China: PANDAS! Chengdu

PANDAS! PANDAS! THE CHENGDU PANDAS!

Don’t like sex. Couldn’t be bothered reproducing. Only eat food that barely sustains them, although they’re perfectly capable of eating meat. Hmmmm… not the cleverest of animals clearly. But BOY are they CUTE!

Even though they are undeniably silly animals, with little to no interest in continuing their own species, it is impossible to deny that pandas are incredibly, incredibly endearing. Munching on bamboo, sitting on their bottoms, deftly maneouvring massive paws, ambling across my shot…

Silly big bears.

N’awww.

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China: Rickety Bus Lottery, Chengdu

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I love Chinese buses.

The rickety thrill of not knowing where you are, or if you’re going to end up where you think you’re going.

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China: The Everyday Life

The Rickety Bus Lottery

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I love Chinese buses.

The rickety thrill of not knowing where you are, or if you’re going to end up where you think you’re going.

There’s something to be said for doing things the way the Chinese do. All the way across the world, the thing that gets me the most is the chance to experience how other people live their daily lives. I love the terrifying, ramshackle confusion of indecipherable bus timetables, of minuscule print stop names, the hurly-burly locals bustle for seats.

The lurch and groan of the buses in Chengdu screech of ancient machinery, and the rattle of tin-trap assures me the metal contraption has never seen a safe test, let alone heard of one.

Who knows where I’ll end up.
I’m sure it’ll be exciting.

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The Chengdu Noodle Man.

Time for lunch and I’m sitting in a Xingjiang Muslim noodle restaurant that’s at most the size of a small bedroom. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mattress hiding somewhere amongst the cupboards at the back.

I manage to smile politely enough to let the suspicious young chef kindly allow me video him literally pulling the noodles for my lunch, even though he clearly thought I was batty.

 He’s got serious skills, and is extremely polite.

You sure don’t get noodles like this in your ramen-pack folks.

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Thanks Noodle Man!

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Chengdu:

Buses
The Noodle Man

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China: The Monastery, Mt. Emei

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An incredibly serene monastery on Mount Emei.

The only sound is the crickets and occasionally the deep voice of a bell carried across in tiny gusts of wind. Hot and quiet; I barely see anyone other than the grey-shrouded monks at the entrance.

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As I walk around the worn stone steps, I bump into a father and son wandering the monastery; their conversation is close and quiet, assuming I cannot understand, or unfazed by my presence – the son clearly adores his dad.

I come across them again later crowded around a poisonous spider; in a brilliant moment, the two boys, strangers, are amicably clambering over each other to get a shot.

I miss home, but feel very peaceful in the monastery.

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China: Journey to the Mountain

 

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Journey to the Mountain

#1 Gate to the clouds

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It’s a great, heaving breath I take as I step out of a tiny Chinese bus at our first stop on our upwards journey of 3,099m:
the Gate to Mount Emei, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China.

It’s been a stomach-churning drive to this point, but the air is clear, crisp and fresh. It’s a rush of oxygen that comes as a huge relief, not only because of my all-too-familiar feeling of car-sickness, but after a month in China, I’m craving any kind of air that doesn’t feel like a dice with a slow, carbon-monoxide death.

With much reluctance, but greatly refreshed, that I step back on the bus to cross under the arch towards the Emei summit.

Our next stop is the Gondola at the base of the mountain, that departs from within a beautiful, deep-coloured wood building. Unfortunately, however, it’s under repair this time of year, and we’re herded towards the second back-up gondola leaves from behind this beautiful wooden building.

The aptly-named back-up gondola is a tiny, creaky plastic box – a relic from the 80s – which two foreigners can just about squeeze into. For the love of God, do not shake the box. We ascend through five minutes of cloud over tiny, paintbrush trees until we suddenly, with an artistic bust of sunshine, break the clouds…

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#2 Golden Elephant Peak

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The first section of the walk after the death-defying gondola ride takes us to base of Samantabhadra Statue Peak. It’s a stunning eruption that pierces into a swathe of blue sky – the likes of which I haven’t seen much of in China so far.

All along that steep incline towards the glimmering monument, people of all ages, and from all over the world climb the steps at times puffing almost shoulder to shoulder.

All different people, looking, in reverence and revery, and resting tired feet in the passing cloud.

Beautiful.

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Lack of Oxygen:
Peak of Emei Mountain, Chengdu, 3099m

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At the summit of Emei Mountain is this moment of real breathlessness.

