Chengdu

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I spent one more day than I’d planned in Ritoma, leaving me just two days to explore Chengdu. The city was recommended by almost everyone I came across, never with the enthusiasm of Shanghai or Hong Kong, but frequently enough too add it to my agenda. I spent a good chunk of my previous day researching a game plan for these 48 hours, knowing Chengdu is one of just a handful of cities in the UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy, and was the first in Asia when selected in 2011. Beyond the food, the Sichuan Province where Chengdu is located is home to 70% of the world’s 2,000 giant pandas. Just outside the city is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 30 minutes by bus or taxi. I was weighing hanging with the bears against the Dujiangyan irrigation system, a giant hydraulic engineering project created around 250 BC that is apparently awesome for both its functionality and green space. Unfortunately, with just a couple days, the 1.5 hour trip to the dam didn’t seem worth it and I opted for two days of eating and a morning with the pandas.

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Strapped for time and feeling the financial advantages of traveling China, I decided I would take more cabs in Chengdu than I had previously. It’s a strange thing, wanting to take a subway while lugging your giant backpack and finding your way, but something about having the time to do so is extremely relaxing. The subway is also super easy because of directions from the hostel and the fact that every subway has English translations for station names, not to mention how informative it is to stand next to a hundred person cross section of the city. Riding a taxi can be just as revealing: trying to explain to the driver where I was headed, experiencing bumper to bumper traffic from inside a car, and getting a taste of the insanity that is Chinese driving. That said, I’ll always prefer the public transport, it’s so nice being the tall white guy in a crowded train, feeling no remorse about analyzing people because you know they’re all looking at you.

Anyways, the peace and quiet that I felt just a day earlier in Tibet was quickly squashed in that ride to the hostel. I knew Chengdu was big, but like other cities, I didn’t look at images or read much about it before arriving (always the best way to go, at least until you get the first impression). The greater metropolitan area is home to 18 million people, 6th largest in China. That’s larger than every American metropolitan area other than New York, and the city was completely unknown to me before 2016. I’m happy I had decided to stay in the middle of the city, as the initial drive passed a strip of car dealerships, giant high end fashion stores, and a number of parks and squares, including one of the country’s last remaining large statues of Chairman Mao at the city’s center. Chengdu is set up in a ring structure like most other Chinese cities, and my plan for day one, arriving around 1pm, was to head from my hostel in the inner ring, by subway, to the world’s largest building by floorspace on the southern tip of the outer ring, then walk home. I’d starved myself a bit up until that point, so fresh Sichuan food would kick things off.

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After checking into my $15 room with private bath (the best hostel of the trip), I had a quick, somewhat forgettable meal of chicken chunks and veggies. This type of chicken dish, a plate of chicken pieces with hidden bones, seems common in China, or at least uncommon in the US. It must have been my third or fourth time eating it this way because I happily jumped into the custom, popped chunk after chunk in the hopper, and played around until I could fish out the bones. I meandered around some local streets, where a man offered me a thorough ear cleaning but the length of his tools forced my hand and I opted to snap his photo and move on. 

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A 15 minute subway later put me at the base of the New Century Global Center, less than three hours after leaving Ritoma.

The building is a monstrosity, larger than any other in the world by floor space. After being in a place so small and remote, simply approaching and entering made me uneasy.  Like any mall, there are few windows, too many retailers, and artificially clean, cold air. Unlike any mall, there’s a giant water park and hotel inside. I spent no more than 10 minutes walking around, feeling the impact of Chinese materialism and excess, before heading for home.

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My city walking routes had become consistent by that point: find the large road that will take me home, then go a few blocks to the side and take a parallel route. Before arriving, I had researched a few places to eat, mostly the big names. I learned quickly, though, that the city hasn’t received awards because of it’s popular spots, but rather the ubiquity of restaurants and food stalls throughout the city. The streets, scooter lanes, and sidewalks were all crowded and the job of feeding so many people feels tremendous. It’s this immense size and density that makes it unsurprising that entire blocks feature only food shops at the ground level, from markets to ‘restaurants’.

The must eat dish in Sichuan is undoubtedly the hot pot. Everyone I discussed Chengdu with insisted that I get authentic hot pot, where diners head to refrigerators in the back of the restaurant, pick out skewers of meat and vegetables, and return to a giant pot of boiling water/chili oil in the center of the table. I had hoped to meet other travelers at my hostel that night and eat together, the way hot pot should be eaten, but a busy place that fit my expectations made the decision that I’d be eating alone. 

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These days, cigarette smoking is illegal inside bars and restaurants in China, but I found that the best food was often accompanied by a few smokers at the nearby tables, and this place was no exception. Unfortunately, there was nothing in English, or any waiters who could speak English. More surprising, the food in the refrigerators didn’t have any labels, so I’m not sure I was in a different position than the locals. I’m still unsure what I ate, and having grabed a little of everything, I know it wasn’t all the normal cuts of meat.

