by Susan M. Tiberghien
Nothing is simple in China.
We arrive in Wuxi in the morning so that we can travel down the Imperial Canal in the afternoon. The four-hour boat trip will take us back through history, to over 2,000 years ago when Emperor Qin built the first canal to link northern China to southern China. Today boats and barges, carrying everything from cabbages and chickens to bricks and bamboo, still crowd the swift dark waters.
But we are not yet on the Imperial Canal. When we arrive at the station, we are met by the official guide of the Foreign Office.
“Welcome to Wuxi. I will take you to your hotel,” he says in quite good English.
I look at my husband. “What hotel?” we ask. “We are not staying overnight. We are going down the canal on a boat.”
“Yes, yes, I understand. But there are no boats today.” The guide smiles earnestly. “Today I take you to your hotel.”
We are learning that it is pointless to argue. We can see our itinerary in the guide’s hands, but we can also see the official instructions from the Foreign Office. So we follow him to his car and settle ourselves on the back seat. The chauffeur looks at the street, and the guide, sitting sideways, his legs straddling the gear shift, looks at us. He is happy to be our official guide until tomorrow morning when he will put us on our boat. Tomorrow there will be no problem. He keeps talking, wanting us to look out and see the mulberry groves, so many mulberry groves, and the silk mills, so many silk mills.
I keep looking for a hotel. “Where are you taking us?” I finally ask.
“I told you, to your hotel.” He tries to be reassuring. “The Foreign Office chose a resort hotel for you on Lake Tai Hu.”
“What will we do on Tai Hu Lake?” asks my husband, Pierre.
“You will take a boat ride.” This makes him laugh. “You see,” he explains, “today there are boats on the lake, tomorrow there are boats on the canal.” We laugh with him. He has a pleasant round face that becomes very jovial when he laughs.
At last we arrive at Lake Tai Hu. The guide tells us it is one of the largest lakes in China and has been a favorite resort for centuries because of its clear water. We drive to our hotel, set on a small hill overlooking the lake. Once we have signed in, our guide sighs with relief. We are to enjoy the hotel and the verdant surroundings. He will join us after lunch to take us to the boat on the lake. The Foreign Office has planned everything.
But after lunch, when we are again in the car, he does not take us to the lake but back in the direction of Wuxi. “You see,” he tries to explain, “today even the boats on the lake have vanished. You are not lucky. No boats on the canal, no boats on the lake!” He looks at us hoping we will laugh again. Instead we will visit Wuxi. He is sure that we will like Wuxi. It is an old city, older than the Imperial Canal. Again sitting sideways, he tells us about Wuxi. The city has many canals. He will show them all to us. The Foreign Office doesn’t want us to be disappointed. They want us to remember Wuxi.
So he shows us Wuxi, its cobbled streets and stone bridges and many canals. The Imperial Canal cuts through the center of the city and the other canals crisscross it. On the outskirts of the city, he shows us still another canal. “This is the new Wuxi Canal. Come look.” We get out of the car and walk to the side of the wide busy thoroughfare. “It is our canal. We built it. All of us, many years ago. We dug it for Chairman Mao.”
We walk along the new canal which circles Wuxi. He tells us how the students stopped going to school to build the canal. At first they thought it was exciting, but it became harder and harder. They didn’t have proper tools or equipment. They’d shovel out heaps of earth, then it would rain and the sides would cave it and they’d start all over. “When Emperor Qin built his canal, he conscripted over five million laborers.” We wonder how many Chairman Mao conscripted.
The next day we are up early for our trip on the old canal. The guide is to pick us up at the hotel to drive us to the boat, and this time he has promised there will be no problem. We wait patiently at the front door of the hotel. The guide is late. Soon we are waiting less patiently. At last the car appears. We settle into the back and the guide again straddles the gearshift to face us. This time he points out the rice fields and tells us how three crops of rice are now produced each year and how much of it is used to make paper. He wants us to look out and see the fields and the paper mills, just as we looked out and saw the mulberry groves and the silk mills yesterday. But Pierre and I are looking at our watches.
It’s just straight ahead,” he says. But straight ahead are also thousands of bicycles, car and trucks bringing in vegetables and fruit and poultry from the countryside. We count the minutes and watch as the chauffeur zigzags around them. “Here we are!” says the guide, and the chauffeur pulls onto a stone pier. The pier is vacant. There are no passengers, there is no boat. The guide jumps out his side, the chauffeur the other side, they rush to the edge of the canal and look both ways. They think they see it to the right. Yes, they see it, it just left, only minutes ago.
“We’ll catch it further on,” reassures the guide, getting back into the car. “The Foreign Office wouldn’t want you to miss your boat.” The road runs parallel to the canal. All we have to do is go faster than the boat and wait at the next pier and wave. The chauffeur puts one hand on the horn, and with the other hand he steers straight through the bicycles, the carts, the trucks. Everything scatters to the sides of the road. Feathers fly, crates of fruit fall, bicycles clatter.
“It’s there, we’ll catch it,” exclaims the guide. The chauffeur lands us on the second pier. This time we all jump out and rush to the side of the canal. Sure enough the boat is churning right towards us. Pierre and I start waving. The guide is waving. The chauffeur runs ahead and up on a bridge. People are appearing all over, on either side of the canal, on top of the bridge. The boat churns right past all of us and under the bridge.
“Come, the next pier. Run!” The guide rushes ahead. We try to outrace the boat, this time by foot, running over cobbled roads, around houses, through courtyards, behind benches and old men and birdcages. The guide reaches the next pier first. The boat is slowing up and coming to the side of the dark murky water. Around us people are cackling with the commotion. The boat doesn’t come to a standstill. Someone reaches for my hand, and I jump. Pierre jumps alongside of me. We don’t have any overnight bags, we were coming just for the afternoon. The boat chugs ahead.
“Good bye!” we shout to the guide. “We won’t forget Wuxi!” He is standing on the old stone pier, smiling and waving. The boat picks up speed. Will he hear us if we shout that we won’t forget him?
Susan M. Tiberghien, American writer living in Switzerland, has published three memoirs, Looking for Gold, Circling to the Center, Footsteps – A European Album, and numerous essays in journals and anthologies. She teaches workshops on both sides of the ocean for the International Women’s Writing Guild, C.G. Jung Centers, and the Geneva Writers’ Group and Conferences on both sides of the ocean.
About Editors’ Choice: Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.