Sunday, May 31, 2015

China 2015 Installment #6: Guiyang

China 2015 with Myths and Mountains
Installment #6: Guiyang

Reunited with Wang Jun at the Guiyang airport

This morning we got up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for our flight to Guiyang to see our dear friend Wang Jun and his family. We said goodbye to our new friend Keely at the Chengdu airport, and took an Air China flight which arrived in Guiyang at 9:50. After picking up our luggage, we saw Wang Jun immediately and he gave us a big hug. He said that he'd call our driver. We were secretly hoping that it was Mr. Zhou, our driver from last October.  We waited on the curb and as the van approached, Wang Jun said, "Look who it is!" Mr. Zhou had a huge smile on his face and was waving at us happily from behind the wheel! We were so excited. He got out of the van to greet us and gave us big hugs. We were so happy to be together again as a foursome!

Craig and Mr. Zhou at lunch

We drove to a satellite district of Guiyang called Guanshanhu District. They are building many highrise apartments and moving government agencies here, as a way to relieve congestion in the city proper. We ate lunch and were surprised and delighted that we all ate together. Typical China guide protocol is that the guide eats with the driver, separate from the guests. Wang Jun said he was breaking his own rules, but we came up with a loophole - we are friends now,. not clients!
We enjoyed our lunch of spicy dishes and it was as though we had never left. I showed them some photos of us with the pandas and dressed up for the opera on my tablet.

After lunch, we went for a walk in the nice new Guanshanhu Park. The four of us enjoyed the park together. It was hot today, and the park was beautifully landscaped. There was a nice lake and you could see the modern architecture of the new city in the distance. There were playgrounds and statues depicting the ethnic minorities of the province. Signage encouraged environmental responsibility. We saw lotus blossoms and small turtles in a pond, and we noticed many birds.

Guanshanhu Park
Lotus and turtles, Guanshanhu Park
After our walk, we drove back to Guiyang, to the community where Wang Jun and his wife Xiao Yi live. It is a very nice residential community comprised of highrise condos, gardens, swimming pool, supermarket, hot springs, a hotel, shops, and a large movie theater under construction.  Mr. Zhou went to park the car and Wang Jun took us up to their 18th floor condo. We met Xiao Yi, who was quite lovely. We learned that 5-month-old Ziting, born a month after our last visit, was napping.

Wang Jun and Xiao Yi's beautiful engagement photo
We took a tour of their beautiful condo (or "nest", as Wang Jun likes to call it), which overlooked a pond and nearby mountains.  We looked through their gorgeous engagement photo albums and the two of them looked like models. So lovely! Xiao Yi put some baby photos on slideshow on the TV so we got a sneak peek at the lovely Ziting.  It was amazing what a happy baby she seemed to be.   We couldn't wait to meet her. Wang Jun and Xiao Yi went to the kitchen to prepare an elaborate dinner. We watched some TV with Mr. Zhou and showed him some panda photos.

Wang Jun and Xiao Yi hard at work cooking an elaborate dinner
Then Ziting woke up from her nap and Xiao Yi's mom, Zhu Yongli, brought her out to meet us.  She was so cute and smiley! I held her and she was very happy. Xiao Yi's mom kept taking photos with her phone.  They laid Ziting into her lady bug carriage, and we kept seeing her little feet kick up into happy baby pose. Her name translates to Graceful Purple, which suits her perfectly! We are so happy for  Wang Jun and Xiao Yi on this wonderful addition to their family.

Wang Jun and his "little thing", daughter Ziting
Darling Ziting
Ziting with Steph
Wang Jun's mother Chen Rulan arrived and was quite friendly. Despite the language barrier, a warm friendly smile goes a long way and everyone was soon at ease.  Then it was time for dinner - 11 dishes! Xiao Yi had cooked her specialty - a pork dish, and there were also crabs, shrimp, salad, prawn cakes, salmon sashimi with wasabi, sugary rice pudding, and more! Craig and Wang Jun drank beer. The grandmothers and I drank Bordeaux.  It was a delicious meal and we both ate to bursting because it was all so good and we couldn't stop. Xiao Yi had been a little bit nervous about cooking for us, but she needn't have been. Everything was delicious and their hospitality was fabulous. We kept thanking them and Wang Jun told us it was not necessary.

Dinner: Mr. Zhou, Wang Jun's mother, Xiao Yi's mother holding Ziting, Xiao Yi, Wang Jun, and Craig
Ziting and Xiao Yi's mother
After dinner we chatted.  The grandmothers asked about our godchildren and travels. Wang Jun asked if we liked Ziting. What kind of question is that? Of course we loved her immediately! Then he asked us to be her honorary godparents. Although they are not Christian, Chinese culture does have a similar concept.  He sees it as destiny that we met and became such good friends, and wants us to be a part of the family. He thought that it was telling that Ziting took to us right away even though she often exhibits stranger anxiety. We were delighted to be her honorary Gan Die and Gan Ma! All they asked is that we come to visit again within the next 5 to 10 years.  Even though it's the other side of the world, we can certainly do that! And she will always have family in Boston!

Craig says goodnight to Ziting
After a lovely evening with our new family, we said goodnight with plans to meet again in two nights for dinner at Wang Jun's sister's house. (His sister and her husband were supposed to join us for dinner tonight, but had to work late in preparation for tomorrow's Labor Day holiday). We were so happy, and so were they. Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou drove us back downtown, and along the way we passed some really prettily lit new buildings and bridges. Everything looks so pretty at night!

We arrived at the Sheraton, where we had stayed in October. It is a very nice hotel and we felt immediately at home. We check in, unwound, and went to sleep.

The next morning, May 1, after a nice breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and met Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou at 9:30.  There was traffic getting out of town. It was a national holiday (Labor Day), and everyone had the day off. Highway tolls were free, which encouraged many people to travel by car.

We arrived at the town where the Huangguoshu Waterfall is located. The town was closed to traffic due to the influx of holiday tourists, so Mr. Zhou found a parking spot and we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. As usual, locals at the restaurant were trying to sneak photos fo us, but we happily posed with their children, etc.

Afterwards we walked to a shuttle bus stop and took the shuttle bus to the entrance to  the smaller "thundering" waterfall (Doupotang). We got off the bus and walked on some nice walkways to the waterfall. Lots of families were visiting the waterfalls today. It was a sunny, hot day. The waterfall was very beautiful, and though "small" in relation to the main attraction, it was nonetheless impressive.

