Pandas and Pagodas

Trip Start Oct 17, 2006
Trip End Jun 23, 2007

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Our first stop in Chengdu in Sichuan province was the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base which holds nearly 50 giant and red pandas. It was great to see the pandas so close up, especially as they are so difficult to see in the wild, but it felt more like a zoo than a breeding centre. This was probably due to the hoards of Chinese tourists who made the usual racket, despite numerous signs saying "keep quiet"! We were also sceptical about how much good it can do breeding pandas when so much of the natural panda habitat has been destroyed. Apparently very few pandas have so far been released into the wild. The Chinese government  has introduced harsh measures to protect the pandas (life sentences or public executions are imposed on convicted poachers) but it may be too late.

The rest of our day in Chengdu was spent exploring Wenshui temple, a Tang monastery and Chengdu's largest Buddhist temple.  Sichuan is known as having the best tea in China and the tea rooms in the temple seemed a relaxing place to find out. However, we thought we'd been ripped off after paying a huge 10 yuan (60p) each for a cup of tea, the usual price being 2 yuan. However 2 hours later, when our cups had been topped up numerous times by attentive waiters, we felt like we'd got our money's worth. It was a great place to watch the world go by.

Sichuan is known as a province with very, very spicy food.  To find out just how spicy, that evening we went out for a traditional Sichuan hotpot, with 2 guys we'd met at the hostel, including Glenn from the US who could speak pretty good Mandarin. It was fortunate that Glenn came as there was no English on the menu and none of the waiters spoke English. The centre of the table held a large bowl of soup, heated from below. In the middle, a smaller bowl contained a dark red bubbling, oily mixture of lethal chillis and mouth-numbing peppercorns. Rather like a fondue, we cooked our plates of veggies, meat and tofu in the oils. It was an interesting idea but so oily and spicy we felt quite ill afterwards!

The next day we headed to Emei Shan, a famous Buddhist mountain full of temples, tea tree plantations, lush scenery, macaques and... you guessed it... Chinese tourists. Unfortunately we had timed our visit badly, coinciding with the weekend. The highlight of the trip was getting lost and finding a path which was not on the itinerary of the tour groups and so beautifully tranquil. On this path we stumbled on probably the most beautiful monastery on the whole mountain, full of scented flowers and colourful mosaics, where the nuns cooked us lunch. There we met a friendly Chinese girl Tong Li and Jon practised his Mandarin to the amusement of the surrounding locals.

The next stop was the Grand Buddha in Leshan, which is apparently the biggest in the world at 71 metres, with a fingernail taller than the average human. It was built in AD 713 to protect boatman from lethal currents in river hollows. Surplus rocks did the trick by filling the hollows but locals insist it was the calming effect of the Buddha. We were the only Westerners there and being a weekday there were just a few friendly Chinese tourists. Jon became quite big-headed after several requests for his photo. Helen wasn't too upset by the competition as all his fans were male (see photo).

We had an interesting afternoon trying to get to our hotel. We got a local bus from the Buddha to town (or so we thought), and an hour later ended up at a bus station 10km out of town. We had pointed to the town on the map and the conductor seemed to understand, but people do tend to say yes to everything, not wanting to lose face. The joys of not speaking Mandarin!

That evening was one of the highlights of our time here so far. We'd heard that every evening there is dancing in the town square so we went along to watch. Sure enough the square was full of seemingly spontaneous performances. There were groups of ladies performing oriental dancing with brightly coloured fans, mixed groups doing aerobics style dancing, without an instructor but somehow totally in synch. Other less coordinated groups included elderly ladies attempting the fan dance and an orchestra to which a large group were singing, following words projected onto a screen. Our favourite was an enthusiastic man dancing with the ladies - dressed in tight shorts, white vest top, pink socks and shiny black shoes,  he had us in stitches (see video). There were all ages there, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. No wonder the old people here are so agile.

Back in Chengdu we stayed in what has to be our favourite hostel so far, the Loft, in a converted printing factory. It had loads of big comfortable sofas (something you really miss when you are travelling), friendly helpful staff, a relaxing top-floor loft bar with free internet, and a gorgeous ensuite room which you'd probably find in a boutique hotel in London, all for only 10 pounds a night. The best bit was the restaurant which served fantastic pizzas and burgers - something else you miss after eating Chinese food twice a day for weeks. There Jon happened to bump into an old colleague Shyam, from the FT who was on a 2 week holiday to China - it's a small world!

Before leaving Chengdu we got ourselves our of bed early to to visit the Peoples' Park.  At 7 in the morning, the park was crowded, not with suits striding through on their way to work but with people engaged in a whole gamut of sometimes rather odd activities.  Walking through the park we came across more leaderless aerobics, people walking backwards, a man rubbing his neck against a tree, a large group of elderly men and women rubbing every part of their faces with their hands in time with each other and a lady bellowing a primal scream across the lake.  Noone but us batted an eyelid!  The real reason we'd gone to the park was to watch taichi.  We weren't disappointed, spotting groups encompassing every standard from beginner to master. The most professional had such perfect balance, they seemed to float as they held their positions, reached lofty heights with high kicks and dressed for the part in colourful, coordinated pyjamas. This time we decided it was best not to join in.
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gobo on

lethal fan dancers....
Hey Guys,
Soulds like ye're having a great time although we were abit worried when we took a look at the 'Fan dancers the movie' -did the woman who walked by with the machine gun not scare ye at all no?!

jon_helen on

Re: lethal fan dancers....
wooow... didn't notice that before! Perhaps it's the beginnings of a new peasant uprising!

When do you guys get to China? Loved your 'Ankor What?' entry... sounds like a complete mission getting there from Thailand. Enjoy your chillout time in SE Asia cos you don't get much of that in China!

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