Tuesday, September 14, 2004

June 22 - Chengdu

We spent a pretty relaxed day wandering around Chengdu. Breakfast was provided by the hotel (eggs, various vegetables, steamed buns and tea) but no coffee. So several of us made a trip to the McDonald's next-door in order to get our caffeine fix. It seemed a bit shameful to be hitting a McDonald's after less than 24 hours in China, and at home I would normally turn my nose up at their coffee, but this was a life or death situation so we bit the bullet and drank our fill.

If Chengdu had a tourist district we were clearly not staying there. Every other building in this area was either a bank or a show room for high end bathroom fixtures. Judging by the proletarian style concrete apartment blocks that stretched for miles in every direction, the average citizen of Chengdu was not purchasing these showers with multiple heads, Jacuzzis, fancy toilets and bidets. This was confirmed by the virtually empty showrooms. Yet there must have been at least 10 of these places spanning the block where hotel is located.

The department store next to our hotel conveniently sold everything from underwear to digital cameras to groceries. It also had a myriad of employees all standing at attention in their various departments just waiting for shoppers to come and spend. The ratio of clerks to shoppers well surpassed the teacher-student ratio of the average Ontario public school and would make any principal green with envy. I guess in the Communist world people have to be provided with jobs whether there is an actual need for them or not.

The purchasing system also added employees to the payroll. After I decided on the sweater that I wished to buy, the clerk who helped me choose it, filled out a form in triplicate, handed it to me, and pointed to another clerk standing at the counter not far away. I had to present her the slip and pay her. Then she pointed back in the direction of the original clerk indicating that I needed to take one of the three copies back to her. I had to go through this routine with every purchase that I made. It was not possible for example, to buy a sweater, a pair of pants and an umbrella, take all three to the "slip Lady" and pay her for all of them at once. Each item had to be obtained from the clerk working in that section who had to fill out a slip. Then I had to take it to the "Slip Lady." All this regardless of the fact that each of these clerks was within easy spitting distance of one another. They were all friendly, however, and seems to find my confusion over the mysteries of the system quite entertaining.

Walking around Chengdu, I quickly remembered how much I love being in Asia. There is something about the bustle and the energy that makes me feel immediately at home. The city is much cleaner and more orderly than Kathmandu where I spent last spring. There is a sense of prosperity in the air and people are all busy going about their daily work. Again in contrast to Kathmandu there is not a beggar to be found. Unfortunately, however, air pollution is such a problem that there is a heavy veil of smog that hangs over the city at all times. Even the sunny days are gray (I have seen the future of Toronto, if we don't smarten up, and it's not pretty.)

Bicycles are such a predominant fact of life in China that there is a dedicated bike lane next to the sidewalk on every street. This lane has a curb to its left so that cars can not cross into it or park on it (something that would make riding down College St. a much more pleasant experience.) Because of this extra bike lane, crossing the street requires a good deal of vigilance. We had to watch both for oncoming automobile and bicycle traffic, and often found ourselves successfully avoiding one stream only to be caught up in the middle of the other.

All manner of people from young to old could be seen riding just about every kind of bicycle, from little rickety ones to swanky electrified models. Since Chengdu is a relatively rainy place, most bikes have a clever bracket attached to the front handlebars on which an umbrella can be placed. It was very common to see people riding down the road with their umbrellas open to shelter them from the rain.

A large part of the afternoon was spent exchanging money. Khenpo Yeshe Phuntsok, our contact from Kathok monastery, had black-market connections! We were able to get a better exchange rate from him then from the bank. We had to tell him how much money we wanted to exchange, then he made a call to a woman who arrived later at the hotel with a big suitcase full of money. One by one we went into the hotel room where she had set up shop, counted out our Canadian or US currency, and were given our Chinese Yuan.

Since it was unsure that there would be other opportunities for exchanging money during the month of our trip, it seemed like a better idea to exchange everything that would be necessary for the Jeep rental and all the expenses of the trip. At 6.04 Yuan to the Canadian dollar, the $3700.00 that I exchanged netted me a whopping 22,348 Yuan (all in bills no larger than 100's.) You can imagine the size of the resulting stack. Traveling around Tibet with such a huge pile of money in my bags was clearly going to be a challenge.

Shengjong Rinpoche, the head of Kathok monastery, treated us to a sumptuous dinner in a private dining room at our hotel. He himself did not come, but Khenpo Yeshe Phuntsok and another lama came to dine with us. This was the first time that the full group had assembled, and there was lots of talk of the various books that we had read in preparation for the trip, comparisons of the types of clothing and other supplies that we had each brought and the medications and natural remedies that we were carrying. One thing became abundantly evident. Among the 12 of us we had a veritable pharmacopia on which to draw in times of need.

The dinner was comprised of at least 20 different dishes all presented on a huge round table with an enormous glass Lazy-Susan. This was the first of many such amazing Sichuan-style dinners that we would enjoy over the next month. Often on our travels we would eat in small roadside restaurants that were far less fancy, and yet the majority of the time the food was similarly spicy and flavorful, just the way I like it.

Back in my room, ready to retire for the night, I started to get to know Dan Hasse who would be my roommate for the duration of the trip. My first impression of him was that he was a really interesting twentysomething who would prove to be an affable traveling companion. He turned out to be the best one that I have ever had, and this is saying something considering the often close quarters and grueling conditions of our trip.

We went to bed anticipating the beginning of our journey the next day.


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3:06 AM  

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