Chengdu panda-monium!

Ripe pandas ready for harvest.
Ripe pandas ready for harvest.


I knew my train trip from Xi’an to Chengdu would be a little difficult. I had a hard seat on an overnight train. A student came with me to buy my tickets, and she did the best she could with the limited seats available due to the holiday and students leaving universities for the holidays. Had I been making the reservations by myself, I might have changed things on the fly. But she did fine, and whatever, I’ll deal.

I should explain: there are four types of tickets on Chinese trains: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. I’ll get to hard seats in a moment. Soft seats are like the seats on Amtrak. A hard sleeper is what I had on the way to Xi’an: a reasonably comfortable bed in a compartment of six. Soft sleepers are apparently in compartments of four and a little bit more comfortable and private.

I found my place in the hard seats. It’s like a restaurant booth, with four or six people facing a little table. The table is for the instant noodles. Chinese people come strapped with instant noodles on the train. Lots of food in huge bags of it, but especially instant noodles. You can buy food at the station or on the train, but apparently that’s overpriced. So they use hot water on the train and make noodles.

The family I was sitting with spoke no English, but they were very nice and even offered me some of their Chongqing snacks. (I don’t know if there is another name for them, but they’re kind of like the breadsticks from Chex mix, but greasier. OK in very small doses.) The car was crowded and fairly noisy. People aren’t allowed to smoke inside the car, but they can (or do) smoke between cars, which wafted directly into our car anyway. I had my iPod and was able to rest my head on the table from time to time and catch a little sleep. So I made the best of it and, when everyone else prepared to get off at 6 a.m. or so, I grabbed my bag and found a taxi…

At which point I learned we weren’t in Chengdu. Guh? Nope, we were somewhere else along the way, not quite there. What do I do? I ran back to the ticket office and tried to get another ticket to Chengdu. The woman explained that I already have a ticket to Chengdu and I can’t have two. I guess she worked out what I was trying to say. A conductor…well, conducted me to the train, and I got on just before it left again. That whole experience was a giant pain in the ass. What did I learn? The same old lesson I keep learning: never assume anything in China. But at least it’s an experience few other travelers have, so maybe I can be proud of that?

I ended up riding that train from 8:45 p.m. Saturday until 12 p.m. Sunday. I was exhausted and hungry when I got to Mix Hostel. I checked in, signed up for the panda tour the next day, ate a meal, showered, and crashed in my bunk. Somebody has to be the weird girl who never leaves the hostel, and that day it was me. I got a good night’s sleep and felt much, much, much better the next day.

I mainly came to Chengdu to see pandas, so we headed to the breeding center nearby (an hour by van). Pandas are mostly active in the mornings, so we got there around 8:30 a.m. and walked around looking for signs of life. The photos say it all. The big pandas were mostly eating and waddling a bit. The young ones played a bit. The ones who slept liked to do it in trees. If you’re on board with pandas, it’s great. If you need action and adventure, maybe pandas aren’t for you.

We also saw red pandas, who are more like cats than bears. They can, apparently, come and go out of their enclosures as they please. One was walking on the path toward our group, and he sniffed my hand when I held it out to him. But they can be vicious, according to the signs, so I left it at that.

We also saw a movie about why the pandas are nearly extinct. All species have an average life of 5 million years, and pandas seem to be coming to the end of theirs. They also aren’t super into sexual reproduction; said point was illustrated by a video of pandas going at it (I’m serious!) and one of pandas trying and failing to score with a lady panda who was having none of it. It was a little graphic. And there was a shot of a panda being born. Like, “What is that? Is that a panda vagina?” PLOP. “Oh, jeez, that’s a baby. Wow.” So, yeah, we learned A LOT about pandas.

We got back to the hostel around lunchtime, and I decided to explore the area around Wenshu Monastery and the Folk Street. Folk Street was fine. There are a lot of souvenirs that are the same at every store/table. Lots of Tibetan stuff, lots of panda stuff. And tiger claw, which I’d never seen before but anticipate seeing more of when I go to Yunnan. I ate six steamed buns, an insane amount of buns but YOLO, and walked around the monastery and nearby streets. Oh, yes, and I bought a book that I want to use to learn to read. The three little pigs are featured on the front, so I think I can get there.

Monday night was another tour to Sichuan Opera. This was a high-end performance of the opera, including a lot of acrobatics, dancing, singing, some silks work, costumes, fire breathing, broad comedy, and face changing. The face changing was apparently the selling point, and it’s quite impressive. They wear silk masks on their faces, and through some misdirection, POW! New mask. It’s incredible. I loved seeing it, and it’s reinforced my goal to see a live kabuki show (as soon as I get my ass to Japan!).

I did everything on Monday. I thought having Tuesday free for exploration would be a good strategy, but I was a little bored and ready to go home. Many people use Chengdu as a base for travels to nearby places, and I should have tried to go out to the Leshan Buddha or something like that. You live, you learn.

