24.11.2013 - 25.11.2013 14 °C
It seemed so easy: book in online, get an early drop off at the airport, drop my bags and have a sweet time hanging out airside at the LCCT. Hah! The first two worked out fine, but then I encountered Air Asia's organisation of their check in procedures. The computer screen said to go to particular counters: I did so and asked a staff member if it was the right place (she said it was). With zero movement in the queue and me thinking there must be a bag drop line, I asked the same staff member if there was - "Oh yes, go round the other side". Another huge queue, one which had formed itself into a spiral. But then I saw some check in desks for India and China - solution! Nope, China to Air Asia means Hong Kong only, back into the spiral. I didn't even have the consolation I had in Sydney - there, one girl was conversing with her friend solely by singing her responses, musical theatre style. Then the two girls behind me break out of the spiral and make for some special desks - I had the foresight to ask where they were going: Chengdu. That's how Air Asia functions in KL - it makes people queue for hours, then just before each flight is about to board, allows those on that flight to go to the special counters IF they can make out what is being mumbled through the PA system at the other end of the departures area. I clear immigration only to hear "Final boarding announcement for flight D7 320 to Chengdu". Air Asia doesn't do airbridges - we walk along the edge of the apron - our plane was last of about 8. Once on board I could watch at least a quarter of the passengers follow me - at least Air Asia had the decency to make sure everyone was in, although it made us about 20 minutes late.
The flight itself was spectacular, very little cloud for the last hour, so I could see the mountains and rivers of western China and Tibet. Chengdu from the air was like nothing I have seen before - it has obviously recently grown very quickly, onto farmland - it is still there as a backdrop, with lots and lots of clumps of shiny new high rise buildings as well as industrial sites and even some clumps of mansions. It looked more like an electrical circuit board than a city, at least till we got to the older part. Clearing immigration and customs was a breeze (I had all sorts of forebodings about them taking my laptop and finding the VPN and confiscating it - no-one even looked at me). Thanks to the excellent map provided by my hostel, I could show the bus conductor where I needed to get off, and found the hostel with no problem.
But in my walk around the area, I became aware that there is a problem: food. There's a restaurant directly across the road, and them menu is painted on the wall in heavy blocks of Chinese (at least I think it was the menu, but for all I know it could have been instructions for pulling apart a lawnmower engine). Almost every place I saw was the same, no pictures, no English - I was starting to think I am going to have a very hungry month when I noticed a "Highly Traditional Fried Duck" cafe, then another with pictures of the food they cook I'll be able to point to. It was too early to eat, so I kept wandering, into the abomination known as Chunxi Shopping Street. It is a part of Chengdu with a long history, but is now Chengdu's main shopping area - I lasted two blocks. Most shops seemed to be clothing shop: every one of them had a barker (who was bellowing into a cheap megaphine) and an assistant barker (who was clapping her hands). What with the various sound systems also operating, the fact there were no shops of interest to me and the hundreds of people milling about, I had to get out. Luckily I found refuge in what calls itself a coffee house but is really a restaurant. They had an English menu and the Bangles on the stereo, although the staff addressed me solely in Chinese. I managed to get myself some very nice cake, a couple of beers and a wonderful dish comprised of short bits of pork rib, green beans, capsicum, cumin and chilli.
The walk proved one thing: I should go nowhere without a camera. Just minutes from the hostel, I came across the entire staff of a restaurant - servers with their aprons, chefs with their white hats, at least 50 of them, all lined up in military formation on the footpath being addressed by some weedy wee fellow. I wanted to hang around to see if they were going to frogmarch into the restaurant, but several broke ranks to look at me and giggle, so I thought I'd better leave them to it. Then I ran into a fellow, obviously thinking he was pretty cool, but he was wearing a onesie, black with white polka dots! At least the next person I saw wearing one, yolk yellow, looked at me as if to say "I know, but my work makes me wear it". Something else I noticed: as in most Asian cities, there are lots of people on scooters, and they''ll be on the footpath, on the cycle path and on the road but not too fussed about the direction taken. Here, however, the scooters are electric, so (a) they tend not to use any lights and (b) they're an absolutely silent peril to deal with.
Today was more of the same, wandering about but with three objectives. I had to go up to the north Railway Station
to get my ticket out of here, which meant first going on the metro. Easy as, as it happens. Even getting the train ticket was no big drama, although the booking hall is a bit confronting:
I had found the train I wanted, and found the Chinese characters for the town I am going to next as well as for the lowest of the three bunks in a hard sleeper, and in a very clumsy way drawn them on paper. The booking clerk person seemed to have no trouble understanding what I wanted - the ticket she gave me has the right date, train and place, although I can't see where my accomodations are recorded. Nearby I noticed a couple of dumpling restaurants in what turned out to be the bus station. Although again no English was spoken, the girl behind the counter seemed vastly amused at the challenge of getting me fed, although on the whole she struck me as quite serious
and pointed to a picture of a dish which my observations confirmed was the most popular thing on the menu (a very soft minute steak, with dumplings and a fried egg (very hard to eat with chopsticks)):
Then I had to go south to check out an English language bookstore, lending library and cafe called the Bookworm, where I whiled away some time over a coffee and carrot cake reading (thanks to the random nature of what I have downloaded to my tablet) William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. This is what the entrance to a real Chinese restaurant looks like
In my wanders, I noticed quite a theme, and not just in this restaurant:
The third thing was to go to the New Century Global Centre, which is the largest building (by floor space) in the world
The mall was a touch on the gaudy side, and even had electronic fish swimming up the escalators
Inside, I certainly had a sense of how huge it is, although there are only four floors of shopping, and a lot of the top floor is taken up with an IMAX theatre and very large skating rink. I was very impressed with the width of the corridors and the stud - they've certainly not crammed the shops in here. One of the things that drew me here was the fact that they have put a proper sand beach into the mall, but I was too much of a cheapskate to actually pay to go see it. Instead, I watched adults laugh so much they cried riding these
I had a bit of a cock-up on the catering front when it came to ordering dinn,er. I was successful in ordering BBQ Pork, cabbage and beer, but when it came to ordering rice, my waitress didn't know what I meant, so I pointed to a picture of some - unfortunately it was part of a larger meal, so guess what turned up
The tables were fixed to the floor: the three year old boy at the next one was having a great time - he'd shove the table as hard as he could to make things rattle, and then laugh uproarously, until it was time to do it again. And that's what I'm loving about Chengdu, just watching people go about doing what they do. Being a little indiscreet for a moment, I've been thinking that if I had grown up here, I wouldn't have made it through my teens, as even at my grand old age, I've been acutely aware of how heart-stoppingly beautiful many of the women are.