China Diary:
North to the Ancient Capitals

[North to the Ancient Capitals] [West on the Silk Road] [South to Tibet and the Tropics]

June 28: Leaving Shanghai – Rains finally stop in the afternoon as I take the cab to the train station loaded with my back pack, a duffel bag with wheels, a day pack, a small carry-on, and some bags of food. The train car is a bit crowded so at night, after my PBJ and instant noodles for dinner, I transfer to the hard sleeper car.

June 29: Tai – I arrive in Tai’An in the early morning and store my stuff at the train station, taking only my day pack. I take the mini-bus to the mid-station of Tai Shan (Mountain), the holiest Tao mountain in China. (Tao, or "the way," is one of the three major Chinese philosophies.) I climb the arduous steps and three hours later reach the top. Supposedly, anyone who climbs here lives to be a hundred years old. After seeing the summit sights, I take the cable car down to the mid-station and the mini-bus back to town. I make my way to Tai Miao (temple) where the emperors began their climb up Tai Shan. It is also one of the largest temples in China, and known for its steles of calligraphy masters.

June 30: Confucius – I arrived in Qu Fu late last night, the birthplace of Confucius (Kong Fu Zi). A contemporary of Socrates, the East’s "sage on the stage" is China’s oldest (551 B.C.-479 B.C.) and greatest philosopher. So, I read excerpts from The Analects which forms the basis of one of the three major Chinese philosophies. I find myself agreeing with his ethical principles of li (e.g., benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, trustworthiness, etc.) but not with its elitist political principles (e.g., bureaucratic control of society, hierarchical relationships, traditional rituals, blind obedience, etc.). Just as the Protestant Ethic is credited with economic growth in the West, Confucian "East Asian Values" are the explanation for the economic rise of the "little dragons". They are also blamed for the current financial crisis because Eastern companies emphasize relationships in making deals instead of developing business strategies. In any event, I first check out "Confucius Six Arts City" (which I dub "ConfuciusLand") named because he mastered music, calligraphy, math, charioteering, archery, and (of course) ancient rituals. Next, I go to the Confucius Temple, one of the largest such complexes in China. For lunch I try Confucius tofu and boiled scorpions, then it is on to Confucius Mansions, home of the Kong family which ran hometown Qu Fu after the death of the patriarch. Last, I bike the Confucian Forest with a tour guide who shows me the tombs and family burial grounds (the Cultural Revolution destroyed much, even robbing Confucius’ grave). The forest was planted by his followers, growing into the largest artificial forest in China. Also in the forest is the "Spirit Way," one of three in China (I have already seen the one in Nanjing but missed the Ming Tombs in Beijing). I take a photo with one of his descendants which are easy to find in this town.

July 1: Cradle of Chinese Civilization – On the Anniversary of the Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, I am on a sleeper bus ride to Kai (open) Feng (imperial land grant). We leave at one p.m., but being China the six hour ride arrives past ten p.m. This is a hot (over 100 F) and dusty plain, where wheat replaces rice and solid red brick buildings abound. Although one of the smallest provinces in size, being along the middle reaches of the fertile Yellow (Huang) River (He) it is the most populous. So "China’s Sorrow" dumps yellow loess deposits on the plain along with floods. I lie down and occasionally nap, as well as read, eat, and watch the countryside roll by. Kaifeng is the ancient capital (960-1127) at the end of the silk road (hence home to a large Moslem community) and head of the Grand Canal to Yangtzi. Once called Bian Jing (capital), it is the last of the ancient capitals which successively moved down river. The northern Mongol invaders forced the sole surviving prince to set up the Southern Song court in Hangzhou.

