I hope everyone there is doing well. I am now in Xi'an, one of the oldest cities in China (and the world) and a fascinating place. After finishing a wonderful visit in Lanzhou yesterday afternoon, we left by train at 3:30 pm and arrived in Xi'an at 8:00 am this morning. We had a very nice sleeper car with 4 "berths" - Hai Li worked out a deal with the train attendant to make sure we had the place to ourselves and we had a very nice trip. I wish I could describe the scenery we passed inside a wide valley and along a beautiful river bed beside a tributary of the "yellow river". Beautifully terraced gardens - every square inch cultivated and green; the fields filled with brightly attired peasants (wearing, oddly enough, the "upside-down" hats with which we always depict the Chinese!); terraced and rounded fields broken only by little wall-enclosed villages - which, according to Hai Li, generally house members of large, extended families. The better off families live inside brick homes (we saw a lot of brick making enterprise along the way); the poorer families in mud homes.
The gardens are so lush and full of produce - huge baskets filled with vegetables everywhere . . Indeed, one of the strangest surprises to me of this trip has been the extreme abundance of food - being transported and sold everywhere. I'm sure it is not universal - and, yet, I've seen no exceptions in our travels across a pretty wide part of this country. Indoor marketplaces are filled with every vegetable you can imagine (and many I've never seen and cannot identify); grains and spices of all types, booths filled with freshly slaughtered meat and sold on open tables, tanks full of live eels and women butchering them live for buyers (people never eat dead eels), more tanks full of fish and other seafoods, tables full of chicken feet, cages of snakes, slabs of freshly delivered shrimp, buckets of scallops, bowls of chicken "parts" (you can't imagine), racks and racks of freshly killed ducks, etc. All of this crammed as tight as possible into a building the size of our UT basketball arena - and 3 levels high. It will remain one of the most memorable "impressions" of this trip. And, then, never far away - the exact same scene - except repeated in an open air market - that might extend for nearly a mile - every possible food - fruit, vegetable, meat, fish (again, live, in big tanks) imaginable - and most being transported by big hand carts and big "wagons" pulled by bicycles - people, bicycles, wagons, carts, constantly honking taxis - EVERYWHERE - all together - continuous movement and noise and energy. So much energy - it is unparalleled by anything I've ever seen. And filling the tables is not only food - but all sorts of consumer goods - dishes, pottery, electronics (I bought a new short wave radio for $7). After walking for nearly a mile through one such market, I could not imagine much that one could want that could not easily be found right there. Amazing.
China has so many interesting contrasts. Next door to the open air market is an enormous building (large enough for 100 small "east towne mall" type stores) which houses *only* electronic stuff - everything from Intel pentium and RAM chips to large screen televisions - most sold from small booths rented by an individual or family (it appears). The building is a litle dark, rather dusty and unkempt, but bustling with, I guess, thousands of people looking and haggling over prices which amaze me. In China I've seen good quality men's shirts going for $2.50; women's dresses for $7.00; 30x binoculars (with the best Russian-made optics) for $15; radios for $2.00 - $10.00. Of course, adjusted for Chinese salaries, these are not cheap - but they are certainly cheap for American visitors. I wish I had left extra room in my luggage . .
Only a few miles away from this indoor market is an indoor mall six stories high - with more merchandise and more nicely displayed - than our typical American malls. Every kind of merchandise imagineable. Prices higher than on "the street" but still 1/4 of what we would generally expect (for most items - although televisions are comparably priced or even higher). China's still relatively new free market reforms sure seem to be working.
Ambassador Sasser told us in our short visit with him that the Chinese economy is among the fastest growing in the world - growing at an annual rate of 10%. I now understand what that means. Our own American economy grows, in a good year, at 3-4% and this means new construction, new jobs, new fast food places, etc. In China it means the same but at an incredibly faster pace - and it means some growing pains as a people liberated by an economy now capable of supporting them exceed the capabilities of existing infrastructure - roads, telecommunications, housing, transportation. In only a few more years, China will have the largest economy in the world - way surpassing our own. And China has the people . . I've never seen so many in my life.
