Chengdu & Emei Shan, China

On our first morning in Chengdu, we set out to do the main activity that we’d come to the city for: to visit the pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. After 8 days in the rain in Yunnan we couldn’t have been happier to wake up to a hot, sunny day.  We took two buses about 45 minutes and reached the panda center just a few minutes after it opened (at 8am). There was already tons of people waiting to go in for the feeding at 9:30am. The panda center has about 80 pandas, which means that it has one of, if not the largest population of pandas in the world. At the center, they focus on panda breeding, both naturally and also by artificial insemination (as pandas are not very sociable or sexual animals, breeding between them isn’t always easy). We walked through the huge park, stopping at each of the many giant panda enclosures and also the red panda enclosure. I didn’t even know what a red panda was before seeing one, but they are very small and look much more like a raccoon or a fox than a panda. At 9:30 on the dot, the giant pandas came out for their feeding. They were very cute, rolling around and playing with each other, all the while munching on their bamboo leaves. The park overall was much more zoo-like than we expected (especially when compared to the orangutan rehabilitation center that we visited last summer in Borneo, where the orangutans were all but pulling us into the jungle with them – by the hair, if you remember my post from there), but it was still very cool to get to see so many pandas up close and in action. It was also the most Westerners we’d seen in any place in China since we arrived. We spent a few hours walking around the park before heading back to our guesthouse (by the North train station) around lunchtime.

We sat down for a great local lunch (a rice dish and a noodle dish) near our place and then relaxed for a little while before getting ready to head to the center of Chengdu for the night. We’d decided to stay closer to the train station which is North of the city to be closer to the pandas and also because we were taking a train out of there, so we had yet to see the actual city of Chengdu. We took the subway a few stops to Tianfu square, the centerpiece of which is a large statue of Mao. From there, we walked West to People’s Park and then East to the huge pedestrian shopping area. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, almost every city we’ve visited in China has at least one pedestrian street, typically lined with fancy stores (eg, Prada, Gucci, Nike, Apple, etc). Chengdu had the biggest pedestrian area we’ve seen. We had a little scare when we thought we lost the Sichuan section of our Lonely Planet book, but thank god, after retracing our steps, we found it at the store we’d stopped into to buy some yak jerky for our lunch the following day.

From the pedestrian area, we hopped on the train (which had a security and ticket line even worse than the lines at the Siam BTS station in Bangkok on a Saturday night) and headed to another area that was known to be filled with good restaurants, one of which we’d chosen for our dinner that night. Sichuan is known to have the spiciest food in China and is famous for their hotpot. While Chonquin is supposedly THE place for hotpot in the region (unfortunately we didn’t have the time to make a trip there for that meal), Chengdu is known for the skewer hotpot. We found a great (and very popular) restaurant known to have one of the best. Here’s how it works: First, you pick a broth. You can either get regular or spicy, or a combo. We chose to go with spicy. Second, you walk up to the back of the restaurant to their “skewer buffet.” They have all types of different meat, seafood and veggies on skewers. You pick out whatever you want (at 1 yuan a piece, you can really go crazy) and then you cook them all in the broth. Unlike regular hotpot, you don’t actually eat the broth, it’s just used for cooking. In addition to skewers, they also have a selection of different plates that you can get with other (more expensive) things to cook in your broth. We opted for about 30 different skewers and then a few plates, one of which was pig brain. The whole meal (even the pig brains) was delicious, and very memorable. Luckily, there was a very nice girl sitting at the table next to us who was a good English speaker and she helped us with the whole process.

The next morning, we woke up before the sun was up and took the first local bus to the bus station for our overnight trek at Emei Shan, one of the most famous Buddhist mountains in China. We’d originally thought of just doing a day-trip to the mountain but one of the highlights is supposed to be staying overnight at one of the monasteries on the top. That, combined with the fact that it seemed almost impossible to complete the hike we wanted to do in a day (when we were starting in Chengdu) and our decision seemed like a no-brainer.

Our book went through several different routes for hiking Emei Shan, most of which included some combination of buses, cable cars, and hiking. The most appealing option to me was the one where you took a bus almost to the peak, hiked up 1-2 hours to the peak, and then hiked down ten hours. The whole trail on Emei Shan is stairs and hiking up a staircase for 6 hours or more didn’t really sound that great to me. Plus, by taking the bus up to the top, we’d save ourselves a lot of time.  So, our route was settled. We would take the bus from the town (Baoguo) to the Leidong parking lot (90 minutes). We’d hike up to the Golden Summit (1-2 hours), and then hike about 7 hours down along the scenic path (by way of the Xianfeng monestary, where we were planning to spend the night) before taking the bus back to town from the Wuxian Hump parking lot the following morning.

The ticket office seemed nightmarish at first (it was packed) but when we flashed our ABAC cards and got a student discount (50% off the steep price of 180 yuan pp for the entry fee – no discount on the bus though at 50 yuan pp, one way), we felt much better. We were still having a hard time getting over the outrageous entry fees pretty much everywhere though and wondered how many other times we’d missed out on the “student” discount.