Duopotang Falls
Duopotang Falls
Then we walked to the large Great Waterfall, Huangguoshu. It is 77.8 meters high and 101 meters wide, one of the largest in Asia. We passed a statue of a Chinese geologist Xu Xiake who first "discovered" the waterfall in 1638. As we walked along the path, we got a glimpse of it. Absolutely stunning!  There were a lot of tourists here, and it was quite sunny and hot. Wang Jun seemed concerned about Craig's ability to walk further in the hot sun, and gave us the option of  viewing the waterfall from the observation areas, or actually walking behind the curtain of water, which would require braving the crowds and walking much further,

Craig was feeling good, and we couldn't resist the chance to walk behind a waterfall. But we really appreciated Wang Jun's concern for his well-being.  So we continued down the path until we got a to a point where we could no longer pass. We had encountered the queue to the waterfall. It was not single-file. People were crammed in the width of the walkway, shoulder to shoulder, as close to one another as possible. Nobody seemed bothered by this. The sun was very hot and people were doing what they could to shade themselves while they waited. People held up umbrellas, which were just at the right height to poke us in the eye, so we had to be vigilant. Fathers could be seen wearing their wives' frilly hats or their children's animal-shaped hats, just to get the sun off of their heads.

Huangguoshu Falls 
Queue to walk behind the water of Huangguoshu Falls 
The ebb and flow of the crowd  caused Craig to get a bit separated from us, and there was no way of regrouping, so we all just went with it. We drank our water and hoped not to get dehydrated as we sweated just standing still. Some people weren't able to take it any more, and security guards helped them up out of the line onto the hillside so that they could go back to the entrance (there was no "swimming upstream" in this queue!) At times, we had a very nice view of the falls with a rainbow shining brightly in its spray.

Huangguoshu Falls with a rainbow in its mist
Huangguoshu Falls
After an hour packed in like sardines, we got to a spot where the path narrowed and they controlled how many people could pass at one time. We felt like we could finally breathe when we got to this point, and we regrouped. Wang Jun  told us to enjoy, and that he would meet us at the other side. We walked behind the limestone into a cave which was lit with colorful lights. The water thundered over the falls, and we could see curtains of water rushing past holes in the rock face to our right.  We were so overheated that it felt great to feel the cold spray of water (except that I worried a bit about my bag getting wet).  We could look back across the ravine at the queue, and it was only getting longer and stretched as far as the eye could see. Wang Jun would see later on the news that there were 43,000 visitors here today, and he said that the numbers double on National Day in October. Wow! He said that he normally wouldn't take guests to a place like this on a national holiday because of the large crowds, but it was the only day that he could fit it into our itinerary. We didn't mind; in fact, it was kind of exciting. Despite the crowds, we felt very safe and everyone was very friendly and well-mannered.  And out of all of those guests, we never saw any other western tourists.

Steph behind Huangguoshu Falls (note the long queue for the waterfall in the background)
Craig and his new friends behind Huangguoshu Falls

Because of this, we found that many people wanted photos with us in the spray of the waterfall. We obliged and they kept switching out, one after the next.  We felt like rock stars and we wanted to give back to our public.

It was a great experience all around. We reunited with Wang Jun, who seemed relieved that we were ok, since we had taken so long to emerge from the cave. We explained that we had just been making new friends, and he shook his head, saying that only we would extract something so positive out of a very crowded destination.

We walked down to rejoin the main path. We were all tired after waiting so long in the hot sun, so we didn't want to walk all the way back out. Instead we took the "Grand Escalator", a 350 meter long escalator which is the longest sightseeing escalator in the world. It was billed as a site unto itself, and required purchasing a ticket to ride it.

There were beautiful bonsai gardens and hawker stalls on the way to the bus stop. The late afternoon light was beautiful on the plants and flowers. We took a crowded shuttle bus back. There were no seats available, so we were prepared to stand. The very courteous Chinese tourists made a seat available. Craig graciously sat down, as his MS makes it difficult for him to stand on a moving vehicle. I was perfectly happy to stand, but a  nice lady and her young daughter insisted that I perch on the end of their seats. Everyone was so friendly and kind to us!

We met up with Mr. Zhou and drove the short drive to the Tunpu Hotel. We checked in at 6 o'clock. This was a new resort complex with many small chalets with a few guest rooms in each, along with a common TV room. It had a  lodge/camp feel to the architecture, and there were various restaurants, a pool, and a bar on the premises.  Wang Jun said that he would make a dinner reservation for 7 o'clock. With all of the tourists who were staying here for the holiday, we wondered if that was even possible.

We took quick showers to freshen up after our day in the sun, and I washed some waterfall dirt off of our pants and shirts. Wang Jun stopped in at our room at 7 o'clock, and we met up with Mr. Zhou and walked to one of the on-site restaurants (The Homely Dish Diner). Although they had taken Wang Jun's reservation, they did not actually have a table for us (that Seinfeld rental car episode comes to mind).  It was smoky and crowded inside, but there was an outdoor deck. We preferred sitting outdoors, so we could either wait for a fancy outdoor table, or we could barbecue at one of the round wrought iron tables which had a hibachi in the middle. When presented with this choice, we opted for the barbecue, as it was a new experience. The whole atmosphere was kind of like camping anyway (though the rooms were quite nice), so it seemed appropriate.

Mr. Zhou and Wang Jun barbecue a delicious dinner
Since Mr. Zhou didn't have to drive tonight, the three guys enjoyed some beers.  Ganbe! We sat drinking while the staff prepared our barbecue by cleaning out the ashes, adding fresh charcoal, and lighting it. It was the first time Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou had barbecued with guests, and said that any guests other than us would have complained about such a thing. We can't imagine why. It was like sitting with friends around the campfire, which is one of life's treasured experiences.

Craig, Mr. Zhou, and Wang Jun after the barbecue
When the fire was hot enough, the servers brought over plate after plate of food: tofu, lettuce, bacon, spare ribs, egg plant, potatoes, fish, and beef. Mr. Zhou coated the grill grate and the the food with a marinade, and he and Wang Jun cooked it. We each had a plate of chili powder to dip our food in.  We lingered over the delicious meal, chatting and bonding. Mr. Zhou showed us photos of us that he has kept on his phone since our last visit.

