Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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China is utterly fascinating, terribly rich, terribly busy, terribly big. There are too many people, too much traffic, too much pollution. On streets planted with trees in an attempt to get some oxygen into the desperate air, bicycles pulling carts loaded as heavily as an American pick-up, bicycles carrying families of three, scooters, motor bikes all travel alongside shiny, expensive cars. In the city centers, enormous glass skyscrapers stand as dazzling monuments to power and money. Lit at night with myriad colors and projections, their light replaces stars no longer visible in this heavy sky. Extending all directions from the center, vast settlements of dreary high-rise residential buildings house whole villages razed to make room for more buildings, more industry.

Venders selling maps and trinkets accost one everywhere. If you glance at one for an
instant, he or she will not let you go. (You cannot look at something out of curiosity here.) After
a quick class in Mandarin, I learned to say, Bu yao. “I don’t want it.” Mei you qian. “I’m
broke.” My Mandarin did not work.

Wherever tourists congregate, beggars wrapped in rags thrust out bony hands. The
Chinese socialist ideal providing luxury for the rich, does not extend to them. “Hello,” they say,
a demand, not a greeting. “Hello,” they insist, as if the word will get them money.

In Beijing, on our way to the Forbidden City, we crossed Tiananmen Square, where
hundreds of soldiers and police, many in plain clothes, watch everything. Our guide, who spoke
freely to us on our small bus, was unwilling to do so in the huge openness of the square, as if
the pavement itself listened. Symbol of violent repression, the square was our single moment of
being reminded that, regardless of externals, this is a repressive land. There are things one dare
not say, actions one dare not take. But you do not think of this as you wander through Buddhist
temples, or shops filled with pearls and jade and silk.

On the Great Wall, a policeman kindly took a photo of David and me.

(Recently I read that part of the Great Wall is collapsing because nearby mining activity is
destroying its foundation. The cost to China of its industrialization is in air you cannot breathe,
water you cannot drink, destroyed villages, drowned farms, the drowned graves of ancestors. I
have to wonder whether being well on their way to owning the world is compensation enough.)

In Xi’an, we walked a little of the nine-mile long ancient wall surrounding one of the most ancient Chinese cities. Walking here is a way to take some measure of China’s history into oneself, to experience one’s own presence in so ancient a place.

We cruised the Yangtze from Yichang to Chongqing. China’s lifeline for 5000 years, the 3900 mile-long river, flowing from Tibet to Shanghai, is (after the Nile and the Amazon) the third largest river in the world. One out of every 15 people on earth lives in the Yangtze River Valley.

At the Three Gorges Dam--largest dam in the world (the size of 20 Hoover Dams)—we passed through a 5-stage lock, taking about three hours, to continue downriver. The dam, built for flood control, provides only 3% of China’s electrical power. Drowning the Three Gorges, it submerged farms, villages, and thousands of years of the graves of ancestors. In exchange, the relocated farmers have an easier life now, with electricity and running water in their new houses.

Beyond the locks, we transferred to a ferry to enter the lesser 3 gorges. Our local guide told us his old house is 75 meters under water. Edging the water, hillsides once stripped bare of trees used for fuel have been replanted. At river’s edge, fish traps hang between a frame of four sticks with a light hanging above them. The light attracts mosquitoes. Fish, coming for the mosquitoes, get caught.

Fishing is interesting in China. One night in Xi’an we boarded a small boat on which we followed two cormorant fishermen. The event is staged for tourists, but cormorant fishing is an ancient practice. Fishermen, with their trained cormorants, set off on narrow, raft-like boats. Diving birds with webbed feet and long necks that expand to swallow whole fish, the cormorants’ necks are bound to prevent fully swallowing fish they catch. Instead, they regurgitate them into the fisherman’s basket. A sort of ultimate catch and release. I watched one cormorant swallow an entire fish. The fisherman pushed on his throat above the tie and the fish slid out of the bird’s mouth.

