We arrived in the early evening in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. We had the name of the Super 8 Hotel written in Chinese on a piece of paper along with its address near the Sichuan University in the south end of the city but the taxi driver didn't seem at all confident as to its location. I consulted the compass Jeong Ae had purchased for me in Xi'an and knew that we were headed in a northerly direction, when suddenly Anil spotted the familiar yellow sign on the left hand side of the road. I'm not sure where we would have ended up if he didn't have such sharp eyes. More and more, we realize that each one of our group has something to contribute as we navigate our way around China on our own steam.
Here, the Super 8 occupies the fifth and sixth floors of a shopping centre/residential complex. There are dozens and dozens of restaurants and high-end shops all around and we have been able to get everything we need with out having to travel far. The area is teeming with University students and there is a youthful energy on the streets. However, Chengdu has few of the skyscrapers common in Shanghai and Beijing and there is a more relaxed pace to the city. Again the streets and sidewalks are amazingly wide, but here many small hedges and overhanging trees separate the bike/motorbike lanes along the edges of the main streets instead of metal fences.
The weather continues to be overcast, and I was told that this is typical of Chengdu weather. Apparently, there is a saying that "when a dog sees the sun in Chengdu, he becomes very excited and begins to bark". A young woman told me that Chengdu girls are famous for their fair complexions because the sun never shines to darker them. We have been here for one week now, and the temperatures are starting to drop as we near the end of October. All the residents are now wearing their darker clothing and many girls have donned fashionable knee-high boots and high-necked sweaters. We look a little out of place, as most of our clothing is intended for the warmer weather we expect to find as we move south from China into Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. It hardly warrants buying fall clothes for a week or two, so we just layer things and don't worry about following the fashionistas on the streets.
The oranges are in season now and carts and baskets of fruit with their leaves still attached are everywhere. The tiny, sweet, Clementine oranges are my favorite but Anil and David buy the large Mandarin variety because they tire of peeling so many of the small ones. After several weeks of Chinese food, we decided to try Peter's Tex Mex just down the street from our hotel. It is recommended in our travel guide and we wanted to celebrate a special day for the Lalondes. Jeong Ae was twenty-six when she arrived in Canada on October 26th, twenty-six years ago. Now she was flying back to Edmonton, leaving here on October 26th. Seeing that we are all numbers people, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to have a great meal and a nice bottle of red wine. Anil pointed out that "2" and "6" add up to "8", a very lucky number according to the Chinese.
The next day we found a laundry conveniently located at the rear of our building. Once we had arranged to have Tibet washed out of all our clothes, we asked the young man at the laundry where we could go to purchase a plane ticket for Jeong Ae to fly to Beijing. As so often happens, he picked up his mobile phone and before we knew it, we were giving him all the details for her flight. David went off to get some yuan from the ATM nearby, and before he returned, the ticket was delivered to the laundry. Now, you tell me, how's that for service?
We were delighted to learn that the owner of the laundry speaks excellent English, he studied it in University, so he told us. We started asking him all kinds of questions and he was a wealth of information. David and I both wanted to get some dental work done, but didn't know how to start looking for a reputable dentist. I had begun to have some discomfort with a cracked crown I was hoping to have replaced in Mumbai by our niece's husband. He had done the original crown many years ago and it had now had to be replaced. I didn't want to wait any longer in case it became abscessed when I was in a remote place and would not be able to get good dental care. Our new friend (it turns out his English name is "Hunter") told us that the University Dental Clinic has the best reputation for dentistry in all of China and that we could go there. Hunter gave us his mobile number and his email address and encouraged us to call or write to him anytime we had a question or problem while we were in China. Again, who would think to find this kind of contact at a local Chinese laundry?
David and I set off for the Dental College right after lunch and much to my surprise, I walked out a couple of hours later with a temporary crown and an appointment for the permanent crown to be set four days later. David wants to get four crowns done on his lower front teeth, but they were reluctant to do them because they would not be as strong for biting as his permanent ones are now. He was pleased they didn't just rush right in and instead they gave him sound advice. I was surprised to see that many of the dental professors, and most of the students are women. It was the young third year student that told me about Chengdu weather and the saying about dogs barking at the sun. She was assigned to me because her English was the best of all of the students and she was a delight to speak with. I wish I could package her up and take her along with us.
It was hard to say goodbye to Jeong Ae, but we promised to make October travels together and annual event and she left for the airport to catch her flight to Beijing. She had scheduled her ticket so that she would have only a couple of hours wait at the airport for her connecting Air Canada flight to Vancouver.
