The mission was clear. We had just two weeks to visit six cities in five provinces covering thousands of miles in this vast country. Our host, The China Tourist Board would provide air and river transport as well as guides and flexible itinerary in each location. We gladly accepted the daunting challenge arriving in Beijing with empty bags and stomachs to be filled along the way with the treasures of the orient.
The flight over the North Pole from New York took only 13 hours--a record for Asia. David Bowie's " Ch-ch-changes" played softly on the airport musak as we cleared customs and might serve well as anthem for the new China. Gone were the stern-faced Communist bureaucrats in drab Mao-era clothing replaced by fashionably dressed folks ready for business and long-denied pleasure. There was a palpable sense of manifest destiny in the capital, knowing that in the near future China would again assume its position at the center of the world.
We checked into the venerable Beijing Hotel which had recently undergone extensive renovations. The gargantuan marble structure occupied two square blocks near Tianamen and hosted a wide range of upscale mostly business travelers. We had a "Lost in Translation" moment as the singer in the lobby lounge crooned Norah Jones hits in a thick Mandarin accent.
After a welcome supper of stir-fried veggies, Kung Pao chicken, and hot-and-sour soup at the Long Li Hotel Restaurant, our Beijinger friend Angie collected us for a Saturday nightlife tour. We ended up in a throbbing expatriate bar appropriately called Suzy Wong's filled with gaggles of trendy young Chinese women and their American and Euro suitors. At the bar, we were approached by a man selling pirated DVDs of recent films for a dollar a piece. Unable to resist, we had our first shopping experience acquiring the beginnings of a large and illegal film library.
The next morning we made the obligatory trip to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Even in the cool drizzly conditions, both attractions were filled with throngs of mostly Chinese tourists gawking and grooving on their history.
After lunch near the Great Wall at the Badaling Hotel featuring delectable dumplings, we decided to do some serous clothes shopping at the sprawling Silk Alley Market. Angie lectured us on bargaining technique. Offer ten percent of the initial price and go to no more than twenty percent. Her simple lesson served us well. In a couple of hours, we could hardly carry the Polo, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Prada and other big name designer items at absurdly low prices. Was the stuff counterfeit? At these prices, we asked no questions.
The next stop on our Beijing shopping spree was the Pan Jia Yuan antique market. Every Sunday dealers from far and wide haul their wares to market starting at 5AM. Everything from fine bronzes, pottery and paintings to carpets and kitschy Mao memorabilia was offered. We arrived on the late side but through fierce bargaining came away with impressive buys. Be aware of faux antique items which were common here.
Thanks to consummate foodie Ed Schoenfeld for the following restaurant recommendations which represent some of the best food in Beijing: Da Dong Beijing Duck House is the gourmet place for duck as well as lobster-flavored noodles, saffron sauces and foie. The Li Family Restaurant is a bare-bones treasure located in a "hutong" (a courtyard residence) that is not to be missed.
The following afternoon we flew south to Chongqing, disembarkation point for our Yangzi River cruise. One of China's more interesting and least visited cities, Chongqing is built on steep hills reminiscent of San Francisco that overlook the wide river. Our short time here was spent on a belly busting Sichuan "hot pot" at the impressive Zhu's Restaurant. A cook-it-yourself affair, we sat around a large cauldron of spicy boiling water adding fish, beef, pork, greens, tripe and other unmentionable edibles to the hot pot resulting in a memorable meal. Filled to the gills, we boarded the China Regal Cruises Princess Elaine for a four-day float down the Yangzi through the storied Three Gorges to Wuhan.
The day began early with a tai chi class led by Dr. Han, the ship's doctor and acupuncturist. We klutzed our way through the session until breakfast was served. The copious food was slightly toned down Chinese and western style geared to the predominantly Euro and elite Chinese clientele. After lunch we docked at Fengdu for a tour of the "Ghost City," a Tang dynasty complex of temples. Forgoing the cable car, we hiked up the mountainside to the shrines which contained scary sculptures of demons and devils. There was a Disneyesque feel to the attraction that seemed to delight the many Chinese tourists. Back on the boat we indulged ourselves with vigorous Chinese massage and healing acupuncture for our aches and pains that resulted in a good nights sleep.
The second day on the river was spent passing through the spectacular Three Gorges. We sailed through the first Qutang Gorge with narration provided by our river guide. He assured us that in spite of the rise in the river's water level due to the massive dam construction downstream, the scenic beauty of the Gorges would be unaffected. As we glided past ancient pagodas and mist shrouded Goddess Peak, the inspiration for Chinese landscape painting was apparent.
The highpoint of the Three Gorges passage was an excursion up the Shannong Stream, a scenic tributary of the Yangzi. The small peapod boats were pulled by half naked trackers singing bawdy folk songs. The scenery was even more dramatic with up close views of the unique geology and bucolic splendor of the region.
At last we reached Xiling, the longest of the Three Gorges and entered the locks that would take us to the mammoth dam construction site. According to the government, the controversial dam will help control perennial flooding on the Yangzi as well as providing much needed clean hydroelectric power. The real consequences of the dam will not be known for years, but the overriding Chinese sense of destiny fuels the massive project come hell or high water. The next morning we toured the huge complex and couldn't help but be impressed with the sheer magnitude of what will be the world's largest dam.
