Things I learned in Vietnam

In July, we spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam with four of our special kiwi friends. It was an amazing, wonderful, fun, informative time. Traveling is always eye-opening, but I think Raymond’s and my learning antennae are sharper because of our permanent state of being different. Also, we six friends all enjoy reflecting on similarities and differences, and we had a lot of time to do this together. So, I came away with a number of lessons learned.

Enoughness

We went on a number of tours with local guides who all talked about how much is enough to live on – loosely translated as ‘you can feed and house your family and look after your parents’. I think New Zealanders tend to be more content than other western cultures, because most of us grow up with enough, we tend to prioritise lifestyle and family over things within our environment of having enough, and many amazing experiences are affordable for the majority. However, our group discussed how enoughness is not a conversation one has in New Zealand, even though we tend to have much more than the Vietnamese we saw around us. We thought it is probably a consequence of a history of not having enough, followed by relatively recent equal distribution of things under the communist government. Given recent moves by the communist government to have a system where individual effort brings rewards and there is equality but not sameness, it will be interesting to see if enoughness continues within this more free market environment.

Some things are worth fighting for

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh made me reflect on how I might have responded to the same situation. For 20 years, the locals resisted the US forces and their fellow countrymen fighting with them. Over this time, men and women lived in a claustrophobic network of underground tunnels. I could hardly handle being in there for 10 minutes.  They would have been in perpetual heightened awareness from continually being at risk of their lives. And they had to keep evolving new ways of resisting, attacking and surviving to keep their country. And it must have been discouraging seeing so much of the countryside you know and love destroyed by Agent Orange etc. For 20 years! I am not sure I would have been able to do it. But, it worked, it was worth it, and now both sides are rebuilding their country together.

Some things are worth forgiving

Given the relatively recent history of north fighting south, you might expect hints of lingering resentment.  But it was not apparent – when in the north or the south. Our guides were younger and would not have fought themselves, but relatives would still be alive who fought on either side. Maybe guides tend to toe the party line, or people who are resentful don’t become guides. It seemed that ethnicity was a stronger factor in peoples’ identities than which side you were on in the American War. Our guides tended to be Kinh, Vietnam’s dominant ethnicity, and genuine in seeming proud of Vietnam as one great country. We also visited Sapa in the far north where various other ethnicities live together. Our Hmong guide focused on explaining local culture, and didn’t communicate any resentment.

Winners eventually become losers

I have a smattering of European history and tend to be quite ignorant of Asian history, having been primarily exposed to European history through school and readily available books. But traveling helps embed things for me. For example, when we were in a museum in Vienna last Christmas, I truly understood for the first time why killing an Austrian ruler started World War 1. Being surrounded by evidence of the power of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, I finally got it.

Our guide to the My Son Sanctuary , out from Hoi An, showed us an infographic map of the area when this amazing building was built. The map changed to show how the situation changed when they were conquered (I did search for it to share here, but to no avail.).  I had one of those epiphany moments where I thought – of course, the borders kept changing here just like in Europe. Duh!

And I hadn’t realised that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for just over 1,000 years – from 111BC to 938AD. That explains the Chinese characters on the older buildings. Chinese characters were used until the 19th Century when the French changed everyone over to a phonetic system using the Roman alphabet – the change being accelerated by education becoming more prevalent. And I recognised several words, for example, when my dressmaker told her colleague to ask Ros to come and give me advice on the dress I was getting made, I understood her say ‘friend’ because it is the same as Chinese. Given my small Chinese vocabulary, I was surprised to know any, but it turns out over a third of modern Vietnamese has naturalised word borrowings from Chinese.

This Champa kingdom of My Son, which I had never heard of, ruled for about 1200 years, before being forced off their land and into the hill country by north Vietnamese who came down and invaded.  The collection of buildings at My Son was built over a 1,000 year period – 4th to 14th centuries AD, rediscovered in an almost pristine state in the early 1900’s, and then almost destroyed by a week of US bombing in the War.

