Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My Trip to China

This is the third in a series of blogs about my recent trip to China.

Friday, November 7, Hangzhou

Yesterday morning we visited and took a tour of the corporate headquarters of Alibaba and saw an introductory video from Jack Ma, CEO. Alibaba is China's version of Amazon, eBay and UPS all rolled into one. We watched a real-time electronic screen/map that showed actual sales on Alibaba--it looked like a fireworks display. Sixty Minutes recently did a feature on Ma and his company.

We lunched at a historic restaurant on the West Lake where Nixon and Kissinger dined when they came to China. The food in Hangzhou is milder than in the north and more to my taste. Afterwards we took a boat ride, powered by a Chinese paddler, on West Lake. The lake is a World Heritage site and beautiful--roughly nine square miles. Part of the lake is a series of waterways through wetlands teeming with wildlife. Gardens, paths and bridges dot the landscape. The mountains surround three sides of the lake and the city sits on the fourth side. There are several large pagodas overlooking the lake on the mountains. The whole scenery is stunning. 

Later in the afternoon, we went into an older section of Hangzhou. One of the ancient fortified gates to the city survives there. The winding, narrow streets were only for pedestrians, bicycles and scooters. Shops with upstairs living quarters lined the streets. We went into one of these for a tea tasting. They let us try green tea, black tea, and a flavor intermediate between the two while telling us the history of Chinese tea culture. It was both informative and delicious.

After tea, we shopped. This part of the city is a tourist trap in the richest and most entertaining sense of the word. The group had a ball haggling with street merchants. We ate dinner at McDonald's (doesn't taste the same) to save time. Back at the hotel, I Facetimed Sarah Park, which really is amazing technology. I slept the best yet until 6:45 am.

Saturday, November 8, Nanjing

Yesterday morning we visited the Lingyin Buddhist Temple in Hangzhou. It is an extraordinary complex of five temples on one side of a mountain with a large creek, rock cliff and caves on the other. The temples sit in an old growth forest. Monks are present. The temples contain gigantic Buddhas and statues of lesser deities. Chinese tourist burn incense and make wishes. There was also a grotto in the cliff that I suspect was an original religious shrine dating back to the Stone Age. Each temple sits higher up the mountain and, presumably, higher on the path of Enlightenment. 

After lunch, we visited the Hangzhou silk market where I bought scarves for Sarah Park. We drove back to our hotel to freshen up before going to dinner with a Chinese host family. The group split into three smaller groups. My group's host family live in a beautiful, five-bedroom condominium in a gated community. Four generations of the family under one roof: 94 year-old great-grandfather, 75 year-old grandmother, parents, and only son, fourteen year-old Ben. Ben attends a nearby boarding school and comes home on the weekends. He wants to attend an American school so he can have more free time outside school. He is a computer geek, fine pianist, tennis player, and a labor-saving device inventor. He can do none of these extracurricular activities because of the volume of homework he must do. Ben was likable, respectful and spoke good English.

Grandmother fixed a delicious dinner: pork dumplings, Peking duck and green salad. Both parents work. The mother teaches Chinese philosophy at Hangzhou University. The father designs smart buildings and roads. They are extremely successful. The home had a small porch where we had tea, a small fish pond and a small garden. The family gave each guest a beautiful pottery vase that was created by a relative who practices an ancient pottery tradition. Lovely people and a lovely evening. 

We packed last night and were on the bus at 5:45 am this morning. We drove to the Hangzhou train station which looks like an ultramodern airport to take the bullet train (200 mph) to Nanjing. Our car was luxuriously comfortable: each seat turned into a bed. The ride lasted an hour and we all slept. In Nanjing, we took a tour of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a graduate program for Chinese and foreign students established by the Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University in the early 1980s. Loren Fauchier, Director of the International Program at Providence Day School, is a graduate of the program. We had lunch at the Jinling Hotel and are now getting ready to interview Chinese students interested in studying in our schools.