Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Chengdu

I have read in the newspaper today about two baby pandas, two pandas born in my old home – Chengdu! To be more precise, they were born in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Although it could arguably do with a snappier name, the centre is an amazing place. We visited the centre twice and the work they do is incredible. The Giant Panda only lives naturally in Sichuan and a couple of neighbouring provinces, we were literally in the middle of panda territory and to see them up close and personal was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. We had visited Edinburgh zoo the year before to see them, it was great at the time but the research centre is on a different level. No disrespect to Edinburgh zoo! In Chengdu there are pandas of all ages and sizes, even red pandas which I’d never even heard of before visiting.

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The aim of the centre is to fight the decline of panda numbers and the stats would suggest they’re doing pretty well. According to our good friend Wikipedia, the centre began with a mere 6 pandas which has grown considerably over the years and is still growing. We saw with our own eyes the baby pandas kept safely in their incubators. Long may it continue, I think we can all agree the world needs more pandas.

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Now you have seen one, would it be quite heartless to say that the babies aren’t exactly cute? They do kinda resemble pink rats, let’s be honest. I think the real stars of the show were the ones about toddler age. By then they’ve developed the trade-mark black and white fur. We got there in the morning when they had energy and wanted feeding, to see a panda is a treat but to see a panda with energy is the cherry on top! They were roaming about, fighting over apples and generally being adorable.

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It takes quite a lot for me to call something cute, it’s not a word I use freely – I’m hard to please. However, even miserable serious old me was ‘awwing’ away over these guys. They have been the screensaver on my phone for the past year. Don’t you just want to give one a hug? Well, you can! At the centre you can meet a panda 1-to-1 if you earn more than an English language teacher. I don’t think I need to recommend the centre, if you’re considering going to Chengdu there’s no way you wouldn’t already have this planned in your itinerary but nevertheless – GO GO GO. You’ll not only see these gorgeous creatures but you’ll also be supporting their survival. A cheap admission fee, a worthy cause and the unique chance to see lots of pandas in a natural environment. It’s a no-brainer, here’s to many more pandas in the future.

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Maocai, delicious Chinese food

China is famed for its cuisine, I’d imagine only India and Italy rival it for popularity worldwide. I personally couldn’t choose between the three! Of course, one of the best things about living in China was eating authentic Chinese food – at ridiculously cheap prices. At times it was hard to find things as a vegetarian, there were no menus stating what I could like I’m used to in the UK. We’re spoilt. I would usually reject any food that’s been in contact with meat but I couldn’t live by this rule in China. I’m sure I ate things cooked in meat stock – I picked at noodles that had been ordered with pork (despite me specifically asking the local to pass on my message to the chef for NO meat). Safe to say, it wasn’t always plain sailing…

Sichuan food has a reputation for its spice, they cook with the Sichuan pepper. This ingredient creates a weird numbing sensation. Sichuan food was great, perhaps the most disappointing meal was the hot pot. Everyone asked ‘have you tried the hot pot?’, they’re obviously very proud of it. In my opinion, it’s nothing special, our particular favourite dish was similar but much better – ‘Maocai’. You pick your own ingredients, normally different types of meat as well as vegs – of course I just went for veg and tofu, they had so many types of tofu. The chef then cooks the ingredients together in a big vat and pours on the spicy stock. It is delicious! I’m not sure the photo does it justice but you get an idea.

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We had it a least twice a week, it was becoming an addiction. To feed the cravings we found a restaurant in London that offered Maocai but, sadly,  they couldn’t confirm it was vegetarian. As tempted as I was I couldn’t use the ‘well I’ll starve otherwise!’ excuse this time. London is a bit different to a Chengdu suburb! I had to order another Sichuan dish – Mapo tofu. Also delicious to be fair.

If anyone plans to do a trip to China – don’t just visit Shanghai and Beijing, venture over to the west and try the incredible food from this region. I miss it everyday!

3 WEEKS UNTIL CUBA

The trip to Cuba is happening very shortly, at the moment this is the plan for our 17 days there:

  • Havana
  • Vinales
  • Santa Clara
  • Trinidad
  • Cienfuegos
  • Playa Giron
  • Havana

These are things I absolutely must do:

  • Smoke a cigar while drinking a mojito
  • Ride in a ’50s car
  • Snorkel(scuba dive if I’m feeling brave)
  • Learn about the revolution, see Che’s mausoleum
  • Practice my Spanish with a local or two

If you’ve been to Cuba and can give me any last-minute suggestions or tips – don’t hesitate!

