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Published: September 14th 2019
Days 48 to 49 of 80
Thursday morning and we disembarked from our boat at Chongqing. Yet again, another city we haven't heard of but its population is 7 million in main city, 32 million within its conurbation! Think on that. ... that's nearly half the population of the UK, in one city, and China has many more like that.
There's more to China than most people think, not least its ever growing number of enormous cities.
We didn't get to stay in Chongqing, it was just end of the line for the Yangtze cruise, and station transfer for High Speed Train to Chengdu and its pandas. But, Frank did tell us something about the city which gives us a chance for another. ....
Chongqing is famous in China for its "3 hots"
Hot weather - in July/August it reaches and stays in the upper 40s°C. At 8am it was already well sweltering.
Hot pot - doubly hot this one. The cooking of meat and vegetables, at your own table, in hot, hot-chilli cooking oil. Frank offered to take the group to one that evening in Chengdu. Strangely, no one wanted to go.
Hot girls(!) - Chongqing is built on hills, hence no bicycles. This means that everyone is fit, especially the girls, with "curves" - hey, we're reporting/quoting Frank here, not passing judgement - and the weather/genes means the girls also have pale skin, a Chinese sign of beauty - hey, still quoting.
We caught the High Speed Train to Chengdu. China has invested heavily in its rail links and, as we said before, it is the preferred long distance travel method of the Chinese. No messing here, unlike the UK's HS2 link if it ever happens. We can't imagine that the Chinese authorities take any truck with potential obstacles on route. If they want a new high speed rail link to go from A to B then that's pretty much what it does. Over high bridges, through enormous tunnels and over miles and miles of elevated track.
Thursday, to Chengdu, we travelled by High Speed Train, which reached 295 kph, displayed in the carriage. Friday, down to Sanjiang was a Bullet Train, which was actually slower at a maximum 245 kph, but most of the time around 170 to 190 kph. They also have, in Shanghai a small route, a Maglev - the train rides just above the track on a magnetic field - which reaches 431 kph, though that line is only 30 km.
And the station infrastructure matches that of the modern track. Cavernous, airport-style structures, with signage, concourses, shopping, display boards, boarding systems and security to match. At Chongqing 2 of the group had aerosols confiscated from their luggage. We also remarked to Frank that Chongqing Rail Station looked very new. "It's not." he said, "It's around 7 years old". !!
As best we can make out China, at around 16,000 miles has 2/3rds of the world's High Speed Rail network, mostly developed since around 1997. So that's around 1500 new miles per annum. Current target is to 24,000 miles by 2025.
As a small aside, without knowing how quickly any given stretch of high-speed rail is built, we did read of a new 888 km - motorway style - highway which opened recently which they built in 3 years! 3 years to build a motorway which in the UK could join Plymouth to Aberdeen.
Think on that those of you who have been commuting for years through the Manchester M6 or London M3 'smart motorway upgrades'.
We arrived Chengdu mid afternoon for a private coach transfer to our hotel. Our time was free after that. Chengdu, population 10 million, is one of the most important economic, financial, commercial, cultural and communication centres in Western China, and it shows. Another - they all are - city full of gleaming glass skyscrapers in the centre, and hundreds of workaday concrete, residential tower blocks on the outskirts.
There's clearly money in Chengdu. The city centre had a whole raft of designer names - Gucci, D+G, Prada etc etc. No run down high streets or derelict shopping precincts with empty units here.
But tourist visitors to here are mostly focused on one attraction - pandas. On the outskirts of Chengdu is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding - CRBGPB. There used to be a 2nd Panda visitor place in the area but that was destroyed in the 2008 earthquake.
The CRBGPB is THE place for research and success in the breeding of pandas in captivity. At the last census, 2014, it was declared that there were 1864 pandas in the wild, which sounds like a suspiciously accurate number. Numbers were up from the previous census 10 years earlier but they were using DNA analysis in addition to a blunt poop analysis of previous census.
The CRBGPB has successfully bred over 300 pandas since it was established in 1987. Can't find how many this year, though we saw around 6, but there were 12 successful births in 2018. There are around 70 pandas in the centre, and it is also the control centre and source for the 2-3 dozen pandas that are on loan to zoos around the world. Such zoos, like Edinburgh, never own the pandas, nor any offspring they produce. The adults are on loan, at an annual fee - £1m for Edinburgh - and offspring have to go back to China when they are 4.
When we woke up on Friday morning, for our visit to CRBGPB, it was THROWING it down. The roads were rivers. We all got drenched just getting from hotel to coach. It wasn't much better at the Centre. This limited the amount of outside Panda viewing we could do, but still. ...they are so damn cuddly.
