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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