Thursday, November 25, 2010

Day Two in Chengdu - a bit of the past, a bit of the present and a bit of Tibet

The prospect of another late start – my traveling partners had things to do – meant that I had the time to take a more leisurely stroll down the river. I could see what appeared to be an old tower on the far bank, perhaps a half-mile away and so I set that as my destination. Crossing the road today was much easier and I was on the tree-lined promenade in no time.

True to form, the sky was almost completely opaque although the sun did peep through when the passing clouds offered a momentary break. On these rare occasions it was reflected in the lead colored river water, a reminder that it was there above all that bad air. On my previous walk I had seen what appeared to be a long skein of colorful prayer flags spanning the river in front of a gray stone bridge just up ahead. Due to a long shared history and physical proximity, there are a lot of shared cultural aspects between here and Tibet or Xinjiang as it’s officially known and so their presence would not be unexpected. As I got closer I was quickly disabused of that romantic notion as my flags turned out to be plastic triangles warning boaters of an impending dam that spanned the river up ahead. A Little Egret was perched about mid-stream scanning the water for a morning snack.

I crossed on the bridge and found my way along a paved path that ran parallel to a bar street. Unlike the prim and neat walk on the far side, this one was typical of humans in contact with lots of alcohol – food containers, empty beer bottles and the occasional splash of dried vomit no doubt induced by lethal combinations of those two items. An elderly couple was picking their way through a row of bushes, collecting discarded bottles, no doubt for recycling. Of course in China you never know if the bottles will be recycled solely for their value as glass or if they’ll be refilled with counterfeit beer, re-capped and sold again the next night.

The tower turned out to be the centerpiece of Wangjiang Park (which appropriately means “overlooking the river”). It was built in 1889 during the Qing Dynasty ostensibly as a place for students to gain luck before the Imperial Exams. Upon its completion, the architect revealed that he had in fact built it to honor Xue Tao, a Tang Dynasty poet who is said to have lived here. Her statue stands today in a small glade of bamboo off to the side of one of the paths that wind through the park. While the tower and its accompanying buildings were pretty, the real attraction was the large stands of cultivated bamboo – more than 150 varieties including some with 5 inch trunks. Some workers were busy watering the groves with a fire hose; I walked past trying to see how many unique plants I could pick out.

Susu retrieved me from the hotel around noon and we headed across town to collect Ben and Sahsa. As she wound through the traffic she made a phone call and I asked her if her car had the same direct connection Bluetooth capability as mine did. Being able to link your phone to your car and speak hands free would be a great boon in Chinese traffic in my opinion. She said “no” her car did not have “Lanya”. After a couple of clarifying questions I pulled out my phone to see if I could figure out just what that meant. My translation software did have it and it became one of those foreign language moments that make you slap your forehead. “Lanya” was literally “blue tooth” or perhaps more accurately a “blue colored tooth.” Well duh, sometimes things are as simple as they seem to be.

We arrived in Ben and Sahsa’s neighborhood and found them in a Muslim noodle shop across from their apartment block. In my two years of living here I’ve never been brave enough to walk in and eat in a place like this. While dining in local restaurants was regular fare for me, these places with no menus and little English and Chinese well beyond my ken were a bit daunting. Added to those obstacles was the fact that the food was downright scary to me, prepared on questionable surfaces with no refrigeration and with little oversight. While it’s probably true that the hidden side of my regular restaurants was no different, seeing the giant blackened boiling cauldron in the front window being fed raw materials by regular people didn’t go nearly far enough in maintaining the illusion necessary for me to be comfortable. So I avoided places like this and instead traded away the opportunity for a genuine experience in order to keep my feeling of security.

But this trip was different and I was in the company of locals. I pulled up a stool and took my seat at a low table covered with a vinyl floral tablecloth. Ben and Sahsa were already eating and I asked for the same. After a debate about exactly what “the same” was, a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup appeared before me. I was expecting a bowl of lamb soup and after much yelling and waving of arms that too appeared along with a plate of cold condiments – chile sauce, cilantro and onions. Ben ordered what would best be called a quesadilla of grilled beef and some sort of sauce which was quite delicious. The food was excellent and I was glad I’d finally stepped outside my comfort zone to try it.

We had a bunch of places picked out for today, all of which were located within Chengdu proper. Our first stop was the Temple of the Marquis Wuhou, a monument to the very famous and successful general Zhuge Liang who fought for the emperor Lu Bei during the Three Kingdoms era. A bit of a misnomer – there weren’t really three “kingdoms” - the period filled a gap between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the rise of the Jin. The history was romanticized in a very famous novel called “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” telling the tale of the Cao Wei, Shu Han and Dong Wu clans and their intrigues and struggles. Spanning the period of 220 to 280 AD it was a time of extreme hardship and destruction resulting in the death of nearly one-half of the total population. The temple grounds house both a monument to Zhuge as well as Lu Bei’s tomb. Built separately, they were merged during the Ming Dynasty (1600’s) with Zhuge receiving the better treatment due to his larger role in the history of the country. In addition to some beautiful buildings, you can wander down long alleys lined by tall walls that form large concentric rings around the emperor’s tomb. There is an incomparable bonsai forest in between the first and second ring, with trees unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Jinli Street is to the east of the temple complex and we stopped there is a small second story café for a hot cup of espresso. This district was once the main trading center for the capital city of the Shu Han bringing in merchants from all over the world. It was one of the final stops on the Silk Road as it made its way northeast to Xi’an. Like most reconstructed mercantile districts in China, this one too was making most of its money from imitation art and cheap souvenirs. But some shops still featured the rich silk brocade that this part of China has been producing for more and 2000 years.

