Chengdu blues: Stairway to frozen

December 18, 2018 § 6 Comments

I glared at the bottom of the stairs, colder than any words, my feet frozen into agony blocks, snow falling, and I wondered not simply how I’d get up, but what in the world was going to happen if I slipped going down?

Then I had my answer as two stretcher bearers lugged a groaning man by, his right foot twisted at an abnormal angle. Suddenly the miserable 5:30 AM start in Chengdu looked good, though at the time, crammed into another undersized minivan, I had thought it was hell, legs folded then refolded, ass athwart the rear bench and rear axle, catching every bump in the road with impressive violence to my butt, neck, spine, jaw, and teeth.

Where were we going? No idea.

How long would it take? No idea.

What would the weather be like? No clue except this: It had been cold from Day 1 and one of the characters in our destination, Emei Shan, means “mountain.”

After two hours on the freeway we got off, pissed, were given our tour lanyards, handed over to our new guide, and were bundled into a larger van that seated twenty and amazingly only had twenty passengers.

Pretty in white

Our guide’s Chinese was so thickly accented that I immediately gave up on him, and he on me after I forked over $95 for the tour plus $30 for lift tickets. “Lift tickets?” I wondered.

We ascended an endless, spectacular climb for about an hour, going alongside a huge gorge on the right with a river whose bottom was strewn with boulders that were mythically huge. The bamboo forest, the thick mist, and the driver’s penchant for passing around blind curves left me feeling that I should imprint the memory in the unlikely event I survived.

We stopped and filed into a shop renting massive coats, earmuffs, gloves, and crampons. I was already so chilled beneath my wool overcoat, California hoodie, thin wool sweater, t-shirt and jeans that I could only chatter.

Cheaply, foolishly, I refused to spend $10 while all others snapped up the rental clothing. I had been entrusted to the care of two ladies from Inner Mongolia who pooh-poohed the rental clothing. Only later did I realize, too late, that for them this was balmy spring weather, and only later did I realize that their parkas and hats were Himalayan-rated, and that they had gloves and long underwear beneath their jeans … they said.

We changed buses again and ascended until the relentless snow and icy road forced us to stop and put on chains. After half an hour we reached the destination, which was the bottom of a 2-mile staircase covered in ice. At the bottom, old women were handing out free crampons but my Mongolian friends scoffed and, too embarrassed to strap on the life saving steel claws, I scoffed too.

Thousands of people were on the stairs which led to the summit temple, and it drove home this: Travel in China is for the hard.

No liability concerns in an environment where one slip would shatter your hip or back, and the thought of the average fat American making it ten steps was laughable, as Chinese of every age and degree of unfitness tackled the steps, cigarettes dangling from their lips.

I warmed a bit on the ascent from terror and exertion, each step a careful calculation. It occurred to me to wonder, isn’t this why we have brains? To measure and take risk? The fear built because however treacherous the climb, the downhill would be a thousand times worse. Had it not been for crews salting the steps it would have been undoable, yet no one fell.

On top of Old Smoking

At the top we got a brief lecture about the history of the site, but all I could think was, “We sat in a bus for basically two hours and then walked a manicured staircase for two hours. When this place was founded 2,000 years ago I’m not sure it was that easy.”

After the lecture we were turned loose for an hour to walk the grounds, freeze, and die. This is Sichuan–it is never heated anywhere for any reason except in your hotel room, and there it is only warm between the sheets courtesy of your own body. Everywhere else, you had better wear clothes and accept that you will be cold. I had an hour that I didn’t think I would survive and have never been so cold in my life.

My feet were stone, as my core alone had stayed warm, sacrificing everything else for survival. Incredibly I found a giant trash fire where offerings, candles, plastic, and paper were being burned. I huddled so close it burned the hair off my wrists and singed my brows and lashes even as my face and body were covered in smelly, plastic soot.

One single fuck I did not give.

We reconvened and headed down but the rising temperatures had quickly melted the steps, even at 11,000 feet, aided by the salt and the foot traffic. The remaining ice patches made it even more treacherous as you had to pay attention and not be lulled; many of the patches were almost invisible and lethally slick.

I got to the bottom. Four hours of solid walking and shivering, completely kaput.

Almost not even close to being finished

Did I mention it had been 24 hours since I had last eaten? We descended a while then offloaded for a late lunch, which was dreadful but ample, and included buckets of instant ramen. The restaurant, unheated, didn’t warm me anymore than the lukewarm food, but starving people are never choosy, and the proprietors knew it.