And then the French control of Vietnam, the bit I already knew about, was such a blip in Vietnam’s history – 1885 to mid 1900s – not even 100 years in a country with 5,000 years of chronicled history.

This lesson seems particularly poignant now, as we seem to have a changing of the guard globally with the balance of power shifting from the West where I grew up, to the East where I am living now.

Age alone is not an excuse

One of the highlights of the trip for me was canyoning in Da Lat. When I read about it, I thought at least five of us would want to do it, so was surprised when only Christine and I did. I was standing with Raymond when I told the guy behind the counter that only two of our group would do the trip. He looked at Raymond and asked if it was him. I said ‘No, me and that woman’, pointing to Christine. He didn’t bat an eyelid (and I know because I was looking closely at them).

The day after the canyoning trip, we had the same person as our guide for the weasel coffee, cricket and silkworm eating, cycling trip. I asked him if he had been concerned when he understood who was going to do the canyoning trip. He confessed ‘yes’. But he hastened to add that when his colleague returned, his colleague had told him that we had been fine and had been better at walking through the bush than the younger people in our group. He then asked me how old I was and, when I told him, said that my age made me the oldest woman to do the trip with his company. I felt pleased, but also glad I had not told myself that I might be too old for it, because I toyed with thinking that.

I am similarly pleased that I did not listen to the voice in my head that says I might be too old to live in China, or to learn Chinese. Research is coming out saying that voices like that might contribute to people getting dementia because we stop learning and laying down new neural pathways to give our brains a better chance of finding an alternative route to damaged pathways. And I think learning and doing new stuff is much more fun.

My good friend Trish sent me an article about a female astronaut our age who holds a number of records and just broke another one earlier this month. And Julian, our friend here who is a fount of all knowledge, said that the guy who is presently winning veteran marathons didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 60s.

There will be things I can’t do as I get older. For example, I decided not to enter a fun run next month because my achilles tendons started to hurt when I was training. But I want to be a person who does not listen to any voice in my head where the only reason not to do something is ‘my age’.

Special friends are … well … special

In one way it was a bit risky deciding to travel for three weeks with our four friends.  We have counted Christine and Lawrie as special friends for nearly 30 years. We raised our children together, including our families holidaying together over Labour Weekend for many of those years. We have known Ros and Colin for half that time but also count them as two of our most special friends.

We only introduced the four of them to one another a couple of years ago and the longest we had holidayed together was for one weekend. But, yes we could trust our instincts. It was so lovely to see them again after being away from New Zealand for a year, and we had one of the best holidays of our lives.

We only had one tense moment – when I had not checked my emails, and our flight to Da Lat turned out to be changed to an hour earlier (who does that?), so we only just made it onto the plane, and Lawrie lost his Swiss army knife because we couldn’t take it on to the plane as carry on. I apologised, and he forgave me. It was not helped by the fact that I had also not booked extra luggage for that flight so had to go off to pay extra when we had so little time, and when we got to our hotel it turned out that I had misunderstood another email and not paid a 50% deposit to hold the rooms. So we had nowhere to stay – and it was raining. We soon found somewhere up the road but three ‘fails’ in the space of a few hours was definitely the lowest point of the trip for me – but my special friends forgave me, made me a cup of tea, joked, left Raymond and me alone to solve it, and mentioned it over the rest of the trip just enough times to still be funny.

I remember my mum, after she was retired, talking about her travels with her special friends – in New Zealand and overseas. We are not quite retired, but we do have more discretionary time and independent children. While we still love holidaying with our children, it is a different experience traveling with others our age and stage. Having  had such a marvelous time, I am thrilled to know that we also have four special people with whom we can build memories – for up to at least four weeks at a time anyway.

So, an eclectic bunch of new insights – some personal and could be learned anywhere, others Vietnam specific, I continue to learn and grow. What a privilege!

