China Travels #5: Chengdu

Monday 8th June 

We left the hostel in Chongqing at eight o’clock and headed to the metro. It took us an hour to get to the North Train Station. We had plenty of time (thankfully) because what we were failed to be told was that there are two north train stations. We didn’t go to the wrong one but rather we had to catch a bus to take us to the other. Fortunately it was easy to do and soon enough we were on the quick train to Chengdu. Lisa slept the whole way (she’s a hoot to be with eh? Kidding!) and I listened to music. I’m finding it rather hard to keep this blog updated as we seem to be so busy and every time I can write it in just not in the mood. 

Lisa has an Uncle who lives in Chengdu and had kindly offered to pick us up and take us to our hostel. We arrived at midday and were at Mrs Panda Hostel by one where we quickly checked in then headed back out to join him for lunch. Lisa’s family are from Guangzhou so they spoke Cantonese to each other. A small proud moment was when I understood some of it! Appropriately enough he took us to a Guangdong (canton) style restaurant for lunch to eat ‘yumcha’. This concept is similar to ‘having dimsum’ when you go to Hong Kong. It is eating lots of little dishes rather than sharing lots of huge plates. Afterwards we were dropped off at the 人民公园 ‘People’s Park’ to have a wander and see a few sights. The park was lovely to walk through. Even though it was smaller than many other parks, it had a lot going on. There were many groups of old people playing mahjong near the tea houses, people dancing in the bigger open spaces, others playing badminton. The most interesting of all the activities was a few men writing on the ground in water. They each had a long pole with a sponge cut into the shape of a brush/pen tip and were writing out passages of characters. It was intriguing because it looked beautiful. But also it’s baffling to think at how many words and feelings have been expressed yet barely anyone in the world would’ve laid eyes on it. It shows how much is left unspoken. One man was able to write in English, and to be honest, he wrote pretty well! He used constructions such as ‘I’ll’ or ‘I’d’ which Chinese people normally find very hard to grasp. He couldn’t speak a word or English and most of his answers to my questions were grunts. Nevertheless I spent a lengthy time watching him write out many things. After a while it was obvious he was enjoying the fact he was showing off his skill. Many onlookers gathered around us to settle their curiosity (even though most were marvelling at me because I was reading the things alongside this man). One elderly man asked Lisa about me and they had a conversation about me. It does drive me a bit crazy that a lot of the time the Chinese (I guess quite rightly so) assume I know no Chinese at all. Even when I can answer for myself, they’d rather have a conversation with Lisa about me. One lady was asking questions about me once, and I’d reply (and she understood), but she’d continue to look and direct the questions at Lisa. Why can’t she look at me?

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable experience and soon enough Lisa coaxed me away to see the rest of the park. 

Even though the Uncle had already picked us up from the station and really generously treated us for lunch, we were invited to dinner too. Lisa continued to ask me whether I’d be happy to go and in that situation what do you do? Do you decline? Say yes? I’m the guest and personally I don’t feel like I have a say in the matter. I didn’t want to step on her family time with an uncle that she hardly sees. So I told her I’d be happy to do whatever she wanted. She seemed to feel a lot of pressure about what the right thing to was and with the added ‘Chinese culture’ it was definitely difficult to judge. In the end, she accepted the invite. We didn’t have long after going to the park until we were to meet for dinner but we managed to also visit the ‘Wide and Narrow Streets’. It was very touristy and most of it was filled with cafés and restaurants however quite fun. In some parts of the wall that ran alongside one of the streets there were sculptures and scenes from the past carved into them. 

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We had dinner at a restaurant that the Uncle’s wife worked at near the river. Basically, it was a huge ship that was now a building or a building made to look like a huge ship. It was a bit daunting at first because they all spoke in Mandarin. However after a while it got easier and easier. Luckily the Uncle had invited a friend along who was chatty so he was able to keep a conversation going the majority of the time. The food was tasty and I tried Chinese yam for the first time which was delicious. It is like a potato but the texture is crunchy like an apple. Probably sounds odd to you eh? We thanked Lisa’s Uncle for the amazing dinner and his generosity and as we walked home from the restaurant along the river and saw some people had taken their shoes off. After a double take we realised that they were walking along a stony paved area as a natural way of getting acupuncture for their feet! Fantastic yet slightly bonkers idea. Only in China… After a rather uneventful day – compared to others we’ve had – we went to bed around eleven o’clock.. Luckily no one was snoring.

