Chengdu: "Central Sichuan Province"

Sichuan Province

June 15, 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

The Chinese media reported that at the popular east coast tourist sites, the normally large summer crowds had increased by twenty percent because of the tourist onslaught to the Shanghai Expo.  I decided to fly west to Chengdu (pop 4.1 million). 

I landed in the middle of yet another onslaught.  Who knew?  Apparently everyone but me knew that this weekend is the Dragon Boat Festival, one of the most important holidays on the calendar.

The Qingcheng Shan (mountain), a two-hour bus ride west of Chengdu was swarming with energetic visitors.  It was difficult to find an open foothold on the paths up the wooded hillsides. (“The beautiful trails are lined with gingko, plum, and palm trees, temples and plenty of atmospheric sights.”)* At a fork, I took the road less traveled and found a half-empty lake, half-empty because of the 2008 earthquake. Yuecheng Lake was a welcome and peaceful spot.

Is everyone “open for business” in China?  In front of my hotel in Chengdu, I was having difficulty getting directions to the Wenshu Temple.  Normally I show someone the Chinese characters in my guidebook.  But sometimes they just point in a general direction with no further explanation.  So I was looking disoriented and feeling discouraged. 

A young man approached.  I showed him my guidebook, and we agreed that he would be my driver…on his motorbike!  So I hopped on the back.  Clear across town, and this is a big town, a big city really, he deposited me at the Temple.  I took his mobile telephone number, we agreed on a pick-up time – I figured why not use this “taxi” for another stop or two?

What a relief!  Despite the large numbers of visitors, there is still a sense of solitude and serenity on the spacious grounds, pathways, gardens, fountains, pagodas and temples of this Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) monastery.  There are ample signs in Chinese and English, and one of them pointed to a vegetarian restaurant.  Using my picture book, I managed to order a noodle and vegetable dish and a glass of watermelon juice.  I enjoyed a relaxing meal outdoors.

Just beside the restaurant is a teahouse with maybe one hundred tables.  Everyone is sipping tea while indulging in the Chinese National Sport.  Can you name it?

Back on the motorbike, I get a tour of the city, including a stop at a huge statue of Mao Zedong– his arm outstretched to welcome me.  (BTW, many of the motorbikes in China are battery-operated.)

Is this a small world?  At the entrance to the enormous People’s Park, I meet Harley Greenberg, a cheerful young American man, and Helen, his charming Chinese girlfriend.  Harley is a Peace Corps Volunteer on his second tour.  The first was in Ghana.  He teaches English and Western Culture at a local university.  Turns out he is from the New York City area. 

With a bit of further discussion and disclosure, I learn that Harley’s mother, Sharon Roisman Greenberg is from The Bronx in New York (Montgomery Avenue) and a fellow alumnus of Taft High School!  We probably passed each other on the streets of The Bronx many times. We lived in the same neighborhood.  And now I meet her son on the other side of our small world.  (Back in The Bronx, this type of “discussion and disclosure” is called “Jewish Geography.”)

Harley’s friend Helen is a travel agent.  Most of her clients are backpackers heading west into Tibet.  I am heading east.  Helen helps me book my Yangtze River Cruise.

After a side trip to Leshan, I returned briefly to Chengdu and had lunch with Helen and Harley.  The bowls of hot Chinese food were overflowing and the big restaurant was overflowing with an office-worker lunch crowd.  The place was humming.

(Lunch in Asia is not a lonely grab a quick snack and then go shopping.  Lunch in Asia is with a group of colleagues and friends - communal and celebratory.)

Finally I took some photos that I dutifully emailed to Harley’s parents and Uncle Charlie.  You can imagine their delight!

Jan…always cheerful…and charming?

PS  Later I learned that Harley’s Uncle Charlie, Charles Greenberg, is also a Taft alumnus and only two years younger than me (1555 Grand Concourse). We must have passed each other in the Taft hallways many times.

* China. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd 2009 pg 761

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