17 April 2017

Bi Feng Xia

Catching the bus to the bus at Chengdu wasn’t a problem, but we thought we would re-confirm this at the hostel. That took longer than expected, but ended up confirming what we had already worked out ourselves. Better safe than sorry.

Arriving at the main south bus station, we couldn’t work out how to get in. We ended up walking the block, and getting to where the buses leave from. We weren’t allowed through, so had to walk the next block to get to the main entrance. Sometimes China is so confusing, as they just expect you to know where to go! Still, we don’t speak or read Chinese, so these things should be expected. Just not the town bus stopping a block away from the station rather than at it.

Going in we tried to get tickets to Bi Feng Xia directly as they are supposed to be fairly common. The woman couldn’t read the translation, so we just got tickets to Ya’an, the nearest town. Save the hassle. Looking at the ticket we couldn’t see the licence plate listed, just a bus number. This was annoying, but we assumed that the bus would then have the number on the windshield. Passing our bags through the x-ray machines we entered the main area. We thought we would load our bags onto the bus and wait around. This is not possible in Sichuan. They have everything gated off with multiple gates checking tickets before you are allowed access to the buses. Lining up at one of them, we were sent away when it got to be our turn?! Apparently it was the wrong gate. Finding the right one, we lined up again. Only to be turned away again. Half an hour was too early, as apparently our bus wasn’t even here yet. With ten minutes to go before we were supposed to leave the gate opened for us to go through. Ok, different province, different way of doing things. Its just that the number on our ticket doesn’t resemble anything on any of the buses. We had to ask for help to find the right one. There are also bays for the buses to park in, but with all the construction work here, they forgot to put up the numbers. So that didn’t help either. Still, we got on the right bus and after a bit of a delay we headed off. (The first bus/train that has run late! The flight doesn’t count as it was weather related)

The drive to Ya’an wasn’t too bad, except for when we got into town. It is not a major town, but is still well established, so it was with some shock that the road ended and we were driving over rubble. There was no road to speak of as it had all been ripped up to make way for a new one. Not that uncommon in our trip so far, but definitely the most extreme case. It went on for a few kilometres until we turned in to the Tourism Bus Station. Getting out, we were surrounded by touts. Pushing past them, we went into the station to find a bus for the gorge. At the left luggage office we started to ask these questions (All this is being done by our translator app). It turned out that we would need to catch a mini van to the gorge. Asking about a bus to Leshan as we are hoping to go there today after the gorge, we were told that it was at a different bus station, but we could leave our bags for a yuan an hour each. Done. One of the people there even walked us over to the minivans to make sure we weren’t ripped off. Waiting for it to depart, we had to change vans for some reason, then we were off. It was going in the wrong direction! Eventually it managed to turn onto another road, do a u-turn cutting all vehicles off in the process and then back to the bus station. This took about 15 minutes! The road work in this part of town must be driving everyone nuts.

The drive out to the gorge was quite interesting as this part of Ya’an is stretched along the road as the mountain gets closer and closer. Then it is winding up between two mountains with water raging along the side of the road. Well, below the side of the road. You wouldn’t want to go off it.

As we approached the gorge, guest houses and hotels were popping up everywhere, so it wouldn’t have been a problem to get a place to stay. On arrival, we went to the ticket hall and got our tickets. We are skipping the attached zoo, but as we are here we may as well see the second biggest panda breading centre in the world. I know, we are here for the walk, but this is our only chance at seeing pandas so we may as well. The Chengdu panda place was cheaper, but they don’t have a gorge!

It was nice that we didn’t have to pay for the internal bus to get to the other end of the park where the pandas are and the walk starts. So we jumped on for the couple of kilometres. Deciding on seeing the pandas first was the only choice as the walk would take us back to where we started, we were just a bit worried about time, as the park closes at 4:30 and it was now almost one. Walking down to the entrance we were not allowed in. It would be 1:30 when the panda park reopened. Not sure why. Pandas needed a nap? Staff too lazy to let us in? Its China, so who knows. It did explain why so many people were hanging around the entrance.

1:30 came, and you could tell. The tour groups came up early to get all their selfies at the gate first, then the jostling to get your place in the line started. They opened the gates, and the big push forward started. This could have been worse, as there was only just over a hundred people here. On getting past the entrance we could see a lot of the battery buses waiting, but they didn’t seem to be taking people, so we just walked with the flow. They all lined up at the first panda enclosure and the noise was horrific. All yelling at their neighbours that they could see the panda’s arse that was pointed at them. By this stage a couple of the buses had gone past, and we envied the people in them, as they were getting away from the screaming mass of humanity. We decided to walk on to a quieter section. Even if the panda couldn’t. We got lucky a bit further on, as the panda in this enclosure decided he wanted a snack. He walked over to a pile of bamboo (we are not sure which one of the 19 types of bamboo a panda could eat it was, as it all just looks like bamboo to us), sat down, and grabbed a shoot. Ripping it apart and munching on it. For a while we had him to ourselves. It was great. Then the horde of humanity descended on us and the panda. We were pushed out of place and moved on. There was another few people that were just in front of us now. Two of them were making as much noise as a horde of Stampeding Elephants. We made our way in front of them and got to the Panda Kindergarten. We didn’t know what this section was, are we teaching Pandas Chinese? The right way to hold your Bamboo, or just a nursery? We don’t know how long pandas spend with their parents, but this place had no adults. It did have a couple of young panda’s stuck up in a tree. They were quite happy lying around in the forks of the branches. I suppose it is easy to climb when you are young and don’t weigh ¾ of a tonne! One was in the most uncomfortable looking position, and we watched it for a while expecting it to fall out of the tree at any time. It didn’t even move. Maybe just to blink occasionally, but it was too far away to be able to tell. I was glad I had decided to take the big camera lens today, as it was worth it. Then the masses were upon us again. We can’t complain too much, there really are not that many people. Just a couple of hundred, and after that first frantic frenzied push to get in and the screaming at each other that the could see a panda the whole thing died down a little.

