Saturday, March 9, 2013

Panda Land

Panda Land

Our journey began when Tessa, Adam and I were making plans for them to come to Korea to visit me. It seemed that as long as they had come that far that it would be really enjoyable to add another trip to their visit as well. We talked about many destinations only to come up with the list of arguments against each of those places. “We’ve been there before”, “it’s too many hours in airports”, “too expensive”, or “too far away” were the most common refrains. We finally agreed to go to China which might seem a rather funny choice since both Tessa and I had lived there, I’d been only a few months before and Tessa was scheduled to go on business in the upcoming months. But, there were three deciding factors that led us to make the decision that we finally did. We loved Shanghai and wanted to go back to see friends and enjoy the city, Adam hadn’t been to China yet and Tessa wanted him to see it, AND we had always wanted to go see the pandas in Chengdu. What were we waiting for?!

I returned from the US to Korea earlier than usual after summer break. I had a nice, albeit humid and hot week with Ruby. We walked by the river and went to the “beach,” a sandy area by the river that she loves to explore sniff around and explore. I was rather worn out from my lively and hectic summer break so it was nice to have a pause in summer and its activities. 

Meanwhile, Tessa and Adam flew to Beijing while I was still in Seoul. I had seen enough of Beijing when I lived in China and really didn’t want to go back to see the same sights again. We agreed that we would meet in Chengdu at a hotel that Tessa had found and booked on-line. We had purchased our airline tickets at different times so we weren’t traveling together while in China, but would meet at hotels once we arrived. It seemed like a simple enough plan. What neither of had really considered was that we didn’t have cell phones that functioned in China, and (!) we had forgotten how notoriously late domestic flights within China often are.

I flew to Shanghai uneventfully. I had a rather long wait there which seemed even longer in the domestic terminal. The international terminal is really fine...shops and restaurants in which one can spend both their time and their money! The domestic terminal was more similar to a bus terminal. It was challenging to read because almost continual announcements of delays of various flights were being announced in Chinese and almost intelligible English. Finally it was almost boarding time! I put my book away, got out my boarding pass and gathered my bags. When nothing was happening I contacted the passenger agent to see what was happening. There was a delay. How long? We don’t know, but not too long. The airplane is _______ right now. I had no idea of whether _______ was 20 minutes or 5 hours away. I went back to my plastic moulded seat, put my boarding pass away and got out my book. About two and a half hours later we were finally boarded onto a bus that was to take us out to the airfield to board the plane. I began to wonder if we were driving to Chengdu as we drove and drove further away from the terminal. Finally in a distant corner of the airport there was a small hive of activity with China Eastern Airlines planes and ground crew. We boarded the plane, took off and arrived a few hours late in Chengdu. Chengdu is a huge airport that was undergoing a total remodel. What that meant for me was that yet again we got to drive on the tarmac for almost 10 minutes to reach the gate. I finally deplaned only to board a bus to go to the terminal! After claiming my bag I joined the taxi queue which, surprisingly, was quick and efficient. I had directions to the hotel in Chinese and even though the driver didn’t know where it was, I had also given him the phone number of the lodging so he was able to phone for directions. It was very dark and the streets were quite devoid of people. As we passed one designer store after another I was getting a different view of Chengdu than I originally expected. I knew that it is one of China’s largest cities, but somehow I’m always surprised by the number of designer stores that I see world-wide. I enjoyed looking in the windows but wondered who shops there. We had finally left the heart of the city and kept going. Finally the driver pulled over and pointed in the direction of a very dark sidewalk weaving into a darkened courtyard. I paid him and began to walk. It was dark and I had no idea of where to go. Two men appeared from what seemed like nowhere. I was quite relieved since most Chinese people in my experience are very friendly and helpful. They walked me to the hotel and waved goodbye to me. When I checked in I asked the receptionist if my daughter and son-in-law were there. She said no, they had gone out. I asked her when and she said that she didn’t know. I asked for their room number since there were no phones in the rooms. She wrote down 410 so after being delivered to my room I dropped off my suitcase and looked for the stairs to go up two flights to 410. It didn’t take long to figure out that there was some miscommunication since there was no fourth floor. I was worn out from my trip having left early in the morning from Seoul. It was now about 11PM. I took a shower, and went back to reception. Clearly there was a language barrier issue so I did my best to be patient and ask simple questions. I had to laugh when I discovered that 410 was the amount of RMB that I was paying a night for the room! I asked again for my son-in-law and daughter’s room. It was after a number of questions that led to dead ends, finally able to ascertain that they were to have the room next to me but that they hadn’t arrived yet! They were supposed to have arrived at about 7PM that evening. and I would have been more worried had I not talked to a woman in the airport that had told me that there were delays out of Beijing. I didn’t know what to do at that point as we had no back-up plan for inevitabilities. I finally decided that I would go to sleep and try to sort it out in the morning. At about 3:45 AM there was a knock on the door. I sprang out of bed to find two exhausted and bedraggled travelers at my door. We had only booked two nights in Chengdu and Tessa was overwrought with the fear that they might be delayed so much that she wouldn’t have time to even see the pandas! To think of coming all that way only to arrive after such delays and have missed the opportunity. But in their true energetic style they headed right to bed and were up only a couple of hours later looking refreshed and eager to go to panda land! 

