Monday, May 08, 2006

Cruising the Yangtze (or in the irrefutable words of Sir Robert Plant “Moby Dick Dick Dick Dick!”)

“…while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea…There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, …a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner - for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.”
Excerpt from Moby Dick
Herman Melville

Today, Maureen, Jennifer and I start our Yangtze cruise holiday. Our flight to Chongqing (where we will board the ship tomorrow evening ) leaves at 1:30 pm. The three of us have missed flights. We are paranoid we will miss this flight. We are worried about May Day traffic. We start out for the airport super early. We have arranged for a taxi to meet us in front of the school at 9:30 am.

The driver arrives at the front gate. Maureen goes out to get him. She leads him back to pick us up at the apartment. We do not want the construction workers to all see us leave all at once in case one of them is the door jiggler.

The driver drives us to the airport without delay, without fanfare. We see the bullet train on its way back from the airport while we are en route to the airport. This train takes 15 minutes from downtown to get to the Shanghai Pudong Airport but it is not convenient for us and it is 50 kuai which would not save us any money when that is multiplied by three.

The taxi pulls up to the terminal. We unload the bags and wonder why the cab ride is 220 rmb. It should be 150 rmb at the most. The cabbie tells Jennifer he added extra to pay his fare from where he came or something like that. Jennifer with 9 months in China under her belt understands a few basic phrases. None of us think the cab charge is fair but we cannot do anything about it because this is something that happens in another country where you do not know the language or the customs. Fortunately, we do not let this spoil our fun. We walk into the terminal nonplussed.

In the terminal, we wander around looking for our ticketing agent. After we look for a few minutes we see a sign that points the way to domestic flights. We follow this sign and wind around to our agent. We have no problem checking in.

After we check in, we decide to have lunch. We look over the menu at a restaurant with table cloths. The price is right and the food looks good – and there are table cloths. We sit down. I order a coke (15 rmb) which costs almost as much as my entrée – skewered spicy beef and bell peppers (25 rmb). We share an order of asparagus and dumplings. Jennifer orders noodles. Maureen orders skewered chicken and vegetables.

My coke arrives. Jennifer and Maureen drink water. The busboy lays black lacquer (with pearl inlay) chop sticks on the table. Jennifer and I get our meals. Maureen does not. I pick at the side of vegetables – quartered corn on the cob and a rectangular steamed green veggie that has the consistency of a potato – while we wait for Maureen’s meal. After we wait for what seems to be an eternity for Maureen’s meal, we call the waitress over and ask her what the problem is. She explains but we do not understand what she is saying. The dumplings arrive. I eat only two. Jennifer eats three. Maureen eats three. I start eating my skewered beef which is delicious.

Finally, Maureen’s skewered chicken arrives. What looked like vegetables on the menu is actually cartilage. Although I try not to start laughing, I cannot help it I start laughing. The chicken happens to be spicy too. Maureen and Jennifer hate spicy food. Maureen tries to wipe the spices off before she eats each piece of chicken. She does not eat the cartilage. As she is going through this procedure, I nonchalantly wipe and swipe my chop sticks. Neither of them notices.

The gate changes three times before gate 6 is settled upon by the authorities as the departure gate. By the time we find our way to the gate the plane is boarding.We catch our flight with no problem. We are grateful we gave ourselves a few hours extra window. Time flies at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

The flight is fine. I have another coke or two on the plane. We are brought a snack - a chocolate bun, apple chips, pistachios, and a two pack of cookies. This is a nice touch form Eastern China Airlines. “Burning Airlines give you so much more.”

As we walk through the expansive corridors of this new desolate airport we see signs advertising Palm Springs which I think queer. Why would there be adverts for Palm Springs in the middle of China? I realize upon leaving the airport that the place we have landed is China’s equivalent to Palm Springs.

We are on the bus leaving the Chongqing airport. The bus cost 15 rmb (a bit less than $2). We will take a taxi to the hotel from where the bus drops us. The bus rolls up and down rolling hills on a smooth highway. In America (in this sort of town), the bus would pass retirement communities, Baptist Churches, R.V. parks and sales lots. Here in China, the bus passes government surplus trucks and tiny economy cars and cycles. 250 cc being the biggest of the cycles.

Coming closer to town, the poverty is hidden behind palm trees and weeping willows. As with many places here, new buildings stand beside condemned buildings. The condemned buildings almost stand in defiance.

The bus stops at a cruise ship rendezvous point. Cruise hawkers descend on the arrivals from the airport. A male hawker latches on to Jennifer. He knows a bit of English. She tells the hawker we already have tickets. She then goes into the street to flag down a cab. Quite a few cabs with passengers pass. Finally one stops. The heat of the day is making us restless.

Jennifer gives the cabbie the hotel address. He does not understand. She tells him a few times. Most of the time cab drivers, clerks, and waitresses understand Jennifer. Jennifer calls the hotel. The clerk talks to the cabbie; he still does not understand. He orders us out of the cab. Maureen refuses to budge. All of us are discouraged. We finally get out of the cab and stand around. We survey the street for other cabs. Again, cabs pass with passengers.

