Chengdu blues: What time is it?

December 15, 2018 § 7 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 Booking.com, 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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.

END

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Packing list

December 4, 2018 § 3 Comments

You know how I said I was gonna take a break from blogging? Just kidding.

I mean, I really was going to, but then I realized that I had some information about travel that I absolutely had to share with my two subscribers and four freeloaders. Here it is:

It’s important to pack well. I believe in traveling with lots of stuff so that you never run out of anything. Better to have waaaaaay tooooo much than too little. Because if you run out of stuff it can be serious.

That’s why I keep a checklist and follow it carefully before I travel. For example, I’m going to China, which is a country. You never know what you will need in a place like China because it is very wild and remote and far from In-N-Out, so you have to be sure to take everything. I’m including my China list in case you ever go to China for a couple of weeks. If you follow this list you’ll have everything you need. More than everything, actually.

The downside is that you will have significant baggage and probably a hernia from carrying all this stuff, but that is life.

  1. Itinerary
  2. Hotel info
  3. Passport
  4. Sweater
  5. Coat
  6. Hoodie
  7. Cap
  8. Credit card
  9. Cash
  10. Book
  11. Wristwatch
  12. Underwear x 3
  13. Socks x 3
  14. T-shirt x 3
  15. Pants
  16. Notebook
  17. Pen
  18. Camera and charging cord
  19. Toothbrush
  20. Toothpaste
  21. Floss
  22. Razor
  23. Shaving cream
  24. Shaving balm

Things to buy:

  1. Postcard
  2. Tea
  3. Map

END

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My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

January 5, 2018 Comments Off on My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

My alarm went off at 4:30 but I didn’t go off until six. After a quick shower in lukewarm water I scanned my map, which had blow-up sections of all the main cities in Yunan Province, including Pu’er. In tiny characters at the bottom was a list of bus stations and which destinations they served. One of them listed Pu’er, so my only task was to show the name of the bus station to the front desk and ask them how to get there.

When I approached the desk with my map they scurried but I nabbed one. He scowled at the name on the map and shrugged. “I don’t know that place.”

He took it to his co-worker, who was equally perplexed. “Go to the subway,” she said. Back to square one.

I left the hotel and decided to walk to the main train station, which was a mile or so beyond the nearest subway stop. I got there and saw nothing besides a local bus stop, so I decided to do what they had been saying all along, that is, go to the subway. I wondered what magical thing would happen when I appeared at the subway to direct me to the bus stop.

Halfway there I saw a giant green sign for a travel agency touting tours throughout Yunan, and paused before it, wondering whether it was time to seek professional help. A woman darted out from the crowd proffering a business card.

“Where would you like to go? I’m a licensed travel agent!”

“Pu’er.”

“Pu’er?”

“Pu’er.”

“When?”

“Today.”

“Today?

“Today.”

“Returning when?”

“Tonight.”

“Tonight?” She looked perplexed.

A man in a shabby black coat ran up, also holding a business card. “We can do that,” he said.

“We can?” asked the woman.

“Of course!”

“He’s is my colleague, Wang. He is excellent and will be a good friend to you.”

“How much?” I asked.

“180 yuan,” he said, about $28, which seemed steep but not unaffordable.

“Okay,” I agreed.

They both brightened like Christmas trees. “Follow me,” Wang said.

We began walking back to the train station, then turning down various side streets until we reached a small office filled with people holding massive suitcases, and everyone was in a huge hurry. The man brought me to a woman. “Here,” he said, like a fisherman delivering a giant tuna to his happy wife. “My hao pengyou.”

“When do we leave?” I asked.

“You want to go to Dali instead?” the fish wife asked.

“No. Pu’er.”

“Dali more famous. And pretty.”

“Pu’er.”

“Dali is much better. Pu’er is old country town.”

“What time do we come back from Pu’er?”

“What time do you want to come back?”

“Evening.”

She wrinkled her nose but didn’t miss a beat. “Okay.”

It didn’t seem very organized. “What time does the return bus leave?”

“You just call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

I could see several people smiling when she said that. Something was wrong. “No, thanks,” I said, and started walking.

My two hao pengyou sprinted after me. “Come back!” they howled as the tuna swam away. “You will love Pu’er! Great price!” I opened up my long stride. If they were going to follow far, they were gonna need some lungs. After a minute I dropped them, then headed back towards the subway.

At the entrance a bunch of motor scooter cabbies were standing around looking for fares. “Where you going, friend?”

I showed the cabbie the name of the bus stop on my map and told him I wanted to go to Pu’er. He whistled. “50 yuan.”

“Too much.”

“Bus stop too far.”

“15 yuan.

“No.”

“15 yuan.”

“No.”

“15 yuan.”

“I will take you to the bus stop where you can catch a bus to take you to the bus stop to catch the bus to Pu’Er. 15 yuan.”