We managed to get up at about 8:00, eat a nice breakfast at the hotel (Zen Buddha Hotel in Chengdu.. really nice..check out the website) and get our cab to the Panda Reserve. I didn't know what to expect having only seen photos on-line of a breeding station far from the city. This reserve was at the edge of Chengdu. It was an unbelievably beautiful park, well landscaped and maintained. The map was very helpful and we were quite excited, almost wanting to run from one area to another. We maintained some shreds of dignity and managed to take the shuttle up the hill and then start to explore the various panda viewing areas. The biggest thrill for me was that it is also a reserve for Red Pandas! Red pandas are my favorite wild animal - you could say my spirit animal. Of course my daughter, who is wild about pandas, had to see them first. We went to a special area and for $200 one could hold a panda. It was behind a wall and only the people who paid could even go to this area. Tessa paid and joined a group while Adam and I waited in the humid heat outside. We walked around and were charmed by the delightful antics of the pandas lounging in the trees, in the water, and just lazing around in the shade. For some reason panda heat stroke is a problem so they all had to be taken into indoor enclosures at around 11:00 A.M. when the sun got very high. The grounds and bamboo groves were beautiful. Eventually Tessa reappeared with what can only be described as a look of “magical daze” on her face. It had been her dream for years to see a panda and since she actually got to hold an 11 month old her dreams had been surpassed! There is a photo that she posted of herself holding a panda on her Facebook page. 

Finally we went to see the red pandas. One came right up to me! He was only inches from my foot. I was a bit worried since there were warning signs about being close to the red pandas as they are wild. I think that these little guys were used to people being around and we got to watch a number of them from only a few yards away! One was very dear and enjoyed entertaining us by trying to get a piece of fruit at the top of a tree. It was so interesting to watch his face and see him thinking about trying the very thin branch which led to the single fruit hanging from a twig. He made the right choice to avoid it and eventually made his way back down the tall tree trunk! I could have stayed there for hours and hours just observing them in this natural setting. 

