CHONGQING - A one hour morning drive with 13 busses brings all players and officials to the small Chinese town of Zhuoshui. Here in the town square between the town hall and the party headquarters, the opening ceremony for the Third Mahjong World Championship is to take place under an open sky.
Using the foggy mountains as a background, an abundance of speeches, dances, songs and pole climbing on the sharp end of swords entertains us, the municipality and all the town folks, attending the ceremony. On a note of a great, and for the unfortunate dangerous, boom, a firework officially and finally opens the long awaited championship.
From here, the ways for us 16 players from eight nations part from the 170 others. A promotional tour has been planned, starting with show games in the center of the restored bridge of the Old Village of Zhuoshui. For some this is the first encounter with the automatic tables which we will be using during the tournament, a feature that certainly will help speed up and fulfill more games. Concentration at the tables is a bit scarce though, as photographers and journalists swarm the tables and leave everybody dazed in lights from blitz. Nevertheless we all quickly finish a full wind and head for lunch back at town hall. This is where we realize that the photographer blitzes, that will follow us through the day, are the least of the sensations. Kids and grown-ups mingle around us to get personalized photos and signatures. Our foreign attire is a seldom sight in these parts of the world where blond haired German girls are rare, bearded white men are scarce and dark Italians and Frenchmen are direct attractions.
Three small boats
Back on the bus, we head for unknown territory. Driving through the marsh on a narrow concrete road, we arrive at a newly erected and not yet finished tourist site not even our guide knows of. A kilometers long walk up and into the mountains brings us to a series of steps leading down into a canyon to three small boats - one reserved for the press. Not knowing what to expect, we board the boats and are of course impressed by the gorge, but no more than that. That is to say until we round a corner in the river and enter the most magnificent series of natural caves.
Sorry to say that the trip almost feels too short and we dearly miss the teahouse they are erecting on the other side of the caves for this is a journey that leaves desire for contemplating. The name of this gorgeous site is the Apong River.
Again the bus heads for new land. This time the rumor wants that we are going fishing. To our extreme surprise it seems we are entering an international fishing competition through the front door. Walking up the hills passing a crowd that is growing even more dense followed by a passage through singing folk dancers, we find ourselves at center stage listening to the same cultural introductions as in Yutan with many of the actors re-participating but now also flanked by the local party secretaries.
A moment of paranoia flashes through my brain as I try to decode the political bartering that has brought us here before a settling on the cultural explanation trying to promote and bring prosperity to a region in China brings peace to my mind. The 16 of us are then spread over the bank of the river with fly-fishing rods at ‘foreigner experience areas’. We realize that the only thing we need, apart from the cultural commercial setting, the river and fishing rods, is a cold beer - but alas, none is available and we must settle for the role of thirsty mahjong stars getting our picture taken by and with every teenager and mother around. Thus a little bit baffled and with greatly satisfied egos, we depart the brink to the cries of ‘we love you’ (Justin Bieber go home) to take a small river tour to the actual international fishing competition.
Finding ourselves back at the Rose Plaza Hotel at dinnertime, we are able to look back at a long, intricate and strangely satisfying day. May the competition begin.