Thursday, 23 October 2008
Pandas, Warriors, Ghouls and Brains.
Ha! No sooner have I amputated my bruised and bumped person from the sympathetic and predictable sanctuary that was Carrie's sunny Nanjing flat, I was again a wisp of starch at the mercy of the Chinese rice cooker. No, Chengdu was my destination on my premier in-country flight, but t'was not to be the place of landing. Xi'an, some 4000km away from 'Du was where I was plonked, due to 'severe weather conditions' battering the runaways in Sichuan Province. Great. I am about to embark in a little Chinese project of (hopefully) a three month duration in a city that suffers from atrocious amounts of rain and storms. And, it won't let me in. I sleep in the purgatorial lounge clutching the complimentary 'Tuc-Tuc' biscuits, yet the moreish crunch soon inflicts a river-side dust eradicating all moisture from my mute-mouth. Dostoevsky lulls me into a tetchy slumber, until we're back on the airborne vehicle. A text message from He Qi Le, my Chinese colleague, greets me on the 4-hour delayed arrival with "Car has run out of petrol on motorway. Maybe you need to take taxi." Brilliant. Am I destined to do this? Clues from Fate appear to suggest a 'nope'.
But I make it and I meet my boss and am soon having dinner with him and the Singapore partner over a Mexican BBQ in their 5* hotel. Chengdu is grey and bleak. The sky is the same flat grey as the towering buildings that border the Technology Park within which the office and my apartment reside. And it appears to me that I'm in the middle of no-where! The city twinkles on the horizon and I can't even orientate myself in this business park due to being excessively chaperoned in driver lead cars to sample Chengdu hotpots and Babi II bars. Friday night and my mobile rattles into life. "Hiya Flynn. It’s Owen. I'm at the bus station." Owen being a traveller met in Yunnan province and he was now in Chengdu. Right. I only have my obscure address in Chinese and I haven't the faintest where I am. Or where he is for that matter. Great host, eh? "Erm, I'm in my pyjamas and sat in a flat that I've no clue of its precise location." Muttering something about an 'Incubation Park', I leave him to decide if he thinks he can make it or just shack up in one of the city's hostels. An hour later and he informs me he is at the entrance. "HOW??" I incredulously and massively impressed query. He didn't know. And so, the trials and tribulations of the traveller continue to be a mystery in their solution.
So, a taste of Chengdu was for the pair of us, since we were both new to the 'most second most livable city in China.' And, after a few days of non-traveller for me, it was National Chinese Holidays for a week...play time! No.1 Club was our host for party times, with a bottle of beer to lubricate the limbs, supplemented with tactical attachments to local imbibers for jovial cries of 'Gan ba!' to cheekily slurp a shot or two of whiskey or vodka and, of course, a generous refill. Not paid for us of course. A strange and very annoying system operates in Chinese bars and clubs. If you want to indulge in, say, a Vodka and lemonade or a G&T, you cannot simply have a measure in your glass and be done with it....no, no, no. One has to invest in an ENTIRE bottle! Unless you're in a group that is willing to all drink the same, what is one to do? Be a liquor leech in our case. By the end of the evening, I had obtained a collection of Chinese masks, a wiggle on the podium and a distinct lack of sobriety for not many pennies at all! On return to the Incubation Park (by what manner neither of us have the faintest), I was so disorientated, in response to Owen's assertions there is a lake near my apartment, I stormed, "there is definitely no pond here!" and then promptly fell in it. The hero jumped in after me whilst I flailed around in about half a metre of water. Not that I'm dramatic when drunk or anything...
So, what are the tourist activities which one is to revel in? We hop aboard the pea-green number 26 and clunk our way over the fly-overs that divide my residence with the rest of Chengdu civilization. Evicted into Tianfu Square, we’re greeted with the celestial wave of the Chairman Mao, whose figure towers from on high. He is the colour of the first page in a note book – unadulterated and seductively white. But he blurs out of focus, for he does not much contrast with the skies of ‘Du. They continue to laboriously harbour the foggy clouds that squat heavily in the troposphere, creating a 2-Dimensional water-colour of the city’s architecture. Onto the “People’s Park’ for a jaunt around the lake (no, I didn’t have a dip in this one) to watch the Chinese at play, peddling about in boats and slurping on yogurt. Yes, they are a big fan of yogurt, but not of other dairy products, which is interesting. Owen and I absent-mindedly nibble on an oven baked sweet potato from a street vendor as two little girls lace our sitting place with rainbow flaunting bubbles. It is almost like sitting in Stanley Park (Blackpool, for those unfortunates who have never fed the ducks there). Except everyone is Chinese instead of Sand-grownian. Daring as we are, we pay 8RMB to descend into the bowels of the park within which a horror-ride awaits us. The Indian Jones Picaro figure beside me, that claims he desperately desires to be forced to stitch his own wounds out in some wilderness and live to tell the tale, excretes a careering car tyre screech and leaps behind me as I fumble about in the dusty darkness. A wizened rubber mask attached to some fabric adorned stick pops up from the abyss and an echoic cackle resonates around the tomb. We yelp, and then are ashamed at the fact we actually allowed a pit of fear to percolate in our guts and then to make it public though a pathetic squeak and squeal whilst beseeching the other to turn the next corner first. And this was no high-tech, atmospheric ghost tour, but a series of boxes which housed mechanized geriatric ghouls of varying mobility. The faint hearted would probably have asked for a refund. Like true English, the only solution was a cuppa, so we pulled up a crude bamboo seat and grabbed a green tea at the much famed Teahouse.
