The Adventures of Marco Sahud
My Philosophy that I’d rather be a live coward than a dead hero took a beating when we planned a trip to China Oh yes, it was on an upscale Crystal Cruise, But they are merely purveyors of service and …… I wanted my mommy!
The guidebooks warned about possible health problems, e.g. “The changes in climate and time zones and the unfamiliar food and drink can all combine to upset your metabolism when traveling in China.“ (My metabolism gets upset when I shave!)
“Avoid raw food, like shellfish, unpeeled fruit, washed peeled fruit and fruit peels, and ice cream, drinks chilled with ice-cubes and other un-bottled or locally bottled drinks. Drink mineral water instead of tap water”. (But first ascertain whether the mineral water is really tap water in a pretty bottle?”
“Cleanliness is the best protection against falling sick, so wash your hands frequently, rinsing them and changing the water and take your own lavatory paper with you”. (Hint: There is no immunization from the inert holes called Eastern toilets). A complete physical was suggested before departure (Done: and the doctor thought I was off my rocker) and one should carry a thermometer, scissors (for emergency brain surgery), tweezers (to pluck strange insects from our orifices), cotton wool (to stuff our orifices), bandages (to hide mortal wounds), antiseptic cream (to bathe in), something for constipation or diarrhea (you can take your choice when you get there), painkillers (like Morphine drip), travel sickness pills, sticking plasters (to hold body parts together), cardiac stimulants, sun cream and insect repellant. (None of the guide books suggested that I pack my portable iron lung).
Also be careful of blood clots (the TV program on deep vein thrombosis before leaving did little to raise my spirits) on the 14-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong. We wore surgical stockings and took walks to anger the aisle occupant when she dozed off or lowered her tray table. A surgical mask was suggested as protection from bacteria, viruses, and halitosis on the plane and on the ground. It would also help us blend in with the Chinese, since pictures show masks to be a Beijing fashion statement.
I approached the trip with Judy’s cousin Al and his wife Rhoda with an emotion just short of dread. We flew to Chicago from Ft. Lauderdale and then on to Hong Kong to pick up the Crystal Harmony. It wasn’t there when we arrived, due to stormy seas, sailing from Los Angeles to Yokohama. After fifteen hours of flying from Chicago in an over-filled 747, chewing on our kneecaps, because we couldn’t reach our finger nails from the “crunch” position, we were delayed from boarding for five hours. Crystal, being a class outfit, took us to the Intercontinental Hotel and provided a lavish buffet with a serving staff that did all but follow us to the bathroom. It was a magnificent gala for 400 zombies who wanted to collapse into a bed. We needed a celebration with rich food and booze like a moose needs a hat rack.
We finally stumbled to our cabins by 2 am China time. Having rejected an upgrade to a rear larger cabin because of my chronic mal de mer, we were rewarded with a perfect view of Lifeboat #8. The cousins were thrilled with their upgrade and could actually see the sea and sky from their cabin, while vomiting from the turbulence.
Having been there before, we avoided the Hong Kong tour and rested our frazzled psyches. For the next day at sea, we were rewarded with choppy seas on the way to Nagasaki. Having absorbed 1/20th of my body weight in Dramamine, I as OK and so was Judy, while Al was on rubbery legs and Rhoda needed a shot from the doctor.
We stopped in Nagasaki just to confuse our cultural sensitivities. It was an endless climb (mostly stairs, with an occasional escalator interlude) up to the Thomas Glover mountain top estate. Chugging our way through the gardens, the houses, and past the Madam Butterfly statue, we had a magnificent view of the city. A visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park (the epicenter where 75,000 people died) saddened us, no matter how justified our cause.
As the ship headed for Shanghai, Rhoda suffered another bad intestinal bout and was quarantined to her cabin for 48 hours in case it might be a communicable virus.
Fortunately, Al was on a tour when Rhoda was imprisoned and was provided an empty cabin next door (no female companionship was provided). Rhoda felt better in the first several hours and developed a Martha Stewart complex for the next 40 hours.
Al left Rhoda clawing at the cabin door for two days in Shanghai, both old and new. The new was technically impressive from the Oriental TV and Radio Tower (another panoramic scene from the top – great for my acrophobia!) to the magnetic levitation trains. For a guy who likes speed even less than heights, the smooth 267 mph vs. the bumpy 90 mph was uninspiring. The old was stately, with The Bund, a colorful street lining the waterfront and housing the banking and financial centers. The 18th century Yu Yuan Garden, with its collection of large odd-shaped rocks and plants was another walking exercise with a multitude of steps and crags for tripping. As we left our bus for the Jade Buddha Temple, we encountered tragic beggars and misshapen creatures with one sitting on the ground with a large Mongoloid child, who was either dead or in a coma. The tours terminated with visits to the government-owned Friendship (translation: Screw the Capitalist Pigs!) stores for shopping.
