We needed to go to Nanjing, China, because Don was asked to give a paper at a conference at Nanjing University of Science and Technology. We booked on China East Airlines, which is a brand new Chinese airline. We would fly into Shanghai and then catch a flight to Nanjing. We packed light so we wouldn’t have to check our bags. We already had a huge layover in Shanghai and then, the in-coming plane was late. Don’t worry, we were told, this plane is always late. No biggie! So, after waiting EIGHT hours, the plane finally landed and we were off.
Welcome to the Yin/Yang that is China. While China, without a doubt, has some of the most historic sites you could ever hope to see, they are also dealing with major problems like a huge population, scarce and polluted water, food supply issues, and air pollution. (I recommend the new book by Damien Ma and William Adams, ‘In Line Behind a Billion People’, which talks about these issues in China.)
When we landed in Nanjing we were met at the airport by two students of the University. It was very late and so they hustled us out to a car and we headed for our hotel. They gave us each a bottle of water and told us it would be an hour ride before we reached the hotel. We rode on major highways and toll roads and there was construction everywhere. The air quality was…brown. It was difficult at times to see clearly. Were we really breathing this stuff?
We arrived at our hotel which we were told was located in an ecological park. I tried to get someone to explain to me what made it “ecological” but the most I could get was that the air quality was better than it is in the city and that it was a “place for old people to relax and fish.” I began to wonder if we were staying in an old folks’ home! Believe me, I could use the rest!
No, not an old folks’ home, it was a beautiful new 5 star hotel and one other conference member, the two students, and ourselves were the only guests! Just as I started to think of The Shining, I noticed that our room number was 8223. When we got on the elevator, I wondered why there was no eighth floor. In fact, there was nothing above the fourth floor..? Turns out that all the room numbers begin with an 8. It’s a lucky number in China that means you will have money in your future. Our room number was really 223 and we were on the second floor. (But I still hope they are right about the money!)
For more on lucky and unlucky Chinese go here:
Our room was gorgeous. A large queen size bed with down duvet, a huge walk-in shower, robes and slippers, snacks on the table, and not a Japanese TV show in sight! (The Japanese do have the absolutely worst TV programming in the world!) We absolutely crashed into that lovely huge bed and slept like babies. One odd thing, the bathroom had a glass wall between the bathroom and the bedroom. Now, there was a set of blinds you could close (and we did) but it got us wondering what they were thinking when they built and appointed the rooms. Do old folks who fish need or want glass walls in their bathrooms?
Okay, reality check. We are in China, people. You can’t drink the water, you can’t even brush your teeth with the water(and when I forgot and did, I had a panic attack!), you can’t even trust the bottled water, and forget ice. You can’t be sure of what you are eating because of pesticide use. And the western toilets are few and far between. Yes, our hotel room had one but our room was an hour away from the conference at the university! You catch my drift.
We had breakfast at the hotel before getting back into the car and heading out to the university. Now that it was daytime, once we were on the road, we could tell that the air quality was not good. It isn’t smog, it’s PM, particulate matter. It’s actual particles of grit in the air. You can see it on all the cars. You could write your name in it. And you are breathing it. Just FYI.
We arrived at the university and they took us to the conference room. It was well-appointed and comfortable. People supplied us with snacks and drinks all day long. I attended the conference with Don. The university is in a suburb of Nanjing and not really close to any sight-seeing without a car which meant I was there for the day.
Most of the conference was in Chinese, all of it was about climate issues. Don gave his paper in English as did some other presenters but most of it was in Chinese. Don is a part-time professor at Nanjing University and they had a signing ceremony for him and another visiting professor at the conference. According to his contract, he needs to attend a conference and give a paper at the university at least once a year for the next three years.
At the lunch break, we drove over to a hotel on campus where they had a Chinese lunch buffet set up. We sat at a table with several people from our conference. There was also a large conference of meteorologists being held on campus at the same time. After an hour, we were driven back to the conference site and stood outside to have our group picture taken. Yes, even though I was just visiting with Don, they included me in everything, even the group picture.
Again, there was no western toilet. I made dew…ah, due, but a very funny thing happened to me. I usually get my pants all up and fixed to leave the stall before I flush. Well, it’s a good thing because the one stall I was in started erupting like the tsunami from Hell sloshing water all over the stall. I dove for the door and barely made it out in time and then stumbled outside because I forgot there was a step down to the main floor of the bathroom. I managed to right myself and, when I realized that I was alone and no one had witnessed my ridiculousness, I just laughed myself silly, you know, that crazy hysterical laugh you get when you’ve just been snatched from the Jaws of Death! I never knew I could still move that fast, but, I may be scarred for life!
Then we went back into the conference and heard the rest of the presenters, mostly in Chinese, although some had slides in English. I had my iPad with me and read a book. I don’t think this was totally bad because: 1. I wasn’t really part of the conference; and 2. the other attendees were looking at their computers, too!
