Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Best Places

It is said that the best things in life are free. I contend that the best places in Wuhan are far away.

For example: Aloha restaurant, in Hanyang. Although I only have to ride one bus to get there, that bus ride is nearly 45 minutes and involves a stretch of the Third Ring Road, a road that loops around the city. Or Metro in Hankou. Getting to Metro takes over one hour and involves at least 2 buses and, if you don’t catch the right bus in front of campus, it also involves a one-kilometer walk to catch the direct bus to Metro. By comparison, one can take the circuitous bus from the train station and be Metro-bound for an hour and a half, part of that through the most crowded area of Hankou.

My latest find is the Botanical Garden. Located in the Hongshan district, it is at the very end of the bus 402 line. Getting there involves catching a bus in front of campus, preferably bus 202 that goes straight to the train station, where I then board bus 402 and ride it till the end of the line. The entire time spent reaching the Garden: 3 hours.

You might think: three hours just to get to the botanical garden? Insane! Guess what? I agree with you. But, on the other hand, there are so few places to hang out in Wuhan that don’t involve crowds, shopping, eating or drinking that the Botanical Garden is a welcome relief.

I had tried once before to get to the Gardens but I had misread the bus itinerary and got off the bus 3 stops before I would have gotten there. This time I was bound and determined to go, even though it was Sunday, and a holiday to boot. I should have remembered that getting out on Sundays and on holidays is an exercise in frustration because of all the crowds. To go out on a Sunday holiday is insanity. I should have remembered.

Nevertheless, the weather was beautiful and I was primed to go. Come what may, I was going to the Gardens today.

After stopping by my favorite snack stand for a bowl of Re Gan Mian and conversation, I made my way to the bus stop. Bus 202 came by shortly after and it was very crowded, but I didn’t mind standing. It is just a short bus ride to the train station, and I would be sure to get a seat on the bus that would take me to the Gardens.

Scratch that! Getting on the bus 402 on the weekends calls for the skills of a pugilist and the patience of a saint. This bus line is very popular on weekends because it hits all of the tourist hotspots. Even though there are monitors to make sure people act at least civil while waiting for the empty bus to pull up, they do nothing to make sure that civility reigns while people are getting on the bus. Pushing, shoving and fighting are still the norm. So aggravating! We’re all getting on the bus, people! Can’t you behave a little?

You know, I’ve come to believe that bus boarding is considered an Olympic sport to the Chinese. I honestly think that they have fun with all the fighting and pushing and shoving. Especially this younger generation. And generally I don’t mind all the pushing and shoving. Mostly I’m not impacted by it because of my sheer size and my ‘foreigner’ status.

What I do mind is people reserving seats. If it comes down to fighting to get on the bus, seats should be on a first come/first serve basis. Although there were several vacant seats when I finally fought my way onto the bus, people were reserving them for their friends who were still caught up in the struggle at the door. I ended up having to stand until the first major shopping stop in Hankou. That did not put me in a good mood. I didn’t mind having to stand, but I did mind people reserving seats. I cheered myself with the knowledge that I would be riding to the end of the line whereas most of these seat reservers would have to fight to get off the bus so they can go shopping.

Soon enough I did get a seat and enjoyed the rest of the ride to the Garden in relative comfort. However, I was surprised that the bus was still so crowded at the end of the line. And then I remembered: Sunday. Holiday. Of course people are going to seek destinations like the Botanical Gardens. But surely the Gardens wouldn’t be so crowded that touring it would be unpleasant, would it?

Actually, it wasn’t. Other than attractions like hothouses, flower beds and the major paths, there was enough room in the Gardens for everyone. I chose less crowded paths and enjoyed my time tremendously. As a matter of fact, I was impressed.

The Wuhan Botanical Garden is not so much a study in and display of botany as it is a 75-hectare fauna conservation area. There are several paths that wind through areas of wild growth and naturally situated plant life. There are distinctly delineated areas such as bamboo and conifer areas, but mostly it seems that greenery grows, unorganized and free. I can easily imagine myself, on my days off, coming to the Garden to roam recessed paths. The Botanical Garden will be my new hangout, in fact. No more wondering where I could go that doesn’t involve crowds or spending money.

But, back to what I saw on this introductory visit. It seems that the Chinese ideal of touring the Gardens is to take as many pictures as possible. Some, it appeared, snapped this picture, and then rushed on to the next picture worthy item to snap it. Posing family in front of foliage also appeared important. “And here we are in front of a cactus. And now here we are in front of a tree. The next three pictures are of us in front of the waterfall.” Really: what do they do with all these pictures? One particular photographer did not even seem to behold or admire what he was snapping. With his camera set to ‘macro’ setting he rushed from bloom to bloom, capturing it forever on his media card.

In the back areas of the Gardens, it seems anything is allowed. There were vendors selling buckets of noodles for picnics, bottled water and other snacks. Cotton candy and bubble toys for little ones. Tea and soda stands stood at nearly every intersecting path. The strangest thing I saw was this man, who had strung a hammock between two trees and was taking a nap with his young son. It takes a trusting soul to sleep this soundly in a public park, doesn’t it?

The coolest part was the little cars! Do you know those little Tyco plastic bubble cars that most every toddler in America has driven? Well, here those cars are battery powered and adults drive them all over the Garden! For some it seemed to be their first driving experience and they didn’t keep to the path too well. Again we pedestrians had to be wary of vehicle traffic. And in a park, at that!

The outing ended with an hour-long wait for a bus. Here the bus monitors did make people line up for the bus; no pushing or shoving. Although I did get a seat, I gave it up a few stops later to a father cradling his sleeping child who was reduced to standing in the aisle. I regretted giving up my seat because my feet hurt from all the walking I did, but I ended up getting to sit soon enough, so not all was lost and I was comforted by knowing I had done my good deed for the day.

And not just that. I was also comforted by the idea that I had found a nice, new hangout.

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