Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Sichuan’

The Trip in Review

In Uncategorized on February 10, 2010 at 12:54 am

I know we wrote a lot about the trip, but I think a little wrap-up is in order.  Here’s the big picture:

Trip

We went to 8 cities:

  1. Xiamen
  2. Guangzhou
  3. Wuhan
  4. Chengdu
  5. LeShan
  6. EmeiShan
  7. Xi’An
  8. Beijing. 

This included 5 provinces and one municipality:

  • Fujian
  • Guangdong
  • Hubei
  • Sichuan
  • Shaanxi
  • Beijing

We checked a lot of things off the must-do-in-China list:

  • visited Xiamen’s peaceful Gulangyu Island
  • ate dim sum in Guangzhou
  • ate hot pot in Sichuan
  • saw the Giant Pandas
  • saw the world’s largest Buddha in LeShan
  • climbed (well, kind of) Emeishan, one of China’s sacred mountains
  • seeing the Sea of Clouds (at least for me!)
  • saw the Army of Terracotta Soldiers in Xi’An
  • witnessed the flag-raising at Tiananmen Square
  • climbed the Great Wall
  • ate Peking duck in Peking

We also had a few other special experiences:

  • dinner with my priests and future bishop
  • two beautiful Xiamen sunsets
  • Dad’s pingpong matches
  • riding the world’s fastest train
  • that hour spent with the young pandas and their caretaker
  • amazing massages and even acupuncture for Dad
  • being driven around Xi’An’s major sites by our new friend and volunteer chauffeur
  • sledding down the Great Wall!
  • leaving a note at Google China headquarters
  • meeting all sorts of military people, including a Korean who served with the US Army, a Chinese cadet, and an major in the Chinese artillery
  • narrowly avoiding disaster three times (two bus crashes and a rockslide)
  • going to Mass in three beautiful churches and getting to see a few others
  • riding every form of transportation with thousands of our closest friends

The trip lasted 22 days (plus a few days of travel to and from for my parents) and, besides their international flights, cost just over $3,000.  The trains and planes that got us around China cost $250 a person, we spent about $300 on souvenirs, postage, and donations (and massages), and our daily expenses (food, lodging, tourism, and local transportation) were about $100 each day for all three of us. 

I think my parents were pleased with the trip; I know I had a great time.  If I had the chance to do it again, I would only make small changes.  I wouldn’t go to Emeishan – save a couple hundred dollars and go to smaller, less sacred mountain.  I would allow an extra day in Xi’An so that things weren’t so rushed.  Other than that, I was basically the perfect tour guide.  Right, parents??

We’re Not Losing A Daughter, We’re Gaining a Village

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm

(Written by John, with liberal editing by Maria.)

Since we had no set itinerary for today, we slept in (in our own beds) till around 9:30.  It was great!  But when we woke up, the room was very cold, and we found our room door wide open.  Apparently someone (Maria) didn’t close it all thee way last night.  We decided she has now made too many mistakes on this trip, and we hatched a plan to get rid of her off by the end of the day.  Little did we know what lay ahead, but more on that later…

We went down to the dining room to use their wireless and have breakfast.  The girls had delicious egg sandwiches, and I had fried eggs with bacon, plus a wonderful-crepe like pancake with a banana and chocolate filling.  Then Cis and I left Maria for awhile (she had boring travel guide planning to do), and we walked around the pretty little town of Baoguo.  It has a beautiful park with many waterfalls and statues, mostly tributes to the Bhuddist religion that considers the nearby Mount Emei one of their sacred sites.

IMG_1482 Cis got a little creative with the camera and took this very nice picture of me by one of the elephant statues.

IMG_1485 After we linked back up with Maria and checked out, we only had to walk a hundred yards to the bus station to catch the 1:00 bus back to Chengdu. 

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It was a two-and-a-half-hour ride back to Chengdu and the hotel where we had stowed three of our suitcases during the two days exploring the sights of Leshan and Emeishan.  The ride was uneventful, although it was probably the nicest country we have seen yet (other than the area around Xiamen).  Once we neared Chengdu, though, the inevitable construction boom was again visible, with huge new buildings going up everywhere, al covered with a green plastic mesh that probably is used to shield workers from the sun and wind, and to contain any loose construction material from blowing down onto pedestrians.

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Once back in Chengdu, we had several hours before our over-night train left for Xi’An, so we went looking for a Uyghur restaurant that Maria read about in the Lonely Planet Guide Book.  The description of their food had caught her eye (and her stomach): “[Their] specialty is dapanji (literally, ‘big plate chicken’) – a massive portion of chicken, potatoes and peppers stewed in a savory, spicy sauce.  Even the ‘small’ plate (Y30) will serve two or three.  When you’re part way through the meal, staff dump a pile of handmade noodles into your dish, perfect for sopping up the sauce.  Lamb skewers and grilled flatbread are good accompaniments.” 

