Saturday 3 January 2015

Days 189-190: Kunming and Chengdu - No Tossing!

Not much sign of Maoism in Chengdu
these days other than this statue
Kunming airport is such a swish place that the flush on the toilets disappointed me; I expected to wave at a sensor instead of having to press a lever manually.  But other than that, the airport was the sleekest creature I could have imagined after Kathmandu's chaos.  We looked down the baggage collection hall and imagined the Magrathians using it as a planet-manufacturing workshop (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe reference alert); dozens of baggage carousels marched into the distance even though the only one in current use was busily spitting out our baggage.  The rest, presumably, are for when capacity doubles, triples, doubles again.  This is an airport that believes in its future.

We blagged our way through immigration - "no of course we aren't going to Tibet; we're going to Chengdu to see the pandas" - then wandered to the taxi rank where a succession of drivers gave us a reason in Mandarin why they could not take us to our hotel.  The words "can I help you?" have never been more welcome.  The speaker even accompanied us to our hotel in a taxi to make sure we reached our destination.  "Do you travel often on business?" I asked him.  He held up an image on his smartphone.  "Here is a map of my journeys this year; this line shows the one I have just taken."  An answer in mere words would not have sufficed; this is the new high-tech China.  A treacle of coloured lights flowed downwards from high-rise buildings and we said goodbye.

Stepping off the plane in Chengdu the next morning, the air was grey - not the grey of thunder clouds or dusk or passing showers but a tangible grey, like a wall.  This is the famed air pollution.  But aside from the murk, everything in Chengdu was squeaky clean and ran without a hitch.  The underground system did not exist four years ago but already it is an embedded part of city life.  (Perhaps the Chinese could come and build HS2 for us?)  High rises dripped red lights like those in Kunming.  Some of the best-dressed women I have ever seen rode noiseless motorcycles or crossed six-lane roads at pedestrian crossings (isn't road crossing about weaving between rickshaws and holding your breath?  Or is that only in the world I have just come from?).  They wore knee-high boots and short skirts, jeans, patterned tights, very high heeled shoes.  I looked down at my baggy Indian travellers' trousers.  Oh dear, they simply will not cut it here.

Can't quite believe this one!
But seeing women in public life was one of the most exciting experiences of our Asian odyssey.  Never mind gargantuan gold buddhas and elephant rides; after male-dominated India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the sight of women commuting to work was an unparalleled excitement.  Almost as welcome was the total lack of interest in our presence; no hassle, no "I give you good price", no "please look, just look".  China suddenly seemed like an amazing destination and we had not even visited any of the sights yet.

The sights must be seen though.  First stop, Mao.  His statue stands high over the city's central square and Guy decided it was time to make his contribution to the many inappropriate selfies stored on iPhones all over the world: Guy Molyneux and Mao Tse-Tung.  Perhaps the city's burgeoning capitalism - the fashion shops and the high-heeled shoe shops and the computer shops and the camera shops - are all fine so long as that statue of Mao continues to preside over the city?  Perhaps the country still remains communist with its guardian thus revered?

Speaking of rampant consumerism, we wandered down to the 'camera mall' which really was just that - an entire mall full of cameras.  We had met up with our friend Chris Watt when we checked into the hostel and he now joined Guy in drooling over camera lenses the length of my forearm and three times as thick.  Together, the two of them generated enough saliva to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool; they were like a pair of teenaged boys encountering a girl for the first time.  I spent most of the time looking at my toes in embarrassment.

To replace Chris and Guy's fluids, we headed to the more traditional hangout of the tea garden.   We drank the poetic-sounding 'jasmine flowers on snow lake tea' while looking across a Chinese bridge and a lake overhung with trees.  The only interruption to the peace was a man holding what looked like instruments of torture who offered to clean Chris and Guy's ears.  They politely declined.

Susan (having eaten almost all the vegetarian food presented to her)
Back at the hostel we searched on The Happy Cow website for the nearest vegetarian restaurant, joking that they should add as a search criteria 'how far are you willing to travel?' and suggesting that we would enter a value around four thousand miles.  Amazingly, the website revealed that a vegetarian restaurant awaited us just around the corner.  Having had to resort to chips for breakfast to avoid pork, we could not have been more overjoyed.

Ah, China.  You have electric motorcycles and a smooth-running underground system, roads that can be crossed without a traffic accident, and women in public life.  And now you even have vegetarian food.  What more could two tired travellers ask for?

No comments:

Post a Comment