My trip to Chengdu was one of those serendipitous things that occur in life. I was turning 60 and wanted to travel to celebrate. I had some frequent flier miles available on Etihad Airlines, so I searched what destinations I could reach with the miles I had. The only place that fit exactly was Chengdu, using almost all of the miles. I knew absolutely nothing about Chengdu, but why not? I got my visa at the Chinese Embassy in Abu Dhabi, which makes for its own story.
I sat next to a Chinese English teacher on the plane, who was very kind. Little did I know how few of the Chinese speak English. I asked her what Chengdu was famous for and she said, “spicy foods, panda bears and beautiful women.” From the time I got off the plane I could see that communication was going to be a major hurdle. I could not explain to the taxi driver where I needed to go. I had the name of the boutique, authentic Chinese hotel I would be staying in but that didn’t seem to matter. We did somehow arrive. At the hotel communication became even less possible. I thought for a while that I would have no place to stay but again it worked out. I was so excited to go out in the street as the scene looked exotic and exciting. Large groups of people were sitting outside restaurants and I could see and smell the famous hot pots bubbling.
When I entered a restaurant I was concerned for my eyes because I could feel the hot pepper in the air. It was tremendously difficult getting seated and ordering due to language but all of the restaurant staff was trying to help. They used their phones to offer translations. I ended up with a variety of vegetables and seafood to dip in the bubbling hot pot of red pepper. You let the food boil for a while and then use the chopsticks to remove it. The staff was practically feeding me because they could see I wasn’t highly efficient. So friendly! I was charmed. That night I fell asleep under a thick quilt and I was very content.
In the morning I woke up excited to see the town. Unfortunately my phone had gone dead and without google maps, I was dead as few spoke English. I had a nice tea and then relaxed as the phone charged. Great thing about traveling alone. Don’t have to do anything! Once I got up I went to seek out Khuanzai Alley, which looked interesting. It was hot but once I found the area I forgit about the heat. The alleys were crowded, primarily with Chinese. A tremendous array of foods, shops and activities taking place. They are big on public cleaning of ears. I tried it once. I found a cafe to get my morning coffee and further charge my phone. The servers were so very polite, attentive and kind. One said, “you are handsome,” with no intention of being flirtatious. I looked behind me but no one there. Do you need glasses? (I asked). I had males and females say this to me and some asked for photos. Somehow made me feel special. As I walked further I aimed for the People’s Park. Truly I could not speak with anybody. I saw a young lady and I greeted her in Chinese. She responded in English. Her English was ok so I wanted to talk a bit and she wanted to learn English. She asked if I would like her to show me the park. For some reason I said yes and we entered the park and sat down for tea. She taught me the ritual of drinking tea and eventually convinced me to try the ear cleaning. They even ring a metal bar in there when they do it. I was not expecting the Chinese to be so open and kind. She then took me to a restaurant to show me how to order and then showed me how to download and use we chat which they use for communicating making purchases, etc..the day was amazing and she promised to show me how to use the subway the next day.
In Chengdu, the Panda Bears are everywhere. Hair ties, stuffed animals, candy and more. So, I figured I should take the bus out to see them at the research center. It is about an hour away and you pass through many skyscraper apartments on the way. Upon arrival I was shocked at the number of buses. It was a sea of9 buses. I made my way to the entrance area with a foreboding that it would not be pleasant. It wasn’t. I have never seen and been among that many people in my life. The grounds were beautiful but I was almost claustrophobic walking up the crowded roads. I did not get to see a Panda. I have heard it is wonderful, but you need to figure out when to go.
My friend did show me how to navigate the subway and took me to a huge shopping area that also had outdoor performances. The subway was so efficient that I decided I would try to use it when I went to the airport. One day I looked for a Chinese massage for over an hour. Finally I found a place. A man about 30 was the masseur. I chose for the cupping and scraping experience along with foot massage. In between modalities he was smoking and asked me if I would like one. I chuckled while inhaling secondhand smoke. I had bruises for days.
A brief travel story of my last hour or so in Chengdu that captures the fun and quirkiness of travel. I was sitting in a muggy room off of the boutique hotel reception and was sweating as I was planning my departure. I went to “Lanka ” the graceful and kind receptionist to see if I could get a bottle of water. She went to a back room and came out with a tall clear glass that seemed to be steaming. I wondered if it was just soooo cold that it was different. She set it on the table and left the room. I picked it up to drink some nice cool water and the pain shot through my fingers. It was boiling water. A young man seeing my reaction ran over with a napkin. What I needed was ice or burn treatment😂🤣. Anyway, Lanka gave me a pendant from what I gather was made in her mountainous hometown by hand. Communication was difficult. Very nice memory and I hung it on my small backpack. As I left the hotel to heartfelt goodbyes I entered the chaos of the street to some soft guitar music. Made me sad to be on my way. As I headed to the subway I thought about how kind the people had been. Then I heard some yelling and somehow knew it was intended for me. A lady from the hotel caught me just before I was descending into the subway. She was delivering my cell phone and charger that I had left carelessly. It wasn’t a short run for her. I stayed and watched her go back. When she turned the corner she stopped and waved. No ability to communicate in words but sometimes gestures are powerful. On the subway train, a mother and daughter with some English. The daughter was studying the tapeworm of Panda bears for her Master’s degree and I believe veterinary medicine. That is just a snippet of the journey but I already miss Chengdu and I am only in the airport.
Chengdu reminded me of why I enjoy travel so much. Every moment was different and stimulating. I was so charmed by the people and the place and impressed by the technology. I am saddened for the Chinese people for how the USA has been portraying them. Would love to go back.