It is an extraordinary experience to encounter the mildness, the innocence, the curiosity of the people of mainland China. Though some Westerners who have lived there complain of loneliness and isolation, for the short-time traveler, there is a feeling of a kind of meeting of the nations.
This impression is especially strong outside of Peking. An overseas visitor's strolls are punctuated by interested eyes quickly taking in his light hair, large nose, well-cut coat, strange shoes. Should he pause for a moment to load his camera, look at a map, or consult a guidebook, he will find himself the center of a silent but highly attentive little group. In his turn, he will find that dull clothes make him concentrate on faces. ''When they smile, it's just great. Their whole face lights up,'' commented one American traveler.
(On the other hand, some people find the attention exhausting. ''I'm tired of being an animal in the zoo,'' complained a blond woman in our group.)
This mostly very endearing friendliness inspires a strong desire to communicate that is frustrated by lack of a common language. Also, in China you must travel in a group, which means living in a protected ''bubble'', eating in restaurants with other tourists, and sitting with tourists during most evening programs. China is a rigidly organized society, with heavily strained facilities , and your classification as a tourist is designed to slip you smoothly into the whole.
Sometimes, the result of this is that you feel a bit left out of things. Our group, all set to dine out in Shanghai, peered into the plate glass windows of the restaurant at big round tables full of convivial Chinese, then trailed as one toward the adjacent stairway, toward a second-floor room of virtually private splendor, as one person remarked bleakly, ''Foreigners are always upstairs.''
Being in China is nothing if not thought-provoking. It is not like traveling anywhere else.
However, while our trip was a strenuous one, it contained many moments of amusement and sheer delight. Our group left Peking, to fly to the middle China cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou (''Even the names of the cities ring like bells for me,'' commented one traveler). These two cities have been famous for centuries for their delicate, poetic beauty. Hangzhou (pronounced Han-joe) is at the southern end of the Grand Canal, which was finished 1,300 years ago and is still, at over 1,000 miles long, the largest man-made waterway in the world. ''People in China like to compare the Grand Canal to the Great Wall,'' said our gentle young Hangzhou guide, Mr. Yu.
Our guide spoke to a continual honking-horn accompaniment. Hangzhou is not a small town; in the year 1130 its population was 1 million, and it's about the same now. Horse carts had filled the roads in the countryside of Peking; here we saw people pulling similar carts, laden with root vegetables and cauliflowers. ''Green weeping willows make the city so enchanting,'' Mr. Yu pointed out, as we drove past a small willow-fringed river that was once the Hangzhou city moat.
Camellia, peony, and lotus bloom here, and no traveler is allowed to leave Hangzhou without learning that Marco Polo called it a paradise. Alas, most of what Polo saw was destroyed during the mid-nineteenth-century Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that presaged the successful Communist takeover 100 years later.
Hangzhou, home of the southern Sung (Song) emperors in the 12th century and a favorite spot of the Ching (Qing) emperors (1644-1911), is set on a beautiful body of water called West Lake, which is crisscrossed by two narrow causeways lined with willow and cherry blossoms. You can take a small pleasure boat across the lake from one of its pavilioned island gardens to another.
The first stop on our tour was the charming Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, a series of circular embankments connected by a traditional Nine-Bend Bridge. The bridge zigzags over a shallow pond filled with lotuses. The design is plainly intended to force the visitor to stroll slowly across, admiring the unfolding views of the garden, but unfortunately the crowds and our lack of time did not permit this. The island has many small pavilions, terraces, winding paths, and bridges; fat carp in the central pool expect to be fed. West Lake is popular for honeymoons, and this charming spot has more than its share of young couples.
Middle China is famous for its silk, and Hangzhou, Mr. Yu proudly explained during a visit to the Hangzhou Silk Printing Company, is the major producer of silk in the country. ''The silk worm sheds its skin five times. When it is little, it is black; each time it sheds, it gets lighter, until the last time, it is pure white,'' he said.
