The blog of Sam Holliss
You may recall back in 2012, while on a short break before starting work at Bannistar, I spent two weeks in Thailand at Rawai Muay Thai, immersing myself in the world of Muay Thai full time. Prior to this, martial arts had always been a part of my life, with childhood spent wrestling and boxing with my brothers on the trampoline, my teen age years spent training in Taekwondo at high school, my early professional life training in Hapkido, and the commencement of my study of MMA when I arrived in Singapore. Up until my Muay Thai camp though, it had always been a minor part of my life. A past time one might say.
Returning to Singapore from Thailand, I was struck with the realisation that the injuries, sweat, and effort would shortly count for nothing, unless I capitalised on it, and continued forward with it as a key part of my life, instead of that thing I did when I had nothing else to do.
So I did. I stepped up my training at Impact MMA. I started taking notes, reviewing my progress, talking to the fighters there, asking questions, getting guidance, and treating it like a proper study, rather than pass time. My regular instructor at the time seemed to notice this, and one day took me aside and asked ‘Do you want to compete?’
It was an immediate answer: Yes. How else would I have the motivation to continue to push myself, to grow, and to study with earnest. It was a no brainer.
Fast forward a few months, and while attending an amateur MMA event, the head coach, Bruce, approached me and asked if I wanted to fight next month in a Sanshou competition. Of course I said yes, and googled Sanshou as soon as I reached home that evening. For those as in the dark as I was, Sanshou, related to Sanda, is essentially the competitive outlet of Kungfu, with rules that allow punches, kicks, throws, and wrestling. Due to it’s considerably open rules, it’s quite common for fighters from other backgrounds such as Muay Thai and kickboxing to compete.
The weeks leading up to the event were spent brushing up on specific Sanshou strategies and techniques, building up my overall conditioning, and a spectacular introduction to Shark Tank sessions. It turns out the prospect of a fight is a huge motivator to pushing yourself further – it becomes a race to see how many hours you can put in before the day. You become conscious of the fact that every session you don’t train, or every drill that you don’t give your 100%, is an advantage that you give to your opponent, and that a fight actually lasts several weeks, with the actual bout being the crux and final hurdle.
The day arrived. After the weigh-ins, the Impact team went off to lunch. Conversation took on a bizarre mix of bravado and humility, and the impatience to get on with it was obvious. As one of the heavier fighters for the day, I had quite a wait. I occupied myself with helping the other Impact guys with warmups and gearing up. And then it was my turn.
I don’t think I breathed for the first minute of stepping onto the mat. It wasn’t getting hit that had me nervous. I had to perform. I had to do well, for my gym, for my instructors, for my wife and friends that had turned up to support. Suddenly, things were very, very real. The bell rung, the referee motioned to start, and my opponent opened up with a kick to my leg. The impact felt surreal. So much adrenaline had rushed into my body, that I could have been on copious amounts of morphine. But it did wake me up. The first round was spent feeling him out, catching kicks, trading blows, and trying to regain my breath. The bell rung again, end of round, back to the corner. Bruce and Shaun started feeding back to me – more push kicks. Keep your range. Don’t let him fight inside. And then the break was up. The referee motioned us back onto the mat, and that was when I realised I was fine. My opponent was slow in getting out off his stool. Slow to walk across the mat. He was breathing heavy. I spent round two keeping him at range, finding openings, and avoiding giving him points. He did manage a double leg takedown, but due to him contacting the ground first, it didn’t count against me.
The fight gave me a taste. It was a low pressure event, yet there were so many nerves and so much excitement leading up to it that it affected my abilities. It was a great learning experience, giving me valuable insight and knowledge on the proceedings before, during, and after a fight. Next time I’ll be ready. I watch, re watch, and re analyse the fight video constantly, watching my technique, watching my responses, observing what works, what doesn’t, what makes him move, what makes me move. I’ve stepped my training up even further, focused more, and every session I do I come out feeling stronger, wiser, and more ready.
It’s just a matter of time now.
Hi there. It’s been a while.
Yes, I’m still alive. Yes, I’m still in Singapore. Yes, I keep thinking ‘What a great blog update this would make’.
So, standby for some epic catchup stories. My last actually interesting post was in August 2012. There’s been a few things that have happened since then, and I look forward to sharing it with you.
Just to whet your appetite, here’s a few things up and coming:
· MMA: All in
· Wedding Part 1: New Zealand
· Wedding Part 2: Penang
· The Other Japan: Kagoshima and Yakushima
· In the Studio: An updated snapshot of my career
And many many more stories and tales.
So it’s that time of year again. Time to compare my expectations for 2012 with the actual outcome.
1) Develop my creativity and ideation capabilities. I have become a Senior Designer at a Japanese design agency. Development and growth has been mandatory, with each new project bigger and more exciting than the last.
2) Become fluent in Rhino 3D. Before I left Holmes and Marchant in August, I was working almost every day with Rhino 3D and V-Ray. I’d say I’m adept now.
1) Hit the gym at least 3 times a week. It’s been a bit of a rocky road with the gym this year, some weeks were great, some weeks I forgot it existed. I spent plenty of time on the mat doing martial arts, but not terribly much time doing anything else.
2) Match my alcohol consumption with my gym attendance – 1 pint = 1 gym session. Yeah. No.
3) Compete in the 2012 Men’s Health Urbanathlon. Tick. I’m planning on doing it again next year – if I can get a handful of keen team members!
4) Develop my ground fighting abilities at Fightworks Asia. So Fightworks Asia went bust. Fortunately I had already left a few months beforehand due to moving to a different suburb of Singapore. I now train at Impact MMA, and I haven’t looked back. It’s a lot smaller, but I’ve discovered this year that is what suits me – I thrive on small teams and friendships, and there’s plenty of that at Impact. Since spending two weeks in Phuket at Rawai Muay Thai camp, I’ve concentrated on my groundwork, and while it’s come a long way, there’s still a very long way to go.
1) Travel through Japan. Since starting at Bannistar, I’ve been fortunate to go on two trips to Japan – one to Osaka, and one to Tokyo. Unfortunately due to other events in Singapore, I wasn’t able to stay there for long. This year I’ll be trying to get there for a longer stay – so far what I’ve seen in-between meetings and flights has been absolutely incredible.
2) Visit Mum and Dad in Salisbury, UK. Tick. Our Europe trip took care of this one. Was great to see how Mum and Dad have settled into a new life in Salisbury, and lovely to see how even though our childhood house in Papatoetoe was sold, we still have a family home that feels just like the old one (albiet a bit smaller).
3) Go on more weekend trips to nearby countries. Tick. Penang, Bali, Phuket, Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Pulau Dayang, and plenty more. Living in Singapore really helps for that exotic weekend away. (Oh yeah – we got our Open Water Dive licenses too).
1) Get back to drawing. Sad face. Not yet. I have however resumed my calligraphy.
2) Live more sensibly. Yes. Since Yean started on a strict diet, we’ve taken to cooking at home almost every night, I’ve adopted a breakfast of two eggs and toast every morning. As a result, we’ve found we get sick less often, and we are in much more positive frames of mind.