We flagged a taxi to take us there, but when he dropped us off at the right intersection, we couldn’t find it.  After asking directions, we found the right storefront – and immediately realized we had been there before.  On our last evening in Chengdu before leaving for Leshan, we stopped here to eat lamb kebabs and naan from the street-side component of their restaurant.  The food was great, but Maria was a little unsettled by a strange interaction with one of the workers.  While we were waiting in line, one of the men had walked by us, smiled appreciatively at Maria and clicked his tongue in a warbling-like sound.  Although nothing like that had ever happened to her in China, she figured it was a cat-call and interpreted it to mean: “Hey, that is one good-looking dark woman; she would make a fine Uyghur wife!”  We didn’t think much of it since we had no plans to return to this restaurant, but God (/Allah) moves in mysterious ways . . .

As we walked in and sat down, the young man (who, because he looks like a Uyghur version of Paulie Shore, we nicknamed Paulie), was especially attentive to his customers – well, mainly Maria.  He pretty much completely disregarded Cissy and I, and while we thought it was a little rude to disrespect his future parents-in-law this way, he seemed to be truly in love, so we decided to overlook this problem.  Besides, we won’t have to pay for a hall or catering for their reception because they can host it right there at their place.  The restaurant is fairly large, as you can see from the picture below.

IMG_1564I was anxious to seal the deal before the family realized their mistake, which could happen as soon as Maria started her incessant whining, or if they asked her to do any manual work such as refill water pails, mop the floor, make rancid yak butter to add to the tea, or butcher the chickens, so I accepted the additional meat offering and we shook hands.   After finishing our meals and promising to return once we collected the goats needed for Maria’s dowry, we went on our way.  Inshallah, we will soon be rid of her.

[Maria: It is a delightful fantasy my parents have created.  But really, who would have ever thought they’d be so happy to see me married off to a Muslim?]

Monkey See, Monkey Do

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Today’s travel blog is written by Dad (John) with comments by Maria [in brackets].  Note: Maria is also writing a bonus blog, in honor of her 5-month anniversary! 

Our tour guide (Maria) finally failed us today.  First, she failed to ensure a timely departure – failing to set her phone alarm and failing to remind me to set my alarm – so we overslept till 0800 instead of getting up at 0630.  Since our hotel room rate only included two free breakfasts, Cis (who is known by many as “St. Rita, the Martyr”) sent Maria and I down to breakfast while she stayed behind to shower and pack up.  The breakfast was excellent, part Western and part Chinese: fried eggs, fried rice, meat dumplings (“boazi”), green beans with pork, orange juice, thick white toast with strawberry jam, and black coffee!  I smuggled a hard boiled egg and the cream puff back to the room for Cissy, and then we checked out.  Hope we can find as nice a hotel in Beijing for anywhere near this price ($25 for all three of us)!

We walked about a hundred meters to the bus station and booked seats on the tourist bus to Mount Emei, or “Emeishan” as it’s called on Chinese maps.  It was just a 30-minute ride away, which gave me time to read Maria’s blog from yesterday on her computer.

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Once there, we took a taxi into the nearby town of Baoguo, directly at the foot of the mountain, to the Teddy Bear Hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet guide book Maria carries everywhere (affectionately called “the Brick”).  We checked in and got advice about going up on the mountain, then caught another tourist bus for the long ride up the mountain.  This was a smaller 18-passenger bus in which we were the only Westerners, as usual.  The driver was terribly aggressive, pounding on the horn anytime anyone got in front of him, and we flew around hairpin corners on all the way up – except for the time we came to a complete stop for what we later found out was a rockslide.  At least one young lady was sick along the way,and she threw up out the window!  It was also very misty/foggy, so the hour-long ride up was pretty exciting.

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I had a comfortable center seat by the engine, so I was able to stretch out and sleep most of the way up, as usual.

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The first thing we noticed when we got to the top was the monkeys running around the parking lot.  Even though we expected them, they surprised us with their numbers, their size, and their quickness.  We watched one come up to a group of three Chinese girls, quickly snatch a plastic pop bottle out of one of their purses, twist off the top, and drink it.  It was amazing, just as if we were watching a Sprite commercial!

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After buying a bamboo pole to fend off the monkeys, we walked around the parking lots awhile, trying to figure out what to do.  We had originally planned to go up but the icy conditions really took us by surprise and we weren’t sure if we wanted to make the 1.5 km hike.  We also were a bit put off by the haze, which was so thick we doubted the vendors who told us we could see the sun if we climbed and caught the cable car.  We figured they just wanted to make money off renting us crampons for our boots, and we were starting to feel like we had finally encountered the classic “let’s take the tourists for all their worth” scam.

