Pandamonium

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
1
14
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Friday, October 19, 2012

Our entire visit to Chengdu much like every other tourist was to visit the Panda Breeding base, so knowing that this is all there is in Chengdu we expected to finally have some respite from the cities and have some fresh air and peace and quiet. However seemingly Panda's don’t mind the city and pollution as Chengdu is just another metropolis of pollution, with a Panda Base on the outskirts of the city on the motorway!

We booked the panda tour as soon as we arrived at our hostel so as to waste no time getting to see the big furry black and white bears, annoyingly pandas are most active first thing in the morning so this meant a 6am start.  So off we set on our mini bus through the usual manic Chinese traffic and arrived in one piece at the pandas.  We seemed to have beaten the busloads of tourists so had some time to wander around the enclosures, sadly the pandas seemed to be having a lie in so by the time they eventually decided to wake up and eat the bamboo, every tourist in Chengdu had descended on the enclosure and it felt a little like we might end up in the enclosure with the amount of pushing a showing going on, I had a camera from behind balanced on my shoulder, Tim had one pushed through which ended up in his pocket, we eventually admitted defeat and fought our way out in favour of some other enclosures.  The annoying thing about this tour is that they make you go back at 11am as they claim that the Panda’s go to sleep after their breakfast, so we trundled around the other enclosures at the speed of light to get a glimpse of all the red pandas and giant pandas, and on our way out we got a glimpse of swan lake which has a few black swans and hundreds of carp.  Panda’s are the most adorable dopey looking creatures I have ever seen, they just sit around munching on bamboo with mountains of the leaves and bits they don’t like mounting up on their bellies like Uncle Buck.  Tim is not convinced they are real and thinks that they could be people in suits pretending to be pandas.  We were so lucky to have visited just after baby season so they had tiny baby panda’s in incubators and also some which were a month old that just looked like cuddly toys.  You could pay to hold one but at 130 a go we couldn’t really justify it.  What we did discover is that you can volunteer to be a panda keeper for the day so we decided to sign up for this instead to get back to see the pandas and get a bit more involved.

That evening we went to see the other speciality in Chengdu the Sichuan Face Changing Opera, we were not really sure what to expect, but it didn’t start well when we were taken to a nice looking building and ushered into a strange looking room and given cups of jasmine tea.  Seemingly there are two shows a night and we had arrived before the first had finished!  Typically the face changing is the grand finale, but fortunately we had gotten into the spirit of Chinese opera so thoroughly enjoyed all the strange acts in the run up to the face changing.  There was a Sichuan comedy sketch with a man doing balancing tricks with a candle on his head, a dancing women with puppets, long sleeve dancing and even hand shadows.  The face changing was just unbelievable.  Apparently there are only 200 people in the province who are trained and it is something that is passed down through generations only to males.  Basically with the flick of a finger or a shake of the head the performer can change the mask on their face, it is just so fast you cannot see a thing.  They even did a couple of changes to the people at the front of the audience (we had the cheap seats at the back) who were wowed.  Each artist must have changed their mask at least 10 times during the performance and you never once got a hint as to how they did it, amazing!

The next day we decided to explore the town to see what was around, our hostel had suggested that we visit Peoples Park.  Thinking of Peoples Park in Jersey as a patch of grass with the odd drunk tramp hanging around we were not inspired but had no better plan so set off, and were we glad we did.  Peoples Park is possibly the closest thing to a nervous breakdown you will ever experience.  You hear it before you find the entrance and it would seem that there are 20-30 people putting on different song and dance shows, 50-100 people doing different karaoke, 30+ groups of people dancing and 100+ people singing in groups.  Each person just keeps turning up their speakers to drown out the next one so you can only imagine the noise.  This was just the start of it, as we ventured further into the park on every bench there were groups of men playing majong or cards.  There were men practicing their calligraphy by writing on the pavement with a giant paintbrush and water.  There was a pond full of families in funny little rowing boats, a childrens amusement park with dodgems and some rickety looking rides and the best part of all…… Mothers and fathers were stood around plants and bushes which had paper signs hung from them, on closer inspection they had heights and weights and some had photo’s.  these were not missing posters but parents trying to find prospective husbands and wives for their children.  Absolutely brilliant, only in China, who knows if the kids know what their parents are up to!  As we were leaving the park we got chatting to a young Chinese girl who wanted to practice her English.  She was university level but whilst they have excellent tutors they don’t get to practice their spoken English so seemingly she hangs out in the park to find prospective teachers.  Her English was impeccable and before long another student was there getting us to fill in a questionnaire about tourism, we have had a few of these, seemingly everyone in china is studying tourism and English!

