Monday, November 19, 2012


(Another fabulous hotel room view.)

It's an exciting day when I get to explore a new Chinese city. How fortunate I am to be able to see these places as a side benefit of the job. I can't imagine I'd have reason ever to see many of these places if my work didn't bring me here (which raises the awareness that no matter how much we travel we will see very little indeed of the world). 

I feel like a contemptible tool for saying it, but I'm a little frustrated at times that we tend to see mostly the same handful of international destinations over and over again. Before coming to the MD-11, my work had taken me only to domestic cities (well, except for San Juan on the DC-8) and to start flying around the globe was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. But after nearly four years of this I find that most of my international experience has been in just a handful of cities: Cologne, Warsaw, Almaty, Sydney, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong. These are fantastic places all. Several of them--Cologne, Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai--are places I would happily pay to see and I expect to visit them in a non-work capacity in the future. Other cities are just fringe benefits of the job. But after a little taste of this one wants more, more, more! So from that perspective this has been a good month, with a military charter to a new place in Germany (Ramstein AFB), and now quick visits to two new Chinese cities. It's worth reminding myself that my job is responsible for introducing me to my new favorites, and even the less desirable cities (say, Almaty, which is the pilot group's least favored destination) are still a real treat for someone who loves to travel.

So Chengdu. Before flying in here I wasn't actually sure where it was. I knew it was a more internal city than those now-familiar places on or near the Pearl River delta--Guangzhou and Hong Kong (our operations in Guangzhou have now moved to Shenzhen, a city I have not visited yet). Shanghai is in East-central China but again near water as it sits on the East China Sea. Chengdu, on the other hand, is a landlocked city near the geographical center of the country, 1000 miles or so to the Northwest of Guangzhou. We are here because of a large Foxconn facility here that produces iPads (presumably among other things). Impressions flying in are that Chengdu is yet another Chinese city on the boil, with a large and recently-expanded airport with a spectacular terminal facility, a city with endless miles of elevated freeway and major construction projects visible wherever one looks. One of the other crewmembers flying in with me said that the city has a subway line and is actively expanding the network, something I've seen in other Chinese cities I've visited (subways seem about the most expensive routine public works project imaginable). But the Chinese seem not to do anything in half-measures. Chengdu has a metro population of some 14 million, making it larger than New York City, though smaller than Guangzhou and about half the size of Shanghai.

We touched down already several hours overdue to sleep, and arrived at the hotel around midnight. So that was Job One--sleep. After a nice night and complimentary full breakfast in the really lovely Millennium Hotel--and a quick check of Google Maps to see where I was and where it seemed advisable to go--I was off on foot (I attempted to query the hotel front desk staff and concierge about good places to walk, but the language gap was just a bit too wide). My little pre-trip Wikipedia research indicated that Chengdu is one of China's more livable cities, and it immediately struck me as having a higher standard of living than Guangzhou. But, as I say, it's a smaller place than Guangzhou, and it feels less crowded, less densely-packed. There are still buzillions of people everywhere (though the sidewalks were quite empty when I set off at 7:45 AM) which seems to be the norm for Chinese cities--their culture is accustomed to much more crowded conditions than we Americans are used to--but everything is a degree or two less dense here than the other places in China I've seen. And we're told it's a place that has only recently begun to see Westerners routinely. There is much less English here than in the Southeast, and we were told to expect that people would be a little surprised to see us. I have never felt the least bit unsafe in any Chinese city, and I didn't expect to stand out particularly here; and indeed, no one paid me the least attention on my wanderings. I did not have any real interaction with anyone except at the hotel and buying snacks at various convenience stores around town. These latter interactions were accomplished with no language whatsoever, but I encountered no difficulty.

I walked 13-15 miles around the city, which of course exposed me to but a small fraction of what there is to see. But the stuff I saw hinted at a higher standard of living than in the other Chinese place I've seen so far--except Hong Kong. More people seem to have cars here, and big, expensive cars are quite common. Mercedes and BMWs and Audis are everywhere, and one sees far more new Buicks here--the next tier down from the Germans--than one sees in America (this explains why the latest Buick designs have been done at Chinese firms; Buick occupies in China the niche filled by Acura and Lexus in the US). I can't know the real figures, of course, but I'd guess that in Guangzhou or Shanghai maybe 5% of the citizens are drivers versus maybe 10-15% here. (That is, car drivers.)

But the most striking regional innovation here seems to be the proliferation of electric scooters. I've seen these all around China, and scooters in general are very common personal transportation--scooters are THE way to get around Taipei, for example. But a much higher percentage of scooters here are electrically-powered, maybe 80% of them. And as always, one sees them employed in every capacity: men and women are shuttling their children around on them (sometimes more than one kid at a time), husbands and wives commute together on them, workers carry cooking oil and recycled paper and bottled water and propane tanks on them. At the end of the workday one sees an army of hard-hatted construction workers scooting homeward on their scooters, frequently with a bag of groceries or a child or a spouse or sometimes a dog on the scooter with them. As elsewhere in China, these scooters are brutally utilitarian things, dirty and beat up and kept in an operating state with cobbling and duct tape and improvisation. (This use of scooters and human-powered conveyances for work purposes is an ongoing fetish of mine. It's everywhere here and nowhere in the US; such a cultural difference.)

