Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, China.(Vir Sanghvi)
Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, China.(Vir Sanghvi)

China Diary: And now for something completely different

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi shares his experiences from a recent travel to Sichuan, China and its capital city, Cheng Du, the home of the panda.
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUN 26, 2019 11:55 AM IST

Show me an Indian who says that he or she is completely neutral or open-minded about China and I will show you a liar.

All Indians have mixed feelings about China. Even if it does not date back to the 1962 War and the current border clashes, there is always a sense of competition, if not of outright threat. Nearly every time we talk about our economic development, we compare ourselves to China. Over the last two years for instance, we have been told (in tones of glee) that China’s economic boom is over and that India is now the fastest growing economy in the world.

I don’t know China well. I went there over a decade and a half ago and was impressed by the economic progress but was told by Indian sceptics that it was wrong to judge the country on the basis of Shanghai and Beijing. The rest of China, I was assured, was much less developed.

Cheng Du cityscape (Vir Sanghvi)
Cheng Du cityscape (Vir Sanghvi)

I went back to China last week and keeping in mind the warnings about being hoodwinked by Shanghai and Beijing, gave those cities a miss. Instead I went to Cheng Du, a city that most Indians are only dimly aware of.

I went for the food (which you can read about in Rude Food this weekend) though the city is more famous for its panda viewings.The Sichuan region, of which Cheng Du is the capital, is the home of the panda.

Almost from the moment I landed, all my preconceptions were put to rest. I ceased to think of any India-China competition within five minutes of leaving the airport. There is simply no comparison between China and India in term of economic development. They are at least 20 years ahead and their levels of prosperity leave India far, far behind. And keep in mind that Cheng Du is only a provincial capital, not one of the country’s great cities.

The second big revelation for me was how little the Chinese needed foreigners. Such cities as Shanghai have an international air about them with fancy restaurants run by white people and large expatriate communities. Cheng Du, on the other hand was as entirely Chinese as is possible to imagine. The city was heaving with tourists. But they were all domestic Chinese tourists. Nobody there felt the need to attract Western tourists; and you got the sense that they did not care.

The third revelation was Chinese hospitality. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton which, in the absence of the Dutch General Manager (who was away while I was there) was entirely Chinese run. There were no expats and the overwhelming majority of the guests were also Chinese. But in terms of service, efficiency, warmth and value for money, it was one of the best hotels I have stayed at in a long time.

Each day, the senior staff would think of new things for my wife and me to do and would go ahead and make all the arrangements. (Which helped because nobody in Cheng Du speaks much English.) One Saturday, Kevin Xue, the Chief Concierge, took us on a tour of the city centre in his own car, stopping at places that only locals would go to. (You could argue that the hotel did this because I am a journo. But most hotels elsewhere in the world usually work out that I am a writer, so it is a level playing field. Besides nobody in Cheng Du wants Indian tourists or cares about anything that appears in an Indian paper.)

A fourth revelation was how relaxed everyone seemed to be. Our image of the Chinese is of hardworking humourless people.That caricature makes no sense ---- at least not in Cheng Du, where the locals are known to be laidback.

At restaurants, people from other tables would try and help us with our order because we spoke no Mandarin. (It didn’t matter that the people who tried to help usually spoke no English; it was the sense of fellowship and the laughter that made the whole experience so much fun!) Servers would be horrified if you tried to tip them, would go out of their way to help you and there was neither the robotic sense of duty or the sullen resentment you find at restaurants in many Asian cities.

The entrance to People’s Park, Sichuan (Vir Sanghvi)
The entrance to People’s Park, Sichuan (Vir Sanghvi)

Kevin took us to People’s Park, a sort of Hyde Park-Lodhi Garden equivalent in Cheng Du. Its two most striking features were a) a vast tea house where you could order one cup of tea and stay the whole day, reading, chatting, playing cards or whatever. Nobody hassled you.

The second was an open air dance area where they played music and locals came to dance (Western style – foxtrot, waltz etc.) with a complete lack of self-consciousness.

Neither of these places, with their relaxed, joyous air, conformed to the Indian caricature of China or the Chinese.

Yet another revelation was the social mobility. We met one member of the middle management team at the hotel who had saved up enough money to buy a Mercedes for himself. He had started at the Ritz six years ago, when the hotel opened, as a driver, had taught himself English, and had risen rapidly through the ranks to reach his present position and salary.

Contrast this with Indian hotels where it is a big deal for even a General Manger to own a Mercedes. And if you are hired as a driver, you are expected to end your career in the same job.

Almost nothing about China was what I expected. We are conditioned to think of them as anti-religious and keen on the persecution of Buddhist monks. But when we went to see the giant Buddha statue at Leshan, near Cheng Du (a huge tourist attraction though the statue is actually not of the Buddha but of Maitreya), I was intrigued to see that most of the Chinese visitors (tourists from other parts of the country, presumably) stopped to pray at the temple where the statue is located.

As for the pandas, Cheng Du’s global claim to fame, that was a complete waste of time. I expected some kind of nature reserve but the famous Panda Base is essentially an open zoo with thousands of tourists shoving and pushing for a view.

But even there, I was in for a surprise. We bought our tickets and made our way to the turnstile where they checked our ids. The woman who looked at mine kept pointing to my birthdate. She sent for a colleague and they explained to us in broken English that at my age I was entitled to free entry.

I said this was nice but as I had already bought my ticket, could we just go ahead? On the contrary! They took me back to the ticket counter and made them refund my money. I can’t think of many countries where that would happen.

It is not all quite so wonderful, of course. When you look at the broad roads and the gleaming multi-storey buildings of Cheng Du, you begin to wonder: where is the old city?

The answer is that much of Cheng Du has been rebuilt in the last few decades. There was, first of all, the Cultural Revolution which caused so much pain and suffering. During that phase, Red Guards dynamited large parts of the old city. Then, under the new more capitalist regime, a Mayor took it upon himself, in the early years of the 21st Century, to demolish whole neighbourhoods and rebuild the city in modern style. It now looks prosperous and First World but it lacks the charm of a city that has survived through the centuries.

If you are planning a holiday, then I don’t recommend Cheng Du, unless you are a foodie. It is a remarkably cheap destination with prices that are lower than even Bangkok – and the city is cleaner and more efficiently run than Bangkok without being as antiseptic as Singapore. But language problems may dog your trip and there really is not that much to see.

But I certainly will go back to China myself. I was reminded on this trip, of my first visits to Japan, nearly two decades ago, when it seemed strange and alien and completely different from anywhere I had been before --- but in a nice, non-intimidating way.

That’s exactly how I felt in Cheng Du.

As for the India-China comparisons, forget about them and relax. The Chinese are decades ahead of us. But I think that, on balance, we are happy with the social and democratic choices we have made.

We are, aren’t we?

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