Our Voyage through China

Our Voyage through China McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2003 > Spring 2003 > Our Voyage through China

Our Voyage through China

Our voyage through China

The dam is still to be built. It will be, one day -- of that I am sure." John Hersey made this prediction in his novel A Single Pebble back in 1956. Hersey had already established his reputation as a writer, editor and war correspondent for Time, Life and the New Yorker. In his first acclaimed piece of fiction, Hersey's hero was a young American engineer sent to China in the 1920s to scout out locations for a possible dam on the Yangtze.

Nearly 50 years later, the fulfilment of Hersey's prophesy was rapidly coming to pass. A massive dam was under construction in the famed Three Gorges area and a stretch of more than 600 kilometres of the turbulent, erratic Yangtze was about to be replaced by a giant lake. The water would start to rise in 2003 on what would be the largest hydroelectric project in the world. So when we learned that the McGill Alumni Association was planning a trip to China which included one of the last river cruises through the Three Gorges, we signed on eagerly. We knew we would never again have a chance to pay homage to the river that so inspired Hersey.

We also dreamed of standing with the silent ranks of the Terra Cotta Warriors, in their thousands, at the city of Xian. Articles in the National Geographic and several coffee table books on these astonishing ambassadors from the past had captured our imagination. The army -- and the farm animals -- that were to protect the First Emperor and feed him for eternity had been reduced to rubble by the wrath of peasants who revolted against the memory of the Emperor by venting their fury on everything he bequeathed to his reluctant subjects. For two thousand years they had lain under the silent layers of loess until a farmer's gentle search for water in 1974 inadvertently turned his well shaft into one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

The Great Wall added to our wanderlust. Was it really the only man-made object visible from space? For the imperial builders and the countless warlords, the wall defined space. Alone, or in parallel with dozens of smaller localized walls, it snaked for thousands of kilometres. From a line of defence to a convenient mine of ready-made building materials to a world heritage site threatened by the distortion of tourism, the Great Wall still is a monument to human ingenuity and endeavour.

Our itinerary would take 50 lucky travellers -- including alumni from Queen's and the University of Toronto -- from Beijing and the Great Wall, to Xian, Chongqing, the Yangtze and the Three Gorges, Wuhan, Huangshan and the Yellow Mountains, Shanghai and finally Hong Kong. Along with planes and boats, local red- and blue-labelled "Canadian Alumni" coaches would be our home for the three weeks.

We flew from Montreal to Toronto, then non-stop to Anchorage for a two-hour layover, and finally followed the great circle route across the Pacific to Beijing, via Hong Kong. Thirty-one hours, plus the International Date Line culminated not in a day of rest, but an almost immediate departure for the Heavenly Temple. And so our adventure, by turns exhausting and stimulating, began. It turned out to be a voyage of discovery, not just about China, but about ourselves: never had we been so wrong about so many things.

Whatever thoughts or prejudices we might have had about China were rooted in the 1980s or earlier. A shelf of recent books written by émigrés or survivors of the calamities of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and Chairman Mao's catastrophic and misguided agricultural policies reinforced an accurate historical view, but did little or nothing to shed light on the incredible changes in both China and the Chinese since the fall of Mao and the subsequent opening up to the West.

Looking back, no amount of reading could have prepared us for the sheer scale of the country -- from the enormity of the Three Gorges Dam project which will displace more than 1.5 million people, to the fact that China has 150 million unemployed. We visited the city of Chongqing, whose greater metropolitan population is equal to that of Canada.

Contrary to our expectation, Western-style traffic congestion has arrived in Beijing. Motorists co-exist in equal numbers with cyclists, who seem oblivious both to cars and the meaning of traffic signals. Hordes of bicycles coalesce like schools of fishes that never collide. The traffic moves at an incredible clip, with much jockeying for position, and yet we didn't see a single accident. It is very difficult to get a driver's permit in Beijing because it takes three months of intensive training and every would-be driver has to learn basic auto mechanics, as there are few service stations anywhere in the city, and even fewer in the surrounding countryside.

We'll remember the sounds of music and laughter -- at every turn the Chinese sense of humour astonished and delighted us, as did their courtesy towards each other and strangers. There seems to be an insatiable thirst for things Western, coupled with an enormous pride in their own cultural heritage. The intensity of the Chinese work ethic puts our North American attitudes to shame. Parents push their young children hard to excel academically since university places are limited. Our guide Soo admitted that he actually felt sorry for his 12-year-old daughter. "She has to study so hard, she has no time to be a child," he lamented.

And we were constantly struck by the contrasts which moved us from ancient times to modern, sometimes within the same vista. In Shanghai, we drove the super highway to the brand new airport on opening day -- an 80-km stretch of perfect pavement bordered with millions of massed plantings, making this the world's longest botanical garden. Nearing completion is the elevated track soon to carry an electromagnetic levitation train that will link the airport and the city at 300 km per hour. In the countryside, water buffalo still plod the rice paddies.

The Chinese are making great efforts to learn and use English. Traffic signals, billboards, public signs, menus, labels -- are all bilingual. That said, the vagaries of the language have led to some quirky translations, referred to locally as Chinglish. Upon leaving Shanghai we spent our last Chinese yuans in the airport cosmetics shop on an irresistible jar of "Senile Fleck Dispeller" -- something no middle-aged, liver-spotted woman should be without!

By journey's end, we had covered thousands of miles by air, boat and coach, going from frigid mornings high in the mountains to sweltering nights in tropical cities, from sophisticated urban museums to untouched rural villages. In three weeks we had experienced only a fraction of the country -- but enough to take away impressions for a lifetime.

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