Blind Panic

Assumptions are the things you don’t know you’re making, which is why it is so disorienting the first time you take the plug out of a wash basin in Australia and see the water spiralling down the hole the other way round. The very laws of physics are telling you how far you are from home.

In New Zealand even the telephone dials are numbered anticlockwise. This has nothing to do with the laws of physics – they just do it differently there. The shock is that it had never occurred to you that there was any other way of doing it. In fact you had never even thought about it at all, and suddenly here it is – different. The ground slips.

Dialling in New Zealand takes quite a bit of concentration because every digit is where you least expect to find it. Try and do it quickly and you will inevitably misdial because your automatic habit jumps in and takes over before you have a chance to stop it. The habit of telephone dials is so deep that it has become an assumption, and you don’t even know you’re making it.

China is in the northern hemisphere, so its wash basins drain clockwise, like ours. Their telephone dials are numbered like ours. Both those things are familiar. But every single other thing is different, and the assumptions that you don’t know you’re making will only get you into trouble and confusion.

I had a kind of inkling that this would be the case from what little I knew of other people’s experiences in China. I sat in the plane on the long flight to Beijing trying to unravel my habits, to unthink as it were, and feeling slightly twitchy about it.

I started buying copious quantities of aftershave. Each time the duty-free trolley came round I bought a bottle. I had never done anything like it before in my life. My normal, instinctive reaction had always been just to shake my head and carry on reading my magazine. This time I thought it would be more Zen-like to say, `Yes, all right. What have you got?’ I was not the only person I caught by surprise.

`Have you gone completely mad? Mark asked me as I slipped a sixth different bottle into my hand baggage.

`I’m trying to challenge and subvert my own fundamental assumptions as to what constitutes rationally constructed behaviour.’

`Does that mean yes??

‘I mean that I’m just trying to loosen up a bit,’ I said. `An aeroplane doesn’t give you much scope for arbitrary and alternative types of behaviour, so I’m just making the most of the opportunities that are offered.’

‘I see.’

Mark shifted uncomfortably in his seat and frowned deeply into his book.

`What are you going to do with all that stuff?’ he asked a while later over an airline meal.

`Dunno,’ I said. `It’s a problem, isn’t it??

‘Tell me, are you feeling nervous about something?

Yes.’

`What?’

`China.’

In the middle of one of the biggest, longest, noisiest, dirtiest thoroughfares in the world lives the reincarnation of a drowned princess, or rather, two hundred reincarnations of a drowned princess.

Whether these are two hundred different reincarnations of the same drowned princess, or the individual reincarnations of two hundred different drowned princesses, is something that the legends are a little vague about, and there are no reliable statistics on the incidence of princess-drownings in the area available to help clear the matter up.

If they are all the same drowned princess then she must have led a life of exquisite sinfulness to have had the conditions of her current lives repeatedly inflicted on her. Her reincarnations are constantly being mangled in ships’ propellers, snared in fishermen’s nets full of hooks, blinded, poisoned and deafened.

The thoroughfare in question is the Yangtze river, and the reincarnated princess is the Baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin.

`How do you rate our chances of seeing a dolphin? I asked Mark.

`I haven’t the faintest idea,’ he said. `It’s very hard to get information about anything out of China, and most of it’s confusing. But the dolphins are to be found – or not – in a just a few parts of the Yangtze. The main one is a stretch of the river about two hundred kilometres long centred on a town called Tongling in Anhui province. That’s where there are people working on saving the baiji, and that’s the main place we’re headed for. We get to Tongling by boat from Nanjing, where there’s a man called Professor Zhou who’s a major authority on the animal. We get to Nanjing by train from Shanghai. We get to Shanghai by plane from Beijing. We’ve got a couple of days in Beijing first to get acclimatised and see if any of the travel arrangements are actually going to work out. We’ve got thousands of miles to cover and travel is meant to be insanely difficult.’

`Do we have much leeway if things go wrong?’ I asked. `Which days are Professor Zhou and the others expecting us??

‘Expecting us? said Mark. `What do you mean? They’ve never heard of us. You can’t actually contact anyone in China. We’ll be lucky to find them and even luckier if they agree to talk to us. In fact I’m only half certain they exist. We’re going into completely unknown territory.’

We both peered out of the window. Darkness was falling over the largest nation on earth.

`There’s just one last bottle left, sir,’ said the cabin steward to me at that moment. `Would you like it before we close up the duty-free? Then you’ll have the complete range.’

It was quite late at night as a rickety minibus delivered us to our hotel on the outskirts of Beijing. At least, I think it was the outskirts. We had no point of reference by which to judge what kind of area it was. The streets were wide and tree-lined but eerily silent. Any motor vehicle made a single and particular growl instead of merging with a general traffic hum. The streetlights had no diffusing glass covers, so the light they shed was sharp, highlighting each leaf and branch and precisely delineating their shapes against the walls. Passing cyclists cast multiple interweaving shadows on the road around them. The sense of moving in a geometric web was added to by the clack of billiard balls as they cannoned across small tables set up under the occasional street lamp.

The hotel was set in a small network of narrow side streets, and its facade was wildly decorated with the carved red dragons and gilded pagoda shapes which are the familiar stereotypes of China. We hefted our bags full of camera equipment, recording gear, clothes and aftershave into the lobby past the long glass counter displays of carved chopsticks, ginseng and herbal aphrodisiacs, and waited to check in.

I noticed an odd thing. It was one of those tiny little disorienting details, like the telephone dials in New Zealand, that tell you you are in a very distant and foreign country. I knew that the Chinese traditionally hold their table tennis bats the way we hold cigarettes. What I did not know was that they also hold their cigarettes the way we hold table tennis bats.

Our rooms were small. I sat on the edge of my bed, which was made for someone of half my height, and laid out my bewildering collection of aftershave bottles in a neat line next to two large and ornately decorated red and gold thermos flasks that were already standing on the bedside table. I wondered how I was going to get rid of them. I decided to sleep on the problem. I hoped I would be able to. I read a note in the hotel’s directory of guest services with foreboding. It said: ‘No dancing, clamouring, quarrelling, fisticuffings or indulging in excessive drinking and creating disturbances in public places for the sake of keeping a peaceful and comfortable environment. Guests are not permitted to bring pets and poultry into the hotel.’