On the fourth day around noon, we docked at Wuhan, one of China's largest commercial cities. The temperature hovered around ninety degrees as we walked the sparkling renovated riverfront area with an Olympic pool and other recreational facilities. We ventured a block inland and found a globalized shopping street complete with KFC, McDonalds and department stores stocked with the latest designer clothing and beauty products.
Our Wuhan home was the Mayflower Best Western, a five-star gem boasting a terrific health club, pool, and world-class restaurants. We settled in at the health club where over zealous locker room boys undressed us and placed us in bathing attire (a bit too much service).
That evening we were feted by Mr. Tang, the congenial head of regional tourism for Wubei province. The gastronomical extravaganza included sea cucumber, tasty river fish steamed in tomato broth, tender eel, stir fried river shrimp, tofu and pork soup and a host of other delectable dishes from the rich regional culinary palette.
In the morning, we visited the great Hubei Provincial Museum. The large assemblage of artifacts from the 433BC Zenghouyi royal tomb included bronze vessels, weapons, jade, gold and turquoise jewelry, and the 64 world renowned bronze bells. This remarkable collection rivals the finest Egyptian archeological treasures. Our visit ended with a stirring musical performance on replicas of the famous bells performed by musicians and dancers in period costume.
Culturally sated and needing to shop again, we found magnificent hand loomed carpets at the Wuhan state-sponsored factory store. The prices were on the high side but the workmanship and weaving quality justified the tab.
The next day we flew south to Guilin to cruise the scenic Li River and view the surreally beautiful Bubble Mountains. After a bouncy landing we checked into a nondescript diplomatic hotel where President Richard Nixon stayed in the days of ping pong diplomacy. Tired from our long day's journey, we settled in for athletic massages performed by petite masseuses with deceptively strong hands. We were bent and stretched every which way and cured of any lingering jet lag for a mere seven dollars.
Early the following warm morning, we boarded one of the numerous cruise boats at the city dock. The scene was touristic pandemonium with local and foreign tourists clamoring for photo positions on the "circle line" style boat. On the river, we floated languidly past the famous karst limestone peaks and enjoyed a simple meal cooked home-style at the stern of our boat. Mid-float, our craft was intercepted by comically aggressive sampan vendors selling local handicrafts. We bought an overpriced carved Buddha before disembarking at our next port of call, Yangshuo.
Nestled amid glorious limestone peaks, Yangshuo proved to be a formidable destination for scenic, culinary and shopping adventures. We were comfortably ensconced at the Yanshuo Regency Holiday Hotel, a charming older structure with ample atmosphere. A few steps from the wraparound porch of the hotel, we found Xi Jie, a long pedestrian mall chockablock with stores selling local handicrafts, sensuous silks, leather, and a mind-boggling array of bargain priced treasures.
After extreme shopping (bought more luggage here), we stumbled into the West Street Brothers Restaurant for one of the trip's best meals. The feast included exceptional carp steamed in beer with peppers, succulent fatty duck, garlicky snails, pork spareribs and a silky pumpkin soup. Afterwards, we slept soundly with dreams of our final stop in Shanghai dancing in our heads.
During the hard times of China's Cultural Revolution, the typical greeting was "have you eaten?" Today the salutation has changed to "are you making money?" In Shanghai, the residents are eating very well indeed and making scads of money. Shanghai is the centerpiece of China's economic revolution with a growth rate reflected by the large number of skyscrapers popping up like mushrooms on the "Bladerunner-esqe" skyline. Conspicuous consumption is the order of the day with rickshaws and bicycles replaced by BMers and Benzs. The original fortunes of the city built on the opium, tea, and silk trade have given way to multinational global business concerns.
We checked into the glistening five-star Mayfair Hotel in the Chang Ning District and watched early morning tai chi in the park across the street from our plush suite on the 22nd floor.
Joining the tourist hordes in what was left of Old Shanghai, we wandered the magnificent Yu Gardens and marveled at this architectural masterpiece. We noshed nearby on tasty steamed buns at the Nanxiang Mantoudian Restaurant. Lunch was a formal affair featuring stellar jellyfish and tender stir fried beef at the YuYuan Restaurant where President Clinton chowed down on his visit here.
After lunch, we crossed to Pudong, the eastern bank of Huangpu Jiang. Remarkably since our last trip to Shanghai, this formerly marshy farmland had blossomed into a Special Economic Zone. From the top of the Pudong TV tower the massive scope of development and construction was clearly revealed.
When the days sightseeing ended, we adjourned to our omniscient guide's secret non- sexual massage salon for an ultimate treat. The session began with an extreme pedicure and acupressure foot pummeling that rearranged our internal organs. We then endured two hours of contortionistic activities during which the masseuses (again deceptively petite ladies from the countryside) pretzelized our bodies until we begged for mercy. We emerged new men from this massage of a lifetime, glowing with health and extremely beautiful feet.
Our final two days were spent in a wild shopping frenzy at the humongous Xiangyang Lu Fashion Market. This is the big one with every conceivable luxury item represented. We stocked up on Lacoste shirts ($5), Prada and Louis Vuitton bags ($20), designer watches galore, Shanghai Tang style mandarin silks and yet more DVDs (better quality on older films).
The last night after a visit to the Bund, we wandered glassy-eyed, overweight, and laden with booty along the neon artery called Nanjing Lu. Already plotting a return to this amazing land for more decadent pursuits, Chairman Mao would not approve. Fuck him.