One Week in Western Sichuan: Part One of Seven

**PICTURES TO COME SHORTLY**

**ALSO, Sorry for being so slow. Traveling without fancy internet-accessible items makes blogging/twittering on the road difficult. I need to learn to be a better traveler.**

Day 1: June 28, 2009

The hotel room is musty and the air thick and humid. Five stories down, rush-hour cars speak their special Chinese honk language, in which drivers press on the horn to alert those sharing the road of any and every move they make. “I’m turning on my turn signal — HONK HONK HONK.” “Okay, now I’m going to change lanes — HONNNNNNNNNKKKKKKK.”

The blanket on the board-stiff bed (the overwhelming Chinese mattress preference) is far too thick for this heat. I propel my legs above me to kick it off quickly, as I realize I’m sweating rather copiously. It’s 7 a.m. in Chongqing, municipal population of 34 million, at the Fuyuan Fandian Hotel. Thomas and I arrived there via taxi only five hours earlier, after a three-hour flight from Dalian, with everything I had brought over for four months plus all that I had acquired while bopping around Eastern China.

Now I find myself  in the Wild West of China, about to begin a week-long journey in which absolutely nothing is reserved or set in stone aside from one night in a hostel and a vague idea of where we want to go, as well as a requisite jaunt over to Tokyo somewhere in the not so distant future.

We successfully stored my three grande dame suitcases at the Chongqing airport, leaving us with but two backpacks toting what we would come to find out entirely too little clothing for the icy climes we’d reach later in the week. But for now, we felt as prepared as we could feel.

The plan was to take the 9 a.m. bus that morning from Chongqing to Chengdu, home to pandas and tea houses and the most confusing city layout either of us had  ever experienced. After arriving at an estimated 1 p.m., we’d spend the day relaxing and moseying around Chengdu before leaving the next morning at 8 a.m. en route to Kangding, a rustic mountain town of 80,000 that’s more Tibetan than Han.

Part one of the plan panned out. We caught the bus at the station adjacent to our hotel. We indeed arrived at around 1 p.m. The next step was to find our hostel. Simple enough. I had reserved a room over the phone shortly before departing Dalian. I had my trusty Lonely Planet to help us navigate the buses.

Oh. But wait. Lonely Planet is a tad old. And outdated. Turns out, like so much in China, the hostel had upgraded and moved across town in the three years since my edition was published. I should have known to check before assuming that things go untouched in a country that is absolutely addicted to upgrading and renovating. Now the difficulty is finding this new location.

Oh, did I fail to mention it was raining all day?

Oh, did I fail to mention it was raining all day?

mao photo

Mid-meandering and wrong-waying, we come across a giant Mao Zedong statue, what I’ve come to find as a common sight in any moderately sized Chinese city. But Chengdu is no moderately sized town. It stuffs 9 million residents (and growing) into its city limits. Just 60 miles away lies the epicenter of last May’s earthquake. Not surprisingly, one would have never guessed it. Debris and destruction have long been cleared. Because China never sleeps.

But humans do, and we humans needed a place to rest our heads later that day. We decide that instead of attempting to find a sketchy new address via painstaking public transportation, we’d consult the Lonely Planet and walk to the nearest hostel. According to our entirely detail-less map, The Loft Hostel seemed to be the winner.

So we walked. And walked. And walked. And then realized we must have passed the Loft at least three times given the distance we had covered, without knowing it. Perhaps it moved/expanded/franchised, too? My three-dollar Chinese cell phone seemed to be in a functioning and friendly mindset, so I decided to brave foreign-land phone calls and find out where they were now located.

No English-speaking friendly receptionist. I shamefully fumbled around with a few Mandarin sentences that I thought I remembered from my Hotel Services chapter, but crashed and burned.

Now whole-heartedly discouraged and famished (it’s approaching 4 p.m.) we backtrack again. And again. And then entered a grocery store for a quick pick-me-up and directions. I point to what I only assume is a very incorrect map in our Lonely Planet, thankful that Chinese characters of the hostel names are printed underneath. Anyone can speak finger-pointing. Zig-zagged gestures from two or three customers and a clerk leave me confused. It’s also obvious they’re confused, too.

For good reason. Turns out, we were attempting to search for the Loft Hostel, while using the map location for a Marriott hotel. We discovered our error at  5 p.m. It was time for a break. We squatted on the sidewalk, because this is entirely accepted and normal in China. If your legs are in need of a break, just pop a squat. In a city of 9 million, what are the chances of finding an empty bench, or even a low-lying tree branch? After all, tree branches serve as apparati for elders’ morning and afternoon stretching routines. Thus you squat.

Squatting, we reflect on our “relaxing” day of touring Chengdu. We were barely able to muster the energy to keep going. What’s the point? We were in throes of traveler’s tension, brought on by a desire to want to see so much, with time escaping, slipping through our fingers. Finally we decided it’s probably not the best solution to just ignore our needs for food and shelter. We rose from the squat determined to find a better place to rest our legs. And our heads.

As luck would have it (luck! how about that!), we were just around the corner from the Loft. Somehow, by navigating this palm-lined concrete jungle with hardly a street or avenue that runs parallel to any other street, we ended up near a location we had wanted to find but had been using an entirely wrong address. Sounds pretty Chinese to me.

The Loft was under construction, but had a double room available for all of 12 USD total. The room itself was wholly basic, but the Loft has quite a modern-chic feel to it, boasting a restaurant and bar that serves Danish food. Three or four traditional tea houses were scattered along the same street, as well as a convenience store where Thomas would end up purchasing several ice cream cups in one night.

Forcing a smile shortly after having found the Loft Hostel. Needing food.

Forcing a smile shortly after having found the Loft Hostel. Needing food.

After putting our backpacks down, we decided to do something entirely un-Ashley or un-Thomas and hail a taxi (we’re very anti-taxi — at least I am) to a restaurant that supposedly has the best mapo dofu, a Sichuan speciality with tofu and pork in a blazingly spicy chili and bean sauce. It was exceptional, and even a toned down sauce (per request) made me sweat. Thomas stuck with the full-heat version and proceeded to hiccup throughout most of the meal. Finally — a traditional Sichuan experience for our day in Chengdu.

Then again, being lost and confused is certainly a traditional Chinese experience. Hell, my first day in Dalian I got so turned around I ended up hitching a ride in an ambulance (for 10 yuan) back to my house. That’s the thing about traveling in China. Nothing ever goes as planned. Look where reserving a hotel room ahead of time got us. I learned after my first trip within China back in April to keep my patience, to take everything in stride, to accept that to travel in China means letting go of the part of me that loves to plan trips. It’s all part of the journey.

Small-town China, here we come.

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