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A little while later, we crossed the path of some people walking down the icy stairway and they gave us their crampons to use for free (these were just simple lace on climbing points; nothing fancy).  Since they offered, we lashed them on and started up.  It was a bit slippery in some places, but then we saw 2-man native porter teams practically running up the trail carrying bamboo litters with full-grown people on them.  They even stayed in the center of the trail, where was the ice was thickest, while we used the more clear paths on the right by the handrail, so we stopped complaining and shouldered on.  At one point we stopped for pictures, and some boys jumped into the picture, flashing the ubiquitous Chinese “V” symbol. 

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Once we got to the top of the trail, it was still very hazy, so we decided to let Maria ride up the cable car alone to the real summit, while we sat in the waiting room area and read/snacked.  It was very cold, and of course the doors were open, so after about twenty minutes I went over and shut the doors.  [Chinese people seem to have this completely irrational fear of non-circulating air, so every non-heated area is open to the outside.  Buses whipping down icy mountain switchbacks, posh hotel corridors, and even the nicest restaurants confound us Westerners by opening windows and doors, as if cold air is one of the main food groups along with white rice and chicken feet.  More on this later.]  It was funny watching Chinese people come up to the door and look at it like they hadn’t seen a closed door before!

[Maria – I was in a bad mood when we got to the top, because the whole day had contradicted my plans and confounded my expectations.  Emeishan is, in my mind, exorbitantly expensive, with every price even higher than those quoted in the sources we consulted.  Entrance for all three of us was $50, the roundtrip bus ride up the mountain was another $30, and the cable car was almost $20 – per person! – with no student or elderly discount.  After paying the ridiculous entrance fee, though, I did want to reach the summit and at least get pictures of the sun we vaguely remembered seeing long ago, so I went up the cable car alone with the camera.

The cable car is pretty nice and surprisingly large, with a capacity of 100 people.  My fellow passengers excitedly shared rumors of sun at the peak and some actually shouted when we broke through the last layer of clouds into pure blue sky.  I’ll admit, it was pretty epic. 

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At the top, there was a short hike to the Golden Summit Monastery at the actual peak, but I just walked far enough to get some good pictures.  Since I was above the actual cloud line, I was lucky enough to witness the Sea of Clouds.  Below me was pure puffy whiteness, punctuated by a few other mountain peaks in the distance, looking like islands in the white. 

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The way back down was a little exciting because the cable line disappeared in front of us as it re-entered the dense clouds. 

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Luckily, the invisible line held up and I made it back down to rejoin my parents.]

At 5:30, we caught the next-to-the-last bus off the mountain.  Our driver going down was pretty calm compared to the driver going up, which was a good thing since the visibility out the front window was about twenty feet, and it was starting to get dark too.  Then, about a third of the way down, we were told to switch to another bus, and that driver was the worst.  He hacked and spit very loudly, rode the horn, and drove like a maniac.  We were all thrilled when we pulled back into town safely, but we were a little disappointed in the day.  But, as Maria has ingrained in us and as we’ve come to see first-hand, going anywhere and doing anything in China is usually a great adventure!

Like all towns and cities in China, Baoguo is busy preparing for the Chinese New Year, now only two weeks away.  The town is nicely lit up with Christmas-style lights, and there are red lanterns and other pretty decorations everywhere.

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We ended the day with a nice meal at the Teddy Bear Hotel, which included a hamburger and fries which I mostly ate, and several delicious Chinese dishes of fried rice, egg-and-tomato, and egg-and-potato, and a large bowl of beef & greens in the spicy Sichuan style.  Then we retired to our room for the evening, which is remarkable mostly for the fact that it has three beds.

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We’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep before we head back to Chengdu, retrieve our luggage, and head on to Xi’An.

10:10 to LeShan

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm

We got up early today, but we had a very strong motive for doing so – Peter’s Tex-Mex Restaurant opens at 7:30, and we were there shortly after.  We enjoyed our second meal there as much as the first, and I got to taste pancakes, bacon, and eggs fried hard for the first time in almost five months. 

 

We took a bus from there to the long-distance bus station, arriving around 9:30.  There was a bus leaving a few minutes later, but maybe that one was sold out because I ended up with tickets for the 10:10 bus.  About an hour and a half into the trip, we slowed down, came to a stop, and the driver turned off the engine.  We were stopped for at least 20 minutes, during which time a bunch of guys took a smoke break and even Dad and I went out to look around.

It was a little surreal, standing on a highway packed with traffic, all at a complete standstill.  It was like an everyday street crossing, but as if the cars had been paused while we were still free to move about.

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When we finally got back on our way, we moved forward very slowly until we passed the cause of the traffic jam – it was the 9:40 bus, which had rear-ended another bus.  The passengers were milling about the accident, and we hoped there were no serious injuries.  It was startling to realize how close we came to being on that bus!

