Hello friends! Apologies for the hiatus – Xinjiang was quite something but I’ll aim to catch up with our journey over the next couple of days. I’m writing this from Jiayuguan, in Northern Gansu province. But for now, back to Sichuan…
Our last day in Chengdu was an earlier start (quarter to six!) for pre-ordered breakfast at the bar before a car ride to the panda park. The three of us were joined for this (also hostel-organised) tour by Australian Abby, who quickly gelled with us. At least, it felt that way to us – being thrown in with a group that already knows each other is always slightly intimidating, but I hope we were welcoming and not too cliquey (a concern brought to the forefront of my mind by my recent reading of The Secret History).
It took a while to find anywhere actually containing pandas; past the long long queue for panda-mobiles (expensive and pointless – the park wasn’t nearly that big) we stumbled into an incubator building, allowing a view through the glass of a few pre-floof floofballs that were only a couple of weeks old. After this, we struggled to find any more pandas. Bamboo was being laid out in obvious feeding areas, but the pandas themselves had yet to emerge.
Eventually we found a panda, chewing its way through an enormous pile of bamboo. In the next enclosure, the exhibitionist inhabitant rolled over 180 degrees and prompty cleared its bowels in front of us, weirdly to the joy of most of the gathered onlookers. The next few hours passed in a blur of more pandas, fighting cub pandas (who moved so slowly it looked more like hugging, albeit with biting), and elusive red pandas. So many photos!
The last half an hour was a desperate search for a loo, followed by subsequent queueing, only aborted when we realised we needed to be back at the meeting place to return to our hostel. We checked out immediately and headed out to meet Millie, another PT volunteer from my year who volunteered at Zhangye (Gansu province), and Alex, her boyfriend.
They showed us around Raffle City (large large shopping mall) and we got iced teas from a Taiwanese place Millie recommended. Not long after, we found ourselves wandering a Tibetan area of town – coincidentally, they were just back from a mountain trip to Tibetan Sichuan (the part of Sichuan bordering Tibet where Tibetan culture is commonplace, without the security restrictions of Tibet itself). From my perspective, here were two groups I already knew meeting for the first time. I was glad to see that everyone seemed to get on, and it was lovely as always reminiscing with Millie about Project Trust (something at which PT volunteers are generally very good).
We looked around a few shops but nothing caught my eye; Tibetan souvenirs seemed a bit irrelevant for this trip. We did try zongzi though – sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves – since it was the long weekend for the Dragon Boat Festival, for which zongzi are a tradition. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan. We continued down a traditionally-styled alley for more street food and sampled our way along to a memorial square. By this point, the afternoon was getting on, and we were eager to eat before our train, so they led us to the student area of Chengdu, around Sichuan University.
We got dishes at a round table (as with banquets, but more casual) and filled ourselves up for our journey. After this it was time for goodbyes outside the metro station, and then a relatively hasty step via the hostel (for our bags) to the railway station on (thankfully not ram-packed) tubes. The station was much like Guangzhou: the leering persisted, if nothing else, but thankfully it wasn’t too long to our train. The A/C cut in just as we were about to get worried that the unbearable heat would remain all the way to Ürümqi (37 hours later). Chengdu was a blast – the sort of place I could definitely see myself coming back to. Two days was not enough to do it justice!