A Travellerspoint blog

January 2015

Pandamonium

sunny 10 °C

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We woke up bright and early for an exciting day full of pandas! We slurped down our breakfast rice porridge and headed to the bus stop. No worries, we had directions written out in Chinese and the words 'please remind us to get off at this stop'. It apparently took three buses to get there. On each one, there were helpful locals who spoke some English to help tell us where to get off. We did try our darnedest to match the Chinese characters on our paper to the ones flashing on the bus announcement system like we were at a 50-50 draw.

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Panda Research Center was right across the street, in far more urban an environment than we had thought. For some reason we imagined this quiet sanctuary away from the city, but this was almost like driving down to Assiniboine Zoo.

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We followed the signs to different panda exhibits as the electric car shuttles whizzed by. We had all day and no need to rush. Enclosure number fourteen seemed the closest, but we got a bit lost and ended up at the adult panda exhibit instead. We got a glimpse of our first panda ever, curled up in a fur ball of white and black. She was sleeping. Even in his still moderately sick state, Ryan was pretty excited as was I.

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We kept going to the sub-adult panda exhibits and found a more active guy, chewing away at the bamboo then taking a drink of water. The exhibits were set up as big circular units, divided into four or so sections. That way each panda or group of pandas had their own territory and forest. No bamboo grew in their enclosures because they'd surely munch it all up in an instant.

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In the next circular enclosure, the panda juveniles, around a year and a half to three years, were held and boy were they playful. Five or six of them were eating, playing and climbing the trees. This exhibit was busier than the rest with people, understandably. One panda lay on the ground with bamboo held over its head, munching away. Some would sit like people and others paced like bears. It was hard to get over their cute factor.

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We took a quick break to watch a video documentary on panda births in the washroom waiting area. Yes, this place was swanky. No squatters for us here. These toilets even had optional heated seats and built-in bidets.

Back to the film, pandas generally gave birth to twins but only raised the stronger one in the wild. At the Research Center, they had found a way to switch the panda babies periodically throughout their infancy so that both twins were fed and taken care of by their mother. The workers would use honey water to distract the momma bear to switch out the cubs. This helped double the amount of in captivity births at the center and they were the first ones to undertake such a feat. They still needed to work on releasing them successfully into the wild.

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On the way to the baby pandas, we found the red pandas, which were a different species all together but they both still shared the name anyway. They wandered around their enclosures, far less distanced than from us than the Giant Pandas, and climbed a few trees.

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We hadn't seen any baby pandas at the first infancy center, but we headed up the hill to the other one with hopes that we'd see the most adorable sight yet. The pandas there were about a year old, so they were small but not tiny, mostly sleepy. We walked through the inside area, hoping to maybe see a mother and her baby, but found very little around there.

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Hunger took over, so we headed back to find some food. The panda food center turned out to be a display of what pandas ate. They did have little panda snacks, which were a plant based patty they prepared for the bears along with the bamboo. Ryan took one as a souvenir. I contemplated eating one and decided against it.

We did find real food at a fancyish restaurant, Bamboo House. In the spirit of the pandas, I ordered some fried bamboo with peppers. We also ordered mapu tofu, which was quite spicy. I would have thought the bamboo would be less bitter with such a supply around, but not so much.

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The museum at the visitor center was interesting. We learned that pandas were actually really ancient animals, preceding even modern man. Somehow they didn't go extinct with the rest of the animals of their time. They also had an extra finger to help them with eating. Because their digestive track was quite short, they needed to spend most of the day eating to absorb the nutrients, up to sixteen hours! At one time, they ate meat hence their carnivore-like digestive tract, but they no longer did today.

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Ryan was pretty entertained by the creepy taxidermy job they did on the animals in the exhibits depicting the pandas' past and present habitats. The wild pandas lived in the mountains in Sichuan province and a few other provinces in China. Their habitat had really shrunk.

