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.

______________________

END

Chengdu blues: Nation without a past

January 1, 2019 § 10 Comments

I was at a party last night ringing in the New Year, which means I was struggling valiantly every minute past 9:00 PM then giving up and going home around ten, sound asleep by 10:30. I ran into my friend Scott at the party. “How come you quit blogging about China?” he asked.

“I didn’t really quit, but the remaining posts are so unbearably long that simply copying them from my notebook will take forever. And no one wants to read about China anyway.”

Scott, who has traveled there extensively, shook his head. “I do.”

That was the shot in the arm I needed. Most of the time, one reader is more than enough! So here we go, cycling in the South Bay be damned.

Tour shortage

By Day 7, Chengdu had finally run out of tours. The Sea of Bamboo Tour, a 2-day trip, was closed in winter, as were all the trips into the high mountains and up onto the Tibetan Plateau. The Panda Research Center tours were all booked and I was starting to think that meant “We have enough Chinese guests and don’t need the clumsy American one.”

So I asked for a private guide but apparently that’s not a thing, unlike in Taiwan. I figured I would go back to Chunxilu shopping district, find the fake Rolex huckster and ask him for a guide. Or maybe ask a cabby or a moto-cabby. I couldn’t imagine that someone wouldn’t be willing to take my money, even if it just meant driving me down an alley to knife me in the back.

“Why don’t you take a day off?” the hotel clerk wanted to know. She meant “Why don’t you quit giving me all these tour operators to call?”

“Because it’s my vacation. Who wants to rest on a vacation?”

So I began the AM with language study featuring Peppa the Pig in Chinese, bear cartoons, news shorts, then simul-read, in depth #propanews. As I readied for the day I realized that my shopping had gotten out of control. For souvenirs I’d already bought ass-hot Sichuan soup stock, ass-hot Sichuan sausages, and ass-hot Sichuan tofu sauce. I’d bought books, tea, bookmarks, knick-knacks, leather gloves, a jaunty cap, a 20-meter scarf … so much for light travel.

I asked the desk clerk to please find me anyone, a student, retiree, recluse, ex-military, IDGAF, just someone to tromp across the city who I could assault with my Chinese for seven or eight hours. She said they would ring me so I sat in my room impatiently, all scarfed and jauntied up with nowhere to go.

The call never came so I went out on my own again, and passed a giant building called Tour Bus Center, and stepped inside. Surely this was the answer to my tour dreams. It was jammed with people and had a huge electronic timetable for buses going everywhere from one hour to two days’ distance. I picked the nearest destination to a place I’d never heard of, Huanglongxi, an hour away.

All the seats were sold, and at $1.40 a pop I wondered how they were making money. It was a horrible bouncy trip stuck over the rear axle again, which seemed to be the preferred seating for Americans. We got there and I wisely bought my return ticket rather than waiting until it was time to return and then having to fight the bus scrum. Next, my camera died. I’d forgotten to bring a charger and didn’t really care. Cameras are simply one more burden and they don’t add anything to your trip, though they do add a lot for others who wonder if you actually went to China.

Huanglongxi was a massive, endless, riverside warren of souvenir shops masquerading as a historical site, and this is the problem with modern China: There are no ideas or beliefs here besides commerce and consumption. And it made me wonder, again, if any society has ever long survived without the constant under-fermentation of dissent, i.e. art? It struck me again that there was no art anywhere, only pretty things, or in many instances extraordinarily beautiful things, but nothing that criticized or that could act as a vehicle for new ideas, for anger, or for change. Thus no novels, no paintings, no sculptures, no murals, only officially approved pretty things, many of which were not pretty at all.

What happens to a nation starved of ideas and debate, where the only outlet for creativity and thought is commerce and consumption? Like North Korea, it must become even more repressive in order to stamp out and tightly regulate the inflow of thoughts created by the domestic vacuum of art, literature, and journalism. It’s no coincidence that the surliest people I’d run across worked at the government run Xinhua Bookstore, whose primary aim appears to be to discourage reading at all costs.

The lovely old #faketown

I walked quickly through the old #faketown. It was early in the day and the masses of tourists hadn’t hit full swing. Moreover, it was the off season and many of the shops were shuttered, so instead of getting to choose between a thousand varieties of souvenir combs, you could only choose between about nine hundred.