The oldest and most famous Taoist Temple in China was our next stop. Qingyang or “green goat” is dedicated to the founder of Taoism, Lao Zi. The highlight for me was the pair of bronze goats that stood outside the main hall. One of the goats was a goat in name only. Instead of a normal conformation this one was constructed of many disparate pieces – the ears of a mouse, the nose of an ox, a tiger's claw, a rabbit's mouth, the horns of the dragon, a snake for a tail, a horse's face, the beard of a goat, a monkey's neck, a chicken's eyes, a dog's belly and a pig's thighs. Much of this odd fellow was rubbed to a shiny bright bronze as it is said that if you rub it in the place where your body hurts, you will be cured.

It was closing in on late afternoon when we found our way to the Jinsha Museum. Occupying a site discovered during a construction project in 2001, today the museum houses hundreds of thousands of artifacts from a culture that flourished here more than 3000 years ago. Chief among these are nearly 20,000 elephant tusks offered in some sort of religious ceremonies. I found it odd to think of elephants here, but apparently the region was much more tropical in the past. The main building was somewhat of a disappointment – dozens of layered pits in various states of excavation that had nothing in them. I couldn’t quite fathom why they had gone to the expense to create a venue that really had so little to offer. As we strolled through admiring the various level of terraced dirt I spent some time entertaining a group of elementary school students who found my presence there quite shocking. We gabbed back and forth in Chinese and English and they spent most of their time in hysterical fits of giggling. I had a nice conversation with their teacher who had the same camera as I did, comparing our thoughts on lenses and his goofy students.

The second half of the complex was dedicated to Shu era artifacts and was truly spectacular – a collection of gold, jade and stone artifacts worthy of any of the great museums of the world. The presentation was wonderful – darkened rooms with walls formed by hanging steel chains and the only lighting coming from above and down onto display cases filled with the most beautiful art. Thousands and thousands of pieces ranging from a collection of tiny turquoise buttons to long ceremonial jade spearheads. There were several small masks made of hammered gold that looked remarkable Mayan, the kind of similarity that always gets me thinking about how disparate cultures seem to end up in the same places artistically. The centerpiece of the show was a 6 inch wide disk of thin gold foil formed into a circle of connected birds. Truly marvelous and considered a national treasure.
After a quick stop at Metro for a couple of bottles of wine, we collected Susu’s sister and went on to dinner at a place renowned for its variety of mushrooms. Like all traditional hot pot places this one featured a roiling vat of hot chile oil in the center of the table controlled by a burner built into the brick base. The waitresses brought dozens of plates of raw mushrooms, some recognizable, others unknown to me. We boiled them in the hot oil creating what seemed like a never ending feast of spicy hot food. We spent some time discussing a group of people sitting opposite from us - a western woman, two Chinese girls and a Chinese man. Our analysis of body language, conversation and gestures didn’t lead us to any conclusions. Husband, wife and daughters or honored guest from the west – it wasn’t clear. The conversation circled back to our table with the women getting pretty noisy regarding whatever it was they were discussing. This is the funny thing about being semi-lingual – you get some of it but not all of it and when you’re 1 of 4 people you pretty much tuck yourself into your own thoughts and let them ramble on. It’s not a bad thing, and it can be fun to listen even if you have no idea what they’re talking about. But it’s always nice to have one person to bring you in. The women stopped talking and started to laugh. Ben put down his glass of wine, looked at me and told me that the ladies had decided that I was the best looking American that they had ever seen.

Our last stop of the night was the Lhasa Bar, a bit of shared culture that made up for the disappointing flags back at the river. We ordered Tibetan beers and a small barrel of Qingke, the fermented barley drink of the Himalayan Plateau. We took a seat off to the side of a stage and sat back and enjoyed the floor show. Tibetan folk singers in traditional costumes performed for us while bar patrons bought white silk khata scarves to place around the performer’s shoulders as a display of appreciation. On a balcony above us, the requisite table full of drunken men pounded beers yelled at each other and threatened to fall over the railing and down onto our table. A little boy, perhaps five, ran around the bar jumping on couches and tables. The cigarette smoke was stifling. I nursed my glass of that sweet barley nectar until Susu announced that she couldn’t stand the smoke. We packed up, downed our glasses and went out into the cool night air.

































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