Mainland China here we come!

Trip Start Jan 31, 2006
Trip End Dec 11, 2006

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Tuesday, April 4, 2006


We'd come to Chengdu to visit the Pandas and see some of the cultural sites around the city. We arrived late in the afternoon and headed into town from the swish new airport (every city in China has a swish new airport with an airport expressway linking it to the city). The first thing I noticed was the haze hanging over everything - the pollution in Chinese cities is terrible and makes London air seem positively clean by comparison.

We were staying in the a hotel owned by the Tibetan government, inevitably called the Tibet Hotel. It was a great place with huge rooms for about GBP30 a night (the best bit of the room was definitely the way you could turn the TV in the bedroom round and watch it in the bath through a glass panel). Having arrived quite late we decided to try the hotel restaurant for dinner and our initiation in Sichuan cooking. For those not in the know, Sichuan cooking is known for its spiciness with chillies and a particular type of peppercorn which makes you lips go numb being favoured ingredients. Fortunately, both Fiona and I like spicy food but dinner was still a nose-blowing and tear-inducing spicefest.

Having only two days in Chengdu we decided to spend our first full day looking around town. Our first stop was Du Fu Caotang, a park and museum dedicated to the Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu, who lived in Chengdu between 759AD and 764AD. The park was a very pretty oasis from the hustle and bustle of downtown Chengdu and had some very interesting exhibits on Du Fu's poetry and what life was like in the Tang dynasty. We spent most of the morning wandering around the park and museum before heading back out into town for a very nice Indian curry on the banks of the Jin River.

After lunch we visited Wouhou Ci, a shrine to emperor Liu Bei and the Three Kingdoms era. Just outside Wouhou Ci there was a craft market and as we strolled through to the entrance of the shrine we came across a stall selling amazing spun-sugar creations. Hopefully in the photo gallery for this entry you can see the amazing butterfly which Fiona bought (and ate, of course) for the princely sum of 2 Yuan (about 15p). Wouhou Ci itself was lovely with impressive Qing buildings and beautiful gardens and courtyards.

Now, to the south of Wouhou Ci there is supposed to be a Tibetan quarter (Chengdu is one of the gateways to Tibet and is therefore full of monks, traditional cowboys and outdoor shops ready to sell you everything you need on your trip). We thought it would be nice to look around the Tibetan quarter after our visit to Wouhou Ci, but after 30 minutes of wandering around (we did not have precise directions for the quarter) we admitted defeat and hailed a cab. Naturally, the cab headed off and 2 minutes later we were driving through the Tibetan quarter! We got the cab to stop though and spent the next hour looking at the shops and buying some very nice Tibetan woven silk.

Day two in Chengdu saw us visit Chengdu's outlying attractions. We hired a very nice man and his car to see everything as there would have been no way we could have packed everything in going by public transport (even with the car we were out from 9am until 6pm). First stop was the museum at Sanxingdui. The museum is a fascinating place showing all of the archeological finds which were made in the area. In 1986 there were 3 burial pits found which included artefacts dating back to between 3000BC and 800BC, all of which shed new light on the Ba-Shu culture. There were some incredible things on show inluding bronze trees with parrot-like birds on the branches, gold covered statues with protruding 'bug' eyes and jade tools. A lot of the statues put me in mind of South American statues, an impression further reinforced by the fact that many of the objects were used in sacrifical rites. The museum was huge being spread out across a large park - most of the Chinese vistors were ferried between the exhibition halls on large electric buggies.

After the museum we headed to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. There are only two places in China to see Giant Pandas, the Chengdu Research Base or the Wolong Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, Wolong is over 4 hours from Chengdu by car so wasn't really an option for us. The Research Base, however, is not as bad as it sounds as the Pandas live in very large enclosures which are more like small forests - good for the Pandas, not so great for those wanting to see the Pandas... Fortunately, the younger pandas which have been bred in the Research Base live in smaller areas before being moved into the large enclosures which means you can see them at close quarters.

We had wanted to arrive at the Panda Base first as Pandas are notorious for eating early and then sleeping for the rest of the day. However, our driver got the wrong end of the stick and we didn't arrive until around midday having been to Sanxingdui first. The first Panda we saw confirmed our fears about arriving late as it was sound asleep (it wasn't even roused by the Chinese teenagers who banged on the glass of its enclosure or shouted at it...). Thankfully, the young Pandas we saw were full of beans, running around their enclosures or lolling around chewing bamboo.

We resisted the urge to buy any of varied and numerous Panda-related gifts offered to us as we left and headed to our final destination of the day, Huanglongxi. Huanglongxi is a village to the south of Chengdu which has several Qing dynasty streets which were used as sets for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The village runs along a river and was very pretty although typically I couldn't remember any of the streets being in the film. At the end of the village one of the temples, Gulong Si, had an ancient banyan tree in its courtyard which was supported by impressive posts carved into dragons.

Having been out all day we headed back into town for dinner and a rest. We chose a restaurant recommended in the Rough Guide, Yanfu Renjia, and had a fantastic meal which was even spicier than the one we'd had on the first night (something I wasn't sure was possible). Ordering our meal had consisted of a lot of pointing with some bad Chinese chucked in for good measure, so we shouldn't have been too surprised when our request for chicken with chillies yielded a dish where the chillies outnumbered the pieces of chicken 5 to 1! Our spicy meal (plus the ubiquitous Tsing-Taos that accompanied it) perked us up no end so when we returned to the hotel we decided to treat ourselves to a night of bowling. An odd choice you might think, however, I should mention that the bowling alley was inside our hotel on the 3rd floor... Needless to say we were the only people playing, not that it cramped our style!

All in all we had a fab couple of days in Chengdu - somewhere I would definitely recommend if you are planning a visit to China.
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