We thanked them for the experience, and Wang Jun told us not to say thank you. We are family now. He had been saying this last night as well, when we had thanked his family for the lovely dinner. But we feel so sincerely thankful, that we automatically want to express it. Wang Jun explained that saying thanks among family and close friends seemed fake; people do things for one another because they want to, and as long as it makes the other person happy, no thanks is required. We said it would be hard for us not to thank them, but we would try, as we wanted to respect their cultural norms. We asked them not to be offended if we relapsed, and any time we would normally say thank you, we ended up saying "Good!" with a big smile. It became an in-joke.

We were feeling full but there were still entire plates of food which had not yet been cooked. And it was so good we just kept eating until it was gone. We kept refilling our plate with chili powder, covering every bit of our food with it and devouring it. Everything was delicious and we had a lovely evening enjoying one another's company over a leisurely dinner.

At 9 o'clock, we said our goodnights. We could hear Chinese rock music coming from nearby, so Craig and I walked over to the pool / bar area where a band was playing. As I took photos, and man and his young daughter approached Craig. She was carrying a small lantern. They said hello and offered Craig a cigarette, which he politely refused. The man then mimed having a drink and gestured for us to follow him. As much as we would have loved to have had a drink and chatted with him, we explained via sign language that we really should get to bed. It had been a long day in the sun and we should play it safe. It also seemed like they were on their way back to their room to put the little girl to bed.

Friendly tourist and his young daughter at the resort

Many people were out and about as we walked back to the room, and they all said nihao and smiled. When we went into the common room, a young man was watching basketball. We wondered if it would be noisy overnight. Luckily that wasn't a problem, and we went to bed at 10:30.

The next morning we walked to one of the restaurants on the premises for breakfast at around 8 o'clock. It was a Chinese buffet, and there was a narrow balcony outside the dining room. I was looking for a table out there and the hotel photographer got a waitress to clear a table for me. As we ate, he came over to photograph us. Maybe we were the first Americans who ever stayed there? We tried to pose for a photo, but he wouldn't bite. He waited until we shoved noodles and dumplings into our face with our chopsticks, and then took close-ups. So be on the lookout  for unflattering shots of us in their next brochure!
Waterfall at the Dragon Palace

After breakfast, we checked out shortly before 9 o'clock. We were worried that the Dragon Palace, our next stop,  might be as crowded as the waterfall was yesterday. But when we got there, it was no comparison. We walked along bridges and saw a cool waterfall inside a cave. We got photos with several people but we tried to keep moving so we could beat the crowds and make it back to Guiyang in time for dinner with the family. We got to the entrance to the boat ride and the corrals were empty. We got right onto a small boat and Wang Jun waved to us from the dock.

Boats about to enter the Dragon Palace water caves
Stalactites lit up and reflecting in the water in the Dragon Palace
It was a sunny day and we crossed a stretch of greenish water to the entrance of a limestone cave.  We were instructed to keep our hands in the boat and to watch our heads. We entered the cave, where brightly colored lights illuminated the stalactites and reflected in the water. The passage was narrow in most spots and we had some minor collisions with boats coming in the other direction (this is why we needed to keep our hands inside the boat!) All part of the fun! Once again, this was no Disney ride on a track. The cave opened up to a large misty cavern, and was very impressive. Once again I was so glad to have the good camera back! The low-light photos came out great, because a flash would have ruined the ambiance. We got to the other end of the cave, and then rode the boat back to the start. We met up with Wang Jun, who said that they are still expanding the cave tour, and that the portion of the cave that we explored was only 1/6 of the total length. Wow!

Stalactites lit up and reflecting in the water in the Dragon Palace
Craig and Wang Jun leaving the Dragon Palace
We drove back to Giuyang, where we ate lunch at a restaurant nearby Wang Jun's office. He sometimes walks here at lunch to eat with colleagues. We sat at a table out on the sidewalk and enjoyed our lunch.

We drove past his office building and went to the Flower and Bird Market. They dropped us off in the parking lot next to a statue of Chairman Mao, and Wang Jun gave us from 2:30-4 to wander by ourselves. Though the name calls out flowers and birds, you can buy just about anything in the narrow meandering alleys of this market. Fish, turtles, tadpoles, birds, rabbits, mice, incense, kitchen goods, tea, traditional Chinese medicine, porcelain, etc.  None of the salespeople in the market were pushy at all. It almost seemed weird not to be accosted.

Craig at the Guiyang bird and flower market
We went into a store called Two Little Fishies that sold the most amazing home salt water aquariums we had ever seen, containing vibrant, thriving coral, tube worms, and tropical fish. The tanks were crystal clear and healthy. The area was crowded with families because of the holiday - especially the dog and cat alleyway. Some of the dogs were huge! Many were very well-groomed.  Alleyways were narrow and at one point we heard a mortorcycle approaching. We looked up and saw a motorcycle with a large tree on the back making its way down the alley. It was so wide that it could barely fit. We had to duck down an adjacent alley to get out of his way. He somehow managed to navigate his way through.
Wide load coming down a narrow alley at the Guiyang bird and flower market
We ran into Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou at 3:45 in the market, and by then we were all ready to go. Mr. Zhou drove us to the Sheraton to check in. Wang Jun had a long talk with the clerk and when he handed us the key cards he said, "Don't say anything about your room." We looked confused.  "You will know what I mean when you see it." It turned out to be a large corner room with a walk-in closet, king bed, desk, love seat, and a comfortable chair. There was a spectacular view of the First Scholar's Pavilion (Jiaxiu Tower) out one window (we had seen the Sheraton from the pavilion in October, but not the other way around) and the parks containing the large Chairman Mao statue and the Lusheng Flute Stage out the other window. WOW!

View of the First Scholar's Pavilion (Jiaxiu Tower) from our room at the Sheraton Guiyang

We had just under an hour to freshen up and then we met Wang Jun at 5 o'clock in the lobby. We said, "You told us not to say anything about the room, but...good." It was very difficult not to say thank you for arranging this room upgrade! We drove back to Wang Jun's neighborhood, and went to his sister's building this time, another condo in the same complex. We rode the elevator up to the 23rd floor, where were greeted by his sister Chen Xiaohong and her husband Yuan Huizhong, as well as Wang Jun's mom, Chen Rulan. We got the tour of the condo. Wang Jun's sister speaks some English, and apologized that her daughter Yuan Siyuan was not home for the holiday (she had an exam at university this weekend).