We saw various age groupings. A fivesome of 3 year olds, several sets of this year's twins - the oldest barely 100 days old - and a mother with her two year old twins who both seemed to have the panda version of ADHD! Twin births are quite common in pandas. In the wild they would reject one, and only rear one. In the Centre, of course, both are raised.
Look at the CRBGPB's location on a map, and it is a noticeable detour west from a logical route around central China - but it is so worth it. Whilst there are noticeable advantages of an 'organised tour' there are problems too. In this case we couldn't flex stay/travel arrangements, however they may be hit by weather. So late morning it was back on the bus to catch our 7 hour train South East.
Our locations for the next 6 nights, Friday through to Thursday are very much countryside based, at last. Our trip, both this Explore section and our self travel, have been very city based so far. After arriving at Sanjiang - who knows where, some place in SW China where we were the only ones to get off the train - we had an hour's drive to our first 2-night stay, a wooden guesthouse in the village of Ma'an.
Hard to appreciate it in the dark, though the village was prettily lit up in the evening. Our lodgings is a wooden built guesthouse, spread over 5 floors, and of such solid construction that when a guest in the room above us walks about the whole building seems to move about. It probably sways nicely in an earthquake.
Even late at night there were numerous guesthouse, eating places and bars all lit up and open for business, though not too many customers. Many of the properties also seem to be very open fronted. Not much in the way of front doors.
The village is occupied by Dong people, one of the many, small ethnic minorities that there are in China. A few hundred live in the village. This village is part of a grouping of 8 such villages in the locality known as Chengyang, each defined around their village's Drum Tower.
The architecture is distinctive, obviously wood based, and the area is famed for its Drum Towers and covered bridges. One of the most famous is this village's Wind and Rain bridge, which also acts as a covered market for local ladies.
The Wind and Rain bridge is rated one of the world's Greatest Historical Bridges. And also named by ABC (American TV) as one of the world's Top 10 Most Spectacular Bridges. And quite a sight it is too, nestled across the winding river below.
On Saturday morning Frank took us on a walk to a hilltop overview, passing, small - allotment sized - plots of tea bushes and rice paddy fields in the body of the valley. This walk is a potential taster of what is to come over the next two days. There is a 2 hour uphill climb tomorrow, and a 5-6 hour walk up and along the 'dragon's backbone' of rice terraces on Monday. The killer is the combination of heat and high humidity, especially for Pip's asthma. Saturday's 40 minutes up was very wearying and judgement will be needed for Monday. We will see how Sunday's 2-hours goes.
In the meantime, wandering around the village after the walk to the overlook was very pleasant after the mad hustle and bustle of China's big cities. Plenty of work going on in the fields, rice crops being harvested and then dried out traditionally in the sun, but untraditionally on colour-striped plastic sheeting. We quess there must be a line somewhere between genuine crop growing for consumption - though Frank had confirmed there is nowhere near enough rice growing to satisfy local needs - and putting on a show for the public.
In the afternoon Frank walked us the 10 minutes to the neighbouring village for a dance and music show by the Dong villagers. Having seen them, briefly, the night before in our village's open square, and at the bridge during today, we were surprised to find that this 30 minutes performance was ticketed entry into an enclosed square with stage and loud PA system at one end (and large video screens too, unused today). Regrettably we had a thunder storm during the performance so the performers stuck to the stage rather than venturing out into the open area. It was a diverting 30 minutes. Hard to judge between authenticity and for-tourist twee.
A further walk around the environs. The place is alive with many varieties of butterfly, up to 6 inch, black swallowtails, and many colour variations of dragonfly too - red, steel-blue, fawny-yellow, but they rarely stay still enough for photos.
There are also dozens upon dozens of art students with easels set up all around the village. Looking over their shoulders we couldn't say we saw the next Van Gogh or Turner, though a group that were doing pen and ink line drawing draughting of the buildings had some competent artists amongst them. But the less said about the student who was painting a blue, cartoon pig the better - we couldn't see one of these anywhere!
We hadn't been told by Frank, and we arrived at night so didn't see, but. ... when we took a walk over the river on the Wind and Rain bridge, lo and behold there is an Entrance Ticket Desk over there. Also, when getting closer to one of the paddy rice fields that Pip had taken an artful photo of earlier, complete with cow, we realised upon closer inspection that it was something of a falsehood. The cow, as well as the 2 swans, calf and water buffalo in the same field, were all fake, statues!
Effectively, we are staying in a designated, pay for entry, tourist 'Olde China Village' attraction, not some random village. On the morning's walk Frank had said that everyone in the village effectively worked for the tourist agency.
It is all very pretty and relaxing though.
Sorry no photos. There is a Travelblog site issue at the moment that is stopping photos. Will add when can.
Today we move deeper into countryside, 2 hour walk uphill today, 5-7 hours along Dragon's Backbone rice fields tomorrow.
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