Next we sought out Big & Small Alley, again we had no idea what this was, but it turned out to be a traditional old hutong, full of the proper old stone buildings which has been preserved and filled with nice shops and restaurants.  I personally prefer the charm of the real hutongs, but it is good to see something being preserved and not knocked down and replaced with skyscrapers.

After our brilliant free day out we got back to the hostel and found on a note on our door telling us to please come and collect our money as we could not be panda volunteers the following day.  Seemingly there was some conference going on and they had to cancel the volunteer programme. Gutted.  Nevertheless we decided to go back to the pandas for the day and this time we would get a taxi back when we were done rather than being rushed off at 11am.

So off we set again at stupid o’clock.  Once we got to the panda sanctuary we binned off the driver and set off on our own, we decided to avoid the young adult pandas which are the main attraction for the breakfast feed and we set off to the nursery to see the babies, we got there before they were ready and so stood at the glass window laughing hysterically when three baby pandas were carted out into the nursery in a big plastic Tupperware box. Then they were laid out on a little blanket in a big wooden cot and they all just snuggled next to each other and went to sleep, so cute.  Going around at our own pace was so much better and we saw so much more.  Young panda’s curled up asleep in trees , large pandas falling out of trees that were too small for them.  Young pandas piling on top of their mum for milk and knocking their brothers and sisters flying in the process.  It would seem that it is absolute nonsense that the pandas go to sleep after breakfast, we were there until 4pm and they were still up and about munching bamboo, perhaps the cooler weather was working in our favour for once.  We found ourselves in the red panda enclosure and it is a little like the lemur enclosure that you can walk through in Jersey zoo.  The difference is that there are actually red pandas wondering around this enclosure.  They are funny little things, they have a funny walk like a panda but are more like a cat or dog that has been mixed with a bear.  There are signs up telling you to keep 3 meters away from them as they can be fearce, but this is quite difficult to do when they are the ones sneeking up on you and following your feet to get back in the fence.  We spent so long in the red panda enclosure we started to recognise them, one had a huge big bushy tail, one had no tail and there were a few that had scraggly injured tails, we are thinking that big bushy tail might be the champion at bite club!

We also managed to go to the panda cinema to get fully educated about pandas.  This was very interesting and I have a few factoids for you:

Did you know that pandas are actually built to be meat eaters but nobody quite knows why they have chosen to eat bamboo instead.  The reason that they are so sleepy all the time is that their bodies only absorb 20%25 of nutrients from the bamboo.  There are a few stories of pandas in the wild still eating goats and sheep, but in captivity they only get meat when they are old and sick.

Pandas have been around for 8 million years, whereas the usual life expectancy for a species is 5 million.  The reason that pandas are dying out is that they are not very good at finding mates in the wild or captivity.  Also the average gestation period for a baby is between 80 and 200 days so most babies are born premature and don’t survive in the wild.  Also baby pandas are 1/1000th the size of the mother so they can easily be killed by accident.  It is very difficult to tell if a female panda is pregnant and the centre has honed the skill to identify habits they have which show they are pregnant.  The problem is that pandas are pretty clever and some of the females have become experts at pretending they are pregnant to get special treatment. Sneaky!

After one more circuit we said our final farewells to all the pandas and even got one more peek at the babies.  Tim still thinks they are people in suits!

Along the road from our hostel was Jinjiang River and we would stand for ages watching the men fishing, they didn’t seem to catch much very often, but what we found peculiar is when they did catch anything it looked suspiciously like a gold fish.  Anyone know where goldfish come from?   My google searches have told me that they do originate in China but I thought they were all bred, who knows.  All I know is that the man caught a gold fish and kept it.

We had been lucky in Chengdu in that our hostel did cheap and good Chinese and western food so we didn’t need to venture out to find dinner.  We had seen that there was a Thai restaurant opposite our hostel so we thought we would give it a try.  We googled it and the only reviews that we could find were that the food is good but it is Thai food with Sichuan spicing so it is really hot.  This was no exaggeration; mine was so hot it was almost inedible and gave me heart burn for 3 days, now that is hot!

Another city done and it was time to get back on the train, we headed to Chengdu South station ( we had arrived at north), and oh what a difference to every other station in China.  It was shiny and clean and big and looked like you would expect an international airport to look.  But it didn’t take long for us to remember we were in China when every man walking past us spat and emptied their  noses on the beautiful clean marble floors. Eugh.

This train we were back in the soft sleepers and sharing with two other people, when we arrived there was a business man in one of the top bunks looking very stressed over his laptop and a little smiley Chinese lady on the bottom bunk.  The business man got into bed at 6:30 and went to sleep in his suit and everyone kept themselves to themselves so this was actually quite a nice journey.  In Chengdu we had found a Carrefour supermarket and had cheddar cheese sandwiches and Heinz tomato soup for dinner, lush, best train dinner yet!  Next stop Guilin & Yangshuo.
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