vvChina 2007
vThree Stars Accompanying The Moon

We visit an archaeological site two hours north of Chengdu by car, Sanxingdui it is called.  The local farmers for a long while had been Digging up bits of pottery, but it was not until the 1980’s that the site was unearthed, and they found what archaeologists considered to be the most important site ever found of the Kingdom of Shu, a site considered the cradle of Chinese civilization in the upper reaches of the Yangzi River.

Chengdu lies in a large basin and has always been isolated due to its inaccessibility.  The Kingdom of Shu was known in myths, and now they found artifacts of fine workmanship, which gave an understanding of the level of culture that had developed in the Chengdu basin.

The artifacts range in age from 3800 to 2000 years ago.  The museum was opened in 1997.

We were there on a very hot day.  The cicadas making their high-pitched cicada noise, rising and falling in level as we strolled down the long tree lined avenues to visit the exhibit pavilions.  On entering the building there were large halls with displays of artifacts and explanations of the history of what is know of the Kingdom of Shu in both Chinese and English.

It is all true what they say about Chinese translation into English, you have to chuckle with every other sentence.  But the title of one storyboard caught my attention…

‘Three Stars Accompanying the Moon”…

I found this a very romantic vision, which seemed to be a description of a drawing carved on a jade piece, a celestial observation, as well as a metaphor for the three hills and river that make up Sanxingdu, and a metaphor used over and over on different storyboards throughout the pavilions.

These people built gigantic intricately carved Trees of Life, always a favorite theme of mine, that Life Tree.  What is so very striking is the similarity of the figures to those we know from South American archaeology…again one has to wonder of the relationship of these peoples.

That evening driving home, there they were in the sky, three stars accompanying the moon…. and there were the three of us (along with our driver, the wonderful Mr. Shu, on loan from Dan-mei) traveling through China, accompanying the moon.  And there it was, a title for a blog.

A Blog? To Blog.  Why Blog?  First we had ‘Shanghai Rendezvous”, subtitle Shanghai Honey.  But Shanghai and Rendezvous are two words that are too hard to spell.  I then moved toward “Who Cares Anyway”, wondering anyhow who would really want to read my China observations other than perhaps my mother and daughter.

But here I am on vacation... I should not be feeling pressure to update the blog.

But I have found myself jotting down observation of life in China in spite of myself.   Rather than ”blog”, I think I will just go on writing and send along these pages every now and then.

The following is in no particular order at this point.  Rather random.  On the train to Tibet I had some time to write, so I have written “in the moment” comments as the train moves along,  in between more general observations.



Huge construction projects are going on everywhere.  A new highway is being built parallel to the train line we ride on.  Masonry work everywhere.  The waterway in each ravine has been laid with stone or brick.  There are massive rock works along each embankment, often in patterns.  We are climbing toward the roof of the world, Tibet.  The amount of mortar and cement used in the past 20 years here is staggering.  And much of the work done by hand.  There is only the occasional piece of heavy equipment.

Just now we pass through sand stone mountains, many train tunnels, and rivers red with clay running down each ravine.  The hillsides are terraced neatly with vegetables... lots of corn, although you see little of in restaurants.

 Two centuries ago this land was a big forest, but the first emperor cut down the trees to build big palaces, and wars happened and trees were burned down etc.  So no trees, rain comes, dirt washes away. They have to begin again to build the soil.  Now there are terraces everywhere, and lots of planting going on.  The farmer’s vegetables of course, and more and more trees are being planted.  …Make new soil, hold the soil etc.

The trees the trees the trees.  Everywhere trees of all kinds are being planted.  It is marvelous to see such a focused national policy at work.

Pidgin seems to be taking over my speech as well as my writing.

Back to the work being done everywhere… and by hand. When we drove to Sanxingdui, one of the two archaeological sites we have visited, there was a new freeway being built, and all along the way there was planting going on.  At first we were driving on road that had been built a year or two ago, planting very thick, the trees are transplanted as full grown trees, the trunk is wrapped in what looks like palm leaf, then rope is wound around the trunk up to about 10 or 15 feet in height.  Then poles are put all around, propping the tree up, with cross bars connecting the propping poles…all by hand, by thousands of hands, millions of hands … sometimes the cross bars are painted in bright colors.

Anyhow, so along the established freeway the planting also is established, although many of the trees still have their propping poles up. It seems that the survival rate of the recently transplanted trees is quite high.  The planting goes on for maybe 500 feet on each side of the freeway, large trees, smaller trees and bushes, and even smaller plants and ground covers, and right along the roadway and in the center strip, gaily flowering plants.  This is by far the most interesting freeway landscaping I have ever seen… and it seems to be going on all over China at once.

