A Travellerspoint blog

It's a Wonderful Panda World

overcast 14 °C

Development in China has been so rapid over the past few decades that it has sometimes outstripped practicality. Mega-construction projects have lined the pockets of developers and provided employment for millions but many grandiose developments, including entire cities, lie virtually abandoned. Chengdu may be 2,000 kilometres from the futuristic cities of Shanghai and Shenzen, but it is an ultra-modern city with entire districts of hi-tech and innovation centres, However, things are not always what they appear to be in China. For instance our current hotel in Chengdu could well be a hundred years old...
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But it was actually built just 9 years ago, together with an entire area of ancient looking stores, close to a seemingly historic monastery. However, despite its appearance, most of this Buddhidt complex was actually constructed in the 1990s...
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The Wenshu Zen Buddhist monastery may have started life in the 17th century but little if anything remains of the original. The monastery's major purpose today appears to be providing inexpensive meals to Buddhists and tourists alike.
Just as things in China aren't always as they appear, our blogs can sometimes be a little misleading. So you won't be surprised o learn that we didn't actually come all this way to Chengdu to visit the world's largest building. As much as we were a little miffed at finding the immense place under renovation and almost deserted, the truth is we actually came to Chengdu to visit some of the rarest, (and cudliest), creatures on earth – the giant pandas...
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Approximately 1,800 wild pandas live in the remote mountains of Sichuan and Yunnan in western China, but they are rarely seen by humans. A further 168 pandas live at The Chengdu Base of Panda Research on the outskirts of Chendu and we took an early morning trip to catch them at their breakfast time...
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Pandas are very fussy eaters – surviving entirely on the young stems of only certain kinds of bamboo.

Bamboo has very poor nutritional value so the pandas have to eat large quantities and spend long periods resting while their digestive systems get to work. As one sign at the research centre said, “Pandas are not lazy – they are just very energy efficient.” This one was lying down on the job and looked particularly efficient...
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Despite their weight, pandas are excellent climbers and spend a lot of time hanging about in the trees...
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Their cousins, the much smaller red pandas, also like to climb, but this little fella preferred to stay on the ground and join us as we walked around ...
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These cute furry creatures look a bit like raccoons, but they are as rare in the wild as the giant pandas.
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Now we are on the downhill leg of our journey and are leaving Chengdu to board a ship for a leisurely cruise on the Yangtze River. For the next few days we will be sailing across the centre of China from Chongqing to Wuhan and will be taking a break from the blogisphere. We hope to meet up with you again at the Three Gorges Dam next weekend. In the meantime here's another happy mother and baby....
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Posted by Hawkson 18:46 Archived in China Comments (6)

Our Big Day at the Seaside in Chengdu

overcast 13 °C

After a journey of twenty thousand kilometres, battling a blizzard in Vancouver, suffering the sweltering heat in Sri Lanka and the nightime chills in the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, we pushed on by boat, bus, plane, train, taxi and tuk-tuk till we reached the province of Sichuan in western China. Our goal – the city of Chengdu to visit the largest building in the world...
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This is the New Century Global Centre in Chengdu which measures almost NINETEEN MILLION square feet. This building is so vast that it is virtually impossible to get it all in one photo. But the awe-inspiring size of the building is nothing compared to its interior. It is more capacious than twenty Sydney Opera houses and, for comparison, it is five times bigger than Canada's much vaunted West Edmonton Mall ...
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This single building houses 14 Imax 3D cinema screens, two 5 star hotels each with more than a thousand rooms and an Olympic-sized ice rink...
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There are hundreds of ritzy shops and restaurants where you can buy almost anything that you would find on the high street in London or Paris and you can even buy a $60 cup of coffee if you can afford it...
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But we did not come all this way to skate, shop or drink ridiculously expensive Civet coffee. We came because James wanted to see the world's longest artificial beach with sunbathing space for 6,000 people; to swim in the world's biggest indoor wave pool and to watch the sunrise and sunset on the world's biggest TV – a screen measuring a whopping twenty two thousand square feet that is the backdrop to the world's biggest indoor water park...
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And just off the beach is a full scale European seaside village complete with an English fish and chip shop and a massive cathedral...
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But wait a minute - there are more than 16 million residents in the Greater Chengdu Area; where are the crowds? We went on a cold drizzly Saturday and expected the place to be packed with families warming themselves under the artificial sun on the beach, swimming in the warm indoor ocean and screaming down the mammoth water slides. But, apart from one little kiddie playing in the sand with a bucket and spade, we had the whole place to ourselves.
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Strange, we thought, until we discovered that the pool was empty, the seaside village deserted and the whole place under renovation.

