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peter falk

The Long and Winding Road (I Am the Eggman)

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Mrs. Columbo had some stuff to do and messaged me to take a

cab to the Starbucks and she'd meet me there. The

taxi driver didnt know Starbucks in either Chinese or

English, nor did he recognize the logo on the business

card I kept in case of just such an eventuality, which

really surprised me because it's across the street

from the Garden Hotel, probably the most common

destination of foreign visitors to Guangzhou.

Fortunately he drove right by it before turning into

the hotel so I was able to point it out to him.


Just as I arrived another message came from Mrs. Columbo

instructing me to wait because she was busy doing some

things. Being the anxious traveler that I am, delays

and waiting, especially on trips like this where i am

looking forward to setting foot for the first time on

Wudang Mountain, ancient home of Daoism, taiji, and an

unknown number of immortal and mortal masters alike,

and made famous by the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden

Dragon," I was very easily annoyed.


I'd procured every foreign newspaper I could at the

Shangri-la Hotel before catching the train so I'd have

a lot to read. In spite of this, my thoughts were

constantly at Wudang--what would the teacher be like

that Dr. Zhu has referred me to? Who else would we

meet? What would the birds be like? How many days

would we spend wandering trails? What would the

journey be like from Wuhan?


Ah, Wuhan. That was the first glitch in the whole

thing. I told Mrs. Columbo we should fly as close to Wudang

as we could in order to maximize our time there.

Since her Chinese is obviously better than mine, we

decided it would be easier for her to arrange the

travel, especially since it would involve a lot of

ground transportation. maybe THAT was the first

glitch: letting her arrange travel.


Mrs. Columbo can be a little bit of an airhead at times. She's

also very distracted right now getting her business

off the ground. She is extremely busy dealing with

the galactic bureaucracy, marketing, training, travelling

to meet potential clients, and so forth. The last

thing she needs is to plan more travel.


She called me one day and told me the price of

tickets from Guangzhou to Wuhan, the biggest city in

Hubei province near Wudang, and the price to fly to

Xiangfan, the nearest airport to Wudang. She said she

couldn't find a discount fare to Xiangfan but the fare

to Wuhan was pretty cheap. Anyway one of her

friends told her you can get buses from Wuhan to

Wudang, and it only takes a few hours to get there.


"That doesn't sound right. Have you looked at a map?"

I asked.


"No I haven't, but it's ok. The friend who told me has

done it, so she knows. It's also very cheap. Only

like 15 yuan."


"That's impossible."


"No really. We talked about it."


"15 yuan."




"Just a few hours."




"Well it doesn't sound possible to me."


"Don't worry. I'll take care of everything."


>sigh< "Alright."


I was looking forward to a vacation of about 9

days on Wudang, but that was already squashed because

of a seminar that came up that Mrs. Columbo had to go to on

the 5th. That meant my vacation was shortened by 4

days already. since Mrs. Columbo was also my translator,

I really couldn't hang out there with my limited

Chinese hoping to talk about Daoism and qigong and the

mysteries of the universe.


None of that mattered though. It was hard enough for

Mrs. Columbo to get away for the 4 days she'd arranged and I

appreciated that and was happy for the time together. She really is the perfect girlfriend--independent, like me. we don't need to be together all the time, but love when we are.


I remembered our journey to Lijiang exactly one year

ago and how smoothly it went. Not once did we argue.

We were never bored with each other's company, and we

stumbled into some marvelous adventures that are not

a part of any tours.


We got to Wuhan early that evening. The airport was

pretty primitive for such a big city. It was more

like an oversized bus station. No mcdonald's. No

Starbucks. No coffee at all.


Mrs. Columbo was tired and wanted to stay overnight. I wanted

to push on to Wudang, but she begged me, and I could

see how tired she was. So what the hell? It's a

vacation together, and that was as important to me as

going to Wudang. She actually didn't really want to

go. The only reason she was going is because she

loves me. That's a fact. She didn't even make me

promise to go to some lame girly destination "next time." She was just

happy to be with me doing what made me happy. I'm still reeling with the wonder of it all.


We started calling hotels listed in the Lonley

Planet guide. All wrong numbers.


She insisted on a place with a pool, so I told her the

Holiday Inn would probably have one. Holiday Inns

always have a pool. According to Lonely Planet, the

rooms were around 600 yuan, but that was affordable

for one night. We got the phone number at the airport

reservation service, confirmed the existence of the

pool and discovered they were only charging 350 yuan.



They said the hotel was in the heart of downtown,

Hankou District, and what bus to take not to get there.

That's right. I mean, why should a bus go from

the airport to downtown? When you really stop to think about

it, such a service is virtually useless. It's far

better to just stop at some industrial outskirt of the

city and dump people in a deserted parking lot of some

abandoned industrial facility and then lie to them

about where the hotel actually is.


I swear I am not making this up. There were

truthfully no buses to downtown from the airport.

They did actually dump us and all the other passengers

at some abandoned industrial faciltiy where a few

taxis were waiting for suckers like us. Mrs. Columbo told one driver we were

going to the Holiday Inn, and the taxi driver refused

to take us. He pointed across the way and said, "It's

right there. 5 minutes walking."


So we schlepped our bags in the general direction he was pointing and kept our eyes peeled for a Holiday Inn. I could tell it

wasn't a Holiday Inn as soon as it came into view. It was a run down Chinese hotel

called the "Holiday Hotel" and in no way a four

star one. It was pink.


