Thursday, August 20, 2015
Truth be told, we never knew what pandas sounded like prior to visiting Chengdu. I always had the notion of a deep grumble akin to a bear's growl, and it didn't even clue in the first time I heard these babies making the sweetest high pitched "Eeeeeeeeee!"
Baby pandas were our number one reason for visiting Sichuan. The ancient city of Langzhong turned out amazing and the Tibetan villages of Western Sichuan were unforgettable as well. But it all started because we wanted to see the famed Panda Kindergarten of Chengdu.
While one could see pandas in Berlin or Tokyo or San Diego, nowhere else in the world could you watch baby pandas en masse ... in fact ten of them together during our visit! No animal lover could possibly pass up such an overload of cuteness.
These babies were about 70 days old, still too feeble to walk and tiny enough to be picked up in one hand. On this day they're let loose in their outdoor playpen, free to flop around under the supervision of their human teacher.
One tried to wrap himself around a small tree. Another kept nibbling at her playmate's ears. My favorite was a slightly albinoid panda with light grey fur. My cheek muscles got tired from grinning for so long.
Panda Kindergarten is just a nickname for this small section of the much larger Giant Panda Research Base of Chengdu, the primary factory of panda cubs sent across the world as ambassadors for the Chinese government. It's a most unique instrument of soft diplomacy, and the pandas themselves never seem to complain.
None of the babies could stand on its own yet, each crawling on top of one another with those pink little paws. It was the most squashy and adorable play group ever.
And then there's nap time, just like any typical day in a kindergarten. These 2-month-olds recently moved from the nursery of newborns, and were still spending most of their day sleeping in cribs. In a few months they will move on to the next playpen with plastic slides and rocking horses.
This is the most active time of the panda's life. One more year and they will turn into these juveniles, acting like koalas and taking their lazy naps 30 feet up in the trees.
And then there are the slothful and lovable adults, often seen falling asleep in the most unlikely positions. This one probably fell into the ditch and decided to take a nap on the spot. Needless to say we saw more pandas in one morning than the rest of our lives combined.
We dropped by the panda hospital which was happily unoccupied on this day. Apparently giant pandas do take Western brand-name supplements like Caltrate and Centrum, as well as traditional Chinese medicine such as Indigo Woad Root and Nin Jiom cough syrup.
As a bonus there are also the much more active red pandas, constantly scurrying around and chasing each other's tails. I wish we had these in Canada instead of the look-alike raccoons, one of which took a bite out of my steak as I was setting up my barbeque last week.
A word of advice for fellow travelers -- get there as early in the morning as possible. We were lucky to watch giant panda babies crawl around for a good hour, and by 11:00 all had fallen asleep. By noon even the adults were taking naps. It was the right idea to arrive by taxi first thing in the morning, and to go somewhere less touristy for lunch after all the pandas had dozed off.
We took a taxi to Yipin Tianxia for an excellent lunch at Wenxing Restaurant (see next article), then visited the Jinsha archeological site nearby. For those of us who don't want to travel all the way to see Sanxingdui, it's a pleasant "in situ" museum of the same ancient Bronze Age culture.
The crown jewel was the 2500-year-old gold insignia of the Golden Sun Bird, now adopted by Chengdu City as its official logo. I thought the artifacts here were less impressive than the alien-like bronze heads typical of Sanxingdui, but for a well-narrated archeological site in the middle of the city and served by a metro station, I certainly have no complaints.
Four stops on Metro Line 2 brought us to our favorite place in Chengdu aside from the Panda Research Centre. Similar to Shanghai's Xintiandi or Beijing's Nanluoguxiang, the Kuanzhai Alleys is a collection of Qing Dynasty streets remodeled and reborn as the trendiest hangout in town.
Once off-limits to commoners and reserved only for families of Manchurian nobilities, these narrow alleys of old imperial mansions have been transformed in the new millennium into Chengdu's premier entertainment district. While we had little interest in upscale fashion and overpriced teahouses, we quite enjoyed rummaging through random courtyards and anonymous back lanes.
The ambiance was charming especially in the early evening when all the red lanterns hanging from the storefronts lit up the streets. Occupying this particular courtyard mansion was an upscale private dining venue for contemporary Sichuanese cuisine.