The second, and unfortunately not final, terrifying rickety bus across the side of Emei mountain, took us to a  – then unreassuringly under-renovation – cable car, which took full running-jump into the tiny carriage, and proceeded to leak and rock us over proper Chinese mountains and sheer cliffs as the peak began rising up out of an endless sea of clouds.

At the summit rises three monolithic structures, atop an avenue of white-and-gold elephant lined steps: a goliathan gold buddha-elephant-spike, a golden temple, and a silver nunnery. They’re floating in and out of passing clouds, and there are these sudden bursts of gold reflections when the clouds break and the sunlight strikes the shining metal.
The Golden Summit.

All along the upward climb people were silently praying, periodically stopping to force their foreheads to the solid concrete steps, and to put smoking incense sticks and fat red candles on racks – the wax dripping everywhere, big sooty orange flames. People  were dirty, an end of pilgrimage dirt that suited their tired, reverent faces. A brilliant dirt, next to the gleaming temples in the sun and clear, thin air.

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We stayed for several hours, before beginning the quiet, slow decent to the base town.

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Mount Emei:
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China
Pǔxián Púsà (普賢菩薩)
First Buddhist Temple in China
Earliest extant reference to the Shaolin Monastery

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Journey to the Mountain #3

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China: Park Life, Chengdu

Chengdu, We’ve Arrived!

“Dǎdì! Dǎdì! Dǎdì! Dǎdì!”

(打的! 打的! 打的! 打的!)

Repeatedly shouted at, around, and across me throughout my first twenty minutes in Chengdu.

Standing in the 11PM pitch black outside the Chengdu train station, I’m assailed by a mob of cheery, but intimidating, taxi drivers. I’ve never heard this expression for calling a taxi, and am suitably baffled to near tears at the awkwardness of not understanding these two syllables, and, probably more pressing, the pressure to stay awake after nearly twenty hours worth of Chinese long-distance slow train.

Moments in which I wish I wasn’t a tourist.

Needless to say, a quick call to our lovely proprietor at Mr. Panda Hostel, we get English instructions, a laughing translation, and arrive in less than 15mins in a warm, softly-lit hostel reception.
Top Marks.

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Shake It!

The next morning we hit the local park.

I, personally, love seeing and (sometimes under pressure) doing what the locals do in their day-to-day lives – even if its just strolling in the park, taking the wild rickety buses across town, or getting hawked at at the local food markets.

In a large clearing of a park in Chengdu, the local geriatrics congregate for jazz dancing, couples dancing, line dancing and fashion catwalks in the afternoons. They’re mostly pensioners with not much else to do; their sons and daughters work and their grandchildren have school. So they meet in this small open square and enjoy each other’s company with just a strip of worn red carpet to serve as a catwalk, a garage junk-jumble collection of instruments, and a fuzzy (but loud) PA system.

Boy do they shake it, though.

This man can do things with his belly I never thought possible…

“The Old Man Dancing (Vigorously)”

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We have a cheeky go at line dancing (although I admit it took a shed-load of convincing to show the elderly population of complete lack of co-ordination), but with Jakob showing off his dance moves and charming up the local grandchildren, how could I refuse?

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The Dating Classifieds, Chinese-style.

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Outdoor in Chengdu central park there’s lots going on, and finding a life partner is one of the activities.

We walk around the (intently) milling crowds of 40+ classified readers, who feign nonchalance as they scan the simple paper profiles pegged to make-shift display racks of cheap string. The matchmakers give some good promotional chats and I cheekily listen in to their happy conversation; it’s a communal get-together of mild flirting, show-casing and giggling, jet-permed ladies hide behind shades as they walk in pairs between many Chinese men.

It’s a great way to find love.
I think I’d prefer this to match.com…

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[A Musical Interlude]

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In the afternoon sun, a stroll around the maze of pagodas reveals groups of elderly musicians with an amazing variety of instruments – including the Erhu, the Chinese answer to the violin.

I’ve wanted to do this all my life, and I work up to courage to approach a group of old men playing Erhu under the quiet shade of the dark wooden pagodas; a terrifying feat.

This quiet gentleman lent me his, and told me a little about his daughter in the UK. I was a little too embarrassed to try in front of them all, but it was incredible.

