I’ve often been asked why I enjoy Chinese food for breakfast. I usually reply, “Why not? Millions of Chinese people eat it for breakfast everyday.” This is not why Naomi and I went to China. Why did we go? Because it’s there.
What a fascinating land of diversity. After twenty-two hours of traveling, we arrived at Kowloon, which is just across the bay from Hong Kong, in the early evening. It was dark, but not late. Needless to say, we both had onion soup for brains by that time. But, armed with our less-than-extensive command of Mandarin Chinese, (sher shay=thank you, goyan=fabulous, and most important of all, gumbay=cheers, as in giving a brief toast before a cocktail) we hit the streets of our new environs, after a quick shower, with unbridled zeal. It was very warm for October, thank goodness. Cameras in hand, we exited our hotel to see a scene right out of “I Spy.” Neon is king in Kowloon. Every sign, to put it mildly, was huge and garish. It was almost as though they felt that they were in competition with the Las Vegas Strip. If we’d have been more alert, we might have suffered from sensory overload. However, we were sufficiently anesthetized by our collective exhaustion. After much oooing, and aaaahing, we noticed in the midst of this Far Eastern midway, a 7-11 store. I guess there’s just no escaping certain things in this world. After a couple of hours of prowling around this compact neon empire, where the stores are open until at least 10:00 P.M. we called it a night, and got a good night’s sleep.
Ah yes. We got up bright an early to start the day with a brisk shower, and breakfast. Yessiree. A real Chinese breakfast…Eggs, toast, coffee, and fruit. I guess that sometimes when one is in a foreign country, some allowances must be made.
After getting directions from the hotel front desk people, we were off and running. We took the subway to the bus that took us to Hong Kong, where we rode the Victoria Tram, the second steepest tram in the world, to the top for a magnificent view of Kowloon and Hong Kong, as well as a bit of shopping. We were informed that the number one steepest tram in the world is in Katumba, Australia.
The beaches along the Kowloon shore are nothing short of gorgeous. Even tiny details such as the spiral staircases leading up to the lifeguard shacks were beautiful. The houses, estates along the way are also quite spectacular.
As we took a boat ride through Hong Kong Harbor, the home of the Hong Kong Boat People, the hanging fish and laundry drying on their boat-homes, along with the tiny cooking pots on the decks of the boats, contrasted starkly with the ultramodern skyscrapers located just a few hundred meters, and light-years away from them. As we gazed at these paeans to progress, we noticed that the workers who were making repairs on them were using bamboo scaffolds. It was pretty spooky to our eyes. This area, we were told, was Aberdeen.
During the next few days we made the rounds of the Jade Market, the Pearl Market, the fruit and vegetable stands, the meat markets, and last, but certainly not least Sam The Tailor. Imagine an entire acre of nothing but kiosks selling jade products. 1995 is the year of the pig, Naomi’s birth-sign. So, of course we had to get a carved jade pig, along with a set of jade shot glasses, jade chopsticks, and a pair of jade lions. Finding my birth-sign, the cock, was a bit more of a challenge. The ladies working throughout the complex delighted in chanting at each other, “Cock cock jade. Cock cock jade.” By the time we left that place, most of the people there knew us, if not personally, comedically.
The Pearl Market provided me an opportunity to finally get some wonderful REAL perfectly matched nine-millimeter pearls for Naomi. The subtle way that the pearls reflect her skin-tones is incredible.
I had told Naomi of the huge grapes that I had seen in Japan years earlier, hoping that they had them in China. We were not disappointed. They were not only huge, but also delicious. The vegetables were just what one would imagine, beyond exaggeration.
The meat markets are pretty stark, as well as rather odiferous. The ducks on display are folded and pressed. Some of the cuts of meat still have the hooves, and/or feet attached. Much of the poultry is still living, until someone selects a bird for home use. I won’t go into the “gories” here.
The stories about Sam the Tailor are not only true, but they don’t do him and his shop justice. They are the best. They are the Sy Devore of the Far East. Imagine picking out the material for a suit, and/or shirt, being measured, and having someone show up at your hotel room the next day for a fitting, followed by a final appointment the following day at Sam’s for shipping instructions. Yes. They threw in a wonderful hand painted silk tie, and linen shirt for me for me gratis.
Great Zeeth! I almost forgot to mention the shop of insects, birds and herbs located on “Bird Street.” As an aside, it was not named for Charlie Parker. Believe it or not, they are all connected in some way or another. Between the whistling of the songbirds, and the clicking of the crickets, it sounded like a jungle tribute to Juan Esquivel.
At the “Chinese Tourist Park,” also known as “Sung Dynasty Village,” we were witness to a marriage ritual, traditional dancers, who could be better described as contortionists, a chopstick exhibition, a man who stood barefooted on a pair of razor sharp cleavers, a fellow who pulled nails out of a board with his teeth, and a bullwhip exhibitionist who was on a par with, if not above, Lash LaRue. This guy did his finale with a blindfold on. Just to let you know the caliber of these artists, the chopstick fellow threw his chopsticks from twenty feet away from a solid wooden board target, and made them stick in the bull’s-eye. After two volunteers, challenged to do the same, failed miserably, I stepped up to the challenge. Following my twice missing the board completely, I bounced one off of the target in a final show of unmitigated defeat, which was accompanied by a thunderous round of applause from Naomi and one other observer. Just think of it; the rapture of such a show of indifference by an entire audience of two all for me.
