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.


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