Wednesday 21st May – Chengdu
We started this rather surreal day by alighting our train at around 5am in what appeared to be a fairly grubby looking city. The exit to the station was like something out of dystopian fiction. Grey slabs and rubbish everywhere, everyone looking thoroughly miserable. Needless to say, we weren’t exactly thrilled at this sight after such an exhausting (and poop-filled) journey. But this was where the pandas lived, according to an American guy we met in a bar in Beijing.
Coming out of the station, we spied a shop simply marked “Dumpling”. Having had only a meagre selection of bizarre snacks (mostly cake-based) to keep us going for the whole train journey, we were pretty starving hungry. Normally there is a well established rule about eating in China: regardless of the decor, if a restaurant is full of people then the place is usually both safe to eat at and pretty good. “Dumpling” had neither appealing decor nor any other customers in sight. In our defence, it was five in the morning and we had no idea whether the aforementioned rule still applied.
Anyway, we sat down in this dive after wading through a sea of mopeds and rickshaw cabs seemingly hell-bent on driving on any surface but the road. Our waitress/cook/owner didn’t seem to be that bothered about customers as she ignored us, her only customers, for about ten minutes. Eventually we managed to get some dumplings. They were horrible. Genuinely one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever eaten. We were all so hungry and these were just soggy lumps of dough with a tiny pea-sized amount of grisly, poor quality meat. It takes a lot for me not to finish a meal, especially when starving hungry, but this meal had managed the task.
While forcing down this fairly gross meal, an old street seller wandered over to us. These guys are everywhere in the touristy areas, usually trying to sell weird gimmicky toys that spin around and make stupid noises. In this case he was trying to flog us some USB chargers for smartphones. Fairly used to this, we attempted to politely tell him we weren’t interested. These guys are usually pretty persistent and will follow you a fair way down a street just to make sure you definitely don’t want a tiny wooden Buddha with sparkly hat that lights up. Usually you’d just keep walking and they’d give up after a bit of back and forth, however this time were stuck in a restaurant with no escape. After a few minutes of him standing around awkwardly, occasionally waving a USB charger at us, he spied some left over muffins from our train journey on the table. Eyes wide, he slowly reached out and grabbed the packet and started making some weird grunting noises, all the while sporting a childish grin. For what was a very peculiar few minutes he stood there squeezing the muffins, looking at us, grunting then looking back at the muffins. All the while, we’d been trying to tell him he could have it and leave us alone but we were clearly struggling with the language/sanity barrier. Finally he wandered off with a muffin, cheerfully grunting to himself with a beaming smile and seemingly pretty chuffed with his plunder.
After this decidedly weird and altogether unpleasant start to the day we caught a cab to our hostel, Chengdu FlipFlop. It turns out cab drivers in this city prefer to drive as if in a life-or-death car chase at all times which made for a pretty thrilling journey. Oh well, no need for coffee to increase your alertness when you can pay a cabbie to drive through city intersections at 60 mph at six in the morning, eh? We arrived at the hostel in a thoroughly delirious haze and just sort of lounged about until the busses started running to the panda sanctuary.
En route to the sanctuary we managed to mess up pretty much everything we tried. This included:
1. Attempting to get money from two different sets of cash points that didn’t work, the second of which wouldn’t give back Charles and Mike’s cards for an unsettling amount of time. We even resorted to calling a bank helpline which happened to be about as useful as they are in the UK, just with worse English.
2. Looking for a bus to the panda sanctuary for the best part of an hour before realising that it didn’t actually exist.
3. SUCCESSFULLY hailing a cab BUT from the middle of a very busy multi-lane intersection. The cabbie not only stopped in front of a queue of traffic, but sat on the phone boss for a few minutes when we explained how far we wanted to go.
The other guys had been pretty excited about pandas from the outset and were really looking forward to the trip. On the other hand, I had been completely ambivalent towards them so far. They’re just bears, right? What’s the big deal? For some reason when I crossed the threshold of the sanctuary I became like a little child on Christmas Eve.
The park itself was a small forest with winding pathways, massive lakes full of carp, and lots and lots and lots of bamboo. For a while we were convinced there weren’t any pandas here at all and that we’d been completely ripped off. After about 15 minutes of walking Mike mentioned that this felt a lot like Money World in Dorset at which he saw a grand total of four monkeys (two of which were asleep) for 16 quid. Eventually we found them at exactly the right time to watch them being fed. It’s fascinating watching pandas eat because they fairly closely resemble a fat old man munching on a chicken leg, albeit the pandas are a lot more pleasant to look at than that. A highlight was the litter(?) of a six adolescent pandas as they were a bit more active and ran about fighting each other a lot. Most of the older ones just sat about not doing very much.
At about 11am we all completely ran out of energy as the night before caught up with us. We found a little café near a lake in the middle of a park and went in for some food. Just before asking for the bill a rat bolted from the bar directly towards my feet. It disappeared somewhere behind me but I decided it was definitely time to leave. Of all the places in China I’d expect to see rats, an immaculately clean café at a panda sanctuary in the middle of nowhere certainly wasn’t one of them.
After eating we headed back to the hostel to crash for a bit. On the way we managed to successfully haggle with a cabbie! The achievement of the day for sure. We spent the afternoon napping and hanging around the hostel.
For dinner we decided to be adventurous and go to a famous local eatery. Chengdu is located in the Sechuan province, known for its spicy food. I have no idea what the place was called but I’ve never been anywhere like it. On the way in the first thing we noticed was that every table had a huge pot in the middle sat on a gas burner. Each pot was filled with some mysterious broth with various ingredients floating in it. We were shown to our table and chose a pot with two sections: the first had a whole fish and various mushrooms and vegetables, the second was a dark red spicy mix of ingredients I’m still unsure of.
The next step was to find some skewers and cook them in the broth. These, of course, were all very clearly marked… in Chinese. We returned to the table with some safe vegetables and a few random skewers of meat and began “cooking”. Having no idea what we were doing here, we spent about ten minutes looking about to see what everyone else was doing. We’d been given a small cup of yellow liquid (which might have been either tea or oil) and a small bowl of garlic, herbs and vegetable oil which we surmised must be for dunking our skewers in once cooked.
To our surprise, we cooked the food and didn’t die! And it was actually tasty! We made massive mess of everything of course but it was a lot of fun. To add to that, the food and drink only cost about 7 quid each.
We left the restaurant and headed towards a pub called The Beer Nest for a drink. This was a very swanky establishment in the centre of Chengdu around a lot of the corporate type stuff. Chengdu is a city kind of in the middle of nowhere and before I went to China I’d never heard of it. The beer was excellent locally brewed stuff but with a hefty price tag (roughly the same as London prices). Whilst drinking outside, we were approached by an Australian guy who informed us that the entrepreneurs meeting was about to continue inside if we’d like to go in. Mike hastily declined on our behalf but I’d have liked to go along to see how far we could’ve gotten. Turns out if you’re a white guy standing about in China then you get invited to either photo ops or business meetings.
Finally, we made our way back to the hostel and had a few more beers on the roof top veranda. I say veranda, it was a few deck chairs in front of some washing lines. It was a nice way to end a ridiculously long day and we had an excellent view of the city lights.
P.S. Here’s a map of our trip up to this point. I’ll add a new one with each post to show how our journey progressed.