I remember well the end of the year of 2007. That’s when I visited Beijing, China for the first time. It was December, chilly weather, yet not below minus, but I felt the cold creeping in under my thick black coat. Deeply in my head I considered myself very manly – like a soldier! Well, but this post is not about me being a soldier not none of Red Army memories which I would whatsoever never have a chance to experience because I was just a tourist.
As I said, it was December, but local elders where not hiding in their thick coats as I was. Many of them were rather lightly dressed, practicing some kind of body movement which was similar to Karate martial arts (空手) which I also practiced when I was younger.
Seeing elders making these body movements made me think that I have arrived to the country of Bruce Lee where each person has a strong personality as he did. However, I must admit that the characteristics of Bruce Lee quickly faded away once I got to know Chinese family life, which was much more complex than just “slow motion” karate moves.
For the next two weeks I was about to encounter the reality which was different from my first impressions of Chinese culture. I was disappointed, there is no such place like ‘Bruce Lee Land’ on this earth!
Four years later I returned to China and finally had an opportunity to experience what I saw in Beijing once again. I must say I was totally lucky. In Chengdu, Sichuan Province, I was couchsurfing at a Chinese girl’s place. The host was an early waker who had to attend the work at her father’s factory from 7 o’clock in the morning and stay there until late evening.
Unfortunately her grandma and grandpa were ill at that time, so she couldn’t host me at her owns place. I stayed at her cousin’s apartment which was quite far away from the city center so before my arrival she explained me how to take a bus to get to the downtown of Chengdu. As she said, it would take me around 50 minutes to reach it.
But as usual, I did the opposite. Next morning I left the house around 8 o’clock with an idea of taking a bus downtown to all the tourist attraction spots, but waiting for a bus to arrive seemed to be so slow and time consuming and I couldn’t understand the bus timetable so I chose to walk around by myself.
I didn’t have a map, but my inside-GPS was telling me that I am heading to the right direction. In half an hour I reached a small park with a massive tree in the middle. It wasn’t a big park, more like a residential garden where the elders come together to practice Tai Chi. Bingo! Just after 4 days of staying in China I found people with a Bruce Lee skills again! I sat down on a bench for about 10 minutes to enjoy the moment. It was relaxing and nice entertainment to start my day.
Let’s face it, I was not so childish anymore to think that every person in China has special skills, but it still gave me a proof that people here in China are much more determined to keep active at the old age than many other nations in the West. By spending more days in Chengdu I noticed that Tai Chi is still widely practiced phenomena. Well, at least amongst the older generation.
All the teenagers that I asked denied of having any interest in doing so, but I hope it will be more valuable to them when they will become older and the tradition won’t be lost.
Chinese steamed bun (中文包子)
After the unexpected surprise I continued walking towards downtown in Chengdu, but because I didn’t have my breakfast yet and the clock arrow was almost turning to 9am, I had to stop somewhere for breakfast. I was still in the suburbs of Chengdu.
All the shops were local-people oriented and the only places to eat were simple family owned restaurants. In the first days in Beijing I got used to eating baozi steamed buns (包子) which are very good and delicious way to fill up the stomach. So I decided to do the same this morning. Usually, I took a long time to find a place where I wanted to eat, but that morning I jumped into the first place on my way. It couldn’t have been better. Paid only 4 元 (which was the cheapest dish in China by the way), but steamed buns stuffed with mushrooms and the rice soup was the best I had so far!
Later on, I asked the head of the restaurant if I could film the procedure of making buns and he kindly agreed to show it to me. Here are the results:
People’s Park (人民公园)
If you have travelled a lot you definitely had some moments when you had to ask a local person for tips where to go and what to see but in the end of the day you have realized that they were wrong. For the most part of traveling I usually trust locals more than a local tourist maps or Lonely Planet book. One of the reasons I wanted to visit Chengdu was because of the teahouse culture. I imagined it like a paradise of tea drinkers where they come together to enjoy different tastes of tea. But my host had a different opinion about it.
She told me that those places (which are usually based in the park) are nothing more than a tourist trap where you can’t enjoy any part of it. But because of my curious personality, I couldn’t accept her opinion as a fact. Thus, my next destination was People’s Park (人民公园) which was one of the main spots for local people to gather together and have a cup of tea.
In my imagination, the teahouse was a big café with hundred varieties of green, black oolong and other types of tea, BUT it turned out to be a completely different thing. I arrived to the park from the side where the patriotic statue of a soldier hailed me. There were plenty of trees, a lake, natural and also man made rocks to attract younger generation to take pictures for Renren (Chinese Facebook) profiles.
At first, it seemed to be quite nice place to spend some time together with your spouse or young children, but I was kind of wrong. In every step I took, majority of people were people around 40, some of them with their grandchildren, others on their own. Maybe my host was right, I shouldn’t have come here? But wait a minute…There was something going on!
Long sleeved women stood out from the crowd. They were dancing. Was it a show? No, it seemed more like their daily workout, because they did get very little attention from other park guests. Yes, I was the only tourist there!
As my mission was to find a teahouse, I continued my walk through the well organized walking paths. Sometimes it went up the hill and sometimes down… On the way I met two more different performing groups of elders. One was a group of women’s chorus (which didn’t really like my attention) and the second one was Chinese traditional music band which must have been main attraction for locals.
…but what about my ambition to visit a teahouse? In the end I did get there, but it was not as fascinating as I thought would be. Many tables surrounded by people sipping their tea from thermoses and no place to buy a drink for an “outsider” like me. But I don’t blame anyone for that. As a Western world citizen I had too high expectations about this place, but besides that, I really enjoyed learning about and seeing the things which I didn’t expect to experience that day.
[Text and photos by M.Borgarbúi]