The China Trip, September 2005

We departed Singapore on August 25th and arrived back at Satori on October 8th quite exhausted, carrying 375 photos, many memories and many impressions of this huge and crowded country.

We spent five days in Hong Kong on the front end and a week at the end to properly recuperate. With a travel distance of more than 4,500 miles through Mainland China over a period of four weeks, it would not be practical or interesting for us to give you a running detail of what we did and what we saw. Instead we will give you some impressions and tell you some of the humorous things that happened to us. We will send three photos with each letter, as usual, but hope that you will later refer to the website: (Choose “cruising-Satori” – no need to “Log in”) in order to see the complete set of photos and some of the very nice short video clips included at that site.

We were fortunate to have an apartment for ourselves near the suburb village of Sai Kung during the first five days in Hong Kong. Our very good friends, the Levy family, made us feel right at home. Because they have lived in Hong Kong since the early 70’s they also could give lots of good advice about sight-seeing in the city and traveling in China. It was great to see Daniel, Lucy and the children again after getting to know them in Micronesia and Palau.

Hong Kong is a fabulous place! We would love to return to Hong Kong someday to spend more quality time. It is much more “alive” than Singapore with its rather sterile atmosphere. The downtown area is crowded with neon signs and very busy with day-to- day living. We did the usual tourist things visiting the markets, crossing the harbor in the Star Ferry, traveling to the top of Victoria Peak, and traveling to some of the out-lying islands. One very special day was spent with the Levy family on one of the small outer islands, Tap Mun, where Dan and Lucy had spent time in their youth.

We got our visas through the Chinese Embassy in Hong Kong and were ready to make the short train trip across to Shenzhen on October 1st.

One of our main concerns about traveling in China was the language barrier. It turned out to be a legitimate concern and one of the biggest challenges we had to face. The Lonely Planet offers a small pocket-sized phrase book from Mandarin to English. We could easily recommend it as there were very few times that we did not find a word or phrase that we needed during the trip.

The Mandarin language is not phonetically based, but rather pictographic. It contains over 40,000 characters, but it is commonly felt that an educated contemporary Chinese speaking person will use some 6,000 – 8,000 characters...too many for these Old Farts to learn at this time of life! The best we did was to learn to say “ni hao” (pronounced Nee How’) which means “hello”. Believe it or not, this often led the Chinese recipient to believe that we could actually speak their language!

There is a phonetic spelling for words in Mandarin, so why not just use that? There are four tones in Mandarin (Cantonese has SEVEN!) and these tones can change the meaning of a spoken word. The word “ma” can mean mother, hemp, numb, horse, or to scold or to swear depending on the tone of voice that is used as it is pronounced. We DID try to use the pronounced words several times and got such blank stares that we gave up in short order.

One problem with using the phrase book was that the Chinese person would inevitably grab the book from our hands and want to look at everything in it. So we developed a back-up system. In a small notebook we wrote (in English) some phrases that we felt we would use often. In one of our first cities, we asked the manager of our hotel to write the Mandarin characters for these phrases. Photo #1 will show you an example of one of the pages that we used many times. From that point forward, we used the ‘point method’ instead of the ‘speak method’. Before we ever approached a train ticket seller or a hotel desk person, we would have the gray flip-book in hand – as the Brits say “Brilliant!”

Photo #2 is a map of China with the route that we traveled during our four weeks there. We hope that you will be able to see it well enough to use it during our “ramblings”. Using tour books we had outlined a rather clockwise trip around China. In the end we did visit each place on our list with the exception of Lhasa, Tibet. The Chinese invaded and conquered (China prefers “liberated”) Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled to India where he still insists that he will not return until Tibet is given independence. We decided that a visit to Lhasa would give us one more picture of the Han Chinese rather than a true picture of Tibetan culture and that we would (de facto) be supporting the Chinese control there.

Our first city in China was Guangzhou – most of you will remember this city as Canton, the original trading city in the days of the “Silk Road” and the Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century. We came to Guangzhou via train…most of our travel through China would be by train. Arriving in Guangzhou was our first major cultural transition challenge. We think that any sane person may have given up with the experience there in Guangzhou. As it turns out, this was to be the most crowded and the most frustrating of all the “train experiences”. Photo #3 shows the front of the train station; however, to get a better idea of the situation, please check the short video clip later on the website.

The next letter will cover the experiences in the SW part of China.

TTFN – TaTa for now

Jane and Sander