Chengdu and Sichuan

My intuition was correct that I would find a more immersive experience in Chengdu than in Beijing.

Ir started with the flight from Beijing to Chengdu.  Instead of flying out of the large capital airport, my travel agent booked me a slightly cheaper ticket to the Nanyuan airport in the south of the city.  This airport is only reluctantly a passenger terminal, catering mostly to the Chinese Air Force   Almost nothing was in English when I arrived, and I also found out that my travel agent omitted my middle name on the boarding pass, meaning I needed to get issued a new ticket to get through security.  Thankfully pointing to my name on the passport and the name on the ticket was sufficient to have them understand what needed to change.  The best part though is that instead of issuing me a new ticket, they just wrote in my middle name in pen, which I then smudged 30 seconds later en route to handing it back to security!  By heeding the first piece of advice on the Beijing hostel wall to smile kind of dopey when problems happened, I was able to charm the security agent to let me through despite the smear.

The next part was also amusing.  For domestic flights, they don’t post the flight information on the gate until the plane is ready to board.  And at Nanyuan, they don’t have a  status board updating about flight delays   So when my flight was delayed, I had to maintain a constant watch over each of the three gates to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight, and be ready to rush to the front of the boarding line before a crowd of Chinese tourists took all the good carry-on slots on board the flight.  The lack of queuing does not pose a problem to me, as I’m used to being cutthroat with the train in New York, but I was quite worried I’d accidentally board the wrong plane in my rush.  It took me until my plane was rolling away from the gate before I could actually confirm with anyone that I was on the right flight.

It took me a day to get used to being in Chengdu.  The city core was much smaller than Beijing’s, but the scale of development and building is far greater.  Everywhere you look there is a 30 story apartment building or 10 story shopping center being built.  Traveling from the airport alone I counted enough new development to house tens of thousands of residents.  Jane Jacobs would find no home in many of these neighborhoods as the scale dwarfs the natural environment.

Things to write about in the future:

Day 1 Interview with Jane at Habitat
Details of each visit to the different village
Remarks on government led rebuilding/housing policy
Loneliness in a new place
Sichuan hotpot and communal dining
Interpreting between non-native speakers of English (i.e. Chinese and Spanish speakers)
Distance from expatriate life
Difficulties booking train tickets!

I Could Live Here

It has been 10 wonderful days in Beijing and am taking in a nice sunny afternoon in the garden cafe before I leave for Chengdu tomorrow.  My time has been a mix of researching Chinese housing policy for the urban/rural poor and seeing all the great historical sites in the city.  My Mandarin vocabulary has now increased to about 20 words, which isn’t very good progress, but at least is getting me through shopping encounters in a more polite fashion than earlier.  The one word that I can’t seem to recall in conversation is milk (niunai), which would have come in handy every time Maria ordered 4 creams with her coffee.

Speaking of Maria, I ended up capitulating to Ma Meng’s constant introductions and met a wonderful woman to see all the sights in Beijing with.  While I was doing fine for the first 3 days traveling alone, her companionship really helped get me out into the city to see all Beijing has to offer.  She is a Swedish medical student, fast walker (very important while traveling) and loves to indulge hypothetical questions about silly scenarios, which are my favorite things to talk about.  It feels so refreshing to find connection with someone far away from the New School, where I spend most my time and where it is very difficult to date anyone due to my hybrid status.  And now that I have a taste of international travel under my belt, I’m looking forward to seeing her in Stockholm on a future journey.  It has been sad since she left to finish her travels in Xi’an and Shanghai, but I think leaving for Chengdu tomorrow and working with the Habitat office will help.

Here are some impressions and pictures of the sites I’ve visited around Beijing:

Jinshanling Great Wall

The Jinshanling Great Wall is 3.5 hours away from Beijing and a bit spendy at 300 yuan per person ($50.00), but it was the highlight of the trip so far.  Unlike closer sections of the wall which have been newly constructed or rebuilt (Badaling), the Jinshanling wall is untouched and undervisited by tourists.  It was gorgeous and also a great opportunity to talk China with Sofia, who came to Beijing after finishing her India-China Student Fellowship work in Kumming.  My favorite part of the trip is after you go up and down what seems like a dozen towers to get to the end of the section (Five-Windows tower), there are some lovely Chinese merchants ready with a cooler of cold beer.  10 yuan was quite expensive, but I probably would have paid any price 🙂

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace made me think how lucky it must be for the rulers of some countries (past and present) that get to relax without being relentlessly attacked as asleep at the wheel by their political opponents.  It is a huge expanse of a lake, gardens and magnificent architecture.  Also learned that like many other things in Beijing, we played a role in the 19th century in destroying it with other invading forces.  Funny how things like the Civil War  and reconstruction didn’t occupy the US enough to avoid entangling ourselves in China.

