We arrive at Chengdu and meet FiFi. A lively, energetic tour guide. The trip to the hostel involved the metro and lots of stairs but we coped with our heavy bags, as we are yet to lose our Mongolian warm layers and coats.
Chengdu is a big city. Big enough to be served by several metro lines, once again, it is cheap and simple to use.
Everything here is panda themed, Even our hostel is called Mrs Panda, as Chengdu is home to the panda breeding base. We are supposed to go on monday, our arrival day being sunday. It is the last day of Golden Week and our guide is prepared for this and changes our itinerary to see the pandas on tuesday. Instead, we can see the largest stone budda in the world, or go on a city tour.
I wanted to see the budda. However, it would have been absolutely rammed with tourists, probably a 2 hour queue just to snap a photo of it an leave. It takes 2.5 hours to get there and 3 hrs to get back which doesn’t leave a lot of time for exploring or queueing (which is tantamount to pushing and shoving until you reach the front). It also costs a pretty penny. £20 for transport, each. Over £10 to get in, which is a lot in China, and another £8 for a short boat trip to get a good view, which probably also had a massive queue.
A minimum of 5 people were required to go and not one person wanted to. Our guide quite frankly talked it down like she didn’t want anyone to go either. Going on our own by public transport was considerably cheaper but involved several public buses and could take 4-5 hours to get there. No thanks.
Instead, we went on a city tour. We saw a monastery, Wenshu (pronounced one shoe). Then went to the city centre, Tianfu Square, to see the impressive Chairman Mao statue. There are several museums here but they are not on our itinerary so we went underground to a shopping area and had lunch at Colourful Cafe. It was nice but the tea was expensive, it turns out food and tea here is designed to be shared by groups. One pot of tea can be refilled up to 7 times depending on the tea, meaning it can service a whole group with several cups each. Likewise, individual plates of food are a lot for one person but are meant to be shared with 4-5 plates between 5-6 people.
The rest of the group are much younger than us and dont seem to keep time very well so our 1430 meet turned into 1500.
We went to the Peoples Park, The People’s …. is a common name for public places in China. Like the park in Yangshuo, it was full of life. People everywhere. There were older folks dancing a waltz. It was a free session where anyone could just join in and have a go.
There were people playing cards. Our guide tells us they sometimes play for money despite gambling being illegal here. A blind eye is often turned unless it becomes a problem, there was no sign of gambling here, though every group appeared to play a different game. There were many street food and novelty stalls. There was even a section where parents with single children hung out and posted boastful notes about their kids. It’s embarrassing for parents if their kids are not married before 30. They post their heights, weights, education, social standing and employment details in order to attract suitors. A kind of real life eHarmony. Once the parents meet, they share pictures on their phones.Chinese people have lots and lots of pictures on their phones.
FiFi bought a feather thing, called a jianzi, that was essentially a happy sack. We played in the park, kicking the thing from one person to another (badly, a little old lady joined and put us all to shame) and attracted a big crowd, all of them pointing phones at us. A policeman, or perhaps a warden, came and told us off. We dispersed and tried a group photo then got told off again as someone sat on a fence which was not allowed.
The evenings entertainment was the Chinese opera. It was okay. They had an information board that gave loose subtitles and the titles of each episode. It didn’t make a lot of sense but it had a shadow puppet section and a stick puppet section amidst interpretive dance, some singing and other cabaret activities.
The finale was all about the face changing. Rapid changes of masks hidden, only for a split second, by a cape or a flag. It’s impressive and I did not work out how it’s done. It’s hard to look it up on the chinese version of the internet which revolves around Bing. It’s considered a magic trick and is kept secret accordingly. If gambling wasn’t illegal, I’d wager there’s a tutorial on YouTube.
Tuesday came and we head to Panda Base. The sanctuary is located in an urban area, surrounded by hundreds of high rise blocks of flats. It was busy but the day before they had to close the entrance as capacity was reached due to the crowds. Good work by our tour guide changing our itinerary. Still unimpressed at our Tour for not mentioning China’s largest ever celebration (the biggest celebration of ananything, ever in history, according to the news).
There were loads of Pandas. They are like big cats, eating and sleeping. We got there for breakfast so we saw many of them chomping bamboo and one or two then climb trees to sleep in. They just crash out in the most uncomfortable looking positions. That is them done for most of the day too.
They had pandas of all ages but there were infants too, 9 born this year which is no record but excellent news and welcome additions to the species. They are hidden away in a kind of incubation centre, there was a single file queue to see them through glass, and a man shouting in Mandarin at anyone moving too slowly. One of them yawned and it was adorably cute.
They also have red pandas but we only saw two. They aren’t related to the giant panda’s but they do look like they should even though they are tiny by comparison.
Back at the hostel we bought tray meals from a 7 eleven. A trick we first used in japan to save money. You can get a surprisingly good, sometimes surprisingly spicy meal for very little money. Golden week is now over and the museums were open on the monday when normally they would be closed. They now closed, for 3 days our guide told us, starting today. This meant we would not get to see the science museum.
In the evening we ate hot pot. We are in Sichuan and it’s famous for its spicy food. Hot pot here is a shared meal where the boiling pot of spicy broth, a second one without spice was also provided, is placed centrally and you order meats and vegetables to put in and cook. H was unable to attend as the group wanted shrimp dumplings and would not relent regardless of how much I protested that she is allergic. We had lotus root, pork meatballs, mushrooms, potato and various other bits and bobs. The spice wasn’t too spicy either but apparently we had the less hot version. Other foods were available that consisted mostly of feet and brains.
We had a free morning and walked to a bridge nearby, stopping to watch people excersing by the river. Everywhere you go in China, women will perform a dance to music for exercise or simply fun. We found out on the way to the train station that the museums were in fact open, and free, and we had wasted our morning due to bad information. I promised myself to no longer take information for granted on this trip.