I must admit, the prospect of stepping in to mainland China filled me with ‘tummy-turning’ dread…
‘Why?’ you may ask?
Well, for starters… my first experience of China is haunted by the mental image of jaundiced babies thrust in to my arms by emaciated orphan girls not much older than 8 years old. They hung so limply from skinny outstretched arms I doubted they were still part of the living.
The second and more recent experience brings back the vivid memory of puking outside the gates of the first Forbidden Palace in Shenyang… the outcome of unknowingly consuming one too many donkey dumpling, or likely, the roller coaster ride in the back of my friend’s Sudan as he demonstrated the ‘dive-in-dive-out’ driving that seems commonplace in China.
Let’s also not forget to mention the vile, retch-worthy hole-in-the-ground-loos… the nasal back-of-the-throat expulsion – (the word ‘spitting’ somehow doesn’t describe the repulsive act enough and I therefore refuse to describe it as thus!) – and last but not least the lack of any common courtesy.
The pushing and shoving at the airport reminded me that yes; China requires a high level of tolerance, present only in the most angelic of us. Over populated, chaotic, noisy and polluted, my OCD self did not want to venture in to these hostile lands.
As one of the two Gateways in to Tibet though – my last ‘must-do’ in Asia before I return to the UK, China was inevitable. The Nepal border was closed due to the devastating earthquake in April so our ‘great’ plan involved crossing in to Lhasa via the Qinghai over ground train, hailed to be one of Asia’s greatest train journeys. At a whopping 43 hours from Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province, it is not only the highest, but probably one of the longest railways too.
Before we embark on the ‘psychological test’ of how crazy one can go in confinement for 43 hours, 3 nights will be spent in Chengdu. This is home to China’s national treasure after all and it would be a sacrilegious offence not to pay homage to these residents; but before I introduce you to Mei Mei and Yu Yu, first a little about the city…
It was quite clear from the outset that Chengdu does not possess the big city syndrome like Shanghai or Beijing… My misconceptions of China were proved wrong as I wandered through the serene, green surroundings of the Wenshu monastery and later the manicured lush gardens of the People’s Park. Yes, there was a thin layer of white haze that hung in the air, and the cacophony of chatter and traffic was ever present, though at low volume. But for a city of 14 million people, this is a surprisingly clean and laid back city – well deserving of its reputation for being China’s happiest city.
Electric scooters and push bikes rule the city in their silent stealth; dedicated cycle lanes show a p rogressive desire to keep pollution at a low.
Amongst the relentless but nevertheless, expected modernity, is a reminder to slow down once in a while… And it is this display of the old, traditional charm, in an otherwise austere, concrete jungle that gives Chengdu that element of surprise.
At the People’s (Remin) Park, the sound of Mahjong bricks clink against each other as they are shuffled on a green felt table top, masking the honk of impatient drivers outside. Groups of retired folk play Chinese chess under the cool canopy of a pagoda, their laughter evidence that despite their numerous neighbours, Chengdu is an easy place to live. Further in to the park are men and women, old and young in slow rhythmic, fluid synchronicity; tai chi moves are as feather light as the welcoming breeze.
A mesmeric chiming draws us in to a lakeside tea house and feeling the city’s compulsion to ‘time-out’, we take up rest beneath a shaded canopy. We are at the 100-year-old Heming lake teahouse and the chiming is coming from a couple of white clothed physicians, heralding a set of ominously looking steel rods. These are quite horrifically inserted deep in to one’s ear while the willing patient sips at their selected herbal tea.
We order our own chrysanthemum tea – crystal lumps of rock sugar sit at the bottom, flowery white petals and red berries dance in the cup as our lady pours scalding hot water from a tall thermos in to clear glasses. It tastes deliciously sweet and well rewarded after a long day of exploration in the balmy weather. The thermos is a never ending ‘Magic Porridge Pot’ of water and we end up joining the languid residents for a few hours of blissful down-time.
But there is no rest for the wicked… well, not for tourists in search of Chengdu’s main sights anyway… And home to some of China’s best-known residents, we go in search of our black and white friends the following day. Behold the great giant panda!
