Forty-Nine Shades of Gray (and Two Green Turtles)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a clear Chengdu sky?

If I can see the birds, and especially the planes, something is just not right in the capital of Sichuan. Most days consist of a gray-tinged sky, where a bit of sunlight pokes through, though never enough to make those ethereal shafts of light that make one think the Heavens are spotlighting their favorite terra-firma creations. It just doesn’t happen here.

So, when I woke up Sunday morning I thought I must still be dreaming. I usually don’t bother to pull the heavy curtains on our floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows since the sunrise isn’t a painful shock each morning, as the sky just takes on a lighter shade of gray as morning progresses. (It isn’t on my “too-read” list, as I really have no interest, but now I am starting to wonder if the chart-topping Fifty Shades of Gray isn’t written about Chengdu. It would be the perfect name for a novel set in our lovely, if rather polluted, city. After Sunday though, I’d have to re-title it Forty-Nine Shades of Gray.)

As I rolled out of bed (in a truly graceful manner, my normal morning bed-dismount usually entails a barrel roll and a bit of grumbling) I realized that I could see the sun- the actual yellow glowing globe in the sky. It wasn’t just a haze covered, distant light, but a heat-emitting, bright and soul-warming sun. This unprecedented event called for a change to my normal weekend morning routine. Rather than sitting on my living room floor, at the coffee table, with an ever-coveted bowl of cereal covered in no more than a necessary amount of shelf milk and the world at my fingertips via WordPress and Facebook, I left the laptop closed and pulled a chair on to the balcony. (I’d love to say my porch chairs were out there, to sit in on a regular basis, but after fifteen weeks at post, we have yet to receive our HHE, which is State Department-ese for “all our junk.” I’ve been told this shipment is somewhere between Shanghai and Chengdu, but that is a heck of a lot of potential area in which the crates may be on the move. Maybe next week?)

Not wanting to let such an unprecedented day go to waste, Thad and I decided to visit the People’s Park in town. Most Chinese towns of a decent size have a People’s Park, and parks here have a whole different flavor than in the US. Chinese parks are not giant expanses of soft grass where college kids meet to play Frisbee golf on the weekends or soon-to-be-married couples go to get engagement pictures taken or where young families spend an inexpensive afternoon with a cooler filled with sandwiches and soda and where their kids learn the finer points of mid-air swing dismounts. Rather, Chinese parks are places to stroll on paths, rest and drink tea at the ubiquitous tea houses, munch on snacks peddled by vendors and take kids for a spin or two on carnival rides.

It may not have been the Katherine Albertson Park in Boise or Caldwell Memorial Park, but Chengdu’s People’s Park made for an entertaining afternoon adventure.

We started by wandering around the man-made lake that is the center of the public space. There were both rowboats and motorized boats available for rent (Why would one choose to row?), but Thad gently steered us away from those lines. (I actually went and looked at prices and eyed the not-so-long lines, which I know he was aware of, and yet there was no question about cost or wait time. It was as if he didn’t care because there was no way he was getting in a boat, even if it were free and immediate. Maybe next time…)

While the main part of the park was pretty packed with people also enjoying the clear skies and break from the heat of summer, there were several off-shoot areas that were less crowded. One was filled with orchid plants (not in bloom, but still a relaxing area) and another had large terrarium-type pots.

These areas were nice to walk through and a good break from the crowds of the city, but the real fun started when I spotted a sign that said “Children’s Paradise.”  Who could pass up a shot at Paradise? (It may not be the legendary land that John Milton imagined in the 17th century, but I am sure that just like his winding tale of Man’s fall from grace, “epic” would be an apt descriptor.) As we made our way back around the lake and through the gauntlet of competing karaoke machines (no less than a dozen within fifty yards of each other, each turned up to full volume with singers belting out their favorite dissonant Chinese folksongs), I knew we were on the right path now.

Children’s Paradise might be more appropriately named Rusty’s Paradise, as the array of carnival rides had more iron oxide than paint on them, but who lets a little thing like lockjaw hold them back from an afternoon of spinning and whirling? Not this Foreign Service family with recently updated tetanus shots!

Because two tall blondes don’t stand out enough in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, we decided to take a spin on this strange ride that followed a track about eight feet off the ground. Each cart had a steering wheel that let the riders turn the cart 360 degrees, it had a power switch that let the riders come to a complete stop at any time, and my favorite amenity, a button to change the “radio station.” (From the ground, this didn’t look too high, but as someone with an ever-growing fear of heights, I would like to mention that eight feet is a lot higher when you are eight feet off the ground than it is when you are looking up at it. Thad, ever the helpful one, reassured me that if we fell, we would only break some bones, not die. Thank you for that.)

This little cart excursion was followed by one of my all-time favorite amusement park rides- the Tilt-o-Whirl! I may be terrified of heights and embarrass myself my crab-crawling across the glass floor of the Macau Tower, 1,000 feet in the air,  but I can spin in circles all day long. Dizzy rides are the best rides! People’s Park’s Tilt-o-Whirl, like everything else, was rusty, and the seatbelts didn’t work, but we figured centrifugal force would keep us from flying onto some sharp, rusty chunk of metal. With no worries, we paid our ten yuan each and boarded the ride, as the only riders, tilting and whirling to our hearts’ content.

Feeling pleased with our Children’s Paradise stint, we wandered through the rest of the park, watching several different dance groups and strolling through the aisles of toys and souvenirs for sale. At one such kiosk, movement caught my attention and I turned, only to see a metal stand on which hung a bunch of tiny plastic bottles, each one containing a single baby turtle. What?!?  Those are living creatures put in itty-bitty jars with just a bit of water and no food.

Michelle to the rescue!

I took it upon myself to “save” two of these tiny creatures. After examining my choices and picking the two that still looked the most robust, Thad paid for my purchases and some turtle food and we decided it was time to head home. My new buddies, Gong Bao and Ji Ding (their names are Chinese for kung pao chicken, literally meaning Palace Style and Chicken Cutlet) needed a new tub filled with fresh water and a roadside brick on which to bask. I’m going to give these miniscule reptilian family members a palatial home that lives up to ol’ Gong Bao’s moniker. (Now, if only these little guys last longer than my goldfish did. I had to convince my niece, who met my goldfish via Facetime, that she couldn’t see them again because they are out playing with their fish friends.)

While I miss the acres upon acres of grass, just waiting for me to throw a blanket on it and lounge away an afternoon with a book, my Idaho park excursions never entailed a discussion of our chances of getting tetanus or how to care for tiny turtles. Chalk this one up for the Chinese.

(No people or animals were harmed in the adventures of this entry.)

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2 thoughts on “Forty-Nine Shades of Gray (and Two Green Turtles)

  1. Pingback: Gong Bao and Ji Ding Wish You a Very Merry Independence Day | In Search of the End of the Sidewalk

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