Dear Friends and Family,
On Thursday (Feb. 5), we wanted an adventure and having a few days of freedom before our residence cards were to be picked up at the Beijing police station, we bought a one-way plane ticket to Chengdu, departing the following day.
We had never heard of Chengdu before coming to China. It is the capital city of Sichuan province, famous for its hot, oily cuisine popular in many North American Chinese restaurants. (Food is a major motivator for our trip to this region.) When you look at a map of China, Sichuan looks small, being one of about 30 provinces. However, Chengdu has a population of 11.9 million people. The population in this one "small" Chinese city, which most of us have never heard of, equals over one third of Canada's total population. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by how big China is.
A trip has both a background and a foreground. The quality of your hotel room, the weather, the minor social interactions required to satisfy daily needs, city streets seen from a taxi, and "maintenance meals" all form a background palette. On top of this background palette is laid the foreground experiences - the beautiful sights, the meaningful interactions, the new things you learn about yourself and your world, the artful cuisine. These are the thrilling, awe-inspiring things that make travel worthwhile. Background discomforts are moot when the foreground experiences are divine. Similarly, even if the foreground is disappointing, a strong background can compensate by making the trip comfortable, relaxing and pleasant.
The background experience in Chengdu was a little disappointing. Many city streets are rubble-strewn or tacky. Our hotel was an amazing deal ($16/night), but it was also depressing and cold. Several of our meals were surprisingly mediocre. The weather was cool and damp. And, with important exceptions, I found the people unfriendly. (This might be partly because we saw no more than five foreigners the whole time.) If our Chengdu trip were a painting, the background would definitely be gray.
In this case at least, the gray background provided a good contrast for a wonderfully vivid and beautiful foreground. And that was why I loved our trip to Chengdu.
Our first day in Chengdu, Saturday, started out quietly with some initial exploration of streets near our hotel and a lunch consisting of a spicy version of dim sum (twelve small dishes of food).
After lunch, we decided to take a taxi to Wenshu Temple. The temple dates to the Tang Dynasty (600AD +/-) and still supports many monks and with a large lay community. The temple is beautiful, with braziers and incense burning, and trees and plants framing every vista. The temple grounds consist of a few lovely acres of park, where there is no city noise and birds sing everywhere. Madeleine, a bird watching hobbyist, was in 7th heaven. Old folks were playing cards, practicing musical instruments and singing songs, doing Tai Chi or talking, laughing and arguing. Monks in traditional robes went about on temple business or in meditation. A huge tea garden was filled with laughing folks of all ages. It was one of the most magical, living places I've ever seen.
We also discovered that the monks run a famous vegetarian restaurant at the temple, and we resolved to come back to this restaurant before the end of our trip.
At one point, Joe and I were invited to play a game of chess by an older, distinguished fellow who spoke Esperanto. We warned him we aren't very good, but he reassured us that he was a chess teacher. It turned out to be a variant of chess with extra pieces, pieces that move differently and no pawns. No sooner had we sat down than a cameraman began filming us discreetly. The cameraman was from a Chengdu news station. Our chess teacher gave a long TV interview about this particular chess variant and they even interviewed Joe and me. The news piece was about five minutes long and it played five different times over Saturday night and Sunday. We saw one of the airings and we actually did okay keeping the Canadian end up! Sichuan has a population of 110 million and we figure maybe 10 or 15 million people saw that news story. (Joe was disappointed the next day when crowds of pretty young girls failed to chase him everywhere he went.) Joe used my camera to record a bit of the news report from the TV and you can see those video clips here. The fellow sitting with us in the clips is the chess teacher. Joe also took an excellent sound clip which I encourage you to check out - you can hear birdsong, our teacher speaking Esperanto and even someone practicing a musical instrument.
That night we went to the pizza parlor next to our hotel, and believe it or not, we all agreed that the pizzas made our "top 10" list! It was a big surprise.
Day two, Sunday, we went to visit the cottage of a famous poet called DuFu (8thC AD), which is surrounded by 23 hectares of lovely parkland. The noise of the city dropped away and we wandered beautiful gardens with lovely bridges and gates, blossoming fruit trees, and ponds. Birds were everywhere and people practiced tai chi in secluded bamboo gardens. After wandering for a few hours through the misty, quiet morning, we sat down in a peaceful walled tea garden. The tea was good. There was a group of ten old gentlemen sitting nearby talking and laughing. At one point, one of them sang in a clear, true voice while his friends listened quietly. A vendor entered the garden, jingling his metal tools (just as his grandfather probably did) to advertise his arrival and solicit customers. He offered massage, ear cleaning and acupuncture. A man sitting near us had his ears cleaned. When the acupuncturist was done with his customer, he came to our table to offer his services and I accepted a chair massage from him. It was quite good. A woman came by to top up our teacups using a traditional kettle with a very long spout. I felt a pang in my heart at how lucky I was to sit in a place like this.
Later we wandered a nice shopping street that was recently developed but in an old style. I thought it was a great example of retail development in China since Chinese retail developments too often rely on neon and tacky signs.
A famous Sichuan dish, called Mapo Dofu, was invented hundreds of years ago by "a pock marked old woman" who would make inexpensive meals for the laborers who walked by her house. The dish is based on tofu, hot oils, peppers and spices. A restaurant called Chen Mapo Dofu is apparently the original site of her canteen and uses the original recipe, so of course we had to go there. It was still a very inexpensive hole-in-the-wall filled with Chinese folks laughing, yelling, eating and drinking. Waitresses literally ran around screaming orders. It was pandemonium. The food was quite good (though not divine), the price amazing and the experience pretty fun.
