Posts tagged ‘Chengdu’

Converted in Chengdu, China

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.


December 9, 2009 at 8:44 am 2 comments

I choo-choo-choose this? The number K117 train, Beijing to Chengdu

27th November, 2009
I have decided that I would never wish fame on anyone – maybe absolute fame, the kind that comes with fortune, private jets and bodyguards – but never just a moderate level of fame for its own sake.

I have been on the train from Beijing to Chengdu for seven hours, with only 24 more to go. Word has spread across the carriages that there is a western girl onboard, a blonde western girl, so everyone has been by to have a gawk. Outside my doorless shared cabin is a cluster of middle-aged Chinese men. Trying to be subtle, they rotate, taking it in turns to stare in at me. Occasionally one breaks rank to go to the sink a few feet away where he violently hocks up the contents of his pollution-damaged throat, spitting his gains down the drain. A few minutes ago a group of new people walked past and one ‘secretly’ took my picture. Pity the flash gave him away.

These are my fans.

While I have gotten used to this kind of attention since arriving in China (it seems that wherever I go I attract a crowd of gawking, photo-taking, video-making onlookers) the blank stares facing me right now are making it difficult to get anything done. Having developed a head cold on the Great Wall of China for example, I want to blow my nose. I also would like to hop down from my bunk and put on my shoes but I am painfully aware that neither my nose-blowing face nor my bent-over-ass-in-the-air-shoe-putting-on pose is particularly flattering should another pap happen past. So I stay put, smiling manically and perfecting my Queen’s wave. They don’t flinch but at least Gary gets the joke. Maybe I should start charging by the minute.

I suppose this is just another culture difference though, and one I should get used to if I am to travel Asia for the next five months. I have often stared at someone different – like an Amish person or a Buddhist monk. In fact only the other day I had the weirdest moment with a Tibetan cowboy when I was staring open-mouthed at him and he was staring open-mouthed at me and we both realized at the same time what was going on. And in fairness to them, I am pretty funny looking with my round eyes, long face, pointy nose and yellow hair. I guess I am their Tibetan cowboy.

At least I’m not the only one though, Gary was big in Japan (in more ways than one). When he went to the hairdressers they all gathered around to stroke his brown hair. And when we were in Nara a little girl came over and presented him with a paper crane that she had made. I let her away with it at the time but if I ever see her again…

Back on the train it seems that my novelty factor is starting to wear off as my captive audience disperses and heads for bed. Thankfully I now only have the regular Chinese train related problems to contend with. Like the huge bugs crawling across my bed, or the thick cloud of cigarette smoke that has enveloped the whole train or worst of all, the upset tummy that the “boiled” water onboard has given me. Being sick in a foreign country is bad but being sick on a rickety train with only a squat toilet – the floor of which is already pooled with urine, blood and the odd bit of faeces – is a whole lot less comfortable.

Sometimes this travel business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

December 5, 2009 at 2:05 am 3 comments


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