China Blog - Information & Insights
Flight & Day 1 – September 1st
Okay, so under normal circumstances China is a long way away. But if you toss in flight delays, missed connecting flights, and four hours in a holding room in the Shanghai airport, it’s roughly a 40 hour experience. At this point I would like to comment on how different China is from the United States, however, their airport looks and feels the same; their Customs section looks and feels the same, what’s missing, hmmmn, I know, TSA! Stay tuned folks, more soon.
The day began with a quick flight (yes, another one) from Shanghai to Beijing. Upon landing in Beijing we should have seen the sun, but we did not. A haze of smog hangs over Beijing similar to the smog that plagues Los Angeles. Beijing has 17 million people and 5 to 6 million cars. A majority of them seemed to be on the road that day. Government officials attempt to control traffic and pollution by limiting the days on which drivers can be on the road. Even license tag numbers get a certain number of days per week, as do the odds. Everyone gets Saturday and Sunday. As a sidebar, the wealthy people in Beijing simply purchase multiple cars with differing license plate numbers and drive whenever they want. The traffic system is set up in a series of rings that circle the city. Beijing, China’s political and cultural hub has six traffic rings that stretch for miles outward from the center of the city. Public transportation is available and crowded. The age of the average vehicle on the China motorways is also noteworthy. They all seem to be new! Out of the countless automobiles we saw, perhaps less than 10 were older than five years. The same held true for the many tourist busses we saw. Trucks were a different story. We saw more tourist buses than trucks, and most of the trucks were old. The most popular automobile brands we witnessed: Toyota, Mercedes, Hyundai, Oldsmobile, and Audi.
Our first activity of the day was a brief visit to the Olympic village, site of the 2008 games. We took photos of the “nest” that played home to Beijing’s fabulous opening ceremonies, as well as the track and field events. We also snapped pictures in front of the Aquatic Cube where Michael Phelps brought home eight gold medals for the U.S. of A.
The next stop was the Summer Palace, which was one of the pleasure palaces for past emperors of China. The palace is set on a large man-made lake. The lake is only six feet deep, however, it so expansive that it connects with the canals that surround Beijing. The grounds contain an ornate palace, several buildings that served as guest and servant quarters, and lush ponds filled with huge lily pads and scented lotus flowers. The Summer Palace also boasts the longest outdoor corridor in the world (728 meters). The Summer Palace was home to one of the most famous women in China, the Dragon Lady. She was the mother of the last emperor. She also used her beauty and cunning to manipulate magistrates and achieve her personal agenda. Youthful looking well into her 70’s, her beauty secret is rumored to have been crushed pearls that were ground into a paste and used as facial cream, as well as ingested internally.
During the early evening we enjoyed a rickshaw ride through a “real” neighborhood in China. The one-story buildings where the people lived were dilapidated by Western standards, however, the people were clean and as curious about us as we were about them. That evening we were invited into the home of a local family and ate a medley of rice, vegetables, and chicken. The family was the fifth generation to have lived in the house. They couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming.
After dinner we went to the hotel and collapsed in our beds. Sleep was glorious, but the next day started at 6:30am.
After a nice breakfast, we headed off to the Temple of Heaven, which is Beijing’s equivalent of Central Park. Thousands of old and worn bikes filled racks in front of the park, and none of them had a lock. The grounds of the Temple of Heaven are lovely, thick with trees and rich green grass. Quite populated, many people were exercising as we walked towards the actual temple that majestically sits in the center of the park. While Tai Chi and badminton were represented, the most popular athletic activity was the Chinese version of hacky-sack. Their hacky-sack looks like a large badminton birdie that is composed of is comprised of five different shaped ceramic rings and four large feathers. Most people playing were over the age of forty. There were no joggers.
The Temple of Heaven itself is simultaneously grand and ornate. Its red and gold buildings are striking. While at the temple, my two sons and I found ourselves quite popular, much to the chagrin of my wife. One son has blonde hair, while the other has red – both are rare in China. I am quite tall (6’7’’). Since most Chinese people have black hair and are under six feet tall, they had an interest in having their picture taken with us. This would be a recurrent theme throughout the trip.
