Chengdu blues: What time is it?

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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10 thoughts on “Chengdu blues: What time is it?”

  1. Yes, hot pot is great. But more fun with friends as I had the opportunity to share with a while back in Kunming.

    Cycling is not the way to get fit for walking, running and stair climbing. You need to add some eccentric to your concentric. That’s why you had trouble keeping up with the lady in the white jeans and her daughter.
    https://youtu.be/VocgsF-KMpw

    I’m looking forward to the following installments of your social/physical/culinary/linguistic super-workout in Chengdu!

  2. papaheeler@sbcglobal.net

    Seth -I tried to post a comment but I evidently lack the skills required to do so. I was about to just say fuck it but these pieces are just too good to let pass without comment.. So, this e-mail will have to do. You are like a minimalist Anthony Bourdain. And still alive. So far. Your traveling style is inspiring and your writing style makes for wonderful reading. Thanks for taking us along with you. Stay safe and have fun.Bill

  3. The H-hotel says they have bicycles available for rental. I’m looking forward to hearing about your trips around Chengdu by bike.

    1. They had no bikes. I reserved one and they looked at me like I said I’d reserved a spaceship.

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