The nicest place was down on the river, polluted and ugly and lined with endless tents and upside-down chairs indicating the cafes were closed. There were few people, and it stank. I liked it.

I returned to the bus station, not sure that this was any worse than Disneyland, and ultimately convinced it was quite a bit better. The entry fee was zero, you didn’t have to buy anything, and it was at least based on a historically real place more than 1,700 years old, with a good many authentic buildings from the Qing Dynasty still standing. And, I hate Mickey.

For all the yammer about a nation whose only values are commerce and consumption, how does it differ from the U.S., where bare-fanged corporatist capitalism cloaked in the phrases of democracy hasn’t worked out well at all for African-Americans, most minorities, or the poor? At least here there are 1.4 billion people and zero homeless; no miles and miles of tent cities, no overpasses crowded with tarps, no Skid Row welcoming you to one of the biggest cities in the world. And perhaps it’s an illusion, but it sure looks like anyone who wants to work, can, and that food and education and healthcare are available to most.

The big “C”

I got back to Chengdu craving coffee. Chengdu has a paucity of coffee shops, by which I mean there isn’t one every ten feet. I didn’t want Xingbake, and I had had a killer coffee and donut the day before, but instead of returning there I decided to chase down a coffee shop with a sign that, but for the substitution of the letter “f” would have been the best-named coffee shop in the history of coffee shops.

Unfortunately, “Luckin’ Coffee” was a stand-up bar and I wanted to sit as the bus had dumped us all off on a random street and I had walked a solid hour to get back to Chunxilu and “Luckin’ Coffee.” Then I recalled a place named “Ms. Coffee” on the 11th floor of the Nine Dragons Clothing Emporium, and so I made for it. It is a fact that things taste better the harder you have to work for them, and this was no exception, AND the coffee came in a ceramic mug AND had a pretty foam design AND it was super smooth AND despite the millions of shoppers the coffee shop’s tables were all but empty, so I easily got a seat AND although there was no indoor heating, hot air rises and the 11th floor was toasty and cozy AND all I really needed to make it perfect was a pair of eyes to gaze into AND although you can’t have everything, sometimes your imagination, if properly fed, will do the trick.

Sipping coffee in the giant emporium it made sense that if China is ever convicted of a crime it will be for raising generations who have never seen the sky. It’s crazy how you forget about clouds, sun, sky, moon, stars, and you accept the gray lowering pollution as that with which we were born, like living on Neptune or at the bottom of the sea or in a mine shaft, our inheritance.

The beautiful English language, or, Panky Boy Hot Style

On January 15, 1987, or immediately thereafter, I came to be thunderwhacked by the legendary Japlish that adorned, well, everything in Japan from caps to underwear to magazines to companies. In my youth and my arrogance (redundant), I laughed a these misbegotten abortions of the English language, even doing what tourists before and after have done far better than I, which is cataloging the screechers.

Here in Chengdu, 31 years later, it’s deja vu all over again, made most magnificent by the teen clothing brand called Acne Studio, and punctuated by the knee-length yellow jacket with “Lazy Motha Fuckers” emblazoned on the back. An amazing catalog of Chinglish is right here for the asking, more various and amusing and thought-provoking than anything I ever saw in Japan, with the winner of all time being a runner charging the street, his t-shirt saying only this, profoundly and beautifully, co-opting everything Strava, Nike, or life ever imagined: “Beat Yesterday.”

I can say, gratefully and shamelessly, that the intervening decades have whittled me the fuck down, especially the iceberg of arrogance regarding English that I used to tow behind me everywhere I went. The whittling began when my wife’s cousin’s ex-husband laughingly interrupted my efforts to minimize and ridicule Japlish on a signboard in Utsunomiya, circa 1992. “But Seth,” he said, “It’s not being written for you.”

This opened my eyes to the beauty and malleability of English in other cultures, not as I would use it, but as someone would first think a thing in Japanese, find an English analogue that sounded cool or pretty or interesting, then translate it back to Japanese, all the while comparing it to other options, some better, some worse, all beyond my ken because I had never thought the Japanese to begin with.

