Pandas and puppets

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Note: You should all count yourselves very very lucky that there are photos in this post. For some reason I have been unable to upload any photos to Flickr since I left Xi'an. Getting these photos uploaded involved some pretty serious digital gymnastics - I had to transfer the photos to my iPhone, then email each individual one to a special super secret Flickr email address, so the resolution may not be great. But like I said... you are lucky.

Moving on...

Chengdu was at the end of the second overnight train of the trip. (There are still two more bloody overnight trains before we hit Hong Kong. I really have to read those Trip Notes more carefully.) This one arrived at the charming hour of 5:30 am, so naturally all the rooms weren’t ready when we finally dragged ourselves into the hotel at about 6:00 am. At least we managed to get into three rooms for long enough to splash water on our faces and change into fresh socks. Then it was breakfast at 7:00 am.

Breakfast was a buffet at the hotel, and because it’s China, it was weird. The orange juice was hot, which wasn’t all bad since it was a bit chilly. Huang told us that Chengdu has 300 overcast or foggy days every year, and you could feel the dampness in the air. (Just a second here. THREE HUNDRED DAYS without sunshine? That’s cloudiness 82% of the time. I wonder what the suicide rate is?). The rest of breakfast was a significant departure from any Western idea of breakfast except for one plate of muffins and some hard boiled eggs. There was fried rice, steamed cabbage, steamed buns, spicy pickles, spicy cold carrots, and very spicy unidentifiable brown something. Then again, we are in the capital of Sichuan province now, and the region is famous for its spicy food. I just didn’t really have the heart for it after a long train ride and a cursory freshening up. Breakfast was included the next morning, but I decided to go it alone in my room with a pot of yogurt, some fruit and a cup of proper tea. It was good.

After breakfast it was still only 8:00 am, though we’d been up for about three and a half hours by that point. We shuffled, zombie-like, onto another bus to see what Chengdu is most famous for – giant pandas! Giant pandas (apparently there are also “lesser pandas”) are found only in China, mostly in Sichuan province. Officially an endangered species, estimates of the number of giant pandas in the wild vary, but a 2003 survey put the number at 1,590. Chengdu is home to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, which is just what it sounds like – a place where they study and breed giant pandas. And who wouldn’t want to do that? I mean, look at them!

A giant panda, doing what it does best. Eating.

Pandas are an oddity among bears. So odd that for a long time scientists debated whether they were actually bears at all. In the end they did decide pandas belong on another branch of the bit of the animal kingdom that includes brown bears and polar bears and such. Pandas are actually built to be carnivores, but, famously, 99% of their diet is bamboo. This turns out to be a highly inefficient foodstuff for a large warm-blooded creature – a panda’s digestive system can only process about 20% of the total volume of bamboo it eats into actual nourishment. Therefore, they have to spend a LOT of time eating, and ingest up to 30 or 40 kg of bamboo per day. They’ve even developed a sort of extra thumb (actually a modified sesamoid bone, thanks Wikipedia) that helps them hold and manipulate the masses of bamboo they deal with daily. And because even then they don’t get a lot of nutritive value from their food, most of the rest of their time is spent sleeping. Wikipedia claims that pandas will even avoid sloped territory so they don’t have to walk uphill (which makes me wonder if some people are actually pandas in disguise – bad diet, oversleeping, avoiding exercise… that describes half the population of North America).

Giant panda, napping in a (fake) tree

Do I have any other interesting panda facts? Well I’m glad you asked! Newborn pandas are incredibly tiny – only about 100 grams and 10 to 15 cm long. They’re pink and hairless and completely helpless, but in an ironic twist of nature, first-time panda moms are totally useless. The birth of a baby panda is a bizarrely quick event. Though the gestation period is 80 – 180 days, the actual labour and birth takes about as long as it takes to eject last night’s copy of “Fight Club” from the DVD player. It seems to take the mamma pandas completely by surprise – we saw a video where the startled mom actually jumped away from the mewling cub and seemed genuinely shocked and baffled by the whole thing. In the wild, of course, this spells death for the underdeveloped and helpless baby. In captivity humans swoop in instantly and nurse the cub along until mom gets on board. Happily, second-time panda moms are perfectly caring and maternal. It’s like they need one dry run before they get the idea.

Baby panda, several weeks old (Note: I didn’t actually see this baby panda – this is a picture of a picture.)

After the pandas we had a free afternoon. This tour’s schedule seems to be much more generous with the free time than either the Indian/Nepali or Jordanian/Egyptian variety and for that I am profoundly grateful. I considered having a nap and then trying to get to an English bookstore, but instead I opted for the full tourist treatment and went for lunch with some of the gang and then walked with Tony to the People’s Park for a look around. The walk was pleasant enough, though Chengdu was living up to its meteorological reputation because it started spitting rain while we walked.

The park was momentarily diverting, and it was only later that evening, after consulting the LP, that I realized we missed the fantastically named “Monument to the Martyrs of the Railway Protection Movement (1911)” which memorializes an “…uprising of the people against corrupt officers who pocketed cash intended for railway construction.” Damn. All I saw was people, plants, water, fish and boats.

Some of the aforementioned plants, water and boats

After the park we carried on to the even less inspiring and more rained-on Tianiu Square, which was replete with many odd fountains and one very large statue of Mao. Reasoning that it would be more interesting to walk back to the hotel by a different route, we headed south for the river and had a long and not very interesting stroll back west along a busy street. We passed a weirdly large number of stores selling safes of all sizes, so I surmised that we’d stumbled into the well-known Chengdu Safe District (strangely absent from the LP). Back at the hotel I settled in to bash out another few thousand words for you greedy beggars, had a cup of instant noodles for supper, and dashed out once again for the evening’s activity: Opera.

