Two and a half weeks ago we arrived in Chengdu, and funnily enough we are still here. It’s been good to settle into this megacity for a while and to feel like a local instead of a nomad. The reason for our stop was not so nice unfortunately.
Cyril got an acute hearing problem and needed to be treated in the hospital. Two weeks ago we went to Huaxiba International Hospital where Cyril got diagnosed with sudden deafness, a weird condition that needs immediate treatment to have a chance of recovery. Luckily the hospital and the prescribed treatment were excellent and his hearing is almost back to normal. A special big thank you to our new friend nurse Zhang! She performed the daily injections and invited us for a lovely day out with her family last weekend.
Going to a Chinese hospital is (just like traveling on the train) an interesting experience. On the first day we ended up in a chaotic A&E. Waiting times of a few hours, nobody who spoke English, a confusing system of payments, receipts and other procedures we didn’t quite get. Cyril got the medical advice to come back for daily medicine transfusions. In addition to this he got prescribed the more holistic advice of cheerful demeanour, a lot of sleep and no more meat, only vegetarian food. Luckily he could continue treatment in the International Hospital next door. Staff here speak English so we could actually understand what was happening. This is the place where important government officials, rich people and Western long-haul cycling bums go if they need treatment.
Since the treatment only took an hour every day and Cyril was not in pain we got the opportunity to kick back and relax for a while.
So there we are, forced to stay in Chengdu for one week. Forced to slow down to an absolute standstill after months of being on the move. We feel we are both quite tired so we listen to the doctors advice and sleep a lot. As one of Cyrils friends says: Zen, godverdomme!
It’s a gigantic city but there are not that many tourist highlights, which helps a lot with our mission to do as little as possible. Since I am recovering fast from my cold I tick off the not-to-be missed highlights in the mornings while Cyril gets his treatment. Panda’s, temples, Tibetan culture and more great food. I do eat a ducks head but don’t feel brave enough to try the chicken claws.
After one week Cyril gets the advice to continue the treatment for another week. This is good news because it means the treatment is working, but it is bad news because we were eager to get going again. We settle in for another lazy week at our hotel. We have stopped over in cities before but never before have we been this slow, we were always out and about, trying to do and see as much as possible.
Giant Panda Research Base
The panda’s are much cooler than I expected. I get up at 6am, to be there for their feeding time and to beat the tourist hordes. The Giant Panda Research Base is beautiful, with lanes meandering through bamboo forests. I wander around until I’m eye to eye with two panda’s who are munching on bamboo. Later I find more, climbing trees and playing, rolling around and pushing each other. They are super entertaining.
But I think I love the bushy tailed Red Panda even more:
Most people in the West know of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army annexed Tibet in 1951 and came to an agreement with the then 15 year old Dalai Lama. In 1959 however the Dalai Lama fled, denounced the agreement and established a government in exile after Tibetan uprisings against the oppressive Chinese rule. Some 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and thousands of people died during the Great Leap Forward and the retaliation after the Tibetan uprising of ’59. For most Westerners it would appear that the Tibetans are virtual prisoners of the Chinese government ever since.
It is strange then, to see a whole tranquil Tibetan neighbourhood in a quintessential Chinese city. Most of the 60.000 Tibetans living in Chengdu’s Little Lhasa are not from the Tibetan Autonomous Region but from Tibetan prefectures in the surrounding Chinese provinces. They are one of the 56 recognised ethnic groups living in China and as such free to practice there culture.
There are shops selling Tibetan buddhist paraphernalia, monks wander around, restaurants serve momo and yak butter tea. The same thing however happens in these Tibetan provinces as in Xinjiang: Han Chinese are encouraged to move to the Tibetan regions, roads are being built, their culture gets ‘disneyfied’ in a similar way as we saw in the Kashgar Old Town.
For non-Chinese it is difficult to obtain visa for Tibet, but Chinese are of course free to go. It is popular with Chinese bicycle travellers. Our warmshowers host Zhu has cycled to Lhasa, and we are envious when we see the pictures of her trip.
In the evenings we meet up with some great locals, mostly other cyclists who stopped over in Chengdu and decided to stay for a year. They are earning good money for the rest of their trip by teaching English. Scott & Sarah, Rae, Sean and Robin make us feel like locals by providing a great instant social life. We see some of our cycling friends from the Pamirs come and go as well.
It is very odd to be settled into some sort of urban routine for two weeks after half a year on the road. We have never stopped this long before, and never before have we done so little. This does something strange to our sense of time, and after two weeks it is hard to tell how long we have been here. Cycling feels like a lifetime away. I am tempted to stay here too and find a job, if only the air pollution wasn’t so bad. Eventually we decide we will move out of our Hotel California and go to a warm showers host, to get off our lazy butts and to get closer to the cycling vibe again.
