I suspect the only way I can share the riches of this trip with you is through snippets of insight and experience, so here is an attempt to bring you with me viscerally on this journey...
- Middle-aged Chinese businessmen clustered excitedly around a window in the plane from SFO to Beijing, photographing the barren steppes of Russia, lit up and blazing white in what was the middle of the night for us
- Spotless five-star hotels where only the concierge and manager speak English, and if your destination and return point is not written down in Chinese characters for the taxi drivers you are sure to get lost
- A city (Beijing) where you can't open your window at night because if you do the room will be covered by a fine layer of dust in the morning
- Traffic streams made up of people on foot, bicycles, cars and buses and heavily loaded trucks; motorcycles and strange little vehicles made of what looked like flattened soda cans riveted together; more bicycles laden with overwhelming piles of misc. material - old tires, unruly wire, cloth, wood and plastic bags... a fast-flowing river policed mainly by an uncanny mutual awareness of who's going where and when to yield and when to push forward ... a dance like nothing I've ever seen (I literally had to close my eyes and pray during one mercifully short taxi ride) and yet it's a system that results in remarkably few accidents
- Breath-taking views of the river like those ancient Chinese brush paintings; vertical cliffs rising from the jade green Yangtze, obscured by curls of fog and then rising again above the mists, lone little wind-shaped trees clinging to the edge of the mountain; sometimes a goat or a mountain tomb
- A complexly phonetic spoken language that manages to sound both loud & harsh and soft & musical, a lyrically written language with such a large number of characters that over 50% of the country is illiterate
- When Chinese people meet, no matter the time of day, they often say to each other "Sur la Ma?"/"Have you Eaten?", to which the reply is (hopefully) "Sur la"/"Yes, I have eaten" (I don't know how the phrases are actually written - I'm making a wild phonetic guess). This custom speaks to me both of a terrible history when food was not a given, and a people whose practical care for each other brought them through it.
- Tian, the ancient gated capital of China now a modern (still gated) city and site of the impossibly romantic and awe-inspiring Terra Cotta army, where they had to stop construction on a much-needed subway system because you can't dig 2 feet down in Tian anywhere without uncovering ruins rich in historical and cultural value
- So many HUGE cities and what appeared to be a dwindling rural population, a direction reversed from the 1950s where Chinese intelligentsia were sent from the cities to work the land. The recent Expo in Shanghai was all about how to make living in these enormous sprawling cities healthy and sustainable, but I didn't hear as much about cultivating the countryside and restoring health to the land being changed so profoundly by the recent move to urbanity
- A country very much aware of suddenly being on the world stage, from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to this year's Expo in Shanghai, so much is happening and everything is changing so quickly... there is tangible excitement and activity in the air
The people exhibit an open friendliness and an eagerness untainted by either aggression or subservience. I got the sense that the Chinese are confident in themselves and what they bring to the table, and that they are curious and genuinely interested in knowing what others have to offer. I left China feeling optimistic about our common future; looking forward to the possibilities of collaboration and the incredible things we can learn from each other if we have to wisdom to ask.