Friday, October 5, 2012

One fine day

The said Saturday started for me at 6 in the morning. I was in a small motel on the side-streets of suburban Chengdu, in Sichuan province, China. I made myself coffee, and drank it while watching the local news channel.

I had arrived in China 2 nights prior, for a conference held in one of the universities of Chengdu. I had arrived in the afternoon, just missing lunch and just one session away from my own presentation. Having gotten no sleep on the plane, thinking was hard, but presentation itself went fairly well regardless.

I now walked out of my room - fully dressed, with a spare shirt and a small bottle of water in my backpack. Once downstairs, I found two cars and a closed garage door waiting for me where there had been the entrance the day before.

The motel, or "farmer home" as locals seemed to call it in english, was pointed to me by the tourist information desk at the railway station in that same suburb, where I had landed just the day before with all my belongings. I went there with a fairly clear idea on what I wanted to do but with a comparably vague understanding of how to accomplish it all. Finding a place to stay was a top priority, however, and despite my fears, the tourist information people spoke enough english to understand my needs and offer a solution to them, even being nice enough to take me to the motel by their car (probably after figuring out that explaining would take longer).

After standing around the closed inner courtyard crowded by the two cars, I finally decided to start knocking at doors. Thankfully, the first one I tried turned out to be right and the administrator helpfully unlocked the door and let me out. I now started walking south, along a path I already knew from the day before.

I had arrived in the late afternoon, with too little time to go sightseeing before it went dark. Since I had nothing else to do, however, I just started walking around the town, eventually stumbling to the path lined with red flags. Following it, I found myself at the place I did not intend to go, and had to turn back (as it was closed anyways). The path itself was scenic enough, however, and the walk through the Chinese suburbia was also an experience in and of itself.

This day I had plans for, however, and they involved me getting to the mountain as quickly as possible. I walked along the main road, and at some point a riksha driver noticed me. I showed him the direction I wanted to go and five fingers. He nodded and I jumped in.

If there is one thing that seems to be hard to find in China, it is a taxi driver that offers a foreigner a fair price. While the storekeepers seemed honest in asking the same price of me and their compatriots, the drivers always wanted to cheat, one way or the other. The first I encountered refused to give me enough change. Another refused to start the meter and just demanded his (3 times higher) price. In some cases, I had to let it go. In others, I tried to find someone who would cheat me less. The 5 yuan I offered the riksha driver was a slight overestimation, but I did not want to start my day with a bad experience of haggling over half an euro.

It was 7.10 and I was at the base of the mountain. I walked to the ticket office, handed them the money and walked through the gate, showing them the recently acquired piece of paper. They let me pass, and I was now free to roam the Qingcheng mountain complex.

While still in Estonia, I had made plans to couch-surf with a local. Sadly, while I was on the plane, she had sent an e-mail saying she would not be joining me, leaving me to fill the weekend on myown. After googling Chengdu and checking the wikitravel page with an eye for scenic hiking trails and any mention of mountains, Qingchengshan seemed like a good choice. I decided to go for it, and informed the local couch-surfer about it too. She thought she might be joining me there for a daytrip, so I dropped further research. Little did I know she would again cancel the plans, leaving me alone in a time where I also had no Internet access to do further research. She reassured me that I would figure it out somehow, and although the outlook for it seemed bleak (as english-speakers are near-impossible to find, and signs and place-names are ofen only in Chinese), I nevertheless had decided to give it a try.

I was now at the mounntain and slowly but surely started making my way towards the top. The mountaintop temple was 1260 m high, and I was resolved to walk the path before the tourist hordes had time to catch up with me.

If it was one thing my previous trip to China (Shanghai, 2008) taught me, it is that unless you start early in the morning, you will get nothing of the serene tranquility often touted in the advertisments, as the crowds catch up with you. And by crowds, I do not mean the quiet, reserved, north european crowds, but chinese crowds, that walk around with portable radios at maximum setting and yell at friends they notice 50 m away. Not that I am judgemental of differences - it is just sometimes they can be f****ng annoying.

Walking through one temple after another, my mind becomes increasingly clean and serene. Gone are the thoughts of everyday drudgery. The mountains are breathtakingly beautiful - both in a figurative and literal sense, as the air becomes increasingly thin as I ascend one staircase after the next.

What is not quite gone is the fear of heights, however. Despite being drawn to the mountains, and always looking to climb one whenever I travel (be it Australia, Bulgaria or now, China), the fear of possibly slipping and falling is always felt. First time in Australia, I came pretty close, and I am not looking to repeat the experience, and the falling rain made me even more careful.