We then stopped at a convenient Manchurian sea port on the way to Beijing. Dalian had beautiful beaches plus several public squares (China’s preferred geometric shape). The People’s Square is the site of many scenes from The Last Emperor. Rhoda was released in time for a visit to another Friendship store (with its unfriendly armed guards).
Then on to Tianjin, the port for Beijing, a city of eight million people and a two and one half hour ride to Beijing, depositing us right into a buffet lunch (I only ate rolls and butter in self-defense). Our luggage went on a different tour. Then, to further stall until hotel check-in, we were whisked off to the Summer Palace built by the Emperor for his nasty Mother Empress Dowager Tzu His (or Susie to her non-existent friends). Seeing the man-made lake and pavilions with names like the Orderly Clouds, Joy and Longevity, Virtue and Harmony, one would never guess that the Dragon Lady would cut off the extremities of courtesans and keep their bodies in a jar for kicks.
Next morning: The Forbidden City, (I wonder what the tour guides referenced before the movie “The Last Emperor”?) Crowds and steps describe this Gate of Heavenly Peace, containing five passages across five marble bridges to five gateways. It was hard to miss the many English signs reading “Do not fall”. Steps leading to more steps leading to loose bricks made it difficult to lift our gaze from the floor. I felt like we walked all 210 acres of pavilions, gardens, and courtyards. From there we proceeded to the infamous Tiananmen Square. Yup, it was a big square capable of holding one million people (in uncomfortable positions), Chairman Mao’s Memorial (closed for us), the Great hall of the People, The Museum of the Revolution and the Museum of Chinese Hitay surrounded and made the square a square. There were many stiff soldiers and plan clothes spies keeping an eye out for enemies of the Revolution.
After lunch, a visit to the Temple of Heaven, housing circular shrines where emperors worshipped, provided more opportunities for walking and climbing. The spiritual aspects were discarded by the Communist Revolution in 1949 and it became a public park. So much for heaven, peace, joy, love, etc. and my reasons for joining the Revolution.
“Dear Guest…, You are cordially invited to attend a banquet at the great Hall of The People, etc. etc. Dress Code: Smart Casual…Please note: Due to security reasons ladies are kindly requested to only bring a small purse or handbag. Cameras and small video cameras are permitted.”
What an honor! To dine at the intimate 5000 seat hall where Richard Nixon made history in 1972! The 450 invitees left our respective busses en masse and filed up the steep stairway trying not to knock each other down. We tip-toed through the metal detector where cameras and handbags were opened by stone-faced security guards. Then we took tiny baby steps on the red carpet up another endless set of stairs to the massive hall. Arching legs brought us to tables of twelve, centered with four foot diameter lazy susans. They were laden with appetizers mentioned in the elaborate menu, but not easily recognizable. We introduced ourselves and waited for the other to test the food. Then the army of uniformed men and woman servants marched in step to serve the main courses and refill our glasses of wines, beer and soft drinks. Should a careless diner leave a utensil hanging outside an exterior plate, the beverage glasses were knocked-over. It happened many times, rendering new colors to the already colorful table cloth (this was not considered an affront to the People’s Revolution – or I wouldn’t have made it back to the bus). Then the entertainment began on a stage some three miles from our table. A tenor and soprano sang Italian arias (reflecting the decadent West) and several groups of uniformed kids sang, danced, and performed sword routines, threatening audience decapitation. Largeness in crowds, space, and stairs were the order of the day – far beyond the scope to which this New Yorker was accustomed.
I was prepared for the Great Wall, wearing heavy woolen shirt, lined jacket, fur gloves, and Mongolian hat fully layered as suggested. We were warned about frigid March temperatures and winds on the top of the mountain and wall. THE TEMPERATURE WAS 60 DEGREED F! I could have stripped to the waist! We wore shoes with corrugated rubber soles and climbed to the first observation level, with some discomfort. From there we watched others slip and slide up the 400 BC rocks, at a 20-30 degree angle, to the top of this segment of the 3000 mile wonder.
Finally we hiked along the Sacred Way containing the many animal statues leading to the Ming Tombs and concluded with the final Government Friendship store. Bargaining was forbidden. (Everybody buys retail). During the drive, we learned something about the Chinese language containing 10,000 characters. The same characters can have different meanings, depending upon the voice inflection. For a fictitious example, Mai chang huo (voice up) might mean “I love you”, while Mao chang huo (voice down) might mean “Mai was a pig”. So be careful to hit the right notes in a Communist country.
Having appreciated the loving and peaceful nature of the People’s Revolution from the names of the sites we visited, the unbelievable traffic and clutter of people and the pollution, which masked the sun, we headed to the airport and reverted back to the fetal position for our flights home. It’s hard to believe, but we survived and enjoyed it!