Enjoying the pandas, silk lanterns and opera in Chengdu

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February 24th 2013
Published: March 10th 2013
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We didn't get lost in the maze of airport construction in Guiyang and after an hour of flying we arrived at Chengdu airport. Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan Province, with a population of over 14 million, is the fourth largest city in China and the size of the airport alone was astounding. It was enormous - we arrived at gate 65 but there were signs pointing to gate 135! We had trouble finding the shuttle bus into the city because what we thought were actually local buses - there were many routes shown on the signboard - was actually the shuttle buses we had been looking for. I had prebooked a hotel months before so we caught the shuttle (10 yuan each) which went closest to it and then a taxi from there to the hotel. It didn't take as long to get into the city as expected - it was Sunday - and within an hour we were checked into to our hotel, Wenjun Mansions. We had a lovely big room decorated with traditional Chinese furniture - thankfully with a soft mattress. Most mattresses here are incredibly hard and take a lot go adjusting to.

We were pleased to discover that the second metro line in the city was now operational and one of the stations was at the end of our street, five minutes walk away, so we headed off into the centre of the city. We had visited Chengdu previously and though I guess there were a lot of new mall type shopping centres within the city centre it still looked much as we remembered it. Chairman Mao was still waving for a taxi from his stone pedestal at the edge of Tianfu Square, the actual city centre and above the main hub of connecting metro lines. It was very busy - local families enjoying the sunshine and many young people loaded with shopping bags from the nearby stores. We were on the search for a large bookshop which was supposed to be close to the square - it had disappeared under yet another construction site..

From the square we walked to People's Park, a large park which is a well loved meeting place for the locals. That afternoon it was very crowded - many groups of people dancing, playing cards or mahjong, young couples wandering hand in hand, kids running everywhere, balloon sellers and lots of snack food vendors. We spent the next couple of hours sitting in the cane chairs of a tea house enjoying our endless cups of tea and watching families paddling the plastic boats on the small lake nearby. Sadly the long spouted brass tea kettles from which your cup was refilled with water have been replaced with plastic thermos flasks. Jerry decided to get his ears cleaned out - something the locals do in the park apparently - so for 20 yuan he allowed a man to poke long metal spikes into his ears. I thought he was mad....

I had booked the hotel we were staying in due to it's proximity to the annual New Year lantern festival - supposedly to be in the grounds of the Cultural Park across the road. I was dismayed to find that, despite all the advertising which was still saying otherwise, that it had been moved to another venue that year. Not really a problem as taxis were plentiful - they were - but it was incredibly hard to flag one down that was unoccupied. In the end we gave up and decided to walk to the venue. It was much further then expected - maps never seem to be in true scale - and as we continued walking I was concerned as I knew we would probably be walking home as well...We had a fabulous evening though.

The lanterns were amazing - enormous constructions made from vividly coloured silk, lit from within, so they glowed. As the evening wore on the crowds just kept getting larger. Everybody was in a great mood though and the atmosphere was very happy and relaxed. We snacked on food bought from the many trolleys there and just generally enjoyed the vibe. There were fabulous face masks for sale - Venetian style with lots of feathers and sequins, and all the young men were buying them as presents for their girlfriends. Candy makers and ballon sellers were everywhere - including some men who were blowing small lumps of molten candy up like glass blowers into animal shapes. The crowds and the noise - an outdoor singing performance had begun on a central stage area - got the better of us eventually so we decided to leave. As expected there were absolutely no available taxis - any that by chance were available simply bypassed us in favour of the Chinese people also flagging them down. We began the long walk home - and paid for it with very sore feet next day - but at the time we enjoyed it. Mainly due to the fact the it was the last day that fireworks were allowed to be let off so the local people were actively enjoying their last chance to do just that for the next twelve months.