For decades these grand Qing Dynasty mansions had been divvied up by Chengdu's poorest citizens, giving rise to a small shantytown where large multi-generation families would cram into derelict wooden shacks, each claiming a corner of these once-lofty courtyards. It was barely a decade ago that many inhabitants were kicked out and the whole district gentrified into its current form.
But apparently part of the old neighborhood survived, just outside of the boundary of the three alleys designated for redevelopment. This elderly couple came out for some sun and practiced their Sichuanese Opera singing in public, much to the delight of a much younger audience. It's a rare glimpse of the Old Chengdu that may soon be gone forever.
Then there were the plethora of specialty snacks bizarre even to most Chinese. I can't be the only person wondering how thoroughly they cleaned the nostrils as even the locals didn't seemed too interested in these pig snouts.
Much more popular among the locals were these Rabbit Heads marinated in a suicide spicy glaze. While I'm not overly aversive to the presence of heads and feet in Asian cuisines, sucking on a rabbit's skull just takes too much work for too little meat for me.
Luckily there are much better dinner options nearby. We followed the advice of the locals and visited a highly-regarded street-side noodle house (Chunyangguan), about 15 minutes walk north of the Kuanzhai Alleys. It will be reviewed in the next article.
Two weeks later we stopped by Chengdu again at the end of our 18-day trip. On this final night we booked our hotel next to Chengdu's other medieval-themed pedestrian street known as Jinli. Practicing on the streetside -- and not for money -- was a team of amateur cheerleaders who seemed to be enjoying the attention.
While I enjoyed the Kuanzhai Alleys, I really didn't like Jinli. The Kuanzhai Alleys were at least refurbished and partially rebuilt from preserved Qing Dynasty mansions; Jinli is just a counterfeit antique of a grand scale. Yes there used to be a Jinli Street from more than 2000 years back, but that had nothing to do with this Disney-like rendition of a fake town.
But pandas and history were only part of Chengdu's attraction. Equally alluring were the culinary traditions in this capital of Sichuanese / Szechuanese cuisine. Following recommendations from the locals we visited several fascinating restaurants, from a hole-in-the-wall eatery to a formal restaurant widely recognized as the best in Sichuan. The next article will follow ...
That night we stayed at Yijia Inn, conveniently located a 3 minute walk away from Jinli and Wuhouci. While the room was small, it was also clean, comfy and well-priced below RMB 200 (CAD$36). The only drawback was the lack of a metro station.
Our other hotel was Maruika City Hotel near the Wenshuyuan temple. The room was huge by Chinese standards, priced even cheaper(!), and was within 5 minute walking distance to a subway stop. It's also within RMB 40 taxi away from the Panda Research Base, and that's convenient enough for us.
Saturday, August 08, 2015
Two weeks after arriving in Sichuan we finally wandered into its premier tourist attraction.
This was to be the highlight of our Chengdu Circle Route, a full day of bus-assisted hikes along some of the world's most beautiful lakes and waterfalls. But it was also exceptionally crowded even in the off-season, not to mention bone-chillingly cold even for a Canadian.
This was where I fell sick after exhausting myself on a frosty afternoon. The price for these photos was the agony of waiting for our delayed flight the next day at a head-pounding elevation of 3500m. Altitude sickness and fever proved to be a terrible combination.
But it was all worthwhile. Along with the ancient city of Langzhong and the Tibetan villages of Western Sichuan, Jiuzhaigou was among our main reasons for spending our entire 18 days in Sichuan Province alone. This place is beyond legendary among domestic Chinese tourists, for all the right and wrong reasons.
To all Chinese travelers Jiuzhaigou is largely synonymous with 1) breathtaking alpine lakes and 2) logistic nightmares. This is one place EVERYONE tries to avoid during national holidays, yet still gets impossibly crowded every May 1 or October 1. It's also in the middle of nowhere, a 9 hour trip away from either Chengdu or Xi'an. Flying in isn't much fun either as the JZH airport, still 2 hours away by taxi, ranks as one of the top 15 highest elevation airports in the world. That's bad news for lowlanders like ourselves.
