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China, O China
For me, It isn't about sightseeing, it's like a pilgrimage

By Shahriar Zahedi
April 24, 2002
The Iranian

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 a pilgrimage.

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