The morning presented me with a fresh problem. I wanted to clean my teeth, but was a little suspicious of the delicate brown colour of the water leaking from the washbasin taps. I investigated the large flamboyant thermos flasks, but they were full of very hot water, for making tea. I poured some water from a thermos into a glass and left it to cool while I went to meet Mark and Chris Muir, our sound engineer, for a late breakfast.

Mark had already been trying to get through to Nanjing on the phone in an attempt to contact Professor Zhou, the baiji dolphin expert, and had come to the conclusion that it simply couldn’t be done. We had two days to kill before our flight to Shanghai, so we might just as well be tourists for a bit.

I returned to my room to clean my teeth at last, to discover that the room maid had washed the glass I’d left out to cool, and refilled the thermoses with freshly boiled water.

I felt rather cast down by this. I tried pouring some water from one glass to another to cool it down, but even after doing this for a while the water was still hot, and the toothbrush wilted in my mouth.

I realised that I was going to have to come up with some serious strategic thinking if I was going to get to clean my teeth. I refilled the glass, carefully stuck it out of sight in the back of a cupboard, and then tried to get rid of one of the bottles of aftershave by hiding it under the bed.

We put on our sunglasses and cameras and went and spent the day looking at the Great Wall at Badaling, an hour or so outside Beijing. It looked to be remarkably freshly built for such an ancient monument, and probably the parts we saw had been.

I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century.

‘So it isn’t the original building? I had asked my Japanese guide.

‘But yes, of course it is,’ he insisted, rather surprised at my question.

‘But it’s been burnt down?

Yes.

‘Twice.’

‘Many times.’

‘And rebuilt.’

‘Of course. It is an important and historic building.’.’

‘With completely new materials.’

‘But of course. It was burnt down.’

‘So how can it be the same building?’

‘It is always the same building.’

I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.

I couldn’t feel entirely comfortable with this view, because it fought against my basic Western assumptions, but I had to see the point.

I don’t know whether this principle lies beneath the rebuilding of the Great Wall, because I couldn’t find anybody who understood the question. The rebuilt section was swarming with tourists and Coca-Cola booths and shops where you can buy Great Wall T-shirts and electric pandas, and this may also have had something to do with it.

We returned to our hotel.

The maid had found my hidden glass of water and washed it. She must have searched hard for it because she had also found the bottle of aftershave under the bed and had placed it neatly back on the table by the others.

`Why don’t you just use the stuff? asked Mark.

`Because I’ve smelt them all and they’re horrid.’

‘You could give them to people for Christmas.’

`I don’t want to carry them round the world till then.’

`Remind me again why you bought them.’

`I can’t remember. Let’s go to dinner.’

We went to a restaurant called Crispy Fried Duck for dinner, and walking back through the city centre afterwards we came to a square called Tiananmen.

I should explain that this was October 1988. I had never heard the name Tiananmen Square, and neither had most of the world

The square is huge. Standing in it at night you have very little idea of where its boundaries are, they fade into the distance. At one end is the gateway to the Forbidden City, the Tiananmen Gate, from which the great iconic portrait of Chairman Mao gazes out across the vastness of the square, out towards its furthest point where there stands the mausoleum in which his body lies in state.

In between these two, beneath his gaze, the mood was festive. Huge topiary bushes had been imported into the square carved into the figures of cartoon animals to celebrate the Olympics.

The square was not full or crowded – it would take many tens or even hundreds of thousands of people to achieve that – but it was busy. Families were out with their children (or more usually, with their single child). They walked around, chatting with friends, milling about easily and freely as if the square were their own garden, letting their children wander off and play with others without an apparent second thought. It would be hard to imagine anything of the kind in any of the great squares of Europe, and inconceivable in America.

In fact I cannot remember any time that I have felt so easy and relaxed in a busy public place, particularly at night. The background static of wary paranoia that you take with you as a matter of unconscious habit when you step out into the streets of Western cities made itself suddenly apparent by falling silent. It was a quite magical silence.

I have to say, though, that this was probably the only time we felt so easy in China, or indeed easy at all. For most of the time we found China baffling and exasperating and perpetually opaque; but that evening, in Tiananmen Square, was easy. So the greatest bewilderment of all came a few months later when Tiananmen Square underwent that brutal transformation that occurs in the public mind to the sites of all catastrophes: they become reference points in time instead of actual places. `Before Tiananmen Square’ was when we were there. `After Tiananmen Square’ was after the tanks rolled in.

We returned to the square early the following morning, while the air was still damp and misty, and joined the queues that line up round the square each day to file into the mausoleum and past the body of Chairman Mao, lying in state in a perspex box.

The length of the queue beggared belief. It zigzagged backwards and forwards across the square, each new fold of it looming up at you from out of the mist and disappearing into it again, rank after rank, line after line. People stood in line about three or four abreast, shuffled briskly forward across the square, made a turn and shuffled briskly back, again and again, all under the orders of officials who paraded up and down in flared trousers and yellow anoraks, barking through megaphones. The easy atmosphere of the previous evening had vanished in the dreary morning mist, and the square was degraded into a giant marshalling yard.

We joined the line after some hesitation, half-expecting that we might be there all day, but we were kept constantly on the move by the barking marshals, and even found that we were accelerating as we got closer to the front. Less than three hours after we had tagged on to the end of the line we were hurried into the red-pile-carpeted inner sanctum and ran past the tiny, plump, waxy body as respectfully as we could.

The queue which had been so tightly and rigorously controlled as it was lined up to be fed into the mausoleum, disintegrated amongst the souvenir stalls as it emerged from the other side. I imagined that from the air the building must resemble a giant mincing machine.

The whole square and all the surrounding streets were served by a network of public address speakers, out of which music was pumped all day long. It was hard to make out what it was most of the time because the system was pretty ropey, and the sound just thumped and blared and echoed indecipherably around us, but as we climbed to the top of the Tiananmen Gate a few minutes later, we began to hear much more clearly what it was we were listening to.

The Tiananmen Gate, I should first explain, is a tall, flat-fronted structure with arches at the bottom through which you pass into the Forbidden City, and a large balcony across the top, behind which is a series of meeting rooms.

The Gate was built during the Ming Dynasty and used by the Emperors for making public appearances and proclamations. The Gate, like Tiananmen Square, has always been a major point of focus in the political history of China. If you climb up to the balcony you can stand on the spot from which, on 1 October 1949, Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The spot is clearly marked, and there is an exhibition of photographs of the event clustered around it.

