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For all the tea in China...
17 May 2007 - 23 May 2007
China by bike!

Our bicycles still boxed up when we land in Chengdu, but already we note that so far there are no more dog eaters in China than stupid people in Poland or thieves in Italy. Communication is impossible and yet the friendliness and helpfulness of the people takes us completely by surprise. We really werenít expecting it! The street our hotel is on is like a giant terrace with yummy barbeque smells. Happy customers sit at the tables, laughing and drinking beer; the red paper lanterns impart an atmosphere of innocence and warmth. People are running around, everyone works, and everything is organized. I put the bicycles back together in the courtyard of the hotel, a superb building dating from the Qing dynasty.

Clearly, we donít understand a thing here. Not only are we lacking words, but we aren't schooled in gestures, signs, and all manner of communication and language. It makes us think that the Chinese donít even think like we do! I ask for 2 cakes, I get 8! I ask for 5 candies, and they donít understand me! Eight was wrong, so was five; we need to get organized before traveling through China! I get the receptionist at the hotel to clarify in English:

Chinese Lesson Number 1

One,               Two
One, Two

One is indicated by a raised index finger (not the thumb, which means 100)
Two is the "V for victory" sign (not the thumb and index together, which means 8)

Three,                          Four
Three, Four

Five,                       Six
Five, Six

Five, all the fingertips together
Six, pinky and thumb out

       Seven,                      Eight
Seven, Eight

Seven, thumb and index together
Eight, thumb and index outstretched

     Nine,                           Ten
Nine, Ten

Nine, fist raised and index raised and completely folded in (variation on the 7 is the same thing, but with the index slightly folded in)
Ten, cross the two index fingers,
And 100 is one thumb up

In two seconds they can show you a series of 5 signs that mean 867 (eight, hundred, six, ten seven) ! try to do that with our system...!

Now a pronunciation overview:
The word "ma" has five meanings, depending on the intonation of the voice:
1) Mommy, if itís pronounced with a high pitch
2) Hemp, if you raise your voice
3) Horse, if you lower your voice, then raise it again, drawing out the "a"
4) Scold, if you drop your voice
5) Indicates a question, if you pronounce it in a neutral manner at the end of sentence
Ex.: Does Mommy scold the horse? Would be said: ma ma ma ma
Try saying it: ma (high pitch) ma (lower the voice) ma (lower and raise) ma (neutral)
If you are singing, you got it right!

Our 1st day in China at Chengdu
Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan, is known as one of the most modern cities in China. The streets are wide and clean, and the reigning calm (in spite of all the people in the streets) is the polar opposite of India or Katmandu.
Itís calm and it smells good - what a joy! It may not seem like much, but itís been a long time since weíve seen this kind of quiet. Motorcycles and scooters are powered by electricity and the taxis are fueled by natural gas. As the news announces global warming, laws are put into place to limit heating and air conditioning.

A superb new electric scooter costs 125 euros.
A superb new electric scooter costs 125 euros.

Downtown at the immense Peopleís Park: the citizens come to drink tea, relax, play cards or dominos, read or do their morning gymnastics or Tai Chi.

There are also saber classes, people playing music or singing classical songs; some even come to waltz or tango all day long. Christine is, of course, immediately invited to dance, while I snap a few photos of my lady!

For the first time in almost 3 years of bicycle tourism, we finally see young couples necking on public benches. This year, tight short shorts are in fashion for girls... legs, legs, legs as far as the eye can see!

We feel light on our feel, like we are getting a real breath of fresh air. We are happy with this gentle first impression of China. The Chinese are smiling and discreet when they glance our way (at us, that is). They would like to communicate but, unfortunately, it is difficult. The younger set still try and, if they have some rudimentary notions of English, proudly make contact.
Another novel ideal: when asked about religion, they reply, "We donít believe in it!"
Itís lunchtime. We need to eat, but what? The menus are made up of several pages in Chinese characters and there are many restaurants to choose from. Weíll have to go see whatís in the kitchens.

Snakes
Snakes

Beautiful sausages
Beautiful sausages

Pigsí snouts
Pigsí snouts

Dried shrimp
Dried shrimp

Little rabbits
Little rabbits

Bean sprouts
Bean sprouts

Bamboo shoots and mushrooms
Bamboo shoots and mushrooms

Various roots
Various roots

And there are frogs, toads, duck tongues, chicken feet, fat, gristle, 100-year-old eggs cooked in hot clay, oysters, scallops...and this is just at first glance, for we are told that it would take several years to discover all the different local specialties in China (insert here a nod to our English language translator Maia, who is obsessed with cuisine).
We choose a Chinese fondue, which was just the thing!

Chengdu is also the home of the Sichuan opera, where we spend the evening. This operatic style is composed of high pitched voices, comic scenes, and acrobatics. It was an enjoyable evening, with good music, punctuated by colorful costumes and scenery.

Eric the Macho on the right, on the left Christine tries to negotiate...
Eric the Macho on the right, on the left Christine tries to negotiate...

The next day, we cycle and shoot pictures with Augustin, a Parisian photographer...

Panda Bears, Mascots of the WWF
Pandas are an endangered species, moving slowly but surely towards extinction. The primary reason behind their extinction is that the rampant Chinese demography in the Qing dynasty spilled over onto their high altitude territory.
The other reason is their low levels of reproduction. Males are slow to make up their minds, but once they make their choice, itís the females who are very picky and often refuse their advances... (my, my -- itís just like in Switzerland!).
The pandaís gluttony is also one of their downfalls: they love to eat bamboo, but they only like about thirty species out of an existing 300! If their favorite species is not available, they will waste away and die than eat another variety.
They are shy and solitary animals, hiding in the fog of the higher mountain ranges. These creatures have been on the earth for 600,000 years, or even going back to the Ice Age, depending on the scientist you ask! Even today, scientists still donít know if they belong to the same family as bears or raccoons; in fact, the giant panda and little panda are classified in different animal families entirely!
Despite budgetary deficits, the Chinese Central Government continues to fund the research and breeding center in Chengdu. Together, they are fighting for the preservation of pandas and their natural habitat. Panda hunting is illegal and poachers are threatened with life imprisonment or public execution. Cutting trees down in their habitat and making charcoal is also forbidden and any Chinese person who saves a starving panda is rewarded with double his annual salary.
But these measures, and the results of current research, are still not sufficient to save these charming animals!

Whereas humans make pretty babies and get uglier with age, the contrary is true with pandas; they are born tiny and ugly and only get better with age.

Usually the first week in a new country is the hardest. What does this mean for us, where we were immediately at ease from of our first day in China?
We have opted for the mountain road to get to Beijing, about 4,300 km away. This road is off the beaten path where we met a mostly Tibetan people.
Speak to you soon...but for the time being, Christine is on strike, refusing to correct my texts!

(Text translated by Maia Demorest)