We dodged a lot of traffic to get there.

Wuhan is a city of honkers. Drivers don't stop, they



It was closed for remodeling. Someone was lying to us. Either the

taxi driver sent us to the wrong hotel, or the girl at

the reservation desk lied to us about this being a

Holiday Inn in the heart of downtown.


In china it is perfectly possible that a

hotel could be closed for business, answer the phone,

tell you they have a pool, a room, and the going rate

for that room, but not tell you they are currently

closed because YOU failed to ask.


Well I was pretty pissed. I'd been living in Shenzhen

too long. It's almost civilized there. Fortunately,

the security guard was friendly enough and told us

where the actual, real Holiday Inn is.


We hailed a taxi and he knew the destination. His cab

also smelled like a cessepool. He, or someone riding in his cab, had shit their pants. It was the only explanation. We literally had to hang our

heads out the window to survive the ride and wondered

how the hell he could sit there smiling away as he

negotiated traffic. The only time we pulled in our

heads was to avoid oncoming traffic which

wasnt very often. God were we glad to arrive!

Holiday Inn! An oasis of civilization! Bing Crosby! White Christmas!


They did in fact have our reservation and it was in

fact only 350 rmb. and they did in fact have a pool

that was CLOSED FOR REMODELING!!!!! Mrs. Columbo collapsed

in my arms. The one thing she wanted to do that

night, if nothing else, was go for a swim. Welcome to



This is puzzling. Why would hotels close for

remodeling during a peak travel weak? You've got the

whole year to do your remodeling, and they decide it

needs to be done during the May holiday. It was

pretty obvious to us that Wuhan was not a popular

travel destination. The hotel was offering rooms at

almost half price. The Lonely Planet guide gave this

city maybe two pages of coverage. The whole chapter

on Hubei Province was shorter than the section on

either Kunming or Chengdu alone. It was a city

of noise, eyesores, and distinctly unfashionable

people. This was Mrs. Columbo's chief objection to the place.

This is her main yardstick for measuring civilization,

and though you in the West may protest, it has merit

in China.


That night we went to the food street on Minsheng Lu.

All chinese towns and citites have food streets.

They're just basically streets lined with restaurants.

The food street here in Wuhan was well lit and lively

when we arrived. We paid the taxi and struck out through

the big decorative gate.


Immediatley we were assailed by hawkers wanting us to

eat in their restaurants. They were anxious, noisy and

alert. They also groped, pulled and shoved at

passersby to maneuver them into their respective

establishments. We strolled, er, make that swerved

and dodged, our way down the street which, for a city

the size of Wuhan, was pathetically small. Back in

the trenches of Guigang we had bigger food streets. And Wuhan is basically an oversized Guigang.


The restaurants weren't remarkable in any way. They

were mediocre places serving local cuisine. The local

cuisine gave them a sort of cultural value to the

tourist and the food was OK. But what relly mattered was the spectacle

and cacophony.


Not only were people being jostled, grabbed, shouted

at and punched by touts, the touts in turn jostled,

grabbed, shouted at, and punched one another.

Meanwhile, a hellish chorus of sound from amateur (and

I use the term lightly here) musicians endeavored to

entertain the diners.


These people were horrible. We took a front row

seat to get the best performance of it. We chose a

busy, noisy restaurant at the head of the food street

that was the biggest and brightest there. As soon as

the waitress walked away we were accosted by

musicians, or should i say, people with musical

instruments, trying to sell us a song or two.


What they didn't realize is that we didn't have to pay

for this service. The others were so loud, all we had

to do was sit and listen. Oh, they'd smile eagerly and

pleasantly as if nothing would please them greater than

to give us a song. Some had song lists in English,

and others didn't. They were as bad as the touts in

the street. If you didn't respond to them, they'd

shove the list in your face. If that didnt work,

they'd play a few notes of a bad song like "Yesterday

Once More" or 'How Dry I Am". And if you shouted at them "Bu yoale! (We don't want any!)" They'd just smile and laugh and keep insisting.


I am not making that up either. They really did play "How

Dry I Am." I burst into hysterical laughter and Mrs. Columbo

wondered why. So I sang my drunken Daffy Duck

version of "How Dry I Am" for her so she could laugh too.

she of course asked me why that song is so funny,

so I gave her all the pertintent cultural background

I had available on it.


It should've been obvious to these people that

we were trying to have a private and semi-romantic

conversation, but that didn't matter. Some of the

"musicians" were so obstinate, the waitress would have

to come and clear them out.


The worst part of it was the competition. There had

to be 20-25 different combos playing the cafe all at

once, and each one wanted to be heard above the others.

There were basically two types--those with traditional

chinese instruments and those with a guitar and a

saxophone. The worst part of all these was a male/female

duo with a guitar and sax. The girl hollared

these pop tunes while strumming the guitar. And I'm not talking about punk rock, Johnny Lydon, Ian Mackaye angst-ridden shouting. This was more like the howl of a wounded animal. It didn't sound like singing at all, and you couldn't even hear the

guitar. The only time you couldn't hear her sing is

when the guy drowned her out with his sax playing.


What you have to understand is that people were

paying for this. They paid good money to hear these

people scream. Or to have a sax bell stuck in their

faces for a bad rendition of "How Dry I Am" or "Swanee

River." Thank God they didn't know any Beatles' songs!


This is just the sort of thing that can ruin a good

meal without the power of laughter.

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