China, most ancient and modern

China, most ancient and modern

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There were highlights in each city we visited in China, and I would like to share those with you in this last installment of my trip tagging along on my son’s speaking itinerary. We flew 16 hours to Shanghai, the gateway to that huge country. Someone likened Shanghai to New York and Beijing to Washington, D.C., because the Chinese federal government is in the latter city while the former is thought of as more of a cultural and fun place.

Shanghai is dazzling for its skyscrapers, night-lights akin to Times Square and history, particularly as displayed by its impressive 19th-century architecture along the Bund on the riverfront. The western powers, that forced China open then, built their customs houses and administrative headquarters there, and now those buildings are icons of success because Chinese in corporations and government offices people them. They look out across the Huangpu River on the newest and most luxurious section of the city, Pudong, which was originally swamps and slums but now houses the Shanghai World Financial Center in futuristic high-risers and the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower.

My favorite place in the city is the Shanghai Museum, with its four floors displaying cultural relics and artifacts from more than 5,000 years ago. The architecture of the building itself symbolizes “a round heaven and a square earth.” Most impressive are the bronze items, largely for cooking and wine, that speak to the sophistication of these people thousands of years ago. Inside the museum is a large atrium from which the floors above are visible The collections may represent antiquity but the escalators efficiently carrying visitors from floor to floor convey modernity. And typical of Chinese zeal for business, there is a small gift shop on every floor in addition to the main one at the entrance. Calligraphy, pottery, jade, sculptures and bronze reproductions offer the visitor take-home reproductions of the treasures exhibited in the museum.

Shanghai is also known for a humanitarian action taken between 1933-41. At that time the city welcomed 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. Despite orders from the Nazi leaders demanding the refugees be turned over by Japan, their allies who then occupied China, the Jews were not. But Mao expelled all Westerners after his victory in 1949.

Suzhou, a half-hour bullet train ride from Shanghai, is famous for its canals and gardens. An outstanding example we enjoyed was the Humble Administrator’s Garden, a 16th-century gem with small ponds, bridges and secluded pavilions.

Hangzhou, another short train ride from Shanghai in the other direction, was termed by Marco Polo, “the City of Heaven,” and surrounds beautiful West Lake. Every evening on the lake is a sight to behold. Called “Impression West Lake,” it is a water, light and animation show created by Zhang Yimou, who co-directed the 2008 Summer Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. The entire production appears to take place improbably atop the water.

Nanjing, a walled city on the banks of the Yangzi River and in front of Purple Mountain, was next, one-and-a-half hours farther by train. Often the capital of the country through the centuries and the site of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, the city is also known for the brutality perpetrated by the invading Japanese army in 1937. Up to 400,000 people are thought to have been killed during that time which is still angry subject matter between the two countries. However, that doesn’t prevent China today from using police cars made by Honda.

We then flew a couple of hours northeast to Changchun, which is well off the tourism path. Once the capital of the Japanese–controlled state of Manchukuo, known to those who have seen the 1987 movie, “The Last Emperor,” the city is the center of car production. From here we were driven six hours, over every type of roadway from wide new highway to bumpy and twisting dirt surfaces and through thousands of acres of undeveloped forests, to a spectacular volcanic mountain jutting up against the border with North Korea. Changbaishan has a crater lake in its midst at better than 8,000 feet and is reached via a roller-coaster drive. The circumference of the mountaintop is an easy 9 miles hike, but we were severely warned not to do so lest the neighboring border guards arrest us.

Last stop was Beijing, another airplane ride southwest. There we managed to walk through the three tourist musts: the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. These have been dramatically commercialized since my last visit 10 years earlier, but they still are worthy, as is this most ancient and modern country, of everyone’s bucket list.