THE HOTTEST CUP OF INSTANT COFFEE I drank on my first visit to mainland China was served aboard the fast double-decker train we rode from the garden town of Suzhou (pronounced ‘sue-joe’) to the modern city of Shanghai. Yes, it was powdered milk. And yes, you got sugar whether you wanted it or not. But after two weeks of green tea, that caffeine tasted fantastic …
As we sped through the Chinese countryside – past murky canals, arched bridges, lotus ponds, fish-farms, rubble-strewn backyards, and a never-ending patchwork of paddy-fields – I added our split-level carriage (labelled ‘Soft-Sitting’ for tourists) to the list of ‘firsts’ we were keeping in our diary.
Earlier that morning, we had toured a silk factory (another ‘first’) where we’d witnessed a swarm of wriggly silkworms chomping a leafy meal – and a zillion silk-cocoons getting sorted, boiled, unwound and spun into huge hanks of magic thread: China’s oldest export. (You probably don’t know this, but the fine silk strand from a single cocoon can stretch to more than one kilometre!)
The day before, we’d been shown around a fresh-water pearl farm (yes, a further ‘first’) – where white, pink and even purple pearls are grown by their thousands in the guts of healthy-looking oysters, submerged in string-bags in slow-flowing rivers.
And, speaking of guts, we’d spent the day before the day before in a smallish 2000-year-old town called Wuxi (pronounced ‘woosh-ee’ – meaning literally ‘there is no tin’). Tin or no tin, we’d splashed our way around the local Farmers’ Market and watched live frogs being dealt to (heads snipped off with a pair of scissors) … live eels being gutted (held by the snout, hooked by the tail, then slit from top-to-toe) … and live chickens being plucked, skinned and decapitated (then weighed, still-twitching, on traditional Chinese scales).
I say “we” … but my wife had gone suddenly squeamish. And I’d found her, later, in the fruit’n’veg section!
Of all the attractions we’d seen so far in this very attractive country, nothing – no, not even the Great Wall or the Buried Terracotta Soldiers – attracted our attention as much as the KIDS.
In the cities, there seemed to be millions of them: clinging to their parents on pushbikes … hanging off the sides of rickshaws … toddling along crowded footpaths in their crotchless pants … peering suspiciously at us from the safety of their mother’s arms … dancing around us at footpath-stalls, crying “Lookee! Lookee!” and begging us to buy their postcards, bicycle-bells, jade Buddhas – anything, please?
And in the towns and hamlets we stopped at during our leisurely five-day cruise on the Yangtze River, the kids just got more and more cute.
The Yangtze – also called Chang Jiang (Long River) – leaves mountains in the south-west and drifts eastward for 6000 kilometres, before emptying out into the Yellow Sea. Untold Chinese are born, live, work and die along its muddy banks. And construction on the world’s largest hydro dam was completed here in 2012, swallowing up homes and farms and ancient sites, and displacing countless people (who, today, live in modern towns and apartments above the new high-water mark).
The famous Three Gorges (after which the dam is named) lure visitors from all over. And as our ship – the ‘Splendid China’ – manoeuvred through surging currents and swirling eddies and narrow canyons, sheer cliffs soaring above and the sky almost shut out … I could understand why.
We glided past a hive-of-activity port with cranes crowding the skyline … then a village with a pagoda … then a rural stretch, with lonely figures wielding hoes, and green crops clinging to steep slopes … then a cluster of huts, a sampan pulled up on the beach, a man plucking ducks at the water’s edge, and a woman pounding her laundry against rocks.
One of our daily shore-excursions saw us bouncing up twisty mountain roads in a minibus … clambering down 400 steps to the gushing Shennong Stream … donning orange life-jackets … sitting in rows aboard long wooden ‘pea-pod’ boats … and enjoying two hours of traditional Chinese river-rafting: sparkling rapids, deep green pools, breath-taking scenery, plus the odd monkey in the trees, while a pretty young Chinese girl serenaded us with a haunting melody.
When we finally climbed out to return to our floating hotel, the stripped-down-and-barefoot oarsmen slung ropes over their shoulders and, chanting some ancient song, began hauling their ‘pea-pods’ back upstream.
For us, it was all-aboard the ‘Splendid China’. The gangplank was raised. The crew cast-off. The captain gave a shattering blast on the ship’s foghorn. And as we pushed out into the current, the children of the Yangtze ran along the embankment, waving their little arms off and calling, “Zaijian!” Goodbye …