Friday, April 12, 2019

China: In Search of the Past: Part 7: Shanghai, More of the Four Olds and the Very Very New + South Korea: Poetry in the Rain

The Bund is Shanghai's famed waterfront, once part of the city's International Settlement--territory the Western powers took from China after the mid-19C Opium Wars, waged by Britain in the name of free trade. In its heyday, the city was known as the Paris of the East, and, especially after the Russian Revolution, it was a refuge for many. Shanghai remains a shipping port and vibrant, sometimes jarring mix of worlds.

Across the Huangpu, rising from the mudflats, is Pudong, a high-rise, high-tech vision of the future. For this view, we're staying on the old side of the river in one of the Bund's historic buildings. Emblematic of Shanghai itself, Les Suites Orient is a blend of sleek modern and vintage.

The next morning, we visit the sleek, glass Yuzu Museum in the West Bund. We're eager to see the "Rain Room," an exhibit that has toured the world. Entering a dark space, you walk slowly amid a gentle drizzle that surrounds but does not touch you. It is poetic and magical.

Searching for the historic French quarter, we stumble into Xintiandi, a sanitized version of old Shanghai, transformed into an upscale pedestrian mall--the new-old style I've seen all over China.  We eat dinner outside just before the (real) rain. Then back at our hotel, more of the "Olds."

Later we enjoy our magical view across the Huangpu--the glittering and very new Pudong.

It's a short hop to another old-new city, Seoul, South Korea. Having "lightened the load," I'm left with only sandals for two solid days of rain.  

We ride the cable car up Namsan mountain to Seoul Tower for a misty city view.

Then we take a bus and ferry to Nami Island, an ethereal getaway that celebrates nature, gentleness, and peace.

We continue on to a quirky, French-style village dedicated to Le Petit Prince.

We have traveled well and long. So...

Next stop: Home

Sunday, March 3, 2019

China: In Search of the Past: Part 6: Chongqing: From WW2 to Today

 Qianximen Bridge, Chongqing
Research for my book has led me deep into Chinese and WW2 history During that period, Japan occupied the prosperous coastal ports, so the Nationalist government moved inland to Chungking, now known as Chongqing.

Critical American supplies—including dollars and goldwere flown into Kunming from India. The mountainous road between the two cities was called the 24-Zig Road, for the 24 hairpin curves—traversed daily by more than 2000 fully loaded US military vehicles.

Thanks to China's formidable railway system, our journey takes about five comfortable hours. The mountainous scenery through Guizhou Province is spectacular, much still undeveloped.  

You could eat off the floor of the stations.

Known as the Furnace City, Chongqing is a huge metropolis rising over the juncture of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers. 

Soon after checking into our hotel, we walk, dripping, to the Jialing riverfront and the Qianximen Bridge, a popular evening hangout.

The next morning I visit the new "Old Town," a carefully crafted period recreation of the past. It's jammed as people connect with their history, and I am the only Caucasian there. I like this back alley as a setting for my book.

An old loom.

Two lifestyles: a one-room home...


And an ornate 19C bed.

This young man in the Freedom t-shirt resizes my Kunming toe ring for free.

Making noodles under the gaze of a junior soldier?

Around midday I set off to visit the hilly base of Dai Li, the controversial Nationalist security chief who worked with US intelligence, including my OSS characters. Following the brutal, post-WW2 civil war between the Communists and Nationalists, the US was long viewed as the enemy. In recent years, China has come to acknowledge America's enormous support in the war against the invaders. In some museums and historic sites there's been an about-face, with vastly different signage and displays.

Dai Li's home

General Joseph Stilwell is admired for his salty personality, affection for the Chinese people, and clashes with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. His Jialing riverside home is a museum.

General Joseph Stillwell

More vintage artifacts at the Flying Tiger museum across the street.

Everywhere in these granite cliffs, I see rock caves where people took shelter during the Japanese bombardment.

Ignoring the debilitating heat, I continue to the Three Gorges museum, documenting the Yangtze River history up to the Three Gorges Dam. Over twenty years ago, my husband and I cruised the Yangtze, right before the area was flooded for the dam. A display showing the grandeur we experienced.

Finally, I ferret out the intimate home-museum of Soong Ching-Ling, widow of the revered early 20C leader Sun Yat-sen. 

Although Chiang Kai-shek's sister-in-law, she lived a humble life and is a national icon. Behind the gate is the entrance to an underground bomb shelter, claustrophobic and sobering to visit.

The next day, we try to visit the pier where our Yangtze Paradise ship docked but redevelopment has hit the area. 

We walk back past a view of past and present.

Next: Shanghai, China and Seoul, South Korea

Friday, January 18, 2019

China: In Search of the Past: Part 5: Kunming, World War 2

After flying cross-country to Dali, we're eager for our "slow" train through Yunnan's scenic mountains down to Kunming. But soon after arriving at the station, we are ordered to evacuate, due to "equipment problems." Everyone, even support personnel, is driven out while police and security officers pour in. With no further explanation, we all stand around, trading rumorsmany translated to me by a young Chinese woman. She doesn't believe the official reason. As this is a restive border region, I think maybe separatists or escaped prisoners? The burning question: Will we be able to continue our travels? Will this be a short delay or should we try to catch a long-distance bus? By now we're joined by three European grad students. With the woman (in a hurry to reach Kunming for the World Cup broadcast), we decide on the sure bet and traipse several blocks to the bus terminal... Along with many others, desperate to get on the road. Seats are difficult to obtain, but the woman makes sure we are all taken care of before moving on. Throughout China, I find people eager to helpoften going out of their way to do so.

We're lucky to get the very last seats on a crowded bus. Still, I'm sorry to miss our train ride through the countryside as it descends to  a broad highland plateau. We reach the outskirts of Kunming at dusk.

Now a major city, Kunming was a small railway stop until World War 2 shook things up. Drawn here for book research, I come in search of that wartime past when China was struggling to hold off Japan. American support became critical, and the famed Flying Tigers established a base on this remote plateau. Later, so did the US intelligence agency, OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. Late in the war, my characters were posted here, undertook secret missions, and fell in love. 

By great coincidence, our landscape designer friend who's worked in Kunming off-and-on for 20 years is here now. We're lucky to have him as our guide, as I attempt to conjure what it was like, back in the day. Tim witnessed the wholesale leveling caused by "development" and predicted they'd rebuild "old town" in ten years. It took them five. We begin in the northern hillsides at the 17C Tongwa, or Golden Temple, on MingfengSinging Phoenix Hill.

The next day we visit Lake Dianchi, "Sparkling Pearl Embedded in a Highland." It spreads before us like a sea of lotus blossoms and water lilies. The US Air Force base was nearby south of town, so my characters would have known it.

Lotus blooms
Water lily
The crowds are out with their cameras to enjoy a perfect Sunday.

I see proud families posing in front of this hammer and sickle.

Topiary hammer and sickle
Green Lake Hotel is worth a trip just for the sumptuous breakfast buffet, which we've fantasized about since our visit five years ago. We're in the old University and French district across from Green Lake, a precious oasis in the big city. The park is a lively spot where lovers meet, as well as old people doing traditional songs and folk dances. Even singing pro-Mao songs.

I scout-out more potential settings for my book. French colonial buildings, cobbled streets and lanes.

In what used to be the Kafka Cafe, I find another prized vintage piece. 

Like all of China, development and overdevelopment have paved over the past, but bits and pieces remain for her citizens to cherish. Soon we're off to Chongqing, the wartime capital of Nationalist China, the second main base of American operations. 

Next stop: Chongqing (old Chungking)