The volume level dropped from a 747 down to a Cesna. The pushing and shoving stopped as people were more spaced out, and the entire thing had become pretty mellow. Or we were just far enough away from that group not to notice any more. Still, onwards and upwards.

The last panda we saw was a bit sad. He had become completely institutionalised. You know when an animal is not adjusting to confinement when it develops circle syndrome. This is a real ailment for animals (and humans). When confined they walk constantly in circles. Around and around and around, wearing a path as they always go the same way. This poor fellow had it. There is a fair bit of space for each panda, but they are walled in, and can’t escape from the tourists even if they wanted to. We also don’t know if they are rotated through sections to keep things fresh for them, or if activities are done to engage them. We hope there is.

Panda reserve done we hit the real reason we were here. The gorge walk.

Happily it starts almost right at the entrance to the panda place, following one of the rivers downstream before joining the other river and going upstream to the entrance of the national park.

The first section is all new buildings. These we are sure will become more tourist shops and food places. Then down a bit before another lot of buildings that will be the same. When you reach a peddle powered watermill you can actually start the walk down. This and a mill have been placed here to show you what life would have been like back in the day. A few people were around, and we let them past before we started down the well worn cement path. I am glad in this case that the path is well formed. It is a very lush, wet, semi tropical environment, and would have been interesting on a muddy thin trail through the undergrowth.

Ferns were everywhere, and the odd bird chirped away in the distance. We eventually saw one. A little black blob with a reddish brown tail. After it landed somewhere it would fan out its tail and wag it up and down. Similar to a willy wag tail. Going down the stream. (You could call it a river, but it is too small to be that, and too big to be a stream. Creek? Tributary?) there were numerous shallow waterfalls, signs of repeated massive flooding, and characters carved into the rocks at every place. The story traces Nue, a goddess that either formed humanity, saved humanity, or just liked nature.

The walk was quiet and peaceful, mostly being passed by small groups of other walkers. There was not much wildlife to be seen, but in the quiet with the sound of gurgling water we were not worried about it. Where the two creeks met there was a couple of overly high arched bridges and a covered pavilion with prayer drums, then it was a slight uphill walk along the new creek. About half way along there are three blobs on the cliff face. In the past, important people had their bodies interned in coffins placed on the cliff face. They have all been removed for “preservation and study” except these three. We don’t know if they are real, or just put there for the tourists, and most people missed them entirely, even if there was a big sign on the path in both Chinese and English explaining what they are.

The final slog and we made it to the largest outdoor elevator in the world. Proudly going up 99 floors. We didn’t know what to expect. The Glass Elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would have been good, but when it appeared around a bend it looked more like a large narrow office block built out from the cliff. Getting there we were quite happy not to have to pay for it, as we had to go up quite a lot of stairs to get to the entrance, then a whole lot of people squeezed into this tiny empty box (It ended up being overloaded so we lost a couple of people, but there was still only enough room to breath) and went up. I would love to say that the panorama opened up before us, and it was a majestic rise into the clouds. It could have been, but inside this small cramped grey cube we couldn’t tell. To top it off, the only way they made it to 99 floors was by starting on the fifth floor (So why did we have to do that big staircase?).

Then we were back at the entrance to the park area. It was a good walk, and well worth doing. Now to find the mini van back to Ya’an, and, if we were lucky to go on to Leshan.

Back in town we grabbed our bags from storage at the bus station, and asked about the bus to Leshan situation. We had been told earlier that there were no more buses to Leshan today from this station but the other station would still have them, but by now there was nothing. This station would have a bus in the morning, but unless we wanted to go back to Chengdu, we had nothing. They did point us to a hotel nearby though. It was dirty, run down and expensive for what it was, but it is close to the station. We took it. Turns out that while the room was bad, the bed wasn’t the worst, it had clean sheets and the shower was one of the best we have had in china!

Exploring a few of the streets of Ya’an, we encountered a typical Chinese town. In Australia it would be called a City, but here it is a provincial backwater village! The roads are all under construction, but the traffic is patient and the people nice.

Right next to the station was a market that was closing up for the day, so we knew we could at least find a cheap and easy breakfast in the morning. Further on we found an eating street and sat down to a decent dinner before calling it a night. Even if we did miss the best bit. A large covered bridge that we saw from the bus the next day. It would have looked fantastic all lit up at night.

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