Friday, 16 November 2012

Chengdu and the Pandas

It was with some relief that we checked into Sims Cozy Garden Hostel after the last four hotels and their rock hard beds.  China does not do comfortable beds at all and, to be fair, while the hostels are hardly luxury, you do get about 3 inches of comfort between you and the bed base which, when you get to our age, can be the difference between being able to walk in the morning unaided or being laid up with a bad back for a week!

Sims was a great hostel, reputed to be one of the best in China, and for good reason.  It caters for the backpacker (of any age), has lots of travel information, great food and the beer is cheap.
However, Chengdu itself was just another horrible Chinese city and if it weren’t for the cuddly black and white bears we wouldn’t have considered visiting at all.   As it was, we stayed for 4 days, spending one day going to visit the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre and the rest of the time just chilling, making the most of internet and laundry facilities.

Pandas... eating bamboo
The hostel ran a daily trip to the Panda Breeding Centre, getting you there early before they pass out for the day.  If you go by public bus, you arrive too late, you miss feeding time and they're all fast asleep.
Pandas really are very cute, but they do nothing whatsoever apart from eat bamboo and sleep (and we all know what they don't do at all!).   You really have to set out early to catch them at their most animated.  The word "animated" should be taken into context - panda context.  A panda at its most energetic involves him or her stuffing as much bamboo into his or her mouth for a couple of hours before keeling over and going to sleep for the rest of the day.  They may be half way up a tree when this overwhelming urge to sleep hits them but this doesn’t pose a problem – they just pass out and hang there until they get the munchies again.

Just chilling and... eating bamboo
In all seriousness, the more we learn about them, the more we believe that they really should have died out years ago.  I know this will be viewed as slightly controversial but they are just clearly not built to survive, and now their numbers have dwindled to about 1000 in the wild and most new pandas are produced through artificial insemination in captivity. 
And have you seen a newborn panda?  It is like a worm - it is pink with no fur to speak of and it's about the size of a mouse.  And when it is born, mummy panda just bats it about a bit before realising what she is supposed to do with it.  If it survives the initial maternal brutality then I suppose it can survive just about anything but we suspect that's why they remove baby pandas from their mothers as soon as they're born and move them to incubators, vastly increasing their chances of survival.

Rolling around... eating bamboo

Then you have to consider their food source.  Forests of bamboo grow in the wild and will thrive for years until the whole forest just suddenly dies out.  This is another reason pandas struggle in the wild, because as their only food source is bamboo (which begs the question why they have enormous canines but that’s something I’ll ponder another day), if their current bamboo forest dies they need to find another food source (i.e. another bamboo forest) very very quickly, and often they are not able to do so in time.  In fairness I don’t suppose that China’s current apparent disregard for the environment has helped the panda’s plight any, and indeed I suspect in the past this has played a major part in the panda's decline, but the old Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre is a bit silent on that subject (funnily enough).
More pandas... eating bamboo
However, despite all that there is no escaping the fact that pandas are incredibly cute and lovable and you can’t visit China, never mind Chengdu, without visiting a panda or two! 

We spent quite a lot of time watching the juveniles loll about chewing bamboo and we also saw a couple of baby pandas in the nursery but they weren't very exciting as they were fast asleep doing nothing.  They could have been stuffed for all we knew.

They also have red pandas at the Breeding Centre (although they look more like raccoons) and, rather worryingly, they seemed to have the run of the place.  We walked through the red panda enclosure area which is very large with plenty of room for them to run about but we came across quite a few on the public footpaths.  On closer inspection there were holes in the fences used by the little red pandas to get from one side of the footpath to the other.  Rather disconcertingly there were signs everywhere saying that red pandas were very fierce and you should not get within 4 metres of one but they seemed happy enough coming and going as they pleased, taking little notice of the tourists.

