The Slower China

By Jillian Smith

I am writing this in the soft drizzle of the Chengdu evening rain. The rain in Shanghai is hard and fast, just like the pace of life in that city. Chengdu rain is gentle, dampened by the greenery that grows up along the sides of all the buildings here.

It was a long 15-hour train ride to Chengdu, and I have come to find that there is no way to accurately understand China by simply remaining in one place. Shanghai is for the hard working, money making materialist. Food is made to be eaten on the go because there is no time to sit down. Coffee is preferred to tea because it gives a bigger buzz.

In Chengdu, old men sit on stools on the sides of the road, playing mahjong. Buildings still retain some elements of an older time and everyone is willing to stop and explain directions to me.

One is not better than the other per se, but it is nice to be in a China that is slower and calmer for a change. I am sitting near the window of the dimly lit hostel lobby. The breeze lets in the electrifying smell of a new and foreign place. It causes the red paper lanterns and brightly colored Tibetan religious ornaments to sway back and forth from the ceiling, seemingly in time to the peals of clarinet and swanky notes of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice being played through an old time phonograph.

Near me, a group of Australian students pick at a guitar, planning their next adventure to some little known mountain town. Across the way, a German couple feeds their two little girls. I am talking with two British women who have temporarily left their self-owned catering business to tour as much of Asia as possible. A boy from Holland with a man bun tells us that he is on a mission to build, own and operate the best bar on the continent.

I show them pictures from our day earlier. We had traveled to Qingcheng, a sacred Daoist mountain. The pictures show a China that is lush and green, with impossibly tall and straight trees and a thick carpeting of moss. Brightly robed priests offer incense and fruits to carvings of Lao Tzu. Grey mist softens the stark black silhouettes of temples carved into the sheer faces of towering mountainsides. An impossibly old pilgrim was making a religious journey up the mountain. A massive pack was strapped to his small and wiry back and his knees shook under its weight.  Each step looked as though it could have finished him, and yet he carried on, unhindered by the tourists around him.

I am interrupted by my friend’s call to get dinner. We are starving, she says, and so we plan to just walk the street until we smell something good. Luckily, that does not take long. I order a dish that looks healthy enough. We sit down at the little plastic stools in the open air restaurant. I am floored by my meal. Long, fresh doughy noodles cooked in a mildly spicy beef broth with cilantro, chickpeas, Chinese cabbage and garlic are steamed in as well. The scent of it was enough to bring me joy, one bite and I was nearly in tears.

As I slurp my noodles happily, I am hit with an appreciation for this new and slower pace of life. The fastness of Shanghai is not a bad thing; each day I am there is one of energy, change and excitement, but sometimes in China and as well as, I think life in general, depth, richness and deliciousness is vastly revealed the moment things slow down.