The Great Leap Forward...that's what they called it when Chairman Mao pushed the Chinese populace to export more food (to the point of which the general public was starving) and melt down steel for export (which had peasants thowing everything metal...including necessary items such as cooking pots and tools into the fires) so that China could import factory and military technology to modernize their country. The plan was a fiasco ending with countless dying of starvation and many of Mao's own camrades turning on him. Too much too fast at too large a sacrafice. However, when traveling through China today...high speed trains darting through city after city of high rises past world monuments in the shadows of modern marvels, you have to wonder if this is the China Mao had envisioned. And in the process of leaping, has China missed out on something along the way? We crossed China by train this summer to find out.
We started our trip in Shanghai - a thriving metropolis with sky scrapers in quirky shapes (one with a spire engulfed by a giant ball, The Pearl Tower and one with a giant open square in the middle, The Bottle Opener) lit up in every shade of neon imagineable. Kid-friendly activities range from an aquarium with "the world's largest underwater acrylic tunnel" to a massive science museum with Disney-esque displays on rainforests and robots. Expansive concrete squares and walkways were surrounded by designer shops with neon signs and upscale eateries, but there was something missing - Chinese history and culture. There are parts of Shanghai that nod to the past...the French Quarter, the Bund, the Yu Gardens area, but most are tourist attractions, not living history.
None-the-less the kids loved strolling down the paths and feeding coi fish in the Yu Gardens and bargaining for Mao merchandise (a watch with Mao's hand waving as the second hand or a general's hat from the Red Army) by the gates. The dumplings at the stalls nearby were outstanding (Nathan - our ten-year-old's new favorite food) but the line to get them was just as outstanding...they're very popular and there are A LOT of people in China! The people of Shanghai are very modern...in Western dress, with mobile phones, eating at Western fast food chains and moving at break-neck paces...unfortunately no one has schooled them on Western manners as lines are non-existent (people just tend to surge forward in a swarm-like fashion) and spitting is rampant (although signs are posted everywhere warning against the practice as it spreads germs), but it's all part of the fun of foreign travel, right? After Shanghai, we decided to head up the Yangtze River to the interior of China to see if this modernization had spread into the countryside. We purchased China train tickets through ACP Rail before we left and they delivered them to our accommodations in Shanghai.
On the overnight train from Shanghai to Chongqing, we got a bit more of the non-line formation as the crowd pushed forward on the train platform as if Justin Bieber had just walked by. We held back a little and found that we could board the train just as easily after the rush as over and we had assigned cabins anyway, so what was the point of pushing? The kids loved the train journey! Although not many people spoke English (only one or two people and very limited at that), Westerners were a bit of a novelty...more than one person during our weeks of overnight trains asked why we didn't fly. In addition to getting to see the countryside whiz by the window
and meeting locals, immersing in the culture, another benefit to overnight trains is that the price includes a night of accommodation....and the kids thought the bunk beds were pretty cool. Everytime the kids walked through a compartment the whole crowd would turn and stare and that's when the pictures started as well...about once or twice per compartment, someone would ask us to sit and take a picture with them. The kids thought it was great...just like being famous. They also liked the bunk beds in the train compartment (we traveled on soft sleepers which were private compartments with four beds and air conditioning). We didn't pack much to eat thinking we could eat on the train, but the options were very limited. We did hit the fruit cart for bananas a few times and had Ramen noodles.
In Chongqing, we boarded a ship for a three-night journey with Sanctuary Retreats down the Yangtze River through the infamous Three River Gorges. As many of you know, one of the world's largest dams, the Yangtze River Dam, was constructed in this past decade in an effort to control flooding at produce hydro-electricity, an effort which caused the relocation of millions of Chinese people and flooded over many historic buildings and sacred places. With the change of scenery and relocation of towns, we wanted to see how this leap forward had affected the countryside. In the first stop on our cruise, the cruise director had arranged for our group to visit both a traditional home and a new home for people who were relocated. The traditional home was obviously more rustic - dirt floors, simple furnishings, limited electricity - life as always. While the modern apartment into which families were relocated had air conditioning, glass windows and tile floors, but the inhabitant said the biggest draw back was that she was separated from her neighbors - a leap away from traditional community - and she missed that. At the end of the journey, a wide slab of concrete juts a mile and a half across the Yangtze with much controversy. The Yangtze River Dam is the largest construction project in China since the Great Wall (Mao would be proud as it was he who originally suggested a large dam here during the "Great Leap Forward").
