Our visit to Chengdu last January was a shock -- not the shock of being in China, but the shock of So. Much. Change. Good change, bad change, whatever. Just change.
When Dave and I walk Chengdu's streets we'll say -- or just think to ourselves, simultaneously -- things like "Oh my gosh, wasn't that where the ....stood?" or "Can you believe there was ever a time when that side of the river had absolutely nothing on it?" Even when we visited last month there were buildings that didn't exist in January.
It's difficult -- almost impossible I think -- to fully appreciate just how far Chengdu, and China, have come in 25 years if you didn't know it then.
All of what Chengdu was in 1984 and 1985 is in my head, and only in my head. That's what I thought anyway, until one day last January we turned a corner and suddenly we'd gone back in time. One minute we were here,
and the next we were there.
This is what pretty much all of Chengdu, except for a very small area around the Jinjiang Hotel, looked like in the mid-eighties. These are the sort of streets we cycled through every day. These are the sorts of things we saw. This is what we took for granted.
These photos of 'old Chengdu' were taken last January. Amazingly, this little neighborhood of traditional single- and double-story tile-roofed brick houses near the Sichuan Music Conservatory has survived while similar ones around it are long gone. It hasn't been tarted up, it hasn't been Disney-fied. Many of its residents are long-timers, and they don't have the easiest life. None of these houses have indoor plumbing. Unlike in 1985 however, most of them have heaters, and TVs and washing machines. We even saw the flickering blue screens of a few PCs.
We found this clutch of old buildings quite by accident, as we walked toward the university from the bus station. First we saw, on a side street, this row of old timber-fronted shop houses and the gaggle of tea-drinkers and mahjong players out front.
Everyone was friendly, chatty. When I told a group of ladies that Dave and I lived in Chengdu 25 years ago they immediately understood why we were staring, goggle-eyed, at the structures they idle in front of every day. "It looks just like it did then!" one beamed.
They encouraged us to follow the side street past to where it narrows into a one bike cart-wide lane. So we did.
Plastic stools are new. Children's backpacks are new. Motorbikes are too. Strips of radish and laundry hung from trees to dry are not.
Buried at the dead end of one lane we found a double-story building that we think might be an old water plant. It's been sub-divided into residences but we peaked through the slats of a door and saw an old well. A man living in one of the rooms, who ushered us into the the old structure told us that, whatever it was, it ceased operations after kaifang, as the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s are referred to.
Our heads spinning, we left the warren of narrow lanes and set off towards the university in search of lunch.
Two bowls of zhajiang mian with plenty of la jiao in a knock-up noodle shop set us right. I don't recall ever encountering zhajiang mian when we lived in Chengdu. Nor any dish, for that matter, made with as much pork as that bowl of noodles held.
But right after we ordered and before she brought us our noodles the woman running the place hurried over and set before us two steaming bowls of milky pasta water, something I hadn't been offered in 25 years.