From February 29 to March 7, ACC hosted a field trip to Sichuan. It was a much-needed break after the conclusion of our midterms. We not only had a written test but also two oral presentations with Q&A. I was very grateful to get out of Beijing for a few days!

The Friday our midterms concluded, we headed to Beijing’s West Station and boarded a train for a 25-hour journey! I was so tired from the week I had just gone through, so I did not mind that the school had put us in what was called “hard sleepers.” We had beds, but they were stacked three to a column, and I had the fortune of being assigned to a top bunk; this bunk had the lowest clearance of all three bunks and made for an exciting train ride. I had to contort like a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat to get in and out of bed.

Despite that difficulty, the train ride was a great way to see how the common Chinese travel and get a taste for the countryside. The train itself looked fairly new, so that made the trip easier. I won’t say I want to have that experience again, but at least I have done it and know what it is like.

Crowded Chengdu
On Saturday evening we arrived in the capital of Sichuan: Chengdu. It is a major city with a population density greater than that of Beijing. Their population is smaller, but because of geographical limitations and city design, it feels much more crowded. Despite Beijing’s population of 12 to 13 million, it does not feel that crowded. Granted, people are always around and the subways are a sight to see during rush hour, but I still feel like I can breathe; in Chengdu, not so much.

The roads seemed lawless and crazier than anything I have ever seen in Beijing, Shanghai or Suzhou. Cabbies would speed down busy side streets, and it felt like we were in a video game dodging pedestrians. To be honest I was not that scared, though. I think I have been in enough cabs to realize that despite the chaos and inestimable near misses, it’s safe for OTHER drivers. I really think pedestrians are injured more than drivers by cars.

Another interesting fact about Chengdu is that it is the last major city before heading into Tibet. Unless you take the train out of Beijing, most people start their Tibetan journeys in Chengdu. The city itself is not mountainous, but drive two hours outside the city and the mountains start rising out of the Chengdu plain.

ben-panda.jpgHello, baby panda
On Sunday we had our first outing to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Base. It is really an amazing center with advanced research facilities, and the pandas are treated like emperors. What is also amazing about that place is that it is one of only two places in China that allows the public to hold pandas. (I think that also means that there are only two places in the world that allows the public to hold pandas – unless there are zoos out there that allow this.)

I had previously heard about this and had made up my mind that I was going to hold a panda. The price is kind of steep, but they have to be or else everyone would want to hold them. However, I thought the experience was totally worth it.

I entered near the nursery compound, and I was brought into a terrace and asked to put on scrubs. This was obviously for the panda’s protection and not mine – these animals are China’s national living treasures, and I do not blame them. They brought out a baby girl panda that was about 6 months old. She was not only adorable, but also really chill. There are no other words to describe her; she was extremely calm but really inquisitive.

They gave her a piece of bamboo covered in honey to satiate her appetite while she was in my arms, and at one point she actually noticed I was there and stuck her nose up to my face. It was amazing to have the opportunity to hold her.

Afterward, our tour guide said that they seldom see the Research Base staff bring out a panda that young to hold. I definitely consider myself very lucky to have had that opportunity. The experience also made me appreciate that the Chinese government is doing so much to preserve these amazing creatures. Biologically the panda has so much going against it in terms of breeding practices and fetal development. Additionally, China’s blistering development has destroyed significant portions of the panda’s natural habitat; this only adds to their difficulty because of their highly specialized diet of bamboo. Today, the government is creating panda reserves and doing what it can at the moment to protect them despite the country’s insurmountable pollution problem.

Chinese garden in bloom
After the Panda Base, a few friends and I went to the home of a historic poet from the Tang Dynasty. The poet Du Fu’s home was really modest and small, but the gardens and memorials around it were huge.

It was a beautiful place, and the horticultural and architectural style mirrored that of other southern Chinese cities, but there were different elements that were a nice change from Suzhou- or Beijing-style gardens I have seen before. For example, there were long bamboo-lined paths with tall red walls on each side of the road. It sounds simple, but nuances like that make a difference since so many of these gardens/parks have the same architectural elements.

Chengdu also is much warmer than Beijing, and we were lucky to see the cherry blossoms in bloom in various places at the garden. Along with the cherry trees, there were myriad other plants and exotic trees that were beginning to bloom. The spring season and the blooms that emerge are widely appreciated by the Chinese, and are typically anticipated after the end of the Chinese New Year. (And rightfully so; it’s an amazing sight to see.)

ben-grand.jpgThe Grand Buddha
On Monday and Tuesday we trekked out of Chengdu into the Sichuan countryside. Sichuan is known for its natural wonders that are on par if not more pronounced than those seen in USA’s Yellowstone National Park. On Monday we left Chendgu and made our way over to LeShan’s Grand Buddha. It is one of the largest Buddhas in the world, if not the largest. It is cut into a side of a cliff that overlooks a major river in Sichuan. It’s amazing to see because the thing really is massive; I could probably sleep comfortably on the Buddha’s toenail. Along with the Buddha, there are several temples, courtyards and pagodas that are hidden in the hills surrounding the Buddha. It was a great afternoon of exploring this park of sorts and enjoying the beautiful weather.

ben-bridge.jpgEmei Mountain
After that we went to the base of Emei Mountain to check into our hotel. It was a beautiful place that overlooked a series of low-lying mountains that were covered in deep, deep green trees and cloaked in a blanket of mist. I will admit that there was pollution probably in the mix, but for the most part, Emei Mountain’s air is extremely moist, and mist/low lying clouds are common. The highlight of the night was finding this little restaurant with an outdoor deck on the second floor that overlooked the mountains. A few friends and I just sat out there for hours eating some of Sichuan’s famed dishes and admiring the amazing views.