Yes, Chinese opera! I know what you’re thinking, “That lucky girl! What I wouldn’t give for a long evening of incomprehensible wailing and discordant melodies played on unfamiliar instruments!” Rest assured, dear readers, that Sichuan opera is - and here I am paraphrasing both Huang, the tour leader, and Tina, our local guide – “… way less boring and more fun than Beijing opera”. Well, I’ve never experienced Beijing opera, but I can tell you that the Sichuan opera I went to was totally awesome.

Only two of us chose to go to the opera – the rest of the gang went out for a Tibetan food dinner. I figured I’d already had Nepali yak cheese fondue, and what could top that? So off I went, once again accompanied by Tony (he’d missed the acrobats in Beijing, so figured he’d give the opera a shot). The performance was in a semi outdoor space which seemed to be part theatre, part shopping mall and part tea house. There were no assigned seats, but the padded bamboo chairs had benches in front of them with one teacup, saucer and lid for each seat, and a bowl of peanuts to share. As instructed, we placed the lids from our teacups on our seats to save them, and then wandered a bit to see the rest of the place.

I browsed around one of the shops and actually ended up buying a souvenir! It’s a very plain scroll of Chinese calligraphy – and cost a mere ¥150.00 (about $21.00). I think it will roll up nicely until I can mail it home from Hong Kong. Also in the area surrounding the auditorium was an open-air dressing room area where the audience could watch member of the company putting on their makeup and costumes. It was really interesting, though I couldn’t help but think it was one of those things that would drive an actor crazy (Agent on phone to actor: “I’ve got you a great gig! Sichuan opera in Chengdu!” Actor to agent: “It’s not at that damned place where they make you put on your makeup in front of the tourists is it? The last time I did a show there I got tackled by a big guy in lederhosen who tripped while he was setting up his tripod on my makeup table…”)

I tried to be discreet. (Thank you Panasonic 12x optical zoom)

We settled into our seats, and they served us tea right there. A boy would come over with a big kettle of boiling water that had a two foot long spout on it – he could pour hot water into your cup from the aisle even if you were four seats in. There was a very tiny amount of English intro to each piece, but the show was basically all in Chinese, and the crowd was mostly Chinese too, which was gratifying. And it was a great show – lots of variety, and you could tell that the company were hugely skilled. There was an overture performed by the band, then a sort of full company dance number with amazing costumes. Then a solo on the Chinese violin, called the ehru.

After that was an incredible display of puppetry. The machinery of the puppet and the skill of the performer were just staggering. The puppeteer held the puppet up with his left hand, and with his right he manipulated both the rods that controlled the arms. And he didn’t just wave the arms around either – he could make the puppets hands grip and release things. It was incredible. He could have the puppet wave a handkerchief around and then toss it away, or pick up a prop, or grab the long springy feathers on the top of its head. And he did this all with one hand. Outstanding.

The puppeteer and his puppet.

After the puppets was a bit of acting, and then a guy who did a solo on a sort of Chinese oboe. And then there was a comedic performance of a classic duo – the domineering wife and hen-pecked husband. Though in China he’s not called “hen-pecked” he’s call the “soft-eared man”. I guess he’s had his ear talked off for so long it’s gone soft. Huang told us the general story, which involved the husband coming home from drinking/gambling and having to make it up to the wife for being out all night. The wife requires him to perform three tasks, the first of which is to blow out a lantern that she’s placed on the top of his head. In my opera the husband did a whole series of gymnastic sort of maneuvers with the lit lantern on top of his head. Again, very impressive, even if it did go on a bit, and it was getting cold.

The big finale was a mercifully short and really impressive – featuring the famous face-changing performers. These are performers who wear a series of masks on their face and can change them in a split second. It’s so fast that the changes of really good performers can’t even be seen with high speed cameras. One of the guys in my show even did complete costumes changes in the time it took to wave a large flag in front of him. Oh, and of course there was the fire-breathing…

One of the many many impressive costumes in the show

So all in all, it was another very very full day. Let’s recap – woken at 4:30 am on overnight train. No hotel room. Weird breakfast. Giant pandas. Spicy lunch. Long rainy walk. Blogging. Instant noodles. Sichuan Opera. More blogging. Beer. Bed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. A lot can happen in a day out here.

Another note: My internet access for the next week or so is going to be decidedly spotty. We’re staying up in the mountains in a monastery for a few nights, and after that we go straight to a boat on the Yangzi for three nights, then another overnight train, so brace yourself for a gap in posts and tweets. I’ll be back with you as soon as I can, with tales from the Yangzi.


Unknown said...

Hi Pam,
When you get a chance, could you tell me what tour company you're using in China. My parents are interested in going at some point.
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Pam said...

Laurene, I'm with Intrepid in China, and of the three different companies I've traveled with, they are certainly my favourite.

Global Granny said...

Pam my dear - you spoil us rotten! Ever so much detail - a veritable Jimmy Michner!

And yes, yes, Intrepid, they seem remarkable in offering the most authentic tours at reasonable prices. I'm seriously considering their "Slowly Down the Ganges" trip come November (though I'm wondering if 2.5 days on the river might be a bit too much, yes? no?).

And finally, btw - though pecking your (incredibly interesting and droll) tomes here at GSRED so frequently might seem a chore at times (and trust that we "beggars" greedily slurp them up ever so gratefully!), I believe you'll be happy you chronicled all these details of your many adventures - when you finally settle down again back home, yes?

Unknown said...

No pictures of you or your travel mates?

How many times do I have to say it...

Happy trails...


Arizona bankruptcy lawyer said...

Impressive photos, all of them. Very inspiring stories as well.

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