“Okay.”

I climbed on the back of the scooter and we shot off into traffic. It occurred to me to be scared, but I decided to focus instead on not falling off. It worked.

He whipped into a sad parking lot with a handful of small, sad, dirty buses, and offloaded me. “That’s your bus, number C71, cheap!” And off he sped.

It was cheap, only 5 yuan, or 80 cents. I boarded and waited as the bus filled. We took off, and it became clear why the cabbie had wanted 50 yuan. We were taking a very, very long trip. After half an hour we reached the massive South Bus Terminal. I got off and went in. A bus was leaving for Pu’er at 10:30; my timing was perfect. You have to give your passport to buy a ticket for a bus that goes out of town, so the government knows who’s going where. The ticket cost about $28, which again seemed pricey for such a nearby destination.

I boarded and soon we left. My seatmates across the aisle were well provisioned for the trip with several bags of mini-tangerines, thermoses of booze, and a stack of bread cakes. They were enjoying themselves immensely before we had even left the parking lot.

The traffic was horrible and an hour flew by, then a second, though we had left Kunming completely and were flying down the expressway. I turned to the guy nearest me. “What time do we get into Pu’er?”

“5:30,” he said.

“5:30?”

“Yes. It’s a seven-hour trip.”

Now it all made sense, everyone laughing at the travel agency when I said I wanted to return that evening; the “high” fare; the extensive provisioning of my neighbors. It was also clear that I would be spending the night in Pu’er.

Pu’er sits at well over 10,000 feet, and the bus never went in a straight line for more than a couple of minutes. We plunged down huge mountain passes that descended for ten miles or more, and clawed our way out with the vintage diesel engine groaning and bucking up the grade every inch of the way. I wondered if the bus would break down, but then put aside my cynical superiority complex. This was China and it wasn’t this bus’s first rodeo. They knew what they were doing.

By the third hour I was famished and dehydrated, and my seatmate offered me a bread roll which looked delicious but which I could never have chewed with my dust-dry mouth. “Thanks but I’m too thirsty to eat,” I said.

He nodded and pulled out a giant bag of mini-tangerines. “Here.”

I began peeling and devouring them, and they were probably the tastiest things I’ve ever had. “Hunger is the best sauce,” as Sancho Panza was so fond of saying.

We struck up a kind of traveling friendship; he and his pal were going to Pu’er for a short vacation, and soon the whole bus knew that I had thought it was one hour’s drive from Kunming, generating much hilarity.

About an hour from Pu’er, the bus really did break down. We pulled into the village of Tong Guan and all got off the bus. The driver called the main office, and they advised him to “fix it.”

With a much put-upon look he opened the engine compartment, poked around, then took out his toolbox. Everyone stood around and watched, along with a great many villagers for whom this was capital entertainment of the finest sort. No one was shy about offering advice, either. One man seemed to have very decided opinions about the repair job, which he punctuated with spitting. Everyone smoked. No one got angry. Broken buses seemed like a part of the ticket purchase, and the driver’s filthy and well-worn wrenches alternately inspired confidence and despair.

After half an hour of very intense wrench work, the driver took off his greasy mechanic’s apron, took a photo of the repair job, and texted it back to HQ. They were not impressed, because he began cursing and kicking his tools. He finally went over to a small side storage compartment, unlocked it, and pulled out a fat coil of baling wire. Everyone had an opinion about this latest development and Mr. Very Opinionated began expectorating with such vehemence that I feared he might spit out his tongue.

The driver climbed halfway into the engine compartment, and fifteen minutes later he emerged black from head to toe with only a short snippet of what had originally been a fifteen-foot coil, at least. He ordered us all back on the bus and off we went, another hour of dreadful mountain road with death at every turn, bound to this earth by nothing more than a flimsy strand or two of cheap wire. There is a metaphor there somewhere, and if you find it, it’s yours.

The arrival in Pu’er was anticlimactic. We shuffled off the bus and as we alit my pengyou mentioned that if I were really in a hurry to get back to Kunming I could always fly. If I wanted to have a good time, a really good time, a really, really good time, I could spend the night and hang out with them. “There’s an airport here?” I asked.

“Yes. Tiny town but has an airport.”

“How tiny?’

“800,000.”

I kept forgetting that tiny in China and tiny in the USA meant different things. By now I knew that the best shot outside a bus terminal or subway station was just to stand around and I’d have a pengyou in no time.

Sure enough, a group of illegal cabbies began chattering about me until one came over. “Where to?”

“Airport. Is there a flight tonight to Kunming?”

“Oh, yes, many.”

“How much to the airport?”

“30 yuan.”

I was too tired to haggle. If he didn’t murder me en route I’d not worry about the four dollar cost. “Okay.”