Then the silkworm is put into a ''straw mountain,'' Mr. Yu said. ''For the first two hours the silkworms are too excited to stay put. They just climb around. Then the worm hides itself inside the cocoon. Next spring, it turns into a moth. At that time the farmer will prepare a bamboo basket with paper at the bottom. The moth lays its eggs on the paper.''
Each cocoon looks like a rough, oblong marshmallow and produces about 1,000 meters of thread. The cocoons (those not destined to produce next year's worm supply) are boiled to kill the worm and wash off the cocoon paste; the thread then unwraps easily. The strands of seven cocoons are spun together to make one silk thread.
Workers can buy imperfect silk a few times a year, but recently, with better quality control, there are fewer ''seconds'' for the workers to buy. The most common use for the silk, according to Mr. Yu's fellow guide, Mr. Chu, is in underwear and dresses for summer. ''Silk dresses were very popular last summer, '' he said, smiling. ''I guess it will be even more popular this year.''
The next stop on our tour was the exquisite city of Suzhou. Many of Suzhou's charming three-quarter-size stucco row houses back onto the numerous canals that crisscross the city. The plane trees that line the streets, and the tile roofs, give it almost the appearance of a small French town.
Yet a definite Chinese quality prevails. There is an interesting smell to Suzhou, like very old books, with a whiff of celery cooking in soy over a coal fire. I wandered some of its beautiful, twisting back streets, wide enough for one car to get through, but really passable only by foot or bicycle. In a few minutes, I had gathered several Suzhou vignettes: a young woman flashed a delicate, radiant smile, as she bent to draw water from a well; children in a small grassy area were playing a game using a stone for a ball; a man stopped me and pretty soon we were nodding and smiling to express admiration of each other's digital watches; a woman walked by me carrying two baskets balanced at the ends of a long pole - I looked over my shoulder to see what was in her basket, and saw her looking over hers at my shoes.
Most of all, Suzhou is a city of gardens, and seven of them (out of more than 150) are open to the public. The small garden recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York gives a small idea of the gardens of Suzhou. One of the loveliest we visited was the Lingering Garden, built in 1595, in the Ming dynasty. Different parts of the garden are emphasized at different seasons. In the summer, visitors can contemplate the lotuses in the pool. In autumn, chrysanthemums bloom here; also ''at mid-autumn festival the moon is very big, so this is the place to enjoy the autumn view,'' said our Suzhou guide , Mr. Gu, as we passed over a small bridge. The spring view is of wisteria climbing on the bridge, he said.
There are long, open corridors, so the scenery can be appreciated on rainy days. An unusual feature of this garden is a rock from Lake Tai, called the Cloud-Capped Peak, which is about 20 feet high and very narrow, highly eroded, and full of holes. Chinese seem to like having their pictures taken in front of this.
Another favorite is the Humble Administrator's Garden, built in the late Ming dynasty. The name seems wonderfully sarcastic; not only is this a magnificent garden, but also the administrator who built it retired to enjoy its peace after earning the money to build it by a lifetime of extortion. It is a series of exquisite pools, crossed by elegant bridges.
Suzhou is also famed for its embroidery, and a visit to the Embroidery Institute reveals why. The seamstresses had great balls of thread in front of them with many tiny variations of the same shade. I watched one for a while: She would look at a painting of the finished design, then select one of the shades, make a few stitches, and then select another shade. The result has the subtlety of painting. Alas, many of the designs featured soulful-eyed kittens - they use 16 shades of blue in the kitten's eyes, our guide told us proudly. This design said greeting card rather than China to me, but the skill is astonishing.
Almost everything at all glamorous in China has a rather refreshing 1950s (or earlier) quality, a fact, though, that underlines the country's sad years of isolation. This is especially true of the special performances for tourists in both Hangzhou and Suzhou. Both were variety shows with acrobats, singers and dancers, an opera singer, an accordion player, and performers on traditional Chinese instruments. One English song that everyone in China seems to like is ''Jingle Bells'' (pronounced something like Zhingoo Bezz); we heard several renditions of it on our trip.