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We debated ending on that note, but thought why not go back and see the pandas again. We went back to the playful cubs and were quite grateful we did. Their afternoon energy surpassed the morning as they brawled and played. We got to witness a ball of four panda bears play fighting and knocking each other off the platforms. Another pair played on the tree, stretching up to a friend just to pull the other one down. We could have stayed for hours, but we had to make it back eventually. The most adorable moments got to be our last ones there.

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We did find a fake waterfall on the way out and took a few more shots. No pandas in these ones though.

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Posted by Sarah.M 16:05 Archived in China Tagged cute center bamboo panda chengdu research redpanda Comments (0)

Chengdu Museum

overcast 8 °C

Our first full day in Chengdu, we ventured out to the Sichuan museum. It was much trickier to find with Google maps being blocked by the Chinese government, but luckily, two parking attendants and a random man who spoke English came to our assistance after we started asking for the provincial museum. It was kind of in the direction we thought it would be. It was just a matter of finding our bearings after getting off the subway.

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The museum was a nice collection of pottery, ceramics, bronze painting and a section on Tibet since we were so close yet so far to intriguing locale. The free museums did begin to resemble one another given their content, however, this one differed in some areas. Their pottery exhibit focused more on the death rituals, including the tombs as well as their doors and various tomb stands to encourage wealth, good fortune and immortality in the afterlife. There were depictions of everyday life on different slates. The bronze exhibit had more weapons than the previous ones had.

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A famous Chinese painter was featured, Hou Baochuan, along with his landscape paintings, one of his favourite subjects being Da Liang Mountain. Sometimes the snowy landscapes would remind us of home with their whiteouts. Others really brought out the texture in the painting.

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The Tibetan exhibit had some recreations of temples or sections of them, including the many coloured flags ascending to the summit and the wheels that would be spun for good luck. The clothes looked warm as well, made of mostly animal fur and skin. The Buddism in their culture was slightly different too, based on Bonism.

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With our winter coats, we ventured out to find a historic thatched cottage to visit in the area. Instead, we ended up at a small river and walked through a narrow park where men were fishing with long fishing rods. Then we ended up in a residential area with schools and figured we were quite lost. On the way back we saw the sign for the cottage, go figure. China's signage only existed sometimes, not consistently enough to get people where they needed to go, at least not English speakers.

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We made it to another park, encompassing more than just the river this time, and enjoyed the big pond and beautiful trees. There were some neat statues around and a ton of fish swimming in the ponds. We found the cottage, but it would be closing shortly and we wouldn't get our money's worth for the admission, so we headed back for supper instead. We had dumplings and noodle soup. Ryan enjoyed the dumplings, but I was missing the flavour of our first Sichuan meal packed with heat, good spice and rich flavour.

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  • *Please bear with us, the internet in our current country Myanmar isn't the most stable. We'll try to keep up as we can. Thanks for reading. Cheers**

Posted by Sarah.M 02:00 Archived in China Tagged park museum lost sichuan chengdu Comments (0)

Another day in karst wonderland: Yanshuo

sunny 30 °C

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We had a few morning missions to complete in Yangshuo. Making breakfast was one of them, although we were met with a line of fellow travellers. Most seemed to be in their thirties and European. While I tackled that, Ryan went to the front to inquire about tickets to a mud cave and get the information we needed to buy train tickets written down in Chinese. The women at the front desk certainly knew us well with our inquiries.

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We had a swift bike ride into town. Ryan found a new bike that didn't have a flat tire. Yesterday, his last few kilometers had been on foot. The staff hadn't been too concerned when he told them. I chose the bike I had yesterday since I had gotten used to its personality: the rhythm of changing gears on its own schedule and the squeal of its breaks.

Visibility was much better today and most of the ride to town was downhill from the guesthouse. We found Friend Hotel in good time and lined up to buy train tickets at the only game in town. Apparently, the Chinese government had set restrictions on the number of tickets that one person could purchase at eight to discourage tour companies from sweeping in, buying them and up-selling at a higher costs. While that was all well and good, it left us high and dry combined with the train station's sell two days before this particular train policy.

