Travelling on trains in China during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is something which brings only stress and frustration. It has been said that during this national holiday, the busiest on the Chinese calendar, there will be three billion journeys made across the train network. This works out to three trips for every inhabitant.
It was still close to a month before the Chinese New Year and I was shocked to find out that tickets from Lhasa in Tibet to Chengdu were solidly booked a week in advance. To leave on the train I would have to wait another week before I could purchase a ticket. Lhasa is nice, but spending another week with a hangover-sized headache from altitude sickness was the last thing I wanted. This left two alternative options. Either take a three day bus journey over some of the most treacherous roads in the world, or fork out extra money for a two hour flight. Convenience was the deciding vote and within hours I was buckled in to my Boeing 767 seat, scraping over the Himalayas. Outside Mount Everest looked pathetically small and weak in the distance, barely poking through the cloud cover.
By the time the plane touched down in Chengdu, the altitude sickness that had been troubling me since arriving in Tibet had unsurprisingly evaporated. Journeying in to the city centre from the airport, the polluted yellow haze covering the city was probably the worst I’d witnessed in China. Street cleaners hosed down dirty pavements before sweeping them clean by hand.
Chengdu is at the forefront of panda protection and conservation and no trip here is complete without a trip to the Panda Breeding and Research Station. With public buses reaching the breeding station after early morning feeding time, the only substitute to arrive in time to see the pandas do more than sleep was to join a group tour. Thanks to the time of year, this group tour consisted of only my wife and I. Quite a contrast to peak season where such groups can total fifty-plus tourists.
Racing around the various enclosures at break-neck speed, our guide allowed just enough time to marvel at these placid, docile creatures getting their daily bamboo fix. Recently born babies walked around like a toddler taking his first steps. Compared to other animal orientated attractions and breeding centres visited in China, the professional set-up was refreshing and it wasn’t surprising that the tour ended with an educational documentary about pandas.
Being the face of WWF, most people are aware the future of the giant panda is perilous. Expecting the documentary to focus on current conservation methods, I was slightly horrified to realise I was watching a detailed brief on the sex lives and procreation of these creatures. The images of which were nothing short of disturbing.
A male panda’s pride and joy is often too small to get where it matters, which is why reproduction rates in the wild remain critically low. Researchers have come up with a new technique to enhance conception chances, which I watched in graphic detail. Under sedation the male panda is ’pleasured’ by a friendly, helping hand and the contents of the encounter is inserted via syringe in to the female’s baby making part. Through squinted eyes I watched, like a fifth grader in a dissection biology class. This certainly didn’t seem an enjoyable occasion for either future panda parent, but from the success rates achieved, these panda ‘masseurs’ were certainly doing something right.
Seeing such animal organs up close and personal didn’t deter my appetite and after returning back to the centre of Chengdu I decided to sample some of the Sichuan spicy hot-pot food Chengdu is renowned for. Like a vindaloo in India , hot-pot in Chengdu can be a painful experience. Adding raw foods to a communal pot in the centre of the table until cooked, the water is hidden by red-hot chillies. At first it doesn’t seem so spicy, but after several mouthfuls, my mouth was numb. Each additional mouthful ate was painful and with taste-buds eradicated, devoid of any flavour.
Local restaurants in Chengdu are aware of the interest in hot-pot by foreigners and to cash in on its popularity, have menus in both Chinese and English. Apart from the obvious language discrepancy, the only other difference is the price, with English menus set at double that of the Chinese. Even with communicating solely in Chinese, they refused to give a Chinese language menu, knowing they would lose out on an easy profit.
With the tingling subsiding and it being a good few hours to spare before I became reacquainted with my hot-pot, I thought it would be a romantic gesture to whisk my wife off to the opera. I’ve only visited the opera once before in Russia, and even though the play was in English, I had little clue to the words the high-pitched singers were saying. Chinese Sichuan opera is slightly different, using a variety of performance styles to keep the audience entertained. Containing short performances including slapstick, puppetry and dancing it’s most famous for its face-changing and fire-breathing.
Reaching the theatre unnecessarily early, my wife and I were forced to sit in a darkened mice-infested theatre for half an hour before other guests arrived. Having one mouse run over my shoe moments after sitting down, I spent the rest of the evening shaking my legs like a victim of epilepsy in the hope the rodents would leave me in peace.
After coming from Tibet, the temples in Chengdu paled in significance and I soon found myself walking through the city’s parks people-watching. I watched a woman somehow lock herself in to a public toilet next to the Tomb of Wang Jian. Two hours later when I wondered back through the same park, she was still there. My Chinese capabilities aren’t up to the levels to free a trapped woman, and from the silent crowd watching as the toilet trembled from her fierce knocks of help, I thought I would allow one of her compatriots the chance to carry out their good deed for the day.
I saw elderly men practising the art of writing with water on the pathways of Huan Hua Xi Park and groups of tracksuit-donned women practising tai-chi in Bai Hua Tan Park. But it was the activities in Renmin (People’s) Park that proved the most interesting. Next to a group of pensioners practising the moon-walk was a section of the park designated to personal adverts. Not the kind of adverts you can find in public telephone boxes around Soho in London, but advertisements left by parents trying to find suitable spouses for their child.
Mothers, fathers and grandparents shuffled around the bushes and trees from where the adverts were hung, jotting down the names of potential matches, alongside their average monthly income. From time to time they conversed with each other, swapping phone numbers and arranging meetings. It should come as no surprise in a country full of ‘little emperors’ that parents go to these extra lengths to play matchmakers. Not only do many Chinese adolescents lack the social skills needed to find relationships easily themselves, but needing a good income from their child to support them in retirement, for many parents this is a necessity for a poverty-free retirement.
With my time in Chengdu already at an end, I made my way to the train station to catch my onward train to Xian, home to the Army of Terracotta Soldiers. People pushed and shoved outside the station. Inside every inch of space was taken by Spring Festival travellers going home for the holidays. The pandemonium was too much for one mentally challenged adult. Covering his ears, he screamed incessantly until his train arrived. A policeman confronted a drunk man without an onward ticket. After slapping him hard across the face, the policeman grabbed his ear like a naughty child and escorted him off the premises. I did what all other Chinese were doing. I stared and watched the proceedings in silence.