Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting! Misconceptions about China


 

No, everybody was certainly not Kung Fu fighting. Nor were we tailed 24/7 by secret Chinese intelligence officials – which we were told would be the case by our American tour guide. And although our DNA may have been collected from one of our many wine glasses enjoyed along the way, I’m pretty ding-dang sure our suitcase weren’t rummaged through in our hotel rooms…as a counterintelligence friend of ours warned….

Aside from our touristy The Legend of Kung Fu show at the ritzy Red Theater in Beijing, we failed to sight even one local Chinese resident spontaneously breaking out into Kung Fu. Actually, I would hazard to guess that’s there probably a much higher probability of spotting such frivolity as part of some flash mob in “Some Town,” U.S. of A. And while we did take a plethora of wide-angle camera shots of surrounding crowds hoping to catch the spies that must have been surely in our midst, I am sad to report a complete lack of photogenic proof. But hey, that doesn’t stop the Sasquatch-Hunters or UFO-Believers, does it?!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

While we really didn’t expect to see Kung Fu fighting in the streets on our recent foray into China, at the same time we really didn’t know quite what to expect; perhaps our things would be rifled and electronic devices all copied and implanted with bugs and other MI-6 eavesdropping devices. My parents went to China – twice – in the very early eighties, when it literally has just “opened-up” a few years after the crushing weight of the 1970s Cultural Revolution had finally been lifted. They, of course, informed my early opinions of that far-away land, one that we learned next-to-nothing about in all of my formal schooling. And that concept of China centered on horrible food, substandard lodgings, an almost complete lack of cars, and the ubiquitous use of the abacus in place of cash registers or calculators. Oh, and the tours back then were escorted by the military and party officials, quite transparently.

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

That early concept of the Far East didn’t change too much over much of my early adult life. I did, at numerous times, get to enjoy Hong Kong and Macau, the latter first under Portuguese administration in 1999, and then as part of Chinese sovereignty in the 21st century under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. But it always was very clear that Hong Kong and Macau were not, and remain quite distinct from China. So, my early conceptual formulation, combined with decades of exposure to the indoctrinating fear and loathing of the U.S. political and military-industrial complex towards China, along with the arrogance and ignorance of most of my fellow Americans, resulted in several misconceptions about this intriguing continent-sized country, the most populous one on the planet, with the world’s second most powerful economy.

Chinese Flag

Chinese Flag

The first is its name: China’s name is not China …at least to the Chinese. We use China most likely because of its Sanskrit derivation from the Qin (pronounced “chin”) Kingdom, one of the first unified regions of today’s China that would have been reached via land-travel from the west in ancient times. Oddly unknown to the west, the Chinese peoples’ common name for their country is Zhōngguó (中国, meaning “Central Nation State.”

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The next most obvious thing? Chinese people don’t speak “Chinese.” Mainland China is made up mostly of the Han ethnicity, but includes large percentages of another 56 ethnic minorities (Tibetans perhaps being the most famous). Unlike many of its Asian neighbors like Japan, Korea or Vietnam, China is not homogeneous. One could say that China is more like the “Europe of Asia.” When we Westerners think of “The Chinese,” the Han majority is what we conjure, even without knowing it. And like most other places that aren’t the great melting pot that America once was, each minority in China retains its own traditions, costume and culture. And this includes language as well.

I've finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

I’ve finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

Mandarin is the “Chinese language” that we might commonly associate with what is spoken in mainland China. But the Chinese heard in movies and TV may more likely be Cantonese as spoken in Hong Kong. Putonghua, as Mandarin is called in Mandarin, is the officially unifying language taught in schools and used by the central government and on national television and radio. But there are wide and sometimes huge differences between languages in China. For instance, people from Shanghai speak Shanghainese, which is by and large incompatible with Mandarin! Come to think of it, I reckon that’s not much different from a Californian trying to converse with someone from, say, the hills of Kentucky.

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And speaking of language, don’t believe the hype about the lack of English speakers in China. There is, in fact, a fair amount of English spoken, especially in and around tourist areas and attractions. However, while English may be spoken, it may not be understood. A danger here, experienced firsthand, is that service industry personnel will smile, say “yes” and happily agree with you, especially when they haven’t properly understood. Oh, and an important tip: taxi drivers don’t generally speak English (at all), so it’s always good to have your destination written down in Chinese. See notes on language above!

Chinese Beer.  Yummy.

Chinese Beer. Yummy.

KFC in China

KFC in China

China 2014, Shanghai, Chinese coke colaChinese food in China is NOT anything like Manchu Wok! “Duh,” I hear you say, I know, I know. But since I’ve been asked this particular question more than any other since traveling to China, I just have to include what should be fairly obvious. Chinese cuisine focuses on seafood, although beef and pork are widely available and served in quantity to Westerners. Most surprisingly, it’s chicken that is in most modern demand (see Thanksgiving in the Far East for more). Noodles are the staple starch in the north, replaced by rice is the south (where people are smaller in stature as a result, or so I’m told). The food was very good, and yes, Peking Duck is really so very much better in China!

One Child Policy

And what about the “one child policy” that we’ve all heard so much about? Well, many Chinese do have siblings, and it’s becoming more and more common. The Chinese Government’s One Child Policy was only recently put into effect in 1979, so most people born before very likely have at least one brother or sister. In the West, the policy seems like – and at times is one of the worst forms of human rights abuses imaginable. But, in a country that was suffering unsustainable growth with well over 1 billion people at the time, such a measure of austerity make some logical sense, less the world have another Africa on its hands. Now numbers like billion don’t mean much to most people, but after a visit to China, one realizes just how many people China has! More than any other country in the world, in fact. In the mid-1970s, population models showed China’s growth spiraling out of control. Like anywhere else in the world, when there is an incongruity between people and resources, undesirable happenings like war, unrest, famine, and crime all can result. Personal sacrifice for general peace and harmony is a deep-seeded Chinese mindset stemming a long affair with Confucianism, where respect for elders (and family) and loyalty to the state are foremost above all else.