Steph, Ziting, and Craig
Xiao Yi and Ziting
Ziting with Wang Jun's mother
Yuan Huizhong served us fancy tea, small bananas, and pears. We showed them our photo album. Then Xiao Yi and baby Ziting arrived. They handed the baby to me and she sat contentedly for a few minutes. Even when she fussed it was so minor and quiet. We took a few more photos with her and then it was time for dinner. Wang Jun's sister had prepared her specialty: Chinese cabbage in a tasty sauce. We also had Chinese mandarin fish, corn, soya, chicken dipped in chili paste, salmon sashimi with wasabi, shredded carrots. Wang Jun, his brother-in-law, and Craig drank lots of beer, and they sereved another bottle of the delicious Bordeaux from the other night. I ended up drinking the majority of the bottle myself, as Wang Jun's sister was the only other person to have some.But it was so good! I am definitely becoming a big fan of red wine! Birgit would be proud.  Mr, Zhou did not drink as he would be driving later. He is a very responsible driver, and we respected and appreciated that.

Wang Jun's mother, Wang Jun's sister, Xiao Yi, and Ziting

Wang Jun's brother-in-law and Mr. Zhou
The spiciest dish was mushrooms with chilies, and they hadn't believed Wang Jun that Craig would be able to eat this.  They watched him intently and gave him a big thumbs-up. Craig wasn't putting on a show - he didn't just eat it to prove that he could. He genuinely loved it! Wang Jun's sister immediately ran into the kitchen and added some more chilis to some dipping sauce. She had gone easy at first in case we couldn't take it, but when she realized how much we were enjoying it, she spiced it up eve more. When the sashimi was running low. she insisted on preparing more. They wanted to make sure we had plenty of food.We had difficulty not thanking everyone profusely for their generous hospitality, but we hoped that our smiles and full bellies conveyed our appreciation!

The family told us that this is nothing compared to their spring festival feasts, where they often serve more than 20 dishes in a single meal! They invited us to visit for the spring festival within the next couple of years, so that we could spend time together, enjoy the celebration, meet the extended family, etc. It sounded fantastic and we will definitely make it a priority to come back and see our Chinese family! Wang Jun started to list off other things we could do in the area, and that he would like to take us to the hot springs and also karaoke (Lost in Translation sprang to mind again...What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?)

Ziting and Wang Jun's sister
Ziting had fallen asleep during dinner but she woke up just before we said goodnight. She is such a good baby!  At 9:15, Mr. Zhou drove us back to the hotel. There was a sobriety checkpoint during the ride, so it was very good that Mr. Zhou had been self-disciplined about not drinking, even though the rest of us had gotten a little tipsy.

Wang Jun, Ziting, and Xiao Yi
The next morning we would head to Kaili together for the Miao people's annual Sister's Meal courtship festival!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Video of our day volunteering at Dujiangyan Panda Center in Chengdu

We created a video montage of our experiences volunteering at Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control Center on April 29, 2015.

For those who have asked, there are no photos or video footage of our work at the panda facility because we were busy working!  :)  Also, yes the pandas have freedom to go outside or inside at will, but they come inside for the feeding and to avoid the very hot and sunny day.  It was so hot that we were also “hiding” inside when we didn’t have to work!  So yes, they have far more freedom than it might appear!  The ‘cages’ and ‘bars’ are protecting humans while feeding them.  They could be running around on the hillside, splashing in a water feature, or climbing a tree, but in their spare time they are looking to keep cool and for the easy meal that we were offering inside!

Monday, May 25, 2015

China 2015 Installment #5: Chengdu

After whetting our appetite for pandas at the Chongqing Zoo, it was now time to go to Chengdu, where we would volunteer at a panda center! We were so grateful to Mia for her help with getting a new battery charger, so we would be able to use our good camera for the panda visit!

Chongqingbei train station

Mia and the driver took us to the brand new Chongqingbei bullet train station. We said our goodbyes to Mia and boarded the train. It was a non-stop which traveled at just under 200 km/hr and arrived in Chengdudong at noon after a very comfortable 2 hour ride.

Keely, our lovely Chengdu guide

There we met Keely, our very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable Chengdu guide. After stopping for a spicy Sichuan lunch, we checked in to the St. Regis Hotel. Now, we have stayed in some amazing hotels (India and Vietnam come to mind) but this was mind-blowing. We've never seen anything like it! The room was enormous, with a foyer, bathroom, walk-in closet, and bedroom/office. The toilet lid opened automatically when you entered the bathroom, and it had a whole control panel to control its features. The brand of the toilet was Toto, which caused Craig to remark "We're not in Kansas any more!" There was an iPad for our use, several iPod docks, and Bose speakers. The room had more amenities than we had ever even imagined. While we were exploring everything, there was a knock at our door. It was our butler (?!) asking if we needed anything, and then subsequently bringing us coffee. This was too much!

After a couple of hours' rest, we met Keely downstairs. Mr. Liao drove us a short way to People's Park. It was the first public park in the city, established in 1911. It was a lovely, green park. People were dancing, as they always do in Chinese parks.  Families were punting on a picturesque small lake. Keely led us to the Heming Tea House, established in the 1920's. There are tables for enjoying tea next to the river, and then there is another section with mah jong tables.

Lake at People's Park, Chengdu

Keely offered to buy us a cup of tea and teach us to play mah jong. We had been very curious about mah jong, after watching so many people playing on the Yangtze River Cruise. It would be nice to get a chance to learn to play ourselves. Keely bought us tea, and we sat at a table. We shuffled the tiles and then laid them out in a square line two tiles high. Keeley led us through a game with all of our tiles showing. It is basically like rummy, using tiles instead of cards. The gist of it is that there are 3 suits (coins, sticks, and numbers) and you need to collect 3-tile numeric sequences or 3-of-a-kind in a given suit.

Learning to play mah jong at Heming Tea House at People's Park

Learning to play mah jong at Heming Tea House at People's Park

Two Americans being taught mah jong by a young Chinese woman was indeed a spectacle for the locals, and many people snapped our photos and gave us a thumbs-up. Craig won the first game, and a silver-haired Chinese man asked Keely if he could join the next game. We played another round with our new friend, as another man stood beside Craig and coached him. Our new friend won the second game, and I won the third. It was a lot of fun. This was  a very nice, impromptu activity, and we were very grateful to Keely for suggesting it. We got to feel like a local, playing mah jong and sipping tea in a beautiful, relaxing urban oasis, and meet some nice people along the way.

