Speaking of the locals (day 77)

We have floated as far as Wuhan now, and (with the assistance of an incredibly helpful cab driver) found some train tickets, and a great room in a comfy hotel.

Funnily enough (like several of the places I have stayed), the room is pretty cheap, and there seems to be just about no one here but us. Perhaps I should consider that more ominous that I do.

Still, the toilets smell better than those on the boat, and I am prepared to pay just for that at this point.

I met a nice Chinese guy on our last day on the boat. He was, like me, sitting on the front deck in the sun watching the (distant) sides of the Yangtze river slide by. Unlike me, he was drinking. Chinese whiskey – pronounced something like “troh pie”.

So he sidled up, and said hello. I tasted his whiskey (paint-stripper would be more accurate), and we had a conversation.

Actually conversation does not really describe it. The only common language we had was the words in the last few pages of my guidebook. These are incredibly helpful for such diverse tasks as buying train tickets, asking for directions and ordering food in a restaurant, as already proven by weeks of service in the field. But they are not exactly designed for stimulating conversation about anything much else.

We did manage (by dint of imagination and pointing and some scribbled diagrams in my note book) to figure out where we both came from, and to talk about the weather in New Zealand. At first I thought that my explanation that right now in New Zealand it was cold, and that when it got cold in China it would be summer there was a little complicated, given the lack of any words. But Tambo (for that was his name) seemed to catch on fast enough.

Either that or he was just nodding and smiling in the well-worn tradition of silencing a lunatic whose ravings you can not comprehend.

And my suspicions on the whiskey were confirmed at dinner time, when Tambo was spotted throwing up several times out the window of the restaurant. I bought a bottle for my hosts in Hong Kong. I wonder if it will ever get drunk.

While on the subject of things that I bought, lots of Chinese people have these really cool thermos flasks. They are entirely glass, and they make tea in them, which can stay warm for ages and ages.

Thinking that a thermos would be a handy addition to my train travelling apparatus, I bought a couple in Beijing. Actually I bought three – one as a present, one for me, and one that I dropped in the store and broke.

Sadly, my relationship with my thermos was irrevocably shattered when I dropped my own thermos on the train to Chongqing. Probably it was my birthday too.

I think I will have to settle for something made of plastic.

China is just enormous. Only days and days of train travel that only get you a little way across the country can teach you this.

And it is (at least the bits I am in) very densely populated. On the aforesaid days and days of train travel you can look out the windows and seldom see a stretch of country without some sign of habitation – a peasant or two in the fields, a hut, a house, a smoking factory.

Hence Wuhan. Basically in the middle of eastern China. Halfway down the Yangtze towards Shanghai. Nowhere really. But still with 7 million people. And not just any 7 million people, but 7 million people who are not used to seeing foreigners.

A couple of my fellow travellers and I went out tonight for a beer and some noodles – natural enough desires after a long day on the road in the 30 plus degree heat. (And one great thing about Chinese cities is that you can always find a restaurant, even after midnight on a school night).

So we wander across the road from the hotel to a little kiosk and buy some beer (the cheapest in China – I thought the guy was mistaken when he said the price). Then we wander up to a nearby bridge to drink it and talk about everything and nothing.

Within just a few minutes we had gathered a crowd of onlookers. They just stared at us. That was their job. Occasionally they would talk to each other a little, but mostly they just watched us. The same thing happened later on when we found a little place selling noodles.

Now admittedly we had not chosen the most salubrious seats (we were just hunkered down in a corner of the path across the bridge, leaning against the stone), and nor were we looking our best after four days on the boat. But we were not that exciting.

One asked what our names were. I wrote down the nickname of one of the travellers with me. I wonder if they will ever learn enough English to decipher my scrawl sufficiently and read ‘Sir Johnny Shackleton Trubshaw – tamer of wild lands’.

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