Chengdu blues: The joy of spit

February 9, 2019 § 9 Comments

I was sitting at dinner last night with my friends from Sacramento bemoaning the fact that I still had pages and pages in my notebook about my trip to China.

“Why don’t you write it up?” Drew said. “We really enjoy the non-racing blog posts, especially the ones about China.”

“It takes too long to transcribe the notes.”

Darrel looked at me as if he were speaking to an extremely feeble-minded person. “Why don’t you use talk to text?”

“I travel without my phone,” I explained imperiously.

Darrel paused, trying to think of a way to politely call me a dumbfuck. “You know Seth, once you get back home you can use your phone to transcribe those notes that you wrote in China. I’m pretty sure your phone won’t care.”

So the next morning, with a little experimentation, it turns out that Darrel was right. The phone didn’t care.

Snipping the cord

And so I will pick up where I left off, which is the point at which my camera died, severing my last electronic link to the digital age. I quickly realized that as far as as cameras are concerned they are just one more piece of junk to lug around, things you use to badly chronicle that which 1 billion iPhotos have already uploaded to the Internet.

No camera also meant no eye candy for the blog, making the pages look long, hard, daunting, and filled with nails, which is exactly how I like them. Candy is for kids.

As I got ready for the day I realized that I had fully acclimated to the hotel service. They didn’t replace the mini shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower, they actually topped them off by hand. I suppose that over the course of several hundred changes, they saved a few dollars. And dollars add up.

Other little details were that Hotel H Riverside isn’t really by the river, the phones in the room don’t work, there is no clock in the room, they forget wake up calls, they forget to refill the tea and wash the chipped cups, but how can you really get upset when the shower is the very best you have ever had anywhere?

And how can you really get upset when the staff are friendly and helpful, the breakfast buffet heavenly, the pillows lush and plump, the bed soft, the comforter cozy and thick, the towels luxurious, and the noodle shop next-door… damn good?

As I sat in the lobby waiting for the panda tour that was never going to materialize, I went back to my last trip to China and checked my notes regarding untethering. Here’s what I said then and it’s all true.

  1. We do better with less information.
  2. We have limited processing speed.
  3. We don’t process in real time. Our brains require after-the-fact cogitation that takes time and requires empty mental space.
  4. We are not digital or sequential thinkers. Our brains freely associate at random, and don’t function well when they are forced into endless sequential tasks.
  5. We require but dislike human friction that comes from personal interaction. Untethering forces us to do what we would rather avoid but what we must do.

Morning flail

Day eight was a total a.m. flail. The giant panda tour operator was a no-show. The hotel staff called at my insistence when it became clear that the tour bus wasn’t coming, as the hotel was the one that had made the alleged reservation, even though they denied knowing anything about it despite telling me to be ready to go out the door at 7 o’clock.

The new clerk typed her explanation of the problem into her phone translator, which is still working on a few bugs as it advised “no reservation request your menstrual cycle.”

I was so pissed I refused to give them my menstrual cycle and instead hit Plan B, whose main deficiency was that there was no Plan B. I recalled all the tour hawkers near the station the year before in Kunming, and took the subway to the north station, which turned out to be the mother lode for cheap watches after I’d splurged the rather astounding sum of $75 on a Swatch.

Tour hawkers in Chengdu were nonexistent and I stopped into a couple of travel agencies requesting a personal guide for Chengdu but I might as well have been requesting a portable atom smasher or a satire about the chairman.

One lady directed me to the Chengdu Grand Hotel but they told me they had never heard of such a thing as a personal tour guide, but if I wanted a great panda tour I should call the panda tour operator. I glanced at the brochure and it was the same folks who had done such a stellar job of not picking me up earlier that morning.

However, the confusion it caused requesting a personal guide encouraged me so much that I decided to stop into every hotel I could find and ask the same question. It wouldn’t get me a guide, of that I was confident, but it would pass the time and let me practice my Chinese as I made my way back to the tea shop at People’s Park.

Cold and rainy Monday mornings in winter are pretty awesome. They have a not too busy, kind of good feeling because you realize it’s not only you, but everyone is flat fucking cold, they just deal with it, which is a pretty awesome outlook on the minor or even a major discomforts of life.

