#CHENGDE #CHINA: PARADISE LOST IN AN EDIFICE COMPLEX

Chengde is finger-lickin' good

Chengde is finger-lickin’ good

August 2012

China’s cities are so large and massive, and growing, that it’s sometimes frightening, and as hard as ever to travel independently… scarcely a word or destination written in Pinyin (Romanized Chinese)—much less English—in the typical Chinese bus or train station, nor counter help equipped to deal with it verbally… Hotel staff are a little better—but not much…

…a travel-guide can come in handy, and that’s a tough admission to make for someone who typically eschews them. Here you can actually chew them… this is 2012… not 1984 nor the 1998-99 era when I was last here… malls may be pretty much up to international standards, but the typical “supermarket” lags way behind… rows of shelves and piles of provisions stacked haphazardly upon them…

Market in Chengde, China

Market in Chengde, China

I have a few days to kill before going back to the US, so I decide to go to nearby Chengde, a city typically described as small and bucolic… in fact includes more skyscrapers than in all of downtown LA, most of them devoted to apartment dwellers, a half-dozen here, and another handful there all going up simultaneously, jib cranes perched on top like ghosts in the machines, robot aliens sent to conquer us all… like an alien army sent to dominate, imposing skyscrapers where houses once were, imposing them by force…

I’m constantly on the lookout for “old China,” not Communist China, but Ming China, with the upturned roofs, smiling I imagine, and the arched entrance-ways to neighborhoods, neighborhoods with traditions going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This is a culture traditionally attached to its past, bloodlines far preferable to Communist bread lines…

…least affected by all the modern development is Beijing itself, the monster of them all at some fifteen million mortal souls… hutongs—its narrow alleyways—are a living link to its glorious past and part of its individual character… developmental doctrine exported to the rest of the country Beijing feels little need to follow itself, imperial army subduing the provinces, bulldozers instead of tanks, rounding the peasants up into luxury apartments. Conspiracy theories’ greatest beauty is that they can’t be disproven…

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Old and new mix in Chengde, China

…smog is no better in Chengde than in Beijing… visibility reduced to a few hundred feet… pea soup, like the “fog” that made London famous back in the day… sites around here mostly temples and grounds favored by the Manchu Qing emperors of a few hundred years ago, including a summer resort and replicas of the Tibetan Potala in Lhasa and the Buddhist bodhisattva and goddess of mercy Kwan Yin… the original Disneyland, something like “Qingland” or “Buddha-land,” with a mixture of styles and influences intended to elevate them all to an enlightened equality—with mixed results…

…at some half million people not a bad “small town” to poke around… Still appalled at the lack of development for tourism in China… Tourism is easy money.  This is why China does not rule the world. Despite the Marx brothers and their theories, the world is not ruled by its factory workers nor its factory owners, but by the buyers of its products…

…the best part is leaving… so I catch the mini-bus out of Chengde railway station, not knowing where it’ll drop me off in Beijing… If there’s a subway station nearby, then I’m good. If not, then I’ll find one. The driver’s way ahead of me. He drops us all on the side of the road on the edge of town at the first subway station we come to. It only requires the leaping of one guard-rail and the free-style navigation of one small slope. If you’re old and decrepit, then… sorry.

Forbidden City

Forbidden City

So I spend the rest of my day in the Forbidden City and the retail Disneyland on Wangfujing Street. If Chengde was the Qing’s self-caricature, then this is the modern Communist one… a young lady offers to polish my nails, metaphorically of course, but I decline.  I’m a married man.  A young man offers to take me to taste tea, first one’s on he, of course, but I decline.  I’m a married man.

So now I’m outta here, all eyes on the Weather Channel, to keep up with Typhoon what’s-her-name… only one problem: my flight gets canceled… so I catch an earlier flight. That’s where experience counts. I expect snafus, especially with a storm in the neighborhood… have to spend a night in Seoul International either way…  Others are stuck from the typhoon, been here a couple days already and still waiting for a flight out…

Thai girl hears me speaking Thai to Tang via Skype and almost goes berserk to hear her language… so I try to help her, without much luck. The flight to LA leaves on time. Tang’s doesn’t. We’re supposed to meet in LAX coming from two different directions on two different flights then hook up to go to a hostel close to the airport.  One hour passes, then two. There she is now. Then this must be home. Don’t try this there.

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