April 2018 – Chengdu, China

Towards the end of March 2018, Linda and I started looking for our next travel destination. She wanted to use up her Marriott rewards points and we were looking at potentially going to Hawaii. Problem is that in Hawaii 135,000 points don’t go very far. Then I received an email from Scott’s Cheap Flights advertising flights to Shanghai for less that $400 round-trip. We really liked Shanghai the last time we were there but we were also interested in other parts of China. With nine days total we really couldn’t do that much so we decided to first go to Chengdu to see the giant pandas before heading back to Shanghai for the last 3 days. The kicker was that at Marriott if you stay 4 nights using points you get the 5th night for free. And in China a five star hotel is a fraction of what it would be in the U.S. We very rarely stay in hotels – much preferring either hostels or AirBnB’s. But this we couldn’t pass up. Plus we’d have enough points for the entire stay in Chengdu and 2-3 nights in Shanghai. I could make up the remaining night with my points. It was settled and less than one month later we were sitting on the tarmac for our first flight to Vancouver, BC.

The engines whine – propellers at full throttle and the small turbo prop begins to accelerate.  Seconds later we’re barreling down the runway past the terminal buildings until the wheels leave the ground and we’re off on our next adventure.  After a brief layover in Vancouver, BC we board a much larger plane for the eleven and a half hour flight time it will take to cover the 9400 kilometers to Shanghai, China.

Saturday – April 28th

It seems to take much longer than last time we were here to get through immigration. However, the 30 minute wait time passes quickly as we chat with two Chinese ex-pats now living in Canada.  Both think we’re nuts when we tell them that we can’t wait to get outside to find some good street food.  Once we get through immigration and customs we start looking around for the domestic flight ticket counter so we can check in for our final flight to Chengdu.  We show a young police woman all the information we have she directs us to the airport shuttle bus to go to Terminal 1.  After sitting on the empty bus for about 10 minutes, the driver arrives and takes us for a 300 yard ride to Terminal 1 – quite literally on the other side of the roundabout.  Once inside Terminal 1 it quickly becomes apparent that there’s no free internet here and as usual my lack of trip planning means I didn’t write down any of the flight information. We finally figure it out, check in and hurry through security only to find out that our flight is currently delayed for one hour.

By the time we board the flight to Chengdu, the delay closes in on one and a half hours, we’ve been up for almost 24 hours and we have another three and half hour flight ahead of us. Thankfully the flight is fairly relaxed other than the constant turbulence. Two things of note happen on the flight that have me thinking – only in China. First, the meal we’re served for dinner is spaghetti.  Yes, you read that correctly – we’re on China Eastern

How do you even eat spaghetti with a spork?!

Airlines eating spaghetti served with a spork.  The sauce is weird too but at this point I don’t really care anymore because it’s food. The second thing of note occurs after we land while taxiing to the terminal.  I don’t know the reason why but the plane suddenly stops. As I’m looking out the window it’s absolutely clear that the plane is nowhere near the airport terminal.  All of a sudden a third of the passengers unbuckle their seat belts, open the overhead bins and start pulling their luggage down.  A few even push their way to the front of the plane (another common thing in China).  The flight attendants are yelling at folks to sit down but no one cares.  It’s udder pandemonium.  After several minutes of yelling and the pilot repeatedly making an announcement that we’re NOT at the terminal, order is finally restored.  The whole thing was absolutely surreal and slightly amusing.  After collecting our bags we wait for what seems like forever in the taxi stand line and then in the taxi while the driver tries to figure out where we want to go. Again of course we don’t have any address to give the guy. We simply say the Marriott near Tianfu Square. 30 minutes later he drops us off about two blocks from the hotel because apparently all he understood was Tianfu Square. Luckily we pick the right direction and arrive at the hotel within a couple of minutes. It was raining and by this point there was nothing really open so we simply passed out.