Tuesday 9th June

Today we were due to wake up at half past seven however when I woke Lisa, we agreed to sleep longer. She looked more sleepy than I felt and I was just not prepared to face the day. Despite our roommates banging and crashing we were able to sleep until nine o’clock. As sleeping beauty still looked pretty out of it, I had a quick shower and layered myself in sun cream and two different mosquito repellents. Seriously, I am a delicious treat for these pesky insects. My first thought when I woke up today was: “oh my gosh, it’s the ninth of June? How is it the ninth of June? That’s six days until my birthday…. What? No! I can’t be twenty one in six days. Pahaha. Seriously. I’m going to be twenty one in six days…” and it’s been running around my head since. For those who don’t know, I seriously love birthdays. It’s my favourite thing to celebrate. Anywaaay, today we were going to Leshan. It is known for having the world’s biggest stone statue of the Buddha carved into the cliff side. Lisa wasn’t as excited as I was so I felt a little bad for dragging her along but I’m hoping it’ll be worth it… The bus station we needed was less than a five minute walk from the entrance of the hostel. We bought our tickets for the eleven o’clock departure as well as tickets for 九寨沟 ‘JiuZhaiGou’ on the 11th June. That’s going to be an eight hour day bus ride. Yay. Before we boarded the coach we went to get a takeaway breakfast of noodles from a small local restaurant. And off we went! 

The journey took just over an hour and a half and we realised that we were being dropped off in the small city of Leshan rather than at the Great Buddha entrance. Fortunately there was a local minibus that offered to take anyone going to the Buddha for only five kuai. Fifteen minutes later we arrived and it went a little wrong for a while. Before coming  I had asked a few people about the Buddha and whether it was worth it to go etc and the general consensus was “yes”. However in some respects, expectations weren’t met. The price was higher than we expected – especially Lisa as she wasn’t utterly keen to do the Buddha – at student tickets being one hundred kuai each. Hence she was, understandably, cross for a while. I wondered why she hadn’t expressed her strong feelings sooner. I know that she’s Christian but I have no idea whether seeing a Buddha is something she finds tolerable or not. When travelling with one person you have to say what you think, feel etc because otherwise the other is left in the dark. I felt guilty for the fact that she had wished she hadn’t come however in this case there wasn’t anything we could change at that point. There’s no point being grumpy about something, especially when you’re doing so much that is incredible, and you just have to make the most of it. Be lucky for what you have. I know disappointment and anger can be pretty hard to get over but sometimes you just have to count your blessings. After fifteen minutes of standing outside we went in as we had made the effort to come all the way here. I paid for Lisa’s entrance. It feels generous but to be honest I didn’t feel like a good samaritan at all. But rather someone pathetically trying to make up for something they did wrong. Oh well. I had expected it to just be the Buddha however there was a massive park full of other various Buddha statues that surrounded it. As neither of us had a dying urge to see anything other than the main spectacle, we wandered our way to it and back. It still took us about three hours as the park is quite vast but it was good. Unfortunately quite low on my ratings of the many things we’ve seen in the massive country but nonetheless still another world heritage site ticked off the list! The Buddha itself was impressive. It is difficult to comprehend how it could have been carved into a cliff face back in 716 A.D… The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71 metre (230 feet) tall statue carved into one of the large cliffs by the river. It was made to watch over the part of the river that claimed many lives and stock of many boats about 1300 years ago and many believe that it has fulfilled it’s purpose. To be honest, it is quite cool to say that we have seen the the biggest Buddha statue in the world. 

