One of the things that has been taking up our energy and thinking space is learning how to get around Chengdu. It is incredibly flat in all directions – think Christchurch on steroids without the Southern Alps or ocean. This is surprisingly pleasant, and makes it easy to develop a picture of the city in one’s head.
At the centre is Tianfu Square with a large statue of Chairman Mao with an imposing presence, to which the photo of Raymond below does not do justice. (I was obviously too focused on the other imposing figure in the Square at the time). Mao is pointing south down Tianfu Avenue, which now has multiple designer shops all along its town end!
Our apartment is almost due south down this street, as shown in the map image on the left. You can also see that there are ring roads that make it easy to get your bearings – logically called first, second and third ring road. There is a fourth one much further out and the Raymond’s school is beyond that. We chose to live halfway between the school and Tianfu Square. The second picture shows the blue metro line 1, which extends further than shown (Google often gives inaccurate information, presumably due to no love lost between them and the government here, but I thought most of you would find the English version more helpful). The last picture accurately shows the metro station and bus stops near where we live, as well as the exhibition centre, river to the east, and manmade lakes and parks each side. Those thin line roads offer convenience stores and many restaurants.
We do not have, and will not be getting, a car so we have the following options to get around: metro, public bus, Raymond’s school’s buses, metered taxi, black taxi (which means a driver with his own car, which never seems to be black, and a red string or bow tied around the driver mirror), and walking.
When we first arrived, we used the metro, which was very close to the hotel we were in for the first few days. The metro is great because the information about where it goes is easy to find out, you easily know which way to go (for our line, Xiaosheng Lake or Guangdu, aka north or south), and the signage and audio is in English as well as Chinese. Best for beginners. However, only four of the 11 planned lines are built (with lots of development underway), so it is pretty limited in where it goes. Also, the metro station is 15 minutes walk from where we live (now that we have worked out the shortest route) whereas the bus stop is only a few minutes away.
The metro also has security. Usually, this has meant scanning our bags and Raymond taking the water we tend to carry with us to be scanned separately. However, after one trip to the supermarket, we discovered the hard way that spray cans are on the confiscation list. Deodorant turns out to be one of those things that is hard to translate (helpful supermarket staff directed us to deodorisers for toilets not people). This meant we were rather proud of ourselves to have deodorant in the bag – for a limited time only. However, we wonder if the deodorant turned out to be a decoy for the fly spray we did get through. You can see Raymond on the left below with his bag slightly lighter, and the security team in the background. The metro is modern, clean, pleasant and crowded. We hardly ever get a seat, although one day did seem to be offer-elderly-foreign-woman-a-seat-day.
So, we graduated to buses. Initially, our discovery process was simple – hop on a bus, follow the blue dot on Du or Google maps to see where the bus goes, and remember for next time. This has proved reasonably successful, although can be time consuming. One example is our first experiment on the 102 route. We hoped it would take us to the Global Centre one metro stop from our place. We soon realised it wasn’t going near the Centre, but decided to stay on. We watched it wind its way east following the river, but assumed it would head to Tianfu Square eventually. Once it headed further east we decided to hop off at a metro station we spotted out the window. Fourteen metro stops later, we arrived at the Global Centre. However, I was glad I had been on the 102 when I later needed to go to meet Australian Chamber of Commerce people on the north-eastern side of town.
We now know the routes of the four buses that go by our place, 102 goes east, 118 goes down Tianfu Road to Tianfu Square, and 115 and 84 head west. Last weekend we found out that 115 takes us nice and close to our preferred supermarket. As well as being closer at both ends and not having to carry our bags so far, it means we no longer need to cross the uncontrolled T intersection where two eight line highways meet.
And we have just found a great app Pandabus. It works out where you are, brings up the numbers of buses that go by and you can select the list of stations in Chinese view or the map view that shows the bus route (no prizes for guessing which one we choose). This will save us having to travel on every bus route in Chengdu. There is good information. Each bus station shows the routes that stop at that stop. On the right below is the information for the stop nearest us.
We now tend to prefer buses. They are modern, clean, air-conditioned, and we like getting to know Chengdu better by looking out the window. We still have the convenience of the travel card, and the bus takes us closer to many places we want to go to. Both the metro and the bus are cheap, but the bus is slightly cheaper – 1.80 kuai (less than NZD40c) per trip however long, compared to up to 5.40 kuai, just overNZD1, for a long trip on the metro. I have just started using more than one bus to get me close to where I want to go, rather than walking a few blocks in this heat. However, there are two downsides – it can be crazily busy at rush hour, and it is easy to get on a bus going the wrong way if you lose your bearings – we (well actually I) have only done this once but we have had a few close calls.
One reason we do not need a car is that the school provides a bus for Raymond to go to school each day. It picks up all the teachers that live at our apartment at 7.30am and drops them back at 5pm, 4.30pm on Fridays. Once after school activities start, the teachers who stay late can travel back on the bus that drops off the kids, or get a taxi.
The city closes down at 10pm. The lights in the park opposite our apartment turn off and the buses stop. We have not tended to be out late, but did need to use a taxi one evening. Fortunately, our kiwi companion was fluent in Chinese, so he did the talking – our short journey without him was fine, but not very relaxing, and put us off using metered taxis unless we have no other option. Once my Chinese improves … Also, our initial attempts to wave one down were unsuccessful – I wonder if they avoid foreigners for the same reason we avoid them. We used one, with the meter switched off, to get from the closest metro station to the panda research station. That was such a tourist route, he knew where we wanted to go, and I do know the words for ‘panda’, and ‘too expensive’.
Another option is ‘black taxi’. This is more expensive, but still reasonable, where one has a pre-arranged driver. All the teachers in our apartment block use Joe. We can message him on wechat in English, he translates and messages us back in Chinese, we then use the wechat translate function to communicate back and so on – surprisingly effective. At the moment, this has been our choice when not using public transport – such as to go out for dinner and not wanting to arrive hot and sweaty, and when we bought an apartment’s worth of linen and appliances.
And we are walking lots, despite the heat. The street signs are all in Chinese characters with pinyin below, or more unusually as for our street below, in English. This also helps one find one’s way around.
Other options are uber which is very popular here. Du, the local maps app has uber built in as an option. However, this also needs more Chinese than I have at the moment. Many ex-pats purchase electric bikes (don’t need a license) or electric scooters (should have a license) – which we may investigate down the track. Pushbikes are rare. The locals use cars or electric scooters. The scooters have, or take, right of way to cut across pedestrian crossings, when they are green for pedestrians to walk (and you can’t hear them because they are electric – until they toot). Then, at large controlled intersections, they may join pedestrians to use the crossing to cross a street .