Sunday – April 29th

The next morning we sleep in a bit, checkout the hotel pool and finally decide to head out in search of a proper meal. Once the sun comes up, Chengdu comes alive and we immediately find ourselves at the tail end of morning rush hour traffic – although it never really stops until the sun goes dow. There are no crosswalks here, only overpasses and underpasses. We find stairs leading under the eight lane street to get safely to the other side where according to Apple Maps, some food stalls exist. What we find at the bottom of the stairs is much more interesting. We have unwittingly stumbled upon one of many entrances into the Chengdu underground – a sprawling complex of crisscrossing alleys that stretches for miles under Chengdu’s busy downtown streets and sidewalks. It features a mind boggling array of shops selling everything known to man, hair and nail salons, convenient stores, vegetable markets and of course many food stalls. For us, this is what makes China so wonderful – finding delicious street food. We simply look for a place that’s popular with the locals and are happy to eat whatever they serve – many times you don’t even know what you’re getting until you take a bite We settle into a smallish place with a handful of fast food type tables, bright orange trays and even more colorful food. Lucky for us the food is displayed in metal bins which means we’ll be able to see what we order (this is often times not the case in China when eating in a restaurant since English menus are rarely available). We simply smile and point as our plates are loaded up with a generous helping of rice, vegetables and meat. We eat everything on our plates and I contemplate going back for seconds but then remember that food stalls are on almost every corner in city and there’s so much more to sample.

Delicious food in Chengdu – First meal, Sichuan Hotpot, breakfast from the corner stall.

With out first meal complete we’re off to explore and spend the next few hours wandering the various neighborhoods in this part of Chengdu, finding a supermarket and the closest food alley to get breakfast and snacks. And of course we spend time in Tianfu Square and People’s Park.  Tianfu Square is like most public squares in China – a massive open area with lots of grass that’s forbidden to be on and some type of monument in the middle. In this case it’s the opening to an underground mall and the subway along with a big fountain. What sets this square apart from others we’ve visited in China is the large riot police and para-military presence – the para-military officers carry the QBZ-95 assault rifle. A police tent is set up at each of the parks corners and there’s even an MRAP parked at one end of the square. Many people who enter the park at one of the corners are stopped and asked to show identification by the police.

MRAP in Tianfu Square – the are additional soldiers inside.

From Tianfu Square we hoped on Metro line 2 to reach the north gate of People’s Park. The park as several lakes, numerous garden areas two tea houses and lots and lots of people. Under one of the many gazebos that dot the pathways we witnessed a snake fighting with two mocking jays looking for a quick meal. For a while it looked as though the birds were gaining the upper hand but in the end, the snake was able to make a hasty getaway into some bushes. It was a real National Geographic moment. In an open area of the park (but not on the grass because for some reason all grass in Chengdu is off limits) we find a badminton game in progress between a few older folks. Almost immediately Linda makes some new friends with a couple of older women and is all of a sudden included in their Badminton game.

Linda’s new friends in People’s Park.

Instead of taking the subway we walk the mile or two it is back to the hotel where we lounge in the pool. We’re definitely not used to staying in accommodations like this but since they’re free it is nice to be able to take a break from the crowds and swim in an indoor heated pool on the 20th floor of a skyscraper. Because we’re essentially in the business district of Chengdu there isn’t much open when people aren’t working – especially on a Sunday night. We end up eating dinner in the room – noodles in a bowl that we purchased from the grocery store. Tomorrow it’s off to see the pandas – the main reason we’ve come to Chengdu.

Monday – April 30th

Today is panda day and I will finally get to cross another item off my bucket list. Before departing for the panda reserve we head across the street to the food alley we discovered yesterday. We find the stall that has the most people waiting and it does not disappoint – freshly steamed pork buns, fried pastries with egg and spices, more steamed buns and hard boiled eggs. We walk away with numerous bags of goodies – enough to last us for a couple of meals. Grand total is less than $4. We find a spot on a bench in the pedestrian walkway and chow down on the pork buns. The dough is just the right amount of sticky and warm with sweet pork in the middle. They are most definitely among the most delicious pork buns I’ve ever eaten.

