Chongqing: The City of Mountains (and Hotpot)
Yay! We were on our way after six weeks of sort of planning. As it eventuated, Tianjin airline’s food wasn’t half bad and the entertainment was better than the reviews would have us believe. The first thing to notice upon exiting the airport was the heat, leaving a Melbourne winter had left us somewhat under prepared for the sudden rush of heat. Chongqing is a sub-tropical climate, so it gets very hot and muggy at this time of year. It’s also huge, with a population hovering around 30 million it was slightly embarrassing we’d never heard of it.
Situated at the confluence of the Jailing and Yangtze, and with the bright lights at night and many hills, made it a beautiful drive into the city. We arrived at our cosy hostel, greeted by the friendly staff, and made camp for the night before we set out the explore Chongqing the following day.
After a bit of a sleep in, a failure to launch with our VPNs and a very nice coffee that the hostel, Only Cafe and Backpackers, roasts themselves it was time to hit the streets. But you can’t explore on an empty stomach, so first stop: spicy Sichuan noodle soup. A brave decision as we used language apps to try to decipher the menu with the owners. It paid off however, and we headed to the Three Gorges Dam museum. The place is huge and well worth a visit – if not for the A/C alone – with some good history and artifacts on display. With the aid of the very user friendly metro we headed in the the city proper, with an odd mix of Gucci, Starbucks and some other overpriced stores on one side, and a labyrinth of street food on the the other. We mainly stuck to the latter, bar another failed attempt at leeching some free WiFi at the frappe kingdom aka Starbucks.
One of the main attractions in Chongqing is the hotpot, and while as Westerners we might not see a significant difference between hotpots, the locals assure us theirs is the best and most special! Due to the Sichuan pepper, the dish has a numbing effect on the tongue, and Chongqing proudly claims its origins. By the grace of coincidence, a very friendly local called “Jesse” who might have been the only person that spoke English in the buzzing restaurant, prevented us from severe food faux-pas in this very local haunt. It was a good thing, as for all we knew we could have been ordering beef fillet or pig’s testicles. The best thing is, that you can make a hell of a mess, and that’s to be celebrated – perfect for an end of season bash with the lads. Despite the comments, recordings and laughs at our chopstick skill set by the other patrons it was as memorable an eating experience as we’ve ever had, and one suspects the locals enjoyed seeing us struggle. The next day we visited E Ling park and got atop the city on the viewing
platform to see the place disappear into the haze, or smog, I don’t hazard a guess. As is only right, we sampled more street food including some great dumplings and local bubble tea. As mentioned, Chongqing has a great night skyline, so for our last evening we wandered across the river and found a great spot near the Great Theater, itself wonderfully lit, to get some shots across the river at the amazing HongYaDong building, ablaze with golden LEDs which creates an almost ethereal vista at night as it looks to cascade down the hill into the river.
Chengdu: The City of Pandas and Other Cool Stuff
Pandas, pandas, pandas, everywhere, stuck on everything. After a long and slow train ride from Chongqing where we were afforded one and a half seats thanks to local hospitality, we arrived in Chengdu. The first thing plastered everywhere: Panda stickers, Panda t-shirts and even Panda rubbish bins. Despite being a major city itself of around 15 million this is what most people know the city for, and indeed come to visit for. While we sort of fit that bill this time, if not for our schedule being compressed due to permits for Tibet, we would have loved to stay longer. The surrounds are wonderful and there are parks, old towns, temples, monasteries, great food and hiking around the Leshan giant Buddha, but this time, pure pandas.
So, with the above in mind, this time with a less spicy fruit salad on board, we were off to the ‘Chengdu Panda Research Base’. We had been told the Pandas are more active in themorning, but that comes at a high price: massive crowds. A good sized crowd in China is to be expected, but at the prospect of ‘massive’, we thought better of it. It was just as
well, as we arrived there was mass exodus, scenes almost reminiscent of a city evacuation were taking place. Wading our way through the masses we were initially disappointed as we saw 2 Giant pandas scoffing some bamboo in a glass box, but, as we were later to learn, the poor pandas can get heat stroke in the oppressive summer heat in Chengdu and like to spend their days in A/C. So we went on to some Red pandas, who were outside lazing about in the tree tops when they weren’t running around play fighting like squabbling siblings. One even darted out onto the path about a meter from us as it carved through the specially cut fence hole to allow them around the warren of enclosures. Odd, but who are we to judge how to run a breeding center. To end the day, we were fortunate enough to see some Giant pandas waddling around and clumsily falling off their roosts, or, as it looked, being intentionally dragged off kicking and screaming by the other pandas. There were also a handful of cute new additions to the facility we could catch a glimpse of, as this center has managed to get the notoriously
lazy mating species to procreate rather successfully. Around 9 new twitching cubs splayed out, 2 in incubators. The goal of all this is to release them back into the wild, with the government intent on creating 3 increasingly higher and larger protected sanctuaries. A laudable goal indeed and generally, if the Chinese set their mind to something, it gets done, so fingers crossed they can save the WWF mascot.
We also checked out the Sichuan Science and Technology museum which is worth going to, although you have to have your passport on you for some as yet unexplained reason. It’s pretty tactile and hands on, with exhibits from space to virtual reality, rounded off with dancing robots. Of a particular interest to one Martina Steinmann was a machine that blows large smoke rings, pump a button and it shoots out a smoke ring. A device one young Chinese girl of around 6-7 was keen to inspect a little closer. It occasioned that right as the machine was about to blow the girl stuck her face about 30cm away and POW, right in the kisser. She didn’t seem to find it as humorous initially, but soon saw the funny side of these foreigners shooting her in the face after she spotted her Mum giggling along. Later on, Mark’s instincts led him straight to a quality craft brewery for a nice tipple in the Wuhou old town, much to his enjoyment. Both closed the night out by being strongly advised by the local constabulary to abstain from taking any pictures of the Chairman. That was it, and it’s off to Xi’an, this time not taking any chances, we booked a few day early and secured the only tickets available, on a bullet train.
One of the most poignant observations so far, has been just how friendly and willing to help the locals have been. While a lot of things are in place to help tourists, like English signs or a great metro set up, not many people speak English (which is fine of course) but they will try their utmost to help, from getting out language apps, or walking you to wherever you need to go, to drawing a personalised map. We loved Sichuan and can strongly recommend a visit. Coincidentally, there are direct (and affordable) flights here from NZ, Aus and Europe – have a think about it!
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