The amazing manly joy of spitting

Despite the Party’s dedicated spit eradication program, hundreds of millions of Chinese men have not yet successfully completed the SEP course. The pleasure with which meant spit can scarcely be imagined, a pleasure limited only by the infinite variety of hawking and expectoration techniques. There is the casual spirit, a simple emptying of the mouth, barely conscious and never premeditated.

There is the deep-throated, rumbling rev that collects errant fluid and mixed solids before firing them out, thick projectiles with fierce velocity to spatter hard against the pavement. Each sticky glob, upon observation, is as unique as a Rorschach test, distinct in color, consistency, and angle as the most considered painting.

Spitting is surely linked to horrible air quality, lingering catarrhs and even more sinister diseases of the throat and lungs, but that only explains part of it. The rest? Male privilege, of course. Spitting is the mark of the man, denied it to women with the same finality of scratching one’s crotch in public.

I made it to the park fine and had a cup of tea. It wasn’t as exciting as a great panda tour but it was certainly cheaper.

Maybe I’d have better luck next day.

I thought about that.

Maybe I wouldn’t.



Chengdu blues: May I clean your ears?

December 17, 2018 § 1 Comment

On Day 4 it made sense to take a break from the breakneck pace of touring, especially since my neck wasn’t broken and I hadn’t yet had a proper hotel breakfast, which is indisputably the best part of any trip to China. After that I figured I’d find a dry cleaner, as my short supply of underwear and t-shirts wasabout to go gamey, but like the fake Rolexes that were in such short supply, I was finding a similar dearth of Chinese laundries in, of all places, China.

Other items on my shopping list included dental floss, which didn’t appear to have been discovered yet, aside from those little bow-shaped flossers that you use once and toss. Though not averse to filth, I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I’m willing to retrieve discarded flossers. Yet. I don’t know if it’s related to dental floss, but public spitting is for sure still a thing despite all of the posters and public exhortations to QUIT SPITTING!

Why spitting?

Dr. Google, Ph.D., has several articles on spitting in China, and they all boil down to this: People spit because they like to spit.

What the good doctor doesn’t go into much detail about is the Chinese government’s side of things, which is that spitting is a major no-no and people should stop doing it RIGHT NOW. The genesis of it seems to be an awareness that you can’t be considered the leader of the unfree world if everyone is always hawking a loogie whenever they get the urge.

It’s also an attempt to counter the unrestrained racism directed against Chinese tour groups, whose money everyone welcomes, but whose physical presence everyone holds in the lowest regard. As with Japanese tour groups from the 70’s and 80’s, the same old prejudices have been dug up and trotted out:

  • They are obnoxious!
  • Always taking PIKCHERZZZZZ!
  • Can’t talk well English goodly!
  • Big groups!
  • No presheeyahshun of our KULCHURRRR!
  • And for the Chinese … YUKKY SPITTING!

Of my countless, most excellent spitting experiences, by far the best was observing a young buck and his spicy date at the hot pot restaurant. Every couple of minutes he’d look up from his cell phone as she looked up from hers, exchange a word or two, take a bite of food, and then hock a big, greasy loogie into a trash bucket next to the table. The loogie had to clear about three feet of open air, and even though the mouth of the bucket was capacious, I couldn’t help but watch with impressed horror as it somersaulted in the air into the bin.

Then of course they went right back to their phones.

Lovers’ spat

The amazing hotel breakfast buffet more than made up for the full-on lover’s screaming match that happened outside my door at 3:00 AM. They were both drunk and really hollered it up. It went on for a solid hour, and although I thought about calling the front desk to complain, after a few minutes I realized that it was an awesome free Chinese cursing and insult lesson, so I snuggled into my comforter and tried to parse the “you sorry bastard” and “you worthless bitch” that are common in every language.

But first a word about breakfast. My hotel was a cheap-o, yet it really put any other U.S. hotel breakfast to shame. There were about ten Chinese items to choose from, including fried eggs and fresh wonton soup made to order by the cook, and a similar number of Western items. So much variety, with vegetables, pickles, noodles, and tea, got you off to either a great start or a gut bomb that sent you back to bed for a couple of hours if you dared a second trip down the line.

Later, I headed out for People’s Park. It was around freezing and I was still in my hoodie. Although I’d brought a knee-length wool coat, I hadn’t bothered to start wearing it, and remained cold always. There is no heating in Sichuan because the temperature there is mostly warm and mild, and because people can’t afford it, and because rather than waste money on staying warm they nut up and stay ass-fucking-cold.

