Two weeks in China: tourist snapshots, Part II

Part I of this piece appeared last week at 3QD and can be seen here.

by Stefany Anne Golberg

May 12


Armband3_web Bill was raised in a poor mountainous village in Zhejiang province (“Where is Hangzhou you will go there”), the son of tea farmers. He was allowed to leave his village and attend university in 1964 but his studies were cut short in 1966 by the Cultural Revolution. “We went mad, you know, we went mad,” he says over and over. He tells us he joined the youth militia and criticized the teachers he went to the city to learn from. He passes around his faded Red Guard armband, laughing at it. He sings about Our Great Leader (“we went mad, you know, we went mad”) and soon the bus driver joins in mechanically, paying more attention to the road. When Bill met his wife, she was a city girl in high school. Bill married her out of benevolence. She suffered in the country, we are told, though we’re not given details. Then suddenly, the Cultural Revolution is over and things start to change. Mao dies, Mao’s wife is arrested, and in return Bill’s wife is allowed to escape the rural toil of farming life. She moves to the city and a few years later in 1982—the government needing tour guides in the city as much as history teachers in the country—Bill and his son are allowed to join his wife, in the city where he resides today, still a tour guide at 64.

By the time Bill finishes his tale, half the bus is asleep with mouths gaping and eyes closed. A Canadian woman snores. Bill’s real name is Huang.

From the spotty window, the farms of Hubei province whiz by. Eight people dressed in unremarkable clothes stand before a gravestone in what appears to be a random spot in a field. A trio of horn players point their brass instruments into the blazing sun, their song silent from the tour bus.


Aboard the M.V. Emperor, where we will spend the next four days, we are assaulted by a long line of grinning uniformed crew members. Two haggard men in ripped t-shirts stumble into the crowd. They carry a load of heavy suitcases that dangle from a bamboo stick balanced on their shoulders. Among the tourists, there is an audible gasp and nervous giggling. They deposit the bags heavily and someone fumbles around in her pocket for a yuan or two. But the crooked men have already left.

May 13


The peagreen Yangtze moves beneath us as we set sail upstream. The river is dotted with small pointy fishing boats. Brick shacks peek out between the trees that cover the surrounding high mountains. The air is alive with tiny white butterflies. You’ve seen it in pictures: the mist, the cliffs— it hasn’t changed for a while or so it seems. But the Yangtze is indeed is changing, it’s just that much of the past is already far beneath the surface.


Our first breakfast on the ship is what has now become my daily morning fare: congee (white, black, corn, millet) topped with spicy pickled things. It is the only item that never seems to run out at the breakfast buffet. “There was some sort of earthquake yesterday,” a woman says.


Largest Project

Enormous Benefit

Solves Longstanding Problems

Inheritance Civilization

Most Attractive Sightseeing

Our ship docks and the bus takes us through the port town of Sandouping. Babies with open bottom flaps mooning our tour bus, a woman frying egg pancakes in a 10-gallon pan, dogs eating alley trash, old men crouched on tiny bench seats playing cards—all by the light of the early morn.

We wind through camphor and orange trees to the Three Gorges Dam Project, the largest dam in the world. Our daily guide shoots facts and figures at the group, assuring us that, though the Project will eventually displace well over a million people, he received an apartment much nicer than his previous one. We’re dropped in the middle of a tidy park that plays orchestral music straight from a ‘30s love scene.

…the whole Yangtze Three Gorges has a crashing change, it become to be a huge artificial lake….The Three Gorges Project is the dream that makes our country stronger, but when the dream comes true, our old but beautiful hometowns also become a parting old dream. It is unavailable to be satisfied for the both sides in the world….Losing some beauty of seclusion and grotesque, the Three Gorges increases some magnificence…Good wishes for the Three Gorges!

–Lu Jin, Chief Editor, “Three Gorges Project in China”, February 2008

An island of tall white apartment buildings looms on the horizon, new homes for the displaced villagers whose old homes were devoured by the ravenous Dam.

Back down in the park, I buy a government-issued book about the Dam. Next to me, a man plays a creaky ‘My Darling Clementine’ over and over on the hulusi.

