Chengdu

In addition to the talks and meetings, Sun is arraigning several trips for us, including the Tibet area, a Panda reserve, the Giant Buddha in Leshan and various side visits in and around Beijing. We will be traveling with Sun and Lella (his fiancée) for some of these and by ourselves for others.

As you know, I am fascinated by the mundane, so few things are more fun for me than observing how people in other countries travel. China has its own foibles. As a traveler and passenger, I have been able to observe a number of them here.

We caught a plane to Chengdu via Guangzhou. Sun was delighted when he realized that I have priority status on Delta. Since China Southern Airlines has a reciprocal agreement with Delta, he was able to parlay that into special treatment for all of us – expedited ticketing, screening and boarding. This ended up being a huge help because we had a very tight connection.

When we deplaned in Guangzhou, we were greeted on the jet bridge by a man holding a placard with our names on it. The airline had arranged for a representative to meet us and escort us down to the tarmac to identify our bags as they were unloaded from the cargo hold. Apparently they needed to be retagged in order to be successfully transferred onto our Chengdu flight. He then led us to our departure gate, making sure that we and our luggage were successfully loaded. I have never had this happen before.

Chengdu is one of several cities in China with a population of 10 million plus. Each is undergoing a dramatic boom. Among other things, it has become a hub for electronics and especially IT design and manufacture. As you drive in there are high rises everywhere. Although it may be true that many of these have been built but remain unoccupied (especially in the periphery of these big cities), that was not any more apparent here than back in North America. The city itself borders on a very rural area with small farms and the shacks used for homes, all right up against and beneath the highways coming into the city. Much of the infrastructure for travel here is relatively new so the roads around the city and the subways did not feel too congested. They are clean and English names are frequently included on signage. The city roads themselves were a different story. They are clogged and traffic moves slowly, with sudden and unpredictable outbursts of chaotic weaving and dodging. Some traffic rules were not always clear but the locals seem like they know what to do. As in many large cities, pedestrians are cut no slack here. Crossing at a well-marked crosswalk with the little green lighted walking traffic figure has little meaning. In fact turning traffic seems to speed up as they approach you in what is in essence a target zone.

Electrified scooters and, to a degree, three-wheeled mototaxis (aka tuk tuks), seem to have been granted special dispensation including an apparent exemption from traffic lights. I should not have been surprised that Sun was unable to explain the rules that govern them. The best he could offer was something like, “I don’t know, I don’t drive one.” They are treated and driven like bicycles in North America, often with special lanes. They travel on the roads and within these lanes both with and against traffic. In fact, they move up on to the sidewalks as well. On walkways, they clearly have the right of way over pedestrians. This is particularly troublesome at night because they operate without their head lamp on. With their quiet electric motors, they approach stealthily and dangerously.

The food is wonderful. Being in Sichuan province means it is spicy. Sun was invaluable in trying to control the intensity. Still it is tasty and flavorful in its many varieties. We had been warned that vegetarian fare would be hard to come by. That has not been our experience, in part because of Sun. We have not seen or eaten any of the varieties that I came to know from the Chinese restaurants in and around Buffalo – no egg foo young, chow mein, chop suey or lo mein. The food is very oily and that takes some getting used to.

We always eat Chinese style, with at least 5 and often six dishes for 3 of us. Chinese style? Like family style except we all reach into the serving plates for a mouthful rather that filling our dishes and eating off of them. There is invariably too much food. It reminds me of eating with Catherine and Vantuil in Georgia.

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