So we FINALLY arrived in Chengdu after massive flight delays. It seems China didn’t want to let us go (or was trying to make us leave – we couldn’t decide). As we didn’t arrive until the vampire hours, we spent much of our first day sleeping. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed we had to do what we always do, which is wander around. It may seem strange, but one of the most famous sites in Chengdu city is a Chairman Mao statue. You might believe that China is full of Chairman Mao statues (which it is) but there aren’t many really big ones. Plus, I had kind of invented a Chairman Mao statue challenge after reading the Lonely Planet one very boring day (probably during a power cut) where it mentions a statue tour of China. Damn you Lonely Planet and your ridiculous ideas! So, on with the story! We went for a ‘wander’ around Chengdu to find this statue. Actually it wasn’t very far from our hostel but being as it was stupidly hot it felt like miles. All in all it was a good statue. You can’t complain! It was something else to tick off the travelling checklist.
While we were out wandering we came across the local park. Having no idea what we were doing we thought we’d pop in and see what’s what. As a general rule, all parks in China are the same (old men gambling over a game of mah-jong, old women slapping themselves to promote circulation, young children going on badly constructed rides etc). The best part of any park is surely the ‘dancing crew’. There will always be, without fail, a group of oldies getting down with their bad selves in the park as part of some mass exercise movement. Normally we don’t pay attention to this but there was some pretty good moves going on that day!
After all that excitement we decided to ‘chill out’ (laughable suggestion in that heat) at one of the local tea houses that Chengdu is famous for. We found one not too far from the dancers, pulled up a pew, and ordered some sort of dandelion/lemon tea. The only way I would be able to drag Jav to somewhere like this is with the promise of something infinitely more exciting like a good old fashioned ear cleaning. Strange, you might say, but they don’t make them like this anymore. After A LOT of haggling (this is Jav we are talking about here) the ear cleaner produced some most unusual equipment. It was sort of like tools of the chimney sweeping trade in miniature! First the ear cleaner dusted, then he twanged something to promote cleaning via vibrations through the ear canal, then he sort of scraped the ear. The whole while the old bugger insisted on showing me what he had taken out of Jav’s ear. Nice! Surprisingly I didn’t want to partake in this age old tradition.
We had done a lot of traditional things that day and we had one more thing to do. Hotpot, hotpot, hotpot! Chengdu is in Sichuan province, home to the spiciest food in China. We had to try this world famous dish. We expected hot and we got hot. The broth looked fairly innocent until a whole bag of peppercorns went into it. I think I lost about a stone in sweat that day.
Now we had got the wandering out of the way we decided to do something really backpackery – go on a FREE tour. There aren’t many backpackers that I’m aware of that can pass up the chance of all things free. As advertised, we went on a FREE countryside tour arranged by our hostel manager, Mix. I tell you now, that tour was a bargain! We weren’t expecting much because of the freeness but it was a pleasant surprise. The countryside was very charming. Some good examples of old countryside homes (abandoned in favour of the new homes next door obviously) and it was a quiet and peaceful walk – until you got to the place where they were building a ruddy great big bypass. As we wound our way round the country roads and ended up where we started our eyes were searching for the van to take us home. Lucky for us, Mix had a surprise up his sleeve. After a delicious lunch at a local restaurant/shack Mix took us to an old village under the ownership of a Hakka Clan. The Hakka’s are a minority group in China who traditionally live on the east coast in these bizarre round houses. How they got to Chengdu is a mystery but it was a great opportunity to gain some insight into their culture. The town was filled with ancestral clan halls and we even found a clan hall from, can you believe it, Jiangxi province! The fun didn’t end there however. Jav spotted a man selling some ‘local’ foods such as crabs, grubs, grasshoppers and scorpions on a stick. Jav caved under peer pressure fairly quickly and soon he had scorpion legs dangling out of his mouth. I even gave it a little try (tastes like burnt chicken). It was amazing that Jav had a chance to eat anything as he chased around a group of young Chinese girls dressed in England’s finest Victorian corseted wear (don’t ask because we don’t know!). Naturally all this tradition got a bit much for us and later that night we headed to the most modern area of Chengdu we could find, Times Square.
