For the last three days I have been in Chengdu, exploring what this Sichuan center has to offer. Saturday, early afternoon, Nate and I left for the train station to take a bullet train to Chengdu. Our train wasn’t until 2pm but we wanted to make sure we were there at least an hour early. With ticket in hand (no, I did not lose my ticket this time, I think I learned my lesson), Nate and I boarded the bullet train for the two hour ride to Chengdu. Nate had just downloaded the Hunger Games that morning and was literally glued to his kindle (yes, he has a kindle) while I attempted to work on this blog via fake Chinese Microsoft word.
We finally arrived in Chengdu, exhausted despite the fact that we slept in, found a cab and made our way to Sims hostel. The cab driver had no idea where Sims was and dropped us off about three blocks away, but by asking friendly locals we were eventually able to find it. Sims is located on a street that is basically Chengdu’s version of the Home Depot housing department. Every shop sells one thing: air conditioners, cabinets, wall moldings, etc. We eventually found the entrance to Sims and wandered into Western backpacker’s paradise. Sims is centered around two courtyards with trees and lounging chairs, the lobby not only has its own DVD and English book library, but also its own travel agency! I would guess that Sims has about 20-30 staff and every staff member in the lobby speaks English. Also, every single person in Sims was western?! It was so crazy to see all of these Western backpackers from all over the world, traveling to places like Tibet, Yunnan, Qinghai and other neighboring providences. The lobby also contained not only a cat, but also her newborn kittens! I was in heaven.
Nate and I paid for our rooms and went to bring our luggage (up an elevator?!) to the third floor. We wandered down the hall, found our room, opened the door and… there was only one bed. Awkward. Not only was there only one bed, this bed was pushed against the wall so that you could only enter from one side. Not happening. We abruptly turned back around and brought our stuff down to the lobby. Apparently doubles without bathrooms only have one bed, so we upgraded to a double with a bathroom. Definitely a good choice! There was a long, wooden, raised platform with two of the most comfortable mattresses I have ever felt in my entire life!!!! More like two foam pads, but after months of sleeping on a rock, it was heaven. Our room also had a tv with a DVD player, and our bathroom was spotless with toilet paper and soap! I was officially in heaven.
It felt so weird being in Sims, talking to Chinese people in English, seeing Westerners everywhere- almost like I was cheating somehow. I just felt so much more of a connection to these Western backpackers than I do to other Chinese tourists. For some reason I also feel like it is not just the language connection. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing to speak English with people and exchange travel stories, but there is also something about the vibe of a Western backpacker and experienced world traveler that made me feel more at home. These people are so adventurous and have so much respect for Chinese culture and history, much more so than most Chinese tourists I see. Regardless, Sims is awesome and I definitely recommend that anyone going to Chengdu stay there. We saw all ages: young college students, twenty-somethings with their parents, older couples in their 50’s and even a woman who looked to be almost 80.
After dropping off our luggage and exploring the hostel, Nate and I headed out to find Chen’s Mapuo Dofu, a famous mapuo dofu restaurant in Chengdu. If you didn’t already know, mapuo dofu is a spicy soft tofu dish from Sichuan. Dofu is the Chinese word for tofu and mapuo is the style in which it’s cooked. It was definitely a long walk, and we got a little lost on the way, but with our trusty hostel map, we were able to get directions from a few old men on the street. I have to say, Chen’s was amazing. Nate and I ordered mapuo dofu (which we couldn’t even find on the menu?) and a twice cooked pork with a large bucket of rice. We ordered the large serving of tofu, but it was still extremely small! However, mapuo dofu is best eaten with a big chopstick-full of rice to go with every piece so the small “large” serving filled us up and we completely demolished our big bucket of rice. The rice is great with the tofu because the tofu is very strong, however, the plain rice soaks up all of the spicy flavors and tastes great with the tofu. It was amazing and my mouth is watering just thinking about how much I want to eat it again. I could live off of mapuo dofu and hot pot and die happy. A piece of advice: If you’re going with two people the large plate of dofu plus one other cheap dish with the bucket of rice (get it yiban, which means general) is perfect for two people, but if you have more than two people you might want to get two bowls of tofu if everyone is planning on eating a fair portion.
By the time we finally made it back to the hostel we were exhausted. We had walked miles and all we wanted to do was watch a nice movie. We grabbed beers from the bar downstairs and a movie out of the DVD library and headed back up to our room. However, we soon realized that the DVD case was empty, and that we had to give the DVD case to the front desk which would give us the movie. Too tired to deal with that, we decided to watch the movie we had bought in Chongqing: Stash House. It was actually a really great movie! It was very intense and kept me on the edge of my… bed, the entire time.
The next day Nate and I woke up to a monsoon outside. It was pouring down rain. We had been planning… actually, I had been planning on forcing us both to go to the Tibetan quarter, but with the rain it would have been miserable. We decided to eat some breakfast in the hip bar/restaurant downstairs and arrange our travel plans. I forgot to mention before, but when we were checking in, I spotted a sign that said that the travel desk could arrange the horse trek in Songpan! We were relieved, because had we been unable to do this we would have shown up in Songpan blind, not knowing if we would have to shorten our trip to two days, going to a less cool location, or even if they would have trips at all! We headed downstairs and waited our turn for a trip advisor. She told us that we could leave on any trip any day, but we would not be able to make it from Emei Shan to Songpan in one day because the last bus from Chengdu to Songpan is at 8:30am. We had some rearranging to do! The woman told us we could do Leshan and Emei Shan in two days rather than three, head back to Chengdu on the second day, sleep at Sims and leave the next morning for Songpan. After some discussion, we decided that was our best option. It was a little sad we wouldn’t be staying at the Teddy Bear Hostel, which looked really great, but at least we had everything figured out. We emptied our wallets to pay for the Horse Trek and the bus, while simultaneously signing multiple papers saying that if we were sick we couldn’t get our money back blah blah blah. We also had to read some reviews from past Sims travelers saying that the hostel was not clean and didn’t have warm water, etc etc. The woman also told us that if we had our own sleeping bags we should definitely bring them. Whoops.