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Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lìjiāng

Last weekend was Labour weekend in China, so Raymond and I headed south to explore Yúnnán for the three days. We had read of stunning scenery at a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hŭ Tiaò Xiá). To get there we flew 1.5 hours to Lìjiāng (lovely river), famous for its ‘old town’.

To travel in China, we are learning it is easier if we research on the web ahead of time. I think this is useful anywhere, but especially relevant with limited language and so many choices. We are so appreciative of others’ help that I have decided to give a bit more advice when I blog about our trips, to give back to the travel community, and set a few things straight. All those 20 something bloggers who said that the Tiger Leaping Gorge route was pretty easy except for the one hour steep section going up the 28 zigzags were wrong! But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

To go to the airport, we use a ‘black taxi’. I have mentioned Joe before. He is a highly professional, reliable, pleasant driver who many of the teachers from Raymond’s school use. So, when I went down on Friday at 1 pm to meet him, I was surprised to find that he was not there. I wechatted him and said I was waiting. He replied ‘please wait’.  I asked in Chinese ‘how many minutes?’ He said ‘What time is the plane?’ I asked in English ‘how many minutes?’ He replied ‘I am on my way and soon’, followed by another message asking if we wanted to start from our apartment or from Raymond’s school. I said ‘I will take a taxi’, and that is where Joe found me, walking the street looking for a taxi. It turned out that Raymond’s request to pick me up and then go to his school to pick him up, when translated from English to Chinese, asked Joe to pick Raymond up from school and then come and get me. Talk about lost in translation. Joe had been waiting at school, driven the 20 minutes from school to get me, and then we drove back to the school. On the way, as we talked about what had happened, I think he understood that another time (but hopefully we will communicate better next time) he should check before coming to get me, because Raymond could have got in first at school. Luckily, I had just revised how to say ‘first … then…’. And Raymond and I realised that, to minimise confusion, we need to give even simpler instructions – a lesson we thought we had already learned.

We caught our plane, uneventfully, arrived at Lìjiāng airport and decided to get a taxi into town. Our driver was upfront about the extra 10 kuài for tolls – total just over 110 kuài. She dropped us off outside Lìjiāng old town, both miming and talking to communicate that she could not drive us any further, and that we needed to cross the road, walk down a bit and take the first right. So off we went and discovered that this old town part of Lìjiāng is stunning. We loved it immediately. It must be what Chinese towns used to look like, now with a mixture of modern and traditional wares and food places, and lots of travel agencies.

We followed our driver’s instructions, walked along the cobblestones enjoying the ambience, reading the English and Chinese looking for our hotel – Lìjiāng Boutique Rénwén Inn. Because we are such experienced travelers, I had cleverly taken a screenshot of our hotel details. After walking the right hand loop, and not finding our hotel, we searched on Dù, our local maps app, and redid the loop. Ok, let’s try Google maps with VPN. Our various routes had taken us back and forth past a friendly gentleman encouraging people into his restaurant. So our next plan of attack was to ask him if he knew our hotel. He did, so he mimed and talked directions, which then made it a bit awkward when we needed to walk unsuccessfully past him a couple more times – just wave and smile. Plan C, or maybe D, was to pop into one of the many travel agencies. Number 1 was unhelpful, but number 2 was very clever. She rang the phone number and arranged for someone from our hotel to come and get us – highly recommended approach.

We followed our enthusiastic young host in the opposite direction to all our earlier routes, to the left of the main drag and Dù and Google’s suggestions. The name on the door did not match our hotel name. When I expressed concern, ‘chain hotel’ was the answer. It was a lovely little place, and unbelievably good value for about NZD20 per night. We are still not sure what really happened, but were happy.  Our young host and I communicated effectively in a mixture of Chinese and English, and his mum understood me, but I could not understand her.

