Tuesday 31st May 2016
Another end of a month…….2 months left to travel and still thoughts have not turned towards home but some food items have been alluded to by BB & KK over the past week. Today marks our 15th day in mainland China and tomorrow afternoon sees us fly to Hong Kong for seven days before we head back to Penang. We arrived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and home to around 14 million residents on Saturday and during the past 5 days we have survived….
- Getting our train to Chengdu from Xian from a little known local train station that was around 40km out of the city at 10pm (we certainly stood out as the only foreigners in the station and on the train) Even the locals at the hostel were laughing when we asked them where it was…….yep we got done by the ticketing system and that there are numerous stations in most cities. The station itself was not a place you would desire to go unless you had no other options……we did but just weren’t aware of them.
- Toilets without cubicles…just as we were getting used to a lack of western toilets
- Eating Sichuan hotpot, not once but twice. Sichuan cuisine is well known for it’s spiciness driven by the famous Sichuan pepper which just numbs the mouth but is not actually hot. We went back to the same restaurant for dinner on consecutive nights as the kids wanted to have the hotpot again. $NZ15 for the four of us not bad !
- Getting lost on the first day then having a taxi driver drop us off (after taking us for a ride both literally and figuratively speaking) in the middle of the city saying our hostel was just around the corner…….and a few more km’s up the road……it has been the only time I have not been able to find a landmark and our way back on the trip so far.
- A sleeping bus driver whilst we were on the bus.. . Noelle has the photo to prove it.
- Zebra crossings where a green light to cross means nothing to drivers…they just keep coming at you from literally all angles.
As mentioned we took a night train that left countryside Xian around 10.30pm and arrived in Chengdu at 12.30pm the next day. We had managed to secure a soft sleeper which has 4 beds so it was pretty much heads down once we had boarded. On a comfort scale it rated an ok with the sleep being broken at times with rail changes, braking and the general rumble of the train however it could have been worse if we had a hard sleeper with 6 to a cabin. My romantic memories of European night trains was a little different to this trip but again an experience for us all. We had made sure we brought some food at a Taiwanese Bakery we found before the trip so we could have some breakfast. They did have food onboard but it was a limited selection.
Upon arriving exactly on time, we hit the subway and after a 15 minute walk and asking a few locals for directions we found our hostel. We are staying at Mrs Panda hostel which although is around 2km from the centre of town has many of the facilities we need close by. It was not our first choice but the other ones we looked at were fully booked. It’s ok but a step below what we have been staying in.
Chengdu is on our itinerary as this is where you can get to see the Giant Pandas. There are 4 Panda conservation centres on the outskirts of the city so this is one of the main reasons people visit.
As a city it is disappointing after Beijing and Xian. The efficiency and cleanliness we experienced in both is not present here. We would honestly say our expectations of China before we arrived were based on what we have found in Chengdu…… a soulless city of high-rises, terrible traffic, dirty and thick smog. The smog is evidenced by the grime that accumulates on your body and in your clothes each time you go out. They estimate 1.4 million deaths a year in China attributed to pollution. Hopefully the only damage to us is to dump a few clothes once we leave. We have had only 1 day of rain the whole time in China but everyday here it looks overcast and about to. Blue sky and sun……can’t say they exist .
The province has many great sights to visit but most are all 1-3 hours (or more) out of the city. We went exploring the city over the weekend and found the Youngling mausoleum and tomb in the heart of the city that didn’t seem to be very well known. The mausoleum houses Emperor Wang Jian’s burial. When living (847-918) Wang Jian made the Former Shu Dynasty, capital at Chengdu, the most governable and powerful among the Five Dynasties and Ten States. This was well worth the small admission fee to see this. The tomb is accessed from the ground and through a tunnel goes inside a manmade hill. It is eerily cool and silent giving a real sense of history and age. This was the highlight we have found so far in the city.
We also visited the Tibetan quarter, Wuhou Park and found in the numerous outdoor equipment shops (given Sichuan’s proximity to Tibet) some sleeping mats we will need for our Africa overland trip. The only time we have been in the centre of the city with it’s commercialised hype and neon was when the taxi dropped us off telling us the hostel was just around the corner. The crowds of people just made us wanting out of there fast.
We also took a bus to the ancient town of HuanglongXi which is around 1.5 hour out of the city. This was promising as a throwback to the old days of how they lived and we arrived after traveling at one stage on a 10 lane highway with no traffic that abruptly ended into a normal 2 lane road. A short walk from the bus station saw us at the entrance. There is no admission charge but it was filled with tourists…..domestic tourists…..again we seemed to be the only foreigners. This we could handle but a little way down the main street of the village, off to the side of the restaurants, souvenir stands and shops selling selfie sticks was a theme park. We pretty much turned around and headed back to the bus station. It seems that we are looking for old original China and they are dressing it up like disneyland for their domestic market.