In the cities fireworks are totally banned except for the two weeks of the New Year celebrations. The firework vendors had setup temporary booths on all corners of each major crossroads and the local people were buying arm loads of them and literally letting them off between the buildings and above the roads. They were lovely fireworks too - the sky was a riot of colour showers everywhere you looked - and they continued for the rest of the night. Eventually we arrived back at our room but were aware of explosions and flashes of light until we fell asleep. When we woke next morning the sky was covered in a thick pall of smoke - no wonder the Government is trying to ban them totally as the smoke really adds to already high levels of pollution. Chengdu is, like all Chinese cities, incredibly clean. Lots of gardens, trees and flowers. All the main roads have flower beds running along them, there are big pots of annuals on all the corners, the streets barely have a cigarette butt on them, and the Chinese never plant a tree in public areas unless it is nearly full grown already. Spitting is also banned in cities and though obviously it still happens there is much less evidence of that filthy habit on the streets.

Next morning we planned on visiting the recently opened Jinsha Museum which was a long way from our hotel. Thankfully we caught a taxi easily as we wished to visit the Jinsha Museum and it was way too far to walk - even if our poor sore feet allowed us to. In 2000 developers began excavating a building and stumbled upon the remains of a previously unknown prehistoric settlement dating back to 600BC. Today it has only been partially excavated and many fascinating items have already been unearthed. We got into the site for a greatly reduced price of 30 yuan each - we've since realised the over the New Year all the admission prices to many sites are heavily reduced. We really enjoyed the couple of hours we had wandering the exhibits which were displayed in two massive buildings. The first covered the digging site and the second displayed the artefacts unearthed. Hundreds of fossilised elephant tusks were uncovered and law requires that most of these had to be reburied. Hundreds of glorious jade pieces - in the most amazing colours - and bronze pieces were beautifully displayed in a hall which featured a recreation of the central gold piece in metal as its roof line. The gold pieces were mainly fragments though there is a complete mask and a thin circular piece (the roof) like a sun with tiny birds cut from it. In the massive gardens there were also many silk lanterns so there had also been a festival on site there as well the previous fortnight.

We had trouble getting a taxi back into the city area but once there had a quiet afternoon sorting out our future travel plans. The meal that evening was fruit as though we planned on eating at one of the many restaurants changed our minds when we saw the array of very expensive cars in their parking areas - everything from top of the range land rovers to Porsches. We figured we probably couldn't afford the menus...However that evening we had booked tickets to the Sichuan Opera (100 yuan each) which was an a shortened version of many styles of theatre and music. The concert was held in a lovely tea room (complete with the long spouted kettles) across the road from our hotel in the Cultural Park. We were both entranced with the show from the first minute. The costumes were elaborate, the musicians brilliant and very entertaining and the finale of face changing where the performers hands are flashed across the face resulting in a complete mask change was wonderful. Though we had bought mid price tickets we were shown into seats close to the front so that was an added bonus. The Chinese singing (wailing) was hard on the ears but their stunning costumes well compensated for it. A great night....

Our original plans had involved leaving Chengdu for the five hour trip (once we got out of the city) to visit the Buddhist rock carvings at Dazu in the neighbouring province. After a day there we had another five hours to another town to overnight, then yet another four hours to visit the dinosaur town of Zigong, before another three hour trip to see the Grand Buddha and onwards to Emei Shan. We decided that it all just seemed too hard - travelling in this country is very exhausting - and decided to forgo the carvings and dinosaurs and concentrate on the last two. Language is a big issue here - just making yourself understood is sometimes impossible and though most Chinese are very helpful and understanding, many are also very rude. They will literally turn their backs on you or laugh out loud and make rude comments about you to their friends. The bus stations are very large, with long queues at many, and difficult to get to in the first place as they are always on the edge of the cities or towns. Restaurant food is another problem in the cities, though large supermarkets are easily found. Not that many stock Western food and all are very large. They are like Ikea stores - once in them there is no easy quick way out!

In smaller towns they are more then happy to let you point out what you would like to eat from available ingredients on display before they mix the lot up and present you with the finished dishes. In the large towns if it's not on the menu - forget it! And though most of the menus do have coloured photos of the dishes most of the ingredients they are made from are unrecognisable. On a budget we can't afford to buy a lot of food we can't eat so it's often easier to snack of fruit etc. Chinese menu ingredients are horrifying to read sometimes - they eat everything and anything! Chinese people are also incredibly loud. They live life on full volume - slam hotel doors, talk in really loud voices in public, spend half their time yelling into mobile phones (most of which have screeching music as ringtones) and are terrible in restaurants and shops as they are very rude with service staff. With absolutely no idea of personal space they push and shove everywhere they go. Their noise alone can be very draining...

