First Bus, Last Bus

January 31, 2017 – Ya’an, Sichuan Province

I have a need to be on the first bus of the day.

It doesn’t matter whether I need to be or not. Something about missing it fills me with anxiety and despair.

I try hard to hide it. I try to listen to my travelling companions. I try not to stare at them. I try not to pace or rush or sigh. I’m better than I used to be.

I still need to be on the first bus.

That’s why we rose in the predawn dark to catch a quick cab to the long distance bus station where The Swede and I would catch a bus the two hours to Ya’an (雅安), then a minibus an hour up the mountains to the Bifengxia (碧峰峡) gorge and Panda Research Base.

The Chengdu cabs had other plans.

We stood at the intersection just behind the bridge and waited. We walked to the next intersection and waited. We walked to the subway stop and waited. And waited. I started to panic. We decided to take the subway, despite having to transfer twice to go five total stops to reach the bus station.

The first bus was at 7 a.m. It was already 6:45. The subway trip took 30 minutes. I despaired.

I was wrong. The first bus was 7:30. Fifteen minutes to spare. Still time to eat breakfast, which I’d promised we’d have time to do. I rejoiced.

It was still Spring Festival. The bus station Dico’s Chicken, with its instant coffee machine, was closed. I despaired.

The convenience store with canned coffee, crackers, and a Snickers bar was open, though, and so was a tiny noodle joint with dirty pots, lots of steam, and delicious sour and spicy rice flour noodles (suanlafen 酸辣粉). It might not be breakfast, but it was something. I rejoiced.

And we still made the bus with a minute to spare, though my noodles got a dirty look from the bus driver.

Sleeping on the bus.

Sleeping on the bus.

The ride was uneventful and we pulled into Ya’an a little under two hours later with no idea of where to go next. My guidebook said simply to walk out of the bus station and find the minibuses.

The front of the bus station had been ripped out for construction, making that difficult.

This is often the way things when trying to get somewhere small. Take the big bus to a big bus station, then wander around outside the bus station – but never exactly in it – for a while until you find some vans or minibuses or something that looks like a van or a minibus. Get jammed into the back by some guy that seems like he’s trying to hustle you, hand over some cash, wait 40 minutes next to a farmer with a duck in a bag, then finally get going. Assume that the bus-van thing will take you to the place you want to go while craning your neck in every direction hoping for some kind of sign that you are, indeed, going the right way.

You usually are. I am still unclear, though, as to whether any of the vans or minibuses anywhere in China are private or public transportation. It is one of the many mysteries of the East.

In this case, we did find the pack of minibuses, and we did take one of them after handing some cash being jammed in the back with a farmer, and we did crane our necks while we wove up a mountain road into the Sichuan highlands. After about an hour, we arrived at the Bifengxia Panda Research Base.

The Sichuan highlands surround the Panda Base entrance.

The Sichuan highlands surround the Panda Base entrance.

Bifengxia, which means Green Peak Gorge, was the second Giant Panda breeding center in China, opening in 2004 in order to spread the Panda population out to avoid catastrophe in the case of disease or other disaster. That paid off in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake damaged the original Wolong center and some of the pandas had to be evacuated.

Aside from the animals themselves, though, the area also features some fantastic natural scenery, as you climb out of the gorge at about 3,000 feet elevation up on to a plateau at nearly 6,500 feet.

The ticket window was crowded, not only with tourists but with all sorts of cutesy plastic pandas, as well video screens trying to get you to pay extra to visit the zoo, where you could feed tigers and bears through a bus window. We skipped that, as well as most of the line. There were about 10 windows open but everybody was crowded around eight of them.

People in China often assume that if a line is long, its the one you’re supposed to be in. Then they try to cut to the front of it. We just chose the short line instead.

The entrance gate is at once side of the gorge, and the panda base is at the other side. Visitors can either take the bus around or they can take a giant elevator down into the gorge and walk to the base. Having seen pandas before, we’d mostly come for the walk so down the 50-story elevator we went.

The gorge path wends along next to a river, reduced in dry-season February to little more than a trickle. The bruise-colored walls and spires rise on both sides, and greenery creeps its way up from the river to the gorge rims. At first, small waterfalls splatter down the overgrown slopes where ferns drip their own tiny waterfalls onto the concrete path. At one point early in the trail, the walker with decent eyesight can spy a handful of central China’s mysterious hanging coffins, nailed to the side of the cliff almost two thousand years ago.