3) Improve my sense of fashion. Kind of. Getting there. Almost. It’ll happen.
4) Get my blog caught up to present. Still going on Europe – that’s taking some processing. Stay tuned.
5) Learn Mandarin. Starting at a Japanese agency has meant I need to concentrate on relearning Japanese. Mandarin will have to wait for now.
1) Do more art. One framable piece every 2 months.
For a long time now I’ve wanted to do some form of a martial art camp – the idea of spending days or weeks submerged completely in a particular school and the amount of learning and fluency that could be gained from it appeals to me greatly. So when I had the chance to spend 10 days at a Muay Thai camp in Phuket, I leapt at the chance. In Singapore I’ve taken up MMA, and before that I trained in Hapkido in Auckland at Kingsland Martial Arts, with Taekwondo before that back in high school. All that meant I hoped I wasn’t getting into something over my head, and that I wouldn’t be a complete rookie upon arrival.
Prior to heading off, I wanted to get into as best shape as I could – the fitter you are for fight camps, the less time you spend sucking in air and more time learning. In order to prepare, I took personal training sessions with a friend’s referral – Dilip. I’d highly recommend him if you’re looking for a Muay Thai personal trainer within Singapore – his flexible approach to training meant we were able to concentrate on conditioning and fitness, while still having time for essential technique time.
The camp I elected to go to (there are several in Phuket) was Rawai Muay Thai – again on the recommendation of a friend who had spent a month there the year before. Being in Rawai, at the southern end of Phuket, it’s miles away from the nightclubs and Ping Pong shows of Patong, and away from the rush and the roar of the big resorts scattered around the main beaches of the island.
I arrived on Saturday morning, and started training that afternoon. The training facilities were rather spartan – a steel roof with no walls, concrete floors with carpet on them, and an array of benches and treadmills from various decades. All of it was great. Everything that was required was there, everything that wasn’t needed, wasn’t. The training sessions followed a set routine, with two rounds of warm up shadow boxing, five rounds on the bags, and five rounds of pad work with the trainers. Following that was the particular focus of that class, whether it was clinching, low kicks, or the wai kru. There were 3 group training sessions per day, one in the morning, and two in the afternoon. The days started with a 7am run, and in the 4 hour break between morning and afternoon sessions the trainers were available for private sessions. Essentially – there was the potential for long, physical days.
Here’s how the ten days went, according to my diary:
A single afternoon session, turns out Saturdays are a bit more relaxed than weekdays, and after 5 rounds of bag work, and 5 rounds of pad work, we covered a small amount of muay boran, an interesting predecessor to Muay Thai that seems to also include a fair bit of standup wrestling. I gassed a fair bit on the bags – they are rock solid and must weight as much as a large man. The pad work was good – obvious areas that need improvement, but I proved I wasn’t a beginner – exactly what I set out to do.
Sunday is the day off for the gym. Did a weights session in the morning, and then rented a scooter for the afternoon to check out Phuket Island. Turns out it’s huge. Took about half an hour to get to Phuket Town to meet up with an work colleague, I then headed to Patong, the main party strip, quickly rode through there politely ignoring the cat calls of the massage palours. The one time I hopped off the bike to have a look at a market, I bumped into a couple of friends who we toured Beijing with. I got back to the guesthouse by about 7pm liberally specked with insects and road dust.
First full day of training – not the best performance from me for the morning, however my chunder mid-session was quite spectacular. Afternoon went better, however I now need to re-programme my clinch. Setting up for a hip throw by hooking the arm up is not good Muai Thai it turns out, and results in a foul.
No chunder for the second full day of training, just a lung stretching session of pad work and sparring for the morning. The afternoon was going great guns until clinching began again. It turns out that despite being quite effective in take downs, hooking the leg is illegal in competitive Muai Thai. More reprogramming is required. I have to keep reminding myself that I am here for Muai Thai, not MMA, not Hapkido, and definitely not BJJ.
Noticeable improvement on both my technique and stamina this morning – turns out correct technique = less energy required. I’m getting accusomed to the heavy bags, and my sparring is improving as well. In a fit of madness I also included an hour of weights during lunchtime, which had ramifications later that afternoon, when towards the end of the afternoon session I was struggling to raise my arms, let alone throw strong punches.
Today was a breeze. Call it a second wind, call it coasting, I don’t know what it was, but I strolled out of the gym tonight feeling great. Perhaps this is the plateau from which I need to spur myself onwards? My stomach is having a bit of a hard time adjusting to the amount of protein I’m forcing down every day, I suspect it’s due to the low grade beef mince from the numerous burger and mexican restaurants around. Resolving to be more selective about what I’m eating, and concentrate more on good, quality foods.
Just a morning session today, as I fly out for Penang this afternoon to meet up with Yean while she has dental surgery done. Knowing that I only had 2 hours of exercise, I went all out, and ended up hobbling away after the session thinking that was a stupid thing to do. My feet are starting to swell around the ankles, and my left knee is hurting when it is flexed. I’m glad I have the weekend off.
In Penang, and to celebrate having a weekend off, I find myself going for a morning run in the Botanical Gardens with Yean and her sister, Ivy. My feet are killing me today, and my knee has stiffened up a lot. My gut is also complaining, and it seems like my body is struggling in general. I’m not sure if it’s because of yesterday’s hard training, or the heaving smog that’s lying around Penang.
My feet are so swollen today that I cannot run. The veins that are usually visible on the surface of my feet have disappeared altogether, and my ankles have lost all form. My knee also hurts when I walk. Fortunately I’m able to rest it, and have my feet up for a lot of the day. I return to Phuket tonight, and unless my ankles heal overnight, I’m not sure how I’m going to train tomorrow. Upon returning to my room in Rawai, I get a few cans of ice cold coca-cola and roll them over my feet and knees. Using some compression straps I brought with me to Phuket, I go to sleep with my feet raised and bandaged, hoping for the best.
My feet were pretty much healed by the morning. It turns out a weekend off does wonders for a body – today’s training was full of explosive kicks and punches, and while I’m sure the trainer falling over from my kicks was a bit of hollywood he reserves for over-eager students, it sure felt great. I went a bit easy on the bags, as I’m fairly sure they were the leading reason of my swollen feet on the weekend – that and the daily barefoot training.
A good long day today – with only two days left of training, I’m turning up the heat, and went for a private session during the lunch break as well as the group sessions morning and afternoon. Learnt a whole heap of new techniques in the one on one session, which I’m going to have to put into use as quickly as possible before I forget them. All round a good feeling after todays training, except in the cool down there was a rather sharper-than-normal pain in my left knee – I’m hoping it can be fixed with some ice and compression tonight.
