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Saturday, June 2, 2018

A month in China! Chengdu: Pandas, a Steam Train, and the Leshan Buddha!

THE Steam Train railfan photo!
The Leshan Buddah
Steam Train excursion in Sichuan!

In planning our month-long trip through China, I worked for several weeks via email with Seven from Absolute Panda Tours, and she helped me craft two truly excellent, full days for us in Chengdu that included most of the things that we really wanted to do! In my previous post I wrote about our "foodie" fun in Chengdu, including a professional cooking class she arranged for Chef Dan and I at the Chengdu Cuisine Museum, but the first thing we did in Chengdu was to go see the Pandas! We (smartly) left the hotel at 7:20a.m. with our guides, traveling in a spacious and comfortable SUV, and arrived nice and early, so there were no crowds, which was great- because by the time we left it was a total zoo (pun intended), with cell-phone-selfie-stick Chinese tourists 3-deep at the pandas, and a line a mile long at the front gate! We were able to see the black and white pandas- which look like Hello Kitty's Big, Goofy Friends- and the (new to us) red pandas- which look like a cross between a fox and a racoon- at the Panda Breeding Center, home to the program that also aims to reintroduce pandas to the wild. The black and white Pandas are enchanting- they are naturally funny and charming, and their expressions and body language make them seem both happy and silly, so basically everyone just wants to hang out and watch them for hours on end as they sit around munching bunches of bamboo fronds they clutch in their little fists, sleep on their backs or up in trees, where they look like giant furry beach balls, and rub their butts on tree trunks! And when the cubs wrestle with each other it's pretty dang adorable, too! (This apparently only happens in captivity, as in the wild, if a female gives birth to more than one cub she abandons the other- all wild pandas are "only kids"- like Elisse. LOL) 

Panda, eating!
That is NOT a beach ball- it's a panda!

Pandas being cute!

Two workers carried 3 cubs out into one of the enclosures, and made it look both easy and fun- and me wish we could have blown $1000 to each hold a panda for 20 seconds! The pandas at the center have great, large outdoor areas to romp in, and the red pandas have forest, as well; as neither Dan nor I had ever seen either kind of panda in the flesh, this was quite a big deal! I took about 100 videos of pandas being, um,  pandas. LOL
Red Panda, up in a tree!

Before leaving the center we had a coffee at the Panda Cafe, and then went for a great Chengdu lunch fest at an outdoor "wedding" banquet restaurant (right after a western-style wedding, which had included a number of faux deer and a lot of flower bowers), that had a great, open market-kitchen where you could watch the chefs preparing many of the dishes. We had a delicious dish of pork with thinly-sliced medium-spicy ("banana") green peppers; delectable paper-thin "tofu skin" we watched the cooks make in sheets and hang to dry, served with a super-hot dipping sauce containing chili paste and scallions; thick-sliced eggplant that had been batter-dipped and fried, and was served in a spicy chili sauce; a dish of spicy-sauced bone-in chicken (sense a pattern here? Chengdu = Sichuan spicy!), and a vegetable dish of Chinese yam slices (which have a lightly crunchy, water chestnut-like texture), my fave black "tree ear" fungus, and sweet red peppers, all served with rice, and that powerfully perfumed jasmine tea I want to bathe in! (Our guide actually agreed with me on this one, much to Dan's amusement. She said it's a "girl thing" to want to bathe in jasmine tea. LOL)   
Dan in the restaurant market

Making paper-thin Tofu Skin!

After lunch we took a professional Cooking Class at the Chengdu Cuisine Museum, and then enjoyed having our ears cleaned at the Opera Teahouse and the Chengdu Opera and Face-Changing Show- all of which was covered in my previous blog post here!
Our Lunch Feast- with that fab Tofu Skin!
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West Virginia Coal Country meets China!
Our second great day in Sichuan with Absolute Panda Tours started at 7a.m., as we left on our 3 hour (snooze-in-the-posh-SUV) drive from Chengdu to the steam train. Unfortunately the "real" and 'rough' steam train that most of the villagers use, and that we wanted to take, only runs twice a day- at 7am and 5pm. So we wound up taking the rather fancier excursion steam train that the Chinese government has set up (apparently with help from the UK, who originally helped set up this narrow-gauge coal railroad), which runs throughout the day, everyday. Chinese railfans are BIG business for China! Not only was EVERY seat taken on every train, but thousands of Chinese, most dressed to the nines, and all laden with top-shelf DSLRs and/or iPhones, lined the track all the way. There were literally 1000s of super-cute girl railfans out there with selfie-sticks, families with kids, older couples with hiking sticks, younger couples on motorbikes, farmers with back-baskets, and gal-groups of middle aged fancy-lady matrons in red dresses, waving scarves like Norma Desmond for Cecil B. deMille, all posing for photos with the train along the tracks! The Chinese government has created excellent new railfan stops at several of the stations along the way, where passengers can get out (and 99% do), buy freshly-made yummy foodie snacks from vendors, and walk up a ramp, or out on a path, to a great, unblocked scenic lookout. Then the train backs up, and comes around the curve with full steam, and horns a-blowing, so everyone can get The Perfect Railfan Photo or Video! The Chinese do railfanning right! We were, again, the only non-Chinese present, save for two young, European photographers we saw at the station...

Yes, it's a real coal-fired steam train!