Pu’er was bustling on a Friday evening. I saw young people everywhere and the town consisted of, it seemed, one endless main street. My illegal cabbie seemed nice and was loquacious and inquisitive, but his accent was an impenetrable firewall. I imagined his questions and supplied my own answers, which seemed to work.

In a few minutes we reached the airfield, which was smack in the middle of town. “You’ll have to get out here,” he said. “The airport police know me.”

I exited and walked into the airport and up to the one ticket counter. “Any flights to Kunming?”

“Yes. In one our. 900 yuan.”

I handed her my passport and credit card. She entered my info. “Sorry, flight is full.”

“Oh. That was quick. Do you have another?”

“Yes. 11:00 PM. 2000 yuan.”

“Wow. Okay. I’ll take it.”

She took my credit card. This was the first time I’d used it in China. “Sorry, Chinese credit cards only.”

“I don’t have enough cash.”

“WeChat?”

“No cell phone.”

My friends who had traveled in China had told me that without WeChat to pay, I’d be fucked. Now I was, as I contemplated another full day on the Baling Wire Special.

“Tomorrow’s early flight is cheap. Only 600 yuan.”

“I’ll take it. How early?”

“11:15.”

“Perfect.” I shelled out the bills.

“Come here tomorrow at 10:00 for your ticket.”

“I want my ticket now. I just paid you for it.”

“No ticket now. Come here tomorrow.”

“Can I pay then?”

“2,000 yuan. And maybe no seat like now.”

“Can I have a receipt?”

“No. We will remember you.”

I gave up and left. At least I’d get to see Pu’er. Then I realized I had no place to stay. I hailed a cabbie. “Where?”

“Nice hotel that takes American credit cards.”

He nodded and off we went. We pulled up at Jing Land Hotel and he opened my door. “15 yuan, please.” My illegal cabbie really had ripped me off a whole $2.15.

I entered Jing Land in fear, fear of credit card declination. Fear of sleeping on a park bench. Fear of arrest for vagrancy. “Do you have a room for tonight?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you take foreign credit cards?”

“Of course!”

I never bothered to ask the price. I did not fuggin’ care.

The Jing Land Hotel was a big step up from my $33/night crash pad in Kunming. At $42/night I got more space, a nicer bathroom, hotter water, and two free condoms placed thoughtfully next to the toothbrush. I decided to walk around for a couple of hours and called the front desk to ask if they had a map of Pu’er.

“Staff will bring to your room.”

Soon there was a knock at the door and a pretty housemaid was handing me a map. “20 yuan, please.”

I was about to pay, a bit surprised a the $3.33 price tag, almost three times more than the awesome maps I had bought in Kunming that were already falling apart. “This isn’t even new,” I said, looking at the ratty edges and tears forming along the creases.

“Yes, it is.” I stared hard at the holes and ragged edges, so she doubled down. “Brand new.”

“Here I am, 400 km away from a provincial capital which is itself thousands of miles from anywhere and I’m about to argue over two dollars and some holes in a perfectly serviceable but shitty little map,” I thought. It was half principle, half cheapness, half stubbornness, and half annoyance at spending the day on the Baling Wire Express. Then I thought about the park bench I wasn’t on, the vagrancy charge I wasn’t facing, and her pretty, smiling, lying face. At least if you’re going to lie, don’t do it by halves. “Okay,” I said, giving her the 20 yuan. China won again.

Outside, Friday night was going full blast, but the main street was nothing but retail shops. I figured the food was elsewhere but after an hour couldn’t find it, and the few restaurants I passed were shuttered. One place was open, down a side street, called “World of Steak.”

The bored staff were playing with their data aggregator/tracking devices, and hopped to attention when I came in. I pointed to the Steak in a Box on the menu pinned to the wall.

“Cola or juice?”

“Water, please.”

“It comes with cola or juice.”

“Can you make it come with water?”

“Cola is better.”

“I believe you. Can I have some terrible water instead?”

“Okay,” she gave in, giving Team USA its sole goal of the tournament.

What came out of the kitchen was amazing, and not just because it took half an hour and sounded like thirty people were taking apart an old car with hammers. It was amazing because there was nothing there. The girl brought out a large drink cup 3/4 full with a lid shoved far down into the cup and from which a cute, curlycue straw protruded.

Atop the lid was a tasteful arrangement of a celery stick, a carrot stick,  seven french fries, and about ten tiny, tiny cubes of meat. Each french fry had a ketchup-and-mayo face drawn on it. The whole thing was about three bites of food. It tasted great, but my last meal had been almost fourteen hours prior. I figured I’d do the hour walk back to the hotel and go to bed hungry again, which most certainly would have happened had I not passed two old women hawking baked sweet potatoes. The potatoes were huge, hot, and all carb. I bought one and sat on the curb to enjoy my dinner. That night I slept like a log.

END

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