I know they were cold because, bundled up, they had their hands jammed between their thighs. I know it was cold because they looked cold. I know it was cold because it WAS cold. By the time I got to the park, a hot cup of tea was badly called for. People at the park were dancing, playing hacky-sack and badminton, but mostly they were hanging out smoking and drinking tea and being cold.

My eyes and throat had been punished by the air pollution for four days now. Finally frozen, I decided to have tea in the park. Chinese is hard but at least tea I could drink. First I watched how it was ordered. Then I ordered the top yellow shoot special tea #5, which came in a paper packet and wouldn’t settle to the bottom of the cup no matter how long I waited, which meant that every time I tried to take a sip I wound up with tea in my teeth.

I tried every manner of sucking the tea to strain out the leaves but since I don’t have a baleen the only thing that resulted was scalded lips.

Let’s get those ears checked

Amidst all this scalding and sucking, a handful of guys were working the area clacking what looked like giant barbecue tongs. Around their skulls they had belted doctor’s headlamps, and in the other, non-tong hand, they were holding a variety of long steel implements with feathery and other ends.

I observed a nearby table where people sat around cheerfully conversing as one of the party had an ear cleaner laboriously boring away into his head with the various long steel tools, any one of which could have easily “slipped” and gone straight out the other side. Apparently some folks liked to have a cup of tea, chat with friends, and get their skulls bored out.

After the guy finished, in a fit of hygiene, he wiped the implements on his pant leg and meandered over to me. “Clean your ears?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“I will make them very, very clean.”

“My ears are so dirty that you will be here all day. And break your tools.”

This excited him. “Can I have a look?”

“Sure,” I said.

He switched on his light and peered into my ear. “Those are the dirtiest ears I have ever seen.”

“I’m impressed considering your line of work.”

“We would need to use the irrigation tubes and the extra-extender with the double brush tips.”

“I’m going to pass today. I have a meeting to make at noon.”

He nodded. It was the best refusal I could have picked.

Moving on …

While I was sucking tea leaves into my teeth and scalding my face an old man came over and sat down. What am I saying? I’m an old man, too …

This fellow made a valiant stab at getting some free English lessons but each time he tried, my own Chinese parried, then thrust, then slashed with superior vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and interrogatories until he collapsed, bleeding, and spoke only in thickly Sichuan-flavored Mandarin that I could mostly misunderstand fairly well. We chatted for an hour, until the sixth cup was only the faintest suggestion of tea, then I left for the Sichuan Museum. Why there? It was free.

I was frozen from sitting outside drinking warm water, and most crucially, and for which I’d have paid up to $15, the museum was one of the only places in Chengdu that was heated. I thawed among the treasures of the porcelain gallery, which began with pieces made 5,000 years ago. It shamed every collection I’ve ever seen, containing pieces, pristine, from every period in Chinese history. Any pot they had would have been the centerpiece of the Smithsonian. Looking at so many pots, however beautiful, was completely draining, so I left for a lunch of fried and glazed chicken … nuggets.



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Chengdu blues: What time is it?

December 15, 2018 § 10 Comments

I was going to check into the H-hotel Riverside, but first I had to find it and so I had to buy a map. It took an hour of hard walking from the main square, but I found it, a small 6-story place wedged between a noodle shop and some bars. It was rated 8.6 on, which made me wonder what a room not soaked in cigarette smoke and actually having a closet or chest of drawers would rate. Perhaps a 400?

Oh, and no clock. There was no clock. This wouldn’t normally be a problem except that I’d forgotten my watch, didn’t have a computer or phone, and quickly learned that there are no clocks in China because, phone. What time is it? This becomes an annoying question when you can’t answer it …

Of course a blasting, copious, scalding hot shower makes up for almost any hotel ill, and when it comes to the ultimate in decadence, what could possibly top such a shower followed by one of those little Nescafe instant coffee packets with cream and sugar? One of the ways you find out that you are really white trash is when, left to yourself, you end up reveling in instant coffee.

