Southern China - Giant Pandas and Dancing Monks

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July 20th 2010
Published: September 5th 2010
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Kangding, Sichuan Province

Sichuan province is primarily known for one particular reason within China and elsewhere - very spicy food. A typical local dish is a "hotpot". This is where a pot of incredibly spicy broth (containing lots of Sichuan peppers) is set in the middle of the table over a gas burner and allowed to boil. You then pick out skewers of raw meat, fish, vegetables or even eggs from a whole selection at one side of the restaurant, and plunge them into the hotpot to cook in the spicy broth. Essentially a very spicy version of a meat fondue.

As we were in Kangding, a fairly large town in the province, we decided to head out one night with our new travelling companions to take on the hotpot. I have to report back that I think the hotpot beat all of us! Initially food coming from the pot was quite spicy, but this built up in the mouth as more food was consumed, to reach fire in the mouth levels of spicyness. Cold sweats were quickly developing on everyone. It is a bit of an endurance event to keep going. Not even the cheap local wine which Amaury had sourced (an advantage of now travelling with a group of mostly French people for a bit) could put out the fire.

I think spicy hotpot probably falls into the category of once tried, no need to repeat. One thing we did learn after the experience though was how to ask for not spicy (Bu La) for future dishes. We did have a fish hotpot in Chengdu which was Bu La, and totally different. Really like poaching fish in the broth with lots of flavour.

Other than the eating experiences, we took it fairly easy in Kangding for a few days, trying to recover a bit after all the effects of the altitude on our bodies. The most exertion was to climb a hill behind the town to get a view of the snow-capped, 7,000m high mountains that tower above the town.

More Tibetan towns in Sichuan

Once we were ready to move on from Kangding, we wound our way up in the mountains again, through a few more Tibetan towns before getting to the provincial capital, Chengdu. These were much smaller than anywhere else we had been in China to date and
Dancing Tibetan MonksDancing Tibetan MonksDancing Tibetan Monks

The music wasn't good, but the dancing was
a really nice change. In particular the town of Tagong, among rolling hills and vast grasslands, was a quietly seductive spot in which to while away a few days.

Known locally as the Wild West of Sichuan, Tagong is really a small village with one main street, dominated by the monastery. The town is at an altitude of 3600m, which gives it that bracingly windy feel of the mountains, but also means that you are short of breath after any exertion. It is a place with real charm, where your time is well spent people watching. There is a real cowboy quality to the bearing of the old men slowly walking around, very straight-backed, proudly wearing their traditional Tibetan ponchos and broad-brimmed hats.

The Tibetans don't just look like cowboys - when a couple of barking dogs surprised one elderly man walking near us, he instinctively pulled out his knife from the folds of his cloak - no messing. The women for their part wear beautifully colourful outfits, full length warm dresses topped by elaborate hairdos that involve what look like silver tubes (like metal hair rollers) wrapped around the head. They are very warm people, and we
Spinning prayer wheels around Tagong monasterySpinning prayer wheels around Tagong monasterySpinning prayer wheels around Tagong monastery

The daily pilgrimage around the monastery
were often the recipients of cups of tea and attempts at conversation!

The town is overlooked by a small hill from which prayer flags are draped across the town. Our favourite pastime was to climb to the top of the hill, from where the grasslands stretch out over the hills to the snow covered peaks in the near distance. It really does give the feeling of being somewhere quite remote and different - you want to spread your arms out and take deep lungfulls of the wind that whips around you.

We were lucky enough while we were there to witness a Tibetan monks festival taking place. We joined a lot of the villagers up on the hill again, picnic-ing with a perfect birds-eye view of the proceedings. This involved lots of monks dancing in their long, red, flowing gowns, as well as a masked parade around the monastery. Although the music sounded pretty non-tuneful and random to the un-initiated (i.e. us), we were assured there was an important story being played out through the music and dance.

It certainly seemed to be a big spectacle in the town as most people turned out to watch, and
Tibetan village houseTibetan village houseTibetan village house

Set high up in the valley, surrounded by fruit trees
then follow the procession around the monastery, clockwise (for good karma), turning prayer wheels as they went. The whole event did feel really quite atmospheric. Life in Tagong obviously revolves around the monastery and the monks in it, and it probably has done for centuries.