We were only a little late arriving in Leshan, and immediately got on a bus to take us to a hotel that had been recommended by Lonely Planet.  We made a friend on the bus, though, who said that hotel was nice and offered to take us to a nicer place.  She seemed nice, so we took her up on it.  She was unbelievably good to us, accompanying us to a hotel on the outskirts of the city and paying for the taxi to take us there.  The hotel that she set us up in is by far the nicest we’ve stayed in yet and should cost 350 yuan a night but we’re getting it for 180 ($25) due to the strings she pulled. 

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We didn’t luxuriate in our room for long, though, because there was a giant Buddha to see.  Leshan’s claim to fame is 大佛, or Giant Buddha, the world’s largest Buddha.  He was carved over two hundred years before in an attempt to calm the waters around him, at the confluence of three rivers.

We opted to view him from the water, and took a speedboat out to see him. 

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He’s . . . big.  71 meters tall, to be exact, which even dwarfs Dad.  For some scale, here’s a close-up of his hands and some tourists:

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There was also the option of climbing down and around the Buddha, but the ticket was pretty expensive and we rather liked our seated tour so we decided not to.  Instead, we wandered around the town.  Unanimously, we’ve decided we very much like Leshan.  Away from the Buddha-related tourist things, it’s just a nice town.  We walked down random side streets and came upon all sorts of interesting things.  Overall, our impression of Leshan is that all people do here is knit, have tiny dogs, and make cute Chinese babies. 

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It’s one of my favorite parts about China and was glad my parents got to experience it with me.  We found the shoe fixing area of town, the children and maternity clothes district, and the cell phone block.  We saw a little girl taking drum set lessons (and doing really well); a young woman practicing calligraphy; an old man cutting hair on a corner.  Some of the things we saw surprised even me – my first Chinese pet store and my first female sanlunche (pedicab drivers)!

We ate as we walked, grabbing spicy meat pita sandwiches, pineapple-on-a-stick, fried bread, and a donut. 

After returning to our hotel for a little while, we went back out for dinner.  We went all the way down one street, going in every restaurant – looking at their menus and asking questions – before saying 不好意思 (sorry) and leaving.  We ended up eating skewers of meat and vegetables, partly because I didn’t want to say no to them too.  It was really good, though, and only $8 so why not?

Early morning and mountain climbing tomorrow, so good night!

Killing Him Sweetly

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Today was a pretty typical Sunday, starting with Mass in the morning.  The main difference was that we had only vague hints at the location of the church and a Mass time of questionable accuracy.  If I’ve learned anything over my few months here, you always leave for Mass early.  We left the hotel at 9 even though the church was reportedly “not far”.  But when we got off at the right stop, no one had heard of the street we were looking for, despite asking about 6 or 8 people. 

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So with 8 minutes to go we got a taxi.  The street name and street number were wrong, so if Dad hadn’t seen the statue of the Blessed Mother as we drove past, we would not have made it to Mass – how’s that for a miracle?  They were singing Amazing Grace as we entered; of course the words were in Chinese but in my heart, I was thinking of those who once were lost and now are found – like us!

There aren’t a ton of Catholic churches in China, but I have yet to see one that isn’t full.  This one was no exception, and we relied on the kindness of strangers to find seats.  The cathedral is beautiful, and they had an organ!

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After Mass, we explored the huge church complex.  We met a sister, one of the habited nuns I’ve seen in China, and took a picture with her.  (No, I didn’t suddenly grow 3 feet; she’s just that small.)

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Then as we were leaving, we happened upon a ceremony in front of the church – something concerning the beginning of the confirmation process for young people.  I wonder if this is going on at my church in Xiamen, too!

[Note: A few days later, I read an article on the Union of Catholic Asian News and was surprised to discover that it was written about this very ceremony!  It turns out that it was a coming-of-age ceremony for church members who have recently turned 18, a ceremony that originated from Confucianism.]

The church, since it turned out to be nowhere near our hotel as we had expected, was actually quite close to Chengdu’s main park, RenMin GongYuan.  We walked over there and got to experience it in all of its weekend glory.  There were a ton of people there – cute kids, cute old people, and everyone in between.  They were flying kites, feeding fish, playing board games, dancing, practicing taiji, singing, playing instruments, drinking tea . . . There were also a lot of vendors, selling candy, pop, grilled meat, fruit, tea, and a few specialties.  It all played right into mine and Mom’s plan to kill Dad, the diabetic, because they had juice made from pure ground sugar cane and beautiful decorative suckers hand-made from melted sugar. 

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We easily could have spent an afternoon there, but we had a lunch date we were particularly excited about – Peter’s Tex-Mex Restaurant.  It was so legit – Texas map on the wall, Mason jars for glasses, checkered table cloths, and Texas flag shirts for staff – that I still can’t believe Peter is Chinese.

