A variation on an old axiom: There are no atheists in foxholes or on China Eastern Airlines flights. I think I converted through 7 different religions in the first 10 minutes alone. I have never had such a wicked take-off of sudden steep climbs, turbulence worse than ever, and pretty big accelerations and decelerations. Nice cold sweat bath for my retreat from Beijing after a delay of about an hour on the tarmac.
Change of scene is Wuhan! Which sounds vaguely like Homer Simpson meets Charlie Chan or Slim Pickens goes to Shanghai. I was sick to death of Beijing, mostly the frustration of never being able to find a taxi and even if I did, being refused because most drivers don’t know where anything is. How does THAT work? (Answer: it doesn’t)
An agent explained to me that in China, the north has centralized heat in the winter (Beijing actually pipes boiler water between buildings) while the south doesn’t typically have heated homes. The line is the Yangtze River and, he told me, the rule of heat or no heat is almost down to northern bank yes and southern bank no. No better place to test that theory then than in Wuhan which is split by China’s longest river (which actually runs south to north at this point before making a turn east) with the “towns” of Hankou and Hanyang on the west bank, and Wuchang on the east. I’ll tell you this, the Holiday Inn Riverside has heat and I don’t know how to cool it off.
My view is from the 17th floor overlooking the muddy waters of the Yangtze and Qingchuan Pavilion (a Ming-Dynasty style building but renovated just a couple decades ago – but still, it looks cool). I decided to go on a food trek and asked at the front desk about the subway line I see on the map. “Not built yet.” Beijing and Shanghai are definitely where all the money goes. I how to get to Ji Qing Jie night street for cheap eats and they told me I should take a taxi. Stubborn, I asked about the bus, but was told they don’t go there. Well, how do locals get there? Surely not taxi? English level here does not support discussions and so I bought the 5 yuan tourist map from the front desk and set off walking though I was told that is impossible.
Just one big steel bridge between me and Hankou where all the goodies are across the Hanjiang River (which joins Yangtze just north of the hotel). I see why they advised against walking. I walked on the highway facing traffic once I saw that the locals walked right out there on the shoulderless road. Gets the pulse going. When I got all the way to the top I found stairs coming up from the riverside and a protected pedestrian lane across. Whew.
On the other side I suddenly felt I was in China. Not Beijing and its half brilliance, hastily Westernized, ho-hum, Where you from mister streets. Like honking horns, men pulling what you might call oversize dollies loaded with textiles from little warehouses and shops down to the ports. Food vendors on and off the curb, people scattering everywhere, shouting, working, smoking, crisscrossing, places to be, things to do… the total chaos of real life, real work, no suits and “business” lunches. The hard scrabble honest workaday China.
I bought a piece of flatbread, spicy seasonings and warm from the roadside makeshift oven, black sesame sprinkled on it (which looked disturbingly like the mouse turds from two summers ago when I found the little hole behind the stove in my kitchen, thank you very much.)
I walked many blocks through all of this and then the street opened up to the neon and flashing lights of a commercial zone. Shopping, style, coffee shops, some Western chains (McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, egad, Wal-Mart…) lined the avenue but the air of old China remained with street grills, the energy of a massive moving crowd. And what really left me feeling very very far from Beijing was the fact that not ONE other Westerner appeared ANYWHERE for the next three hours. I drew a few curious glances, but no one shouted Hey, where you from? Come on, I just wanna talk to you! Want to get some tea/socks/look at my art? No one says that crap here because if a local is trying to get by on scamming foreigners he or she is going to have to wait a very long time to actually see one.
I had a couple of recommendations and found one: Si Ji Mei, a restaurant serving the quintessential dumpling of Wuhan. I observed others, ordered one bamboo steam tray of them, and waited in line for a very long time for them to come up. Inside is a bit of pork and broth. Get the broth out with your teeth and a spoon to catch it, then dip the rest of the dumpling into soy with thin strips of ginger in it. Worth the walk and wait.
On the long walk back I came across a little girl, perhaps 5? Soiled from head to toe as if she worked as an auto mechanic all day. Her brother (?) sat nearby clanging a small brass bell/cymbal on the walk as she performed little acrobatic and contortionist feats for change. I stopped when she stepped up to a strange device resting on a strip of soggy cardboard. It was like a one-foot high metal stand with a spinning mouthpiece at the top of it. She bent down and slipped her mouth around this awful dirty cloth-covered thing like the toe part of a shoe stretcher, small enough to fill her tiny mouth. Then, she essentially rested her back on the top of her skull. I don’t know how else to say it. And she started spinning. A head, upright and biting on this tripod, her neck somehow bent back enough, hell, FOLDED back enough so that the center of her spine rested on top of her HEAD, and her legs and feet dangled out in front of her face. I don’t see that it was painful, but the sight of it made my stomach lurch like I was seeing someone cut in half. The bills came out of the pocket for that one. Gees.