Travels without Porpoise, part four

To be continued…
The taxi driver pulled over when I asked him to. We had a conversation in Chinese and he turned around and took me to the docks, the harbor and then to the old, old, old city. He clearly thought I was insane for wanting to go to these places. I’d been apprehensive that the people in Chongqing wouldn’t speak Mandarin, but he had no trouble and even made an effort to speak slowly to me. He spoke no English. He soon appointed himself to be my official tour guide, which I readily agreed to. I got to practice my Chinese and he asked for much less money than “real” tour guides wanted.
At the base of the old town, the taxi had to stop and the driver said he’d wait for me. I had to walk up narrow flights of stairs to the top of the hill where winding streets bisected blocks of traditional Chinese courtyard homes. I find it sad the city was demolishing most of these old sections without thought about what they’d be losing, and replacing the old buildings with cement buildings that could be anywhere and nowhere.
I sketched at various locations and was mobbed by interested neighbors. The kids would even touch my sketchbook while I was drawing and everyone kept a running commentary on what I was doing. A woman brought me a stool to sit on. Artists are appreciated in China, even if most of them didn’t agree with my choice of subject matter. Most of them, including the taxi driver thought I should be drawing trees and flowers.
He decided to take me across the Yangtse (Changjiang) River where I could get a view of the low mountains on the other side. The first place proved to be a cemetery, but I didn’t want to go in. He explained it was pretty and I still refused. I didn’t know what people might think of a foreign artist drawing their tombs and anyway, I’m not much of a nature sketcher. I bought a bottle of water from a vendor. It turned out to be foul tasting tap water. At least it was water.
We followed a long, winding road with the usual construction and debris on all sides. The destination proved to be one of the former residences of Chang Kai-shek (Jiang jieshi) and a few of his relative’s homes. The ticket seller sold me a ticket without informing me the residences were closed for renovation. My driver was upset at this and wanted to make it up to me by taking me to a ”famous hot springs.” I said it was too far away, but he said we were almost there and he’d buy me lunch. When we got half way there, I saw it in the valley below. Far from what I’d imagined, it looked like a water park, complete with a huge water slide and crowds of people. He thought I’d love it because of Disneyland and all the other usual American pastimes. Since it was extremely hot and humid and I’d been on my feet for hours sketching, I asked him to just take me back to the hotel.
On the way back he asked me if I had an USD to pay him with. I told him I’d pay him in their money, Renmin bi. Then he asked me to write him a check instead. I knew he wanted to do some “business.” After he got my American money he’d make a lot by exchanging it on the black market. I pretended not to know this. To my surprise, he tried a new tactic, telling me he collected money and wanted to put it into a scrapbook. “You know,” he said, “I collect it like some people collect stamps.” I politely told him I didn’t have any USD and he seemed happy enough with the Chinese money when I paid him. It came to less than 40 USD for the whole day, but it was a fortune to him.
Exhausted, I turned on the TV in my hotel room and put my feet up. I had a choice between Oprah and another talk show, both dubbed in Chinese. They’d break for commercials right in the middle of a sentence and when they came back to the show, it had gone on without stopping and the topic would be completely different. After a few hours of this, I headed out for the airport and my flight to Wuhan.
I had a new taxi driver. He made several, near-fatal driving errors. The road was blocked in three spots with rubble and he drove up on the raised center divider and over to the other side of the highway, into the oncoming traffic, and then back again. Honking the horn the whole time as if that would clear up any issues.
When I went through airport security, my shoes set off an alarm. When I pointed at them, the guard, who was half asleep, just waved me through. The waiting room at gate nine was completely empty. Two Taiwanese men came in after a while, and nodded at me, then sat. All was silent except for the eerie whistling of one of the men. Now it was 9:30 p.m. and although the flight was scheduled to depart at 10:00, no other passengers had come. The adjacent gates were also devoid of passengers and no airport workers were to be seen. Even the lights seemed to have dimmed.
To be continued…

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~ by mickeyhoffman on March 23, 2011.

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