02.10.2015 - 08.10.2015 26 °C
Chengdu, the capitol of Slchuan Province, is ranked as one of China's happiest cities. It is known to have a tea culture, the residents enjoy drinking tea and playing mahjong. The fifth largest city in China, population of 14 million, still manages to be laid back.
We are going to Chengdu because of the pandas - the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, admission 58 yuan or about 13 dollars Canadian, (Americans your dollar is stronger right now, cheaper for you) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. WE must go early as they sleep after feeding time which is 930 am.
The gates open at 8 am daily - there are more than 50 giant pandas plus red pandas, not as famous but rare also. There are only about 2000 giant pandas left in the world and about 5000 red pandas. The red pandas look like raccoons and are not nearly as cute as the Giant Panda!!
80 percent of giant pandas in the wild live in the bamboo forests of Sichuan Province.
Sichuan is famous for its hot and spicy food. They use a spice, Sichuan Pepper, that tastes a bit like perfume smells but it numbs the mouth, a rather odd and a bit disconcerting experience.
Hello Chengdu was once one of China's best hostels and we are staying in a Tibet style room. I was attracted by the decor and the courtyard gardens described in the hostel website.
When you hear about all the crowds and horrendous traffic a garden sounds appealing. The Hostel said they provided transfer service but on the day we arrived they were unable to send a car so we had to grab a taxi. We queued up and then had the usual routine of being too slow and having drivers refuse us - he who hesitates is lost in catching a cab in China. We eventually secure a ride.
The grounds of our home for the next five nights were appealing, reminiscent of a cabin in the woods. The door to the room had a Mickey Mouse lock, like a small padlock you might use on a suitcase. The door broke the first time we used it and staff got somebody to fix it within a few hours.
The room was not appealing, kind of dark with a wall to wall bed you had to climb into from the bottom. It seemed musty, the sink was moldy where it joined the wall
I was in a tizzy over my missing credit card and the first thing I did was contact my Yichang Couchsurfing friend and she called the hotel, yes, they had my card. Whew what a relief. Why didn't I contact the hotel? Their English was sketchy and my Chinese is non-existent. Also although I am carrying my iphone, I don't have phone service. I am using the phone as a camera and to get wifi.
We had supper in the hotel bar, some young people were having a sing-song, a Chinese girl struck up a conversation with us and we had a pleasant meal of spicy green beans and vegetarian fried rice. The spicy green beans had the mouth numbing Sichuan pepper.
The weather was fine, hot and humid during the day.
The receptionist helped me get my credit card back from the hotel in Yichang. They would courier it to me and it would arrive within 24 hours, the fee would be about 7 dollars. Yippee. We booked opera tickets and the panda tour and went to People's Park on the city bus. Rhea is a good navigator.
People's Park turned out to be a large, free park with a lake, street food, flowers, trees, a bonsai garden. There were so many people crossing the street it was easy to sandwich myself in the middle.
Street Food at People's Park, Chengdu:
Along the way we passed a man playing what I thought were Chinese bagpipes. "Look," I said to Rhea, "Chinese bagpipes." And I took a picture:
We attracted his attention and it turns out he was selling gourd flutes. They have a drone mechanism and kind of sound like the bagpipe if you have a good imagination. We were bartering, I had no intention of buying one from him, my suitcase was too full and I was thinking of getting one once we got to Xi'an. When the price was down to fifty yuan Rhea all of a sudden took interest and bought one. Well, now I had a base price for when I bought mine - it would be a great souvenir for Jeff.
There were a lot of tourists in People's Park, several took our picture and some asked permission to have their photo taken with us and we complied - if I was fast enough on my feet I took a picture also or got Rhea to take one.
I took pictures of other people too:
When we came back out on the street we were kind of disoriented and wondered where our bus stop would be. I walked down the block to try and get an idea if this was near where we entered the park. When I came back Rhea was talking with a young girl:
As I approached I took a picture. I was thinking about the student scam you read about in the guidebooks. Some charming young person posing as a student invites you to an art show or a cafe and you end up paying an exorbitant price.
Her name was Jungle and she was a tourist, visiting Chengdu for a few days before returning to University somewhere else. She spoke excellent English and was majoring in English. She wondered if we were going to eat, she would come with us. Red flag, red flag. She seemed so nice and genuine though. So off we went across the street, the menu arrived with pictures, we ordered spicy tofu, Chinese shredded potato salad and some greens.
Rice came with it as well as tea. I took a picture of the menu just to establish the price when the bill came. One cannot be too careful and we had been warned.