 

Chongqing, China

If someone asked you to name China’s big cities, you’d probably name the ones towards the coasts – Shanghai and Beijing in the east, Hong Kong and Guangzhou in the south. The west of the country is less densely populated but there are two giants that you won’t find anywhere near the sea – Chengdu and Chongqing. Chongqing will be the topic of today. It’s a city I had never heard of before arriving in China. If I remember rightly, Chongqing used to belong to Sichuan province until it became its own area, it’s now one of only four cities directly under the control of the national government. About 30 million people live in the Chongqing area.

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One of the ‘things to see’ in Chongqing is the Liberation Monument, located in the middle of the city’s business and shopping district. The skyscrapers make it look tiny but apparently it was the city’s tallest building back in the day. The monument was originally built to commemorate the Second World War in 1945. This changed a few years later to commemorate another huge event in recent Chinese history – Mao’s revolution. As the photo might indicate, it’s not the most awe-inspiring thing in the world.

The next tourist attraction we visited was the ‘Ciqikou’ old town. The Chinese like to recreate aspects from their long past, we came across a few ancient towns during our time there and they’re pretty much the same thing. You’ll find the ‘typical Chinese’ architecture with market stalls. Chongqing is famous for its spicy hot pot so we bought something containing chili peppers, thinking it would be interesting to try and it looks appetising. We, stupid foreigners, didn’t realise it was meant to be used as a kind of giant stock cube… I started biting into it and a couple of women started laughing at me. It rained while we were walking the streets of the old town so we stopped for a well-presented and expensive tea.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Chongqing was to see the Yangtze river, it’s one of the longest and most famous rivers in the world and I was expecting to see something quite amazing. In hindsight, it’s just a lot of water so I don’t really know what I was hoping for. The water was brown and the sky was dark (with pollution probably), it wasn’t the image I had in mind. We crossed it on a cable car which showed off the skyline well.

The highlight of the trip happened by pure coincidence. In China we were on a teaching programme and there were about 80 teachers, the majority of us were based in Chengdu but some were sent to Chongqing. While we were walking around on the first night we bumped into some of the others who lived there – remember the size of this city – they invited us to watch a football match. Chengdu doesn’t have a team at the moment so Chongqing were our ‘local’ team – of course I was up for going! I even bought myself a counterfeit replica shirt. Who said it was Asian tourists turning up at our games? It’s European tourists invading Chinese league games! ‘We’ played one of the Shanghai clubs who had an ex-Chelsea player in their side, I think we lost…

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To be honest, I didn’t love Chongqing and I felt lucky we’d been given a place in Chengdu instead. The city seemed vast and industrial, the sky was always grey – even by Chinese standards – the buildings were huge but not beautifully-designed. It almost felt oppressive. I doubt it would be on many itineraries, for good reason. It’s probably one of the few places I wouldn’t go back to in China.

The Giant Buddha, Leshan, China

It’s time to start writing about China. In 2016 I lived in China for almost 6 months, February to July. It was my first experience living in another country, actually… it was my first real experience living independently away from mum and dad. And what an experience it was! All the cliches are about to come out here: China is really like nowhere else I’ve visited – I had photos taken of me because I’m blonde and pale. I’ve never felt like a celebrity before! It was surreal. I urge you to visit the People’s Republic of China, the culture shock might be very real but it’s worth it. The photos do wonders for your ego! In regards to China, so far I’ve only written a post about the Great Wall. How typical. I’m not disparaging it(did I use that word correctly?) but everyone who visits China will visit it – for good reason, it’s amazing, iconic, ancient and so on.  But now I want to talk about something a little less famous, in this post I am going to talk about…
the Giant Buddha of Leshan.

Leshan is a city near to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. We lived in a suburb of Chengdu, probably the biggest city nobody seems to have heard of. 14 million people call Chengdu home! I am looking forward to blogging about my old home, it was my favourite Chinese city. Of course, I’m very impartial! We managed to do a few ‘local’ trips whilst there. (Local includes 10 hour coach journeys, btw). In May we took the high speed train for a little day trip to a local attraction, the bloody big Buddha! He’s been impressing people for over a millennium. Apparently he took 90 years to complete, work finally finished in 803. He’s aged well! I think the detail is pretty incredible when the age is taken into consideration. 1000 years of wear and tear on top of the lack of modern technology. Round of applause for the workers!