The view across the immensity of Tiananmen Square from here is extraordinary. It is like looking across a plain from the side of a mountain. In political terms the view is more astounding yet, encompassing as it does a nation that comprises almost one quarter of the population of this planet. All of the history of China is symbolically focused here, at this very point, and it is hard, as you stand there, not be transfixed by the power of it. It is hard, also, not to be profoundly moved by the vision of the peasant from Shao-Shan who seized that power in the name of the people and whom the people still revere, in spite of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, as the father of their nation.

And while we were standing on this spot, the spot where Mao stood when he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the music we were having played at us by the public address system was first `Viva Espana’ and then the `Theme from Hawaii Five-O’.

It was hard to avoid the feeling that somebody, somewhere, was missing the .point. I couldn’t even be sure that it wasn’t me.

We flew to Shanghai the next day, and began to think about the dolphins which we were slowly edging our way across China towards. We went to think about them in the bar of the Peace Hotel. This turned out not to be a good place to think because you couldn’t hear yourself doing it, but we wanted to see the place anyway.

The Peace Hotel is a spectacular remnant of the days when Shanghai was one of the most glamorous and cosmopolitan ports in the world. In the thirties the hotel was known as the Cathay, and was the most sumptuous place in town. This was where people came to glitter at each other. In one of its suites Noel Coward wrote a draft of Private Lives.

Now the paint is peeling, the lobby is dark and draughty, the posters advertising the `World Famous Peace Hotel Jazz Band’ are written in felt tip and sellotaped on to the panelling, but the ghost of the Cathay’s former grandeur still lurks high up among the dusty chandeliers, wondering what’s been going on for the last forty years.

The bar was a dark, low-ceilinged room just off the lobby. The World Famous Peace Hotel Jazz Band was out for the evening, but a deputy band was playing in their place. The promise is that this is one of the only places in the world where you will still hear the music of the thirties played as it was played, where it was played. Maybe the World Famous combo keeps the promise but their deputies did not. They banged their way through endless repetitions of `Edelweiss’, `Greensleeves’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ interspersed with the occasional bash at `New York, New York’, ‘Chicago’ and ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’.

There were two odd things about this. First of all, this wasn’t just for the tourists. This was the music we heard everywhere in China, particularly the first three titles: on the radio, in shops, in taxis, in trains, on the great ferries that steam continually up and down the Yangtze. Usually it was played by Richard Clayderman. For anyone who has ever wondered who in the world buys Richard Clayderman records, it’s the Chinese, and there are a billion of them.

The other odd thing was that the music was clearly completely foreign to them. Well, obviously it was foreign music, so that’s not altogether surprising, but it was as if they were playing from a phrase book. Every extempore flourish the trumpeter added, every extra fill on the drums, were all crashingly and horribly wrong. I suppose that Indians must have felt this hearing George Harrison playing the sitar in the sixties, but then, after a brief indulgence, so did everybody else; clumsy replications of Indian music never supplanted the popular music of the West. When the Chinese listened avidly to mangled renditions of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and `Little Brown Jug’, they were obviously hearing something very different to what I was hearing and I couldn’t work out what it was.

Travelling in China I began to find that it was the sounds I was hearing that confused and disoriented me most.

It occurred to me, as we tried to find a table in one of the more muffled corners of the bar, that the dolphins we had come to look for must be suffering from the same kind of problem. Their senses must be completely overwhelmed and confused.

To begin with, the baiji dolphin is half-blind.

The reason for this is that there is nothing to see in the Yangtze. The water is so muddy now that visibility is not much more than a few centimetres, and as a result the baiji’s eyes have atrophied through disuse.

Curiously enough, it is often possible to tell something about the changes that have occurred during an animal’s evolution from the way in which its foetus develops. It’s a sort of action replay.

The baiji’s eyes, feeble as they are, are placed quite high up on its head to make the most of the only light that ever reaches them, i.e. from directly above.

Most other dolphins have their eyes much lower down the sides of their heads, from where they can see all around them, and below; and this is exactly where you will find the eyes on a young baiji foetus.

As the foetus grows, however, its eyes gradually migrate up the sides of its head, and the muscles which would normally pull the eyeball downwards don’t even bother to develop. You can’t see anything downwards.

It may be, therefore, that the entire history of soil erosion into the Yangtze can be charted in the movement of a single baiji foetus’s eyes. (It may also be that the baiji arrived into an already turbid Yangtze from somewhere else and just adapted to its new environment; we don’t know. Either way, the Yangtze has become very much more muddy during the history of the baiji species, mostly because of human activity.)

As a consequence, the baiji had to use a different sense to find its way around. It relies on sound. It has incredibly acute hearing, and ‘sees’ by echolocation, emitting sequences of tiny clicks and listening for the echoes. It also communicates with other baijis by making whistling noises.

Since man invented the engine, the baiji’s river world must have become a complete nightmare.

China has a pretty poor road system. It has railways, but they don’t go everywhere, so the Yangtze (which in China is called the Chang Jiang, or ‘Long River’) is the country’s main highway. It’s crammed .with boats the whole time, and always has been – but they used to be sailing boats. Now the river is constantly churned up by the engines of rusty old tramp steamers, container ships, giant ferries, passenger liners and barges.

I said to Mark, ‘It must be continuous bedlam under the water.’

‘What?’

‘I said, it’s hard enough for us to talk in here with this band going on, but it must be continuous bedlam under the water.’

`Is that what you’ve been sitting here thinking all this time?

‘Yes.’

`I thought you’d been quiet.’

‘I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be a blind man trying to live in a discotheque. Or several competing discotheques.’

`Well, it’s worse than that, isn’t it? Mark said. ‘Dolphins rely on sound to see with.’

‘All right, so it would be like a deaf man living in a discotheque.’

‘Why?’

‘All the stroboscopic lights and flares and mirrors and lasers and things. Constantly confusing information. After a day or two you’d become completely bewildered and disoriented and start to fall over the furniture.’e.’

`Well, that’s exactly what’s happening, in fact. The dolphins are continually being hit by boats or mangled in their propellers or tangled in fishermen’s nets. A dolphin’s echolocation is usually good enough for it to find a small ring on the sea bed, so things must be pretty serious if it can’t tell that it’s about to be brained by a boat.

`Then, of course, there’s all the sewage, the chemical and industrial waste and artificial fertiliser that’s being washed into the Yangtze, poisoning the water and poisoning the fish.’