Oh my darlin’

Oh my darlin’

Oh my darlin’, Clementine

You are lost and gone forever

Dreadful sorry, Clementine


The ship’s crew has prepared a talent show. The performances are amateurish and sincere. The bartender kicks her legs in the air. The waitress who giggles stay at the back, giggling. There are more floppy sleeve dances and also a Mexican hat dance of sorts. No one has much information about the earthquake in Sichuan province. 10,000 dead we hear.

Later, I ask Bill which, in his opinion, had a greater effect on China’s economic liberalization, the death of Mao or the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan that killed 250,000 people. He stares at me straight-faced for a moment then starts to laugh loudly. “Ah! Good one, good one!” he says.

May 14


The 2,000-year-old village of Dachang in Wushan County is under water. Our boat guides today again tell us about their new, better homes on top of the hill. Cherry shows us pictures from a book called ’Charming Wushan’. The photos of the pre-submerged Dachang show a windy place with traditional Chinese rooftops. In Dachang, Cherry shared a tiny apartment with her husband, daughter, and parents-in-law. Their outdoor toilet was shared with four other neighboring families. The new Wushan in the picture book is a round and gleaming Tomorrow World. From the boat, it looks like the same white concrete, laundry-dappled blocks one sees all over China. Cherry’s new apartment in the Wonder City, she tells us, has indoor plumbing, cable, and internet access. For 50,000 yuan, Cherry was able to buy her apartment outright from the government. She has multiple rooms and her daughter loves to read on the john, sometimes for 45 minutes. Cherry’s in-laws never made the move to new Wushan. Both died shortly after being told of the imminent relocation. Cherry says they were too old to make the change.

Our boat drifts past a tiny farming island sprinkled with cornstalks and a few shacks that frame three women folding laundry. The shacks sit casually by a handful of 3,000-year-old graves, holes carved in the side of the hill with small wooden coffins peeking out. Next year, it too will be sunk.

We transfer to a small motorized sampan boat to explore the nooks of the Lesser Three Gorges. Suddenly, a Tujia man who has been sitting next to me in the sampan rises. He wears pinstripe trousers and dons a traditional straw lid while he belts out a warbling, sonorous melody. Soaring above us, the dark mouths of caves built to shelter the locals from Japanese airstrikes during the Second World War. Modernity versus Tujia.

Ruby lips above the water

blowing bubbles soft and fine

but alas I was no swimmer

so I lost my Clementine.

May 15


Just outside the City of Ghosts a man with mirrored sunglasses and faded jeans leans on a crooked bamboo stick in front of a one-room police station. His head is turned to the right but he watches nothing. A Double Happiness cigarette dangles from his mouth.

Apparently, Chinese Hell is just another round of bureaucracy. You must obtain a travel permit simply to pass through Hell’s Gate and then endure interrogation by the officials of Hell. They will judge if you are to return to earth a human again or be tortured for your sins before your next life as a beast of burden. Staying dead is not an option.

Hellkingdom_web 6,000 steps. Up up up, past the Ridge of Helplessness, the Balcony of Nostalgia, Nothing-To-Be-Done Bridge, and Last-Glance at Home Tower, where the dead can have a final look at the world. Pushed ever upwards we are wedged into the Palace of the King of Hell. Behind an old gate, miniature model scenes of what the torture chambers in the Chinese underworld might have in store.

The Palace of the King of Hell is the only original structure left in the City of Ghosts. Everything else was built in the 80s. Officially, there is no answer as to why this particular building was left intact while the surrounding temples were laid waste. But it is agreed, at least in Fendgu, that the Red Guards who blazed through here knew as well as anyone that the Kingdom of Hell is a place of judgment, where crimes are punished without mercy and you can never escape your sins.


“Mao Money Mao Problems…”

Sailing westward, once you pass the Gorges, the banks of the Yangtze change. The scene is an endless succession of enormous grey concrete factories and rusty barges hauling coal or trucks. Gone is the warbling birdsong and the towering limestone peaks. The new song of the Yangtze clanks and grinds. Makeshift docks curve up hills into processing plants painted with filth and haze. A lone fisherman in an aluminum canoe drags the afternoon carp from the brown river water. In the distance, I can make out a row of workers in red shirts (“red in China means good luck!”) filing into a lopsided tent perched on a mile-long rock pile. We pass under bridge after bridge, some of them just long lengths of filament strung high over the water that sway as workers stumble across carrying heavy loads on sticks.

