Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Onwards and westwards... Chengdu!

I suppose I should finish writing up this stuff before I forget completely. I have a terrible memory. I was looking at my NaNos from previous years. I had a hard time even finding where I left all the files. I forgot the titles, the character names, the plots, etc. I guess that's why I fantasize about immortal characters with perfect memories.

Anyway, the next city we went to after Xi'an was Chengdu. Apparently Chengdu is not as popular with Western tourists. I don't remember anymore why I decided to go there. Something to do with "I don't wanna go to Shanghai, I went there last time and it wasn't much fun" and "Hmm, I don't think I've been to Chengdu before, have I?". So there we were. This time, I decided we would all try out the regular bus from the airport. Turned out not to be much fun what with the crowding (but since we got on early, we had seats) and our luggage and not being familiar with the route or having a decent map. (I had a couple of print-outs from Google maps and my "Western China" guidebook.) The subway system in Chengdu is still being constructed. I think just one line was open, and it didn't go anywhere we wanted. So we were dropped off in front of some random hotel, then had to walk the rest of the way. We must have been getting used to the traffic in China, as we managed to cross the roads we needed to cross with a minumum of terror.

It turned out our hotel was in the middle of a giant mall of shopping malls! There's this big pedestrian shopping area in the city center (with 2 KFCs within sight of our hotel). We walked all around the building before finding the entrance. The kids were very impressed with the shopping area. And they liked the hotel, as it had good free wireless internet. The staff didn't speak as much English as they did in the Beijing or Xi'an places. (I think all our transactions ended up in Chinese, whereas in Beijing they wanted to show off their English.) There weren't any English language tours on offer, either. Still, the concierge was very helpful (and they had a rack of cute little cards on each of the local tourist attractions) in arranging a van and driver for us for the next four days (and to take us to our next hotel, which was convenient, as I had been wondering what we'd do with our luggage that day while between hotels.) He suggested some local restaurants, but we were all too tired to attempt them, so we ended up eating at the KFC. The KFC had a picture menu, so all we had to do was point and indicate numbers. (I'm not up on all the fast food names/drink names in Chinese... it's not like I ever order fried chicken in Mandarin when I'm in the U.S.) The pieces you get in China are the "good" pieces, too, ha ha, meaning the wing pieces and such. So even though it's the same brand, they do adapt to local preferences. The McDonalds seem to be popular as ice cream dispensers.

Damn, that was a nice hotel. I liked it best out of all the ones we stayed at. The only annoyance was having our rooms on 2 separate floors. Nice deluxe bathroom: I think that's the biggest thing that cheap places lack. And it was way nicer and cleaner than the bathrooms in our house! At least that was one thing no one complained about. The breakfast buffet was good, too. I liked the option where they cook up a bowl of noodles (rice, wheat, etc., plus your choice of veggies, meat, and condiments) for you. China is a great place if you like to eat Asian style noodles (I do). It was cheap and easy to find a noodle shop in all the cities we visited.

Day 1

ATMs! I love the conveniences of modern technology. It turned out to be easy to get cash from machines in China from my bank account in the U.S. (as long as I first notified the U.S. bank that I would be traveling in China.) A good thing, as everyone wanted to be paid in cash. And the city was not nearly as crowded at 6 am when I went to look for a bank. Ha ha! I stopped by at a convenience store and bought Pocky for the kids, so that cheered at least two of them up.

Dujiangyan: It's weird that an ancient irrigation system should be such a tourist attraction, but it is. And it was lovely! (Including a park just inside the gates and a couple of temples.) More attractive than most of the places we visited in Beijing, to be honest. Some parts were being repaired (damaged by the earthquake a few years back), but most of it was open. The kids liked the swaying rope bridges. And the toy crossbow we got as a souvenir. Love the crossbow. They were still playing with it last weekend, which is more staying power than most "I want it now!" toys.

Mount Qingcheng: Famous Taoist mountain. Mucho moaning when the kids realized how much walking and climbing up/down steps was involved, so we didn't get to see as much of it as I would have liked. On the way there, our driver used his tour guide powers (he proved to be pretty good as a tour guide, rattling off as much tour info as our English speaking guides had back in Beijing) to take us to a Taoist restaurant. Well, Taoists are famous for the whole healthy-living/immortality-aspirations thing, so the food was interesting. Chicken soup...Taoist style! (Including head and feet, of course). Endangered fish! I didn't order that one. The driver just pointed them out in the big buckets. (In China, it's usual to keep fish alive in lieu of refrigeration). Small critters... I'm not sure what species they were. Apparently the restaurant had a special license to serve them. I ordered another, less endangered, fish instead! Veggies... the vegetables are all laid out and you can point out which ones you want to the staff, and they'll cook it for you. We ended up with too much food, as usual. And it wasn't to everyone's taste. Still, I thought it was cool.