And, seldom noted in the West, the policy was never intended as blanket coverage; farmers and China’s ethnic minorities, typically much more blue-collar and agri-based, have always been allowed more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. So if you travel to the countryside or into remote regions of China, you’ll find families with more than one child. Although the policy remains in force, reduced and stabilized birth-rates, combined with a now aging population, has resulted in shifts in the application of the rule. For instance, if two people born under the policy without siblings marry, they may be permitted to have two children.

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The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

How’bout capitalism and democracy there? Well, my own response is that even America isn’t a democracy – it’s a republic…. And our “free market” is heavily influenced and to some extent controlled by the state. China’s economy is forecasted by the International Monetary Fund to surpass that of the United States within a decade or two. Their national per capita income will double, placing once destitute China on par with European countries like Italy and Spain – without the current economic and/or political woes those two countries currently suffer from. China has been and continues to open to the global village, and while it’s a reasonable expectation that Western influences must result in change to China, China is smart enough to absorb the best of capitalism from afar while translating it into a uniquely Chinese context. Don’t confuse China’s recent economic revolution with Westernization. Those are two very different ideas.

'Quick, comrade, what is the latest party position on existence of dragons?'

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Popular protests don’t mean that the Socialist Party’s power is in decline. The government in China, while suffering from a brutality-infused past and still heavy-handed by Western standards, still garners respect on the street. Nationalism is strong, and people are proud. For instance, older senior leaders in the party have admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a terrible mistake, and have acknowledged that much reform is still needed moving forward. It seems that at least while good times continue to persist, China’s citizenry will continue to support their national leaders and their leadership…even if sometimes only grudgingly. In a country as large, diverse, and heavily populated as China, stability is valued over almost all else. One thing for certain, the future of China’s political system will not be dictated by Americanor anyone else in the world…except for the Chinese themselves.

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China 2014, there are cameras everywhere in China WM

This can only be described as...individualistic!

This can only be described as…individualistic!

While American-style individualism is just starting to take root, American-style individual freedoms are not. China’s pop culture is undergoing a booming revolution, and like any fast-paced and progressive change, it comes with a whole array of counter-culture features and trends, from tattoo parlors to non-conformist artists and musicians. However, self-expression does not equate to freedom or independence. The wider Chinese society still is centered on the loyal clan over the free individual, and traditional Chinese values are still held in high regard. While horrifically destructive to the Chinese, the recent Cultural Revolution nor their conversion to Socialism/Communism post WWII failed to purge their central principles of sanctity of family and loyalty to nation. For most Chinese (and just like in Japan), the greater good of social harmony remains a noble goal that continues to trump individualism. The trick for the new Chinese moving forward will be finding the right balance that will maintain harmony between the New China and the Old.

Individual yet Collective!

Individual yet Collective!

“But surely the internet must revolutionize China,” I hear you thinking. Sure, the internet can’t help but change China, and the change the Internet brings is mostly good. But rather than causing a revolution, wiring the country with the information superhighway is better characterized as an evolutionary change. The central government in Beijing allows wide and expansive access, but retains veto power when it senses a threat to the state. Sure, Facebook is blocked in China, but would you really miss your friend’s constant status updates and inane check-ins? I wouldn’t – and didn’t while in China for a week, where, by the way, Jody and I were completely digital-free…except for our cameras. And in terms of this blog, in 2014 I had almost ~28,000 views, with only 15 of those coming from China. But while Internet users may grumble about state censorship in China, few activists are really ready to rumble over it.

Who is really more militaristic?

Who is really more militaristic?

Don't worry, we have 12.  And they are super-sized....

Don’t worry, we have 12. And they are super-sized….

And finally, what about what we’re indoctrinated to fear as an aggressively militaristic China threatening the West? C’mon people. The America War Machine remains the most-funded, best-equipped, and most destructive force on the planet, and is used to violent effect without much restraint across the globe. I find it absolutely hilarious that we in America question the rise of the Chinese military. When we stop trying to be Team American: World Police (“Fuck Yeah!”), perhaps we can see China’s intent through a less clouded and distorting lens. Sure, China is building up its military, and yes they even have a fairly capable blue-water Navy. By why do we panic whenever any other country builds an aircraft carrier? China is not about to challenge the U.S. militarily anytime soon, or is it likely to invade its Asian neighbors.  While “pacifist” is too strong (or weak as it were) a word, the Chinese are not itching for a fight. Like we are, at least. “Hello Kettle, this is Pot….”

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However, more importantly, in a more philosophical context, China does not inspire hearts and minds like America does. The precepts of America – government by, for and of the people (even if it doesn’t work), our Bill of Rights and individual freedoms (when the NSA isn’t listening), and the very idea of the “American Dream” all touch hearts and win minds. China is simply too narrow-minded and self-centered which serves to continually isolate and insulate. There is little doubt that China will be a world economic power. But it’s hard to imagine it becoming a world cultural or political power on par with the United States.

What manufacturers' labels say in China....

What manufacturers’ labels say in China….