(The ubiquitous electric scooter, one of several different kinds.)

This use of rechargeable electric vehicles raises all sorts of questions. It's very common to see scooters parked on the sidewalk with their battery pack removed, people having carried the packs into their house or workplace to charge--an interesting variation on keeping your vehicle "fueled up." You also see numerous scooter repair shops around the city, and it's not uncommon to see a power strip snaking out on the pavement there with several scooters plugged into it. With so many people getting around this way, the demands on the power grid and the need for petrol stations is in quite a different balance from what we're used to in the US. I'd speculate that many of these people have grown up without familiarity with gas stations, and without this expense. With the army of scooters making their way home at day's end, it was common to see folks puttering along at a near-walking pace. I have to assume their batteries were about spent; perhaps these were people who had no opportunity to charge their batteries during the workday (were they consciously conserving power to make it home? Or were the scooters in a kind of automatic power-save mode?). Several times in the morning I saw (presumably) fathers headed to work with their teenaged daughters sitting listlessly on a luggage rack on the back of the scooter, the bike puttering along at half-speed due to the extra load (and in a couple cases the girls were reading or nonchalantly talking on their phones). Because the electric scooters make almost no noise, I was surprised several times to be closely passed by them without warning.

(Scooters headed home after work.)

This is something utterly unfamiliar to us but completely routine here. I just find myself getting caught up in the practical ramifications. People just surely get a quick sense of what they can accomplish on a single charge of their scooter and plan their day accordingly--similar to, yet so different from, stopping off to fill up a gas tank. Scooters must be advertised here according to their range and power, like our own MPG figures but with this specific cultural twist. What scooter you buy must be determined by what you can afford and what you expect to use it for and the space and safety available for parking it--just like our thinking about cars but different in every particular. I can't help thinking we'll have much to learn from these cultures as we move toward electric vehicles.

On a related aside, this fleet of electric scooters must contribute some small part to the coal smog that shrouds every Chinese city. The pollution that would otherwise be generated by a million cars instead is generated at power plants and piped into individual houses for storage there. Guangzhou and Shanghai were always striking to me for the 24/7 blanket of smog that enveloped them (Hong Kong, being surrounded by water, feels cleaner), and it was no surprise to find Chengdu exactly the same. There is a smell on the air as soon as you step off the airplane that connects this place to a whole cache of memories of travels in China. I always assume this smell is related to the burning of coal for electricity, but that's just speculation on my part. It certainly hints that these places are densely populated, as that odd baseline smell is mixed with car and bus exhaust and cooking smells and burning garbage and other, indefinable things.

And before leaving the scooter issue: I must again note that they seem to abide by an entirely different set of driving rules than what the cars obey (and the cars are a good deal more lawless than we are accustomed to). As I've mentioned elsewhere, all motorized traffic here seems to have the right of way over foot traffic, something I can't help thinking harkens back to a less egalitarian time when only the rich had cars and the poor were expected to get the hell out of their way (and it seems very civilized of us Stateside to give right of way, period, to pedestrians). Cars honk at anyone in their way regardless of traffic / walking signals, and the scooters operate on roadways or sidewalks apparently at their preferences. On the sidewalks the scooters expect you to get out of their way, and on road and sidewalk alike the scooters travel in both directions in the same lane (even cars will go the wrong way on a road or highway if they feel the need). Bikes and scooters and walkers mostly ignore the traffic lights, being more guided by an awareness that the motorized traffic will not yield to you than by any sense of legality. The bigger the vehicle, the greater the assertion of privilege. It all makes for a rather chaotic traffic situation. People and vehicles are always creeping through intersections regardless of the traffic lights, creating gridlock and lots of honking. Nobody seems to get mad about it, tho--I always have to suppress my instinct to yell at the guy with the scooter who honks at (and scares the shit out of) me as I mind my own business walking on a crowded sidewalk; but things are done differently here, and I grasp that my complaint would be nonsensical to the locals. (I have a similar instinct to chastise the guys who just toss their cigarette boxes or fast food wrappers or newspapers to the sidewalk--you see this absolutely everywhere--but then I'm reminded that there is an army of people employed to keep the sidewalks clean, and indeed they are much cleaner than in my own country where we are expected to self-police. And despite the minute outrage, I'm continuously thrilled at these little displays of cultural difference.)

So much for my one day in Chengdu. I'm headed back here in late January, so I'll have to pick a different direction to walk. There is a Great Panda Research Center here which is supposed to be worth the trouble, but I think I'd need a couple days to see that as I hate to squander a day I might otherwise spend walking. Stay tuned.

(Lots of folks out doing their exercises. Music and a drill sergeant!)

(I stumbled upon a market--kind of a vacant lot with a fabric cover. Note the clot of bikes and scooters at every entrance; this is city-wide, repeated thousands of times over.)

(The meat's practically still twitching.)

(Sanitation? We don't need no stinking sanitation!)

(The Chinese national fetish--the elevated freeway--in the making.)

(More random bicycle commerce. Godknowswhat by the kilo.)

(You see this a lot. Not sure why; are they waiting for an assignment? Is it a smoke / nap break?)

(The Yale Hotel "stopping place.")

Next up: commercial flight to Shenzhen with a ground shuttle immediately to Hong Kong. Then off to Dubai.

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