Chengdu is China's panda promoting provence - it's PANDAmonium.
Chendu Part 1
Friday 5th September - Train from Xian to Chengdu
I left you in Xian in the afternoon, as we were about to board our overnight train from Xian to Chengdu.
Everywhere you go, you have to put your bags through a scanner. What makes it funny is that on this occassion, the person watching the screeen wasn't but was in fact texting on their mobile phone. That's not as bad as the scanner watcher in Xian at the Terracotta Warriors who was layed out across two chairs sleeping. I don't know why they bother.
It was scheduled to run from 1:30 pm Friday and arrive in Chengdu at 5:30 am the following morning, which was rather an ungodly hour. We left on time, but from there, things did not go to plan, though this time, I was glad that Chinese trains don't always run on time, making our arrival time such that we were able to check straight into our hotel.
The 12 of us in the group has two cabins of 6, with a triple bunk on each side. Ling, our guide was just next door. Cabins is not quite the right word, as your feet stuck into the passageway and there was no door. We spent the afternoon reading, chatting, playing cards and drinking the cold beers we'd stashed to bring with us instead of the warm ones they sell on board the train. Whenever we looked out the window - smog. Does it ever go away? There's boiling water on tap, so come dinner time, rather than eat the 'slops trolley' that wheeled past, having learnt from our last overnight train journey two days ago, we had the same dinner as the locals on the train, two minute noodles in a foam bowl bought from a supermarket beforehand.
From a different passing trolley, I did have some chilli tofu skewers and they were the first tofu thing I've ever liked. It's not that tofu tastes horrible, it just doesn't taste of anything. It's in the Guinness Book of Records as "The worlds most flavourless food." and I agree. Tofu is actually a culinary parasite. It has no flavour of it's own, so it has to take on flavours from it's hosts.
Using my contortionist skills once again, I squeezed into my top bunk, just. Geez! The Chinese are small. The aircon outlet was just above me and it turned on and off intermittently during the night. As it did so, I alternately pulled my doona over me or shed it. If that, and the hard bed, weren't enought to keep me awake, the train stopped a few times during the night, even going backwards at one stage! My earplugs and eyemask - travel essentials in my book - helped me get an okay nights sleep overall. Our early wake up call never happened and we eventually got into Chengdu at 10am, only 4.5 hours late. Why? There'd been a landslide on the track and we'd had to wait for them to clear it. Better in front of us than just as we passed.
Being an overnight train, it's now Saturday.
There was a waiting bus at the station and before you could say, "Chendu is the capital of Sichuan." we were at our hotel. We were allowed to check straight in, but I know why the rooms were already available. With moldy walls and towels that not only lacked 'towelling' but were full of holes, I'm not surprised they're not fully booked. The room service trolleys and their bags of rubbish and linen were piled up outside our door.
Showered and feeling freshened, we met up and Ling took us out for yet another tasty Chinese lunch and yet again it was only $6 per head.
A walking tour of Chengdu followed. Home to over 11 million people, Chendu is the capital of Sichuan Provence, known for it's spicy food, and pandas. Pandas are everywhere. Not the real ones, they're endangered, I'm talking panda motifs on everything. Billboards, cigarette packets, every taxi has one painted on the bonnet, and then there's the stalls of stuffed pandas, once again, not the real deal. They're fake.
We wandered with Ling through the city, and I picked up a bunch of Chinglish photos to share with you on my return. Ending in a big square, Amanda and I decided to go to Starbucks for a coffee. I know. I don't really like Starbucks, but I haven't had any coffee for ages and at least Starbucks are "predictably average" ( It won't be good, but at least it won't be bad.) or so I thought. When I saw them using UHT milk, I couldn't believe it. What the? At over $5, the coffee cost more that the best coffee in Perth, available from Coffee on Delhi, 30 Delhi St West Perth 7 - 3:30 Mon - Fri. I'm sticking to tea, as having invented the art of tea drinking, that is something the Chinese do well.
Can you believe that I actually brought a selection of teabags with me? I know. That's like taking meat pies to Australia, only teabags fare better in a backpack than meatpies. I've really enjoyed the variety of teas here and with the exception of our hotel rooms, it's always been loose leaf tea.
Walking back through the square the fountains that were previously idle, were now spurting creatively, choreographed to music over loudspeakers. Two pools, each 50m long were dancing their water spouts to the music. We stopped awhile to watch and I suspect at night with lights it might be even better.
The People's Park was the next thing we passed and entered. It was Saturday and Chengduians were out in force. Couples and families were rowing boats on a crowded artificial lake whilst others grouped up with impromtu musicians and singers and did a bit of dancing. Then there were those, like Amanda and I, who just wandered around and lapped it all up. Magic.
Walking back to our hotel, Amanda and I began a game - panda spotting. The score's are fairly level at the moment and cut-off is when we fly to Lhasa.
