China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 228 (38)

Chengdu

Friday 22nd October

Indeed last night’s train journey was no less comfortable than was the more modern Z-class train that we took from Beijing to Xi’an. The route we took was through quite a bit of mountainous terrain and we passed through a number of single-track tunnels. As a consequence of this, we stopped numerous times along the way to allow for oncoming trains to pass us by before we could enter the tunnels. It was this constant stopping and starting more than the comfort of the cabin or beds that prevented me from being able to sleep all the way through. Our carriage attendant this time spoke not a single word of English and we had some interesting rounds of miscommunication as a result. Actually, it would be more fare for me to say that it was my lack of any knowledge of Chinese that caused the communications problems. We are, after all, the foreigners in their country.

True to their word, a hostel representative was waiting at the train station entrance touting a tour guide flag and our names written on a piece of paper, albeit grossly misspelled. We were among five or six western travellers being picked up from the station this morning and were slowly filtered off into the awaiting minibuses. Our man was an enthusiastic character with a constant beaming smile and an eagerness to please that was almost embarrassing.

The minibus pulled into the hostel just a few minutes from the train terminal just as dawn was threatening to break. Mr. Enthusiastic immediately went to work trying to sort out which room would be allocated to whom. Even though we had booked ahead, he had initially told us that another traveller had not yet checked out and that we would be given an alternative room until ours would become available. This would have meant that we would have had to change our rooms just a few hours after arriving and I was none too pleased about that. Still very over eager to please, our man frantically and rather fumblingly scanned the register until he finally found a room that we could have and keep. I did my very best to try to knock as much as possible off the price of the room but as has been the case with the other Youth Hostel International hostels here in China, the best he could do was the standard discount for YHA members. He did, however, suggest that I might want to talk with the manager later to see what else could be done so that was at least promising.

As all the other new arrivals were jostling for their rooms, we made our way up the first flight of steps into ours and promptly went to bed for a few more hours. Quite unexpectedly, neither of us awoke again until about noon. We had run out of money on our last day in Xi’an and had failed to find a functional ATM before boarding the train. Consequently, we had no money to pay for our room so the first order of business this morning (or this afternoon now) was to find a bank and withdraw a fresh round of funds. The friendly and very helpful young girl at the reception desk give us very simple and very specific directions to where the nearest ATM was and we followed these to the letter. Naturally, nary an ATM was to be found. Why I didn’t predict this, I don’t know. As luck would have it, we did eventually stumble into a Bank of China branch and were able to withdraw another ¥4,000 ($488) of local currency. This should keep us going for at least another week but even if it only sees us through the next four days, we will still be under our planned budget allowance. It’s becoming clearer now that we should come in well under our planned budget after all.

Back at the hostel, I paid for our room, having failed to get any further discounts despite my best efforts. I talked to the resident travel agent about what the options are for seeing Panda bears and we discussed these at length. Quite some distance outside of town is the Wolong Nature Reserve. This is a significant area of high altitude forest where Pandas live in the wild. There is a breading centre there manned mostly by scientists from the US and for the sturdier breed of hikers, the opportunity to wander through the forests looking for the Pandas in the wild. Getting to this place and going in search of Pandas in the forest seems like a hell of a lot of hard work but there is a more accessible option. The Giant Panda Research Breeding Base is located right here on the outskirts of Chengdu. A trip to it can be done in a morning and this is the place all the other travellers we’ve bumped into have said that they visited. All have commented on how much they enjoyed the experience so we signed up for the tour. At just ¥70 ($8,50) each, it didn’t seem like it was worth the effort to try to skim a bit off this expense by making our own way there.

We had expected much warmer weather now that we have travelled farther South but it is actually cooler here than it was in Xi’an. I don’t know if this is because of the higher altitude or whether they have simply had a run of bad luck here in Chengdu as far as the weather is concerned but the refusal of the heating system in our room to function adequately is steadily becoming more and more of a serious concern. It’s absolutely freezing here and we are both having trouble warming up. We asked the hostel staff once again to address the problem with the heat in the room and whilst they were doing this, we decided it was high time to head out into Chengdu to find something to eat. After the mandatory round of miscommunications fun with the staff at the front desk, I was ultimately able to extract from them that there was at least a good selection of different restaurants near one of the temples here in town so we took a taxi to this temple and decided to simply walk around until we found something to our liking.

The taxis here are cheaper initially at just ¥5 ($0,60) to start the meter but the counter starts to accumulate faster. We were already up to ¥10 ($1,20) by the time we made it to the temple. Still, these are hardly sums of money that are going to break the bank. Our first choice of restaurant was so busy that there must have been twenty or more guests waiting in the courtyard to get a table. It was clearly a very popular place but with no English translations on the menu, we simply wouldn’t have had any idea of what we were ordering. Even though we becoming more and more adventurous at what we eat, at least knowing what to order is the bare minimum of a requirement for any restaurant that we try. Our second choice looked nice enough and they were able to rustle up a single menu that had some English translations on it so we decided to take the plunge. Sichuan cuisine is the big thing here but we had no idea if this was a Sichuan restaurant or not and with barely the ability to communicate the word ‘menu’ to the waitresses, trying to ask if this was the case seemed like way too complicated a task so we just went with the flow and hoped we would enjoy whatever it was that they brought to the table. I ventured to order the fried eel and Sandy decided to go with something called chicken sharps. We had no idea what this was or even if it was a correct translation or not but chicken seemed like a safe bet so we hoped for the best. My plate of sliced eel pieces was absolutely delicious but Sandy was slightly less enthusiastic about her chicken sharps, as these tuned out to be a plate full of the very ends of chicken wings – those bits that we might otherwise discard from the rest of the wing ordinarily. Whatever they were cooked in was certainly tasty but with barely a decent mouthful of chicken between them, not to mention the effort of extracting those small morsels from the bones, we decided to order another main course for Sandy and this time a plate full of chopped pork chops came out. Sandy still wasn’t too keen on these but at least she ate enough to last her through to supper. I’d have to say that between the two of us, we’ve been quite surprised to find that it’s been myself that’s been the most adventurous when it comes to the food we’ve tried here in China. I’m actually having fun with all the new tastes and textures that I’ve been trying even if I haven’t found very much of it to my liking.

