Stopping by a dead resort: Lugu Hu lake
We had heard about an allegedly beautiful place from other backpackers and decided to go and check it by ourselves. Lugu Hu is quite an isolated lake in the mountains, roughly between Lijiang and Chengdu, at the border of the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
A 7 hours very scenic bus ride through the grand valleys of the Yunnanese mountains and here we were, admiring the lake from a lookout platform with a background choir of girls dressed in traditional costumes singing some folk songs to welcome us to the Lugu Hu conservation area. A couple of photos later we were by the lake realising that the weather was rather windy and cold, that we were still far away from Lige, the village recommended by the Lonely Planet, and that nobody is willing to take us there for the regular price. Believe it or not but it was probably one of the rare times locals wanted to overcharge us. We were not alone in this "galere": there was a third westerner in the bus, an Israeli we already saw at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and he was going along with us (he was to meet friends at the youth hostel so we decided to stay at the same place). We finally found a taxi to Lige, a small village 10 km away or so.
We could tell straight away we were off season! There was hardly anybody there and not much to do but hike around the lake! So we did. On our second and last day, chatting with the group of 6 Israelis, we realised they were going to hot springs at night and that there was still room for us to jump into their taxi-van. Obviously we had to go! Our six youngsters were good fun, and taking a bath with the locals in the open pools gazing at the stars was really a cool experience! No less than 3 cars, 2 buses and 1 train to reach Chengdu
The following day, we were happy to move on to Chengdu. We didn't find a taxi to take us to the bus station, so we hitch hiked. We did the trip in three different vehicles, and unlike our experience in Tiger Leaping Gorge, we were gracefully offered a ride by every car we saw! First a couple in a big 4x4, then a big lorry loaded with gravels and finally a van transporting live piglets in bags! Actually we only realised they were piglets after Patrick stumbled on one of them resulting in a "grouiiick" of disapproval.
At the bus station, we were not alone having to kill time. 4 young locals were playing cards, not for money, but for drinks. Any time one would loose he had to drink a big bowl full of beer in one go! Judging by the amount of empty bottles by their side, they must have been drinking most of the morning.
They offered Patrick a drink but as soon as he would finish his glass they wanted to pour some more. One player lost several times in a row, and was so full of beer he couldn't possibly find room for more, he looked sick! Hopefully for him, there was no more beer to be had, and surprisingly, they just said bye to each other and disappeared straight away! The Chinese are not the kind of guys to linger: if there is nothing more to be had (same thing for food at restaurants) they just leave. Another 7 hours scenic bus ride took us to Xining, where we had to take another bus to reach the station for an overnight train to Chengdu . Yeah, it looks a small distance on the map but it takes days to get from one place to the other. The train to Lhasa is full: what a desapointment!
The capital of Sichuan is another small town of only a few millions inhabitants! Like many other travellers we decided to organise our trip to Tibet from there. Indeed, it's one of the cheapest places to get a permit for Tibet (the name they give to arbitrary tax as there is no fixed amount), and complete your trekking wardrobe in one of the many outdoor shops. You can negotiate almost everything in China, even in shops with fixed price, just ask for a discount and most of the times it works! We got ourselves fleeces for a very good price... made in USA of course, as per the label ;-)!
We wanted to take the recently opened train to Lhasa, but it was fully booked for the next three weeks! So we arranged a flight through our guest house, "Holly's" which is coincidentally located in the Tibetan quarter of the town. We were disappointed but we've been told that at this time of year everyone wants to go in Tibet but no one wants to leave so it should be easy to take the train back.
Apart from shopping for tickets to Tibet and warm clothes, we took it easy in Chengdu. The weather was overcast for the few days we stayed there so we were happy to see that Chengdu had a Starbucks coffee shop at every corner! Despite the price of a cup of coffee, we didn't resist spending time and money there, but not only for coffee, we also bought what would change our mornings from now on: a French press! It was no random thing, we got the idea from our dormitory pals (Thanks Pete and Bev!) in Kunming, and since then, we had been looking for one. Funnily enough, a good coffee has been one of the things we missed the most during this trip. A decent coffee in this part of the world costs more than a meal, believe it or not. If you are a coffee lover and want to travel in Asia, beware, you'll only find Nescafe... Beurk!!! Sampling the spicy Sichuanese cuisine
Sichuanese cuisine is quite distinctive so we spent the rest of our time sampling the food. In one of the restaurants we visited we ordered a desgustation menu! My goodness! There was so many little dishes that the waiters had to pile them up on the table! It was really good and not the kind of dishes you find in Chinese restaurant in Europe by the way. We also tasted local dumplings in another place and liked it so much that we went back the next day. Unlike Indian or Thai cuisine, you can't find as good Chinese food abroad! Patrick is chosen among the crowd
Chengdu has also a well established tea house culture. Some of those tea houses have evening shows to entertain their customers, so we went to one of them to enjoy a mix of typically Chinese performances, from puppets to hand shadows, to Chinese opera. It was all very much entertaining until the knife throwing act...
