Well I mean the pandas of course.
04.05.2014 - 06.05.2014 24 °C
As I write this from my second long distance train trip from Chengdu to Xian, I cannot understand why anyone would choose a different long distance mode of transport in China. Sleeper tickets are cheap, beds are comfortable, toilets are usually clean, views are amazing, and you get to walk about. They even have chargers for your electronics. On the down side smoking is allowed in special areas and the smokers never abide by the "close the door rule". Another new nasty experience on this journey is cheesy piped music and constant, what I imagine is, Chinese advertising with a soothing female voice, bring your I pod. So you do leave your journey satisfied but stinking of smoke.
For the future traveller, bullet trains are becoming more common.
Chengdu is a city with a population the size of NZ. So smaller than other cities in China but as I took a train through its outskirts and a taxi to my hostel it seemed much larger than that. And it is growing. Most of the population lives in apartments and the new ones being built advertise their square meterage on the side of the building with large banners. Most are around 140 to 200 m2, much larger than those stupid apartments Auckland built in the 1990's for the English language student boom.
My hostel "The Loft Design Hostel" was pretty cool for $10 a night. I shared my room with an Aussie and his Chinese girlfriend. They had been trekking through Nepal for 2 months and were preparing to leave for Tibet. A lot of people travelling to Tibet leave from Chengdu. The hostel attracts more Chinese than foreigner, especially based on the 5 squat toilets versus the one Western one. And no Chinese food in the cafe. Yikes! I have tried Western food here once and it is awful. Best to stick to the Chinese which is fast and tasty.
The cafe serves different types of coffee, coffee culture is permeating but I hope it isn't to the detriment of the amazing tea culture. Chengdu is known for its tea houses and I went to about 4 of them. There are hundreds, maybe thousands. During the day friends get together,go to a tea house, get tea in a big cup with a massive thermos filled with hot water, bring their own piles of fruit and peanuts in a shell and play cards or mahjong. They stay for hours, maybe having a nap, and maybe only paying for two servings of tea. Tea to get in Sichuan province is the locally produced jasmine bamboo leaf green tea from Mt Emei.
In terms of food, the Lonely Planet lists 5 top dishes, I tried 4 of them. Spicy chicken with peanuts (gongbao jiding), dry fried green beans (ganbian sijidou), mapo tofu, and boiled and stir fried pork with salty and hot sauce (huiguo rou). I left the fish because I have seen the state of the rivers here and I am not too good with whole fish. I also had Kung pao chicken as my friend Matthew Crawford suggested that I should. The Sichuan food was disappointingly unspicy. I even started eating the chillies. Maybe they saw my white face. The food was tasty though.
These handmade sweets are called Dragon's whiskers. Acquired taste.
Very nice barbecued skewers and BBQ bread. For $2 NZ
I didn't have enough time in Chengdu. There is a lot to see and I only had two and a half days. I did see the main attractions though and both were incredibly amazing, the Giant pandas and the Giant Buddha.
Pandas are cute. Especially baby ones that hang awkwardly in trees like badly placed Christmas decorations.
The research centre was impressive. It holds the largest number of captive red pandas, most possibly also Giant pandas. We took a tour from the hostel, our Chinese driver wasn't much of a guide but with signs in Mandarin and English it was pretty self explanatory.
Panda poo photo, yes, the biologist in me thought you needed to see that.
I took the bus to Leshan, two hours south (?) of Chengdu, the home of the giant Buddha. I met a nice Irish couple on the bus and spent the day looking round with them. Again there wasn't enough time, I would either suggest staying in Leshan or getting the earliest bus possible. As well as the grand Buddha there is several beautiful temples, tombs, a "fishing village", a massive collection of different Buddhas (including the worlds longest reclining Buddha 170m long), and wonderful gardens and trees. A great respite from Chengdu City.
The grand Buddha, Dafo, is 1200 years old. He was carved out of a river cliff at the confluence of the Dadu and Min river to calm the swift currents, protecting local boatmen. It worked. He is 71m tall, has 7m long ears, and his big toes are 8.5m long.
I also spent a night at the Sichuan opera for tourists. Have a look up "changing faces Sichuan opera" on you tube. It was astounding. The reason I said for tourists was that they tried to squish everything typically Sichuanese into the one show- singing, dancing, acrobatics, swordplay, amazing costumes, amazing sets( including rain), laser light shows, fire breathing, puppetry, and of course the changing faces, to the detriment of a storyline. Unfortunately no photos were allowed
Other cool things in Chengdu.
I recommend visiting here. Although not much of the old city is left, it has plenty to offer and is very laid back.