After a quick stop at the hotel to grab cameras and backpacks we’re almost ready to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. But first we need to figure out how to get there and therein lies the rub. You never

Entrance Ticket for the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

really grasp how much you rely on Google until you can’t use it. Even though our hotel has fantastic internet service there’s still no access to Google or gMail so we have to rely on Bing. And you truly can’t grasp how much Bing sucks until you actually have to use it to find information. After a few failed search attempts we think we have the answer – you can take Metro line 3 to the second to last stop – also called Panda Stop, walk 100 meters to a bus stop named DiTie XiongMao DaDao, get on bus 198 and get off at the 8th stop named Xiong Mao Jidi. By the time you get to stop number eight you already know you’re there based on the dozens of tour buses parked along both sides of the road and the street vendors selling all sorts of panda stuff.

As with most tourist attractions in China, if you think that by going on a Monday you will avoid the crowds you’re going to be sorely mistaken. I don’t know how many acres the Panda Base covers but it is huge and contains dozens of red panda and giant panda exhibits. And still you can’t walk 3 feet without bumping into somebody. Overall though the Panda Base is well worth it to see these magnificent animals.

Delicious Tibetan Food

From the Panda Base we head back into central Chengdu. While looking for a temple that we just can’t seem to locate, we find ourselves in an area of Chengdu called Little Lhasa – a neighborhood comprised mostly of ethnic Tibetans. Almost every store we pass sells Tibetan trinkets and beautifully intricate Buddhist statues at exorbitant prices.  Bargaining is expected here but even at half the price the statues are out of our desired price range.  There are also lots of ethnic restaurants and food stalls.  We settle on a small open air eatery with food displayed on a three tiered metal shelf out front.  We join a Tibetan family already eating and are given some warm water to drink, a bucket for bones and menus that once again we cannot read.  Upon realizing this the woman who seated us takes us to the metal shelf sitting just inside the opening by the sidewalk and has us point to what we want to try.  Now we realize that this food is not just for display but actually what we’ll be eating.  We point to 5-6 interesting looking dishes and she heaps generous portions onto our plates.  I’m fairly certain the meat I ate was yak because it didn’t taste like beef, chicken or pork. Nonetheless, it was quite tasty.  Halfway through the meal a group of monks walk in, bow as they pass our table and take a seat a one table over from us.  Judging by the looks of our lunch companions as well as the wait staff it appears that this place doesn’t see many tourists.  I can understand this – by western standards it was definitely unsanitary but not the most uncleanly place I’ve eaten by far.  Overall the food was fantastic and the atmosphere of the place I will never forget.  We spend the rest of the day walking through the Jinli street market before heading back to the hotel for a dip in the pool.

Tuesday – May 1st

After returning from our favorite breakfast spot we inquired with the hotel concierge about train tickets to Mt. Qingchenshan. We learned our lesson the last time we were in China that going to the train station to purchase tickets is foolhardy unless you speak Chinese. We stood in line for an hour at the main Beijing station in the only line that said “foreigners” while continuously keeping people from cutting the line only to be told when we finally reached the front of the line that there were no tickets. Talking and/or arguing with the guy was useless and will finally just left. Turns out that you just have to ask the front desk of place you’re staying and they will make all the arrangements for you. Usually there’s a small fee but it’s well worth it given the amount of time you can waste trying to get tickets on your own. The Concierge kindly helped buy train tickets to Mt. Qingcheng and back to Chengdu and I don’t even think we were charged a fee.

The sign part of the way up the mountain proclaiming Qingchen as the birthplace of Taoism.

It takes about an hour with the regional train to get to Qingchenshan Railway Station. From there we have to get on a bus but as usual no one knows where the 101 bus line we found online actually stops. After walking around the square by the train station for about 15 minutes we finally see the 101 pull into its stall and hop on. When we get to a large parking area, we get off. We find a sign pointing us in the right direction – 1.5 kilometers to the entrance. From here we walk.