China’s love affair with designer English is vivid and fresh and stimulating, a tool that experts are using to carefully craft a message that their targets will understand in the millions, or tens of millions, far better than I.

Acne Studio, indeed!

No more history

It occurred to me as I was walking home to stop and read the inscription next to a giant sculpture commemorating the February 16 uprising, an inscription piously and emptily advising me that this “great” sculpture had “great” implications for understanding modern Sichuanese history, presumably more so than Sichuanese spicy hot pots, Huawei, and Acne Studio.

Of course it begged the question, “What modern history?” and even more desperately, “And where would one find it?”

Because in all my wanderings and in all the informational plaques and guide discourses I had heard, I could determine that China only had three periods of history:

  1. Ancient civilization marked by emperors and archaeology.
  2. The war for independence.
  3. What Xi Jinping said or did today.

There was no history that I could see of Mao, Deng, or any other post-war anything, a fact easily explained by the fact that after 1949 there was no journalism, literature, history, or art to record it, and by record of course I mean criticize, as art without criticism is just a pretty picture, if you’re lucky, and literature without searing critique is simply a bedtime story, #propanews, or Hemingway.

It also explains the frenzy associated with extolling the narrative of ancient China, as it takes the eye off the sick absence of any modern history at all. In that sense America and Europe are incomparably richer, as their literature and art have faithfully assassinated the corporate creed that profit and wealth make right. China is left without a past, unable to point to a single meaningful modern work of art or body of literary thought, as all such endeavors must by definition crucify the official religion that relentlessly stamps out free speech and critical thought of any kind.

So the tourist is left with either an artistic vacuum or shopping, or worse, is sent home with a copy of Du Fu’s 1st Century poetry to spend the rest of his life trying to unpuzzle, that he may never ask the question, “Yes, but what about today?”

END

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Chengdu blues: Poetry in motion

December 16, 2018 § 4 Comments

On Day 2 I was told to be ready at 6:00 AM for my tour but it was wholly fake. By 6:30 no one had appeared. Without a watch it had been dicey waking up on time; I’d requested a wake-up call, they’d said “Sure!” but none had ever come. Instead I’d had to roust myself every hour or so to check the time on the TV, which was a real challenge.

First, you had to turn it on, but it wasn’t a regular TV that switched on and showed the time somewhere on the screen. Instead, it had to boot up, which took about a minute. Then it switched to an automatic Lancome commercial, which lasted about 30 seconds. Then a complicated menu appeared and you had to select the right program, wait another few seconds, and then get the briefest of time signals in the right-hand corner.

By this time I’d be wide awake, and it took the TV another minute or so to power down. The easiest solution would have been to buy a watch, because what on earth could be easier to procure in China than a fake Rolex or twelve, but on Day 1 there had been no watches for sale anywhere. I’d kept an eagle eye out.

As I waited for the non-bus to take me to the non-tour the hotel staff gave me an early breakfast bag. Solo travel is so good, even when you’re waiting for Godot and munching on a cold orange shivering in the unheated lobby. A fellow traveler waiting for his taxi wondered why I was alone and assured me solo travel was bad, that traveling without a phone was inviting catastrophe, and that there was no reason to be in Chengdu for ten whole days “Its so boring! There’s nothing here!” he exclaimed. “You want a real travel destination? Try Chongching. It’s the best.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Chongching.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I liked Chengdu just fine and that I planned to do more day trips if the bus ever came, then wander around the city on public transport if it didn’t.

There were two women in the hotel lobby glued to their phones like the great majority of people I saw in Chengdu. The phone is the key to social control. It locks people onto the tiny screen and distracts them from minor details around them such as they haven’t seen the sun in the last ten years. There was absolute individuation of the populace courtesy of constant cell phone access, outdoor wi-fi everywhere, and full time TV internet programming. They, like we, are only fed snippets digested as instantaneously as a Twinkie, with no intellectual sustenance at all, then on to the next snippet, never remembering or understanding what went before.

