China, O China
For me, It isn't about sightseeing, it's like a pilgrimage
By Shahriar Zahedi
April 24, 2002
Riding in a taxi in Shanghai, I'm sitting in the front, with a Plexi-glass barrier
separating me from the driver, who is wearing a tie and sipping green tea. My wife
and her parents are sitting in the back talking in the Shanghai dialect. I don't
understand anything except for an English word uttered from time to time. We are
going from the suburbs to downtown. The taxi is a VW Santana, a model not found in
the States. Pretty comfortable at a cost of about $12,000.
People are going about their business in the streets. On foot, on bicycles, in cars,
and in busses. The streets remind me of home, with the same hustle and bustle. I
don't feel alien at all.
I realize I am whispering Rumi :
"Where art thou from?" I asked.
He smiled and said "My dear.
One half of me from Turkistan.
One half of me from Ferghana.
One half of me of water and mud.
One half of me of spirit and heart
One half of me by the seashore
One half of me all of pearls."
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Flocks of tourists all over the giant square, and nothing
else, except Chairman Mao's massive portrait atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I look
for bloodstains on the pavement. But nothing has survived the last 13 years of washing.
I have to admit, though, the price the demonstrators paid didn't completely go to
waste. Social and economic freedom is almost complete. There is considerable religious
freedom too. Political freedoms? I don't know.
The Forbidden City starts at Tiananmen and after going through several gates, we
are at the Imperial Garden which is magnificent. Before that, it is the emperor's
living quarters, which seem modest, with hard beds and stone chairs. According to
the guide, they filmed the movie "The Last Emperor" there.
In one of the courtyards there is a sundial not unlike the one in Shah Mosque in
Isfahan. There's also a grain-measuring device made of stone. The guide also says
if they executed you in one of the middle courtyards, it would have been a sign
of honor and you would have gotten a decent burial. But for those who got executed
outside of the gate, it was a shameful death.
Dinner at TGI Fridays in Beijing. There are 100 McDonalds and 150 KFC's in Beijing
alone. There is a Hard Rock Cafe too.
At the Lingyin Buddhist temple in Hangzhou, 3-hour bus-ride from Shanghai. There
is a charge for tourists (and worshipers?) to get in. Monks stroll about in robes
and sneakers. People holding burning incense approach the altar. We buy some incense
too and light them at a fire in the courtyard. The familiar aroma fills the air.
There is a giant gold-plated statue of Buddha in a large room, probably 30 feet in
height. The guide boasts about the amount of gold used to plate the statue (5 tons,
or 50 tons? I don't remember).
People, with incense in hand, kneel before Buddha and bow their heads repeatedly,
while making the familiar Buddhist hand gesture. Reminds me of the Rabbis bowing
before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Same attempt, same movements, just a different
path. I get an urge to pray too. Before the astonished eyes of my tour group and
local worshipers, I kneel and bow repeatedly to Buddha. The spirituality of the place
fills my entire body. My eyes well up.
"You are the goal.
Kaaba and the house of idols, but excuses."
We went to the Great Wall too. What can be said about
that? Impressive, grand, and ultimately ineffective. The Mongols finally did sack
Beijing in 1215 in spite of it. But it did serve its purpose for 1200 years.
Legend has it that a certain pretty woman's husband goes to build the wall and he
doesn't return. After several months the woman dreams that her husband is dead and
his corpse is buried in the wall, cold and alone. So the woman sews warm clothes
for one month and goes to the wall and cries for three days and three nights straight.
Her tears cause a section of the wall to collapse and her husband's body is exposed.
China exceeds all my expectations. For me, It isn't about sightseeing, it's like