Reports are in: "Out West still isn't exotic enough", some say.


In the bamboo park-Sunday before Church in Chengdu

In Shangri-La I felt as if the exotic was at my fingertips:  Glacial mountain peaks, prayer flags aplenty, mystical towns bordering even more mystifying cities could have unravelled in front of me if I had decided to cross over and explore. Burma was to the south, Bhutan a stones throw, the iconic Tibet to the west (which I would have been denied entry into, but thats besides the point), Laos to the south east. But it wasn't my time yet. Yunnan province is the start of the Mekong delta, and being in the south of China I was tempted to head south, to the "exotic" south east Asia. Even though it woulda been much more impressive, and maybe more inspiring, and all those other things a lot of travelers are looking for, I had to go back north; first to Panzihua, then Chengdu. I wanted to do a big circle of China. I still had a few provinces to see; old capital cities, rickshaws to ride, more food to eat, more lonely trains to take. China wasn`t finished with me and I wasn`t gonna back down either. As much as I wish it was sometimes, south east Asia just wasn't my trip to do. It still isn`t. Maybe I`ll take my kids there someday.
Panzhihua borders Yunnan province so of course, it's beautiful. The bus ride into the city was a little sleepy, but the bus ride back to the train station in the middle of the afternoon was a scrape-your-jaw-off-the-bus-floor moment. Sorry I don't have a picture for you. I can barely describe it. I tend to do that with the most beautiful places I see. I'm reluctant to take a photo. I don't want to injure it's soul. You have to be careful with beautiful things.
The ad campaign going on the screens of the Chengdu subway when I visited went like this: (flashes of cuddly pandas) "Chengdu: Real China. Where pandas live." I kinda agree. If the Great Wall wasn't so darn notorious (which is in Beijing), I would recommend Chengdu as a place to visit over Beijing to get a glimpse of what China is like. On top of the cute and fuzzy bears, Chengdu also has a Mao statue, a giant square (smaller than Tiananmen square, but free of the protest and murder history...that I know of). There's great food (very spicy...you know it as "Szechuan" cuisine), friendly folk, tons of temples and even a bamboo park. Also... the best tea ever! The city is filled with old tea houses where the biggest nation in the world's elderly can comfortably kick back and play cards, gab, and drink endless cups of their national treasure all day. Chengdu also has a significant amount of outdoor stores (and a Bookworm!). This is because many people have to enter Chengdu before they attempt their way into Tibet. The west of Sichuan province is mostly Tibetan villages, and apparently western Sichuan looks more like "real" Tibet than actual Tibet (the autonomous zone), because it hasn't been affected as much by the Chinese takeover. Anyway, in my Chengdu hostel, Sim's Cozy Garden, lots of backpackers were planning on heading even more west the moment they arrived in Chengdu. Unfortunately the week I was there foreigners weren't allowed to enter the Tibetan zone. With a permit and a tour organized, foreigners can usually enter Tibet but the government can temporarily shut the doors during what they feel is a "rough" time. We couldn't even visit the Tibetan villages in western Sichuan. So we were stuck with Chengdu, which I was fine with because Tibet wasn't on my mind, but this didn't fly with many of the others.
A river runs through Chengdu, and the waterfront has plenty of chairs and benches for people to sit and enjoy. A lot of times in China you'll see a dude taking a nap in his rickshaw, construction workers sleeping shirtless in the back of a truck, people squatting on the street to eat their noodles. In Chengdu, everyone seemed to have a nice chair to sit on as they chatted and sipped their tea. It was very old timey Europe to me, or how I pictured dynasty era China. For the time being, that was my "exotic". Maybe I'll get to Bhutan one day, who knows? I'll have some more tea and think it over.
I filled out a trip advisor review (as a favor to Jolie, my Yoga master in Dali) when I was in a cafe in Chengdu, so the cyber world tracked down my location. When I log onto MSN now, my location is set to Chengdu and I can see the daily weather report. I haven't changed my settings since I`ve left. I don't want to. Chengdu was one of those places for me in China, or the world, just like lots of other travelers experience, where you can picture "ending up". While wandering the streets of Chengdu I pictured my life there: What expats would be my friends, where I would hang out, what I could do beyond teaching, what cafes were cute for me to write in...stuff like that.
Was Chengdu my Tibet? Maybe. The backpackers who couldn`t get to Tibet or any of it's Sichuan villages left the following day. To where, I don't know. Chengdu was "just another city". "It was nothing special," some of them said. They wanted somewhere vast, somewhere practically deserted, somewhere mountainous and misunderstood. They wanted the "exotic".
Bear with me for a moment. My theory on the search for the "exotic" is that it's mostly in the eye of the observer. If you want to see it, it can be there for you, it just may not be what you were expecting, or hoping for. The thing about this hunt for this otherness is that it's practically impossible now due to this rapidly globalizing world (hence the mad rush to capture it), and at the same time, it can pop up anywhere. You can be in a mall in New Jersey and find something out of the "ordinary" to photograph and share with people back home. I've felt more in the presence of normal in a market in the south of China surrounded by live poultry and hard working people wearing no less than 10 different kinds of traditional clothes and hats than when I would go to my supermarket in Nanshan for peanut butter and toothpaste. Sometimes it's much more interesting to observe Korean high school kids in Starbucks than it is to be in a small fishing village on the quiet west coast of Korea, watching a local slaughter a helpless eel in the middle of the night while you walk around with some random traveling buddies. Why? The ladder may seem like a more interesting story to pack in your suitcase, but it is really that weird? People need fish to eat. Sometimes seafood is a town's only livelihood. But people wearing big frames with no lenses...that's weird. Yes, you can say that I tend to hop planes to the other side of the world because I'm looking for something a little different, but I wouldn't label myself as one of those travelers who longs for the exotic and will settle for nothing less. It's that rigidity which can make it difficult to find the precious exotic. It's where you least expect it, sorry for the cliche. Go hunting for it and you'll be out of luck, but you might have some good photos to show your friends, family, and Facebook. But take a few chances, wander somewhat aimlessly, and you'll be sure to find it once you get to New Jersey.
The road from Shangri-La to Chengdu brought me to Sichuan province, the 11th province of my Chinese backpacking adventure. I was super excited to be in the west of China and also super excited for my 11th province! The journey also took two days. We had to backtrack down Yunnan province and take a bus to the Yunnan/Sichuan border city of Panzhihua. After a 10 hour stopover in Panzhihua, we took a night train to Chengdu, and a mere 14 hours later we were in crowded, smoggy and spicy Chengdu! So during my stop-over coffee and a breakfast wrap in a nearly deserted shopping mall in the Panzhihua city center, a few kids were wandering in and out of the food stall where I was eating. They smiled, I smiled back, they giggled and ran away. Then they came back for more. About ten minutes into this game, the little boy approached me and handed me a mango. A mango!? For me!? "Xie xie ni" I said, and took the mango as the boy smiled and ran off again. A few moments later two little girls came up and gave me a flower! I was gushing. Fruits and flowers for me? On this sleepy Sunday in Sichuan? They were like my welcoming gifts into the province. For a moment I had forgotten how hospitable China was to me (most of the time) and these little kiddies quickly reminded me.
I had no room for the "exotic" in Western China, because the people made me feel at home. I didn't want to leave. But I did anyway. I guess I'm still searching.





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