Day 348: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 11/09/2012
The journey continues. And continues. And continues. After minimal sleep and plenty of pages of the book read, everyone is ready to get off. The poor small boy is up and on his sixth meal of the day by seven. The offering of the fleece over his sleeping mother was the turning point in our relationship with the family. There are lots of people gawping at the baggy eyed, greasy haired western couple and there is even time for a few poses for photos and pot noodles (not like the ones at home - actually good ones) kindly donated to us. We are befriended by a couple of English speaking students and hindsight reveals that despite being four hours behind schedule, this has turned into a reasonably comfortable but hugely entertaining journey. The first hour and the one chance at a first impression did little to endear this train to us as every man and his dog brought their worldly possessions - in some cases including the kitchen sink - onto the carriage. However, it is amazing what can be done with a few smiles and a bit of banter.
We eventually arrive in Chengdu, another huge city, this one of around fourteen million people in the entire metropolitan area. A twenty minute cab ride from the station to the hostel costs an extortionate £3 and we are in our room after a mammoth thirty two hour journey door to door. The layer of grease removed from ourselves in the shower needed to be seen to be believed. Just time for tea and my, my, my it is spicy. Liken the sensation in my mouth of the chilli-local pepper combo to putting a whole packet of popping candy in your mouth when it is already numb.
Day 349: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 12/09/2012
Sleep like a baby for a full twelve hours, with me being awoken by the cleaner telling me to move rooms. Ours has a leak. I do so, shower and find Gemma downstairs on the computers. We head out after some advice on the best way to book train tickets and soon find ourselves at the booking window buying tickets for our next epic journey. After managing to get a sleeper ticket this time, we get a typically spicy Sichuan lunch and go for a walk around the city.
Gemma finds herself a pavement based foot specialist, who works wonders, removing dead skin, cracked heels and even starts a verruca removal. He then asks for fifty quid. He gets five. Moving hastily on, we find ourselves in the People's Park, where we discover the most ridiculous thing in ages - a public square full of people of all descriptions dancing furiously in the rain to huge sound systems pumping out some sort of Chinese folk techno music. Some hilarious moves on show here. Hugely entertaining. In addition to this, there are any number of other ways to be entertained here, including traditional opera, theatre and singing as well as some stunning tea gardens. No swings though.
We head to the Wanchau Temple area for the evening and whilst we don't visit the temple itself there is plenty to keep one occupied in the quaint streets surrounding it, which although made purely for tourists, is a good place to visit. Some amazing handicrafts and food available here. A few hands of cards on the rooftop terrace sees the day off perfectly
Day 350: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 13/09/2012
Despite the noise of staying in a room opening onto a communal area of the hostel, we manage another good night's sleep. A cheap, delicious and filling brunch is taken from a nearby cafe shortly after arising, and with the mammoth hard seat journey still fresh in the memory and the pins and needles in the butt, we decide we will book another ticket nice and early, this time for our last big journey of the trip - Pingyao to Beijing.
We catch a bus through the heavily congested streets of Chengdu to Chengdu North station to be greeted by the most enormous train terminal we have ever seen (think Manchester Airport big) and a crowd of people unlike any I have seen in the past twenty years (think Wembley Way on cup final day). There must be a hundred thousand people here and about half that amount of cars, all of them parked in the behemoth of a car park. We manage to find the right ticket window without too many problems, only to be told to come back tomorrow as train tickets are only sold ten days in advance.
Leave the station empty handed to stumble upon a market/wholesale district, which amazingly is even busier than the station was! Imagine any product that you possibly can and you can get it at a bargain price. Imagine a ten foot Spongebob teddy. It's there. Imagine a million hairclips. They're there. Imagine a turtle in a keyring fishbowl. There. All made in China.
Gemma gets some bargain clothes and we end up getting horribly lost in a maze of children's clothing stalls. China at its most enterprising and entrepreneurial best. An early tea and an early night.
Day 351: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 14/09/2012
Up nice and early today for our date with that most famous of Chinese creatures, the Giant Panda. A 7.15 pick up soon sees us stuttering our way through the gridlocked streets of central Chengdu, arriving at the Panda Research Base at around eightish and before long we are watching six adolescent pandas acting like any group of teenagers, reclining on a sort of sofa made of bamboo poles and munching on bamboo shoots, in a pose familiar to anyone that has spent time at university. A tour of the park then takes us on to see a series of mature pandas, some with young offspring giving their siblings a bit of rough and tumble. These magnificent, languid and beautiful animals have the whole crowd of tourists cooing and purring with delight, their insatiable appetites for bamboo shoots being a complete mismatch to the sheer size and apparent weight of these animals. As the morning wears on, the pandas' lethargy and need for sleep becomes more than apparent and the majority of the Giant Pandas we encounter from about half nine onwards are sleeping off a busy morning.
With the adult pandas snoozing, we are taken to the baby panda unit and the sight of two tiny, black, white and fragile cubs has the ladies gushing and definitely pulling on the heartstrings of even the most hardened of the older Chinese men in the group. The use of a baby incubator gave a definite human element to their survival and highlighted the importance of and difficulty in ensuring these elegant creatures' survival. A brief foray into the lair of the Red Pandas - they have free reign over parts of the park due to the presence of purpose built holes in their enclosures. The signs instructing us to not get too close to the Red Pandas - on account of their temper - seems a bit redundant due to the fact that they can run up to visitors, have a chat and walk alongside them on the walkways through the park. Still, a bit more mobile and athletic than their giant cousins, the Red Pandas are another great creature to add to the list we have met this year and before long it is time to jump back on the minibus and head back to the hostel.
A quick lunch is followed by a return visit to the train station, and despite being prepared for the hustle and bustle of the place, we are still amazed by the sheer number of the people here. Return to the hostel the proud owners of two tickets for a hard sleeper between Pingyao and Beijing, before embarking on a rather disappointing Friday night out near the temple.
Day 352: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 15/09/2012
An eventful morning starts at four for me, with numerous trips to and from the shared toilet from our room confirming that I have a poorly stomach. This eventually eases off until about midday, at which point we venture out for a bite to eat. VERY busy around the temple opposite the hotel, with thousands of Chinese day trippers taking advantage of the weekend to come and swoon over a bit of traditional China. The crowds and some of the manners, coupled with my slightly fragile state of bowel and mind, make me a grumpy fellow so my apologies to my patient and faithful companion for this! A cup of scented tea in a traditional tea house and a steaming bowl of noodle soup help aid the recovery so again thanks go to Gemma.
An otherwise uneventful day sees us pack the bags and prepare for tomorrow's onward journey to Xi'an. Chengdu has had its moments, and though we probably stayed a day too long, the spicy food and yesterday's panda experience, not to mention the sheer scale and intimidation of the train station, will live long in the memory.