Healing in China

It has taken me some time to begin to process our trip to China. One of the women on the trip said that for her, the trip was a vacation from a very stressful and hectic life which had been particularly difficult over the past summer. She thought that the trip would renew her.

I immediately understood what she was saying, for although my life was less stressed than hers, for me too the common annoyances of life were for this brief moment being replaced with new places and new people and new experiences beyond our imaginations.

My difficult summer had begun with becoming ill almost exactly when my sister arrived to visit me for two weeks. The relatively benign virus affected me so strongly that I was not able to function for weeks. My doctor had informed me that I would take months to recover. We wondered whether I would be able to go on the trip, but my lab values began to improve and I was determined to go.

When we got to the Great Wall on the first full day in China, there was a climb of what turned out to be 1200 uneven steps. Since this was likely to be my only time at the Great Wall, I made a decision to climb it. Something about that climb amid the beauty of the countryside, the bright colors of the tourists’ clothing, the optimism of people having a good time, the wonder of being in an exotic setting, gave me the energy and determination to go on and I did it! I accomplished my goal. But from that day on, I no longer felt weak or sick. Without noticing it, I had recovered my strength faster than I would have predicted.

It was not that long afterwards that we had our first walk in a Chinese garden. They are places of enormous delight. They are verdant with flowing water and rough hewn rocks and are filled with sounds of flute and other Chinese instruments. They are a place of quiet and contemplation. As we experienced these gardens and temples and as we made our way on quiet rivers and lakes, I felt a sense of peace and well-being. In the exquisite Stone Forest, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of nature in a misty rain. As we cruised along the Li River, the beauty was breathtaking. Our hotel in Guilin was along the side of a lake that provided calm and beauty to a bustling city as people walked along its paths and crossed its bridges and walkways.

Among 1.3 billion people, there was peace and solitude and well-being. There were oases of calm and quiet. And there was beauty.

Our trip was not only an adventure, but a healing experience.

Saturday in the Forbidden City

On Saturday morning, after services, kiddush, and breakfast, we set out for the Forbidden City. With such an ominous name, it was a place that I was a bit reluctant to visit. We walked about two long blocks and arrived beside Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao’s Mausoleum and adjacent to the Great Hall of the People. We proceeded down a flight of steps and into a pedestrian tunnel so that we could cross the very wide street that separates Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City.

We were not alone. Thousands of people converged on the Forbidden City, home of Emperors of China in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The area it occupies is vast and it is representative of the style of formal Chinese buildings with a formal entrance (in this case consisting of three doors, each of which had its unique use), a courtyard (or garden) and then another building behind which was another courtyard or garden and then another and another. Each change required stepping up and down as the buildings were several steps above ground level and with each doorway of each building having a board vertically set perhaps 12 inches high that one had to step over to enter. These boards at entrances were standard throughout all of the temples and old formal buildings that we visited.

We heard several explanations for the board. We heard that it will stop enemies from charging in. They have to stop in order to step over and this literally unbalances them. We heard that the bowed stature that climbing over something inevitably engenders is a forced sign of respect. We heard that they kept the building free of mice and we heard that in places where it floods, it kept the water out. Someone even suggested that it kept the chickens that were kept inside from escaping! After a while we came to expect them and I started to think it might be an idea that would slow down the grandchildren….

The imperial palace, consisting of a rumored 9,999 buildings ( a number I find somewhat exaggerated) is quite a complex. There is a wonderful online tour at http://www.chinavista.com/beijing/gugong/map.html

One of the items pointed out to us by our tour guides was a huge pot which had been put there for holding water. In early times, they were essential since there was no natural water source on the grounds. There were a large number of these huge pots. Many were coated in gold. When the Japanese invaded, they literally scraped the gold from the pots and we could see the remnants of the gold among the scratchings.

The vastness of the area and the style of the structures were nothing like what I had imagined. We listened with interest to the beliefs about what the emperor needed to do to ensure the well-being of the country. We heard about the symbolism of the colors that were used in the building and decorating.

It was a hot sunny day, but everyone remained interested in learning as much as we could, and when we returned to the hotel, we had plenty to talk about.

That evening we went to the Beijing Opera. Of course it was not at all what we expected. It was, instead, a performance put on in a very small auditorium that seated our group and no others. Two men enacted to music an encounter between good and evil that included a great deal of movement and dance with them using knives to threaten and slash at each other. The movement was graceful and the timing was superb. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Some of the pictures I took in China are now available for viewing at:

http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AYs2rJi2cvhA

Friday in Beijing

My husband and I joined friends who were taking a 17 day tour of China with Shai Bar Ilan who runs tours to China and other locations for Jewish people who observe the dietary laws and the Sabbath. In general, a Jew who is ritually observant has to be very careful in planning a trip to a place where there is no established Jewish community, so Shai had solved those problems. There was a minyan of men, kosher food, and we did no traveling on the Sabbath. Instead, we spent late Sabbath mornings and early afternoons on walks that enabled us to see sights that were close to the hotel. He even arranged for us to be able to have a drink of cold water on our way.

