For the past three days, we put on hold our thematically-consistent travels up the Yangtze. We bid the river a brief goodbye back at Songji and rode a train northwest across the Sichuan basin to its opposite end at Chengdu. We’re here to take a look at this famously laid-back provincial capital, and to do some relaxing ourselves. Fortunately, that part of our plan complies with the city government’s current tourism development campaign. The part of our plan that didn’t mesh with what the government planned for us was our choice of accomodation.
Our arrival could have been better. After getting off the train at 8:30PM (yes, this means we failed the 8PM bedtime standard), we called the branch of the “7 Days Chain Hotel” we wanted to stay at to confirm they still had rooms. For those who don’t know, 7 Days Chain Hotel is the best thing to happen to foreigner families travelling in China since Nescafe instant coffee, or hand-san. Gone are the days of arriving in big cities and having to choose between smoky rooms with hair-covered carpets (the budget option) and really smoky rooms with really gross carpets (the higher-end option–maybe because richer travellers smoke and throw up more than those on a budget?). With 7 Days Chain Hotel, along with its slightly lesser peer “Like Home Inn,” now spreading across this great land, the highest luxuries in Chinese hoteldom–non-carpeted floor (actually gets cleaned), soft bed, and good plumbing–are finally available for cheap, and without the usual guesswork. Add to all that the fact that our 1-year-old strangely loves their pickled radish and cucumber breakfast sides, and we’re fans all three. And card-carrying frequent-guest members.
But this time, for complicated reasons involving a few too many online password attempts, we hadn’t been able to reserve ahead of time (it’s still China, after all). But sure, they said when we called, we still have rooms tonight and will hold one while you get a ride from the station.
Twenty minutes later we walked into the lobby. “It’s me, the foreigner who called you!” I announced to the receptionists, excited to have landed a great-value room at a downtown location next to a riverside park. But they just looked at me all weird, then at each other, then back at me. One of them piped up: “You’re a foreigner?” Why, yes indeed. “We can’t take foreigners at this location,” she said, then added hopefully, “Not yet!” But I just called you. “Maybe in the future we will have approval.” The other receptionist spoke up: “Actually, there are no places for foreigners to stay in this district. It’s not just us.” Back to the first: “Sorry. We didn’t know you were foreigners. Your wife’s also a foreigner, right? Your Chinese is pretty good!”
With Owen rubbing his tired little eyes and Bayley asking me what I’d done this time to mess everything up, the effort at flattery fell flat. But the receptionists then sprang into action, phoning across town to find the nearest 7 Days branch that had government
listening equipmentapproval for handling mischievous foreigners. With another address in hand, we got in another cab and backtracked across town again. When we arrived, my scruffy big-nosed foreign face elicited slightly embarassed smiles from everyone at the front desk.
Within Chinese society, there has long been a somewhat contradictory mix of undeserved admiration and paranoid suspicion of westerners (the latter being more prevalent among officials than the public). These conflicting attitudes sometimes result in excessive rules as well as tireless efforts to please. And as was the case here for the smiling hotel staff, the effect can be… awkward.
Anyway, the next few days in Chengdu were the vacation-within-a-“vacation” we’d been hoping for. Turns out, this was just what the local culture and tourism bureau had in mind for us. Across the city, billboards instructed us to 不想家, which literally means “Don’t miss home!” but which I suspect is actually the Chinese equivalent of “What happens in Vegas…” From the context, it seemed like the idea was to get tourists to let loose. But I remained confused as to the precise meaning of these instructions. I mean, nothing makes one miss home more than being part of a Chinese tour group, and no amount of signage can change that. And since “letting loose”in China is traditionally more the purview of travelling businessmen, I was left wondering just what kind of behavior the local officials were trying to encourage.
But despite not having the clearest instructions, we still enjoyed ourselves. Chengdu’s got its attractions: parks, teahouses, temples, a hint of Tibetan presence–and of course those cute pandas. We put in a full two days, minus afternoon nap times. And despite my initial skepticism, the pandas were probably the highlight. At the Great Panda Breeding Research Base north of the city, hordes of tourists get to crowd around pens of these famously bashful creatures, while scientists here ostensibly try to figure out how to get them to mate. That crowds of gawking Chinese onlookers holding up cellphone cameras and yelling would probably make anyone lose interest in sex is evidently not a serious consideration. Meanwhile, the real show-stealers were the red pandas, which had pried loose some of the fencing of their enclosure and wandered freely among the tourists, although ignoring their presence in their search of trash to sniff. Owen, who can now trot along at red panda walking speed, was right on their tail, calling out “Bahhr! Bahhr!” (Bear. Although not actually bears, we’ll wait ’til he’s two to teach him the Kingdom/Phylum/Class/Order/Family/Genus/Species classification system.) To the Chinese tourists and park staff, the sight of Owen chasing a red panda down the walkway seemed to be about the most exciting thing they could imagine happening at the Great Panda Breeding Research Base. I’m not sure that even a spontaneous Great Panda breeding orgy could have distracted them.
We rounded out our visit to Chengdu with a viewing of a Sichuan Opera performance. Mostly trashy vaudeville aimed at tour groups, the performances mish-mash together all the key elements: shadow puppets, fire breathing, key phrases in the local dialect, acrobatics, lasers shot into the audience’s eyes, and of course the rapid-fire mask-switching that is most famous. It is possible to pinpoint the lowest common denominator that these performances are designed for: our 1-year-old. Owen bounced up and down and clapped his whole way through the 1.5-hour show. At one point, a mask-switching performer, rushing down the aisle, even broke character: “So cute!” He yelled in English as he paused to wave to our transfixed toddler.
The performance also had an exciting conclusion: without warning, the actors suddenly broke into a rap, departing the storyline to deliver a hip-hop styled tourism commercial about all the things to do in Chengdu. At the end: “While in Chengdu, don’t miss home!”
We leave tomorrow, feeling refreshed from three days in our favorite non-carpeted hotel, and energized by those darn cute pandas. Also, nothing lifts the spirits like the professional ear-wax cleaning Bayley purchased at one of the tea houses. Tomorrow we head back down to the Yangtze, to the spot where its longest tributary, the Jinsha River, emerges from the mountains to the southwest. Home to numerous ethnic minorities and hopefully some decent roads, that region is where we’re going next.