Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Leaving Ezhou

As the clock winds down on my time here I take a moment to reflect on my experiences.

Of course, the people. Their friendliness bears mentioning again. However, there is a twist to the reception I normally get. Usually the elders are reserved and the youths are exuberant toward me. Here, it is just the opposite. I was a bit shocked that an older woman on a trike, a country woman by all appearances hailed me on my first day here, as I was walking toward the bus stop. It seemed she assumed I could speak Chinese – did not act surprised at all when the bird-like sounds fell out of my mouth, and we had a nice conversation. She was just the start of it.

Here I got the reception I long sought: being accepted not as a foreigner but as a traveler. Most everyone addressed me in Chinese. Conversely, most everyone said “Hey look! Its a 'lao wai' (another name for foreigner). I'll admit I got my share of stares. I returned with a smile. The children, though. The children were frightened! The smaller they were the louder they shrieked and the faster they ran away. Of course babies couldn't make many overt manifestations of their confusion but they did stare. I don't look like Mommy or Daddy or anyone else they know or see on a regular basis.

Curious about the reception I got I asked the hotel desk clerk if many foreigners come to Ezhou. She replied that there is a lot of foreign industry here, so at times some foreigners drop in but there are none in residence. That made me wonder: could I live here?

There is a lot to see. This city is water-bound and there are plenty of boardwalks to stroll on and relax. I found several lovely water gardens with bridges to walk through the foliage. Lillies are in full bloom and their elephant-ear leaves nodded sagely in the breeze while  their blooms' fragrance wafted through the air.

Most activity or sites are outdoors. It is such a pity that the temperature was murderously high during my stay. I would have loved to prowl through shady groves, or maybe even park myself on a secluded bench and soak in the atmosphere. For all the industry in this suburb of my adopted home, the air is less acrid than in Wuhan. Buses do prowl around but most stop running before 8PM, the earliest one at 5:30. I could have made my way around town in the evening but risked not being able to get back by bus. I will have to come back when it is cooler so I can truly enjoy everything this little town has to offer.  

At one time Ezhou was the capital of Hubei province. More specifically: it was the administrative seat of the area since the Han dynasty. The name remained until the Three Kings era (220-280 ce) when it was renamed Wuchang by then ruler Sun Quan. That name confused travelers because of the nearby city of Wuchang, which was soon to be absorbed into Wuhan. Thus Ezhou reverted to its ancient name.

Ezhou has a timeless feel to it. I didn't see any super malls, although there are some department stores. Most shopping is done in boutiques or specialty stores: books, hardware and the like. I couldn't tell you how many shoe stores I saw! Clothing was on display from trendy shop windows. Quite frankly I couldn't see how those stores made any money. They were small, expensive looking and, at any given time I only saw one or two browsers. Produce stands abound, attractive with their stacked fruit under colorful parasols. To my knowledge there is one KFC and one McDonalds'. They were not heavily populated. 

Food was a bit of a problem for me. Because of my 'delicate' stomach I was afraid to eat too much street food. Fortunately there didn't seem to be too many vendors. It was pure chance that I stumbled onto the friendly batter cake woman my first night here. I had to walk a ways before finding a hole in the wall  restaurant to eat dinner at. Because of close proximity to Wuhan, Re Gan Mian (hot dry noodles) was the signature dish of the region, but here it is served with a twist. Although I insisted I did not want 'hot-n-spicy', that's how I got it. It seems everything here has a baseline spiciness and hot peppers can be added upon request. I imagine if I had the cast iron constitution that I had ten years ago I would have reveled in it, and all of the fresh fare available here.  

Ezhou seems a bit messier than Wuhan. Although there are street sweepers there doesn't seem to be as many per square meter as in the big city, and they seem a bit lazier. Whereas Wuhan's streets are regularly power washed, here I haven't seen a single water truck. The sidewalks are unevenly cobbled. It is actually safer to risk getting run over in the bike lane or the street than stumbling along on the sidewalks. Here, as at home, people feel free to drive on the sidewalk. However, the bike lanes are generous and, that I could tell were only occupied by bikes, scooters and pedestrians... unlike in Wuhan, where a rider is likely to wrangle with a car or bus in the space reserved for those more defenseless vehicles.  

It is a valiant little town, sturdily marching with modern times but not relinquishing its spirit. I liken it to Talence, a suburb of Bordeaux, France. While the latter is more cosmopolitan, the former is charming in its feel.

Could I live here? Yeah, probably. It is close enough to Wuhan and cheap enough to get to. A train ticket is only 17Yuan; the bus is 9Yuan more (and took more time). It would be kind of nice to live here and head to Wuhan for shopping and entertainment. I think, after a while residents here would get over the whole 'lao wai' thing. Although it is was not done grudgingly or with any mean spirit, I did get tired of the stares and comments. That is not endemic to here; any foreigner traveling in China will have to tolerate scrutiny. Being as this is my travel season, I'd better get used to it.

I'll bet nowhere else in China will that scrutiny be as charming, friendly or sincere as it is in Ezhou.   

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