After countless pavilions, I was finally nearing the summit. Walking up one of the lonlier stairs, I saw a cleaner walk past and utter "Ni Hao" to me. It took me a few seconds to remmember that this was "hello", and I answered hastily, but he had by that point walked past me so I doubt he managed to hear me.

Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same phoneme can have different meanings depending on whether it is said in a forceful, rising or lowering way. As to how big the differences can be: ma, in one tonation is "mother" while in another, it stands for a horse. This tonality has two implications. Firstly, Chinese can often sound like arguing to westerners, even when two people are having a perfectly civil discussion. Secondly, trying to learn even the most basic niceties can be hard if not near impossible, as non-mandarin speakers are not used to controlling their tone on every syllable. Thank you (xie xie, both in the forceful intonation) seems simple enough, but I still heared chinese comment on me saying it. I presume I had said it wrong, but the context was clear enough so they understood me. Thanking someone was something I had to do often enough so there was no way around learning to say it. For the rest, however, I chose to stick to just showing the characters I had had my friend write me for common phrases (i.e. "how much?" or "can you help me?").

At the top they had built a pagoda (religious tower), which, as the signs said, had been rebuilt quite recently, following the 2008 earthquake that had levelled the previous one. As it was the summit, I wanted to have a picture of myself there, and handed my cellphone to one of the young chinese who had just finished taking the picture of her friends. She helped gladly.

One thing to note about chinese tourism is that it is mainly internal - most people visiting the sights are other chinese, with the occasional japanese or korean tourists thrown in. Westerners are few and far between - I saw maybe two pairs in total during the whole 5 hours spent at the mountain.

After having my picture taken, I started my descent, only to find that my right knee was giving me pains when walking down the stairs. I therefore opted for a quick route and took the cable car down, followed by a ferry that took me across the scenic mountain lake. By that point, the tourist horde had already caught up with me, so it seemed like a proper time to make my exit in any case. I walked out of the gate and headed towards the parking lot. There I found a green bus, which I remmembered the wikitravel page describe briefly in the section about getting around. I showed the ticket seller a picture of my next destination from a tourist booklet, and was told that the next bus to come would take me there. I did not have to wait for long til it arrived and was indeed waved inside when I showed the picture this time.

The public transportation system, although slightly overcrowded, seems pretty well thought out as a whole in China. Longer distances can be travelled by fast trains in many cases whereas short-range is covered by a thick network of line buses. With trains, however, you generally need to buy your tickets way in advance, or you may end up having to wait for 5+ hours, as happenned to me this time when I was trying to return from Qingcheng, and also last time, both in Suzhou and Hangzhou. Public bus lines are simpler, as you just step in and give them the amount of money they ask (by letting them type the sum on your cellphone dialpad).

I was now in a bus, moving in the right direction. I still had a problem, however, as I knew not where I was supposed to get off. At first, I assumed the problem to be trivial, hoping that the town we were driving into had just one stop. Unfortunately, I was quite wrong in the assumption, as the settlement just kept on going and going. At a place where many people got off, I took my pamphlet and showed it to one of the locals, asking if this was the place. He shook his head. A few stops later, I repeated the question. He again shook his head, now starting to type on his cellphone. A little lated, he showed me what he had been looking for - a dictionary entry showing chinese glyphs and the word "endpoint" below them. I nodded in understanding and thanked him in chinese.

The level of english spoken in China is very low in my experience. Even the professors in charge of organizing the conference barely got their point across or understood what me or Victor (Shoup) said. Their written english was better, but that was of relatively little help. In general, people who even understand bare essentials ("how much?", "how far?", "sorry") of english are very hard to come by, and those who do often cap at roughly that. English is often as foreign to them as Chinese is to us, and this makes tourism in China often an interesting experiment in non-verbal communication.

Having exited the bus at the terminal station, I found myself right in front of the gate of DujiangYan, a network of canals, bridges and dams that had served as an irrigation system for the better part of the past two millenia. Looking at the prices, I was agan struck by the price of the ticket, which was 90 yuan (11 eur), the same as for the mountain complex. At the ticket office, I tried my luck with my ITIC card, handing it to them pretending to be a student. It seemed to work, as I indeed got the 50% discount, which was helpful considering my supply of cash was starting to dry up.

The stories of China as a cheap country should by now belong to the past. Taxis and basic groceries are about twice less than in Estonia, but near everything else (trains, accommodation, tea or food when eating out, museum tickets) were quite comparable. It seems that China is quickly catching up to the western world and at the rate it is going.

