Here is part seven (days 9-13) of my recent trip to China, which were spent in Chengdu.
Day 1 - Chengdu:
On the 15th I was off for Chengdu on "Lucky Airlines". But before getting there... a couple notes on travel in China for the non-Chinese speaking visitor.
Note One: If you fly within China, ask a Chinese friend to help you with reservations. Even if it's only a day until the flight, local ticket services can save you a GREAT deal of money compared to what you would pay any western travel service. Also, local services will deliver the tickets to you... by hand... pretty much wherever you want to meet them. Be aware that they probably won't speak English, which is why you'll need a friend's help. As far as the airlines go... China's domestic fleet is, on average, much newer than ours. The planes are usually very nice... and the stewardesses are... very nice. With the increase in Chinese tourists and incomes, the domestic air industry has gone from irrelevance to being a top buyer of new aircraft.
Note Two: Chinese may have a tendency to over react en masse (the opposite of the American nonchalance which can be just as annoying). When it happens, stay calm and only get involved if you really need to. Don't follow this advice and it will soon be "all about you". Even knowing this, it's hard not to get burned. There was something "wrong" with the flight out of Kunming and every other Chinese was rushing the boarding counter and yelling questions. My thoughts: "No worries. Wait until everyone sits back down before trying to find out what is going on."
After waiting for 15 minutes, I walked up and got the attention of the girls behind the counter, neither of which spoke English. I was soon being escorted back the front of the airport where someone else could hopefully help me out. At the front, the same gal who checked my bags was now examining my boarding pass and looking through paperwork. For some reason, Chinese airlines are inundated with stapled together slips of paper. It's like going back to a time before PCs or copy machines. A news story running at the time covered a government effort to simplify airline paperwork that would allegedly cut prices by 20%. This gal knew some English but apparently not enough, without warning... *RIP* went the boarding pass. Suddenly I was without a flight and she was proceeding to go through luggage slips.. as I look on stunned...
I protested... another girl was called over who knew just a little bit more English. Instead of getting my boarding pass back or getting flight status, she continued with the luggage obsession and dragged me to the information counter. Not just to the counter, but BEHIND it, where there was no one else but airline employees in uniform!! As I'm squeezing through obstacles to get behind the counter, on her directions, I recognize scores of faces on the 'regular folk' side of the counter.... angry Chinese from my flight... looking at me thinking, "What the heck is that waiguoren doing back there". NICE!
As 2-3 employees continued to discuss me, I continued to ask for my seat back, for the status of the flight, and tried to keep them from mixing up my luggage anymore than it probably already was... no luck. We squirmed out from behind the counter and went to yet another gal higher up the chain. Now we're getting to some English skills and a chance to get back on track. I speak to this woman, she relays something back to the one gal who relays something back to check-in gal who starts analyzing her terminal. FINALLY... a guy breaks in with some really usefully information... the plane is running about an hour and a half late. OY! 30 minutes and 7-8 airline employees later I'm back to square one and have a boarding pass. Of course, now I have to burn another 15 minutes going through security a second time... meh.
Note Three: The Crush. The whole single-file line concept is usually wasted in China, especially when a flight is late. It was a near riot boarding the shuttle and trying to get into the plane. For some reason, it never occurs to people that, hey, these are all assigned seats and the plane ain't going anywhere until EVERYONE gets strapped into theirs. At the foot of the stairs the "line" was as wide as it was long. The first few days in China I instinctively hold on to that whole western civilization standard of politeness and courtesy, but after a couple a days of this crap, I become one surly 6 foot 2 inch amateur wrestler. A four foot something lady in a red baseball cap tried every trick she knew to get around me, ON THE STAIRS, and I was having none of that. My backpack is a weapon and feel free to count the bruises later. Also, on landing, there's always a couple guys who unbuckle early and literally sprint to the front. There's nothing more satisfying than popping up with my 190 pounds plus gear right in front of them, turning around to see the look on their face and *smile*. Who you gonna call?
Finally I'm seated and starting to calm down from the worst airline experience in a while. I'm the only white guy on the plane and probably among a handful of English speakers, but I notice that Lucky Airlines' theme song is an old American tune (played on takeoff and landing). Odd. So, I'm enjoying it but then I realize something else... Don MacLean's American Pie? That's a song about a fatal plane crash!!! Alrighty then...
