Chengdu, my Waterloo

At Sha River Three-Arch Ancient Bridge Park, Chengdu

Chengdu is the fourth largest city in China, after Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. It’s the capital of Sichuan province, famous for its spicy but delicious food.

Sichuan was the site of a devastating 7.9 earthquake in 2008 which killed an estimated 70,000 people. Four years later, the earthquake may be why so much of the region is newly built, or it may be just because that’s how things roll in Western China. While the eastern part of the country is experiencing a slowdown, the west is expected to continue to thrive for years to come, with Chengdu leading the way. Even so, the city still only has one subway line, with a second line underway.

For me, Chengdu was my Waterloo.

Having been in China almost two months, it was high time I got sick to my stomach. I had left my Imodium, Cipro et al in Shanghai to reduce the weight of my backpack and as a result ended up losing far more weight than I’d planned.

For the next few days I hung around the hostel, a place called Sims Cozy, since Lazybones was full. On trivia night I teamed up with three Scots who were teaching in a small village east of Chengdu. They were the only Westerners in their town and this was their first hamburger in months. We won the game with the winning question: How many provinces does China have? [FYI, when in China, your answer had better include Taiwan.]

From my short-lived series “Flattened Fauna of Western China”.

Benny and Olga stopped by later in the week to let me know they had survived the Emeishan ordeal and to book their trip to Tibet—still closed to foreigners unless you shell out a couple thousand bucks for a full-time tour guide and chaperone.

Masha even reappeared at Sims to air her grievances about her trips to Lugu Lake and Songpan, and eager to leave the nightmare that was her China vacation. She had one more stop—Beijing—where she would celebrate Passover with a friend.

Benny and Olga and I meanwhile would celebrate at national park called Jiuzhaighou.

Olga at Jiuzhaighou

Chengdu Bird and Flower and Pizza Market

Benny and Olga and I explored Jinli Street, a commercial district outside Wuhou Memorial Temple. The street dates back to the late 3rd century BC.

From my short-lived “Trash Bins of Western China” series.

From there we walked toward the famous Bird and Flower Market. Okay, actually, we walked away from the Bird and Flower Market, thanks to me and my unwavering faith in GPS technology. And after a lengthy sojourn in the opposite direction, hailed a cab.

Even when the taxi dropped us off around the corner from the market, it took a while to discover its full magnitude. The Bird and Flower part was mostly around a little side street, but the less publicized and, to me, the more intriguing section, was the Big Fish and Dead Cow section, hidden inside the ground floor of a building complex to the west.

The Live Fish and Dead Cow Market was in the building to the left.

All that dead cow made me hungry, and when Olga asked me where I wanted to eat lunch, for the first time during my trip I had a bizarre urge to say, “Pizza Hut.”

“Really?” Olga asked confused. That’s where Benny secretly had wanted to eat, but Olga hadn’t wanted to subject me.

Pizza Hut is ubiquitous in China. I must have passed by a hundred without the desire to go inside, but today it called out to me. Pizza Hut in China is like Pizza Hut in the US in that they both serve pizza. But here in China, Pizza Hut here is a fancy two-story restaurant, that serves everything Western under the sun. The pizza wasn’t bad, but real treat was the “Black Angel”, which to my delight turned out to be a coca-cola float. Num num!

The author imbibes a Black Angel at Pizza Hut.


Ok, it’s not called PandaLand. It’s the “Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding”, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of pandas in the world. It’s by far the number one tourist attraction in the city, which in retrospect made it all the more suspicious that our taxi driver didn’t know how to get there. It would be like getting into a taxi in Anaheim and the driver suddenly not remembering which way’s Disneyland.

Usually metered rides in China are cheaper, but in Chengdu, if you negotiate a flat fee, you’ll get there as fast as humanly possible, sometimes faster; use a meter and the taxi driver will invariably get lost and the ride will end up costing about the same. There is little benefit in showing them how to get there on Google Maps, as taxi drivers don’t seem to understand how maps work.

