Porters, Pandas, Planes, Pomegranates, Dumplings and Hot Pots from Chongqing to Xian

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April 23rd 2014
Published: April 24th 2014
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We awoke following our fifth night on the Viking Emerald for what might be the normal gloom of disembarkation day; but, in our case our vacation is not over with nearly half of the major highlights still ahead of us. We settled our shipboard account and paid tips by credit card. Unfortunately, after paying the tour account, my bank declined the lesser bill for tips, no doubt wary of two back to back transactions in China. Fortunately, we each had two different credit cards with us, and Sharon’s card covered the tips. We also picked up the DVD for our cruise; which, Sharon is delighted since it captures me doing the hokey pokey in my red “Expedition Everest” hat.

Arnold’s group is the last to leave the ship today, and our bags didn’t need to be in the hall for transport until 6 in the morning. We felt special as everyone else needed to have their bags ready before midnight the night before. Unseen by us was the hill our bags (and we and our handbags) would need to ascend, unseen that is until the morning light revealed the steep rise from the Yangtze. Arnold had said that there would be porters when we stepped off the ship eager to grab our bags and take them for us up the hill. These were the same porters the cruise line hired to bring our bags ashore through the night and early morning. “They will ask 100 Yuan, but 20 Yuan is a fair price.” Arnold couldn’t have been more right. Before either of us had stepped ashore and we were still on the gangplank, two porters reached over the handrail and before we knew what was happening, they were carrying our bags. After seeing the steps from our cabin, Sharon had decided that she wasn’t carrying our bags up those steps; and, so we hurried to catch up with the porters who supported each bag over their shoulder with a thick bamboo, similar to how a hobo might sling his belongings laden red handkerchief over his shoulder from a pole; except, our handbags were resting on the porters’ backs. We followed the porters up the steps; but, it was a mistake for me to be in front of Sharon. I heard her protest, “No, I can do it myself” and before I could look back the porter I was following reached back and grabbed my hand to pull me ahead as he maintained perfect balance on the steep steps. I thought Sharon’s porter was doing the same, but what really was happening was a third porter had decided Sharon needed some ‘help’ up the hill. At the top the porter stopped, before reaching the bus, and said something I didn’t quite catch. He said it again and Sharon said that he wanted some money. That’s when I heard “100 Yuan”, and he indicated for each. I offered twenty, and the porter looked puzzled. Then I offered twenty again, and this time the porter laughed. Then the porter indicated that they expected 100 Yuan for each of the three porters. Sharon was getting a bit uncomfortable, and I got out my wallet and took out 80 Yuan, and offered 40 Yuan for the two legitimate porters. He repeated 100 Yuan and held up three fingers. I showed him my nearly empty wallet saying I don’t have the money and was hoping that Arnold would catch up with us pretty soon. That’s when I heard a voice say “I have some money!” And my negotiations pretty much came to an end as Sharon pulls an envelope from her passport, credit card and money wallet she got us to wear around our necks. I had mine on as well, but was using a small slim wallet I’d just gotten for room keys and local currency. I watched as Sharon offered a twenty dollar bill to the one porter, he suggested forty. The second porter wanted forty also, leaving Sharon with just a few $5 notes. The third porter snatched that money, and the 80 Yuan from my hand for good measure, and in an eye blink they were gone. That’s about when Arnold came sauntering by. If you do the conversion, they wound up with about 200 Yuan each, but all Sharon wanted was for them to be gone.

Chongqing is a mountain city in three parts, the lower, the middle part and the upper part. Our local tour guide for today is Sunny. The porters were the local farmers who now make their livings carrying cargo to and from the river. One traditional mode of transportation in China that you really don’t see in Chongqing is the bicycle; because, if there were bicycles here you would see people carrying them up the hills rather than the other way around. Chongqing is the largest municipality in China at about 33 million people; but, 70% is in rural areas. The land included as part of Chongqing extends all the way back to the Wu Gorge that we passed through two days ago.