We had a fine time, laughing and talking with a very engaging 19 year old. She insisted on charging my phone/camera and we showed each other pictures. When the time came to leave our young friend had already paid the bill. We were her guests, they were told to be nice to tourists. She walked us to our bus, and waited til she saw us safely on board.
We spent three hours with a random tourist and enjoyed every minute of it - Jungle, you restored my faith in humanity. We would never have had this opportunity on a guided tour.
Riding the bus back was a bit daunting, we did not know for sure where to get off, it seemed to be on a different route. I was sitting beside an older lady who had already pointed out to me that my backpack was partially open so I showed her the map and she nodded and watched and when the time came indicated we should get off. Very nice lady, surprising how much body language and pointing can accomplish.
A street vendor was selling roast corn and potatoes on our block and some neighbours were playing a game of cards - their card table was right on the busy sidewalk.
Funny, I never thought the Chinese ate either potatoes or corn. China is a big producer of corn. They dry it on rooftops and roads, the pavement warms it up.
We took the bus to Tianfu Square across the street from an enormous statue of Mao and the Science and Technology Museum. We were going to meet Anna, a couchsurfing contact. The bus stop was right by a Starbucks so we popped in to use their wifi and had coffee to keep things legit. You needed a phone number to connect and a server let me use his number and got me set up. Now I could see if Anna had contacted me, I could message her to meet us at Starbucks. As it turned out she was going to be late and we arranged to meet by the Mao statue at 2 pm.
We roamed over to the Square, fountains, no shortage of people, it was hot, I went to look at the underground mall.
There was no escalator, or maybe it wasn't working. We saw quite a few non operating escalators, there have been a number of unfortunate incidents on poorly maintained escalators in China, recently a lady died on an escalator in Jhenzhou. Maybe escalators have been taken out of service until they are certified safe.
First I took the wrong set of stairs, this is what happens when you cannot read characters. 69 stairs down and 69 stairs back up and now I have to take more stairs to the actual mall.
At 2 pm we walked over to the Mao statue. We waited half an hour, then went back to Starbucks, maybe I had a message.
Yes, sorry she was late, she was coming. Time passed and at three twenty five there she was. A nice young girl who had travelled in from a nearby city, to meet English speaking tourists. We were sorry, we had to leave We had hung around now for two and a half hours and there was no way we were going to miss the Sichuan Opera. So we hugged and took a picture and along came the bus and we were off. Bus fare is so cheap, something like fifty cents.
Chengdu is the birthplace of Sichuan Opera, distinguished by the face changing aspect, lightning speed changes of face masks. We had booked tickets with door to door transfer service from the hostel.
The only other passenger was a nice young man from Shanghai. He showed us around the opera house, some tickets include the opportunity to dress in a costume and pose. Watching them putting on makeup and getting dressed up was interesting:
The opera is like a variety show - musical instruments, slap-stick comedy, shadow play, puppets, opera, face changing, click, click the mask changes, very entertaining. We were served tea.
I enjoyed the opera and a tune played on the two string Chinese violin, Butterfly Lovers, Liangzhu, was really beautiful, I had a little tear. Butterfly Lovers is a popular tune, a folk tune, telling the story of star crossed lovers who end up as butterflies. Our opera companion explained this to me as we walked back to the van. He was going to wander around the opera district, it was still early, but we were going back to the hostel, we had a pretty full day for two old girls.
We sat outside, the weather was fine, had a bit of food from the hostel restaurant, and I had a beer. Along came Kayson, he had found the bars too crowded so he hadn't stayed long and besides he was leaving early in the morning. We visited, very interesting, talked about wine, traditional Chinese medicine, music.
They all seem to like Adele, the Beatles and Taylor Swift. Kayson suggested we visit a park where people play mah jong, dance and do tai chi, and there are many tea houses. He showed us on the map, in fact he gave us his map with the park circled in red.
Panda day!! This was a highlight for me, when we first decided to come to China I had only two requests - I wanted to see the pandas and the terra cotta warriors.
We met on the patio at 730 am and boarded the hostel van. They actually had two vans going to the centre, both full of tourists. Off we went, lots of traffic, and the line up at the gate was long. However, we did not have to wait in line for tickets, these were provided and so in we went, we were to meet back at the entrance at 11.
Feeling pressed for time, not wanting to go in the wrong direction, we were confused. We had been under the impression that an English speaking guide would show us the highlights. We spotted a big crowd, very difficult to muscle my way to the front but I eventually did and there were five pandas munching on bamboo. Constantly munching on bamboo. A few were so lazy they were laying down and eating bamboo. Cute. Adorable. Ivory and black, cuddly, benevolent looking, I loved the pandas!!