Moolight Nursevry House

Initially, I thought the first driver had been on the level—we even applauded his efforts when we finally arrived at the Panda Research Base. On the way back however (there was a line of taxis waiting for us—this was clearly a well-known taxi destination) the ride was straight-forward and cost half as much. And several days later, when a taxi driver pretended to get lost on the way to the AIRPORT, I realized we’d been had both times. (You will rarely, if ever, get lost in China when paying a flat rate.)

That said, the Base itself was great. Walking in, I had the nostalgic feeling of entering an amusement park, something I hadn’t done in a long time. Not a loud fair or haphazard carnival, but a quiet, well-planned park, with trams that carry visitors down wide, clean lanes from one panda attraction to another, surrounded by beautiful, lush vegetation on either side.

The trick is to get there early in the morning, when the pandas are being fed. That’s the only time the pandas are active. The laziest animals on earth, the pandas will basically sit around and sleep the rest of the day.

Panda Detention Center

The other trick is to avoid the large tourist groups, following a guide with a triangular flag, that raise the noise factor of the sleepy park by eleven decibels.

Tanja in Kunming had pointed out that in most tourist attractions there exists an invisible line across which Chinese tourists won’t pass. So beyond the chaos and pandemonium of the packed crowds near the entrance, gift shop, and top two or three spots of interest, you can find yourself in the Stone Forest or Juizhaighou National Park or the Panda Research Base totally alone.

Panda Interrogation Room

Among the highlights of the Panda Research Base were the fancy, clean public restrooms. The stalls even had doors, a sight normally unseen outside of airports. Granted, the stall doors were made of glass so you could see inside, but that’s beside the point. The point is, we have doors! You are in a high-class joint on par with top-notch amusement facilities around the world!

We have doors!

I didn’t expect to be blown away by the Panda Base. I’m not all that into pandas or anything, unlike one woman we met, who was dressed entirely in panda-themed attire and who expressed her affinity for the bear with a passion rivaling Youtube’s “I love cats” girl. I went because it was the thing ‘to du’ when in Chengdu. In the end, I really enjoyed the trip, seeing dozens of members of this endangered species and exploring the center itself. At the Base, each panda is a star in its own right. The way the park is set up, I felt we even got a sense of the different personalities of the individual pandas in their habitats.

The exception to my elation may have been the panda gift shop. A short visit into this den of consumerism at the end of our trip resulted in total panda-exploitation sensory overload. There was no panda product they didn’t sell, other than, for some reason, panda burgers.

The mysteriously-raccoonish Red Panda

People’s Park – Chengdu

Benny and Olga wouldn’t tell me what the deal with People’s Park was, so I had to find out for myself. It was a short walk from Lazybones, located in the center of the city.

People’s Park is huge. It took a couple of visits to explore the whole thing. What made it so unique? Well…

In the States I’d seen parks and public recreation areas that had unfortunately been taken over by gangs, rowdy teenagers, etc. But I can tell you now, that is nothing compared to the horror, the ungodly terror that arises when senior citizens take over a park.

And make no mistake, People’s Park belongs to the seniors. There may be people of all ages there, but you are on their turf.

The first thing I noticed was the music. If you think young people play their music loud, take a trip to People’s Park in Chengdu. The soft, soothing, traditional Chinese songs were blaring out of PA systems so loud even the deafest of listeners could enjoy. PA’s were set up every few yards, competing with each other, each one surrounded by groups of citizens practicing their synchronized dancing. I had seen synchronized dancing all around China but never so many different groups practicing simultaneously to different songs, to provide the passing spectator with a level of orchestral discordance usually associated with “A Day in the Life”.

The dancers were of all ages, but like the park itself, this was the seniors’ show.

I also passed by older performers playing instruments, solo and in small groups. Singing in one enclave was a performer, who with her wide smile, sparkling eyes, and tall forehead could have passed for the Chinese Reese Witherspoon, were she not in her 60s. She danced and performed songs that you could just tell she had been singing since she was 16.

