Secrets of Chengdu
The last couple of days in Chengdu were summed up by the one most essential thing anyone can do in China: cruising around the town on a creaking old bicycle. Me and Mike rented them from Sim’s guesthouse, recommended by Lonely Planet and in my last post. They were questionable machines – my front wheel wiggled like a snake disappearing off the front porch and the brakes worked eventually, with lots of coaxing… We cruised down to Renmin square to bask in the illuminating glow of the 20 meter concrete Mao, then to People’s park for some tea. The tea culture in China is a beautiful thing – every public park has a great open space with bamboo chairs and rickety tables where the old folks come to read their papers, play cards and chat with friends. Like most of these staid old traditions, it will probably disappear with that generation of soldiers and revolutionaries. They still dress up in their faded cloth caps and peasant jackets with ox bone buttons neatly restitched. The young folks, according to the local English-language magazine “Chengdoo” ( http://www.chengdoo.com ) enjoy “shopping”.
So what would I do if I were a young guy in China? Would I be tempted to hang out with the grandparents and drink tea all day? Well, Prague has its beer gardens, which are in most respects similar to the tea gardens in China, and I can’t imagine those disappearing because the younger generations prefer shopping to hanging out with their friends and enjoying the weather. Maybe it’s different, but it’s been said before and I have to agree: modern life is rubbish. I really hope visitors to China in 20 years or so will have something to see in the cities other than vapid shopping malls and Kentucky fried chicken outlets. Almost all of the modern Chinese culture I’ve been exposed to is almost hopelessly acquisitive – in every sense of the word, but again, it’s hard to tell what you’re missing in a city of 13 million people.
We ended up at the Bookworm, a vast bar in the Southeast of the city decorated with shelves of books shipped in from the Strand Annex in New York. I got to teach the barman how to make a Whiskey Sour, and a book later we were pedaling back through the Chaotic streets of Chengdu to the hostel. There really is no better way to see a Chinese city – you get swept up in the current of silent electric scooters and fellow bikers – flashing through busy intersections amid a chorus of bells and sirens!
We were introduced to another old tradition which is fading even faster by a guy named Mr. Lee. He was one of those “cultural interpreters” every tourist is warned about, but something about his particular brand of earnestness convinced us to give him a shot and it turned out to be well worth the risk. He first offered to take us out to the countryside to see the “real Chinese life”, but we were already booked onto the Southbound train the next day so we settled for a trip to the Opera. The Szechwan Opera has been famous for hundreds of years – originally as diversion for the court, but increasingly for the rest of society as well. The repertoire includes more than 2000 plays, most of which are comedic. The painted faces and falsetto crooning are famous around the world, and nearly every guest house in Chengdu offers some sort of excursion to see a performance at the state-sponsored theater. The thing is, Mr. Lee told us, nobody but foreigners go to see those performances. He would take us to a truly local production at a local theater, take us backstage to see the actors preparing and offer English commentary throughout.
True to his word, the decrepit old building we arrived at reminded me of the Communist-era “culture centers” in Prague like the old Mlyn or Delta clubs – where home-rigged wiring hangs provocatively from patchy, water-stained ceilings and the actors get themselves together in front of stained, broken mirrors under flickering fluorescents. It was hidden back behind a seedy street, just minutes walk from the train station. The noodle vendors and various malingerers stared at us openly and called out “lo-wai” as soon as we’d passed.
The show itself was interesting to see, but an acquired taste, I believe. The pit orchestra, composed of a xylophone-like thing, a few drums and the shrill lute we’ve seen played on the streets a few times, seemed to be playing a half-improvised score to the singers. They returned to a few certain riffs and accentuated entries and exits from the stage with the clash of cymbals and whacks on a wood block. The PA system was hopeless, and they couldn’t resist adding a healthy dose of reverb to the mix either – to terrible effect. The show we saw was entitled “Hero Women” and centered around two stories – a scheming pair of brothers trying to cause trouble in their mother’s court and the concubine of a high-level official who falls in love with a younger official. Faithful to his word, Mr. Lee gave fantastic, if slightly embellished, commentary through the show and the old folks chatted amiably through the whole thing, offering their judgment on the performances ad hoc. It was a great, if slightly weird experience – something to see once, anyway.
An hour after the performance, we were piling into the K117 express for Kunming. Our stop was somewhere in the middle of the line – a town named Pan Chi Hua which doesn’t appear on any of the maps we had. From there, we were looking at a 7 hour bus ride through the Yunan mountainside to Lijiang, rumored to be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved cities of Southern China. The trip was less painful than I’d imagined, despite a bus with seats built for the specific legroom of Chinese people. The road was tortuous, winding up and down some pretty impressive ravines with beautiful, lush rice paddies spreading out in all directions. The blue sky and green, after nearly a month of horribly polluted cities, was incredibly welcome. We rolled into Lijiang around 5 pm, making the whole trip nearly 24 hours, but I still felt energized enough by the weather to stroll around a bit.
Once again, Lonely Planet is a big let-down here. The map is excrement, for one thing. The guest house they talked up, Mama Naxi’s, ended up being a really weird, somewhat shoddy place and our reserved rooms looked more like a construction site than a guest house. The windows in my room were broken and there didn’t look to be any other guests in the place – just a host of old Naxi grandpas drinking tea around the single courtyard table. We passed it up and went wandering around the old town to find a better spot, which we eventually did. More on that and on the beautiful Lijiang old town in the next post!