So, can we in the West look objectively at the Eastern Dragon without bias and misconceptions? In my own experience, having spent 20 years in the military-industrial complex – much of that serving in the Pacific – and having experienced China firsthand, however small a sliver that was, I believe that much of the Western analysis of China, particularly in the last decade, has been overly alarmist. It’s time to approach China more honestly, without fear – and without misconceptions. A genuinely cooperative and more open relationship could open an unprecedented phase of peace and prosperity, not just around the Pacific, but across the globe.

China 2014, Shanghai, The Bund, Kevin amazed by the cityscape

Xi’an’s Fortified City: Another Brick in the Wall


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“All alone, or in twos, The ones who really love you Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand And some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists Make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.” ~Pink Floyd, The Wall

“So is this fog, smog, or just outright pollution,” I asked our guide Jessie in Xi’an, China. “Yes,” he responded, smiling knowingly yet uncommitted.

The thick blanket of haze’s assault on our senses that windless morning initially obscured the majesty of Xian, as well as the sun. The pollution in urbanized China is at once offensive and inescapable. I will literally never complain about our Environmental Protection Agency ever again; clean air and water are worth the cost and bureaucratic oversight. It was that bad there….

China 2014, Xian, main gate of the old city wall illuminated at night WM

Although Xi’an is probably best known for the relatively recently discovered “Terracotta Army” on its outskirts, in my opinion it is the restored and refurbished ancient city wall and its surrounding City Park that are the premier attraction there.

China 2014, Xian, Jody riding the ancient city wall WM

China 2014,_2803China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall at night WMRiding on a modern mountain bike over cobblestone roadway that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, thoughts of what the wall has withstood cycled through my mind: war, famine, disease, earthquakes, political upheaval and the very rise and fall of numerous dynasties. Yet today, when you examine the wall’s surrounds, you realize that on both sides – inside and out – lies urbanization not too different from any other city that you’d see in Europe or America. The hustle and bustle of a city full of cars and commerce, and throngs of people rushing about in the chaos of their day. Of lovers and tourists walking hand-in-hand and camera-in-hand. And of tall apartment towers and swank condo buildings, but also of quiet residential areas and timeless temples of ages old.

China 2014, Xian, panoramic city wall from one corner WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody poses in front of the city wall nightThe fortifications of Xi’an (西安城墙), an ancient capital of China, represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls, and one of the only centuries-old, large-scale complete walls left in the world. Construction of the first city wall there began in 194 BCE, and enclosed a large area of roughly 14 square miles. Although parts of the wall today date back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, what we see today was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370, and encircles a much smaller city area of just over 5 square miles. The wall measures about 8.5 miles in total length, averages about 39 feet in height, and between 49-59 feet in thickness at its base. It remains one of the largest ancient military defenses in the world.

China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall illuminated WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the city wall WMEven after China’s capital was relocated, the city remained an important military stronghold until contemporary times. Just like the Great Wall attempting to encircle the entire country (see Heroes of the Great Wall for our adventures on that fortification), the Xi’an City Wall was originally built for defense, with watchtowers, a deep moat and drawbridges.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin exploring part of the massive old city wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in front of a wall watch towerChina 2014, Xian, flags decorating the old city wall WMEvery 120 meters or so there is a watchtower and rampart which extends out from the main wall, 98 in total. Each is designed with a sentry building to provide a sector defense from which soldiers could protect the city without exposing themselves to hostile forces. The distance between towers is critical; it is just about twice the distance of arrow flight back in the day of the wall, allowing soldiers from consecutive towers to completely cover the wall. On the outer side of the wall there are almost 6,000 crenellations, small holes from which troops could fire while remaining protected behind the cover of the wall. On the inner side, parapets provide fall protection. Corner ramparts and watch towers, higher and larger than the others, are located on each of the wall’s four corners due to their strategic importance in defending the salients of the fortification.

China 2014, Xian, Jody bikes the city wall early smoggy morning 2 WM

China 2014, Xian, Chinese latern on the old city wall WMWeapons 500 years ago lacked the power to break through such a wall. The only way to take such a fortified city was by attacking and entering through a wall gate. At Xian, the city wall includes four main gates: Changle (“eternal joy”) in the east, Anding (“harmony peace”) in the west, Yongning (“eternal peace”) in the south, and Anyuan (“forever harmony”) in the north.

China 2014, Xian, drawbridge illuminated at a city wall gate WM

China 2014, Xian, selfie in front of a city wall gateEach city gate has three gate towers called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outer most is Zhalou, used to raise and lower drawbridges that would span the moat. Jianlou is next and serves as a robust defensive outpost of the wall with many windows for firing arrows. Zhenglou is the inner and most massive tower, and serves as main entrances to the city at each gate.

China 2014, Xian, Jody at a city wall gate smiling

China 2014, Xian, beautiful Jody at a city wall gate smilingChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe south gate, Yongning, is the most beautifully finished and the site of important greeting ceremonies and other traditional pomp and circumstance. It was also the only gate used when armies returned victoriously from their expeditions afar. The South Gate Square was only recently improved and opened in the fall of 2014. Our hotel was located immediately adjacent to the gate’s square and City Park grounds, and we enjoyed beautiful evening views from our hotel bar on the 10th floor as the entire city wall is trimmed with gold lights and illuminated red Chinese lanterns in a perfect a mix of grandeur and elegance. There are regularly scheduled shows and performances held here, from warrior parades to orchestra recitals. Viewing of these performances is included in your ticket fee. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time available to enjoy any of these short but powerful 10-15 minute acts.

