China 2012 – Day 12 – Zhengzhou to Chengdu (On Chinese Regional Airlines, The Chinese and Rules)

After a night on a lumpy bed and mysterious Mandarin phone calls waking us in the night, insult was added to injury when we discovered our toilet no longer flushed (It hadn’t flushed all that well to begin with). We assessed the situation and decided, given that no one in the hotel spoke a word of English, our chances of getting that situation dealt with were slim to none, so resolved to stop trying to flush it before it overflowed and just make the best of it.

This was a transition day. No touring, just a flight from Zhengzhou to Chengdu. Not much to report, really, but perhaps this is a good enough time to discuss regional airlines in China. Just as we’d had misplaced misgivings regarding train travel, we also had our reservations about flying regional airlines. That, too, turned out to be an unnecessary worry. First of all, the airports in China are on a par with any airport you might find in North America. That probably goes without saying for Beijing, but both the airports in Zhengzhou and Chengdu were newly built within the past five years. Say what you will about one-party Communist governments, but the pace of infrastructure renewal in China is nothing short of staggering. This goes for roads and rail lines as well as airports. To this point in the trip we had only ever driven on one short stretch of road that was pot-holed and rough, and this was adjacent to a new construction of a bullet train line, which I suspect had some effect. Other than that, all the highways and expressways we traveled on put Canadian roads to shame.

But back to airlines and airports. One thing that made me chuckle was that the recorded English voice used for announcements in Chinese airports and bullet train stations is far clearer than ANY announcement I’ve ever heard in a North American airport, even though it’s a Chinese female voice with a slight British intonation. In fact, in Zhengzhou, the English announcements were far clearer than the Mandarin announcements! Oh, and while we’re talking of humorous moments and airport PA systems, we both did a double take when we heard “Jingle Bells” playing over the PA system in Zhengzhou. But that placed a distant second to later being startled by “Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home” sung in English by a Chinese artist. We almost peed ourselves. That song was incongruous enough when it came out in the 60’s in America, but it’s way way weird to suddenly hear it on the other side of the world in 2012, in an airport filled with a few thousand Asians and three white people.

As for the airplanes themselves, they are every bit as comfortable as any domestic flight on Westjet, Air Canada or United. And since the planes are, as a rule, a bit larger than the flying cigars we’re sometimes stuffed into at home, they are often more comfortable. None of that tilting your head in the window seat because the curvature of the plane won’t allow you to sit up straight. What’s more, even on a flight like this one, which was barely over two hours and fell between lunch and supper, we were served a full meal. I’d love to say that Chinese airplane food is far better than ours, but it’s still airplane food – just Chinese. But hey, when you compare it to “Cookies or Bits and Bites” it kicks ass.

Now for a bizarre shift in topic, but I’ll explain in a moment. I’ve mentioned before that many, many Chinese – particularly men – smoke. And, as I’ve said, I came to rationalize sucking up second hand smoke in restaurants as “absorbing culture.” I’ve even limited myself to muttering under my breath AFTER some jackass with a lit cigarette gets off an elevator with a clearly posted No Smoking sign. I’ve tried hard not to assume that my Western values and expectations should apply in another country. And, as a reformed smoker, I’m conscious that I’m probably more self-righteous about the stinking habit than most. BUT, when I smelled cigarette smoke drifting back through the cabin of the airplane from Zhengzhou to Chengdu, I found myself blurting out, “You’ve got to be FUCKING kidding me” before I could catch myself.

So this seems like a good point to discuss the Chinese attitude toward external, bureaucratic rules. I need to be careful to distinguish this from more personal expectations such as loyalty to family, respect for elders, and many other things that the Chinese demonstrate in spades. I realize, also, that in generalizing, I will do a disservice to a great many upright, law-abiding Chinese people, but there is some truth in the observation that, to many Chinese people, rules and laws imposed by an outside authority are, much like The Pirates’ Code, “more of a guideline, really.”

Take smoking for instance. We were stunned when our Xian guide, Phoebe, told us that there are actually laws forbidding smoking in restaurants and many public places. I don’t think we ever sat in a restaurant that DIDN’T have someone smoking, often WHILE they were eating. Some restaurants in the Shanghai area did have No Smoking sections, but these were totally open to the smoking areas, so essentially ineffective. And any public space was open season. The only exceptions to this were airports and train stations, which have designated smoking rooms/areas – and tons of security staff willing to stomp on offenders.

Other examples are numerous. One can never afford to drop vigilance when crossing a street just because he/she has the “protection” of a red light because inevitably some fool, most often on a motorcycle or scooter, will blast through the intersection. Signs forbidding photography at holy sites are seldom heeded even though the flash could damage pigments on the relics, and announcements forbidding flash photography during a performance are blatantly ignored, even when the performance is 150m away, and the flash can’t possibly do any good, and even when the flash could clearly jeopardize the safety of the perfomers, such as in a Kung Fu show.