It is the absence of “what went before” that has such profound implications for China and for the U.S., this ability to erase the past while also having the means to ensure that no one even tries to create one. More about that later …

The phone also provides a continual diet of shopping and celebrity “news,” so no one has to pay attention to open air concentration camps in Xinjiang or ask questions about what’s going on in the world outside. It occurred to me that most people don’t want or deserve freedom, but they do want and deserve a home, food, and medical care. There were no homeless people either.

Better never than late

The shuttle van arrived and the driver dashed in. “Hurry up!” he shouted, as if he’d been waiting on me since Thursday when it had been I, not he, who had been cooling my jets for the past hour.

I and ten others were crammed into a van with a max capacity of ten and we crossed Chengdu, adding a couple more members at various hotels. Every few minutes we’d pass a particularly inviting street food vendor, and a passenger would holler at the driver to stop at the breakfast cart. Everyone got a killer breakfast except me, as I was afraid to dash out and order something, afraid that by the time I decided, paid, and was served, they’d leave me behind.

It took an hour to reach the Du Fu Cottage, an immense compound and literary shrine in Chengdu erected in honor of the great Tang Dynasty poet and father of Chinese literature, Du Fu. Every major figure since Mao has visited it, and among people who care about this kind of thing, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time, from any land.

Like the tour of the prior day there was no interactive anything, no modern interpretation, no connection to anything, simply a sprawling grounds for you to decipher if you could, which even the Chinese couldn’t, as they agglomerated onto our tour and listened with fascination as our 20-something guide recited for two solid hours, read poetry, gave background about Du Fu’s life, and occasionally glanced at my blank face to confirm I’d grasped little or nothing. It was the latter.

I made friends with an older woman who was also solo, a grandmother, and we took turns snapping each other’s photos. She was from somewhere I’d never heard of and spoke with such a heavy accent that I could understand little or nothing, mostly the latter, and only enough of the former to snap photos. Our guide, unlike the one from the day before, spoke clear, beautiful Mandarin, but alas it wasn’t the fault of the speaker that I understood so little.

My Starbucks or your small snacks?

Our next stop was a 1-hour break at the famous Chengdu alleys of Kuan Xiangzi and Zhai Xiangzi, massive and charming tourist traps. My friend had never had a Starbucks latte, so for $5 I treated her to the finest of U.S. culinary exports. She drank it with exceeding politeness and after we walked around a bit more in the cold she suggested we try a Sichuan specialty “small snack” restaurant.

It was a set menu for $5 and was some of the best food I’d ever eaten anywhere. The comparison was obvious. U.S. overpriced, unhealthy, high-cal milk with a dash of stale espresso vs. tiny, delicious, art-like food that I won’t soon forget. We next went to another compound, a kind of religious-historical series of buildings and artifacts commemorating and celebrating Liu Bei, his two warrior brothers, and the story of the Three Kingdoms.

One of the exhibits, a 2,000-year-old stele considered the finest example of calligraphy and poetry in all of China, was simply placed in a shed behind a glass, a thousand times more impressive than the Mona Lisa, and no crowd at all. The Wu Hou lecture of our guide was even more amazing, to judge by the people who glommed on. I understood perfectly the exhibit captions in English but my appreciation was otherwise limited to the guide’s cute beret, fur-lined hood, and clear pronunciation of words I couldn’t understand.

At one point, before we had to enter the Wu Hou museum and she was buying our tickets, she asked me, “How old are you?”

I was nonplussed as it was the first thing she had said to me all day and I didn’t understand her at first. “I don’t know,” I said.

She turned to the group and said sardonically, “He doesn’t know how old he is,” which got no end of laughter. “Are you sixty?” she asked.

I had recovered from the shock of being addressed, only to be re-assaulted with whether or not I was — gasp — sixty years old. “No, I’m 54.97.”

“Okay, so no senior discount for you.”

Back to the ranch

At the end of the tour we were released like baby salmon into the massive shopping arcade of Wu Hou, every food, every drink, every shopping item ever. My legs were numb from standing in the cold and I couldn’t feel my feet as I set out to find a subway, which I did after even more walking.

Like Kunming, Chengdu is quite walkable if you have a map, which is surprising for a city of 14M. But it is walkable because the development is all vertical; there is no suburban sprawl commensurate with the population, or at least not the endless horizontal sprawl created by single-family dwellings. Everything goes up.