We were trying to find the nursery and eventually a big line up indicated something important - yes, this was for the nursery.
I was learning something about crowded line ups in China, really a transferable skill anywhere.
I wormed my way along the outer edge of the line, and eventually ended up inside a dark building, very crowded, I hugged the wall, smart move, there were so many people I thought I might suffocate, time passed, I wriggled my way along the wall and there they were. Five wee pandas in a crib and along came a staff who put in the sixth baby, very cute but we only got three minutes at the window, move along, gee, I could hardly tear myself away.
Rhea was back a ways so I enjoyed a few minutes in the fresh air, kind of standing aside as the people poured out of the nursery, yes, there is my sister, we inched our way back down the stairs to the main park area and found more pandas to watch, youth, with more than one in the area, and adults who are kept in solitary confinement. They do look cute eating, once they finish they will sleep so we are here at a good time.
Pandas here seem to only eat bamboo but apparently are carnivores as well. They have evolved into bamboo eaters. Bamboo has very little nutritional value so they have to eat twenty percent of their body weight every day. They are bears but do not seem very scary. They have attacked humans and can run at a surprising speed. Hard to believe when you watch them, but they have teeth and claws and will eat meat on occasion.
As we left the Panda Base I saw street sellers with stuffed panda bears and puppets, thought briefly about stopping and then though no my grandchild has so many teddy bears already and several puppets. I would later regret this decision as the pandas were such a big hit with me - they are so cute.
We were back to the hostel by noon, what to do now? We walked to a shopping centre, had a coffee at the KFC - note coffee is expensive in China and here it is cheaper.
Then we went to a bakery where all the staff wore hats and gloves and the bakers were behind a window, very clean. We bought sweet buns and went to Starbucks to get another coffee,
I wandered around the mall and bought hair bands, I needed one for my hair and one for my cell phone. I have invented a system to ensure I don't lose my cell phone, it is attached to my wrist by a string, a hairband and a safety pin. Really ingenious, somebody should manufacture it, I came up with the prototype. With one of the new hair elastics I am going to improve my safety strap.
On the walk to the shopping centre I bought a pair of black pants - 3X large!! The LARGEST size they carried. Keep in mind I am five foot seven and weigh 135 pounds.
When we got back to the hostel I found our room had not been cleaned which annoyed me as the towels were all wet and a mess and the beds were never made or changed and the garbage was full. The thing is your toilet paper goes in the garbage, not in the toilet. Our beds were not made or changed in the five days we stayed at Hello Chengdu.
Wenshu Monastry, one of the most well preserved Zen Buddhist monastaries in China is apparently free but since we are in Chengdu during the National Holiday known as Golden Week we did not brave the crowds and go. We did see some lamas here and there around town but the largest number was in the Tibet Section.
Tibetan Quarter: since we cannot travel to Tibet we make a point of going to this district. We took a cab from our hostel, Hello Chengdu. We had to hail one from the street and this was the first time I was almost run over. Many taxis did not stop even though some of them were empty.
A staff at the hostel had written Tibet Quarter in characters so we were just dumped at the side of a road and we kind of wandered into a street sellers' area. It was crawling with beggars, really some very disfigured people, so between them and the sellers grabbing our arms, pleading, it was distracting. There were lots of lamas and other interesting people.
When we approached Wouhou Temple we were able to snag a taxi.
We planned to go to a park on the river close to Sichuan University as recommended by our opera friend. We had the name written in characters but the cab driver dumped us at a different park. We walked, pointed to our map, nobody knew, nobody spoke English.
Confucius says: our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fall.
We really do not know where we are and when I spotted a smartly dressed young businessman waiting for a street light to change I showed him our map. I said something like, "we are trying to find this park" and he answered in Chinese. He hailed a cab which stopped on the spot and we hopped in along with the stranger, travel maybe twelve blocks, then we all get out and he insists on paying and points us in the direction we are suppose to go.
To avoid stairs we looked for a flat bridge across the river, there seemed to be a park like area on the other side. Two young girls were chatting nearby and a man was fishing in the river.
I took the map over to the girls and they seemed baffled. We pondered what to do and shortly the girls approached and said "we will show you." So off we went retracing our steps, to a set of stairs that led across the river to the other side. After about fifteen minutes I asked the girls how much further, they had a quick discussion and said only fifteen minutes.
