Beijing Opera: Awful, forward sloping seats, then curtains open to tinny music and percussion accompanying a number of painted and costumed warriors ‘dancing’ and posturing to the point where quite a few people nodded off! The second half was improved vastly by a bit of storyline – Blue Snake being cunning, beautiful and athletic goes to steal silver from corrupt Treasury Officials to help White Snake (her sister) and husband open a Pharmacy. In doing so she has to fight various people. The music and singing are pretty high-pitched and a-tonal to our ears but the sheer agility of the acrobats and the final scenes with twirling, air-borne long batons was well worth watching.
Next it was the turn of Xian. We flew to the new airport that has been built 80 minutes drive outside the city – a long road through countryside full of wheat and maize fields. Loads of bicycles in evidence, tricycles pulling carts, less car traffic, wide roads, huge hoardings hiding rubble and poor, plain semi-derelict blocks of flats.
In Beijing the City Wall has been demolished except for a few gatehouses, whereas here in Xian much is still intact. A massively wide wall, able to cope with at least 12 people abreast or chariots and horses. It was oppressively hot so we opted for a 10-Yuan ride along the wall to catch a bit of breeze. We had heard 5km but it turned out very quickly to be only 500 metres! Back to the Hotel to prepare ourselves for a Dumpling Banquet! Xian is famous for them, apparently. The meal began with a few plates of cold dishes and then the waitress started bringing out steamer after steamer full of various dumplings. Pink, white, orange with all sorts of fillings – fish, meat, vegetable, walnut and all dipped into a mix of vinegar and soy sauce. As a finale, we had a bowl of steaming soup standing over a fierce fire on the table top into which were ceremoniously thrown a handful of mini dumplings. When you take your soup, the number of mini dumplings ladled into the bowl ‘means’ something! More silly symbolism! We finished up with Dumpling distention!
While we were eating there was a freak rain storm causing chaos as the roads were totally awash up to 8 or 9 inches. Brian quipped “Tomorrow we go to see the Terracotta Navy!
A huge thriving tourist site! It had started to rain gently, but the barrage of souvenir sellers was far from gentle. Terracotta warriors to left and right. As an introduction we were taken to a 360° Cinema Presentation that started off in ‘flying’ mode (which makes me feel nauseous) and I was tempted to sit it out, but so glad I didn’t. The film was a brilliant introduction to the warring States in China, the autocratic ruler Qin (pronounced ‘chin’ and the reason that we call the place China!), the processes involved in the production of the warriors and horses, the construction and final desecration of the ‘pits’.
Emperor Qin was the first in the history of China; he inherited his position at 13 and by the age of 22 had killed his Prime Minister (who was acting as Regent). He gained control of the 7 ‘States’ and unified China. During his rule he standardized the language and pushed through political reform. Of the 2 Million people in China he used 700,000 for building the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, his Burial site and some of his 700 Palaces! He burned 1000’s of books and when the scholars complained he had 462 of them buried alive!
Pit No 1. (exciting name don’t you think!) Excavated after a lucky find by farmers digging a well. The soil in the area had never been very productive in that area! In 20 years the fame of the find has spread into a vast enterprise. The hall is huge and down below the walkway is row upon row of soldiers. In the front they are reconstructed, detailed, different and standing stiffly to attention. None of their armour or weaponry remains, it having been looted by a later Emperor. Behind are broken pieces of soldiers amid their sand – not pieced together and finally there are blocks still not uncovered at all. A picture of an era over 2000 years ago. It’s mind-blowing in conception – only a totally autocratic, ruthless ruler could demand such an epitaph. Pit No 2. was deeper, smaller and with horses and less soldiers. Pit No 3. was again large with much remaining to be excavated. The Museum on the site was interesting because you could see the detail on the soldiers close up as well as some of the special treasures like a wonderful half-size bronze chariot and horses.
Phyllis had wanted to take home a Terracotta soldier but wasn’t too eager to try her hand at bargaining. From the vast hordes of replicas she chose an imposing General and I enquired the price, ‘580 Yuan’ (£45). I quietly asked Phyllis what she was prepared to pay for it (£20) and then negotiated the original price down to 250 Yuan (£19). They packed it instantly, the job was done! On the way out of the complex, the bargaining streak in me got loose again and I bought myself a similar soldier, having reduced the price still further to 150 Yuan. Goodness knows how fast they had it parceled into its flimsy box, but I swear I hadn’t had time to blink!
The site of the Terracotta Army is about 1 hour 10 mins drive outside Xian on a newly built Motorway. The way back was on the old road and took much longer. Narrow, pot-holed and lined with dwellings and shops. It reminded us of India – driving along in the middle of the road and swerving dangerously to overtake!
One of the reasons for choosing the package tour we did, was that it included a cruise through the Three Yangtze Gorges. The cruise ships mainly start in Chongqin (Chong-chin) and we left the hotel at 8 a.m. when the traffic was in full spate, crawling part of the way. Our main luggage was being taken for us, so we only had our hand luggage to carry to the boat. There it was below us, moored 40 yards offshore with pontoons, planks and safety nets to the lower deck. A number of ill-assorted, ill-dressed locals keen for a fast and easy buck tried to whisk hand luggage from us and ‘solicitously’ aid us down the 30 steps to the gangplank. We could see their aim and with our Indian experience standing us in good stead brusquely brushed them aside, managing successfully to avoid their clutches. But Phyllis, Tom, Elizabeth and Ina were easy targets and we watched them being ‘assisted’ to the ship. The guide and the ship’s crew were embarrassed, as they had nothing to do with these ragamuffins – and then particularly so when Ina opened her purse to get out some money for a tip and was quite blatantly robbed. Luckily Mrs PC had the presence of mind to grab the thief’s arm, dig her nails in hard and force him to release the ill-gotten money. What excitement!
The ‘Victoria’ is a Sino-American venture. Well equipped, spacious and semi-luxurious. Our cabin had air-con, private facilities with shower, a small desk and a fuzzy TV (on which we could watch Wimbledon!). Food throughout the trip was plentiful and excellent and the staff was helpful, friendly and enthusiastic.
After leaving the built-up sprawl of Chongqin our first outing was to Fengdu (Fungdoo) also known as the Mountain of the Dead or The Evil City. The Chinese believe all the spirits of the dead reside there. When they die, their spirits come to the Gates and their past life is judged before they pass into Heaven or Hell. Most of the temples are on the top of a hill and as the temperature was well in the 30’s we took an easy chairlift to the top to find dusty displays of gaudily painted tableaux. Gory looking monsters eating limbs, tearing up babies, chopping off heads, spearing spikes and mincing the bad. The stallholders all wanted to sell their wares; postcards, water and soft drinks, books, paintings, bags, umbrellas etc. Ina bought a ‘painting’ that, with her poor eyesight, she thought was fine embroidery – her money taken from her with indecent haste and the object wrapped in the blink of an eye. The sales people tell you what they think you want to hear – ‘Yes! Yes it’s material; yes it’s very fine stitching … whatever you want it to be … you won’t be back here with trading standards!’ I think Phyllis was quite wide-eyed at the place – nothing like anything she had seen before, but for us old hands of Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore and Indian temples – it was just more ‘gimcrack rubbish!’
Day 2 and we all assembled on deck for the entrance and passage of the (first) Qutang Gorge. Whoosh and you’ve missed it! Our video camera decided to bugger about and not work – due to ‘condensation’ caused by moving it from the air-con cabin to the hot and humid outside. No record of the Gorges trip! Neither of us could get too excited about Qutang Gorge. A couple of hours rest and then into Wu Gorge, the second and longest. Up on the comfortable deck we sat in the warm and pleasant breeze as the Gorge Guide pointed out various rocks, cliffs and mountains as they slid by. But our imagination didn’t come up to the task of converting a lump of rock into a Dragon or a Princess or a Fir tree etc. Shame upon shame we both kept dropping off to snooze! Tracker paths and ledges were visible cut into the sides of the Gorge, evidence of a more turbulent time when the Gorges used to be full of dangerous whirlpools, rocks and fast flowing water. To get boats upstream semi-naked ‘trackers’ were employed to man-haul the boats against the flow of water. It was a highly dangerous job; gruellingly difficult as parts of the tracker paths are only 3 feet high, so even the Chinese had to bend almost double, and with just one false footstep could lose their grip and be swept away into the river.