`So,’ I said, ‘what do you do if you are either half-blind, or half-deaf, living in a discotheque with a stroboscopic light show, where the sewers are overflowing, the ceiling and the fans keep crashing on your head and the food is bad?’

‘I think I’d complain to the management.’

‘They can’t.’

‘No. They have to wait for the management to notice.’

A little later I suggested that, as representatives of the management so to speak, perhaps we ought to try to hear what the Yangtze actually sounded like under the surface – to record it in fact. Unfortunately, since we’d only just thought of it, we didn’t have an underwater microphone with us.

‘Well, there’s one thing we can do,’ said Chris. ‘There’s a standard technique in the BBC for waterproofing a microphone in an emergency. What you do is you get the microphone and you stuff it inside a condom. Either of you got any condoms with you?’

‘Er, no.’

‘Nothing lurking in your sponge bags??

‘No.

‘Well, we’d better go shopping, then.’

By now I was beginning to think in sound pictures. There are two very distinctive sounds in China, three if you count Richard Clayderman.

The first is spitting. Everybody spits. Wherever you are you continually hear the sound: the long-drawn-out, sucking, hawking noise of mucus being gathered up into the mouth, followed by the hissing launch of the stuff through the air and, if you’re lucky, the ping of it hitting a spittoon, of which there are many. Every room has at least one. In one hotel lobby I counted a dozen strategically placed in corners and alcoves. In the streets of Shanghai there is a plastic spittoon sunk into the pavement on every street corner, filled with cigarette ends, litter and thick, curling, bubbly mucus. You will also see many signs saying `No spitting’, but since these are in English rather than Chinese, I suspect that they are of cosmetic value only. I was told that spitting in the street was actually an offence now, with a fine attached to it. If it were ever enforced I think the entire economy of China would tilt on its axis.

The other sound is the Chinese bicycle bell. There is only one type of bell, and it’s made by the Seagull company, which also makes Chinese cameras. The cameras, I think, are not the world’s best, but the bicycle bells may well be, as they are built for heavy use. They are big, solid, spinning chrome drums and have a great resounding chime to them which you hear ringing out through the streets continuously.

Everyone in China rides bicycles. Private cars are virtually unheard of, so the traffic in Shanghai consists of trolley-buses, taxis, vans, trucks and tidal waves of bicycles.

The first time you stand at a major intersection and watch, you are convinced that you are about to witness major carnage. Crowds of bicycles are converging on the intersection from all directions. Trucks and trolley-buses are already barrelling across it. Everyone is ringing a bell or sounding a horn and no one is showing any signs of stopping. At the moment of inevitable impact you close your eyes and wait for the horrendous crunch of mangled metal but, oddly, it never comes.

It seems impossible. You open your eyes. Several dozen bicycles and trucks have all passed straight through each other as if they were merely beams of light.

Next time you keep your eyes open and try to see how the trick’s done; but however closely you watch you can’t untangle the dancing, weaving patterns the bikes make as they seem to pass insubstantially through each other, all ringing their bells.

In the western world, to ring a bell or sound a horn is usually an aggressive thing to do. It carries a warning or an instruction: ‘Get out of the way’, ‘Get a move on’, or `What the hell kind of idiot are you anyway? If you hear a lot of horns blowing in a New York street you know that people are in a dangerous mood.

In China, you gradually realise, the sound means something else entirely. It doesn’t mean, ‘Get out of my way, asshole’, it just means a cheerful ‘Here I am’. Or rather it means, `Here I am here I am here I am here I am here I am…’, because it is continuous.

It occurred to me as we threaded our way through the crowded, noisy streets looking for condoms, that perhaps Chinese cyclists also navigated by a form of echolocation.

‘What do you think?’ I asked Mark.

‘I think you’ve been having some very strange ideas since we came to China.’

`Yes, but if you’re weaving along in a pack of cyclists, and everyone’s ringing their bells, you probably get a very clear spatial perception of where everybody is. You notice that none of them have lights on their bicycles?

‘Yes…’

‘I read somewhere that the writer James Fenton tried riding a bike with a light on it in China one night and the police stopped him and told him to take it off. They said, “How would it be if everyone went around with lights on their bicycles?” So I think they must navigate by sound. The other thing that’s extraordinary about cyclists is their inner peace.’

`What?

‘Well, I don’t know what else it can be. It’s the extraordinary, easy unconcern with which a cyclist will set off directly across the path of an oncoming bus. They just miss a collision which, let’s face it, would not harm the bus very much, and though they only miss by about nine millimetres the cyclist doesn’t appear even to notice.’

‘What is there to notice? The bus missed him.’

‘But only just.’

‘But it missed him. That’s the point. I think we get alarmed by close scrapes because they’re an invasion of space as much as anything else. The Chinese don’t worry about privacy or personal space. They probably think we’re neurotic about it.’

The Friendship Store seemed like a promising place to buy condoms, but we had a certain amount of difficulty in getting the idea across. We passed from one counter to another in the large open-plan department store, which consists of many different individual booths, stalls and counters, but no one was able to help us.

We first started at the stalls which looked as if they sold medical supplies, but had no luck. By the time we had got to the stalls which sold bookends and chopsticks we knew we were on to a loser, but at least we found a young shop assistant who spoke English.

We tried to explain .to her what it was we wanted, but seemed to reach the limit of her vocabulary pretty quickly. I got out my notebook and drew a condom very carefully, including the little extra balloon on the end.

She frowned at it, but still didn’t get the idea. She brought us a wooden spoon, a candle, a sort of paper knife and, surprisingly enough, a small porcelain model of the Eiffel Tower and then at last lapsed into a posture of defeat.

Some other girls from the stall gathered round to help, but they were also defeated by our picture. At last I plucked up the bravado to perform a delicate little mime and at last the penny dropped.

‘Ah!’ the first girl said, suddenly wreathed in smiles. ‘Ah yes!’

They all beamed delightedly at us as they got the idea.

‘You do understand? l asked.

`Yes! Yes, I understand.’

‘Do you have any?

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not have.’

‘Oh.’

‘But, but, but…’

‘Yes?

‘I say you where you go, OK?

‘Thank you very much. Thank you.’

‘You go 616 Nanjing Road. OK. Have there. You ask “rubberover”. OK?

`Rubberover?

‘Rubberover. You ask. They have. OK. Have nice day.’ She giggled happily about this with her hand over her mouth.h.