Beijing Zoo

The Beijing Zoo was very large, but was a hard place to visit as the larger animals seemed to have smaller than normal habitats.  Only the monkeys above seemed to have the habitat to run, jump and play.  I felt really bad for the poor elephants especially:

I suppose American zoos aren’t much better though.  They also had pandas, but like the zoo in Washington D.C., they seemed either very sleepy and/or single-mindedly focused on eating bamboo in places hard to photograph.  I expect Chengdu will be a better place to see them at the research center.

Forbidden City

I have to admit, I didn’t care much for the Forbidden City.  Maybe I was a bit tired because it was raining all day, but it just seemed too large and empty in a way that diminished its importance and awe.  The one thing my visit to the Forbidden City made me think about though was how I really want to have a significant conversation about communism and modern China with some residents here.  A lot of the buildings in the Forbidden City, along with buildings/monuments at other locations, refer to the nation building that was done to unify China.  Although it is difficult to talk about politics in Beijing, I’d love to hear about what people think about China as a unified nation, and what role temples, religion and ancient sites have in a secular and more modern state.  I think it will be enlightening as I genuinely have no opinion on most of these questions, and am just eager to learn what people think.

Silk and Night Markets

Anyone who wants to try their hand at Fear Factor food should visit the Wangfujing Night Market and have some scorpions!  There is also delicious mainstream street food and some cheap Beijing duck for those who don’t want to shell out over 150 yuan for a sit down meal.

My favorite though was the Silk Market.  It is a 6 floor building stuffed with little shops dealing in silk, electronics, clothes and pearls.  Got some gifts for the family, but was especially excited to see that there were tailors onsite promising to make custom clothes on the cheap in one day.  It is a noisy scene, with merchant after merchant harassing or touching you to enter their store.  And once inside, one has to bargain for everything.  Sometimes the merchant prices their items 2x what they should be, but other stores go as high as 5x, hoping to win the arbitrage battle with naive tourists.  Thankfully I was with Maria, who was a force to be reckoned with at the Silk Market.  I loved seeing the stages of negotiation, where most merchants ended up calling her a mean or evil girl before selling the goods at 1/4-1/5 the asking price.  Let’s just say my tailored dress shirts would be 50 yuan more a piece if she wasn’t around.

But enough of sightseeing for now.  I’ll be spending the rest of my time here evaluating the different energy consumption of rural and urban households, to determine if sustainability measures even make much sense in China.  My initial research seems to indicate energy costs are not a significant portion of many Chinese citizens budget, which means that absent top-down mandates for energy efficiency, it could be hard to persuade people to weatherproof, insulate and do other improvements to their homes if coal provided energy is so cheap.  The good news is that with so many Chinese buying appliances for the first time, the government has a huge incentive to act, as the growth of consumption in China will quickly become unsustainable as even a wealthy China won’t be able to secure the enormous energy resources required to convert Chinese citizens into American style consumers.

Traveling to Beijing

I’ve always considered myself to be a well traveled person from all my visits to North American major cities and a global person because I follow global news and politics.  The last 48 hours have soundly rid me of those notions!

On Tuesday, I flew out of JFK using Aeroflot, the Russian national airline.  Although I had worries about flying a Russian airline given the recent Sukhot Superjet crash and other recent TU aircraft disasters, I think it helped provide a good transition in route to Beijing. Almost everyone on the plane thought I was Russian and spoke to me as such.  It was lonely, yet provided 16 hours of good practice to communicate slowly and with gestures.  It also was a good introduction to how many cultures insist on lovingly providing food and having a person eat it.  I made the mistake of eating in the airport for some of my meals, and then being unable to refuse any of the meals on both flights.  Tried to return the food tray back to the cart once after it was handed to me, only to have the flight attendant smile and place it firmly back in my lap.  It had good chocolate cake at least!

After almost a day in airports and planes, I finally arrived in Beijing a bit late at 1:00am on Thursday morning.  Was relieved to find out that customs was not a big deal at all. Thought that I’d have my bags inspected and that inspectors might quibble about the value of electronic items or gifts I had, even though all were clearly under the value required to declare.  Instead, I just picked up my bag and walked through customs with no inspection at all!  The only remaining hard part was finding the hotel shuttle that was waiting to pick me up.  Because I got in so late, I reserved a hotel near the airport to crash at for a few hours before I traveled to the hostel in central Beijing.  The shuttle operator didn’t speak English, but thankfully the terminal is well marked with floors and waiting area numbers, and after 20 minutes I was able to hunt down the shuttle with the english name of the hotel on it.

