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Across the Middle Kingdom

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9 August

29 July 1998 - Suzhou / Shanghai / Wuhan

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This morning we visited the Lingering Garden here in Suzhou. It was so named because one of its owners wanted it to linger through the ages, but Kat and I felt it was also a good name because the garden made one want to linger there-- for hours or days, if possible. The composition, statuary, and everything else were extraordinarily beautiful, on many levels. I took a number of pictures, but no matter how well they turn out, they can't possibly hope to convey even the least aspect of the beauty of this garden. If I can ever afford it, I'd love to recreate as much of this garden as possible. Not that I'll ever be able to do so, of course, but it's nice to dream.

We ate a vaguely dissatisfying lunch on the bus back to Shanghai, where we were to catch our flight to Wuhan. We did, too; after all, it left only four hours after its scheduled departure. Another airport, another interminable wait.

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We read, we watched the same loop-tape program about fourteen times, we stared at walls. We sighed. Kat befriended a young Chinese girl and taught her to play backgammon. I got restless after finishing a book and wandered the length of the terminal. We bought lot of spring rolls (which were really good) and I purchased some vanilla Häagen-Dazs. A thunderstorm rolled in from the west, so I watched that too.

At long, long last, we boarded a cramped 737/300-- from both ends, at once. Not a bright idea on the part of the flight crew; there was the inevitable mid-plane traffic jam. Fortunately, I'd realized that we would be near the back of the plane, and took us through the rear door. Many others were not so lucky.

So we eventually flew to Wuhan, which turned out to be a closed port, due to the flooding. This meant that we'd have to endure a five-hour-plus bus ride to where our ship was docked, just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam site. So we jumped on another bus, this one to a hotel where the real bus was waiting. We had yet another local guide, who (as it turned out) was only with us for the length of the bus trip to the hotel. She kept talking to us about anything and everything under the sun, and then suddenly announced that she'd like to sing for us, and thereupon launched into Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," from "Titanic."

This was truly surreal. There we were, riding one bus to get onto another, it was about 8:00pm, and we hadn't eaten in quite some time. The trip to the boat was beginning to take on an aspect of infinity; I think several of us were starting to feel that we'd never get there. And this woman was singing, very nearly on key, a song from "Titanic." We blinked, smiled uncertainly, and wondered what exactly was going on.

So she finished the song and said "Thank you," very shyly. There was about a half-second of silence, and then Kat, sitting in the front of the bus, asked suddenly, "How long until we get there?"

Pat Murphy and I thought it was the funniest thing we'd ever heard.

We finally made it to the hotel and the bus, which in fact had already taken on other people headed to the same boat. Only one hitch: the bus didn't have enough seats for our group.

So we waited in the lobby of the hotel, still unfed, to see if the Victoria Cruise Lines (VCL) guy could find another bus. And waited. And--

Finally, around 10:30pm (this was after about two hours of waiting), the VCL rep said they'd found a bus and that it should arrive soon. Kat, meanwhile, was entering into a pre-migraine which threatened to mushroom into a major situation. Fortunately, she'd brought the relevant medication and managed to avoid a full-blown migraine. Barely. The medicine did make her amusingly goofy for a while, but that didn't really compensate. I killed time reading official Chinese government propag-- er, I mean information about the society, economy, and so on.

Somewhere between 11:00pm and 11:30pm, the bus showed up. We lined up eagerly at the door, only to find the driver not opening it. Instead he started negotiating with the VCL people for some huge sum of money to make the trip (I heard Y10,000 but suspect it may have been closer to Y7000, which is still more that the average annual income of a city dweller, according to the Chinese government). Curtis and the VCL guy actually had to borrow yuan from members of our group, promising to pay it back once we reached the ship.

Fairly close to midnight, we started rolling. To be completely honest, I was afraid for all of us-- suspecting that we'd be held up for more money halfway there, et cetera, and not knowing what might happen if we didn't pay up. Still we were on our way and I had to simply go with the flow. What other choice did I (or any of the others) have?

Very soon after we departed Wuhan, the road turned really ugly. In places, it basically didn't exist. We'd gone from a two-lane highway (four lanes total) to the aftermath of World War III. We began to see why the driver might have wanted such a large fee for the trip. We assumed the condition of the road was massive flood damage, but the VCL guy said that it was just under construction and that it was always this bad. Apparently the Chinese haven't caught onto the idea of working on one lane at a time-- or maybe there had been flood damage, and this was reconstructive work. It was hard to tell, since it was quite dark out.

During this entire trip, sleep was very difficult. The seats were fairly cramped (worse than economy class in some jets I've been on), the road was impossible, and the air conditioning was on full blast. At one point, Curtis got the driver to turn off the A/C, concerned that people would get sick. After a while, though, people complained that it was too hot, and the A/C was turned back on. As it would turn out, in at least one case, Curtis was 100% correct.

The road eventually smoothed out, and I was able to get small amounts of sleep here and there. I also managed to rig a cold-air deflector by jamming the window curtain into the A/C vents above me. If I kept my arm covered with my makeshift blanket (a towel-- what else?), I was fairly warm.

The ride continued. We stopped once at a "rest area" which was, shall we say, not quite up to Western standards. We spent close to ten minutes at a security checkpoint near our destination-- we don't know why, and the VCL guy said it was very unusual to have to wait like that. At one point, I think I spotted the driver skimming the toll-gate fund. The night was very dark and the country seemed very empty.

All told, it was with great relief that we pulled up to the stairs leading down to our ship. Except as soon as Curtis and the VCL guy stepped off the bus, the driver closed the door and commenced arguing with the VCL people.

So we sat there-- again-- wondering if this guy was going to refuse to let us off, or drive into the river, or something equally lunatic. I actually checked to see if the windows would open enough for us to jump out (they would). I was ready to go to great lengths to make sure we got off that bus, and I wasn't the only one, either. We'd all just about had it with the entire situation.

Incredibly-- and perhaps somewhat anticlimactically-- the doors opened and Curtis led us onto solid ground. It was just past 5:30am. Beneath a lightening sky, we boarded the Victoria I.

At checkin, Kat went into full hardball mode and, from what I could tell, terrorized the VCL guy (with much help from Curtis) into giving us a room with a single bed. I don't know exactly what she did to pull this off, because I went to sit down; I was feeling a little unstable. Kat came over at one point, took one look at me, and stuck a thermometer in my mouth. I registered 100.2F.

After all the waiting, frustration, patience, and fear, we had finally reached the Three Gorges-- and I was sick, and getting worse.

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