Although I really like Beijing, my favorite place in China thus far has been Lanzhou - in the northwest of China. Situated along the banks of the Yellow River and in a very narrow valley beneath rather high mountains, the city is 20 km (12 miles) long and very clean looking (although we were told of rather bad pollution problems in the summer and winter). The people in the University we worked with were so kind and so generous with their time in taking care of us. Our accommodations were as comfortable and nice as we could hope anywhere - and the food - prepared by folks trained as gourmet chefs - unequalled anywhere. Even though Lanzhou is a large city (by our standards) with 3 million people, it felt quite small and comfortable on the University campus where we lived and worked. The campus itself was beautifully kept with all sorts of trees, bushes, flowers arranged in very nice gardens around ponds which look as we might expect them in China (very "oriental"). In the evenings, it seems as though the entire population of the campus came out to walk in the gardens. Families with children sitting next to the pond, old couples, young couples, small groups of young people - it would appear quite strange to most Americans (it did to this one!) - trained as we are to live out our evenings in our homes with our televisions. We worked hard in Lanzhou - giving several lectures and demonstrations which seemed to be well received, understood and appreciated. All of this led to our signing an agreement (which we will try to get signed at higher levels of University administration soon) which I will describe later. We had one day to sightsee - riding a chairlift to the top of one of the mountains which towers over Lanzhou and, later, visiting a large park filled with Buddhist temples (one of the most memorable impressions I will carry with me is of a dazed Buddhist monk, head shaven, stumbling away from an incense filled temple where he had evidently led (or helped with) some sort of worship ceremony. Hai Li thought it might be some ceremony honoring the dead.) I understand that the Communist Party (and the Cultural Revolution in the 60s - 70s) decimated much organized religion in China - and most people are not actively religious in any outward way - but that some of the traditional religions are now making a comeback. I have really enjoyed my travelling companions on this trip - Joe Gipson and Hai Li - we have gotten along so well and had so many good times together. Hai Li just could not have been better at taking care of us - and it has meant a lot of work for him. I hope someday that we can repay his kindness in introducing us to his country - and to showing us the "real China" - something that perhaps few tourists get to see.
Well, there are a million other things I would like to write - I have never had a trip with more "impressions". I'm afraid I will be talking about this trip for a long time to come!
I hope everyone there is well - I will look forward to being in closer contact once we arrive in Russia on the 15th.
Please write to me when you can. Would love to hear from "back home".
It is now Saturday, September 14 and we are less than 1/2 way through a 14 hour flight day and about 1/3 way through the current 10 hour leg from Beijing to Frankfurt. We arrive in Frankfurt at 7:00 pm today - we must then stay the night in Frankfurt (Joe, Hai Li, and I have all opted to just stay at the airport (after we tour the city) instead of paying $200 - $300 for hotel room!) before we leave tomorrow (Sunday) morning for Moscow. We will be met with a van at Sheremetevo airport at 1:30 PM for the 1 hour trip to Moscow and 2 hour drive to Pushchino. It is a bit surprising for me how excited I feel now to be going back to Pushchino - I guess it is partly because it will be a very familiar and comfortable environment; but mostly because I want for Joe and Hai Li to see and experience Russia. I only fear the stay there will be too short for them (they leave on Thursday to return home).
Today's trip has been rather uneventful - although we were hit in Shanghai this morning with an unpleasant fee of $600 for "excess baggage" (they really wanted nearly $1,750 but Hai Li talked them down!). Was a bit of a surprise since we are all travelling on special "around the world" tickets on United Airlines - and were never told of such severe baggage restrictions (50 pounds per passenger - we each averaged about 100 pounds!). No such restriction coming into China (or arriving back in America) - but intermediate destinations are evidently subject. Doesn't seem quite fair!
Anyway, left Shanghai for a two hour flight to Beijing and then an hour or so wait at the airport before leaving for 10 hour flight to Frankfurt. Although most of the flight has been cloudy, I did see some spectactular scenery (thanks to Angie for the window seats!) as we flew over the Gobi desert earlier. Tiny villages along small pools of water are the only evidence of life you see in the sandy but hilly land 6 miles below. Interesting to imagine what life must be like there - I can't imagine that these places have electricity or telephones or know anything about the world wide web . .
Accommodations on this flight are much nicer than on the earlier flight from Chicago to China nearly two weeks ago. I spent that first flight (12 hours long) wedged into the middle section of the plane between two other passengers - to whom I was introduced, red-faced, after the 2 pound mini-dock for my powerbook fell out of my luggage as I was putting it into the overhead compartment - and landed on the head of a rather stunned Chinese fellow in the aisle across from my section. I know that it had to hurt as it was a direct hit but he was very nice. But, to make the whole ritual worse (which is always awkward and clumsy on these full flights), I was still apologizing as I was trying to make it to my place, and grabbing the seat in front of me to steady myself so that I wouldn't sit on the lady beside me, I accidentally pulled the hair of a Chinese girl in the seat in front of me - hard enough to cause her to emit a loud squeaking noise and to slap my hand which was, by this time, frantically trying to get away from her hair. She was not nice and it was all very embarrassing.
