My friend Jen and I spent the week traveling in more Western China – starting in Chengdu and ending at the Three Gorges Dam. She did such a beautiful job writing about it all, I’m going to let her be my guest blogger. Here’s the story of the first leg of our trip.
On Sunday, Laura, Matt, and I woke up in Nanjing after oversleeping a little because the alarm clock didn’t go off (just 25 minutes). Luckily, Laura and I are early risers, so we woke up without the clock. Matt walked us downstairs and put us in a taxi, and Laura and I headed to the airport for our flight to Chengdu on China Eastern Airlines (sadly, not a Delta partner). I was very happy with their service. Check-in was easy. Boarding was orderly. Flight attendants were friendly. We had a meal on board a 2-hour flight. Actually, the meal was funny – they came around and asked us what we wanted. We understood that there were two choices, but we couldn’t figure out what the choices were. So, we said noodles. (Noodles were at least one option.) But then we were served all the options. The options included fried noodles (chow mein) with beef and dim sum (assorted dumplings) and a fried egg in a soy sauce-like sauce, a small piece of corn on the cob, and fruit (it may have been cantaloupe). And we had green tea to drink. It was great! We got twice as much food as everyone else on the plane! Sometimes it pays not to speak Chinese well.
The bathroom on the plane was surprisingly clean – most bathrooms are pretty out of control. Most bathrooms are really dirty and smelly, which is surprising since there are so many public restrooms. Most older homes don’t have bathrooms in the house, so they have to go out to use the facilities. That isn’t true for new homes and the new apartments. It really is the “tragedy of the commons.” It’s a little surprising that since it’s a communist country that more people aren’t assigned to bathroom cleaning. There is an abundance of street sweepers, ticket collectors, and taxi drivers. China just needs to reorganize the resources and make more jobs for bathroom cleaners – that or make sure the existing bathroom cleaners are actually doing their jobs.
When we arrived in Chengdu, a man from the hotel met us at the airport and took us to the hotel, the Wen Jun Mansion Hotel. It was beautiful! It had a big, open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the 4-story hotel. The hotel says that the hotel is “Chinese-mansion-like” and in done in the styles of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. I was very impressed with the hotel. We stayed there upon a recommendation from a friend of Laura’s.
After dropping off our stuff and getting cleaned up, we took a taxi to the bus station and bought the ticket for Monday from Chengdu to Emei. We had a bit of a problem. Laura went up and bought the ticket. She said that she wanted it for tomorrow, and the first window waived us away. Plan B: Find another ticket window. We got in that line, and again, Laura did the talking. She sold us a ticket! After taking the ticket and change, we checked the ticket for accuracy. Dang it! It said 19:30 instead of 07:30 (meaning pm instead of am). So, we get back in line, and explain that it’s wrong. She’s flustered and sends us away. Plan C: Find a local. We found a young guy, who we thought looked educated and would likely speak English. So, Laura asked him (in Chinese) if he spoke English. He did. We asked him to help us, but he didn’t want to go up to the window with us. So, we asked him to write in Chinese that we wanted a ticket for am instead of pm. He did. And we were grateful. So, we hopped back into line. And then Plan D fell into our lap! A youngish man (30s) was in front of us. Clean cut. Well dressed. And I was like, “Laura, ask him!” She did. And he spoke English. We explained our dilemma, and he helped us after buying his own ticket at the window. It turns out that Plan B worked, and she sold us the correct ticket. There were some characters before the 19:30 (which we ignored because we didn’t know those characters), but it turns out that the characters mean that the ticket expires at 19:30 on the day that it was issued for – 19:30 wasn’t the bus time. So, the lesson learned here is – if you keep trying, you will succeed. All of that was strange because we weren’t expected to buy the ticket in advance. And there wasn’t an assigned time to take the bus – you could get on any bus that day going to that place. Convenient. But I was used to taking trains before, and train tickets sell out quickly, so you have to buy them in advance.
After our successful bus ticket acquisition, we hopped into a cab and went to the Panda Breeding Center. It was sooooo cool! There were Giant Pandas and Red Panda (they kind of look like raccoons).
