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First Stop: Chengdu

Right after we safely landed on Chengdu and few seconds after I said a small prayer to my God, I instantly remembered one of my favorite quote from Orson Welles, “there are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror”. I had a fair share of both at each flight which grows worsen by the unfortunate fact that I am incapable of sleeping in an airplane. To tell you it was the most boisterous flight I’ve ever had would be an understatement. It was a flying market. If you have ever seen more exasperated flight attendants than I did at that flight, please do leave a comment.

Our hostel in Chengdu was perfection. It used to be an old printing house and now a hostel, cool café and creative design office. We immediately felt at home after a warm welcome from the staff. Our double bed standard room was anything but standard. Surrounded by white brick walls and woods, furnished with stuff from IKEA and adorned with framed illustrations, it was worth every cent of 100RMB.

My Mother, the H.R.H’s first request was to eat hot and steamy pao for supper. Informed by the girls at the reception (turn right, keep going ahead and turn right at the end), we thought we’d be eating hot pao in five minutes. Turned out it was an hour later. Yes, like mother, like daughter, both of us lack the natural navigation tool needed. At the point when we were seriously considering returning to the hostel, the tenth person we asked on the street finally understood and kindly took us to that pao emporium.

Problems solved… not. How else are you going to explain that we don’t like pork filled pao but red beans pao to a seller that doesn’t speak English and us, buyers that doesn’t speak Mandarin, other than trying each and every kind of pao they have until you found it? It was a pao nightmare. I barely able to climbed those two floors when we were back at the hostel. That first night in China, I made a mental note to ask the staff on how to say ‘red bean pao’. And to write down the characters as well as the pin yin (latin alphabets of Chinese characters) next time we go out.

The next day we followed a tour to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, twenty minutes drive from the city. We were the first to arrive there, since the pandas are the most active before their feeding time at 9.30am. It was a huge complex with its own bamboo gardens, science center, nursery and shops. My first glimpse of panda was of two giant black and white creatures having their first bamboo breakfast. They snapped the leaves off with their claw and munched endlessly. One of them was not a morning type since it was perched on a tree trunk sleepily. I took hundred pictures of them, eating, goofing around, climbing, gymnastically rolling down a hill and sleeping while ooh-ing and aah-ing. One thing I noticed there was the lack of information about the panda itself. However I saw plenty of signs stating that this panda was sponsored by a certain company or personage. In the end it comes down to money, after all the pandas are priceless commodities for China.

Wenshu Temple is the next in our list. There was something serene and humbling about it. You could feel the energy of the place, the millions of prayers that have been whispered there since Tang Dynasty, a millennium and a half ago. The temple was beautifully preserved and really a remarkable achievement for artistry during that time. There was also a restaurant and a tea house there. We decided to sit down and have a sip of the famous jasmine tea. For just 10RMB, we had our cups refilled every time its empty. Watching people there; chattering, snacking on peanuts, playing cards, marveling on their grandchildren, reading, sewing or simply people watching like us, was one of the most beautiful experience we had in Chengdu.

Mother always has urge to buy fruits whenever we passed a fruit seller while her daughter has the urge to taking as many shots as possible. We ended up buying oranges, strawberries, cherries, pears and more pao (yes, pao. Again) which we carried all the way to Tianfu Square. There you could find a Chairman Mao statue, standing tall and proud after all these years, watching his people. Now an icon and a cult figure, his face could be found in many galleries of contemporary art and souvenir shops.

I spent the night with new found friends over the hot pot Sichuan is famous for. Using couchsurfing to get in touch with the local, I managed to meet my Chinese peers over boiling meats, mushroom and vegetable. All of them speaks English which was a sort of relieve after communication failures today. From them, I learn more about China than any guide book could ever tell. I could say that they feel excited about China nowdays despite the lack of freedom of expression or better known as The Great Firewall of China. “That’s why God also creates proxy page," one of them told me, grinning widely. One of them also admits how increasingly difficult to have a relationship now, since more and more young people are gravitating toward one thing in choosing their future spouse: money. “It used to be simple. A man meets a woman. They fall in love, they have baby, and they didn’t have anything. Now, it’s all about who has the luxurious car and what kind of apartment or how much the salary.” Sounds familiar huh?

Giddy with too much Tsingtao beers and pork brain culinary experiment (FYI, it was mushy and fatty), we ended the night sipping tea in an old house, located on a gentrified street built long ago. I saw what could be the most charming Starbucks there and watching old ladies shaking their booties in what seems like a late night aerobic exercise.

The blanket was so warm; I didn’t want to separate my body from it. Morning voices included, cookadoodledoo, vegetable seller on bicycle, cars honking at each other, a fierce Pekingese barking at poor newspaper guy. With much struggles, we dragged ourselves out for the next mission of the day: eating noodle. We found one close, the first small restaurant equipped with English menu during our trip in China. Establishments like this are plenty everywhere we go. The prices are cheap, quality is good and service is straight forward.

We spent the day in the new Sichuan Museum (good news: free entry for foreign passport holder), lost in beautiful calligraphies, ceramics and shadow puppets. The museum was beautifully designed and perfectly managed. To think that in Indonesia we have our fair share of historically priceless gorgeous artifacts in poorly kept museums, always left me with a deep sadness. Across the street was a big complex of art market. Some of things they sold there left me cringe with longing. We bought some things for folks back home and harshly reminded ourselves that we still have two cities to go to. Our last night in Chengdu was a cold one but the city and the people are anything but cold. Despite our tragic language barrier, we were showered by many kindness and helps during our stay. We will go to Xi’an and Guilin, but will come back to Chengdu to catch our flight back to Kuala Lumpur. Something I truly looked forward to.

Practical info:
  • Bus ride 1RMB
  • Taxi ride starts from 5RMB, short distance around town won’t be more than12 RMB.
  • Make sure to arrive at Giant Panda Breeding Research Base before 9am.
  • Recommended stay: The Loft Hostel.
  • Must try food: Sichuan hot pot (find the greasiest, most crowded place), Moslem noodles (the cook and waiters are wearing white hats), pao, fried octopus, mapo dofu, pork brain (or not), and late night seafood grill on the street.

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