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The food was great, too.  The nachos were okay but the quesadillas and salsa made my heart melt.  We also tried their chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, green beans, carne asado, refried beans, and rice.  The Texas Brownie for dessert was the perfect ending – overall, highly recommended!  (In fact, we’re planning on retuning for breakfast in the morning!)

After eating our fill, we went for a walking tour of Sichuan University.  This was my first-choice school, so it was interesting to see where I might have ended up.  It’s huge, and has more of a U of M feel than XiaDa, which seems to be more on the same scale as TU.  It’s nice, but certainly not as beautiful as XiaDa.  Dad particularly enjoyed the sports complex, where he challenged a series of ping pong players til he found an equal opponent.

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Turns out the kid was 6.  Who knew?

Continuing in our plan to kill Dad, he bought a candied fruit stick (and loved it).

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Our prior plans for dinner were immediately scrapped when we came across a couple of Uighurs selling lamb skewers out of – literally – a hole in the wall.  Believe it or not, this was my parents’ first taste of the fat of the lamb, and after sharing the first 10 skewers we went back for 10 more. 

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At least he didn’t only eat sugar today – there was also some fat. 

I never needed proof, but for all you doubters – Dad declared this meal, which cost a total of $4 and was bought from a small shack with questionable health inspection results, the best one yet in China. 

The day’s events, especially our makeshift dinner, brought up a few more ways in which the parent-child roles have reversed on this trip:

  • They sit in the back of the car because I always get the front seat

  • I have to give them money to put in the collection basket

  • They always want to eat before the food is ready

  • They eat off the ground (true story!)

Back in the hotel, we’re packing for our departure from Chengdu tomorrow morning.  We’re heading first to Leshan to see the world’s largest Buddha, and then to Emeishan for a taste of mountain climbing, Chinese-style.  We’re hoping for good weather, smooth travels, and ready internet access!

Best Job in the World

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2010 at 11:15 pm

We got up early today and caught a taxi headed north to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.  Feeding (and the most active time of the pandas’ day) started around 9:30, so we made sure to get there around 9.  The area is pretty large, and visitors walk from exhibit to exhibit on beautiful paths shaded by patches of bamboo. 

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We went right to one of the panda enclosures, where there were about four Giant Pandas sitting about 10 feet from us, snacking on bamboo.  It’s fun to watch them eat, because they collect a bunch of leaves in their mouths, then hold the bunch in their hands and eat it like a carrot or something.  They’re a pretty sedentary animal when full-grown, living what seems like the ideal life – eating and sleeping. 

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The enclosures here are pretty natural, and we were excited to be separated from them only by a moat and a low bamboo fence. 

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Next we saw the Red Pandas.  We almost didn’t go because we figured they couldn’t be cuter than the Giant Pandas, but were glad we did because they are darn cute.  Unfortunately, they move quite fast (unlike the glacial movements of the Giant Pandas) so they were harder to photograph.

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The park was a little hard to navigate (about the only thing we didn’t like about it) but we made the trek out to the Giant Panda Houses, the furthest exhibits.  They were absolutely worth it, though, and really made the rest of the park pale in comparison.  We found the 1+ year-old pandas, which absolutely stole our hearts.  Unlike the full-grown adults, the little guys had lots of energy.  They wrestled with each other, chased their keepers, and climbed trees. 

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They were hilarious to watch climbing, because they would get themselves in untenable situations, draped over a branch on their belly or in some Twister-like combination of feet and leg positions.  They were pretty good going up, but would flounder and flail at the top and half-fall all the way down.  They also fell for real sometimes, which scared the heck out of us the first few times! 

For all the pictures we’ve seen of pandas, I realized today that we rarely see them in action.  Even in zoos, America only has a few and if you catch them when they’re lazy (as they often are), you don’t get a feel for their motions.  They seem like a mix between a fur rug, a beanbag, and a slinky.  They often seem to fall downhill more than walking on their own power, so it’s a mystery to us as to how they get uphill in the first place.  They really seem like they don’t have spines but we saw a skeleton and apparently they do. 

Inside the enclosure with them was a young man whose job seemed to be feeding them and checking them over after falls. 

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After a while, I started a conversation by telling him that we thought his job was the best in the world.  All the other visitors had left so it was just us and we had a nice conversation with him.  He told us a little bit about these bears and even introduced them to us by name (not that we could really tell them apart).  Best of all, when they were eating, he turned one of them around so that they were all facing us!

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I said that these young pandas were really active, but I should mention that there was one notable exception.  One of them – Dad’s favorite – was perched at the top of a tree for the entire duration of our visit, which was at least an hour, even while his buddies were pigging out below him.

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He was facing away from us the whole time and looked like a big ball of fur at first.  He did wake up for a few minutes and stretch out in the sun, but then curled back up – I guess his position was really comfortable.