The television had everything on it except a clock including long news text selections that were read out loud, Peppa the Pig in Chinese, and hardly any, make that zero, Community party speeches. But you couldn’t just turn it on …

The hotel’s location was heavenly for me, stuck in a ratty neighborhood filled with cheap restaurants and small shops selling hundreds of plastic wrap varieties, haircuts, motorcycle parts, and an infinite variety of bags. Paper, plastic, vinyl, uranium, everything. This was just a few steps off the beaten path of Chengdu’s well-maintained, spit-polished showcase for those who alight, snap photos of the Chairman Mao statue, and are then whisked away to enjoy a quick Xingbake before disappearing into a hotel no different from what you would expect in New York, Los Angeles, or Lubbock.

Why would you go to Chengdu just to experience Lubbock? I suppose because Chinese is easier to understand than Lubbockian.

My room with a view overlooked a ramshackle apartment building where oldsters sat outside, smoked, and stared unflinchingly into my room. An old man with no teeth lazily twirled his finger in his belly button and then picked the lint out from under his nails with his teeth.

I flinchingly lowered the blinds.

Take a tour on the wild side

This trip to China, rather than prowling the streets at 4:00 AM for the entertainment of those monitoring the 24-hour surveillance cameras, I had decided to find a tour bus company that would take me around the city, or around the wherever, and save me the effort of having to immerse myself in Chinese. What could be a quicker immersion technique, I thought, than finding tours in Chengdu, the capital of the famous panda bear steak?

Since I was in a hotel, surely they would have countless tour brochures as they had in Kunming, but which I had been too snooty to avail myself of. Sadly, I might as well have asked the front desk for a tract extolling freedom of speech, so confused was the clerk when I requested tour information. Finally she advised me that it was “Impossible.”


“Because all tours are in Chinese.”

“But,” I protested, “we’re speaking in Chinese now.”

She considered that for a second. “Yes, but I am speaking very simply.”

After convincing her that I could handle a tour in Chinese she whipped out a menu of trips and I selected an all-day offering for $30. Seven hours. We confirmed and reconfirmed the start time and price, so at 6:30 AM, half an hour ahead of schedule, I was in the lobby awaiting the bus. The roads were wet and it was icy cold. Perfect day for a tour, and here’s a hot tip: If you want to be immersed and make friends, a local tour is the best deal ever. Total expenses for the day were under a hundred bucks. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating about the friends part.

Things you really need to know

We drove for a couple of hours through miles and miles of China’s commercial garden plant farms. The bus driver was on a schedule and not afraid of crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic, which was frightening, but it became even more so when I realized that the oncoming traffic was no more afraid of driving head-on into us than we were into them. It was a game of chicken where no one was afraid.

We got to the tour launching pad after receiving a mission critical, 30-minute speech by the tour guide. I understood only “This is really important!” and grasped the ordinal numbers as she enumerated the things WE ABSOLUTELY HAD TO KNOW. At the launching pad we switched buses, got a new guide, put on tour lanyards with an ID number, and got another speech about a new and even more important set of things WE ABSOLUTELY HAD TO KNOW.

“Did you understand that?” the person next to me asked.

“No,” I said.

Everyone was skeptical that I would understand a rapid-fire discourse about Chinese history, aqueducts, architecture, and similarly dense topics, but their doubt was overrated, it should have a certainty. After three hours I was frozen to the core and we climbed hundreds of endless stairs; my legs were seizing up.

At noon I was just as ignorant as when he had begun. On the bus my seat mate inquired, “Did you understand the tour?”


“He was speaking in Sichuanese dialect. Hardly anyone did.”

This, I learned, is the true Chinese experience, being a stranger in your own land. And it also began the long process of beating into me that in Sichuan you are going to be isolated. That China is all about isolation.

Lunch was included and we were all ravenous, the overweight smokers especially. We pulled into the restaurant and were served a giant selection of extraordinarily mediocre food, made world class by our hunger. Sichuan is cold in winter but nothing is heated. People can’t afford electricity and so they wear lots of clothes as the wet air chills them anyway, and you don’t pop into a restaurant to warm up because they are all open. The cold would stay with me the entire trip.

At first I didn’t know what to do at the table, as my first bite of food had chunks of tiny bone in it, but I looked around and saw everyone simply spitting on the table, so I followed suit. China, apparently, is not Japan. It’s kind of gross to spit on the table but it’s kind of fun, too, getting to smash one of the oldest childhood rules you were ever taught and no one GAF.

