Thursday, May 28, 2009

Three Guides and One Twilight Zone in the Two Chinas

Sabbath in the Lama Temple with Zion

When the professor escorting an irreverent band of six journalists through Beijing says it's time to return to Zion, he's not thinking of the Holy Land or Zionism—he's trying to collect us and shepherd us back to our touring van and our Chinese superguide, Zion Zhu.

Zion, the son of missionaries, knows everything there is to know about: the Ming, the Qing and every other dynasty in China's long history; Nyngmapa and Galupa and presumably any other kind of Buddhism; and Hollywood movies. Ask Zion how he knows an English word he's just surprised you with and he'll tell you the film he learned it from. Then he'll tell the driver to "hang a right."

In addition to the “usuals,” the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, et al, Zion led us to "Longevity Hill," and through the Lama Temple and "The Hall of Longevity"—the hall of you should live so long, as I like to think of it.

Tuesday in the Park with Teresa

As Shanghai-modish as Beijing is quaint, our guide Teresa graced and grinned us through the gardens, canals, tunnels and towers of Shanghai. Teresa eschews a business card for a rubber stamper, a delicate pink one, which she uses to imprint her name and cell phone number on the document you’re least likely to lose. (That she presented the stamp after she lost me once is a Chinese puzzle.) Not exactly traipsing over hill and dale, we followed Teresa through the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Master of the Fishing Nets Garden, Blood Alley and Tiger Hill. I remain seduced by the poetry of the names.

They say the national bird of China is the crane. The Chinese wear face masks to prevent contagion from foreigners bearing flu, but it is the edifice complexes that are catching. Park Hyatt Shanghai boasts of having the highest restaurant in the world. A presidential suite at Shanghai’s Hyatt on the Bund becomes “The Emperor’s Suite.” It followed that I was dubbed—by the incongruous professor of architecture and comedy—the Son of the Cucumber Emperor.

Tis the Season to Be Airy

“September Song” declares, “It’s a long, long time from May to December.” In an inscrutable reversal, Air China gave us December in May by piping “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” into its cabin of seven sole Caucasians amid an untold horde of Asian passengers airborne between two predominantly Buddhist countries, China and Taiwan. “Oh cuh-uh-ome all ye-ye fai-yay-aithful.” A gospel-soul rendition, in English. Ha-al-lelu-oo-oo-yah and amen. The evergreen Christmas Carol, the lone musical offering, was so felicitous for take-off they repeated it on landing.

Four Days on the Road with Lily

Bitten by the mine’s-bigger-than-yours bug, Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, boasts of the tallest building in the world (for now). Be that as it may, the poetry of Taiwan is the roll call of the cities. By bus, plane and bullet train the Caucasians go rolling along. Taipei to Taichung to Lugang to Tainan to Kaohsiung to Hualien to Taroka. A street festival, a lantern shop, a night market, a foot massage. A serene trek through the sublime Taroka Gorge, for which there are no adequate words or camera lenses. And everywhere, our Taiwanese guide Lily charging forward to rein in the pace-setter of the pack and scampering back to bring up the laggards. Pen to pad, camera in hand or short on breath, I am laggardly.


  1. Really love to travel and enjoyed this. Hope you'll have more about your trip!!

  2. Ray --

    Welcome back! Your trip sounds fabulous -- but so action-packed that it must have been difficult to take it all in. Looking forward to future blog essays featuring your reflections on a trip of a lifetime.

  3. Ray --

    The very day you returned from your China trip, there was a TIMES story that described how, to "save" an ancient Islamic city in the Chinese heartland, the government had decided to raze it. This put me in mind of earlier reporting that described how, in the Tibetan capital, the Chinese are quietly but systematically destroying evidence of that native culture.

    I'm quite sure that, on your trip, your guides steered you away from any apparent evidence of such passive-aggressive extermination of "enemy" cultures -- but did you sense any nonetheless?

    My best,

  4. Glad to hear all the news from your travels! All my best.