Chengdu

The slogan for the whole of Sichuan province is “more than just pandas” in a clear nod to the area’s most famous resident and biggest draw for tourists. Wanting to put that slogan to the test, we decided to spend our first day in the province’s capital, Chengdu, seeing what else it had to offer.

To our delight, it had many, and, conveniently enough, most of those places fell within walking distance of our hostel: Chengdu Mix Hostel Backpackers. So, after a very modest breakfast of toast and instant coffee, we grabbed our umbrellas and headed out into the city, our first destination being Wenshu Monastery.

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The main hall of the monastery
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Lion faces on one of the building’s roofs
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Finding our way through the grounds

Just coming from one of the most beautiful national parks in all of China, if not the world, it was a bit disheartening being in a city again, which is why the monastery was a perfect starting point for our time in Chengdu. Upon stepping into its grounds, the noise and bustling environment of the streets and shopping districts surrounding it all but vanished into a perfectly peaceful balance of gardens and temples, offering us a much needed middle ground in our transition from the natural world to the industrial one. There were people there of course, but we seemed to be more of a bother to them than they were to us. Nothing ruins an 8 a.m. tai chi session like a couple of camera wielding tourists idly wandering in circles around you.

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A scene in the monastery’s gardens
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One of the many statues encased throughout the grounds
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An elegant pagoda

As we worked our way further into the grounds, we were met with familiar sights from countless other temples we have visited during our time in China. The gardens, buildings, and statues don’t vary drastically from one to the next, but, somehow, each temple still finds a way to distinguish itself from its peers, offering at least one thing that’s unique to that particular one. In the case of Wenshu Monastery, this came in two forms: one, a hall atop the main building where thousands of Buddha figurines sat encased in individual glass boxes, each one placed there as an offering from a congenial congregant (or so we guessed); and two, the fact that we had gotten there during prayer time and were able to see monks leading processions and prayers around the temple. As the latter began, the sound of gongs echoed off the walls of the closely clustered buildings, underscored by the uniformed murmuring of prayers. It was all very calming, but, not wanting to intrude too much on their time of worship, we didn’t stick around for very long, instead opting to begin our search for the exit.

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Some of the many Buddha figurines we saw in the main hall
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Monks leading prayers
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A monk heading towards the light

By the time we found it, late morning had arrived and we headed to the nearby Aidao nunnery for their daily vegetarian lunch. We wouldn’t have known about the lunch had our hostel not recommended it to us as one of the more unique experiences one could have in Chengdu. Eager to see why, we cluelessly strolled into the nunnery, hoping that the location and details of the lunch would be evident…they weren’t. So, through a series of simple questions (literally “where is lunch?”) aimed at anyone who would listen, we eventually found our way to the dining hall where one of the regulars took us under her wing and explained the process to us through a series of powerful jabbing points to her gaping mouth, then her stomach, then to the dining hall. If we hadn’t known lunch was available before meeting her, we most definitely would have afterwards.

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The main hall of Aidao Nunnery
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A man waiting for lunch to begin

The lunch, as we found out rather quickly, was a process as mechanical as it was charming. First, as communicated to us by our pantomiming new pal, we had to go to a little building at the far end of the grounds to get two bowls and a pair of chopsticks. Once we had those in hand, we could take a seat on the long, wooden benches of the dining hall, where we would wait for the nuns to come in and dish out our lunch. While we sat there, others trickled in, most of them with their own set of bowls and chopsticks in tow. This seemed to be a daily occurrence for them as made evident by their clear understanding of the intricate process of the lunch and the friendly nods and polite chitter chatter they exchanged with each other much in the same way that people do at Sunday mass.

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Bowls at the ready as everyone waits for the nuns to enter the dining hall

Once the nuns, barely distinguishable from their male counterparts with their bald heads and baggy robes, came in though, the room fell silent. The atmosphere turned meditative as the nuns rang a bell several times, sang a short hymn, and collected rice to be offered to one of the shrines outside the hall. Shortly after, one of the younger looking nuns who couldn’t have been much older than 16, began winding up and down the rows of tables, a cart with a large pot of vegetables trailing behind. One by one, each person received a steaming heap of oily greens slopped in their bowl and then immediately began shoveling the contents into their mouths. Being barely past 11:00 a.m. at that point, we knew hunger certainly wasn’t the reason, but we would soon find out what was. After the nun finished scooping out the first pot she went back and got another…and another…and another. Eventually we lost track of how many it added up to, all of our energy being dedicated to making sure we ate fast enough to make room for the next round of vegetables. Our chopstick skills have never been more vital.