(Out the window here we just passes a small house with six beautiful flowering dahlias in the garden….).

As we passed along the newly built freeway, the planting became more recent, then when we got to the area where the concrete was not yet poured, the beds had been already laid out for planting, and there were hundreds of people with hoes doing the work…preparing the soil, putting in the plants etc. A huge undertaking just in terms of logistics, and the paperwork for the employment of all the people must be something, paperwork being what it is today in China.

(The paper trail… When you buy something in the store, say two small wash cloths, as I did, you take the item for purchase and give it to one of the many many (full employment!) salesgirls, she, in turn, holds on to the item and gives you a slip of paper…you take the paper to the cashier sitting behind a sort of desk cubical…..she then fills out a form with three carbon copies.  …each of the copies is then stamped with two different stamps…  you pay the cashier ……the cashier keeps one copy of the slips and gives the three remaining to you… you return to the salesgirl and give her the slips…she gives you your washcloths in a little bag with one of the slips and keeps the other two slips.   I can’t help but wonder what becomes of all these little slips of paper…are there large rooms of people sorting and filing these little slips of paper?  Inventory control?  Very curious and seemingly very old fashioned in a city that is so modern in so many ways.  And it is not unusual in the course of a sales transaction that there will be an error committed along the way, say the salesgirl filled out the first slip incorrectly, then there is a conference and a gaggle of girls gathers and giggle   as they sort out the problem.

Joe and I seem to be capable of causing great excitement and hilarity when cruising either in a department store or along small street side shops.  Some times it is our attempt to make ourselves understood that sets people laughing, or their attempt to understand and speak English to us.

(We are passing a huge huge asphalt batch plant here in the middle of nowhere…a plant as large as the city of seaside, no, larger…it keeps going on and on as we wind up the valley.  The plant looks to have been built in the last five years, I suppose to provide the material for the roads being built.  The plant itself is landscaped with many trees and bushes..  The countryside has changed as we climb higher…dryer now, though still with alluvial planes that are terraced and planted…. picture perfect as seen from the train…and very “authentic” Chinese people working in the fields, with conical shaped straw hats…).

We are fairly fearless at acting out our needs, locating a squeegee, for example, so Joe can dash out at the station and clean the often-dirty train window.  We have not found a squeegee, or for that matter, coffee filters (always keeping an eye out for good business opportunities, Amway has moved right into China, to the point that the trains are kept clean (well, sort of) by an army of gals with Amway products in spray bottles, and brooms and dust pans with the Amway name and logo).

Back to the topic of freeway planting…or planting in general.  China seems well aware of its bad reputation in thing ecological…

(The air we are passing through just now is thick, …….fog filled with dust and coal particles…we are passing through the largest city in northwestern China, Lanchou).

So the planting helps to give China’s reputation a bit of  a wash and will make the air cleaner as the plants  grow and prosper and there is much employment made by growing the plants and transplanting them to the roadways and caring for them as they grow….shade structures are erected for the newly transplanted plants, some sort of irrigation line set in….good all around for China…..

We have many laughs, often due to our misunderstandings, such as when we put yogurt into our coffee.  The “active milk” we bought was keifer.  The translations are very funny…no way they will be cleaned up in time for the Olympics in China.  And they are certainly one of the charming things about China.

In my mind I keep coming back to the book Fashen, by Sam Hitton.    And as I watch the building of the seemingly endless blocks of apartment houses and see the roads and railroad lines etc etc etc.  I feel at least a bit of understanding of the mushrooming of China….and are there ever a whole lot of bunch of people……..and they are resourceful.

Business opportunities…well, someone sure will do well bringing carpet cleaning equipment to China. The carpets are filthy.   In all hotels and on the train there are disposable slippers everywhere…even Joe takes the time to put them on rather than risk walking on the carpet.

And of course the toilet situation.  Dreadful at best.  One interesting thing is that facilities for the handicapped  are being installed everywhere…maybe another sign of getting ready for the Olympics (on the TV each day they have the daily countdown, we are at about 355 by now…..)

We have learned to never go anywhere without a wad of toilet paper in our pockets.

So handicap bathrooms mean, yea !! a western style toilet.   Very  often no   “western style” toilet  exists and one has to just deal with the hole in the floor….sometimes with clean white  porcelain , but most often not.  Happily the standards on this train are a cut above those on the last train, the train where I became so sick.

All sidewalks  have corners which have been leveled  down for handicap access, ramps have been installed along side stairways.  It is curious that one hardly ever sees anyone in a wheel chair.  We saw wheel chairs (though pretty funky ones) at the beautiful eastern/western pharmacy….we have also seen a few wheelchairs which the rider pumps with a hand crank in the front.