We spend the next five hours walking the front side of Mt. Qingchenshan. There are dozens of large and small temples but we only have time to stop at a few since we have to be back at the train station at a certain time. To see everything would easily take multiple long days – and it would be worth it. The higher up the mountain you climb the cleaner the air becomes. It’s even touted on various signs throughout the park. It takes us a bit over two hours to make it to the top – Laojun Pavilion at 1260 meters. We take a different route down through a gorge with stairs that have literally been chiseled into the side of the mountain. After what seems like thousands of stairs we reach the place we forked to the right this morning. My knees are shot. From here it’s still over two kilometers back to where we hope the bus will collect us for the ride back to the train station. We make it back with about twenty minutes to spare.

Wednesday – May 2nd

Since we spent the previous day walking a good 15+ kilometers our last full day in Chengdu was going to be pretty lazy. We slept in, went to our favorite breakfast stall and spent some time in the pool. We also went looking for interesting souvenirs but other than the overpriced statues in Little Lhasa we didn’t find anything of note. The one exciting thing we did do was eat real Sichuan hot pot – an experience we will never forget. Upon walking into the restaurant we immediately notice three men sitting at one of the tables with a pot of boiling chili oil between them profusely sweating while they fish meat from the roiling liquid with wooden chopsticks. This is a good sign that it’s going to be hot. The other sign being that all three were shirtless.

Sichuan Hotpot

We get seated and given menus that once again we cannot read. But we don’t give up that easy and when the young waitress realized that we did not read Chinese she pulled out her phone and started typing. Each time she was done a translation would pop up in English and we would eagerly nod yes or no depending on the item – “Pork”, “Fat Cow”, “Steak” and the translations kept coming. We also ordered a few vegetables but mostly we wanted the meat. Before the food came, she lit the burner under our doughnut of Sichuan pepper corn and chili oil and we watched it slowly come to a boil. Then the meat and veggies came – all thinly sliced pieces of goodness that you simply put into the oil and wait. The longer you wait to take them out, the hotter its going to be. The food was amazing and the hotness did not disappoint. By the time we were done our mouths were numb and pretty much anything else you touched as well. God forbid you get this stuff in your eyes. After dinner we got some ice cream and walked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel.

We spent the last evening enjoying the fountain show in Tianfu Square and walking the waterfront along the JinJiang River to Anshu Bridge. As is usual in China in the evenings there’s music in almost all community spaces and people are dancing. Chengdu was no exception and we spent a good long time watching couples dance under a pavilion. After several hours we hoped on the metro and rode the few stops back to Tianfu Square. It was a great way to end spend our last night in this marvelous city.

Thursday – May 3rd

After five nights in Chengdu our time here has unfortunately unfortunately come to an end.  Like many other major cities in China, Chengdu is large and it would take months or years to fully explore.  We did manage to experience a fair bit – from the massive underground shopping bazaar, Tianfu Square, amazing food, pandas and a beautiful mountain hike in clean air.  After enjoying one last breakfast of steamed pork buns and hard boiled eggs from the corner stall its time to head for the airport. We decided to get a taxi as the subway would take close to two hours and riding in a cab in China is always an exhilarating experience (but definitely not for anyone afraid of potentially dying).  In the span of 3 miles that we raced through Chengdu before getting on the expressway our cab driver drove through a pedestrian crosswalk under a bridge so he wouldn’t have to wait at the light to turn left, passed a number of cars on a two lane road with oncoming traffic that eventually slowed down to let our driver get back onto his side of the road and generally used two to three lanes of road to get ahead of multiple cars.  Linda was in the front passenger seat laughing and loving every minute of this and I was shooting video in the back seat.  Needless to say we got to the airport in record time and well before our flight to Shanghai.

This entry was posted in International Travel.