train to wuhan

December '99

A lady announcer said, 'We start the journey with soothing music,' and a folk tune floated from the train's loudspeakers as we pulled out of Hong Kong. Ignoring it a young passenger started strumming a guitar, and sang Lennon's Imagine.

Outside the passing midwinter scenery was of towns with fewer cars than bicycles, thousands of them, all shrouded, so I imaged, in grey fog. Later I realized it was smog.

'... join us and the world will be as one ...' the young man sang.

Early next morning in Wuhan we were hustled into a taxi. Finding a place to stay was an ordeal. Visitors to China were only allowed to stay at designated hotels.

The city was densely populated with poor people. Something in the air stung our eyes. On a pedestrian overpass I spotted a tiger or a lion's paw for sale. We saw no westerners. No-one spoke English. Even Nicole, with a better knowledge of Mandarin than me, battled to communicate.

It took two days to organize passage down the Yangtze from nearby Yichang, where the air smelled of a million fires burning. We walked through its scrappy park where groups of elderly played cards and tai-chi practitioners holding swords were in flow.

Ferry port Yichen China 1999

The ferry was late. Dozens of people were waiting restlessly at the jetty. A man in a leather jacket took our ticket and we battled through the intense crowd. The ferry filled up fast, then more passengers sat in the passageways'. People spat. The floors were grim.

Even deckhands dressed in double-breasted suits with brand-labels left sewn on the cuffs. They cast us off at 8.15pm. We returned to get the bags, buckets, sacks and suitcases of a new round of passengers. We left again about 10.30pm.

riverboat yangtze december 1999

Except for a repellent canteen there were few amenities. Brown water came from our en-suite twin-berth's tap. Yet the privacy mainly, and the plastic windows, old curtains, and cold though dry metal floor were luxuries, compared to what our fellow passengers had. Smog-laden Dickensian drudgery seemed to be the lot of riverside residents.

yangzte settlement

Crossing the river by feeling for stones, is the saying attributed to Chairman Deng Xiaoping as he sent China over to The Other Side. Not 'feeling', but 'groping' is the way I've always always remembered the saying.

pont on yangtze december 1999

The scale of infrastructure being installed was impressive. Bathed in eerie late night floodlit-orange we floated through a narrow concrete passage of locks so huge it carried massive vessels.

Banks of Yantse River December 1999

Those locks were dwarfed in geologic scale when in the early hours one morning we navigated the doomed trio of gorges soon due to be flooded to form the world's largest dam. They loomed gloomily over us while a lone twilit man stood on a remote mudbank draped in rough sackcloth swishing a net through the Yangtse's cold dun-coloured turbulence.

I went back to bed

And in Songlines the book I was reading by Bruce Chatwin, he recounts how travelling in Yunnan in the mid eighties he met an old teacher who could hum Chopin's muzurkas and Beethoven symphonies. While I read, a ghetto blaster in the passageway outside our cabin started playing Michael Jackson's Dangerous. During the Cultural Revolution, Chatwin wrote, the old Yunnanese teacher's interest in western culture resulted in his twenty one year imprisonment.

The passageway music continued throughout the day. It was mostly Chinese pop bristling with western influences and production values.

dazu China 2000

Downtown Chongching's commercial district was old and commercially drab except for a small section where signs of western shopping-mall dynamics were taking root - ground zero of what in the next decade would be identified as the planet's fastest growing metropolitan region. A man wearing a Santa suit was positioned outside a shop. Christmas tunes were in the air.

We took a cable-car across the river and walked alleyways and entered a park. Amid trees and mossy ornate stones and ponds and tea gardens where people were out with their kids and caged birds, we met two English teachers. They showed us their school, then took us to eat the local Sichuan hotpot.

sichuan hotpot chongching

The fried-oil-dipped dofu, seaweed, mushrooms and veg was delicious yet so spicy that at times I became too phlegmy to breathe or speak.

In a rural area with few roads, crops were fed night-soil ladled out of pales hung either end of shouldered poles, to the sound of wood chopping, voices calling, chickens crowing, beasts lowing, and the crackling of a neighborhood temple's fireworks.

From places like this, I imagine, many young people were being drawn to work in distant industrial regions. Details would punctuate the China-Rising tale over the following decade, of factories with nets installed below windows.

statue of moa Zedong Chendu, dec 1999

Poor people asked for things along the way, which is always rough because a piece of the best of us shrinks in those kind of interactions. Ten days on the track-less-travelled meant not dealing with the official 'Travelers' Agency'. The rude shock was Chengdu where we stopped for permit and onward passage to Tibet and fares were double priced.

Another frustration: I wanted to know the cricket score. But occidental news sites at internet cafe computers returned an error sign: The remote sockets seem confused.

Turning to official local news I read something that made me wonder about Deng's new China:

"... Zhang Bin developed a keen sense of Justice when he was a young boy. One day at primary school he saw a higher grade boy try to break a coin with a knife and went and stopped the boy.

"It is none of your business. I can break my own money," the boy said.

"No one is allowed to break renminbi. You break the law if you break the coin," little Zhang said with the force of justice. - China Daily 15 Dec 1999.