The 10,000 Buddhist Monastery is a shelf-set necropolis for the golden urns of 10,000 Buddhists. It’s very impressive. The only drawback is the overkill of the incense.
The Jewish synagogue in Hong Kong built in the 19th Century, is quite impressive, as well as tightly defended. The writings in Hebrew and Chinese are something to behold. For the morons who harbor the ideology that some people don’t “look Jewish,” not a single person at the synagogue “looked Jewish.” Oh well, so much for nazi stupidity and ignorance. There is a plaque commemorating those who lost their lives between 1941 and 1945 defending the synagogue.
Hong Kong still has a pretty strong British presence. Thus, at that time, it was that we were able to send our parcels stateside through the military post on the island at a substantial saving, along with ease of handling. Among other treasures that we bought was a beautiful hand-painted umbrella stand.
The Park Hotel, at which we stayed, was in the center of town. So with a minimum of help, we were able to get around pretty well. It seemed that everyone over the age of three smoked, and had a cell phone. In the subways, some phones rang, and there was general pandemonium. It was great. It was now time to move on to Beijing.
China is huge! The flight from Hong Kong to Beijing took forever. After getting settled into our western-style room at the Gloria Hotel, we took a walk around our “neighborhood.” There were more people on bicycles and scooters than in Paris. No wonder that the air is so polluted. The scooters all have lawn mower-type engines that smoke more than an untended hibachi. Like in Italy, the lines and signs in the streets are merely suggestions. Traffic is pretty wild and wooly. After a couple of hours of “smog-seeing,” we decided that it was time to retreat to our hotel for some dinner, and some sleep. Having made a list of places and things that we wanted to see, before we left home, it was a simple matter of hooking things up with the hotel people the next morning, we thought. Apparently something got goofed-up in the translation. So there we were, scampering out of the hotel to make it to our first tour bus, which was leaving as we were running. Luck was on our side this time. We made it to the bus. Having done a bit of traveling in the past, we always made sure that we carried a business card from our hotel, in case we found ourselves lost somewhere. In which case, we would simply show it to a taxi driver, and would thus find our way back to our hotel. We saw the Ming Tombs. It was quite impressive. Now we were set for “biggies.” Yes, the Great Wall was next on our list.
The bus trip from the middle of town to the Wall was, to put it mildly, long. China is huge. The sights and sounds that greeted us upon our arrival were really something to behold. There were musicians playing traditional Chinese wind, and string instruments, rickshaws, and all manner of little “photograph settings” for tourists to fit into. Of course, this was all part of an accompaniment to the hucksters selling their wares, tee shirts, sweatshirts, and sundry other goodies. We decided to hold off on “collecting” until we had climbed the Great Wall itself. When the Great Wall was originally completed, it was over thirteen thousand kilometers long. Now only eighty-six hundred kilometers of it are left. CHINA IS HUGE.
As we ascended the wall, we were amazed at the unevenness of the steps. Some were only a few inches high, and a foot wide. Others were over two feet high, and only a few inches wide. We both remarked, almost in unison, “You could get killed climbing these stairs.” Our tour guide nodded with a smile, and said that there are a number of deaths due to falling on the steps every year. That was not really reassuring for someone with flat feet and little, or no sense of balance, such as yours truly. Did I let that bit of news impede my progress up the wall? You betcha. I clung to the railings where there were some, as well as the side of the wall itself. At intervals of approximately one hundred yards, there were “stations,” narrow little hut-like structures with room for only one person to pass through at a time. Thus making it easier to defend against invaders. To me, the steps would have been enough of a deterrent. After climbing a little over a mile of this bastion of brick, mortar, and rocks, we took a bit of a break to take pictures of the ground that we had covered, as well as to take in the view of the valleys below. No wonder it’s considered one of the “Wonders of the World.” It really is! Now came the fun part. Yes. What goes up must come down. Descending the steps was what I’d like to call “Study in Terror 101.” I thanked G-d for Naomi’s patience as I inched my way down the “steps from hell.” After making it to the bottom unscathed, other than my ego being a bit bruised, it was time to buy our “I climbed the Great Wall” tee shirts and sweatshirts, along with some other stuff that, until that moment, we didn’t realize that we desperately needed. The only “drag,” was that we couldn’t figure out the graffiti on the wall. It was all written in Chinese. Wow. Talk about rude.
Following our Great Wall excursion, we got back on the bus and headed for a restaurant. It was getting “hungry out.” At the restaurant was a preset meal of traditional Chinese foods, most of which we had never seen. Chinese food in China is not like Chinese food in America or Europe. We sampled a lot of rather exotic stuff. The only thing that neither of us liked was the Chinese beer.
