As youngsters we heard, “...if you drill straight down through the earth you would come out in China.” That comprised just about the sum total of our knowledge of China. Perhaps the improvement in knowledge since then has been slight.
We all know of our foreign aid program for China. Not a Congressional Act, but enormous amounts of U.S. dollars to China sent through the conduit of Wal-Mart.
At least some of the rise of the middle class in China can be attributed to our purchases of low-cost goods, although there are other reasons for the remarkable growth of their economy in the past three decades.
One American tourist remarked recently that what China has achieved in 20 years took the U.S. 100 years to accomplish. He was referring to the upscale, modernist look of Shanghai with its 24 million people: four times larger than New York City.
There are 3,000 buildings in Shanghai that are higher than 30 stories, and the Shanghai World Financial Tower tops out at 111 stories.
There are eight- and ten-lane highways through the city and traffic seems to fill them all. This is true in the major cities I visited.
China does indeed have cars... lots of cars. There are at least 20 Chinese companies that manufacture autos, and many of the world’s auto builders also make or assemble cars in China: companies such as General Motors, Chrysler, Audi, Volvo, Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan, and others. In 2013, more cars were purchased in China than were purchased in the U.S. You can see the manifestation of that buying spree in the traffic.
We often use the term ‘unbelievable’ in our conversation, but traffic in China truly is ‘unbelievable’ to our American sensibilities. Vehicles casually pull in front of other drivers with impunity, trusting that the driver behind won’t actually crash into him. In our country a driver would be outraged at such an act, and you might possibly get shot for such an action here. But in China, drivers just ebb and flow ‘with the traffic’ as it were, and everyone accepts such driving behavior with equanimity. Even bicycle riders will pull out into pretty heavy traffic with calm assurance that no one will do them in.
In the same way that you and I will walk through a crowded shopping mall or airport, sort of making way for other people, giving a bit here, or taking a quick step forward to avoid colliding there, so goes the flow of auto traffic in China. But it’s a sphincter-tightening experience for us to engage in or to watch as an American driver.
I learned that China has more millionaires than any nation except the U.S. However, as you will surmise, there are still many Chinese at the very low end of the economic scale. But a rising middle class is upending the traditional view of China as a very poor country.
In one upscale mall, there were items that most Americans couldn’t afford to purchase. An ordinary dinning room chair, for example, might cost $6,000. The upscale has gone very upscale in some sectors of China and such retail outlets seem to be thriving there.
I had expected China to be sort of a dirty place with littered streets. Not true. At five in the morning, street sweepers will be working the streets of the major cities I visited. In Harbin for instance, one of the smaller cities of China (eight and a half million, but still larger than New York City), after the streets were swept, motorized tank trucks would pass through, washing the streets. This continued throughout the day.
In the northeast part of China, we traveled to the Heilongjiang Province, a major agricultural region. We were almost to the border of Russian Siberia. Driving through this area reminds one of traveling in Iowa, with vast reaches of corn fields and soybean fields.
It is still a region of small farmers who have a plot of land to farm, but the farmers live collectively in villages scattered throughout the province. Some larger farms are being developed now however, and we visited a 40-thousand-acre enterprise where modern farming equipment is being used in ways similar to what is done in the U.S. John Deere has a large plant in this region and is looking toward a growing and expanding market for their products.
There are not many fat people in China. I suppose we always attributed that to the notion of many poor people in China. But there is a distinctly affluent class now, and they remain unfattened, so to speak. There seems to be an abundance of food today, but the the diet is different than we are accustomed to.
Traditionally, there was little meat in Chinese cuisine. They use almost no sugar, but lots of vegetables. Even when meat is served, it is usually mixed in a vegetable dish. In a Chinese restaurant there may be 20 dishes on the lazy susan in the center of the table and most will be vegetarian, or rice and tofu. Some meat is served of course, and it is most often small portions of pork. For American tourists, there will be exceptions.
Everywhere, there are tourists by the hundreds. They are Chinese tourists: not so many are foreigners. The Chinese in great numbers are visiting all the monuments and historic places in China today. On the Great Wall (which the Chinese call the Long Wall) people are everywhere ... Chinese tourists.
The Great Wall is about 4,000 miles long, stretching from the Yellow Sea, or the East China Sea, to the western barrens where the Wall is now almost unnoticeable, almost indistinguishable in the landscape. In those far reaches of China, the Wall is now only a few feet high in some places, its stones and brick having been scavenged for other building projects.
North of the capital of Beijing, it has been restored and this is the part of the Wall most often visited.
You may have heard that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. Not true. It’s not as wide as a four-lane highway and there are many other man-made structures that are larger.
China is now the second largest economy and still expanding. It’s rate of growth is slowing now to single digit percentages rather than the double digit rate it has sustained for two decades. It is still a country worth watching, and a country worth knowing. A fascinating people with a vibrancy, hunger and ambition to make things happen. Whatever China becomes, it will matter. One way or another, it will affect us all.
Observe intimate close views of the wildlife, no longer easily visible from the roadways, which is both a surprise and a disappointment for so many visitors. But in the remote parts of this land, animal life still thrives.
Grizzlies snatch jumping salmon in mid-air, bull moose battle for dominance, arctic fox pups play along the edge of the Arctic Ocean, and calving glaciers continue to diminish in this eternal land, which is eternally changing.
If you're standing in Brownsville, Texas you are 475 miles from Mexico City, but almost 800 miles from Amarillo. There’s a lot to explore here.
Palo Duro Canyon, second largest in the U.S. is found here, a fact not well known, even in Texas. Football is the state religion, oil is the life blood, agriculture and cattle are the foundation. NASA, metroplexes, the Big Thicket, a technological Silicone Valley around Austin, the Capitol, are all part of the diversity. And The Alamo still stands as an iconic symbol of the Texas spirit.
About 1000 years before the time of Christ, a consortium of autonomous city-kingdoms developed and flourished in a region now mapped as Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. They thrived until around the 16th Century AD, leaving behind astonishing monuments to the energy, industry, and ingenuity of their populations. They built temples rivaling those of Egypt... not as large but more extensive. A calendar more accurate than our own, astronomical observations used in their building thatreveal an amazing degree of sophistication. Discovered and developed the use of rubber. The people of the jaguar!
Today, the descendants of the ancient Maya still populate this same region. Farmers, cowboys, Mennonites, ancient sacrificial rituals, continual discoveries of more temples. The world’s second largest barrier reef is here. All are part of the new film on Mesoamerica, Beneath the Jungle…and Beyond.