It doesn’t snow often in Chengdu – the last time was in early 2008 during Spring Festival – but there was a light fall of tiny, swirling flakes as I left class yesterday afternoon, after the temperature had dipped to zero centigrade. This morning the palms were frosted with white, as if the campus had magically turned into a fairy land overnight. The cold here is damp and dreary, and it chills to the bone.
Chandigarh’s central city at 6:30 AM: bleak and lifeless
To resume my travel story, I left Manali on Monday evening, August 16, bound for the city of Chandigarh on the overnight bus. For my farewell lunch I’d visited one of Manali’s better restaurants, and ordered a half tandoori chicken. Instead, the kitchen gave me a whole chicken, but I ate it – every bite, along with naan and a plate of vegetable rice biryani. What a glutton (but a happpy one).
I decided to go to Chandigarh for two reasons: 1) it wasn’t Delhi, and I wanted to avoid Delhi because it was inundated with rain; and 2) I’d read that Chandighar was developed according to a master plan by visionary architect and planner Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier sculpture, Chandigarh Architecture Museum
The first half of the bus ride from Manali to Chandigarh was uneventful; we followed a different route than the one coming from Dharamsala, a decent paved road that went through a long tunnel and emerged into a dreamscape of mountain gorges and rivers. Too bad it was night; the dreamscape must have been spectacular by day.
After a dinner stop at 11:30, the trip disintegrated into a nightmare. On a tight curve in the mountains, there was a sudden loud crash, the bus lurched slightly to the left, and a couple of passengers screamed. We sat in stunned silence, not knowing if the bus would move again or not. Eventually, when we got off to investigate, we saw broken glass in the road, a hole where one of the bus windows used to be, and dents and scrapes on the side. We’d been broadsided by a truck going around the curve, and the other vehicle had simply driven on, leaving us to sort out what had happened. I guessed that such incidents were fairly common on this stretch of road, where vehicles passed within inches of each other.
The bus took off again after about half an hour, but soon there was another obstacle: a huge traffic pile-up at a bridge repair site, where we waited almost an hour in the sticky night heat before eventually moving on.
From then on, the road was rough and bumpy, and everyone’s nerves were shot. Then the bus rounded a corner, stopped in what looked like a leafy suburban area of broad streets and not much else, and stopped. It was the end of the line. We guessed that this must be Chandigarh, but there was no bus station in sight, nor any buildings for that matter. After quickly ejecting us and our baggage onto the street and sidewalk, the bus took off, leaving us dazed. Where the hell were we? Apart from the abandoned passengers, there was a group of drivers and autorickshaws across the road, waiting to take us – someplace.
People wandered around wearing dazed looks, until small groups began to follow the autorickshaw drivers. Fortunately, I’d done a search on the internet the day before, and I at least had the name and address of the Hotel Alakan. By the time my driver dropped me off, and knocked on the hotel door to wake the desk clerk, it was a little after 6:00 AM. I paid for a room, left my luggage in the lobby, and was told to come back at 10 AM. What would I do for 4 hours, after a nerve-wracking, sleepless night? The hotel clerk pointed in a vague direction, and said “Go to Sector 17.” There, I might at least find some food.
Chandigarh Architecture Museum
Sector 17; Sector 22; broad, empty, tree-lined avenues leading nowhere; a slightly menacing feeling of disorientation: I felt as if I’d wandered into the Godard film Alphaville. No matter where you were in Chandigarh, you were in the middle of nowhere. This wasn’t an urban area, it was some kind of huge suburban college campus stretched to infinity.
I later learned that Le Corbusier had favored the “garden city” approach to design, with lots of greenery, wide open space, and public areas of circulation separated from human or “living” areas. The city was obviously designed primarily for a huge volume of traffic circulation – double-wide avenues and traffic circles that all looked the same. Chandigarh was a confounding place, a rectilinear grid that rigidly divided activities into prescribed zones, and where virtually no building was taller than the trees. It was an anti-city.
I found “Sector 17,” also known as Central City, but the main shopping area was just as bleak and desolate as the avenues, especially at 6:30 in the morning. Everywhere was rotting, crumbling Modernism. Every building was exactly the same: blocky, flat-roofed, supported on thin columns, but they hadn’t aged well, or were cheaply constructed to begin with. Mold and moss covered unpainted concrete, exposed rebar rusted in the damp air, and no one but street-sweepers and homeless dogs populated the shopping district. There was no food to be found; the city was closed tight.
I instantly decided I hated this place; I lasted 3 hours before I desperately began wanting a bed. Returning to the hotel, I was allowed to check in, and went to sleep until early afternoon under the spinning ceiling fan.
The city looked more livable after I’d had some rest; I returned to Sector 17 and found what would become my favorite place in town: the Oven Fresh bakery and cafe. I revived myself with coffee and chocolate-walnut cake, then set out to look for the museum area.