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary was a particular delight! It is home to over 30% of this bamboo-chomping endangered species. Little Roland fact**A giant panda may consume 12-38 kg of bamboo a day to meet its energy requirements.** But that may well be because there is hardly any nutritional value in this stuff, strong as it may be. The little baby pandas were sooo cute, and it was wicked super cool to watch these crazy carnivour–turn-herbivores killing time. A bear that actually has a bit of a badger look about its snout, that lounges around and no-one knows whether they’re male or female! And costs about 30quid to get a close-up and a stroke. Gave that one a miss.
Back in Chengdu city, we hit the ancient streets, sauntering down alleys around Renmin Zhonglu, we mooched around Wenshu Temple a monastery which dates back to the Tang dynasty, and is allegedly Chengdu's largest and best-preserved Buddhist temple. The highlight perhaps was the pond in the centre of the monastery that was saturated with terrapins!! They are cruising around, some giving other cheeky rides on their shells, or simply hanging out on one of the artfully placed rocks. I like their little feet. After working up a fierce hunger, and bamboo not really whetting our gourmand appetites, we head to a local Hotpot restaurant with a newly acquired nomad, Mark. The concept of the Sichuan hotpot is not to be undervalued. "Huo Guo", the actually translation being ‘fire-pot’ is the quintessential Sicuhan dish. A large steely bowl is set in the centre of a table upon a naked flame, inciting the dark myriad of spices to bubble and boil in the chili saturated soup. Once the soup is as hot as its ‘mingzi’, a variety of raw ingredients are added and then plucked out by nimble chop-stick manipulation once their cooked. Well, we had a great array of meats and ingredients that we chose to added to our cauldron of fire, such as mushrooms, potato, tofu, cucumber, ducks’ heart, thinly cut beef (Ge rou) and sticks of chicken (Ya rou), but perhaps the most exotic was the pig brains. Yes, the cute and compact pink spongy matter was cradled delicately in a ladle so as not to crush it whilst plundering the pot for other delightful morsels. Unfortunately, there were no fava beans, nor a nice Energon kiante to accompany my slice of convoluted cortex.
Exhausting the ‘Du, the rapscallion and I aboard the 16 hour choo-choo that is chartered for Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. One of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, it has a history of over 5000 years, and was capital during the Qin, Han, the Sui and Tang dynasties. Another little fact for you historians, is that Xi’an is the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road, and that’s perhaps why there is a lively and interesting Islamic quarter within the ancient city walls, which are host to an excellent array of street snacks of breads and meats, with crazy deep-fried sweets and gooey rice cube soup.
But it is not for the food that we journeyed to this city which boasts such a colossus legacy. Ejected from our hard-seat of too many hours into the hustle of the train station, we grab a cab and find solace and showers in our hostel. An afternoon of exploration leads us to the Bell and Drum Towers in the centre of the ancient city, juxtaposed with the surrounding onslaught of modern commercialism. The ‘Bucks and the Mc’s fluorescents are awkwardly vulgar against the glow of the ancient gold and red architecture. But then, this is China and it is this fusion of stark clashes between the ancient and the modern that characterises many cities. We sample the street food of deep fried bread with chili and lettuce (??!! A significant first of fresh salad style foodstuff for me in China!) and hit the hay for sleeping in preparation for our Big Xi'an DAY.
Yes, to the much famed Terracotta Warriors went we. Based an hour from the city, we tumbled out of the bus to be greeted by a market of polished pomegranates, pregnant with sweet seeds and proffered by the tens of local sellers from their wicker baskets. But the fruits of contemporary local labour was not our port of call. Into the museum and anticipation gurgled in our tums, for the 7000 Army figures had lay underground for over 2000 years. The site is divided into three separate pits, Vaults 1, 2 and 3. They found that the first discovered and largest vault is Pit 1, where over 6000 pieces reside, and are thought to be the army infantry. The other two pits play host to the cavalry and main officer units…yes, horses and everything! Incredible are the range of hairstyles, facial expressions and stances that this army exhibit. Incredibly, this whole ancient masterpiece was only discovered in 1974 by farmers, whose well pulled up fragments of the warriors!! This entire construct is a form of funerary art which was buried with first dynasty emperor, Qin Shi Huang in 210BC. Similar to the Egyptian concept of burial ritual, the purpose of the army is to assist Emperor Qin lead another empire in the afterlife.