Traversing megapolis Chengdu
We cycle 20km South and find we are still very much in the city. Since Chengdu is home to about 14 million people it takes a while before you reach the edge of the city. Amsterdam is a quaint hamlet by comparison. This is the first time we physically experience a megapolis. Cycling through a city of millions is quite different from merely reading about it. Without the physical experience it is so hard to comprehend the consequences of this big scale urban fabric. It is exhilarating to cycle through the landscape that Le Corbusier envisioned: endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks stretch towards the smoggy horizon, surrounded by small patches of green, intersected by highways with separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. At the foot of the apartment blocks are eateries, gaming arcades, beauty salons. There are shopping malls. The lanes are wide and well organised but busy, it is noisy and the air is dirty. As we cycle South along such a high-rise highway we see a building frenzy going on all around us. New blocks are being erected everywhere, new houses for the millions. It is a breathtaking sight, it would be futuristic if it wasn’t happening right here and right now.
Small town Chengdu
Parallel to experiencing the enormous and seemingly inhuman scale of the city it is getting less intimidating as we are getting to know it better. We can now find our way around by bike, by taxi or by metro. We get a feel for the different neighbourhoods and find pockets of quiet and old fashioned living in-between the highrise. In our neighbourhood we start seeing familiar faces who we greet on our way to the metro station. We develop a taste for certain dishes and cafes. In one little park we see old people playing classical Chinese music. I try to dance along with the people who exercise some sort of line-dancing in the park every night. Every night we hear the particular chime of a street vendor when he comes through our street.
Chengdu is also the place where we meet some locals who speak good English. We make some friends and get some small but interesting insights in Chinese life at individual level. Just like in Iran it is not at all surprising that there are many contradictions and nuances. Even if we will never grasp all of this gigantic country with its many cultures and the consequences of its long and complicated history, maybe we got a tiny bit closer to understanding.
The government is widely supported and can take credit for making China an economic superpower. Many things have improved for a lot of Chinese people since Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution: literacy has increased enormously, as has life expectancy. There is now a middle class of 300 million people who gets to travel and enjoy the finer things in life. This stability and prosperity come with a price tag attached though. Crackdowns on separatist movements, severe restriction of freedom of speech, media and internet censorship and other blatant disregard for the basic human rights we generally take for granted. Another huge concern is the high level of air pollution in the big cities, even if China invests billions in clean energy.
When we meet up with nurse Zhang we also get to meet her mother and her mother-in-law. Nurse Zhang is our age. They are both lovely ladies and they are enjoying the time spent with their grandchildren. Nurse Zhang has brought her two children along; Parker is 9 years old, and Mei Mei (little sister) was born after the one child policy was lifted in 2015. We talk about how different China is today from what I saw 16 years ago. I mention I notice the prosperity and nurse Zhang says, yes, not so long ago there was hunger. Her mother and her mother-in-law experienced hunger during the economic reform (read: disaster) of the Great Leap Forward. It wasn’t just the Tibetans who suffered during that time: all of China did. It is estimated that between 18 million and 40 million people died during the campaign. I look at her elder family differently now, they have been through so much.
A few days later we meet Zhu, our twenty-something warm showers host. I try to practice my Chinese and tell her about our siblings. Wo you mei mei, wo you didi. I have a younger sister, I have a younger brother. Zhu and her flatmate tell me they have no siblings; they are from the one child policy generation. Together we watch the crazy news about Trump being elected president of the USA. They are the internet generation and very well informed. They do not agree with the strict internet censorship of the Chinese government. Apparently 70% of the Chinese people still lives in the countryside and doesn’t have more than primary school education. As a consequence they are quite easily led by the state controlled media. Educated people however know very well about news and opinions in the rest of the world and they are hoping for a gradual change in China.
China for the win
All in all I really like the China of today, even despite the obvious objections I have against a non-democratic government that violates human rights. There seems to be a renewed national confidence after the hardships of the last century and the future looks bright. Chinese culture is back en vogue with the Chinese after much of the classical imperial culture was stamped out during the cultural revolution. You can see this revival in the fashion, with detailing referring to classical hanfu and cheongsam clothes. Confucianism is experiencing a comeback. There are fancy tea shops where elegant hostesses perform a tea ceremony and you can find a tea that is fertilised with panda poo. Ultimately the rebuilding of previously destroyed Qing and Ming era neighbourhoods show this new nationalist reappreciation of the pre-communist past.
When I was here 16 years ago there was none of this, only some classical art forms such as calligraphy, Beijing opera and Chinese medicine had survived the cultural revolution, and of course there were the cultural treasures of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. But in everyday life on the streets it looked as if everybody wanted to emulate Western culture and not in a good way. It looked a bit cheap and not at all creative or interesting, as it does today. Of course this interest in Western culture and products is still here, with Starbucks and Zara in the highstreet and a Swiss watch and a BMW being the ultimate status symbols. But the Chinese are on a roll. They really no longer need our Western products to have an edge, they are making their own Chinese brand of cool.
The above observations are of course only applicable to life in the cities as we observed it in the last few weeks. I am really curious to find out about life in the countryside. That is where the majority of the Chinese still live, despite the rapid urbanisation that is happening here as it is in the rest of the world.
On our last evening in Chengdu we celebrate the birthday of Zhu’s flatmate. We sing Dutch birthday songs and we watch Chinese superstars sing on tv. We feel at home here. But, tomorrow we go back to our nomadic lives, on the road again, and into rural China.