Welcome to Chengdu
The early-morning fog has lifted in the capital of Sichuan province to expose ... the city's grayness. The sun is peeking through the haze and the air is acceptable -- if you don't have much use for oxygen.
In case you missed my maiden Insider/China post Saturday, I have arrived in Chengdu.
Whenever I visit an exotic location, my first mission is always to take a morning walk and get the pulse of the city. So after a few hours of sleep and a hearty breakfast, I set out.
*During a one-hour stroll, I don't think I saw more than two Westerners (except in front of the tourist hotels). Chengdu is not Beijing or Shanghai.
*Like most urban areas in China, construction cranes and international business symbolize rapid economic development. Walking along the busy Remmin South Road, I pass everything from den-sized family-run shops and travel agencies to the upscale Gucci, Hermes, Cartier and Salvatore Ferragamo and, best of all, The Mutt's Nuts pizza. (Fear not, Starbucks, McDonald's and KFC are also nearby.)
*Banners welcoming the Women's World Cup hang from light posts on major boulevards and a small crowd gathered outside the U.S. team's hotel when the players climbed aboard the team bus for a late-morning city outing before practice later today. Euro qualifying highlights are available on BBC World and taped Bundesliga and Serie A matches are on Chinese TV (CCTV). The local WWC theme is "Beautiful Game, Charming Chengdu."
*Odds of getting hit by a car while crossing the street: 5 to 1. Odds of getting hit by a scooter: 3 to 1. Odds of getting hit by a taxi: 1 to 1. Pedestrian walk signals only mean that you probably won't die. Upon entering a taxi this afternoon, I am greeted by a recorded message in Mandarin and then English saying: "Hello, passenger. Thank you for taking my taxi." On the regular radio, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" is playing. Taxis are very cheap: The initial metered charge is the equivalent of about 65 cents and a reasonable trip sets you back just a few dollars.
The young volunteers working at the 38,000-seat Women's World Cup stadium are eager to test their English -- as well as several other languages -- on visitors. They do quite well. Many in the Chinese media are also fluent in English, although often the words don't come out quite right. Kristine Lilly was asked if she felt "full-bodied." She laughed and then answered politely to what she thought the reporter meant to say (Was she in good condition for the first game.)
All wisecracks aside, this city of around 11 million located in a giant basin in south-central China has energy and personality. At English Corner, a small park on the banks of the olive-colored Funan River, elderly couples are holding hands, dancing. Trees and flowers provide a narrow buffer between the river and the chaotic streets. A colossal statue of Chairman Mao presides over Tianfu Square, a few blocks south of the stadium. The panda research center, home to about 60 bears, is in the northern suburbs. The Leshan Grand Buddha, a 230-foot-tall sculpture carved into cliffs, is within driving distance.
I love exploring new cities and, over the next six days, am looking forward to getting to know this one.
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