One week into our China trip, Aaron and Mia, two of our grad student guides, decided it was time for Walter and me to get to know the non-academic side of Changsha. On Saturday morning, they arrived at our hotel at 10 o’clock, brimming with plans: a trip to Taiping Street, one of the city’s historic neighborhoods; a browse along the river, and finally over the bridge to Orange Island Park, a Mao-related tourist mecca .
We headed out into the steamy morning – the temperature was already well on its way to 32 C – and wedged ourselves into a tiny taxi. Twenty minutes later, we had arrived at the gateway to the pedestrian-only, Taiping Street and, wow, were there ever a lot of pedestrians. The street was packed with multi-generational families, young couples holding hands, food vendors, merchants working outside their shops, and pop-up artistic displays.
We browsed through some of the shops but I didn’t feel like buying anything. It seemed more important just to let the smells, sounds, sights, and sensations of Changsha sink into me.
And of course, I can’t forget the tastes. Aaron and Mia had a lunch restaurant in mind, and after much consultation with the server and each other, they chose several dishes for us to share: a steaming cauldron of seafood; lacy, crepe-like pancakes, embedded with corn; noodles; rice, and squares of tofu, covered in a black crust whose ingredients our Western palates couldn’t quite identify.
After lunch, we left the downtown area, and wandered along the Xiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze. It was shadier but even more crowded than Taiping Street. Once again, there were vendors everywhere, but without storefronts: people had staked out a patch of pavement or worn-down grass to sell lottery tickets, medicinal treatments, and food, or to entertain onlookers with songs blaring from portable amplifiers. Although we had seen very few non-Chinese faces on Taiping Street, we saw none here, and the mostly older crowd looked at us curiously as we passed.
Our next destination was Orange Island, which we accessed by crossing the Juzizhou Bridge. It seemed as though a lot of other people had the same destination in mind, and we joined a stream of walkers, cyclists, and motor scooters, which weren’t supposed to be on the sidewalk but used it anyway. The river itself was busy with fishermen and boat traffic, and I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of modern and traditional scenes all around me.
We took a breather on the other side of the bridge to guzzle water and buy hats, both of which would have been a better idea before we headed across the water in the dazzling afternoon sun. Then, we hopped onto one of the jam-packed, open-air tourist trams, which took us out to the main Orange Island attraction: an enormous, white marble statue of a youthful Mao Zedong, gazing out across the river. Standing 32 meters (105 feet) high, 83 meters (273 feet) long and 41 meters (125 feet) wide, it was riveting. We staked out a spot for a group photograph, and as we walked past, and around, and behind the monument, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
By the time we were on our way back to the entrance of the park, we were all feeling a little exhausted, and decided it was time to head back to the hotel. “But, wait,” Walter said, suddenly. “If this is Orange Island, why haven’t we seen any oranges?”
Aaron and Mia looked confused. “Of course we have, Walter. There’s one right there.” They pointed up into a nearby tree. “That’s an orange?” Walter said, staring at a fruit that dangled from a branch like a large yellow water balloon.
“Well, it’s not ripe yet. But it will be in another few weeks.”
What a day. My introduction to the Changsha that lives and breathes outside the university gates was a spectacular experience. As a teacher, it provided a valuable cultural lens through which to view my students and their lives. And as a learner, it gave me an entirely new perspective on my life in Canada.