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It was a really special hour for us, although the entire visit was nice.  We figure that we saw nearly 40 Giant Pandas and another dozen or so Red Pandas, which is an insane amount considering there are only 270 or so Giant Pandas in captivity. 

I got that number from a Wikipedia article, which had some other interesting Panda facts:

  • although they eat mainly bamboo, they still have the digestive system of a carnivore, without the ability to digest cellulose efficiently, so they have to eat a lot of it – 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots a day.
  • The West didn’t know about the Panda until 1869 when a French missionary, Armand David, received a skin
  • The first Westerner known to have seen a living Giant Panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold in 1916
  • Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (son of Teddy and an interesting character in his own right) was the first foreigner to shoot a panda
  • in the 1970’s, panda exchanges were a diplomatic move; now pandas are only loaned to other countries for 10 years
  • Baby pandas are tiny, about 1/900th of their mother’s size – the largest mother/child size difference among mammals.
  • Some conservations think that panda conservation is a waste of money because there is “not enough habitat left to sustain them".  “The panda is, unfortunately, virtually unsavable. It lives in the most overpopulated country in the world, it feeds on plants when it ought to be eating partially meat, it transfers all sorts of nasty diseases among itself, it tastes nice and it’s got a coat that looks good on someone’s back".

We took a bus back into town and ended up right near a recommended Sichuan 小吃 (snack) restaurant.  It was crazy busy and chaotic in there but I managed to order food and it magically came to our table, so that was cool.  It was fun to try about 15 different things without having to eat a lot of any one thing. 

The restaurant was in a cool part of town, just off a pedestrian mall that was just packed with people.  We liked the area even more after finding a donut shop!  They had beautiful donuts and the 6 that we tried were delicious. 

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We got to watch them make the donuts, too, which we decided is the second best job in the world.

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I looked at their list of flavors after eating, though, and I don’t understand how this place that creates such wonderful things could also create something as evil as a seaweed or meat floss biscuit.  That is just not right. 

For a change, we went back to the hotel in the afternoon to rest before heading out in the evening.  After a nice nap, we went back to Tianfu Square in the middle of town.  Dad got to see Mao for the first time, and we got to see the area lit up at night.

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All the fountains were on, and even dancing to the music; it was really beautiful.

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We stopped for dinner at a 兰州拉面 restaurant.  拉面, or “pulled noodles” are a specialty of northeastern China – Xinjiang and Gansu provinces – which are populated largely by Muslims (the Uighur people you hear about on the news).  It’s one of my favorite foods and almost like a chain in China, as Uighur food everywhere is pretty much the same – delicious noodles with beef or lamb.

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Dad wanted a picture with the owner, which is pretty funny when you know that the guy grabbed his butt while it was being taken. 

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Back by our hotel, we stopped at a little convenience store to get ice cream.  When we got to our room and opened them, though, we discovered that one of the containers had melted and lost most of its ice cream.  We nearly dismissed it as a lost cause, but in the end decided to go back down to the store and ask for a new one.  Surprisingly, the worker immediately told us to just get another, which means . . . there are take-backs in China!

Public Transportation FAIL

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2010 at 9:32 pm

This morning I experienced the second bite of last night’s peppers.  :(  Mental note to self: drink yogurt after spicy meals.

We had a leisurely morning, planning out the rest of our week in Sichuan (pandas tomorrow, church on Sunday, Emei Shan and Leshan from Monday to Wednesday), and then moving to a different hotel.  As noted in yesterday’s post, we were not satisfied with our hotel last night, so we moved to Chengdu’s other Super 8 Motel.  The location is a little bit better and the room is nicer with less non-functioning appliances, but it’s inexplicably more expensive and, despite being significantly smaller, has yet to heat up really at all.

We also called my Chinese friend back in the States so he could listen to Mom speak Chinese.  She did pretty well, but there were some funny mistakes.  For instance, she said 听不用 (tīng bú yòng, “I hear but don’t need”) instead of 听不懂 (tīng bú dǒng, “I hear but don’t understand”).  Later, Wang thought she said “which floor” (几楼, or jǐ lóu) instead of “chicken” (鸡肉, or jī ròu).

Dad had a embarrassing language moment too – actually he’s had lots of them.  As we walked by a bakery full of beautiful cakes, so he turned into the store to admire them, saying loudly “bu hao!” in an attempt to compliment the girl behind the counter on the quality of the cakes.  Um . . . fail: “Bu hao” means “no good”; he meant to say “hao chi”, or “delicious”!  We quickly left . . .