After exploring the rest of the park, we walked down Upper Changshun Street. This area was very tourist friendly, and contained many murals and displays depicting the history of the area. One set of old wooden doors had carvings of opera characters, and you could spin the faces around to show different makeup. It called to mind the Sichuan Opera face changing shows that we had seen on TV and briefly on the cruise, but that we would see here in Chengdu tomorrow night.

Changing the faces on the opera characters, Upper Changshun Street

Getting a ride from a stereotypical "hen-pecked husband" in Chengdu

Then we arrived at our destination,  Kuanzhaixiangzi Alley (wide and narrow alleys). This area has the largest concentration of ancient buildings in the city, and is viewed as Chengdu in miniature. Built in 1718, the alleys were originally part of hutongs (small neighborhoods) built for quartering soldiers and their families.

Now, there are lots of shops and restaurants here, as well as a few private residences, whose owners had held out and refused to sell when the government bought out the area for tourism around 2008. The late afternoon sun was very pretty, and we enjoyed strolling down first the Wide Alley, then the Narrow Alley, and then the Well Alley.  The architecture was very traditional, and there were statues evoking various professions from history which are still practiced in the alleys today: cigar sellers, waiters, and silversmiths. There were hawker stalls and sit-down restaurants, candy makers, tea houses, and stores selling panda paraphernalia.People sat on chairs on the sidewalks having their ears cleaned, as a man or woman wearing a headlamp peered into their ears and cleaned them with metal tools. This is fairly commonplace in China, but seems a bit unusual by American standards, where we would go to a doctor and pay a premium for such a service rather than getting it done for cheap on the street. We ate dinner at a restaurants in one of the alleys.  Having seen how much spicy food we had enjoyed at lunch, Keely ordered us even more. It was delicious
Kuanzhaixiangzi Alley
Kuanzhaixiangzi Alley

We got back to the hotel at 8 o'clock. The room had been turned down and a gift was waiting for us on the bed...a porcelain bell decorated with a Beijing Opera mask. Wow! It was now dark outside and our view overlooked the beautifully lit city. Lost in Translation came to mind again, as it was reminiscent of the view from Scarlett Johansson's hotel room. Craig went into the mini bar and perused all of the complimentary coffee, tea, and espresso options. He decided to make tea. I filled the tub with hot water and bath salts and took a relaxing bath. While soaking, I wrote in the journal, sipped tea,  and watched the World Table Tennis Championships Suzhou on the TV embedded within the bathroom wall. This place was over the top, and we were determined to enjoy every amenity!

The next morning we needed to get an early start in order to get breakfast prior to volunteering at the panda health center. We woke up at 4:45 a.m., took nice showers, and got ready for the day. We arrived at  the Social Restaurant on the 4th floor as it opened at 6 a.m. We had had some great breakfasts on this trip, but this blew them all out of the water. Decadent fresh homemade donuts/muffins/pastries, cheese, fresh yogurt, fresh juice, and even green tea gelato, never mind all of the standard eggs, sausage, bacon, and Chinese offerings! This hotel sure was amazing.

We met Keely in the lobby at 7:10. She talked excitedly about pandas on the ride, giving us lots of background information. It is one of the highlights of her job to get to see pandas sometimes several times per week.

Chengdu is known as the laid-back city, and it is said that this is why the pandas "chose"" it. Pandas have been around for at least 8 million years.  There are 1826 pandas left in the world, and 70% live in the wild. They used to eat meat. Now it is very rare, but females sometimes do it after giving birth. They eat 30-40 kg of bamboo per day but only absorb 20%. It seems from very current research that over millions of years, their bodies never adapted to eating a vegetarian diet, so they are very inefficient at digesting it.

Pandas have a lifespan of 20 years in the wild. In captivity, the oldest panda has lived to 38 years. Every year, the strongest teenage panda is released back into the wild wearing a GPS.

Craig suited up in his overalls, ready to volunteer at the Dujiangyan Panda Base

We drove to the Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control Center, run by the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda. It is a brand new facility, having been built after the Wolong Research Center was devastated by an earthquake in 2008. This new facility is not entirely open to the public yet, but it does take tour groups from certain agencies, and runs a volunteer program. We were very excited and didn't quite know what to expect.

We were led upstairs by an employee named Jenny, who has worked as a guide at panda centers for two years. She handed us each a set of blue coveralls with a patch on them that said "Panda Husbandry Learner". She also gave us each a volunteer card on a lanyard to wear around our necks. The card was adorable and had an extremely stylized cartoon image of a very happy and excited panda. After we were suited up, Jenny returned and said that it was supposed to be very hot today, and she thought we would be more comfortable in short sleeves. We breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that we would roast in the coveralls. So instead she gave us lime green polo shirts with panda faces and the logo of the Center. She said that we would get to keep them.

There was a pile of coveralls and shirts, so it looked like we weren't the only volunteers, But nobody else had shown up yet. We had to read and sign some paperwork which stipulated that we had to listen to the panda keepers, perform our assigned tasks to completion, and follow the rules. We should not take photos except when instructed that it is ok to do so, etc. We were given a pair of gloves to protect our hands from the sharp bamboo. I stuck my camera and a spare battery in my pocket, grabbed our water bottles, and we were ready to go.

We don't have to wear coveralls after all! Ready to volunteer at the Dujiangyan Panda Base

A few minutes later we got onto a golf cart and were taken  to a small group of panda enclosures.  The enclosures have indoor and outdoor areas. The indoor areas have bars to protect the keepers while feeding, and they stay cooler in temperature than the outdoors. They have cement floors, and windows so that the pandas can see outside. There is a little gate which the keepers can close when they want to keep the panda indoors or outdoors, but otherwise they can move freely between the two.

