Sunday, August 07, 2005

Cheech and Chengdu

Kunming Youth Hostel - Kunming, China
Chapter One Cafe - Kunming, China

The only tickets available from Xi'an to Chengdu were first class ("soft sleeper"). By going first class we lost a bit of backpacker cred and a small amount of extra money and gained a good night's sleep. There are 4 bunk-style beds per cabin with a small table between - just like on the Russian trains. The cars are clean, you get a constantly filled jug of boiled water, and (best of all) there are Western-style toilets. They should call it "no squat" class. It was a good trade.

We made a new friend almost immediately after boarding the train. Joe was 14, visiting Chengdu from Xi'an, and very keen to use his excellent English. He must go to a very good school. His language skills easily beat out Lily and Vicki who are studying English in university and are at least 6 years older. I think Joe may be the best Chinese speaker of English that we have come across. He asked us a load of questions about where we were from, what we were doing, and the like. I asked him to sit for an interview (I have started doing that for the documentary) and he agreed to call me the day after arrival.

The next morning before we pulled into Chengdu, Joe asked for a bit of help. His father was meant to meet him and his mother, but was going to be delayed. They wanted to hang out for a few hours in our hotel. I am not sure why the could not wait it out in the station or in just any hotel lobby, but I also saw no reason to refuse the request. The four of us jumped in a cab and headed over to the Hotel Jinhe. We got Joe to help us order a bit of breakfast before he and his mom split.

Our room had an internet hookup. We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon making use it. One problem though - nearly 50% packet loss between us and the server where the OC site lives. Network diagnostic tools (mtr is da bomb) indicated the issue was with our first upstream router. Lame. The flakey connect was enough to upload a backlog of articles and read/write email. Jason struggled mightily to upload photo albums, but our need for long-lived FTP connections was more than the local IP networks could fully satisfy.

Erin L hooked me up with some local friends and we arranged to meet them over dinner. Sichuan hot pot was the only thing that could disrupt our lethargy of HTTP. Matt and Apple picked us up at the Jinhe in their newly acquired monster truck. Size matters in Chinese traffic and we cruised with confidence to the restaurant. I will write more about the food in a separate article, but suffice to say it was spicy, full of new experiences, and the company was very good. Apple arranges tours and treks and was an excellent resource for local sites. She scored us some cheapo tickets to the local opera between courses. It was a nice night out.

The laundry urgency gauge was getting close to the red line. The Jinhe only offered expensive full-service laundry. Jason found some info on the interweb that led us to believe that the Holiday Inn (Chengdu's luxury hotel) had self-service laundry. We trekked across downtown across the watchful gaze of a giant Mao statue to get the scoop. Several very helpful members of staff conspired to direct us to the 2nd and a half floor. This is the hidden deck where the housekeeping and kitchen facilities are. We akwardly stumbled around for a bit getting very surprised looks from just about everyone. I expected to get chucked out by security at any time, but we were let alone to wander. We saw some impressively large laundry equipment, but nothing that look available for amateur use.

It was time to seek spiritual intervention. The Buddhist temple in the northern part of town offered tranquil halls with ancient artworks and a relaxing garden filled with relaxing pilgrims. I like Buddhist temples. Incense smoke and old wood are some of my favorite aromas. We had an adventurous vegetarian lunch on the temple grounds. The menu was filled with dishes like "7 Spirits Under Pumpkin" and "Tiger Paw with Musk Scent".

Renewed, we headed back to the hotel. I took off soon after to investigate another temple and an ornamental gardens. Jason stayed behind to heroically hand wash his stinky underthings. I did not manage to find the temple, but the park was very nice. I spent an hour drinking beer and reading some Dostoevsky. "Notes from Underground" was really striking a cord with me.

Core OC personnel reunited back in da room and we headed a bit south to a temple for the opera. Apple and Matt arrived shortly after in The Tank and walked us to the venue. Tickets sorted, they split. The "opera house" was a courtyard among the temple halls. Rows of rattan chairs broken up by small tables faced a large stage. All guests are treated to tea, peanuts, and a small fan. I employed the services of an older gentleman who administered an unusual but enjoyable massage and cleaned my ears. The latter operation involved sticking cotton-tipped pins into my ears and rubbing them against a vibrating metal rod. It is a very strange sensation and the whole procedure is of dubious effectiveness.

The "opera" was more of a showcase of local styles rather than a coherent production. There was a fair amount of the expected complex costume and make-up, ritualized dancing, and warbled singing as well as some acrobatic comedy and puppets of both the shadow and conventional varieties. I was hoping for live performance of traditional music, but most everything played out to a recorded soundtrack with a suspiciously disco feel. All in all, our time could have been spent better elsewhere.

We checked out of the hotel early the next morning and set about trying to get train tickets for that evening. The ticket office in town told us there was nothing available until the next day. Near the office, we were approached by a woman that claimed she could sell us places in a sleeper car that day. After some labored conversation, we decided not to risk $40 on possibly bogus tickets. Matt R told us later that train tickets are sold up to 3 days in advance, are refundable for 95% of value before the train departs, and are not tied to a specific passenger. As there is so little risk, it is common for free-lancers to resell tickets.

A very helpful travel agent eventually secured us seated tickets for the next day and assured us it was possible to upgrade to sleeper on the train. After a bit of shopping, we checked back into the hotel (where they did not seem to recognize us at all). We devoted our unexpected extra night in Chengdu to getting drunk and meeting girls. We were much more successful in the first than the second. Matt R pointed us in the right direction and came out for a couple and a bit of food before turning us loose. I was tired and in a bad mood. I think Jason may have been as well. We called the lifeless outing early.

There was a big rain storm on Friday that we watched from the comfort of the hotel. It had been a long time since I had seen lightning and heard thunder. We headed to the train station around 3 and boarded the train for Kunming shortly after 4.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good lord you guys are alive. Happy to read your stomachaches and such. But am too tired to leave proper comment. This will have to do for the moment. Fingers... tired.

8/09/2005 2:15 AM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh that was from Jing.

8/09/2005 2:15 AM gmt

Blogger jason said...

Alive and kicking. Although currently, I'm recovering from a bout of the Chinese Death Flu, and Mike is suffering through an insolent valve.

8/10/2005 4:53 AM gmt


Post a Comment

<< Home