Sunday, November 11, 2012

Asian Chronicles-3

Aboard the bus, Angela filled our commute to lunch with stories of jade - its meaning and significance.
Jade (technically jadeite) is believed to be a gift from Buddha. The current sources of jade are Burma and the Hunan Province of China. Jadite re-crystalizes in response to body heat and over time its color deepens and the stone clears. Translucency is highly valued.

“The 2008 Olympic medals were backed with white jade,” she said, holding both thumbs and forefingers up to form a circle.
     “The jade bangle,” she stopped abruptly, “You know jade bangle? Jade bracelet is in pieces, it might be two pieces that open or many pieces. A jade bangle is one piece, carved from one stone. A bangle is like a wedding ring,” she continued, “A symbol of love. An heirloom bangle, given to a young bride, is believed to pass down happiness and fertility. It is worn on the left, closer to the heart,” she said, touching her chest. “The heart is locked, it will not wander, and the blessed fruition of the bangle flows from left to right.

“You will see many small, jade carvings of the Chinese Zodiac.” Angela held a pinched thumb and forefinger before her face, then spread them an inch apart. “This is for the baby to wear, to protect the baby.” Ahhh - at birth, Popo gave most of her grandchildren a beautiful piece of jade.
“You will see many jade carvings of the HAPPY Buddha" she smiled. "Rub his BIG belly for happiness,” Angela said, rubbing her contrastingly flat tummy in a circular motion. “Stroke his LONG earlobes for long life,” she pulled at one ear. “Rub his head for knowledge and wisdom,” she patted her head.

We had lunch in a banquet hall above the Jade Factory. Two jade carvers worked near the entrance while forty salespeople loitered on the sales floor, waiting like bees in a hive - to swarm. One carver worked to the whine of a Dremel-like tool while his cigarette, propped at the edge of his table, sent a thread of white smoke spiraling up. No eye, ear, or lung protection required. My brother-in-law Michael leaned-in and whispered, “Bet that’s not OSHA approved.” Bet not!
“Western toilets,” someone announced as I trailed the queue to the bathroom.

Of the eight-courses served for lunch, six were meat with or without vegetables. I picked out onions and bell peppers to eat with my rice before our dessert of watermelon. The only vegetarian courses served were rice and watermelon. I was sure the menu was heavily weighted with meat as Americans are known primarily as carnivores.
A month earlier, I’d alerted our tour guide Derek of my vegetarian preference.
“I think you will be pleased with the diet,” his email said. “Please try it and if you require special arrangements, we can accommodate you.”
I spoke with Derek after lunch. “I can make do but if our meals are going to have mostly meat dishes; can you get them to bring out the vegetables a little earlier?”
“Yes, I will take care of that for you,” he said.

The Jade Factory was the first of many showrooms that seemed unavoidable on this tour. We watched several demonstrations, one showing progressive steps in carving seven-layered, concentric, jade balls.
“Hold up the jade to the light. You can see vein. Plastic, no vein.” The saleswoman rotated a hand in the air. “No vein. See? Scratch it with metal or stone, no scratch.” She raked a pair of scissors over the bangle. “Plastic, scratch. Jade, no scratch. Jade heavy.” She passed the bangle out into the crowd. “Plastic light.”

I was shopping specifically for white jade, stud earrings, mounted like a single pearl. “No white jade,” they said. Olympic medals could NOT have depleted their stores! Harumph.
I own four jade bangles (and need another like a hole in the head, my Mother would say) but they are always of interest. I perused their showcases with my calculator in hand (a sure buying sign.) It was my first opportunity to convert Chinese yuan (CNY) to USD (US dollars) = 6.26:1. Making the calculation, I thought I could fare better in Honolulu’s Chinatown should Spirit so move me. 
There were three caucasians in our tour group. E-v-e-r-y-one else was some-part Asian. We Asians love our jade and gold and know its worth. As a whole, we judged their jade ding-ding over-priced by double or more so little silver changed hands.