Until I pick up a little more language, numbers are definitely going to save me on this trip.  It was reassuring to find out that although almost everything in Beijing is written in Chinese characters, numbers are represented the same way as they are in America, and everyone seems to know the English pronunciation of them.  Was able to haggle a decent price with a black cab from the airport express train station to my hostel, although I’m hoping that legal taxis are more prevalent when I need a ride somewhere.  I feel the best I’m going to negotiate is like 2x the cost of a normal taxi after they start with 5x the price.

The Hua Fang Youth Hostel where I am staying is quite nice and a good choice by my step-mom, who aided me in my lodging selections.  The staff speak enough English that my needs can be met, but not so much so I’ll also be encouraged to practice my Chinese in order to have better conversations.  They have a bar on the 2nd floor where I met many people yesterday, some European, some Chinese, and I think I will have a good support system while I am here trying to take in and learn everything.  The room itself is also nice. For $30 US a night I get a private room with bathroom that has air conditioning (although I hear it is somehow colder in Beijing than New York, sorry folks!).

One thing I’ve noticed in both my hotels is that they are making an effort to be environmentally friendly by conserving water and laundry, with similar announcements that hotels have in the US.  I also like the system where you have to insert your room key into the wall in the room in order to provide power to the lights and AC.  This means you can’t waste power when you leave the room, as everything is automatically shut off.  While I wander around Beijing the next few days, I’ll be looking for more of these design elements as I seek to learn more about how Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu promote sustainability in their housing stock.  It seems that in some ways they are ahead of the US with technology like the room key power switch, but these articles in the NY Times also show what challenges lie ahead for China, India and other rapidly developing nations:

Although I worry greatly about the global warming impact of the rising adoption of air conditioning on a global scale, I feel that it would be awful of me to treasure air conditioning so much in New York, and then argue against its adoption in China (where it is so hot!). Even if developed countries stopped using air conditioning now, those citizens were able to enjoy it for decades, and are in a better position to adopt new technologies to replace air conditioning.  Questions of this kind will be motivating me this whole trip.

Getting Around

It is really easy to get around Beijing. You wouldn’t think so, given what everyone says about its immense size, the headache-inducing traffic, and the sheer number of people on the streets. Sure, it might take you ten minutes to cross the street, a six-lane monster (four car lanes, two bike/pedicab lanes) with a median barricade and a roundabout that forces you to take the underpass—requiring you go down, then up, a long flight of stairs—but it is all logical and (relatively) orderly. I have the 2008 Olympics to thank for this.

The subway is great—it is clean and safe (you must put your things through a metal detector every time), and the trains run like clockwork. But Beijing’s true transportation gem is the bus system. In other cities, to ride the bus, you have to know where you are going. You have to know what it looks like there, and when to buzz for your stop. I don’t even know how to take buses in New York. In Beijing, each stop has separate lines for each bus, manned during rush hour by yellow-shirted, no-nonsense retiree-volunteers. All the routes are sign-posted, and if you’re still confused, the yellow shirts will clear it up for you. Once you’re on the bus, the routes are clearly posted in both Chinese and pinyin, making it easy even if your Chinese is a little rusty. And the best part: you don’t have to know what your destination looks like or when to buzz, because the bus stops at every single stop, without fail.

Given how simple public transportation is, I rarely ever take a cab. On one of the rare occasions this summer that I did—it was 6:30 in the morning and Google Maps told me it would take me an hour and a half and three bus rides to get to where I was going—my cabbie got mad at me because I didn’t know how to get to my destination, and he didn’t either. He asked me to call a friend, and so I did, putting him on the phone with the cabbie. Apparently my friend, a native Beijinger, thought it was ridiculous that the cabbie didn’t know the place where I was going, and his choice of words managed to anger the already irritated cabbie. (Note to self: just take the bus next time.)

Even though Beijing’s public transportation was everything one wished it could be, I found myself missing the NQ to Astoria, with its arctic air conditioning (air conditioning is more a trickle than a blast in Beijing subway cars, and rare in buses) and baffling weekend schedule. My first time back in my subway station, a posted notice announces that Manhattan-bound trains will be skipping my stop. Still, it’s good to be home.