Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wuhan Day 2

Friends: Government officials and business leaders here in China frequently make mention of "meeting international standards" and draw comparisons to "developed countries" as they outline their plans and aspirations for China.

There is evidence everywhere of an idea someone saw in the West and implemented here. The city of Wuhan has adopted the wildly successful bike rental program launched by the French a little more than two years ago that has spread to cities all over the world. Not so long ago everyone in China had a bicycle. That is far from the case now, so much so that there is a healthy demand even here for easily and cheaply accessible rental bikes.

I couldn't ride more than a few blocks in the congested central district of this city of over five million without coming upon a row of the lime-green one-speeds with a front basket available for hire. And quite a few were in use, ridden by young and old, male and female. Some were joy-riding in the wide, magnificent park that hugs the wide Yangzi River for miles. It was superbly landscaped, beautified by sculptures, lined with benches and had multiple trails and walkways. It was world-class in every respect. Down the middle was a wide promenade perfect for kids just getting comfortable on the bike.

There were many bikes, too, in use negotiating the city's grid-locked streets, that had all traffic reduced to pedestrian speed. All those crawling cars ought to have had every one of their prisoners wishing they were on a bike, remembering the recent good ol' days when there were few cars and bicycles flowed freely and easily, and they would have been wherever they wanted to be long ago. A mono-rail is under construction to help alleviate some of the congestion, but it's going to take a lot more than that.

Among my objectives for the day was not to get lost and to stay warm. In the summer months its so blistering hot and humid in Wuhan it is known as one of the "Three Furnaces of China." The others are Nanjing and Chongqing. But not now. It was barely 50 degrees and a low, damp ceiling added an extra chill to the air while also hiding the tops of the skyscrapers, including a 100-story building that is among the twenty tallest in the world.  If it had only been visible, I could have used it as a reference point.

I was especially wary about getting lost last night when I ventured out from my hotel, off on a side street, that I had been led to by a kindly soul from the Internet cafe. I had asked the person overseeing the cafe if she knew of a cheap hotel in the vicinity. She turned the question over to an assistant, who then summoned someone at a computer. No one spoke any English. I wrote forty on a piece of paper. He took my pen and wrote "50-60." I nodded my head "yes." He led me out on the street as he talked on his cell phone. He told me to wait. A minute later I saw him go past on his motorcycle. A couple minutes later he returned and gestured for me to follow.

When we got to the hotel he helped carry my gear up to the third floor entry. I pulled out my passport, but he waved it away, instead giving his ID for them to use to fill out the registry. I noticed on the wall the cheapest room was 58 yuan. But when I was handed the receipt, after saying I'd stay for two nights, the rate was forty yuan. My benefactor had bargained well. When I offered him twenty yuan he refused it.

It was the nicest of the three hotels I have stayed at with towels and toilet paper and even toothpaste and toothbrush provided. The WC was down the hall and it came with piping hot water. But like the other two, there was no heat. The people running the hotel were all bundled up in jackets, as was everyone in the Internet cafe and on the streets.

The hotel was in the middle of the night market. The sidewalks were clogged with food stands and stands selling all manner of merchandise. They were packed with people, all happily out on a Friday night. Though the receipt for the hotel only had its name in Chinese, the streets nearby were spelled out in Roman letters as well as Chinese characters, so I had some hope of finding my way back if I got disoriented. I had a bowl of rice at one stand and a bowl of noodles at another.

Besides staying warm and not getting lost today, I wanted to find one of the two daily English Chinese newspapers what with Obama arriving in China today. But not a single news stand had one, nor did any of the bookstores I tried. The Renaissance Hotel had "USA Today," but that didn't interest me. Another hotel had a single copy of the "China Times" but it was on a rack with a wooden rod through it such as libraries sometimes use, for hotel patrons only. Though Wuhan is one of the larger cities in China and a lively commercial center, it attracts few Westerners, unlike Xian, where the English newspapers were readily available. I even went in search of universities, as I'd been told earlier in the trip that was a good place to find the newspapers, but not here, only lots of cheap food vendors.

I did have success though in finding the McDonald's where I am to meet Stephen the day after tomorrow. It's on the other side of the Yangzi. I feared I'd have to take a ferry, but I noticed an occasional bicycle and pedestrian on one of the two bridges that cross the river. Bicyclists weren't allowed on the entry ramp however. They had to climb several sets of stairs to get to the two-mile long bridge.

The McDonald's was just a mile from the bridge, down a set of stairs by the entry to a mobbed Wal-Mart Superstore. It's not the best of meeting places. There's actually a McDonald's just five blocks from my hotel in a pedestrian mall that would be much easier to sit inside and keep an eye on a loaded bicycle. I'm hoping Stephen will check his email before we meet and will agree to that for our docking.

Later, George

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