We too mulled over the bus vs. airplane debate until we found a cheap flight (RMB 1000!) from JZH via Chengdu to our next destination of Macau. We also softened the 9 hour bus ride with stops at the lesser-known but equally breathtaking Huanglong National Park and the ancient citadel of Songpan.
After numerous revisions our itinerary was finalized: Dujiangyan - Songpan (long distance bus; RMB 98; 5 hrs) - Huanglong (hired taxi; RMB 500 to Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou; 1.5 hrs) - Jiuzhaigou (same hired taxi; 2 hrs) - JZH airport (hired taxi; RMB 200; 2 hrs) - Chengdu (air) - Macau (air).
By sheer luck we arrived on the first day of the so-called low season, when the entrance ticket dropped by a whopping 64% overnight. As the Law of Demand would have it, masses of Chinese tourist swarmed the entrance at 08:00 and we barely squished ourselves through to the ticket booth without a black eye.
After 30 minutes of queuing for tickets and another 20 at the bus terminal, we boarded one of the national park buses in the direction of the Virgin Forest. Having seen enough alpine forests in Canada, we decided to skip the far end of Rize Valley and got off early at Arrow Bamboo Lake.
09:15. Our first image of Jiuzhaigou was the perfect, mirror-like Arrow Bamboo Lake on a chilly morning, fallen trees suspended in its crystalline water. The crowds and the grueling bus rides had all been forgotten.
09:28. We could have walked downhill towards the Panda Lake, but decided to take the bus and save our legs for latter hikes. The lakeside was filled with armies of tourists as all buses seemed to be delivering visitors from the park entrance to this side of the valley in the morning.
It would have been possible to hike the planked trails from Panda Lake, down the Panda Lake Falls and reach Five-Flower Lake during summer season. We arrived in November however to find the connecting trails closed for maintenance, and we took the short bus ride again to our next stop.
09:58. Five-Flower Lake was expected to be the highlight of the Rize Valley, and rightly so. It is such brilliantly colored lakes that has made Jiuzhaigou one of the premier attractions to the country's 1.3 billion citizens.
We followed a group of Chinese hikers uphill for a panorama of Five-Color Lake. The climb turned out quite effortless despite the elevation of 2500m, or perhaps we had effectively acclimatized after spending much of the past two weeks between 2000 and 3000m in Western Sichuan.
We purposely skipped lunch to gain more sightseeing time, which in retrospect wasn't the smartest of ideas. We could have taken advantage of the buffet lunch at the Nuorilang tourist centre at the reasonable price of RMB 68, but we chose to spend our time hiking the trails around the Nuorilang falls.
12:40. A 20 minute hike following a long bus ride from Nuorilang took us to arguably Jiuzhaigou's trademark sight. Located at the far end of the Zechawa Valley, the Five-Color Pond was easily the most spectacular -- and most congested -- locale within the national park.
It was only the previous morning when we visited a different Five-Color Pond at the nearby national park of Huanglong. I still can't decide which pond was my favorite, but Jiuzhaigou's version was definite the more colorful of the two.
We spent at least 45 minutes here despite being surrounded at all times by swarms of multinational tourists and their umbrella-waving guides. I never thought I would come across a lake bluer than Moraine Lake of the Canadian Rockies, and yet here it is, on the opposite side of the world.
14:10. The return bus dropped us off at Rhinoceros Lake for the final segment of our hike, a series of marked trails and vehicular roads along the Shuzheng Valley. At this point we had little idea how long the hike would take and where we could catch the bus back to the park entrance, but we weren't too concerned as we're in the company of dozens of Chinese hikers.
The planked trail generally followed the lakeshore of Rhinoceros Lake towards Tiger Lake. As we had no proper lunch on this day we fueled our hike mostly with the Yak Meat Jerky we purchased earlier at Mount Siguniang.
14:30. Arrival on the shore of Tiger Lake. This had to be one of our slowest flat hike as we practically stopped every few steps for photos. The distance from Rhinoceros Lake to the far end of Tiger Lake was supposed to be 800m; it easily took us 30 minutes.