On leaving the park we considered eating lunch there however as nothing was tempting us into the small local restaurants, we opted to catch the bus to the train station instead. After a long journey on both a bus, a train and a metro, we were starving. Especially since we have been so much recently that our stomachs are unhappy when we don’t eat for a while! We went to the very centre of Chengdu to see the central square that has a Chairman Mao statue. After snapping a few quick pictures I was ready to eat any and everything. I’m impressed at the fact that I haven’t eaten a McDonald’s since I started my travels again and I can only put this down to being with Lisa. She is a good influence! However at this moment I was so close to caving in. I was ravenous. We went down into the ‘Sunken Plaza’ which is a small shopping centre and food court underneath the square. Lisa finally decided to have a dish called ‘maocai’ which is a different type of hotpot but more like a soup with lots of foods cooked in it. It was pretty spicy! As we had to wait for it to be cooked, I dashed into the subway next door to buy a cookie to keep my hunger at bay. I didn’t want to become ‘hangry’ at Lisa so this was the best possible solution. I ended up buying a small sandwich for the next day’s lunch too because I had waited so long and wanted to have a break from spicy food. Another bonus to buying the cookies were to calm my mouth down after I ate the dish Lisa had ordered! It was spicy man! The scale I’ve come up with is:

10 out of 10 is bonkers spicy. You mouth is numbed by the Sichuan peppercorns.

6 out of 10 is very spicy. You feel your mouth, lips and throat burning with little respite.

3 out of 10 is spicy. The spice taste is still quite dominant, you still feel it burn.

1 out of 10 is a little spicy. You can actually taste the food as well as the spice.

0 out of 10 is .. Well, everything is spicy here so it’s gotta be a tiny bit eh? I’d say most Brits are this…..

I’ve managed to work my tolerance level up to a three and Lisa can definitely handle a six. The dish we had was around a five or six. The burn! Nevertheless it filled the hole in our stomachs. To quell the fire I had an ice cream at a place called Caffe Bene and Lisa had an iced tea. Sometimes I feel guilty for going to franchises and proper shops because she prefers to eat the local things. But a girl has gotta eat when she wants to eat so… 

We spent the evening in a shopping district called ChunXi Road. I was on the hunt for a t-shirt that had the numbers ’21’ on it but was unsuccessful. However Lisa bought two bargains: a top from a local store and beautiful black maxi dress from H&M which was thirty kuai! That’s £3! She seemed pretty chuffed which I think made up for the tragedy of the trip to the Buddha earlier on. At half past nine we trudged home shattered.

The life of a traveller! 

Wednesday 10th June 

Today is Panda day. I was also reunited with Saisha, my flat mate, and Vivienne, Juliet and Molly’s flat mate who lived opposite us. It was lovely to see them! It was an early start but utterly worth it. We met in the lobby at half past seven and set off in a minibus to the Panda Research Centre. It took around half an hour to arrive and soon enough we were face to face with some of the most adorable animals on this planet. At first I was rather disappointed because the first pandas we saw were in small cage-like rooms which hadn’t been mucked out recently. Many people were taking my photos but I couldn’t bring myself to. It felt cruel. I had expected all the pandas to be out in the open! As we made our way through the park it got better and better. After seeing the first few, the rest were all outside in large grassy pens. The best bit was the ten month old pandas! They were adooooorable. No one could resist their cuteness. Luckily they were quite active, they ran about the pen, chased each other, climbed trees and fell of some of the wood climbing frame. By falling off, I don’t mean they injure themselves but rather they fall onto their backs with a thud but are cushioned by their thick skin and fur! So funny. We stayed watching them for an hour! The time just seemed to fly…We also saw some red pandas and were able to get up close and have a picture with them. I think they are also quite adorable but the others don’t seem to agree. The panda reserve was really good in the end and definitely twice as good as seeing the Leshan Great Buddha. 😆 We arrived back at the hostel at about midday. I ate my subway whilst Saisha had beans on toast at the hostel then we set off for a pedestrian street called 锦里街 ‘JinLi Jie’. The architecture was rather interesting but it wasn’t the best we’ve been to. Lisa tried lots of food and Vivienne had lunch too. We tried Rabbits Head…… And have written about it in our review! That’s all I say… Hehe. I managed to track down one good postcard but unfortunately the woman who sold a good pack had none left. And she refused to sell me the ones on show despite me offering to buy all of them! Man alive. I bought a magnet which made me a little happier and by four o’clock we had done the street. Saisha and Vivienne headed back to the hostel as they were exhausted from their own travels so Lisa and I went in hunt of a supermarket for snacks. Carrefour was the one we targeted. We bought a few bits – I bought olives! Yum! – to eat on the bus the next day and in the park. Lisa still seemed to have energy to do something but I just wanted to sit down. So, thankfully, we headed back to the hostel. 

