The flight to Chengdu was uneventful, apart from the embarrassing moment at the airport on the way out of Shenzhen. My wife had neglected to mention that you aren’t allowed to take a lighter on to a plane in China. Which might have been only a minor niggle, apart from the fact that I tend to collect lighters like crazy people collect cats.
As soon as I put my hand luggage through the scanner the security guys started laughing, and pointing. I was dragged over to one side and forced to remove the lighters from my bag, I pulled out about 20 of the things and chucked them in the disposal tray and they rescanned the bag. More laughing, more pointing a closer inspection reveals another dozen which duly go into the tray. This process is then repeated a half dozen times before I am adjudged to be lighter free and allowed to depart.
This also means that when we arrive in Chengdu, I have no lighter and there are no shops open selling matches or anything else at the airport. I finally manage to blag a light from a fellow passenger who seems to think that I’m going to run away with it by the way he’s drawn in close to ensure he gets it back. Note to everyone, I’m substantially larger than I was when I was a teenager and I’m a heavy smoker, I’m not running anywhere unless I’m being chased by rabid dogs.
Then we hail a taxi and run up against the language barrier again. We want to go to the Kempinski Hotel in Chengdu, one of only a handful of 5 star hotels in the town. Sadly, as with every brand name in China, it’s been sino-cised (take a handful of Chinese syllables that are approximately but never exactly the same and pretend that’s the real name of any Western brand) and neither I nor my wife have any idea that it is pronounced Kem-Pince-Gee here. Neither of our China mobile cards work in Chengdu either as they are only unlocked for Shenzhen.
Cue much running around the streets to find someone with a working phone, coming to a hire agreement (which feels more like purchase, the robbing swine) and then calling the hotel to get the pronunciation down pat. Finally after what seems like forever we’re on our way into Chengdu.
Chengdu is in Sichuan province which is famous for its spicy food, the city however doesn’t appear so much spicy as sleepy. It’s set in a valley surrounded on all sides by picturesque Chinese mountains with lush forests concealing beautiful temples (Chengdu is one of the few places in China where much of the religious and cultural heritage remains intact). Like Cambridge and Amsterdam it is also a canal city and there’s a nice network of canals breaking up the flow of the city into a small town feel.
The big contrast with Shenzhen of course is that Chengdu is not brand new, and you can see examples of classic Chinese architecture, interspersed with the hideous pre-opening up stuff that must have been sourced in the Eastern Bloc from before the wall coming down and the ultra-modern skyscrapers and tower blocks that are an essential component of modern Chinese life.
However I’d be lying if I said we saw much of anything as it was 10 o’clock at night, and the city is nowhere near as well lit as Shenzhen. The road systems all over China in bigger cities are much like American highways and you never really get up close and personal with anything until you’re there when you come in from an airport.
We arrived at the Kempinski rather later than we expected and to the first “real” 5 star hotel I’d seen in China. It’s a beautiful place with a massive courtyard style lobby, with an “authentic” German restaurant and bar at the back and lovely displays of greenery throughout. Check in was pretty straightforward and the nice lady behind the counter was all smiles as Zhang Min sorted out the paperwork.
The room was absolutely gorgeous and very, very cheap for a five star international chain hotel, at only $70 US a night. The bathroom was ultra-modern (with a Western toilet thank goodness) but unusually with the lights on the top half of the walls were completely transparent glass, meaning that if you were sharing a room your partner would be well aware of when you were on the convenience.
The bed was big and comfortable (a rarity in itself in China where beds come in two types – hard and hard with extra rocks) and there was a spacious desk with Internet. Facebook hadn’t yet been blocked in China either at this time.
We popped down to the bar for a quick drink before bed time and I’ve never felt so welcome anywhere in my life. All the locals who’d stopped in for a pint, came up to introduce themselves and I think I rather disappointed them and certainly frustrated conversation with my only useful Chinese phrase being “ni hao” (hello or literally “you good?”) but they were lovely folk nonetheless.
It was warm so we sat outside and enjoyed a little star light (very little, light pollution is a killer in Chinese cities and since I’ve been in Shenzhen I haven’t seen one star) and the warmth of a happy couple about to embark on a serious commitment. And for now this is where I’ll leave Chengdu in that happy contented glow of the first evening.