Shanghaied, Chapter 12 (Independent Travel, Part 2): The Panda Express

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               Okay. I want you to think of the most iconic Chinese thing you can think of. The epitome of China. A symbol of China, if you will. Picture it for me.

               If your answer is anything other than “pandas”, you either know way too little or way too much about China. It’s pandas. We’re going to see pandas.

               (Maybe you’re thinking, “hey, Gabe, isn’t that question kind of cheating because the title of this post is “panda express”, meaning that we basically already knew the answer to your rhetorical question and also know what this blog is going to be about?”, to which I’d respond that you’re focusing way too much on my leading introductory questions. And now I’m concerned that I may be imagining my readers to be way more nitpicky than they actually are.)

               Anyway. Back on track. Exactly how one gets to see pandas in China is complicated. There are two ways of doing so. The first is finding them in the wild, mainly in the mountains of Sichuan province. If you want to go into the freezing cold mountains to walk around and look at nature, be my guest (spoiler alert: next blog we go into the mountains of Sichuan province). The other, far easier way of finding pandas is to visit Chengdu’s panda breeding center, officially the “Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding”. In order to get there, we had to take a train from our sketchy, dirty, ramshackle train station in southern Xi’an to neighboring Sichuan province. Sichuan is famous for its incredibly spicy food, natural beauty, and of course, pandas. To get to Chengdu, we boarded our 12-hour-long overnight train and got cozy.

               And by cozy, I mean…well, not horrible uncomfortable, but not particularly pleasant either. I opted for a “hard sleeper” ticket, which involves one of a few bunk beds crammed into a small section of a train car. I got the bottom bunk, which gave me a certain degree of privacy. The bed lives up to its name; its softer than, say, a wooden plank or a pile of bricks, but it’s not particularly plush. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely worth the cost, and I managed to get some sleep. The rocking of the train is kind of pleasant, actually. And I knew that it was taking me to see the pandas, which was a great motivator. In that way, it was a sort of…Panda Express.

               (The crowd groans at Gabe’s awful pun that they already knew was coming because of the aforementioned title)

               Next morning, the six of us stumbled off the train and into Chengdu’s train station, and were immediately confronted with a problem. Taxi drivers in China like to do this thing where they refuse to run the meter, instead demanding an exorbitant amount of money for even a quick ride. This is very common at train stations or very late at night, when people desperately need a taxi. A bunch of taxis demanded around 5 times what it actually cost to make it to our hostel, before we finally managed to convince a driver to use his meter (mainly by refusing to get out of his taxi until he turned it on). We eventually made it to our hostel and settled in, exhausted and triumphant. The hostel itself was pretty cute. Lots of cute overpriced brunch options, panda-themed décor, tons of European backpackers, and friendly staff. It’s way better than I expected for the few bucks a night we paid to stay there. Travelling on a budget here often still means travelling in style. As we settled in, we began finalizing our plans to visit the pandas and some of the other great landmarks in the area, and we decided to ask the hostel to help us out.

               It is at this point that I did something that I almost never do.

               I booked a private tour.

               I know that doesn’t sound so bad. But invariably tours to major tourist sites do this fun thing where they take you around to all these “traditional” stores and try and get you to buy things. It can eat up most of the time on particularly bad tours, and it’s incredibly annoying. We booked this tour because it was easier than travelling to the pandas and Leshan on our own over two days when we could do it far cheaper for one. The plan was to visit the panda breeding center and take a private bus to Leshan to see the Leshan Buddha, which is a massive stone Buddha statue carved into the mountains overlooking a river.

               Before that, however, we headed out to visit the People’s Park. The People’s Park is an old park in Chengdu, dating back 1913. It was originally a monument to the Railway Protection Movement, which was a movement that triggered the rebellion that brought down the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. The Park has since been expanded, bombed into ruins during WWII, and subsequently restored. It houses a ton of mini-parks and recreational sites, and is a huge draw both for tourists and locals. We visited a penjing (Chinese equivalent of bonsai) garden, a massive koi pond, a few tea houses, some pretty lakes, and passed by an art auction. They had interesting snacks there, too; I ate a very weird molasses jelly thing. It was alright.

               We also passed by a marriage market, which is kind of like an analogue version of a dating website. There are hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of paper lining the park’s paths, each containing the “credentials” of the eligible bachelor, both men and women. Thousands of ages, careers, hobbies, pictures, and phone numbers are plastered all over the grass, lamp posts, garbage cans, and basically anything in the area that can give you a better chance of snagging someone’s attention. You occasionally see these places in China; there are a LOT of people, and some of them haven’t quite adapted to use the internet yet.

               After our time in the park, we headed out to a restaurant, something I had been eagerly awaiting for a long time. Sichuan food is famous throughout China. It’s delicious and flavorful, but it’s really famous for its spice. Sichuan spice is called málà, which means “hot and numbing”. Sichuan food numbs your mouth until you can barely feel anything except for the burning sensation of the spice. It’s delicious. As with Xi’an, I had a food goal: I wanted to taste some authentic mapo tofu. Mapo tofu is one of the most famous Chinese dishes: tons of restaurants serve it throughout China, and it’s delicious. Umama and I slowly became addicted to it during our time in Sichuan. Traditionally it has no meat, which is great news for me, though restaurants have a fun habit of adding shredded pork to it without letting you know, so I’m always on the lookout.

