From Wuhan to the Yangtze River cruise
Covering more than 30 countries in the Asia Pacific region, and then doing a round-the-world once or twice a year to keep abreast of developments in other markets would make me qualify as a traveler of sorts. Alas, if I don’t watch it, I mostly turn up in a city, any city, sometimes late in the evening, retire to a nice hotel and then spend the next few days shuttling between banks or conferences, meet a lot of (boring, sorry) bankers, leave again and see nothing of that city.
A saving grace in this otherwise moribund lifestyle is the opportunity to take short side trips and understand a country better by interacting with the local people and so on. And I take a generous dose of these trips which I don’t write very much about except here in the blog.
I have considerable time and a deep affection for China. Don’t ask me why here, I will explain another time. So, when Benny Zhang (Zhang Wei), one of my staff was getting married in his hometown Wuhan, in Hubei province, I took the liberty of using that as an excuse to visit with yet another city in a country I have come love very much. I turned up at his wedding by flying to Hong Kong and then taking one of those people mover vehicles across into Shenzen, sleeping overnight in a less than nice hotel and then flying at day break to Wuhan.
Benny and his new wife Linda made me the guest of honour, which meant I had to give a luncheon speech to 500 relatives and friends from both sides of the family. Linda did the translating while I spoke in English (after saying a few cursory words in Chinese to impress the crowd, hmm hmm). She was hilarious because it was obvious from the length of my comments and the length of her translation that she was not translating, but giving her own speech which I am sure included a few words about me. During the toasts around the table, she was the one doing the dragging of my poor Benny from table to table while he dutifully played along. All in good fun, of course!
Benny had (thoughtfully) sat me on a table with several bankers from ICBC and Agricultural Bank local branches, so even there was an opportunity to network with …. even more bankers! I use such opportunities to ask a few questions to understand ground level issues. All very interesting.
After the luncheon, I was introduced to the military commander for the city of Wuhan (man, I did not realise that my humble staff was well connected in his hometown!) who, completely intoxicated, invited me to join him in endless rounds of mao tai. I don’t know of anyone who has ever disagreed with a military commander of a large city in the middle of China, and I was not going to risk it. It was all good fun.
I drew the line with Benny and Linda when they told me that the family was waiting to take me on a sight seeing tour of the city in the evening and the next day. I made it very clear to Benny that it was his wedding and he should completely not worry about me at all. The best thing I could do following that would be to disappear so that the family would not be distracted by me and have the wedding to themselves.
My choice of a disappearing act was to sign up to a river boat cruise up the Yangtze river where the Three Gorges Dam was and up to Chong Qing. I had made enquires in the morning by mobile phone and a travel agent told me to just turn up at Lichang, which was four hours away from Wuhan by bus. The river boats don’t go down to Wuhan anymore because the dam is already up and filling up fast. They will resume going the full length when the locks system starts working sometime next year, I am told. When I explained this to Benny, he assigned his relative to drive me to the bus station, which was really very gracious of all of them.
I arrived in Yichang waiting for my mobile phone to ring because I had lost the number from the morning. I took a taxi who said the fare to the boat would be five yuan (wu kuai), which gave me a sense of how cheap things were in this city. When I could not give him any idea of the name of the ship that I was going to join (I had no clue and was still buying time for the travel agent I spoke to in the morning to call me, he said 7.30pm), he called his friend who spoke English. As it turned out, very conveniently, his friend was a travel agent still sitting around in a travel agency that was open in a quiet street around the corner.
Now, you would imagine that all this was a setting for me to get ripped off and maybe robbed. The friendly travel agent, whose office was conveniently around the corner from where the taxi driver stopped his cab and called him, said he could put me on a river cruise right away. But he did not accept credit cards and so I had to walk with him to a not-so-nearby ATM along a dark street to withdraw cash and so on to register for the ship that evening. The guy I had spoken to in the morning called me after I had paid this second guy and I discovered that they were both referring to the same ship and I left it to them to sort out who claimed me as their customer.
Now, in China there is always the fear that sweet looking young guys would rip you off at the first instance, so I was going very much by faith here and kept asking many questions to find for even a trace of the potential of being ripped off. I am happy to say that the truth is that inasmuch as China does have many touts and pick pockets, my personal experience has mostly been of honest people doing the right thing. In fact, I’d say that I generally meet pretty decent people from what would be middle class backgrounds in other countries.
Of course you have be vigilant and not walk right into obviously compromised situations, such as taking an anonymous taxi to a location you have no idea about and being led to a travel agent who was still suspiciously open at 8pm in the night… maybe there is something wrong with my logic here, but at the end of the day… carpe diem, man, carpe diem!
Before long I was in the ship, where there was berth for the night before it set sail the next morning. It is actually a large five story ship capable of taking some 180 passengers and 100 crew or something like that. Big ship.