By Jake Reed
You can waste away in a pub on a bender or walk the earth. Not the worst dichotomies to face on the subject of a vacation. Two weeks off in the middle of summer and nowhere to really go. My base of operations, Suzhou, the famed Venice of the East (a swamp with canals) had me marinating myself in my own juices since the beginning of June and the wanderlust was threatening intellectual blue balls if I didn’t think of somewhere to go and get lost at. Then I remembered being in a conversation with a coworker on the subject of not having a girlfriend due to what I called my unwillingness to indulge in the superficiality of trend. (I am cheap.)
“I think you should go and find a girl in Chengdu. They are wild, like to drink and dance and have really good complexions. It’s because of the spicy food they eat.”
“What about the guys, are they are nice and facially manicured?” I replied.
“No, it only works on the women.”
The cruel, potent reality of fan death had nothing on this rationalization. Yet, I had nowhere else to go and perhaps my queen was waiting for my arrival at a nameless club next to an unmanned throne in the midst of a panda refuge.
You can find Chengdu in the Sichuan province of the Republic of China. It has a population of over 42 million people. Aside from having ancient cultural relics, temples and an apt party atmosphere, it has also recently become an investment hotspot for both nationals and foreigners alike. In terms of geography it is situated right next to Tibet or Xizang, which is apparently a province of China(western media normally portrays it as a country in the same manner as Taiwan is). For those braving the excursion into Xizang, Chengdu is usually the first stage of a hiking adventure into the former home of the Dali Lama.
Some of you might remember the Sichuan province from the news as it suffered a magnitude 8 earthquake in 2008 and is still rebuilding from it. For the casual west coast based traveler, it’s an easy three hour plane ride from Pudong Airport in Shanghai. As a notice to people who just pack the night before and let the journey start with out so much as a minute of planning, your arrival could began instantly with tragedy. Taxi drivers are notorious for screwing you over and will try to take advantage of your lacking language skills or knowledge of what’s going on. If the meter isn’t running upon leaving, kindly give the man/woman the finger and seek a ride elsewhere.
Food is a regular attraction for visitors and can best described as spicy, numbing eloquence harnessing multiple peppers, begging to be complimented with an ice cold beer. One of the more famed dining experiences is going out for “hot pot.” Now you can get hot pot just about anywhere in China but different provinces add a little of their local flare to make the taste and style unique. Chengdu is no exception and adds its pepper corn and hot peppers to create a mouth numbing night out. A local pepper known as hua jiao literally numbs your mouth which is usually a welcome side effect given the potency of the chili peppers prominent in the hot pot. Being chopstick savvy will be a benefit as it’s the most painless way to put food in and take it back. Raw meats and vegetables are put into a pot of near boiling red, oily stock. After a few seconds you take the morsel out and dip it into a mixture of diced peppers, garlic and vinegar. While pork and beef are a welcome addition for most, brains and intestines aren’t usually something you look forward to eating—even after three beers in. I would much rather eat a hot dog and tell myself it’s made of the finest parts of the animals interior. Yet, the encouragement I got from my companions and the promise of more beer gave me the nerve to reenact a few scenes from Night of the Living Dead.
While traditionally known for its hot weather in the heart of the summer, I experienced a muggy sunless two weeks of moderately hot temperatures. It rained almost everyday, causing mudslides on just about every hiking path outside of this capital city. There was more than one pissed off outdoor enthusiast at the local watering holes seeking the latest information about where to’s and where don’ts. I took the news in stride and saw it as a reason to explore Chengdu’s urban life.
Anyone used to clubbing in Asia wasn’t in for a surprise that there was a street dedicated to drinking and dancing. The clubs had overplayed, trendy names like Answer and Muse. The same doof doof could be found at every club as they play the same top 40 music with a revolving door of pretentious, meager skilled DJ’s. For drinks, they had the same boot legged whiskey for sale as well as the ever popular fruit a la toothpick. The LA times is quoted as saying “this is the place to party” and get hot wet and funky under the illumination of disco lights. If this was the extent of the inebriation ceremony, I was ready to burn an LA Times in protest. As fate would have it, I remembered that cities like this usually have a foreign run zine of sorts clap trapping mediocre writing, creating false egos and shamelessly advertising restaurants, clubs and whatevers so the managing editor and company can get freebies for just about nothing (remember Eloquence?). I found one at Hooters and was delighted to see a Psy-Goa party next Saturday that was really two Saturdays ago. Sigh.The local’s passion for fishing is obvious as you can see men tempting the flow of sewage that passes for a river with their rods. Perhaps it’s fitting that the majority of the “catch” are thin black eels. Surrounding the majority of the river that serpents its way through downtown Chengdu are tea houses that are further ringed by parks. Benches, grass, the sound of rushing water and well kept gardens offer a respite in ambience.
When people think of animals unique to China, naturally you think of those fluffy pandas who have given up breeding in the wake of this chaotic cruel world. Not far from Urban Chengdu is the panda reserve that doubles as a tourist trap. For one, the price to visit and feed a panda is about half of what the average Chinese makes in a month. That’s not including getting there or shacking up for the night. While dedicated to panda conservation, they are also apparently dedicated to excluding the locals from seeing and/or feeding an animal native to their very soil. I didn’t have to go to the reserve to find pandas however. The poor things imagery could be found on beer, hotels and even cigarettes. The latest Chengdu product marketing ploy amounts to: “Have your super fun time with a panda! All you have to do is exercise those consumer rights and buy something!” No wonder these poor things have lost the will to get it on, they have been shamelessly raped by consumerism! Next on the list is dressing pandas in Che Guevarra shirts preaching the world unity and peasant rights. Even better, selling revolutionary panda t-shirts asking for handouts to fuel corporate greed! Maybe they’ll throw some of the profits to the “help a panda get laid fund.”
Jake Reed has been exploring the extremities of the human condition for the last five years and he currently teaches in China.
His personal publication claptrap includes www.Ehow.com, Diplomacy Journal, www.travels.com, blah blah. His current writing project involves a postmodern novel that draws on themes such as nihilism, isolation and alienation in a world where you are told the good guys won.