But as the path continues on past markers explaining the area’s mythos, which is rooted in the very Chinese creation myths themselves, it starts to climb up past roaring waterfalls shaped like falling dragons, past placid pools of water where goddesses are said to have bathed, and across flatted stones and raised bridges where ancient monsters were vanquished. Platforms provide a rest from the stairs and opportunities to buy boiled eggs, liberally spiced fried potatoes (it’s Sichuan, after all), water, soda, or beer.

At last the trail winds out of the gorge and up onto the plateau, through a small collection of hotels, noodle stands, cafeterias, and tea orchards and into the panda base.


The panda base was a panda base. There are pandas. They live in pretty big pens. They don’t do much except eat bamboo and scratch themselves on trees, except for one panda who, agitated by something, would make a strange, breathy chirping sound, then run up to his “house,” cartwheel upside down on the wall, then urinate it.

Another highlight would of course be the cubs. We happened upon them by accident after following a footpath across one of the parks ridge lines, then running into a crowd of people peer over a wall looking down onto a long slope. There, just below the wall, were a pair of yearlings, wrestling and chewing on each other.

I counted only one person that threw anything at them.

Down the hill another crowd gathered around another panda cub, this one high up in a tree and way out on a flimsy branch, asleep. As he woke and started to move, the branches started to crack around him. For one breathless moment, he lost his footing, slipping up to his front armpits, back legs kicking the 20 meters of air below as more sticks crashed and broke on the ground. I could hardly watch.

At last he pulled himself up and in what seemed to me to be a controlled panic, scrambled back to the trunk and back down to the ground, fast.

The third highlight was the Panda trashcan.

We finished up our panda touring and took a series of buses back down to Ya’an and its under-construction bus station. We had enough time before our bus left to grab a quick dinner at a street-side restaurant, then set off for Chengdu.

We made it about 15 minutes outside of town when the bus broke down. Then all of us – a pair of monks, a few chain smokers and at least one Chinese guy and one Swedish woman who desperately wanted to find a bathroom and eventually just had to stumble down the hill into a bamboo grove – milled around outside in the light of the dying sun waiting for something about our situation to change.

We got the first bus to Ya’an. And the last one back.


Chengdu – Closed Up

January 30, 2017 – Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Its a strange thing to turn off a major thoroughfare not two blocks from the heart of a city and into a post-apocalyptic vision. Though maybe not so unusual in China.

There’s always walking to be done, and so it was our first full day in Chengdu. With the shops closed for the holiday and the tourist sites clogged with the ambulatory masses, The Swede and I started south along Chengdu’s busy north-south axis, then ducked onto a side street. There, the world had ended.

Shattered and empty windows stared like unseeing eyes of dead, ancient leviathans, their skins and shells riven, their insides spilling out around their rotting carcasses. Each was marked with a symbol, 拆。I looked it up in my phone dictionary. “To tear open, or pull down.”

This one had been a convenience store, that one a mahjong parlor, the one over there a barber shop. Out of each leaked the telltale organs – torn up cartridges of candy bars, broken felt tile tables, a ripped up rotating chair – and other common tissues, too, like table legs, shattered mirrors, empty bottles, and even decades-old pin-up pictures of singers and dancers from magazines.

Here and there stray animals cried out and picked their way through the industrial offal.

Parts of downtown Chengdu have been slated for demolition.

Parts of downtown Chengdu have been slated for demolition.

Above it all loomed the real monsters. Story upon story of hollowed-out apartment block, the gaping wounds in the structures exposing the skeletal stairs and circulatory wiring that once held it all together.

We picked our way through the decay, stepping in here and there to check out the devastation. Other than the scavengers, which scattered at the sound of the stuff crunching under our feet, we didn’t see anyone else.

Those were our last few moments of solitude. Tianfu square had an opposite feel.

Tianfu Square

At the dead center of the city, underneath the watchful gaze of The Chairman and plenty of police,  locals milled around, twirled ribbons, and blew bubbles while the out-of-towners snapped pictures in front of Mao and a huge red banner wishing all the people a happy Spring Festival from the city government.

The Swede and I breezed through, snapping a few pictures of our own. As usual, I took too many of Mao. I’ve got a thing for statues of Communist leaders.

People’s Park

People’s Park, just around the corner, was even more crowded.

Amid the gardens, leafy pathways, man-made canals, and outdoor tea houses, people found their people. Some of them danced in the square. Some of them paddled little boats along the willow-lined waterway. Some fed fish with improvised food pellet injectors. But most of them just sat around, sipped tea, munched on seeds, and shot the breeze.

