Bleary eyed we stumbled off our overnight train from Yichang and arrived in the economically booming town of Chengdu. It was to be our base for the next five days as we waited for our Tibetan Travel Permits to be granted.
Chengdu is famous for a number of things, its spicy Sichuan cuisine for one, (which was the subject of our last blog entry), its legendary tea houses and most of all one of the symbols of China, Pandas! This was going to be a fun week.
Our first day was spent exploring the largest Buddhist monastery in the city, the Manjusri monastery. It was an enormous complex, very colourful and was great for photos. We had an interesting conversation with an elderly local gentleman who reeled off numerous statistics about Australia after I told him where I was from. This was followed by being invited in to what looked like an enormous assembly hall. The young girl who invited us then told us the man speaking was from a new wave Buddhist movement. It was like a Chinese version of the TV evangelical preachers you see on American comedy movies, needless to say we didn’t stick around long.
Several of the monasteries are surrounded by reconstructed hutong, or old Chinese alleyways. They were filled with souvenir stalls, street side restaurants, vendors selling various chilli concoctions and tea houses. We loved the Chengdu tea houses, you could walk in, buy a cup of leaf tea for around one British Pound, and then were given a thermos full of hot water. If you managed to finish the thermos, you just went to the counter and grabbed another one, free of charge. What great value!
The following day was time to visit the Pandas. Somehow we managed to make two connecting local buses to reach the Chengdu Panda Research facility, which was a mission in itself. It involved trying to find a bus line that didn’t exist and thanks to several very helpful bus drivers we reached our destination.
I’m not sure if we were shocked or surprised, but I guess we were almost expecting a big nature reserve similar to some of the reserves you see in Africa, with Pandas living as close to a normal life as possible. In reality what we entered was a Panda zoo. Huge enclosures holding anywhere from one to around five Pandas, all with bamboo feeding stations in the primo location for visitors to take photos.
After our initial surprise/shock/disappointment, we loved the Base. The Pandas were like big, goofy teddy bears, stumbling around and play fighting, but our favourite was one guy stuck up a tree. We must have watched him for around 20 minutes as he tried every which way to scale his way down the tree which he had obviously managed to climb. All his efforts were fraught with disaster and followed by mad scrambles back to the safety of the fork in the branches. We left him to it but returned about two hours later and he was still stuck in the tree! We were lucky enough to see him try several more ill-fated attempts before eventually falling to the ground flat on his back. The Research Base does do some amazing work protecting and breeding future generations of Pandas, and is even preparing to release some of them back into the wild. This day was a real highlight for both of us, but we both agreed we love to come back one day and try and trek out to see them in the wild.
Because of the amount of time we were spending in Chengdu we had decided to break out time up between days exploring the city and a couple of day trips, (the Pandas being one). Today it was time to explore several of the city’s parks. As we mentioned in our Beijing blog we loved the parks there and were hoping Chengdu’s parks would live up to our expectation. We visited another monastery, the newly built hutong surrounding it and experienced our first tea ceremony. Really it was a show to make you buy the shops tea, but we did enjoy a couple of free cups. The best part of the whole experience was the shop assistants puppy dog eyes and look of “if you don’t buy my tea I will get the sack” look. The huge People’s Park was another great place to spend a few hours, and it was here I had one of the more unique experiences of our adventure, I had my ears cleaned by an ear master.
The ear masters walk between tea houses in the parks wearing head torches and carrying numerous instruments that look like they belong in a horror movie. They proceed to pluck, scrub and clean your ears as well as dislodging any nastiness using what sounds like tuning forks. The whole process was a little unnerving and I can’t say it was my favorite experience, but the after the little massage at the end my ears did feel amazing. While Chengdu’s parks had totally different feeling to them, our love affair of how the Chinese people used their public spaces remained strong.
Our final day trip took us out to the town of Leshan, home to the world’s largest statue of Buddha. What was supposed to be a two hour local bus ride turned into the best part of a five hour marathon as the motorways were closed for one stretch due to fog, and then traffic halted due to an ensuing accident. However it was totally worth it when we reached Leshan.
The Giant Buddha is 71 meters tall carved out of the rock face overlooking the confluence of two rivers. The project was conceived by a local monk who believed the statue would calm the ferocious merging of the rivers some 700 years ago. Now days many historians believe the confluence was calmed by the amount of debris cast into the river during the construction rather than any magical powers of the Giant Buddha. All in all this truly was an impressive construction back in the day and a perfect way to finish off our time in Chengdu. It would also set the scene in many ways for what was to come.
The following evening, New Years Eve, we boarded our 44 hour train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa. The train journey itself is one of China’s proudest engineering feats, and believe us they have many, but also was incredibly controversial, something we would learn went hand in hand when visiting Tibet. The 3360km journey heads into some very remote landscape, isolated towns, and 80% of day two was spent in excess of 4000m! While not pressurized, each train cabin, and every room in the cabins had vents pumping in oxygen to help you aclimatise.
The scenery was nothing short of stunning, from rocky gorges to flat desert and then the barren expanse of the Tibetan plateau as we ascended above the tree line. The highlight was definitely topping 5000m as we crossed the highest point of the journey and began to see numerous snowcapped mountains surrounding us.
We also saw some truly remarkable and bizarre things as well. The one that puzzled us the most was during one stretch of perhaps 20 km at regular intervals there would be a Chinese soldier, standing in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around him, saluting the train. There was no rhyme or reason for it, truly bizarre! On another section we saw three men lying prostrating on the road near the train. We would later find out they were pilgrims on their way to Lhasa, praying and prostrating themselves all the way from their home tome to the capital. Some of these journeys can take up to six months, crossing several quite dangerous mountain passes, (like our 5000m one) and being subject to both extremes of both cold and heat, truly remarkable.
So our new year had been ushered in on the train, (celebrated with a bottle of Great Wall Red wine no less), as was the first day and a half of 2014, rather appropriate really considering how far we have travelled by train so far. We finally pulled into to the final destination, one that polarises opinion, stirs various emotions and promised a very special experience, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet….