Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg's sister city: The bold and the beautiful

Travelling to the world's most populous city an exhilarating, eye-popping experience

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CHENGDU, China -- I arrived in Chengdu so exhausted I remember nothing about that night except thinking, as we drove up a broad avenue lined with buildings alive with moving light shows, I had mistakenly landed in Las Vegas.

The events of the next day, however, were the eye-opener, a crash course in modern China, and the seeming effortless speed with which the Chinese adopt and adapt modernity, as if the transformations, especially over the last decade, had been there all along. Everything I did or saw after that first day was mere elaboration.

-- -- --

I was up early and went down to the lobby, where the breakfast buffet was already crowded. It was all perfectly familiar, except all the people in familiar, casual western clothes were Chinese!

Yes, I know there are 14 million Han Chinese in Chengdu but it still came as a surprise. The few westerners I saw at the hotel over the following days were British tourists.

(And, interestingly to me, within a day or two I no longer noticed people didn't look like me. Nor did I notice I didn't look like them, unless the obvious was drawn to my attention.)

There were two buffets -- one Chinese and one American. I had cereal, fruit, fresh orange juice, boiled eggs, bacon and pork and chicken sausage. I ate with a fork and knife. I was alone at the expresso machine and made the mistake of pouring yogurt into my cup from a machine I thought dispensed milk (available hot or cold).

Most other people were having tea, congee rice porridge, noodles, dim sum bread, fruit, salads and hard fried eggs from heaping platters. They ate with chopsticks or glass spoons.

I had been met at the airport the night before by Duanduan Liu, 27, a dietician who graduated from the University of Manitoba and had lived and worked in Winnipeg for six years.

That first morning I was greeted in the lobby by Yanjiao (Ivy) Zhang, 26, who also had spent six years in Canada at school in Hamilton and Waterloo, where she graduated from a business program. She had worked two years for Deloitte in Shanghai but was now home, preparing for a return to Canada to get an MBA at Western University in London, Ont.

Both women came to symbolize for me modern China. They were "international" in their outlooks, perfectly comfortable in Chengdu or Winnipeg (or London or New York). Their clothes might have been bought at the Bay or the Ito Yakado department store in the Chunxi Road shopping zone. Who knows where they bought their Australian UGG boots.

Duanduan owns a new Buick Regal. Ivy was learning to drive; her mother used to ride a bike but now drives a scooter, her dad a Volkswagen Golf.

They slip seamlessly from Mandarin to English, whether speaking or writing. They both love fiery Sichuan food and Tim Hortons coffee, which is not available in China -- yet.

When they were with me -- for example, sitting in a restaurant -- I could have been in Canada. Then we would walk outside, hail a taxi and I'd be back in China as they talked and joked with the driver.

If not for their command of English, which turned heads when they spoke with me in public, they could have been any of millions of similarly dressed young women glued to their smartphones as they strolled down sidewalks, rode the subway or steered a scooter through traffic.

I didn't know all this that first morning in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express hotel (four stars, downtown, $72 a night, buffet included). What I knew was I had five hours to get to a meeting with Canadian consular officials in Chongqing, 320 kilometres southwest from Chengdu.

I also knew Ivy would get me there.

While she flagged a taxi I looked around at tree-lined streets that slashed between towering skyscrappers wreathed in mist. Was it fog or China's infamous smog? Both Ivy said, but mostly fog. It was November, the foggy season.

A taxi, one of about 15,000 identical green and white Jettas (Volkswagen has a factory in Chengdu) picked us up. We were off, through streets crowded with Chevys, Cadillacs, Buicks, Fords, BMWs, Volkswagens, Audis, Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais, Jaguars and the occasional Aston Martin and Bentley.

I saw no pickup trucks, no Prius hybrids and few vehicles more than a couple of years old. (I later learned the vehicle market is so new the used car market is in its infancy.)

I had been told taxi rides in Chengdu, or any large Chinese city, are terrifying death rides, careening from near disaster to certain disaster. But that characterization misses the essential element, which is that they are thrilling.

Our thirty-something driver, Mr. Zhong, drove like a rally racer, swerving, braking, accelerating, shifting and laying on the horn with a deftness right out of the Fast & Furious movies. I complimented him and he beamed.

"I love to drive," he said. And he better. He works 24-hour shifts, one day on, one off. Most days he said he can earn enough in 17 hours to pay himself (about $400 a month) and the company from which he leases his cab ($2,000 a month).

We drove 16 km to the Chengdu East Railway Station on more broad, tree-lined boulevards and sleek freeways, past hundreds of high-rise apartment and commercial buildings, with scores more under construction in rows and clusters to the horizon.

(I recalled a friend telling me he once stopped counting building cranes on a ride through Chengdu when he reached 100.)

Having started our journey in the downtown, where high-rise construction is to be expected, it was as if we had never left it.

Buildings do not climb skyward from the suburbs of Chengdu to its centre as they do in most cities with which I am familiar.

The centre of the city is a defined place but it is no more imposing or grandiose than its suburbs. Buildings go up and stay up everywhere at once.

"It's as if there is no there, there," I wrote in my notebook. "It is everywhere."

We arrived at the station in no time, fare $4, no tipping allowed.

The East Station, built for about $1 billion, opened last year. It is one of three massive train stations in Chengdu (a fourth is under construction).

The station is the same size as Polo Park Shopping Centre, 1.2 million square feet, but it looks and feels like an airport, with a sprawling waiting area of polished stone floors under a cavernous roof supported by a web of interlacing, white steel beams.

As at airports, there are shops and restaurants -- including a KFC, the most popular restaurant chain in Chengdu -- and giant electronic arrival and departure boards listing subway, local train and bullet train schedules.

You must pass through a security check and X-ray scan to access its 14 platforms and 26 tracks. The station is the main centre to catch bullet trains.

In the five years since their launch, bullet trains have transformed transportation in China. Passenger loads quickly climbed from zero to 50 million a month, zooming along 9,600 km of track linking 100 cities. Investment in bullet train expansion is expected to continue at a rate of $100 billion a year, Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced recently.

Although there was one crash two years ago in which 40 people were killed, the bullet train safety record remains on a par with the safety record of U.S. airlines, an expert told the New York Times in September.

The trains have become so popular airlines have discontinued short-haul flights. For example, there no longer is regular passenger airline service between Chengdu and Chongqing. Which is why we were at the East Station buying bullet train tickets -- round trip, $40 each.

-- -- --

There is no way to prepare for a first visit to Chongqing, the most populous city on Earth, with a population, depending on who's counting, of 35 million or 32 million or 36 million.

Growing by a best guess of many hundreds of thousands a year, it is simply incomparable and, therefore, incomprehensible in advance.

And in retrospect, for that matter.

I saw it first from my bullet-train seat. We had been speeding southwest at a sedate 160 km/h (it was a milk run) through lush green farmlands of terraced hills, snaky dune-coloured rivers dotted with white ducks, small lakes and distinctive two-storey farmhouses when we entered the blackout of yet another tunnel.

Minutes later we burst into a world transformed -- miles of colossal trestles under construction to support another elevated rail line, a dozen apartment buildings on the high rise and, beyond, scores more shrouded in November fog and gloom.

"We are not there yet," Ivy said. "This is the outskirts."

As the bullet sped toward the Chongqing North Station (imagine Investors Group Field, the home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, with a roof and a full house) the city became a forest of towers, like Chengdu but 2 1/2 times bigger.

And like Chengdu, there were postcard scenes of a Chinese Manhattan along the Jialing River, but they aren't substantially different than any other view of tall buildings everywhere in the city.

The last glimpse I had of urban Canada en route to Chengdu was of Vancouver's perfect skyline from the air, that cluster of totem poles from False Creek north to Burrard Inlet.

Imagine that and multiply by -- who knows -- more than three, less than 10? Then imagine standing in the middle of it.

Which is where we were headed -- the Canadian Consul General's office in the Metropolitan Tower, two blocks from the official "heart" of the city.

We flagged one of hundreds of identical red cabs (Suzukis in Chongqing, not Jettas) lined up inside the teaming station and headed into the city along bustling avenues lined with trees thriving in the CO2-enriched atmosphere, past endless storefront shops, blocks of buildings condemned for redevelopment but still standing because the law prohibits demolition until the last tenant agrees to vacate, and, of course, endless high-rises.

The only traffic snarl came at the tunnel under the river, and then we were again dodging cars and carts, trucks and trolleys, and streams of electric motor scooters, as ubiquitous today as bicycles were in less affluent times. (Incomes have doubled in the past five years alone.)

After the meeting at the consulate, we walked two blocks to the Chongqing Jiefangbei (people's liberation monument) and pedestrian mall.

The monument, a 27-metre tall clock tower, was the tallest structure in Chongqing until 10 or 15 years ago.

Does it matter how long ago? The point is Chongqing has sprung up overnight.

So swift has been the transformation that stories of old neighbourhoods disappearing in weeks to be replaced in months by modern redevelopments are legion, as are stories about the unreliability of maps, even GPS coordinates.

The clock-tower mall mimicked the city in that it defied convention. With 3,000 shops, it easily eclipses the 800-shop West Edmonton Mall, North America's largest. The Tiffany's store was the size of a department store, its walls aglitter with diamond lights.

We had Peking duck and Chongqing beer for dinner at the famed Peking Duck Restaurant, where photos of celebrity diners include Mao Zedong, a regular in the day, Kim Ill Jung II, Sun Yat-sen, Sese Seku and the man the late Christopher Hitchens considered the greatest war criminal of all, Henry Kissinger.

Dinner for two was $24, again no tipping -- as everywhere, the policy.

The restaurant is located in The Cave, a bizarre bazaar on the bank on the Jialing. Part 1950s amusement park, part street market in a fanciful eight-storey maze, it is, by western standards, an accident waiting to happen -- wet, uneven stairs behind waterfalls, through pirate fantasies and faux jungles. That it is wildly popular seems testament to the fact people are quite capable of ensuring their own safety in the absence of laws that transfer personal responsibility to others.

We stopped to listen to a blind busker playing exquisitely sentimental music on an ancient erhu, a two-stringed violin, filling in percussion and other effects by stomping on an array of pedals attached to cymbals and drum machines.

I dropped a five-yen note ($1) into a box and was immediately gently scolded. The amount was extravagant and possibly demeaning to others, 20 cents or 40 cents more appropriate.

Then it was time to go. We retraced our route back to the train station.

Unlike the earlier commuter train, with its bench seats, frequent stops and mere 160 km/h top speed, the train home was a bullet train with a bullet.

Comfy reclining "business class" seats. Restaurant and bar cars. Snack tray ladies in red uniforms moving up and down the aisles.

The top speed registered on the speedometer at the head of our car (and every other car) was 245 km/h, fast but not near the allowed limit of 290 km/h.

Imagine. On that ride we were travelling in formation with a second train. Altogether, one-kilometre of railway cars carrying 3,200 passengers across China at 245 km/h.

I loved the bullet train rides. Unlike airplanes, passengers remain in a recognizably familiar environment that can be viewed, if not for long.

And while you don't feel you are moving as fast as you are, speed becomes most evident when you try to take photos but find in the time it takes to spot a shot and frame it, it's already gone.

Also, unlike airplanes, the ride is never bumpy and almost silent, with a slight rock that quickly puts most passengers to sleep.

In fact, for all their excitement, bullet trains become, sooner or later, a yawn.

gerald.flood@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 D4

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