That afternoon we ate at a restaurant called “The Burning Noodle”. The Sichuan region is known for its delicious, spicy food. Luckily my daughter could speak Chinese so she was able to explain that I couldn't eat spicy food. (I always had a cast iron stomach so it is rather embarrassing for me that I have to follow a limited diet now). Even without the spices my chicken soup was so delicious. The broth had a wonderful perfume, the vegetables were fresh, and the chicken meat tasted like free-range chicken. Then after a little rest we went to the Wenshu (Manjushri) Monastery. It was just two blocks from our hotel. Tessa and Adam were not very keen on going there but they gave in to my wish to see it. It was so pleasant to walk through the gardens in the shade of many big trees on such a hot afternoon.  We walked around the old town neighborhood looking at the shops and visiting with people, thanks to Tessa's translations. After dinner Tessa and I had wonderful soothing foot massages.  Adam took a break from us and  read his Kindle on the balcony of his room overlooking he old town.  

Since Tessa and Adam had an earlier flight to Shanghai than I did  they left for the airport after breakfast. I met some nice Australians who were traveling together, about a group of ten people, and we visited for awhile. Then I went out to get some street food and took it back to the patio at our hotel, ordered a drink and ate it while visiting with the Australians again! Then I had a Chinese "health" massage which was great - I believe it was basically reflexology. By the time that was done I needed to go to the airport. Little did I know that there was no rush because my flight to Shanghai was over three hours late! By the time I arrived in Shanghai it was almost 1 in the morning. Our hotel was by the Bund. I did learn a lesson though about hotels. I was given a very poor room above the quite noisy kitchen. The next day when I got up I discovered that right outside my door was the place where they stacked all of the dirty sheets and towels each day. There was no view...just a condom littered area where the air con units were lined up. The bathroom was clean though so I tried to be very Zen and just deal with it. Imagine how I felt when I went to Tessa and Adam's room. They paid the exact fee that I had and had been upgraded to a beautiful suite with a view! There was also only one couch to sit on in the lobby of this huge hotel. What appeared to be the lobby was a restricted area where one could only sit if they bought a drink. It was so ridiculous as this huge area sat empty while many people had no place to sit if they were waiting for someone! Later when I talked to the "manager" about it he was quite rude and his remark was "If you don't like it, don't stay here next time." Well, some discussions aren't worth prolonging!

Shanghai was wonderful, as always. For some reason I never think that things will change and always feel quite sad when something that I really liked or enjoyed is different. The first restaurant that we went to was called Lapis Lazuli (right next to ‘Sasha's’ in the French Concession area). They were just tearing Lapis down! We also didn't go to the bargain markets (if there were any left) since the copyright issue and police arrests are such a problem. 

I did buy pearls and a scroll and then went to Yu-Yuen Gardens, which is always packed with tourists, for some small souvenirs. We went to the Chinese Garden there but it was so hot that we spent most of our time there perched in the shady spots or the air conditioned gift shop! There were delicious fresh pork dumplings at Yu-Yuen that we couldn't pass up. The line was long but one could watch the whole preparation process as one waited.

We also spent a beautiful day visiting my friend and her family who live in Pudong. She used to be my housekeeper. Now I call her my Chinese daughter! Her husband cooked us a delicious lunch with all of our favorite dishes. He had a little too much to drink and had to go nurse a headache while we went shopping and to an indoor arcade. Her son will go to graduate school in London in two years time and we are hoping that they may be able to stop in the US either coming or going one day. It was hard to leave as I don't know when our paths will cross again, but it had been a wonderful visit.

We went to some of our old favorite restaurants that we had really enjoyed before when I lived in Shanghai, shopped, had massages and relaxed. I just love Shanghai! 

We also returned to Seoul on separate flights but this time we were in luck because our flights got in almost exactly at the same time. Their flight was delayed but mine was a bit early. We got the bus to my neighborhood and immediately went to the store for a variety of cold drinks to combat the temperature that was in the upper 90's with high humidity. The next day we stayed in my neighborhood to relax and see the local sights. The next day we went to the city to see the palace and the Insadong area. We almost melted! It was fun to show Tessa and Adam where I live (although Tessa was here last spring) and it was interesting to me that Adam far preferred Korea over China! For Tessa and myself it is the opposite. Still it helps me to appreciate my Korean home more when I see it through other people's eyes!