The dam has been the source of much heated discussion due to its relocation of almost 2 million locals and the environmental impact of displacing that much water. Although the soaring limestone cliffs are less soaring now (the water was raised by almost a football field) they are still spectacular and a journey through the gorges is well worth doing.
Our ship docked in Yichang where we boarded an overnight train to the political heart of China, Beijing. The center of Beijing is the vast cement slab of Tiananmen Square which is guarded over by a massive portrait of Chairman Mao (hanging from the entrance to the Forbidden City - the last home of the emperors of China and one of the few ancient sites that was not plowed over during the Communist take-over).
Tiananmen Square was originally built for the people, but today, due to riot control, security is tight, there is no filming and it is closed at night. The square is surrounded on two sides by Communist/government buildings. The third side is lined with Western fast food chains (Mao is probably rolling over in his masolaeum, which is in the center of the square) and the fourth is the Forbidden City.
The soaring red doors, colorful murals and curled up corners of the buildings in the Forbidden City is quite a contrast to the gray cement rectangles of the Communist era buildings nearby...a leap right over any local architectural tradition. The kids enjoy wandering through the narrow alleys of the Forbidden City.
They meet kids snacking on chicken feet (a common snack food here in China)
and are asked to have their picture taken over and over again. They are starting to get the idea of why famous people become reclusive. But it's short-lived so they're happy to oblige. We learn about the emperors and empresses that live here and what life was like in the royal court.
If there is a feather in the hat of Chinese progress, it's their hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games. About 45 minutes out of the center of Beijing, we visit the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube - landmarks from the games. The kids are delighted to find the Water Cube, where Michael Phellps set so many records, has been repurposed into Asia's largest indoor water park. So they hop in, sliding down two story slides, hopping around the wave pool and joining the locals as they "splash attack" various other patrons.
The other highlight to our trip to Beijing is a visit to the other great construction project in China...the Great Wall. The wall runs over 5,000 miles from northeastern China following near the Mongolian border. We had been approached in Tiananmen Square by an English speaking driver to hire a private car for four of us, which turned out to be cheaper than taking an organized tour. Badaling is the closest wall access to Beijing, but it's very crowded, so we head to Mutianyu about 50 miles from town. After weaving through trinket sellers, where Seamus enjoyed tasting amazing dried fruits, we found a chairlift to the top of the wall. The chairlift looks like something from a 1950s film set in Switzerland with rickety chairs with narrow seats, but the views are incredible and the kids thought it was lots of fun. I'm glad we decided to take the chairlift too because once you are at the top there is plenty of hiking along the wall and the kids would have been too worn out by the intial hike to do too much exploring. The kids had lots of fun imagining they were Chinese soldiers and the huns were attacking as they ran up steps to the watchtowers that connect the walls, peering out narrow, stone windows through the forest where the wall bumped and dipped along the form of the mountain terrain winding off into the distance. After a couple hours appreciating the wall, it was time to head down, but instead of hiking we took the luge.
You read it right...they have a long metal slide with go karts that wind down the mountain side back to the base. Cheesey tourist attraction...yes, but not something you can pass up with two little boys. It ended up being a neat way to get down...gliding quietly through the forest.
If Beijing is the political capital of China then Shanghai is the capitalist and financial capital, but how does Hong Kong fit into this modern country? Our last stop in China showed us that not much has changed in this British enclave...at least on the surface. You still have to go through immigration to and from China, they still use different money...you get the idea. The one thing that I noticed was different from last time we were there, which was just around the time of the British hand over, is less British pubs. We stayed at Park Hotel Hong Kong in Tsimshatsui - an area lined with mostly Chinese restaurants and great shops selling everything from fashion clothes to Chinese trinkets. The kids enjoyed a surprise trip to Hong Kong Disneyland while we were there. The park is set up very similar to the original, although it is smaller with a few rides missing. But they enjoyed the Jungle Cruise ("It's even better than the original with fire and water geysers!" says Seamus) and of course, "it's a small world", where the no-lines culture hit a feverish pace as visitors pushed to board the little boats standing back to belly, filling in every bit of space. At night we enjoyed gelato at the top of Victoria Peak overlooking the city lights.
With the massive construction (cranes on almost every building it seems) and cities popping out of what used to be farmland, and two more dams in the works, even bigger than the Yangtze River Dam, it seems China is still taking a huge leap forward. Where it will end up, especially in this world's economy, is yet to be determined. But if you want to see ancient China with its winding hutongs and rice fields, and travel through a foreign country where few speak English and squid on a stick is a popular snack (even in Disneyland) then you best go fast as they may soon leap right beyond the cultural divide.