We thanked them again, profusely, and left with much waving and smiling. The news seemed to have spread very quickly around the store, and everybody waved at us. They seemed terribly pleased to have been asked.

When we reached 616 Nanjing Road, which turned out to be another, smaller department store, and not a knocking shop as we had been half-suspecting, our pronunciation of ‘rubberover’ seemed to let us down and produce another wave of baffled incomprehension.

This time I went straight for the mime that had served us so well before, and it seemed to do the trick at once. The shop assistant, a slightly more middle-aged lady with severe hair, marched straight to a cabinet of drawers, brought us back a packet and placed it triumphantly on the counter in front of us.

Success, we thought, opened the packet and found it to contain a bubble sheet of pills.

‘Right idea,’ said Mark, with a sigh. ‘Wrong method.’

We were quickly floundering again as we tried to explain to the now slightly affronted lady that it wasn’t precisely what we were after. By this time a crowd of about fifteen onlookers had gathered round us, some of whom, I was convinced, had followed us all the way from the Friendship Store.

One of the things that you quickly discover in China, is that we are all at the zoo. If you stand still for a minute, people will gather round and stare at you. The unnerving thing is that they don’t stare intently or inquisitively, they just stand there, often right in front of you, and watch you as blankly as if you were a dogfood commercial.

At last one young and pasty-faced man with glasses pushed through the crowd and said he spoke a little English and could he help?

We thanked him and said, yes, we wanted to buy some condoms, some rubberovers, and we would be very grateful if he could explain that for us.

He looked puzzled, picked up the rejected packet lying on the counter in front of the affronted shop assistant and said, ‘Not want rubberover. This better.’

`No,’ Mark said. `We definitely want rubberover, not pills.’

`Why want rubberover? Pill better.’

`You tell him,’ said Mark.

‘It’s to record dolphins,’ I said. ‘Or not the actual dolphins in fact. What we want to record is the noise in the Yangtze that… it’s to go over the microphone, you see, and…’

‘Oh, just tell him you want to fuck someone,’ muttered Chris, scottishly. ‘And you can’t wait.’

But by now the young man was edging nervously away from us, suddenly realising that we were dangerously insane, and should simply be humoured and escaped from. He said something hurriedly to the shop assistant and backed away into the crowd.

The shop assistant shrugged, scooped up the pills, opened another drawer and pulled out a packet of condoms.

We bought nine, just to be on the safe side.

‘They’ve got aftershave as well,’ said Mark, ‘if you’re running out.’

I had already managed to dispose of one bottle of aftershave in the hotel in Beijing, and I hid another under the seat of the train to Nanjing.

‘You know what you’re doing?’ said Mark as he spotted me. I’d thought he was asleep.

‘Yes. I’m trying to get rid of this bloody stuff. I wish I’d never bought it.’

‘No, it’s more than that. When an animal strays into new territory, where it doesn’t feel at home, it marks its passage with scent, just to lay claim. You remember the ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar? They’ve got scent glands in their wrists. They rub their tails between their wrists and then wave their tails in the air to spread the scent around, just to occupy the territory. That’s why dogs pee against lampposts as well. You’re just scent-marking your way round China. Old habits die hard.’

‘Does anyone happen to know,’ asked Chris, who had been lolling sleepily against the window for an hour or so, ‘what the Chinese for Nanjing actually looks like? I only ask so as we’ll know when we’ve got there.’

At Nanjing we had our first sight of the river. Although Shanghai is known as the gateway to the Yangtze, it isn’t actually on it, but is on a connecting river called the Huangpu. Nanjing is on the Yangtze itself.

It is a grim town, or at least we found it to be so. The sense of alien dislocation gathered us more tightly into its grip. The people we found to be utterly opaque, and would either stare at us or ignore us. I was reminded of a conversation I had had with a Frenchman on the plane to Beijing.

‘It is difficult to talk to the Chinese people,’ he had said. ‘Partly it is the language, if you do not speak Chinese, but also, you know, they have been through many, many things. So they think it is safer perhaps to ignore you. If they talk to you or do not talk to you they are paid the same whatever, so, pfffft.

‘I think if they get to know you they talk a little more, perhaps, but pfffft.’

The sense of dislocation was sharpened by the presence, in the centre of town, of a single major Western-style high-rise hotel, called the Jing Ling. It was an anonymously grand conference-holding, revolving-bar-and-atrium-ridden modern hotel of the sort that generally I heartily dislike, but suddenly it was like an oasis to us.

We made straight for the revolving top-floor bar like rats from a sack and sat huddled for safety round a cluster of gin and tonics. After twenty minutes or so of sitting in these unexpectedly familiar surroundings, we found, as we gazed out of the panoramic windows at the vast, alien, darkened city which turned slowly around us, that we felt like astronauts in a vast, warm life-support system, looking out over the hostile and barren terrain of another planet.

We were all seized with a sudden desire not to have to go out there any more, not to have to be stared at, ignored, spat at, or have our personal space invaded by bicycles. Unfortunately the Jing ling had no free rooms, and we were ejected into the night to find lodging in an altogether grimmer crumbling hotel on the outskirts, where we sat and thought, once more, about the dolphins out in their filthy river and how we were to make our recording.

On a day darkened with drizzle we stood on’ the bank of Yangtze, watching the great drifting sea of sludge which flows sullenly from the depths of China. The only colour in a heavy landscape of dark brown shading to grey, against which long, black, smoke-belching silhouettes of diesel-engined junks thudded and growled up the river, was a little pink knotted condom dangling limply on the end of a cable attached to Chris’s tape recorder. The half-heard swish of unseen multitudes of bicycles was like the distant drumming of hooves. From here the bewilderment of Shanghai seemed like a remote warm memory of home.

The river was not deep enough at the bank for our sound experiment, and we slogged our way through the accumulating rain towards the docks in search of deeper water. We shook our heads at the occasional importunate cries from passing bicycle-driven rickshaws, being too sunk in gloom to admit even the possibility of relief.

We found a temporarily deserted passenger ferry lolling against the creaking dock and trudged up the gangplank. The ferries are big, hulking, five-decker wedges, which look like immense, soiled slices of lemon gateau grinding daily up and down the Yangtze, each carrying upwards of a thousand cramped passengers and playing Richard Clayderman at them. We found our way through a series of bulkhead doors to a deck which overlooked the river, where Chris tried hopelessly to dangle the little pink thing with its button microphone down into the murky waters. It would scarcely reach, was blown about by the wind, and when at last it dropped down to the water it sat perkily on top of it.

