Once upon a time, I was on a grimy boat chugging up the murky Yangtze river past a vast dam under construction, described as the next wonder of the world. I do not remember stopping at Wuhan where the river forks. We took the south-west branch through the towering Yinghung Gorge to step ashore at Hanghong. The water has carved its course deep into the earth’s surface to leave cliffs curving over us on either side. For many centuries donkeys, mules, ponies and humans have plodded along the towpath, a narrow ledge cut into the rock leaving height enough only for a person bending down to pull the tow rope over his shoulder with sheer rocks above and deep waters below.
The thought disturbed me. I retreated inside the cabin filled with foreigners chatting nervously, each group carefully corralled into its designated seating area. It was stuffy. I cast around for something else to do. A few were jogging around the edge of the vessel between the cabin and the rails that prevented us from falling overboard into the rough waters ahead. Though I am a strong swimmer, I did not relish the thought of being tossed into the muddy waters of the mighty Yangtze. There was another level below the noisy cabin to explore. Not far from the engine in a throbbing space a young man was sitting on what looked like a bed in a doctor’s surgery. Curious, I poked my head in and tried tentatively to speak to him in English, my Chinese still confined to a shameful five or six words.
‘I do acupuncture,’ he said, hopefully, ‘interested?’ Back during my student days in Paris, it was all the rage and I had been pinpricked all over when it was supposed to ensure an easy birth for my first child, which it did. So I lay down and relaxed to the firm touch of his fingers and the engine throbbing somewhere beyond my toes. As his fingers worked all over my body, he expounded what seemed like the endless benefits to both mind and body of what he was doing. I was carried away, gently swaying fore and aft. I lay still a while after his arms fell to his sides when he had removed all the pins inserted with only the mildest of pricks. Only slight tingles remained. All along he had been singing the praises of Chinese medicine – so precise, so delicate and so effective compared with what appeared to be the clumsy methods of western medical practice.
‘Tell me,’ I asked uneasily and slightly ruffled,‘ is there anything that Chinese medicine can’t accomplish?’
“Yes,” he replied, ‘mend broken limbs.’
By then the boat had docked and the two tourist groups disembarked. The British one gathered on the bare earth under sparse trees in what looked vaguely like a park next to a noisy open-air animal and bird market. A track on the right led up a hill. The American group was moving off carefully kept together by guides front and back. Our guide looked at her watch.
‘Back here in one hour at 5 o’clock,’ she announced, and everyone darted off in different directions. Many of us chose the market where every sort of wild or tame animal was caged for public scrutiny. It had the slight appearance of a zoo until I stopped behind a Chinese couple to watch what they were doing. After a lot of poking around in a large basket of squawking chickens, they pulled one out by the neck and handed it to the seller. He promptly wrung its neck and began to pluck it in a matter of seconds. I watched, horrified, aware that the purchasers watched to be sure the meat was fresh.
I moved away to wander through the park and up the track to behold the rapid construction of a house with mud bricks packed inside a timber frame. It reminded me of the explanation I once had of how they built the house where Shakespeare’s mother lived outside Stratford-on-Avon using a timber frame with wattle and daub infill. Passers-by stopped, tried to talk to me, then shook their heads and continued down the slope to the ‘wet’ market. It was from one just like this in a town not far away that, we are told, the current pandemic began.