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Nuns preparing rice for the offering

By the time it was all said and done, we must have eaten at least three bowls of food, which then made us wonder how much all of it would cost. Somehow, despite having zero experience with vegetarian lunches at Buddhist nunneries, we settled on the price of 30 RMB. We looked over to our friend to see how much she was pulling out and she held up a friendly three fingers. “Ah! We were right!,” we thought, only soon to find out that her gesture didn’t represent thirty as we had presumed but, quite literally, 3 RMB. For those who don’t know the conversion rate, that’s equivalent to about 50 cents for an entire day’s worth of food. This was a place that could have transformed itself into a tourist attraction and charged whatever price it wanted under the headline of a “unique experience,” but it didn’t. There were no signs outside the nunnery or people herding us to the dining hall and snatching our money as soon as we set foot inside in a desperate money grab that so many other places we’ve visited have fallen victim to. No, it seemed that the lunch was simply meant to benefit the public, whether it be spiritually or nutritionally. After the bells were rung again and everyone sang a closing hymn, we humbly walked back to wash our bowls and chopsticks before leaving.

For the rest of the afternoon, we spent our time hopping on and off buses to visit different shopping and historical districts in hopes of finding a worthy souvenir to take back to Shanghai with us. Eventually, our rambling took us to the city’s Tibetan district, a series of tree-encased lanes, bookended by stores selling everything a Buddhism-enthusiast’s heart could desire. From clothing stores selling monks’ robes and attire to jewelry shops selling prayer beads to ones filled with Buddha statues of every imaginable size, including monumental ones that looked like they belonged in a temple, the district seemingly had it all. Everything, that is, except what we were looking for unfortunately, so we left the area for the nearby Jinli Street, where we spent an hour or so squeezing our way around its crowded alleyways before calling it a day and heading back to our hostel in anticipation of seeing the pandas the next day.

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One of the shops in the Tibetan quarter
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One of the larger Buddhas that were on display wrapped up and ready to ship
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Lanterns hung along Jinli Street

Believe it or not, there’s such a thing as panda diplomacy, which is when China, in hopes of bolstering their relationship with certain countries, sends them a panda or two. Sure, they’re a bit less grand than shipping the Statue of Liberty across the ocean, but what better animal to link your national identity to than probably the most beloved one on the planet. Since the practice started in the 1970s with the opening of China to the world, the giant panda (or “big bear cat” in Chinese) has become an international icon. Whether it be their symbol for the whole of wildlife per their place on the WWF logo or fighting villains in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, everyone seems to want a piece of the cuddly quadruped.

Wanting to see the cause of all of the (forgive us) panda-monium, we decided to spend our second day in Chengdu visiting its world-famous Panda Breeding Research Center. We had read articles about it in National Geographic before, highlighting their unique methods for taking care of the pandas (most notably workers dressing in panda costumes and spraying themselves with panda urine so that the cubs they hope to reintroduce into the wild never get accustomed to a human presence), but we had no idea what the actual park would be like for a tourist.

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Outside the Panda Breeding Research Center

After walking through the front gate, which was fittingly shaped like a giant contemporary-looking panda, we found ourselves on a path stretching into the bamboo forest ahead and immediately began walking down it. At convenient intervals along the way were wooden posts with arrows pointing us in different directions, which we would find out later in the day weren’t all that helpful as the park was a labyrinth, but they got us going in the right direction. The particular sign we were following at that time was pointing towards one of the several adult panda exhibits. Soon enough, we could see a crowd of people, and as we tiptoed our line of vision above their heads, we got our first glimpse of the main attraction.

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Walking through the thick bamboo groves that filled the park
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The park also had some beautiful tropical trees on display
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Getting ready to see some pandas

Rotund and munching away at some bamboo (we had gotten there during breakfast time), the panda had its audience captivated. Each grab for another bamboo shoot was cause to hold one’s breath in anticipation of watching it peel the skin off with its teeth and chomp a few inches off before reaching for some more. Anything outside of this routine was cause for a deep communal sigh of admiration from the crowd, whose bottled up excitement at seeing a panda was waiting to explode at the sight of something truly amazing like, perhaps a sneeze, or, cross your fingers, the panda walking. While our tone may sound exaggerated, it really isn’t. People absolutely adore pandas, us included, and a chance to see them so close with no glass in between was incredibly exciting.