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To be honest, if I was visiting Chengdu/Sichuan for only a few days as part of a trip to China, I wouldn’t recommend visiting the Buddha. I am glad I did it but we had the luxury of living there. No doubt about it, he’s impressive and the local grounds and very peaceful. However, there are better things to see and do in this part of China. Unless he holds some sacred significance to you, I wouldn’t call it a must-do. It’s a 7/10 kinda thing. You’ll be able to say you’ve seen the biggest Buddha statute in the world… but I doubt that’s on your bucket list. I’ll end by saying that I strongly urge anyone planning a trip to China to visit Sichuan though, I’ll write more about ‘my’ province soon.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I’m finally writing about Kuala Lumpur which means I’m finally finishing the southeast Asia trip from 2015… better late than never! So let’s wrap up Malaysia and Asia in style with KL. Well… maybe ‘ in style’ isn’t the right phrase to use. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say we finished the trip with one of the best places. When I think of the countries we visited during the 9 weeks, Malaysia usually comes to mind last. Maybe it’s because it was the one we added in a rush and hadn’t planned as much for. The likes of Vietnam and Thailand were always must-dos for us but Malaysia kinda tagged along. It was a good addition, I liked Malaysia but I doubt I’ll return. Of the three places we visited there KL was probably my least favourite. Langkawi was a little bit like paradise, George Town felt different in its own cool way. KL was just a big city to me. That’s not to be critical, big cities are great and I’m sure it’s fun to live there but I didn’t come away in awe. Sorry to any KL fans/residents.

I’ve had to look through my photos to remember what happened, of course most of them are of the very impressive Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers held the record for the tallest building in the world until 2004 and, as you might expect, they’re absolutely massive. They’re not as iconic as NYC’s skyscrapers but I liked them, I’m a fan of symmetry.

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A theme of Singapore/Malaysia was multiculturalism, this was apparent again in KL. The city had all the usual influences: British/colonial, Chinese and Indian. Diversity is fantastic, it enhances any city. You couldn’t imagine any major city without it. Below you can see a mosque, a Taoist temple and a church. I’m an atheist but religions are often heavily linked to a place’s culture, even for a non-believer it’s interesting to visit places of worship. The old man in the Taoist temple kindly told us our fortunes for the coming year, that’s where I found out 2016 was going to be the year of the monkey. My year!

I was fairly critical of KL at the start of the post, some might even say I was a bit harsh. The place itself didn’t blow me away. True. But I did tick two things off of my bucket list: I swam in an infinity pool and I saw monkeys, wild monkeys! That’s not bad going, thanks KL. The Air B&B we found had a shared communal rooftop pool with pretty decent views…

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And I’ve saved the best ’til last… these little rascals below. I’d been on the hunt for monkeys for the whole 9 weeks with little success and then when hope was almost lost… Batu Caves came to my rescue. The caves have been made into temples, they were still constructing one when I visited – I carried a tile up the stairs! I was rewarded for my good deed, as once I was up there I was completely spoilt. There were monkeys all over the place. I was able to get so close to them, they definitely weren’t afraid of people – some people were afraid of them though. They could be a quite aggressive, especially if food was around. I kept away from food and snapped away, I could’ve watched them for ages. The trip to KL was worth it for this alone. The next step – letting a monkey climb on me. I’d better book another trip to Asia!

 

Penang, Malaysia

I wanna start writing about China but I’ve still not even reached the end of the 2015 Asia trip. My laziness strikes again, let’s resume with the penultimate stop – Penang. After lounging about by the pool in Langkawi for a few days it was time to jump back into ‘proper travelling’. We took the ferry back down to Penang to explore the state’s capital, George Town. The fact a place in southeast Asia is named ‘George Town’ is quite a big clue that it might’ve had a history of colonisation! George doesn’t sound like a very Asian name to me! Here’s some European-looking architecture, we’ve seen quite a bit in southeast Asia by this point. It’s not all that special, I know.

The next thing you’re about to see is far more interesting, don’t worry. Southeast Asia isn’t just temples or relics from when those horrible westerners ruled, oh no! George Town is famous for its street art, you won’t have to walk very far to find some but you might need to have your eyes peeled! The artwork can cleverly blend into its surroundings, one of my faovurite pieces is the two kids on the swings, see below!

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George Town is a cool place, it’s colourful and multicultural with all kinds of cuisines available to try. I remember having a pretty good curry, a pretty random rice dish and some pretty delicious tofu satay skewers during the time we stayed there. Day to day being vegetarian is no problem for me whatsoever, it’s not even something I think about anymore. However! When I travel and a country has a particular dish that I (probably) won’t be able to try, I do feel… I don’t know the word, not regretful, maybe annoyed(?). I really wanted to have satay skewers whilst in Malaysia, you can imagine that I was very happy when we managed to find a place doing a tofu alternative. God bless you tofu, you weird flavourless sponge. Here’s a picture of me eating said skewers complete with cute girl being nosy.

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George Town was probably my favourite place in Malaysia, admittedly we only visited 3: Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur being the others. It’s got a good feel to it, I like a place that’s had a range of influences. One negative to finish on though! I remember the heat being particularly oppressive here, for southeast Asia that’s saying something! Take some strong deodorant.