Said to house 80 giant pandas, the Breeding Research Base on the outskirts of Chengdu is known to be the most impressive reserve in the world… which is perhaps why it attracts an estimated 800,000 visitors a year. So Panda Central this is but Panda Sanctuary this is not…
People pushed and shoved their way to the front of the Giant Panda enclosure, intent on documenting this precious experience. Hundreds of faces peered through expensive 210mm camera lenses, the perpetual sound of zsssst… zsssst… buzzed in my ear as they zoomed in and out. It was feeding time and Mei Mei was gnawing greedily at a tall bamboo stem in animated contentment 2-3 metres away from us. Suddenly aware she was at the centre of attention, she cast us a shy smile, and ambled slowly away to join a sleepy Yu Yu. Yes, this was pretty precious alright.
If it wasn’t for the crowds, the Panda Research Centre would have exceeded my expectations, but in a country of 1.3 billion people, one has to accept the fact that every moment is shared… Still, standing shoulder to shoulder, and back to back with the other spectators, it was enthralling to watch the pandas at close range.
An extra fee can be paid to hold these cuddly cubs in your arms but prepare to dig deep in to your pockets. You’ll have to read other blogs for this experience.
– Admission in to the park is ¥58.
– Getting there: If you’re staying in the Jin-Niu ‘Hostel’ district, take bus no. 70 on the Beijiaochang West Road and alight at the zoo (Dong Wu Yuan) to interchange. (We stayed at the Nice House Hostel off the Xiti Road). Then take buses 87, 198 or 198A to the Panda Research Centre. The standard fare is ¥2 per ride.
If you’re not brave enough to face the linguistic challenges on the bus (all announcements and displays are in mandarin), taxis and tuk-tuks in Chengdu are affordable. A fare from the city centre should cost around ¥30.
If you have an extra day to spare in Chengdu, it’s a must to go further afield to the ‘Dafo’ (Giant Buddha) in Leshan. And the brand new Chengdu East train station makes this a very accessible day trip without the expense of hiring a tour guide.
Officially the world’s largest carved Buddha, this was sited along the river to appease the violent waters that claimed the lives of the local fishing folk. Carved directly out of the orange sandstone cliff over a period of 90 years (pre-dating the Tang Dynasty), the Dafo is 71 metres high, has 3 metre long fingers, 7 metre long ears, a foot that can apparently accommodate 100 people and over a 1000 coils on his head.
Unfortunately it’s another site that has to be shared with other tourists. Thousands of local tourists crowd the viewing platforms at the cliff top and those able (and willing) can start their descent down the winding stairway to Buddha’s feet. It is a nerve racking descent made slower by the steep, narrow steps and the urge to take photos of the Dafo at every angle.
– Buy your train ticket the day before if you can. Remember you’re in a country of 1.3 billion so if you don’t reserve that seat, someone else will. A return ticket costs ¥118.
– Allow 2.5 hours minimum at the sight – this should allow for queuing time to descend. At its busiest season, expect a descent time of 1-1.5 hours.
– It takes just over an hour to get to Leshan from Chendu East station but get to the station early as security is rife. Once you arrive at Leshan station, there are shuttle buses that will take you directly to the South gate entrance for ¥5.
– There is a North gate and South gate entrance so beware the different tickets prices for these gates (¥90 and ¥170 respectively). If you’ve come by shuttle bus, hop in a Tuk-Tuk towards the North gate to save yourself paying the extra ¥80. The North gate entrance ticket includes the main Dafo sight, along with the Tomb of Hai Tong, the sacred Lingyun Temple, the Mahao Cave Tombs & the Wuyou Temple – everything you will want to see.
As I pack my backpack and prepare myself for the 43 hour journey to Lhasa, I’m a little sad to say goodbye to easy going Chengdu and its hospitable people… My view of China has opened up somewhat; that this is not such the scary, intimidating place I believed it to be… No, when I look back on my time in Chengdu I will always remember this… Of lazy sun filled days, stretched out on a bamboo chair next to a glistening lake, fringed with weeping willow; and of the soothing sound of chimes as I languidly watch the crystal rock sugar ever so slowly melt in my glass… My small reminder to stop once in a while and enjoy that rare and precious ‘pause’ in life…