It’s a bit odd writing this post; for one, it’s been a “long” time (photographically) since my trip to China, and two, I’m writing from Germany, home for [at least] the next year. Reflecting back on a trip over months old is thus refreshing but also potentially dangerously narrative. With that disclaimer…
The trip home — the first time I’ve done back-to-back trips to China since the late 1990s — started in Houston, where I visited a friend who works at the Johnson Space Center. Few people can say they are friends with rocket scientists, but I’ve known my buddy in Houston since grade school. This time, he showed me Mission Control (nearly all of them) from the ground floor. I had two takeaways: first, the amount of technological achievements that come together to support a mission in orbit is astounding; and two, the equipment used to make space missions possible is outdated (making the first point even more impressive).
My time in Houston was merely a layover, so I soon was on my way to Shanghai. One of my first stops in China was at Wu Tai Shan, which translates literally to “Five Plateau Mountain,” and my first visit to a Chinese mountain. A site of significant religious importance, the site is actually a national park, which at first glance seems to indicate consumerism by way of tourism: every parking lot was full, tour buses crowded the streets, and there even appeared to be a car dealership of some sort off one of the roads.
Nevertheless, there was plenty to take in by way of nature,
nods to architecture and ornamentation,
and, naturally, items having religious purpose.
China’s growth and associated afforded mobility meant that what was once a revered religious or historical site now was a site for people to touch, and figuratively, to devour.
Leaving Wu Tai Shan, we visited the tomb of Liu Sheng. Located near the city of Man Cheng, the tomb was only discovered in 1968. I didn’t find much to take photos of inside the tomb — much was covered by glass that then reflected everything — but outside, the walk up was in superb evening sunlight.
This would be the last of mountainous China this trip, but perhaps the most powerful photos — the images burned into my memory — are ones I didn’t take. Normally, I regret not taking photos of the sun or some rocks or some snow on those rocks, but this time was my first visit since 1999 deeper into the heart of China. Toilets here are still holes dug in the ground, running water to buildings is turned off when not in use, and land costs aren’t yet extravagant. This isn’t just about empty apartment buildings that the government bought and was waiting on people to inhabit: this was seriously rural, where a heaping bowl of soup noodles would run about 4 USD. It’s a China that is naturally beautiful but that, for its primitiveness, is unseen by the world.
This is a dichotomy that I can now only wish I had been able to illustrate. Now roads are being built, electricity lines are being strung, and people are beginning to realize that with mobility and newfound wealth is a second home in the mountains not so unpleasant. But fundamentally, there’s a layer behind whatever is most visible, and it’s this fabric that is so quickly covered up in order to present a facade (real or fake) of big cities, gleaming skyscrapers, and infinite potential.
The stark contrast, however, was just beginning. Our next stop was Beijing, of which my fondest memory was eating Beijing roast duck at Quan Ju De. This time, we went to taste roast duck, perfected — leaner but just as succulent as the duck at Quan Ju De, the funny-sounding (in English) Da Dong restaurant cooks as perfect a roast duck as there is. But that’s not all — the chef for whom the restaurant is named also does just about every dish under the sun; the menu is about an inch thick, A3-sized (11″x17″, or ledger), bound hardcover, all in color. Coming from the tiny villages of Hebei Province, this was a complete U-turn. If I had photos of those hamlets, this post could have been “How the Other Half Lives” — or, perhaps in this context, eats.
My stay in Beijing lasted only one night before we went off to Peng Lai, which is a coastal city that — incredibly — still has blue skies. The weather was great — fairly dry but warm, with plenty of sun and views of the sea.
Of most interest to me during the visit was the development of Peng Lai. It’s no secret that China is expanding in several directions, but this was the first time I had seen firsthand an entire mountain being excavated in order to build out the coastline. [Predominately] Volvo excavators loaded 40-ton trucks one bucket at a time, and the trucks then drove down the mountain and out to sea to dump their loads.
Formerly a key defense port, the city now functions largely as a tourist attraction. It’s hard to tell what the government isn’t focusing on, but if they put their money right, this city can boom — the weather (lookit those blue skies!) is a huge plus, and it’s also relatively laid back and is, at least at first glance, hospitable. In short: I think the city can learn a lot from Charleston.