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I picked out my smorgasbord, destroyed skewer after skewer of hot, spicy, oily food, and walked beneath the awesome nighttime skyline toward my hostel. Weeks of traveling taught me that the best time to see any sights is super early, before hoards of Chinese travelers arrive, so I had planned the next morning’s breakfast with the pandas.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is about twenty miles from the city center. I woke up and grabbed a cab for less than ten US dollars and made my way through the gates, to a sanctuary separated from the bustling city. The space was exceptionally lush and from the sounds there was a huge bird population to accompany the bears. The emptiness of the paths and walkways was refreshing, I could have easily spent the entire day there if no one else arrived.

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There are dozens of pandas in the research base, which is remarkable considering how rare it is to see a panda at zoos throughout the world, much less multiple pandas. The first enclosure I arrived at was empty and several of us waited for the pile of bamboo to meet their end. We were lucky to be parked right next to one of the peacocks that called the base home. The squawks of the bird were unbelievably loud and high pitched, which felt somewhat fitting.

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The bear that finally emerged to destroy its breakfast was an awesome sight. The hobble up to the pile of bamboo was slow and wobbly but its dexterity immediately made it clear that this animal could do some serious damage if the opportunity came.

I spent the next few hours walking around the park as more and more visitors arrived in large groups, wielding selfie sticks and disrespecting any attempt to keep the sanctuary quiet. The red pandas were a complete surprise to me, and I parked in the corner of their enclosure until one came toward me. They move much more than the black and white giants, and climb trees with ease. One managed to pop out of a hole in the fence, and before the visitors could trap the bear and line up for selfies, the little guy scurried back into place.

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A light rain started to come down and I left the pandas and crowds and sat by Goose Lake, reading and writing. The intense change I’d experienced in the previous days was worth reflecting on. In Tibet, the animals are such a vital part of the community and have so much space to roam and graze. While this research base was a sanctuary, we were only yards from the hustle of the city streets and visitors insisted on making whatever noise they could to get the animals’ attention. The bears live a super comfortable life, and I hope most zoo animals can be as fortunate, but it’s still not the wild. Obviously, with the attention these animals receive in a cage, they would be quickly exterminated by poachers in their natural habitat, so the efforts the Chinese have taken to keep them around should be commended, but it still sucks. I hope virtual reality lets me hang with animals in the wild, that will be awesome.

On my way out, I bumped into an Israeli guy and German girl, both around my age, that I met earlier at the park. We took the slower, cheaper buses back to the city. Coincidentally, we were all staying at the same hostel, so we made plans for later in the day as they went to buy bus tickets for a camping trip they would set off on the following morning. I departed from them and walked the streets of Chengdu for lunch, arriving at yet another noodle shop on the side of the road. I had realized at that point that there wasn’t much communication needed for me to get food, although I liked knowing what meat was before me before starting to slurp. I’d resorted to either making animal noises or using Google translate to ask if it was pork, chicken, or beef. At this particular stop, pork was the choice and roughly $1.50 was the cost. It wasn’t until ¾ of the way through the bowl that I finally thought about the small, perfectly shaped holes within the meat. I knew the answer wouldn’t help me finish the meal, so after emptying the bowl I asked the cook again and was told by a bilingual customer I’d just eaten ‘insides’. I think we settled on it being the stomach, but she wasn’t great at English and was actually just using me to practice. I didn’t get sick.

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I had a few drinks with my new friends that night, jealous of the fact that both seemed to have lives they were ready to return to but relaxed and traveling at the moment. The guy had been on the road in Asia for three months, the girl for six, and both would be returning home in the next two or three months to resume their lives in security and medicine. A bunch of people I met throughout traveling felt a bit off the cuff for me, freely dancing around the world without a worry but simultaneously avoiding the relationships that make life more than a sightseeing tour. These two felt in control, confident and excited to return to a career and life back home but enjoying the freedom and novelty of life on the road. Two days in Chengdu, one month in China, it didn’t feel like enough for me. 

As envious as I had been, the two of them had a brief interaction that helped bring things into perspective. Discussing their bus the next morning to a multi day camping adventure, a trip they decided on that morning, both had received interesting reassurance from home. The girl’s mom was happy she had found a guy to accompany her, the guy’s mom was at ease that he’d found a doctor to keep him safe. I woke the next morning and chatted with my parents for nearly an hour, over video, and felt much closer to home than I expected. 

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After that chat and loading up the backpack, I headed for the airport. This was the first moment I regretted taking so many flights. Security lines, crowded planes, dragon breath. Either way, I was headed across the country for a weekend in Shanghai.