We met Qu, a panda keeper for the past 16 years. She handed us brooms and dust pans, and instructed us to clean the outdoor part of 2.5 year old male Ha Ha's enclosure. Ha Ha was indoors while we cleaned up his yard. Craig used his twig broom to sweep up bamboo detritus, leftover from prior feedings. I used my synthetic broom to sweep up the "poopoo", as Qu called it. Actually, it was not much more than bamboo detritus itself. It consisted of large chunks that were shaped like a seed pod. Some were wet but most were dry. They did not have an odor, and looked like punky wood. It really just seemed to be the ~80% of the bamboo that the panda couldn't digest.

It was early in the morning, but the sun was hot and we were thankful that we weren't wearing the coveralls. We disposed of the bamboo and the poopoo in separate plastic buckets. The outdoor area was hilly and covered with grass, and had a little ditch around the perimeter for drainage.

While we did this, Qu was taking fresh long green stalks of bamboo and slamming them on the pavement to break them up and make them easier for the pandas to eat. When we were done cleaning, we carried armloads of bamboo into the outdoor enclosure for Ha Ha. Qu coaxed Ha Ha to go outside, and when he was safely out with the gate closed behind him, we entered the indoor enclosure to clean it out.  We swept out the bamboo detritus and poopoo from indoors as well. Then Qu handed Craig a hose and he sprayed down the floor while I scrubbed it with my broom and pushed the excess water into the drainage trench. While we were doing this, Ha Ha was a bit curious, and sat on the other side of the gate watching us. Qu instructed us to keep a meter's distance between ourselves and the gate, in case he tried to reach in. Pandas are friendly by nature, but they are large bears with sharp claws, and sometimes they do not know their own strength. As cuddly as they look, you should not turn your back on one because they could hurt you without intending to. We were working very hard. and Qu seemed impressed by the thorough job that we were doing.

Qu squeegeed the floor to dry it, and then we went next door to a 20 year old female panda's enclosure. We cleaned the inside of her enclosure while she waited outside. It was really hot and sweat was dripping from our faces. But we felt strongly about doing the best job we could, and we were grateful for the opportunity to help this endangered species in our small way.

When we finished sweeping, spraying, and wiping down the enclosure, we went outside and there were about a dozen Chinese teenagers dressed in our same polo shirts, gloves, and badges. They were sweeping bamboo leaves and sticks from the pavement walkway in a very half-assed fashion. Most of the girls just huddled in the shade. The boys used one hand to sweep, very slowly. Craig swept circles around the kids, and I came through with my dustpan and disposed of everything as fast as the kids would sweep it, having perfected his technique with the twig broom. Despite the heat and danger of dehydration, we had a real work ethic today and wanted to actually make Qu's job easier rather than complicating it. She was very grateful to us and kept thanking us for our hard work.

Yi Chnag: 2.5 year old female giant panda

Yi Chang cools down in her water feature

Once the walkway was clear of leaves, we were given a few moments to observe and photograph Yi Chang outside. She is about to turn 3 years old in July.  Yi Chang was obviously hot outside in the sun. She was panting. There was a little water feature in her enclosure, and she lay down in it, trying to get cool. She was adorable and fluffy, with bright eyes and a pink tongue that she occasionally stuck out. By this time, a small group of Chinese tourists had arrived. Though there was plenty of signage asking people to please be quiet and respectful around the pandas, these people were so loud! They were making all kinds of loud noise (including barking like a dog) to get her to look at their cameras. It was very frustrating for us, who had been silently watching or talking very quietly to the pandas in a voice we usually reserve for babies or cats.

Two 1.5 year old pandas eating bamboo at the panda kindergarten

Next we went for a walk around the area with Jenny. We saw a red panda (who promptly went right back inside). Most of the other giant pandas seemed to be inside keeping cool in the late morning heat, so we walked past their empty outdoor enclosures. The grounds were beautiful, with lots of flowers in bloom (some of the biggest clovers I have ever seen). Workers were laying concrete for new footpaths. The grounds were beautiful and peaceful. Everything was very clean and the employees obviously took pride in their work and had a sincere love for the pandas in their care,

We climbed a hill overlooking the panda kindergarten, where we could observe two 1.5 year old pandas eating bamboo from a distance. We could only see one at first, but when we looked closer, we saw the other reflected in the window. It was sitting on steps which were out of view, but we could see it perfectly in the reflection. A man was recording the sound of them eating, which carried a long distance - we could hear them chomping from the hill above. We were thrilled by these opportunities to observe these rare and precious creatures. The teenagers acted disinterested, and preferred sitting in the shade checking their phones.

Yi Chang sticks out her tongue

Yi Chang

We were brought back to Ha Ha and Yi Chang's area. The very photogenic Yi Chang was still sitting on top of her water feature. More noisy tourists arrived, and Yi Chang abandoned her cool spot to go to the other side of the enclosure, ostensibly to get away from them. We were frustrated with their behavior and walked over to where she went. We were quiet and she stood right on the other side of the glass, looking at us contentedly.

Steph feeding Ha Ha, 2.5 year old male giant panda

Now it was time to feed the pandas! Qu invited us and three other women into Ha Ha's indoor enclosure. This panda was trained to sit with one paw grasping a stainless steel handle, to immobilize that paw for safety as the keepers feed him. As we all entered, Ha Ha sat right down and expectantly grabbed the handle with his right paw. Qu demonstrated putting a piece of food (bamboo shoot, carrot, bread) up to Ha Ha's mouth. He gently opened his mouth and took the food with his left paw. We then each got the chance to feed him several items. He was very calm and looked us right in the eyes before we handed him the food. He took it from us very gently, and at one point I could feel his lips gently grazing my fingers. I was actually putting food into a bear's mouth! It was surreal!

Craig feeding Ha Ha, 2.5 year old male giant panda

Qu stepped outside for a moment, and as soon as she left, a third woman tried to feed Ha Ha a carrot without permission. We were dumbstruck. The two other volunteer girls told her not to, and thankfully she put the carrot back on the tray.

Then we went next door to feed the 20-year-old female panda next door. Qu explained that she was rescued from the wild, so she doesn't like the nutritious panda cakes that the staff prepares for the captive pandas. She will only eat raw food.. So they need to feed her extra bamboo shoots and veggies. This afternoon they will prepare corn for her. Even though she is a senior citizen by panda standards, wild pandas are smaller than those bred in captivity, and she was no exception.