Day three, Mike - a guide recommended by our guidebook - took us on a private excursion to a small town called Huang Long Xi, which has escaped renewal and retains much of its old character; so much so, that several movies have been filmed here including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was nice to escape the city and see the countryside. The town's streets were narrow and meandering. Roosters crowed and in an alley, a chicken was tied to drain pipe with a piece of string. Sweeping clay tile rooflines, Buddhist statues, and characters written on doorposts left no doubt that we were in China. The population was older than expected as many of the younger adults have gone to Chengdu for work. Restaurants were surprisingly plentiful, being sufficiently inexpensive that most of the townspeople eat there. The restaurants were open to the air and displayed vegetables, live river fish and eels (swimming in buckets at the front door).
Mike knows many local residents, particularly the older folks. He introduced us to an old gentlemen (86 years old) sitting in his doorway smoothing out tobacco leaves. Mike explained that once the leaves are rolled out smooth, he stacks and tightly rolls them into a 4 inch tube and shoves the tube into the end of a long curved pipe. He smokes a pipe every day. The tobacco leaves smelt strong and acrid. Joe, who is sometimes a genius, gave the old gentleman a cigar from the Dominican Republic. The old man knew what it was but had never held one. He lit it right away with intense delight. We visited the inside of his house, which in places was open to the sky above. It was cold and damp but his house was orderly with old leather couches and chairs and brick walls and it had a certain aesthetic to it. He has children but they have moved to the city for work. He prefers his hometown to his children so he hasn't moved to be with them.
The town was small but had three Buddhist temples. The first and most prosperous of the temples featured a laughing Buddha statue on its gate roof, and seemed to be a gathering place for the community. It had an open air Sichuan opera stage where performances are regularly held which struck me as incongruous. A 1000-year-old banyan tree graced the courtyard. Mike introduced us to one of the monks (84 years old) who radiated happiness and who agreed to have his picture taken with Joe. When he discovered that my mother was the same age as him, the monk asked after her health and seemed to send a blessing her way.
Another temple housed Buddhist nuns (who dress like monks). Mike introduced us to a 95-year-old nun, who entered the nunnery when she was four years old. She's lived there for 91 years. She was sitting in the temple doorway, with a coal basket on her lap for warmth. Mike told her my mother was 84 years old and she responded to me that she was my mother's older sister (a way of showing endearment). I explained that my mother grew up having no brothers or sisters, so it will be a treat for her to have an older sister. We agreed I needed to take her picture so that my mother would know what her older sister looks like. The woman laughed when I showed her the picture I took of her -she wanted to go get her dentures and try again.
This was one of those moments where I felt the numbers "telescope". When Mao came to power in 1949, this woman was my current age. She lived the first 40 years of her life as a nun in pre-Mao China. I'm not sure what life must have been like for her during pre-Mao times, and later as a nun under Mao's government when temples were burned.
In the third temple, we stopped by the temple teahouse overlooking the river. The monk who brought us tea was a comparative youngster at 76 years old. A few local vendors came by and Joe got his shoes shined. It was very peaceful. We wandered a bit more, crossed a wonderful suspension bridge, saw a neat old fishing vessel and returned to town where we had lunch - spicy eggplant, chicken with peanuts, soup with egg, pickles and rice. It was good. The tour guide and the driver joined us. It cost $5 in total - my treat.
We returned to Chengdu mid afternoon. I visited a few antique stores where I bought an old trumpet shaped like a dragon made out of silver, bronze and copper. It's lovely and funny. That night we splurged on a higher-end Sichuan meal of spicy eggplant fritters, pork with green pepper, dumplings, corn cakes and camphor-smoked duck. It ranked as our best meal in China, but only held that honor for 16 hours.
We started out Day 4 by wandering around another park dedicated to an 8th century poetess. It was lovely, particularly a 4-story pavilion overlooking the river. Following that, we then went to the vegetarian restaurant at the WenShu temple. We ordered dishes called Half Moon in the River, Broiled Fish with Cumin, Boletus with Red and Green Pepper Shreds, Pancakes with Pot Herbs, Top One Shaomai and (for dessert) Eight Drunken Immortals. Other dishes on the menu had names like Golden Fish in Turbulent Sea, Auspicious Bamboo Fungus, and Golden Pundit. These were, of course, all vegetarian dishes (there was no actual fish or meat despite the names) prepared by monks of the temple, using clever preparation of tofu to give the same satisfaction as meats. The preparations were all divine, the flavors complex, the herbs and spices subtle and mysterious. It surpassed my favorite meal ever in Paris. It was a most convincing argument for vegetarianism. It cost $4.65 per person.
On the afternoon of Day Four, after eating at WenShu, we returned to Beijing by plane. (Although we had intended to return to Beijing by train, we soon discovered that all trains were full with Chengdu workers returning to their jobs in Beijing after the Spring Festival, so we had to buy another plane ticket.)
I cannot believe that the whole experience could be compressed into only three and a half days! I love traveling in part because of that sense of time dilation. While traveling, I pay attention to my present moment and savor it, and time becomes full and glorious and long. But if that effect is rooted in a state of mind, then traveling should not be necessary. If I mastered that state of mind in everyday life, then perhaps I would have found the secret to longevity. I might not actually live more years than my neighbor, but it might feel like 500 glorious years, rather than 90 good ones.
Yesterday, back in Beijing and in the process of getting our resident cards, we had two chatty taxi drivers and I realized that I had missed the Beijing people. They are so happy go lucky, generous and friendly. They make it easy to be a foreigner in China. I have no regrets that Beijing is our hub, although I find myself hoping that the Wenshu Temple Vegetarian Hall opens a franchise at a Buddhist temple near us soon.
As always, we hope you are healthy and happy.
- Kim (and Joe)
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