14:50. Arrival at Princess Lake, just upstream from the Tibetan village of Shuzhengzhai. The fallen trees were so clearly visible through the turquoise glacial water that it probably could have been mistaken for a coral reef ... had the climate been 25 degrees warmer.
15:05. A glimpse of the Tibetan village across from the opposite side of the Shuzheng Waterfalls. We originally planned to stay overnight (though not officially permitted) with one of the Tibetan homestays at this village, but had to abandon the idea as we had an early afternoon flight to catch the next day.
15:20. By the time we reached the Three-Level Waterfalls I had already hit the wall of my energy reserves. We had no food remaining, and only a few sips of bottled juice to last us for the rest of the hike.
15:35. We reached the lovely Sparkling Lake in the warm glow of the afternoon sun, yet I had to utilize all layers of my clothing. While we later estimated our hike to be no more than 12 km for the day, it felt so much longer in the cold and without a proper meal.
16:05. Less than two hours before the park's closure and we've only reached Double Dragon Lake. There were no bus stops in sight however, and we had to hike another three kilometres to the Bonsai Shoals. It was after 17:00 when we finally made it back to the park entrance, at which point I already felt the shivers of an imminent flu coming on.
At least we had room heating and 24 hours hot water back at our hotel, unlike our previous experience at frigid Songpan. We had much to thank the friendly manager at Meijing Shangwu Hotel, for giving us a comfy room after Jiuzhaigou Grand Hotel suddenly cancelled our reservation a few days prior to our arrival. For fellow travelers looking for a clean hotel within walking distance (15 minutes, or hop on a quick taxi) to the park entrance, Meijing Shangwu Hotel is a good choice especially when rooms go on sale at ctrip.com or elong.com.
For dinner on our first night we took advices from the locals and headed to the cluster of restaurants on Bianbian Jie. We sat down at this little family restaurant called Chuanwei Jiachang Caiguan, our eyes on the curious local ingredients rarely available elsewhere ...
One such ingredient was the so-called Walnut Flower with a hard, chewy texture reminiscent of seaweed stems. We ordered two dishes of the seasonal wild mushrooms and ended up with a bill of more than RMB 150. Not cheap, but in line with expectations for a tourist town.
Bill for Two Persons
|Clear Broth of Wild Mushrooms||RMB 28|
|Stir-Fried Walnut Flower with Pork||RMB 56|
|Braised Tibetan Chicken with Wild Mushrooms||RMB 68|
|Rice x 2||Free|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 152 (CAD$27.1)|
On the second night we found a local branch of the famed Longchaoshou, one of the most recognizable Sichuanese restaurant franchises. We did order the signature dishes of Longchaoshou (Long's dumplings) and Laitangyuan (Lai's Glutinous Rice Balls), and was disappointed with both. Worse yet, with the pictured dish I confirmed my intolerance of a peculiar Asian ingredient ...
Garlic Stems. This wasn't the first time and I've always suspected, and now it's been confirmed. I'm actually fine with garlic, but the stems give me serious indigestion and stomach pain. My flu symptoms soon became full-blown as well, and it wasn't a fun night for me nor for my wife.
Bill for Two Persons
|Cucumbers in Minced Garlic||RMB 18|
|Tea-Smoked Duck||RMB 48|
|Stir-Fried Yak Meat||RMB 57|
|Long's Dumplings in Chili Oil||RMB 15|
|Lai's Glutinous Rice Balls||RMB 11|
|Rice x 2||RMB 6|
|Plate Set x 2||RMB 4|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 159 (CAD$28.4)|
The best food we came across in Jiuzhaigou actually came from the anonymous roadside eatery right beside Meijing Shangwu Hotel. These Glutinous Rice Balls with Black Sesame Filling were some of the best we've had in China, and the breakfast staple of Steamed Baozi wasn't bad either.
My best recommendation for restaurants in Jiuzhaigou is ... skip formal restaurants and pick one of these little roadside eateries frequented by taxi drivers. While you won't likely find any culinary miracles in this dusty tourist town, cheap and authentic mom-and-pop joints are still abundant.
Bill for Two Persons
|Glutinous Rice Balls with Black Sesame Filling||RMB 8|
|Steamed Baozi x 10||RMB 10|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 18 (CAD$3.2)|