My first impression of Chengdu... the most polluted environment I've ever been in (and I lived in Los Angeles back when it held the American title for smog). I never saw blue sky while I was there and and pretty much every surface in the city was coated with gray dust. You could not distinguish between morning and afternoon. After being outside for 3-4 hours you could taste it in your throat and feel it in your eyes. Maybe it was a bad week.... hopefully it was a bad week.
On the other hand, the population of Chengdu seemed young, optimistic and fun-loving. Good people. I guess you get used to the pollution at some point, because the people of Chengdu have a legitimate reputation for enjoying their free time like no other big city in China. There are clubs and restaurants everywhere, and the evenings are crowded with people relaxing, shopping, and doing their thing.
One other item. Chengdu must be the capitol of Chinese "hawtness". I can't speak for the men, but in general, the women are darker, beautiful, and often blessed with that asian mystery that drives a lot of western guys nuts. One might argue this title belongs to Shanghai, but I'd say that's only because they are so western in dress and attitude. For my money, it's Chengdu.
Definitely a city of contrasts.
After checking into my hotel, the first stop was Sim's Cozy Guesthouse. Sim's is a hostel and would have been my first choice to stay, but by the time I made arrangements (the day before getting there) they had no private rooms left (they do have them). Still, I spent more waking time there than at my hotel. The ambience is great, the staff is helpful, they have many resources for planning travels, a cheap bar (6 yuan Tsingtaos), and many people looking to do the same things. I highly recommend them. Sim himself spent a good deal of time giving me the lowdown on the best way to see some local sites. They also provide a great map of Chengdu.
Since I made no advance plans, and had a limited amount of time, the stay in Chengdu was unfortunately limited to day trips. However, some of the most interesting things to do in the Chengdu/Sichuan area are 2-3 day trips from Chengdu. For example, visiting Mt. Emei, the Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area, the Huang Long Valley (Yellow Dragon Valley), and taking a horse trek to Songpan. It's also the principal starting point for trips to Tibet. Sim's can help you plan inexpensive trips to all these places and you can meet plenty of other people to travel with there. I used Sim's to buy tickets and help plan each day I was there. I also made some friends that were staying there.
On this day, there wasn't much time left so I walked to the Wenshu Monastery which was only a short and interesting walk from Sim's. Wenshu is one of the top Buddhist Monasteries in China, and it really is a little slice of heaven in the middle of the busy hive that is Chengdu. It's not just a tourist attraction either as it still houses monks, there was even a large service in progress.
In the evening, I headed south to the Shamrock, the Irish bar of Chengdu... had to have me a Guiness... too long without one. The Shamrock must be expat central. Full of brits, aussies and other 'islanders'. Some of the 'island accents' there were so thick that I couldn't understand them much better than the Chinese. They make a great chicken sandwich too! Hearing Chinese spoken with an Irish accent was also interesting.
Day 2 - Chengdu
The next morning was rise and shine for Sim's 7:40AM van to the "Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding", the "Masters & Johnson" of the Panda World. Right outside Chengdu, it's the premier facility for Panda research and breeeding. Any Panda you see outside China, is on loan from this facility (or an offspring of one on loan). The facility brings up an interesting discussion. On one hand, you could certainly say that mankind contributed to the Panda's near extinction. On another hand, if not for this base's effort in breeding Pandas, they would almost certainly become extinct. The problem with Pandas is that they've evolved to a point that, on their own, they don't have the energy to reproduce in enough numbers to sustain the species. Apparently a diet of almost exclusively bamboo isn't enough to 'get it up' most of the time. The vast majority of Panda reproduction here is human assisted, otherwise it just wouldn't happen. So, if it's morally wrong for humans to inadvertently endanger a species, is it morally right for humans to actively perpetuate a species?
