Monday, November 23, 2009

Travelling in ladies' underwear

"Wo xiang liang zhang piao dao Pingyao!" It's another tongue-twister but we pull it off and the woman behind the counter gives us two train tickets to Pingyao, in Shanxi, a province near to Beijing. This little place has a well-preserved old walled town and it's been used in countless films, too many to count apparently. It's a long journey - a whole night and day on the train from Chengdu and we arrive in the dark. Even then we can detect huge piles of snow everywhere. Our guesthouse is in an old Qing courtyard house and we have a small but cozy room with a stone platform bed. It's no more uncomfortable than all the other rock-hard beds we've had in China, but the place is a little more atmospheric than we're used to.
And so is the town. In the cold light of day, very cold light, we wander the quiet streets and really feel like we've travelled back in time. No wonder the film crews like the place. Unlike so many other old places, this one seems to have escaped the excesses of the normal Chinese makeover. Inside the city walls are small paved streets, thankfully free of vehicles except those pesky electric bicycles that seem to be all the rage. They seem to make a real difference to our immediate environment though - no noise and no exhaust fumes (those are generated at the power stations elsewhere), but it seems a pity that no-one actually pedals anymore. One day they'll be wondering why everyone is so unfit in modern China.
Everything is grey in the weak winter sunlight, but that's probably because all the buildings are built in grey brick. Doorways into courtyards reveal snippets of daily life - washing on lines, bicycles being repaired, snow and ice beng cleared away. It is too cold though - a wind howls down the lanes and much of the time the buildings put us in the shade. We can only stand it for so long. Gayle spots a shop selling tights and gets a pair to wear under her trousers. They're one-size-fits-all so the next day I get a pair as well. Wow, what a difference it makes. Nothing can stop us now.
Our onward train to Beijing is another night train which we take with Silva, a young German who has also been staying at our guesthouse. Silva is teaching German at a private boarding school in Beijing. She tells us how the children get up at 6.30 am for exercises before classes begin at 7. In the evenings after tea, they continue studies until 9pm. On Friday afternoons they are collected by their parents and return on Sunday afternoons, but this free time is often taken up by further private tuition. It's a real insight into how much pressure these children are under to achieve. In one newspaper though, there is a discussion on job opportunities for graduates. Over six million students will graduate next year and there's a real struggle for good jobs. The worldwide economic recession has slowed China's growth rate and now the government wants to encourage the people to spend more money and consume more Chinese goods.
We talk about these things before finally turning in for the night in our super-warm carriage. I'm beginning to wonder if wearing ladies' tights is such a good idea after all....

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beach Time

One of the locals favourite pastimes in Chengdu is hanging out at tea houses and drinking tea. The parks are full of tables and on the one sunny day we spend here, the scene is lively. Unfortunately the rest of the time it's a bit grey and chilly. Still, we are ready for a break from travelling and although the city's not the ideal place for some 'beach time' , there's no sea, no sand and no sun, we end up stopping for a fortnight. The time flies. There are a few sights to see and thankfully Chengdu's enlightened authorities have made them all free entry with a Panda Card. The Panda card costs 10 pence. So civilised. We visit a couple of museums that are located on the sites of two remarkable archaeological finds both from China's early Zhou dynasty (about 1100 to 700 B.C.). In China's typical grandiose way, the museums are on an epic scale, and the finds are well displayed. Sanxingdui is thought to have been the capital of the ancient Shu kingdom of China and most of the finds here are incredible masks, mostly bronze and some gold. They look like nothing we have seen before and are very large. There are a couple of life-size bronze figures too. At Jinsha, the finds indicate a later capital, as if the Zhou moved west. There are an inordinate number of elephant tusks found in the sacrificial burial mounds. What's excited the Sichuanese is that there is evidence of connections with China's central plains, which was the most developed area in ancient China. What excites us is not so much the history, but the sheer art and craft of some of the pieces. There is a large amount of jade knocking about these sites too - something the Chinese still seem to be partial too, judging by all the jade jewellery and carvings we see for sale everywhere.
Whilst we're here we also become acquainted with Sichuan pepper. Now we thought Sichuan was the place for spicy hot food in China, when in fact everywhere we have been seems to dollop chilli into the cooking. What is special here is the mouth-numbing peppercorn which has a flowery fragrance when you bite into it, just before its numbing properties spread across your tongue and mouth. I love it. Gayle hates it.
We have become very comfortable and settled at Sim's. It's great to be able to dip into a huge dvd library and pull out a few very good films - something we have been starved of for so long. But ultimately it's not a reason to prolong our stay here. We have got another 30 day extension to our visa and, despite the cold, Beijing calls.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Panda Heaven?

The road to Chengdu, winding along the same river valley for 300 kilometres, is being rebuilt. The whole length of it at the same time. There's signs of the 2008 earthquake damage on some stretches - landslides and collapsed bridges - and we travel through new unfinished tunnels. Well, obviously they're finished, otherwise we wouldn't come out the other end, but they're crude, long, unventilated tunnels. For ten hours we drive along a buildng site. Along the way there's signs of new towns that have sprung out of the ruins of old ones.