My last day of training – as I was walking to the gym I had numerous theme songs going around in my head. However the tune that ended up stuck in my head all day was ‘Nobody’ by the wonder girls. The morning’s sparring featured a short guy who made up for his height by landing some pretty full on shots – this showed up a few holes in my technique, however it was with some relish that I noticed how much my sparring had improved. My second sparring partner must be the tallest person I’ve fought with in my life – a decent half-head taller than me (I’m 188cm tall) and a significant reach advantage. That showed up many areas for improvement, especially on my distancing and timing. Word of advise: never tell your trainer it’s your last day. The afternoon was a session from hell. With an intense pad session that was relentless and fast paced, I ended up spewing again – poetic one could call it – I started at the camp with a chunder, and concluded with a chunder.
All in all, a great experience. It is a rare event to be able to spend a couple of weeks fully immersed in a pursuit of any kind. The amount that I learnt and developed over the 11 days was huge, and I can’t wait to see how I stack up against people back at my gym in Singapore, Impact MMA.
A few tips and hints I learnt during the camp:
· Always keep plenty of drinking water in your room – I was going through anything between 9 litres to 12 litres every day.
· Tape your feet – training barefoot everyday means the balls of your feet get worn down. Eventually callouses come along, but these can easily tear off, which cause all sorts of pain and interferrence.
· Break in your gloves and gear before you get there – there were plenty of beginners at the camp, and they all were suffering from new gloves for the first few days. Make sure your gloves fit and are well worn in before starting, to avoid sore hands and blisters. I use Hayabusa Sparring Gloves (16oz).
· Bring all your gym gear – I had 4 sets of gym gear, and after each session I’d handwash the used gear and hang it up in the bathroom to dry. It would generally be dry by the time the same session came around again the next day.
· Hire a scooter – Rawai is fairly sparsely laid out, so to get anywhere it’s either half an hour of walking, or 2 minutes via scooter. Just make sure you wear a helmet.
If you ever have the chance to do a camp like this, I’d say leap for it. For beginners, it’s a great start to the world of Muay Thai – learning from professional fighters and trainers ensures your foundations will be taught throughly and properly. For more experienced people, it’s an opportunity to take your sport to the next level – training every day all day is a luxury that isn’t really an option in day to day life. For people who practice other martial arts, it’s a great way to expand your understanding of general martial arts, and condition your body to help with your elected art.
Should you want any more information on anything I’ve mentioned, feel free to message me or leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to give you any information I’ve got, what I did, and what I’d recommend for next time.
At the start of the year, Yean and I decided we’d finally go for our scuba dive license. It’d been a long time coming – I had been tempted to do it while in New Zealand, but together with not terribly much spare cash, and not terribly much spare time, I never got around to it. Transplanted in Singapore, it was a very similar story, until Yean decided one day in May that she couldn’t wait any longer, and booked herself in for a PADI Open Water course, starting that night. Grumbling and complaining about having no time to see it through, I signed up too, and was immediately grateful that I did. We went through Amazing Dive, as they seemed like the friendliest, most laid back option out of the wide selection that’s available in Singapore. It turned out to be the right choice – great instructors, great company, and a perfect start into a new sport for both of us.
The course structure involves two night classes, each about 3-4 hours long depending on what your classmates are like (we had a particular fellow who loved to ask rather pointless and irrelevant questions, prolonging our first class to a weary 5 hours), a day long pool session where you get familiar with scuba equipment and basic techniques such as buoyancy and ascending, and finally a weekend of open water diving, with the dives focused on real world skills and techniques. There were two choices for this, Pulau Tioman or Pulau Dayang. Upon a friend’s advice, we elected for Pulau Dayang, as it is smaller, further away, and far more basic – which sounds like heaven when you haven’t left Singapore for a few months.
To get there was a rather long ordeal. We hopped on a coach in Singapore at about 6pm Friday evening. We crossed the causeway into Malaysia, and headed for Mersing, a small town on the east coast where the ferries to both Dayang and Tioman operate from. We arrived at the Mersing Jetty at about 11pm. Due to another boat being late leaving, we had an hour’s wait before we could board our dive boat and head off. It’s a three hour voyage to Dayang – and if you’re lacking sleep (like us) the best place to head to as soon as you get on the boat are the bunks in the center. Don’t be silly like us and go for the seats in the front of the boat – the central aircon unit is located in that room, and it gets very, very cold. We arrived at the Dayang Jetty by about 3.30am – all in all it took about 9 hours to get there. We were hoping by that stage it was all worth it.
It wasn’t until we woke up on Dayang the next morning that we realised how basic it was – and it was beautiful. Complete with running water and flush toilets, it had everything to make life comfortable, and nothing more. Everything from the fine white coral sand beach, to the crystal clear waters swirling around the rocks that frame the beach made the island the perfect tropical getaway.
We went for 5 dives, each about an hour long. Our instructor, Rowell, was the best instructor I’ve encountered in a long long time – his tuition style was relaxed, informative, and left just enough to the imagination so it felt like there was plenty to discover by ourselves. His knowledge of the underwater world and it’s inhabitants is astounding – and the energy that comes out when he talks about even the smallest of aquatic creatures is highly infectious.
Some particular highlights on the dives include seeing a triggerfish, a giant bump-head parrot fish, and a turtle. I’ve never quite understood the craze about turtles – until I saw one in the flesh, gliding through the water in a fashion not too far removed from the way Thunderbird 2 flew.
Unfortunately, I’m still to invest in underwater photography gear, so I don’t have any shots underwater. I did take my Tachyon helmet cam on a couple of dives – but I’m yet edit and upload the clips from that – stay tuned for updates. On this trip, as a sidenote, I did get to try out my recently purchased Canon 7D – a tremendous step up from the 450D.
The return trip to Singapore took about the same length of time – arriving back in Singapore at about 11pm. While the transit time there and back is fairly long (for comparison, it takes about 10-11 hours to fly to New Zealand), when you’re traveling on a package trip, with everything sorted for you, there’s not much else that you can do except sit back and sleep, so it’s not so bad after all.
All in all, a great weekend, and with the arrival of our PADI Id cards, a ticket to a whole new world of discovery. I can’t wait!
Waking up in Kuang’s apartment in Shanghai was a good feeling. It really did feel like we were changed people, from the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that we had had over the last two weeks.
That day we had possibly one of the most fruitful days thus far on the trip – possibly due to the few expectations we had of it. We headed to town after a late start, getting to Yuyuan Market just in time for the lunchtime rush. The food areas of this market are famous for their dumplings, so we set out to find them. The first place we went to was absolutely lousy. Reheated, stale, and a rather chewy exterior, we didn’t eat many before we decided to move on. Wandering around a bit more, we found a restaurant with a big sign saying ‘Best Dumplings’ or something to that effect. The queue outside was enough to convince us that this was a place worth visiting. It turns out, yes. Great dumplings – large, tender, and very juicy. However, to this day, I maintain that the best dumplings I’ve ever had were on Dominion Road, Auckland, New Zealand.