Chocolate walnut cake, Oven Fresh bakery and cafe
My second favorite place in Chandigarh was its Architecture Museum. Patterned after Le Corbusier’s 1965 design for a World’s Fair pavilion, the museum housed documents and drawings that told the story of the city’s design and evolution. Unfortunately, it was also un-air-conditioned, and there were only a couple of working fans inside. I took in as much as I could, before fleeing the museum, panting for air and soaked with sweat. Just across the way was the Art Museum, but I didn’t venture inside. Fortunately, some of its works were displayed outside, where I claimed a spot in front of a huge floor fan and simply tried to cool off.
Le Corbusier’s design for the “Open Hand” or Peace Monument, Chandigarh Architecture Museum
Display of some of Le Corbusier’s sketches, Chandigarh Architecture Museum
“Hyperbolic-Parabolic Dome,” Chandigarh Architecture Museum [model for the Parliament Building, Punjab governmental complex]
My favorite item in the Architecture Museum was this carpet designed by Le Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret
I had learned a little more about Chandigarh: it had replaced Lahore as the capital of Punjab, after the partition of Pakistan and India left Lahore in another country. There was also the need to house many displaced persons after partition, and Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to create the country’s first planned city, to help to push India into the modern era.
In the late 1940s, Indian architects weren’t capable of handling a project of this scale, so the government hired the American architect Albert Mayer. But, Mr. Mayer was unable to complete the mammoth task and withdrew from the project, severing connections between the Government of Punjab and America. The search for a new architect ended with the appointment of the [Swiss-born] French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret [known as Le Corbusier], his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, and the English couple of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. This team made the plan in weeks and handed it over to the government of Punjab, leading to the creation of this magnificent city.
I didn’t get to see other sights such as the Rock Garden, or Le Corbusier’s public buildings, some of which looked quite striking in photographs. The humidity level was simple too oppressive to do any more wandering. Instead, it was back to Oven Fresh for a delightful grilled sandwich and more coffee.
Ancient sculpture, Chandigarh Art Museum
I spent only about 30 hours in Chandigarh, before taking a bicycle rickshaw to the bus station, where I just caught the 11:00 bus for Delhi. Le Corbusier’s city had left me unmoved: many of its buildings were in the impersonal, cold, rectilinear style of early 1960s Formalism that I abhor. Le Corbuiser may have been a visionary, but he wasn’t always well-informed about what makes a vital, liveable urban center. For instance, in the 1920s or 30s he had proposed replacing the historic center of Paris with drab, impersonal apartment towers and spaghetti-bowl freeways. This was, after all, the architect who had famously claimed that “The house is a machine for living in” [Vers une architecture, 1923].
A rather perplexing statement by Le Corbusier: “The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous, it is a paralysing thing. The straight line enters into all human history….” Obviously, he had never heard that perfectly straight lines occur nowhere in nature.
For now, Chandigarh would have to be just another memory. It was time to return to Delhi, a couple of days before my return flight to China.
Sculpture, based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor design
(The accompanying photo was uploaded to Flickr today by lambeertje2, at the moment when the eclipse was briefly visible over Chengdu.)
Chengdu’s sky this morning, the day of the solar eclipse, was overcast – nothing unusual, but still there were small groups of people on street corners, and in some places larger crowds, hoping to catch a brief glimpse of the once-in-a-lifetime event. Chengdu was lucky enough to lie within a narrow band over about half the earth that was directly in the moon’s “umbra,” or the point of total eclipse directly in line with the moon and sun.
It had rained earlier, and the gray-blue cloud clover intensified the oppressive humidity. Xiao Gou Gou and I went outisde at about 8:50 AM, and found a couple of hundred people in the street by the Shahe River bridge close to campus, talking in low voices, their eyes and cell phone cameras trained upwards. Some held pieces of dark-colored plastic or smoked glass, even though there was a slim chance of actually seeing anything. A lighter patch of sky where the clouds thinned in front of the sun, however, offered a hint that we might in some way share in this sublime event.
By about 9:05, as the light began to dim, people’s voices rose, cameras began clicking, and excitement spread. I stood open-mouthed as total night descended, pitch-black and ominous. Car headlights shone on streets, and lights went on in buildings. A little newsstand glowed from inside. The darkness was brief – from about 9:11 to 9:15 AM, then slowly the earth grew lighter again. People began to disperse.
Just before reaching my apartment, the clouds parted enough to show a sliver of sun peeking over a dark disk. For maybe 30 seconds I could see the actual eclipse through the haze, as the obscuring moon drifted slowly in its path from upper left to lower right across the sun. The clouds shifted again and the eclipse remained only as an unforgettable after-image in my mind. Shortly after, the rain began again.
According to the latest “Chengdu Grooves” magazine, “the last Solar eclipse visible here took place on May 10, 1575 during the Ming Dynasty, and it won’t happen again until June 9, 2309.” The astronomical event of a lifetime is now history.