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We waited behind a Chinese man as the clock ticked closer to nine o'clock. My heart beat fast as I wondered if we'd even be on that train tomorrow.
Only fourteen tickets left as of last night, so our odds weren't looking too hot. The clock hit nine and the woman at the front began checking in the first man with his Chinese identification card. Another Chinese man came waltzing in and stood right in front of us and the Chinese woman behind us. We had watched people do this in train stations before, and another man from North America had called the man in question on it and he went to the back of the line.

Ryan tapped the man on the shoulder to motion that there was a line. The man simply looked at us, turned around and stood at his cut position like he was a third grader. Even my students didn't get away with those shenanigans. The woman at the front didn't seem to care and served him first, then us. Something about that arrogance and entitlement that he deserved things faster than everyone local and foreign alike really rubbed me the wrong way. We did get our tickets in the end: two top bunks together. I was still pretty shocked there were still some left.

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We followed dozens of bicycle convoys on the road past the bus station. It was incredible to see so many people cycling and enjoying the area, but less great to have to navigate through traffic to pass their leisurely pace. Our voyage took us through passes of the karst cliffs climbed by very fit adrenaline seekers, by gardens, scenic bridges, a couple of commercial caves and finally by Moon Hill, our first destination, so we had to backtrack a little.

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Our tickets were only 15 yuen or about three dollars and we began our hike up to the top. Looking straight up at Moon Hill, a limestone arch with a hole in the center, told us we had some climbing to do: the kind with stairs. We beat the estimate of an hour to the top, doing it in half an hour. We passed a group of Chinese tourists on the way, up but lost our lead to a large group of Europeans as we rested on the benches to eat our oranges and alien-like rambutan fruit.

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The noise of their voices led up to a better viewpoint, which became the birthplace of numerous selfies and group photos. We waited our turn to have our own and took a group photo for the Europeans while they took ours too. Before we left, we sneaked into one of the corners and took a few photos fake rock climbing. Although, given the grip on the rocks and the chalk-like powder on them, they seemed ideal for climbing. No wonder they had to put up all those signs to forbid it.

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Next, we biked back to Golden Water Cave to go on our next adventure. We harboured no illusions that this would be a natural cave as its artificial lights had been griped about in trip advisor posts, but it sounded fun anyway. I changed in the dark and gross bathrooms while Ryan refused. Trough systems weren't the most pleasant.

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We still had to wait awhile for the obligatory guide after they confirmed that we didn't speak Chinese. Lunch hour wasn't the best time to arrive. Our tour ended up being a private one, since no other English speakers were in the vicinity. The tour was fairly straightforward as she would name the formations or stalagmites and turn on the lights to bathe them in artificial colours. Some of the highlights were Buddha, the Yangshuo landscape, elephants and even 'mother's milk'. We did learn that the cave was around 20 degrees Celsius year round, a welcome fact in the midday heat.

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On the second level, there was a section called rebirth where our guide encouraged me to climb through a narrow and tight space to meet them on the other side. My hips and bum hardly made it through. Once I spotted Ryan and our guide, they had a photographer in tow to document my success or struggle rather, for later purchase. The whole process made me happy to make it out of the tight space.

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The third level held mud baths and hot springs for the more recreational part of the tour. They had changing rooms after all and we went into the chilly mud bath. Some time passed before we were brave enough to submerge more than just our calves and thighs. The mud bath was empty save for us until our guide and the photographer came back. They encouraged us to kneel down in the mud so we could take some of those 'authentic' cave photos as well as experience the floating sensation due to the density of the mud. We posed for a few of the photos, but had to rub on the mud as it didn't naturally stick uniformly to the skin. A group of Chinese tourists came in, cameras at the ready and snapped away photos even when we turned away and covered ourselves. We weren't looking to be their cave attraction.

