Wednesday, September 14, 2011

China -- Day Five Part 2

Looking back on the whole experience it is even more incredible. But a few things I forgot…the keepers would put the panda on your lap and then they’d hand him a stick of bamboo and dip it either in honey or sugar water that he’d busily gnaw away at. As long as the panda had that, he didn’t care what happened to him. What was hilarious though was as he finished one stick of bamboo, he’d look to the keeper with the stash of bamboo and sticky goodness and they’d hand him another. It was like he knew the drill and would stay with it as long as he could. I think he made it through 8 of us before they changed shifts and the second cub came in for the rest of the photos.

Chengdu PRBC has red pandas as well, which I love. Unfortunately only three were out in the enclosure and they are so squirmy and skittish that it was tough to photograph them.

I think the biggest take-away I had from the day at Chendgu PBRC was that the pandas here are extremely well taken care of and seem to be living as normal an existence as I’d hope for. Just following those two through the grass yesterday felt like a safari to me and seemed so much more natural than just walking up to a glass room or a large cage to see them. I’m so curious to see how things are at Bifengxia now!

Believe it or not, David had to drag us out of Chengdu PBRC. I really think.we all could have stood around waiting for a panda to turn its head to give us that money shot. We would wait patiently if it meant getting the perfect view of thinking it had acknowledged us. But David had an agenda for us and off we went.

Our one mistake was not getting the names of the cubs who participated in the photo op. We think the one I held was Yun Zun or something similar, so I will have to look that up when I get home. I’d want to follow his progress if and when he gets sent to a zoo or starts breeding.

I should probably use this space now to talk about Chengdu. For a city I’d never heard of before I started reading more on pandas, it is massive. Massive in the sense of “how could a city this big exist and I’ve never heard of it?” In fact the top 20 largest cities in China are larger than all US cities. It is massive and sprawling. It is also in a perpetual state of construction and demolition. It is very common to see enormous piles of bricks that used to be one large building that will be replaced by yet another skyscraper. The city is also building additional subway lines so whole blocks have been taken by eminent domain and demolished to make way for the subway.

What I have noticed though is that the further I get away from Beijing the more the infrastructure declines. From Beijing to Xi’an to Chengdu, I saw less and less English, more squat toilets (and no Western style toilest), more demolish, more construction cranes, and more evidence that this is a developing, not developed, country. I am curious to know how much of the difference between Beijing and the other two cities is due to the fact that Beijing was built up for the Olympics. Here I see more really rundown buildings that look like the outer boroughs of New York that just look like lower class tenements. There is what David calls a “deluxe neighborhood” that has designer shops like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, but that seems to be the exception and not the norm. And while I had heard before I came here that China is really dirty, I’ve found that it’s more a function of having billions of people in a relatively small space and also of being one of the oldest nations on the globe. So is it sparkling clean like a quaint city at home? No. But is it as dirty as I was led to believe? Not really. It’s sort of like when people say Rome is dirty…if dirty is classic old architecture that hasn’t been razed for new glass skyscrapers, then give me dirty.

Anyway, after leaving the panda center, David took us for lunch and it was back to lazy susan style serving. All of the dishes had a more Sichuan flare and as I was one of the three on the trip who wanted “super spicy” he had dishes made up especially for us. One that was fabulous was a julienned string bean with three types of hot pepper. There was an interesting egg dish, almost like a flan, that had a spicy beef on top of it. I think we had maybe 15 dishes, none of which horrified me, which I guess is a good thing.

After lunch, we went to the Jinsha Site Museum. This modern glass building was built over an archeological dig It is still an active dig and if we timed it right probably could have seen people working there. The guide walked us through the dig (on platforms over the pits) and explained to us what significant findings were made and where. Then we went to a second building that was more like a museum displaying items that had been found. The guide said this museum had been opened in 2007 so it is still relatively new and I am guessing will become less sparse as the dig continues. I felt that for such a massive space, it had a lot of filler in the way of maps and dioramas with stuffed animals and mannequins than actual treasures. It was interesting enough but I think we were all brought back to harsh reality after the euphoria of the panda experience that morning.

