China Part Two: Chengdu
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.”