A few days later, we began wrapping up the trip by visiting Huai’an, not far from where my half of my extended family now resides. The city is large by US standards — just under 5 million inhabitants — yet can’t crack the list of the thirty biggest administrative areas in China. The city is now investing in a modernization of the Huai River riverfront, all while still embracing old traditions, such as the proper art of brewing and serving tea.
As it does so, and as in so many other parts of China, it’s still finding its image. Three-wheel motorcycles (literally called “three-wheeled vehicles” in Mandarin) still abound, only now some are powered by 2-stroke engines that are also pervasive in mopeds. On the side of a four-lane bridge, a merchant set up shop to sell apples. In the background are tower cranes building new apartment buildings that will likely stand empty for some time before the next big group acclimates to its new wealth. The question is: will there be a next big group?
The last stop on the trip, as it was last year, was Shanghai. This time, as we were walking back from Yuyuan, we came across something that I had never seen and that my parents hadn’t seen in over twenty years: popped rice.
It’s a dirty, hot, and likely uncomfortable job with little reward; each bag of popped rice products went for 5 Yuan, or under $1 USD.
Once the internal pressure reached some level, the pressure vessel was taken off the fire and opened with a loud “bang.” The result smelled and tasted delicious and really unlike anything I had eaten before. My parents, who have been back to China multiple times in the last decade, hadn’t seen this in any of their previous visits, so seeing this on this visit (amid all the other reminders of old / new customs) was particularly well-timed.
For me, this was a brand new experience — watching something so commonplace just thirty years ago still happen today was really a paradigm shift in the otherwise glittery world that is Shanghai. And yet, it showed just how much history, how much culture is still left unexplored. How would anyone know about this if all they saw was skyscrapers and consumerism? (The converse is also interesting to explore: if not for skyscrapers and consumerism, would this merchant have been on this street corner?)
An international blog post from me wouldn’t be complete without some mention of planes, of course, but in a larger sense the transports fit this theme in many ways. I flew to China on a United 787-9, a twinjet, which was pretty much just like their 787-8 that I took in January and last year. I flew back on a 777-200ER, also a twinjet, but not before I had my breath taken away by a United 747-400, this time with an Asiana 747-400 behind her. The plane is almost effortlessly elegant, and to this day I can’t believe its impact on the global aviation market.
Under attack from the 777 and A350 below and the A380 from above, this is a scene that soon won’t be easy to come by; the “Queen of the Skies” will soon retire in favor of more economic options because that’s the way most of us choose to fly. But fifty years ago, when the first versions started flying, the scale of the plane — both in terms of passengers carried and range — was unprecedented. Here was a plane twice or three times the size of others flying at the time, designed by slide rules, that revolutionized how we flew and that today is still among the fastest commercial jets. In some ways, this is not unlike Mission Control: my jaw dropped when I saw that the computers used today to send man to space were IBM (not Lenovo!) Thinkpads, and to think that the design of a plane as old as Singapore itself can still make airlines money or that 2005-era technology is sending people into orbit is staggering. What engineering might to be able to develop such robust platforms! The beauty and textbook engineering of the 747, nevertheless, are no match for twinjets that are becoming ever more capable. The 747-400 (and, sadly, the 747-8I) will gradually be phased out in favor of the 777, 787, and A350. In society and in product conception, the challenge is thus how to continue to honor the past when the future is so promising, so inviting, and so crucial for survival.
Where companies answer the question by developing new products, countries in a position to address the topic map out their foreign and domestic affairs and mold their culture in a way that fits. China, in particular relevance to this post, is at a crossroads: where the past is not uncool, but that is seemingly inconveniently unbecoming with the pace of current development. Much of the country is still far, far behind anything in the Western world, and anything in the imagination of the Western world, and there are signs of a struggle to see which side wins out and how: embrace the past, and risk alienating those who only want the untapped potential of and access to its 1.3 billion inhabitants; or ignore it, letting only the bright lights of tomorrow’s rich guide the direction of development and funding. From my experiences this time around, I can say only this: first, the struggle between past and future is real; the questions are there and the answers not always. Second, it would be a tragedy not to showcase what made China and its people. Whether it affects answering questions about our universe, building the perfect plane, or celebrating culture, there’s a tremendous amount we can learn from the past. Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to slow down and understand what has already happened, no matter how glamorous only looking at the future is.