In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter
Tongling is a small city on the banks of the Yangtze River about halfway between Nanjing and Wuhan. Tongling's main industry is copper mining, and it is the site of the Tongling Yangtze River Bridge, which will be the 3rd largest suspension bridge in the world once completed. (The Chinese people we met were typically very fond of superlatives, especially when applied to the achievements of their country. If something is in any way comparable to the largest, longest, oldest, smallest, or newest, then you can be certain that they will inform you of that fact.)
For us, Tongling was of interest for three reasons that we learned of before going to China: (1) the Tongling semi-natural reserve for the baiji has been established nearby; (2) a monument to the baiji has been erected outside one of the local hotels; and (3) the brewery in Tongling produces “baiji beer,” with a picture of the dolphin on the bottle. While we were unable to visit the baiji reserve, we were successful in the other two regards.
There is only one hotel in Tongling that allows foreign guests, Tian Jing Hu Guesthouse, and they sell baiji beer in their cafeteria. We are pleased to report that even though neither of us is particularly fond of beer in general, we found the baiji beer to be quite pleasant, with a light and vaguely fruity taste.
Later, we attempted to locate the monument to the baiji by asking the hotel staff to show us its whereabouts on a map of Tongling. Since we were uncertain how to say “monument” or even “statue” in Chinese, we settled for drawing a rather crude picture of what we imagined a monument to the baiji might look like (it actually ended up looking like a dolphin standing on its tail on top of a birthday cake). This was a source of considerable amusement for them and frustration for us when we were given four or five different answers by as many people.
In the course of our frequent attempts to locate hotels, train stations, universities, etc., we discovered that the average Chinese person seems to love maps. There's no better way to gather a crowd on the street than to unfold a map and ask someone for directions. He or she will gleefully trace every street and contour with a finger, mumbling and occasionally chuckling, soon to be joined by several other passersby. Then, after they've satisfied their curiosity about the layout of their city, with wide grins, they'll point to a few apparently random spots on the map. Repeat the process a block away, and you'll get directions to a few more random spots. It's not that they're trying to misdirect you, it's just that they want to be helpful to the point of not telling you that they don't know where something is located. We figured out later that among the several different answers we received when asking for directions to the baiji monument in Tongling, we had actually been shown the locations of the “baiji beer” brewery and the baiji reserve, so clearly we had managed to get some inkling of our desire across to our impromptu guides.
Eventually, with the help of the English interpreter from the nearby Tongling Foreign Affairs Office, who had been summoned by the hotel staff, we discovered that the monument we were looking for was, in fact, on the grounds of the very hotel at which we were staying!