The food has been cheaper than Xian and Beijing with liberal use of Sichuan pepper used in most dishes. It’s not spicy but numbs the mouth considerably. We found a local market nearby the hostel and have been buying fruit and food there. We have had a few arguments with stall keepers over their weights and have walked away from purchases. In one case they tried to sell us around 200gm of cherries saying a weight of 500gms. The scales clearly showed the correct weight. No matter only about 20 other stands to choose from. We had a Sichuan burger-spicy meat filling inside a pita style bread, I found a great red bean roll for only NZ$0.25 each from a streetside baker. Baked on the bottom and steamed on top-delicious. Vegetarian Bao’s costing less than a NZ$1. The beer is cheaper with a 500ml bottle of Tsingtao going for NZ$ 2.
Today we visited the Chengdu Panda Conservation Park on the outskirts of the city. The hostel was running a tour for $NZ50 per person and speaking to a couple of dutch girls who had done it (that we had met in Xian) you only got around 2-3 hours at the sanctuary. Feeling confident we could do it for less we decided to take the plunge.
We took a taxi from the bus station (located next to the hostel) to the sanctuary which took around 30 minutes due to less traffic at 7am in the morning.(NZ$10). We got the kids in free (something about being under 1.2 metres) so by the time we had entered the park we had only spent NZ$60. We ended up spending 7 hours there checking out all the exhibits, films and of course watching the Pandas.
We spend almost an hour at the baby Panda enclosure which had around 8 young Pandas either playing or sleeping. The Adult Pandas were a joy to watch as they just sat on their bottoms stripping and eating bamboo (they eat on average 17kg per day). They were oblivious to the attention they were getting . Today the worldwide population of Giant Pandas stands at 1864, this includes those in overseas zoos. The centre runs a comprehensive breeding programme where 15 Pandas were born last year. They also look after the Red Panda which looks like a cross between a fox and a Panda. These were pretty cute. Overall we learnt more than we had known about the Pandas and have taken away an understanding of just how endangered they are.
With food our day trip came to around $NZ75 as we took the bus back to the city. This involved around an hour, changing buses once and watching our driver fall asleep at some traffic lights. Buses cost NZ$0.50 per person no matter the distance.
Yesterday BB got upset at the ancient village as a tourist patted him and said something he didn’t understand. Today a local family came up to us at the baby Pandas and said “do you remember us from yesterday ? I touched you and we meet again” Again tonight the staff at the hostel have asked if they are twins much to their displeasure.
So Hong Kong tomorrow….. We have enjoyed our time in mainland China but are now feeling a bit China’ed out and looking forward to a change of environment. We would love to come back and spend time outside of the cities and more in the provinces as there is just so much to see ( fellow travellers have enlightened us to this). The smoking and spitting we will be glad to see the back of…the toilets we can handle. I have read a few articles on China recently and now having seen some things for myself it put’s it into perspective and gives a real understanding of what is happening here. I have also read recently a novel by Pearl Buck called “The Good Earth” which won the Pulitzer price in 1939 I think it was. A little apprehensive at first this was a great read and gave further insight into the people and history of China.
I have been yet to see an Angliss delivery truck the whole time but given what seems to be a small scale presence in China by Bidvest the odds are probably against me doing so.
We have met some great people during our days here and in particular our French friend Pierre who has 3 weeks to see as much as he can and is criss-crossing the country doing so and Vincent from Canada (French Canada no less) who has been tripping around for a month. Both are travelling solo and have been happy to share their experiences with us & the kids. Safe travels guys ….. it has been a pleasure and if your ever in NZ then there’s a bed.
So tonight we are just chilling out at the hostel, having a beer and some tofu then tomorrow morning we will pack and head to HK in the afternoon. The hostels we have stayed in have been great. They are an affordable way to travel averaging us around $10 a night each person. They are clean, quirky and a meeting place for likeminded people. The staff have been fantastic and have gotten to know the kids and involved them where possible. The travellers we have met have also taken them in and they have responded in kind along with learning new skills like playing pool (BB beat Vincent a few times), making dumplings and playing mahjong.
It has cost us under NZ$2500 for our accomodation, food, travel, activities & ice creams for the 15 days. In hindsight we could have done it cheaper with what we have learnt along the way.
We will be back…but possibly just Noelle and I as the kids seemed lukewarm to that idea when asked over dinner tonight.
In Hong Kong we meet up with our good friends Mark and Kirsty who are usually domiciled in Perth but currently working in HK. Mark and I lived & worked together in Geneva along with an Austrian fellow called Dieter who is now based in Shenzhen about an hour from HK as Exec Chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I’ve been in touch with him but unsure if I can get there or he can get to HK….lets see.
Our China visa’s expire once we leave HK so next time we will apply for multiple entries given our experience in getting this one.
New month……new thoughts & stories….more soon.