It’s funny because I remember that summer on the farm when I was first learning Chinese – when all the tones sounded the same, when I didn’t know the different sounds of “qu” and “chu”, when I would forget a new word within seconds of learning it, when the 了 particle confounded me (oh wait, it still does).  I remember all of it but I’m not there anymore.  I hear tones and can say them and even, (slightly) more often than not, use the correct one.  I still have trouble with the umlauted ‘u’ and the weird Chinese ‘r’ sound, but I get by.  I make up words and sentences with abandon and get pretty good results so I guess I’m kind of getting the hang of it.  Yup, I remember those times and again give thanks for the amazingly patient ‘teachers’ I had on the farm, who put up with a whole summer of my regular butchering of their language, my complete inability to master even their names, and my strange actions that I couldn’t explain properly to them.  Too bad my parents’ teacher isn’t that patient . . .

In total tourist mode, we went for lunch at a Western (kind of – it was Turkish) restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet book.  It was hard to find but after a very filling meal of naan, hummus, kebab, and tikka we agreed that the trek was worth it.  [This is John/Dad:  The Turkish restaurant was a lot different than the Chinese restaurants we have been going to for over a week, in several important ways:  1) It was quiet.  2) We ordered separate, complete meals from the menu – ‘tho we shared with each other anyway.  3) It had salt and pepper on the table.  4) We ate with regular silverware instead of chopsticks.  5) We had wonderful, warm bread!  6) The restaurant had a door.  7) The door was closed, so it was fairly warm.  8) There was another Meiguoren, or American, there, from Detroit, but we didn’t talk to her.]

Mom and I continued on towards TianFu Square in the center of the city, but Dad went back to the hotel to read and relax [meaning sleep].  He didn’t really miss anything, because Mom and I spent the majority of the afternoon trying to get somewhere.  Chengdu’s public transit (or maybe all of their transit) is a nightmare.  We waited at two different bus stops for at least ten minutes each, ready to get on any bus (the good news is that their buses seem to all go in the same direction, so we could take any of them).  Buses were few and very far between, though, and the ones that did come by were so stuffed that they could literally not take a single more passenger (and this is in China, where there is almost always room for one more person, even if they are directly in the path of the door).

When we got tired of waiting for a bus, we decided to catch a taxi.  But again, we were passed over and over again by taxis that already had passengers, and the few times we saw one stop to let someone off, someone else jumped in front of us to claim it.

Anyway, to cut a long, painful story short, we finally got on a bus and made it to the city center.  We got temporarily distracted by a bookstore, where we continued our quest for my mother’s favorite children’s books translated into Chinese.  I felt stupid asking for a book “about a train that wants to go up a mountain and wrongly thinks it can’t, but really it can” and another about “a mouse and if you give it a cookie”, and then they didn’t even know what I was talking about (I know, right?  Hard to believe…).  We did, however, buy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese, so that I can have a full set of all the languages I kind of speak.  Then we made it over to the main square, which was quite nice.

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There’s a big statue of Mao, some beautiful dragon fountains, a huge yin-yang pattern to the ground, and four underground staircases that lead to the subway system that will (God willing!) be finished sometime very very soon.

The ridiculousness of the trip there was repeated as we attempted to return to the hotel.

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I’ve decided that Wuhan is not pretty and Chengdu’s public transportation sucks, so it really was one of those wonderful unanswered prayers that I got sent to wonderful Xiamen.

On days like this – when it’s cold and well, China outside – I like to order takeout.  The people at the front desk helped us out with phone numbers, and a few minutes later three huge bowls of steaming hot wonton soup were delivered right to our hotel room – for about a total of $2.  Dad was pleased!

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No Take-Backs!

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2010 at 11:30 pm

We left Wuhan early this morning.  We certainly weren’t sad to part ways, as the day wasn’t looking much better than the previous one had been – cold and gray.  The taxi ride took us out of the main city towards . . . Siberia, apparently.  It was about the most desolate thing we’d ever seen; Dad even said it would be a great place to film a post-apocalyptic movie, if they fixed the place up a bit first. 

The airport terminal was definitely not heated and, in true Chinese fashion, I think they were circulating fresh outside air through the waiting area.  Basically, it was freezing.  You know how when it’s really cold outside and you go inside and you have to take off all your layers or you’ll burn up?  Well, the good news is that in southern China, you don’t have this problem.  You pretty much wear all your layers, all the time.  And then (if you’re Dad), you still complain about the cold.

But soon enough we were on a warm plane headed to Chengdu in Sichuan province.  Sichuan (usually Szechwan in the US) is where the spiciest food comes from; you’ve probably eaten Szechwan chicken and maybe cried afterwards.  It is considered western China, despite being significantly closer to the east coast than to the western border.  Chengdu is more specifically known as the site of the May 12th, 2008 earthquake.  Somewhat less well-known but also very important, it is the site of Sichuan University, which was my first choice when applying for this full-year scholarship.  Obviously, I ended up in Xiamen, but I was definitely looking forward to coming to Chengdu to see where I would have lived if things had turned out as I thought I wanted.

