I’ve made a list of cities in China that I have a relatively informed opinion about. More than 2 days in a visit or multiple visits are my requirements for being relatively informed. In order of preference (and ignoring small cities) they are:
- Hong Kong
The list was created primarily to put Chengdu at the bottom of it.
This was my best experience of the city though. It wasn’t too cold or raining. We could get a cab when we needed one. In fact there were only 10 minutes when I hated it. We were on a bus going somewhere Holly wasn’t sure how to get to and didn’t know if she’d recognize when we passed it. We were jammed in and I had too much stuff because we were heading back to Nanjing. I haven’t thanked Holly for not getting mad at my black mood there. [Thanks Holly!]
We stayed at a really good hostel called The Mix out by the Wen Shu Monastery. When I say it was really good I mean it felt very much like we were travelling not in China. The rough appearing couches and everything else. We didn’t ask if the dog was allowed in.
Catherine stayed in the common area while Holly and I did the checking in stuff. Then Catherine went to bed and Holly and I hung out with Fish, who used to be her Chinese tutor back in Nanchong. He’s trained in dentistry and just got a job at an insurance company. He’s also planning on taking the tests to become a pilot. They’ve expanded the program so people older than high school grads can get into the career. There’s a fitness and a handsomeness test. He was talking about it being a dangerous profession, which I’d never thought of before.
He’s watching Friends now and I got a bit of a rant off my chest (about the lack of reality in these underemployed people in that gigantic apartment in New York) and Holly described me to Fish thusly: “Justin may seem very quiet but when you ask him the right question he gets very excited and loud.” Which is probably pretty accurate. The other day Will asked if I was an environmental activist and I said I wasn’t very active, but I didn’t really know how to answer that kind of question. Holly did it for me: “Justin is a minimalist in all things.” I think there are plenty of things I’m not minimalistic about but that’s much more accurate than calling me an environmentalist.
Anyway, Fish’s ex-girlfriend was there too. It was a little awkward because her English wasn’t as good as Fish’s but whatever. She’s an anaesthesiologist. We were talking about the perks of those kinds of jobs and the troubles in medical systems in different countries. He hadn’t seen Sicko (and neither had Holly) so lots of the stuff I said about the US system was incredible to them (but true!). There was a blonde possibly European girl sitting nearby and I’m sure to her I sounded incredibly stupid bragging about Canadian healthcare.
When Fish and [I forget her name completely] left Holly and I went to pick up sausages for Jiaozi’s [Catherine's dog] breakfast. Oh they sent chills up my spine. So processed and squishy. Holly got one too. Even though she’s thinking of cutting back on the pork in her diet. Which is much easier when you aren’t in delicious Sichuan.
On Monday we walked a huge distance down from the hostel to Hua Xi the medical school campus of Chuan Da where Johnny lives. Johnny is a really great guy. He’d been working on an experiment which finally worked on Saturday so he had time to hang out. Over lunch he explained what it was about but I didn’t quite catch the whole thing. Something about Science! Getting to lunch was a bit of a production as we wanted to leave our bags at Johnny’s but a guard at the gate wouldn’t let the dog on campus so there was to-ing, fro-ing, carrying, leaving and hiking around to the restaurants the long way. But we got to chow down Sichuan style one last time. Yu Xiang Qie Zi and those rice cakes (Guo Ba) that sizzle and crackle when the sauce goes over them. I’d forgotten about that stuff because I’ve only ever eaten it in biggish CEE groups.
But hanging out with Johnny is very easy. He’s relaxed and helpful and just an especially cool guy. His girlfriend is evidently very ordinary though. I guess that’s the danger of being slightly extraordinary; the people around you might suffer by comparison. We eventually settled on the word “interchangeable” to describe her, which is something Johnny is definitely not.
The story Holly tells is how once when she came to visit him her phone had died so she didn’t know where he was going to meet her. But she thought “Johnny’s such a good student; he’s always in the library” so that’s where she went, checking each room till he appeared, to everyone’s delight. Near the statue of Marie Curie is where they always meet and talk and snack. He has a dorm room where he keeps some stuff but lives off-campus, being taken care of by his girlfriend’s(?)/landlord’s(?) family, something Holly thinks should irk her but it doesn’t. His dormmates just play video games till early in the morning and Johnny’s very glad not to have to really live with them.
He had to go to work though, and Catherine had to buy two kinds of Italian meat for Eric (who has Hepatitis C but doesn’t explain to people that’s why he doesn’t drink) so we put her in a cab and got on the 503 bus out to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. To get there our bus passed through the Tibetan part of town. We saw monks walking past religious supply shops but more indicative these days were the police cars on every corner. Every corner meaning four cars at the intersections and one at every alley. The cops themselves seemed pretty relaxed. Most were sleeping. But on our return trip all their lights were flashing and instead of one sleeper to a car there were four nervous looking officers. Down one road there was a huge crowd and loads of police but we couldn’t tell what was going on. Earlier down at the big square by the mao statue we saw about a dozen police and military cops holding their guns, patrolling. Some police in regular uniform but more in helmets. It wasn’t the massive formations we had after our Wanzhou riot, at least not right after. Though those had been around last week. Todd wasn’t allowed to take pictures of them with the Big Brother eye ad, not at night.