If Sichuan is anything, it is the tea house.

Tea houses are where public life plays out. They’re for afternoons with your friends and family, a friendly game of cards, a quick snack, or even some light gambling. They come in a few different forms, from the plastic chaired, living-room style found underneath apartment blocks all around the city, to the lacquered wood and opera performance style, the likes of which you can find under a bridge or two along Chengdu’s ring roads. But the most popular among locals are the outdoor tea houses in the cities parks, nudged up against canals or lakes and sheltered from the summer sun by pagodas and trees.

The seats, which range from creaky bamboo chairs to plastic stools, cost a cup of tea each. A cup of tea – loose-leaf bamboo, buckwheat, flower, and more, or a blend of a few kinds – runs between 10 and 20 yuan and comes with a hulking thermos of hot water for unlimited refills.

The century-old Heming Teahouse in People’s Park is Chengdu’s most popular outdoor tea house. There, The Swede and I managed to find an open table, ordered a couple of mugs – green bamboo and buckwheat, this time – and settled in under the budding cherry blossom trees and among the bonsai trees and rocks to plan out the next couple of days of travel and to relax after a few hours of walking.

We wound up striking a conversation with a nearby family, who’d relocated from Shanghai about a decade before. The patriarch looked over maps of Chengdu with us, pointing out the best food streets and parks, while the kids vied for our attention, handing us scraps of paper and mumbling English words before running off into the maze of tables around us.

The man told us he loves Chengdu. People here, he said, are polite and helpful. Life is relaxed, slow, he said, without the bustle of cities like Shanghai or Beijing. There’s less pressure to climb the career ladder or show off wealth.  Sometimes Sichuan people get a rap for being lazy, whiling away their days in tea houses, playing Mahjong, chain smoking cigarettes, eating too-spicy food, and chatting with their friends. But, our Shanghai-transplant said,  that sure beats chain smoking in an office, and besides, Sichuan people do plenty of work. When they want to.

It was a refrain we’d hear from people throughout the province. As the conversation lulled, I heard the clang of a beaten tuning fork growing nearer. This was something I’d been looking forward to for two years: getting my ears cleaned in the park, again.

Armed with a headlamp, some cotton balls, and a set of hooked implements that look they belong in a dentists office or a torture chamber, ear cleaners roam Chengdu’s park-located tea houses plying their traditional trade. For about 50 yuan, they’ll jam those implements in your ears, scrape them clean, and even give them a good vibration with that tuning fork that also serves as their audible advertisement and calling card. It takes about 10 minutes for both ears.

Apparently, mine were filthy.

Getting my ears cleaned in People's Park.

Getting my ears cleaned in People’s Park.

Little Tibet

After a couple of hours in the park, we left to try to find the city’s tiny Tibetan district. We strolled through a couple old neighborhoods and along the river before stumbling upon a chintzy-but-kinda-cool, neon-lit bar/restaurant street, where we’d return later in the week for hot pot. Then we kept walking.

Suddenly, the Chinese turned to something unintelligible. We’d found the Tibetan District.

Nestled beneath the mountains, Western Chengdu changes fast from low-lying plains and bamboo forests to the dry and frigid highland wastes of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s possible to get to Tibet proper from Chengdu, but a good chunk of western and northern Sichuan itself is populated (a word used loosely here) by the high mountains and Tibetans, and that nearness has left its mark in Chengdu, especially in its own little Tibet, which spans a few small blocks downtown.

The leafy, lantern-lined avenue we walked was itself lined with shop after shop of Tibetan handicrafts and Buddhist religious artifacts. Monks in full garb, cell-phones in hand as always, walked the sidewalk in groups of two or three. Above the shops sat a variety of restaurants, although we could only tell based on the menus downstairs, as most of them didn’t have English or even Chinese signs.

Unfortunately, it being Spring Festival, all of these things – stores and restaurants alike – were closed.

The Tibetan District in Chengdu.

The Tibetan District in Chengdu.

By then it twilight was approaching and the Swede had an appointment with the owner of a brewpub elsewhere in town. We took a cab through the dark, quiet, closed-up streets before arriving at the bar.

Surprise, surprise.
Spring Festival.
It was closed.

Reminiscing in Chengdu

January 29, 2017 – Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Memories fade, that’s for sure.