After figuring out our Songpan Horse Trek situation, we decided to book a tour to see the pandas. Now I’m not normally a fan of tours, but booking the tour with its own bus is cheaper than taking a cab there and back. You can take the bus for 2 kuai, but it takes an hour and a half and doesn’t come until after the panda park has already been open for a while. We definitely wanted to get there early because the pandas are actually awake and eating in the morning, rather than all asleep. We booked the tour, booked another night at the hostel and then tried to figure out what to do with the rest of our day while it was monsooning outside. We eventually learned that you could borrow umbrellas from the hostel (thanks again Sims), and headed out to People’s Park to find a tea house.
After grabbing a bus map, Nate somehow took over the lead as master navigator and mapped out a path to get to the People’s Park. We accidentally got off on the wrong stop (the stops are listed on the map but don’t have names for some reason) we wandered for almost a good twenty minutes, following the map in the direction of the park. Right near the park we entered a dream block of dancing shops complete with ballroom dancing costumes and shoes! I wanted to stop inside, but with Nate as my companion I didn’t really feel like trying on ballroom costumes. I’ll just have to find another place in Xi’an.
After wandering through the dance shop street we eventually came upon the People’s Park. The People’s Park is a beautiful park, and despite the rain, I still enjoyed it. I probably would have wandered a little more if it wasn’t monsooning outside, but Nate and I still covered the entire park nonetheless. The most interesting thing we saw in the park was a string of laminated pieces of paper. Nate walked on by, but I grabbed one of the papers for a closer look. “These are dating advertisements!”, I exclaimed. We proceeded to examine all of the hanging pages. Most were men, especially older men- in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s! Only one had a picture (a twenty something). All listed age range, year of birth (making age range superfluous, but who am I to judge), height, profession, income and some sort of biography in Chinese. I guess it’s mostly the older generation that uses this old-school method of online dating.
Eventually we came upon a Tea house that we read about in Lonely Planet. Most of the tables were piled up to keep out of the rain, but the few tables under awnings were packed! The tea house was outdoors right next to a small lake with colored paddle boats. Why there were three people working at the paddle boat ticket booth, I will never know. ‘Listen guys, I don’t think anyone will be renting today’. Nate and I were eventually ushered to a table near two women sharing some home-made snacks over tea and five men playing a Chinese card game. Nate and I both ordered some Jasmine tea, which comes in a little tea cup with Jasmine leaves in the bottom, as well as a giant hot water mug to refill the tea. Ours was blue with Mickey stickers. Nate and I sat, enjoying our very strong Jasmine tea, listening to the rain and the Chinese men screaming about their cards. The most interesting thing about the park were the men wandering around offering their ear cleaning services. These men repeatedly accosted us, asking if we would like our ears cleaned by strange metal objects that reminded me of dental tools. No thanks! Nate was really bothered/ scared by this whole ear cleaning with metal tools business that one man pretended to put his tools in Nate’s ear just to freak him out. From that point on Nate covered his ears with his hands anytime an ear cleaning person walked by.
Eventually, damp and bored of people watching, we headed on to our second destination- The Bookworm. The Bookworm is a hybrid coffee shop- English language bookstore with a location in Beijing, Chengdu and one other city (I forgot, sorry). We boarded the bus, and under Nate’s direction, made it to the general location of The Bookworm. The Bookworm was actually pretty far from the bus stop, and we spent forever wandering the streets trying to find it, with no exact address. This would have been okay, seeing as the rain had slowed down a bit, but I brought my little netbook with me to work on this blog, and my baby, hot pink, Barbie computer was starting to feel like a cinder block on my shoulder. Eventually, after much, borderline-bitchy urging from me, we finally asked someone who pointed us in the right direction. At the bookworm we set up shop- Nate with his Kindle reading the Hunger Games, and me with my Barbie netbook working on my blog. To my surprise, there was English breakfast tea on the menu! I was sold! My Irish grandparents hooked me on the stuff when I was about four years old and I’ve been drinking it almost every day since. It was nice to have the comforts of home in The Bookworm- it was definitely my kind of place. I would have liked to stay longer and browse the book selection but after about an hour it was time to go to dinner.
We had decided to go to a famous Uighur restaurant that we read about in Lonely Planet (yes, we decided to forgive them for the Zhongshan incident). Because there was no direct bus route to the restaurant, we decided to walk for a good 20 minutes to find the place. Nate, with map in hand, lead the trek to dinner. Somehow, we ended up at a river and realized we’d passed the street with the restaurant; but there were no streets to turn onto between this street and the last major street! We realized that it might be in an alley, and wandered along the river until we found a place to turn in. By this point my shoulder was about to fall off, with the weight of my Barbie computer. Eventually, after wandering around in circles for 10 minutes, we finally found it!
We decided to order a dish recommended by Lonely Planet called Da Panji– a heaping plate of chicken, potatoes, peppers and onions. Literally every single table in the restaurant was eating it too, and for good reason- it was SO GOOD. After attempting to finish our heaping plate of food, we headed back to the hostel, grabbed a movie and went to bed nice and early to wake up for the PANDAS!!!