Holly’s been asking everyone about their points of view on this Tibetan situation. The cabbie taking us to the airport was very erm prejudiced, complaining about the Zangren wanting to put five people in the car or wanting to pay 10 when the fare’s 15, or speaking their Zanghua gobbledygook all the time. At that last point he realized he sounded a bit silly (especially since his Sichuanhua was pretty thick) and the two of them laughed. There’s a fairly wide perception that the Tibetans are lazy and thieving and they’re lucky that China supports them so well. When this cabdriver began he called them all a big Ma Fan [trouble/nuisance]. The stories of bombs and buses and a car that had a bomb in it that was gone and a Tibetan stabbing a guy through a bus window as it drove away are word of mouth stories, not news reports thankfully, though I wonder if those rumours would spread as fast with a freer press. Selah.
Catherine was very impressed with the gravity of the situation and how concerned Chinese people are about how this will affect them, and their fear and all that. Holly finds the Chinese people to be over it, unconcerned “The army’s in there now and things are back to normal.” You just downplay it and talk about 1.3 billion smiles welcoming Olympic athletes and show some pictures of pandas and such. It’s more of a concern for Holly than for Chinese people, she feels, which means imprisonments and disappearances of anyone up there having anything to do with the protests is pretty much assured. No one would think anyhing’s wrong with that.
Oh and we went to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. That was where we were taking the bus. On the way Holly asked if I felt Chengdu had changed in the last four years. I didn’t but reminded her of my lack of deep connection with the city. She was saying there seemed to be more touristy little streets and places catering to the backpackers coming through. But maybe she just felt that because int he first couple of years she didn’t go into those areas of town. It’s funny how being part of an organization gets you stuck in its ruts. Like the Jiaotong/Traffic Hotel. There’s nothing really wrong with it but we stayed there as the default CEE option. We’d scatter to our various rooms and well, whatever. It doesn’t have any character. High ceilings I seem to remember. But it doesn’t really compare with the Mix. Which might be becoming the new MPC default, even though it’s further from the airport and the airport bus.
That list of favourite cities from before is based almost entirely on my physical experience of the places. I don’t know the language or the people well enough to have a clue about what they’re like socially or culturally. Everything is based on what I could see or feel or hear. Very sensual but not in a sexy way. Transit systems are important to me. Barring transit it needs to be walkable, but I just love Metros. There’s that automated system happening so you don’t have to speak. It seems to go all the time. They’re generally cleanish (though Beijing’s is feeling like it’s the exception to all of these). Stops are announced and route maps are laid out. Nothing like a good metro system. Chengdu’s is being built under their streets and it’s clogging up the aboveground traffic fiercely. I’m glad this wasn’t happening back when I was dragging my mom around town. Sidewalks all blocked off. Buses following weird routes. Confusing.
Holly was almost involved in two accidents walking around in CHengdu. One was a madan driving an SUV who was speeding and passing a car by gunning the engine into the bikelane/sidewalk where we were walking. She jumped out of the way and was fine. In fact, we went right on with our conversation as if she hadn’t just been almost killed. Then walking on Johnny’s campus an electric bike loaded down with cases of bottles swerved and toppled, spilling bottles (not their contents) all over. Students leapt to assistance as did Holly and I. I replaced Gatorade bottles in a box feeling useless. Holly’s instinct in that instance was to hold up the falling bottles instead of getting out of the way. The woman on the red bike thanked everyone and we were delayed a little more from meeting Johnny.
The Cottage itself has a whole park complex surrounding it. We came in the north gate where a girl was playing the Qin. Really well, though she didn’t seem to be too into it. There were trees and pavillions and there didn’t seem a better place to be an old Chinese person. We saw replicas of the cottage, some Tang Dynasty pottery that proves they’ve been building and rebuilding it in the right place all these years, an uninspiring collection of his poems from 1982. The collection was uninspiring as the old copies looked little different from the new ones. The cottage replica was pretty much like a modern peasant house in the country. Same sorts of stuff in the kitchen and the study and all that. It’s pleasant to think of writing in a place like that. Easy to think it’d be easier, though somehow I’ve learned enough about this craft to doubt it. Anyway. Expensive but beautiful park that I enjoyed and would return to.
The War on Liquids made it to China this month. At least to Chengdu. As of 3/18/2008 the sign said. Holly had to check her bag because of it. She’s a girl and needs face washing things. The table with all the stuff covered by the ban included sealed packages of Dou Gan [thin sliced dried tofu in sort of a spicy sauce]. How does that make any sort of a difference? Although thinking about it now, 3/18 that’s post Xinjiang girl on the plane with the gasoline isn’t it? That story sounded so dumb at the time and now it’s obvious it was made up to give an excuse for the new CAAC regulations. All this stuff is bullshit and doesn’t make anyone safer anyway. So angry. I can’t take any tools if I want to travel light. But that’s why I don’t use toothpaste when I travel no more. Or shampoo. When they ban toothbrushes I guess I’ll give up oral hygiene altogether. But they haven’t yet.
That flight was delayed by the rain. “Water falling from the sky? We’ll solve that problem somehow!” And for the first part of the flight I thought we’d crash for sure.