At 2:30 we filed out and I assumed that the tour was done. “Next we were dong a hike to see some more temples,” our guide said, pointing to a giant map and sketching out the course that looked as complex and covered more topography than the Odyssey.

“How long is this gonna take?” I asked my Mongolian caretakers, who spoke very clear Mandarin.

“Not long.”

“How long?”

“Four hours. Maybe five.”

Though out of the snow, it was still bitterly cold and off we went. After the tour of the icy staircase these other several thousand stairs were easy, and my days of following tour groups had really gotten me into walking shape. I also learned not to assume anything from seeing a guy chain smoke. Our guide was one of those guys but climbed like a goat. Over the day I got to talk with all my fellow tourists. Some I understood quite well, others not at all. They came from all over China and brought their accents with them. As with every group, people were so exceedingly helpful and kind and solicitous that it was humbling.

Would they have been treated this warmly had they been touring in America?

I couldn’t have gotten lost or separated if I had tried, so carefully did my fellow travelers look after me. People were astonished that I traveled without a cell phone. It was easily the most remarkable thing anyone had ever heard of, so daring, reckless, devil-may care.

“What if you get lost?” they asked.

“I will ask directions.”

“What if you don’t understand?”

“I’ll ask some more.”

“What if you run out of money?”

“I’ll be in trouble.”

“How do you stay in touch with their family? Aren’t they worried?”


Interspersed with these comments, most took time to praise my Chinese. Although much of it was obligatory and fake, some of it was sincere.

Our guide and his assistant said that in ten years they’d never seen a Western tourist speak as well as I. Of course that set the bar pretty low … and there were many times when I made an ass of myself over the simplest things, like understanding the amount of a fee, but the constant repetition of many things was great.

“Are you cold?”

“Are you tired?”

“Are you hungry?”


We transferred to our original van and this time I got to ride shotgun. It took another 2.5 hours to reach Tianfu Square in Chengdu, and a bit more subway riding to get to my street. Stomach rumbling, I stepped into a small shop, pointed at a picture on the wall, confirmed that “hot” was okay, and $1.40 later had eaten a steaming bowl of noodles with Sichuan red peppers. At a convenience store I stepped in, got a sleeve of Oreos, and at the hotel made some green tea, ate the cookies, and collapsed, dead, at ten o’clock.

Sometime long after that, I thawed out.



Chengdu blues: May I clean your ears?

December 17, 2018 § 1 Comment

On Day 4 it made sense to take a break from the breakneck pace of touring, especially since my neck wasn’t broken and I hadn’t yet had a proper hotel breakfast, which is indisputably the best part of any trip to China. After that I figured I’d find a dry cleaner, as my short supply of underwear and t-shirts wasabout to go gamey, but like the fake Rolexes that were in such short supply, I was finding a similar dearth of Chinese laundries in, of all places, China.

Other items on my shopping list included dental floss, which didn’t appear to have been discovered yet, aside from those little bow-shaped flossers that you use once and toss. Though not averse to filth, I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I’m willing to retrieve discarded flossers. Yet. I don’t know if it’s related to dental floss, but public spitting is for sure still a thing despite all of the posters and public exhortations to QUIT SPITTING!

Why spitting?

Dr. Google, Ph.D., has several articles on spitting in China, and they all boil down to this: People spit because they like to spit.

What the good doctor doesn’t go into much detail about is the Chinese government’s side of things, which is that spitting is a major no-no and people should stop doing it RIGHT NOW. The genesis of it seems to be an awareness that you can’t be considered the leader of the unfree world if everyone is always hawking a loogie whenever they get the urge.

It’s also an attempt to counter the unrestrained racism directed against Chinese tour groups, whose money everyone welcomes, but whose physical presence everyone holds in the lowest regard. As with Japanese tour groups from the 70’s and 80’s, the same old prejudices have been dug up and trotted out:

  • They are obnoxious!
  • Always taking PIKCHERZZZZZ!
  • Can’t talk well English goodly!
  • Big groups!
  • No presheeyahshun of our KULCHURRRR!
  • And for the Chinese … YUKKY SPITTING!

Of my countless, most excellent spitting experiences, by far the best was observing a young buck and his spicy date at the hot pot restaurant. Every couple of minutes he’d look up from his cell phone as she looked up from hers, exchange a word or two, take a bite of food, and then hock a big, greasy loogie into a trash bucket next to the table. The loogie had to clear about three feet of open air, and even though the mouth of the bucket was capacious, I couldn’t help but watch with impressed horror as it somersaulted in the air into the bin.