National holidays are but only a week long and we were eager to squeeze as much Shaanxi shenanigans as we could. So back to the city, and then into a bus queue for our next destination, Hua Shan, (华山). This holy mountain stands at 7, 218ft high (2200m) and is one of five in China that is held sacred by Taoists. Well, we certainly were privy to the pilgrimage of Hua Shan! Adopted by a group of Xi’an university students, the leader introduced himself as “I am Candy – sweet like candy.” I stifled a giggle as Owen jabbed my rocking ribs. We were to follow them up this trail to the East Peak, the peak which is to reveal the most spectacular sunrise. Yet, we were not alone. Apparently over 2000 Chinese were to be accompanying us on the ascent. This, I have to really, emphatically point out was the oddest mountain climb I’ve ever encountered. Firstly, it was at night. Yes, an all nighter on the mountain with a couple of bread buns in our bag for sustenance. Like many things in China, it isn’t what one would expect. There are stairs all the way up to the pinnacles, lanes and paths that are flanked by ‘shops’ providing noodles and cucumber and water and eggs and respite from the grueling stairwell.
It was incredible! The path was saturated with people, and sometimes a bottleneck would form at narrower points on the trail. Young people such as ourselves scooted about in jeans and Converse, whilst little old men and ladies heaved themselves peak-bound upon their walking sticks. I was knackered, to be honest. It revealed how very unfit I had become since the mauling of my ankle and head, and my lack of agility was shamed by the tenacity of these Chinese elders. The path thickens with sleeping bodies and even tents the later it becomes and the higher we climb. A stab of jealousy slashed at me as I see people huddled in large army jackets nursing cups of tea as we surge on. True miner style with a flashlight on my head, we bumbled up and up and up for over seven hours, only to find that the peak which we wish to clamber up..is full! It is 4am and the twinkling lights of the mountain are blaring before my fatigued eyes. And it is getting bloomin’ cold! A Chinese proverb goes as follows: “here is one path and one path only that goes to the summit of Hua Shan.” And yes, the underlying suggestion that it is hard work is definitely the case.
So on we plod, to the South Peak, where we will sneak ourselves past some authority in order to find a suitable stony seat for the spectacle we came to view. We wait. The theme tune of the Guinness advert spins in my aching mind…dun dun dun de dun dun. Is it going to be worth all this effort and exposure to potential contraction of pneumonia?? The skyline begins to glow at around 6.11am, whilst I dance about in a concerted effort to remain awake and obtain some feeling in my chilled digits. A sunrise has never been so eagerly awaited and we fawn over each extra degree of light that emanates from the horizon. A cheer resounds across the five peaks of Hua Shan as the yokey orb peeps out from behind its rocky shell. The sky slowly metamorphoses from an inky cape intricately embroidered with Swarovski Crystals into a myriad of purples flecked with fiery hues, gradually intensifying in such richness and strength,that even the most exquisite silks of Imperial Qipau could never recreate the kaleidoscope of colours that adorn the mountain peaks. The optical spectaculum crescendos at 6.44am. The plight of capturing the point at which the sun rising is at its most esthetically perfect by digital camera leaves me in awe of Monet’s avid switching of canvas whilst attempting to recreate such natural beauty with paints. He summarized his aim of painting in 1926: "I have always had a horror of theories, my only virtue is to have painted directly in front of nature, while trying to depict the impressions made on me by the most fleeting effects" .
We pottered around the remaining peaks in the crisp morning light, checking out the amazing views, the ‘Sea of Clouds’ that nestled amongst the nature rock sculpture and tussled with the thousands of Chinese back down the mountain…well, half way, because then we cheated and took a cable car back to the lowlands!
Back to Xi’an and we are TIRED but satisfied! Crashing into my bunk bed, sleep suffocates me into unconsciousness almost instantaniously…and a celebratory ‘Great Wall’ rouge is the celebratory tipple of choice for the eve.
Which brings us to Saturday, our final day in the ancient capital. We spend it zipping around the top of the city wall upon a lovely set of wheels. It is the most complete city wall that has survived in China and was built during the Ming Dynasty, standing at 12 metres high. The top of the wall was quite wide, being 12-14m across…and still Owen managed to have a crash up there with a fellow cyclist!! I was pretty darn tired after speeding around the entire 13.7km of wall, so we decided to indulge in a nice cup of tea and some steamed dumplings as a reward.
And so, the train back to Chengdu. Owen was off to Beijing and then Mongolia, but ‘normality’ rather than ‘nomadity' was to be my lot. The train journey, however, was to impress on my mind that travelling can be an arduous task at times. For it was the end of my holidays and that of the entire population of China, so, needless to say, it was a distinctly busy train. Thank goodness I had a set reserved, even if it was to be shared with several others! Along my bench which seats three, was occupied by a mother, father and child, myself and another Chinese chappie, perched on the end, whilst many simply chilled out in the aisle. Going to the toilet was not an endeavour to be taken lightly, especially since I was in the middle of the carriage! The collective groan that sifted up through the smoking air when the food trolleys slugged through, dislodging inhabitants of the grimy floor always made me chuckle.
With child crying to my left and sunflower seed crunching to my right, the amazing patience and lack of need to entertainment in the Chinese simply astounded me. There was I, iPod, Phone, books and so forth, whilst others simply looked on. Sixteen hours and a mysteriously broken flip-flop later (I was asleep when it happened), we’re back in Chengdu…now to really see what living in China is like.