I had read that tickets for the bus to the gorge tend to sell out so we asked our young host for advice on where to go to buy bus tickets. Armed with our paper map on which he had circled the bus stop and bus ticket sales outlet, we went back up to the main road, where our taxi had dropped us off, to catch a number 2 bus. We waited a while but no buses drove past, so we decided to get a taxi. Using our map, I arranged for the driver to take us, wait and return. Then Raymond hopped in grinning because our bus had gone past while I had my head in the window talking to the driver.

We drove through Lìjiāng getting a sense of the layout of the place, seeing the rest of the old town, cascading down the hill and lit up beautifully in the evening, and wound down the hill through the modern part to the ticket shop. Our driver dropped us off, we walked in the direction he had seemed to point, could not find anything resembling a bus ticket sales place, circled back, rejoined our driver who took us to a travel agent, who pointed over the road. There, we still struggled, and approached some street food vendors, one of whom hopped up, took us a minute further around, and pointed to the ticket shop – with its closed garage door. Oh well, let’s get up early tomorrow.

We went back to the friendly gentleman’s restaurant and had the local delicacy they recommended – which turned out to be chicken and mushroom soup, but not as we know it – brothy rather than creamy. She had encouraged us to share the smaller serving, which was just as well. The enormous bowl bubbled away on the gas burner on our table and we ate as much as we could, finally leaving half of it behind as we headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning, we left our hotel at 7am, caught the famous number 2 bus to the shop, where in the light of day we could read the sign telling us the bus ticket place opening hours – 8am to 9pm. We only missed it by a few minutes last night, and an hour to go. Breakfast from our friendly street food vendors and let’s explore the park. A bit after 8am the sole woman employee opened the shop, stopped her sweeping when we arrived, walked behind the counter, started up her computer, was helpful but slow and 20 minutes later concluded ‘no tickets, but you can try the bus station’. What, you mean we could have gone there the whole time, including this morning and last night?!  We walked the ten minutes, found out that the earliest available seats were at 11am, and shared a car to the gorge with a Chinese couple who had got married the day before.

The driver showed us all where to buy tickets for the gorge, dropped us off at the beginning of the high level track, and then took our companions to the start of the one day lower level track.

The first part of the middle gorge walk is a concrete road with large trucks going up and down, and you look across the river to the massive infrastructure project on the other side, which we assume is part of China’s vision for high speed rail over the whole country. Not quite what I imagined when others described stunning scenery, but I am learning to go with the flow (eventually). It started off at a steady gradient, but manageable. Then the concrete stopped and it got really steep with steps winding up the hill – the famous 28 bends – I was glad when they were over. Dotted along the route were men with horses whose English extended to ‘horse’. Bú yào mă (don’t want a horse) I replied, tempted as I was – reasoning that the fact that I wanted one so much was evidence that I should not use one.

Then we couldn’t see the earthworks any more, the path became more undulating, we stopped for drinks and a nibble under the shade of a tree, chatted as we went to a couple of Swedish couples over from Shànghăi, and arrived at the first village.

As we walked past Naxi Guest House, we wondered if our hotel was nearby, four hours earlier than I understood from my web research – how encouraging. Then we came to a sign saying that it was another three hours to Tea Horse Guest House and two more to Halfway, where we were staying – how discouraging, an hour longer than I understood from my web research. But we had plenty of energy, were over the worst bit, and carried on.

Then we came to the real 28 bends – very steep, slabs of slate to walk on, path zig zagging vertically back and forth. Ten minutes walking, two minutes stopping – ‘ we have plenty of time’, ‘it is not a race’. Eventually, I set aside my feminist philosophy and gave Raymond my pack.I found it very hard work.

And then the worst was over. We stopped in the next village for a cup of tea and coffee and got talking to a couple of Chinese from Kūnmíng who had good English (although our conversation began with how good my Chinese had been when I ordered our drinks – instant friend!) They were there with their regular walking group, and talked about how the track used to be dominated by westerners, but was growing in popularity with Chinese tourists. Certainly, on our trip, three-quarters of those we saw looked Chinese.

