Translated by: Pál Capewell
Our journey to Chengdu was diverse: we passed under airport runways, bridges and above multiple-lane expressways. Hmm, how could I best describe this vibrant, gigantic city? Sichuan province’s capital’s apartment complexes are growing like mushrooms in the rain, the highways are bustling with buses, cars in and out of the city, and bikes, motorbikes are doing the same just in their own separate lane. Interestingly, all traffic boards are with Chinese characters, Pinyin (Chinese in Latin letters) and English. Next to the roads, flowerbeds and beautifully maintained lawns spawn. One minute to the next, one feels he is already in the heart of the city. Next to the multiple storey modern apartment complexes, large office buildings stand tall, almost as if proud of their height. You can see the colourful neon displays of the shops, banks, restaurants, and waiters, waitresses are luring customers into restaurants through loudspeakers. In smaller alleys, right next to the grand buildings, the scene is quite different though: food stalls, restaurants on wheels are surrounded by little plastic seats and tables for guests; vendors sell a range of fruits from their transformed motorbikes.
The locals were not at all surprised by us, the only staring we got was due to our heavy-packed bikes. To our knowledge, around 10,000 expats live in Chengdu: some for studying, some for work, so our “western faces”did not draw much attention.
It started to look like all our problems will be sorted in Chengdu, and right we were. The long, showerless days were over and we enjoyed taking multiple showers a day finally. Also, at last we managed to get parts to fix our laptop! Unfortunately our lappy wasn’t cut out for the adventures we embarked on, and the hard drive gave up. We also took care of our postal stuff, got out patrol-powered boiler fixed - it is true that whatever can break, WILL break! - and fixed Balazs’rear bag that needed serious attention, due to an accident I must admit I was responsible for. Quite the irony that amidst all this heavy traffic, pushy motorbikes and impatient drivers, the accident we do have is caused by one of us. On our way downtown, I managed to run into him from behind, causing the bar to break at the rear.
Fortunately for us, we found Natooke, a bike shop ran by American expats. I must say, we have not seen such a well-equipped and well-prepared bike shop since our time in Turkey. They fixed Balazs’bag, and the bar I broke at the rear. We also had the fortune of seeing bikes made out of bamboo the first time in our lives - naturally we took them for a test ride right away.
After coming and going here and there and having solved all our problems, we decided to hit the city for fun. We explored China’s largest Taoist place of worship, a temple from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Bronze Goat Temple, which is particular in the way it’s roof is assembled, has been restored in the XVIII-XIX centuries. Inside the temple, numerous human-shaped statutes stood in different glass displays. Altars of sacrifice - as expected from Buddhist temples - have been scattered throughout the temple as well. These were packed with fruits, refreshments and other “objects of sacrifice”.
There are two bronze goat statues as well in the temple, which, according to the legends, were brought over from Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). One of them is especially unique:
it has been put together from body-parts of other animals. The goat has a mouse’s ear, bull’s nose, tiger’s nails, rabbit’s mouth, dragon’s horn, snake’s tail, horse’s face, goat’s beard, monkey’s neck, chicken’s eyes, dog’s belly, and pig’s legs. It is safe to assume that this depicts the Chinese zodiac system. In between the buildings, we strolled next to carefully-maintained flower-beds and shrubs.
Another famous sight of Chengdu is the Panda Research Center. This panda zoo, located at the outskirts of the city, is breathtaking. Throughout the park, bamboo forests and huge flowers of all colours make the surroundings simply fabulous. With the help of clearly visible and easily understandable signs, visitors can find their way to baby and adult pandas both. They say it’s best to go during morning hours so that you get to see the feeding rituals - otherwise these pandas don’t move much and don’t go out of their ways to entertain you. Unfortunately we only got there by the afternoon hours, so we only got to see them lounging around without a worry in the world.
Little panda babies are born during autumn months. They are placed in a separate building to be under intensive care. There is a very particular way of observing the baby pandas, by the way. We could only look from a certain angle, for a certain while and have to move at a certain speed, otherwise the “panda guard”(I’m not kidding you!!), would step in and rush us forward.
Besides the pandas, being among Chinese tourists is an attraction on its own, worthy of a social behavioural study. To see “follow the flag”groups of Chinese tourists in China is a priceless sight and experience. Groups carrying selfie-sticks with smart phones/tablets in the air, cameras with massive, cannon-sized equipments characterised them, flocking in seemingly endless groups. Besides the never-ending picture taking, they were laughing, passionately exchanging views and explanations, pushing each other for better view, and rushing along to stay with their group. I couldn’t help but wonder: if the Italians are Europe’s “loud ones”, Chinese are definitely the loud ones of Asia.
In Chengdu we could finally pack our warm clothes away. We basked in the good weather and sunshine. Not only was the weather heavenly, but get this, we found a store selling Yunnan coffee! For months now we were forced to drink the 3-in-1 instant coffee, so we really missed some quality black coffee in the mornings. But being able to go to rest in a proper bed, with a full belly and having had a shower was a very welcome change as well. We recharged from every possible aspect, and may I say we needed it. After a week of “pampering”we left the city, heading south. Our next stop: Emei Shan, 160km away from Chengdu.
Emei Mountain is the most sacred Buddhist mountain in China. Emei turned into a sacred pilgrimage site after Bodhisattva Puxian and the elephants with six trunks visited. The legend says this is where Buddhism first made its appearance in China and moved eastward. Emei Shan thus attracts tourists and Buddhist pilgrims since the VI. Century.
The countless temples and monasteries on top of this heavily forested mountaintop were connected by stairs and narrow trails. After a certain height though, travellers must pay a hefty fee if they wish to continue their journey. Many monasteries can be visited by paying a dismissible 8-10 RMB (~1Euro), however. At the bottom of Emei Mountain a tourist paradise awaits the visitors, with countless hotels, restaurants, and guest houses. Some monasteries also offer accommodation for a fraction of the price, without any of the “luxuries”, but yet still offer wifi. Yes, we were as speechless as you might be right now reading this: wifi. In monasteries.
The next day we biked around the foot of the hill, explored the surroundings, checked out Shanjue and Fuhu Temples. It felt rather refreshing to be tracking and climbing a bit after all this biking.
After the serenity of Emei Mountain, we had quite a few challenging days: we visited Leshan and the city of Emei twice. We had to bike back and forth for the train station and the tickets only to be refused boarding for our Kunming train for the tiniest possible issue. We were refused boarding because they found a pocket-knife and two knives deemed by the personnel to be too dangerous on-board. They suggested we send it after ourselves by post…. Naturally we had to buy new tickets, so a whole day’s budget was out the window. Since this wasn’t our only unexpected expenditure this month, we decided against being very picky with accommodation…
That basically meant sleeping in parks, cargo area of little shops, or at times the rain-proof areas of parking lots. There were also times when we slept at playgrounds, enjoying complimentary wifi, surprisingly.
Unfortunately, showerless days followed again. Luckily though breathtakingly beautiful, mountainous areas came next, trying to make up for our sorrows.
After rolling out of a tunnel on route 213, we had a quick stop at a food stall to look at our phones, to see where we were. Then Joe, a young Chinese teacher, stepped over to us and kept nodding enthusiastically: “Yes, yes, you are in Yunnan now!”