Friday, 31 October 2008

China: People of the Middle Kingdom

I've spent the past week in China with colleagues from the Australian Society of Travel Writers. After we held our Annual General Meeting in Shanghai, we flew out west to Chongqing to join a cruise down the Yangtze River to Yichang. We're now in Wuhan, waiting to fly home.

It's been an amazing week full of large, spectacular sights, from the massive modern architecture of Shanghai to the majestic gorges of the Yangtze. But travel stories - like all stories - are about people, and I've been struck by the friendliness and relaxed practicality of the Chinese we've met on the way.

A few snapshots:

  • The stallholder on Shanghai's Old Street, who cheerfully haggled with me over the price of a number of items I wished to buy. Her running commentary on her fairly absurd stock (waving Mao watches included) was high spirited and not too pushy. We left the best of friends after settling on a price by alternately typing our bids on a calculator.
  • The musician playing a string instrument at a teahouse above the markets. He and his partner played a number of traditional tunes in classic robes - then launched into an instrumental version of Click Go the Shears. I looked up sharply from my jasmine tea, and we shared a knowing glance.
  • Steven Xu, the bar manager on the Victoria Queen cruise boat, who talked to me about his experiences serving foreigners floating up and down the Yangtze. As his parents and grandparents are small-time farmers with a small income, he says they're proud of his work on the river. He keeps in touch with pen pals from among his former passengers, and hopes to travel to Australia one day, to visit one.
  • The boatmen who operate the sampans along a narrow side gorge we visited one day. Ceaselessly cheerful, they helped visitors in and out of the boats and piloted them through rainy weather through an impressive stretch of rocky cliffs. In straw hats and lifejackets, they looked like they were really enjoying their jobs. I asked Steven what they'd be doing if there were no tourism, and he said they'd probably have departed for industrial work in some distant city. Much more rewarding to be out on the water.
  • Our guide to the Three Gorges Dam, Kevin, who had a cheerful patter worked out about being "a good dam guide or a damn good guide". I told him our prime minister, Kevin Rudd, also spoke Mandarin, so there was more than one Mandarin-speaking Kevin. To which he said "But mine is better - you can't beat a native speaker".
  • The guys on the coal scow that nestled next to our boat on the journey through the multiple locks that bypass the Three Gorges Dam. I stepped out on my cabin's balcony and saw them below, standing on the front of the scow, helping direct the pilot's placement. They looked up, I waved, and they returned the wave while simultaneously shouting "Hello!".
It can't always be easy living in such an overpopulated country, but the Chinese do it with good humour and an unexpected grace.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.