China 2014, Xian, Chinese decorations along the city's ancient inner wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody and Kevin at an old city wall gate selfieChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe City Wall has been rebuilt three times: in 1568 with bricks, in 1781 with today’s gate towers, and restored more recently in the 1980s. The impressive City Wall Park has been built between the high wall and deep moat. Beautifully landscaped and well-appointed with classical Chinese architecture accents the majesty of the wall, a stroll through the park is a must, both in the day and at night. The park has become a favorite spot for locals, and we enjoyed seeing the elderly doing their traditional Chinese exercises and meditation early in the morning, and then groups of people spontaneously dancing in the evening in what can only be described as some sort of folk-based jazzercise! Couples here walk hand-in-hand, and street vendors sell snacks and sweets at night, while the area is bordered with high-end cafes, coffee shops and tea houses open during the day. This park is really a great place to see the nature of local life in today’s Xi’an.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated old city wall WM

One of the best ways to experience the wall is by bicycle. Bicycles can be found for rent at the main gates, and perhaps is the most popular way to take in the entire length of this fortification, which takes 1½ to 2 hours at a reasonable pace (we double such guidelines since we stop and take photos so often). A cash deposit is required to rent a bike, and rentals are for 100 minutes, although you can ride longer by paying more for each additional 10 minutes spent riding. Both single and tandem rides are available to rent. Bicycles should be returned at the South Gate before 20:00; the other gate rental sites close at 1800.

China 2014, Xian, early morning bikes on the old city wall WM

While you will be cycling on relatively flat ground, as a centuries-old structure built without the assistance of modern equipment, the ride can get quite bumpy where the wall’s cobblestone surface is somewhat uneven. The wall also has a changing pitch depending on your location, although this is hardly noticeable. If you do have issues providing your own power or have small children in tow, wall sightseeing is also available by electric golf cart.

China 2014, Xian, early morning stroll along the old city walls WM

The Wall can be ascended from any of the gates, and once on the wall you can tour the whole rectangle it forms. Here is a hiking itinerary around the wall starting from the South Gate as a basic reference.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated city park along the old city wall WM

After visiting the wall by day and at night, and while enjoying an almost private bicycle ride with Jody along its wide elevated avenue, I was struck by how this fortification, designed and built as a physical barrier to obstruct those wishing the city harm, now serves as a symbolic connection between not just China’s past and present, but between the historically isolated China and the outside world.

China 2014, Xian, city wall gate at night WM

While this blog’s opening lyrics by Pink Floyd concern more personal struggles with intangible metaphorical walls, the moral of their rock-opera no less applies: though there will always be personal and social barriers erected out of fear, oppression, pain, and isolation, it’s the job of every socially conscious individual and community to never rest in their efforts to tear down the walls that separate us.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in the city's wall park

Visit the City Wall at Xi’an. Although still a physically imposing barricade, you’ll find that it now does more to bind us together…than split us apart as it historically has done.

Heroes of the Great Wall of China


“If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men.” ~Mao Zedong and his quote which inspires millions of tourists visiting the Great Wall each year

Heroes of the Great Wall - China's label for us, not our own!

Heroes of the Great Wall – China’s label for us, not our own!

 

Finding our Chinese tour guide Allen upon coming down off the Wall, I corner him with a dose of ornery attitude and personal-space invading sassy body language.

“Allen, you can’t see Tower 13 from here, can you,” I emphatically inquire, hoping that my accusatory tone was coming through loud and clear.

“No-no-no, of course not,” came his dismissive reply slathered in an overly coy smile. “It is much higher and much deeper into the pass than that up there,” he continued, pointing to the highest tower visible from our base camp of sorts.

We were almost the last down the wall well past the given meeting time for our tour group. Having been filled with wall-scaling propaganda on the hour-long journey, filled with Mao quotes and talk of the herculean efforts in becoming a hero of the Great Wall, we were thoroughly indoctrinated upon our arrival and were fixated on summiting the pass “Tower 13” at all costs. We did. But boy-oh-boy what a climb!

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Known in Mandarin as chang cheng, literally “long fortress,” the Great Wall of China dates back as far as the 5th century BCE. Several sections of the Great Wall are located within close proximity to Beijing, so trekking small portions of the long fortress is not difficult, logistically speaking at least.

China 2014, Great Wall, signage along the way WM

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west arc that very roughly delineates the southern edge of Mongolia, equating to the historical northern borders of China. It was envisioned as protection against nomadic intrusions and full-scale military incursions by various warlike peoples from the north. Several permanent walls were being built as early as the 7th century BCE, but most were later joined and strengthened by the 14th century resulting in what we see today. Most of the existing wall dates from the Ming Dynasty in China (14th-17th centuries).

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-top wall at a mountain pass

Upon our arrival at the Great Wall, where we were one of the early buses for the day, we had to, of course, walk through a wholly atypical capitalistic Chinese “ancient village” where every vestige of originality has been removed and replaced with perfect, cartoonish copies Disney-style, and where any and all structures house souvenir shops. The weather, well, was not what we wanted: cold temperatures and a forlorn hazy overcast which we were repeatedly told was fog. “Fog” in China is more than synonymous with “smog;” it’s actually PC-speak for downright pollution! Unfortunately the weather was to shed all of our views that day, and result in the somewhat bleak set of pictures found here.

"Allen."  Not his real name.

“Allen.” Not his real name.

Allen, our tour guide, casually briefed us at a map of the Wall. Pointing out our goal – “Tower 13” – he casually waved his hand at the top of the ridgeline above where we could see a tower. “That’s not too bad,” I optimistically thought to myself. I remember thinking it didn’t seem to be that much of a climb. But then again we were only given about two hours to make our trek.