Naturally our trip to Chengdu just got better and better and on the third day it surpassed itself with our trip to Lushan and the giant (and we mean giant) Buddha there, carved into a mountain to prevent the flooding of the river that he grandly looks over. Apparently this bit of voodoo worked and therefore I shall never dismiss religion again. The first thing we felt we ought to do was to violate the Buddha in as many ways we could concoct in our sun addled brains. We kissed the Buddha, we rubbed noses with the Buddha, we put our fingers in his ears and nose and we made him drink out of a bottle. I’m sure this sort of behaviour was entirely original and had never been done before. Regardless of this deformation of his character we still held mighty respect for this monolithic creature. So big he was in fact, that it was near impossible to take pictures of all of him at once (cue much distress by Jav). He demanded so much respect that we actually weren’t allowed to smoke in the vicinity of the Buddha (we were still in China weren’t we?). We did get a few good shots naturally but it took the best part of the day. To cheer Jav up I allowed him to take some sneaky shots of people worshipping as this brand of privacy invasion is by far his favourite.
To top this spectacular day off we went to see the Sichuan Opera in the evening. We were never inclined to see the Peking opera as the singing is dreadful but we were assured that there was no singing at the Sichuan Opera. This opera was more about dancing, shadow puppets (they can get their hands in some crazeeee shapes) and the face changing performance. The face changing performance is what it is all about, where the actors rapidly change their masks in front of your eyes without you knowing what has just happened. You need to watch the video clip to really appreciate this as an art.
I can barely write what we did next as it was so exciting and I do a little wee every time I think about it. We volunteered at a panda breeding base! Yes, the fourth day was all about those damn cute pandas. We arrived at the base and got to meet all the pandas (one is quite famous we are led to believe) and watched them all lounging around in their cages while their homes were being cleaned ready for them to go back on display. You can’t even begin to imagine how many photos we have of pandas now! When the main area had been cleaned we had the delightful task of cleaning their other cages. My word, those pandas can poo. No one ever told me that a panda’s life consisted of eating, sleeping and going to the toilet on every available surface. We do like to get stuck in though and we made short work of the panda poo. When the poo had been removed we prepared their first snack of the day – some big juicy apples. We got to feed them and everything! Apparently pandas are vicious so we had to skewer the apples and they took them from the stick. Our guide informed us that due to the lazy nature of pandas we had to make them work for their food so we made them stand up and come and get it. They are so darn sweet! My favourites were the group of naughty rapscallion teenagers who really loved their grub. As soon as they had their apple a day we had to start preparing their next meal of panda cakes. I’m not 100% sure what are in these things (although we did try them) but I’m sure that the Chinese had snuck some rice in somewhere. The pandas went even more crazy for these cakes and we didn’t even have to encourage them to come and get it. It was now approaching midday and all the pandas went to sleep so we got to walk around the rest of the base and see the other pandas, and the equally adorable red pandas, before we were shown a video about the problems pandas experience in their sex lives. A friend of mine once told me that pandas were pointless creatures that really ought to be extinct and now I have come to share these beliefs. Firstly, they don’t know how to mate. They have to be shown panda porn as some sort of instruction manual and even then the courtship rarely goes beyond the male panda chasing the female panda around a cage. If they do manage to mate the pandas all give birth prematurely and then freak out when they see this tiny, ratty looking, pink thing and they start beating their young! I thought the U.K had a problem with child abuse!
Even though we had lost a lot of respect for the pandas we were still upset when the day ended so we thought we’d cheer ourselves up by going to the BBQ quarter for some of the spiciest beef we have ever had. I would say that this little titbit of information was unworthy of our blog but when I asked Jav what he remembered the most about Chengdu, this is what he said so here we are!
On our final day we were taking it easy ready for our 18 hour train journey to Xi’an the next day. We tried to do what we do best (shop) but it proved quite difficult. We went to the Tibetan area first but this was filled with Chinese soldiers as there was a lot of Tibetan unrest at that time. This made for an uncomfortable shopping experience so we thought we’d try out the Lotus Market hoping for a Beijing Pearl Market round two. Sadly the normal tourist tat wasn’t to be found but you could buy a gun or get your very own tattoo done on the street. Umm…. On to Xi’an me thinks.