I was trying to explain that we would not do another fifteen minutes of walking when a man said to Rhea, "What part of China are you from?'' A middle aged Caucasian, an expat from New York. He spoke to the girls in Chinese and explained that if we turned around it would take ten minutes to the park, the route they were using would be longer. So we parted ways with our guides, and retraced our steps until we came to a restaurant, with a nice patio and lots of patrons. However, our arrival caused a commotion and the manager was called. He was very polite and said I speak little English and our menu is only in Chinese.
Now I am about to get almost run over the second time today as we hailed a cab. Back to the hood near Hello Chengdu, we go for HotPot.
It is around three pm by now and we really have not eaten all day, so we order vegetables, mushrooms, potatoes and some other things, the waitress puts us in aprons and fixes up our dipping bowls, the inside bowl was not as spicy as the outside bowl so I cooked mine in the middle.
Later I walked around the neighbourhood, went into some shops, picked up snacks, saw streetsellers with baskets of puppies for sale. I was later told they do not eat cute dogs. Eating dogs is part of the culinary culture of Korea also. International perception is becoming more significant so the consumption of dog meat will likely diminish. I don't like the idea of eating horses either but many Europeans eat horse meat.
We are staying the last night at the 5 star Tibet Hotel as it is located near the train station, 10 Renmin North Rd. However this is not the train station we need. For eighty eight dollars per night (including breakfast) we should have spent a few nights - it was such a step up from Hello Chengdu.
We had sent our laundry out to be washed so luckily it arrived early and we got a cab over to our hotel at 9 am and were able to check in right away. The lobby was gorgeous and the room was huge. The bathroom had a separate stall for the toilet, odd, tub, separate shower, huge vanity and dressing table, and a lot of free toiletries, good quality, very nice. Robes and slippers were provided, the beds were soft, wow. It was tempting just to stay in our room but the day was young.
We went to the Sichuan Museum.
They have nice shops in the museums, no bartering. However, they are not the place to buy cheap souvenirs, as it turns out. Beside the museum was a park where the streets were paved with broken pottery.
There was a shrine and a lady was doing tai chi.
The park was cool and quiet, a little oasis in a busy city.
We had lunch at our hotel, very nice, linen, good service, some English. We had a beef dish and greens, a fruit plate. It was good even though the beef was partly organ meat. You could tell by the texture. I kept thinking, I like liver, keep eating and it all went down.
Since we needed cash, this is a cash, not credit card economy, we had to go to a bank machine. This required a walk and we also needed to get to a drug store so we kept walking, found a place, part traditional Chinese and part western,
kept walking, got lost and eventually got back to our hotel. There were no interesting stores along the way, seemed to be an area dedicated to stoves and kitchen appliances.
There were people playing mah jong right on the street.
We ate supper in the hotel restaurant, a kind of bento box affair with little compartments - one dish was fish, one was chicken and I suspect pork also. It was ok I wouldn't order it again though.
We leave today at 1 pm. First the hotel buffet breakfast. Fabulous. Yak tea and coffee are both offered and all kinds of western as well as Chinese dishes. Very pleasant.
Then we went to the tea room and were shown and given tastes of various teas. We bought tea, it comes in a brick, Tibet black tea in bamboo, lasts forever and gets better with age. Drink with milk in the morning and lemon and honey in afternoon. I have tea to last me the rest of my life. My kids will inherit some. Rhea was still shopping when the taxi came.
Yes I highly recommend the Tibet Hotel. Way better than the Tibet style room at Hello Chengdu - double the price but breakfast is included and the beds are so much more comfortable.
Had we walked the other direction to go shopping yesterday there is a big mall just down the street. Our room was quiet, service is good. It was wonderful to have a separate shower stall, water did not get all over the bathroom, my hair was clean, I felt kind of civilized. The decor is Tibet-themed, lots of prayer wheels, maybe not five star standard to westerners of discerning taste but luxury to us now at our sixth accommodation in China. The best hotel we stayed in. Well worth the price we paid. Easy to get a cab, they are waiting right outside. No hailing one from the street and taking your chances of being run over.
So many people ride scooters, no helmets most of the time, kids on the bike, brave people.
Chengdu is about 1900 km from both Beijing and Shanghai. We broke up the trip by traveling Shanghai to Zhangjiajie by air 1358 km, Zhangjiajie to Yichang by train another 425 km and Yichang to Chengdu by train, 868 km.
Chengdu is located in the fertile Sichuan Basin of central west China. Ancient irrigation systems are in place. I was stunned by the lush, verdant countryside, greener than green: