19 March 2010

China Trip 2008 Part 2: Longchang

(Click on any image to enlarge. A full set of images and a slideshow are also available.)

This post is part two of my photo blog describing a trip to China with a work colleague in late 2008. Part one described a three-day visit to Shenzhen, which focused exclusively on work. This second part describes a visit to the Sichuan province, which featured a more relaxed agenda.

The destination of this leg of the China trip was Longchang, the hometown of my colleague, in the Sichuan province. Before the trip, I knew two things about Sichuan: home of deliciously spicy food (also written as “Szechuan”) and location of the devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake in 2008. My familiarity would be greatly expanded before the trip was ended.

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The journey to the Sichuan province began with a flight from Shenzhen to Chongqing, which is a provincial-level municipality of 30 million people on the interior of the country. After arriving in Chongqing, we enjoyed a lunch feast with several high school classmates of my colleague. As a spicy-food enthusiast I was delighted with the cuisine in Chongqing and Sichuan. Several meals in Shenzhen featured spicy food, but the spicy food in the second part of the trip was phenomenal. I confess to exceeding my body's tolerance a couple of times, but mostly I enjoyed the spicy cuisine without adverse effect. The hospitality of our lunch host was exceptional, and we enjoyed amazing food and drink. As would become typical, the lunch was held in a private room in a restaurant around one large table. This meal in Chongqing was a special treat. I think every dish included red pepper as a staple. This lunch also featured Chinese whiskey, including one special private-label bottle of Moutai liquor. This whiskey is a fermented and distilled sorghum product. Many toasts accompanied our meal, celebrating both old friendships and the new guest. Exceptional hospitality was a theme throughout this second part of the trip. After lunch, two of my colleague's friends drove us to Longchang on the Chengdu-Chongqing Expressway toll road.

We stayed at the East Hotel in Longchang (photo below). My colleague's father arranged our accommodations. He had steeping tea with plates of fresh fruits and vegetables prepared for our arrival. I immediately felt welcomed, and his hospitality was much appreciated. Longchang is a town of approximately 100,000 and was my first visit to a Chinese city without a Wikipedia entry. The city is 300 km (190 mi) to the southeast of 2008 earthquake epicenter and suffered little serious damage.

My first morning in Longchang was greeted by loud amplified music that sounded like marches. After some investigation I found the music originated from a school yard visible from my window. The students were outside singing and performing choreographed routines.

As their routine continued, a surprising but familiar tune came to my ears. I am curious if these are the original lyrics or an appropriated melody. (Embedded video clip below.)

Being in the hometown of my host, I was quickly immersed in personal networks that weave together the social structures of the community. Work and personal relationships seemed tightly interwoven. A fixture of these networks is the tea house and tea garden. During daylight hours the tea garden was an integral part of our daily routine. It was a meeting place for our groups to congregate or pass time waiting for the next event. Other groups gathered for card games, mahjong, work, conversation and relaxation.

The tea gardens are also a place for personal commerce. Shortly after taking a seat and receiving the tea, the shoeshiner arrived to offer a polish to the leather-shoed members of the group. They take the shoes away to polish and give you a pair of flip-flops in the interim. Next came a dull clanking like a muted cowbell announcing the arrival of the candy vendor. My colleague became nostalgic as he recounted childhood memories of his parents treating him to this traditional candy. My companions waved over the candy vendor, and he began preparing the treats. He swung the bamboo basket off his back and removed a cloth and plastic wrapped ball of candy. With his basket as his table, he began pounding a steel chisel into the candy ball to prepare bite-size pieces. The chewy nougat is partially cut and fractured under the hammer and chisel. The clanking of these implements also announce his presence as he walks the tea garden. Lastly, he took a small portable balance from his pack and carefully measured the cut candy. The nutty-tasting treat was delicious.

The tea garden services also included ear cleaning. This practice was fascinating for me to see. Several people in the garden partook of the service, and one of our group was kind enough to tolerate photographs. The process has several steps and involves multiple implements. Like the candy vendor, the ear cleaner announced his presence service by clanking his implements. They produced a higher pitched sound than the candy vendor, and I was stuck by the pleasant, unobtrusive but readily distinguishable method of promotion these vendors adopted.

The Longchang River runs through town, and the tea garden occupied a picturesque location along the river.

The Old Village is a district near the East Hotel built around a collection of over a dozen historic memorial gate arches. Each arch is dedicated to a virtue or area of expertise and carved with the names of those who have exemplified that virtue or expertise. Some of the included virtues are: chastity, filial piety, longevity and social service. Areas of expertise include philosophy, history, mathematics, literature, mechanics, architecture and art. Longchang is well known for this collection of gate arches, some of which are hundreds of years old.

The buildings around the arches are contemporary but built in a style befitting a traditional Chinese village. Many of the stores and shops of the Old Village catered to tourism, which was uncommon in the rest of Longchang, and they provided a good opportunity for souvenir shopping. While I photographed the arches, several groups were led through the area on guided tours. But the path through the arches was not relegated to tourism, and as an active thoroughfare, it clearly played a role in the daily routine of many local residents. (More images of the arches and the Old Village are in the full image set.)

I suspect not many westerners travel to Longchang, and my presence typically drew attention. Children often tossed out “Hello” and would giggle and laugh when I replied in kind. Some of the kids were eager to pose for the camera, although not always unanimously.

One block from the arches, an active Buddhist temple was a beautiful display of traditional Chinese architecture and an alluring photo subject.