After the conference, we were taken back to the campus hotel for dinner. We had several private dining rooms since we had too many people for just one room. We sat at a big round table with an electric lazy Susan bringing the food around to everyone at the table. It’s unbelievable the number of dishes they bring out for a big Chinese banquet. We had several different kinds of vegetables and fruit, duck, pork, crayfish, fish, tofu, chicken, and lamb. But, this was not the fun part.
The real fun came when they brought out the sake. The custom is that everyone at the table toasts everyone else at the table. Let’s just say that the sake flowed freely. After we toasted several times at our own table, we visited the other two dining rooms to toast the diners there. In the meantime, they were coming to our dining room to toast us. The professors at our table started to skip pouring the sake into the thimble-size glasses and started to drink directly from the pitchers! They were getting louder and louder with their toasts. It’s a great custom and no one gets left out. We had a great time and finally made the last car back to the hotel.
The next morning we went down to the dining room and ate breakfast. We were going with our friend Shi Jun to downtown Nanjing. We went to the Nanjing Memorial Museum which was very crowded because of it being a weekend and because China just has so many people. This museum tells the story of the massacre of 300,000 people in Nanjing by the Japanese in 1937. It is a historical event known as the “Rape of Nanjing.” I will tell more about this museum and what happened to the people of Nanjing in my next blog. It deserves its own space to do it justice.
After the Memorial Museum, Shi Jun took us to a beautiful restaurant. The students ordered food for us. They said the Chinese tradition was to order one more dish than the number of people at the table. They ordered twelve dishes. We wound up sending the last dish back because no one had room for it! Again, there was a lazy Susan in the center of the table and the food choices went round and round.
After lunch, we visited the 99 1/2 rooms of the family of Gan Xi now known as the Gan Xi Folk Art Museum. The real home of Gan Xi had probably 300 rooms or separate buildings. This is the only one of this type of house left in Nanjing.
The whole “99 1/2” thing started when it was said that the Forbidden City had 9,999 rooms. 9 is a lucky number and is associated with the Emperor. Since no one can have as much as the Emperor, wealthy people were said to have 999 rooms, and less wealthy had 99 rooms. 10 is a bad number because it is the “end”. So 9 1/2 is as close to 10 as you can get while not being ten and still being a very lucky number. Anyway, the museum shows you how wealthy people lived in the past. Some of the rooms show items owned by Gan Xi and his family. Other rooms house craftspeople who both demonstrate and sell their crafts. See the photos for some of the crafts.
The really nice part of the afternoon was getting to spend time with Shi Jun, who has become a friend of Don’s since his visit to Penn State and then Don’s visit to the university last year. He is a very good host and a very kind man. He is the age of our son, Jeff. He’s married, has a daughter, and is a philosophy professor at the university. His English is great and he acts as an interpreter both for the conference and in his capacity as our host. He is the reason Don was invited to the conferences and to be a part-time professor. He is a wonderful friend and we hope to be able to have him visit with us in the future.
One of the other great things that happened at the Folk Art Museum was that we actually met one of the artists. He is a paper-cutter which sounds trite until you see his work. He actually worked at a university in Pa as a visiting artist and has had showings of his work in the US and Europe. He demonstrated his art for us and let us keep the pieces as gifts. We were thrilled.
Everywhere we looked in downtown Nanjing, there were construction cranes with huge apartment houses going up block after block.
We had dinner at the hotel in a private dining room with Shi Jun, his students, the other conference guest from the UK, and us. Again we had a lazy Susan and many dishes. We discussed the conference, China, the US, the UK, and the state of the world in general. The students talked about their hopes for their futures, the rest of us talked about our families. It was a very happy and relaxed evening…a fitting end to our visit.
We went to bed early that night since our flight was very early and we still had to get to the airport. That early the air quality is just terrible. The Chinese only allow construction vehicles to operate at night, but there is construction all over the place. The dust still hadn’t settled that early. We made it to the airport in plenty of time. Shi Jun insisted on going in with us. He is the consummate host. We said our goodbyes and headed for the gate.
I took photos out the plane window. You be the judge. I thought the photos hadn’t come out but they are pictures of jets waiting to take off. If you look closely, you can see the lights oN the planes. Yes, the air quality is bad.
Again, China is really the Yin and the Yang. Like every country they have both good and bad. They are just so big and have so many people that their problems are huge and seem to an outsider to be insurmountable. China is so different from Japan that it’s hard to believe they are both Asian countries and neighbors. It’s just such a stark contrast. It reminds me of forty years ago traveling in Europe and going from Austria or Switzerland and then crossing the border into Italy. The orderly life gave way to instant chaos, the trains were late, you were ripped off everywhere you went, and everything was dirty from both air pollution and the ages. As a tourist, I’ll have to go with Japan. It’s just so much easier.