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Park Trip Checklists:

  • Find two or more couples getting wedding photography
    (+10 points for cosplay photography)
  • Achieve terrified laughter from the local children, minus points for crying
  • Do all the activities signposted for children
  • Do all the activities signposted for the elderly
  • Join in on the local classes: painting, dancing, and ESPECIALLY the asian-special: stained glass picture making
  • Get a boat trip on the lakes and chase the locals
  • Try all the sticky sweets and lollies on sale
  • Go home and nap before dinner

What a pleasant day’s touristing!

To top it all off, our park day ends with a goodby from this happy lad with his Spongebob Squarepants (海绵宝宝 ) Balloon.

Over and out from Chengdu!

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Chengdu:
Taxis
Dancing
Dating
[A Musical Interlude]
Spongebob Squarepants

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China: Pingyao, A World Away

Pingyao, The Last Walled City

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As I leave Beijing, I’m travelling by sleeper train to whats known as the last functioning walled city in China.

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It’s overcast in the last functioning city of its kind in China.

Walled.

And the walls are impressive. Worth scaling, worth cycling, and worth soaking up the strange time-capsuled quiet in this local town. Most of the industry left here is touristy, but it’s of a resigned kind that seems to be more subdued about its ancient, and now-unpracticed culture.

The walls have been restored recently; they’re only a testament to their original glory. The daily performances of walled city rituals loud and cast in lurid neon costumes.

A glance from the various scenic walls, temples and watchtowers in the city confirms that the grey overcast of the sky only extends into the leeched dry land outside the walls; ain’t nothing growing around here.

 

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GREY, BUT NOT THE RIGHT KIND

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I’m missing home.

I guess the greyness of the barren, but quietly bustling Pingyao city reminds me of the overcast grey skies in Ireland autumns. I spend a day rummaging through the various tourist-trap trinket shops until I find some restaurants containing the locals, where an order of knife shorn beef noodles (刀削牛肉面) almost makes Taiwanese standard, and I phone my mum despite international charges.

Mainland China is so vast, I’m disappointed in my own surprise in its difference from Taiwan, the only Asia I know. There’s no breakfast here I recognise, and certainly no soya milk. The language is heavily accented and the bargaining rough and unfamiliar. Even my soupy bowl of Beef Noodles, the famous Asian kind, is spiced with earthy, unfamiliar flavours.

China is vast.

A little shop, from which a bleary elderly man peers out, has it’s front windows plastered with a plastic red sign in English. It cheers me up a little, and I return to my hostel for a much restoring nap.

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The Band that Won’t Stop.

 

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The traditional band at the afternoon (17:00) performance in the walled city of Pingyao get a little carried away with their own music.

The lead band-man has just given a cool look of derision to the flustered gentleman on a PA system trying, somewhat in vain, to get them to stop so the main theatre performance can go on.

Well, the band’s not having any of it.

On another note, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single instrument that they’re play that funky tune with. I’m not a traditional Chinese music specialist, but if you are let me know…

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Falling Into Spirited Away

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Pingyao City

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I’ve fallen into Spirited Away.

For those of you who haven’t seen this world-wide, award-winning piece of animation by Director Hayao Miyazaki, it’s one of my favourite films. They say the original bath house setting was inspired by a small, traditional alleyway that’s a tourist hot-spot in Taiwan: 九份 (jiǔfèn).

Nevertheless, whether you’ve seen it or not, the walled city at night is magical, dark and mysterious, echoing of a childhood long in the past running through eerily-red light cobbled streets.

One of the most beautiful moments in China.

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Pingyao:

The Last Walled City

Missing Home

The Band

By Night

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China: Backpacking Begins

Going Solo

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Endless trains.

I read Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, The Sea’ and ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card.

I sleep. Alot.

It’s the first terrifying experience of backpacking alone, and as I’m left at the train station, I’m not filled with fear, but a burning shot of adrenaline alertness; a fend for yourself alertness. As I make my way through Beijing Main Station’s steel barriers, I enter a sea of dark-haired heads and become indistinguishable from the crowd. Beijing travelling is hot and sticky and distinctly not modern, and I battle with language barriers and reading barriers to make my platform.

It feels dangerous on the dark platform, rushing towards my cheap L-class, student-cheap train, but the train itself has the light, vaugely clean feel that attempts something clinical for the fifteen something hours six strangers are about to spend in around three meters squared of space.

Being alone, I feel at once reassured and threatened by their presence. Too shy to approach them, wary of being caught in a life-story trap, I curl up with my rucksack at my feet and settle into a long journey interrupted only by the rattle of the untouched food trolley and the occasional jarring-chug into not-my-station.

 

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