Anyhow... a very interesting place to visit and who doesn't like Pandas? I also made some friends here, a young swedish couple (Amanda & Joakim) that were staying at Sim's. They took the Orient Express all the way from Europe to China and their next stop was Tibet. We talked a little about politics in our home countries and a lot about traveling. After returning to Sim's we went for lunch at a local noodle/dumpling/wonton place where a some fellow was nearly salivating at the opportunity to take photos of Amanda. He was wearing a Nikon cap, a Canon vest and carrying probably 20 pounds of photo gear. It was funny for a little while, but when he continued to take pictures as she tried to eat, the line was drawn and Joakim put a stop to it. Hopefully, Amanda's face will not show up on all manner of bizarre Japanese internet ads over the next year. :o
Another odd coincidence, as mentioned A&J had taken the Orient Express train from Europe to get to China. They were the second couple I had talked to on this trip who had done so. The first was an older fellow and his wife that I met on the plane from Beijing to Kunming. They had spent about a month on and off the Express, stopping in each city (Russia, Mongolia, etc) to spend a couple of days. By the look of this guy, he would be the last person you'd ever expect to be a world traveler. He looked like the stereotypical redneck with long beard, flannel, a tin of chew in his pocket, and an Okie drawl. Turns out he's been all over the world. The coincidence though, was that A&J knew exactly who I was talking about when I described him, turned out they met them on the train. What are the odds of that?
After lunch I took off for the Wuhou Temple. Another slice of heaven in Chengdu which has been, to great extent, turned into a museum of information and relics related to the Three Kingdoms era. The Three Kingdoms era is a very widely read about and studied time period in Chinese history. In fact, among the four books considered the top classics of Chinese Literature is "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (which I'm reading now).
Later that night, for dinner, I just had to try Peter's Tex-Mex. What would a chimichanga in China taste like? Well, not like a chimichanga in the states, but still pretty good. I made the mistake though of sitting outside for dinner though. I think I was nearly asphyxiated by traffic fumes coming off the street.
Day 3 - Chengdu
Today, I walked my ass off all over the south western part of central Chengdu.
The first stop was the Qingyanggong Tao Temple (or the Blue-Green Rams Temple). As mentioned before, Taoist (or Daoist if you prefer) temples are the most fun, and this was no exception. All kinds of interesting mythology and symbology.
After that, I trekked over to Du Fu's Thatched Cottage. A museum complex built to honor a great Chinese poet who had the foresight to stop in Chengdu for roughly four years around 760 AD. He stayed in a bamboo cottage here and wrote some poems... guaranteeing his immortality as star of one of Chengdu's premier tourist stops. To ensure authenticity, there is even a preserved archeological site here to prove that... yes... there was once a residence here... of someone. Unless your a real literature buff, the main attraction here is a peaceful break from the outside world and a little more knowledge of Chengdu history. The grounds are quite beautiful.
Then on to the Songxiau Antique District where I walked through at least a hundred small vendors selling "antiques" or miscellaneous junk... hard to say. No doubt there is some quality merchandise here if you know what your looking at, but a good deal of the stands are the more or less the same thing - jade trinkets or reproduced Maoist memorabilia. It's still an interesting walk. Once again I'm fascinated by the number of people who exist off of that one lucky sale a day. There was not a lot of traffic here. Then again, it doesn't take a lot of yuan to survive here
Finally, back to Sim's to meet Yao, on online friend, before heading to the Sichuan Opera. On arriving at Sim's, I noted a posting from a Canadian looking to share the cost of a private van to Leshan. Perfect! The trip to Leshan, and the biggest Buddha in the World, was exactly what was planned for my last full day in Chengdu but I was quite anxious about that whole process of catching a public bus there and back. Sim's saved the day. The timing was perfect too as the Canadian wanted to meet any interested parties at almost the exact time we'd be returning from the Opera.
Yao soon arrived and we chatted over a beer while waiting for the driver. Yao lives in Dujiangyan, just outside of Chengdu and it was the first time we had met. She's a terrific gal with a great personality, a contagious optimism, good looks, and excellent English skills. She's also in the process of trying to immigrate to Canada to be with her boyfriend.
On first glance, I probably would have skipped the Sichuan Opera, because high-pitch Chinese opera singing is just not my thing. However, the Swedes had the same concerns, went anyway, and said there wasn't all that much singing and it was a pretty good show. Turns out there was a lot of acrobatics, dancing, comedy, puppetry, expert hand shadows, fire-breathing and the famous face-changers of Sichuan. The face-changers were the spectacle that most people came for. Yao was no amateur at taking photos either.
Afterwards Yao took me to Chunxi road, the shopping hotspot of Chengdu. Wow! Late Monday evening and the place was packed with adults and kids shopping, eating, and what have you amongst a neon lit pedestrian gauntlet.