Refuelled, we continued, but I never fully recovered – not helped by Raymond, Sofia from Kūnmíng, and I taking a half hour detour up a hill instead of along the flatter path, to which we then had to return (hour total). We finally arrived 7.5 hours after we had started, exhausted. We wonder whether the highish altitude affected us more than we realised at the time.

I had read good things about the Ben Li Wan Family Hotel and we were not disappointed – it was clean, our en suite shower was hot and sooooo what we needed, the food was delicious, the staff were helpful, including getting us as many pots of tea as we asked for, and the mountain view out of our room was stunning – in fact so stunning that before I went to sleep, I felt it was all worth it. And this place will forever be special to us – what a place to get the wonderful news that Andrew and Cindy were now engaged.

The next morning, we woke, had relaxed cups of tea and breakfast before setting off about 10am, feeling a bit pressured that as we were only halfway, we might not make it back in time, and thinking that if need be we would have to overnight at another guesthouse and go back to Lìjiāng on Monday.

But by 11.30am we had arrived at Tina’s Guesthouse. It turns out the other ‘half’ is this short jaunt, plus a three hour walk down to Tiger Leaping Stone and back, or other options to waterfalls etc. We decided not to bother – we felt we had seen so much lovely scenery on the way, and our feet were sore. Another tea and coffee and then we found a beautiful spot a few minutes away, and sat by the waterfall there and waited for the 3.30pm bus back to Lìjiāng , where we had already booked a second night at our friendly hotel.

My advice to other over 50s – with reasonable fitness levels but not quite what you used to be – is, yes, do the walk, but stop for your first night at Tea Horse Guest House five hours in, having done the 28 bends but not yet absolutely shattered (and avoid the detour). Then, day 2, leave from there about 10am confident that you will get to Tina’s in time for the 3.30pm bus. And, book bus tickets at Tea Horse. We did get bus tickets at Tina’s but, for reasons we never quite understood, it was not initially straight forward. We never made the trip down to the Tiger Leaping Stone so cannot comment on whether or not that would be worth it, but I would suggest staying a second night/third day to do that.

Back in Lìjiāng , we settled in and then went walking for somewhere to find dinner, eventually settling on a small local ‘restaurant’ with a very friendly hostess. There were only four tables, you could see her husband cooking behind the shelves. Our two key criteria were met – she called out and invited us in, which signals a willingness to work at communicating with foreigners, and there were pictures of food on the walls. We had a wonderful time – nice food, and chatting with our hostess and another older woman dining with her family, who seemed particularly fascinated by us and wanted to chat as much as my limited Chinese would allow. She knew New Zealand – that it is small and has milk.

The next day, we left our larger pack at our hotel and explored Lìjiāng old town. First, somewhere to eat breakfast – using our friendliness criteria again. Pictures were not necessary because we could see it all being cooked out the front. Then, we just wandered. We were entranced by the man making the shawls on his loom so I bought one, later realising that he can’t have made all the identical shawls being sold in every shawl shop in Lìjiāng. We found a place selling coffee to keep Raymond happy, and relaxed there people watching, including seeing how a couple cooked and packaged biscuits. These purple biscuits seemed to be famous in Lìjiāng because they also were being sold everywhere. Having watched the woman rolling out the biscuits pick her nose, we knew one place we didn’t want to buy them from. We enjoyed the ‘free’ (if you don’t count the fee to get into the old town) dancing show, then found the Experiencing Hall of Naxi Hieroglyphics Painting.