Then of course they went right back to their phones.

Lovers’ spat

The amazing hotel breakfast buffet more than made up for the full-on lover’s screaming match that happened outside my door at 3:00 AM. They were both drunk and really hollered it up. It went on for a solid hour, and although I thought about calling the front desk to complain, after a few minutes I realized that it was an awesome free Chinese cursing and insult lesson, so I snuggled into my comforter and tried to parse the “you sorry bastard” and “you worthless bitch” that are common in every language.

But first a word about breakfast. My hotel was a cheap-o, yet it really put any other U.S. hotel breakfast to shame. There were about ten Chinese items to choose from, including fried eggs and fresh wonton soup made to order by the cook, and a similar number of Western items. So much variety, with vegetables, pickles, noodles, and tea, got you off to either a great start or a gut bomb that sent you back to bed for a couple of hours if you dared a second trip down the line.

Later, I headed out for People’s Park. It was around freezing and I was still in my hoodie. Although I’d brought a knee-length wool coat, I hadn’t bothered to start wearing it, and remained cold always. There is no heating in Sichuan because the temperature there is mostly warm and mild, and because people can’t afford it, and because rather than waste money on staying warm they nut up and stay ass-fucking-cold.

I know they were cold because, bundled up, they had their hands jammed between their thighs. I know it was cold because they looked cold. I know it was cold because it WAS cold. By the time I got to the park, a hot cup of tea was badly called for. People at the park were dancing, playing hacky-sack and badminton, but mostly they were hanging out smoking and drinking tea and being cold.

My eyes and throat had been punished by the air pollution for four days now. Finally frozen, I decided to have tea in the park. Chinese is hard but at least tea I could drink. First I watched how it was ordered. Then I ordered the top yellow shoot special tea #5, which came in a paper packet and wouldn’t settle to the bottom of the cup no matter how long I waited, which meant that every time I tried to take a sip I wound up with tea in my teeth.

I tried every manner of sucking the tea to strain out the leaves but since I don’t have a baleen the only thing that resulted was scalded lips.

Let’s get those ears checked

Amidst all this scalding and sucking, a handful of guys were working the area clacking what looked like giant barbecue tongs. Around their skulls they had belted doctor’s headlamps, and in the other, non-tong hand, they were holding a variety of long steel implements with feathery and other ends.

I observed a nearby table where people sat around cheerfully conversing as one of the party had an ear cleaner laboriously boring away into his head with the various long steel tools, any one of which could have easily “slipped” and gone straight out the other side. Apparently some folks liked to have a cup of tea, chat with friends, and get their skulls bored out.

After the guy finished, in a fit of hygiene, he wiped the implements on his pant leg and meandered over to me. “Clean your ears?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“I will make them very, very clean.”

“My ears are so dirty that you will be here all day. And break your tools.”

This excited him. “Can I have a look?”

“Sure,” I said.

He switched on his light and peered into my ear. “Those are the dirtiest ears I have ever seen.”

“I’m impressed considering your line of work.”

“We would need to use the irrigation tubes and the extra-extender with the double brush tips.”

“I’m going to pass today. I have a meeting to make at noon.”

He nodded. It was the best refusal I could have picked.

Moving on …

While I was sucking tea leaves into my teeth and scalding my face an old man came over and sat down. What am I saying? I’m an old man, too …

This fellow made a valiant stab at getting some free English lessons but each time he tried, my own Chinese parried, then thrust, then slashed with superior vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and interrogatories until he collapsed, bleeding, and spoke only in thickly Sichuan-flavored Mandarin that I could mostly misunderstand fairly well. We chatted for an hour, until the sixth cup was only the faintest suggestion of tea, then I left for the Sichuan Museum. Why there? It was free.

I was frozen from sitting outside drinking warm water, and most crucially, and for which I’d have paid up to $15, the museum was one of the only places in Chengdu that was heated. I thawed among the treasures of the porcelain gallery, which began with pieces made 5,000 years ago. It shamed every collection I’ve ever seen, containing pieces, pristine, from every period in Chinese history. Any pot they had would have been the centerpiece of the Smithsonian. Looking at so many pots, however beautiful, was completely draining, so I left for a lunch of fried and glazed chicken … nuggets.



Chengdu blues: Poetry in motion

December 16, 2018 § 4 Comments

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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