China: Chengdu and Langzhong

Chengdu

Somehow our expectations for Chengdu ended up being quite high, despite having heard somewhat neutral or even negative things about it. The one thing Chengdu definitely has going for it, however, is the food. It’s the capital of the Sichuan province, so it’s perhaps the best place in the world to find Sichuan food. The Sichuan pepper is one of the most-used spices in Sichuan cuisine, and we’ve concluded that it may be psychoactive, or at least somewhat addictive. It leaves your mouth feeling tingly and numb, and results in a sort of euphoria after eating (although that could be the opium…) which pairs nicely with the spiciness of the dishes. Believe it or not, the perfect companion to such fiery cuisine is a cup of hot tea, unfettered access to which is treated as a basic right by the Chinese, so an endless supply of it is always making its way to your table.

Either the Wide or Narrow Alley, we lost track.

A cup of hot tea, in fact, goes well with pretty much anything. We spent our first full day in town wandering around and exploring the various corners of the city. We had been pointed in the direction of the Wide and Narrow Alleys and Jinli Street. As with much in China, they’re a pretty “disneyified” version of something historical, with faux-traditional construction and chain stores occupying the storefronts. In addition to that, they’re crawling with tourists brandishing selfie sticks and ice cream cones. As it turns out, the Chinese of fans of pictures with westerners too, but their strategy is different. Instead of asking for a selfie with you, they’ll candidly take a photo of you without asking, so while walking down Jinli Street, we noticed the phones of many of the other tourists magnetizing towards our faces wherever we went. After much walking, we settled down at a lakeside tea house to relax a bit.

Just a relaxing stroll along Jinli street.
We made it a point to check out the Chengdu Panda Research Base as well, which is a bit of a trek out of the city. We had a driver who doubled as a tour guide of sorts (who really just walked briskly from exhibit-to-exhibit and silently pointed to each of them). The pandas were pretty adorable though, and Oona is pretty insistent on adopting one. I think there would be some regulatory hurdles involved with that, but perhaps if the research base keeps up the great work they’re doing, they won’t be so endangered anymore. We saw pandas in all stages of development, from the teeny-tiny babies to the full-grown adults. We even had a close encounter with a red panda trotting by us on our path through their park (evidently they’re not very dangerous).

He was winded after making it to that perch.
Just some pandas.

Sichuan opera is one of the must-see attractions of Chengdu, as well, so we made it a point to check it out the day before we left. We heard from our hostel staff that the opera house was near a particular metro station. After heading that way, wandering around in the heat for far too long, and asking a half dozen people where the opera was, we determined that we were in the wrong place. The bad news was, nobody we asked could give us any reliable information, instead they would point in contradicting directions. A group of outgoing folks pointed us in the right direction after a conversation that went something like “Go to metro line 4”, “OK, but what then?”, “Get on metro line 1 here, then go to metro line 4”, “Right, but what about after we get on line 4?”, “No, go to metro line 4!”, “Yes, we understand that, but where, on metro line 4, are we going?”, “You get to metro line 1 right there, 100 meters.”, ad nauseam. Finally, we thought to simply search for “opera house” on Oona’s digital map, and it popped right up, located next to Tonghuimen metro station (on line 2, for what it’s worth). Fortunately, we had allocated a few hours to before-opera activities (tea house, food maybe, more tea), but had burned through most of those with our wild goose chase, arriving at the opera house with 30 minutes to spare. The opera itself was a bit childish, with unfortunate digital accompaniment to the (very talented) huqin and suona players and a fairly extensive puppet show. Nonetheless, the actual opera portion of the show was fairly entertaining, including the popular fire-breathing and mask-changing performances. There was little respect for the performance on part of the crowd though, with many people talking loudly and moving around during the show. At least we had bottomless tea cups though…

Typical Chengdu tea house.

The Chinese have their metro game on lock down though. They’ve mastered the art of metro-building to such an extent that our only complaint, for the most part, was how many other people were trying to use the thing, which is certainly a testament to its utility. The system in Chengdu began its operation in 2010 after a construction period of only five years, and is already carrying 1.7 million passengers per day. It’s quite minimal, still, with only three lines in operation, but if the systems of Beijing and Shanghai are any indicators, it has a bright future.