July 2: Jews of Kaifeng – I walk to the museum, passing many food stalls. It contains a stele that was in front of the old synagogue and recorded the history of the Jewish community in Kaifeng. It seems they arrived from Persia around one-thousand years ago. But I don’t learn any of this from the steles because being China this major tourist attraction is locked from the public. So I must get permission from the waiban (Chinese can’t even see them), who is a couple of blocks away. He asks me to pay about six bucks to view just the steles, about two-and-one-half times the entry to the entire world-class Shanghai Museum. But being China the museum workers go home for lunch from eleven-’till-three so no one is there anyway. The waiban rep laments how foreigners always complain and (coincidence?) the museum is always empty. I could tell him if workers were there to let tourists enter, or the waiban could have an office in the museum for one-stop-shopping, or service might be rewarded, or customers are king ... but these are all obvious in a market economy, and this is still a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE). Besides, museums should be for public education accessible to all, and the significance of the Jews in Kaifeng should be known locally. I vote with my feet, passing on the opportunity to be robbed and inconvenienced. Anyway, most of the museum’s artifacts were stolen or defaced (often by Westerners, but that is another story). So I take a pedi-cab to the Shanshanguan Guild Hall, established by Silk Road merchants as a sort of local YMCA for them. Then, I taxi to the Yellow River Viewing Point miles out of town. This being China, the river is too distant to view, so I figure this is (a) an engineering mistake; (b) a bureaucrat’s practical joke; or (c) far from the flooded plain. Dikes keep rising to control the river as it deposits rich silt on its bed, so parts are now an elevated channel. I see a shimmering sliver on the horizon across the flats. Not far from here, the flood gates were open in 1644 to halt the Manchu invasion, costing 300,000 lives. In 1938 Chiang Kai-shek blew the dikes to halt the Japanese invasion, saving a few weeks at the cost of one million lives. I take the taxi to Henan University where I go by the basketball courts and stop to warm up with a couple of locals. I then walk to Long (dragon) Ting (pavilion) Park, former home of the palace and gardens hence the Middle Kingdom’s center. For dinner, I go to an SOE restaurant in the Kaifeng Hotel, so naturally the service sucks. I am tempted to give them the same advice as the museum but I realize they have identical owners.

July 3: Luoyang – I take the mini-bus upriver to Luoyang, the ancient "City of Nine Capitals." The Zhou Dynasty retreated form Xi’an in 771 B.C. to make this its capital. Xi’an was later reclaimed by the Qin emperor, but the following Han emperors again withdrew to Luoyang 25 A.D.-220. Even after the Han fall, it remained the capital for a series of dynasties including the Northern Wei which moved its capital from Datong in 494 (they believed this was the center of the universe), only to suddenly abandon it in 543. I arrive in the early afternoon and dump my baggage (except for my day pack) at the train station. After lunch, I take the bus to the great carvings at Long (dragon) Men (gate) caves, one of the most artistic sites in China. They were begun by the Northern Wei and continued for about two centuries. The city began to decline when the Northern Song dynasty moved its capital to Kaifeng in 960. I begin to fade myself, spending a couple of hours in an Internet cafe then grabbing some street food for late dinner before catching the midnight sleeper train north to Datong.

July 4: Datong Shan (mountains) Xi (west of) province is bordered on the east by the Tai Hang range and on the west by the Yellow River. Three-quarters of this 3,000 foot high plateau contains mountains, many inhabited by cave dwellers. The local soil is where the Yellow River literally picks up its name. So, on Independence Day I wake up on a sleeper train in the rain going up to Da (big) Tong (common), one-time political – as well as cultural – center of China, watching large cracks in the earth snake by. Turkic-speaking people unified northern China under their Northern Wei dynasty and made this their capital in 398. Situated on the Silk Road mid-way between Beijing and Hohhot enabled trade to flourish. On a more grimy note, the Japanese invaders in the 1930s developed coal mines, and Datong now supplies a third of China’s coal which explains why this city is one of the most polluted in China.

July 5: Around Datong – I hire a taxi for the day, family of three included. They paid about $10,000 for their vehicle a year ago and have almost made that much back since. We first go to the "Hanging Monastery" which represents Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism built on a cliff face over 1,400 years ago. I also pick up some purported antiques. They then take me to Yun (cloud) Gang (ridge), home of Buddhist caves deserted in 494 when the Northern Wei moved their capital south to Luoyang on the Yellow River. (Datong again became the capital in 907 under the Mongol Liao Dynasty.) These are perhaps China’s first stone sculptures and one of the most impressive sights. Having missed the evening train this family takes me to their home for dinner. I get on the next train just before midnight. It is packed and I fight my way to the dining car, putting my head on the table and falling asleep.

[North to the Ancient Capitals] [West on the Silk Road] [South to Tibet and the Tropics]


Copyright 1999 Paul Miesing. All rights reserved. Please do not use without permission unless in the People’s Republic of China which does not enforce intellectual property rights. Revised on January 17, 2001.