After a little bit of getting-lost time, I went to the Sichuan Museum. That was all right, but maybe too similar to the Shaanxi Museum without being quite as impressive. Plus an entire school of children showed up and swarmed the place after I’d been there for a while. In a way that was fun—like when a group of boys tore ass into the room, stopped in front of a silver bowl, and shouted “Whoa!”–but the noise and chaos was a little too much.

I followed the trail of Tibetan monks—seriously, there were a lot of maroon robes around, and they helped reassure me that I wasn’t getting lost—to the Tibetan quarter. Lots of shops selling the same things, once again. I did eat some Tibetan food that was pretty good. After a while I just felt bored and run-down and tired of the gray skies.

The reason I felt run down: I had the start of a cold that morning. Unfortunate timing, but not the worst, since I mainly planned to sit on the train that day. And I did: 2.5 hours in a soft seat and I was back in Chongqing. About 1.5 hours on the subway and I was back home.

This trip helped me see Chongqing in a new light. People do some strange things here, and I wasn’t sure how much is Chongqing culture and how much is China culture. I got to use my Chinese with some positive results. And I hope I am learning to live as a tourist in my home city, to get out of my habits sometimes and explore.

One more trip is planned for the break. My sister is coming on Sunday and we’re going to travel in Yunnan. I’m really looking forward to that, especially since my weather app is predicting sunshine! China is so huge and diverse that I’m very interested to see what we’ll find there.


Xi’an: history, food, and lungs full of carbon

What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious.
What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious. I must know what it’s called and if I can find it in Chongqing.

My students sometimes ask me if I like to travel. I usually reply, “Well, everybody says they do,” to buy some time and because I’m not really sure of the answer. I like seeing new things, but I also like sleeping in my own bed at night. Of course, those of us who self-select to live abroad are more likely to be travel enthusiasts, but I consider myself more of a migrant worker than an adventurer.

Still, it’s winter break. We have about 6 weeks off, since Lunar New Year is so late this year. Staying in Chongqing is not recommended. Many of the stores around campus have closed for the month, and January and February are not the most naturally beautiful times to be here. (I’ll write more about what I’ve been doing here in another post.) I want to make the most of my time here in China and learn about this country, and it’s really inexpensive to travel here if you can economize a little. So off I went to Xi’an and Chengdu.


The day before I left for Xi’an, one of my students accompanied me to English CAFE. (He had just finished taking exams and was waiting to take the train home. He was bored and likes practicing English, so we made the trip downtown together.) I told him my plan and he said, “Who will help you on the train?” I don’t know. Someone? No one? He decided to go with me to the train station Monday morning, even though his train for home didn’t leave until Monday evening. I told him it was ridiculous for him to sit in the train station for 12 hours and that I would be fine on my own. But if a Chinese person wants to help you, they’re going to help you. You can only argue so much. (I don’t agree with all of Confucius’ teachings, but his ideas about respect toward teachers have been a great benefit to me personally.)

My student and I took the subway early on Monday. He found a comfortable seat and a cup of coffee, and I got on the train to Xi’an with little drama (the signs are not that hard to follow) and found my hard sleeper. I’m not sure if I’d want to sleep a long time on it, but it’s nice to stretch your legs and have a place to put your stuff next to you. The train took about 10 hours and tada! Xi’an.

I stayed at Hantang House, which I recommend. It’s very nice, bathrooms en suite, clean, beautiful dark wood, not too expensive, great location, a little noisy in the evenings but not unbearably so. The beer is not cheap, so it’s not the kind of hostel where you pre-game for your night out. But I wasn’t really there for night life. I stayed in an eight-woman dorm so I could have more money for other activities. That turned out great. Most of my roommates were Chinese, and they are used to sharing and being respectful. Your results may vary during peak season. (The most disrespectful people I encountered on this trip were Americans. Ugh. They weren’t that bad, they just stood out compared to everyone else.) I wasn’t in the room much, anyway, so aside from the need to lock my things in the locker when I left, I didn’t miss having a private room. So I checked in, signed up for the tour to the Terra Cotta Warriors the next day, drank a beer, and went to bed.


I have wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors since I first heard about them on Ripley’s Believe it or Not! at at age seven or so. I saw the touring exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but there is more to explore. A bunch of us from the hostel took a van with a tour guide.

Overall, I enjoyed it. In Minneapolis I got to see some of the warriors up close, but it was hard to grasp the scale of how huge the project is. (And then after all that, they just covered it up and killed all the workmen.) But it was a bit overwhelming and a bit rushed. The tour guide was kind of a B-minus. I know she didn’t want us to feel bored and like we spent too much time there, but I think she erred too far on the other side. I’m really glad I went, but maybe going on my own would have been a better choice. Certainly less expensive.

That evening, four of us from the tour met up to go to the water fountain show at the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. A water fountain show sounds totally Vegas—music plays and the water shoots up in time to the music and there are colored lights. But it was free, so what the hell, right? I did like it more than I thought I would. It was 30 minutes but didn’t feel too long.

