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.
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.
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