Do you really need those teeth to eat bamboo?
We watched a short information film about the Breeding Centre which was quite interesting but didn't really tell you anything you didn't already know about pandas - they eat half their own body weight in bamboo, sleep more than your average cat, and the ability (and/or desire) to have sex has almost been bred out of them.   But we are glad we saw the pandas and certainly the Breeding Centre seems well run and is relatively successful.  Furthermore, the admission fee wasn't an arm and a leg which was a pleasant surprise.

Just hanging!
Apart from gawping at pandas, the most of our time in Chengdu was spent relaxing and planning. 
We were there over Halloween and the hostel organised a Halloween party with free food and half price beer.  That night Billy and Jane from Dunhuang turned up, as did Jan, the Frenchman from Olkhon Island and the train to Ulaanbaatar so it was a bit of a little reunion night.

We also managed to get roped into taking part in some kind of cookery competition for the local expat newspaper.  We were dreading this.  We only agreed to it in the first place because we were led to believe it was a free cookery class where we could learn to cook Sichuan food but as it turned out it was a great evening.

Not fierce but maybe a little grumpy!
Along with many other unsuspecting and equally reluctant guests who had been coerced into taking part in the completion we learned to cook Sichuan tofu which neither of us were particularly impressed with (tofu leaves a lot to be desired) but we won our group nevertheless.  God only knows what the other contestants’ dish tasted like for us to win but we got to eat all the food afterwards which was a bonus.  There were 3 groups cooking 3 dishes and one of the other groups learned how to cook Sichuan dry fried green beans so I paid close attention to the recipe and will try it when I get my own kitchen back.

Halloween at Sims Cozy

We met lots of interesting people at Sims Hostel.  It was a much better atmosphere than some of the hostels we had been to – fewer children for a start (and by that I mean small people under the age of 10), and more of a mix of travellers of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities.  It had much more of a social vibe and people mixed a lot more (not so much buried in laptops and stuck on phones).  We haven’t met many fellow British on our travels so far but we have met lots of French (I may have mentioned this before!), Germans and Scandinavians. 

At Chengdu we met a Swiss guy trying to get to India via Tibet on his own and when we left he had been given a glimmer of hope that a travel agent could help.   We also met a young Argentinian guy who was very sweet, and who was travelling around China for a couple of months. 

Halloween reunion with Jane, Billy and Jan

We did meet someone from Basingstoke (of all places) in Chengdu who had been living there for about 6 months teaching English to kids or, as he put it, playing games with kids and getting paid for it.  He played us a video of a game they played in the classroom and it was absolute mayhem:  about forty Chinese kids, all about 6 years old, all screaming in a very high pitch at the top of their voices, jumping up and down on tables and chairs, behaving like they had been fed a billion E numbers intravenously for an hour solid.  I can’t imagine a similar scene in a school anywhere in the western world!  He loved his job!

Paul, unfortunately, came across a boorish Geordie (also an expat) who was incredibly rude to Daniel the Argentinian when he waltzed into the bar one evening.  Needless to say he made lots of crass references to the Falklands, Thatcher etc.  He was so rude that Daniel simply excused himself and took himself off to bed.  Luckily, I didn’t witness this display of arrogance but Paul was suitably embarrassed and apologetic on his behalf.  It’s a shame such bigots still exist.

All in all, our visit to Chengdu did not really entail much except pandas and hostel socialising.  We didn’t venture out of the hostel much – there wasn’t much to see apart from huge generic apartment buildings, a lot of traffic and nothing else you can’t find in any other Chinese city.

It was however a pleasant break and we were looking forward to heading to a slightly smaller city in Yunnan with a population of only 1.1 million (practically a village in China!) and hopefully a less hectic pace.

The winning team!
On the morning of our final day we caught the bus to the station and due to the gridlocked traffic we made it with only 30 minutes to spare, sneaking through security by being very un-British and queue jumping to make sure we made it in time.  To be fair, the Chinese are the best queue jumpers in the world but it still feels wrong!

And so we headed off on our 20 hour train journey to Kunming.



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