With a sigh of disappointment, James put his swimsuit away and we had a coffee before taking the Metro back to our hotel. Sometimes things just don't turn out the way you planned them!

Posted by Hawkson 20:49 Archived in China Comments (6)

Along the Tea Horse Road in Lijiang

sunny 14 °C

All tea originated in the mountains of China and was only grown in India and Ceylon in recent centuries. So we have now traced our favourite cuppa back to its roots in Yunnan Province in the far southwest of the country...
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Until about a hundred years ago these cobbled streets in the Naxi capital of Lijiang rang with the hooves of heavily laden pack animals carrying silk and tea across the mountains to Tibet. Lijiang was the major staging post for the caravans on the Silk Road and the Tea Horse Road for at least two thousand years. From here it took six months for the horses, mules, camels and men, to reach Lhasa in Tibet. Silk from Burma and tea from Pu'er in southern Yunnan passed through these narrow streets until the 20th. century on the first leg of its journey to Europe via Persia and the Middle East. Tea matures with age, like wine, so it didn't suffer during the lengthy journey that crossed numerous mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers during the 6 month trek.
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Lijiang's narrow twisting streets, winding streams, and masses of beautifully restored buildings with ornamental tiled roofs, make it one of the most picture perfect cities in the world...
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Unfortunately, like so many of the world's greatest treasures, Lijiang is a victim of its own success. Thousands of people cram the narrow lanes and are ripe pickings for the merchants and restaurateurs. Where else would a regular cup of local grown coffee cost $13 Cdn (8 quid)? Where else would you be charged $400 Cdn for one of these 200 gram discs of tea...
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Buying tea in China is as dicey as buying 'genuine' Louis Vuitton handbags. Similar looking tea discs can be picked up alongside touristy knick-knacks for as little as $10. and unless you can read the Chinese fine print you have no way of knowing which to buy. Some teas have sold to Chinese collectors for as much as $80,000 Cdn.
The ancient Silk and Tea roads have long gone, replaced today by excellent toll highways and a myriad of flights. And the trading route through Tibet and Kazakhstan to Europe is now a freight rail service linking the east coast of China to London and Madrid. Now the Chinese are building a super high speed rail line south from Yunnan to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. This once remote and mystical land on the very edge of Tibet is rapidly becoming a tourist mecca...
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While it may seem romantic to imagine the caravans laden with tea passing this way en route to Shangri-La and Lhasa, it must have been a dreadfully hard life for the animals and their drivers. But life is not easy for all of Lijiang's residents today...
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During the day Lijiang is a bustling, although somewhat Disneyfied, reminder of a China that has all but disappeared. But you have to look beyond the hundreds of trinket shops all selling exactly the same stuff and all pretending that it was handmade by some Naxi peasant living in a hovel. You have to see beyond the dozens of drum shops all selling exactly the same....OK. You get the picture. Ditto for jade shops, silversmiths and, especially, woven fabric stores where pretty girls barely pretend to weave and stop as soon as you lose interest. Once you see beyond the crass commercialism you find an exquisitely beautiful city. For instance, the authentically reconstructed Mu's Mansion, (circa 16th century) the onetime palatial home of the Naxi ruler, Tusi Mu Yamen, is a quiet oasis in the midst of a frenetic marketplace...
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Much of Lijiang was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1996 but most of the ancient city has been restored to its former state with, unfortunately perhaps, an over emphasis on commercialism – especially the numerous, and extremely loud, karaoke bars...
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It's been a long time since pack horses laden with tea trod these cobbled streets yet, in moments of stillness, we can picture them on their annual trek across the mountains and rivers to the foot of the Himalayas – and it's a very nice picture...
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To see more views of this beautiful city please go to our photo section.