Today we get to visit the Giant Pandas in the People’s Zoo. These furry creatures are considered a national treasure. The zoo is beautiful, with incredible landscaping. I got my picture taken next to what I thought was an emu, Arnold thought it was an ostrich, and Sharon said to him “I’ll bet it’s only Americans you see having their pictures taken next to a bronze statue of an animal in a zoo. We soon came to the Panda enclosures, and the first we saw were for the Lesser Panda. These small raccoon-like creatures were scouting for food and playing in the grass. We had to walk up a hill to where the Giant Pandas were kept in solitary enclosures. Our guide explained how they prefer to live alone and that there is the danger if they live with other Giant Pandas it’s too likely that they will fight. Although the Giant Panda is a carnivore, it would be too slow to catch anything. They prefer bamboo and bamboo shoots; but, will eat fruit as well. Honey is one of their favorites. It takes 5 and one-half to 6 and one-half years for a Giant Panda to reach sexual maturity. When it was time for one of the zoo’s female pandas to start mating, they introduced several panda suitors into her enclosure. Sunny seemed annoyed that these guys were in her space and wouldn’t have anything to do with them. It turns out this can be for many reasons because the female Giant Panda can be very particular about who she might choose to have a very very good time with. The panda keepers decided to project some panda porn movies for her, and Sunny said that in this case, it worked. The female got very excited, and soon, as they say, was with cub. It takes between 83 and 163 days for the Giant Panda to give birth. At first the Giant Pandas were hiding from view, then Yo Yo came out and walked around before returning to the cave, and Sharon was scrambling to catch a picture. The same was true for Yiang Yiang; but, the panda-keeper was placing new bamboo, bamboo shoots and leaves in each enclosure. One by one the pandas came out and put on quite a show feeding and enjoying their food. Yiang Yiang was so content he rolled on his back chowing down on some delicacy with a husk that he easily stripped from his meal. We watched as Yo Yo devoured bamboo shoots and leaves, taking many picture and video short clips. The Giant Pandas can grow to be about 250 pounds and consume about 20 pounds of bamboo per day. Sunny had suggested that now would be a good time to visit the Happy House, and several women went into the women’s restroom at the zoo, including Sharon, only to have them emerge a few seconds later. I heard one husband chuckle, “Uh, oh, they’re all returning.” Sunny’s definition of happy room isn’t the same as Arnold’s. For her, it’s an individual stall that makes you so happy that you hum, and so, other’s know that stall is occupied and don’t try to come in. It doesn’t mean a western style toilet.

Sunny told us her favorite panda joke. Mr. Panda went into a restaurant to order a plate of bamboo. When he was finished eating, he pulled out a gun and shot the waitress and left. The next day the police searched for him and finally found him, and asked Mr. Panda why he had shot the waitress. He responded, haven’t you looked up “Panda” in the dictionary? The definition is: “A Panda eats bamboo shoots and leaves!”

From the zoo we went to a restaurant on the way to the airport for lunch. It was a round table Chinese feast and featured a few spicy dishes. This is the province that features Szechuan cooking, and there is frequent use of chili peppers. Arnold assured us that the cuisine had toned down the heat for us or we would be unable to bare eating the food. For me, that meant there was some zip, but not the kind of heat that makes beads of sweat form on your head. Now that’s what I call heat. Sharon was able to eat the cold roast duck slices, and rice, and noodles in broth, and interesting potatoes that looked like long straight skinny noodle; and, perhaps the highlight of the meal, the thing everyone was afraid to try. It looked like it might be a dumpling, maybe the size of a ping pong ball. It looked like it may have been deep fried. There was a bowl with some clear yellowish syrupy liquid in the bottom. No one wanted to be first, so I took my chop sticks and controlled the ball of something until it plopped into the bowl of something else. I managed to get the ball to my plate as everyone looked on in anticipation. I stuck out my tongue and tested the coating of the something else, and reported it to be sugary. I put it in my mouth and reported it to be a donut, a Chinese glazed donut to be precise, with a much heavier dough than you might expect for a donut in the states. Once the mystery was solved, these delicacies disappeared pretty darn fast. I think Sharon even enjoyed hers! It was a short ways to the airport, where our checked bags had already been processed. Arnold gave us our passports and boarding passes and directed us to the place to clear security to make our way to Gate B-09. Our flight was delayed about one hour, and I’m beginning to think that this is the norm for inter-China flights. Over the intercom, were non-stop revelations, first in Chinese and then again in English, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to inform you that flight such and such to place such and such has been delayed.” We had a quick one hour flight to Xian, and on this flight the beverage service included a choice of sodas and a complimentary 2-pack, one with mixed nuts and one with processed tomatoes (we didn’t open that one). On our previous flight the choice of beverage was limited to yes or no (for bottled water).