As we had to wait until noon for a seat on the train, our driver and guides took us for a drive into the rural countryside to see a bit of "the real China", and we walked past farms and stopped to speak (through our guide) with a local farmer lady about what they were growing and which veggies they were drying on the stone wall and from the eaves of their tile-roofed homes... Since many of the young people have moved to the cities, most of the elderly farmers have replaced labor-intensive rice on the terraced hills with rapeseed, which is used to make rapeseed oil (aka Canola Oil) for cooking; it's the bright yellow rapeseed flowers that now cover much of springtime rural China, and, as we learned today, this early season crop will be followed by tomatoes...

heading home from the market...

One of the coolest thing we saw at the train station was a man making popcorn with a coal-fired popcorn machine!
Yes, he really made great popcorn, and it was fabulous to hear it go "Boom!"

We returned to the station and had a(nother) delicious lunch with our guides at one of the many restaurants at the depot...

 ...before catching our Steam Train, which took us through the Chinese countryside, through several tunnels, and around a Very tight "U" turn, and with several stops along the way...

Getting ready to board our train...


All aboard!




Making the "U"...

Railfans lining the route...

One of the "railfan" stops, with stairs to a viewing area...

Yummy snacks at one of the stops...
After the excursion, we visited the Jia Yang Mining Museum, looking at exhibits very similar to those in WV's mine museums. The big difference is that outside this museum a dozen vendors were renting green Mao military uniforms and fake AKs and pistols, so men, women, and kids of all ages (but all way too young to recall the horror of it) could dress up as Cultural Revolution soldiers, and pose all over town for photos and selfies, as well as visit the museum in uniform, pointing fake AKs and pistols at each other. I got one fab snap of a tiny tot, fully attired as a Mao-era soldier, sticking his toy AK into his mommy's tunny... You truly have to see it to believe it, and we constantly wondered what the parents and grandparents of these sprogs- who actually lived through that murderous hell- make of all this nostalgia-de-la-bouie...   
You can't make this stuff up...

Rental costumes...

 There is an exhibition coal mine there, as well, apparently similar to the ones in West Virginia, and I wish we'd had time to visit it; the videos of it feature lots of VERY attractive women miners! :-) 
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The Jia Yang National Mining Park Museum

We want this vehicle!!

West Virginia? No, China!
 After the museum, we took a 7-passenger van for ride up into and through the mountains that was JUST like riding the mountain roads of McDowell County- and I mean 100% EXACTLY, down to the narrow width of the roads (although China's are in rather better repair...), the look of the rock and tree-covered mountains and valleys, the guardrails and periodic lack of them, the 3000' drop on one side while the other side goes straight up into the clouds, the hairpin turns and switchbacks, etc. - but at 100mph with the the horn blaring non-stop! All I will say is that to state the ride was "breathtaking" would be a gross understatement! I have to assume that our  obviously lunatic driver was trying to impress the young beauty sitting next to him with her super-cute headband of two bobbing, yellow Peeps, and whose rather "metrosexual" effete boyfriend was sitting behind her. IMHO the driver wanted to show her what a Real Man was capable of, and that he did- and she loved every second! I thought she'd be screaming in terror (or puking into her designer handbag), but she laughed and giggled throughout the whole insane roller-coaster trip, even playing an appropriate selection of Chinese techno music on her iPhone to accompany the rhythm of the ride- and she got us all laughing, because what else do you do while defying death?! The baby, held in the arms of the couple in front of us, slept through the whole thing, while our guide, who, like us, had never taken this ride before, held tightly to the hand-hold through the whole trip. I kept having OMG! moments, and "Oh, Shit!" and "Holy Cow!"outbursts, and held fast to Dan's knee- to the point where he asked me not to squeeze so hard. LOL  
Our car and driver met us at the train station, and drove us next to Leshan, where we took the 5-minute boat ride down the river to see the famed Leshan Buddha! The largest Buddha statue in the world, it's one of many Chinese "wonders". Beautifully carved into a red sandstone mountainside on the river, it again looks very different from the photos one sees online... 

Off to see the Leshan Buddha!

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Arriving at the Buddha...

The Leshan Buddha

Yes, we really were there!

 Seeing these things makes you badly want to have more time- a few days at least to spend in China's "coal country" to explore the small towns, trains, and museums, and another few days in Leshan, to climb the staircase up to the top of the Buddha's head, and learn more about the local culture, traditions, religions, and foods... I bought a couple of small amulets on the boat, just so we and a few friends would have a good luck charm from the Leshan Buddha to hang from our car mirrors... When the boat docked, our guide took me to use the Ladies Room at a banquet restaurant in Leshan, and this was the first one I'd encountered on the entire trip that had a delightful little "potty chair"- a wooden seat with a hole in the middle that you could set over the floor "squat-a-potty" to turn it into a "real" toilet- so you didn't have to undress or risk peeing down your leg, on your shoes, or all over your clothes! YAY!!
YAY! A toilet seat!!!

We then drove back to Chengdu for our last great Sichuan foodie experience: a truly fabulous Hot Pot Feast, which I blogged about here! We HIGHLY recommend Absolute Panda Tours, and we truly hope we get back to the Sichuan region, so we can spend more time exploring with them, as there are SO many great things to do and eat and drink and learn about!
Next up: Yichang, and a cruise down the Yangtze River!