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13....

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13….

My first clue of what lay ahead? “Tower 13.” Ah, of course, it’s has to be unlucky 13. Only in Italy does it seem that the number 13 is considered anything but wickedly sinister.

juyongguan_mapChina 2014, Great Wall, find Jody along the wall! WMDue out limited time, our tour took us to Juyongguan Pass. Also written as Juyong Pass (居庸关 or 居庸關), this 11 mile long valley through a ridge of mountains lies just 31 miles outside of central Beijing. Here a large portion of The Great Wall of China passes through and has been fully restored. Juyongguan historically is one of the three greatest mountain passes of the Great Wall of China. It includes two sub-passes, one at the valley’s south (“Nan”) and the other at the north (“Badaling”). Although fortifications here date much earlier, the pass we see today is the site that was built in the 14th century under the supervision of Xu Da, a general of Zhu Yuanzhang, the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It served as the northwestern gate of ancient Beijing City, and most certainly an important defensive ring for empire’s capital. However, like any good massive public undertaking, there were other uses for the wall as well. The tax man loved the barrier it proved, using it to place duties on goods traveling the historic Silk Road. Oh, and it was an effective barrier to both illegal immigration, and at times undesirable emigration. Makes one think it might be a good idea to have a “Great Wall of American.” And it wouldn’t be along our Canadian border….

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There is debate about the actual linear measure of the wall, since it includes many branches, trenches, and other natural barriers, but the measure lies somewhere between 8,850 km (5,500 mi) and 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Even at the low-end of the measures, it’s still over twice as far as the Miami to Seattle drive I’ve done…four times…which takes a minimum of 4 “reasonable” days averaging 60 mph for 12 hours per!

I couldn't resist....

I couldn’t resist….

great-wall-construction-smallgreat-wall-battle-illustrationThe cliché goes that “many hands make light work.” Although it’s tempting to take the original length of the Great Wall (say 3,100 miles), assume that it was built over 10 years by over 1,000,000 unlucky souls, and run the math to figure that each worker was “only” responsible for about 1.65 feet of wall per year. of MASSIVE wall running across IMPOSSIBLE terrain. Which includes everything needed to complete that 1.65 feet: quarrying, transporting, cutting, lifting, fitting, tamping, and finishing. No, any way you slice this construction project, it was hell to be in its employ. In actuality, if we take that 1.65 linear feet and multiply that by the average height of the Ming wall of 33 feet, and then multiply that by the average width of about 15 feet, converting to cubic yards we find that each poor soul was actually responsible for almost 30 cubic yards of construction. To put this in better perspective, realize that a full-sized cement truck carries only 8 cubic yards of mix; standard dump trucks carry between 5 and 10 cubic yards of earth. Oh, and the Empire paid you only in food…. In actuality, the network of smaller projects was built well over the course of 2,000 years, or 100 generations, and most likely involved many millions of people.

China 2014, Great Wall, private pausing on the way up

China 2014, Great Wall, Kevin happily on the way down!Yes, we dressed appropriately for the weather, forecast to only be in the 40s that day. And luckily we were forewarned to dress in layers. It may seem chilly at first on the Wall (and it is when that dry wind blows right through you), but I guarantee you’ll be breaking a sweat once you reach the second beacon tower along your journey. What we lacked, and could have used, was some water! It’s not like climbing Mount Fuji, but it’s much more of a climb than you think.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody just starting the climb WM

rsz_screen_shot_2014-04-08_at_45452_pmAnd although it’s also been referred to as the “longest cemetery on earth,” confirmations of mass graves or deaths on the wall are hard to come by online. I have, although, seen estimates that put the death toll of construction at over 300,000, but I cannot find one credible instance online that states people were actually buried in the wall. Our tour guide claimed that during restoration of the pass we enjoyed over 5,000 sets of human remains were found in the vicinity.

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Progress on the climb is measured by Watch or Beacon Towers: each is numbered. Although without a portable map, and thinking that the visible tower on top of the ridge was our goal, I didn’t pay much attention to the tower numbering when we first set out. I believe we started at Tower 6…. The visible one I mistook for 13 was actually only tower…EIGHT!!

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody thinks it's lonely near the top

smoke-great-wall-watchtowers-smallgreat_wall_of_china_12The Ming watchtowers were critical components of the Great Wall. Used primarily for observation, they are also called “Beacon Towers,” where their elevated roofs served as platforms for signaling. In fact, it seems that each beacon tower had a ready bunker of firewood, hay and sulphur for making quick, bright and smoky fires. Built no more than twice an arrow’s flight (about 100 yards) apart, the towers provided full defensive coverage; the more elaborate towers stood over 40 feet tall and offered unobstructed views and fields of fire. Observation posts were located on the top floor of the tower; lower floors were used to store supplies and equipment and house soldiers.

China 2014, Great Wall, crowded lower reaches of the wall WM

Note the "Watchful" Cameras

Note the “Watchful” Cameras

Of course there are the ubiquitous cameras on each of the “watch” towers; c’mon, what else would you expect to be going on there! Security cameras are literally everywhere in modern China, and lends credence to the premise of the show Person of Interest. If a machine is tracking your every move, you are most certainly in China. Are you being watched? Yes. In streets, classrooms, stores, mass transit and tourist destinations. Everywhere. If you want to visit China, get used to it.