After the Temple of Heaven we were off to a jade factory. There we saw beautiful works in jade and learned that the darker the color of jade, the more value it possesses. Also, we learned that jade is meant to be worn – it grows darker as it is worn, thus increasing in value. Jade comes in many colors (not just green), and white is the most prevalent color seen around China. Lastly, we learned that authentic jade is cool, cloudy, and, when clinked against other jade has a chime-like quality.
A visit was paid to a cloisonné factory where we witnessed the artistry and process of making cloisonné. After a nice tour and lunch, we back on the road heading towards another destination.
The next stop was the Ming Dynasty Tombs, where we visited the fourth most important mausoleum in the China. The tomb was interesting, dating to the early 1400’s, and the history surrounding the Ming Dynasty and their legacy was fascinating.
We started the day by visiting Tong Ren Tang Pharmacy where we learned about traditional Eastern medicine. Several of us had examinations by Chinese doctors and herbalists. Interestingly, the doctors told almost everyone who was examined to take herbs to help their liver and kidneys get healthier.
The next stop was one of the highlights of the trip, the Forbidden City. With 9,999 rooms, huge palaces, enormous courtyards, and lovely green areas, the Forbidden City is simultaneously awe-inspiring and daunting. Built over a 14-year period, it was completed in 1420. At the time, Chinese people believed that heaven contained 10,000 rooms. Thus, the Forbidden City could not contain more rooms than heaven, but it could come very close. It was home to the emperors, right up to the last one in 1924. In 1925 the Forbidden City was opened to the Chinese public and the mysteries of its existence were unveiled to all. Millions of people visit the Forbidden City each year and it is easy to see why. It is a destination not to be missed.
Across the street from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square. Bordered by government buildings and speckled with patriotic monuments, the huge square is Beijing’s National Mall. Throngs of people are continuously moving through and about the Tiananmen Square-Forbidden City area.
From Tiananmen Square it was lunch, and then straight to the airport for a one and a half hour flight to Shanghai. Once in Shanghai, we drove directly to the 2010 World Expo. The expo is enormous and seemingly every country in the world has an exhibit. With 500,000 people per day visiting the expo, one has to be strategic on how time is utilized. Crowd patterns and ease of access allowed us to visit the following exhibits, each of which was terrific:
- Czech Republic
The World Expo was a fitting end to an exhausting and spectacular day!
The morning saw us take a bus ride to Suzhou in order to visit the city’s number one destination: Lingering Garden. The Gardens were created by a wealthy nobleman who was in the favor of the emperor. When the emperor died, his rivals ran him off from the Forbidden City and he took residence in Suzhou. During the next 14 years he commissioned a fantastic garden. The beautiful garden boasts tall cypress trees, beautiful plants, bonsai trees, several quaint dwellings with ornate furnishings, and a tranquil pond. The Lingering Garden is a magical place and not be missed by anyone visiting Southeast China.
The next area of interest was a silk factory. The silk industry really starts with trees as opposed to worms. Silk worms eat mulberry leaves. So is if someone is looking to start a silk business, they would want to locate in an area that is hospitable to growing mulberry trees. Such an area is found in Suzhou. Mulberry trees grow easily in its semi-arid, temperate weather. This allows silk worms to thrive and procreate. One silk worm can create countless offspring. These offspring can then produce a cocoon that contains a single thread of silk up to one mile in length. Ten silkworm threads are then interwoven to form one commercial silk thread. Fifteen percent of silkworms harvested are kept alive to breed. Silk is a strong substance, whose threads cannot be broken, only severed. Ancient armor was made of silk, and it is even used to day in certain bullet-proof products.
The next activity involved taking a boat ride on a centuries old canal in Suzhou. Most of the people living on the canal are poor, earning just over $400 per month. They wash their clothes in the canal and use it as a means of transpiration. While the water in the canal might be suspect, it did not have floating objects (empty water bottles, old paper products, etc.) like so many of the canals in the U.S. boast.
