Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Explorations in Chengdu

Upon arriving in Chengdu, I upgraded to a single room at the Flip Flop Hostel, giving myself a much-needed mental health break from shared spaces!  I arrived late in the day after climbing in Yangshuo, a bus ride to Guilin, a flight to Chengdu, and a long taxi into the city, and I was mentally exhausted and overwhelmed at the idea of figuring out another city on my own.  I was reaching near total burnout stage, desperately needing to sit still and feel some familiarity in a place, and I was near paralyzed over attempting to figure out the next few days' worth of activities and flights, making decisions on which cities to see over my limited time in the country.  I gave myself a full day to rest and recharge, finally emerging from my room long enough to see the hostel setting up a table for a dumpling party, in which they brought out balls of dough and bowls of veggie and pork mixtures and attempted to teach us how to create and stuff and fold up the little dumplings.  Our creations were then steamed and served to us!  I finally did venture out from the hostel walls to briefly recharge my SIM card and seek out an ATM, taking in the sight of the massive city around me and making a mental note of a few cafes in the area.  

I got up very early the following morning, having signed up to pay a visit to the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center with a small group from the hostel.  Our driver acted as a sort of guide, leading us around the park, though he didn't actually speak English except to say "Let's go!" when we were staying too long at any particular spot.  Thankfully, by arriving early enough, we missed most of the big crowds that showed up a few hours later.  The very first pen we visited housed a single enormous panda, far bigger than I ever expected them to be!  The panda was mostly lounging on its back munching on bamboo, but it eventually climbed up onto its bamboo perch, lazily rubbing its bum against a post and stretching!

Next we saw a pen with about five pandas, all lying around like drunk college kids, lying on their backs eating leaves, with one slumped face-down in a tree like he had passed out after a hard night of partying.  The third pen housed three smaller pandas, all of whom were lazily lounging in the trees.

Next, we walked through a tunnel with a glass wall, through which we could see tiny baby pandas in incubators!!  There is nothing cuter than a tiny baby panda in an incubator.  We were dying of cuteness overload.  They were its bitty, but already white and black and covered in a thin fuzz.  If that wasn't enough, there were also two baby balls of fluff sleeping sprawled over each other in a sort of large square baby pen.

Our next stop included a mix of smaller and larger pandas, one of whom struggled up his bamboo platform, climbing and flopping all over the place, then coming back down in an almost slow motion tumble.  The struggle is real, little panda, the struggle is real.  And then?  MORE baby pandas in incubators.  

Finally, we moved away from the giant pandas over to the red panda enclosures.  Resembling a cross between a red fox and a raccoon, they were absolutely adorable and fluffy.  As we walked through a long wooded corridor in between two pens, we suddenly saw a red panda strolling down the walkway towards us!  We couldn't believe he was out and started snapping photos, other tourists gasping and squealing as he nonchalantly sauntered around.  Eventually we noticed that small diamond-shaped holes had been cut into the chain link fence in multiple places - my only guess is that since they're so small and climb trees so easily, perhaps they move between enclosures on their own with or without the holes in the fences.  

Now that the park was starting to get packed full of tourists, we started nearing the end, walking past dense bamboo with grilling rays of light shining through, to watch a video and walk through a small exhibit on the panda.  I honestly got the feeling that nature has truly marked these creatures for extinction - given that they are carnivores who eat bamboo, who conserve energy by being lazy and failing to make any effort to reproduce because they don't get enough energy from their food, and furthermore, the poor male's penis is small and the female's vagina too big, further inhibiting procreation!  With all those difficulties in reproduction, female pandas in the wild will still abandon half their offspring, choosing to only nurture a single cub.  If they weren't so damned cute, I'm pretty sure the panda would never survive!  Granted, I'm quite happy they are so cute, and that I got to see them living happily in a center that is working towards keeping the species going.

We finally returned to the hostel, and I tried to rally to actually make the most of the afternoon and explore the town.  I wound up joining one of the guys from the hostel for a bowl of noodles at a nearby spot, successfully avoiding too much heat but still tasting the mouth-numbing effects of sichuan pepper - like tiny bits of anesthesia on the tip of my tongue and lips.  

We parted ways, as I hopped on the metro towards the Wenshu Temple and Monastery, surprised at having to go through a security check before boarding the metro!  Once at my stop, I wandered around some shaded side streets with vendors selling their wares on the sidewalk.  I turned the corner and began wandering through the streets immediately outside the walls of the monastery, full of shops, restaurants, and traditional architecture.  It was quiet and breezy, a nice escape from the hectic city streets.

Eventually making my way towards the compound itself, I first saw a tall, thin tower, with dozens of small levels, each with bells on each of four corners.  It was flanked on either side by statues of elephants, each with multiple tusks, with what appeared to e a monkey on the back and a small person below it, placing something on its trunk.  The entire complex was like one massive garden, so I took my time wandering around the small pools and pagodas, intricately cut trees and greenery, and statuesque rocks.

