Friday, 4 March 2011

Chengdu, Pandas and Opera, 4-6 January 2011

My first impression of Chengdu was that it was a dull, grey city, perhaps it was the severely overcast weather only time will tell. I wondered out further into the square outside the station and found the taxi queue which was thankfully very short. I got into the taxi and passed the address of the hostel over to the driver who took a while inspecting it. It turns out that the majority of taxi drivers in China have bad eyesight and the flyers are stupidly written with the tiniest writing. No matter what we thundered through the streets towards the hostel with the taxi driver saying 'happy new year' every ten metres.

I arrived at the hostel a short time later and headed inside to check in. A few moments after I checked in I bumped into Karin and June and it seemed like I hadn't seen them for a long time. They were told me the bad news that they had bought tickets onto their next destination leaving that evening. I suddenly heard another familiar voice approaching the entrance to the hostel. That was Kaela who had literally arrived thirty minutes after me. He told me that the police were really cool and provided him with cigarettes and tea whilst he was waiting for his train and when they escorted him onto the train the on-board police officer said that he didn't really care about the swords and handed them back to him.

June and Karin had decided to stay another night as Kaela and I had turned up. Since I had booked a ticket to go and see the Sichuan Opera and they had the relentless spiel from me about theatre and opera, they decided to book a ticket too. Later that evening we all climbed into the back of a people carrier that was going to escort us to the theatre. One thing I have noticed since being in China is that they cannot drive, or drive carelessly. Our driver refused to change gear even though the slow speed was causing the engine to groan and you could feel the gear box wanting to explode to freedom. We sat in the back urging the driver to change gear but he refused to listen and we had to listen to the engine moving along in agony.

We arrived at the theatre and were shown inside by our chauffeur where we were greeted by a Chinese girl and a fresh pop of Chinese tea for us to drink before heading into the auditorium. As we neared the auditorium doors we were provided a small bottle of water. They also provide you with water on certain buses across China and I have come to the conclusion that they give you this bottle of water to quell the need to spit. We found our seats and prepared ourselves for a proper Sichuan Spectacular. The lights faded to black and a spot light appeared on stage and a young lady appeared on stage shortly followed by two other girls with a roll of something. The girls proceeded to unravel the roll to reveal a painting while the other lady started bids off. Yes, it appeared to be an art auction. After ten minutes the several items up for bid were unsold which meant the show we all paid to see could begin.

A girl entered stage right and proceeded to introduce the show in Chinese and English which I initially felt was strange. The show turned out to be more of a variety show rather than a holistic performance. After each example of Sichuan Opera, they proceeded to introduce the next piece and it really disappointed me as it was unnecessary to introduce each individual part making the whole show void of any continuity. I must say, however, that the individual examples of the opera was quite spectacular. The fire spitters, face changes, musicians, puppeteers and shadow puppeteer were all inspiring. The skill they have was unquestionable.

Sichuan Opera - Face Changing
The example of Face Changing, Bian Lian, was remarkably intriguing. It is a traditional Chinese art that has become a major part of Sichuan Opera and requires the performers to wear brightly coloured costumes, decorative masks and move around the space to quick and dramatic music. Whilst moving around they continually change their masks in quick succession, so quick you are left there wondering how the hell they do it. The secret to the art form is highly contained within families and it is passed on through the generations. As a measure to protect the secret from spreading, only males are permitted to learn and perform Bian Lian because women marry outside of the family. Foreigners are definitely not allowed to learn this art so it's no use getting a marrying a performers daughter to learn the secret. An truly inspiring and rare experience indeed.

Example of Hand Shadow Puppet
Another fantastic part of the performance was the Hand Shadow Puppeteer who manipulates his hands to create different objects/animals/people to make a visual show. It is believed that general shadow puppetry originated is China during the Han dynasty (206BC – 220AD) when the Emperor Wu of Han's concubine died, he asked his court officials to bring her back to life. The officials made a cutting of her with moveable limbs, thus brought her back to life and created shadow puppetry. Over the years the art form became more popular and spread across Asia and into Europe. The shadow puppetry was accompanied by music and the performance was a continual transformation.

Other parts of the performance included fire spitting, a comical slapstick performance and a remarkable example of huqin playing. The sound the performer got out of the two stringed instrument was mesmerising and completely different to the common sound you hear from a street performer that hurts every bone in your body. Although I was upset that I was sold a ticket to see a traditional Sichuan Opera and all I got was a variety show, the examples of the style were very interesting and impressive.

