Jan 19, 2012

Chengdu: Panda Park Preview

Show us the pandas already

A preview of the panda park

Our first order of business in Chengdu was to visit the Chengdu Panda Base, just outside the city. And our hostel, conveniently, organized an 8-passenger van to take us there and back. Scheduled departure from the hostel was 7:20 am, which would get us there well in time for the mid-morning feeding, when the pandas were at their most active.

It’s possible I don’t have to tell you, but this was really early for us. We blundered downstairs, bleary-eyed at 7 am, which gave us enough time to run out to the convenience store for drinks. (Chengdu is modern enough to have a ton of 7-11-like stores, and, in fact, some actual 7-11s.) It was still dark out, and most of the city seemed to still be asleep. We got back to the hostel with time to spare.

And then, our driver was half an hour late. And then …

We had to stop for gas for what seemed like another half an hour. And then, we had to stop to get the tires pumped up. Which was a good thing, because then, we had to drive over the most pot-hole filled road for ages. Where were we going?!

Our confidence in our journey was not bolstered by the Panda Base parking lot, which looked like it had been neglected for nearly a decade. But when we finally entered the Base, we found a beautiful park. The staff wasn’t quite open for business yet, but our driver grabbed us some maps from the tourist center and sent us on our way.

The thing about travelling to temperate climates during the winter is that you often get the tourist spots all to yourselves. There was our little group of 8 and a few others from other hostels, but it felt like the park was completely ours. We spent about two hours wandering from panda habitat to panda habitat. Birthing time was in August, so we saw some rambunctious cubs, as well as some adolescents and adults. (Newborn pandas are kind of gross looking anyway.) They also had a small population of red pandas, an animal that seems to get the shaft, attention-wise.

The grounds themselves were gorgeous, especially in contrast with the overgrown and crumbling parking lot. Each habitat was spacious and well-cared-for, and the surrounding parkland was beautifully landscaped with fantastic trees and, of course, bamboo. (Fun fact: Because pandas eat so much bamboo, the plants grown on the almost 300-acre base are supplementary to the supply they truck in from the surrounding countryside.) Being that the base is a non-profit rescue organization, it was nice to see that most of the money goes back into giving the pandas a nice place to live. Check it out:

Walking out of the mist, and into the park
Look around the park with our photo album.

Jan 19, 2012

Chengdu: The Loft

Hey, China gets funky

The view from the Loft
Check out our album of photos from the Loft.

Part of what we instantly loved right away about the city was our hostel: The Loft. It’s an old renovated printing factory and they have some connection with a local artist collective that maintains a giant studio space on the third floor. The place is just overall funky. It (and the surrounding neighborhood; more on that later) had a very Bushwick/Williamsburg-20-years-ago feel, and it was awesome to find such a vibe here in China.

Our room was huge and fantastic - and there was a framed copy of a Sade album on our wall! We had a king-sized bed with an electric blanket, which was fabulous when we came in from the cold; as modern as this place was, they still weren’t super into indoor heating.

The downstairs café was incredibly cool as well. The walls were covered with original artwork, presumably done by the artists upstairs. I particularly liked a series of portraits that reminded me of Lucian Freud. Peter’s favorite was a wall-sized mural in black and brown that was done in a comic book/graffiti style. (Unfortunately, we can’t show you because they had signs posted everywhere asking you not to take photos.)

We spent a lot of time in that café, either enjoying a leisurely breakfast or an after-dinner drink. They service an international crowd, so they serve a pretty decent Western menu: eggs, burgers, sandwiches, real beers. Interestingly, we noticed that a lot of the patrons of the café were Chinese, enjoying some foreign cuisine.

Jan 18, 2012

Chengdu: The city to the north

Slideshow time

A street scene in Chengdu
The Chengdu photo album is here.

After a false attempt in October, we finally made it to Chengdu last week. And we were pretty much in love with it from the minute we got there. It’s a much bigger city than Luzhou (“very modern” all our students say about it), with a much more cosmopolitan flair. In fact, it’s known throughout China for its love of mixing of international styles. We could (and did) find everything from tacos to Indian food to spaghetti to cool local street snacks. And these were enjoyed equally by locals and ex-pats alike. (OK, the tacos were at a total ex-pat hang.)

It’s not actually that nice looking of a city; everything’s all grey and concrete, and modernization here tends to equal giant, sprawling highways and shopping complexes. But the spirit of the city has little to do with the horrible architecture.

It’s a city for relaxing and hanging out - almost a cafe culture, but with walls and chairs optional. Anywhere there is space to, people gather with friends to drink tea and chat or play cards and what have you. They do this in bars and restaurants, in the park, at little noodle stalls, on their front stoops, anywhere. It’s all about straight chillin’. And, from glasses of wine in the book store to cups of tea in the park, we loved it.

Jan 18, 2012

REPOST: Metal Maneki Neko

Bring us money and METAL!

Metal Cat

Since we’ve been here, we’ve had an eye out for a lucky cat for our home. We finally found one last night (in a shop right next to the school). Peter made a few mods so that our lives will be filled with metal, as well as wealth!

ETA: There should be a video above. If you can’t see it, let me know in the comments.