I finally found my way to Manjushri Hall, a modern structure, but built in a traditional style, a large, intricately decorated building where the soft sounds of chanting floated outwards.  As I peered inside, I saw men and women in long robes, a handful in regular clothes, winding around the room chanting words that sounded phonetically like "I am home" (but of course, in some other language… I don't even think it was Mandarin).  They returned to their places behind small yellow cushions, beginning a new chant in which one half of the room would kneel down into a full bow, while the other half stood and sang the long mantra.  Then they switched.  I stood mesmerized by the whole thing for quite some time, as it was beautiful to witness.  I made my way through the rest of the garden-like complex, eventually emerging and catching the metro to People's Park.

People's Park was incredibly busy, packed full of people, and I was shocked when I almost immediately bumped into an Austrian couple from the visit to the Panda Center earlier in the day!  The area of the park we were in was insanely loud, with competing sound systems blasting music, some for singers to perform with, some for dancers, one for some sort of fashion show, all within a relatively small space.  We sought out a quieter area near a tea house to sit and chat.

Not long after, a local man sat down and began speaking to us in near perfect English.  It turned out that he was a tour guide - Mr. Tray Lee - who's actually mentioned in the Frommer's Guide Book.  While he did try to sell us on his tour services (we probably would have been more interested if we had more time), we did have a long conversation with him.  I was surprised at how outspoken he was about the government and his political beliefs, and it was wonderful to hear his perspective and opinions.  He saw the communist leadership as just another dynasty which had nearly run its course, and he hoped the Taiwan and Chinese governments would merge.  He didn't want China to emulate the US, but he did want to move away from single party rule, hoping a new China would come about with a look back to the positives of the ancient civilizations and their heritage.  We sat there talking to him for over an hour and a half, so while I still had questions for him, we wrapped up our time there and went our separate ways.

I wandered through a bit more of the park on my way out, seeing badminton games and men practicing calligraphy using long wands with paintbrush-shaped sponges on the ends, dipping them in water and painting the shapes of the characters on the ground.  I passed a small park within the park, a walled-in area with a zen-like feel, rocks and bonsai trees and quiet, next to a building that very much resembled an Anglican church architecturally.  I also passed small amusement park-style rides for children and people doing arts and crafts, finally exiting the park and catching the metro back.

I had planned on coffee, and I went straight to a spot I had seen that looked like a nice cafe called "Kidult".  Once inside, I realized it was actually a western-style restaurant that happened to serve coffee.  Since it was dinnertime anyway, I ordered a small steak, happy for something that might actually fill me up better than dumplings.  The ordering process was a challenge though, as only one person on the staff spoke any English, and even mimed requests for a menu or the check received blank stares and confusion.  I finally returned to the hostel, exhausted from over-exerting myself over the course of the day, compounded with the failed attempts at communication at the restaurant.

I wound up in need of another rest day the following day, so I took it easy in the morning, getting some work done in terms of planning for the following weeks in China, making decisions on dates and locations, booking flights and hostels.  I realized that I had been nearly constantly on the move since leaving Portugal six months earlier, hardly staying anywhere even as long as a week (and rarely doing that!) - it was no wonder I was so exhausted.  It felt like a weight had been lifted once I got the next few weeks booked - at least it was mapped out - and I would get some much-needed rest once I arrived in Indonesia.  

I finally left the hostel for lunch and coffee, sitting down at the restaurant across the street.  Unfortunately, I arrived a bit late for lunch, so I was the only one there, and I felt the stares of the staff as I ordered and ate.  A simple order of sweet and sour pork turned out to be a huge portion meant to be shared, and it was only pork and sauce - no veggies - so I ate what I could and got the rest packed up for take away, leaving as quickly as I could.  

Next I tried to visit the oddly named "Good Wood Coffee" to get a cappuccino and do some work, except when I walked in, I was blasted with a massive cloud of cigarette smoke.  It did look like they actually served coffee (and some incredible looking pastel macaroons), so I tried to figure out if I could get a seat in a nonsmoking section.  No one spoke a word of English, but I finally worked out that no tables were available and I needed to wait.  I kept trying to ask if non smoking was even an option, with little luck, and I almost left after two girls came in and sat down to wait next to me, immediately lighting up a pair of cigarettes.  I got up to leave, but a staff member finally escorted me up two flights of stairs to a room with a no smoking sign - hooray!  Except, at least half the tables were smoking anyway.  As I hesitated for a moment at the table, those same two girls from downstairs suddenly shoved past me and sat down.  I couldn't believe it!  At that point I gave up and left as quickly as I could to try and find somewhere else.  I spent at least another half an hour wandering around trying to find anywhere with a chair and coffee before giving up, returning to the hostel, throwing on comfy clothes, and staying in.  I wound up hiding out the remainder of the night, but the following day, I would spend my last in Schezuan making a day trip out to Leshan, site of a giant Buddha carved out of the side of a mountain...

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