had been raised to think of China and the Soviet Union (back then) as dangerous adversaries eating and drinking with a man my age dressed in a typical Mao suit and hat as if we were old friends. The more we ate, the more we drank, and it soon turned into China versus the US in a friendly drinking contest. The hours passed quickly, and the booze flowed. By the end of the night, I had his Mao hat on, and we were singing drinking songs in Cantonese and English. He said he had grown up thinking all Americans were evil and that this was an eye-opener for him. Ditto, I replied. We both wondered why our respective political leaders couldn’t get along. A great question that maybe I’ll address in another post. We departed Guilin for Hong Kong and then Beijing the next morning – my son with his stopwatch and me with a horrible hangover!
HK and Beijing
Our time in Hong Kong passed quickly and was filled with sightseeing and shopping. I remember my son commenting that HK must be the best place in the world. Why, I asked, to which he replied, “cheap electronics and short people.” I feel like a giant.” With our time in China drawing to a close, we headed to the airport. On our return flight to Beijing, we had an exciting experience. We were the only Westerners on the flight, so when my son noticed something strange, we couldn’t get an explanation from anyone. I was sleeping when he woke me and asked, “Dad, it’s early in the morning and we’re flying north, right? Shouldn’t the sun be on our right-hand side? Why is it on the left-hand side,” he asked? Well, I said, we must be flying south, but I don’t know why. Later, we found that Beijing was fogged in, and our flight had been diverted. No worries, I thought to myself until I saw where we landed.
This doesn’t look kosher
Oh boy, this doesn’t look kosher, I thought. There were rows and rows of MIG fighter jets, other types of military aircraft and loads of stern-looking soldiers who surrounded the plane when we came to a stop. It turns out that we had landed at a Chinese military base instead of a civilian airport. I immediately became concerned about what they would do when two Westerners disembarked, especially since we were traveling on US passports (remember, this was 1989-1990). I’m happy to say that our stay was without problems except for finding a place to sit where people weren’t chain-smoking. We plopped down beneath a huge No Smoking sign, which turned out to be a magnet for smokers, who completely disregarded the warning. After several hours of chilling with the soldiers, who kept a watchful eye on us but did manage a few smiles, we continued our flight to Beijing.
The Forbidden City
We only had a few days in Beijing, and it was freezing cold and smoggy as hell. There were two places we wanted to visit while there: the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, both of which I had read about in school but never imagined I would see. The Forbidden City was an imperial palace complex of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912) that is more than three times larger than the Louvre Palace in France. It was the home of 24 emperors over the years. It was even more spectacular than I had imagined. We spent almost a full day exploring the many buildings inside. A sign that China was beginning to open up to the “capitalist West” was that many of the buildings had signs saying they were sponsored by American Express and other large western companies. I don’t think I saw a McDonald’s sign but I’m pretty sure it was only a matter of time before the Golden Arches would be making an appearance. The next day, we headed to the Great Wall, which was even more spectacular. We climbed to the top, and walked for some three hours, all the time imagining how many people it and how many years it took to build this amazing wall. It’s actually a series of walls that total some 21,196 kilometers (13,171 miles). It was breathtaking. We returned to Sweden many experiences richer. We made a few more trips to China, but this first one impacted us the most, I think. We still talk about it.