After finding a hotel, we had a Chinese lesson.  My parents are learning a few words each day, and so far they know:

  • thank you
  • hello, goodbye, goodnight
  • excuse me, can I ask a question?
  • can I?
  • I don’t understand
  • good job
  • wait a moment
  • foreigner
  • ladies, gentleman
  • me, you, he/she/it
  • America, China
  • good, bad, delicious, cute
  • spicy-hot, temperature-hot
  • extremely, a little bit, too
  • how much
  • numbers 1-10
  • don’t need
  • frustrating
  • Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)
  • know, don’t know
  • hotel
  • water, tea, coffee, beer, glass, bottle
  • please bring another
  • West Point, artillery, infantry, tank, cannon, security
  • units of money
  • today, tomorrow, yesterday
  • left, right
  • sit down, return
  • have, don’t have
  • almost/almost the same
  • expensive
  • train, fast, slow
  • tired, hungry, really hungry (starving–to-death)

Once class was over (because the students were whining), we went out to find lunch.  We found a restaurant and I ordered a few dishes — eggplant something, miscellaneous chicken parts, and a pot of goose.  So I was pretty surprised when a plate of beef and green peppers was placed in front of us.  My parents dug in immediately and, since it didn’t have any vegetables they don’t regularly eat or strange parts of unrecognizable animals, declared it the best thing they’d eaten in China.  This was followed by two more mystery dishes, none of which resembled what I thought I had ordered.  About the time Dad was eating the last piece of green pepper, the waitress came over to tell us that they had messed up, that they given us three dishes that we hadn’t ordered. 

I felt vindicated, but also a little concerned because Chinese customer service isn’t really the best.  Earlier during the trip, we ordered drinks and paid for them before the worker told us that they didn’t have what we had ordered, and we couldn’t unorder.  No take-backs! 

This was a similar situation.  In an American restaurant, they would have allowed us to eat the food we didn’t order without charging us for it, and would have brought our original order as well – at the very least.  In China, we were made to pay for the food we’d already eaten, and were ‘asked’ if we still wanted our original order.  I put that in quotation marks because we managed to get them to give one of the dishes to another table, but they kept insisting that the other was really delicious and we eventually caved.

After our interesting lunch, we bought a map and headed to the train station.  I can read maps in Chinese (which is two things my mom can’t do) and managed to get us there in one bus ride. 

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The train station was crazy in this pre-Spring Festival period.  (You know, there’s actually a word for the massive movement of Chinese people during the Lunar New Year – 春运.  The Chinese have a word for everything!)  I can’t even guess how many people were in the train station, but I can say with certainty that Dad was the tallest person there – and we have a picture to prove it (he’s near the left side of the picture):

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In the midst of the chaos, though, we successfully bought tickets for next week from Chengdu to Xi’An.  Victory!

Just for fun, we took a motorized sanlunche for a ride – it is, after all, pretty much a mandatory experience while in China.

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When we got off, we found ourselves in the military district of Chengdu.  There were about 3 blocks of military surplus stores, and we went in every single one looking for an artillery patch.  It turns out that there’s an army base in Chengdu, but it turns out they don’t really like foreigners asking too many questions about it.  It was interesting walking around the area, though, so much like its counterparts in America that we’re familiar with.

Walking a little bit more, we saw an ancient gate and went in to look around.  We had happened upon the Wenshu monastery, which is a really beautiful oasis in the city.  It’s quiet enough to hear birds and the smell of incense overpowers the random smells of China. 

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As we were leaving, we heard the monks chanting in one of the pagodas.  It was my first time hearing Buddhist monks chanting, but it’s very similar to how the people at my church chant the rosary, so I’m guessing that’s one way in which China’s other religions have influenced the Catholic Church here. 

After exploring the little shops around the monastery, we started to walk back to our hotel.  We stopped along the way for dinner at a hotpot restaurant.  Hot pot is a famous Chinese dish similar to fondue – you order raw meat and vegetables, which you cook in boiling flavored water.  Chongqing and Sichuan are the hot pot capitals of China, so it was definitely on the bucket list for our week in Chengdu.

It was a bit spicier than the hot pot I’d had in Chengdu, but it was delicious.  We had two kinds of meat, noodles, potatoes, cauliflower, cucumber, quail eggs, and lettuce.  It warmed us up and cleaned out our sinuses; actually my cheeks still feel red. 

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We’re back in the hotel right now.  We’re in another Super 8 (since we are VIPs, after all) but are not getting star treatment.  So far we’ve had to make them change our phone, two lamps, and a light bulb in the ceiling, and are still waiting on them to bring us a new desk chair and fix the internet.  Too bad we can’t go somewhere else, but — after all — there are no take-backs in China!