Posted by Hawkson 00:20 Archived in China Comments (6)

Women's Day in Lijiang

sunny 18 °C

The thin pure mountain air gives us a clear window into a bright blue sky with a distant vista of snow covered peaks. We are on top of the world as we sit on the balcony of our exquisite boutique hotel and gaze in awe across the decoratively tiled rooftops of a thousand ancient houses in Lijiang.
The strains of a Chinese harp floats up from the maze of ancient streets that weave a labyrinth in the valley beneath us and we take tea with our host Yu Mei and her friends, He Tao and Ding Wen, in a room filled with precious antiques at the Zen Garden Hotel...
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Tomorrow we will take you on a tour of one of the most beautiful ancient cities in the world, but today is a very special day in China. It is International Women's Day, so we would like to share with you some images of the beautiful Naxi women who have spent the day singing and dancing in the streets...
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Lijiang is the ancestral home of the Naxi people, one of China's 55 ethnic minorities. Each has its own language, customs and costumes, and today we have been fortunate enough to witness the local women in their finery...
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Tomorrow many of these women will be back at work in the fields, but today they can let down their hair and join together in celebration...
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Not everyone gets the day off and these women were just taking a break in the sunshine and watching the festivities...
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There are many women visiting Lijiang from other parts of China, and together with the local Naxi women they made a most colourful show...
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We are now at the highpoint of our entire trip at 8,000 feet above sea level and we had been promised nothing but clouds and showers in the mountains. Obviously the Naxi gods were smiling on us.

Posted by Hawkson 04:05 Archived in China Comments (5)

A Chinese Buffet

sunny 15 °C

Although we are currently above 6,000 feet on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and it's early March, the garlic pickers are hard at work in the fields surrounding Lake Erhai...
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The next time you buy Chinese garlic think of these ethnic Bai women working in all weathers – but don't stop buying it. Agricultural workers are poorly paid everywhere but without them we would not be enjoying all the fabulous food here. This Bai lady was frying Chinese style fish and chips on the banks of the lake at Xizhou...
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Western food is available pretty much everywhere today. There is a KFC and a Starbucks even in the ancient city of Dali. In Kunming we stayed in a smart modern hotel which had a breakfast buffet that would put any North American or European hotel to shame. But in Dali we stayed in a very Chinese hotel unused to many western guests. The only concession to a western breakfast was the inclusion of a fried egg. Beware - eating a fried egg with chopsticks is not easy...
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We eat local food wherever we travel and don't always get what we want. For example: all the restaurants in Dali have fabulous displays of vegetables laid out on the pavement from which patrons can make their choice before entering...
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James was keen to try as many different things as possible for our first meal and enthusiastically pointed to a wide variety of vegetables assuming that they would be combined in some kind of stir-fry sufficient for the three of us. This was a huge mistake. We soon realised that things had gone awry when large platefuls of each individual vegetable began arriving. This was just the start.....
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We tried unsuccessfully to staunch the flow of vegetables from the kitchen but ended up with enough food for ten.. Live and learn.
So what do we eat? Chicken, pork and fish are common, but all contain lots of bones. The whole chicken, including neck, feet, intestines, gristle and bones, is chopped into small pieces and served in a spicy sauce. We eat it all except the bones.

Perhaps our biggest problem is that none of the menus have any English and the pictures can be very misleading. Many dishes in Yunnan are very spicy, but we've managed to eat most of what we ordered. Inexpensive food is sold on almost every street and in Dali the range and quality is impressive. This lady is making and baking fresh bread...
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Quails' eggs in mushroom caps are delicious and will no doubt be appearing on the menu at Bliss Café at some point...
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Some less appetizing items include snakes, live frogs and tiny day old quail chicks, (presumable eaten with the bones)...
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However, there is plenty of choice for us at this noodle stall where you simply choose your favourite noodles, meat and veg, and in no time at all it's freshly cooked for you.
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Judge for yourself, but we think the food in China is just fabulous.

Posted by Hawkson 04:29 Archived in China Comments (4)

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