Converted in Chengdu, China

December 9, 2009 at 8:44 am 2 comments

December 1st, 2009

It’s so strange how it happens. You think that you hate a country, focus all your strength into picking out its flaws – the lack of clean air, the manic drivers, the man on the street who fires a pellet of phlegm at you – and then all of a sudden it wins you over. Something as simple as a maternal old woman on the train or a shy toddler with a crush happens across your path BOOM,you have to re-evaluate all of your prejudices. Prejudices you had put valuable time and energy into developing.

While we simultaneously became aware of our misconceptions on a train somewhere between Chengdu and Dali, I would like to think that it had been coming for a while – that it wasn’t so instantaneous and that we therefore are not so fickle in our racism. Chengdu certainly softened us up a little, or maybe it was Beijing that ruined us. In a city where tourists rarely pluck up the courage to stray from the designated tourist route, it is difficult to meet any locals that aren’t selling something or trying to lure you to their “art exhibition” (just say no!)

Chengdu was, in so many ways, a breath of fresh air after the capital. Considered by the rest of the population to be lazy, Chengdu-ites (as I have named them) have an entirely different attitude to life to the rest of the country. There are two sides to China’s fourth largest city. The first is the more cosmopolitan side that ranges from small one-man shoe-mending operations to massive department stores fit to bursting point with branches of Louis Vuitton and Prada, set around Tianfu square which, as all good Chinese towns do, features a statue of Chairman Mao alongside a variety of fountains and sculptures.

The other side, the side that won us over, is the more laid-back aspect to Chengdu living – the parks. Here, with the kind of  ‘joie de vive’ that you never expect in a former communist state, the old and young cut loose battling it out over games of mahjong, hopping up on benches for impromptu karaoke sessions or practicing Tai Chi. Every open space not filled by revelers had been colonised by avid tea-drinkers who stretched out on colourful garden furniture chatting to friends, dozing, reading or, strangely enough, having their ears cleaned with candles.

After an early afternoon wander through the People’s Park, we were about to hop back on our bikes and head for one of the many other parks and gardens across the city when we heard chanting coming from inside the park railings. Never one to miss an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon, I ran back inside with Gary trailing reluctantly behind and was confused to see hundreds of people crowded around two make-shift stages chanting and clapping. The two groups were joined in the middle by a group of people, mostly elderly women, that seemed to be performing the same dance en masse. Like a flash mob, people passing on either side of the group immediately dropped what they were doing and joined in, moving to the same slow, hypnotic pace.

Awed by this spectacle, Gary and I decided to get a better look. Being that we are in China this happily didn’t involve any elbowing or shoving as we could see clear over the dozen or so heads in front of us. What I think was happening in both cases, although I can’t be too sure, was a variety show. The first few performances were terrible sing-song numbers in which, backed up by a band, Joe Average warbled his lungs out. As he sang, people started to stand up and hand him small bunches of flowers, one after the other until you could hardly see his reddening face. Other performance included colourful dances by costumed girls and some sing-along chants led by a woman who, despite the massive grin on her face, looked a little like a very strict school mistress.

Far from being isolated by the crowd as we were in Beijing, their smiling faces seemed to envelop us as one little girl pulled up a chair near the front for Gary to take pictures and another beckoned me to join in the flash mob which I did. I figure that what I lost in knowledge, grace and rhythm I made up for in enthusiasm. For the first time since landing in China, we were completely off our guards and smiling in public.

While our first few days in Chengdu were a lovely mixture of bike-riding through parks, wandering cosmopolitan plazas and sipping tea, we soon got itchy feet and booked ourselves in for two day trips – one to the Giant Panda Sanctuary and Research Base and one to the Giant Buddha in Dafo, Leshan. The Giant Panda Sanctuary did exactly what it said on the tin. It had lots and lots of giant pandas – big ones, little ones and a lovely group of red ones. The whole thing felt more natural because, while the pandas had their own enclosed spaces, they weren’t caged like in a zoo and the primary purpose of the place is to breed the almost extinct species rather than to make spectacles of them. For anyone considering a trip, our only tip would be to arrive before 8am. We got there at 10am and a lot of the animals had already fallen into a bamboo-induced slumber. Turns out giant pandas spend 16 hours a day eating – they have it sussed.

Leshan is home to a 71 meter Giant Buddha which was cut out of the face of a mountain. The grounds also host a variety of temples and religious sites. The Buddha was really really really cool and probably worth the four hours on a cold bus.


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I choo-choo-choose this? The number K117 train, Beijing to Chengdu Loving life in China-lite. Dali, Yunnan, China

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. unstranger  |  December 12, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Very good again guys. Could be a longer stay may occur after this sudden conversion! Might work that way, who knows?

    • 2. yearlongbreakup  |  December 15, 2009 at 9:24 am

      Thanks a million – so glad you are enjoying it. We’re around four posts behind but have spent the last week or so in Yunnan. Our conversion is officially complete – totally in love with China. Keep an eye out for swoony posts on Dali, Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge.


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