Back aboard the bus - we headed into the Changping District and the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall - some 60 km (~37 miles) from Beijing. The terrain became hilly with tightly terraced flanks. Sections of The Great Wall came into view and when our bus came to a stop, several miles of The Wall could be seen slithering like a great, white serpent through green hills. 
Parts of The Great Wall are dated to 500 BCE. Remember, there were seven separate countries building protective walls. China’s First Emperor Qin began connecting these walls to protect his young country from northern Mongols, barbarians, marauders, and nomadic tribes living in yurts. There is evidence of fortifications in Juyongguan Pass as early as 770 BCE.
One million peasants worked on The Wall. Ninety percent of them died on The Wall and it became their grave. The Wall has been revised and rebuilt over and over and over again, as evidenced in rock patches and different rock layers.

Cloud Platform
The Juyongguan section through Juyongguan Pass was constructed during the Ming Dynasty and completed in 1368. It consists of watchtowers, gate towers, and the Cloud Platform made of white marble - which once supported three pagodas followed by a Buddhist Tai’an Temple. Just the Platform remains, adorned in relief carvings of Buddhist figures and sutra scriptures carved in six languages.
The Great Wall’s height varies and on cross-section is trapezoidal, wider at the base than top. Its width measures a mere meter where The Wall perches precariously, wedged into steep terrain. Our summit, the thirteenth tower, was 1600 steps - one way. We had two-hours to scale The Wall to the thirteenth tower and return.

The bus dropped us at the bathrooms.
“Are they all squattys?” And after a brief pause, “Oh my God, they’re all squattys.”
“You’re lucky you’re skinny,” she said.
“No, not skinny,” I said as a matter of fact, “I'm lucky because I'm flexible. What’s important here is flexibility.”
“Oh yeah; yeah?”

We started up The Wall straightway. The first few sections were very steep with uneven rises and inconsistent stair depths. Some steps rose as much as 18-inches or so, while others rose only six inches, making it difficult to settle into a rhythm. The steps are worn into a trough adjacent to the handrail, the high use zone.
A thin Chinese man and his wife moved slowly up the wall. I passed them and they returned the favor when I rested. I walked with him for a bit and learned they were from Taipei. I guessed his age to be late 70’s though he possessed the timeless Asian visage; he spoke excellent English. She stopped near the tenth tower but he continued on, slow and steady.
“You’re amazing!” We high-fived as he descended and I approached the thirteenth tower.
“You’re amazing,” Mr. Taipei said smiling.

Inside the thirteenth watchtower, I scaled a steep chimney-like stairwell to reach the sunny roof with cut-outs for archers. Down-climbing this thing is gonna be a bugger, I thought. Okay, I admit I didn’t think bugger, I thought that other B-word. And it was; I descended it facing forward, like a ladder.
Nephew Collin, Lorin, Niece Lael
We summited in forty-five minutes so we lingered, taking photos and striking the famous, Hawaiian, shaka pose, as Hawaiians are wont to do - repeatedly - throughout China.

Gusts of cool wind carried “outhouse” stench along the stone staircase. Without water to rinse or “flush” these stainless steel squattys were particularly fragrant and visually repulsive. Need I say more? I tried holding my breath but ... you know, that doesn’t work for long.
The small village at the base is a quaint reproduction. There you can buy coffee, sodas, snacks, and take pictures with costumed Chinese warriors. The sun dropped behind the thirteenth tower and the village turned monochrome, drab, gray occasionally punctuated by a red door.
We paused at a large site map to locate ourselves.
You Are Here & Here & Here!
“Look!” Collin bust into laughter. “Every place says You are here! You are here,” he poked at the map, “You are here," he touched it again, "You are here, you are here,” he cackled. “How the hell are you supposed to find yourself?” We burst into laughter and snapped photos, adding it to our travelogue.

Our bus lurched forward. “How many of you made it to the top?” Angela asked once everyone was counted and seated. Seven hands rose to the applause our fellow travelers. 
Angela smiled broadly, “Chairman Mao said you are not a hero until you have conquered the Great Wall.”
I thought it curious that she spoke of Chairman Mao almost as if he were still ruling with the iron fist historically proven to be no better than the Imperialists against whom he railed.

