My semester got out some time in late June. I spent a week of running around Beijing, trying to squeeze in some last minute sights, shipping stuff home, saying my farewells, and doing other random errands.
One of these errands was arranging my plane ticket home. The summer before I came, I had bought a round trip ticket from a consolidator, leaving the return portion open.
Let's review the implications of this. My visa was to run out on July 31st. Overstaying your visa in a nominally socialist country is not a good idea. The Air China person told me that she would put me on stand-by and that a space would probably come up. What was my position in stand-by? 154th… Other than that, I was told that if I wanted a definite seat on a plane out of the country by July 31st, I would have to buy another ticket. Oh, wait a sec, what's this I found in my pocket? A spare $800 that I didn't know about? I'll take another ticket. Thanks, assholes.
So with the whole might-not-be-able-to-go-back-home thing nagging me, I headed for the first city on my itinerary: Chengdu. Chengdu is an interesting city with an indecipherable dialect, China's most beautiful women, and very spicy food. I arrived by train at 7:30 AM and took a motor-tricycle to the Traffic Hotel. I don't know why I took one of those trikes; they're somehow both incredibly slow and yet designed to direct every vibration directly into your spinal cord. The Traffic Hotel is a self-described "backpacker's haven" and thus was filled with American, Euro, and Japanese hippies planning their 4 day guided tours in Lhasa. After dropping my stuff in a not-very-impressive "dorm room" (a dumpy room with four mattresses packed in tightly, leaving barely any standing room), I bumped into a group of Japanese students that I knew from Beijing who happened to be there at the same time. We took a taxi to Chengdu's zoo.
Chengdu's zoo, like Guangzhou's food market, is another item in a long list of things that would cause an animal rights activist to have hallucinatory nightmares. Among other enlightening exhibits was Bear Mountain, where you can see Chinese tourists throw plastic bottles and pieces of bread at a variety of species of bears.
From the zoo, I headed to the nearby Zhaojue temple. The walk over was hideous as I slogged underneath this highway pass, all manner of motor vehicles honking and splashing through puddles of mud as they were trying to get to the nearby bus. The actual temple was really nice, though. It was the exact opposite of Beijing's Yonghegong.
Let me take a second to rant about Yonghegong. Yonghegong is a tourist device that the government has set up in the heart of Beijing as a quasi-authentic Tibetan temple run by Han Chinese guys with shaved heads to milk Japanese, American, mainlander and Hong Kong tour groups. The behavior that I saw here when I visited in May would be mirrored later on when I visited Emei Shan: Buddhism as commodity. Members of the aforementioned tour groups walk around with cameras taking pictures of anything with Chinese characters. They would buy poorly made religious "artifacts" manufactured at Tianjin's No. 34 Tourist Crap factory and sold by tenacious vendors from the countryside hanging outside the gates. While you're at it, why don't you stop by the Epcot Center and take some pictures of the China pavilion for some more local flavor? Inside Yonghegong are pictures of Jiang Zemin triumphantly selecting the latest incarnation of the Panchen Lama (selecting the Panchen Lama is the Dalai Lama's job. When the Dalai selected some 6 year-old kid as the next Panchen Lama, the Chinese arrested the kid.) The fundamental fact remains that the purpose of monasteries is to educate monks, but here they're a bit too busy monitoring foreigners trying to take flash photographs inside the temples.
Back to Zhaojue temple, this temple was nice, mostly because it was so unassuming. There were no overly large, overly elaborate pavilions. The shabbiness actually added to the atmosphere of the place. The place was brimming with old women hunched over their canes, shuffling between temples. I ate lunch at the canteen where Y1.5 (about 20 cents) got me all-you-can-eat rice and veggie slop. I sat next to a young, portly monk with a freshly shaven pate, who was wearing a faded Michael Jordan shirt (off-duty wear, I hope.) I couldn't make out his horrible Sichuan accent, so our communication was mostly hand signals and head nodding. I also met the head monk, who had pictures of himself placed strategically all over the temple, as if people really cared he was the head monk. He also had an indecipherable accent, but he seemed rather nice and gave me a lot of religious pamphlets. I declined to join.
From Zhaojue Si, I went by motorcycle taxi to the center of town. If I hadn't lived in Beijing for a year, I would have been surprised by all of the skyscrapers, malls, and KFCs. Like a lot of other Chinese cities, certain types of stores tend to congregate on one street. One street was literally a mile of fluorescent light stores, another was about a half mile of ceramic tile stores. Of course, there was the cell phone street, where along with Nokia store after store, the sidewalk was packed with vendors squatting around, trying to sell used phones and phone numbers.
Around dusk, I headed to the Chunxi St. night market. Although the vendors were the same as the 27 other night markets I've visited (underwear, novelty lighters, leather belts, and other trinkets), it was prime female watching. Chengdu's women, along with Chongqing's, are of a stock much superior to Beijing's. Walking down the street was much easier on the eyes than in Beijing. How so? As my perverted friend George, whom I meet in a later chapter put it, this is the only city in China where the sale of bras can be justified.
I hit up the night market's food stalls as well. Sichuan a.k.a. "Szechwan" food is seriously spicy. If you’ve ever eaten Szechwan chicken in a Chinese restaurant in America, congratulations, you’ve eaten a plate of chicken cooked in ketchup. Even the Sichuanese restaurants in Beijing left me ill-prepared for what I had in Chengdu. Aunthetic Sichuanese food makes your typical Indian curry look like a tuna fish sandwich on white bread. And unlike Indian or Thai food, which just tries to be spicy, Sichuan food has a two-pronged approach: it’s spicy, but also very numbing. So as you're eating, your tongue is dealing with these two contradicting sensations, and the natural response is to drink beer at really fast rate to wash the taste out of your mouth. The result is that when you walk out of a Sichuan restaurant, your lips should be aching, your tongue numb, and your head wet because you're so drunk that you tripped in a puddle on your way out. Some of the things I ate included skewers of "stinky" tofu and fu qi fei pian, which was essentially a bowl of chili oil with pieces of beef floating on top. Then there was chong shui jiao, which was the evil, spicy twin brother of the boring old Beijing dumpling. All washed down with a can of the local brew.