               A friendly local had advised us to visit a certain local restaurant, which we blindly set out for. After half an hour of searching and Blaise asking for directions in charismatic but broken Chinese, we managed to find it. This process was complicated by the fact that the Sichuan dialect of Chinese is really hard to understand. Something that’s pronounced shi in standard Mandarin is pronounced si in the Sichuan dialect. The accent is also very rapid and thick, meaning that at my level of Chinese proficiency, I could barely understand a single word. But we found the restaurant nonetheless. A fun little thing we found here is that they serve rice in large buckets, which is cute. And the mapo tofu was painfully delicious. All of us were sweating halfway through the meal because of the spice. It burns so good. I also discovered that I can eat for incredibly cheaply if I don’t eat meat. I had a filling dinner of rice, veggies, and agonizingly spicy tofu.

               As evening fell, we headed out to one of the pedestrian shopping roads in Chengdu called Wide and Narrow Alley. Wide and Narrow Alley is your typical touristy shopping street with prettier, older architecture. People sold panda stuffed animals, panda backpacks, panda hats, really anything that could possible be panda-themed (it is Chengdu, after all), overpriced street food, and tacky “handicrafts” that were probably made in a factory a few miles away. It’s all lit up with pretty lanterns and such. It was nice.

               Now.

               I know what you’re thinking. You’ve listened to me prattle on for a while, and still no pandas.

               Well, I’m getting to them. Calm down, hypothetically impatient reader.

               So, we woke up bright and early to meet with our guide. His name is Kevin, and he was a friendly guy who spoke pretty good English. We piled into the small bus that he had gotten for us with a few other tourists and headed out to the panda breeding center. We drove for about an hour through Chengdu, which is a very lovely city. The people there were so welcoming and friendly, our guide told us a bit about the history of pandas and the background of the breeding center. The center itself is a lovely park-like zoo. There are long paths lined with dense groves of bamboo, which is a theme here for obvious reasons. We had to get up early because the pandas are only active during the morning, and they usually sleep during the afternoon. The center itself has a lot of research buildings, and is complete with several nurseries, indoor enclosures for panda privacy, and outdoor enclosures for little panda families. There are also more specific enclosures, such as the adolescent panda exhibit. There’s also an enclosure for red pandas, which I’ll get to in a moment, and peacocks. Not in an enclosure. They’re just kind of around, usually on the roofs of buildings, loudly making noises. That was pretty cool.

               Anyway. The pandas themselves.

               Pandas are...a lot of things. First off, they’re adorable. There were adult pandas lazily lying on their backs, eating bamboo. They eat bamboo by deftly stripping off the outer layers and then eating the internal shoot, meaning that they make a huge mess around themselves. In contrast to their adult laziness, baby pandas like to climb trees. They climb up there and fall asleep, which is incredibly cute. Watching a baby panda climb down from an extended tree branch is fascinating and hilarious, though I was a bit nervous that they’d fall. They’re all just really precious.

               They’re also very floppy. I’m not sure what other word to use to describe them. Adults just kind of randomly flop over onto their backs. Baby pandas will play-fight each other, which is kind of like a long hug that slowly rolls down the gentle slopes of the enclosure. Pandas are very interesting to watch, but they don’t really do much. Ever little action attracts a small crowd. And itt was pretty crowded, especially when there were baby pandas involved. The weather was perfect; it was cloudy and in the low 70s, the perfect temperature for pandas. For what it’s worth, I completely understand the hype. They’re ridiculous and wonderful creatures, even though they kind of just sit around and eat. Though I did see a little baby panda running at a surprisingly fast speed, being chased by a frustrated-looking handler, who grabbed the squirming animal in a bear hug and half-dragged/half-carried it into the indoor enclosure. That was also adorable. Who doesn’t love the little, sweet, curious, black-and-white creatures? Look at those little faces.

               The panda breeding center isn’t just a zoo, though. It serves a critical purpose; they breed pandas there to hopefully release into the wild and help increase the population. As is, they’ve released…two. Getting pandas to breed is hard work, and releasing pandas that have been sheltered for their entire lives into the wild is incredibly difficult. But the researchers here are trying their best. And it’s a beautiful facility with a lot of successes under their belt.

               Quick Chinese lesson. In Chinese, pandas are called xióngmāo, which literally means “bear cat”. They kind of look like bear with a cat faces, so I see it. Giant pandas are called dà xióngmāo, which just means “big pandas”, and red pandas are called xiǎo xióngmāo, which means “small pandas”. And on the subject of red pandas, that was our next stop on the tour. Red pandas kind of look like reddish fluffy racoons. They’re not really related to pandas, which are bears, but they live in roughly the same area and also eat bamboo, along with fruits and vegetables. The kind of look like pandas too, or at least their faces do, but only a little bit. They’re also critically endangered, and they have their own breeding program to keep their numbers up.

