I was lucky enough to have a business trip to Chengdu in China as part of a contingent of UK tourism suppliers working with VisitBritain. Being half-Chinese (my dad grew up and lived in Hong Kong) it was an opportunity to go to the country that was in half my blood. Would I feel a connection with the culture or people? I’ve had limited exposure to the Chinese culture: Relatives on my dad’s side have flitted in and out of my life, I attended Chinese Sunday school pre-teens (which I hated) and I went to what was called Canton (now Guangzhou) and Hong Kong when I was around 8 or 9. My dad didn’t speak Cantonese to me and there are a few Chinese-inspired pictures around the house. My last name is the only real connection to the Chinese world. I have sometimes thought, with the dilution of the Chinese blood through me, and my two sons, that if they have a further son with a non-oriental person, my grandson could be western in look except for the name – rather like my wife and my mum bearing the married name “Wong”.
If you haven’t heard of the city of Chengdu then you won’t be alone. I’d never heard of it either until this trip came up. Located in south-west China it has a population, depending on where or who you hear from, of anywhere between 8 and 14 million (what’s a difference of 6 million in a country of 1.3 billion?!). It has more people than London. It is in the Provence of Sichuan, which is the native home to the Giant Panda. British Airways has just started a new thrice-weekly service, hence the location of this sales mission.
I was shocked at how few people were on the flight. Apparently, it takes an airline about 18 months for a new service to break-even. The captain, on his introduction speech said, it may not be profitable but you’ll get excellent service. It was the same in the way back too, with no one in Premium Economy and First (more about that later).
Arriving in Chengdu on Monday morning, we stepped off the plane and on to a waiting bus to take us to the Panda Base – a sanctuary and research centre for the Giant Panda. On the way we passed a humongous building. It was so massive it just didn’t look real. Our guide pointed out that this is the largest single standing building in the World. The Global Center is a shopping mall, hotel and cinema complex that has 5 times more floor space than the Pentagon. It also has an artificial beach and a huge screen which mimics sunrises and sunsets. Unfortunately the schedule didn’t allow a visit inside.
The Panda Base is basically a giant zoo with Giant Pandas and Red Pandas, and bamboo everywhere (which is just for show, rather than food for the inmates). There is an option to cuddle a baby Panda for about £200, however it didn’t feel appropriate in the setting and very touristy (I suppose I was expecting the base to be more intimate and worthy than a big zoo). Anyhow we got to see lots of pandas – adults and babies – in big enclosures and they were all incredibly cute.
The business side of the trip involved 53 x 20 minute appointments over two days with Chinese travel buyers in a window-less conference room in the basement of a posh hotel. The speed-dating of the travel world where you intensely sell your product in the hope the travel experts add you to their itineraries. Repetition of your spiel is prevalent here and by the end of the first season the translator could pretty much do the job for you. As buyers approached my table for the pre-arranged meeting, each seemed to double-check my face as they were looking for Mr Wong, and the first precious 2 minutes of the conversation (a whopping 10%!) was used up explaining that I really was Chinese in my father’s side. I probably heard from half of 50 buyers “you don’t look Chinese”.
At the end of day two, we were treated to some entertainment following the gala dinner. This comprised of a Chinese dancer who changes his face in a blink of an eye, a magician who’s tricks were exposed due to the position of our table to the side and some very dodgy Scottish dancing. The English contingent suddenly felt very sorry for the Scottish contingent.
At the end of day three (and yet to have been outside the hotel since arriving from the panda base) a few of us ventured into Chengdu. We headed to the touristy area called Wide and Narrow Alleys – a complex of pedestrianised alleyways lined with shops and restaurants. The facades recreate the old China for the tourists. If Disneyland did China this is what it’ll look like. The street restaurants were quite authentic however and we were lucky to have a Chinese speaking companion which helped decipher the menu and strange looking meats. Souvenir shops full of panda merchandise, home-grown tea and ear-cleaning entrepreneurs lined the street.
We then dived in to some local bars. The two things of note here were the disgusting, hole-in-the-ground toilets (which stank and were rank) and the rats crawling about – which didn’t make for comfortable drinking. A quick wipe of the bottle tops to be sure ensured, although it was a vicious circle of the more we drank the more we needed the loo. My drinking buddies were more akin to the strange meats and tried the local delicacies of duck tongue and rabbit’s kidneys from the street sellers. I didn’t have the stomach for them at all.
The final day of the trip was a free day and I spent the afternoon strolling along the green Jinjiang river and popping into the Wangjianglou Park – a peaceful, pay-for-entry park with old Chinese boathouses, bamboo and an ancient rollercoaster that had seen better days. Old Chinese people practiced tai-chi on the verandas of the relic houses.
The city itself is a bustling, litter-free place with plenty of dirty-looking street restaurants and stomach-churning meats. Constantly shrouded in mist due to its location in the foothills of the mountains, the air stank of dirt, and the traffic was crazy. Cars have right of way and motorbikes ride silently on the pavement. Horns are a constant noise, and seem to be largely ignored. The tranquility, westernised and nice toilets of my 31st floor room at the Shangri-la hotel I’m afraid to say was a haven.
I’m so glad I was lucky enough to visit China and this up-and-coming city on a business-expense trip but it’s not a place I’ll return. I’ve no real desire to visit Beijing or Shanghai or any other superfluous city. On the flight home we travelled with a group of Chinese buyers who were going to England in a familiarisation trip. We were all given a tour of an empty First Class cabin at 40,000 feet which was luxurious, clean and western. This is the world which I aspire to and I have little desire to change that for the Chinese world. Despite my name, I do not look Chinese, and I certainly don’t feel it.
- Pandas! – Chengdu, China (travelpod.com)