I’ve slept on the Great Wall of China. I’ve cruised the Yangtze River, all the way from Chongqing to Shanghai. And about nine hours from now, at Pudong International Airport, I come to the end of the Great China Adventure of 2010.
For two weeks I’ve been on vacation. In Beijing my friend Heidi from New York joined me for a brief China adventure of her own – once in a lifetime for her, not necessarily for me. Under a rare blue sky and blazing sun, we walked the Forbidden City from Tiananmen to the north gate and, being who we are, went to the theater two nights in a row. The first night was a classic rip-roaring opera of the revolution, presented at the National Performing Arts Center unveiled during the 2008 Olympics, known to Westerners as the Egg, just down Changan Avenue from the Great Hall of the People. Since no program or synopsis was available in English, all I know is what I saw onstage: a cheerful heroine in khaki uniform soldiers on through the many hardships of the Long March to find happiness with the People and, not incidentally, Comrade Right. The second night brought a classic of another kind: traditional Peking opera complete with masks and costumes and, to Western ears, bizarre-sounding music dominated by percussion and vocals wails. The first piece on the program concerned a general and his devoted wife, who, after performing an extended dance for him, commits suicide to avoid being any trouble to him in the coming battle; an all-dance piece followed, in which the Monkey King defeats 18 different attackers in highly stylized movement. Coming as it did after a private tour of the Peking Opera Art Museum and National Theater’s studios and costume gallery, it was great fun, and made me feel I was re-entering my orbit.
As for sleeping on the Great Wall: no, I’m not kidding. The China Culture Center, the expat haven in eastern Beijing that organized the Sichuan tour Pam and I took in April (Weekend in Sichuan, April 7) runs occasional overnights to the Wall at Jinshanling in Hebei province, far from the day-trippers and the T-shirt strip mall at the more accessible Badeling site. A two-hour bus ride took about a dozen of us out of the suburbs and into the mountains, where a thin gray-brown line could eventually be seen running atop the unbroken green, dotted with blocky towers. In one of those towers we would spend the night, nothing but pads and sleeping bags separating us and the hard stone of the Wall. The accommodations may not have been luxurious – the bathroom was either a bucket or a bush – but the quiet and solitude, the fact of having the Wall practically to ourselves as it snaked over the mountains into infinity, certainly was. In the morning, Heidi did the four-hour hike up and down the steep and sometimes very narrow stairways, and proudly finished well ahead of the others. I sat reading a book, and when Mr. Wong, the local man whose family had provided our dinner under the stars, walked by to check that I was all right, I flashed him the “happy” sign.
I won’t go into detail about the Yangtze cruise here, since I have hopes of marketing that story elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it was six days of exquisite scenery, good enough food and so much relaxation that I was too lazy to take out the laptop. It’s the rainy season, which meant that the ship carried only 67 passengers, about two-thirds of capacity, and was thus a great bargain. Most of the time the rain consisted of mist, the kind that has lent Chinese landscape painting so much atmosphere for centuries. As Heidi pointed out last night, “the sun came out on the only day it mattered,” the day we toured the Lesser Gorges of the Daning River by small and then even smaller boat. Later we explored museums in Wuhan, Chizhou and Nanjing, drooling over the jade and the porcelain in the galleries, and inevitably adding a few pieces to our own collections from their well-stocked shops.
Here in Shanghai, the rainy season is in full force this morning. Yesterday it washed out our plans for dinner on an art museum’s rooftop terrace overlooking People’s Park, and complicated our walk through the 400-year-old Yu Garden and the maze of shops surrounding it. The Yu Garden was the first stop on my half-day wake-up tour back in February, and yesterday I was delighted to find myself seeing so many things, from details of wall carvings to entire courtyards, that I had missed the first time, through either the guide’s schedule or my jet-lagged stupor. And it seemed fitting that last night, in a lighter drizzle – Heidi carrying my Expo 2010 umbrella, I in the biker poncho that replaced my raincoat lost in Xiangtan — we strolled the Bund, where this blog began nearly five months ago. On the newly raised promenade, we walked seemingly suspended between past and future — between the golden facades of the stately 19th-century European buildings along the Bund and the flashing neon colors of the Pudong skyscrapers across the river, where there was nothing but farmland when I first stood there 25 years ago.
We were not alone. Thousands of Chinese walked there with us, the flashes of their cameras far outnumbering the ones from Heidi’s. In the last five months, I have taught hundreds of them, had my picture taken with countless more, and begun lasting friendships with a few. And I don’t even know their real names, only the English ones they have chosen for classes and the occasional encounter with people like me.
What I do know is what individuals they are. Those robotic-looking people, all wearing Mao suits and caps, all the women with the haircut of Honey in “Doonesbury”? They’re history, if in fact they ever even existed as Westerners perceived them. So many times this semester, I looked at my students and wondered what they’d have been like 20 years ago, or 40, in their parents’ or grandparents’ time. But had they lived then, of course, they would have been different people.
One night on the cruise, the in-room movie on our flat-screen TV was Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” the chronicle of one Chinese family from the 1940’s through the Cultural Revolution and beyond. The final scene shows the protagonists – once wealthy, long impoverished and scarred by time, but alive — playing with their grandson in the late 1970’s. “He’ll travel on trains and planes,” the grandfather says as the closing credits begin rolling across the screen. “Trains and planes . . . trains and planes . . .” It’s that child’s children I’ve been teaching here, and Great-Grandpa was right. They are traveling into their future on trains and planes, on cruise ships and subways, on their own motorbikes and, when they can afford them, probably in their own cars, just like us. In a few hours, I’ll be seeing them at the airport. This time tomorrow, and for a long time to come, I’ll be seeing them in my pictures — and in my mind.