Qu, who has loved being a panda keeper for 16 years

She was standing up on her hind legs, holding on to the bars like she was being searched by the police. She did not follow the protocol of holding onto the handle (also probably because she was not raised in captivity). She held on to one of the bars most of the time, but sometimes she got excited and grabbed for the food with both paws, When given a nice plump bamboo shoot, she sprawled out on her back and ate it, and all kinds of bamboo debris accumulated on her tummy. She looked like she was smiling. We noticed that the fur on her underbelly was not as white as the rest of her fur, and had more of a brownish tone. Her toes were sticking through the bars, and we could notice the length of her claws. She would do a sit-up when she needed to replenish her food supply, wiping the crumbs from her belly. It was adorable! We were enthralled, and felt so lucky to be able to witness this,

Feeding a 20-year-old female panda rescued from the wild

After feeding the pandas their lunch, it was time for our lunch. We all took the golf cart back to the staff cafeteria, where we ate the same lunch that is provided to the panda keepers and other employees. We were each handed a metal segmented cafeteria tray loaded up with stewed carrots, stinky tofu, and a cold dish which seemed to include cucumber and bacon. We served ourselves a helping of rice, and I bought a water for Craig and a Sprite for myself. They also sold cigarettes called Pride which had cartoon pandas on the packaging. What's cuter than a Camel? Panda Pride! It seemed wrong to be using an endangered species as marketing for cigarettes.

Keely and Mr. Liang were also eating here, and we told Keely what an amazing time we were having. We ate our lunches, and we usually like to eat what is presented to us. But we just didn't like the stinky tofu. We had heard about it before, and had even eaten it in small amounts. But this big pile of tofu in its pungent-smelling broth was just unappetizing. I spilled a drop onto my jeans, and deemed that between that and the panda poopoo, these jeans were probably ready to be retired until I got home to my washing machine.The rest of the food was tasty and enjoyable, but we think stinky tofu must be an acquired taste!

Lunch in the staff cafeteria

After lunch, we had about an hour to relax. We had been so hot and sweaty this morning that we just sat in the cool stairwell relaxing, getting ready for our afternoon shift. At 1 o'clock, we and the teenagers reconvened for a film that explained a lot about the panda program.

The movie, which turned out to be an early cut of  National Geographic's "Pandas: The Journey Home," follows Dr. Zhang and his team from the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda (which runs this base and program), as they breed, raise, and release pandas back into the wild. Historically, people have had trouble breeding pandas in captivity. Much resulting research taught them that females are only fertile two days per year!  Now they can pinpoint fertility via blood tests and offer them multiple opportunities to mate during that time period. This has greatly increased pregnancy rates.

Also, infants used to have a high mortality rate. They observed the mothers patting the tummies of the babies, which they discovered prompted the babies to poopoo. They found out the babies didn't have the muscle strength to do so on their own. So researchers started patting the tummies as well, and then the babies started to thrive.

Both of these discoveries have increased panda numbers. It was very informative and heartwarming.

Ha Ha is ready to be fed!

At 2 o'clock, we headed back out to the enclosures for our afternoon shift. The first thing to do was to feed Ha Ha again. It was such a thrill to feed the pandas.  Qu went into Ha Ha's enclosure. She called his name and he came right in from outside. He stood up and Qu made a gentle hand gesture. He immediately sat down and held on to his handle, ready to be fed. He seemed to nod his head "yes" as each of us approached him with food. He was so gentle and well-behaved. We didn't feed him as much as we did earlier. The pandas needed to have blood drawn, and food keeps them calm during the process. They wanted the pandas to still be hungry when it was time for their blood test. When Qu stepped outside for a moment,we followed her out. The two other girls who were feeding Ha Ha stayed inside, and  posed for a selfie in front of him. But they were too close to the bars and turned their back on him. When Qu saw them, she quickly asked them to step away for their own safety.

As Qu put her gloves on and opened the enclosures for cleaning, Craig put his gloves on and followed her. She stopped him, and said that we had done enough hard work all morning, and that we should relax and enjoy observing Ha Ha. She said she would make the teenagers do their share of the work. I think that she was appreciative of how mindful we were of the rules, and that she didn't need to worry about us doing anything unsafe. We stood just outside the door, where we were still very close to Ha Ha and could watch him, but were out of harm's way.

She directed the teenagers to clean out Yi Chang's indoor enclosure, and sweep out Ha Ha's outdoor enclosure.

Ha Ha stands up

Ha Ha obviously had not eaten his fill. He assumed the feeding position, holding on to his handle, and looking at us expectantly. He even stood on his hind legs, looking like a Grateful Dead dancing bear. He became very playful, tumbling and rolling around on the floor. Qu was outside smashing bamboo stalks on the ground. Like Pavlov's dog, Ha Ha's mouth started to visibly water as he thought about that delicious bamboo. He really seemed to enjoy our company as we spoke softly to him. He looked right at us and we felt a connection with this gentle creature.

The door to the neighboring enclosure was open, and I walked over to get some photos of the 20 year old panda rescued from the wild.  She was sitting up, eating bamboo with both hands. When I was out of Ha Ha's sight, Craig said that he stopped playing and went and sat in the corner, looking in the direction I had walked, as if waiting for me to come back. Craig called me back to explain, and Ha Ha immediately started playing again. To test Craig's theory, he asked me to walk away again. Same thing happened. I guess Ha Ha really likes me!

Qu went into his cage and said "xièxie" (thank you) to him, and told him to go outside. He went right through his gate to his outdoor area, and started eating some of the fresh bamboo that the teenagers had placed there for him.

It was now time to leave, after a very enjoyable and rewarding day with the pandas. We took the golf cart back to the base, where we met up with Keely. She gave us our panda schwag for volunteering and making a donation to the panda center:  T-shirts, volunteer certificates, donation certificates, buttons, and a newsletter in a nice cloth bag. On our way out, because we gave a donation to the center,  we stopped in to get a short private viewing of Wu Wen. She was a 1.5 year old female who was much smaller than Ha Ha, even though he was only a year her senior. Wu Wen was very cute and laid back, enjoying her afternoon bamboo.

This had been a once in a lifetime experience, and we know we will cherish the memories for the rest of our lives.

Wu Wen, 1,5 year old female giant panda

Update: See our panda video montage here!

Thoroughly satisfied, we left at around 3:30 to drive back to Chengdu. We hit rush hour traffic so we didn't get back to the hotel until 5 o'clock. We had 45 minutes to shower and get ready for the Sichuan Opera.  We met Keely at 5:45 and walked to another ancient street for dinner at Pan Sun Shi, established in 1925. Keely ordered us more deliciously spicy Sichuan food, and even brought us a dragonfruit for dessert. What a sweetie!