Chengdu is at first appearances quite uninspiring. It's China's fifth largest metropolis, sitting below the mountains to the west and on the edge of the Sichuan basin that spreads eastwards around the Yangtze. The journey across town to the guesthouse seems endless. Everything looks like it was built in the last thirty years. It probably was. But Sim's Cozy Garden Guesthouse turns out to be just that - an oasis in this pitiless urban environment. Sim, a Singaporean, and his Japanese wife have created a wonderful comfortable hostel in an ugly modern building. There are two garden courtyards, lots of communal space and the rooms have been furnished for travellers. Look - hooks for clothes, somewhere to stash rucksacks, a DVD player. There's also a steady flow of
punters of all types and ages e.g. the young Americans on a 3-week tour of China and South East Asia, an older Aussie/Canadian couple ambling through from Central Asia. We meet Jan who is cycling from the Netherlands to Australia. He's full of stories and enthusiasm and joy for cycle touring (it's his first time) and he scratches our cycling itch. Then there's Phil, a Brit, who's on a visit with his Sichuanese wife, Yan. While he's here he's buying chunky Tibetan jewellery to hawk back at home when he's not teachng English. We're also very happy to see Jurek again and having spent a few lazy days doing nothing but laundry and watching a few films we've missed whilst travelling, we're keen to get out and see the pandas with him.

On the outskirts of the city is China's Panda Breeding Research Centre and an easy place to see these wonderful animals. The panda is native to Sichuan, living in the mountainous bamboo forests - they eat a lot of bamboo. As their natural habitat gradually disappears so do the pandas. Their survival as a species is more remarkable considering their mating habits - pandas only get it on once a year and tend to live a solitary life. In an attempt to keep the species gong the Chinese have spent years on research and at the centre in Chengdu we learn a little of how they have successfully bred pandas in captivity. In an attempt to find compatible partners the scientists first placed small ads in the local papers. Next they organised 'Speed Dating' events. In a remakable example of diplomatic detente, a specialist from India was invited to help. Dr. Virender Sehwag runs India's leading matrimonial agency in Uttar Pradesh, when he's not opening bat for the Indian cricket team. After years of failure the Chinese scientists went back to basics, rolled up their sleeves and gave the pandas a 'helping hand'. So far, hundreds of pandas have been bred successfully by artifical insemination and none have been reintroduced to the wild. As we wander around with Jurek we can understand why. The place is really just a zoo. The pandas live in concrete jails and are ejected each morning to sit in their enclosures and chew bamboo for our enjoyment. They are lovely creatures to watch. One happy looking panda picks up a fistful of bamboo and as he puts it to his mouth rolls backwards in a universal gesture of satisfaction. You can almost detect the smile. We have been advised to visit in the morning to witness this morning ritual so it's disappointing to discover afterwards that we missed afternoon sports time. Apparently the pandas are encouraged to play ping pong, badminton and even kung fu in order to keep themselves in trim. Fooball had been tried too, but the pandas kept mistaking each other for the ball. The Centre is a green oasis in Chengdu, but it's hardly a substitute for their wild origins.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wild West Frontier

The early morning bus ride to Langmusi takes us across beautiful high-altitude prairie grasslands with grazing herds of shaggy yaks and horses. Snow-topped mountains brood in the early morning light. The landscape is unutterably beautiful. At least this is what Gayle tells me. I sleep through most of it, like the locals, who are always away with the fairies the moment the bus is in motion. That is, unless they are throwing up. When I am awake we pass by a truck that's managed to hit not one, but three yaks. He must have been really trying.

Langmusi is unfairly described as "enchanting" in our guidebook - a terrible misrepresentation of an ugly village plonked on the border of Gansu and Sichuan provinces. It is undoubtedly Tibetan - there are two monasteries here - and freezing pilgrims and locals go about in long coats from sunrise to sunset. They probably sleep in them too. At night the streets are virtually deserted. In the daytime young men ride into town looking like real cowboys from days of yore. Except nowadays they're riding Chinese motorcycles. They swagger into the noodles shops, doors left swinging in the wind, to slurp their dinner, picking out the vegetables from the broth in disgust. A beer is swigged and then Vrroooommm! they ride off in a cloud of dust.

There are snowy peaks close by and we once again plot a route and set off up the slopes in search of a sheep trail leading to the top. It turns out to be another great walk and we're lucky with the weather - clear blue skies and sunshine. No-one to be seen or heard. We climb up to a peak with prayer flags, snow and an impressive clutch of large wooden arrows tied together - the symbolism of which we know not. It's low season here but we still meet a few tourists in a traveller's cafe with apple pie just like our mums make. Well, sort of. We end up walking the next day with Jurek, a very jolly Czech who is going our way. We then travel souhwards together to Songpan, through more stunning scenery. Herds of yaks again, grazing the wide open flats and then an eventual descent into a narrow valley, passing some tidy and attractive Tibetan villages. New houses are being built in the old style. And then we reach Songpan itself - a disappointing town that's had an attempt at beautification i.e. a newly-bilt old fashioned pedestrianised shoppng street, red lanterns aplenty, and restored old walls. The weather has turned grey and Gayle has developed a Capstan on-Filter Cough - irritating to both her and me. Although it's still cold and a bit miserable (no heat in our guesthouse), we stay another day just to put off another bus ride. It's ten more hours down to Chengdu.