But the worst part was yet to come - because about one hour into the flight, I tried to find Joe and Hai Li. After two laps around the coach area, I decided that either I had gotten on the wrong plane, or, worse, that I had caused Joe and Hai Li to miss the flight because of my sending email from the airport in Chicago. I sat down and tried to imagine what the results of all this would be. It was a worrisome time. But, 4 hours into the flight, I saw Joe ambling back into coach. As it happened, during the 3 hours that I had sat worrying, Joe and Hai Li had been chatting comfortably while eating a much nicer dinner than the bowl of fish powder noodles I had just been served - from the comfort of the business class section where, for some reason, United had offered them both a free upgrade while I was dutifully sending my email. I was very glad to see Joe (who tried to look very sorry about my pitiful plight in the middle section) - and considering that this was his first international flight, even glad that he was having such a nice time (it all reminded me of a really funny Seinfeld episode) but I'm glad to say that on this trip we are all cramped together in coach. We all have window seats but Joe moved because his was right in front of the smoking section (still allowed on these flights).
For some strange reason, I have still not lost my love of flying - but 12 hours in the dreaded middle section pushed my limits earlier. This flight today is very nice. We are now flying near Novosibirsk, Russia.
On Thursday of this week, we flew from Xi'an to Shanghai where we were met by folks from East China Science and Technical University (one of China's top institutions), one of whom was Hai Li's cousin. We were rushed from the airport to the University, put our bags into the guesthouse, and hurried to give about 3 1/2 hours of lectures about networking, ATM, and information technologies. After the lectures, we were offered another famous Chinese banquet with more than 20 entrees - ranging from chicken feet and eel to beef and corn (I ate only egg drop soup) - and discussed an agreement we signed the following evening. It was a busy, tiring day. But, on Friday, they took us sightseeing in what is without question the most amazing city I've ever seen.
Although Shanghai has (we were told) about 10 million "registered" residents, there are more than 20 million people living in the area. The city is so completely filled with people, bicycles, buildings, housing areas, that they have built their entire "Interstate" system which loops around the entire city on pillars which rise perhaps 50 feet above the surface (these main roads never touch the ground). It is the busiest place I have ever seen - and indeed could not have even imagined what we saw before Friday. It is also one of (if not *the*) fastest growing cities in the world. In this city, there are about 180,000 construction sites - and more than 4,000,000 construction workers. Whoever makes/rents cranes in this region must be rich - they are everywhere!
I keep going back to that statement we learned earlier this trip about China's 10% annual economic growth. And to what I have learned from Dr. Roth about what books such as "Asia Rising" predict about Asia, the world economy, and the 21st century . . Although we don't think so consciously or in any way maliciously, I imagine that many Americans (myself included) are still guilty of thinking that the world economy revolves around and perhaps depends upon our country more than is really the case. I see more and more that even if it were true at one time, things are likely to be very different in a few years.
We have been so fortunate on this trip to have seen a relatively large cross section of this country which has roots that extend as far back as 5,000 years, which has strong traditions at least half as old, with a population of 4-5 times the size of our own, and with an economy that is growing at least twice as fast as our own. In one area of Shanghai, they are planning and actively building their central business district which will be as large as Manhattan - with buildings even taller (one will be the largest in the world), with lots more people and businesses, and with lots more money..
I don't think I could adequately describe the "busyness" if I wrote chapters. Again, just as in Beijing - but maybe 10 times greater - millions of people riding and pushing and honking and ringing on bicycles, carts, taxis, buses, trolleys. We have to tell ourselves when riding in taxis that "it's all just a movie" - it is the only way to be able to watch the scene that, almost dreamlike, swirls in and out of view. I had just commented about the complete absence of a "margin of error" with regards to taxis and bicyclists/pedestrians when our taxi driver proved my thesis by running over a bicyclist. The young fellow cut directly in front of us - we saw the whole scene - leaving the driver no opportunity to stop in time. Fortunately, the young man (maybe 16-18) was ok (although his bike was hurt) and jumped up rather quickly looking rather amazed that he had been hit. The taxi driver was quite upset that the young man had cut in front of him - and we believe told him so when he jumped out of the taxi and starting yelling. 30 seconds and we were on our way again. It was all rather upsetting. But it must surely happen hundreds of times each day - perhaps the most amazing thing is that, given all the many taxi rides, we didn't see but one occurrence. Actually, later in the day, I was run over by a bicycle cart but there wasn't even time for an apology or even a shocked look. Life - and the enormous push of traffic - just goes on.