With full bellies, we wandered around the markets for a while, and then inspiration hit us – Shanghai Circus! We hailed a taxi, and after a bit of confusion about where the circus was, we got dropped off at the Shanghai Circus World complex. We purchased tickets for the evening show, and with about 4 hours to kill, we decided to split ways – Kuang and Angela heading off to shop, and Yean and I on an mission to find a place recommended to us by a work colleague, poetically named ‘Slaughterhouse’. Set in a decommissioned animal processing plant, the grim grey ramps and spiral structure created possibly the most unusual shopping mall I’ve ever been to. Full of boutique and rather curious shops, we stumbled across the Ducati Cafe. Of course, this was a compulsory stop, and we had the opportunity to sit on the (newly released at the time) Ducati Diavel. I ordered the Monster Foccacia, and the Ducati Latte, both were delicious, and not just because of the names.
After a bit of a tour of the shops, we had a bit of time to explore Yuyuan Market at night, before it was time to rush to the circus theatre. We arrived just in time for the opening act, and I managed to get one photo before an usher came over and motioned to put my camera away. Fair enough. Rules are rules, and the circus needs to have an element of suprise to it for it to be worth going. Thus, here is my one and only photo of an amazing Chinese circus performance. I have to say, it agrees with me much more than a western type circus – the feats and abilities of these performers were nothing short of incredible, with the standout acts being the trapeze, the sphere of death (involving up to 10 motorcycles in a rather small sphere), and the ever so elegant hanging-on-a-long-piece-of-silk-while-you-float-through-the-air-and-perform-incredible-dance-moves-with-an-equally-as-talented-female.
From there we headed into the Bund again, there to have a couple of drinks on a rooftop bar, bringing the trip to a close. Sitting in the bar, I was able to reflect on how much we had changed as a group, as individuals, and as partners during the trip. I love two week long trips.
The next day we all headed off to the Maglev station – a state of the art train that is suspended in the air by powerful magnets, allowing it to reach speeds of up to 450km/h, and runs so smooth you can barely detect you’re moving. We bid our farewells at the station, and Yean and I hopped on the train, making the quick trip (an hour and a half by car, 20 minutes by Maglev) to the airport. We had just enough time to check in, grab a quick coffee, and then straight onto the flight. I felt there that I was going to miss China – the space, the food, the climate, and the completely different way of life were all things that struck a chord. I will be back.
Our journey home was broken up by a two day one night stop over in Hong Kong. By the time we had reached Hong Kong, however, our tourist muscles were well and truly worn out. Feeling rather frazzled and weary, the last thing we wanted to hear at our accommodation was ‘We have no booking from you’. Without printouts of the emails we had exchanged, there was no way of disproving them, and they were fully booked, so we turned around and began a desperate search for a place to stay, made all the worse by it being a public holiday weekend, and everywhere was full. Yean finally found a tiny place that had a room, and despite it’s tiny size (it was about 6′ by 6′, mostly occupied by a bed, and a very narrow shower and toilet in the corner), we were truly thankful.
Seeing as a night inside would probably result in us gouging each other’s eyes out, we hit the streets, and I’m glad we did. While we didn’t have the strength to snap many pictures, Hong Kong proved to be a full on, high tempo city, that felt vaguely like a more Chinese, less organised version of Singapore. The shopping was incredible – the first time I’ve ever seen camera lenses so cheap, even from official resellers. I purchased an 18-135mm lens for about $300NZ, as I was trying to find a good do-everything type lens that meant I could stop lugging around a 28-300mm zoom along with my 18-55mm.
The night markets were great – a far cry from the nick-nak stalls of the markets in Vietnam and Malaysia, these were selling some actually cool stuff. Yean scored a couple of dresses, and I got a new dirtbiking jersey, along with two new ties and cuff links. We ended our night at the party hub of Lan Kwai Fong, with the intention of just a couple of drinks. We ended up dancing in some corner bar, and when it came to heading home, we realised it was already 2 am.
“Diary Entry – 22/10/11
We woke to the sounds of rush hour Hong Kong – our room has no sound proofing. It’s actually quite a lovely start, when there’s no pressing need or urge to be anywhere anytime soon. After a breakfast at a local dim sum place, we headed into Central station, there we were able to check in luggage for our evening flight – an amazing logistical improvement over having to carry our luggage around for the rest of the day. We explored the CBD, and the main shopping area at Causeway Bay, although the only things purchased were a couple of face product for Yean, and a couple of books for me. After a quick coffee recharge, we headed back to Hong Kong station, and took the express train to the airport, there to board our flight back to Singapore. It’s funny how you can always spot a flight that’s heading to Singapore – there’s a very neat, single file queue stretching back from the gate, a far cry from the elbows and shoves that seems to be the preferred Chinese method of queueing.
This is the conclusion of our two week trip through China. It is 11.56pm, 22 of October, 2011, and our flight, 3K696 is just beginning it’s decent into Singapore. I am glad to be back. This will take a while to digest.”
“Diary Entry – 16/10/11
We started our day early with breakfast with Mr Wong at a street food place – the only street food we’ve had in Xi’an. We bid our final farewells, and went to the airport. Our arrival in Beijing was of sunny and beautiful weather, apparently due to an international marathon being held that day. By the time we were at the hotel, Yean’s ankle was so swollen it was hard to remove her shoe, so she elected to stay in that night, while we headed out to watch the Rugby World Cup Semi Final of New Zealand vs Australia. I’ve never realised how many kiwis and aussies there are living all over the world – the local Irish bar was pack full of them. From there, we headed to dinner with some of Kuang’s old friends. The restaurant was a renown hot pot restaurant that was so popular, we had a 1 1/2 hour wait for a table. It turns out hot pot is rather similar to steamboat, but with a far more spectacular coal burning chimney setup.”
With only two and a half days in Beijing, we weren’t wanting to take anything slowly. By this stage of the trip, our tourist muscles were well and truly flexed, and we were set to take on the city at large. One problem – Yean’s ankle was not looking good. In her usual stoic manner however, she had an evening off (hot pot night it turned out), and was up the next morning, ankle swathed in bandages, and backpack on. We were out of the door at 8.30, headed for the Forbidden City. Once there, we were reacquainted with the now familiar tourist crowd, and we jostled for position for a few minutes to get pictures with the main entrance, the guards, and the best angles of Tinnamen Square. Once inside, the crowds not so much died down, but started moving in the same direction, a nice change to the general swarm of Jiuzhaigou.
There’s one thing that stands out the most in the Forbidden City. The size. We were walking at an average pace for a decent 2-3 hours, arriving in the Imperial Garden somewhat disorentated. On studying the map, we had just walked straight through. With the shape of the Forbidden City being almost square, we had covered a very small portion of it. Exploring a couple of blocks off to the sides, we lost our stamina for pagodas and curvy eaves, and decided to head up the hill.
Jingshan Hill rises up just across the street from the back gate, and it’s a fairly steep climb. Arriving at the top, however, makes it completely worth it. The Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing spread out around you, and much time can be spend spotting the landmarks of tourist worth. Unfortunately, my camera decided to run out of battery at this point. I’m still trying to get my hands on some of Yean’s photos from this part of the walk. By this stage, thanks mostly to the uneven tiling in the Forbidden City courtyards and the strenuous climb, Yean’s ankle was back to being immovable again, so we both opted to call it a day, keen to spend the afternoon relaxing and catching up with our diary writing (you’ll notice not one entry was made for Xi’an).