We went to the nursery, but there weren’t any supersmall panda cubs there, but there were some playful young pandas there. We also saw some young-ish pandas and the adults. Basically, they were divided by age. The Chinese push a lot, so it was hard to get some of the photos, but I think we got some good photos between Laura and I. The Giant Pandas were mostly sleeping, but some were active. They were eating the bamboo, which by the way, has very little nutritional value.
The Red Pandas were more active, walking around on wooden structures that were built for them to play on. They were all really cute! The Lonely Planet indicated that you could hold the panda cubs for a steep fee (like $150 USD), but we didn’t see that section of the center. But the facility seemed nice (for the most part) and seemed focused on education and preservation. I’m glad we went.
From there, we hopped into a cab and went to Wenshu Temple, one of the largest and best-preserved Buddhist temples from the Tang Dynasty. Before entering the temple, we bought incense (as souvenirs) and rice-dough balls on a stick. The rice-dough balls had likely been fried and then were covered in some kind of sticky sweet-and-yet-not-so-sweet stuff. And then they were served on a skewer. Then, we went into the monastery, looking for the vegetarian restaurant that the Lonely Planet raved about, only to be disappointed. The restaurant was closed; it only served lunch. There was no where to eat in the monastery, so we sat on a bench and had some apples and peanut butter that we brought with us. Then, we poked around the temple and monastery. Somehow (probably because we don’t read Chinese), we ended up in the monks’ private quarters. While going up the stairs, a monk noticed us. He gasped, almost as if we had frightened him, and then he made a hand gesture that indicated that we should not be there. He then pointed to a sign in Chinese (Yeah, buddy! Like that’s going to help! I’m sure there were also signs in Chinese outside the door that told us not to come in it), so we left. The monastery was really nice – very peaceful and serene. Within the walls, there were various temples and places of worship. There was also a massive garden that was well-kept and held a variety on plants. There was also a small man-made lake and was chock-full of turtles. There must have been hundreds of turtles! There were old people hanging out, playing games. There were monks wondering around. There were people putting flowers and decorations everywhere in preparation for a wedding. It was really lovely.
After leaving the monastery, we stopped in a candy shop to get some Chinese snacks for our upcoming travels. I got some peanut brittle, dried kiwi, and some nuts that Jerry’s girlfriend introduced me to. They were kind of like pecans (in the shell), but they were sweet. Afterwards, we hopped into a cab to go back to the the hotel to relax. We asked for some suggestions for dinner, and asked for a hotpot place (most famous in Chongqing, but we weren’t sure that we would have time in Chongqing). We wanted something local, so the receptionist, recommended a place around the corner. We knew that they wouldn’t have an English menu, but food is Laura’s strong point – it’s most of her vocabulary (kind of like my Estonian!) Basically, hotpot is like fondue. There’s a burner on the table, and a large pot/bowl is place on the burner. Oil and water is placed in the pot/bowl, and that is brought to a boil. Oh, and I should mention that they put a ton of chilies in the pot too. So, not only is hot (boiling), but it’s also hot (burn your lips off spicy). Some other flavoring also go into the pot, including but not limited to berries (that explode in your mouth, making that side of your mouth numb – watch out for those!), fish carcass, cucumbers, etc. And then you just throw your food into the boiling liquid, and it cooks. Judging by the color of our skin (it’s hard to hide here), the waitress asked us about spiciness, and Laura said not spicy. So, the solution was to get two pots, one smaller one inside the other. The small one has no chilies in it (just seasonings), and the larger outside pot is filled with the mouth-numbing berries and fire-breathing chilies. At first the large pot isn’t so bad. I mean, it was spicy, but tolerable. But as it kept boiling, the chilies kept releasing the fire and breaking down… and then it became intolerable. We stuck mostly to the inner pot, as we wanted to enjoy the dinner. We had tofu, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, potatoes, and noodles. It’s really hard to fish out those items out of oil (slippery) using chopsticks. After you successfully fish something out, you dip it in a little personal bowl of oil that’s flavored with garlic, cilantro, salt, and oyster sauce. All in all, I think we got a D+ (but an A+ for effort). We dropped one of the metal spoons into the boiling oil, we had no clue what was going on (the waitress just brought us food – we didn’t even order it), we overcooked most of the food, Laura got some boiling oil in her eye. So, it was definitely a comical evening! We had some spicy food, so now we can move on to tamer culinary experiences.