Next morning we wandered through the nearby Sichuan Museum (free) where we enjoyed the Tibetan Gallery and the textile displays before we spent some time checking out the stalls of an antique market which was full of old coins and plastic jade pieces. The metro took us out to the suburbs to Wenshu Temple (30 yuan each - I felt odd paying to go to a place of worship) which had a renowned vegetarian restaurant in it's grounds. We had eaten there the previous trip and enjoyed it. However upon arrival we found the restaurant under renovation and closed! After leaving though we saw a queue of people waiting beside a tiny 'hole in the walk' restaurant so joined them and ended up with a great meat filled pita style roll for virtually nothing. From there we caught a taxi across the city (taxis are very cheap here which probably accounts for the difficulty of getting an empty one) where we spent the afternoon wandering the shops in the Tibetan quarter.

Chengdu is only an hour from the foothills of the Tibetan grasslands plateau - a stunning region we visited in 2005 - so it has a large Tibetan population. We were really surprised however to see how traditionally dressed they still were. Nearly every man was wearing the large tunic coat - always worn with one sleeve loose around the body - which is tied with a sash around the waist. Many also were wearing very heavy silver, turquoise and red coral jewellery. The women were no less splendid and were also heavily adorned with jewellery and metal belts. Most of the women wear their hair in plaits woven with jewellery. There were also many monks, dressed in maroon or orange, walking on the streets. The shops were fascinating as they aimed solely for the local Tibetans - everything from clothing, jewellery (very busy stores), prayer wheels, monks clothes and all manner of temple paraphernalia. You could have built your own private temple from all the bits on display - plastic fittings for the walks, realms of silk banners, enormous brass Buddhas and temple size prayer wheels. I loved seeing the kitchen products which were for sale - bright red and yellow enamel ware and orange electric blenders. The Tibetan people are always really friendly and greet you with smiles and curious nods. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of strolling.

That evening we asked our hotel for restaurant guidelines and they sent us around the corner. We had a great meal after pointing and gesturing for a very reasonable price. We resolved to return the next evening. For our final day in the city we had booked a visit to the Panda Sanctuary. We had visited it previously and only decided to revisit this trip when we changed our minds about Dazu. We are so pleased that we did. Our guide picked us up at 7am (we chose to go on a guided tour though we ended up being the only people on it as the sanctuary is not on any metros and is far from the city. We were advised that taxis there and back would cost more then the tour) and at 7.55 we arrived and were the first tourists through the gate. For the next two hours we virtually had the park to ourselves so had wonderful uninterrupted views of those gorgeous creatures. It was feeding time and truck loads of bamboo shoots were being put in all the enclosures. We spent ages watching one adult panda flop back into the pile of bamboo and then grab, chew, reach back and grab another, chew.... It was as if he was stretched out on a recliner lounge! We saw quite a few mums and cubs, including a set of twins. One mum spent a lot of time cuddling her little one, hugging it, tickling it and at one stage holding it upside own by it's legs. It was well worth the money (128 yuan each - entrance fee was normally 58 each though we noticed it was again heavily discounted) and a fabulous end to a relatively relaxing days in what is a very large, noisy city.

That afternoon we repacked - gave away our trusty and well used $6 heater - and tossed out most of our winter inner clothes. This had been their third trip and they were past their use by date. The weather was still cool but you could feel spring well and truly around the corner. We were planning on spending a couple of days near Emei Shan before heading to the region close to the border with Laos. It had been an enjoyable few days in the city despite it's size and population. Our hotel was a great choice - close to the metro and two very pretty parks. It was also in a street lined with traditional buildings, albeit renovated into fairly gaudy restaurants and shops (particularly in the evening with all the LED lights). We were thankful though that it was going to be the last of the Chinese cities we would spend time in - coming from Australia with a population of less than double the size of most major Chinese cities they can be a little overwhelming.

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11th March 2013

Enjoying your stories and photos, you're certainly having a wonderful adventure..... Lots of love from the Browns :)
6th August 2013
Opera costume

Absolutely gorgeous photograph! Very nicely composed. :)

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