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Wheels by the Water

By JABAROOTOO ( travelchinaguide.com )

Updated: 2011-12-28

Can you remember your first "set of wheels"? Was it a tricycle, a scooter, a skateboard, bicycle, motorbike or perhaps your very first car? No matter what your age or the number of wheels, just having some can be a very liberating experience for most of us. Such is the case with the relatively new leisure sport "inline roller blading", which is making a huge impact on this generation of Chinese youth and children. It wasn't until revisiting Jiujiang, a relatively small Yangtze River port city that this phenomenon became so obvious. In the cool of the late afternoons and evenings, every flat surface in the plazas, parks and boardwalks is taken over by kids. The more accomplished skating around with an air of confidence and flair that Torvil and Dean would be proud of and yet others just beginning. These are able to hire all the necessary accessories and learn valuable skills from gawky young coaches who made it look so easy.

We bused all morning from Wuhan under a bleak rain laden sky, enjoying the scenery of the flat flood prone farmlands stretching as far as the eye could see. Grassy levee banks a vivid reminder of the dangers these people face every year as the waters of the Yangtze and her tributaries rise during the rainy season. With little to entertain us but the passing scenery I took to reading the bilingual road signs – all the while wondering for whose benefit they were. Signs like – "No drunken driving" or "No driving over loading" or "Do not drive tiredly" – this last one accompanied by a pictograph of a driver at the wheel with a chain of Zzzzz’s issuing forth. We hoped our driver was also taking note of all these. And this interesting one – "Overspeeding prohibited" – which left us wondering if speeding was indeed allowed.

We arrived in Jiujiang city in the early afternoon - thunderstorms still threatening - having driven the last hour through intermittent, torrential downpours. It was not our intention to stay in Jiujiang city – few people do these days. We were passing through on our way to Lushan Mountain in search of cooler weather and a friend I had made there three years earlier. We wondered what we could see of Lushan if anything under such low cloud and fog and decided to spend the night in Jiujiang city. We would head up to Lushan Mountain if the weather lifted. It was raining lightly as we left the bus station and looked around for a likely hotel. The closest, on the corner opposite the station would not take us and the feelings were mutual. We no sooner found another a little down the street than the heavens opened again and another torrential downpour turned the street into a muddy brown river running up to a foot deep in some places.

While I was welcome to take a look at the available clean but musty rooms and haggle for a lower price, they also refused to take us, although making us welcome as we sheltered from the rain and giving us a list of four potential hotels further down the street. Inquiring at the next imposing looking hotel lobby we came across, the room rate asked for was more than I was willing to pay but it quickly dropped to great value for money when we looked like walking out. It was possibly the nicest hotel we stayed in the whole summer and when the wet dull weather continued we where happy to spend another night here.

It's not hard to get foot sore or wear out a pair of shoes in China and that's just what happened to me this summer. I could go not go on without finding something more comfortable to wear than my three year old sandals that were all but falling apart and giving me terrible blisters. Easier said than done despite there being no shortage of shoe shops all over the country. I finally found a pair that I liked the look of and that initially felt comfortable but was no sooner down the street when I discovered that they were also giving me blisters, this time in different places. My other thongs and band aids would have to do until I could find something better but this would not stop us from treading the streets of Jiujiang in search of little gems.

Our hotel was just a few blocks from the pretty twin lakes of Gantang Lake and Nanmen Lake, which are just a few hundred meters from the banks of the Yangtze River. The lakes are separated by a willow-lined causeway and surrounded by tree-lined boardwalks, which fill with locals in the late afternoon and evenings. The Misty Waters Pavilion sitting just off shore with a small bridge connecting it to shore lives up to its name with a mystical presence about it. Today is houses a small museum including some interesting photos of Jiujiang during the heyday of the treaty port years from 1862. Keen fishermen drop a line in the hope of catching dinner. Traffic is slow and unhurried in Jiujiang and rickshaws ply what’s left of the old downtown section. We jumped aboard one for a leisurely circuit of the narrow streets, giving our feet a break and taking in the older business houses in this very rundown but fascinating quarter of the city.