Hai Li's cousin took us from one end of Shanghai to the other - it was really an exhausting day. He took us to markets in the Shanghai "old district" that had everything; he took us walking in what looked like "Shanghai Ghettos" (oddly enough, crime is not a big problem - even in cities the size of Shanghai) in which we saw the condition in which 4-5 people live in single room dwellings which appear to be the size of our kitchens - but the people still dress well, are industrious, seem always busy (and seemed a little curious about the different looking people walking through their tiny, narrow streets); took us up inside the famous Shanghai "TV Tower" (3rd tallest in the world, rising up nearly 1/3 mile above the harbor and city) -- the sight from our stopping point (~ 800 feet) was overwhelming - I've never seen such a city before (the closest, I guess is the view of NYC from one of the tall buildings there - but it really doesn't compare). We at lunch at MacDonald's (my first real meal in 5 days) (it was great!) and, dragged Hai Li and his cousin to Hard Rock Cafe (very good food and, contrary to the name, no hard rock (thank goodness)) which is absolutely an island of America in the midst of Shanghai - we should be ashamed but it was really a nice evening - and the ability to read the stuff on the walls and to understand the lyrics to the music was somehow reassuring. We ended the day by meeting with a University official, signing an agreement for exchange/collaboration on various things, and then I called it a night.
Although I am so excited that we're on our way to Russia now, it is with a bit of sadness to leave China so soon - the two weeks have really flown by. But, I think the trip has been most successful - we have pretty solid agreements now on which to build with 3 institutions (in Beijing, Lanzhou, and Shanghai); have clear commitment (especially from Dr. Xu in Beijing) to develop a China-Russia-US Friends and Partners project; and have learned more than I would have thought possible about a truly amazing and wonderful country. We will always be indebted to Hai Li - who has worked solid for two weeks to show us his country - and as I said in my last note - the "real" China - not just the one characterized by big monuments, "great walls" and museums. It is a place I hope to return to often.
China is a place of contrasts like nothing I have ever seen before. We saw a 'free market' which appears, on the surface, to be stronger and 'freer' than our own; we saw incredible economic growth and growing opportunity for China's citizens. But then, on this flight out of China, Joe shared with me a long newspaper article he saw on the plane which points out one of the most vivid and perhaps dangerous contrasts - and a reminder that China - while it felt very "free" to us - is still an authoritarian state, with all major elements of society controlled by a single "party", and with a government which yields tremendous authority, force, and power. In an article in the "Financial Times" newspaper (Friday, September 13) (with an admittedly "western bias") entitled "Beijing orders clampdown on media", it begins:
"China appears to be tightening screws on the flow of information across the board in a sign of increasing political sensitivity in Beijing during a difficult transition to a new generation of leaders.
Closure earlier this month of dozens of web sites for Internet users, notably sites carrying Chinese language material, reflects a desire to curb views unsympathetic to the Communist party.
The authorities have also been enforcing tougher controls on the Chinese press, authors and film makers as part of an apparent attempt to impose stricter orthodoxy.
The latest moves coincide with preparations for a meeting of the Communist party Central Committee which will discuss "spiritual civilization" a coded phrase for attempts to "purify" Chinese society and deveop new guidelines for civil conduct.
" . . (much more material (I have the paper if anyone wants a copy of the article faxed))
It will be interesting as we work now to cooperatively build this new project using the Internet as a means of promoting better understanding, cooperation and "community" between individuals and organizations in China, Russia and the US - without violating any concerns about political issues, "spiritual pollution" (a big (and perhaps understandable) concern of Chinese about too many bad "western" influences) - and, at the same time, trying to present a truthful, helpful picture of this country and its people while also educating Chinese participants about our countries as well.
Well, I will send this note from Germany or from Russia and will try to send an update of our activities in Russia as soon as there is time. This trip to Russia, even more than previous ones, promises to be a very busy one.
I hope you will write if you get a chance - I have really enjoyed hearing from people back home. I will be back in touch soon!