Going to extremes in China
Red giant opens the eyes of Durangoans

Racers make their way up one of many steep climbs during the Great Wall Marathon./Photo by Stan Rabbe.

D on't put off your China travel plans any longer. China is changing so quickly that this year's culture will be gone next year - literally. And for those who live by the adage that "everything is changing quickly," you really have no gauge until you've been to China. In May, Stan Rabbe and I began our 17-day tour of China, a trip we believed would climax with a run in the Great Wall Marathon. However, the excitement of running on the Great Wall was actually eclipsed by the over two millennium of history and culture that we experienced.

In Beijing we toured the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Lama Temple, Mao's Mausoleum, Silk Alley, the Pearl Market, and three major Imperial Gardens. In the early mornings we walked through Tiananmen Square where soldiers stood guard and old men were flying kites a quarter mile high. In public garden areas along the streets people were doing Tai Chi, and their bird cages hung in the trees (the only singing birds in the city). Vendors opened their stalls, noodle shops steamed up, male and female military groups conducted running drills, street cleaners worked with hand-made brooms, and bicyclists commuted to work.

The familiar view of the Forbidden City in
Beijing./Photo by Stan Rabbe

Pedicabs carried us from the streets of modern Beijing to alley doorways, which were the entrances to another world called "The Hutong," the old neighborhood communities that are disappearing from sight. Each Hutong gives access to private home entrances, a community toilet, and incorporates ancient trees into the community courtyard areas. Only one Hutong section has been designated to be saved; others are being razed to make way for new high rise apartment buildings.

Construction is constant throughout all of China. Picture the skyline vista of Beijing as a collage of construction cranes on every high rise building in every direction. This picture characterizes the immense growth and change that all of China is undergoing.

Eventually, we spent two days on The Great Wall: one for a site inspection and another to run in The Great Wall Marathon. Huang Ya Guan is the section of the wall we ran, and since it is a three-hour bus ride northeast of Beijing, very few tourists visit it. Some of the section is in bad condition, with uneven stairs (some of stone, some of bricks), railings to hang on to, and in one part a footpath down a steep slope.

The marathon included two loops on the wall, each covering a vertical ascent of 1,000 meters, and 1880 steps. All 600 runners were quickly lost on the lengths of the wall and our vistas were absolutely clear and gorgeous. We ran a long stretch through villages with locals standing on the side of the road shouting exuberant hellos in English. Smiling and laughing kids gave us high-fives, and old women collected our used water bottles to recycle and sell water to tourists. It was more than a marathon; "it is an adventure run," an "extreme event." It was terrific. We left Beijing with accolades from the Chinese as heroes for running a marathon on the Great Wall.

Xi'An is at the eastern end of the Silk Road and the site of Emperor Qin's 6,000 Terra Cotta Warriors. Qin unified China, began work on the Great Wall around 214 BC, and construction on his mausoleum took place from 247-208 BC. The immensity and grandeur of Qin's army took our breath away. Each warrior had an individual face, with a liking to the actual person. There are horses, chariots, infantry, charioteers, archers and generals. In Xi'An we also walked and rode tandem bikes on the wall surrounding the old city, ate at a famous dumpling restaurant, shopped at the night market, and practiced Tai Chi Fan Dancing with a Kung Fu Master at the Wild Goose Pagoda.

“The beautiful mistake,” the Dragon Gate Bridge on China’s Yangtze River./Photo by Stan Rabbe

In Sichuan Province we toured Chongqing, which has a population of 31 million, compared to Beijing's 13 million. The city center is reminiscent of Times Square, and the cuisine is 4 Sichuan, hot and spicy (to beat the summer heat from the inside out, they say). Sichuan is home province to the Pandas, and at the zoo we saw several Lesser and Giant Pandas. We toured the Stilwell Museum viewing the history of the Flying Tigers during WWII, the engineering of the Burma Road and flights over the Burma Hump to get supplies to the Chinese through Japanese forces. It was a fascinating and sobering photographic history of American and Chinese history.

A cruise on the Yangtze River took us 630 kilometers east and down river from Chongqing to Yichang, the site of the Three Gorges Dam. In June 2003 they totally closed this part of the river for 13 days and raised the water level 60 meters. The final level will be at 175 meters above sea level. All along the Yangtze there are villages and farms that span several centuries of cultural life. Everything lower than the 175 meter marker is being evacuated and torn down. It will all be under water by 2009, and hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced. Some have moved into the new high rise buildings built above 175 meters. The Dragon Gate Bridge, which spans the entrance to The Three Little Gorges, was built in the late 1980s. The Chinese call it "the beautiful mistake" because it will be taken apart and rebuilt above the 175 meter mark.

We ended our tour of China in Shanghai, the ultra-modern city, with a terrific skyline including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. On the Bund we joined Chinese runners and watched people doing Tai Chi in groups, old men flying kites, a group of multi-aged women adapting Tai Chi to popular songs like "Stayin' Alive," and large groups ballroom dancing, all before 5:30 a.m. Shanghai's higher average income has new cars dominating its roads and far fewer bicycle swarms than Beijing. This situation is also changing in Beijing, where 1,000 new cars a week are put on the streets and the number of bicycles is bring greatly reduced.

A day excursion on the train from Shanghai to SuZhou provided us the experience of public transportation in China, which was efficient, clean and easy. SuZhou is home to 60 remaining private gardens, some of whose caretakers have been brought to the United States to design Chinese gardens. We had great fun following intricate and ornate rock-patterned lanes that often wound around themselves in a maze, with water and rock features that are beautiful to look at in tight, intimate settings; unlike the Imperial Gardens which are very large and extend over several hundred acres with great vistas.

Beijing will be more than ready for the Olympics in 2008. If you can get to China before then, you will experience a slice of culture that will be forever gone. In many respects the guidebooks are years behind in preparing you for China. The pollution factor in Beijing that existed two years ago has been greatly mitigated; they have moved the factories out of the city and all the cars have pollution controls - including propane tanks in taxi cabs. The city is breathtakingly green with trees, flowers and grass. The food was wonderful throughout the country and menus were always in English or with pictures. We cannot recommend the wine; however, the Chinese beer is excellent, plentiful and cheap.

We realized how little we know about China's history, and how her current economy has a huge global impact on the U.S. and world. China is still a very "foreign" country to visit, which made it extremely exciting and challenging. The changing economy from socialism to capitalism has caught a generation in between, with parents from the age of the Cultural Revolution being cared for by the state but their children must provide for their own health insurance and retirement. China is surpassing the U.S. in its use of energy, steel, and oil. Not only is it a country to watch for its change in culture, but also its economic positioning in global power. After 2008, it will all be different.







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