Today's experience seems to sum up China really:
Today we tried to book a train from Wuhan to Xi'an (moderately long distance in China, so not local travel). There are 24 ticket windows at Wuhan main station, so we go to number 21 (shortest queue) - nope we don't sell those tickets - try windows 4-8. Off we go to window 6 - nope we don't sell those tickets - try window 18. We join what seems like the longest queue. The whole station is a buzz with police with loudhailers (anyone in a uniform only speaks to you through a loud hailer - it's a macho thing apparently). Whilst quietly in the queue we are plucked out by a police man (we are foreign and seem to get better official treatment) and pushed to the front of the queue - no-one complains and we get our ticket!
Of course, this insight is an illustration but isn't typical of all life.
In stark contrast of pace and volume (virtually everything is loud in China) was the boat down the Yangtze. Having flown from Harbin (very cold) to Chongqing (very large and busy) we booked a river boat - due to the Dam that is being constructed you don't seem to get many boats right through to Wuhan where Russell lives.
The trip was three nights and about four nights - the days and nights all seem to merge together.
In short it was brilliant - the three gorges, the river, the three mini gorges, seeing the landscape before the waters rise under the new dam and the whole experience. We have taken hundreds (literally!) of pictures and can bore you silly but none of them really capture the scope and scale of what it feels like.
The whole trip was dominated in every sense by the dam which is being built and will mean the waters rise up to 175m flooding a vast area and wiping out entire villages and towns in the process. Of course China is undaunted by the scale of it and are literally moving millions of people, their homes and businesses...
The result is you pass riverside communities who are still clinging on (the water won't fully rise until 2009) and they have large signs by their houses showing how high the water will come and how it will come over their roof and wipe them away. It is quite odd, slightly emotional and inherently sad. The only thing I really could reflect on is that the Dam's main motivation is to provide hydro-electric power (about a fifth of all of China's demand currently). The alternative would be a fossil fuel station or a nuclear option - in that context it feels that they might be doing the right thing.
The other aspect is the risk however. Construction in China is massive - everywhere you turn there is building going on. Bu the foundations in many of the towns is variable – the power of the Yangtze River is such that you can't help but think that when the levels rise then mother nature could cause massive damage and wreak terrible revenge. There is also the issue of whether the dam actually holds and works - experience in China is it might not - the last one that broke killed 249,000 - only time will now show.
Last night in Wuhan was the festival of lanterns - end of the Chinese New year Spring Festival - walking down the street was like attending the most impressive firework display - every street had literally massive boxes of fireworks going off and people just stood around and enjoyed, and then the dragons danced down the street and people with cymbals - all ad hoc and an great party spirit...
We are now (today) of to the Terracotta Army at Xi’an – it has to be done but everyone agrees that it is a tourist trap... Maybe I can buy my little red book of Mao off of one of the street sellers there :-)
I have now bought a Mah Jongg set and have beaten a little kid at Chinese Chess on the boat so am feeling comfortable in my oriental credentials now!