Finally another cab stops. Jennifer tells him the address. He looks at us and shakes his head. He does not know the address. We are stunned that two cabs would not know the address of the hotel. We had spotted this hotel in a travel guide. Once again, we get out of the cab. We stand around again and try to decide upon our next move.

Another taxi pulls up. We ignore it. We assume no taxi drivers know their way. Men with bamboo poles are standing beside us pointing to the taxi and saying things to us which of course we do not understand. I tell Jennifer she should ask the driver if he knows the address. We might as well; it will not hurt anything. Maureen tells me this one will not know since the other two didn’t. I think we should give it a try. Jennifer tells him the address and asks if he knows where it is. He shakes his head yes.

We hop in the cab. We are happy. We speed past the nice part of the city down a spiraling hill that makes hills in San Francisco look like the hills of Cleveland…Oklahoma. We pull into a huge parking lot which is the Chongquing bus station and train station. How the other taxis did not know this address is a mystery to me. More of a mystery to me than the (pre Stevie and Lyndsey) Fleetwood Mac album ‘Mystery to Me.’ The cabbie points to the direction of the hotel. We get out. We get our backpacks and baggage. We walk down the sidewalk toward the hotel past peddlers peddling food including live chickens and ducks. Our hotel is just pass the chickens and ducks in all of its faded glory. We walk in and check in. We leave a 112 rmb deposit which we will get back if we do not pull a Barry Manilow and trash the room. Or is that a John Tesh?

We take our bags to our room, 9013. We enter the room which smells like grandma’s house – mildew, cigarettes and cat piss. Three twin beds - with little space between them - take up most of the room, a television on a beat-up television stand (with a faulty leg) and two dilapidated dining chairs with soiled cushions occupy the rest of the wall space in the room. Jennifer and Maureen throw their bags on the first two beds. I throw my bag on the 3rd bed which is next to the window. From my bed, I watch the construction of an overpass which is the same height as our 9th floor room. The accommodations are far from glorious. Nevertheless, we are happy to be in our room.

After we gather our thoughts for fifteen or twenty minutes, we decide to explore the city. We take a stroll past the chickens and the ducks in search of a tram which is on the map Maureen bought from a map-seller on the street. The tram goes from the mountainous part of Chongqing down to the river. We set out to find this. I am chicken to tell them how I hate heights - which is a phobia that has reared its ugly phobic head within the last ten years.

We wander through the bus station parking lot which is surrounded by overpasses, underpasses and pedestrian tunnel mazes. Into the tunnels we head which are full of stores selling everything from Chinese medicine – which include preserved snakes and turtles in jars – to clothing. Discarded girlie picture playing cards lay strewn throughout the tunnels. Each time we come out of an exit from the tunnel, we realize we are not in the spot in which we need to be.

The third exit out of which we come back into daylight, we find ourselves at last heading up the road which we believe is the right one. As we come upon a child pooping on the sidewalk, we avert our eyes. We walk past noodle dives, ghetto food markets and scooter repair shops. As we walk by these places, the locals look up to see us pass. Some folks say hello; some just stare. We say ‘hello’ and ‘ni hao’ to a family in the middle of the sidewalk sitting around a table having an early dinner. After we walk past this block, we come upon a ‘Y’ in the road. We must cross to the other side of the road because past the ‘Y’, there is no longer a sidewalk. We have started our ascent up the hill. The cars, scooters, cycles, bicycles, busses are coming down the hill at full speed. This looks as if this might be my most dangerous Chinese street crossing yet. This makes me think of when I see people running across a busy highway in Los Angeles or Dallas in America and I always think those people idiotic. I am now one of the idiotic.

The three of us look at each other as if to ask if anyone among us has an idea. A few more people walk up and are in this makeshift group of would-be road crossers. We look at our new acquaintances expectantly. They look back at us expectantly. None of us know quite what to do. A guard joins our group. We are thankful. He will certainly know how to cross. We look up again. He is gone. Yes, he does know how to cross. He does not hesitate. Our group follows his example but this does not work as well for us. We get stuck in the middle with a bus bearing down on us. I look toward the oncoming traffic. I look back again. Maureen, the sly birdflu fox, crossed while I was looking at oncoming traffic. Jennifer and I and the other terrified pedestrians make a break for it to the sound of car and cycle horns. Relieved, once we are on the other side of the road, I narrowly escape getting clipped by a bus rearview.

We walk a few steps further and decide to splurge and get a taxi. A taxi stops. We get in. We tell him where we want to go. There is a monument which immortalizes the people’s revolution near the tram. Jennifer tells him to take us there. The taxi climbs up the hill which is fairly step. We realize once the taxi drops us at our destination that the walk would have been a long steep one. We are glad we hailed the cab.


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