Monday, 12 November 2012

Chengdu: Pandamonium

I left the quiet mountain town of Wulingyuan by bus to Zhangjiajie, where I bought my train tickets to Chengdu, via another city called Huaihua. The first train leg was comfortable and uneventful. I had an hour or so in Huaihua but didn't venture far from the train station, I only had a little wander through a night food market on a side street. Waiting in the huge and smokey departure lounge of Huaihua station I realised for the first time what it must be like to be an attractive woman. Every time I looked up and around I noticed every man within vicinity had his eyes on me. As usual I was the only foreigner in the station, and I offered smiles to the preying eyes ogling my foreign face, but only continued deadpan stares were returned. Whatever, I was used to this by now. 

Departing Zhangjiajie.
Huaihua train station.
I only had a hard seat ticket for my 13 hour ride to Chengdu as if you want a bed you usually need to book in advance, and when I boarded the train I had to wake a woman sprawled across three seats in order to take mine. This train journey turned out to be the most uncomfortable ride I have ever taken. The carriage was crammed, and before long four of us were squeezed onto the seats barely big enough for three. A lack of space for luggage meant it was around our feet just to add to the cramped conditions. By far the worst thing was not the lack of space, but the Chinese themselves. All night long, without pause, they yelled throughout the carriage in tones which really grated against my ears. It sounded less like chatter and more a fox was on the rampage in a chicken shed. The people ranged from young adults to late middle age, but to me all of them felt like teenage delinquents with ADHD, being transported on mass to some far away borstal, and I was stuck in the middle, trying to sleep. I put my hoody on backwards, so I could cover my face with the hood, so I was less self conscious of people watching me, especially if I nodded off and started dribbling or something. Around ten hours into the journey some people got off at an unknown station in the night, and I had enough space to stretch out my legs a bit, and I managed to doze a little, despite the constant cacophony bouncing down the carriage. I wished I had a small bottle of whisky or a valium to help sink me into sleep, but my blood was unadulterated and my ears were continually pounded by the din. Forty-five minutes before the train arrived in Chengdu lots of the Chinese were out of their seats and jostling for prime position by the door to exit, many pushing and barging their way through, but only then to dawdle along the platform once they got off; I don't understand it. I waited in my seat and overtook most of them on foot once we were in the station. Not that I was competing in their race. The sheer volume of people really struck me. Everywhere in China is busy, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in a transport hub. I was taught at school about the draconian One Child Policy and how it's a violation of human rights. So it is, but imagine a China with uncontrolled population growth; conservatively say there would be 3-4 billion people in China today. That's an unimaginable hell. After my cramped experience on the train I was beginning to think if anything, the one child policy was too generous. 

I left the shrieking people of the train behind and took the subway across Chengdu. The people in my subway carriage were quiet, polite and well dressed, a beautiful contrast to my previous wagon and my faith in the Chinese began to be restored a little. 

The first few days in Chengdu I didn't do too much, but this was fine by me. The hostel had a mixture of Westerners staying there, and it was nice to casually socialise and drink a few beers with some fellow backpackers. On Sunday I headed out to have an explore of the city centre. I called by the main square with a big Mao statue and dozens of armed police wandering about, which felt a little over the top, but right now in China the transfer of power is going on, and as such even my VPN was blocked (until I got around it), so the state is a little sensitive. After the square I walked down to the People's Park, which a fantastically crazy place. It was swarming with people and families, and there was so much entertainment going on in different corners and open spaces. In the central plaza a good hundred people of all ages were doing a form of line dancing to techno which was quite amusing to watch, especially the participants well in their 80s clearly having a wonderful time with huge grins plastered across their wrinkled cheeks. Terrible karaoke was occurring around the periphery, some people had drawn small crowds, others were singing to the wind, and it was all truly bizarre. I soon bumped into three friends from the hostel, a guy from Australia, and two girls, one from New York and the other from Denmark, and I spent the rest of the day with them. We continued soaking up the park, and the Danish girl and I joined in the dancing, which was great fun and I think people were pleased the foreigners were joining in with them. We wandered through town, explored a commercialised Tibetan area aimed at tourists full of little shops and snack stalls. I shot twenty bolts from a crossbow at a target with consistent accuracy, and won a little badge for my efforts. We took dinner in a food street, and ended up with mutton in a broth, which was fairly tasty, until the woman came and poured a bowl of diced stomach in there, at which point I lost my appetite. 

Mao overlooks the central square.
Danish Malene dancing in the park.
The dentists operate in the front room facing the street.
Crayfish for dinner.
Sheep stomach soup for dinner.
The following day, Monday, I got up early with Patricia, my New York room mate, and went on a trip to the Chengdu Panda Base. We left the hostel at 7.30am in order to be there for morning feeding time, as pandas are lazy creatures and when they're not munching on bamboo, they slob about dozing and not doing much, so feeding time is the time to go. The pandas were great. They're such a curious animal and quite unlike any other, and it was really enjoyable to watch them in such close quarters. The park was really good too; it was nice and quiet (we chose to avoid the weekend on purpose), well landscaped and huge, with lots of different enclosures with different age groups of pandas in. The whole place was a panda version of Jurassic Park-cum-Disney; obviously there were no dinosaurs or rides, but this is what it reminded me of. Typically, there were Chinese tour groups there, following the megaphone leader with the little flag, and you could hear the gurgling babble of their loud chatter approaching like a distant cavalry. The hushed Westerners looked with disdain as the gangs of noisy Chinese plodded along and swamped the viewing areas, not lowering their conversations for a second. It was easy to escape though, due to the number of enclosures to view the animals in so it didn't impact upon my enjoyment. I'm glad I wasn't there at the weekend though. We spent two hours in the park which was just about long enough, before heading back to the city for more idle relaxation and chit-chat with other travellers. 

Bamboo breakfast.
Paws me another.
Panda party.
It would make a lovely throw.
Panda-ing to their tastes.
Panda 'nother couple.
Eats, shoots and leaves.
I'll stop with the captions. It's just more pictures of pandas eating.

There were Red Pandas too.

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