Planes, Trains and No Automobiles: How Chengdu Finally Broke Us

Luodai Town

“Huh, I think we’re lost” I stated, whilst staring at my phones unhelpful GPS in the middle of a bustling construction site in Chengdu, China.

“Yeah, you think?” replied Brit, in a tone that signified both annoyance and defeat.

China had broken Brittany, one of my best friends and title holder of ‘Latest Travel Buddy’ quite early in the trip, but I think it was only just starting to break me. We’d been cycling on rented bicycles for the past 3 hours, and we seemed to be no closer to our location than we were when we started. In fact, judging by Google Maps, we may have been even further away.

Over the past few days, we’d illegally hopped buses, scammed taxi drivers, rented bikes with my mums credit card, rid the subway from end to end, and flown in a plane designed to hold 21 people. We’d ran, we’d jogged, and we’d cried our way across metropoliton China. Never in my entire life have I had more difficulty with transportation, and I used to use Queensland Rail 5 times a week.

All we wanted to do was see the new Star Wars movie.

***

So you want to learn how to navigate your way around rural China, huh? Ha, me too kid. Me too. Unfortunately, I was not successful in figuring out the intricacies of  the Chinese transportation system. Yes, they have taxis, same as us, and they have busses, and trains, and planes, and other automobiles, but none that I could understand. And certainly none that made it easy to understand. I’ve travelled quite a bit in the last few years (*ahem* SHOW OFF) and never have I struggled getting around quite as much as I did in Chengdu.

In May of 2018, me and two of my best friends, Brock and Brittany, decided to take a trip to Nepal. Nepal was the trip of a lifetime for us. We formed new friendships, confronted a different way of life, ate new foods, drank too much, and experienced one of the best trips of my life. But this isn’t a blog about our amazing trip to Nepal; this is about our exhausting trip to China.

You see, Brock was living in Shanghai at the time, working for a little company known as Disney (you may have heard of them.) Whilst this was an amazing opportunity for Brock, it was very unfortunate for Brit and I who had not seen Brock in over a year at that point. So in addition to our trip to Nepal, we decided to rendezvous in Shanghai and pay him a visit!

Shanghai is a wonderful city. I’ve been there three times. I love Shanghai. Thankfully the disasters we experienced in China didn’t extend to Shanghai. No, our real trouble came when we went to Chengdu.

Since we stopped in Shanghai before Nepal, that meant we required a layover on the way to and from our final destination. The destination in this instance was Chengdu. Now, me and Brit noticed that there were a few days spare between the end of our Nepal trip and the cheapest flight home from Shanghai, so we decided to take this opportunity to fully experience our layover in Chengdu and take about 4 days to explore the city. Sounds fine so far, right? That’s where you’re wrong.

No offence to any Chengduians (Chengdians? Chengdi?) that may be reading this post, but there is truly not enough to do there to facilitate a 4 day trip. The only reason we were going in the first place is because we couldn’t find a convenient enough way to visit The Great Wall of China. Just kidding; the real reason was to visit the Dujiangyan Panda Base, which is the ONLY place in the world where you can hold a baby panda.

Holding a Panda
Look at this fat, lazy thing. And then look at that cute panda.

Other than canoodling with a fat bear, we’d looked into visiting an ‘ancient Chinese town’, Luodai, which gives tourists a chance to experience 17th century China only  an hours drive away! What the reviews don’t tell you, however, is how impossible it is to get there. After a bit of research online, I’d found that taxi’s are a fairly reliable form of transport. It wasn’t a simple as it is in Australia, where you can book online and have them turn up on your doorstep but supposedly, like every major city, they are plentiful and can easily be hailed from every street corner.

Yeah, that wasn’t the case. Brit and I stood on the street for upwards of 20 minutes trying to hail a taxi. We had crossed the road three times and moved up and down the street countless times trying to find a ‘taxi accessible location’. Not only were taxis not as plentiful as described, but the few that did pass us were occupied, or worse, just refusing to stop for us.

In the time that we were searching for a taxi, we had a total of 3 stop for us. Conveying where we wanted to go was hard enough. There isn’t enough translating apps on the market to help guide a taxi driver to where we wanted to go. It took us multiple attempts and flashes of our Google Maps to indicate to where we were heading, and after the driver discovered the location, they immediately tried to charge us a flat fare (something the guides online told us to never accept.) So with that, we’d hop out the car and try again, and again, until we came across a driver willing to take us to the outskirts of the city and drop us off.

All in all, Luodai Town is… fine. It’s nothing extraordinary, and certainly nothing I would recommend you go out of your way to see. In all honest, it seems to be a tourist trap for Chinese locals; a place where you would take your family if they came from the other side of the country to visit, or somewhere to take young children if you have custody of them for the weekend. It’s not a place I’d go more than once, but I suppose it was something to do.

Luodai Town 2

As you walk down the narrow street lined with buildings from the 1600’s (which to be fair are genuinely impressive), you begin to wonder if there is actually any point to the town at all. The vast majority buildings you pass are stalls selling cheap, mass produced knickknacks, and replicas of ancient culturally appropriate replicas such as fans and weaponry, and the rest are selling experiences akin to ones you’d find in dingy, old clubbing districts: 5D cinemas, virtual paintball, waxwork museums.

Peppa Pig Gun Set
For When You Need to Take Down Some REALLY Big Pigs

The only thing of interest (which, for ethical reasons, we didn’t visit) was a tiny aquarium, the shopfront of which could’ve been no bigger than my bathroom. I don’t know how big the back area was, but they advertised a shark and I’ve always wondered how they would’ve kept one in such a small area. They did however have a turtle display in the shopfront which featured 6 enormous sea turtles in an exhibit which, under humane circumstances, would be too small for even one.