Shu Feng Ya Yun Opera House, Chengdu

At 6:40, we met Mr. Liang and he drove us to the Shu Feng Ya Yun opera house. Sichuan Opera ia very different from Beijing Opera, and we looked forward to observing the differences. We went to a museum across the street from the opera house, where an avid collector of opera memorabilia had costumes, props, instruments, and makeup boxes on display for the public. There was an opportunity to dress up in opera costumes and makeup at the theater, and seeing all of these beautiful costumes really convinced me that I wanted to do it!

Steph gets Sichuan opera makeup applied

So we went to the opera house, and went straight to the makeup area. Actors and actresses were getting their makeup done for the performance. You could watch or participate. We had half an hour before the opera started, so that was plenty of time. I had fully anticipated doing it alone, but Craig said that since I seemed so excited about it, he would participate as well. I was delighted! We chose our costumes, and for $50 total, they did our makeup, hair, and costumes. A young woman did my makeup, first putting pale pancake makeup on my face, followed by a deep shade of pink eye shadow around my eyes. She then used black eye liner on my eyebrows and eyelids, and black eye shadow on my upper lids. Next she used a brush to apply bright red shiny lipstick. Meanwhile, a young man in similar eye makeup applied the same treatment to Craig (minus the lipstick).

Craig gets Sichuan opera makeup applied

They dressed Craig up in an elaborate costume similar to what we had seen at the Beijing Opera. They padded his stomach and then put on a blue and white embroidered gown, and attached four flags to his back. They finished him off with a silver headdress with pink pom poms, and handed him a sword. When my makeup was done, I came over to get my hair done. Craig looked at me and didn't recognize me at first! They clipped black extensions onto the front of my hair. A young Chinese woman who had also dressed up wanted to get her photo taken with Craig. She asked Keely, who told her that Craig was very nice and that she should ask him herself. She shyly asked and the two posed together for a photo.

Craig and a young lady who also got an opera makeover

Steph dressed up for the Sichuan Opera

Some Chinese women and their children watched with amusement as I was dressed. They padded my chest (first time that has EVER happened!) and dressed me in a costume very similar to Craig's but with a red and blue color scheme. I had a silver headdress with pink and yellow pompoms and long feathers protruding from the sides. They handed me a spear and I was ready to go! They had a stage area with a  nice backdrop for photos, and Craig's makeup artist came over and showed up how to pose with the weapons. It was a lot of fun.

Craig and Steph dressed up for the Sichuan Opera

Craig and Steph dressed up for the Sichuan Opera

After our photo shoot, we took off the costumes. They asked if we wanted them to remove the makeup or if we wanted to continue to wear it. We decided to leave it on, just for fun.  We went to our seats, which were in a courtyard with a tent-like roof overhead. It was cabaret-style seating, and they gave you complimentary tea and snacks. Two young ladies dressed in yellow were on stage pouring tea from the long, elegant teapots. They poured it in a very choreographed way.

We left our makeup on while watching the performance, just for fun
Sichuan opera performer
The show started shortly after 8 o'clock.  The stage was well-lit, and non-flash photography was allowed. Once again, I was glad to have my good camera.  Musicians came onstage, and then actors in elaborate costumes. While the show was going on, you could get chair massages or ear cleaning. It was a very casual atmosphere which befitted the laid-back style of Chengdu.

Puppeteer and fairy stick puppet

Then a man played a stringed instrument with a bow, making it sound like a horse galloping and whinnying. This was followed by a woman with a stick puppet. The puppet had an elaborate costume, and its movements were so life-like that sometimes we forgot it was a puppet. When I think of stick puppets, I think of Muppets, which have a limited range of motion. This puppeteer could make the fairy puppet do very elaborate gestures. It spun a silk kerchief and moved it from hand to hand, and even picked a flower. The puppeteer made it look effortless.

Then there was another opera scene, with colorful costumes, facial makeup, and long beards,
Next, a woman performed hand shadow puppets. It was amazing. I think the most impressive was a rabbit, which she made run and blink its little eye. A man played a simple horn, and made it sound like two people having a conversation.  Then there was a comedic skit called "Rolling Light". A hen-pecked husband (a common theme in Chengdu) was yelled at by his wife, and placed a burning oil lamp on his head. He went through a variety of contortions with the lamp still balanced and lit on his head to try to impress his wife. This skit dates back to the Han dynasty, yet it is timeless and still gets laughs from modern audiences.

Rolling light hen-pecked husband

The grand finale of the show was the face changing (bian lian) performance, which dates back to approximately the 17th century. It is a form of quick-change magic. Actors came out onstage with colorful masks covering their faces. They waved a flag in front of them, and suddenly their costume was a different color. He did this several times and it was an amazing illusion. Another actor breathed fire. Then, all of the actors wearing masks (there were around 6 of them) paraded around the stage. They would wave their sleeve, a fan, or a flag in front of their faces, and immediately the mask would be a totally different color and pattern. It was amazing. They were so skilled! At the end, an actor in a elaborate black costume merely kicked his leg up in the air, and when he came down he had a different face. He then rapidly passed a fan in front of his face, changing into two masks in quick succession and finally revealing his face. It was amazing!

Face changing show: yellow mask
Face changing show: pink mask

Keely came to collect us and we walked out to the car Mr, Liang opened the door for me and when he saw my face n the makeup he did a double-take, He gave me a big smile and told Keely that I looked very beautiful.

When we got back to the hotel, two employees said that although the majority of their guests attend the Sichuan opera, they have never seen them return in full makeup. We showed them our photos and they were quite amused.  We went  and scrubbed the makeup off of our faces. It was very difficult and took 15-20 minutes. I used the complimentary loofah, and had loofah burns on my cheeks for the next few days. The black eyeliner was very difficult to remove, but it was a small price to pay for the experience! I had felt like a movie star (though I looked more like a German cabaret performer once I took off the costume).

We enjoyed our final night at the luxurious St. Regis. We had had an amazing time with Keely in Chengdu.

Tomorrow we would be reuniting with our dear friend Wang Jun, and getting to meet his family!

Saying farewell to Keely at the Chengdu Airport