I entered the complex and walked around in the gardens, then heading for the main temple, then to the first dam and then across the hanging bridge to the other side of the river. Continuing along the scenic riverbank, with the water torrenting to my right, I suddenly felt an urge to stop at a foodstand. It seemed they had noodles on offer, so I asked for them. To my surprise, the lady then opened up a packet of fast-food ramen, poured hot water in it and handed it to me.

Fast-food ramen in plastic bowls is the most common fast-food available, and and seems to be pretty popular. This is probably sped on by the availability of hot water in public places (railway and bus stations, trains, even some public bathrooms). It is quite common to see people go to the hot water tap to fill the ramen bowl, and I myself had indeed done it just the day before while waiting for my train.

After eating, I continued along the path until I came upon the second hanging bridge. Crossing it was a pretty scary experience as the closer to the middle I got, the wobblier it got, and walking on it without holding to the side rulers was nearly impossible for a person of my height. With their help I safely made it to the other side, and was yet again confronted with an array of temples and pavilions to explore.

Like the Churches in Europe, the temples in China follow the same general principle. There is usually a main hall, housing 1-3 large golden-coloured statues (either of saints, gods or famous historical figures), often with some extra statues on the sides. In front of the main hall there is usually a courtyard, where there is a metal receptacle for burning incense candles. In some cases, there is a garden or some extra monuments nearby, sometimes even another such hall, now with different statues. And, of course, all of the walls are in shades of dark red. They are all quite impressive, but after seeing about 10 of them, they slowly start to get a bit repetitive, especially considering the statues all look the same to the untrained eye, and the legends (if they are translated to english) are unintelligible to someone not grown up in this cultural space.

Despite being a little fed up with the temples, I nevertheless continued on the recommended route - mainly due to the natural scenery. The path now followed the other side of the river, only a few hundred meters up a slope, providing a nice view of the town through the trees. The path again went up and down, which by the end became pretty exhausting, and I was quite relieved when the path finally decended out of the complex and into the city. As I wanted to return to the bus station, I now had to turn to ask for directions.

One more thing in China I have a quarrel with is a lack of accurate maps near the tourist attractions, which makes it very hard to navigate both inside them as well as between. The brochures all rely on schematics, assuming everyone can fill the missing details in themselves. The end result is that the maps are of some use, but the use mainly comes from helping to later remmember where you have already been. I was not in too bad of a state, having two offline maps at my disposal in my phone. These were of limited use, however, as both had a very low level of detail for the suburb I was in. The GPS receiver for the phone also refused to cooperate, often pointing kilometers away from where I should have actually been. All in all, this resulted in me having a very vague understanding of where I was at any given time. Thankfully, it was enough in most cases. However, a few strategically placed city maps would have made my life considerably easier.

When following the directions I got, I quite soon realized I was not quite where I wanted to be. I walked in the direction I thought the main gate was to be, but found a dead end waiting for me. Retracing my steps, I took the next parallel street and this time found that my sense of direction had indeed been correct, leading me to the bus station just in time to catch the bus back to the motel. The bus again sped off along the road lined on both side with small red national flags.

Other than the occasional national flag, there are very few hints to the fact that China is a communist country. To the contrary, most everything from the flasing signs to the wealth of small businesses point to the growing influence of capitalism in the society. During my visit, I did get to see one statue of Chairman Mao, but only because I explicitly went looking for it in central Chengdu on my final day there. If not for the weird characters everywhere, China (as I have seen it) might well be any other capitalist country in the view of a brief visitor.

On the way back, the bus took a different route than I expected, passing through the train station and then continuing towards the mountain from the wrong direction. I again had to guess when to jump off, but my intuition did not fail me and after a brief walk, I found myself right in the back of the tourist information center, among the red tents I had seen the day before when walking around. The tents were food stalls, selling all matter of local cuisine. After a quick tour, I opted for a bowl of noodles with seafood.

One thing worth noting is that Sichuan is known among Chinese as the province of spicy food. Considering normal chinese is already quite spicy you can imagine what Sichuan cuisine is like. As a hint - chilli seems to be a staple food, mixed half-n-half with whatever else is available (meat, potatoes, noodles, vegetables). And I only wish I was exaggerating, but for the more spicy foods that really was the case, and those were unedible for me as I quite quickly found out. Some of the foods had a little less spice, thankfully (think three chilis in an estonian restaurant menu), and as a fallback, there were always instant noodles. Oh, and in case you were wondering . yes, they also put chilli in their snacks and sweets too.

After the meal, it was getting dark so I headed for the motel, ready to go to sleep to prepare myself for the busy day ahead. The busy day that already started with the left foot when I had to wait for my train for 5 hours, and stretched very, very long with me being stuck in Northwestern China for 8 hours as we were waiting for a replacement plane... but that's a whole other story.