In his 1950’s novellette, Travels with Charlie, the writer John Steinbeck details his encounters with ordinary folk as he and his curly-haired poodle, Charlie, make their way in a camper along the backroads of America.
I always think of myself and Little Flower whenever I think of Travels with Charlie. Like Charlie and Steinbeck, my dog and I live for new experiences.
Some of our most interesting experiences were those in Luzhou, while walking along the Chang Jiang, best known to English speakers as the Yangtze River.
This famous waterway was literally at my doorstep. Gazing out from my second-story balcony, I could easily discern the availability of shoreline ready for strolling. At this time of year, water levels were usually low enough to provide plenty of walking space for a visit.
There was some danger involved in getting down to the river. Exiting the school gate dumped us directly into the path of speeding busses, taxis and swaying construction trucks. This narrow road, still there today, snakes beside the river and is a constant reminder of the rudeness of Chinese land travel. It scrapes against wooden buildings, spits dust on roadside sellers, and terrorizes stray chickens and dogs. Its obnoxious traffic horns scatter pedestrians and startle the elderly from their mahjong tables. It’s no wonder the Buddhist nuns established the Pure Spring Temple, located nearby the school’s main gate. For 100 years, its insulated courtyards have offered worshipers a place of solitude to look out over the sleepy, hazy Yangtze and meditate to the rhythmic chugging of passing boats.
On our Yangtze River journeys, a dash to the temple’s heavy oak door entrance offered us sanctuary from modern-day China. We slipped down a corridor of steep steps and entered the solitude of the worship grounds.
Here, the view of the river is magnificent. In either direction, the wide Yangtze can be seen slipping calmly into the distant hillsides.
But Little Flower was never one for scenic sights. She’s always up for a walk. A worn pathway through the nun’s garden plots presented a safe descent to the shore for both of us.
On the banks of the Yangtze, I always observed a river life far different from that I had often envisioned. There are no picturesque junks cruising by with layered sails filled with wind. A majority of river traffic now is motorized. The vessels most of us see are worn and battered, not at all like the fanciful illustrations in our gradeschool social studies textbooks. What the dog and I saw last year was mostly barges of coal and lumber chugging by, their pipe stacks spewing thick, black smoke. They ride low in the water. The workers sometimes lounge on the decks while dangling their legs over the sides.
I remember one time, there was a huge commotion when the men spotted me, a female foreigner and her dog, standing on the shore. They began challenging one another to say something in English. There was one cheeky fellow who shouted out with great bravado, “He-LLO! He-LLO!”
My reply and wave sent his companions into fits of laughter, causing them to slap one another in adolescent hysterics. Little did they realize I had just as much fun watching them as they did watching me.
Besides riverfolk, there were always a few children making their way down stone walkways to the river. When they emerged from the brush, clothes were abandoned and into the dense, muddy water the kids plunged. They joyfully paddled about in the safety of shallow waters, cooling themselves under Sichuan’s scorching sun.
To glimpse today’s traditional China, it’s always best to turn to the shore. A thin old man hauls buckets of water to his parched vegetable patch. A muscular carpenter saws planks under a tattered awning. A poultry owner struggles with an uncooperative chicken. Some scenes are sobering, others comical, but here you will find theYangtze of ancient times.
If Little Flower and I lingered long enough beside the river, we eventually heard the rapid chopping sounds of the evening meal being prepared. Through open doorways, we watched flames shoot out from under blackened woks. The smells of Sichuan cooking reached us, stinging our nostrils with the vapors of hot chili peppers, dominant in every dish.
In the summer heat, many families, hoping to catch a cool river breeze, often moved tables outside to eat. Sometimes when I watched their togetherness, it was difficult not to feel a twinge of homesickness.
I have a lot of friends who wonder why I want to return to Luzhou.
“You’ve already been there for five years,” they say. “Don’t you want to experience the wonders of a different part of China?
Perhaps, but then I remember standing on my balcony, long after dark, looking out over China’s infamous Chang Jiang. An exhausted Little Flower slept in her bassinet. It was also time for me to turn in for the night. Yet before I did, I couldn’t help but peer out over the ancient river and wonder what tomorrow would bring when Little Flower and I once again walked side by side on the banks of the Yangtze.
That’s a pretty hard wonder to beat.
From Chengdu, here’s wishing you your first “Ping An” (peace) for the month of July.
Still Needed: Money for Earthquake Relief
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450,
International Disaster Response, China Earthquake
Others: The Amity Foundation http://www.amityfoundation.org