By the time they reached the top, and the lowermost of Chongqing's ziggurat of streets, Needham was perspiring heavily. It was well over ninety-five degrees that afternoon, and the humidity was as high as in Mississippi in July: people had warned him that Chongqing was one of the country's three "great furnaces." But he knew more or less what to expect: "The man who is selected to come to China," his letter of appointment had stated, "must be ready for anything." The driver unlocked his jeep, and began loading Needham's gear. King's Messenger Pratt, his duty now complete, shook Needham by the hand, remarking gruffly that he hoped Needham would be happy in China, and that it had been a privilege to have escorted so remarkable a man. He saluted, and scurried off down a side street where a car was waiting for him.
Needham took a cigarette from a case in his shirt pocket, lit it, inhaled deeply, and gazed down to the river below. The scene was mesmerizing: sailing junks, salt barges, and sampans made their way languidly across the immense stream, while armed patrol vessels and navy tenders pushed more urgently against the current, bent on more pressing business. The aircraft on which he had arrived took off with a roar, rose quickly, and turned away, diminishing into a speck above the mountains that ringed the city. Everything that he could see and hear as he leaned over the terracethe boom of a siren from a passing cargo ship, the constant jangle of rickshaw bells in the streets beside him, the ceaseless barrage of cries and shouted arguments from within the tenements that rose about him; and then the smells, of incense smoke, car exhaust, hot cooking oil, a particularly acrid kind of pepper, human waste, oleander, and jasmineall served to remind him of one awesome, overwhelming reality: that he was at last here, in the middle of the China he had dreamed of for so long.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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