               The red pandas were housed in a series of enclosures. One of these was called the “open enclosure”, which struck me as an oxymoron. It’s basically an enclosed area that contains a long path with fences on either side of it, and behind them are the red pandas, moving through the underbrush. As we were walking, one of them walked up right next to the fence. I was so close, and it was exciting to be right next to such a rare and unique animal.

               And then the red panda crawled through one of the holes in the fence. Turns out “open enclosure” is pretty literal. They can just walk around outside the fences if they want, because the whole area is still contained. To everyone watching, though, it looked like the little panda was making a break for it. We all watched, dumbfounded, as he ignored us and walked along the path. That was one of the coolest experiences of all. I managed to eventually pet one as he walked past me, while Eryn frantically snapped a picture. Their hair is kind of rough but they’re really adorable, like everything here.

               After the pandas, we headed back to the bus to travel to Leshan. Leshan is a small town near Chengdu. And by small, I mean that it has a metropolitan area of 5 million people. In China, that’s pretty small, but back home that would be one of the larger metropolitan areas in the United States. I always found that funny; I’d meet people who come from “small towns” of millions of inhabitants. Leshan is most famous for the Leshan Buddha, which is the largest stone Buddha in the world, at around 71 meters tall. The Buddha dates back to the Tang dynasty and was completed in the early 800s. The Buddha has a fascinating story behind it: it is carved into the mountainside overlooking the convergence of three rivers. This area had fierce rapids that often damaged or destroyed the boats that travelled through the area. The Buddha was created to watch over travelers, merchants, and the fishermen that plied the rivers. It took nearly a century to complete, with generations of workers chiseling out the Buddha. Interesting, after the Buddha was completed, so much rock that had been carved from the cliff was dumped into the river that it slightly rose the water level. This calmed the rapids and made the area far safer to travel. I suppose the Buddha was watching over the travelers after all.

               We first took a boat on the river so that we could see the Buddha from a distance and take pictures. The boat ride was brief, and we sailed past the Buddha, photographing it from a distance and admiring the stunning sculpturing. The Buddha sits, calmly looking out over the river, benevolently looming in the distance. It’s a magnificent sight. We were also told that a massive restoration project was planned to build some sort of structure over the Buddha to prevent erosion, but that also would have blocked the view from the river. However, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake halted construction as funds were needed for rebuilding. As such, this may have been one of the last times that we could have seen the Buddha from the river, and I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to see it, even if the reason why was a sad one.

               After the boat ride, we set out to climb to the top of the area to see the Buddha up close. There are a series of stone stairways that lead up through the mountainside and wind up towards the Buddha. Along the way there are statues of animals and Buddhist figures, small ponds, old stone structures, and an ice cream shop, because of course there is. The six of us slowly ascended, resting intermittently as we climbed higher and higher. Once we reached the top, we were confronted with the massive head of the Buddha. In recent years, a large-scale restoration project had taken place, restoring the face, hands, and feet of the Buddha after a millennium of erosion. Next to the Buddha was a large Buddhist temple, where monks conducted religious worship. From there, we began the trek to walk all the way down to the pavilion by the Buddha’s feet. To do this, we had to work our way down precarious stone staircases that zigzag down the side of the mountain, overlooking the Buddha. The pavilion itself is pretty simple. It’s not far above the river, and has a few incense altars burning next to the Buddha’s massive toes. Staring up at the seated colossus, I felt so small and finite. This Buddha, carved over a century, has endured for over a thousand years, impassively overlooking the wide, winding river below. And here I am, a transient traveler, stopping for a few moments to revel in its beauty.

               Following that, we headed back for the two-hour busride back to the hostel, and decided to end our time in Chengdu by visiting the Jinli Pedestrian Street. An old, scenic road in Chengdu, the Jinli street has become a massive outdoor shopping mall-type area, filled with small restaurants, handicrafts stores, and the usual tacky touristy gifts. I was pretty skeptical that I’d find anything here, but Blaise and I broke off from the rest of the group to go grab some food. And there I found it. A food goal I didn’t even know I had.

               I’ll leave you with this. The variety of deserts in China is incredible. There are tons of baked goods, fruits, and all kind of fried “cakes” that are really popular here. But in Chengdu I found something better; a specialty from Yunnan, a province to the south, on the border with Burma. What I found was pineapple-fried rice. Basically, they cut a pineapple in half, core out the inside so its basically a bowl, fry some rice with the chopped-up pineapple and some berries, and put the whole thing back in the pineapple bowl to serve. It’s delicious and amazing and will be added to the long list of delicious foods that I’ve found in China. And it’s creative; you take something that you’d normally throw away, and instead you repurpose it!

               And as always, this week’s worst English is a confusing one. I can’t tell whether they’re trying to protect us or set us up to fail…

               Now. Onwards towards the mountains!

               Zaijian!

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