For foreigners, there are very few ways to get to Tibet. Before the monster earthquakes struck last year, you could be driven from Nepal, but today (18 months later) the roads are still blocked; the border still closed. So you can take the train from Beijing. Or fly from one of only three cities in the world — Kathmandu in Nepal, Beijing, or Chengdu.
That’s why Steve and I went to Chengdu, a place I’d never heard of until recently, even though it’s China’s 5th biggest city, with more than 17 million residents — twice as many as in New York. We flew through Chengdu last October when our trip to Tibet at that time was interrupted by Steve’s mom’s hospitalization. When she passed away in August, we decided to tack a return to Tibet on to the excursion we’d planned to the Malay peninsula. It seemed easiest to travel from Bangkok to Lhasa via Chengdu.
Indeed it was easy to book a flight on Thai Airlines; easy to reserve a hotel in Chengdu on booking.com. We had no trouble finding the taxi queue in front of Chengdu’s impressive airport and giving the driver the hotel address (written in Chinese on the printout of my reservation). We felt like yokels on the ride, gaping at the massive office and apartment buildings, the wide boulevards, everything looking clean and at least as well maintained as Park Avenue in Manhattan. The Wangfujang district in which our hotel was located provided the coolest surprise. With an ancient Zen Buddhist temple complex at the heart of it, sections of the surrounding area have been preserved (or more likely recreated) to look
historic and traditional. Low wooden buildings house shops selling jewelry, bamboo art objects, intricate silver work, and more, and our hotel was a haven of dark wood and Buddhist art (and a relative bargain at $67 a day, including breakfast). On the surrounding streets, nicely arranged piles of produce spilled out into the sidewalks; old folks gathered around card tables playing mah jong.
We were delighted, but it didn’t take long for us to feel like fish very far from our aquarium. Almost no one spoke any English, and worse, essentially nothing was written in Roman characters.
We pounced on the opportunity to put Google Translate through its paces and can now report that it may do a decent job with French or Spanish, but it is laughable (literally) at translating written Chinese.
At first we weren’t worried. We’d eaten at plenty of hawker centres in Singapore and Malaysia by looking at pictures and pointing. But when we tried that at a little joint near our hotel, the girl behind the counter made it clear many of the dishes displayed weren’t available. We finally secured some noodle-heavy dinner, but we were growing alarmed! Here we were in the capital of one of the great cuisines of the world, and it seemed possible we might not find any place good to eat! Potential catastrophe! (We’d checked out the restaurants in both our hotel and a fancy modern one nearby and rejected both as being unpromising.)
The logical thing to do would be to check Yelp, but of course it doesn’t exist in Chengdu. Even worse: Google doesn’t exist in Chengdu! The Chinese government is still blocking it. I won’t bore anyone with the tedious details of how annoying it is to try and search for things online without a decent search engine. After wasting quite a lot of time being reminded of this, we finally figured out that Apple Maps (which is not blocked) has a “restaurants” filter that’s pretty useful.
Using that, we found a place that sounded promising. We walked to the lively little street it was located on, but then were confused about which of the many eateries was our goal. We picked out the most likely one, walked in, and asked the girl at the front door if it was Weidangjia. She looked confused, but another young woman got up from her nearby table and interceded. She spoke English! With her help, we learned that Weidangjia was actually two doors over. She led us to it and further helped us secure a table and order our food, then she took off to return to her own dinner party in the first restaurant.
Our dinner was delicious and the interaction with the friendly young woman warmed my heart. But I have to say, the rarity of such encounters in China is pretty striking. People don’t seem mean or hostile. But I once again got the sense I’ve gotten on previous visits: that the Chinese in China are under a lot of stress. There are a literal billion of them, and so many are smart and disciplined and hard-working and ambitious. The competition is so fierce. I notice many faces that look harried and brusque and tense.
But maybe that’s just a passing traveler’s misapprehension. Our other stand-out experience in Chengdu both confirmed and contradicted my theories. The mountainous western forests of Sichuan are where pandas live in the wild, and Chengdu is the base for one of the most important panda research centers in the world. When I learned that it’s open to visitors, both Steve and I were eager to go.
The girl at our hotel’s front desk wrote out the research station’s name in Chinese characters, and we caught a taxi in front of Wenshu temple. We went immediately after breakfast, as we’d heard it was best to try and beat the afternoon crowds. I felt optimistic. It was a cool, rainy Thursday morning in late October. How many people could be there? Silly me. Hundreds, many assembled in huge groups, jammed the front plaza. It looked more crowded than the front of San Diego Zoo on a beautiful Labor Day weekend.
None of that wound up ruining our time there. The paths leading through the grounds pass through dense, darkly graceful bamboo thickets.
We’d read that something like 60 giant pandas live at the research facility, and though many were off display, we still saw around a dozen, including four youngsters devouring bamboo. In the nursery, four infants in incubators were screened from the crowd, but in the adjoining enclosures, three little ones piled up, napping, while one curious guy crawled around exploring.
Cameras clicked. People cooed. Doubtless because of the way the human brain is wired, looking at those big-eyed, round panda faces was making everyone happy. The crowd was probably 99% Chinese, but it felt very convivial and very chill.