Our next stop was Tiger Hill and a beautiful leaning pagoda. The area is named Tiger Hill because legend states that a white tiger appeared on the hill to guard it following the burial of King Helu, a revered magistrate. The grounds were strewn with trees and lush vegetation. The seven story tall Yunyan Pagoda does in fact lean quite a bit. It also predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It was now time to visit a new city. From Suzhou we took a one and a half hour bus ride to a city named Hangzhou (pronounced Hung–Joe). Hangzhou is home to 5 – 8 million people, which is considered a mid-sized city in China. It is the heart of one of China’s special Economic Development Zones. What this means is that Hangzhou is a test area for Chinese capitalism. Imagine that for a moment. China has a test city the size of Chicago. Back on task, each company in Hangzhou is privately-owned. The city is as entrepreneurial as China gets. Now there are a couple of things to understand about how China views “capitalism.” First, the State (i.e., the Chinese government) owns all the land in China. No individual or corporation can own land. Second, if someone constructs a building (a home, an office, a manufacturing facility, etc.) at their personal/business expense, they own it for a maximum of the next 70 years. At the end of 70 years the government may take ownership of the building(s) or they may not, no one knows. Even the government is making up their mind on this issue. Lastly, if you approach the government about starting a business in Hangzhou, and they grant you the seed money, you have a partner – the Chinese government. They may take a 70% ownership stake – maybe higher, maybe lower – but they most certainly will own a part of the business.
Two notable businesses that are headquartered in Hangzhou are: Geely Holding Company and HT StarCom. Geely is the fifth largest auto-manufacturer in China, and they recently purchased Volvo from Ford. HT StarCom makes cell phones for Motorola. Something to note about HT StarCom is the size and style of their manufacturing facility. It is the size of the Superdome and looks like a modernistic domed sports arena. The location of HT StarCom is on a large river, in the heart of the city’s technology park. The company is apparently owned by three young men who visited the United States, witnessed the cell phone craze and approached the government about opening a cell phone manufacturing plant in China. Their endeavor has been quite successful. The three young men have another partner and well – you know who.
Companies in Hangzhou also make 90% of the universal joints used in automobiles. They make 99.9% of the straws in the world. Hangzhounise are proud of these facts. They are proud that they control the price. It is mission critical that Hangzhou companies and other industries in China continue to hold high market-share in broad markets because the government has set a target of no more than 5% unemployment. Keeping unemployment low keeps the potential for civil unrest low. Therefore, many of China’s industries do not make a lot of money, but they keep a lot of people employed.
We were curious about how and why China has 1.5 billion people. The answer is: after the revolution in 1949, Chairman Mao believed that another world war would take place in the near future. As such, he told the people to make as many babies as possible so that China would have soldiers for the next war. This may also be why baby boys are treasured more than baby girls in China - because they would potentially be soldiers and thus please Chairman Mao.
According to our guide 55% - 70% of China’s 1.5 billion population are poor farmers. China is attempting to educate them more and to raise their wages and standard of living. To put this into perspective, if 60% of the population is agrarian, China has 900 million poor farmers. That means that three times the entire population of the United States (the third most populated country in the world) are poor farmers in China.
There are lots of large cranes being used to build high-rises throughout China. This is particularly true in Hangzhou. The exact use of the buildings and whether or not they will be fully occupied is unknown.
As we drove through Hangzhou we noticed that the city has bikes racks sprinkled around the city stocked full of bikes for public use. Anyone may use a bike, for free, for an hour. If the bike is used for more than one-hour, the user must pay a fee of less than $1 per hour.
During the evening we had a chance to relax for a couple of hours and were also treated to the best wonton soup ever, bar none! It was an enormous bowl that contained delicious noodles, melt-in-your-mouth wontons, succulent bok choy, tender pork, and a savory broth. It was remarkable, and like no wonton soup I have found in the U.S.
