What is the western perspective of China? The country of Mao Tse Tung, communism, questionable practices with regards to human rights, a country developing to become one of the most powerful in the world.
Having travelled to China several times, from a western perspective, China is a country of contradictions that makes it challenging for us to fully understand life in modern China.
A trip to China opens our eyes to the industrialized, ultra-modern and efficient country that China is today. As a tourist we most often go looking for China’s past- visiting the Great Wall and the Forbidden City are certainly on most travel agendas, but it is the amazing modern cities that are the real China of today.
In October 2014, I was invited by the Szechuan Provincial People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries Tourism to bring a delegation to Chengdu to participate in the 11th International Tourism and Cultural Promotion Conference. Chengdu is Winnipeg’s sister city, but the ties between the two cities in recent years have been almost non-existent. My travel partners were Helen Wang, editor of the Manitoba Chinese Tribune, and Gerald Flood, retired comment editor for the Free Press. We had invited representatives from both the city and province to join us, including Travel Manitoba, but there was little interest. This was very disappointing as there is the potential for great tourism and business opportunities between our two cities. Delegates from countries around the world participated in the tourism conference and presentations were made by groups from the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Singapore, Israel, Australia and India, encouraging travel between their countries and Chengdu. It was unfortunate we had no support from the city or the province so that we could encourage greater travel and understanding between our two cities.
In an age of global citizenship it is vitally important that we as Winnipeggers are connected to the global community so that we have a greater understanding of the world. There are many differences between Winnipeg and Chengdu, but there are also many similarities. The panda is the symbol for Chengdu as the polar bear is for Winnipeg. Like Winnipeg, Chengdu located on a flood plain. More than two thousand years ago, engineers, realizing that damming the river proved ineffective, developed a system similar to our Floodway to divert water through the city which could then be used for irrigation purposes in the dry season. An incredible feat of engineering and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chengdu’s river diversion (The Dujiangyan Irrigation System) is incredible to see. Chengdu is the capital of Szechuan province, but with its regional population of approx. 14 million people it is substantially larger than Winnipeg. Chengdu is located in central China, as Winnipeg is located in central Canada. It is our similarities that give us a common understanding and exploring our differences that help us gain a greater understanding of both our cultures.
Our Chengdu hosts met us at the airport and took care of our every need for six days. First impressions of Chengdu are that of an ultra-modern metropolis. The airport has at least 177 gates, dwarfing Winnipeg’s airport. Buildings seem to rise in Chengdu overnight. A new suburb is being planned and should be completed in the next five years, home to over 7 million people! In 2009 a major earthquake hit the area outside of Chengdu, killing over 60,000 people. With the aid of the city of Shanghai, the city has been rebuilt so that few traces of the earthquake remain. Chengdu’s subway, begun in the last few years has two major lines with several more to be completed in the next two years We were told that there is more heavy equipment to create subway tunnels in Chengdu than in the all other cities on Earth combined. Rapid transit is a reality in Chengdu that is planned and built within a very short period of time, granted with such a huge population rapid transportation is a major priority for the city.
During our 6 days, our hosts took us to see the Giant Buddha at Leshan, Mount Emei, one of the four holy mountains of China, the China Protection Panda Research Center Yoa Bifengxia Base, the ancient village of Moxi and Mount Hailuogou National Glacier Fields.
The ancient Chinese poem states that the roads of Szechuan are harder to climb than the route to Heaven. We certainly experienced this travelling through amazing tunnels over 10km long bored through mountains, followed by narrow passage ways where guard rails had collapsed down the side of the mountain, waterfalls washed out sections of the road and only one lane of traffic could pass at a time. Drivers of local tourist buses drive like maniacs on mountain roads. One road to Mount Emei contained over 300 major switchbacks in a 54 km route. Not for those who get motion sickness! Don’t forget your gravol. Occasionally herds of goats cause traffic to come to a stop on the highway.
The Szechuan people are proud of their spicy cuisine. Hot chili peppers are a part of almost every dish. Yak meat is commonly eaten and sold in markets throughout the province. Beware of the Szechuan hot pot for supper! This is one of the best growing regions in the country. Driving through the countryside, you see terraced hillsides where farmers still work small plots of land by hand. Small trucks are seen shipping food to larger centers- celery, kiwi, pigs and persimmons. This is the area that produces some of the finest green tea and many tea plantations can be seen.
The people of Chengdu are said to be like the panda, the symbol of their province. They take life slowly, are never in a rush, don’t get ruffled and enjoy eating. Chengdu is often rainy and overcast so that on beautiful sunny days, we were told people leave work early to enjoy the blue sky.
While there are ancient villages along the Silk Road Marco Polo visited that date back thousands of years, the large cities are ultra-modern. Major high-end stores- Ferragammo, Louis Vuitton, Georgio Armani etc. are everywhere. Prices at those designer stores are just as expensive as or even more so than in Winnipeg, but we don’t see the same number of high-end shops. One jewellery store had watches on display priced at over $100,000. We wondered who is able to afford all the luxury goods as the average Chinese salary is about $500-$1000/month, but shoppers are everywhere. Income tax is vague in China. The employer pays a portion of each worker’s salary to the government (approx.25%) but most workers have no idea how much tax they pay.
The people of Chengdu seem happy with their lifestyle and, according to the young people we met, are able to live in reasonable comfort compared to other large cities. Young people live a life similar to young people in Canada. They are not interested in the past and are unaware of many significant events in China’s recent history. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution have been left behind as a part of their parents or grandparents’ generation. One of our acquaintances recognized that Mao made many mistakes but that he was able to bring China into the modern age. Most of the atrocities of his time were blamed on Mme Mao, who seems to be the scapegoat for many of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.
Travelling through downtown Chengdu, one is struck by how closely it resembles many western cities. Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC can be found everywhere. Even the Super 8 hotel chain has branches in Chengdu. The Wide and Narrow streets, the area around Wuhu temple, Jinli Road and the antique market along the river give tourists, both western and the Chinese, a view of what life was like hundreds of years ago. But for the most part we saw China as a modern country where true history is not always easy to find.
I hope we are able to develop our connections with our sister city in the next few years so that more Manitobans are able to learn more about China and its fascinating culture. With our newly elected mayor and city council, there may be greater interest in exploring greater connections between Chengdu and Winnipeg.