Of course, any example of Chinese greatness must include a little Chinese weirdness. At 9PM at night, probably a peak time for folks to visit Chunxi, roughly a dozen janitors were hosing down the main elevated walkway with powerful fire hoses, yelling at people, etc. It was like the Keystone Cops, but with janitors. Yao ended up taking a spill on wet stone steps that scared the hell out of me because she such a petite thing. She ended up with a few bruises and her foot hurt for the next week. Obviously they don't get a lot of American-style lawyers around these parts.
Yao also treated to a great dinner on Chunxi at this place that was absolutely packed with families, probably 300 or so people. It was as fast as any American "fast food" joint and you ordered at a front counter, but the food was brought to your table. She ordered me a tasty sampler of 18 local Sichuan dishes. :o I'm thinking I need to learn some real Chinese cooking as I'm going to miss the food here.
Day 4 - Chengdu
The group for the Leshan van ended up being the Canadian, an Aussie couple, and myself. The Aussie gal was actually a Hong Kong native, which was interesting because even though she was fluent in Cantonese (the Hong Kong dialect) this was not enough to understand a good deal of the Chinese spoken in Chengdu. She could certainly pick out some things but an actual conversation between her and the driver was not practical. So she was in the same boat as the rest of us, language wise.
Making the trip, or pilgrimage, to Leshan is quite popular. Too popular. The Giant Buddha and the surrounding park is like the Disneyland of Buddhism. The line for the Giant Buddha was just as long as any Disneyland ride and there are warnings posted for the old and infirm. In fact, while we were in line many folks were required to sign a waiver before being allowed to continue. But... not for seeing the Buddha... for standing in line to see the Buddha. Getting down to see the Buddha is a tortuous one-hour, sweaty line of pushing and shoving, and jockeying for photo opportunities, that plunges steeply downhill while hugging the side of a cliff. You have no idea what you're in for when you start at the top. While the queue is impressive at the beginning, it is... only the beginning. At least one Westerner lost his cool after witnessing one too many Chinese trying to squeeze around and jump place in line. Brutal.
The Buddha itself is impressive, as well as it's scenic location. I'd refer you to the pictures for that. The walk back up from the giant Buddha was considerably less crowded, but still a challenging climb of several hundred stairs going up the side of a cliff. Most everyone going up was stopping by the side to rest every so often. Once again, a year of losing weight and exercising came in handy. Craig (the Canadian) and I did some further exploring of the area and just about when we considered the probability we were lost, we came on another very large Buddha and some Buddhist cave carvings. The entire area was dotted with shrines, temples and other unknown wonders but we were out of time and both dripping from the 80%+ humidity and climbing steep stairs throughout the area.
Craig was from Alberta and we had some interesting discussion too... politics and traveling. Everyone wants to know about "Ahnold" and I was interested to hear about Alberta, the most conservative province in Canada.
I was supposed to meet with Yoyo tonight, but transportation issues killed that opportunity. I had been trying to get a plane ticket out of Chengdu for two days, but something always came up and I started to wonder if I'd ever get out of Chengdu. There were three attempts to get tickets delivered but my schedule was tight and the delivery guys kept showing up late. On the last shot, tonight, the guy showed up only to tell me the flight was sold out. In desperation, I hustled back to Sim's who, at about 8pm, got me a seat on the same plane for the next morning. The effort cost me the opportunity to meet Yoyo though. I ended up hanging out for a BBQ at Sim's with the folks from the Leshan trip.
Day 5 - Chengdu to Beijing
The next morning, I was off to spend a half day in Beijing before the long flight back. No plans, so I decided to circumnavigate the Forbidden City... it didn't look that far on the map! On the Tiananmen Square side of the Forbidden City I was approached by four different groups of scam artists (see the "Teahouse notes" from my Beijing trip in 2005). Hopefully they'll get those guys cleaned out before the Olympics. I must have missed a turn or something because the east leg of my walk took me way past Bei Hai lake. On the North side I improvised a little too much and ended up getting lost in a Hutong and finally reached a 4 foot wide dead-end. Act normal... turn around... walk VERY fast!!! After about three hours of non-stop walking, I was wearing down, I needed a beer or something but I just couldn't spot a place with a Heineken sign (Heineken is everywhere in China). Finally, I made it back to the quiet and safety of the Hotel.
Later, I went back to Bei Hai for dinner with Wei (she lives in Beijing). Yunnan food again?!?
...and then... home.