On Tuesday we went over to Emei Mountain, which is one of China’s four sacred mountains. On the mountain itself are several Buddhist temples and several sites that commemorate emperors’ visits to the mountain. We first started by hiking, literally hiking, to the biggest Buddhist temple on the mountain. It’s about a good 30-minute hike straight up stairs. On the way we passed people who live and work on the mountain and depend on selling trinkets to tourists for their income. We also saw people using mules to pull supplies up and down paths alongside the stairs we used to climb the mountain. This was truly the countryside.

ben-palace.jpgOnce at the Temple, we looked around for a bit; it was a bit different than other ones I had seen, and I think it mirrors the style of Tibetan temples. This was also the point where the group split up: we had the option of climbing to the mountain’s peak and staying overnight on the mountain or seeing most of the historic sites (located near the base), and then returning to Chengdu. I chose the latter because the mountain’s peak is at 9,000 feet, which is only a little bit higher than, say, the base of Vail Valley in Colorado. Also, I did not like the idea of sleeping on a mountain in China and also facing the monkeys that reside on Emei.

Emei is beautiful and gave me a real glimpse of the Sichuan countryside. It is beautiful for its mountains, the mist, the clear creeks/waterfalls, and the foliage. It has a dense forest of trees that are not found in the US: the forest is primarily composed of bamboo and Norfolk pine trees. There are also sycamore-style and broad-leafed trees, but for the most part it looked like a foreign forest on a different planet. Dotting the hiking paths are monuments and lesser temples commemorating historical points in the mountain’s history. It seemed like every other corner we stumbled upon another incredible monument or waterfall.

Monkey meeting
One surprise that I was not too keen on was the monkey reserve. It is set back in a park on the mountain, and is pretty much base for monkeys that roam free on the mountain. They are brilliant creatures that came up to me, pulled at my pants and hands and looked in my pockets for food. For the most part they were harmless, but I was definitely scared of them because I did not want to be bitten. I know they are probably not that dangerous, but all I could keep thinking was, “Ok, if I get bit there’s no telling how many shots I’ll have to get.” Needless to say, I quickly made my way through this part of the mountain and ventured off to other sites.

After that we returned to Chengdu and had a few days to explore the city at will. Chengdu is rich in history and culture – not to mention Sichuan’s famous food. Some of the highlights included the Sichuan Opera, which is known for its masked, flame-spitting actors as well as these people that wear masks, and in front of your eyes and without any apparent cause, their masks change colors. It is an illusion that I have yet to figure out – these actors quickly change masks right in front of the audience’s face, but the audience cannot see how he/she made the switch. It was awesome.

Red-hot hot pots
The other big highlight was the FOOD. Sichuan food is one of the four most famous styles of food in China, and rightfully so. (The best-known in America is Kung Pao Chicken.) Some dishes are sweet and tender, others sweet and spicy, and then there are those that are painfully spicy.

The best example is the Sichuan hot pot (like fondue). I went three times, and the first time was literally an out-of-body experience. We went to Sichuan’s hot pot row, where there are several restaurants all specializing in hot pots. We casually just picked one and walked in.

The first thing they asked us was what kind of oil we wanted. Our teachers had previously explained the Sichuan hot pot experience to us, and said they offer either white oil for the whimps or red to the locals and those that can troop through it. We, of course, ordered the red oil. In the center of our table was a gas stove, and the service staff brought over a huge metal pot full of blood-red oil with pepper kernels and red peppers floating on the top. It looked like something out of hell itself!

Once the oil stared to boil and we had let our first round of meats and veggies cook, the fun began. At first it was not so bad – yes it was spicy but not unbearable. As the meal progressed, the heat got to me, and I not only started sweating but also got kind of dizzy. I am not sure of the chemical effects of eating really spicy food, but by the end of the meal I felt really loopy, but not in a bad way. It was certainly an experience.

However, the next two times I did not have that same kind of dizzy feeling, but I sweated just as bad. So, my advice is: if you ever go to a Sichuan hot pot restaurant, order the red oil, and prepare for an experience. It really is like nothing else I have ever eaten.

Coming back to Beijing was much easier: the teachers booked us a flight home. But instead of flying into the Capital Airport, our tickets said we were flying into Beijing’s south airport, which I did not even know existed. The flight was great and security was so much easier than in America. (However, I don’t know how flights will be after that thwarted terrorist attempt a few days ago on a Chinese airliner.)

In any case, when we landed, I was surprised to see that the airport was no more than an airfield on the outskirts of central Beijing with one terminal to enter and only one baggage claim. It was a lot more convenient and closer to school, so on the whole it was much easier. (Don’t expect international flights out of there anytime soon.)

The week after Sichuan was an easy one with lots and lots of new content to learn. We also turned in the first draft of our Independent Project, which went well. This upcoming week should be the same as far as class work. I am also going to go see Tim Clissold speak about his book, Mr. China. It is one of the most widely read books by Western businessmen on doing business in China; Clissold was one of the first here and his stories are incredible. I suggest reading it if you have the chance.

Zai Jian! (Until next time!)