In the lesser lesser gorges, ancient coffins hang high up on limestone cliffs. During the cultural revolution’s attempt to dismantle Chinese culture, many were removed. Those remaining have become tourist attractions. No one knows why, or how, the coffins—belonging to the ancient Ba people -- are there.

Rhesus monkeys scampered in sunlight on steps leading down the mountainside to the river, the only wildlife, outside of the zoo in Chongqing, we saw in China. Watching them, I realized I hadn’t seen a bird since we arrived, other than those in cages brought to parks by their owners who hang them in trees during the day.

In a still narrower gorge, steep limestone cliffs funneled us deeper into the country. The guide pointed out a steep path to the water used by a farmer on the far side of the mountain. He carries his crops of tobacco and chili to this side where a water taxi takes him to market. In yet another gorge we floated past a small, 400 year old Buddhist Temple that once required 600 steps to reach. Since the dam, it is a shorter climb.

Leaving the ferry to scatter ourselves among waiting sampans, we moved down a still smaller gorge. Suddenly the sound of a sona, a flute native to these gorges, drifted across to us. Farther on, local people on an anchored sampan sang, their voices like flowing water.

There is so much sound here that is not music. China is loud. People shout when they speak, a necessity to be heard over all the millions of other voices, the incessant traffic. And Mandarin, made of gruff, abrupt syllables sounds angry, as if anger and volume were the only way to be heard. I wondered if I could discern the difference between “I love you” and “go to hell.”

But one morning, as I drank coffee alone in the boat’s lounge, silence happened. A silence so encompassing it was like the absence of time. Nothing moved. Not sound, not water, not air, not this boat on the Yangtze. Someone played a piano, softly, rippling like water, and yet it was like no sound. Silence. An ephemeral perfection. What is this kind of silence, this suspension of time as if we are here/not here? On the Yangtze. In China.

Pressed by hordes of visitors, the crush of crowds that happens often in China, the crush that frightens me, I leaned against the railing guarding the enormous pit of terra cotta warriors. The soldiers and horses, all the color of clay, of sand, of dust, standing in lines between walls of clay, seem so vulnerable. At the back of the pit, where unrestored warriors lie in broken shards, I felt I was looking at broken men. Why do I forget that all of this is clay?

The illiterate farmer, whose chance discovery of broken pottery while digging a well led to the uncovering of the long buried warriors, horses, chariots, has learned to sign his name. He signs books in the museum shop. David buys a book, the farmer signs, then slams the book shut as if he is angry that anyone should ask such a thing of him. He does not allow photographs.

At Guilin, we cruised the Li River to Yangshou, then stayed to watch a performance of ZhengYimou’s Impressions. Director of the opening extravaganza of the Beijing Olympics, Zheng Yimou also directed “The First Emperor,” the first of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD Live performances. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, united China. (He also conquered the Ba people in 316 BCE.) It was he for whom the terra cotta warriors were created. (This seemed a better idea to his warriors than being buried alive with a dead Qin.) The opera, composed by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, who wrote the first emperor’s role specifically for Placido Domingo, is an extraordinary few hours of theatre.

Impressions opens with shadowy movement on the water that forms the stage. Music floats across to us. We are focused on the figures darkly gliding before us in boats, when, suddenly, the mountains edging the water explode with a white luminescence, a radiance that seems born of the rock itself, a beauty so huge it is almost unbearable.

Was this somehow the highlight for me of this trip? I had come wanting to see the karst formations along the Li, the subject of so many Chinese paintings( the same formations lit in the performance), and the terra cotta warriors. But in this performance what it was possible to see was the imagination, the brilliance, the poetry of thousands of years of civilization; the resources and the technology of the present; the outsize talent of a great artist.

For the time of the performance, I never thought about the price the Chinese have to pay to have so much.

All photos are by David Muench
(except the one taken by the policeman on the Great Wall, with David’s camera.)

Copyright © 2011 Ruth Rudner