Chengdu and the pandas

Eventually we hit the city of Chengdu, the fifth biggest city in China (which amazingly we had never heard of before coming away) at 10.5 million people. Really, everything to do with numbers of people in China is on a vast scale that it is difficult to comprehend until you visit.

The main reason most people visit Chengdu (other than the attractions of extreme heat and pollution), is to visit the Giant Panda sanctuary on the edge of town. The panda is probably the international symbol most people associate with China, so we had to see one while we were there. This would be our only real chance of seeing them, given there are less than 2,000 remaining today.

Things we learned from the panda sanctuary visit:

* Giant pandas are very cute.

* Giant pandas eat 99%!b(MISSING)amboo and spend at least 12
Panda doing what it does best, eatingPanda doing what it does best, eatingPanda doing what it does best, eating

Yummy bamboo leaves, tasty but not very useful
hours every day eating it (they have to eat lots as bamboo gives them very little nutrition, but they love the taste of it and eat nothing else really).

* Giant pandas are very lazy (as we watched, they would generally just lie on their backs, pulling endless amounts of bamboo towards them and devouring the stems, one by one).

* Did we mention just how cute Giant Pandas are? (Check out the photos).

We really did enjoy our visit to the sanctuary and managed to see lots of pandas lazing around, having a fairly good time doing very little indeed. We also managed to see a 10 day old baby panda which they kept in an incubator unit. They would clean it with a cotton bud it was so small and feed it from a small babies bottle.

The work they are doing at the centre is really important though as they are learning lots all the time from the pandas and helping preserve these beautiful animals for the future. Its little wonder these timid animals were nearly wiped out in the past, they were incredibly easy prey for hunters.

Following on from Chengdu, we travelled to Guangxi province for the last portion of our China trip. Having felt like we had not gotten enough train travel already (or being so long that we forgot the bad bits from last time), we decided to travel by train for the 25 hour trip.

This was a pretty uncomfortable journey in the "hard sleeper" section of the train. Admittedly the name doesn't really sell it, but it is sleeping on a semi-hard matress in a non-air-conditioned carriage. This led to a pretty hot and uncomfortable night sleep, so we were fairly glad to arrive and get back into a room with A/C again.

Dragon's backbone rice terraces

We visited two areas in Guangxi, the first being the gorgeous Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces at Longji. In this hilly area, large numbers of rice terraces have been cut into the hillside to allow the cultivation of rice for the villagers. There are a number of view-points high up on the hills from which the spectacle of all the terraces staggered down the hillside can be taken in.

Various small villages of Zhuang and Yao tribes are dotted throughout the terraces. We stayed in 2 different villages which allowed us to get a few walks in through the terraces. Unfortunately the rainy weather caught up with us again, cutting short our time to complete some of the walks.

The terraces are a really impressive feat of engineering, considering they were constructed many hundreds of years ago. As the rice needs lots of water to grow, the flat terraces must be cut into the hillside. They cling all the way up very steep hillsides, with the dark green of the rice plants contrasting well with the light green of the grass on the edges of the terraces. This creates great patterns from above, kind of like looking at the real life contours from a map cut into the hillside.

The terraces are only interrupted by a small village here or there, clinging to the hillside. The villagers still need to tend to the rice by hand in a very labour intensive process, which involves lots of climbing up and down terraces.


The final area we visited in China before our visa and therefore time in China ran out was Yangshuo, a bit of a backpackers mecca within China.

It's a bit of a shock arriving in Yangshuo, as the town itself is a main strip of stalls, bars, and hostels. I think neon sign makers also do a pretty good trade here as they line the street, enticing people into the bars which blast out music at night. The town does calm down in the back streets, however, and does have a really energetic, fun vibe. The thing you can't deny about it though, is it's fantastic setting - it is nestled in amongst hundreds of incredible, karst limestone peaks as far as the eye can see.

I'd heard before that China and Cuba were the only places on earth where you can find these - but I think we're going to see some over the border in Vietnam too, so maybe that wasn't so accurate. In any case, Cuba's mogotes aren't a patch on these, I'm just can't stop looking up, and catching another angle, which makes you stare even more than the last.