Up on the sundeck, the sun is an impressionistic smudge. Unable to breath comfortably outside, most of the tourists have chosen to stay in their rooms. I awake each morning my throat thick with phlegm and I haven’t yet learned the popular art of Chinese hawking.

“Here it is,” said Tocqueville of 19th-century Manchester, once the world’s factory, “that humanity achieves for itself both perfection and brutalization, that civilization produces its wonders, and that civilized man becomes again almost a savage.” Manufacturing now belongs to China.


It’s the last night of the cruise and the drink special is a weak dribble of Singapore Sling. I empty the remainder of the contraband rice liquor I’ve been keeping in my room into the cocktail and head to the sundeck. By the light of the dull Yangtze moon, I write a note to the maid:

Dear Amenda,

Thank you so much for your lovely notes. I was particularly touched by the little paper heart you left and the drawing of Garfield (the cat). I wonder how long it takes you to handwrite these notes every day. I don’t know you at all but I will keep your notes and take them back with me to New York, and they will be a memory of you. Hopefully you will understand this or someone will translate it for you. I wish you the very best of luck.

Warm wishes,

Stefany Anne Golberg

Room 218

On to Chongqing.

May 16


Chongqing smells like an old nail.

I stand on the dock where the M.V. Emperor has left us for good. My contact lenses stick to my eyeballs.

“It’s a bit…polluted,” I say to our Chongqing guide, a university professor who drags tour groups around on off hours. He is nonplussed.

“You mean, the air?” he says.

“Well, yes,” I say. We walk on towards our bus.

“And, the water?” he says.

“Yes, that too.”


Tin-roofed mud-and-brick homes are built into the side of the Chongqing hills overlooking the river. Long strips of meat dangle over porch railings and windowsills to dry in the sun. Along the river highway, rows of dank WWII air raid shelters have become a makeshift market, selling scrap metal, car parts, and broken bits of stuff, the remnants of Chongqing as wartime capital.


The businessmen in the lobby of the Royal Plaza Hong Kong Hotel drink frothy fruity cocktails and watch the live music with glazed attention. An impassive woman in skinny black leggings sings “I’d Like To Make it With You” in a tired Chinese-accent. Behind them, two screens show a soccer game and the fashion channel. Upstairs in my room, I flip through one grisly earthquake scene after another on CCTV. The soap operas have been suspended. Instead, children pulled from masses of rubble, entire villages flattened by shoddy building and bad timing. A schoolyard becomes a way station for corpses. Day after day parents wait in the yard for new bodies, waiting to see if it is their missing child, their only child.

May 17


Atop the lush Victoria Peak, the crown of British colonialism in Hong Kong, a bathroom attendant stands at attention with one hand gloved in black latex, the other holding a pair of salad tongs to fish discarded toilet paper from the waste bin.

May 18


Our train flies along the path from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Wall-less, tin-roofed farmer’s shacks are planted in the lush vegetation of Guangdong Province. All around them, half-finished (or half-demolished) modern apartment complexes are caged in rickety bamboo scaffolding. They are growing everything. More apples than America, more chilies than Mexico. Child-sized palm fronds shelter mounds of smoldering garbage.


“There’s only one landlord in China,” says Hobbie, “the Party.” You may own your own home, he tells us, but you’ll never own the earth beneath. Hobbie speaks like Queen Elizabeth and has a fuck-it demeanor. “Guangzhou is very international,” he says, “you will see blacks.” Rather than leading us single file behind a flag, Hobbie cuts us loose into a seething pit of shopping exuberance. Locals scrabble for jeans, tops, dresses, cheap glass baubles shaped like rats and pigs and oxen, jade-colored cigarette holders. Shopgirls stand high in the middle of clothing bins, throwing discount items to teenagers who push each other to snap them up. A teenage boy wears t-shirts that says, “I Do What I Want To Do”. One woman’s shirt just says BALLS.

May 19


In Marco Polo and His Travels, Polo declared Hangzhou to be the finest and noblest city in the world. Hangzhou feels like a mirage that floats above the rest of the country. Even our local tour guide Ricky is much crisper and peppier than our previous ones. Along the West Lake, sunny Hangzhou children wear heart-shaped stickers of the national flag and hold their fingers in a ‘V for Victory’ sign.