It just so happened that that day was Angela’s, one of our traveling group members, birthdays, so during the afternoon I went on a solo excursion to find a birthday cake. Up till now in the story I have not made much mention of language. I’ll say it now. There is very little English spoken in China. So little, even the little things are hard to do when you’re off the main trail and out of the central city. Walking into the cake shop, I was about to find out just how difficult life can be without knowing the spoken language. Pointing at a cake I asked ‘how much?’ this was replied with a hand gesture to the pricing chart. Easy enough so far. The price seemed fair, so I said ‘I’d like to buy this one.’ A flash of concern goes across the shop attendants face. Her reply came in fast mandarin. Fortunately in my failed attempt at learning mandarin previously I had picked up a few handy sentences. The one I used next wasn’t one of them – in rout learnt and almost perfect Cantonese, I asked ‘do you speak English?’ No reply. Realising I wasn’t speaking mandarin, I resorted to the stupid-westerner-in-foreign-country approach of hand signals. I made a motion of picking up the cake. A flurry of hand signals from the shop assistant, and more mandarin. More grand hand signals from me, accompanied with slow English. Even more grand hand signals from her, with louder, slower mandarin. Eventually I gave up. Saying ‘I’ll be back’ in my most clear voice, I exited the bakery, returned to the hotel, picked up Yean, and returned to the bakery. It turns out she was trying to tell me the cake was a display cake, and it would take 30 minutes to prepare the real thing. I vowed right there to restart my mandarin studies again.
That night we had Peking duck, that beautiful Chinese meal involving slivers of roast duck skin, served with thin wraps and an assortment of vegetables to offset the oily duck. The cake was served, Happy Birthday was sung, and we carried on drinking Tsingtao beer for another couple of hours.
The next day was another early start, waiting at the door at 6.30 for our taxi to come and pick us up. This was going to be one of those days that you wish your child self could have seen. Today we were going to see the largest man made structure ever made. The Great Wall of China. On the van driver’s recommendation, we chose to head to the Mutianyu portion, which is slightly further away than the more popular Badaling section, but just as spectacular, and apparently less crowded. I’m not sure how long it took to drive there, all I know is that I had some very numb legs by the time I could unfold myself from the rather cramped minivan. We took the gondola up to the top of the wall, and there we went our separate ways – Kuang and Angela choosing the rugged looking, unrestored wall to the west, and Yean and I taking the more ‘injured ankle friendly’ restored wall to the east.
It was an incredible day, walking along that wall. Knowing even just a portion of what it represents, what it means, and what it’s been through makes the walk a journey into mankind’s eastern history. It takes about 2-3 hours to complete, as there are some pretty rough patches that can be tricky for people with injured ankles. The wall is constantly rising and falling, following the ridgelines as much as possible.
Once we were at the end (I recommend taking the toboggan/luge down, it’s suprisingly fun) we waited in the cafe for about 3 hours for Kuang and Angela to finish – it turns out the west route is a lot more involved than the eastern one. Rather lethargic from the long wait, we hopped in the van and one by one fell asleep. It wasn’t until we were close to the city that the driver woke us up and asked if we wanted to go back to the hotel. Seeing as it was already night, and knowing it would be a 1 hour round trip to get back into the city, we elected to get dropped off in town, near the night food markets. This is the place the tourists tell you about, and it was fun. Kuang and I ate deep fried scorpions, which turns out taste like, well, deep fried crispy things. After taking a stroll through the markets, and a quick stop off at a handy Häagen-Dazs for ice cream, we headed back to the hotel, where we collapsed on the beds and were asleep within minutes.
Yean and I left the hotel early that morning, intent on making up for the afternoon we had taken off a day before. We decided to head for the Olympic Green, due to a distinct lack of other things to do at 7am in Beijing. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics becoming a fairly distant memory, the buildings were showing it too, with corrosion, crumbling, and dirt starting to move in on the grand buildings. What was impressive was the size of the area. It’s huge. We merely did a walk around tour with an automated tour guide in our ears of the main buildings like the Birds Nest and the Water Cube. Remarkable architecture and design went into those buildings, alas it doesn’t look like they were built to last – a rather stark contrast to the Great Wall of the day prior.
After our walk, it was a quick taxi back to the hotel, a speedy checkout, and a rather hasty trip to the main rail station, there to hop onto the Beijing – Shanghai bullet train. With only a few months history, the trains were in impeccable condition, much more comfortable than aeroplane, and, in contrast to our China Eastern flights, the train left the station at precisely the stated departure time. We settled in for our return to Shanghai, a comfortable 5 hours away.
We arrived in Xi’an after only a 2 hour delay – these delays are the norm it turns out for domestic flights in China. While in Shanghai, Kuang’s Mum had mentioned in passing that she had a good friend in Xi’an, who would like to meet up with us when we got there. Great! Always a good thing to meet a local, get some information on the area, have the regional favourite food from the best restaurant, and best of all, steered away from the Lonely Planet route!
We arrived to find a guy waiting patiently with a name board for us. This was Mr Wong, and he was Kuang’s mum’s employee’s father’s subordinate, and he had been given the great honor of showing us Xi’an. Not entirely sure what we were getting into, we followed him to his van, hopped in, and headed into the city. First stop was at a chain diner, with a similar feel to McDonald’s, but with Xi’an delicacies instead of hamburgers. Here we were introduced to what translates directly as ‘cold-skin noodles’. Thick and chunky noodles are stirred with a slightly spicy sauce, and served cold – and it was delicious.
After our late lunch, we were taken to the Xi’an International Horticulture Expo, the new pride of the city. In a rush and a roar, we were bundled onto a golf cart and whisked off into the park. This was no ordinary horticulture expo. In fact, it was a tad hard spotting the horticulture bits. There were statues, replica villages, animal enclosures, grand replica buildings… oh, and some plants too. By far the most impressive sight was the technological creativity show – a walk through exhibition of some of the cutting edge technology in the world, including robotics, hydroponic systems, and some good ol’ fashioned genetically modified roses, with variations such as gold and rainbow petals.
From there we were taken around to more stands. The animal enclosures were extremely depressing; coming straight from Chengdu, we had seen healthy and happy pandas – these pandas were nothing like that.
After scooting around the huge park, we were quickly ushered off the cart, and bundled back into the van. From there we were taken to our accommodation, and were able to settle in for a bit. Not for long, however, as we were soon picked up again and taken to dinner, there to dine with Kuang’s Mum’s employee’s father. Taken to a restaurant that boasted a long history (I’ve since lost the name of the place – I will try find it and update here). Like in Shanghai, we were treated to a multi dish extravaganza, but the key dish of the night was the Yangrou Paomo, an interactive dish where you are given a piece of flat bread, which you break into small pieces. You then select your soup, and the next moment, you have a soup with… small pieces of bread in it. While it seemed rather peculiar, we were assured it had a long history, back to one of the eminent figures of ancient china, who lived as a beggar for years, subsisting on flat bread and weak soups. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and the torn up bread creates an almost porridge like consistency. Very easy on the stomach, especially after days of oily fried foods.