It’s been two years since I first came to Chengdu (成都) in Sichuan Province (四川省). Some things I remember – the temple vegetarian buffet, the hostel where I’m writing this post, the ear cleaners in People’s Park, Chairman Mao’s open arm, the ever-present clack of Mahjong tiles. Many other things have fuzzed into a haze like the one that’s blanketed the city for the last three days.

I wrote a brief post about Chengdu more than a year and a half ago, struggling to capture the city in words. Though my memory has fogged, after rereading that first post, my impressions this time around are the same and different. I hold to much of what I said then: “the best parts are like the humid fog that rises out of the Sichuan mountain forests and mixes with the humid smog that rises out of its drab concrete forests. It’s languid, hazy, smelly, and not at all what you expected. … By all means, Chengdu should be a miserable place. Actually, it’s pretty lovely. It’s just hard to see why.”

Scratch those last two sentences.

I don’t know if it’s the winter chill, the city closed up for Spring Festival, or the temples and pedestrian streets jammed with holiday travelers, but Chengdu itself is a pretty miserable place. Well, maybe not miserable but definitely not much fun.

For starters, they don’t even do Chinese New Year’s fireworks.

Across all of China at 12 a.m. on New Year’s Day, families tuck into the last of their homemade dumplings; leave behind their children’s’ hongbao (红包) money envelopes; tune out of the annual and hours-long television extravaganza of dancers, singers, comedians, old folk introductions, and communist propaganda; and they spill into the streets, lighters and armories worth of fireworks in hand.

And off the miniature rockets go. Into the sky. Off apartment and car windows. Into powerlines. Under buses. Into doorways.

The sky lights up with burning flowers. The alleys echo with machine gun fire and bomb concussions. Noses burn with acrid smoke. For hours and hours and days and days.

Chengdu, when the plane landed at 8 p.m., was dark, silent, and fresh.

Chengdu alleys.

Chengdu’s streets were quiet on New Year’s Eve.


That was odd, enough. As my fellow traveler, the Swede, and I walked the last kilometer from the metro to our hostel on the north side of downtown, the oddness deepened with the night.

Our walk took us past the Wenshu Monastery (文殊院) with its swooping eaves, incense clouds, and vegetarian restaurant. Those things I remembered, but the scene outside of the ornate entrance gate I hadn’t seen before.

Wenshu Monastery on New Year's Eve

Crowds swarm police cordons outside of Wenshu Monastery trying to get in their new year prayers.

A line of people hundreds of meters long snaked out of the gateway, onto the sidewalk, and up the road. Dozens of police officers guided the pulsing crowd into place, while a police bus served as a central command. That scene – police swarming every corner, heads aswivel – repeated itself to a lesser scale at each intersection up to our hostel, with armed soldiers adding an exclamation point to the to the seriousness of the situation.

I’d picked our hostel in part because of its location near Wenshu Monastery, which I’d read was a prime place for fireworks-watching at the midnight chime.

The Swede and I walked the police-clogged lanes around the temple before settling into an adjacent beer garden to test our Chinese against the New Year’s gala show on a big screen. The show flitted from province to province, showing off not only the country’s impeccable abilities at mass coordination but also some of its oldest citizens, bits of its unique sense of humor, and of course its military.

A crowd gathers around a public showing of the annual New Year's gala.

A crowd gathers around a public showing of the annual New Year’s gala.

As the song and dance and nation-worship came to an end, we watched the big clock on stage in Beijing tick down from 10.


A few people in the crowd raised their glasses. Nobody yelled. And nothing exploded.

The minutes went by. No explosions. No lights in the sky. No burning nostrils. Nothing.

10 minutes gone, we got up and strolled down the emptying streets to the south, passing police cars and vans of all sizes, some of them attempting to hide on lesser-used streets and behind apartment community gates. Police and even military presence at any potential mass event like this has become routine in recent years, especially after a stampede on December 31, 2014 in Shanghai in which dozens of revelers in the 300,000-person crowd died. These sort of things combine the worst of the central government’s fears: ,mass protest, terrorist target, and embarrassing accident.

Maybe that’s why the kibosh had been put on celebrations?

We reached the gate of a military compound and yelled across at one of the soldiers standing guard.

“Why no fireworks? Isn’t it the new year?”

He sauntered over, bulky camo uniform and low-slung rifle adding years to his unlined face. It took me a moment before I realized he couldn’t be older than 19.

“No fireworks in the city this year,” he said. “Too dangerous.”

And the people had actually listened.

China is changing. Chengdu, well, it’s more or less the same.