“What are the locks on the wall?” I asked. Chains with engraved locks festooned sections of the wall.
“Chinese people (I noticed that Angela seldom used the word "people" without a qualifier. She said Chinese people or Hawaii people or people from the United States. But I digress.) “Chinese people might engrave their names on a lock. Then they lock it on the chain and throw the key over The Wall. So their love is locked and it will stay strong and last a long time, like The Great Wall.”

“They have squandered an opportunity to showcase their antiquities here,” my sister Gina said quietly. “Can you imagine how many people visit this section of the wall? They’ve built a freeway to it!” She reached for her sunglasses absently and propped them on her head. “They could have a museum; they could showcase other antiquities and entice us to partake - but they don’t. Instead they have this cheap, kitschy, cheesy stuff. They need a good consultant to help them maximize their opportunity in a...” she paused, looking for the right word, “In a tasteful way.” 
Yep, and they need someone who speaks English as a FIRST language to translate their signage. For example: Up your seat for landing versus return your seat to its upright position for landing. Up your seat? Com’on, surely they can do better! Up yer seat too - Bucko!

I pointed to the tightly terraced hills as the road descended in switchbacks on its way to Beijing. Not crops? Angela explained the hills were terraced and planted in pine, cypress and poplars to stabilize erosion.

Angela began to explain China’s 1979 One Child Policy and its current status. 
“Ethnic minorities, like the Manchurians, Tibetans, Mongols, and farmers can have a second child if the first one is a girl. My mother is Manchurian and my father is Han. Children have their father’s lineage so I am considered Han. Most Chinese are Han but we can pay a penalty, an extra tax, and have more children.” 
She said her parents were loyalists. Her words were careful and never disparaging of “Chairman Mao” though he has been dead 36 years and his Cultural Revolution is blamed for 40-70 million deaths, imprisonment and torture of the intelligentsia, and damaging the historical culture and society of China.

We passed a vacant amusement park. “Wonderland,” Angela pointed. A bankrupt Singaporean, investment company abandoned the project prior to completion. It stood yielding to the elements, construction cloth flapping, scaffolding falling, bright primary-colored walls fading, like a child without a raincoat in a storm - waiting.

Our bus stopped at a pullout along a busy street and beneath the IBM building.
“See the dragon?” Angela pointed to the building’s crown. 
Oh my God! No wonder buildings take on these weird shapes in Asia. (For a picture of the ancient Dragon rune IBM reproduced, return to Asian Chronicles-2 and scroll to the seventh picture.) Dragon heads echoed from the tops of columns, stamps in walls, caps on stairwells, and ornaments under eaves.

We crossed the pedestrian overpass to an overlook of the Olympic Village. Low-angled sunlight seeped through cracks between buildings and the air grew chilly.
“Bird’s nest is the symbol of great fortune,” Angela informed. “It was designed by a Swiss firm.”
We stayed just long enough to snap a few pictures before dinner.

Dinner, like lunch, was eight-courses and all meat until the tofu dish arrived just before dessert. I picked out onions, bell peppers, eggplant, and more onions to eat with my rice. Rice, onions, peppers, eggplant, tofu, and watermelon. Weight gain will not be an issue.
     My nephew Colin is a quick-study and comedian. “Let me guess what we’re having for dessert... um... watermelon!” And so it was.
Our day had been full. We returned to our hotel at 7:30 pm and, still fatigued with jet-lag, were quickly asleep.


  1. Love your writings Lorin. And the pictures are really amazing. The IBM building is a WOW. What a wonderful trip you took.

  2. Loved the photographs, Lorin, and your delicious turns of phrase. Sounds like you've got to be strong to visit China!

  3. Mahalo Patricia. Yes - go to China while you can move easily w/o aids. Because what we want to see are their antiquities - which for the most part, have few modern amenities. The surfaces are uneven, unlit, wet, and treacherous for the aged and immobile.