The Dongba hieroglyphics are the oldest living form of hieroglyphics, because they are still used today. Historical records show the script was used in 7th century, but it may be up to 7,000 years old. A single pictograph can be used to recite different phrases or an entire sentence. The script is logical – when a symbol is drawn upside down it indicates negation, straight lines drawn between people indicates ‘fight’, entwined lines represent ‘discuss’, and a dead animal is drawn as usual but without pupils in their eyes. We were quite fascinated. Eventually, we succumbed to temptation, and the focused attention of the salesman, to buy a hieroglyphics embroidery to remind us of our wonderful holiday.

Back to the hotel, pick up our pack and out to the airport. We had never managed to find out where the airport bus left from so decided to wave down a taxi. The first one to stop was a minivan already heading out there. The woman asked for 120 kuài . I thought ‘I know we can get it for 110 in a metered taxi’, so said, ‘No thanks, too expensive, I know we can get it cheaper’, thinking she would drop to 110. Next, she offered 70! My best bargaining yet. As we got out and I paid her, Raymond said ‘I think she likes you’ – I guess my amazing bargaining earned her respect.

Certainly, I was very encouraged on this trip that I seem to have graduated from Chinglish to the next stage – Chineglish? I can say whole sentences, effectively communicate on a range of useful travel topics, and everyone seems to understand me. Unfortunately,  they then talk back to me in Chinese and I still have to work out how to understand them.

So, another wonderful holiday, in a place we had never heard of before coming here, would strongly recommend, and which increases our fascination with our adopted country.

Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project

I have already posted about my fascination with China’s amazing history. This includes the more than two thousand year old irrigation system in Dūjiāngyàn, about an hour train ride from Chéngdū. This engineering feat was key to the Sìchuān region in which we live becoming the food basket of China and consequently important in China’s history.

As shown in the animation below, during the ‘Warring States’ period (453-221BC), the Qín province gradually took over the rest of China, unifying it for the first time and creating the short-lived Qín dynasty (221-207BC). The Emperor of this dynasty was the one with the ego massive enough to conquer the whole country and employ millions of people to create the terracotta army to look after him in the next life. It doesn’t seem that he was a very pleasant man. For example, when visiting the terracotta soldiers in Xīān, we heard that the advanced chrome plating technology died when he did because he made sure that the technical experts were buried alive in his tomb. However, he clearly encouraged and drew upon technological advances and we can thank his ego for contributing to our present understanding of the sophistication of Chinese culture and technology at that time.

Towards the end of this Warring States period, around 256 BC, the state of Qín, which by this time was large and aggressive, created the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation system to conserve water in the dry season and manage floods in the wet season.

Originally, each spring as the snow melted, the Mínjiāng (‘jiāng’ means river) rushed down from the Mínshān (shān means mountains) flooding the Chéngdū Plains, once it hit the silt filled flatlands. Traditionally, the solution would have been to build a dam, but the river needed to stay open to allow boats to take food to the troops conquering more lands in the east. The irrigation project harnessed the river for growing food, using a new method of channeling and dividing the water rather than simply following the old way of dam building. It took four years to build an embankment to divert the water, using stone filled bamboo baskets held in place with tripods. It took a further eight years to gouge out a 20 meter wide channel through the mountain. The Chinese had not yet invented gunpowder – they waited about a thousand years to do that. So, once they discovered how hard the rock was, the 256 BC engineers had to invent a way to split the rock. They used a combination of fire and water to heat and cool the rocks until they cracked and could be removed. It also took thousands of people to do the work. Lí Bīng, the governor of the time, was the master mind behind the whole thing, and is commemorated by a statue at the top of the hill. (I did not take a photo of his statue so you will have to make do with my photo of the plaque nearby, taken because I was struck by the quote saying this was more inspiring than the Great Wall.)

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The system is still in use today and irrigates over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region. It is one of “three great hydraulic engineering projects” of the Qin Dynasty.

This project enabled the Qín region to produce three crops a year to feed its massive armies, and allow them to keep transporting the food to those armies, thus changing the history of China. The abundance of food the system enabled is also credited with leading to more free time and the subsequent laid back rich culture for which Sichuanese are now famous – and we have experienced and continue to enjoy.

