Dripping Eagles and Wet Pandas

Katie and I negotiated the Shanghai subway; quickly becoming absorbed by the crowds that besieged the Main Shanghai Railway Station. We stood; obvious, amongst the local crowd of well-dressed holiday makers, looking somewhat bedraggled and bent, like a pair of overburdened pack animals. Fortunately, boarding our train turned out to be straight forward and relatively easy. I don’t know why we harboured negative expectations akin to horror, regarding our accommodation for the next thirty-two hours, especially given our experiences of China thus far. Ignorance, or perhaps memories of past experiences on trains, in other Asian countries, coloured our unromantic associations. I’m not sure if we felt embarrassed or relieved when we discovered our ultra-clean and comfortable facilities.

People continued to stare at us, which we never quite came to terms with, as we didn’t look like Brad and Angelina, nor were we anything like a novelty, with so many other international travellers in attendance. If anyone can explain this phenomena, I’d be grateful. Despite the fact that we travelled in a carriage of local people heading home from holidays, we and everybody else in our carriage become an impromptu family. People who had never before met, just naturally become friends. Such is the nature of the Chinese people!

Mother and Child After a restful sleep, we awoke to see central China rushing by. Hour after interesting hour of Hubei, Chong Qing and Sichuan landscapes; each dotted with many tiled brown-earth villages, surrounded by terraced fields of rice, with jagged limestone peaks towering above; spectacular against the vivid blue of a sky devoid of pollutants.

We arrived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and the gateway to the Himalayas, only slightly frazzled. Saying goodbye to our family of travellers, we left the station and worked our way into a square teaming with noisy Sichuanians. It’s still a delightful shock to be amoungst so many people. We also felt a little groggy. Being that long on a rocking train, ran akin to arriving at port, after a long sea voyage. From here we jumped a taxi to Sim’s Cosy Garden Hostel, which turned out to be the best hostel either of us has ever stayed in and tried to get a feel for the city. Our area contained many old, grey looking apartment blocks, smattered with the occasional new housing development and a lot of westernised shops and office buildings. I know, it sounds dreadful, yet the overall dullness seemed to magically transform itself into Parisian-like avenues, due to the beautiful trees and plants that lined almost every street.        Photographing Giant Pandas in the RainThe next day we set out on a pre-arranged tour of the ‘Panda Research Centre’ and because we didn’t even consider a raincoat, it began to pour. Actually, it didn’t just rain, it fell down in torrents, as soon as we left our vehicle. What a wonderful turn of events. The rain felt terrific and turned out to be a real boon. Pandas don’t enjoy heat and like us, enjoy a good soaking, so we were treated to a great viewing of these seriously cute animals, who played and rolled about eating bamboo shoots. Many years earlier, I stood in queue at Taronga Park Zoo in Melbourne, to see two visiting Chinese Pandas. Suffering the heat and flies, I shuffled along in a queue for over two and a half hours, only managing to see a tiny bit of black and white rear-end amongst the grass. As you could imagine, this previous experience made our day with the wet Pandas all the more special.Giant PandaThat afternoon, we headed into some funky looking alleys to find a place for lunch. We were accompanied by Rudy and Nathalie, from Nimes in the south of France. By the time we chose a restaurant, we were all wet through and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. When it came time to order, there were no menus, no English speaking staff, or no pictures to go by. After some ridiculous attempts at communication, we dragged the waitress with us, as we walked about the tables, pointing to meals that we hoped tasted as good as they looked. Frowns became smiles, which grew into good natured laughter. Our arm waving and comic-strip gesticulating eventually resulting in a range of meals that tasted sensational, although to this day, I have no idea what they were.

Our stay in Chengdu came to a close with another interesting dining experience. That evening we went for dinner with a French family at another non-English speaking restaurant. We all agreed to share a fish hotpot, but were forced to choose the poor bugger; a live sturgeon, from the giant wall of fish tanks at the front of the restaurant. We spoke no real French, they spoke no real English and neither of us spoke Chinese, which culminated into the same humorous arm-waving attempts at communication.

Often, great travelling memories come out of awkward situations. We’ll never forget the fun and frivolity we experienced with the people and wet Pandas of Chengdu.

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Eagles Land on Planet Bling

Where do you go to see the best of night-time Shanghai? Walking Street and The Bund, of course.  We arrived, utilising Shanghai’s ultra-modern subway system. Once on the platform, my head shook from side to side in amazement. Trains arrived every four minutes here, for just about every destination. Again, the contrast to our ‘Puffing Billy’ services at home, felt like a slap.

Once on this amazing boulevard, we felt that the Gods of sparkle had transported us to Planet Bling; viva Las Vegas, at its best. Hey, hold on a minute … this is supposed to be China; the so called third world. Within minutes, our necks felt sore from constantly looking up at the lights and … because half of the Chinese population seemed to be in the street at the same time as us, we fell into a stream of humanity, dragged along by the crowd, to the street’s end, some four or five city blocks from where we started.

We left Walking Street; our necks still stretched, as we attempted to take in the view over the crowd. As we entered The Bund, we saw a water-side expanse of beautiful flood-lit, French and British colonial buildings that ran along the western side of the Huangpu River. On the far bank we discovered Shanghai’s equivalent to Manhattan. Modern architectural marvels that disappeared into the heavens; some of which, rose over one hundred stories high. A giant Television screen took up the entire facing wall of one high-rise, and, like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, their kaleidoscope of moving light, reflected back to us across the surface of the water. Beautiful, yet I wouldn’t have wanted to be burdened by the cost of the electricity bill.