There was another deck below us, but it proved difficult to find – the innards of the boat continually deflected us with bolted doors. At last we solved the maze of it and emerged once again overlooking the river, several feet lower.

The microphone still would not sink into the thick brown water until we weighted it down with my hotel room key from Beijing, which I discovered inadvertently about my person. The microphone, wrapped in its condom, settled into the depths and Chris started to record.

Boat after boat crawled thunderously past us up the river. They were mostly twenty or thirty-foot, soot-black junks, whose small crews regarded us sometimes with perplexed curiosity and sometimes not at all. At the back of each junk an aged diesel engine juddered and bellowed as it poured black clouds into the air and drove the screw beneath the water.

After we had been on the deck a few minutes, a member of the ferry’s crew suddenly arrived and expressed surprise at seeing us there. We did not, of course, speak Mandarin, but the question `What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ has a familiar ring in any language.

The mere idea of even attempting to account for ourselves defeated us. We settled instead for explaining, by means of elaborate mime and sign language, that we were barking mad. This worked. He accepted it, but then hung around in the background to watch us anyway. At last Chris hauled the apparatus up out of the water, dried it off and showed it to him. As soon as the crewman recognised that it was a condom we had been dangling in the water it seemed as if some light dawned.

‘Ah!’ he said. `Ficky ficky!’ He grinned happily and plunged his forefinger in and out of his other fist. `Ficky ficky!’

`Yes,’ we agreed. `Ficky ficky.’

Pleased that all was clear now, he wandered off and left us to it as, each in turn, we listened to the tape over headphones.

The sound we heard wasn’t exactly what I had expected. Water is a very good medium for the propagation of sound and I had expected to hear clearly the heavy, pounding reverberations of each of the boats that had gone thundering by us as we stood on the deck. But water transmits sound even better than that, and what we were hearing was everything that was happening in the Yangtze for many, many miles around, jumbled cacophonously together.

Instead of hearing the roar of each individual ship’s propeller, what we heard was a sustained shrieking blast of pure white noise, in which nothing could be distinguished at all.

Happily, Professor Zhou did exist. Not only did he exist, but when Mark went to look for him at Nanjing University (I was ill that day), he was actually in and agreed to come and have dinner with us at the Jing Ling Hotel (by which time I was better because it was quite a good restaurant).

He was a polite, kindly man of about sixty. He guided us graciously through the unfamiliar menu and introduced us to the local delicacy, namely Nanjing Duck. This turned out to be very similar to Peking Duck (or Beijing Duck as we now know it – or, to be strictly accurate, Szechwan Duck, which is what we have been eating for years under the name Peking Duck. We had some wonderful Szechwan Duck in Beijing, because that’s what they eat there. Beijing Duck is something different and comes in two courses, the second of which is usually not worth bothering with). To conclude: Nanjing Duck turned out to be very similar to Szechwan Duck except that they spoil the thing by coating it with a solid half-inch layer of salt. Professor Zhou agreed that it didn’t taste nearly as pleasant that way, but that was how they did it in Nanjing.

Professor Zhou welcomed us to China, was surprised and delighted that we had come all this way to see the dolphins, said that he would do everything he possibly could to help us, but didn’t think it would do us any good. Things are difficult in China, he confided. He promised to try and phone the people at the dolphin conservation project in Tongling to warn them that we were coming, but didn’t hold out much hope because he’d been trying to get through to them on his own account for weeks.

He said that, yes, we were right. The noise in the Yangtze was a major problem for the dolphins, and severely interfered with their echolocation. The dolphins’ habit had always been, when they heard a boat, to make a long dive, change direction underwater, swim under the boat and surface behind it. Now, when they are under the boat, they get confused and surface too soon, right under the propellers.

These things had all happened very suddenly, he said. The Yangtze had remained unspoilt for millions of years, but over the last few years had changed very dramatically, and the dolphin had no habit of adaptation.

The very existence of the dolphin had not been known of until relatively recently. Fishermen had always known of them, but fishermen did not often talk to zoologists, and there had been a recent painful period in China’s history, of course, when nobody talked to scientists of any kind, merely denounced them to the Party for wearing glasses.

The dolphin was first discovered, in Dong Ting Lake, not in the Yangtze, in 1914 when a visiting American killed one and took it back to the Smithsonian. It was obviously a new species and genus of river dolphin, but little further interest was taken in it.

Then, in the late fifties, Professor Zhou returned from a field trip studying birds, to find an unlabelled skeleton waiting for him. It was the same species of dolphin, but this had been discovered, not in Dong Ting Lake, where they no longer existed, but in the river near Nanjing.

He interviewed some local fishermen who said they did see them from time to time. Any that were accidentally caught were sold for food. The ones that got caught in the fishing lines had a bad time of it, because the lines the fishermen traditionally use along the banks of the Yangtze are baited with hundreds of large, bare hooks.

Some studies were carried out around Nanjing, but for a while the Cultural Revolution put a stop to all that. Research picked up again in the seventies, but the difficulties of communication within China were such that research was only local, and no one really had a feel for exactly how rare the animal was, or what kind of predicament it was in.

That all changed in 1984.

Some peasants found a baiji stranded in the shallows near Tongling, further upriver. They reported it to the Agricultural Commission of the Tongling Municipal Government, who took an interest and sent someone along to take a look at it.

This immediately began to flush out a whole lot of stuff.

All sorts of. people were suddenly popping up and saying that they had also seen a dolphin hit by a boat or caught in a net or washed up in a bloody mess somewhere.re.

The picture that emerged from putting all these hitherto isolated incidents together was an alarming one. It was suddenly horribly apparent that this dolphin was not merely rare, it was in mortal danger.

Professor Zhou was brought along from Nanjing to assess what should be done. Here the story took an unusual and dramatic turn, because once he had assessed what should be done… the people of Tongling did it.

Within months a huge project was set up. to build a dolphin protection reserve within the Yangtze itself, and now, five years later, it is almost complete.

`You should go to see it,’ said Professor Zhou. `It is very good. I will try my best to phone them to prepare for your arrival, so you may rest… what is the word?

I said that rest sounded fine to me. I was all for some rest.

`Easily? Surely? Ah… assured. You may rest assured that they will not be expecting you. So I will give you a letter also.’o.’