Panda Watch
The following day I had to drag myself out of bed especially early as I had arranged to visit the pandas in the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre. It was a little difficult as we had been drinking and playing the moose game the night before with some Chinese people staying in the hostel. It's amazing how a simple game can turn into so much fun and the more you drink the more difficult it becomes. I finally got to bed around 3.30am and had to wake up at 7. I was picked up from the hostel and headed to the Research Centre with four Columbians. It is important to get to the centre early during feeding hours as pandas will most likely deplete all their energy and fall asleep in the afternoon.

Unfortunately the pandas are fading away to extinction and the only way to keep them alive is by keeping them in captivity. Pandas are slowly but surely dying out because of a few things, humans and evolution. Pandas exist on eating bamboo shoots which provide so little nutrition they have to eat a hell of a lot to stay alive. As the bamboo provides so little energy it becomes harder for them to mate and reproduce. There is also a problem with finding the right mate and many of the pandas kept in captivation have to be artificially inseminated to ensure population growth. Apparently female pandas have cottoned on that the pregnant pandas get special treatment and therefore from time to time fake their pregnancies. Another issue is humans, for many years it became a popular sport to hunt the pandas and extensive farming has forced the pandas to retreat up into the hills where continuous supply of bamboo shoots is sparse and now starve to death. The debate on whether we should keep them alive is a difficult one. On one hand we should do as much as we can to keep endangered species alive and try to enforce reproduction and on the other hand the species have far exceeded the life span of any known creature. There is so much more information on pandas than I can tell you here, so have a look into it further if you want.

The trip to the research base is very interesting and well worth it. Pandas are wonderful to watch and I found that I had so much in common with them, I'm lazy and I tend to eat whilst lying on my back in bed. I was especially intrigued by their fake thumb which appeared through evolution and it helps them grab bamboo and strip the green stuff off it. Not only did they have the giant pandas, they had red pandas that seemed more energetic and lively.

Later that night, Kaela, June, Karin, a Danish guy and I went out to a club where we were promised all you can eat and drink by an American man who visited us in our hostel the previous day. With that promise in mind, we prepared ourselves for a feast and left the hostel with empty stomachs and clear heads. After a ten minute taxi ride, we arrived at the club where we were enthusiastically greeted by the doormen who showed presented us to a lady who took us to our table. Excited and hungry, we handed over 50 Yuan and prepared ourselves for our feast and endless drinks of all types. The barman came over and we ordered 5 beers which was rejected and an offer of vodka or whisky was returned. We chose vodka but the barman returned and said he only had whisky. After receiving our bottle of whisky, we asked for our all you can eat buffet and were later given a small bowl of cold fries and a plate a vegetable things. Something told me that we were not going to be given anything like all you can eat. We did, however, get all the whisky we could have dreamt off. The night was incredibly enjoyable, there was an awesome live band playing covers all night and being the centre of the Chinese entertainment meant we had to dance on stage and at one moment Kaela decided to have a dance/Kung-Fu off with a young Chinese man. The bottles of whisky flowed all night but the barman was diluting it with ice tea for some reason. We all got extremely drunk but the evening ended strangely as some Chinese men we were drinking with started to pick a fight with Kaela, at that point we left and got a taxi home.

The next morning was not pretty at all! I'm not going to go into too much detail but lets just say, the toilet cubical doesn't have much floor space for me to make a telephone call on the white phone. I have now made a habit of getting exceptionally hung over when I need to travel on. Luckily this time the journey is the quickest trip I had made throughout my voyage. It only takes 2 hours on the CRH fast train to travel the 315km that separate Chengdu and Chongqing. Before leaving I sat around moping all morning with Karin, Kaela and June steadily working my way through a fry up. I managed to finish my meal and say goodbye to everybody before being escorted out of the hostel and to the bus stop by two lovely girls who worked at the hostel.

Getting on the fast train from Chengdu to Chongqing was my first experience of the high speed network that connects many Chinese cities. The trains were fast, smooth and punctual hitting a top speed of 201km/h. This train is actually one of the slowest services in CRH network but was an absolute delight compared to the slower 4 hour service I could have taken.

Although my visit to Chengdu was short, I did everything I wanted to do whilst I was there, Pandas, Opera and the tallest statue of Mao Zedong is another addition to my superlative tour of China...

Next time, Chongqing and my first taste of real China.

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