02 May 2007

A sort of homecoming

Last month (more specifically, two Sundays ago), I visited China for the first time. Left Manila on April 22 for Shanghai, then flew from Shanghai to my final destination, Wuhan, in the central China province of Hubei. As usual, it wasn't a leisure trip, as I went there to help cover the 3rd Asian Pig Veterinary Congress. I stayed for two full days, most of which was spent at the Congress. I wish I had time to explore some more, but...

Anyway, it was a sort of homecoming for me (though some may say I'm stretching the point). After all, my paternal grandparents were Chinese (although they were from Amoy (Xiamen), in Fujian province). Call it what you will, but there was a good feeling when I touched down in Shanghai. I've always been proud of the fact that I'm half-Chinese, even though I cannot speak the language (not even the Fookien dialect which many of my Chinese relatives can speak).

Not that my entry into China was without drama. The flight was bumpy, owing to turbulence and perhaps the rain that was pouring during the latter part of the trip. Then, just when we were on our final approach to Pudong Airport, the plane suddenly jerked and flew up again. After some 10-15 minutes hovering over Shanghai, the captain apologized, saying we couldn't touch down earlier because the runway wasn't cleared fast enough for our safe landing. So finally, at nearly 3pm, we touched down at Pudong. It didn't help that my flight to Wuhan was at 4pm, and that we were let off at a gate that was so far from the immigration booths. Suffice to say, I was running from the gate to immigration, which already had a bit of a queue when I got there. I just went ahead and asked the people in front of me if I could move to the head of the line. Fortunately, everyone was kind enough. Still it was a race getting past immigration, picking up my baggage, and then moving over to the domestic side of the airport. By the time we (Zheng, our Chinese correspondent; Mabel, our China Advertising Sales Manager, and me) were checked in for the Wuhan flight, it was boarding time. Which meant running past security checks and the distance to the gate. Just when we got there, we found out that the flight has been delayed. Finally, after half an hour, we were flying to Wuhan.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, which Zheng told me is considered central China (see map).

I guess it's a relatively new city. Made up of three districts, it's really spread out over a large area. Had my first view of the mighty Yangtze River on the way to the hotel. Huge river. We stayed at the Wuchang district, in a hotel called White Rose. My room is huge, with a huge king size bed to boot. Comfy enough, but I'd have been more comfortable in a smaller, cozier room. Oh well, the nice thing is that I had a view of half of Hongshan Square (see photo below), which isn't really a square but a big rectangle. There's a statue of a man, who at first I thought was Chairman Mao, but turned out to be some local soldier-hero. Couldn't get the name though.

Hongshan Square from my hotel room (just half of the squre, really)

That's the hero (this picture was taken just before we left for the airport for our trip home)

It was nearly 8pm when we arrived at the hotel, which meant missing the reception for the APVS Congress. Funny thing was, after about half an hour, when we wanted to have dinner, we were told that most of the restaurants (and shops) near the hotel have already closed. So we went out and had dinner at this hotel about a block away from our hotel. It was a cold night, and I wasn't really clothed for such a night, so had to blow into my hands to keep them warm.

The following day (23 April), we spent entirely at the Congress, listening to different seminars, taking pictures, and conducting interviews. In other words, we worked. The only time we were out of the venue was during lunch, which we took at one of the small restaurants just across the street. Food, need I say, was good. Nothing fancy, since I'm not very adventurous when it comes to food. Fortunately, Zheng and Mabel indulged me and kept to the more conventional food.

Monday night we went to Hanyang Road, where the shops closed at around 11pm. It was a long stretch of shops probably two long blocks. As usual, I can't remember the name of the place. We had dinner at one of the restaurants there, then spent some time just browsing in the shops. I had a backache and my feet were aching from the day's work, but I figured I couldn't pass up what little sightseeing/shopping time I had. I ended up buying just a couple of flip-flops that night.