I was looking forward to getting back to the hotel, and nodded off on the bus. “Here’s your headset,” said our guide, shaking me awake. The dreaded headset meant only thing, that we had yet another guided tour. We parked in a vast lot, were herded off the bus, told to return at 4:30, and were sent off on our tour. We reached the entrance to the mountain where China’s history began, which from the looks of it meant the history of selling potatoes out of a basket along with holy plastic trinkets. Either it was where history began, or it was time for bed. My Chinese wasn’t good enough to tell which.

My downfall, which had already fallen a long way, came when I decided to follow the little 95-lb. lady in white jeans and her high school daughter wearing a Snoopy coat. “How fit can they be?” I smirked, happy that I’d found two fellow tourists I could keep up with.

After ascending another thousand or two steps, I concluded, smirkless, “Very fucking fit.” I, on the other hand was barely able to walk.

White Pants Lady chatted gaily all the way to the top, where we flipped a u-turn to descend, and the real agony began. The steps were tiny and had uneven run and rise so that soon my quads were quivering with every step. You know how when you think “It can’t get any worse!” and then it gets worse?

We reached a fork and White Pants Lady gaily suggested we go left and climb up to another holy site. After a few minutes of that misery the daughter weighed in with a groan and “I can’t go on.” I wanted to cry from relief as we turned around and labored back to the bus.

“Young people are so weak these days,” White Pants Lady said.

“And old ones,” I added.

Back at the bus everyone looked at us oddly. We were the only ones who had gone; the others, upon seeing the endless stairs, had stopped at an outdoor cafe, gotten drunk, and returned to the bus happy after enjoying shopping, level scenery, and cigarettes.

At the end we got a hard sales pitch from our tour guide for spicy dried fruit bags, $14.50 per bag. I passed, having recently stopped eating spicy dried fruit bags. Our guide had been so lively and on it; she impressed on me again how hard people in China work. Like the brutal climbing, stair-stepping, and endless walking on tours, the average American simply couldn’t hack the Chinese work ethic, either.

Back in the middle of Chengdu, somewhere, the bus driver pulled over to a random curb. “Everyone get off,” he said. “Tour’s over.” This seemed normal to everyone except me, and I was glad I’d brought my map because it took another hour of hard walking and subway riding to get back to H-hotel Riverside, which I had now conclusively determined was not next to the river side.

My seedy street was packed with people getting home from work, and all the little shops as well as restaurants were full. My stomach empty, I plunged into a spicy hot pot restaurant. These are restaurants where you sit around a boiling pot, fill it with meat and vegetables, and boil them as you eat. The staff was pleased to seat me but not so pleased that I had no clue how to cook the food or even select it off the refrigerated shelf.

Eating hot pot by yourself is pretty lame; it’s a super social occasion, kind of like showing up alone to enjoy a restaurant’s Valentine’s Day special.

The neighboring table couldn’t stop laughing as the waiter repeated instructions over and over, first with patience, then with exasperation, and finally with resignation, covering at least three of the Seven Steps to Dealing with Stupid Foreigners.

Once I got the hang of it, the hot pot turned out to be hot, hot with fire and especially hot with Sichuan peppers. A burned asshole would become a permanent fixture of my morning routine. I ate myself ill for $10. Back at the hotel I had to rate the day as “superlative.” I was so tired I couldn’t stand. I was full. Total expenses for the day, $85. Oh, and 100% immersion in Chinese language with a thick frosting of Sichuanese on top.

I didn’t, unfortunately, understand much. My brain was wasted from thirteen hours of nonstop concentration and from successfully navigating a hot pot. To perfect the day, one of my fellow bus bunnies had retrieved my backpack from the lunch stop, which was nice because it contained my passport, all my cash, and my credit cards. So complete was the day that I even stopped into a convenience store and bought a 10-pack of those little Nescafe coffee packets. I could white trash out to my heart’s content and no one would ever know.

Oh … and I made a reservation for the next day’s tour, which was a trip going somewhere to see something. Of that I was certain.



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Chengdu blues

December 14, 2018 § 11 Comments

I got back from China night before last, late, and my head is still spinning. The next ten days I’m going to attempt to transcribe the copious notes I took during my 10-day trip to Sichuan Province. Be forewarned. These posts are going to be long, short on eye candy, and completely unrelated to cycling in the South Bay.