Before we went through Xiling Gorge, and approached the site of the new Three Gorges Dam, we were invited to a talk / discussion on the merits or not of the dam. It’s been a huge dilemma for the Chinese since 1911, when the idea of a Dam was first suggested. Controlling the flooding of the lower reaches of the river was the original rationale for building the dam. Having seen the flatness of the land east of the 3 Gorges, it’s obvious that flooding could be devastating. In 1931 flood water rose 53 feet above normal and completely submerged whole cities for up to 6 weeks, there was enormous loss of life (140,000) and to a greater or lesser extent there is flooding every year.
So finally, after 70 years of debate, in 1992 the National People’s Congress passed the resolution for its construction.
Many countries have dammed their rivers and watched the results, and now world consensus (well, mainly USA and Europe) is that on balancing ecological upset against power benefit, it is probably better not to dam.
The arguments both for and against this dam were persuasive:
Overall costs (and we all know how these inflate during the work, the more so in China to take account of whopping corruption and fiddling!)
Construction – $6 Billion; Resettlement – $4 Billion; Power transmission project - $2 Billion. These are 1993 figures and the USA estimate for the same work is $30 Billion! Add to that the $24 Billion of Dynamic Investment.
Main construction will take 15 years. (Many of the workers are army conscripts, prisoners or drafted in from far-flung provinces – working for a pittance or even nothing.)
632 sq. km land will be submerged (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories as well as 8,000 recognised archaeological sites.)
The position of the Gorges and their geologically stable cliffs make this point a dam-makers dream site.
“Large dams are tremendously expensive. They always cost more than you thought and tie up huge sums of capital for many years … There is no visible symbol in the world of what we are trying to move away from than the Three Gorges Dam” D. Beard American Hydrologist and Head of US Bureau of Reclamation.
Provision of up to 20% of China’s power needs at the moment will be generated from the potential energy stored in the dam-impounded lake. “… and finally the water will flow into the whirling gills of nearly a hundred power units, creating a vast hum of ten million kilowatts of light and warmth and progress” (J Hersey. ‘A Single Pebble’)
Power output will be 18,200 megawatts; more than four times the output of any power station in Europe and 8 times the capacity of the Aswan dam.
The patterns of water flow to the lower reaches of the river can be controlled to alleviate the very real flooding problem.
1.3 million people will be displaced by the rise in water level and require new housing and work.
There will be a huge change in the ecology of the whole area. Dolphins, porpoises and miniature alligators are nearly extinct in the river and sturgeon will no longer be able to reach spawning grounds up river.
10.000-ton cargo and passenger vessels will be able to navigate the river 1,300 miles right into the heart of China.
SILT. This could be a major problem as the river carries 2 lbs. of silt in every 1 cu. metre of water. Huge quantities of silt will accumulate behind the Dam wall, clog turbine entrances and deny rejuvenating sediment to the downstream banks.
A Dam can be breached. Landslides, earthquakes, war or terrorism could unleash terrible consequences on the huge cities downstream.
National pride. Designing, building and funding the Dam themselves is seen by the Chinese as a symbol of their newfound self-confidence.
Once a vast sluggish lake is formed the previous cleansing action of the river is dramatically reduced. All the ordure, pollution and effluent which for centuries has been flushed downstream will stagnate making a substantial cesspool, together with all the potential health, ecological and political problems.
We were glad the final decision didn’t rest with us.