Our tour was to have begun on Wednesday afternoon, August 31 with a flight to Istanbul from where we were to fly to Beijing, arriving in the afternoon. Our flight to Beijing, however, was delayed by 12 hours and so were we! We flew to Istanbul and stayed the few hours we had at a hotel near the airport. Since we arrived after dark and left before it got light in the morning, we didn’t actually see anything in Istanbul.

The flight on Turkish Airlines was pleasant and we arrived in Beijing safely.

Although I knew China was a big country, I was surprised to see how big and modern the airports were. Unlike experiences in Israel and New York and Dallas and Oklahoma City, the baggage arrived quickly and within about 15 minutes, we had gathered our belongings and were moving along.

By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was dark. The rooms were clean and attractive. Shai had prepared a “snack” for us which turned out to be a full meal. With a bit more area to move around in, we began to become acquainted with the other people who had come along on the trip.

Although most of the group consisted of Israelis, we had three women from Canada and one from New York join us. In addition, at least one of the Israelis who was formerly from the US had difficulty with Hebrew, and so we were divided into two groups: Hebrew and English. The Hebrew group was larger and filled their bus. We were a group of about 23 and so we were usually very comfortable in ours. Although we were excited, we were also very tired, having missed most of a night’s sleep in Istanbul, so we all went to our rooms and slept.

In the morning, we ate and then piled into the buses for our first outing. As we drove through the enormous city of Beijing, it was hard to believe how urban and modern it looked. We arrived at the cloisonné factory and watched the women who worked to create the beautiful objects by hand. There are no shortcuts and no assembly line. Every work they produce is handmade with intricate designs and brilliantly colored enamels. A showroom the size of a US department store displayed items large and small including vases and jewelry and bells and cups and just about every object one could imagine.

After the factory, we traveled to the Great Wall (or, as one of the Israelis sometimes said, “the Big Wall”). We were surprised by the height of it, the width, and the fact that in this area, one climbed it. The wall has a long long flight of steps—perhaps ending where it ends, but being that it is 4163 miles long, we settled for climbing only part of it. The steps were not easy to climb. They were not of uniform height and some were the equivalent height of two to three steps. I was breathing really hard by the time we got to the landmark we were aiming for. We were told that the area we traversed contained 1200 steps. Of course, once up, the next task was going down. The weather was beautiful and the views were magnificent and everyone was in a mood of elation, and so it was all a big adventure.

We were taken next for reflexology treatments at an institute for Chinese medicine. There they grow medicinal plants, and the reflexology students worked their art on us. Two doctors came to check us all. They claimed to be able to tell our state of health by feeling our pulses in both our left and right wrists. Since everyone had ailments that they had the cure for and since all of the cures were only going to require a one month supply of their rather expensive formulas, we imagined that our diagnoses were all essentially the same: fat wallet.

After the rest and relaxation, we went to the Summer Palace, a magnificent estate with many buildings and a huge lake. The buildings were all traditional Chinese buildings and the lake was large enough that there were boats to traverse it. We saw gigantic lotus plants growing in the water. We walked along the Long Corridor which was painted with hundreds of pictures on its beams and its ceiling. It is simply a covered walkway. The Long Corridor is 795 yards long and parallels the lake. To have an estate so large and so green and so pastoral in a city whose metropolitan area houses thirty million people is nothing less than amazing to me.

Late that afternoon, we took a walk to Tian’anmen Square, but in a move reminiscent (at least to me) of my impressions of the square with the tank headed for the young student, police prevented our proceeding to the square citing the need to clean the area for a ceremony that was to take place the next morning. A number of police marched toward us accompanied by a police car that headed straight for us, albeit slowly. I couldn’t help wishing that someone would take a picture of my standing there with my hands held up.

We walked back to the hotel to get ready for the Sabbath.

I’m back

No, I am not sick and I am not being held hostage…I returned on Friday from a two week trip to China. There is so much to tell that it is hard to know where to start.

China is a country with a far greater land mass than the US and with a population of 1.3+ billion people. So why is it that I had heard of about two Chinese cities before my trip: Beijing and Shanghai? It would be like someone thinking that the US consisted of New York and Los Angeles. As we traveled from city to city, we were told that the Beijing area has a population of 30 million people and that Shanghai has a population of 17 million. Small cities had “only” 3 or 4 or 7 million people.

We knew about the Great Wall, but were unaware of other cultural and historical treasures that China has. We knew little of the culture and folklore. The language was a mystery to us.

During our trip we took five internal flights in China on at least 4 different airlines. We were impressed with the modernity and efficiency of Chinese airports, airlines, and hotels.

We saw Buddhist and Taoist temples, beautifully landscaped parks and gardens, and people who enjoyed life. We learned how they made fabrics, processed silk, did fine embroidery, and hand-manufactured cloisonné items.

We saw a country running into modernity with its sleeves flapping. We saw modern multi-layered roadways, tens of skyscrapers, and vast urban development. We learned about their one-child policy and how it has become a huge social experiment.

The trip to China was a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and action. I hope to share some of it with you in the days to come.