Qingcheng Shan was hot and crowded. Basically, we walked, then took a boat across a little lake (it turned out to be just as fast to walk around it), then a cable car up the mountain, looked at some temples, then walked back down. All those steps. There were people there offering to carry you for a fee, but we weren't that desperate.

Day 2

Giant Panda Research Breeding Base: We went to see the pandas. Whoa. It's like the size of the National Zoo, but just for giant pandas and red pandas. That was more pandas than I've ever seen in my life! And red pandas! My older daughter loves them. They really are as cute as they look in pictures. We got to see them up close. There was one dozing in a tree branch right over the walkway. More rides on trolleys! Helpful when my son got especially sad and tired and "ugh"ed every five seconds.

Lunch at a tourist trap. (Silk). I think the driver took us here after seeing that the kids didn't like the Chinese food on the previous day. So this time we had the usual meh-inducing food that we had on the previous tours. Then we walked through the silk museum and shop. Those double-sided silk embroidery pieces were amazing: they have different pictures on each side of the same piece of fabric! Amazing or not, we still didn't buy much. (We're such cheapskates... plus I wasted all the money on fancy-schmancy hotels and restaurants.)

Du Fu Thatched Cottage and Wuhou Memorial Temple: A memorial to a famous Chinese poet, then the famous "Three Kingdoms" historical/cultural memorial. You can guess how well that went down. Yeah. I think all the kids got out of it was extra bribes of ice cream and candy. I knew I should have made them watch the "Three Kingdoms" movies first... hmm... Actually, the sites and buildings were very attractive and well-maintained. Some really beautiful gardens. And good gift shops. Maybe I should have bought more souvenirs when I had the chance, but I don't really need more stuff (where would I keep it all?).

Day 3

Shopping! We wandered around the shopping area. Finally found a supermarket! Apparently they hide them in the basements of department stores. Fruit! Sewing kit! (I had to fix my younger daughter's straw hat, which broke about two hours after she bought it.) We tried eating at the famous Chengdu dumpling/small foods place. It took me a long time to figure out how to get the food. Apparently you make an order, then stalk the tables until someone leaves (it's super crowded!) and then give your order to the kitchen, and they'll bring it to your table. Hmm. The dumplings were indeed excellent. Then we went to one of the chain bakeries. I love the round-puffy-things-on-a-stick. I can't remember what they're called. I wish I'd eaten more of them while I had the chance. I like the Chinese bakeries: the stuff isn't as sweet as the stuff in American bakeries, so it's far more to my taste.

At night we went to see a Sichuan variety show. It seems to be what they show all the tourists there. Very short bits of opera, tumbling, puppets, and face-changing. Nothing too amazing, but a decent sampler. It would have been nice to see a full show of something, but three kids=no way to get all three to sit quietly for that length of time for something in a foreign language.

Day 4

Off to see the giant Buddha! Ok. Yeah. It's big. We went on a boat, stopped in front of it, stared. Realized that we'd left the camera in the car. D'oh. My daughter took some pictures with her iPod, I think. Lunch at Leshan at a local restaurant. Not bad. Then the driver used his tour guide powers to suck us into another local attraction: the semi-petrified wood museum!? Hmm. Well, they said it was "ebony", but the displays were talking about the semi-petrified stuff they were digging up. The museum had a person to give us a guided tour (unfortunately, in Chinese, so that left me to do bad translations). Some cool carvings (but the cultural context was mostly lost. Like showing a giant carving with all the best scenes and characters from "Star Wars" to people who had never heard of "Star Wars" before.) Then after that, we reached the strip of hotels/restaurants at the foot of Emei Shan. There was some mix-up with our reservation, but they found us another room at the hostel next door, so that was all right.

Next: Emei Shan! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Stalked by porters! Didn't see the monkeys! Too many steps! Vendors with weird fruits! Mules carrying bricks! Turned around and went back down! A long wait at the un-airconditioned train station. "Hard" beds on the sleeper train to Kunming. Nice train, filthy toilets. (And why didn't we buy some bowls of instant noodles? Ah well.)

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