Travels in China: 2011

Travels in China: Part 2

Here are notes about Sichuan, several towns, and nature.

The Valley of Sichuan

We were in Nanchong and Chengdu, which are cities in Sichuan, a vast valley in the center of China. Sichuan is 480,000 square kilometers (185,300 sq.mi). To compare, California is 423,970 sq km (164,000 sq.mi); and Germany is 357,021 sq km (138,000 sq.mi). Sichuan is surrounded by mountain ranges. To the west, there is a mountain range perhaps 2,000 kilometers wide. This means Sichuan is well-protected. Rivers bring water from the mountains, so there is plenty of farming. Eastern Sichuan is sub-tropical. Many of the cities are 2,000-3,000 years old. The valley has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. Sichuan used to be spelled Szechwan or Szechuan and you’ll often see these variations in the US.

Because of the valley and the rivers, Sichuan is perpetually overcast. There is often a heavy fog with visibility at only 1 mile (2 KM). You rarely see the sun.

The cities in Sichuan are very large. Chengdu has 12 million people. Nanchong has seven million.The city of Chongqing is the size of South Carolina or twice the size of Denmark. I don’t mean twice as big in population. It’s twice the land area of Denmark. It also has 32 million people.

Sichuanese like to have long lunches, drink tea in the afternoon, and play Mahjong. Just like California and Southern France, life is relaxed. To me, their cuisine is the most delicious and varied in China. Sichuan food is famous for the use of chilies in their food.

Whenever they can, they set up a table outside and share their food. Chinese love to eat.

To the north of Chengdu, there is a large open-air archaeological museum at Sanxingdui for the Shu kingdom. The Shu were a civilization from 3,200 years ago which lasted over 1,000 years and disappeared completely. The ruins were discovered by a farmer in the 1980s. The museum is modern, beautiful, and well-worth a visit. The Shu produced spectacular artwork of a very high quality in jade and bronze. They made large bronze sculptures of trees, which they decorated with birds. These are somewhat like our Christmas trees. Some of these bronze sculptures are more than three stories high. Shu craftsmanship is excellent and as good as anything today.

The bronze tree is over three stories tall.

An odd item is their bronze masks with jutting eyes, as if the face has telescopic eyes. If anything is evidence of alien visitation, this surely is a good example 🙂

To the northwest of Chengdu, there is the Dujiangyan water dam. It was built in 256 BC to provide irrigation for the region and it’s still in use. A clever design allows the dam to control water flow without filling up with silt.

In honor of the king and his son who led the construction of the dam, there are spectacular temples in the cliffs over the river. You can see excellent examples of ancient Chinese architecture, many of which are over 2,000 years old.

Dujianyan dam also has a large outdoor opera that is performed daily. It tells the story of the construction of the dam and how it benefited the populace. Hundreds of actors participate in a theater which includes galloping horses, boats, floods, and water works. It’s worth it to see theater on that scale.

Taoism was founded at nearby Mt. Qingcheng, just 15 km southwest from Dujiangyan. The area has some three dozen peaks, more than 70 caves, beautiful temples, 1,400 year-old palaces, and 1,500 year-old statues.

Langzhong Village

Founded some 3,000 years ago. For more than 2,000 years, it was a significant city in central China. The river curves almost entirely around the city. It is also surrounded by mountains. For ancient China, this meant the city was located in an almost-ideal geomantic (feng shui) location which promised fortune. A number of temples are in the hills around Langzhong.

The ancient city has been restored. You can see the gates, towers, houses of the wealthy, merchants, and craftsmen, plus dozens of restaurants, tea houses, and noodle houses. There are several hotels in the city. We stayed in a hotel in a 900-year old merchant’s house.

Langzhong also has the scholar’s examination hall. For more than 1,300 years, the annual scholars exams of imperial China were held in Langzhong. Those who achieved top scores got positions as imperial officials. The Europeans learned about the Chinese bureaucratic system based on examination, which became the model for the civil service system in France, Germany, the US, and other Western countries.

The Imperial Examination Hall of China. Our western bureaucratic system originated from this village.

A Red Flag Village

One day, we drove along the river to a Red Flag Village. These were the collective socialism villages that were set up under Mao. Everything was socialized, which means there was no private property. Land, tools, and even the homes were held in common. The village had separate dormitories for men and women. People could marry, but married couples were kept apart. The focus of the village was a large theater, where they held political speeches and songs. Everywhere in the village there are speakers on poles which broadcast the songs and speeches. All of this is now dusty and silent.

The women’s dormitory.

Why does this matter? The Chinese that we meet today were strongly affected by this. If they’re 45 or older (in 2012), they grew up in the Culture Revolution, a time of intense political turmoil. Young Chinese (in their teens and twenties) have grown up in Deng’s China of capitalism and commerce. They are very different from the older generations.

Nature and the Countryside

We drove through the countryside quite a bit to get to other cities or visit national parks. One thing you notice is the lack of birds and small animals. In the US, it’s common to see flocks of birds in the sky and rabbits in the fields. In China, there are practically no birds. I saw a few common birds, such as swallows, one or two egrets and a hawk. Just driving for 30 minutes in California, I’ll see a hawk every kilometer, but in three weeks in China, I only saw one hawk. In Beijing, we saw magpies. There’s lots of white ducks in the rice fields. But no crows. Every European city plaza is filled with pigeons, but not in China. I never saw any pigeons or crows. I asked people about this, but they hadn’t notice it. They would look around, realize there are no birds, and shrug their shoulders.

Chinese really hate rats and mice. Just as in Spanish, they have one word for both rat and mouse, and they hate both. In the cities, there are no squirrels in the trees. I never saw wild rabbits.

They love pets. Even in small crowded apartments in the huge cities, they’ll have cats, dogs, rabbits, parrots, and turtles. The names are usually just “rabbit” or “turtle” or “kitty” and “doggie”. In contrast, Westerners often give elaborate (or even ridiculous) names to their pets, such as “Foxcliffe Hickory Wind” (yes, that’s some dog’s name; he even has his own page in Wikipedia.) (My cat has his own web page, which means he also shows up in Google.) A friend in Chengdu has a Mynah bird, which of course speaks Chinese.

Chinese have had city parks for more than a thousand years. These are what we call English parks, which means in a natural style (in contrast to French gardens, which use geometric lines.) The English garden, which first appeared in the early 1700s, were modeled on the Chinese gardens and parks. In Beijing, go to Beihai Park. It has a large lake and island (both are man-made). On the island are many buildings of the Chinese imperial court, incl. Kublai Khan’s massive wine bowl, carved in jade, and an imperial restaurant which serves a delicious lunch.

Pandas in China

Okay, one of the best things to see in China are the pandas. For that, you go to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in northeast Chengdu to see dozens of pandas in a large, beautiful, and well-run facility that shows them in their natural habitat.

Spot the panda!

A shuttle bus takes you around and you can hop off and on. There are lots of tourists, mostly Japanese and Europeans, in the bamboo forests. There’s also a shop where you can buy everything panda, including very cute panda hats.

Over a hundred panda live there. The preserve also breeds pandas, which are loaned to zoos around the world. Those zoos pay a million dollars per panda per year, so it’s quite a business. Pandas are very lazy animals. Their diet is bamboo, which has little nutrition, so they move very little and mostly sleep.

One panda. 100 tourists.

Next: People and Their Lives

China Part 3: People and Their Lives