We were a little cold from sitting by the fountain, so we got some noodles afterward at First Noodle Under the Sun. The Xi’an specialty is biang biang mian, which I guess is one bigass noodle in a bowl. It was delicious. All the food in Xi’an was really good, without being burn-the-paint-off-the-ceiling hot like in Chongqing.


I struck out on my own and immediately got lost. I had a decent map, and Xi’an is laid out like a grid, but for some reason I had a hard time getting around. The map made things look closer together than they were, and that did not help. After about 90 minutes of fruitless staggering around (which, really, isn’t so long to be lost if you really think about it), I found the Muslim Quarter. And lucky me, it was time for lunch.

The Muslim Quarter is my new favorite thing. So much food, so many things to look at. I love the points where cultures intersect, and the Muslim-Chinese market was so stimulating to my brain (and belly). So I walked around there and ate hot beef on a bun. What else do I need?

The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are both nearby. Since I had to pay to go to them, I decided I’d pick one, not both. Drum Tower it is! It was pretty. They had a lot of antique furniture on display. It was fine, I don’t regret going, but it’s not a can’t-miss unless you really love architecture or furniture.

I wandered a bit more and found myself by the West Gate of the ancient city walls. I had plans to explore the walls; why not now? I paid to get in and decided to rent a bike to ride around the walls. That was a great decision. I would have been a little bored at walking speed, but riding was perfect. The ride was a little rough at times, and I think navigating through crowds might be stressful on a busy day, but this was great. (I was sore the next day; going on a ten-mile ride after no biking for months was not easy!) I also got into a conversation with another rider who just moved to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a small world.


On the Terra Cotta Warriors tour I had met a woman named Jo, and we decided to attempt to visit the Tomb of Jing Di independent of the Hantang tour group. We both like museums and felt rushed on the Warriors tour. We set out to take the subway and a bus, and it worked out really well. I also started to feel like I was in possession of some useful Chinese skills. The Xi’an accent is much easier to understand than the Chongqing accent, and I was able to conduct simple transactions. Knowing that “图书馆” means “library” meant we got off the subway at the correct stop. Practical language skills at work!

The Tomb of Jing Di is not world famous, but it’s really fascinating. Jing Di had a burial site with terra cotta effigies of men, women, eunuchs, and animals and chariots. The bodies of the humans were about ten inches high and dressed in silk clothing. Each face was individually carved, although the bodies looked to be mass-produced (with a bit of extra attention to the genitals). It looked like a Fisher-Price My First Emperor’s Tomb, and I just wanted to get on my knees and play with the pieces.

After half a day, we returned to Xi’an proper. I was hungry and Jo was cold, so we went to (sigh) Starbucks for a warm-up and then back to the Muslim Quarter for something delicious. We ended up getting deeper into the Quarter than I had on my own and found the places where the actual residents buy their goods. My big honky face apparently gave some gentleman quite a start, according to Jo, who was walking behind me. It’s interesting how unaccustomed to Westerners some Chinese are. (Xi’an was the first place I actually heard people refer to me as 老外, although that could be because their accent is easier to understand.)


Jo reported that the Shaanxi Museum was worthwhile and also free, so I did my best to find it. I had another bout of being lost and wandering in the wrong direction, but I got there. I found a lot of really incredible artifacts and historical pieces. Quite crowded, but I was still able to see everything I wanted. I highly recommend it.

The crowds did make me want to do something a bit more relaxing afterward. I made my way back to the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. I ate again at First Noodle Under the Sun and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens around the pavilion. I didn’t pay to go inside, but I felt I had enough to do. I bought a coffee and just watched the people outside, then walked a bit more when I felt ready. I also walked up and down a street called “Chinatown,” mostly out of curiosity. It looked like a Bar Street with some restaurants (mostly Korean and Indian). OK, call it Chinatown if you want, Xi’an, see if I care.


I didn’t really have a plan for Saturday, unfortunately. I was leaving, but not until later. I think I thought I’d sleep in a bit longer than I did and have less time to fill. So what did I do? Starbucks, then Muslim Quarter for lunch. Hey, it’s my damn trip, I’ll do what I want.

I did pop my head into the Great Mosque. I had read that there would be a charge and that I would not be admitted during prayer times. No one charged me, and no one stopped me from going into the courtyard. I removed my shoes and went into the mosque itself. I looked around a bit, then the imam saw me and shooed me out. It was really beautiful (again, cultural intersections), but all my photos from the courtyard got lost.

I did a little more shopping. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m going to get a massage. There is a place in the Muslim Quarter that advertises massage by the blind. I was still sore from the bike ride and general walking around, so I went for a full body. I kept my clothes on and the guy worked on my through my clothes with a cloth over. He had really good technique and I felt much better afterward.

Overall, I really love Xi’an. Except for the pollution. I should have bought a mask to wear, and if I’d stayed longer, I would have. I felt horrible every night, with a hot scratchy throat and watery eyes. I may go back some day, but I really hope they can manage the air quality. (Some of my students are environmental engineers; Godspeed, you guys!)

At that point, it was time to return to the hostel, pick up my bag, and go to the train station. And there my troubles began.