The initial plan had been to reach Chengdu on the third day from Dali, halting at Kunming and Yibin on the way. The distance from Dali to Chengdu is about 1200 km. When Andy suggested that we could do it in two days, rather than three, I was game for it because I knew that the roads would support the change and that I would get an extra day, maybe in Beijing. It was approximately 640 km from Huize to Chengdu. The weather forecast mentioned intermittent showers. Factoring in the distance, weather and en route stoppages I estimated a 10 hour stay behind the wheel. I was way off the mark.
When we eventually left the hotel at 8.30 am after a basic breakfast, which for me consisted of sweet potato, fried rice, egg, barley cakes, sweet breads and a few glasses of canned juice, I thought that would leave us with little time in Chengdu. Andy had suggested visits to IKEA and Decathlon stores besides a morning visit to the Giant Pandas that are native to the Sichuan Province. I need not have worried because the road conditions, yet again, proved to be the greatest ally. For more than 300 km I used cruise control during the day. I had to only concentrate on the traffic to appropriately switch lanes and reduce speed at the tunnels and curves. The rest was the job of the car!
I do not like to have anything heavy to eat while driving and hence, stopping for lunch was not on the cards. A heavy breakfast supported that plan quite well. So did the early dinner, which too would be heavy. So it was, this day. We stopped at comfort stations twice for biological needs and at a fuel station, close to Chengdu, for tanking up. There was an additional ‘view point’ stop at the entrance to the Doushaguan Tunnel. A large river, muddied by the rains of the past two days, snaked through deep gorges near the Tunnel. Across this was a railway line and a six lane road. From the view point I saw the first train in China and marveled at the engineering feats achieved by the country in the past three decades. Andy told me his experience of going through the 18 km tunnel in Shan Xi Province!
The border of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces is a completely mountainous area and the bridges and tunnels constructed in these parts of the world are awe inspiring, to say the least. Four lane tunnels and six lane bridges that are so well maintained is an example of ‘Make in China’. Such infrastructure in one’s own land makes that tag line saleable. We have to demonstrate that we can do it in our own country for our own people before making a pitch to another country. Why is it that we cannot make this happen in India? My own view is that we do not believe in excellence in any sphere of our life, much less when it comes to governance. We seem to spend more time in divisive politics rather than in unifying economics.
Right through the drive from Ruili to Chengdu I saw farms and green houses stretching for miles on end on both sides of the road. Andy told me that farming is still a very profitable profession in the country and hence, coupled with strict legislation, farm lands have not been converted for residential and industrial purposes to the detriment of the agricultural sector. Prices of farm produce have remained under control through better farming techniques and improved productivity. I could feel that because food did not cost much in the country. I also saw large tracts of coffee and rubber plantations on the way.
The highlight of the drive was seeing the Yangtze River at Yibin. The river conjured up images of death and destruction in the past, because of its sobriquet as the ‘Sorrow of China’. I remember having learnt in school about the huge river being a source of livelihood for the people as well as their perennial sorrow because it shifted course often leading to large scale erosion and loss of lives and property. Those are things of the past with engineering solutions arresting such vicissitudes of nature.
Tolls are collected Province-wise. Therefore, at the exit of the Yunnan Province we had to make payment for the toll despite continuing on the freeway to Chengdu through the Sichuan Province. I felt that the road conditions in Yunnan Province is superior to that in Sichuan. Despite this I entered Chengdu city at 3.15 pm, having done nearly 640 km in 15 minutes under 7 hours, with breaks lasting 45 minutes. The average speed, thus, was over 100 km per hour. In Chengdu it took me 30 minutes to get to the hotel, five km from the toll! Andy said that the traffic moved fast today and I wondered what it would be on a bad day. I did notice, and Andy explained, that the city has a rule which prohibits the use of vehicles with registration numbers ending with certain digits every day. Being Wednesday vehicles bearing registration number ending with 3 and 8 were banned from plying in the city. Taxis were exempt to support public transportation. The city administration also strictly controlled the number of taxis in it. Andy told me that the system was first introduced in Beijing.
Chengdu is the first major Chinese city I have visited, besides Hong Kong. I was amazed to see so many buildings in one lot. At the approach to the city Andy pointed out the Global Centre, not a very pretty site, but undoubtedly unique, for it is considered to be the single biggest building in the world. Andy had booked me into the budget Jinjiang Inn, at the heart of the city. He would stay in his apartment, which was walking distance from the hotel.
Once I had done some laundry and documentation I was ready to go for a walk with Andy. We did not have to walk much before deciding to have dinner first. Hunger was showing signs since we had skipped lunch. Andy gave me options of an upscale Chinese feast or a dumpling course. I chose the former and what a lovely meal it turned out to be. There was diced pork with capsicum, tofu curry, cold cuts of yak meat with spicy sauce and wheat pancakes with chilli paste. The dinner, however, began with the popular ‘Snow’ beer and ended with a dessert of tofu with lotus seeds. The fantastic meal was polished off with small portions of rice.
Next was the visit to IKEA and Decathlon stores. The huge meal that we had just had digested soon while walking through the humongous stores that were within close proximity of each other. I picked up a few knicknacks before we were efficiently transported back by an Uber cab as we had been to it.
I expected a few calls from contacts regarding logistics arrangements for the rest of the journey. I went down to the reception of the Inn to request them to connect the calls to the room. The absence of Gmail and other means of daily communication fails in China and hence, it was crucial for me to get through on the phone in the hotel. SIM cards bought in China have elaborate formalities to be complied with to make international calls. I tried to explain what I wanted to the two young receptionists. Despite my best efforts I gave up in a while, when they started laughing along with a few others at the counter! Behavior most unacceptable, I thought.