Our next stop was supposed to be a tea house but the one David wanted to try was closed, so we went to another that ended up being the same one that Anthony Bourdain went to on the episode he was in Sichuan Province. This was an outdoor pavilion with little cement tables with big wicker chairs around them. Almost as soon as we entered the pavilion, older Chinese men approached us with these long wire rods with cotton at the end of them. What they were (get ready for this) were ear wax cleaners. For a price, they would stick the rod in your ear, use a tuning fork and let it hum against the rod. Somehow, that would clear out the wax. We all politely declined; no, really we don’t need our ears cleaned. Then the men started to offer arm or back massages. I was tempted as I’ve had a knot in my shoulder for the entire trip but Stanley didn’t think it was a good idea. But by far the strangest encounter we had was with an old man who came up to us with a mesh bag of live turtles. These are the little turtles that some kids get as pets when they are young. The guy was pretty insistent that we buy them. I asked David why people might be buying them. He replied “soup”. Ok, so maybe not pets after all.

David ordered us tea which was served in little cups with lids on saucers. David also bought each of us a mooncake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival together. He taught us to drink the tea by picking it up with the saucer, tipping the lid away from you (which holds the tea leaves in and pushes the steam away from your face) and sipping gently. The jasmine tea was nice, but I still miss my coffee!

When we were done with the tea house, we moved on to the park around it where there were a lot of activities similar to what we saw Sunday morning, only all of this felt like it was on steroids. Everything was louder and more ostentatious. There was some sort of faux red carpet runway where residents were taking turns walking the catwalk. There was lots of karaoke, where apparently louder means better. We saw more people doing these groups dances (usually women) and a few groups of men playing cards or Chinese chess.

One of the other tourists in the group got me interested in photographing little kids. For the most part, if we smile, point to the kid and hold up the camera, the parents are really accommodating and proud of their child. Only some times are we denied a shot. But I think that it really captures the spirit of the country when you see the kids react to the camera and I am surprised by how many parents will respond to us in English, even if just to say “bye bye” or “thank you”. We found a lot of little kids in this park that we managed to snap photos of.

After the park we went to the Wenshu Temple, which is the first Buddhist temple I have ever visited. It is made up of several buildings each of which have a different icon (not sure if that’s the right word for a statue of a god in Buddhism) and people would come to pray to a particular god based on what they are looking for: benevolence, wisdom, etc. I found that I hadn’t realized how loud China was until we were inside the grounds of the temple where it was almost deafeningly quiet. In the lantern covered lanes, we saw monks walking around and the faithful lighting incense in large incense burners and offering them up to the gods. The contrast of the dark would buildings with the bright red lanterns and the brilliant gold statues of the gods was really striking. This was a cool, quiet respite on what was a very long day.

Our last stop before dinner was the Kuanzhai Lane Pedestrian Street, which was sort of a touristy block or two of shops, restaurants, pubs and tea and coffee houses. The architecture was pretty and we had a laugh at places like “Scent of a Woman Coffee Shop”. What did it for me though was finding my first Starbucks of the trip, where I bought my collector mugs and thermal cups as I do wherever I go. We only had a half hour here, so we moved on to dinner pretty quickly.

Dinner was meant to be on our own tonight but David made reservations for all of us to eat together at a Sichuan style tapas meal. He said it would be $15 a person so we didn’t hold out a lot of hope that it would be anything fabulous. We were so wrong. In the end, we had over 20 dishes served either to us individually or family style on the lazy susan. David also got extra spicy dishes made for the three “hot girls” so we enjoyed those. I think from that meal, my favorites were two noodle dishes (one thin like spaghetti, the other white and thick like a pencil) that were really spicy, round “sweet meatballs” that looked like golf balls but were filled with something sweet. There were also spring rolls filled with what we think might have been blueberry. Stanley bought us Chinese whiskey so a few of us did some shots. That was interesting; it had a scent of cherries and berries, went down like grappa but had a chocolatey aftertaste. It didn’t take much of that to get a buzz on!

After dinner we drove to the Shufengyayun Theater where we were seeing a local show. We had some time to kill so David walked us through some local neighborhoods. One street was nothing but pet shops, selling predominantly different types of goldfish, but also a few with mice, gerbils, kittens and puppies. This sort of disturbed me because on its face it is not the type of neighborhood I’d ever feel comfortable walking through and the rundown nature of the shops was really unsettling. But a mere 10 minutes’ walk away had us browsing Louis Vuitton and Burberry. Go figure.

The local show was really entertaining. There were maybe 10 acts and included hand shadows, Chinese violin, Chinese opera, dancing, puppetry and face changing, which was the big finale. Face changing is an interesting trick. The actors appear with a mask on and quicker than you can blink, they switch their masks right before your eyes. I think I saw a few of the actors pulling them away with strings, but it doesn’t explain how they can get down to bare face and then have a mask on again! This was really a great experience and I’m glad we had the chance to see it. But what an action packed, fun filled day!

I stayed up until midnight checking email, looking at photos and posting to Facebook. Hoping for more sleep tonight!

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