Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Arrival Chengdu: First Impressions

Carrie Ann and Olaf both napped on the plane but I am not very good at sleeping in a moving vehicle, regardless of how fast it is moving or how high the altitude. No nap for me! After the two hour flight I was eager to debark our craft and start seeing the sights. My travel companions were too fuzzy-headed from sleep to have that same level of excitement.

Here is another throwback to air travel of yesteryear: the plane parked on the tarmac and a bus met us to take us to the terminal. Imagine a huge parking lot with a plane here and there, and regular, city sized buses circulating between them, ferrying passengers to and from their planes. How long as it been since you’ve seen that?

Chengdu airport is undergoing expansion. They are not tearing down the old airport to build new and they are not adding a wing or two (pardon the pun); they are building a whole new airport to operate in tandem with the current facility. Perhaps the new building will have standard terminal approaches where each craft latches onto the building like a newborn animal onto its mother’s teat. For now, I am charmed at feeling the wind on my face across the great expanse of the tarmac and seeing nothing but open space and planes taking off in the distance. This carryover from old times, when air travel was new, exciting and mysterious presaged our visit into ancient Chengdu.

Carrie Ann does not enjoy public transportation, even in Wuhan. Maybe especially in Wuhan. When we go out we tend to taxi everywhere which is convenient, I’ll admit, but could get costly if one does it all the time. In this instance I could see her point though: coming into a strange city and not knowing anything about the public bus system, I would probably take a taxi into the city too. Fortunately, throughout this trip we took turns paying for cabs and if the fare was exceedingly high, like it was for some destinations we had planned to visit, we shared the cost. Besides, I’ll remind you that I don’t usually just jaunt off to what for me would be a luxury weekend, so I thought it would be OK to splurge on taxis this trip.

Chengdu impressed me from the get-go with its wide boulevards and tree lined avenues. Traffic stayed in its designated lanes. There were no horns honking and no cars or buses taking advantage of traffic breaks. An interesting difference between Chengdu and other cities I’ve visited: traffic lights. Pedestrians have the traditional red-amber-green light system normally used for vehicle traffic and cars only had one light that changed from red to green and back. Also, there were stop signs here! I had to capture these essential differences for all to see. The drivers seemed more relaxed behind the wheel. Even though we arrived around lunchtime no one seemed hurried or frenzied.

Looking out the taxi window I did see the luxury shops described in the previous entry. It seems there is a lot more money in Chengdu than in Wuhan. Taking in the sights, it just barely registered that Olaf and Carrie Ann were discussing our accommodations. More specifically, our lack of accommodations. We had no reservations for our next 3 nights! Where were we going to lay our head and park our luggage? Why didn’t anyone tell me about that? I could have done something about it before leaving Wuhan!

Actually I’m kind of glad I did not make any reservations. My traveling companions being much more discriminating than I am, I would probably have gone and reserved something that they consider substandard and we would have been in the same position: no place to stay. We decided to discuss our lodging options over lunch. Great idea: I’m starving!

As written in the previous entry, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, an area well known for its especially spicy food. I am not happy eating overly spicy food but I was looking forward to trying it. The area we were walking, Jing Li Street had plenty of restaurants serving local fare. I could tell it was local because my eyes teared up involuntarily from the spicy smell wafting out from them. Maybe they would have something mild on the menu; I don’t want to cry through my lunch!

My fears proved groundless. We ended up eating at… Starbucks. Yep, good ole Starbucks, whose penchant for establishing themselves in or around cultural centers and tourist attractions is causing them big trouble in Beijing. They want to open a store in the Forbidden City – the last emperor’s dwelling, much to the chagrin of traditional Chinese who do not want one of their most impressive cultural relics sullied by the archetypically Western, green and white mermaid. The debate rages in Beijing, but in Chengdu I was just hungry enough to agree to a hyper-expensive lunch at the mermaid store on Jing Li Street.

And that’s when I found out that Carrie Ann does not much care to try indigenous eateries. In fact, this whole weekend we ate Western food at expat oriented restaurants, save one notable exception which will be an entry all its own.

Starbucks in China is like Starbucks anywhere else. Same food, same coffee, same affluent clientele either working their computers or reading their books while sipping their lattes. I had a Cesar chicken wrap with a mineral water for a grand total of 44Yuan. VERY pricey! I could have eaten for two days on that amount of money in local eateries. But, one has to go along to get along, as they say. Two thirds of this travel trio want Western, so Western it is. All weekend long. I did draw the line at McDonalds though, Carrie Ann’s favorite for breakfast.

In spite of the Western atmosphere and food, we did enjoy our time at Starbucks and, more importantly, decided on accommodations. Carrie Ann has a Lonely Planet traveler book; an indispensable tool when traveling. How have I been living without one all this time? Well, OK: maybe it is dispensible. But it certainly made finding an acceptable hotel much easier. I may have to invest in one.

We parked our luggage in our rooms and set off for dinner. The lunch at Starbucks was satisfying but not filling and by the time we got to our hotel, unpacked, walked around a little and found the city segment we were looking for, we were hungry all over again. Carrie Ann and Olaf wanted barbecue from an elusive restaurant in a major shopping district. We did find the restaurant but it had merged with a Chinese barbecue restaurant that we did not find appealing at all. We settled instead on Korean barbecue, also quite tasty. For those of you who do not know, Korean barbecue involves cooking food on the grill built into the table. It is quite good and very filling; before you know it you’ve eaten more than anticipated and are groaning with the discomfort of your excess. Fair warning to those wanting to sample Korean barbecue: get there hungry and don’t order too much food!

The waitress and floor manager insisted on showing us how to cook but Carrie Ann, who had lived in Korea already knew the traditional way to cook and shooed them away. Once they finally got the message that the foreigners wanted no fawning they left us alone and we enjoyed our meal.

After dinner we were all exhausted: getting up early, flying in, walking all over the place and the late meal all served to put us on the sleepy side. For once I did not mind the cab ride back to the hotel. A quick shower and it was ni-night time for me!

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