As well as being historically interesting, we had heard it is beautiful, so it was on our list of things to do while here. A couple of weekends ago we, and a couple of friends, traveled to check it out. We enjoyed ourselves for several reasons:

  • it was nice to get out of the city and walk in a beautiful, interesting place – so different to a New Zealand experience because China’s beauty spots have been inhabited for thousands of years
  • we were getting to know friends better – making friends continues to be important to us – having arrived in a new country where the only person either of us know is each other
  • we were encouraged by being more skilled, and therefore more relaxed, travelers than our first time using public transport.

We caught the train. The general rule here is to buy tickets at least one day early to be sure you get a seat, and one of our friends did that for us – one way it was more relaxing. We got up early and traveled the 15 stops from our nearest metro station to the North Railway Station where our train would leave from. This was a new venue for us but we know the time to walk to our station, know where to look to see how long the metro would take, and were confident we could find our way to the boarding gate if we arrived a bit early – which proved to be the case. Last time, I checked out the bus station route beforehand to be sure.

The train was very pleasant. We almost missed our stop because we were so busy chatting – but I noticed it just in time. We followed the crowds to the bus stop, caught a bus into Dūjiāngyàn town, got off where it looked familiar to our friends who had been here once before, but didn’t remember details, and explored. It was a lovely mixture of historical buildings, traditional looking shops, street food and bush walking. We climbed up the hill, took the escalator to the very top, climbed up the high pagoda, enjoying the stunning views, then walked down the hill, across the swinging bridge, through the manicured gardens, and back to the quaint shopping area. We enjoyed drinks by the river and walked back to find somewhere for dinner by the river and bridge that was just being lit up, before heading back to catch the train.

It is an indicator of how much more relaxed we are becoming, that we nearly missed the train. To be safe we would have foregone dinner, but we wanted it. We thought we were fine, but the bus took longer than we predicted (all the time not being 100% sure that we were on the right one, despite my having asked the driver in Chinese if it went to the railway station and having been encouraged by his seeming to understand me and me him). We ran the short distance from the bus stop to the station, went straight through check in because by then nobody else was there, scrambled onto the train at the first open door, walked through a couple of carriages, and sat down in our seats literally one minute before the train pulled away. We had to ask a woman to move from our seats. She had reasonably assumed nobody would be using those four seats. Once I calmed down, I felt decidedly local!

Okay not local yet, but we feel we are on the way.

 

China’s amazing history

One of the things I find fascinating about our new home, is that it has more than 5,000 years of sophisticated history. This was evident three weekends ago when we visited Chéngdū museum, and two weekends ago when we joined our kiwi friends Paul and Diana in Hángzhōu.

Chéngdū has several museums. Our local hostess recommended this one. It has only opened this year, has lots of descriptions in English, and has more floors than we could cover in a morning, before our hostesses took us out for lunch. (As an aside, because this is not about food, this was one of the best meals we have enjoyed since being here. We took photos of the food with the menu showing the Chinese characters, so that we can repeat the process another time.)

We did the first two floors, starting with the oldest history, and will go back another time to do the rest which also looked fascinating – one of the pluses of living here. Things that struck me from the museum are:

  • Chéngdū is old! It has been inhabited for over 4,000 years (four times as long as New Zealand). And, those who lived here before us have left fascinating relics. This is a mixture of having a sophisticated culture for a long time, and emperors with massive egos tending to create large mausoleums in which they buried a large number of things to help them in the next life – not so much fun for those alive at the same time, but very thoughtful for later archaeologists.
  • Chéngdū has been an important agricultural and commercial centre for all of this time. The river and climate mean that it has always been a “heavenly province’ or ‘land of plenty’, two translations of Tiānfŭ (as in Tiānfŭ Square which is at the centre of town and where the museum is, and Tiānfŭ Ave which is the main road heading south to our place).
  • This very old history is still being discovered. In this region, there are two relatively recently discovered archaeological sites from the bronze age which indicate the culture was different to other parts of China. But, archaeologists struggle to find all the clues because the ground has been regularly disturbed from agricultural activity for so long – down side to being a food basket.
  • Because of its ‘abundance’, Chéngdū and the broader Sìchuān region was the first place that the Qin dynasty took over in the third century BC. This meant they could feed the army that then conquered, and first unified, the regions of modern China. This was the short-lived (15 years) dynasty that built the Great Wall, standardised measures, currency and writing style across China, and produced the terracotta soldiers.
  • I am blown away by what people were making 1500 – 2000 years ago that would look beautiful in a home today. The original pieces of Chinese lacquerware looked a bit used, but were still very attractive. The pieces of china (oh, is that why we call it china?!) on display were still beautiful. The colours were limited to green, orange and cream, because of the minerals available, but apart from that, they looked like you might choose to buy them in a shop today. Relatively recent innovation enabled production of blue china.
  • We had heard that Chéngdū was the first place to use paper money, and saw it on display.
  • And, the medical history. The museum has a 2,000 year old small lacquer figure with acupuncture points on it, and bamboo sticks with writing on, which are medical ‘books’.

Then Hángzhōu blew me away some more. We had three lovely days being hosted by our kiwi friends Paul and Diana. Our first day we visited the lake which is stunningly beautiful, and looks like it has been for centuries, and the National Silk Museum. Here we learned that Chinese people have been making silk for over 5,000 years. We saw fragments of silk recovered from tombs that are over 2,000 years old. There were 1500-year-old silk garments that looked at first glance like they might have been bought from a shop the day before. And, thanks to the kids display, I finally understand how silk worms, mulberry bushes and people produce silk. I wonder who worked it out way back, and how China guarded this secret for so long. Apparently, the Romans called China “Seres”, meaning “silk”.

Our second day, we four, and Paul’s teaching colleagues, caught a boat up the longest canal (1,780 km) in the world.

The first parts were built in 500BC, although the full length was connected a mere 1,600 years ago. In the tenth century, a Chinese engineer invented the pound lock, so this canal could go the necessary 42m uphill and reach all the way to Beijing.At Gōngchén Bridge where the boat stops, is a charming collection of traditional looking streets, shops, a Japanese restaurant we can recommend (but this is not about food), and various museums.

We had time to fit in the Fan and Umbrella Museums, again impressed by the amazing culture stretching way back, and the age and quality of the artifacts on display. We also saw umbrellas being made the traditional way and bought one from the man who had made it. And I bought a tea set that is both beautiful and functional, so now we can drink barley tea, a wonderful discovery here.

On our third day we tried to visit the National Tea Museum, but failed, due to our imperfect bus phone app, and then, once we decided to get a taxi,  road blockades that had our driver bursting into a chorus of ‘no, no, no, no’ – a bit of a surprise the first time given that this was the full extent of his English. So, instead we all enjoyed a relaxed lunch by West Lake.

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It certainly is an unexpected bonus of living here that we are growing in our understanding of, and respect for, this long, rich culture. It is right on New Zealand’s doorstep, but we kiwis tend to be ignorant of, and uninterested in, China. We used to be like that ourselves, and I have been reflecting on why. My theories are that we tend to be anti the big players (when I visited the US , I remember being pleasantly surprised that it was not as bad as I expected), and still align with Europe (those of us with European ancestry anyway). And, we think, without really thinking, that grey communism is China (those of us growing up through the 70s anyway).  However, as my friend’s Think like Chinese book explains, if you take the contents of a salt shaker to represent China’s 5,000-year history, spill the contents out on the table, and then pick up one grain of salt and flick it away – that represents communism in China. And modern Chéngdū is definitely not grey – but that needs to be the subject of another blog.