For various reasons which had to do with making a diversion to see an alligator farm from which we then got chased by police on the grounds that we did not have the appropriate alligator permits, we ended up taking a taxi to Tongling, a mere one hundred and twenty miles. We got a special deal on the taxi. Part of the special deal was that we didn’t have a very good taxi driver, or indeed a very good taxi, and we arrived in Tongling in a state of some nervous tension.

Foreigners are not allowed to drive in China, and you can see why. The Chinese drive, or cycle, according to laws that are simply not apparent to an uninitiated observer, and I’m thinking not merely of the laws of the Highway Code, I’m thinking of the laws of physics. By the end of our stay in China I had learnt to accept that if you are driving along a two lane road behind another car or truck, and there are two vehicles speeding towards you, one of which is overtaking the other, the immediate response of your driver will be to also pull out and overtake. Somehow, magically, it all works out in the end.

What I could never get used to, however, was this situation: the vehicle in front of you is overtaking the vehicle in front of him, and your driver pulls out and overtakes the overtaking vehicle, just as three other vehicles are coming towards you performing exactly the same manoeuvre. Presumably Sir Isaac Newton has long ago been discredited as a bourgeois capitalist running dog lackey.

Tongling, in turn, made us long wistfully for the cheerful, familiar hominess of Nanjing.

To quote the welcoming brochure for tourists that I found in my bleak hotel bedroom: ‘As a new rising industrial mining city, Tongling has already founded a rather scale of non-ferrous metallurgical, chemical, textile, building material, electronics, machinery, iron and steel and coal industries; especially the non-ferrous metallurgical building material and chemical industries, which, with a broad prospect of development, have already made or been on the way of making Tongling the major production centre.’

Tongling was not beautiful. It was a bleak, grey, unwelcoming place, and I made immediate plans to lay down a territorial aftershave marker here.

I took the brochure with me and met Mark and Chris in the hotel restaurant, which was also bleak. We had been pretty open to suggestion as far as food had been concerned in China, and had been prepared, sometimes recklessly prepared, to eat whatever people put in front of us. Much of it had been delicious, much of it less so, and some of it had been rather startling to a Western palate.

The food in the hotel in Tongling fell heavily into the startling category, including, and especially, the Thousand Year Old Eggs. The name is, of course, not meant to be taken literally, but merely as a sort of hint as to how startling they are.

The eggs are lightly boiled in green tea and then buried in a box of mud and straw for three months. In that time the white turns bright green and firm, and the yolk turns very, very dark green indeed and sludgy. The startling thing is that they are then presented to you as a delicacy, whereas if you found them in your cupboard at home you would call in the council.

We struggled a little with the meal, finally gave up and looked through the brochure again, in which I discovered another passage: ‘It has been already decided to set up a water reserve to protect Lipotes vexillifer, a kind of precious rare mammal in Yangtze River, which is now regarded as “Panda in water”.’

`Have you noticed the beer you’re drinking?’ Mark asked me.

I looked at the bottle. It was called Baiji Beer. It had a picture of a dolphin on the label, and the Latin name for it, Lipotes vexillifer, printed on the cap.

‘I noticed another hotel on the way into town this afternoon,’ said Chris. ‘I thought, there’s a funny coincidence, it’s called the Baiji Hotel. Looked a sight better than this dump.’

Even if we’d come to the wrong hotel, we’d clearly come to the right place.

A day passed before, with the aid of Professor Zhou’s letter, we were able to find an English-speaking guide and organise a small boat to do what we had come to do: go out on to the Yangtze River and look for baiji dolphins ourselves.

We were by this time two or three days behind the schedule we had originally planned, and had to leave the following morning on a ferry to Wuhan. We had therefore only a few hours in which to try and see one of the rarest aquatic mammals in the world in a river in which it would be hard to see your hand in front of your face.

Our small boat chugged away from a small, crowded wharf and out on to a wide extent of the dirty brown river. We asked Mr Ho, our guide, what he thought our chances of success were.

He shrugged.

`You see there are only two hundred baiji in two thousand kilometres. And the Yangtze is very wide. Not good, I think.’

We chugged along for quite some time, making our way gradually towards the opposite bank, about two kilometres away. The water was shallower there, which meant that there was less boat traffic. The dolphins also tend to keep close to the banks for the same reason, which means they are more likely to get snared in the fishing nets, of which we passed several, hung from bamboo frames extending from the banks. Fish populations are declining in the Yangtze and, with all the noise, the dolphins have greater difficulty in `seeing’ the fish that there are. I guessed that a net full of fish might well lure a dolphin into danger.,

We reached a relatively quiet spot near the bank, and the captain turned off the engine.

Mr Ho explained that this was a good place to wait, maybe. Dolphins had been seen there recently. He said that that might be a good thing, or it might not. Either they would be here because they had been recently, or they would not be here because they had been recently. This seemed .comfortably to cover all the options, so we sat quietly to wait.

The vastness of the Yangtze becomes very apparent when you try and keep a careful watch on it. Which bit of it? Where? It stretched endlessly ahead of us, behind us and to one side. There was a breeze blowing, ruffling and chopping up the surface, and after just a few minutes of watching, your eyes begin to wobble. Every momentary black shadow of a dancing wave looks for an instant like what you want it to look like, and I did not even have a good mental picture of what to look for.

`Do you know how long they surface for? I asked Mark.

‘Yes…’

‘And?

`It isn’t good news. The dolphin’s melon, or forehead, breaks the surface first, as it blows, then its small dorsal fin comes up, and then it plunges down again.’

`How long does that take?’

`Less than a second.’

`Oh.’ I digested this. `I don’t think we’re going to see one, are we?’

Mark looked depressed. With a sigh he opened a bottle of baiji beer, and took a rather complicated swig at it, so as not to take his eyes off the water.

`Well, we might at least see a finless porpoise,’ he said.

`They’re not as rare as the dolphins, are they?’

`Well, they’re certainly endangered in the Yangtze. There are thought to be about four hundred of them. They’re having the same problems here, but you’ll also find them in the coastal waters off China and as far west as Pakistan, so they’re not in such absolute danger as a species. They can see much better than the baiji, which suggests that they’re probably relative newcomers. Look! There’s one! Finless porpoise!’

I was just in time to see a black shape fall back in the water and disappear. It was gone.

‘Finless porpoise!’ Mr Ho called out to us. `You see?e?

`We saw, thanks!’ said Mark.

`How did you know it was a finless porpoise? I asked, quite impressed by this.