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After a quick shower, we made it to the hot springs. The first was scalding, but the second tolerably hot so we could relax once again in solitude. It was nice to unwind after cycling most of yesterday and that morning. The guide was pretty good about letting us have as much time as we wanted. On the way out, we ordered one of our mud bath photos that came out all laminated for us and we headed through a gift shop. It was crazy to see such commercialism right in the cave.

Ryan wasn't feeling so great after we left so we sat outside in the shade. I thought it might be heat exhaustion because he was nauseous, so he took in plenty of fluids and some food. That didn't stay down, but he felt a bit better afterward and we started our bike ride back. We looked around for cab options but found none. He was sick once more on his hands and knees into the ditch on the side of the highway, but determined to cycle back, claiming he felt fine right after.

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We made it just past the bus station, the area where I thought we could maybe cab from and continued to a 'supermarket'. After perusing their expired food supply and picking up drinks, Ryan was sick again and I flagged down a cab who to our good fortune would also take the bike. I had the guesthouse's business card with directions in Chinese to give the driver so that wasn't a problem. I still wanted to pick up snacks for the long train voyage the following day, so Ryan took the cab on his own while I did some bike riding. I never did end up finding products that weren't expired and got to the guesthouse only ten minutes after he did. He was resting under the covers when I came in.

Ryan rested for the rest of the night and I went off to find supper in town since eating was at the bottom of his to-do list, understandably. Timing wasn't too kind to Ryan as I found the snazzy vegetarian restaurant on the ride home earlier. I went in anyway, to a place that from its empty tables and Western trying to be zen and earthy atmosphere I assumed few locals frequented. It was likely because they didn't understand why anyone in their right mind wouldn't eat meat.

I sat in my own little alcove on a pillow. They handed me a tablet to flip through and order my meal that even had English and plenty of pictures. I could even snack on the baby mandarins and soy beans while I took my sweet time. One of the oranges found its way into my bag for when Ryan was feeling better. Eventually, I settled on some Guilin noodles which were rice/glass noodles with broth and a sweet, nearly sour, sauce.

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I wandered through the town and took some pictures of the night markets by the river and down West Street. It was almost reminiscent of Thailand with bright lights, food vendors and little trinkets for sale. There were some neat handicrafts around as well. I stopped in a fruit market to grab some bananas that hopefully Ryan could eat the next morning. They were supposed to settle the stomach too since he hadn't wanted any teas. When I got back from my bicycle ride in the dark, Ryan still wasn't feeling too well but did manage to rest between bouts of sickness.

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In the morning, we headed out soon after breakfast. We met a Turkish man studying history in Beijing and vacationing at the time who shared the cab with us. He spoke great Mandarin and again we were wishing we had some skills of our own. They didn't come without practise though and that we hadn't done.

If we were going to put money on who would be most likely to miss a bus because of a bathroom break, even after food poisoning, I'd still get the vote. Sure enough, after depositing our stuff in an empty bus and me running around to ask people where the toilet was, pointing at my toilet paper and only further confusing them, I came out of the facilities and the bus was gone. I heard someone shouting 'Sarah!' across the parking lot, not Ryan, but our Turkish savior. He had told the bus driver what was going on when Ryan realized the bus had started moving and I was still absent. I did make it on the bus in the end, so we could watch the Gods Must Be Crazy, dubbed in Mandarin.

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Luckily, getting on the train was much easier. We managed to deposit our large bags for a small fee, pick up a snack which included the large yellow fruit pomelo that had been growing all over the countryside, and eat lunch in a snazzy air-conditioned restaurant with an English menu and wifi. The fries tasted like they were straight out of McDonald's fryer and the 'lemonade' was just overpriced coke with a dash of lime, but it made up for it by being a cozy place to loiter, and glancing around the booths of others with large bags, we weren't the only ones. We even made it to the train on time too to enjoy our snug top bunks. Not enough space to move, but enough of a ladder to make us feel like acrobats.

Posted by Sarah.M 01:20 Archived in China Tagged mountain cave light bike karst mudbath artificial moonhill Comments (0)

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