The Yangtze river

I had hazy memory from my school books that the Yangtze river is among the world’s longest. Before going to Wuhan, I checked that it is actually the third in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. I’d passed over Wuhan’s Second Yangtze Bridge on the way in from the airport. On the way to see the river a few days later, as the taxi negotiated a traffic tunnel, the driver told me proudly that it is China’s longest: a three kilometer long tunnel under the Yangtze (Changjiang in Mandarin), connecting the Wuchang and Hankou districts of the town. We emerged into Hankou, and turned past a river boat terminal into the mouth of a pedestrian entry.

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Yangtze river cruises through the Three Gorges have been heavily advertised in recent years, and are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. These boats dock at the interesting looking terminal we passed. I got off the car and walked past the levees (which were raised in 2005 to protect the town against flooding) to the river. No large cruise boats were to be seen. But there were these interesting looking boats moored to a quay. They seem to have a very shallow draught, like the famous old sailboats of the Yangtze. I wondered whether they are floating docks or boats, until I went close and found that they are boats. They have so many cabins that they must be used for short cruises. If there were smaller boats I wouldn’t have minded spending a day drifting down this river. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.

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It was late in the morning of a working day, so there weren’t too many people around. I walked down to the water. There was a lone swimmer near the bank, far from him were a couple of anglers. This is a nice lazy pastime. One angler was leaning on a barricade and chatting with another person: a friend or a passerby. You could see from here how wide the river was. It was hard to make out any details in the towers of Wuchang one could see on the far bank. As always in China, things were under construction. You could see cranes poking their necks out over the skyline.

Barely have I drunk the waters of Changsha,
Now I am eating fish in Wuchang.
I swim across the great Yangtse River
And see the sky of Chu unfolding before me.
–Mao Zedong

The Yangtze has inspired poetry from some of the most famous poets of China. Even Mao Zedong wrote about it, after swimming from the Hankou side to Wuchang. This is something that people in China still talk about. I can understand it now. Swimming across this river is a pretty impressive feat. It also helps that Mao was a reasonably good poet in the classical Chinese tradition. The Yangtze attracts Chinese tourists, perhaps in greater numbers than foreigners. I’m happy to see that even on this fairly empty morning I’m not the only tourist toting a camera. At the back you can see the piers where the cruise boats dock, and the passenger terminal building.

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I climbed back up to the levee. On the landward side is a long garden where grandparents had taken their grandchildren for an outing. There were vendors selling glittery kites and a few children were trying to fly them. As I wandered through the garden I heard music. I tracked it down to a person sitting and playing a small stringed instrument which I did not recognize. After he had finished, he packed the instrument into the carry-box of the scooter above, slipped his arms into the gloves built into the blanket you can see in the photo above, and drove off. Electric scooters in China are treated as pedestrians. I’d not seen this interesting blanket before, but it makes sense that they are being brought out in Autumn. I didn’t think it was cold enough for protection, but then I’m from hot and sweltering Mumbai, where the autumn temperature exceeds Wuhan’s fabled summer heat.

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Chinese things which put a smile on our faces

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This is my last post from China, so I’ll list the things which I think will stay longest in my memory.

Selfies is definitely the highest on the list. Interestingly, while youngsters take selfies left, right, and on a stick, somewhat older people don’t. I saw a young couple at the Summer Palace in Beijing taking photos of each other. When I offered to take their photo as a couple on one of their phones, they seemed very happy. They never thought of taking a selfie with both.

Enjoy Dental Clinic may be the next on the list. We saw this from a taxi stuck on Beijing’s 4th ring road. I thought I would go back to take a photo, but agreed with The Family when she said there was no reason to believe that we would get stuck in traffic right there again.

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Couples with matched T-shirts are smile inducing always, but especially when they wear a pair of well-designed black heart on off-white with her heart saying "No", and his saying "Yes". Closely related to this are families in matched clothes: papa, mama and pre-teen daughter wearing white trousers and fluorescent green shirts with grey trim, for example.

Architectural marvels which stay in my memory are not only the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but also the experience in Shanghai of standing near the top of one of the tallest buildings on earth and looking at several others among the ten tallest.

The crowds at Badaling on the Great Wall and in the Forbidden City gave us a sense of how many people there are in China. When you are in India, you get this sense only in railway stations. In China the railway stations are relatively more quiet, at least in May.

The variety of food was something we both expected and didn’t. Chinese food is not unfamiliar anywhere in the world, but eating it in China is an experience. I’ve never sought out vegetables so willingly before. There was only one road in Beijing which served insects and snakes for dinner, so that seems pretty exotic also for the Chinese.