Two comedians entered the stage and started their show with visual jokes. That was still funny. Then they started to search the audience for a "volunteer" to throw knives at from a distance. That was so so. Then they picked Patrick hiding behind his camera, pretending he was shooting pictures! To the delight of locals, it's very common for Westerners to be picked on these kind of shows. That was absolutely not funny or hilarious depending if you were Patrick or not! Once on stage, they would cover Patrick's head with a bag, preventing him to see the thrower performing his art! The audience was laughing a lot as the two guys were making fun of him, pretending he was sweating and shaking with fear etc. What Patrick couldn't realise is, they never threw the knives! One of them was vigorously stabbing them into the board just by Patrick's body before removing the bag from his head: the illusion was perfect and Patrick definitely thought they were in control, throwing the knives for real! Let's quote him when Saoyuth told him the truth: "Quoi?!?!? Ah les cons!!
" (decency prevents us to translate those words in English:-) He was applauded and some Chinese spectators even shook hands with him telling him how good he was! Incredible pandas!
No one can assert they have been to Chengdu if they didn't go to the Panda breading centre. It would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel tower. And it's worth going for a least two things: First, watch the cute cubs playing together! Wrestling and chasing each other and climbing clumsily onto trees was the essential of their occupations. They are quite energetic making it difficult to believe that by the time they reach maturity all they care about is eat and sleep.
Second, to realise that the black and white pandas we are familiar with are only one specie of panda, the giant one, there are others such as the red pandas, a lot smaller and looking more like a raccoon. Not as cute as the giant panda though! It was also really cool to see full grown giant pandas going through their breakfast of bamboos. Munch munch munch! They have a strikingly human way to handle the bamboo and bring the collected leaves to their mouth. It's probably because they have a thumb which allows them to grab things.
We were also quite surprised by a video about the breeding of giant pandas... nothing to do with the mating part of it, you pervert! They were showing a female giving birth: believe it or not, but it happens in a fraction of a second with the miniature baby being expulsed a meter away from its mother, this latter hardly realising she just had a baby and sometimes panicked to the point of beating the baby with its paw! The mouse size baby is quickly taken away from its mother and it is only after several births that a female panda is able to take care of its baby. We see Dan Cruishank at the toe of the Leshan giant Buddha
Among the day trips one can do around Chengdu, there's the famous Leshan giant Buddha. Leshan is a town close to Chengdu (a mere 3 hours bus ride, that's peanuts for China), famous for its temples and above all for its gigantic Buddha carved in a cliff by the river. It's a very touristy attraction, and the site is indeed worth the detour. It's all about its size and realising that some people put so much effort in doing it. You can do a circuit down from the Buddha's head to its feet on a narrow stairway. When we reached the toes we noticed a camera crew, an English one. It's only then that we saw Dan Cruishank, unmistakable with his hat and cravat (very tall man!). Of course Patrick went to tell him...to get off his picture frame :-) just joking. They were shooting a new series for the English TV (probably "Around the World in 80 wonders 2"), but we won't watch it, coz we've seen it all already!!!! How we upseted a 6 foot Dutch nutter
For the first time in our trip we had to sleep in dormitories as they are the cheapest accommodation in China. It's usually clean and comfortable enough and at 2 euros a night per bed, even the tightest penny pincher can't complain. Ah, the joys of Dormitories! You can meet great people but also meet weirdos! Our worst experience was in Chengdu, we had only one night left when a tall Dutch man entered our room (a 3 bed dorm we've had for ourselves so far) with one of these Vietnamese conical straw hats on the head and a pair of sunglasses (there had been no sun in Chengdu for days)... It took us roughly a tenth of a second before getting mixed feelings towards him... He looked weird! And he was...He took off his huge army boots infusing the air with socks perfume number 5 and went to bed straight away without taking his clothes off. We had just come back to the room and needed to go in and out of the room for various businesses, and we still had to pack all the stuff scattered in the room as we were flying early the next morning. Even though we were paying attention not to be too noisy, we couldn't help it, zipping and manipulating plastic bags... he didn't say a word until the moment he literally jumped out of his bed, switched the light on, started whistling some tune and left the room banging the door!
We were not sure what was happening, was he upset with us preventing him to sleep or simply went to the toilets in a lunatic manner? It's only when he came back with a member of the hotel staff, shouting it was not possible to sleep with us around that we became sure... He then wanted another bed (we very much liked this idea!). So he started to try to open all the doors in the corridor, and as they were closed, he banged loudly on them so someone inside come to open! Finally, the guy from the hostel went for keys and put him in the empty room next door! When he came to collect his bag he tried to provock Patrick telling him it was not a way to behave in a dorm and tapped him on the cheek. It was not the moment to get into a fight, especially since the guy was really crazy. As we didn't respond he ended up leaving the room: we made sure to lock the door! We were quite happy to be leaving at 6am in the morning so that we wouldn't bump into him again. Actually we saw him again...in the streets of Lhasa!
Our advice: beware of people wearing Vietnamese straw hats and sunglasses, at night, indoor!