The Chinese restaurants are not open continuously throughout the day and usually close for an hour or two after breakfast and lunch servings. They also close quite early and it becomes increasingly difficult to find a restaurant willing to take new customers after nine o’clock in the evening. By the time we had finished our lunch, we were already the last customers still sitting and we sort of got the impression that they were waiting for us to leave, although I can’t say that we were made to feel unwelcome at all.

Following our very nice and extremely tasteful lunch, we wandered around the immediate vicinity of the restaurant for a while, window-shopping at various places as we went. Sandy is looking to replace one of her fleece tops but the range and choice of clothing on offer in this part of town is sparse and we never did find anything but we did manage to find a supermarket and stocked up on some more consumables and snacks before hailing a taxi back to the hostel. The taxi drivers here seem much more relaxed and laid back and so far all of them have had no problems with locating wherever it has been that we’ve wanted to go. Even the traffic seems to flow just that little bit better here with the traffic signals being mostly obeyed by all the road users. I still feel like I’m continuingly taking my life into my own hands each time I walk across the road since the taxi drivers are looking mostly sideways instead of in front of them, as they scan for new customers, and rarely do they slow down or stop for pedestrians that stray into their paths. Stationary cyclists and pedestrians are swerved around by and large but someone stupid enough to walk into the path of an already moving vehicle does seem to be fair game here.

With a couple of bags full of restocked provisions, we found another taxi to take us back to our hostel. We’d wandered around outside for long enough to have chilled ourselves to the bone and neither of us was particularly pleased to find the heating in our now freezing room still not functioning adequately. This time I complained more vigorously and once again they motivated a couple of people to look into the problem some more but by now we’d pretty much had enough and I cracked open the guidebook to see just what other options for accommodation there were to be had here in Chengdu. There was another guest-house just a few yards up the street and I checked this out but was completely unable to communicate with anyone there. I didn’t even get as far as learning if they had any rooms or what the room rates were so I decided to walk a kilometre or so across town to one of the guidebook’s recommended options for budget travellers. The place was called Sam’s Guest-house and with the aid of the guidebook map, I set out to see if I could locate it myself. To my absolute astonishment, I actually managed to find it all on my own, even though most of the roads were not even named on the map in the guidebook. Even if they had been, it probably wouldn’t have been any help since few of the roads had any name boards posted anywhere and those that did only had Chinese characters on them anyway. The new hostel was actually a wing of a larger hotel that was managed by a small backpacker’s office off the main street. Sam, the proprietor, is a Chinese entrepreneur that speaks pretty good English and even though he wouldn’t budge on the price (apparently it is busy enough at the moment for the hostels not to need to do so), the room rate was just ¥120 ($14,60) per night as opposed to the ¥150 ($18,30) back at the other place. Since we have four nights that we need to spend here, it seemed like it was worth the effort to up and relocate.

When I returned to our hostel, they still had not made any more progress with the heating and now I was in a much better bargaining position with a cheaper place to stay at tucked neatly inside my back pocket. I made no attempt at being discrete about my displeasure with the room and told them that they could both fix the heating and drastically lower the room rate or we would simply relocate to another hostel and they would lose our business altogether. I made sure to be loud enough so that the manager of the hostel would be sure to hear me. They did seem to redouble their efforts with the heating system but the truth was that we’d pretty much already decided that we’d had as much as we could take and I called over to Sam’s Guest-house and told him to keep our room and that we would be coming over within the hour. I informed the reception staff that we would not be staying and told them to have our money that I had earlier paid them waiting for us after we packed. This they did and we never looked back. Within an hour, we had packed, found an empty taxi and relocated ourselves into the new hostel and are much more comfortable for it.

We had spent the better part of the day sorting out our accommodation problems and it was now time to fill our stomachs again so we set out, in the direction recommended by Sam himself, to see what new restaurant in this new part of town would take our fancy. We stopped a few times at various restaurants along the main road but if it wasn’t the smell or the dodgy looking hygiene that put us off, it was the doormen standing at the front of the restaurant entrances coughing up huge greenies and spitting them onto the floor that did the trick. It simply does not occur to these people just how disgusting this filthy habit is. Several of the restaurants that we looked at even had people happily spitting away all over the floor inside, right alongside other people sitting to eat. I really don’t understand how people can eat in when their neighbours are hurling huge gobs of phlegm all over the place. We did eventually settle on a sort of fast food type place that was inside a shopping centre and where the kitchen and counter staff was all wearing hygienic facemasks. Despite such interesting things on the menu as ‘Coco Coal’, ‘Lemon Ter’, ‘Black Tae’ & ‘Jujube Muffin’, we did each find something to our liking and ate our fill before calling it a night and retiring back to the comforting warmth of our new and much loved hostel room.

We still have the Panda trip arranged that we earlier organised with the previous hostel and we’ve managed to convince them to pick us up here at Sam’s so tomorrow holds the promise of our much anticipated encounter with real, live Pandas and we are both very much looking forward to it.

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