Towards the end of dinner, rice wine was introduced. Don’t be fooled by the ‘wine’ label – this stuff is potent. The drink of that night was a particularly sharp one rated at 50% alcohol. Needless to say, after multiple rounds of toasts (these were fast flowing and meant all involved had to finish their drinks) we were well on the way to a bad morning. As the evenings proceedings drew to a close, the claim was made that rice wine causes no hangover – a claim I was desperate to believe in, as the next day had so much in store.
The next day started early. By 8am we had breakfasted, packed, and were in the van on the way out of the city. Remarkably, we were all feeling great – with no ill feelings from the previous night’s consumption. I made a mental note to make a more thorough study of this incredible alcohol in the near future. We were bound for a place I had read and dreamt about since primary school: the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, also known as the Terracotta Army. I could launch into a fair amount of detail here about this army, it’s historical significance, and it’s remarkable make up, however this is all easily found online – I’ll let your fingers do the walking for that. There’s a few things that are absolutely outstanding for me about the Terracotta Army:
– There are more terracotta warriors than there are personnel in the entire New Zealand Defence Force.
– The entire Mausoleum is designed as a fort, complete with defensive battle formations, walls, and command centers.
– Each warrior requires about 7 years of man hours to be reassembled and restored.
– The current area on display is only one CORNER of the overall formation protecting the emperors tomb.
After spending the morning being guided around the sites, we were ushered back into the van before heading back into town, there to have a very brief guided walk of the city walls. The Xi’an City Walls are possibly it’s most prominent land mark, and a precious one at that – the only original and complete city wall still standing since the cultural revolution bulldozed the majority of other historical structures. Standing at 12 meters high, and 18 meters deep, the walls are an amazing sight to behold, especially for a boy like me who can attribute a large chunk of his historical knowledge to the Age of Empires series.
We had a short lunch diversion to the Muslim Quarter (established in the heyday of the Silk Road – this was where the middle eastern merchants set up shop to sell their wares after the long and dangerous journey across Asia). Lunch consisted of a delicious restaurant rendition of the Xi’an famous ‘cold-skin noodles’, and a selection of juicy dumplings.
From the wall we were taken to the Shaanxi Muesum. This behemoth of a museum was the first of the large government museums open to the public, and it holds about 400,000 artifacts collected from around the area, telling the story of the Xi’an/Shaanxi region from about 10,000 years ago right up to the last dynasty. We were also fortunate enough to go see the temporary exhibit that was on at the moment – a rather peculiar showing of the contents of 3 large claypots found in a buried building on an excavation site. The origin of the pots is up for speculation, but the range of the contents spans cultural, economic, and societal boundaries of the time period it is from, paving way for theories that it’s the loot of a thief, or the travelling stock of a very well rounded merchant.
I’d highly recommend getting a guide for the whole museum tour – it’s fairly well laid out and curated, but the extra depth and clarification that a good guide can provide makes the whole trip even more enriching.
Our history lessons for the day weren’t over however – we were taken to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a keystone site for Chinese Buddhism. While I’m still fairly in the dark with the finer details of the story (as it was translated in bits and pieces by Yean and Kuang), the pagoda was built to house the relics and scrolls of the great monk and traveller Xuanzang – who spent 17 years travelling to India in search of the great Buddist scripts. Upon return to Chang’an, he established a translation school, and spent the rest of his days translating the vast books and scripture he had returned with from India. Upon entering the tower, I was immediately stricken, primarily by the low stone doorway, designed perfectly for 5 ft monks but rather painful for unaware 6’4 western travellers. Still seeing stars from the blow, I staggered up the 7 floors of stairs, and was just in time for sunset over the city, with a perfect vista looking out north, south, east, and west.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant at what I believe was the West Lake gardens – previously the Emperor’s summer gardens. By this stage I was getting accustomed to the fomalities of a Chinese dinner party, and I was finally able to start relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere. With Yean’s help in translation, I was able to discuss the advertising and design scene in Xi’an with our hosts (dormant and docile were the general conclusions), and how life in Xi’an differs from Shanghai and Beijing. It was then that I realised, this was the furtherest inland I had ever been. In my life. The closest sea water was about 1500kms away. Funnily enough, that thought scared me for a moment. To this day, I don’t know why.
Even more rice wine was drunk that night, and by the time we left the restaurant, our heads were spinning. We were invited to a golf cart tour of the gardens, and I’m sure they were nice – my memory of them consists mostly of blurs, punctuated by a rather humorous recollection of a guy on a bicycle riding straight into a pillar because he was too busy watching us.
When we were dropped off at the hotel, we were just getting into party mode. With too much energy we unanimously decided to hit the town. And hit the town we did. Wandering down the road from the hotel, we struck upon an awesome set up – a huge (as in about 12 ft long) telescope mounted on a scooter. Excited, we eagerly handed over the 10 yuan each to have a peak at the moon, saturn, and numerous other planets. As we were finishing up, we noted a crowd had formed around us, all eager to have a peak at what ever it was that was exciting us so much. We walked on a bit futher to find a temporary arcade set up, with various fun activities that would generally be found in a school gala in New Zealand. Feeling competitive, Kuang and I challenged each other at a shoot out, using replica ak47 bb guns against balloons. After I won by 1 balloon, Yean and Angela took each other on in a far more skillful game of darts and balloons. All this got us worked up into a great party mood, and we struck out for a bar. We made it about 1 block before tradjedy struck. Yean took a mis step, and wrecked her ankle. Game over. Unable to walk, I piggy backed her back to the hotel, which took some finding, and we contented ourselves with drinking in the hotel room.
Again, we woke up with no consequences of the night’s revilries, except for Yean’s ankle, which by this stage had swollen up and was looking well bruised. Immobilising it as well as I could with our basic first aid kit, we met up with our hosts one more time for a Xi’an Breakfast (a variation on the bread soup we had for dinner a couple of days ago), and bid our farewells. It wasn’t until we were seated on the aeroplane and just about to take off that we started asking ourselves ‘What the hell happened back there?’
–Note to Readers: For a parallel and more feminine account of our travels, please visit Yean’s page at feijoacrumbl3.wordpress.com – it’ll be well worth your while!–
The flight from Chengdu and Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport was filled with mixed emotions. Upon leaving Chengdu, it felt as if the pinnacle of the trip had been passed, with just the big tourist spots of Xi’an and Beijing left to check off. As the small plane started to descend however, we became more and more excited. Deep valleys and high rugged peaks opened up, and the plane was soon below the ridges, following the gentle curves of the valley towards an unseen airport. It was with a fair amount of surprise when we touched down – we were that engrossed with the surrounding countryside. Having grown up in New Zealand, I’ve always loved the mountains. There’s something special about mountain air, the freshness, and dryness sending waves of elation and positivity through the body. After a year in Singapore and travelling around South East Asia, it was a relief to step out of the aeroplane and be met with a cold rush.