The only time we really had for sightseeing was lunch time on during Day 2 (Tuesday). We decided to visit the Yellow Crane Tower, which is one of the three famous towers south of the Yangtze. It's a five-storey pagoda and is located on top of Sheshan, or Snake Hill, in Wuchang district. It is a symbol of Wuhan.

Legend has it the the Tower was built by a family named Xin who owned a pothouse. One day, a shabbily dressed Taoist priest came to ask for some wine. The Old Xin paid no attention, but his son did and gave the Taoist some wine for free. The Taoist priest visited the pothouse regularly for half a year when one day the Taoist said to the son that in order to repay his kindness, he would like to draw a crane on the wall of the pothouse, which would dance at his request. When people in the city heard of this, they flocked to the pothouse to see the dancing crane. The Xin family soon became rich and they built the Yellow Crane Tower as a symbol of gratitude to the Taoist priest.

Another story says the tower was first built in 223, during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), Due to the ideal location, it was built by Sun Quan (182-252, King of Wu) as a watchtower for his army. But what really made the Tower popular are the numerous popular poems that were written about it.

Over the centuries the tower was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current tower was completed in 1985 and its design was based on the Qing dynasty tower. The tower looks the same from all directions.

There are other things to see at the site besides the Tower. There is another smaller pagoda, a bronze statue of a crane, and also a huge bell. And there is an imposing bronze statue of a soldier-poet named Yue Fei. Anyway, the following pictures were taken the Yellow Crane Tower.

Taken just outside the Yellow Crane Tower compound

That's Yue Fei behind me

One of Yue Fei's poems, I think

A closer shot of Yue Fei

On the path up to the Yellow Crane Tower (we went the long way around)

The big bell (there's really a name for it, I just forgot what it is) with the tower in the back

The Yellow Crane Tower

One of the tiled walls in the Tower's first level

View from the tower (I just have enough strength to make it to the 3rd level)

That's me by the Yellow Crane statue, standing just in front of the Tower

Tuesday night, we had dinner at a restaurant just a few blocks away from the hotel, then Mabel and I went off again to the shopping place we went to the night before. This time, I just bought some chopsticks. Mabel went and bought some duck's neck, which was one of the China's delicacies. I'm not a big fan of duck, so I passed. Besides, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to bring it back without Philippine customs confiscating it, what with avian influenza and all that.

The one thing I made sure I did that last night in Wuhan was to eat at McDonald's. Oh, I know...it's nothing to be proud of. But in all the countries I've been, I've eaten at a McDonald's and I didn't want to break "tradition." Had cheeseburger, which I thought was saltier and had more ketchup than the ones I've had in other countries.

That's Zheng (he's from Beijing) and me in front of Hongshan Square

And Mabel and me also in front of Hongshan Square

A cable bus that runs a route throughout the district (I think). I thought these were cool

Me in front of some bronze statues at one end of Hanyang Road

Pretty ain't it...taken without flash. This is just across the bronze statues in the previous picture

Me and my precious McDonald's

In Hongshan Square just before leaving for the airport

One thing that struck me about Wuhan is how much evidence of Western influence there is, at least materialistically. The cars (there was actually a relatively big traffic jam on our way to the airport), the stores, the bars and coffee shops, the billboards (there were quite a few featuring Caucasians), etc. I keep thinking if Chairman Mao were alive, this just wouldn't be possible. There were times when I thought that had it not been for the Chinese characters I kept seeing all over, it would've seemed like I was just in another Eestern city, albeit smaller than the big metropolises (is that a word?). Still, it was refreshing to see that there are many people still walking, still taking bikes. I think one of the visions I've had in my head about China is the people going around riding bikes.

I was actually kind of sad Wednesday morning just before we left for the airport in Wuhan. I really did wish there was more time to explore because there was so much to see, not only in Wuhan, but in Shanghai as well. I never got to see more than Pudong Airport. Still, I was also looking forward to going back home to Ben. Like I had mentioned in some earlier posts, I still have separation anxiety. But this trip to China made me want to come back some day. I know I'll never be able to see the entire country, but I'm hoping to go back someday in the near future, and bring Ben with me too.


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