Unfortunately, as we had mentioned that we were going to JiuZhaiGou after Chengdu, Lisa’s Uncle and his wife had leapt at the chance to offer us things. Although this is incredibly generous and unnecessary, I use the word ‘unfortunately’ because it’s now become quite a delicate topic with Lisa. She is a very lovely and generous person herself but this has been quite difficult for us both to talk about. The Uncle’s wife has a brother in JiuZhaiGou and had offered for him to pick us up, take us to his restaurant, see a show and arrange for a cab to take us to the airport on Saturday morning. When Lisa told me this I felt very grateful but utterly torn. None of it was necessary but I don’t want to appear rude and decline so I left it to Lisa. From my experience with my ex’s family, it is really hard to decline things that are offered. I did say this to her and, sadly, I don’t think it helped. She spent the next half an hour talking to her mum about what to do and was rather stressed. I just wanted to say, “just say no then”. But I don’t feel like I have a say in a family matter that is not my own. She perceived it as a situation where we were just ‘take take take’. I just didn’t know what to think. Eventually we settled on a plan. We’ll give some money to her Uncle and the brother in the Chinese red envelopes so that we can pay them back but not offend their generosity. Sorted! Even though I can’t shift the black cloud of guilt over my head, I hope Lisa feels happier about the outcome…

We went for dinner somewhere local. Vivienne ordered a dish of stir fried aubergine in a sauce with rice. As it was so humid I chose to order a cold dish and it was not what I expected. It was noodles with carrot and cucumber in a really spicy sauce. Shamefully inedible. 😕 Today was just going downhill. Once back at the hostel we waved off Saisha and Vivienne who were off to Thailand and we got ready for bed. It was only half past eight but we were rather tired. I even managed to fall asleep with the main room light on which is a rarity for me…

Thursday 11th June

A ten hour long bus. That’s all I need to say. 

… Okay. Not quite. Although that is the bulk of it! The journey was rather easy. However the bathrooms at all the service stops are the worst I’ve been in. Funnily enough it wasn’t because it wasn’t clean, they were rather spotless, but the layout is rather cringey. They didn’t have stalls with doors. All the stalls only reach around waist height and are L-shaped with a gap to enter. In the centre there is a trough that runs through all of them. So it means when you walk in, you can’t see people doing their business, but when you walk out you can see everything if you look the wrong way. Eeek….. On the bus I read my book, wrote this blog, listened to music whilst Lisa wrote her diary at times and slept for most of it. She really can sleep. During the last two loooong hours I was listening to music and just letting the world go by. Sadly I wasn’t by the window so I couldn’t look out at the beautiful scenery. Instead there was a guy cross from me who spent a lot of time picking his chin hairs out. Riveting stuff! 

As we know, long journeys can make us think deeply, go into day dreams or memories. It’s four days until my birthday. Twenty one. And that just makes me review the last year of my life and everything else! I’m crazy I know. With ‘See You Again’ by Wiz Khalifa (featured in Fast and Furious 7), I am in a pensive trance. A year ago I was on my way to Paris with my wonderful friends Georgia, Richard, Dave, Huy and Christine. Second year exams were done, the year abroad still felt like ages away. I was feeling utterly frightened at the idea of being an au pair and upset at the idea of not seeing Will for ages. I almost can’t fathom how much has changed. Today I’m sat on a bus consumed by two feelings: one being dread that it is forecast to rain all of tomorrow in the park. We’re having a “Yellow Mountain Moment” and are hoping to have a different outcome: that it won’t rain.The second feeling is mixed negativity and guilt about all this fuss with Lisa’s family and how she is feeling. Totally different eh? But to put a positive spin on things, I’m going to be in a country that I love for my birthday. I am also so excited to return back to the normality of British life, to see the wonderful friends who still make the effort to exchange messages with me. Sometimes, to just do everything in one language for once! Life… 🙂

“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backwards. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, it mean it’s going to launch you into something great. So just focus, and keep aiming.”