Tuesday, 29 July 2014

To Chengdu?

The last day in Beijing was curious. We paid one more visit around the streets, buying some strange edible lily for the road - inside the pods were these green nuts that tasted like avocado. This vendor was offering bone-like carvings that were made up on the spot. I wasn't able to get a copy of my Koru cut from them. We had one final next-to-nothing meal before heading to Nanyuan airport to check in for our flight to Chengdu. There was a tropical rainstorm taking place, so there were plenty of delays taking place, so we spent most of our time outside. Despite the rainstorm, it was pleasantly warm outside. In the end, it seemed that the plane was not going to arrive, but Suzanne managed to convince them to somehow get a hotel for us - apparently this is aviation policy but none of the other people there seemed to be getting hotels. They even drove us there, but when we arrived in the room, it was flooded. We got shifted to a different room, and managed to get to sleep quickly, hoping there would be a plane available tomorrow.
Indeed there was, and we took the first available flight the Sichuan via the budget airline China United - a flight of which I was certain I would die on. For one thing, the plane seemed to be going incredibly high - far higher in the air than the Singapore or China Southern airlines previously, and the movements of the plane seemed much more erratic. This flappy bits of the wing (11) would seem to randomly open up - which the previous airlines didn't. There seemed to be all sorts of odd noises coming through the plane, most ominously this loud creaking and crackling noise. The audio announcements weren't translated effectively, so instead of hearing that the plane 'is experiencing turbulence', we were told that the plane 'is becoming unstable'. I don't know about you, I can handle a turbulent flight, but not an 'unstable' one. But luckily we managed to arrive in Chengdu in one piece, and we had lunch. I noticed that everyone was looking at my slippers now, so I thought it was finally time to take them off and become a normal member of society again. We took a super-cheap bus to the city central, and dropped off our items at Henry's International Youth Hostel - which was a much more conventional, modern hotel, but the manager, Jimmy, made it a fun experience. The hotel isn't managed by the eponymous Henry - who is just a baby, and will one day inherit the hotel named after him. 
Chengdu's feel was immediately different to that of Beijing. It certainly felt more modern, but still very Chinese. As we headed for a place to get some famous spicy Sichuan food, we walked by a group of children learning the cha-cha - dance is popular in this province of China. As people walked by, many observed them and joined in. Even I was tempted to join, but a full grown white male foreigner doing the cha-cha with a bunch of little Chinese girls would seem a bit odd. Eventually we set sights on an outdoor restaurant, where I got to practice my bartering skills. Apparently I got a 120 yuan meal for 100 yuan, but 120 would be the standard offer for foreigners who are naive enough to think they are getting a good deal. Native Chinese speakers probably got it for about 50. Be that as it may, the family was disappointed that I spend so much money on a meal, despite the difficulty I had with the haggling. It wasn't until the food arrived, and we realised we were eating some truly excellent food - plenty of spices and vegetables, fresh shrimp and beans. It hit the spot after days of Beijing food, which was often cheap, overly cooked or long preserved. I don't think I was overcharged - (22 NZ dollars feeding three people is most certainly a bargain in New Zealand) but even if I was, I don't mind. Suzanne always said 'you don't just pay for the product, you pay for the experience'. Even if the product turned out to be poor quality, worthless or overpriced, you'll still learn or remember something from it. Sometimes, simply buying the item can be an interesting experience - and in China, it often is. Buying my first souvenir in Beijing, it was a fan for 5 times the price of what it would cost in NZ, but the retailers, and the neighbouring retailers were practically pulling my arm, urging me to by everything they had. I can hardly imagine a shopkeeper physically forcing me back into his shop in order to continue buying. It was a worthwhile experience. So was my first dinner in Chengdu - the haggle with the purveyor was long and brutal, and after the meal, we came to the conclusion that these people were certainly members of the Chinese mafia, or some sort of gang in China. For one thing they had the aura of a gang - the restaurant seemed to be run not just by a group of workers, but a whole bunch of friends who seemed to always hang around. The had the appearance of gangsters - clad with tattoos, which is apparently unusual in China for non-gang members. Regardless, if they were as I assumed them to be, I can say I haggled with the Chinese Mafia. Maybe that's just wishful thinking.