In Shanghai, our last stop in China, our first impression was of masses of people. Mr. Chu, our guide, said there were more than 10 million people in the city. ''I believe it. There must be a million people on this street alone,'' said one tourist, peering out of the bus window at an ocean of humanity.
Mr. Chu, himself one of six children, commented, ''We have 1 billion people here in China - and that's enough.'' Of the government program to control population growth (population has doubled in the last 30 years), he said that over 90 percent of the families in Shanghai have opted to have one child.
Shanghai is a city with a dramatic history. After the Opium Wars ended in 1842, the British demanded and got the right to trade and live outside of Chinese law and taxation in Shanghai. The city became a center for vice and corruption. There were several concessions; each functioned as an independent state. In the French section, for instance, electric current was supplied at 110 volts, while in the British concession, it was 220 volts. Buses of one concession didn't cross into another. ''They made $21 a month, and they lived like kings,'' one traveler said of the foreign residents who once lived here. We passed the park that had once borne the sign ''No dogs or Chinese'' and were told that in the winter at that time many people froze to death in the streets.
Now, said Mr. Chu, ''The standard of living is low compared to many countries. But our lives are very stable. We don't have to worry about food or clothing.''
A highlight of any trip to China is an evening watching the Shanghai acrobats. This tradition goes back 2,000 years, to the Spring and Autumn period (around 440 BC), said Mr. Chu. The acrobats used to perform in the streets of the city; now they have a fine arena and eight schools for acrobatics. I wondered if this origin was the reason that so much of the juggling was done with common household objects. For instance, one man with an unusually flat nose balanced things on it - first three eggs, one on top of the other; then a complicated arrangement of eight glasses, four candlesticks, three trays, and a small battery-powered bedside lamp. A woman, her weight at one point supported only by one hand on her partner's head, did a graceful and astonishing routine of balancing small bowls on her head and on one uplifted foot.
We re-entered the ''Western'' world in Hong Kong; and even after Shanghai, one of the largest cities in the world, it was hard to adjust. The noise, the tall buildings, the indifference, the traffic, the windows displaying jewelry and cameras, the construction, the beggars, the chic clothes of this hectic Chinese Manhattan - all combine to overwhelm the traveler, now accustomed to a gentler pace. Too, the wealth that a Westerner usually takes for granted will perhaps always seem amazing to one who has looked, if only for 10 days, through Chinese eyes. Practical details
I had been told that Hong Kong was a better place to shop than China. My rather sketchy impression was that prices were about 10 to 15 percent higher in Hong Kong; silk for instance, $8 a yard in China, was about $10 in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, of course, offers terrific variety, but in general I thought the most interesting rugs were those displayed at the rug factory in Peking, the most unusual embroideries in the Embroidery Institute in Suzhou (kittens notwithstanding), and so on.
About the only way to see China at the moment is on a tour - you can travel as an individual, ''but you'll have an awful hassle,'' we were told by one American. (To do this, by the way, you come in through Hong Kong; it takes four days to get a travel permit.)
The trip described in this article and in last week's piece on Peking was an American Express tour called ''The Best of China.'' It cost $1,849 plus airfare (at this writing, $1,381.50 from Los Angeles), and lasted 20 days, starting with three days in Japan and ending with four days in Hong Kong.
This is a deluxe tour, and we stayed in very good hotels: the modern, beautifully landscaped Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, the Peking Hotel in Peking, the Xiling Guest House in Hangzhou, and the Jing Jiang in Shanghai, all comfortable in a wonderfully old-fashioned way. The Suzhou Hotel in Suzhou was unattractive, but I think it was the best available. Our Air Singapore return flight stopped in Hawaii; many people took advantage of this to relax in the sun for a few days.