January 27, 2009

Up The Yangtze River

Ever since taking a Chinese art history course at college, I have dreamt about a trip on the Yangtze River, gently drifting through an ancient landscape, which has been rendered so delicately by artists for centuries. These paintings seemed to express the respect, gratitude and fear that the inhabitants living along its’ banks felt toward the source of their sustenance, their trade and, also, sometimes their demise. At twenty years old, through the skillful brush strokes of people long gone, I had started to romanticise a far away and exotic place, and fourteen years later, with my boat ticket in hand, I was carefully about to paint my very own experience up the Yangtze.
In Wuhan, Ville and I were discussing our options for a tour with the nice girl at the hostel desk. We wanted a cruise. She made a phone call.
“Mmm, I think you can not go this time. There are no boats,” she said.
“What!?” I cried. There I was, standing on the edge of a dream come true, and it was about to slip away. “Really, there isn’t any boat?” I pleaded.
“Mmm, well, there is a Chinese boat. But this is not for western. It is for local. No western boat until March. Mmm, this will be very uncomfortable boat and many people. Mmm, many people traveling for spring festival. I don’t suggest this boat,” she tried to dissuade us.
Not realizing at the time just how “on board” Ville was about the trip, he replied matter-of-factly and without hesitation, “Yeah, but does it float?”
Well said, my friend. You read my mind.
The night before our departure up the Yangtze, on a local passenger boat, in winter, during peak travel time for Chinese New Year, Ville and I were like two kids eagerly awaiting summer camp the next day. Giggling in the supermarket while stocking up on provisions of cookies, chips, instant noodles and strong rice wine, we kept brainstorming all the fun activities we would initiate on the boat:
“Hey, you can be Kate Winslet in Titanic and yell ‘Jack, I think I can fly’ from the front of the ship.”
“Yeah, and you can scare everyone with your height and your blond hair or challenge some locals to a game of Mahjong.”
“Yeah, and we can drink our rice wine and I can play the harmonica and we can sing the Yangtze Blues on deck.”
We unknowingly boarded the wrong boat, and when it looked as though we were going to be sharing about 10 square feet with six other people, not including the human sized luggage or the extra un-ticketed family members, I was only silently worried. After a handful of people looked at our ticket and pointed us in all different directions, back and forth and forth and back again, we finally found the correct boat and boarded with just three minutes to spare. It was official. I was going up the Yangtze.
Our cabin, luckily, only had four beds, Ville and I in two of them, an older man who liked to sleep in another, and finally, a young kid with a floating “cinema center” in the last; he had a high def Kung Fu movie playing on a big computer screen when we walked in, but he was so culturally considerate that he immediately switched it to an American action movie with Chinese subtitles. One moment it looked as though we were going to be sweating in a noisy cabin of eight, and in the next we were gliding in the lap of local luxury, kicking back, watching movies and listening to music with our newfound friend.
Out on deck that evening, it became clear that people’s respect for the river has waned over the years. We were stunned to see plastic bottles and noodle boxes being thrown overboard with out even a flinch of remorse from the offender. I was a little disappointed to spend my first night on the Great Yangtze dodging burning cigarette butts and flying trash. Not quite the picture they sold me on in art class.
While it remained foggy the next day, once you start drinking rice wine, which we did, you quickly lose clarity of vision anyway, so I was perfectly content to have a mask for the floating trash and only be able to catch small glimpses of the green mountains which fit much better in my romanticized vision of the river.
With our inhibitions fading like the view outside, Ville and I soon became the onboard entertainment, not only for ourselves by successfully completing the proposed Titanic “Jack, I can fly” skit and singing the Yangtze River Blues to the rhythm of the harmonica, but also for the locals, who were so focused on getting to their final destination for the holidays, that an American girl running around in a bright kimono yelling “Wo Eye Zhong Guo!” (I Love China!), seemed to unite us all under the common flag of comedy. Our crowning achievement came at dinnertime when we found a discreet moment to add to the International Almost Naked Photo Series, and while everyone else was inside eating, we were on deck stripping down for our photo op. And we were told this boat would be crowded and uncomfortable?
While the reality of my Yangtze River experience turned out to be much different than the fantasy I had painted in my mind all these years, the final canvas, in my opinion, was a masterpiece.

1 comment:

jess said...

i LLLLLOOOOOVVVEEED reading this.. after seeing my depressing yangzte movie and the descriptiveness of your experience i feel like i have been there!..so glad you are having fun.. miss you.


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