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12.10.2002

It's Always Christmas In Wuhan

There is a lot to love about Wuhan.

First, you’ve never heard of it, and when you go there, you are likely to be the only foreigner around. How often does that happen anymore in the big cities of this world? Make no mistake - Wuhan isn’t a backwater, it’s a bustling, gigantic city full of busy people, with lots to see and do. It just happens that you’re the only white boy around, is all. Out of four million people, you’ve got the biggest nose.

Second, in Wuhan there is a small snack bar where you can feast on dòupí, a kind of deliciously greasy filled omelet made with bean curd instead of eggs. You could easily sling this in front of a trucker at any diner in America if it weren’t for the suspicious amount of rice inside—it’s even more tasty than your average hash, which for a hash lover is not an easy thing to say. And to make it impossibly wonderful, the correct way to pronounce the dish (with the right tones) is “Dough! Pea?”, which makes my simple mind happy.

A third reason: Wuhan is home to the musical street sweeper truck. When you sojourn in Wuhan, in the wee hours of the morning you’re likely to wake up to the sounds of “Jingle Bells” or “Happy Birthday” coming faintly in from the street outside. It’s not a dream, and it’s not the Good Humor man (even though it sounds just like him) - it’s a street-sweeper truck shooting jets of water across the blacktop, and playing a happy electronic tune. Musical street sweeper truck! Sometimes they will even roll by in the middle of the day, sending everyone scurrying for higher ground with their raking spray of water, rolling off down the street to the tune of “Deck the halls”.

And this brings up reason number four: it’s always Christmas in Wuhan(TM)! During our visit (pre-Thanksgiving) the stores were filled with Christmas decorations, ornaments, and the dulcet tones of Kenny G’s Christmas album. “Big deal”, you may say - until you realize that it’s like this in Wuhan all year round. The Wuhanese just like the Christmas spirit, thank you very much, and they’ll have their decorations minus the holiday. We haven’t even been able to make Easter this secular, and here they’ve gone and invented permanent Christmas. Merry Christmas, Wuhan!

Fifth, Wuhan taxi drivers are wonderful people, and they have all been equipped with a cassette tape entitled (direct quote), ‘English for Wuhan taxi drivers’. This tape contains the alphabet, days of the week, numbers, and a host of useful phrases, such as “Welcome to take my taxi”, and “Bom voyage!”. On our first taxi ride, we were taken off guard by a jolly “Ha Dee Dee!” from our grizzled cabbie, and left somewhat at a loss until we heard the tape player say “How do you do?”. The lessons are delivered both in Mandarin and English, so you can learn to say “Please take me to the airport” in Chinese while the cabbie is learning it in English. Every Wuhan cabbie will be delighted to play this tape for foreign friends. From time to time there is a musical interlude, a spell of Kenny Rogers hits on tenor sax, and in between the instrumental bits you can relax to the mellow sounds of “Monday... Tuesday... Wonsday... “ as you cross the mighty Chang Jiang river.

Sixth, Wuhan has the highest concentration of KFC restaurants anywhere - one per block - and they all have giant posters advertising what appears to be hot-and-sour soup. Some of the KFCs are enormous - stretching on for several storefronts - and they are all packed with customers. Best of all, the ubiquitous life-size statues of Colonel Sanders all look distinctly Asian.

Seventh, in Wuhan you can find wonderful street food, including big round disks of fried bread with spicy lamb, a steaming bowl of wontons for just a quarter, little sesame-seed covered ping-pong balls of rice dough on a stick, deep-fried in sugar syrup; tiny barbecue skewers of lamb; heated (!) lemonade and soda; whole deep-fried fishes, and stinky tofu squares everywhere.

Finally, you should love Wuhan because of the fabulous Yinfang hotel, which took us in at four in the morning after a six hour bus ride, and only charged us for the following night. A hotel where the desk lady walked our companion three blocks to the nearest bank because she couldn’t change his old-style twenties herself, and had to be cajoled for many minutes before accepting a tip. A hotel where the restaurant maitre d’ strolled over to our table before we got a menu and asked “So—what can I do for you tonight?”, as if he genuinely didn’t know what we might be after.

Yinfang hotel, with your Western toilets and spotless rooms, Merry Christmas to you!

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