Our curiosity led us down to the river near the ferry terminal and walked back through the more modern district with new shopping malls and plazas on every corner. We ate that evening just a block from the river in a huge fast food outlet that required the purchase of tokens to exchange for the dishes ordered. Our simple meal of Jiaozi (dumplings) and two vegetables dishes cost less than 10 yuan and we could not finish it. As usual we attracted some attention, especially Dee who is not an accomplished chopstick user and Jioazi being Jiaozi, they often want to slip away before you manage to get them to your mouth. We'd also found a great little noodle place that doubled for breakfast where we could get one of my favorite breakfast dishes, shi fan.

Back by the Misty Water Pavilion is where we first stumbled across the youngsters on their inline blades, two groups enjoying the freedom of speed and the ensuing spills in the circular marble plazas at either end of the boardwalk. As night fell, more came out, clustering in small groups around their coaches. Clad in all the latest and brightly colored skating paraphernalia, helmets, knee and elbow pads, and wrist and hand guards to protect them when they have a spill. One after the other the kids navigate a row of bright colored cones to the delight of enthusiastic parents standing close by. All this gear is hired on the spot from these young but entrepreneurial coaches giving everyone a good chance to see if the sport is more than a passing fad for these youngsters.

Closer to the corner the more traditional and regular evening adult dance groups were also out on this fine evening. It's always interesting to watch different groups dance completely different styles to the same music. Chinese style line dancing were for most while the waltz was popular for those with partners. The odd casanova cruised the area looking for a dance partner and having been dragged out before to dance in other cities, we stayed in the shadows to avoid being the target of anyone’s attention here.

Next morning on the way to breakfast our attention was caught but the sight of not only women but also several men sitting on the street in the cool morning air darning clothes. With needle and thread to match the shirts and trousers they were repairing each was skillfully engaged in patching worn clothes. You and I would have trouble finding the patched holes if we had been shown the finished work. I did wonder if their beautiful work was even appreciated or well remunerated.

All this time we had been looking for an internet café to check our mail but so far these had proved very elusive. A few of days ago we'd spent a long time looking for a photo processing shop to burn our digitals photos and there now seemed to be one on every corner but there was still no sign of a internet café. The weather had not improved so we planned to wait one more day before trying to go to Lushan Mountain. In the mean time we would continue to look around Jiujiang and venture a little out of town in search of some rural life, which Dee had not seen much of close up. While there are some other good day trips to beautiful valleys and waterfalls around Jiujiang city, including rafting it was too late in the day for us to make one of these excursions. The alternative was to pick a spot on the map, jump on a bus and see where we ended up. At the bus station we got a little English speaking help about where we could go and discovered there was an internet cafe across the street hiding upstairs above the "pool hall".

Now this was a stylish internet café. Fully air-conditioned, smoking and non smoking sections, regular or fast connection with a batch of flat screen monitors and plush black and red upholstered high back, head-cushion chairs for just 2 yuan per hour. I guestimated with around 300 computers and seventy percent usage it's a pretty lucrative business for the very sharp, older gentlemen who appeared to be the proprietor. We quickly took care of our mail but before we were done a very disgruntled customer stormed out slamming the plate glass doors behind him so hard that it broke. The boss had someone in measuring up for repairs even before we left.

Jiujiang may not be the bustling port city that is has been for centuries but it is certainly no backwater either. The younger generation is keeping pace with progress. We found the people of Jiujiang to be really open, friendly and helpful, especially the staff at the ticket office in the bus station where I went on several occasions to make enquiries about destinations, prices and schedules and I was treated with both courtesy and patience each time although it must have been difficult for them. And keep in mind you'll always get a good deal on hotels because rooms are plentiful. And the excursion on the bus – that's another story.

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