After making our way through the town and buying a novelty fan, a knock-off Paw Patrol LEGO toy, and a bubble tea, we circumvented the main street in search of a familiar food franchise. Too afraid to brave the local cuisine, we tried to find a McDonalds, or a KFC, or just SOMETHING we knew wouldn’t upset our stomachs too much. We finally settled on what appeared to be an American burger restaurant, aptly named Texas Burger.

The decal outside was similar to Burger King… but this was far from it. There were a few older men outside the restaurants utilising their seating area to play Mahjong, but it didn’t appear as though anyone had eaten there in a while. In fact, once walking in, we had to wake a sleeping cashier to order, however she was happy to serve us. That’s not saying much though, she was probably happy to have any customers at all! Once we ordered what seemed like the safest option (a chicken burger with fries and a drink), she got to work… and turned on all of the equipment. Oh, did I not mention? The entire store was ‘turned off’.

Texas Burger
From a first glance it looks like Burger King, but does it hold up?

The cashier had to start up the kitchen, put oil in the fryer, cook the burgers, all from scratch. This woman was a one-man McDonalds… if only the taste was that of a McDonalds. The food was edible but barely and we did quickly disposed of the burger meat when we had the chance. The only thing stopping us from throwing the whole meal out was because we felt guilty that this poor woman had just spent 20 minutes cooking for us the food.

After getting a coffee from a cosy, nearby nook (and spending 10 minutes and one long phone call to the baristas English-speaking daughter trying to order a black coffee), we decided it was time to head back to the city. If we thought getting a taxi from the city centre was tough, I don’t know why I thought it would be any easier getting it in a rural town 2 hours away. We walked the outskirts of the town for 20 minutes, pantomiming to confused locals asking where we could hail a cab, before eventually discovering that taxis don’t come out this far (and immediately feeling slightly guilty for the taxi driver we dragged out to this rural suburbia.)

Supposedly, the only way to get a personal driver is through the Chinese Uber service, DiDi, although whilst we’d had no trouble using Didi in Shanghai (we easily downloaded it from the Australian app store), the Chinese Didi required a Chinese iTunes account (which took 15 minutes for me to painfully set up) and a Chinese bank card (which I could not obtain, obviously). So we were back to square one.

After Brit rejected my proposal to walk the 3 and a half hours back to the city and hail a cab from there, we quickly jumped on the nearest bus that we ASSUMED would take us in the right direction. Again, we couldn’t check any of this because we didn’t have an accurate GPS due to Chinese firewall restrictions blocking Google Maps, so we were just hoping for the best. Without the right amount of change, the bus driver reluctantly let us on for free (thank goodness) and we made an hour long bus ride back towards Chengdu City, and from there walked and cycled back to our accomodation.

***

So there we had it. In two days, we had visited both Luodai Town and a panda base, and we still had two days left. Needless to say, we had some time to kill, and like every 20-something year olds with time to kill, we decided to indulge in the all-time classic past time of going to the movies. After absolutely no thought process at all, we chose to see Solo: A Star Wars Story… mostly because it was the only English speaking film other than Avengers that was out, but also because Brit had been bugging us to see it since we were in Shanghai.

Now in Australia, looking up movie times is a simple process: you just have to find the 3-5 local cinema chains and check online to see what time a movie is on. In China, there isn’t exactly a comprehensive list of nearby cinemas, nor a timetable of movies. So, we’d looked up local cinemas via some random Maps app and headed to the nearest ones.

Now none of the cinemas were very far; probably between 2-5km radius, but without a car and the ability to call a taxi on time, we decided to rent a bike from Mobike and head there ourselves. This process was fairly simple, and one I’d actually recommend. You download the app, set up an account and credit card (although without a Chinese mobile number, we had to have the activation code sent to a phone back home, something that took us a painstaking amount of time), and then you just scan the bikes QR code and hit the road, Jack!

The first cinema we visited took 20 minutes to get to: not bad, but apparently they didn’t show Solo (Boooo) so we immediately headed towards our next choice. We cycled the 40 minutes to the next cinema located in an enormous shopping centre and found out, thankfully, that they DID have a screening of Solo at 1:30! Seeing as it was midday, we lined up to buy tickets, but JUST before charging our cards we discovered that it was actual 1:30am. DAMN IT!

We hit the road again, cycling another 30 minutes to the next cinema only to learn they also didn’t have a showing of Solo. This was beginning to get VERY frustrating. Thankfully the English speaking server was quite certain that a nearby cinema DID have a daily showing in an hour, but that cinema was about 40 minutes away, so we had to move quickly!

We took off on our bikes, greatly exceeding our one hour rental period at this point, and cycled triumphantly towards our location. Throughout our cycling journey, we’d battled against the frightening Chinese traffic conditions (where drivers would treat the road rules as suggestions instead of actual laws), exhaustion, and had to cycle against one way traffic. At one point, the pedestrian path disappeared, causing all foot and bike traffic to travel on the main road, and forcing us to share the already narrow space with mopeds, walking commuters, other bikes, and the precariously driving cars.

I’m not going to lie to you, I genuinely thought I could’ve died if I’d made one false move. The cars were travelling dangerously close to my bike at times, and there seemed to be little regard for the safety of two cycling tourists. I was going to die trying to watch a Star Wars film.

But we didn’t die, thankfully, and we did manage to watch Solo. And it was in English. Was it a highlight of the trip? No, of course not. Do I regret the many hours spent cycling, exploring this expansive city, journeying alongside these people as they go about their daily routine; traversing this foreign landscape by bike, by taxi, by train, and an assortment of other modes of transport? Yes. I should’ve just watched it on the plane home.

 

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