The day began early with a half-hour trip to Dragon Well Tea Farm. The farm is surrounded by lush, green hills, beautifully interwoven with rows of two-foot tall green-tea bushes. Despite having an abundance of leaves on each tea bush, only two small tender leaves are harvested from each bud present. These are the small tea leaves you see if you purchase non-bagged tea. Every five days the farmers return to pluck new tender buds from the same bushes they visited almost a week earlier. The tea is said to have a calming effect on the stomach, and during a taste test I’ll be darned if it did not calm our somewhat turbulent tummies. Subsequently, my wife was kind enough to procure a fairly substantial supply of green tea for our future, domestic use.
Our next stop was to visit an embroidery institute. Now, if you had told me in the beginning of the trip that I would be engrossed by looking at embroidery, I would have shot you a cross look. But the embroidery created at the institute is suitable for framing. Well, actually it is framed. Gorgeous nature scenes abound in their showroom. From a short distance, the embroidery pieces look like paintings. On close inspection the artistry of each piece can be examined. The talent that it takes to create them is amazing and the vibrant colors are remarkable.
The next stop was Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist temple founded in 328 A.D. The monastery is home to 3,000 monks, as well as the largest Buddha in China – a 50 foot tall Buddha carved out of a stone mountainside.
In the afternoon we took a cruise on West Lake in Hangzhou. The view from the lake is like Minneapolis meets Manhattan. Hangzhou is a business-oriented city that exploits an abundance of natural beauty.
We then took a bus ride to Shanghai and had a relaxing dinner. Shanghai has 18 million people, 4 million cars and three rings of highway to manage its traffic. It also boasts the third tallest building in the world, a 101 story beast that looks like a huge bottle opener. The skyline in Shanghai, particularly at night, is breathtaking – a potpourri of architecture, varying skyscraper heights, magical lights, all set along a glistening river. A nighttime stroll on the Shanghai boardwalk is not to be missed. You will be in good company with thousands of others as well.
The day began with a trip to the Shanghai carpet mill. We witnessed the craft of hand-made silk rugs and silk tapestries. Many have 400 – 600 knots per square inch and take months to make. One in particular, a three-foot by two-foot intricate rug, had 1,600 knots per square inch. How to tell if a silk rug is authentic? Spin it around, it will change colors (i.e., turn darker). If you have a silk rug somewhere, give it a whirl and see the magic unfold.
The MagLev Train was our next destination. The elevated magnet-based bullet train looks similar to the monorail at Disney World and can travel to speeds up to 431 kilometers per hour (268 mph). The track on which we travelled was receiving maintenance so we were only able to achieve 300 kilometers per hour. Regardless, we were able to navigate what would have been a one-hour car ride in seven minutes. We then returned, again in seven minutes. Fun and fast!
The Shanghai Bazaar was next on the agenda and it is best described as shop till you drop China-style. Just picture a cross between a huge outlet mall and a flea market, populated with wall-to-wall people. Interested in trinkets? No problem. Luggage, tee shirts, jade, or jewelry? Yep. Gucci knock-offs, any designer knock-off? You betcha. Starbucks and McDonalds? Of course! Frankly, I did some reading in a shaded courtyard during this portion of the trip. Others on the trip (their genders will not be identified to protect the guilty) went wild. Let’s just say that our group did their best to boost the already sizzling Chinese economy.
We ended the day with a tasty dinner and tickets to the Chinese version of Cirque du Soleil called ERA Intersection of Time. It was a marvelous mixture of traditional and modern music, coupled with mind boggling performances. It was a fitting end to a trip brimming with beauty, mystery and magic.
After a terrific breakfast at the Renaissance Shanghai, we boarded the bus for a one hour ride to the airport. Next on tap was a 14 hour plane to JFK in New York. Then, a two hour flight to Tampa. One hour after landing we were home and collapsed in our beds. We were thankful to be home, and thankful for the life-changing experience of visiting a quite special place.