I previously talked about the 25-hour train journey to Chengdu, which we all survived better than expected (although other Tom (‘De Man’) had an inexplicably dead hand all day). After arriving, all that we wanted to do was shower – we didn’t even risk using the train tap water for washing.
Our guide in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, was Xiao Shuang, a 28-year old Chinese girl. Nick made his feelings for her very obvious during our first Mandarin lesson, although his reasoning (“She probably has a better bed than us”) wasn’t overly romantic.
Mandarin is a tonal language, with four different tones: high sustained; rising; high-low-high; and sharply falling. It is difficult to type without the accents that differentiate tones! We learned some basic grammar (the subject comes first in a question, so, “The bar is where?”) and essential words and phrases like “You”, “I” and “Beer.”
Dinner was a Sichuan hotpot. Sichuanese food is dark and spicy – hotter than almost anything we get in the UK. Even the guys who love curry almost had their lips blown off – and we had the ‘flavourful’ version, not even mildly spicy (to a Chengdu native). Xiao Shuang said that even she only orders the medium-spice version when she eats a hotpot.
The next day was one that we’d all been looking forward to: visiting the Panda Breeding Research Centre, home to more than 80 giant and red pandas. Its work is partly responsible for pandas being taken off of the endangered species list this year. Inside, it is like a giant zoo dedicated to one species. We saw fully-grown adults, teenagers and even tiny cubs, just a few months old. These little guys could barely move themselves around, just rolling about until they fell off of the mat that the keepers had placed them on.
As a side note, can we talk about how crap pandas are at looking after themselves? They only live in one environment (bamboo forests) and are fertile for a whole three days a year. Just consider that next time your partner has ‘a headache’.
The evening was taken up by the Sichuan opera and a night out. The opera was our obligatory culture stop; it was subtitled, although the English translation was a bit off (“30% of women are beautiful, the rest are dexterous”). Still very enjoyable, though: the actors used traditional techniques like ‘changing faces’ and puppets alongside modern entertainment like fire breathing.
Afterwards, it was off to a bar on the 21st floor of The Magic Building: a skyscraper with 32 bars. Chinese clubs have music so loud that it makes your teeth vibrate, but hearing Uptown Funk at 100dB is guaranteed to put you in a dancing mood – or an ear hospital. Either way, at the end of the night you’re likely to be on your back with someone looking after you, and that’s what counts really, isn’t it?
The last day was a quiet one – and not because of a hangover. I picked up the bug that was going around our temporary family, in the form of a cough and chills. I did feel slightly ridiculous, wearing a jumper and trousers in 28 degree heat. I also missed our walk around the Tibetan district, where the others dined on what sounded exclusively like various forms of yak.
We caught a sleeper train to our next stop, Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Army. Top bunk again! Here we were introduced to a new habit among Chinese train-goers. In addition to spitting on the floor and smoking in the corridors, some enjoy washing their feet in the sink. It doesn’t really make the sinks any dirtier, but did make us even less inclined to wash our faces while onboard.