China 2014, Great Wall, vespa treatment for the mountainous wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, walking the lonely mountain wall WMChina 2014, Great Wall, the long climb up to Tower 13 WMWe press on with our climb. And make no mistake: trekking this section of the Great Wall is a climb. Like setting the stair-stepper at the gym on the hardest setting and then going for a full 60 minute workout! For the love of god, watch your step! When wet, the stone pathways and stairs are super slick; even when dry and on restored stairs, the footing can be questionable. The steps are never the same height two stairs in a row (modern building code is a wonderful thing), and some are so steep and high that it becomes more like scaling a ladder than even climbing steep stairs. Steps higher than their width are not uncommon. It’s not until you turn around and look back at the rising, snaking path that you really appreciate the steepness of those steps. It’s hard to find firm information on the vertical ascent to tower 13. At the low-end it seems to be about 630 meters, or about 2,100 feet. At the high-end, the round number 3,000 feet is often quote. My own estimates on the wall, using my trained skydiver and pilot’s eye, was about (but not quite) 3 grand.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody on the climb into the heavens

China 2014, Great Wall, misty wall in a mountain pass WMBattlements are obvious all along the wall. Naturally, the crenellations (and holes for firing) faced the enemy, but drainage is all to the Empire’s side, helping to prevent vegetation which could provide concealment to an enemy. At one point I mentioned to Jody about how low the Wall was in one section. I didn’t realize I was looking onto the “friendly” side; Jody motioned me to the opposite wall where the wall connected to the crest of the ridge, which dropped precipitously a few hundred feet.

There are not many facilities along the way....

There are not many facilities along the way….

The Wall worked, but only marginally, and only for a short period of time. Manchu tribes from the northeast finally surmounted the Wall in 1644 and promptly took over Beijing, then all of China, and established their Qing dynasty, ending the Ming era. Can’t you just see about a million soldiers, slaves, and peasants turning over in the graves sighing, “All that work for nothing!!!”

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-line wall trace (low key)

Once we realized the tower numbering system, we knew a bit more what we were in for. There was no turning back; climbing ahead of us was an older Marine Colonel Nancy who moved out like this was something she did everyday back on Okinawa. Climbing with us was a Marine Major, who you expect to be in good shape, but who was hauling up his 4-year-old daughter on his back, back-pack style! And behind them was a pregnant woman. We all made it up, but only after reaching a point where the pathway actually descended for a couple of hundred yards, before a steep final push to Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, locks of love explanation placard WM

China 2014, Great Wall, kisses atop Towe 13!! WMChina 2014, Great Wall, locking our love together on the Great Wall of China WMAlong the way we noticed locks attacked to various points along the wall. Jody and I had seen this idea of “Love Locks” in our other worldly travels. Sad that we most likely missed our opportunity to pick one up at the base of the wall, we both longingly looked at this missed opportunity. Thankfully, up at Tower 10 or so, the locks were being sold! Writing down our names and date, the Chinese gent immediately engraved our Lock of Love, and off we went in search of “the spot” to leave our romantic impact on China. We found it in the vicinity of Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody happy about our locked love on top of the Great Wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, we were there placard on Beacon Tower 13 WMChina 2014, Great Wall, Jody and tea after our arduous climbFinally, retracing our steps back down – there is not cable car or slide down at this spot on the wall – we decided to have a nice hot tea while waiting for our “Heroes of the Great Wall” certificate to be finished. We all were led to believe, again, by propaganda – or maybe just a really bad assumption – that we needed some type of stamp or document from Tower 13 to be a “hero.” This is not the case! Even so, for our own proof, we took a photo of the placard at the top tower in the pass.

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Jody and I reached the Great Wall, and affirmed the true and heroic nature of not just this wonder of the world, but of the true and heroic nature of mankind in the world. Come to the Great Wall and set your own goal. No matter where you trek or how high you ascend, the Wall will leave on your soul the indelible mark of greatness.

China 2014, Great Wall, curving ridgeline mountainous wall WM

Just remember, like mounting Tower 13 of the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass, most worthy goals involve an unexpected and challenging journey, one not visible at the outset. Persevere, and you too can become a Hero in your own right.

 

China 2014, Great Wall, Heroes of the Great wall and their bamboo medal

For more photos of our Far Eastern Flings among the Great Wall of China, see my Flickr Album The Great Wall of China at Juyongguan Pass.

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As an aside, there is often confusion surrounding Mao’s quote about the Wall and the nature of being a man, true or heroic. The quote is taken from the poem “Mount Liupan,” written in late 1935 after the Red Army almost finished the famous Long March. Mount Liupan is a mountain in northwestern China. For context, the poem is included here:

The sky is high, the clouds are pale,

We watch the wild geese vanish southward.

If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men

We who have already measured twenty thousand li

High on the crest of Mount Liupan

Red banners wave freely in the west wind.

Today we hold the long cord in our hands,

When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?

Escape…to China!


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Xian_guerreros_terracota_generalShanghai_yuyuan_gardens2The Far East Fling is getting ready to be flung to China for a well-deserved vacation!  Due to the rather poor connectivity we are expected in China, crossed with their fascinating paranoia with Social Media, Jody and I will be taking a much-needed escape from the digital world online.

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xian-city-wall20110517014512571257We are spending 7 days/nights in China, traveling to Shanghai, Xian, ad Beijing.  Of course, I’m traveling with all the camera gear, so please stay tuned for what promises to be a few entertaining tales from our continuing Far East Fling abroad the first or second week in December.  In the meantime, perhaps it’s time that you got caught up here in the Far East Fling blog.  Enjoy – and leave a note!

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Hopefully we’ll have no issue in escaping back to Okinawa….