The contrasts I saw in China are different from those I am desensitized to in the U.S. To my naive eye, evidence of a community in transition abounded. My pictures did not quite capture this feeling, but one example comes close. While walking through Longchang near a cluster of high-rise apartments, I came upon this well-tended large garden surrounding an older single-story structure. A more contemporary multistory building stands above them both.

The street culture in all of the cities I visited was vibrant and healthy. The entrepreneurial spirit pervaded both the small and large cities. I didn't sense a major brand big-box presence, and most commerce seemed conducted in small to medium-sized independent stores. In Longchang, even small side streets sprouted little market places with tables and improvised awnings as places of business.

The transportation mix throughout China is more diverse than in typical U.S. cities. This mix also changed noticeably as I traveled from city to city. In Shenzhen, gasoline-powered motorcycles and scooters were illegal, and electric scooters were dominant, followed by bicycles, cars and buses, in that order. Chongqing was a hilly city, and few bicycles were visible, while gas-powered scooters abounded. In Longchang, bicycles were the most common transportation, and I saw the first pedicabs of the trip. We used the pedicabs for a few short trips.

Traffic throughout the urban centers moved with tightly coordinated chaos. Cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians engaged in a tight dance that at times left me watching in amazement. The proximity is much closer than in the U.S., but the vehicle speeds are also slower. Even the animals were adept at navigating the ebb and flow of urban traffic. (It wasn't even close.)

In Longchang the car horns seemed a vital element in traffic communication, although some taxis enjoyed using their horns with no apparent hazard or target. (Longchang had the noisiest streets of the trip.) Horn bursts were short and rarely the heavy handed blast more typical in the U.S. Driver and pedestrian patience seemed in abundance relative to the typical San Francisco street traffic, and speeding was rare. Signs and pavement markings were taken as a rough guide, and the streets were filled with creative navigation solutions. The embedded video clip below is a short pan of a traffic circle in Longchang near the Old Village, which captures some of the transportation diversity and urban soundscape.

In addition to the ever present large-scale highrise construction, I got a close-up view of a smaller scale construction site outside my hotel window in Longchang. I observed some of the local construction techniques over the three day visit. Paraphrasing what my colleague said, "one of the strengths of China is it has a lot of people." I think the construction techniques reflect this reality.
Many more tasks were performed manually than is typical in the U.S. Also in contrast with the U.S., bamboo played many roles at the construction site, including yokes and carrying baskets. The construction site was well balanced between men and women. This observation also held for the road construction crews I saw. The contrast with the male-dominated U.S. construction workforce was stark and noteworthy considering the larger role played by manual labor.

To catch the return flight to San Francisco we needed to fly from Chengdu to Hong Kong. Once again my colleague's friend provided our transport to Chengdu. The trip took approximately three hours, and we once again traveled the Chongqing-Chengdu Expressway toll road. Small farms dotted nearly all of the hilly Sichuan landscape along the expressway. The trip was picturesque and a fitting coda for this part of the trip.

The amount of construction underway in all of the major cities visited was staggering. I have never seen so many tower cranes. Most of the building projects were of considerable size, rising tens of stories, as shown below in a roadway view from Chengdu. Over the course of four cities and one week, hundreds of cranes were seen.

Hot pot is a renowned feature of the cuisine in the central part of China I visited. Chongqing is famous for its hot pot, but I had to “settle” for the hot pot of Chengdu. And from that experience, I can not imagine better. Another of my colleague's classmates helped coordinate our overnight stay in Chengdu, and we met him for dinner at a highly regarded local hot pot restaurant called Huang Cheng Lao Ma. Our table was in one of the atriums that featured several beautiful etched metal images depicting key events in the local history of Sichuan province. Chengdu is home to 11 million people and is the capital of the Sichuan province. I had only one night in the city, and the hot pot meal was the star of the brief visit. I sensed it was just a tiny hint of what Chengdu had to offer.

My colleague's friend in Chengdu had got us rooms at the Chengdu Intercontinental hotel. It had been open six months and understood what luxury meant in a “luxury hotel.” The room had all of the latest technological amenities, which most interestingly included motorized blinds on the glass walls around the bath tub. That detail deserved a photo.

An early morning flight from Chengdu to Hong Kong was followed by an afternoon departure for San Francisco. On this leg of the trip, we would cross the International Date Line and would arrive in San Francisco before departing Hong Kong. Because of the jet stream tailwind, the duration of the eastbound trip is four hours shorter than the westbound trip. At times the jet stream was contributing a tailwind of over 100 mph.

This trip to the Sichuan Province was the experience of a lifetime. It was a fascinating counterpoint to our time on the coast in Shenzhen. I am deeply grateful to my colleague for inviting me along on his trip home. He included me in all of his activities, and he did an amazing job of translating throughout the trip. The hospitality of his family and friends was extraordinary. From my arrival to my departure, I was treated to nonstop generosity and felt like an honored guest. As a non-Chinese speaking Westerner, I am grateful to all for the welcome they extended.

All images and words of this post copyright 2008, 2010 Rob D. Guettler. All rights reserved. Contact "rgweb 'at' meldedbits.org" (replace 'at' with @) for use requests.


Bath Tubs said...

Thank you for sharing your experience in China. I'm very interested in traveling there someday. I was a little concerned when I saw the photo of the bath tub that was only surrounded by glass, then relieved to read about the fancy motorized blinds.

Unknown said...

I like this post about China. I was very surprised when I read that they have a bunch of advanced and modern things such as motorized blinds. I can't wait to go visit Shanghai next summer.

Ken said...

Longchang is my home town. It's interesting to read an American's blog by chance about his visit to this town which is less known and visited by westerns. Welcome to Longchang! --- A Longchangese from New Zealand