Jan 15, 2012

Universal truths

How much was your rent?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when two people who’ve lived in New York meet — even in China, even if one of them is a Chinese national — they must discuss real estate prices.

Jan 11, 2012

We Cheng-did it!

Pandas, pizza and a rock show

We’ve arrived safe and sound in Chengdu, the big city to the north of Luzhou. Activities planned: Pandas, pizza and a rock show! The hostel we’re staying in is the cutest, with art by local artists on the wall and dark wood distressed floors. We’re very excited for the week ahead.

Jan 10, 2012

New pants!

Lookin’ snazzy

Me in my new pants

Xi Xi, our neighbor friend, took me out shopping the other day, on the hunt for pants. I had told her that Peter and I had both lost a ton of weight since moving here (“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she said.) but that we were still larger than the largest sizes that most stores carry. I think she didn’t quite believe me.

She brought me to a mall that I hadn’t been to before (Luzhou has 4 malls, she said. They’re all located pretty close to one another.), but it had many of the same stores I had seen in other malls. First store, no luck.

Let me back up here and say that size is only part of the problem. The style for jeans in this city seems to be: the gaudier the better. Rhinestones, stone washes, weird patches … it’s hard to find a pair of jeans that doesn’t incorporate some of that into the design. So I have to narrow my search down to the plainest pair of jeans first, and then hope that they have my size. And like I said, first store, no luck.

Second store, though, they had a few pairs in my size, in black and blue. I chose the blue pair and tried them on. I don’t think you can see in the picture, but they have a weird vein-y pattern faded into the material, with fake rips all up and down the leg. It’s subtle as far as these things go, but I would not be out of place at a Bon Jovi concert circa 1986. This gave me pause.

On the other hand, they fit! They weren’t falling off my body like my old jeans, and they were not skin tight like other jeans I had tried on. And they were on super sale. And the only people who would look and think they’re not fashionable would be me and Peter, and Peter doesn’t really care.

So I went for them. Xi Xi asked if I wanted to look around more before buying them, but I said, “No. This is the first pair of jeans in two months that has fit. I don’t need to look around anymore.”

As the saleslady was ringing us up, she told Xi Xi that my jeans were the biggest pair of pants they had in the store. They were meant for me!

Jan 10, 2012

New food on sticks

Very similar to the old food on sticks

New sticks
Fish boat

Part of our explore-the-city mission is to find places to eat other than our beloved sticks pavilion. With that in mind, last week we got gussied up and went out.

Our intention was to finally hit up one of those boat restaurants we see along the river. Turns out - and we totally should have expected this — they are fish restaurants. You can even go pick out which fish you want. Unfortunately, we wanted zero fish, so we left. Strike one.

Looking for a rotating restaurant

But, we had heard about this rotating restaurant on the top of the Luzhou Hotel! So we went to search that out. When we found it, it looked like the whole building had been closed for quite a while. Strike two.

Fancy pants chain

Our next thought was to try this street near our house where we had seen several indoor eating establishments that looked cool. We picked one - and it was more food on sticks! It was a little more upscale than our favorite outdoor place - there were wooden benches instead of plastic stools and there was a wider selection of food. We got a bowl that was split in two, one side with super spicy broth and the other with a vegetable stock. It was a nice change of pace to have a similar meal with different flavors.

It was slightly more expensive than our usual place, but we’d definitely go back.

Jan 10, 2012

Crossing the river

Ferrying across the Yangtze

Get on a boat
Check out our album of photos from the Changjiang River.

So we’ve actually been on vacation for the past two weeks, and while we have some travel planned starting tomorrow, we’ve been taking this opportunity to explore our own city a little more.

Last week, we had a not-cold, not-rainy day, so we went out for a walk by the riverfront. We finally decided to try out one of those tea places that we always walk past. I pointed at some drinks on our food list, and we ended up with some hot sugar lemon water, which was actually much better than it sounds. As we sat, vendors wandered by, offering their services to the few patrons who were out that day. A very aggressive ear cleaner came by, but one of my life rules it to limit how many strangers I let stick pointy things into my ear, so we said no until he went away.

While we were sittin’ and sippin’, we noticed that one of the boats that we had mistaken for a restaurant was actually a ferry landing. “We should go across the river some afternoon,” Peter said. “How about this afternoon?” I said.

The boat was oooooold looking, but not unsafe. There was a basket full of life-preservers in the middle of the passenger area, and some people took them up. Not knowing the protocol, and wanting to err on the side of caution, we took some too. Once the boat got underway, it became clear that we didn’t really need them.

What a different scene on the other side! It was like we stepped back in time to what I imagine pre-’80s China might have looked like. The architecture was very utilitarian, and everything was a little bit crumbling. It was just dark, gray and concrete. As we walked further away from the river, the high-rises gave way to shorter buildings with storefronts on the bottom floor selling everything from salt (now that we know what we’re looking for, its everywhere!) to novelty socks to dish detergent.

I don’t think we’ll go back there, but it was interesting to see.

Jan 7, 2012

We saw a monkey tonight at dinner!

But we can’t show you

Unfortunately, we violated rule No. 1, so you can’t see it, but while we were at dinner we saw a guy with a one-armed monkey! The guy was going around from restaurant to restaurant, showing the monkey off and asking for money.

China sure is different.