`Well, two things, really. First, we could actually see it. It came right up out of the water. Finless porpoises do that. The baiji doesn’t.’.’

‘You mean, if you can actually get to see it, it must be a finless porpoise.’

‘More or less.’

`What’s the other reason?

°Well, it hadn’t got a fin.’

An hour drifted by. A couple of hundred yards from us big cargo boats and barges growled up the river. A slick of oil drifted past. Behind us the fish nets fluttered in the wind. I thought to myself that the words ‘endangered species’ had become a phrase which had lost any vivid meaning. We hear it too often to be able to react to it afresh.

As I watched the wind ruffling over the bilious surface of the Yangtze I realised with the vividness of shock, that somewhere beneath or around me there were intelligent animals whose perceptive universe we could scarcely begin to imagine, living in a seething, poisoned, deafening world, and that their lives were probably passed in continual bewilderment, hunger, pain and fear.

We did not manage to see a dolphin in the wild. We knew that we would at least be able to see the only one that is held in captivity, in the Hydrobiology Institute in Wuhan, but nevertheless we were depressed and disappointed when we arrived back at our hotel in the early evening.

Here we suddenly discovered that Professor Zhou had managed to alert people to our arrival after all, and we were astonished to be greeted by a delegation of about a dozen officials from the Tongling Baiji Conservation Committee of the Tongling Municipal Government.

A little dazed by this unexpectedly formal attention when we’d just been going to slump over a beer, we were ushered in to a large meeting room in the hotel and shown to a long table. A little apprehensively, we sat on one side along with an interpreter whom they had provided for the occasion, and the members of the committee carefully arranged themselves along the other.

They sat quietly for a moment, each with their hands neatly folded on top of each other, on the table in front of them, and looked distantly at us. My head swam for a moment with the hallucination that we were about to be arraigned before an ideological tribunal, before I realised that the distant formality of their manner probably meant that they were at least as shy of us as we were of them.

One or two of them were wearing a type of grey uniform tunic, one was wearing the old Maoist blue tunic, others were more casually dressed. They ranged in age from about mid-twenties to mid-sixties.

`The committee welcomes you to Tongling,’ began the interpreter, `and is honoured by your visit.’ He introduced them one by one, each in turn nodding to us with a slightly nervous smile. One was the Conservation Vice-Chief, another the Association Chief-Secretary, another the Vice Chief-Secretary, and so on.

I sat feeling that we were stuck in the middle of some gigantic misunderstanding about something, and tried desperately to think of some way of looking intelligent and not letting on that I was merely a science fiction comedy novelist on holiday.

Mark, however, seemed perfectly at his ease. He explained simply and concisely who we were, missing out the science fiction comedy bit, outlined the nature of our project, said why we were interested in the baiji, and asked them an intelligent opening question about the reserve they were building.

I relaxed. I realised, of course, that talking intelligently about conservation projects to large committees in languages he didn’t know was part of what he did for a living.

They explained to us that the dolphin reserve was what they called a `semi-nature reserve.’ Its purpose was to constrain the animals within a protected area without taking them out of their natural environment.

A little upstream of Tongling, opposite the town of Datong, there is an elbow-shaped bend in the river. In the crook of the elbow lie two triangular islands, between which runs a channel of water. The channel is about one and a half kilometres long, five metres deep, and between forty and two hundred metres wide, and this channel will be the dolphins’ semi-nature reserve.

Fences of bamboo and metal are being constructed at either end of the channel, through which water from the main river flows continuously. A huge amount of remodelling and construction work is being done to make this possible. A large artificial hospital and holding pools are being built on one of the islands to hold injured or newly captured dolphins. A fish farm is being built on the other to feed them.

The scale of the project is enormous. ‘~

It is very, very expensive, the committee said, solemnly, and they can’t even be sure that it will work. But they have to try. The baiji, they explained, is very important to them and it is their duty to protect it.

Mark asked them how on earth they raised the money to do it. It had all been put into operation in an extraordinarily short time.

Yes, they said, we have had to work very, very fast.

They had raised money from many sources. A substantial amount came from the central government, and more again from local government. Then there were many donations from local people and businesses.

They had also, they said a little hesitantly, gone into the business of public relations, and they would welcome our comments on this. Chinese knew little of such matters, but we, as Westerners, must surely be experts.

First, they said, they had persuaded the local brewery to use the baiji as their trademark. Had we tried Baiji Beer? It was of a good quality, now much respected in all of China. Then others had followed. The committee had entered into…

Here there was a bit of a vocabulary problem, which necessitated a little discussion with the interpreter before the right phrase at last emerged.

They had entered into licensing agreements. Local businesses had put money into the project, in return for which they were licensed to use the baiji. symbol, which in turn made good publicity for the baiji dolphin.

So now there was not only Baiji Beer, there was also the Baiji Hotel, Baiji shoes, Baiji Cola, Baiji computerised weighing scales, Baiji toilet paper, Baiji phosphorus fertiliser, and Baiji Bentonite.

Bentonite was a new one on me, and I asked them what it was.

They explained that Bentonite was a mining product used in the production of toothpaste, iron and steel casting, and also as an additive for pig food. Baiji Bentonite was a very successful product. Did we, as experts, think that this public relations was good?

We said it was absolutely astonishing, and congratulated them.

They were very gratified to know this, they said, from Western experts in such matters.

We felt more than a little abashed at these encomiums. It was very hard to imagine anywhere in the Western world that would be capable of responding with such prodigious speed, imagination and communal determination to such a problem. Although the committee told us that they hoped that, since Tongling had recently been declared an open city to visitors for the first time, the dolphins and the semi-nature reserve might bring tourists and tourist money to the area, it was very clear that this was not the primary impulse.

At the end they said, ‘The residents in the area gain some profit – that’s natural – but we have more profound plans, that is to protect the dolphin as a species, not to let it become extinct in our generation. Its protection is our duty. As we know that only two hundred pieces of this animal survive it may go extinct if we don’t take measures to prevent it, and if that happens we will feel guilty for our descendants and later generations.’

We left the room feeling, for the first time in China, uplifted. It seemed that, for all the stilted and awkward formality of the meeting, we had had our first and only real glimpse of the Chinese mind. They took it as their natural duty to protect this animal, both for its own sake and for that of the future world. It was the first time we had been able to see beyond our own assumptions and have some insight into theirs.

I ordered the Thousand Year Old Eggs again that night, determined to try and enjoy them.

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