Chengdu, China I went to see the Pandas yesterday in more or less their natural environment. (See below.) On the whole, it was a great experience but it can't be denied that China tourists can be even worse than their American compatriots. One beautiful Chinese woman with a professional Nikon camera kept whistling at a sleeping panda in hopes that he'd awake and move so she could get a better picture.
I also don't understand what's going on with the zoo keepers. The Panda would probably be extinct without Chinese conservationists but I find this hard to match with the way they let these shy, individualistic animals be treated by the tourists. A couple of young pandas were trying to sleep in cages on the other side of a glass barrier from the tourists. Kids were screaming at the animals and slapping the glass, while the adults packed in to flash snapshots or videotape the pair.
One of the pandas kept walking to the other side of the cage where he'd desperately shake the bars to try and escape the din. Then he'd walk backwards (apparently he didn't want to look at the ugly faces or maybe he couldn't stand the camera flashes) and cuddle up with his friend or mate. Then he'd try to escape again. It'll be a miracle if these pandas don't grow up psychotic.
Shortly afterward, I got a lesson in how easy it is to become an ugly (and incredibly stupid) tourist.
There was a light rain falling and I used a New York technique to catch a cab. I flagged one down. As it stopped, a Chinese woman jumped in front of me, grabbed the front door and opened it. As she did so, I stepped inside giving her a big smile and saying "xie xie (thanks)." I gave the driver my destination. He started off and flipped the meter on. It read 7Y (yuan 1/6.5th of a dollar) instead the usual 5Y. I angrily told him to stop and jumped out of the cab despite his protests (which I couldn't understand).
That was the "ugly." This is where the "incredibly stupid" comes in. I checked my pocket for my wallet and realized that I'd probably dropped it in the taxi when I stepped out. The dude that I'd insulted was slowly driving about a quarter block away - with all my identification cards and a clear justification for keeping them and my money. Carrying two cameras and an umbrella, I ran frantically after him. He stopped to pick up another fare. I broke into a clumsy sprint and yelled for the driver to stop. The cab pulled slowly away.
By now drenched, I slowly walked back and miraculously spotted my wallet laying in the street. I flagged another cab. He flipped on the meter. It read 7Y. A meter increase had just gone into effect.
The increase was a sizable one of about 20% and was done at exactly the right time - the height of the tourist season. It reminds me that I've forgotten to tell you a few things about China's taxi service. One of the more interesting facts is that cabs are allowed to charge a 1Y gasoline surcharge for every 3 km. This amounts to about a 10% to 12% increase per ride. The business is also highly regulated and cabs wait in hotel lines and airport or train lots just like they do here. The drivers are very professional and they all appear to know their cities very well.
And there is no tipping in China. My companion claims that it's illegal but she's a strict Confucianist with - what shall I call it? - a tight posterior. She claimed that I was "immoral" because I kept a magazine from our airplane. Naturally, I tip the drivers and they appear to like the custom.
Some of the drivers are protected by a small cage made up of aluminum bars separated so that nobody can attack the driver. The first time I saw such a cage, I thought, "Okay - it stops a knife attack. What about guns?" Then I realized - duh - that's not a problem here. Nobody has a gun in China except for the army. The police don't even carry them.
Obviously, if such protection is necessary, there must be a certain amount of crime. In certain parts of Beijing and Shanghai, I have seen a lot of beggars and poverty but I haven't seen anything like this in Chengdu. My friend, however, was very angry at me for getting into a car a few days earlier that wasn't a regulated taxi.
"They like to take stupid tourists like you and rob them."
"Hey," I told her, "I'm streetwise. I know who's dangerous and who's not."
"Huh!" She responded. "I'm surprised the nobody has killed you for such arrogance – not mention your big mouth."
Actually, so am I.
Ironically, I later got a taste of potential violence in a small resort city in the mountains, Xi Chang. It's a lovely place where you can actually see blue sky – a rarity in China. Just after telling me that this was one of the safest towns in the country, my companion went off on business with a guide. A pretty and sexy woman was on a stage leading several other women in a dance that was part aerobics but exciting and exotic. I took turns shooting video with one camera and still photos with another. I looked over and saw an older man staring at me. I smiled. He did not smile back. I looked around and saw that I was being watched and closely surrounded by a dozen men who were all glaring at me without smiling. I stepped out of their circle, walked up some steps and took some random crowd shots. I glanced at the photos and saw three or fours hostile young guys staring back at me in every picture. And why not? I was carrying about $2,000 worth of camera gear on me – a small fortune in that place. The problem was that I couldn't leave because, although I speak a little Mandarin, I couldn't read the characters so I needed to stay or my friend wouldn't be able to find me. A thin, wiry policeman come over and asked me to sit down with him on bench under a tree. I sat with him but more and more punks were surrounding us. I stood up and started walking to the spot where my friend said she'd meet me but the punks followed. The policeman came up to me again told me that I should leave and go over to a hotel to wait. When I told him I couldn't, he took out a cigarette and smoked one with me. It was his way of telling the punks not to fuck with me. I hadn't had a cigarette in over 20 years but I had a long, slow smoke with him. As we finished, my guide came over to get me. I gratefully shook the policeman's hand and quickly left, taking back all the bad things I've ever said about cops as we strutted away from the park.
Panda shots and, no, I can't whistle.
This a rare Red Panda. They are smaller and sleep all the time.
These are of the dancer and hostile stares in Xi Chang.