The last week or so has been remarkably relaxing. Spending five days in Chengdu followed by another five days in Sanya has given me a lot of time to hang out, relax, explore, go for runs, and take part in all manner of such stressful activities.
After arriving at Sim’s Hostel in Chengdu, some of us rarely left. The hostel not only has lots of extra facilities (bar, restaurant, DVD room, ping-pong room, outdoor terrace, garden, 等等) but gets all of the details of each of the rooms – the details you never notice until they are missing or you think “wow, it would be nice if…” – just about perfect. For instance, the bathroom situation: each room has a separate shower and toilet, so one guest can use each at the same time. The sink is external to both rooms, so the guy who wants to wash his hands 0r brush his teeth doesn’t have to bother anyone. The shower room not only includes a fan to dry out the excess humidity, but also a shower curtain in front of the clothes-hook-adorned door to prevent your clothes from getting wet. And if that was not enough, there are plentiful additional showers and toilets off nearby hallways in case you don’t want to wait for your shower or you have extremely urgent business.
Needless to say, Sim’s hostel is just about perfect and we greatly enjoyed our few days there. But in addition to hanging out at the hostel, I also greatly enjoyed exploring Chengdu. I spent much of my time wandering around the city, aimlessly getting lost among random neighborhoods of the surprisingly large and laid-back metropolis.
Pretty much the entire time we were in Chengdu, it was snowing or wintry-mixing – according to locals, an unusual occurrence. Wherever I went, locals were outside taking posed pictures amid the falling snow, dancing and sliding around and catching snowflakes on their tongues. It was cool seeing the city-wide celebration, as it gave life to a wintry city landscape. I spent a day wandering around the city’s music district, located around the gates of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, where piano shops lined the streets and the sounds of instruments from the erhu to the accordion wafted through the air. I spent another day wandering around the Tibetan district before getting completely lost in a pedestrian neighborhood and ending up unexpectedly along the 2nd ring road, way out in the boonies with no clue of how to get back. We ate hotpot and 川菜 and Turkish food and street food. We met with an NGO for ViA purposes and wandered along the rivers that run through the city. One day, I did a very nice loop run around the narrow rivers that ring the city center, finding narrow paths along the river bank and dodging tiny matriarchs fiercely exercising and tottering old men wandering around amidst the teahouses and tending flower beds.
The city, as you may have gathered from above, has a very nicely calm and relaxed atmosphere for a place with 10 million people. While a large section of the city center has been transformed into a semi-pedestrianized mallified megashopping exrtavaganza that is overwhelming even by Chinese standards, much of the city consists of tight-knit backstreet neighborhoods where narrow alleyways lined by food stalls and shops selling necessities wend between concrete blocks, apartment buildings, and even the occasional Qing-era home or two. The neighborhoods have a completely different feel than the rebuilt city center, where vast boulevards cut geometrically ordered swathes through the city, slickly sterile glossy monoliths jutting up to either side, a procession of neatly ordered and tightly regulated modernity barely superficial enough to shield from view the city’s true nature – more relaxed, less aggressively striving for the visibly modern, more confident in itself.
It’s strange to see real cities overlaid with a thin veneer of imposed modernity, and it’s unclear how locals seem to react and interact with their ever-changing living environments. Some seem proud of their cities’ newfound modernity while nevertheless spending their time away from the rigidly ordered modern worlds of the city center. Still others, like my waiban Mr. Wang, bemoan the loss of the city’s character, while others seem to pass by the buildings without a care. The cities of China are changing so rapidly that nobody, even the locals, can keep up with their rapid pace, let alone begin to make sense of what’s going on in their own fondly remembered (or newly adopted) hometowns.