Making my way through the park, I found a section with hundreds of papers posted up on the fence. The writing was in Chinese so I could only make out the numbers. Where they ages? Birth dates? Death dates? I had seen signs for a memorial monument in the park. But China hadn’t fought a war in decades. Still scores of people were here reading them, possibly paying tribute to loved ones. I asked a young woman what these papers said. She only hurried away.

I later found out these were personal ads, plastered all over the fences. Sort of the eHarmony of China. It may speak to the cultural differences of the West and East that I couldn’t distinguish between people mourning the dead and those looking for a mate. Of course, one time in Dali, we wandered past a courtyard and were invited to have some food and join what looked like a cross between a musical performance and a celebration, only to find it was a funeral.

Not my video. This is a funeral, taken by the Linden Centre, at one of the villages near Dali.

I eventually found the memorial monument in People’s Park. It was dedicated to the victims of the Railway Protection Movement, which I later looked up. The Railway Protection Movement…

was a political protest movement that erupted in 1911 in the late Qing China against the Qing government’s plan to nationalize local railway development projects and transfer control to foreign banks.” —

I spent quite some time searching for the mysterious Doorway for Composing Poems. I did find a door with some pencil scratches on it. Perhaps that was it. Or perhaps the door’s conspicuous absence was a metaphor for…for…I don’t know what, we’ll let the poets decide.

The park had a few places to sit down and relax. Tea houses. At one, men in white played an unusual musical instrument, like a tuning fork. Wait, he’s putting that tuning fork in someone’s ear. Ah, these were the famous “ear massages” I’d heard about. There was also a sign for ear wax removal. Maybe they’re one and the same.

The best place to be alone was in a boat on the lake. I saw a few young couples taking solace there, perhaps looking forward to the day when they would rule People’s Park…

We fought to make this park
A place for youth to play.
Came the day we won
We were old and gray.

Doorway for Composing Poems here I come! Now if only I could find it…

Enter Chengdu

Chinese airports never cease to amaze me. They look like they were built yesterday. Or at least in the past couple of years, which often is the case. New, beautiful. They make LAX look like the Roman Colosseum. Security is taken as seriously as in the U.S. except you don’t have to take off your shoes, which makes the process more pleasant and less aromatic. Of course they share that universal airport attribute of food prices that are ten times more than outside, but nothing says breakfast like Oreos.

What set the Lijiang airport apart was that it had more employees than passengers.

That helped explain why cabbies won’t use the meter to the airport and the ride was 90 rmb, even after haggling. Once the cab takes you all the way out there, it has to drive back empty. There’s no steady stream of passengers going in and out. The airport is fully staffed for maybe one, maybe two flights at a time, and it’s probable that most of the passengers at the airport when we were there were on our flight.

Chengdu, Jinli Street flowers

Of those passengers, we had encountered three previously on our travels. There was a couple from Israel whom Benny and Olga knew and an Englishwoman who had stayed at Upland in Kunming. Our good fortune: the Englishwoman had already contacted the hostel in Chengdu and arranged for an airport pickup. Landing in Chengdu, she got a thrill out of seeing a driver holding up a sign with the name “Emma” on it. Which is how we learned her name, and which I should have known because Emma is (I assume) the only name English people are legally allowed to give their daughters.

How can you sit next to someone on a plane and talk for an hour without learning their name you ask? Asking someone their name is just about the last question posed in a conversation when traveling. The first questions are those of place: Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

Followed by questions of time: How long have you been away? How much longer are you traveling? How long are you in Chengdu?…

Only after you’ve been talking to someone a while, gone to a tourist attraction together, and jointly rented an apartment for a few months, do you bother to ask someone’s name.

Chengdu bus stop

That afternoon Benny and Olga headed to People’s Park while I roamed the city center in the other direction. The result being when we reconnoitered at Lazybones, I came back with the impression that Chengdu was “all right” whereas Benny said with a huge grin, “I love this city.”

“Why, what’s at the Park?” I asked.

“It’s crazy!”

Again, I pressed for details. He thought about it. “All these retired people—”

Olga stopped him. “You will have to see for yourself.”

So the mystical attraction of People’s Park would have to wait.

People’s Park