Our bus driver pulls over to get gas and a handful of cars and trucks start to honk. We can’t figure it out. The honks don’t seem to be directed towards anything in particular. Should we be honking? I try to locate our driver and see him filling the tank and having a smoke. “Oh!” says Bill. “It’s the mourning! The mourning! Three days of mourning for the earthquake.” Not knowing what day it is, having had spotty access to news sources, we put together that it’s the exact moment the earthquake had hit one week earlier—2:28pm, May 12—when we were on a bus listening to Bill tell us his life story. And that’s how we found ourselves on the first day of a countrywide moment of unity for the earthquake victims—on the side of a highway, oblivious, surrounded by a few pitiful and patriotic toots, pointed towards Shanghai.


Huge new houses line the Huhang Expressway. They’re topped with shiny silver cupolas that reach towards heaven. These are the homes of the upgraded Chinese farmer. They are the countryside turned suburb. The farmers here can cultivate anything they want, so long as it’s a cash crop, like silk pods, which are a hell of a lot more profitable than rice. Some will also take jobs in one of the many factories that line the outskirts of Shanghai, further increasing their income. The Tourists are impressed; these homes are far larger than anything they live in.

Bill dismisses our surprise by telling us that the homes were built on the cheap. Then he excitedly points out a lake where the Communist Party was founded in 1921 and recites a list of Chinese names that we can’t understand and will never remember.





ShanghaiMay19_webThe City of Lights’ City of Lights is dim. Tonight—and for the next two nights—China flies at half-mast to honor the earthquake dead. At 9pm the television stations play either earthquake news or silent snow. The group is disappointed because we cannot watch the Shanghai Acrobats as scheduled. There are no public entertainments anywhere, in all of China.

On a street corner in Shanghai, a group of young people anxiously hold out Styrofoam containers to a man who flips fresh noodles around in a fire-heated wok. Ladies get coifed in open-air salons. Across the way, a gym displays a row of late-night exercisers. There’s one bar open and it’s empty except for a pair of middle-aged Chinese men silently drinking green tea from a glass pot. I order a Shanghai Night and get served a Long Island Iced Tea. No one is crying and no one is laughing. Monday night life is performed, a wordless mime. Shanghai continues, only in darkness.

May 20


Back on the bus and someone asks Ricky about Falun Gong. He laughs. They laugh. But, what is Falun Gong? someone asks, laughing. Ricky laughs. Bill laughs. Everyone laughs. Falun Gong is taboo, Ricky says, laughing. But no, really, a few more tourists pipe in, laughing, can you explain Falun Gong to us? Because we see stuff about it in the States but we don’t understand what the big deal is. Bill and Ricky laugh. The tourists start to speak to each other (“Do you know what it is?” “Do you?”). Bill and Ricky have turned away, and have stopped laughing.


Everything we do—every hotel we stay at, every restaurant, garden, every attraction and splendid site—has been officially sanctioned by the PRC government. No one tells us this, but it is obvious. Any change in itinerary is met with a dismissive grin. By the end of Week Two, I have taken to sneaking away from prescribed visits to tourist factories. I find myself on unremarkable streets, locals-only districts where workers eat noodles on twist-tied scaffolding and the shops are mostly empty. Daily life waltzes along to the music of whining drills. I can’t speak to anyone, people watch me with supreme confusion. Why am I here, the faces say, in this neighborhood, on this street?

May 21

Li Po, the great Tang-era poet, spent most of his life wandering around China. His poems are traveler’s reflections, but really they tell the story of Li Po himself, the lone poet vagabond, a tourist in his own country. His average was “a hundred poems per gallon of liquor” and the poems themselves have titles like ‘Alone Looking at the Mountain’, ‘Alone And Drinking Under The Moon’, ‘Looking For A Monk And Not Finding Him’, ‘Drinking Alone’.

Li Po traveled because he couldn’t find a place to settle in. As a constant traveler, he was forever homeless, and the journey became his home.

We are all always tourists.

Li Po, so they say, drowned in the Yangtze when he fell out of his boat in a drunken attempt to embrace the reflection of the faraway moon, perhaps thinking that it was his next destination. And, maybe it was.

Quiet Night Thoughts

Before my bed

there is bright moonlight

So that it seems

Like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head

I watch the bright moon,

Lowering my head

I dream that I'm home

–Li Po

It’s sunny today in Shanghai. The streets are paved with dried magnolia petals and construction rubble.