Another place this is evidently visible is in Sanya, China’s premier beach resort on the southernmost sandy tip of Hainan island. Often billed as China’s Hawaii, Sanya could more accurately be described as a Chinese Jersey Shore gone tropical. The place seems simultaneously very new and incredibly run-down and tired, and attracts a raucous mixed-age crowd of vacationers, many of whom seem to be overweight Russians clad in incredibly tight speedos, all of whom seem to be inexplicably angry at each other or brooding over some situation so impossibly deep and complicated that you, of course could never truly understand.
Sanya is almost wholly modern, its beach resorts and apartment blocks having nearly all been built in the past twenty years or so. And the construction boom continues; new resorts continue to go up along the coast, including one built as a miniature of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. While on runs, I have also seen the following developments newly complete or still under construction:
-an Intercontinental Resort spread over dozens of acres along its own private bay. The resort will be a stop in an around-the-world yacht race.
-a massive new resort located on a hillside above 大东海湾, along which was built a massive fake cliff of ‘granite’. Though construction on the hotel buildings themselves has just begun, the thirty-foot cliff has been completed and a gigantic ‘waterfall’, with more water volume than Xining’s Huang Shui river pouring out every second, is already cascading down the cliff-front twenty-four hours a day.
-a new island, Dubai-style, has been built off the coast of Sanya bay. Called “Phoenix Island International Cruise Ship Terminal and Resort”, the island is the site of the city’s biggest construction projects, with massive steel skeletons of postmodern skyscrapers rising like claws above the rolling sea. Unclear on this one yet, but the place looks more like Dubai than China.
While on my runs, I pass by absurdly luxurious villas that look like slices of Bali or Hawaii. But minutes later, I pass through neighborhoods of shantytowns, half on water and half collapsing, often housed in rundown buildings that look as if they were half-built before being abandoned by developers. These forgotten corners of Sanya, where dogs laze away from the midday sun under the shade of stunted palms and lcals lounge in sidewalk cafes, where fishermen carry their daily catches to markets in the panniers of their bicycles and kids play on piles of half-burned trash, are where the locals actually live; the rest of town, it seems, is entirely made up of visitors. Domestic visitors aside, it seems the majority of people in town are Russians, who are so numerous that the majority of signs are bilingual and (as a laowai) you are often accosted by touts and street vendors in the Russian language. People seem to be relatively high-strung and I’ve seen several public arguments on the street involving groups of people from street vendors to families to tour groups.
Sanya is, as such, a strange place, and while I’ve immensely enjoyed spending time with the rest of ViA China I’m ready to leave this place. The weather has been surprisingly comfortable and the beach has been nice; it’s been great to run around the city and along the shoreline without wearing massive amounts of heavy clothes, but the city doesn’t feel real – or feel like China at all. I’m excited to go to Yunnan with Kailah, a place through which I’ve always wanted to travel.
But all the same, it’s been really nice to see everyone. We’ve been lucky to have lots of visitors in Xining, but we haven’t seen all of this year’s volunteers for almost six months – and it’s been great to catch up with people from locales as distant as Hunan and Nanjing and Guangzhou and Shangri-La. It’s been a great time, and while my ability to sit still has been sorely tested during some of the meetings it’s been a lot of fun going on runs and walks and hanging out on the beach and chilling at the hostel and eating outside and going out to KTV together in a cult-like mob of eleven people. Last night, we were walking along the waterfront when we stopped by a streetside portrait-artist’s stall to admire his work. Ingrid suddenly turned to us with an idea.
“What if we got a picture painted of…” she said before trying to suppress a laugh.
“Patrick?” I said.
We glanced at the portraits on the wall, which ranged from determined-looking babies to Condoleezza Rice and Hu Jintao. We quickly agreed that it would be a great investment, and Patrick sat down for the portrait.
The guy was a professional, and after twenty minutes or so he had produced a heroic-looking portrait of our fearless leader, which hopefully before long will be hanging, framed, in the ViA office. It’s moments like these that has made our time in Hainan awesome.
Off to Kunming tonight and looking forward to yet another adventure. Stay tuned!