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But most of all, the overwhelming helpfulness. The Family and I remember the worst day of our trip, caught in a thunderstorm in West Lake in Hangzhou, totally drenched, unable to find a taxi, not knowing which bus to take, since we had not planned to take one, and without a single useful word of Putonghua. A completely unknown young couple shared their taxi with us, and directed the taxi driver to our hotel after dropping off enroute. On another occasion I asked a security guard to help me with something, a passing student stopped to translate, and then took the guard’s place so that he could come with me. The most populous country in the world, and so many kind and helpful people!

Daily lives

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In ancient China the emperor was the ultimate teacher. Next to the old Confucius temple in Yonghegong is the Imperial college, where the emperor would teach ethics to monks from the throne in the photo above. However, even earlier, in Marco Polo’s time a traveler could learn from anyone. I find that is even more true today.

Friday was the last day at work in China, and there was a relaxed sense of winding down. We went for lunch in little groups. I was in a knot of people with two of our hosts, in a very relaxed mood. Talk came round to children and their education. One of our hosts had a boy and the other had two girls.

The one with the boy was concerned about the future: she had to put aside 100,000 RMB a year for his education. But isn’t education free in China? Only if you send children to school in your own neighbourhood. She wanted a good education, so the school she’d chosen was in the university area. She could either move there, which would be more expensive, or pay for the school.

Moreover, as we had discovered some time earlier, it was common for the boy, or his parents, to pay for the wedding. Talking to my colleague I had the impression that there was more to it: the parents of the boy were supposed to set up house for the new couple. I joked about buying a flat outside the 6th ring road, currently the limit of the city, because the city would probably have an 8th ring road by the time the boy was old enough to marry. It turned out that this was not a joke, she had already done that. Were they far-sighted parents of a two-year old boy? No, this was common in middle class China.

My other host told us a modern Chinese saying: parents of boys were supposed to be construction bankers, parents of girls were investment bankers. The sex-ratio in China is heavily is skewed towards boys, so both of them agreed that this expense was inevitable, the market correcting social imbalances. They were aware that India also had significantly less girls than boys, although not as bad as China. So they were puzzled why in India the parents of the girls still had to pay for the wedding. I did not talk of the wide-spread violence against women in India; I had not seen or read much like this in China, but my experience is short and the news in China is never complete.

We talked about expenses in general, and both my hosts stated that life is not as comfortable as in the west, and that China is still a poor country. I could agree, but from my Indian perspective I thought that the middle class was quite comfortable. Their arguments centered around the huge costs of buying houses and cars. I see construction all around me even as I go from the hotel to work. The roads are choked with cars: on the road I see Volkswagen, Honda, Chevrolet, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes around me in traffic jams. In our trip to the 798 art district we saw local people buying art all around us. If my host’s complaints were correct, then there is incredible income inequality building in China.

This was confirmed when I challenged their statement about poverty by saying that costs of things I saw in supermarkets were double that in India. The answer they gave is that normal people cannot afford to buy these things. Maybe that is the reason why there are so many fake handbags in China. But China remains different from India, even among fakes there is a clear gradation of quality, with some good-quality fakes called AAA quality being very well made. In India you can often pay good money and get completely shoddy work. I used to put this down to the lack of a legal system, but China also lacks these laws, and they do better.

We talked mostly about China, but I sensed an immense curiosity about India. At one point I said I knew the names of only two animals in Chinese: the dragon (lung) and the elephant (xiang). The two laughed and said these are China and India, which was more powerful? I tried to be diplomatic saying that they never meet. This was an answer they liked, it was repeated a couple of times in agreement. But even so, every explanation about life in China was followed by a question about what it is like in India.

China and India are not direct rivals: the dragon and the elephant are not in a struggle. But both know that there is another power nearby. There are hostile voices in both countries. The struggle of the future will be to figure out how to avoid confrontation. Travel and mutual understanding may eventually help.

Hairstyle

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I’d seen a lot of young boys with very closely cropped hair and thought that was the standard. In comparison, this little guy’s haircut looked pretty funky. Then I began to see advertisement pictures where this haircut seemed to be the standard. Anyway, I still think it looks funky. Teenaged boys in Beijing seem to have a wider variety of hair styles than I’ve noticed in most countries.

Headgear

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The Family first drew my attention to the elaborate headgear which young girls in China wore. One very common thing was a ring of pink synthetic roses worn like a crown. The other was this elaborate hat which we occassionally saw. In Xi’an I managed to photograph the young girl, whose photo you see above, wearing this beautiful hat. Eventually, when we visited the Summer Palace in Beijing we saw the Peking Opera and its costumes, and realized that this lovely hat comes from there. Another mystery unravelled.