In the beautiful pharmacy we watch two men in the rear of the store weighting out herbs and mushrooms and making piles of the prescribed mixture onto paper which is then folded in a tidy fashion  and given to the customer….large jars filled with strange roots  …..fascinating and very very foreign.

(we just started to go along the Yellow River, we pass by a big hydroelectric plant)

(we also pass planting of fur trees…very strange to see fur and at other times spruce trees planted in this hot humid weather…but they seem to be doing fine).

Traffic.  Another topic worthy of comment.  Chengdu was built with wide wide streets with bike lanes and wide sidewalks.  Rush hour brings cars and buses packed to overflowing with people on their way to work.  The bike lanes are busy with all sorts of bikes, some with motors, people with all variety of loads, people of all ages and in all costumes…..many girls with high heals on…..and then the  motor bikes….again, all sizes and colors and loads etc.  I have seen one helmet only.  Everyone buzzes by and you have to wonder why there are not many many crashes.

The bikes and motorbikes drive in their own lanes as well as on the roadway.  ……..people honk and honk and drive fast…crossing with the green walk light one still takes ones life in ones hands…..from anywhere a vehicle can come….our travel insurance offers$25,000 for  death or dismemberment…..and dismemberment seems not an unlikely prospect.  Again, it is a miracle there are so few accidents…we have seen only a few and they have been fender benders, even the time it involved two big trucks.

All the traffic we know really is Chengdu…..so that is all I can tell you about.   There are many many taxis, which have all been converted  to run on, what?, natural gas maybe?  The trunk is taken half way up with a tank of whatever the alternative fuel may be.

And then there are many cars  which are driven by “professionals”….people have their car and driver… And then the vehicles which are doing business, hauling something or such.

So there are not that many just people driving about, People on  the road  have a  reason to be there and seem to be skillful drivers.

(we have changed trains…our  new train  goes from a town whose name I don’t remember, but we pulled into the station and stopped,…there were many police-looking people, who in fact were there to help us move across the platform to the cars directly opposite our current, ….so we all move to the new train  which will take us to Lhasa..this train is really fabulous, with oxygen for crossing the high mountains, really clean toilets etc.

we are sitting in our first class 4-bunk cabin with 2 German travelers, drinking beer and eating English cookies and boxes of noodle soup ……..just add water and stir…and there is boiling hot water everywhere available in China…

where was I…./wow! There go some yurts, or yurt-like buildings and yak…..a shaggy long haired young white yak….on the other side on the train, out the window, there we see the edge of a huge salt water lake with rolling sand dunes.

In the past few hours we have passed many beautiful little gardens, usually within a courtyard setting…..I have seen some more dahlias, many hollyhocks, perhaps petunias, even what looked to be roses. There have been fields of blooming sunflowers.

Along part of the new freeway under construction…more of the kind of planting I described before, thick and full and extending far in each direction.  Along this part of the road there is also fancy rockwork as part of the landscaping.

(Ah! now we begin to see stupas out the window…..pyramid shapes made out of Tibetan prayer flags…..here along the railroad in the middle of nowhere.)

They are building a new railroad line along here and every now and then there are groups of tents and somewhat more permanent temporary housing for the workers.  It looks cold outside. …..This is open countryside and I imagine the wind blows.

We awake in the morning to permafrost.  We are at 5,000 meters plus altitude…..Hard to breath….incredible headache.  We have to take long deep breaths with our oxygen masks.  This seems to do the trick.  However, moving around we do slowly….very slowly.

We arrive in Lhasa to the most modern train station in China, built to resemble the Portula Palace.  We are met by Hai-xiang’s “uncle”, by know I know better than to ask as to the real family relationships…family are family and family looks after one another, end of story.

Becoming acclimatized to the thin air takes some time, and a little confusing as the symptoms seems to so closely resemble my migraine headache symptoms.  Has lack of oxygen been at least part of the issue?

We walk around slowly, taking in the Lhasa and the pilgrims and the sellers of all things Tibetan in their tiny stalls.  This morning we are off for a massage by blind massage therapists, a vocational training project run by Braille Without Borders.  Hoping the massage will be as sensational as the one in Chengdu, I will have to get back to that story.

Xiang has just come into the room with bunches of wildflowers…….bachelor buttons and calendula, which I have arranged in our coffee pot and in a plastic water bottle with its top cut off.  Remember how deeply I am moved by the presence of flowers and how they fill our hotel room with good cheer.


August 22, 2007.

Last note.  Exchanged e-mails this morning with David Walton, who sounds as energetic as ever.  We will see him next week in Chengdu.


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