Langzhong

We’ve already pretty much concluded that Langzhong is the best it’s going to get when it comes to picturesque Chinese towns. We stumbled upon the adorable old town after simply searching for a nice place to split up the Chengdu-Xi’an journey and ended up staying for four days. We got off the bus at the central bus station and walked, in the sweltering heat (pretty much the only downside to the place) towards where we figured the old town was. We were greeted by the adorable and quaint city gates not far from where we expected them, and wandered through the narrow streets for no more than five minutes before settling on a cute little guest house to stay at. Many of the houses in the old town age back to the Ming Dynasty, where they housed important figures of local administration or some such… at any rate, they have mostly been converted by their current owners into guest houses, with rooms facing their inner courtyards, typically rented for a quite affordable 100¥ per night. The old couple maintaining ours spoke no English, so after ten-or-so minutes of hand signing back and forth, we actually managed to communicate quite a bit, including price, how to use the shower and the air conditioning unit, how to make tea, and that we were to pay an additional 50¥ deposit for the pad lock on the wooden door.

Rooftops of Langzhong

On our first night, wandering around town, we were approached by a kid of 22, extravagantly confident in his extremely limited command of English. His first words to us were entirely incomprehensible, and upon our inquisitive responses, he retorted with something to the effect of “You don’t speak much English, do you?” I told him I was from the US, and he was legitimately shocked. A few minutes later, he asked how his English was, I told him it was “good”, and replied, flabbergasted, “Only ‘good’?!”. Oona was already in the mood for a foot massage, but he brought up that his mother (who, he repeatedly pointed out, was only 40 years old) owned such a business. After seating myself next to Oona, I inevitably ended up getting the first foot massage of my life. It was alright, but it was certainly better than the constant rambling in the barely decipherable accent of our host. Both Oona and I are totally thrilled when people try out their English with us, but I guess we prefer when they leave their arrogance at the door.

The old town of Langzhong is pretty much the only attraction there, but its worth at least a few days to wander through and relax. While we were there, we spotted exactly one western tourist (on our last night, and we were pretty upset that he broke our streak, in fact). The remainder were Chinese, but even they were surprisingly few in number. Horror stories from Pingyao and Datong had us worried that such an adorable little town would be entirely fake and overrun and teeming with tour groups, but we were pleasantly surprised by a very “real” experience, consisting of locals going about their daily business in the old town in which they live and work. The whole town is strongly fragrant of vinegar, the production of which it’s evidently the capital, and in front of many shops you can find big fountains (clearly designed for water) showing off the color and aroma of their product.

One of several towers in Langzhong.

The downside of towns like this, is that even less English is spoken than in the larger cities. This meant that our restaurant visits typically included pointing to random dishes on the menu (whose Chinese characters looked interesting in some way)  and hoping for the best. If we were lucky, there would be a few examples of dishes on a neighboring table that we could point to. By this strategy you can lose, when presented with pickled chicken feet or offal of pig in bitter broth (no offense to folks who like that sort of thing), but you can win as well. Our last night in town was one such example, where we stumbled upon the best dumplings ever created by humankind. They were bathing in a floral, yet subtly earthy mixture of oil and spices (including the influential Sichuan peppercorn from above), and their gentle, doughy exteriors held within them a nucleus of herbs and ground pork. I have a hard time imagining something which could trump this heavenly combination, but if any country holds the answer, I can believe it’s China. The food here is either mind-blowingly amazing or really quite terrible (in our stubborn western points of view), with a degree of variance not seen anywhere else so far.

A long bus ride later, and we’re in Xi’an. After a few days here, we’re off to Beijing to explore the capital. Stay tuned for our third and final post from China.


Language

The logographic Chinese writing system can be intimidating, but there’s a standardized Latin transcription for it called Pinyin. Mastering the pronunciation of this Latinization holds its own challenges, mostly in the extreme differences between European and Chinese phonologies. MSM does not include a voicing contrast on obstruents, and instead relies on an aspiration contrast, so letters “normally” representing voiced segments in languages like English (b, d, etc) represent unaspirated obstruents. Likewise, there is a contrast between alveolar, retroflex, and palato-alveolar consonants. Retroflex consonants are marked with a h in Pinyin, resulting in the digraphs zh, ch, and sh representing /ʈ͡ʂ, ʈ͡ʂʰ, and ʂ/, respectively. The tones, while fairly important in MSM, are a bit more difficult to master, but in most cases, the segmental distinctions are enough to at least make individual words understood.  

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