Our 90 minute bus ride turned into a three hour bus ride of bumper to bumper traffic all the way up the mountain. They don’t regulate how many people drive up the road in their private vehicles or enforce penalties for stopping along the way, so that makes for a very crowded drive, especially on a weekend. By the time we got just to the parking lot (before we even started our hike), we’d been traveling for almost 6 hours. We were skeptical that we’d be able to get to where we’d been planning to stay for the night before dark.

The first hour and a half of the hike (from the highest bus stop) is up a steep staircase to the Golden Summit. At the very beginning of this and then towards the end, there are vendors along the path selling food, souvenirs, drinks, etc. We even ran into some monkeys right at the start. This part of the path was very, very crowded with Chinese tourists but the summit was worth it. At the top, there was a huge golden statue (hence the name Golden Summit) and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

We were still a bit worried about our timing, so after a short walk around the top and a quick snack, we started our long descent. Back to the parking lot took about an hour, and then the rest of our hike for the night was divided into three one-hour segments. All along the way, there were very cute little snack shops serving noodle and rice dishes, snacks, drinks, etc. The first hour-long segment was to the Elephant Bathing Pool (which has a huge monastery to stay in), then, we turned onto the “scenic” path to the second leg to Yuxian Monastery (where we thought about stopping for the night but it didn’t feel like the right place for us when we saw it). Finally, just as we were starting to think our legs couldn’t take any more stairs for the day, we made our way to Xianfeng Monastery, which was the only portion of the descent that was actually back uphill. The whole hike was very pretty and we were relieved to be away from the crowds from the summit. We did pass a lot of other hikers, most of whom were making their way uphill as we were walking down. After seeing group after group struggling up the steep steps, we were both very happy with our choice to walk down instead of up.

We realized that we were risking it a little bit by banking on the Xianfeng Monastery as our place to stay as we hadn’t booked a room in advance and we wouldn’t arrive until just about the time it was getting dark. Our book said though that it was a pretty big place and they had rooms at many different price ranges, starting at about $10pp (plus, it’s a monastery, so we figured that they would never turn us away when it was dark out and the next nearest place to stay was at least an hour away by foot). Well, we got there and there were plenty of rooms, including a dorm room for 60 yuan ($10) pp. The next cheapest option was a triple for 80 yuan pp and then a double for 120 yuan pp. The most we’ve paid in China for a room is about 150 for both of us, so we definitely didn’t want to spend much more than that (especially since we’d be there for such a short amount of time and also considering the accommodation was meager at best).  We said we wanted the dorm and were immediately told that no, we couldn’t stay there. After a little prying, we determined that the reason for this was because we were foreigners. They said that it would be “unsafe” for us to stay in a room with all Chinese people.  We tried to explain to them that we lived in Thailand and we’d be fine, but they wouldn’t budge. Clearly they thought they could get more money out of us because we were white and so they were trying to cash in.  They also refused when we asked to stay in the triple room for 80, even with another willing Chinese traveler. Finally, after a lot of back and forth, Dave finally said, ok, we’ll stay in the room for 120 pp but I need to charge it on my credit card. He got them there because of course, they didn’t take credit cards. Finally, they agreed to put us in the triple for 160 pp. We were pretty upset by their discrimination, but at least we had a place to stay for the night and we’re getting too ripped off.

After that ordeal, we didn’t really feel like giving them any more of our money, so we found a local place next door for dinner before calling it an early night. In the morning, while we were waiting for the sun to come up before we started hiking, we made a few videocalls and checked our email (amazingly we had internet on the mountain).

The rest of the hike down took about four hours and was all pretty steep downhill, down a lot more steps. The scenery was beautiful all along the way and after the big green snake that we came across on the steps, the most interesting part was the ecological area for watching monkeys. I think we were there a bit too early for the monkeys (there were several but not as many as we’d seen the day before near the top of the mountain), but the area itself was very nice with lots of bridges going back and forth across the river.

The mountain overall was very nice and also very different from any other mountain we’ve been to, due to all of the stairs and all of the monasteries along the way. I really enjoyed staying on the mountain, but I didn’t think that staying at the monastery itself was really the highlight, as our book suggests. I think, however, I may have been singing a different tune about the hike had we chosen to go uphill rather than downhill, as it just seemed plain hard. Though even after all the stairs down, my legs were sore for days!

We were down by around 10am and went back to the town for an early lunch before catching a bus back to Chengdu, where we went back to our guesthouse to shower, change, and check email before our last overnight train to Xi’An that night.

Overall, our few days in Chengdu had been great. We had debated cutting it out of our itinerary, as it was a bit of a trek (and expensive) to get to, but in the end, we were very glad that we decided to keep it in there. Our only disappointment was that the food in Sichuan was not quite as spicy as we would have hoped. Recall that this is supposed to be the region with the spiciest food, but every meal we had, we found ourselves adding extra spice. I guess living in Thailand has really rubbed off on us!

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