Have you ever heard of Chengdu? It’s the capital of the Sichuan province of China–a city of more than 5 million people. Before starting research on my trip, I’d never heard of it, so it’s okay if you haven’t either. But Chengdu figures prominently into Chinese administrative and economic life and, due to its central location, is a city most travelers pass through at one point or another. For me, it was the jumping off point for Tibet. I thought I’d spend just a night and a day in Chengdu, see the big Buddha (in the end I didn’t) and then hop on my evening train to Lhasa.
I arrived at 7 p.m. on a (cheap! $80) flight from Lijiang, a town I was sorry to leave behind. The flight itself was perfectly on time and very pleasant. The flight crew stood in a V-formation before we took off and introduced themselves, bowing to the passengers, expressing their desire to serve us well in-flight. I liked that. We arrived, I hopped a shuttle bus downtown, and got off. It was dark. I grabbed my pack (oof) from underneath the bus and immediately was approached by a young man wearing a bright cherry red helmet, stunt plane style. His thick black rimmed glasses added to the slightly cartoonish effect and I liked him immediately.
“Hello! You come in my taxi!” he shouted enthusiastically, flashing a friendly smile.
“Err… how much? Here’s where I’m going,” I said and showed him the string of Chinese characters I’d copied from the hostel website.
“Twenty yuan! Let’s go!” he shouted and grabbed my pack. I haggled down to 15 ($2.50) and he led me across the street to a small motorbike. He threw my pack on the back, rigging it onto the rickety grocery crate with a bungee cord within seconds. Oh geez, I thought, for the first time registering the presence of the helmet. I thought of resisting but instead laughed and climbed on the bike, holding my bag of food that accompanies me everywhere in front of me, while my big pack swung around precariously behind us. He handed me a matching cherry-red helmet, and off we went.
The darkness of the side street only lasted a moment. Quickly we were thrust into a modern, vibrant city of flashing lights and music and people everywhere, whizzing by Maserati dealerships and Tiffany & Co. stores. I caught fleeting glimpses as the Four Seasons, Sheraton, Sofitel hotel chains passed alongside us. Then the imposing Chinese hotels: huge, sprawling resorts with rooftop bars in full party mode, palacial columns and smartly-outfitted valet staff outside. Then more lights, wide avenues, Vuitton, Prada, Burberry and all the rest.
Our little motorbike stalled at every intersection, causing heart-pounding moments as buses and cars charged towards us on all sides, but my stunt pilot driver remained unfazed. I tried to control the case of the giggles I’d contracted en route. After a 20-minute ride, we pulled into a pleasantly dim side street and stopped. He let me off, and there was an elegantly lit cluster of bamboo partially obscuring a funky wooden, hand-lettered sign: Mix Hostel. We’d arrived. I paid and bid him a cheery goodbye, and into the hostel I went.
I was to meet my Tibet group for the first time for dinner. But the trip from the airport had taken much longer than I had anticipated, and they’d left without me. I knew where they were going, so I set off on foot and found them in an otherwise empty restaurant near an impressive, solemn temple (the Wenshu Temple). Nevertheless, the atmosphere was alive with people strolling about and gazing at the lights and austere architecture. I was still buzzing from the bike ride and greeted my new friends enthusiastically. We shared plates of spicy Sichuan food–eggplant, green beans, pork and chicken, laughing and learning each others’ names, histories and personalities. It was fun.
We went home and I did some emails and fell asleep in top bunk almost instantly. Despite only being in Chengdu for a few hours, I felt I’d already understood the essence of this modern, slick Chinese city. It was a stark change from the sleepy pace of Yunnan with its chilled out Naxi minority, but this was another face of China, and I was glad to see it, albeit briefly.
My dreams that night were a mixture of the pulsing Chengdu night, memories of the cobblestones of Yunnan towns and half-formed images of the upcoming Tibetan plateau. This is China, and it’s never boring. Stay tuned.