I risk overstating my case here. My main point was an observation of an irritant, mostly because I couldn’t understand the reason behind the behaviour. And it’s an observation made at a distance, of people with whom we had no personal contact of interaction. Those people we did meet were friendly, patient and helpful to a fault, even with two bumbling westeners who hadn’t bothered to learn any Mandarin beyond “Zhe Zhe” (Thank you).

Now back to the story at hand. When we landed in Chengdu, we were met by a young lady who introduced herself as Denna, which confused us for a moment because we were expecting to be met by someone named Kevin. I just presumed someone had transcribed a name wrong somewhere along the way and happily followed her out of the airport. She did, after all, have the usual sign with our names on it. Later, in the car, she explained that Kevin was still busy with another tour group, so he had asked her to stand in for him just for the afternoon to meet us at the airport. Mystery solved.

We had read some very positive reviews of our Chengdu hotel, so we were curious to see if it lived up to the billing. It did. First of all, it is nestled in a small old-style (albeit, reconstructed) neighbourhood with very narrow streets. That meant that our driver couldn’t take us directly to the hotel; we had to walk a block or two to get there. That may seem like a negative to some, but it also meant that there was no automobile traffic around the hotel. At night, once businesses and street vendors had folded up their tents, it was almost as quiet as if one were in the country. Second it meant that the hotel was entirely surrounded by little shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the kind where one can find decent, great-tasting food at a fraction of the price of touristy restaurants.

As for the hotel itself, it was a quaint little joint with tons of character, and I’m not using “character” as a euphemism for run-down and shabby. It was well maintained and clean. The hotel was configured with two stories of rooms encircling an open-air courtyard. Each second-story room (we were on the second story) had a balcony overlooking the shops and vendors below. There was a fish pond in the courtyard and a small waterfall feature beside the stairs. The rooms were decorated nicely and a bowl of mandarin oranges greeted us. We can only presume that its 3-star rating came as a result of lacking certain amenities. It didn’t have an elevator or a swimming pool. Neither of those things mattered to us. In every category that did matter to us, it was a 4-star hotel. Without a doubt, it was our favourite hotel to this point in our journey.

After acquainting ourselves with our new digs, we set out to explore the district around the hotel. As I’ve said, the streets were very narrow. In Beijing or Xian, this would probably translate into all sorts of scooter and bicycle traffic, but here the streets were left almost exclusively to pedestrians. We wandered in and out of a few shops, not really interested in buying anything, just window shopping.

We also checked out the restaurant situation. We knew Sichuan food (not to be confused with Szechuan food, which is more common at home) was supposed to be fairly spicy, so we were interested to try some local dishes. After a bit of scouting, we determined that the restaurants fell into two fairly distinct categories, fancy schmantzy or street vendor. Emboldened by having gone two weeks in an Asian country without shitting our pants, we elected to go with street vendor.

First we tried a bowl of bean curd. When the vendor asked Irene (through gestures) whether she wanted any of the spicy oil in her curd, Irene signalled back “just a little bit.” The lady then proceeded to add any number of toppings: chives, cilantro, fried noodles, and a couple of things we couldn’t identify. As soon as we sat down to eat this interesting concoction, we discovered a spice profile we had never encountered before. First there was an aromatic we couldn’t identify. Then the heat hit us, also like nothing we’d ever experienced. Not that it was hotter than other things we’d eaten, but that it was numbing. It numbed the insides of our lips and the tips of our tongues. I never imagined that eating a bowl of slimy bean curd could be that interesting. It was great. Cost: 10 rmb a bowl (~$1.50)

Next we strolled down to another vendor to try some meat skewers. These were encrusted in spices, so we knew we were in for some heat. They did not disappoint. Their flavour leaned a bit towards Indian food; cumin was fairly dominant. We were smart enough to order a couple of giant Chinese beer to wash down the skewers (Snow brand, 600 ml). Total for 6 skewers and 2 beer: 44 rmb (a little over $7, or about the cost of one beer that size in Canada). We were on a roll.

Irene would have stopped at that point, but I was up for some dessert. So, back to the first vendor for a skewer of deep fried sweet dough balls. These were a bit like Indian gulab jamun on a stick, but far chewier. Irene, the wimp, only ate one of them, which left three for me. Cost: 3 rmb ($0.50)

Total cost for the meal: 67 rmb, or $11 Canadian. Only Mr. Lee’s fast food noodles the night before had come in cheaper (with only one beer, mind you). But given the blandness and mediocrity of Mr. Lee’s we eliminated it from the competition and declared this a new record for cheapest full meal.

Brows sweating and bellies full, we went back to our hotel room for the night.

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