Thursday, May 27, 2010

Chengdu – A 2nd Tier Chinese City

Beijing and Shanghai have had billions of dollars lavished on them for recent or ongoing international events and their citizens have been taken to charm school to smooth over bad habits such as suicidal driving, Chinglish and loud public spitting. So what about a large Chinese city that isn't on the prosperous coast and that hasn't had the benefits of the international spotlight?

Welcome to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China's interior. No obvious sophistication here, the start/end route information on the side of the #6 bus route says it all, and in English: “Engine Plant → Sewage Treatment Plant”. Chengdu has only one real internationally known attraction, the Chengdu Panda Base just outside of town. There foreigners and Chinese tourists alike oh and ah over the local and endangered bamboo eating bears with stubby legs and cute coloring. Otherwise Chengdu is a large city deep in the Chinese interior that hasn't had a reason for the central government in Beijing to put it through finishing school. People fire up butts almost everywhere, smoke free sections in local restaurants are unknown. People spit in a very loud public trumpeting exuberant phlegm clearing way that is so common that it has been described by Western expats here as the Chinese National Anthem. It sounds gross and it is too. Going for a walk? Best to forget the sandals. We rode a packed Chengdu city bus and heard a grumpy passenger go off on the driver. She screamed back at him for the entire ride. Chinglish abounds.

There's no subway yet (it's scheduled to open in October) so we took buses and cabs. Traffic is hellish. The cab drivers all drive like Stevie Wonder, in NASCAR, on meth. Which doesn't really differentiate them all that much from other local drivers. Unlike Beijing there are a fair amount of bicycles, pedicabs, mopeds and three wheeled trucks in the traffic mix too. The driver of the cabs we hailed all seem to like weaving in and out of lanes and cutting over double yellow lines to play chicken with oncoming packed city buses. Near misses seem to be the rule and it's a ballet of organized chaos that all the locals, drivers and pedestrians alike, seem to be in on. I don't pity the pedestrians, they're as fearless as the drivers and have more to lose.

For anyone who melts at the sight of a panda Chengdu is the panda Vatican. It's the headwaters of panda, the home office of cute. The pandas live up to their advance billing too, they are cute, they spend their days in captivity on display in open areas surrounded by people clicking camera shutters. The pandas don't have much to do, bamboo is delivered to them and they spend their days either playing with each other, climbing trees or on their backs chomping bamboo. Keepers dressed in blue smocks enter the enclosures when the pandas aren't looking and whisk away the panda poo. Pandas are cute but they're still powerful wild animals and when a panda decides he wants something he gets it. Tourists come from overseas, stay in nice hotels and are bused to and from the panda reserve in plush tourist buses. I imagine that other than the pandas the overseas tourists have very little contact or interactions with the locals. Just to be different Eleanor and I took a cab to the reserve and took public transit back to town. I didn't come all this distance to be isolated, if I want that I can vacation in a guarded camp.

Other than the pandas there's not much going on in Chengdu for someone who has no other reason for being there, doesn't know the place and can't pierce the language barrier. There's upscale shopping, there's middle class shopping with all of the worlds chains, there's Wal-Mart, Carrefour and their Chinese imitators like Ren Ren Le (which has shamelessly appropriated Wal-Mart's trademarked yellow smiley face) and there's shopping for the poor; a gigantic local market near the north railway station which has nearly everything at dollar store prices with dollar store quality. I bought a few Chinglish shirts but this place has everything you wouldn't want: rabbits and gerbils (rodent: it's what's for dinner), baby chicks dyed in dayglo colors that nature never intended for poultry, stuffed animals, cheap shoes, cheaper clothing, and all kinds of knock off cosmetics that fell off the back of a homemade three wheeled truck.

The food in Chengdu is outstanding and cheap and we didn't even try the local hotpot Sichuan province is famous for. Eleanor speaks enough Mandarin to make sure that we didn't order dog or chicken feet or pig blood pudding any other local specialties that might offend our (well, my) tender North American sensibilities. But some of the locals seem to take a little too well to fast food chain restaurants. KFC and McDonald's are very popular along with some Asian chains (like Dicos) and local knock-offs. Eating at these joints is somehow trendy but a burger, fries and a Coke not only is crap, it costs more than a belly plumping local lunch for two at a nice restaurant. A grande drip at Starbucks costs close to $3 US and most locals drink tea but trendy types manage to drink and be seen with the other local beautiful people at Starbucks.

Except for one slightly surly cab driver the locals were great. The folks at the Buddhazen Hotel went out of their way to help us. When we wanted to take the local bus the hotel manager didn't try to talk us out of such folly, he walked us the 3 blocks to the right bus stop. When we were looking for a nice place to go in the evening the manager took us in a cab with his girlfriend to what turned out to be a fast food chain preserve. But without Eleanor and her grade school Mandarin none of this would've happened. When I'm alone in a place like this I'm like a dog with a wallet. I can buy things but, what? I can't read (she can't either), I can't write and I can't say anything that anybody in a position to help me can understand. I can pantomime but unless you're Marcel Marceau that looks stupid. Besides, I long ago got tired of the various kind of gestures I've thought up when I really need the mens room.

More China awaits. Next stop: Shanghai and the World Expo.

Click here for Chengdu pictures.
Click here for panda pictures & video.

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