If you’re planning a trip to the Jiuzhaigou/Huanglong region, please keep in mind the traveling distances. The flight is really the easiest and shortest bit. Having landed, Kuang informed us that we now had to catch a taxi for a 2 hour drive to the village of Longkangcun, where our accommodation was located and within walking distance to the Jiuzhaigou Park. While this was unexpected, it was by no means a bad thing – we spent the next two hours driving through some of the most amazing scenery I think I’ve ever seen. Horse trains formed a lot of the road traffic, and the taxi driver occasionally spoke up whenever we passed something significant.
In my first impressions, Longkangcun was a fairly non-descript town – a few years ago it had been a small farming village, and in the space of 3 years, has grown tremendously to the size of a small town. When the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake hit, killing over 68 000 people and leaving an estimated 4 million people homeless, the Chinese government pledged vast sums of money and support to rebuild the area. One of the key areas of rebuilding was to include a sound tourism infrastructure plan, and this is no more evident than in the area surrounding Jiu Zhai Gou valley. Several resorts dot the area, in well hidden areas so as not to distract from the landscape, and the towns are packed with hotels, hostels, and restaurants. Consequently, Longkangcun had a peculiar feeling of being rather soulless – lost in the myriad of grey concrete walls with brightly painted facades decorating the doorways. We were dropped off at the hostel we had booked, and once settled in, proceeded to find dinner, which turned out to be stewed Yak and rice. For the first time on the trip so far, we turned in early, ready for another early start the next day.
We were out of the door at 6am, walking to the entrance of the Jiu Zhai Gou park. We arrived with plenty of time before the 7am opening, so we took it in turns to keep our place in the ticket queue. As the clock hit 7, a facinating thing happened. The orderly queues that had formed outside the booths suddenly dissolved. We found outselves in a swirling and pressing mob, everyone eager to be the first ones with tickets in thier hands. Kuang and I managed to push our way to the front, got the attention of a vendor, and thankfully, we got our tickets.
Entering the park, it was easy to see that this was no haphazard affair. Neatly lined up awaiting boarding were a full fleet of buses, ready to take passengers to the upper reaches of the two valleys. We boarded the next available one, and then we were on our way.
Tip for the tourist: Go right to the top first thing, most people will get distracted and hop off at various places on the way up. This allows you to wander down at your own pace and avoid most of the crowds until lunchtime.
We spend the rest of the day wandering the park, only taking the bus once more to get to the top of the second valley. Beautiful views, beautiful logistics, horrendous crowds. By lunchtime the park was teeming with people, and they all were on a mission. It was a competition for everything – photospots, footpath space, seating space, bus seats, bus floor. I’ve never known such aggression. Often we’d be taking a group photo, and would have someone walk in for thier own, while even more often, we’d be physically pushed aside for someone to have their photo taken. But the vistas made it worth it. With forest clad hills as a backdrop, the water in the pools and rivers take on a brilliant blue hue, while remaining so clear any debris on the lake floor is completely visible.
We managed to keep walking until Shuzheng Village – one of the 9 Tibetan villages the valley is named after. There we finally called it a day, jumping on a bus for a short trip to the gates. Finding a tea garden straddling the river just outside the gate, we sat down and unwound from the hustle and bustle of the crowds over a cup of tea, and spent a while writing postcards to home (I’m notorious for writing postcards that never quite get sent).
That night for dinner we found a slightly more exciting restaurant, and dined on yak mince (cooked in tinfoil with a rice spirit set alight), a mutton and sesame dish, and potato balls stuffed with yak meat.
Exhausted from a full day on our feet, we returned to the hostel, made arrangements for transport for the next day, and collapsed into our bunks, with everyone asleep in minutes.
The next day, our travel companions decided to have a lay day – a sensible choice considering one was sporting a leg injury and we were all finding the high altitude walking fairly tough on the body. Yean and I however were determined to make the most of being there, and carried on to Huanglong. Having booked a taxi the previous night, we rose early to grab breakfast from the numerous street stall vendors just outside the hostel. Turns out we didn’t quite pick the right ones – the food was lukewarm, the buns stale, and generally lacked appetite appeal. That said, it was enough to get us going, and after a quick change of taxis as the first one had to pull out, we were off.
It’s a 3 hour drive from Longkangcun to Huanglong, so make sure you’ve got snacks for the drive. At this point we started wondering if it would’ve been a better idea to have rented a car from the airport – that lasted until we hit the open road, and realised the centerline is more of a vague indication of road halves, and generally not adhered to by the road users.
We stopped off halfway for a break, and a visit to a medicine store, where we were strongly encouraged to buy altitude sickness medicine. Having not felt any of the symptoms yet, and having not felt them the previous day, we were fairly sure that it was a money making trap, but it wasn’t too expensive, our taxi driver was recommending it, and as we’re all about experiences, we went ahead and brought it. It must have worked, because we lived to tell the tale.
Carrying onto Huanglong, we crossed several saddles and passes, getting higher and higher each time. The vistas were incredible, and every rise we came over meant cameras came up and started snapping away.
We arrived at Huanglong at a respectable 10am. I highly recommend taking the gondola to the (almost) top – it’s a very, very long walk from the bottom. For those unfamiliar with Huanglong and it’s attractions, the main center of beauty are the terraced lakes, sprawling in layers down the mountain-side. New Zealand used to have a similar geological formation called the Pink Terraces, but was destroyed by the Tarawera Eruption in 1886. As a kiwi boy who’d grown up with only paintings to know what they look like, seeing the real thing in real life was worth travelling to the other side of the world for. To tackle the mountain-side, the best bet is to catch the gondola, which takes you nearly to the top. A half hour walk gets you to the terraces, and a quick walk up the slope takes you to the first lake and the Huanglong Temple. Having overdosed on temples in Chengdu, we almost ignored this one, and spent lunchtime gazing over the lakes and the surrounding mountains. From the top, it’s a 3-4 hour stroll to the bottom, depending on how many photos you stop to take on the way. We took a lot.
Reaching the bottom, we met up with our taxi driver, hopped in, and almost immediately fell asleep – apparently excactly the wrong thing to do when in a high altitude environment after exercise, as our taxi driver enthusiastically told us when he woke us up. I suspect he just wanted company for the drive. Not a bad cover story though – we stayed awake for the rest of the drive back to Longkangcun.
After sharing our photos and experiences with our mates, we hit the bunks, and sunk into a deep sleep.