There are several great places to visit outside of Chengdu, but we decided to have an easy day on the Saturday after Jeong Ae left so we decided to visit the Wen Shu Temple in the central part of the city. Before we set off, we tried calling Jeong Ae on Skype and were delighted when she answered on the second ring. She sounded tired so we asked if she was already in Edmonton and she said, "No, still in Beijing!". It turned out a thick blanket of fog had socked in most of northern China and her 11:30am flight from Chengdu was delayed several hours. She waited for four hours in the Chengdu airport after passing through security, and then another three hours on the runway before taking off in the early evening. By then, she had missed her Air Canada flight but luckily, she had a GPS phone and was able to call Air Canada and make arrangements for a seat on the flight the following day. Too bad, it would have been better if she had spent the extra day with us instead of alone in a hotel in Beijing. Still, we learned she reached home safely in the end, and that's what really matters.
We had a great visit to the Wen Shu temple. It is located in one of the older parts of the city and much to our surprise there was a carnival-like atmosphere in the streets surrounding the temple on Saturday afternoon. We couldn't read all the red banners above the streets, but because of the numerous food stalls selling snacks, we soon dubbed it "A Taste of Chengdu" and joined in on the fun. Most of the old courtyard homes in the area have been restored and turned into funky shops selling Chinese arts and crafts. It is wonderful to see the young people taking pride in their Chinese heritage and keeping the traditional handicrafts alive. There were throngs of people of all ages out enjoying the afternoon and went we went into the temple, we found many of the elderly seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle there. The tea gardens were full of old men and women, many of them wearing simple clothing like they were forced to wear during the Cultural Revolution. It was like stepping back several decades.
We had lunch in the vegetarian restaurant that is famous for its stunning dishes. The cooks take great pains to replicate all the favorite Chinese chicken, meat and seafood dishes, using nothing but vegetables and tofu. The menu is a bit confusing, even when written in English and Chinese. The dishes are described as if they contain all the usual animal products, but not a single animal died to feed us there. It's a holy Buddhist temple and Buddha would be please with our choice that afternoon.
Back on the street and down the many small lanes, we came across a man making candy animals out of caramelized sugar. He was an incredible artist and we couldn't pass without buying one of his creations. I asked for a fish and hastily snapped a few pictures as he worked his magic before our eyes. I took photos of two other animals, a beautiful dragon and a standing caramel pig. I don't know if you are aware, but 2007 is the "Year of the Golden Pig", a very lucky year according to the Chinese.
The Chinese Zodiac has a cycle of twelve years, each year represented by a different animal. For instance, I am born in the year of the Tiger and supposedly, my personality is influenced by the tiger. Anil was born in the year of the Pig (or Boar). Tradition has it that every five cycles (60 years) is auspicious and the fives cycles of the Pig is especially lucky. For this reason, this year is called the Year of the Golden Pig, it's been 60 years since the last Year of the Golden Pig.
Now to make matter more interesting, Anil was born in the Year of the Golden Pig and of course that means that his sixtieth birthday falls in this Year of the Golden Pig. When we tell people that Anil is a Golden Pig man, they invariably tell me he is a very lucky man indeed. Smiles all round! Lucky me, to have such a lucky husband...
Later that afternoon, we took a taxi to the old area of Chengdu where all the backpacker guesthouses are located. These places are usually a wealth of information for foreign travellers and this is the only thing we miss out on when we stay at the Super 8 chain. The Red Dragon Guesthouse is located on an old street that is currently undergoing restoration. Once completed, it will be a beautiful street to walk along and will have a vibrant nightlife with cafes and restaurants for people to enjoy. We booked a tour to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base and then stopped into the lovely café for a latte. David went to use the washrooms and came back raving about the décor inside. I finally was persuaded to check them out and was blown away when I walked into the ladies and found the whole ceiling was made of plexi-glass and was actually the bottom of a large shallow aquarium with plants and fish swimming in the sunlight water above my head. To complete the stunning décor, both the men's and women's toilets have large stone water tanks installed for washing your hands. I don't believe I've ever seen a more beautifully decorated restroom.
After eating a couple of meals at the Tex Mex restaurant, we sussed out a nearby Japanese inspired eatery and David was delighted to find they sell Japanese beer (brewed in China). He has been disappointed by the watery taste of most Chinese beer and now he had a favorite place to eat lunch and dinner. The food is tasty, fresh and to our delight, the Japanese don't use star anise in their dishes. It took me a long time to figure out what spice it was that was putting me off most dishes that I've eaten in China. It's strange that I don't like this spice, because it is related to licorice, one of my all-time favorite flavours. They even do a pretty good imitation of some of the most popular Korean dishes and deliver a decent kimchi.