Dinner tonight? When in Sichuan it's time to get spicy, and what's more spicy than the regional specialty Hot Pot?
A hot pot dinner involves a group sitting around a hot pot, a cauldron of steaming (temperature) hot and chilli (flavour) hot stock. What can be hotter? You then add raw ingredients, fishing them out with a sieve when cooked. Lotus roots, fish, meatballs and mushrooms, it all goes in.
How can you tolerate something so hot? That's where the famous sichuan peppercorns come in. Black peppercorns as we know and use them, aren't hot, just peppery. Chilli is hot, and there was plenty of that in there. Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing effect on your mouth when you chew them. This has an anesthetic effect and you don't feel the chilli, until tomorrow.....but "Johnny Cash syndrome" (Burning Ring of Fire) comes with the food.
How do people in Chendu celebrate on a Saturday night? Finding a suitable nightclub with Ling's help, we discovered that even Tiger Beer, a brand we knew and thought we could trust, has been watered down for the Chinese market. It was Tiger "crystal" in a clear rather than brown bottle and with less alcohol and flavour. Disappointing. Not wanting beer, Janet returned from the bar with a glass of Cointreau - 150ml 'shot' for $10. Another one for Janet, and one for me (not missing out on that deal) and, suitably oiled, we all hit the dancefloor. The DJ spoke to the crowd in Mandarin and I could only make out the last two words, "Electo House" and he let rip with a bunch of good mixing, using old skool bass lines and dropping in a heap of contemporary tracks over the top. Despite this, it seemed like the Chinese like to just stand there and watch as we were the only ones dancing. Spotting an empty podium next to us, I jumped up, and Janet (at 55, the oldest in our group) joined me. The DJ stopped the music, pointed to us and we both got a cheer from the crowd.
I did have to wonder about the featherweight 'bouncers'. Maybe they know kungfu? They stood there wearing bulletproof vests and looking like they couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Quite unlike the brawny rugby-types with no neck that guard Australian venues. It was an interesting night seeing how other cultures 'party'. Fruit salad anyone?
Danced out, Amanda and I caught a cab back to the hotel. With a 40 cent flagfall, including 2 kilometres, it was never going to cost much.
Tomorrow we go hiking in Mt Emei and staying in monateries. If you go to that blog, and then back to this one you can read my trip in order. Otherwise, keep reading and follow on with the monasteries blog.
Chengdu Part 2
Wed - 09/09/09 Auspicious day in China with 9 a lucky number.
A 2.5 hour bus trip from Baoguo Monastery had us back in the heart of Chengdu and back at the Flower Hotel.
We had a room on a higher floor this time and had none of the problems of our first visit. I said travelling is full of firsts, but having vibrators, his and hers, available for sale in the room is a FIRST. Chocolates, drinks and maybe condoms, but vibrators?
We had the afternoon free and being lunchtime 5 of us headed off in search of dumplings.
Finding a place full of locals with barely any English on the. My half a smoked duck, bowl of chilli dumplings - HOT!, and a can of Sprite cost $4.
Satisfied, Amanda and I headed across the road to an antique market. Unlike the one in Shanghai, this looked like the real deal with only a few fakes amongst the items for sale. There was everything from old military hardware, door knockers and ceramic bowls to an old silver brooch that Amanda bought.
Walking back to our hotel, we bought two Magnum icecreams and two bottles of water for less than you'd buy one bottle of water at home.
We had dinner together tonight and Ling did the ordering for the whole table which was fortunate because she took us to an up-market Chinese place tonight with nothing in English. Actually Ling's always taken us to real Chinese places and left the rare ones with English menus for us when we source our own meals. We told Ling to order a Sichuan dish that was as hot as it should be, not toned down for us. Tasty beef and I though my dumpling lunch was hotter, but the best would wait for me tomorrow......
Being 09/09/09, it is an auspicious day in China because 9 is a special number. We'd bought drinks from the supermarket and met in the restaurant/bar area off the lobby for some drinks together to celebrate.
What began with two separate games of Euchre merged into one game of "Blow cards off the top of a wine bottle" with everyone playing. With a deck of cards placed on top of the bottle, the aim of the game was to not be the one to blow the last card off. You could blow off one or more, just not the last one. The penalty for that was a black dot on your forehead made with a burnt cork.
At the supermarket this arvo, I'd finally found a beer in China with flavour; a stout with chocolatey overtones. More taste than the usual Chinese beers, but still only 3% alcohol, low for a stout. After playing for awhile, we'd run out of drinks. The bar was closed, so I went out shopping for more beers, wondering why the shopkeeper looked at me funny and forgetting there was a black dot in the middle of my forehead.
It was a fun game and very simple, which makes it a good drinking game. At 11pm we got told to be quiet as we were being very loud. Turns out it's not just the Chinese who can be noisy.
Thursday - Panda day.
We had our own bus for the one hour trip to Chengdu Panda Research Centre. It was all a bit slow really and it took us 3 hours to be shown what should have taken one hour. Young Giant Pandas were first. They were cute, but a bit far away. The nursery with baby pandas in humidicribs followed. Then some sub-adults, which gave me my best photos as they paraded on a catwalk in front of us. The wait to see some adults in their airconditioned compound was disappointing. They were behind bars and I wondered what they'd done to be locked away. They live high in the bamboo forest above 2500m and with their thick snowproof fur, it's too warm for them in Chengdu. After a look at Red pands which were not much bigger than a fox, our tour finished with a video explaining the panda breeding regime - "dating, marriage, copulation, procreation". How do pandas get married? Our guide couldn't tell me. Mostly the video was Panda Propaganda, telling you all the wonderful things that the Chengdu Panda Research Centre is doing, but failing to mention that they've never successfully released any into the wild. Extra pandas are instead sold to overseas zoos, or sent on tours to overseas zoos, both of which are for profit and nothing to do with saving pandas. Without saving their habitat, wild pandas have a bleak future.
Back in town and with the afternoon free, the bus dropped a few of us at "Snack Street", which sounded like the perfect place to get some lunch.
My first snack included pig's ears. Didn't know that when I bought it, I just found bits of minced pig's ears in the meat and rice banana leaf cone, and I know what they're like, having not only eaten them before whilst travelling in Estonia in 2006, I even bought some recently and cooked them up and served them at work. That's when I decided that they're not ever going to be tender and tasty. Sometimes I wish I didn't know so much.
I've not been too crazy with trying new food, partly because I don't have to. I've tried so many things once already, and know a bunch of things I don't like, because I HAVE tried them. I'll pretty much try anything once. Most offal I'm not a fan of, but I do like tongues particularly, which is why I ordered them the day before yesterday.
We were eating on "snack street" so we just bought little things here and there and had lunch of grazing. I did buy a "Bowl of spiciness noodles". Crikey! If a place in Sichuan says spicy, you'd better believe it is! The chilli made my mouth burn, then the Sichuan peppers kicked in and numbed it like an anesthetic giving a tingling sensation. I'll forever know now if I get Sichuan peppers; they're not hot, but they are distinctive. I was supposed to be avoiding chilli today, because with every meal in Sichuan containing copious amounts of chilli, I've had the Jonny Cash syndrome ("Burning Ring of Fire") lately.
I didn't eat my bowl of noodles.
Saying good-bye to the others, Amanda and I explored some nearby gardens and sat and had tea by a pond. One glass of chrysanthemum flowers and one of whole leaf green tea. As we sipped tea, with my lips as the strainer, we played cards and relaxed. I did a double take as incongruously 4 black swans swam past us on the tiny garden pond. The locals were taking photos, I was just thinking "What the?"
We walked all the way back to our hotel along the river along a very narrow park between road and river and at one point, I 'yelled' out in jest to the honking traffic, "Could you please be quiet. This is a park." That's when an out of tune saxophonist started blasting out noise, just 10m in front of us.
Continuing along the riverbank, we passed other musicians, some having lessons and some just practicing. I guess when you live in an apartment, your neighbours insist you learn and practice elsewhere.
Amanda and I had dinner at a restaurant nearby. We ordered 3 vegie dishes between us, including spicy eggplant, a consistent winner. Tonight it was boiled eggplant in the water, like a tasteless soup. The other 2 were delicious, so 2 out of 3 ain't bad.
Our hotel is centrally located and tonight, some of the group, including Amanda and I walked 5 minutes down the road to a tourist show of Sichuan culture. TheannouncerrepeatedeverythinginEnglishbutwithnopausesortonalvariationitwasimpossibletounderstand. See what I mean? The Sichuan opera sounded at times like a strangled chicken, at other times a cat having it's tail pulled and sometimes a combination of both. A stick puppeteer with his puppet held aloft and controlled by just two wires had the crowd in awe, as did a shadow puppeteer who, using only his head and hands projected as a silhouette onto a sheet. The screeching returned with a man who played two screechy instruments and made it worse by adding a silly screechy voice between instruments.
I will post a little video of this and some other 'artists' from the show for you on You Tube, when I am home and allowed to use it. Like Facebook, China won't allow it.
Saving the best to last perhaps, the mask changing routine involved the actors waving a Chinese fan in front of their face and in that short time their mask had changed. You know it's an illusion, but you can't work out how you're being tricked. Harmless way to spend an evening as a tourist rather than a traveller.
My run of nocturnal rain only continued as it just started to rain as we walked back to our hotel and continued into the night.
Thursday September 11 - Onwards and upwards, literally, as we fly to Tibet, as place I have wanted to visit for a long time.
My next blog will be from Lhasa, City in the Sky.