|Charlotte and the Big Big Buddha.|
Chengdu was our final destination in China. We spent a fun few days there, and felt it had a pretty good feel to it and more of definitive centre to it (marked by a huge Mao statue, naturally) than some other Chinese cities. The weather had certainly heated up and our hostel had a nice graden terrace, so after the long rail journey we spent some time chilling out there.
The first full day we went to visit the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre, where we enjoyed watching Giant and Red Pandas lolling about in the sun, chomping on bamboo and occasionally cooling down in the small pools. There really is something very endearing about pandas which is hard to put your finger on. The information provided showed a fairly hilarious lack of accountability for dwindling panda numbers ('more research is needed on why the pandas were dying out' - err really, how about not chopping down all the bamboo forests?) and an awful lot of self-congratulatory back-patting for China's conservation efforts now. We were also amused by the references to mating as marriage ('the marriage ceremony can take place in a field, or up a tree')!
Back near the centre of the city, we explored the People's Park and Wen Shu Monastery. It's amazing how one minute you can be on a busy street with honking horns and hawkers and then step over the threshold into peace and serenity. The temple is also home to a teahouse where we enjoyed far too many cups of jasmine tea (free refills courtesy of the staff wandering about with big teapots of hot water), and watched men having their ears cleaned by a man with a thin vibrating metal pole, a bit like a long tuning fork. Very bizarre.
One evening we went to see some Sichuan Opera, not at all like its Western counterpart and more like a variety show. Amongst the usual singing and dancing we enjoyed some amazing shadow puppetry, a guy playing an impressive string instrument that at times sounded like a horse neighing, and the climax of the show was the Sichuan speciality of 'Changing faces, changing costumes'. Basically guys in cloaks and masks leap about the stage, with their cloaks and masks changing colour at random intervals. It was pretty good and they came right out into the audience to do it and we still couldn't really figure it out; the masks are obviously really thin and laid on top of each other so that the top one can be whipped off, but they manage it so quickly and who knows where they stash the discarded mask. The performance was in a teahouse so we enjoyed yet more tea throughout the performance.
We also did a day trip our to Leshan to see the Giant Budda. It's the largest carved stone Buddha in the world at 71 metres tall, and is carved into a cliff face. It's really hard to get a sense of scale from any of the photos but it really is completely huge. After various travels in SE Asia we've seen a fair few Buddhas, but this is by far the most impressive we have seen. The site also has lots of temples and other things to see it would have been nice to see a little more, but we had a flight to catch. The 30-odd degree heat wasn't exactly conducive to walking up and down endless flights of stone steps either!
Our time in Chegdu was made even better by meeting up with Liam's future brother-in-law's brother, Tom (as in Emily's fiance Alex's brother). It was fab to meet up with a fellow Chorleyite, meet his girlfriend Cecelia and hear about his experiences teaching at the University there. Tom took us out for some great food, including the Sichuan speciality of hotpot. A very unhealthy meal of a bowl of bubbling beef dripping, chillis etc is placed in the centre of the table, with a choice of what ingredients to cook in the vat. Under Tom's persuasion we tried tripe, eel and ... pig's brains. All of which we wouldn't be adverse to trying again!
To commemerate our time in China - here are the top 5 best and worst things generally about travelling in China... and in many ways, ironically enough, the best things also make the worst list!
1. Food, accommodation and transport is all very reasonable and usually good quality. Sampling the various treats was a highlight and certainly changed our opinions of Chinese cuisine. Hostelling International in China has obviously had some serious recent investment so was often verging into boutique hotel territory. China is bloody massive, but we travelled over 1000km for less than the price of a rail ticket from Sheffield-Manchester, but 20 hours in a seat can get a little wearing.
2. It's a country of huge contrast; from the peace of the countryside, rivers and rice terraces to the hectic madness of the cities. Guidebooks are often useless in China due to the breakneck speed development going on, every city was full of half built skyscrapers and flyovers.
3. The majority of Chinese are friendly and happy people. They seem to have no inhibitions whatsoever about walking around singing, or whistling, or doing strange exercises such as walking literally backwards around a park. Wherever we went, people said hello to us and asked us where we were from (and liked having their picture taken with us!).
4. The other backpackers in China (I think it's fair to say) are a little different from a lot of those who hit the usual Asia trail (or the Banana Pancake Trail as it's often referred to!), perhaps a slightly older bunch and less gap year travellers (nothing wrong with that of course!).
5. Cheap beer! Tsingtao managed to persuade Liam that drinkable and (shock horror) enjoyable low strength lager can be produced! When the weather's hot outside, one can want for nothing more, and imbibing in a few too many won't leave you with a hangover in the morning.
1. Food hits the list again. Although we had some utterly amazing food, we felt glad to leave and eat some healthier food, decrease of fat, salt and MSG intake and increase our fibre intake!
2. It's a huge country (stating the obvious of course, but we now truly appreciate that after endless hours on the train!). We spent a month there and felt like we'd barely scratched the surface. It also meant that we literally spent over 10% of our time there just travelling on trains.
3. As well as being friendly, the curiosity that we invoked in people became frustrating and annoying at times. We had our photo taken a lot, which we didn't mind when people actually asked us but was a different matter when people just snapped at our faces willy nilly, or when we were at a teahouse and a guy had a very long lens permanently focused on Charlotte.
4. Tourist attractions are pretty overpriced. We often paid more for entrance to a tourist attraction than for a nights (very comfortable) accommodation.
5. Obviously: politics, lack of freedom of speech etc. It didn't really directly affect us, but was disheartening to hear about nonetheless. Although the 'Great Firewall' is surprisingly easy to circumvent.
Despite ending on a slightly negative note, we still immensely enjoyed our time in China and are already planning a return visit, we would have loved to have travelled to Tibet for starters and we never did make it to Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors... so fairwell to China although I have a feeling it won't be long until we grace your soil again comrade!