Ah, Shanghai; modern, generic and stinking hot, yet the only real negatives we experienced here, were from foreign sources. I became appalled by the rudeness displayed, by some of the western ex-pats towards the locals. At one point, we witnessed a suited individual, push his way off a train and purposely elbow a young girl in the face. He didn’t even honour her with a glance, yet neither she, nor her young boyfriend reacted. We spotted quite a few of these middle aged, self-styled Taipans, invariably with a young Chinese girl on their arm. Perhaps I’m being foolishly judgemental, but I couldn’t help wondering if these beautiful young things would be discarded, once these businessmen returned to their wives and families.

The next day we zig-zagged our way to Zhujiajiao (pronounced: zyou zyow zyow), travelling in every direction other than the right one; finally making it to the old canal town, after an expensive direction adjustment, made in a local taxi. Zhujiajiao, the Chinese Venice, seemed nice, in a touristy kind of way, although almost deserted. We supposed the heat and the distance kept even the holidaying Chinese away. Strangely, we made it back to central Shanghai, by getting on the correct bus, which turned out to be an hour shorter than the forward journey.

That night we headed across the river from The Bund, to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which I’m told is one hundred and ten, or so, stories into the stratosphere. Here we enjoyed a scenic drink on the eighty seventh floor’s restaurant. I swear that the whole building swayed, despite the non-existent Shanghai breezes, which seemed especially heightened when I sat on the toilet; very disconcerting! Has anybody experienced this?

We both realised the lesson we received from our visit to Shanghai; a classy, ultra-modern, and definitely sophisticated city, yet, with few authentic cultural areas that weren’t primarily over-crowded tourist traps. China seemed to be developing and westernising so fast, that we feared for the loss of its culture; the ‘so called good life’ obviously has its price. I guess this is easy to say, when you’ve never been without.

Then we heard it; a call, ‘go west young man (and woman)’ for a more authentic Chinese experience. So, trusting the weird voices in our heads, we purchased the only tickets we could to the city of Chengdu, a small county town of ten million or so people, in the Province of Sichuan, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau. Unfortunately, we would have to endure a thirty-two hour train ride to get there, on a hard seat. It sounded absolutely back breaking, yet we couldn’t wait to leave for the home of the Giant Panda.

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Eagles in Old Shanghai

The very idea of hurtling along on a train at three hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, is both scary and preposterous, especially given that our Albury to Melbourne fast-train service, struggled to reach jogging speed in places. Before we boarded, we began hoping and then actually praying that these Chinese tracks allowed for a slightly more reliable and less hazardous journey than ours. The ride exceeded any scenario I could have come up with. It felt remarkably like flying in a large jet-liner. It turned out to be very smooth and comfortable although the scenery flashed by so fast that we didn’t feel quite at ease, especially with the digital monitor at the end of each car constantly displaying the current speed.

Buildings of Shanghai

We reached Shanghai alive, which is always a bonus, but immediately became assaulted by the heat and humidity as we left the train. We managed Beijing’s dry heat, but this …? Within minutes, I become a human sprinkler system, spraying unsuspecting victims every time I moved. At the terminal we were picked up by an Australian expat, who put us up for a few days. Over that period, we received an education on all things Chinese, particularly the food. One of the local hot-pot restaurants called ‘The Little Sheep’ became our favourite. Each table came with a sunken pot, with a heat source underneath; something akin to a steam-boat in the middle of our table. Initially, we filled the boiling water with herbs and spices, and later with a range of local produce, which included some ‘not so local’ New Zealand Lamb. We also found a good dumpling restaurant, aptly named ‘Discovery’, with great varieties to choose from. In fact, we ate an awful lot in Shanghai, perhaps because of our exertions, or more likely, because of the air-conditioned facilities. Some of the dishes included spicy fish head, donkey, frog, snake-head fish, black wood fungus and goat, to name but a few.

On one of our days exploring the city, we discovered the ‘Alleys of Taikang Road’, which originally began, when an Australian opened an illegal restaurant to avoid zoning regulations, called the ‘Communard’. It became so popular that eventually all of the old houses in this tangle of streets become restaurants, quaint bars and galleries. Later that night, we visited ‘The Cotton Club’, which is particularly famous if you love live jazz; not unlike ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ in London. A classy mixture of Europeans and locals, belted out song after song, but the action really began, when an African-American woman joined the band from the dance floor and sang the roof off the place. Eventually, two other American gals and one stunning Bulgarian joined her. It turned out to be no accident; the girls became a group so that they could sing their way around China, at two cities per week.

In the middle of our Shanghai experience, someone recommended we head south on another fast train, to visit the city of Hangzhou. We initially found this small Chinese city of only four million people, very smoggy and unappealing; wondering why we ever ventured here. Then we discovered the ‘West Lake’, which is the city’s gem. It looked particularly beautiful at night, especially the fountain displays in the lake, which combined timed sprays of water, with coloured lighting and classical music. Despite the wonders of the lake, Hangzhou’s humidity almost did us in. Even the unimaginable crowds of local people and other tourists seemed to wilt; most, wetter than the eels in the bottom of the lake. Once again, the ever-present icy poles (roughly translated as La-bing-wa), saved us.

Chinese Dragonboat on West Lake Hangzhou

We travelled back to Shanghai with sobering news. Another fast-train, travelling from the same station as ours, crashed over a bridge after being struck by another train, with forty souls lost. Apparently, a lightning strike stopped the first train, but not the second, which couldn’t stop in time. We missed the same fate by moments and felt sick thinking about the grief suffered by all of the victims loved ones. It only strengthened our resolve to live life to its fullest and not waste a precious moment … while we still could.