Travel without Porpoise: Part I

Note from Mickey: All events are real and took place on a trip which I made primarily in order to join an Earthwatch project to “Save the Chinese River Dolphin”. I speak and read Chinese at a tolerable level. I love China and most things Chinese, but can’t help smiling at some of the cultural differences. If the events relayed here strike you as implausible, I can’t help it.
August 10th
Arrived in Shanghai and took a taxi to the hotel. When I asked the driver to give me an estimate of the fare, he turned his head and stuck his tongue out at me. I ignored this and asked again. This time he said, “You’ll find out when we get there.” I was to find out later, sometimes there’s a minimum charge when you get in a cab, and sometimes there isn’t. You can make the same trip twice for drastically different fares.
The hotel was a three star, modern place. The buttons in the elevator were reversed so the basement button was on top and all the floors were backwards. My room, 1405, was on the fourth floor. I went to use the business center. From the pattern, I guessed it would be on the second floor and start with 12. It wasn’t but the room number didn’t matter because the door had no numbers on it and was almost impossible to locate. When I found the center, all the computers were down. I wouldn’t be able to find out anything about flights. Back in my room, the TV had MTV from Hong Kong.
August 11
Ah, the airport again. Domestic terminal this time. People were actually waiting in a line for check-in for the flight to Xian. Adjacent was an office with a sign, “Joint Establishment for the Provision of Civilization at Shanghai Airport.” Like I said, I didn’t expect to see people all lined up nicely. In my experience, airport lines in China can resemble a riot in a soccer stadium.
I went to my hotel and asked the clerk if she knew how to contact the local CITS office. I called the number she gave me, got transferred to many different people and got cut off twice. Exasperated, I decided to go there in person. When I got directions, I found out the office was only one block away. Perhaps she stereotyped as a lazy American and hadn’t even thought about telling me this.
When I finished arranging my train to Xian, I returned to the hotel and asked if they could change money for me. She told me to go to a bank. I asked if she had maps and she directed me to a counter in the lobby. The girl behind the counter gave me a dirty look when I asked her for a map. When I didn’t go away, she cast a baleful look at the cabinet behind her and said, “Afternoon.” I said, “Now.” She didn’t have the cabinet key and had to ask three people for it, and also had to walk at least twenty feet in the process. When she opened the cabinet, there was just one map to be had. She didn’t seem to want to part with it, but reluctantly sold it to me.
I took a stroll on a street blocked by construction. This is a very common nuisance. In fact, my brother says he’ll go back to China when they finish building it. I bought an ice cream from a vendor, coconut, I think, with some bits inside that I hoped were raisins. I found a little temple and bought a ticket to go in. Just inside the gate was a kiddie amusement park. One contraption was like a small train except the front car, which should have been an engine, was a series of mechanical monkeys whose feet moved pedals which turned the train’s wheels. The other ride was a dragon-go-round. A group of adults were at a table playing dominoes. They were gambling. They didn’t seem to mind being watched. When I asked if I could take their photo, one man joked I should take a photo of his friend’s fat stomach. Just then a man came from a side path and warned the players they were doing something illegal. They gave him contemptuous looks and ignored him. The man shook his head and left.
The Da Xing Shan Temple has its origins in the Tang era. I did some sketching outside, then went inside, passing a sign asking people not to graffiti. One room had incense burning in front of a Buddhist altar. There were three cushions on the floor in front of it. I thought they were made of embroidered silk, but when I got up close I discovered they were made entirely of colored magazine pages that had been cut, folded and woven together.
The afternoon was extremely hot and humid. I took a cab to the Xian museum. The taxi meter said 6.80 when I got in. Turns out, it was stuck there. I think the driver knew it. Neither of us complained. There were two entrances at the museum. One for people who live in China and another for everyone else. The latter led right to a huge gift shop. The museum displays the history of the province which stretches back to the stone age. After a while, I went to the cafe to buy a drink. Several employees were watching a soap opera from Taiwan. I watch those on TV in California, but I hadn’t seen this one. We started to talk and most of them agreed with me that the plots are pretty far-fetched. We had a good laugh. They strongly stated that the Taiwanese don’t speak “real” Chinese.
That evening, a woman from CITS helped me find the right train to ChongQing. The station was total bedlam. Outside, a block long traffic jam and and shoving match, inside like an overcrowded beehive. Once we found the train, I was, of course, not placed in the compartment which was listed on my ticket.
My compartment mates were a mother and her ten year-old son (dad got booted to another car) and 2 young Japanese men. There are four bunks. I took the bottom bunk and played dumb. The Japanese guys didn’t speak anything but their own language which was good, considering what was being said about them in Chinese. (The the Second World War’s not over for many Chinese.)The kid and his mom were supposed to sleep above me, but the kid didn’t even try to sleep until 3:00 AM. The kid and his mother both showed a complete lack of of awareness of what we call “personal space,” with never a thought of curbing any of their activites which might discomfort anyone else. This is a nice way of saying that if you wish to sleep on a train like that, wear earplugs. I didn’t. I fell asleep at 4:00 a.m. When I awoke at 6:30, the train was already going into the tunnels, which is why I’d taken the long ride, so I got out my camera and staggered to the corridor where they have fold-out seats under the windows. I sat there until 10:00. Meanwhile, mom and sonny had taken over my bunk, but when they went to the bathroom I sprawled out on it and covered my face with a washcloth. When I woke up at noon, I found a mini-international incident was taking place in front of me.
To be continued.

~ by mickeyhoffman on January 29, 2011.

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