A Walk Along the Funan River

Today was Sunday, and it was a whole new adventure. It was also the first day of my “vacation,” free from the stress of classes, and free to spend all on my own. I spent the morning at home, cleaning my apartment until it was spotless. It was more of a spiritual cleansing than anything else, and a stress-release exercise. I also read some more of my first English-language novel, purchased at a foreign-language bookstore close to Sichuan University. Until now, my only bedtime reading has been textbooks. Yawn. Warren, my downstairs neighbor and fellow English teacher at UESTC, dropped by to give me some information. We had become acquainted by email when I lived in L.A., and he gave me some advice that helped me to decide to accept the job here.

I then had my first haircut adventure in China. As a prelude, I had shaved off my goatee, as I was sick of looking at all the white hair. Besides, my beard trimmer was destroyed when I plugged it into the 220-volt electrical outlet, twice the voltage we use in the States. Whoops. I chose a local barber shop – they all have big, revolving “barber pole” signs – deciding to take my chances with sign language.

And what an adventure it was. The first step was to lie on a reclining couch with vibrating rollers, which relaxed me while my head was being shampooed – twice. The second shampoo was combined with a relaxing scalp massage. Then to the stylist’s chair, where I mimed how much I wanted taken off. A friendly young man cut my hair to perfection, trimming endlessly with his scissors like a sculptor creating a work of art. At one point he took a call on his cell phone, then for some reason put the phone to my ear. There was no sound on the line, and I wondered what I was supposed to do. Finally someone said a halting “Hello?” and I spoke a few words. I guess it was one of his friends wanting to try out their English. After the haircut, it was back to the shampoo sink for the third time. I though this was overdoing it. Then back to the chair for a final blow-dry. The whole process took an hour, and cost all of 10 yuan, or about $1.25.

Ferris Wheel and “old mill” building on the Funan River

I walked down the street feeling like Fred Astaire must have, as he sang “When There’s a Shine on Your Shoes” in The Band Wagon. I turned down the street that would take me to the Funan River, which I intended to follow through a series of winding riverside parks. On the way I came to an amusement park, where there’s a giant Ferris Wheel. I walked through the park reveling in its carnival atmosphere and trying to be totally in the moment, Zen-wise. I did pretty well, snapping some interesting pictures along the way.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering through Chengdu, along the river through neighborhoods old and new, but mostly new – Chengdu has virtually reinvented itself in the last 15 years as a “modern” city, a city of high-rises, luxury condos, and brand new apartment buildings. Much of it is impressive, some of it is beautiful, but it’s all rather soul-less. Many of the tall buildings are, in fact, vacant. It’s a stage set for capitalism, sparkling and modern, but it leaves me wondering how much of historical and esthetic value was lost in this mad rush to build over the past.

Two rivers meet, downtown Chengdu
I eventually arrived at the confluence of two rivers, where a lovely “traditional” pavilion offered an elevated view toward the beautiful Anshun Bridge. This was, in fact, one of the sights I had longed to see in Chengdu. The bridge of three arches, patterned after a 17th-century structure, looks ancient but was, in fact, completed in 2002. One of the conundrums that I’ve encountered here is that much of what looks old is, in fact, new. I first experienced this feeling when I wandered into the “fake” Wenshu Temple on my first weekend here. The building was actually a brand-new commercial development.
Anshun Bridge
I walked across Anshun Bridge (its name means “peaceful and fluent)” then wandered though a park on the other side of the river, eventually crossing another bridge into the central city. It was here that I came across a beautiful ancient wall with circular arches. I stepped through one arch, and saw an ancient traditional house of red brick and blackened clay-tile roof. The house sat at the edge of devastation – it was the only remaining structure in an old neighborhood that had recently been destroyed. I was overcome by a sense of loss and by the wanton destruction of what must have been a vibrant, colorful neighborhood. The real surprise was that the one house was still occupied by a family who sat in its doorway enjoying the cool breeze. Chengdu has many such unexpected little pockets of traditional buildings, but they are fast disappearing. I photographed what remained of an old brick wall, perhaps a couple of hundred years old, maybe older. I went on my way.
Still Life – beside the only remaining house in a destroyed neighborhood
I was on the outer edges of downtown, and spanking-new luxury apartments rose on every side. In the shadow of these buildings I stumbled on an enclave of one-story traditional structures, housing shops open to the street. Occasionally, a doorway would offer a glimpse of an ancient courtyard, with trellised windows and green plants. I took several photographs, wondering how long this small neighborhood would last. I stopped to buy a chocolate covered ice cream on a stick and a 7-Up. They were a welcome relief after my long walk in the hot sun.

A traditional Chengdu building

Before I knew it I was in Chunxi Road, the glitzy pedestrian shopping thoroughfare. I’d been here a couple of times before, but this time I had WALKED all the way downtown. My feet were feeling the miles I’d put in. I stopped in an insanely busy department store and bought a cheap bedside lamp (my fluorescent ceiling light is hell on my eyes), and then wandered over to the Starbucks close to the city’s main drag. There are pedestrian tunnels under the huge intersection here, and even a whole underground shopping city offering rather shoddy merchandise, a far cry from the luxury shops on the street level above.

I hung out at Starbucks, resting my feet, reading my book, and trying to ignore the American-looking tourists who chose this spot as their hangout. I eventually dragged my tired self to a bus stop, and boarded a #1 express bus. I’d taken this bus once before, but was not at all sure where to get off. I ended up getting lost, but at least wandered through an interesting neighborhood I hadn’t seen yet. I had a devil of a time trying to hail a taxi, but eventually snagged one, showing the driver my handwritten instructions to get back to campus.
I arrived back at the university at about 7, too late for anything but a bowl of soup at the dining hall. At least it was nourishing, with an egg and some vegetables in broth. I picked up a couple of things at the campus store and headed home, pleased with my day.

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