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Breakfast time!
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Shelling a bamboo shoot
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Reaping the rewards

We must have sat and watched that first panda for at least half an hour, completely entranced (and a bit judgmental) at its endless eating, before moving on. As we bounced from one enclosure to the next, we quickly discovered that the only thing that rivaled the panda’s capacity to eat was its unparalleled capacity to sleep. Outside of these two basic components of existence, they didn’t seem to do much else, which made us wonder how exactly they made it in the wild for there are a number of other factors, outside of their infatuation with laziness, that make a strong case against their survival.

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Taking a much-deserved break from the labors of breakfast
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This particular panda has mastered the craft of existing somewhere between taking a nap and eating bamboo

For starters, the female panda can only be impregnated two or sometimes three days out of the entire year. If she and a male counterpart manage to mate in that time frame, there is about a fifty percent chance that the pregnancy will result in twins, which would be great for the panda population if it weren’t for the fact that they have very little energy. Despite eating lots and lots of bamboo (so much that they can defecate up to forty times a day), the panda’s stomach is still carnivorous in nature and, because of that, doesn’t absorb very much energy or nutrients from the bamboo, hence the eating and the sleeping. So, without enough energy to take care of both cubs, the mother must choose one to nurture and let the other die.

Mother Nature, it seems, has been trying to nudge the yin and yang patterned bear towards extinction for some time and yet they are still here and have been for 8 million years. Something we were very happy for as we walked around the park some more, catching a rare glimpse into the bears lively nature:

Seeing them at their cuddliest:

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A baby panda putting up absolutely no resistance to gravity
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A caretaker who we were envious of
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Baby pandas cuddling
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Figuring out how to walk

And even spotting a few red pandas (or as they’re know in the Shanghai Zoo: “lesser pandas”):

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The red pandas shared both a name with Giant Pandas and an affinity for napping
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Waking up a friend
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Contemplating life

By our third time around the park, we had seen everything we were able to and, after exiting through the belly of the giant panda gate that had welcomed us, we boarded a bus back to Chengdu to catch one of Sichuan’s famous mask-changing ceremonies.

Before being shown to our seats, we were taken to a waiting area and given a complimentary cup of tea to sip on until shortly before the beginning of the show. As we looked around the room, one sight stood out among the otherwise uninteresting spread of tables and people: that of a man bouncing from one person to the next to, to our bewilderment, clean their ears. Of all the things people want to do while they are waiting for something (read a magazine, browse the Internet, etc.), having your ears cleaned must certainly be at the bottom of most of those lists. Yet this man had somehow tapped into that niche market and seemed to be doing very well for himself in the process for at least one person from each table desired his services.

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Digging in!

With tools that looked more equipped to mine a mountain than an ear (including a head lamp!), the man was Edward Scissorhandian with all of his long and sharp utensils, picking and prodding each client’s ears for a minute or so before moving on to the next. As intriguing as it was to watch, there was no way we were letting him get anywhere near our ears, which wasn’t an issue as, before he made it to our side of the room, the theatre doors were opened and we filed in to our seats.

From the moment the show started to its conclusion, we were completely clueless as to what was happening on stage despite a loose storyline that was explained in English on giant screens hung around the theatre. Through all of the confusion and strangeness though, it was still incredibly entertaining and had plenty of other things to hold our interest, including outlandish costumes, percussion-heavy music and even a random rap about the city of Chengdu that was haphazardly thrown into the middle of the show and made us lose all hope of being able to follow what was going on.

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A scene from the opera

As the show came to a close, the headlining act began as different masked men scurried out onto the stage and, one by one, changed one colorful mask for the next, which doesn’t sound all that spectacular, but the speed at which they did it left us gap-jawed and clueless just as in the best magician’s trick. If you put your hand above your head and wave it across your face as fast as you can, the incremental amount of time your hand is over your face is how long it took them to change from one mask to another, with no sign of the former in sight. There were ones that blew fire, one with multiple masks that changed simultaneously, and even a marionette whose puppet, through a level of skill we will never know, was able to change it’s masks as flawlessly as the rest.

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The mask-changing ceremony

After wowing the audience for a half hour or so the ceremony ended and with it the show. Supremely satisfied, we exited the theatre and found our way back to the hostel. A day trip to see the Grand Buddha at Leshan would follow the next day and our last day in Chengdu was so uneventful that the highlight of it came in the evening when we saw a movie at the mall cinema. Safe to say we were ready to head back to Shanghai. Chengdu, and the whole of Sichuan was, as its slogan promised, much more than just pandas…but pandas always help.

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