Across the Middle Kingdom
4 August 1998 - Dazu / Chongqing / Xi'an
Another early morning bus ride. Joy.
On the way out of Dazu, we stopped at a roadside/village farmer's market. That's the best way to describe it, since we seemed to be in a small village, but the market vendors lined both side of the road, plus a village street besides, and the entire area was choked with shoppers. At first I was going to stay on the bus, which was cool, quiet, and didn't require effort, but something spurred me to follow Kat into the crowd.
As usual, I'm glad I chose to participate rather than sit on the sidelines. The activity was fascinating, and some of the things we saw were even more so. For example, at one point a man passed me, carrying a pole across his shoulders. From each end of the pole were hung a number of ducks, strung by their feet. Then one of them starting flapping its wings, nearly hitting me-- and startling me, since I hadn't realized they were still alive! Elsewhere, a woman packed eggs in wet ash to create "Thousand Year Eggs," and a man was selling live chicks from a variety of bird species. Spice merchants and trinket peddlers were everywhere.
So were gawkers. Almost immediately, I noticed people starting at me, and as we moved through the crowd, I would sometimes look around and notice people just standing and eyeing me with a mixture of curiosity, wariness, and disbelief. Kay says she spotted some mothers turning their infant children's heads to look away from me. At least one woman I noticed looking at me as if I had extra arms, or maybe antennae.
Welcome to rural China!
The way we figure it, I drew so much notice for three basic reasons, besides my obviously Caucasian features: my beard, since facial hair seems to be pretty rare in China; my height, which was probably about six inches taller than the crowd average, maybe more; and my hair color, since in a country where everyone has dark hair, red is sort of noticeable. Plus, from what I was told, red hair is thought to be the sign of a demon. I guess television isn't common out in the country, so Westerners are a curiosity to begin with. Throw someone like me into the mix, and it's a wonder I didn't get doused with holy water or confronted with signs of warding or something.
Kat drew some notice of her own: a small girl of no more than six years, dressed in a white-and-pink dress and clutching an popsicle of some kind, followed Kat practically everywhere in the market. No matter where Kat went, this little one was always no more than a few steps behind. At one point, Kat stopped to 'converse' with some other children by pretending to forget how to count past six, and her shadow joined in the fun. I'm not sure who was most amused by the counting game-- Kat, the children, or the children's mothers and assorted other spectators.
So after that fun, we rumbled off to Chongqing. Before lunch we went to the zoo to see some pandas. This wasn't nearly as exciting as you might think, although given that pandas are likely to be extinct within 30 years, I should be grateful to see even the backside of a panda-- which was about all we could see. We also got pictures of the 'Little Panda,' which is a brownish raccoony sort of animal.
After lunch we went to the Stillwell museum, which I thought was tremendously boring (even given my interest in 20th Century warfare). The views of the city from outside the museum, on the other hand, were wonderful. Then it was off to some sort of opera house, or national theater-- I've forgotten already what its functoin was. It was quite nice on the outside, and very much under construction on the inside. I wasn't sure exactly why we'd stopped there, except we had time to kill before going to the airport and there was a fine arts gift shop inside.
Another plane to Xi'an. Thankfully, we had almost no delay, no touble at all-- until we boarded the plane. More mass confusion in boarding, plus it was HOT on the plane. The air conditioning wasn't on, and the seats could be pushed forward until they lay flat. Not the sturdiest seats I've ever seen. Some of the labelling is in Cyrillic, even though it's another 737. If there's one thing which makes me feel good, it's flying on a Boeing product the Russians decided to sell used.
So we sat there, sweltering and wondering how hot the plane would get during the flight. Then the cabin crew came through and handed out complementary had fans. Not a good sign, we thought-- but then, when the engines were fired up for taxiing, the air conditioning kicked on. The cold air hitting the hot, humid air in the cabin caused condensation jets to shoot out of the overhead air vents-- plus out of the seams in the ceiling of the cabin.
Well, we got there in relative comfort once the cabin had cooled down, and of course piled onto another bus. This resulted in considerable entertainment later on. Xi'an is one of the few cities in China with an intact city wall. The city now stretches beyond the walls, of course, but they're still there and they're quite impressive.
They're also an obstacle to traffic flow. At one point we came to a pair of arches, side by side, through which the road went, one arch to a side. However, some drivers decided that since things were slow, they'd try using the other arch. So we had traffic going both directions through both arches. Woohoo!
The fun only increased when our bus driver decided to follow the example and try going through the wrong arch. Then a guy appeared next to the bus, gesturing and scowling. Someone thought he wanted to get on, bu I pointed out that he was a policeman or soldier telling us that we should maybe try going through the correct arch. Lemme tell ya, if there's anything scarier than a full-size bus on the wrong side of the road in a traffic jam, it's a full-size bus trying to back up in said traffic jam.
We finally reached our hotel, the ANA Grand Castle. Truly superb... possibly the best of the tour. And our window looks out at the South Gate of the city walls, which is a wonderful sight.
No Internet in the business center, though.