The first night we found the highest spot in town (which just happened to be during happy hour at Monkey Jane's rooftop bar ;-) from which to take in the
Scenery around YangshuoScenery around YangshuoScenery around Yangshuo

Amazing scenery during our bike ride
scenery. The view is particularly spectacular at sundown, when several of the peaks were suddenly illuminated by strong spotlights from the town. I don't think it was just the margaritas talking when I say that it was quite the most magical scene.

Yangshuo is activity central, and we got out on some great bike rides and a boat trip in the surrounding countryside, travelling between the peaks through lush green agricultural land. It was good to work off some of the great Chinese food we have been eating. After only 30mins on bikes, i think every toxin and drop of liquid in our bodies had been sweated out in the searing heat.

One ride took us through the peaks and rice terraces to the small village of Liugong. After a great lunch of the local delicacy, Yangshuo beer fish, we couldn't face the 3 hour cycle home in the heat. So we gave in to laziness and hired a bamboo raft to take us back to town along the river, throwing the bikes on the front of the boat.

A cultural highlight was going to the night show "Impressions", by Sanjie Liu - the man who orchestrated the opening ceremony to the Beijing Olympics. It is performed at night in the world's largest natural theatre - on the river Li, just outside town. Many of the surrounding limestone peaks are lit in changing colours throughout the show. It consists of hundreds of performers (actually local farmers and fishermen), and involves words and music but most of all colour and movement, in the most dreamlike, breathtaking way. It's hard to describe other than to say that we now understand what all the fuss was about from people who witnessed the was really moving and mesmerising and a totally unique experience.

We also discovered that to buy anything in Yangshuo is a bit of a mission. Due to the sheer numbers of tourists, the shopkeepers try it on with anything you buy. Despite asking for best price initially, we still would regularly manage to haggle down to 20% of the starting price. In some cases, walking out of the shop after an initial price was suggested to us would result in progressively lower prices being shouted down the street after us! After a while we were scared to show even the slightest interest in anything on display,
The easy way homeThe easy way homeThe easy way home

It was too hot to cycle home after lunch, so our bikes and us went back by bamboo raft.....sweet
for fear of triggering the bargaining process accidentally.

The end of the road in China

In the end, we wound up staying for the 6 weeks our visa allowed us in China. We didn't expect to be so taken with it, but it is fascinating, beautiful, difficult, and hugely diverse. The culture is relatively closed to us, as non-chinese speakers, and it took a long time in the country to try and scratch the surface and get an understanding of the national psyche.

We discovered that as westerners, we were a bit of an irrelevance in tourism terms. One sixth of the global population is chinese, and the vast majority of tourism anywhere in China is national. This was a bonus for us, in the sense that we certainly didn't feel surrounded by tourists, everyone was chinese.
It also means that nothing is really geared towards westerners - very few people speak any foreign languages, most menus are only in chinese (pictures are a bonus!), which does lead to a very authentic experience.

The flipside of this is that it felt hard to have a connection with the people. Their cultural norms are completely different
Li river viewLi river viewLi river view

Karst limestone formations everywhere
to ours. They don't outwardly express affection to one another, there is not much smiling, and a lot of hacking and spitting (even on buses). Their language sounds quite abrupt to us, as if they are shouting, even though they're not, and it's perfectly normal to push and shove without apology. It wasn't until a young man approached us in the street to offer help when we were obviously lost, that I realised it was the first random act of kindness we had had in 5 weeks in the country.

We leave China with mixed feelings, however we have absolutely loved the full immersion into the country and the chance to see some astounding scenery. We wouldn't have missed any of it, and it was the most intense experience, for better and for worse!

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 32


Sanji-Liu light showSanji-Liu light show
Sanji-Liu light show

Every one here is a person with a light suit on, walking over the water....amazing
Prayer wheels around Tagong monasteryPrayer wheels around Tagong monastery
Prayer wheels around Tagong monastery

One of the many monks doing the clockwise circuit of the monastery
Riveted by the monks performanceRiveted by the monks performance
Riveted by the monks performance

It was the hottest ticket in Tagong

5th September 2010
The Chengdu pandas chilling

Look at them all. That's like 1% of the population of Pandas.

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