From Heathrow I'd be taking two flights to the rendezvous with the rest of the group, first an intercontinental flight to Beijing (ten and a half hours) and from there a domestic one to Chengdu itself (three hours) with a couple of hours between them for the transfer. My strategy for getting through long plane journeys is to eat on the ground beforehand, take some water & snacks (usually nuts) with me, and refuse all drinks & meals on the aircraft itself, so I found a quiet restaurant, plugged in my iPad to get a full charge, and tucked into an early supper.
The flight was very full and I found it difficult to get more than a few hours sleep but other than that it passed smoothly enough. I was bemused by my neighbour who had a large rucksack & equally large shopping bag, neither of which she put into an overhead locker but squeezed into the seat with her, wore a heavy coat for the whole flight, and soon after we'd taken off unpacked a laptop which she watched videos on for most of the flight. With my little daypack, no coat (it was in my checked case), and iPad mini I still felt squashed into a tiny space, I guess it takes all sorts.
Eventually we arrived at Beijing Airport and soon after touching down I was greeted by the smell of its smog. The air was thick & hazy with the view being obscured before you could see further than the terminal buildings. Luckily I'd only be here long enough to catch my connecting flight.
The transfer turned out to be more of a challenge than I'd anticipated, even with my checked bag being routed through to Chengdu. After a long, long walk I came to an area with what looked like video game machines along one wall, these turned out to be fingerprint readers and (after finding the English instructions) I discovered I had to scan first my passport and then my fingers before getting a printed 'receipt' with which I could go through to immigration. Then, purely through watching the other arrivals, I found I had to fill in a small immigration form (luckily pens were provided) to take with me as I was processed. Finding the correct queue was also a challenge as some gates had specific destinations marked and some just said 'Foreigner' - it turns out that departures to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are viewed as domestic even though they go through the same gates as international flights. Luckily by this point there were officials wearing 'I can help' jackets (in many languages) and I was soon pointed in the right direction. A quick scan of my passport & fingerprints (again) and I was through into China proper.
Glancing at my phone I saw that the provider name was in Chinese characters. I'd never noticed a non-Roman name there before in all my travels, even in countries with different scripts, and it felt curiously exotic. A foretaste of things to come.
Chinese phone provider
I had made it into China but I now had another flight to catch. A shuttle train took me to the domestic terminal but once there I couldn't find my flight number on any of the departure screens. Asking at an Information desk brought a response I would receive repeatedly for the rest of the trip - barely any English and just a few vague gestures towards where I needed to be. In fairness, as a visitor it was my responsibility to learn how to operate in this country and it was interesting to notice how much I relied on making myself understood with just a smattering of a few European languages. Luckily in this instance I was given a small piece of paper with the departure gate number written on it and after a couple of wrong choices I was sent back to the shuttle train to take it back towards the international terminal but get off an an intermediate station that the first one hadn't stopped at. Once there I found my flight on the monitors and made my way to the gate.
The second flight was much emptier and I managed to catch a bit more nap time before descending into Chengdu airport. The terminal was much bigger than I was expecting but I found my case (which had lost the name tag that had survived countless previous flights) and was very happy to see my name on a sign as I came out of the arrivals hall. After introducing myself to Leon, the Chinese guide for the trip, I discovered I was the only person in the group who was arriving on the regular flight, the others having flown in earlier. We lingered to pick up a case that had been misdirected and then got into a cab for the journey into town.
Chengdu turned out to be huge - way, way bigger than I'd ever expected. As we drove further and further into the city Leon explained that it had 14 million inhabitants - half as many again as London - and it started to dawn on me just how big China was. The streets & buildings were mostly sleek & modern, the traffic was thick but flowing fairly smoothly, and the city seemed to go on & on. Eventually we arrived at our well-equipped but rather characterless hotel and I dragged myself up to my room for a shower & change of clothes.
But not yet a long, relaxing sleep - there was still more to be done today! First off was a walk down the street to find an ATM where I could withdraw some Chinese money. This instant, worldwide access to cash continues to amaze me and after selecting English the process was as smooth & easy as I've come to expect. I notice that I'm putting less & less time into trip preparation nowadays, on the assumption that I can get money, find my way around, buy anything I've forgotten, and make myself understood, all using my phone & cards. This last one came back to bite me this time around but in general it feels like the world is a much more convenient place nowadays.
On the walk back Leon bought some pork dumplings from a street food seller for us to share (yummy!) and paid for them with his phone. This was another foretaste of things to come, in many ways.
A short while later we were out for our first shared meal. The group was a small one - three British retired couples, a Dutch woman in her 30's, myself, and Leon, our guide. They were a friendly, affable bunch, all more widely travelled than me, and as we walked to the restaurant we made introductions and compared experiences. Chengdu was a convenient rendezvous point but it wasn't in Yunnan itself so we were essentially just stopping over here, however while we were here we were going to sample a hot pot dinner, a speciality of the area. The meal consisted of two concentric bowls of broth, one spicy, the other less so, into which we would place small pieces of food for a couple of minutes to cook. As with so many of our meals in China the dishes kept coming and although the process was tricky for beginners - both judging the cooking time and, after a while, keeping track of the food in the shared bowls - the results were delicious. We slaked our thirst with local beer, very weak (normally around 2.5% alcohol) and not very flavourful but fairly refreshing.
Finally we could eat no more and made our way back to the hotel along streets lined with tall buildings, many of whom had animated coloured lights providing flashing geometric shapes extending far into the night sky. Back in my room I settled in for a nice, long sleep before a (fairly) early start and another flight, into Yunnan itself.