From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Steamed Buns and Things on Sticks

Thailand. After leaving our island, we boated back to Phuket, which I never tired of pronouncing phonetically. A day in the city gave us a chance for some great Thai street life and street food...stuff that's lacking on a touristy island. [Those who have seen The Beach would recognize our hotel in Phuket's old town (and incidentally Ko Phi Phi, the island we were on for a week, is the island in the film).]

We flew back to Kuala Lumpur, missing the US-Slovenia match en route but catching the England-Algeria one a couple hours after we landed, at 2.30am (we slept in the airport).

Next day: flight to Chengdu, China, in the heart of Sichuan province, far far inland.

I'd been here before, and to me the city was unrecognizable. In the intervening years, a big but somehow quaint and walkable city centre had somehow morphed into enormous multi-laned roads, pedestrian flyovers, and modern shops of the Louis Vuitton variety. All new, all big and imposing and impressive. But so very far from what I remembered.

Another thing I'd enjoyed some years ago was the Sichuan opera...old men with wispy beards chatting over afternoon tea while on a stage masked singers screeched and sang and acted out stories. This, too, had changed. Now evidently, the only option to see the opera is to buy an expensive ticket to a staged evening performance that is more akin to a variety show for the short attention-spanned. We skipped it.

While I'm speaking of changes, I may as well mention the hostel where we stayed. Luxurious. DVD player and TV in the room. Free internet (I used to hunt down internet on back lanes, seeking out the Chinese characters that indicated an internet cafe - which would inevitably be full of young kids playing online shoot-em-up games). Free fresh fruit delivered to your room in a basket. Great shower. Super clean.

China? The China I remembered was so much simpler and different.

This place has been turned upside-down...or right-side up, depending on your perspective.

One nice change is that new construction in China seems to have taken a turn for the better. Instead of white-tile-and-blue-glass buildings that look terrible and seem unlikely to last more than a couple decades, what's new generally looks good. We found a few brand-new streets done up to look ancient; obviously set up for tourists (mostly

Chinese) but it is at least adding character of a certain manner, compensating for some of the tradition that was probably bulldozed to make way for all the modernity.

But I keep digressing...We spent a few days in Chengdu; Rebecca immensely enjoyed her introduction to the country. Wandering the backstreets was great fun (a lot more streets and things are labeled in English now, but it can still be bewildering). Meals were bowls of noodles, assorted steamed buns and dumplings, and fried and boiled things on sticks; we never saw an English menu. Among other things, we visited a Buddhist monastery and a Taoist temple. And...we saw pandas (not in the city; for this we had to take a short trip out)!

Very cool. They're big and white and black and playful and immensely fun to watch.

After a haircut (at 15 yuan - just over $2 - it was far more expensive than my average of 25 rupees - 60 cents - in India, but included a wash before AND after, plus a blowdry, and an obligatory photo with the barber who had obviously never cut the hair of a white guy before), we left the city.

And leaving the was posh! We'd booked a Hard Sleeper class train journey. This sounds like roughing it, but it isn't. The carriage was posh. And after India, quite a beggars/cripples sweeping under your feet and asking for rupees, no chai wallahs. Bedding. Comfort. Cleanliness. Order. Little/no invasion of personal space. And outside: instead of brown plains it was green and bright, with stunning rivers and gorges, as we wound our way southwards through Sichuan.

Actually, in some respects the journey (and the train station itself) was SO organized and comfortable that it seemed almost drab, but that's probably just because we're still somewhat used to India (and after India, few places on Earth wouldn't feel a bit sterile in some way). That overnight journey cost us more than a trans-India first class journey would have, but we appreciated it for what it was - an enjoyable way to connect points A and B.

13 hrs after we'd begun, the train dumped us off at 4am in a city called Panzhihua. Straightaway we hit the bus station, for a continuation of the journey, a 9-hr bus ride into Yunnan province, where we're currently stationed. More on that in the next update!

Now, we're off for a beer (we picked up a can each of lychee and pineapple-flavored lager for an evening treat).

[Postscript: this update is being uploaded by our friend Chris. China does not allow internet users to access Blogspot. More on this...and a lot more that I/we may have to say about China in general in a future update!]