Although I had seen two of the major attractions of Chengdu, three if you count the shopping alleys, I made a note to return to the Du Fu Cottage. And I wondered … “Why do we not enshrine our great writers? Do we even have any?”

I had reluctantly begun to start seeing the Chinese point of view that freedom is a luxury, whereas food, clothing, lodging, and health care are not. Most people only want things. The spiritual travails of freedom and education and enlightenment are for the few. The grubby, greedy, possessiveness for more THINGS is for everyone else.

This was reinforced again by taking a deeper dive into news and cell phone individuation and their ultimate target, fostering consumerism. It’s the same in the U.S., only here we have a more ignorant, unhealthy, chauvinistic cohort, and one that is far lazier.

One great unburdening effect of taking a stroll through so much real and ancient history is this: You are freed of the obligation to say something new, as you realize you have nothing say or think that the Chinese haven’t already written a thousand books about, a thousand years ago.

END

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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 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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Proper travel preparation through eating

December 31, 2017 Comments Off on Proper travel preparation through eating

Most people who live in LA know about Chinatown, which is downtown near Dodger Stadium. But that’s the old Chinatown.

The new area that has a very dense population of Chinese people is in the Alhambra area. As soon as you get there the businesses have signs in Chinese, there are numerous Chinese supermarkets, and of course countless restaurants. One place we like to go is Mama Lu’s Dumpling House.

It is always crowded and there is always a wait, but the food is cheap, tremendously good, and the portions are monstrous. There is always a smattering of non-Chinese customers, but the giant TVs on the wall all play Chinese movies or TV shows and the sound of Chinese predominates. Families are often there celebrating birthdays, the table spread with so much food it almost hurts to look at it.

The family wanted to have dinner there, so we went and stuffed ourselves. I figured that with my upcoming trip it made sense to eat as much Chinese food as I could. So I did.

One of the great things about leaving the #socmed grid is that I have become less and less tethered to the other parts of the digital grid as well. Although it’s hardly an adventure into uncharted territory, going off to Kunming for a week without a phone or laptop seems daring. That’s how much things have changed. I still remember arriving in Tokyo on January 15, 1987 and it didn’t seem daring at all to travel without a cell phone because they didn’t exist.

When you took a trip, part of the deal was that you were going to be incommunicado except for postcards and emergency phone calls if you had to make them–phone calls made from a phone booth. Remember those?

As the trip has gotten closer it has seemed more and more like an untethering, although in reality it is a pretty ordinary trip. Millions of people fly to Kunming every year. There is no unexplored part of China, and there hasn’t been for about 5,000 years or so, maybe a lot more.

Since I knew I’d be without a phone I spent some time memorizing the subway lines, which are very simple, and it reinforced how helpful it is to be able to read Chinese. For the last couple of years I’ve been slogging away at the language, the area I’ve thought was the least important but that I nonetheless kept hacking away at, reading, turns out to be, I think, the most important.

Unlike other recent trips, I’m also traveling without a bike. It’s amazing how little you need when you are traveling alone and without a sports toy. A few pairs of socks, underwear, t-shirts, tooth equipment and razors, pen and notepads, passport, cash, a couple of credit cards, and you’re good to go.

When I get there I’ll try to rent a bike. Rental bikes are ubiquitous but you have to use a phone and an account with Ali-Pay or WeChat, so it’s possible I’ll just be walking, riding the bus, and riding the train.

Have you ever wanted to do something all your life, and then when the time actually comes to do it, you get nervous, and are even a little bit unsure about whether you really want to do it? That’s kind of how I feel. I took Chinese in college and even had a job offer from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, but other things intervened. After traveling to Japan, China always seemed like the next logical and exciting and interesting step.

But I never took it.

Now I’m on the cusp of getting on the plane and am nervous, not so much about the trip but about whether it will live up to my expectations, which is weird because I don’t have any. My only travel plans so far are:

  1. Go shopping for razor blades for my razor.
  2. Get a haircut.
  3. Visit a few bookstores.
  4. Visit a few bike shops.
  5. Take a day trip to Puer and buy some tea.

The haircut might be the best part. We’ll see.

END

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