We landed, and all our bags were collected for us. We boarded the bus for a one hour drive to Xian (as it turns out the airport for Xian isn’t in Xian at all). The local tour guide for this part of our tour is April. She made sure that we all knew the proper pronunciation of Xian as two distinct words (she-ann) meaning western peace; if, you don’t clearly pronounce both distinctly and run it together the way many westerner do, well, you come up a word meaning something else. During the construction of the road from Xian to the airport, a new tomb was discovered featuring many miniature terra cotta soldiers. April noted that back in ancient China both men and women served in the military. The miniature figures that were found were just the bodies and head, but you could tell the men and women soldiers because they were naked. It took a while for experts to figure out why just the bodies and head. The answer was the figures previously had wooden limbs, and they were adorned with fabric clothing. In about five years these figures will be displayed in a new museum, which April invited us to come back and see when both it and the excavations for new miniature figures is complete. Xian is up over the mountain from Chongqing. It is a manufacturing center that is in the process of transforming itself. As an example of “The Cat Theory” that Bob had talked about for China today, representatives of Xian went to California to study the Silicon Valley. Their intent is to bring back what they have learned and to make Xian China’s Silicon Valley. There is already an arrangement with Samsung for manufacturing smart phones. The city obliged Samsung by building a highway from the city to the plant for Samsung solely for the use of the workers there. On the way to dinner we first saw the wall, and then passed through the wall of the city. Arnold noted that Xian is the only city in China with a complete wall, standing now some two thousand years. The perimeter of the wall is about ten miles. We soon got to where we would be having dinner, and they dropped us off nearby, saving us a fifteen minute walk from the parking lot. There not supposed to do this, but we were running late, and Arnold encouraged us to get off of the bus quickly. Before going in for dinner, we were given twenty minutes of exploring in the Muslim Market, a walking street of many vendors and street vendors offering a wide variety of culinary delights. Arnold warned us to leave valuables on the bus because this place is infested with very skillful pickpockets. As for the street food, “You can look, and take pictures, but don’t eat it!” We only needed five minutes to finish this part of the tour. Among the many vendors were quite a few selling pomegranates, which they would open for you with large nutcracker-like contraption.

We all assembled again and went to dinner. Arnold promised us an eighteen course dumpling feast culminating with a hot pot. And that is what we got! Sharon has been dreading this for some time. Quite a bit of wheat is grown on the plains about Xian, which makes the flour, which is used in the dumplings. We received in fact eighteen courses of dumpling (seemed likemore), one for each of the eight people seated at each table, again with the Lazy-Susan. There were actually 10 of us at the table but one couple doesn’t eat pork so they brought them a separate collection of dumplings. I had ordered Coca-Cola at lunch so for dinner I tried the beer, which was better than the one I had in Shanghai; except, here they didn’t leave the bottle and only poured a small glass maybe 250 ml. Arnold advised us to bring a bottle of water because only one drink comes with the meal. Sharon’s fears were justified. She did try one of the dumplings, but she made that famous Shirley smirk mirroring that look all of Sharon’s brothers and sister know so well of their mother when she doesn’t like something. For me, it’s different, my mother would offer the politically correct response and say “It’s okay.” There were some spicy dumplings, and there was soy, vinegar, and chili sauce that you could enhance the dumpling flavors with. Many of the dumplings were vegetables. It was sometimes difficult to understand the server announcing the dish when Arnold wasn’t there to introduce the dishes. We all heard “Bug” when one steamed dumpling was served and for that one we waited for Arnold, but it was fine. The hotpot came at the end, and took a while to get up to a boil. Tiny chicken dumplings had been put in the pot, and the server place one in a small Chinese bowl for each of us. Sharon did try this dish a similar to chicken noodle soup; except, it just broth and one tiny dumpling.

Arnold had given us the room keys for our hotel at the airport, where he also gave us luggage tags to place on our checked bags. So we were checked in the hotel when we arrived and went up to our room on the 21st floor. The room was wonderful, the bed was great, and we have a view of many tall buildings.

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14th July 2014

I saw your post and visit your site.I just want to say you this blog is very interesting, which discuss about your Xian tour.

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