After being dropped off at our hotel, we put away our new treasures, and hired a cab to take us to the Temple of Kung Fu Tsu, or Confucius as it is pronounced in America. Across the street from the temple, some musicians were playing music on their Chinese wind, string, and percussion instruments. For those of you into the language of music, they played in the “Hen,” and “Chi” modes. You only need to know that if you’re going to be on “Jeopardy.” As we entered the temple grounds, we noticed a young lady working feverishly on a tabletop with what appeared to be cushioned disks with handles. She was using these disks to apply dry ink to various pieces of “type.” She then put paper on top of the inked surfaces, and proceeded to rub the paper until an image appeared on the side facing the inked surfaces. What she was creating, we were told, are called “rubbings.” The temple itself was quite elaborate, yet serene. There were some musicians playing some very interesting Chinese instruments that we hadn’t seen before. Some of the woodwind instruments were for sale. Yes. We bought a couple of them. One of the musicians played “Auld Lang Syne” on her Koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. The sound was incredibly delicate. On our way back to the taxi stand, we again heard the musicians across the street. This time we stopped and listened until they took a “smoke break.” The woodblock player was the most intense of the ensemble. Oh well. DRUMMERS. It was now time to head back to our hotel and get ready for the next day’s adventures.
Yessiree. With our tour-guide, Danny, we were off to the Forbidden City and other great sites. He first hit us with some of the customs of the country, such as the “color coding system.” A yellow roof indicates royalty. The color red is for good luck. We got more info as the walking/running tour ensued. Our first stop was at the Emperor’s Residence. Yes. The roof was yellow. As we entered the massive “Hall of Harmony,” built in 1420, we were struck by the ornate tile-work, etc. Like most potentates, they “had it,” and they “flaunted it.” Outside, in one of the patios, was the famous “Big Turtle” statue. After gazing at some rather impressive horticultural displays, we went to the “Hall of Union,” which was built in 1798. By most standards, it was pretty amazing. However, after seeing the “Hall of Harmony” first, we were a bit jaded. Due to the language barrier, I couldn’t get Danny to tell us what kind of trees we were looking at in the next area. They were extraordinary in the way that they intertwined. They looked like something that would spring from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch, or Salvador Dali.
Great can indicate quality, or it can indicate size. When we got to Tiananmen Square, we found, that like the Great Wall, there are times it indicates both size and quality. Built to hold five hundred thousand people, it measures 880 meters by 500 meters. It makes Red Square in Moscow look like a card table. Yes, Tiananmen Square is the biggest square in the world, other than Liberace. At one end of the square is a massive picture of Mao Tse Tung. Along one of the sides of a museum across the street is a huge countdown board that is counting down the seconds until Hong Kong reverts to control by China, which will take place in 1997. There is a 15th Century gate that leads to the city center. The gate was, surprisingly, not terribly massive at all. The people in the square were fascinated by Naomi’s long, wavy blond hair. A few of them, thank goodness, females were even bold enough to touch it. It was alarming at first. After we realized how exotic she appeared to them, we took it in stride like basic rock stars. A number of the people actually asked her to pose with them for pictures. My wife, “The Star.” Following this “photo op,” we were off to the “Temple of Heaven.” It’s structure, along with its grounds, is quite something to behold. As we approached the Temple, we stopped at a circular area. Initially, it looked like nothing out of the ordinary for this part of the world. However, when Danny told us about its acoustics, we had to try it. If a person stands at the very center of the circle and speaks in a whisper, he/she will be heard by all who are standing around the circle. It’s amazing.
Our next stop was the Industrial Art Factory, which is where Cloisonné is created. Cloisonné is an enamel decorating method. The artists use different colors, which are separated by strips of flattened wire placed edgeways on a metal backing. Some of the pieces are just astonishing to behold. They make everything from small jewelry boxes to huge vases. Yes Veronica. They cost a lot of money because it’s all hand done by fantastic artisans. Watching them work was a study in intricacy. There is no margin for error. After making a couple of purchases, we were on our way to the Summer Palace.
Hey. If you’re looking for intrigue, this is the place. This was the “headquarters” from which the Dowager Empress, Cixi ruled for forty-seven years, until her death in 1908. She was slammed for being a pervert by the then Victorian British press because of her lesbian lovers. This bad press in no way impeded her spending habits, after assuming the throne through much intrigue. We were shown an artificial lake that she had created for “training the new Chinese Navy,” along with her barge, which was made of cement. If it were in the U.S. Navy, it would be called the U.S.S. Neversail. I don’t know what name was bestowed upon this static vessel. Thus it was that she ruled, and spent from the Hall of Supreme Harmony. There are many interesting, and beautiful sights to see at the Summer Palace. If you go to China, be sure to put it on your itinerary, along with the Lama Temple, which houses the world’s tallest statue of Buddha, among other things.
After sher-shaying and goyaning our hosts, for the last time, we packed and caught our plane to take us home. China is, indeed huge, and incredibly diverse. See it.