‘Diary Entry – 14 October 2011
I am in seat 23C on flight 3U8835. We are departing Jiuzhaigou, after having spent 2 days here. It has been an eyeopener into the world of Chinese Tourism – an exercise in efficient handling of wandering people. The Jiuzhaigou park attracts 12,000 people daily during the peak period, and the Huanglong park about half as much. The park structure is marvelous, with close to 100kms of boardwalk in Jiuzhaigou alone. Despite all this, and the infrastructure behind it, there were parts with impossible crowds, created, I suspect by the rather self-centered tourists hogging the good photography spots for far too long, getting aggressive with shoves and elbows when seeking a photo in front of a backdrop. The scenery was amazing, and the geography rare, but one can’t help but think it’s all undermined by the crowds. Despite all this, the local culture and people are great. Happy, cheerful, and hardworking, the represent the Tibetan way through their lives. They spend much of their life focussed around the monasteries, taking guidance and teaching from the monks. Their only grip in the world is the hordes of ‘black’ coming to the region; chinese business people in search of quick money through the tourism trade. These people, using the description from the taxi drivers, are generally rude, lazy, and don’t give a damn about the land or the ways of the native inhabitants. We are now off to Xi’an, the old chinese capital, terminal of the silk road, and home of millennia of history. I look forward to the next two days with much anticipation.’
We arrived in Chengdu a few hours late – thanks for an epic flight delay from Shanghai. This was disappointing to say the least – Chengdu immediately struck a chord with us.
Its slower pace and colder climate made for a lovely atmosphere to explore the city, and as soon as our bags were set down at the Traffic Inn, we hit the streets. Using a rough tourist map as a guide, we managed to find the Wu Hou Ci Temple, dedicated to the great Zhuge Liang, a prominent military leader in the Three Kingdoms period. All of this of course found out after the fact – I must say my research for Chengdu was vastly under prepared, as I had seen it as a quick stopover to see the Pandas. Nevertheless – stepping into the temple immediately had it’s effect. Suddenly the noise from the street was cut off. Quietness reigned.
We had managed to find the temple at just before 6pm – the sweet spot between the huge crowds of tourists and closing time. In the gathering dark, the temple grounds took on a very meditative air, and we slowed our frantic tourist pace to a wander, taking the time to see the gardens, the alleys, the ponds, and all the great halls, which by day may house souviner shops, but at that hour, the shops had mostly shut up, and the courtyards they overlooked were still. Not wanting to waste the incredible atmosphere with reading the information plaques around the place (most of these were in Chinese in any case), I resolved to instead research it after the fact. I’m so glad I did.
After the temple, we exited unwittingly through a side gate, and ended up in the Jinli Ancient Street markets. Beautifully recreated to reflect the style and feel of old Chengdu, here we found an exciting assortment of candy modellers, calligraphy artists, and a shooting stall with a recreation of the repeater crossbows used in the time of the three kingdoms.
Just as our stomachs were starting to rumble, we came to the food street. I had been told prior to leaving Singapore that Chengdu is the spice capital of China, and that there’s so much of it, even the air is spicy. The food street at the Jinli markets kept true to these claims – with my eyes tearing up as we made our way along, cross sampling many of the delicacies – with the clear favorites being the skewers of tender beef – with trays and buckets of spice where you could apply your desired amount of spices with a paintbrush.
After the night market, we consulted our friendly Lonely Planet, and refound the paragraph regarding the world renown Sichuan Tea Houses that are spread liberally through Chengdu. One particular name, Shufengyayun, grabbed our attention with an opera, puppetry, and dance performance included, and seeing that the performance was about to start in 10 minutes, promptly hailed a cab, jumped in, and spent the rest of the trip explaining to the driver how to get there – clearly he really wanted to take us to his favourite tea house instead.
I’ve never understood Chinese Opera. I’ve always attributed this to the fact that it’s in a language I don’t understand, set in scales and time signatures that to my ear make no sense at all. It turns out it’s all about context. Sitting in Albert Park in Auckland each year at Lantern Festival, the Chinese Opera was merely a filler before the martial art displays came on. Here, in the middle of Western China, on the other side of the world from Albert Park, seated in a cushioned wooden armchair, sipping a lovely green tea that was kept full by kettle bearing ushers, one can easily get lost in the moment. The melodies that seemed random and tasteless previously suddenly made sense – the emotion and drama of the pieces were expertly conveyed, and even without the occasional translation from Yean and Kuang, the overall story was able to be followed.
The acts kept rolling through, and we saw some incredible abilities. The hand-shadow puppetry was magical, the slapstick a welcome light-hearted relief, and then the mask changing came on. If you ever go to Chengdu, ensure you get to the Shufengyayun tea house, if only for the mask changing performance. Most magical tricks these days are well published, well documented, and generally elicit a bit of a yawn from an audience that sees them. This was something different. To this day, the secrets of the seamless and instant mask change is shrouded in mystery, and known to only a few expert practitioners. To someone like me, seeing it for the first time, it was flawless, incredible, and completely magical.
The next day, we woke early. This was meant to be the pinnacle of our side excursion to Chengdu – the sole reason for going in fact. This was the day of the Panda. Boarding an early morning shuttle, we made a lap of the central city lodges before hitting the highway to travel about half an hour out of the city to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center. We chose the morning tour, as all the guide books had recommended, to avoid the crowds that can clog the park. On arrival at the park, we found we were one of two groups there. After making it to the first feeding of the day, we somehow lost our guide, and ended up wandering the park on our own. This was a welcome relief – I’ve never settled well with guided tours, usually ending up frustrated at not being able to move at my own pace, and never actually LOOKING at anything in particular.
After a couple of documentaries, and several enclosures featuring Pandas at various ages (including the ‘awwwww’ inspiring panda cubs) I can safely say I now know much more about Pandas, their idiosyncrasies, their qualities, and most important of all, their fragile position on Earth today. They really are a unique, beautiful animal, and the people at the breeding center are doing an amazing job at postponing the extinction date for the species.
We returned to the lodge in the early afternoon, with enough time to enjoy a lovely afternoon tea/beer in the dining area, before packing our bags and heading to the airport.
“Diary Entry – 11 October 2011
I am sitting in seat 12C, on flight CA4477, bound for Jiu Zhai Go, there to spend 2 1/2 days exploring the area. I’m extremely excited at the prospect – it has been some time since I last saw stars. I hope it will be underdeveloped, and as sparsely populated as the rumors are. Our last night in Chengdu was spent drinking beer and chatting to the late shift hostel girl. She reflected well what an aspirational country China can be. Hailing from a small country town outside of Chengdu, her dream is to move to Beijing, there to live the ‘Hard and Fast Life’. The Panda sanctuary has left a great impression on me – it really seems like the Panda is the most pathetic, cute, and all round toy-like animal in the world. Due to it’s almost strictly herbivorous diet of bamboo, couple with a carnivorous digestive system, the Panda spends most of it’s day sitting on it’s rear, eating bamboo shoots. As bamboo has little nourishment in itself, and the small intestine of the Panda unable to draw much nutrients from the food, the Panda is also reluctant to spend excess energy, going as far as shying away from reproduction – because of the energy involved. In this light, their only prospect for the future is an artificial life in zoos around the world, acting as a cash cow for China’s Panda Lending Scheme. I’m almost tempted to say extinction would sound pretty attractive given that option. The plane is taking off now – on to Jiu Zhai Go.”