Cheers, and as always, thanks for the Far East Fling flyby.  Kevin & Jody, Okinawa, Japan

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Love Jugs in the Far East


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I love jugs.

All shapes and sizes.  Hard or soft.  They make me tingle with giddy excitement as I think about fondling them.

And Jody has the best Love Jugs around!

Now, for those of you with your minds in the gutter wrapped around the more vulgar slang definition of the word, and while I salute your rather singular and worthy focus, those are not the kind of jugs I’m talking about.

Jug-themed Love Shack motel room

Jug-themed Love Shack motel room

No, I’m not talking Love Jugs in the guise of some weird morphing of Japan’s Love Motels (see Tin Roof Rusted) expanding franchises into their prisons or jails, as “jug” sometimes refers to…at least for the criminally minded.

The P-47 Thunderbolt is affectionately known as the "Jug."  This French one is certainly more of a lover than a fighter....

The P-47 Thunderbolt is affectionately known as the “Jug.” This French one is certainly more of a lover than a fighter….

And, although as an aircraft aficionado one could easily assume I’m talking about airplane piston engine cylinder assemblies (a much less well-known and equally unentertaining slang use of the word) , you’d be wrong once again.

Can you spot the Love Jugs on this Harley?  It must be cold out (wink)....

Can you spot the Love Jugs on this Harley? It must be cold out (wink)….

Or, perhaps you guessed that I’m longing for the melodious sound of my Harley’s jugs rolling down the country roads of Pensacola, Florida…. You guessed wrong.

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What I am describing is our “Love Jug,” Jody’s idea from a couple of years ago.  Taking a rather pedestrian old-tyme glass candy jar, the kind with the opening at a 45 degree angle and capped with a thin metal top, Jody transformed the humdrum container through decoration and ribbon into our very own sexy “Love Jug”!  See my earlier blog Do Sweat the Small Stuff for more on our Love Jug in our lives.

So what do you do with Love Jugs?  I can already sense your minds wandering off-topic again….

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The Love Jug serves as a repository of recognition for any intimate behavior that we deem worthy of acknowledging through a monetary contribution.  Now I know this sounds like we are walking a fine line between intimacy and, say, prostitution, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The point is, when you and your partner make deposits into your relationship’s intimacy account, you find yourself wanting to add more and more credits.  Intimacy begets intimacy (compounded daily, no less), and then, over time, you have a Love Jug full of cash that you can use to celebrate the intimacy that you’ve created, nurtured, and furthered.

Scotland is proudly proclaimed our on Love Jug

Scotland is proudly proclaimed our on Love Jug

Our first Love Jug was started about two years ago.  We decided, for our particular goal, that the proceeds from our intimacy (since they were no longer going to result in a child), would go towards funding a big yearly vacation.  So, the first Love Jug was decorated to reflect our aspiration of traveling to Scotland once we finished our Masters degrees that we were in the process of completing.  Eight months later, when we went to cash out our Love Jug for our European fling in the spring of 2013, we found that we had amassed over $1,800 in just fifteen months!

Our trip to Scotland was worth every penny!

Our trip to Scotland was worth every penny!

“How is that possible,” I hear you asking?!  Well, prostitution pays.  I’ve always not-so-secretly wanted to be a male gigolo….

Duce Bigalow is a master of intimacy.  And a gigolo!

How it works is deceptively simple.  There are only a few rules.  Rule #1 is that you must recognize intimacy early and often.  No IOU’s, no credit with interest.  Nope, you just have to DO IT.  Yes, you have to physically put the cash-money into the jug!

Hey Jody, nice jugs!!

Hey Jody, nice jugs!!

10436758926_f445d0b8e8_bRule #2 is equally as important:  use an exceedingly loose definition of intimacy.  Intimacy is not sex, nor is it the concept of “love.”  Intimacy starts and ends in one’s mind, and can include anything from cooking a favorite meal, to surprising someone with a small gift or card, to washing, folding and putting away the laundry.  These are the deeds that most people would not consider intimate, but think about it:  overly time, it’s always the smallest measures in life that have the most impact.  Anyone can send flowers on an anniversary; how many men can shop successfully for clothes (not lingerie) for their wives, let alone know their sizes?  Intimacy takes on many forms, and those forms depend entirely on your perspective.  If you free your mind from the more predetermined constructs and norms of typical relationships, you’ll find yourself making many trips to the Love Jug, cash in hand.

Our Jug in Okianwa

Our Jug in Okinawa

pavlov_conditioning_dogsNow that you are ready to recognize some small act of kindness as intimacy, and since you most likely already have some loose change in your purse or pocket (or murse for you progressives out there), Rule #3 comes into play:  the amount doesn’t matter.  Seriously.  One of the best things about our particular love jug is the sound the tin top makes as it clatters against the glass jug.  It’s an unmistakable cacophony of chords, and can be heard throughout our homes, both in the states and here abroad.  And when you hear that sound of your partner making a deposit, I dare you not to smile as you your heart swells and feels all warm inside!  That sound is enough to entice you to make your own deposit, in a reaction not unlike Pavlov’s dogs…only with less slobber.  Pennies, yennies, dollars bills, and even refund checks – they all work exceedingly well as tacit and tangible reminders of the intimacy in your life.  And, of course, they all add up over time….

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So why write about this in connection to our Far East Fling?  Well, we are readying to leave for China on Sunday, our big international trip for 2014!  And, I am getting ready to cash-in our intimacy of the last 15 months to fund what will surely be yet another intimate fling within the far reaches of the Far East.

