Henrietta Wang was planning an interview about fishing but found that a metaphorical bottomless gorge lay between her and her goal:
The streets of Taipei, and of every other town and village in Taiwan were deserted last week as all residents went on a series of high-profile visits to the mainland. Across the strait, each of them stepped off their personal individual chartered flights to a special reception committee on the tarmac, after which they were whisked away by limo to visit various factories, schools and universities and to attend special functions as the guest of honour. Mainland newspapers captured all the events and reported them to the few readers who hadn't already personally met one of the visitors at their workplace or school.
Mr Song, a resident of Tainan who grew up in Taipei, waxed lyrical about his visit when I mistakenly dialled his hotel in Wuhan whilst trying to call my friend in Brazil. "It's been wonderful here," he exulted. "I have been to eight official dinners as guest of honour, I have been given a bouquet of flowers everywhere I have gone, and I just saw the hotel staff wheeling in an animal crate which I think may contain a giant panda! I just hope my wife, who flew to Yunnan from Taipei yesterday night, is having as good a time as I am." When asked what he thought the result of his visit would be, Mr Song speculated "My visit is just easing tensions across the strait, showing both sides that there is no reason to panic."
The scene in downtown Tainan
Not everyone is happy though, in the village of Qingluo, Taiwan, I stumbled across Mr Qi, who was sitting alone in a small restaurant gazing at where the serving staff normally emerge from the kitchen. "Thank God!" he exclaimed when he saw me. "You are the only person I have seen for four days. I woke up and everyone had gone." When I explained that all his friends, family and neighbours had been invited on separate high-profile visits to the mainland, Mr Qi at first seemed relieved. This relief soon turned to anger. "I can't believe I am the only one not to have been invited to the mainland! Everyone else is enjoying unprecedented high-profile visits as VIPs, and I am here with not so much as a jiaozi!" After promising that this insult would not go unrebuked, Mr Qi stormed from the restaurant. Ten minutes later I met him trying to hail a taxi on the deserted street outside.
Even on the mainland, there were some doubts. Lao Zhang, a worker at Shanghai's ultra-modern/remote Pudong Airport, was nervously exhausted having completed organising over 600 reception committees. "I think if I ever have to collect another red carpet from the dry cleaners then I will vomit!" Lao Zhang moaned. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a group of ethnic minority children to stand in line and sing?!"
Conservation groups are also concerned. They estimate that within four days, the entire mainland panda population will have been moved to the island formerly known as Formosa. Wildlife trappers on the mainland have also been under pressure. Qian He, from Sichuan, explained how the animal situation has been deteriorating: "After the first 50 visitors, we knew that there were no more pandas in the wild. Zoo stocks were exhausted within the first four hours, and we had to get creative." Refusing to explain this last remark, Mr Qian would only tell us that, after one embarrassing contretemps too many, official policy eventually switched from "a panda for each visit" to "an animal for each visit."
"We ended up giving the visitors thousands of stray cats, guinea pigs and ducks," he laughed. In one incident too alarming to describe here, Taipei resident and noodle shop chef Mr Wu was given a squirrel as he left Guiyang.