If at some point I simply give up and return to my mode of writing about riding, it’s because this latest stage of my China disease was almost as painful to recount as it was to experience. But recount it I must not simply because China is our future, but because many of the most awful parts of that great nation are our present. Some things bear being regarded with the perspective of an ostrich. China is not one of them.

There’s no reason to stutter forward with additional preamble. Let’s get down to it.

Day 1: All in

Sichuan Province is cold in December, and vast all year round. It would have been good to know that first part before I left.

Sichuan Airlines earned a ranking of 10 Wanky Points not because of new planes or good food or super kind flight attendants but because I was dead asleep, 100% passed out in the lobby when my flight began boarding. The gate had been busy and filled with people waiting for the midnight flight to Chengdu, and, far past my 9:00 PM bedtime, I had fallen asleep.

“Sir! Sir! Sir!” the woman in the Sichuan Air uniform yelled directly into my ear. I awoke instantly and saw an empty gate area. “You are going to miss your flight!”

With that bit of professional rousing I sprang from my sleigh and raced through the doors, last one on. Then I found out yet another bonus to the midnight flight: It was next-level empty and I was going to get to sleep like a baby, if babies sleep sprawled across several ill-fitting cushions and awake with crooked backs, aching necks, throbbing joints.

A couple of hours before the airport I had been at King Harold’s Christmas Party, making a big deal out of the fact that I was going from an evening soiree to China, and going sans phone, sans computer, armed only with a pen, notebook (the paper kind), and tiny cheap camera. Leaving the party I had shucked off my jacket and white shirt and put on my t-shirt, thin wool sweater, and hoodie. It would have been more than a little humiliating to have missed the flight after all that.

In the security line they had lost my shoe and blamed it on me. Since I only had one pair for the trip, it caused a bit of anxiety, the thought of trying to find a size 11.5 shoe in China and before that, thumping around the city with only one shoe on. I sort of demanded that they find my shoe, and after a while they did, but not before lecturing me on the proper way to pack my security tray. Apology? Uh, no.

I had also experienced the check-in ritual of handing my passport to the ticket agent and getting that strangest of looks, “Is that your only baggage?” as she eyed my tiny knapsack. The boarding pass in hand made my tourist transformation complete. I was tethered to no phone, no personal tracking device, no portable work compulsion device, just a little bag, some cash, a credit card, a few changes of underwear, and fuckit I’m gone.

Of course when you travel you never really leave anything behind. Ever.

My patio furniture and valve fantasy

Unlike last year’s journey, I had almost no phone anxiety; mostly it was the excitement and anticipation of striking out unencumbered in order to play tourist and #fakechinahand for ten days. Compared to the delusion of #fakebikeracer, cast aside at the brokedick age of 54, this new delusion felt cheaper, more rewarding, more sustainable, and more fun in the way that brutalizing your mind is always fun. The yummy prospect of lots of greasy Sichuanese street food didn’t hurt.

In the airport I keenly felt like I’d missed my calling.

One of my buddies is a Texas valve salesman. He spends 200 days a year sourcing valves in China, crisscrossing the country, always with a guide, unable to so much as read a street sign or order a cup of coffee. As far as I know he’s never been into a museum, seen a historical sight, or bought weird fried animal parts from a filthy, steaming, delicious-smelling open-air kitchen.

Another friend owns a company that owns several companies that make all the patio furniture sold in America. She is often underway in China, inspecting factories and none too excited by it. To which I can only wonder in shades of the very prettiest envy, “Why was I not born a valve salesman?” and “Why didn’t my parents raise me to be a patio furniture factory inspector?”

Is any life more beautiful than peregrinating throughout China in search of valves and lawn chairs? Does it matter that I don’t even know what a valve is? The smog, the crowds, the surveillance, the indifferent lodging, could it ever really get old? How could it? Each city a new dialect, each day a shock to the psyche and body, crammed into a nation you weren’t born to ever fit into? Anyway, six hours into the flight the romance is strong, and I nodded off, my skull painfully pushed against a projecting aluminum arm rest, visions of patio tables and steam valves dancing in my head.