7396745592_80e51b6e91_bStay tuned, and I’ll let you know the value of our intimacy…this time around.  And although Jody’s Jugs are precious and priceless to me (and to other admirers no doubt), it’s the cash money which her jugs garner that will help us travel far and abroad.

Start your own intimate love affair with the Love Jugs in your life today!

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Red Lights Running: Johnny Law in the Far East


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“A careful driver is one who honks his horn when he goes through a red light.”  ~Henry Morgan

“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight.  The truly wise person is colorblind.”  ~Albert Schweitzer quotes

“Shut the front door!” I scream in my mind as I accelerate through the intersection, realizing I’m actually running a red light…with a Japanese police car right behind.

“Great, just great,” I think as I contemplate braking, but just as quickly realize that I’ve gone too far to stop.  If I did, I would have to back up, which would not be good if the cops had started to follow me through the light.

But the police car didn’t move….

And for the next block before my right turn, and even after that right turn for the four or five blocks until reaching the sanctuary of my condo building’s parking garage, I scanned my rearview mirrors much more than I did the road that lay ahead.

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You see, in Japan, the crosswalk signals for pedestrians utilize the exact same colors as the traffic lights intended for vehicular traffic.  In practice, this similarity might instead result in vehicular manslaughter for an inattentive American…much like me…and others I’ve seen doing the exact same thing.  Modern crosswalk signals in the United States generally use pictograms of an orange upraised hand and a white walking pedestrian.  Notice that the color scheme is just enough from our traffic light color convention that it’s not so easily confused.

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Most secondary or tertiary roads in Japanese neighborhoods signal a green “walk” to pedestrians only when all traffic lanes have a red and are stopped.  There is no turning on red either, so in essence, pedestrians have complete right of way by design.  Sometimes there are even diagonal crosswalks, which allows for 6-way pedestrian traffic all at once at busier intersections.  Cars in Okinawa are a much more recent technological invention, and with an older and much more island-time generation on the move, there is simply too much respect for pedestrian right-of-way that the “get out of the way!” attitude that can be prevalent in an inpatient ambulatory America.

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So, drivers here can find themselves sitting at a quiet intersection at night with a red light up over the car for traffic, and while looking at the cop with his emergency light on in their rearview mirror, the same driver can spy out of the corner of their eye a red light quickly flash to green…which means go, and go indeed we all do.  Green means go, right?

A Traffic Intersection in my Neighborhood

A Traffic Intersection in my Neighborhood

You see, the cop and his red swirling light distracted me.  One might think I was already in trouble, but seeing emergency lights in Japan is a much more common occurrence.  Why?  Simple:  Japanese police cars, both marked and even unmarked, routinely patrol with their red lights ON at night.  It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to pull over here when you see these lights; we Americans are so ingrained (at least if you attempt to follow most traffic laws) to pull over for emergency vehicles that it really is second nature.  However, in Japan, pulling over for mere red radiance is actually reason enough for the Japanese to, well, actually pull you over!

Police in Japan (like everywhere else in the world) pull over drivers because of suspicious action.  Ironically, suspicion is often produced when unknowing Americans slow down or pull over for a Japanese police car with their emergency lights on.  Pulling over in this Far Eastern nation for no apparent reason when trailed by a lighted police car may itself be probable cause enough to cause one some unnecessary troubling delay.

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A major – and perhaps the major part of law enforcement in Japan is to DETER crime and to ensure good public order.   The police in Okinawa are nothing like the cops and robbers of American television where the priority is on enforcing the law and catching criminals in the act…or shortly thereafter.  So, red lights in Japan don’t mean an emphatic and immediate “pull over!

“No, it’s a cardigan, but thanks for asking!”  ~ Harry Dunne, in Dumb & Dumber

When Japanese police do wish to ruin your day they use their siren and/or Public Address (PA) system, through which they can bark out instructions like the voice of god.  In fact, in Japan, emergency vehicles of all kinds seem to always be talking.  Some of it is a recording, but some are actually live announcements, like an intention to travel against a red, or to scold someone off their cell phone.  It’s a lot easier to issue a warning if you never have to leave your patrol car.

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BTW, the Japanese take driving and using a cell phone much more seriously than we do.  It is against the law, and punishments here don’t toy around with mere tickets or traffic school.  Instead, you simply lose your license.  The Japanese are, in fact, so weary of this that when they want to use their cells while driving, they simply place their hazard lights on and literally stop along the right of way, pulled over slightly, but still double-parked.  This often results in a nightmarish blockage of traffic…for which they should also lose their licenses.

Luckily for me, vehicle stops are relatively rare in Japan.  Hell, even seeing a police car actually patrolling the roads is relatively rare…compared to the states.  Japanese drivers do speed (but not by much), but are almost without exception polite and safe while on the road.  The most common reason for a traffic stop here is speeding; no surprise there.  But most of these “stops” are sweeping radar speed traps where you are actually waved off the road and receive punishment assembly-line style.  And Japan, like many other first-world countries, is moving more and more to traffic enforcement cameras.

Bicycle theft takes up more man-hours than traffic stops.

In Japan, bicycle theft takes up more man-hours than traffic stops.

I have no idea why these two particular cops, red running lights on, decided not to follow and stop me having literally run a red light.  Perhaps they saw my Y “Yankee” license plate (which only Americans have) and deduced my mistake…having surely seen it many times before.  That, combined with the lack of pedestrian and opposing traffic, probably was enough for them to shrug this off.  I wouldn’t have been so lucky at home.

Have you had a run-in with the law in Asia?  If you have, tell me about it here!