Quality in every cup

Familiarity may breed contempt, but travel familiarity brings knowledge of the good things in life. For me that begins in economy class. The Sichuan Air paper coffee cup with instant coffee, creamer, and sugar, I love thee! The rat cage seats and mini-video screens that cause shooting pains in squinting, myopic eyes, I love thee! The tiny toilets–how do plus-sized U.S. posteriors squeeze in and, more crucially, out?–I love thee! Red-garbed, painted, smiling stewardesses, I love thee, too!

Detethering meant memorizing the entire itinerary, flight numbers, times, using a map, forgetting about things that are #notreal and that #youcantchange. Detethering meant taking a point-and-shoot, which was lighter than a personal tracking device, took up less space, and was complemented by a neat little Moleskine notebook.

Detethering doesn’t have to, but in practice should, mean no luggage because nothing ruins life like things, and because the word “luggage” comes from the word “lug,” remember? When is the last time anything good happened conjoined with the word “lug”?

With a few essential things you know where everything is. You don’t have to keep track of where you put what. There’s no searching for places to plug in your work compulsion device or personal location tracker, and you realize how traveling tethered means being hooked up to your devices and being constantly on the prowl for places to charge them up.

How did the presence of electrical sockets become such a key feature of human movement and leisure travel? And of course it’s funny to watch people desperately fucking with their appliances when your worst malfunction can be fixed by “Hey, do you have a pen I can borrow?”

Detethering also meant bringing one book to read rather than a small library that would return as unread as it had left. In this case it was “A Man Could Stand Up” and “Last Post” in one volume by Ford Madox Ford. A man could also, I thought, if he were on Sichuan Air, sit down.

Maybe you should have studied harder

After fourteen hours or so we reached Jinan Airport, my layover where I had to pick up a domestic flight to Chengdu. As I filed into the waiting area I felt it. I was in China. I smelled it. And I heard it, the constant barrage of announcements, long and detailed in Chinese, and only partially translated into English, the best part being “Flight 28198 to Beijing delayed due to weather infection.” Ah, yes, the old weather infection! I had those often!

It dawned on me like an incoming shell that my Chinese, after another year of study, was still far from being up to snuff. Eavesdropping on conversations, desperately trying to understand all the announcements, trying, fumbling, to formulate sentences in my head, all of it pointed to the same thing: It was going to be a very difficult trip.

The domestic flight was full. People were excited and chatting. I was the only white person on the plane. It wasn’t the South Bay anymore.



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Chengdu on $3.70 a day

October 21, 2018 § 6 Comments

I went ahead and bought a ticket for my second trip to China. It cost $460 round trip, which sounds cheap until you consider that almost $250 of the ticket is for taxes. You wonder how anybody makes money flying a new Airbus from LAX to Hangzhou to Chengdu for $200 bucks.

Because I don’t think they’re making it up in foreign exchange. Mine, anyway.

I went looking for a place to stay on, filtering immediately for “cheapassedest first.”

I came up with the Chengdu Dreams International Youth Hostel, which cost $37 for ten days. The next step up got pretty costly; $53 for ten days at the Chengdu Tribe Youth Hostel. Was it worth an extra $16 to swap out dreams for a youth tribe? Would there be drums and a sacrificial goat? Decisions.

This trip will be about four years after I started “studying” Chinese again. I have never worked so hard for so long and ended up with so little to show for it, except in cycling. If I had to rate my spoken Chinese on a scale of one to ten billion, with ten billion being “average” and one being “Why in the fuck are you still doing this?” I would rate myself at about three. Again, cycling comes to mind.

Which makes for a good comparison chart between the two:


  1. Cycling is way more expensive; there is really nothing cycling related you can do for $37. China has a price point for everyone, no matter how cheap.
  2. Chinese is way more niche. Although billions of people speak it, none of them are white cyclists in the South Bay.
  3. Cycling is safer. When you screw up horribly you get a bad brain injury and spend your life in a hospital bed. When you screw up in China just a little bit you spend your life in prison.
  4. Chinese teaches you that you are stupid. Cycling teaches you that you are delusional.
  5. Cycling makes you hungry. Chinese food makes you happy.
  6. China is overwhelming. Cycling isn’t, unless you start training with power.
  7. Cycling has like 12 disciplines. Chinese has like 100,000 characters.
  8. Chinese is to cycling what astrology is to chelation therapy.
  9. Bike races are fun to do but boring to watch. Me speaking Chinese is fun to watch but horrible to experience.
  10. Since I switched to a bread-based diet, I’ve gotten really fat.



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