Part 4, Chengdu, Pandas, and Lhasa
Friday was a rare luxury of a late wake up call, one whole hour extra! This was followed by an equally rare opportunity to explore a morning market on our own.
All the familiar market goings on were there as the city slowly woke up. Things to eat, cook, drink, sweets, grow, store, fix, clean, save, entertain, wear, and more left us in awe. Huge trays of steaming buns stacked ten trays high was our favorite scene. Counterfeit and pirated goods made us growl.
Once we returned to the hotel, we joined our group and went to another market. This one was a fancy wholesale seafood market. Rich with oddities and unusual odors.
Then came the jade factory. Followed by an early lunch at the airport for our flight to Chengdu and the fabled pandas.
Our flight was delayed “due to mechanical troubles.” In reality, the plane had not been fueled. The flight was happily uneventful, except for the layers of foggy, smokey skies that hung heavily over the rows of mountains, some with snow.
We arrive, board our small bus and travel through the center of Chengdu, city of nine million people living in seemingly endless blocks of high rise apartments.
Onward to the Panda Breeding Center. Traffic is unbelievable, the heaviest we have seen to date. Many more throngs of bicycles, countless more than we saw in Beijing. Topping it off, the worse eye burning pollution anywhere to date.
At last we inch our way out of the city, then the outskirts of town to the research center. A tall forest of arching bamboo lead to the adult panda exhibit.
Lucky us, it is feeding time. The caretakers coax the chubby females out of their shelters with fresh young bamboo and apples, every pandas favorite! They plop themselves in front of us, most with an apple in one paw and bamboo in the other. It was delightful to watch, they seemed so content and at peace with their world. We could have camped out right there and watched all day.
More good news for us. There are two 3 month old balls of fuzzy white and black fur back in the shelters waiting for our ogling. Cute little paws, claws and toes twitching and stretching. Eyes still closed, tiny ears and ever so cute snouts, housed in climate controlled shelters they share with their moms. We were only allowed 15 minutes and we tore ourselves away. It was time to leave.
Tonight a fancy dinner with a welcomed variety of spicy dishes typical of the Sichuan Region. Our favorites were the sweet hot eggplant and the firery steamed fish.
An early return to our room was driven by luggage limitations for our Tibet flight tomorrow. One carry on per person for the three days in Llasa. We would retrieve our remaining luggage on the return trip.
Our 4:15 AM wake up call and 4:45 AM breakfast was painful as we have only now adjusted to the time change. We clear the airport formalities without issue and soon our flight is called for boarding.
Seemingly from nowhere, hundreds of people jam the gate area, shuffling, jostling, edging, and crowding their way through the boarding door. We laughed as it was another example of the local culture, a miniature of every bottleneck we’ve seen, whether by car, or bike, or human anytime movement is required.
It is a huge Airbus A340, the plane is nearly full. We immediately notice the Tibetans, easy to spot their distinctive clothing and appearance. Men with typical heavy fur jackets and women with georgous turquoise jewelry. It was definately a “we are not in Kansas anymore” moment.
Soon the landscape outside changes, layer after layer of mountains, bleak, barren ridges, tiny villages, endless sand dunes, meager farms. Upon our final approach a lovely river appears, its turquoise waters sparkling in the morning light.
Once we disembark we immediately sense the 12,000 foot altitude. The air and sky are clear and crisp. Our bus ride to Llasa is over 90 kilometers away and passes through beautiful, if desolate, countryside. The poverty of the Titbetian farmers and villagers is obvious. It is also obvious this is a very different place.
The harsh but beautiful landscape is one part desert, one part moon. The rivers are sparkling clean yet very little vegetation seems willing to take on this brutal elevation.
Finally we arrive at the Llasa Hotel, proudly claiming to have been the former Holiday Inn Llasa. We are rewarded with sunny rooms facing South. After a nondescript lunch we rest a few hours to help adjust to the altitude fatigue.
In the late afternoon we are guests at a “home visit” to a local Tibetan family. Introduced as a middle class family, their traditional compound consists of several large rooms, storerooms, utility spaces, and a central courtyard.
Our host is a shy spindly woman in traditional Tibetan dress. She graciously served various snacks including dried toasted barley, puffed rice, dried yak cheese, green raisins, cookies and hard candies.
The highlight was the serving of yak butter tea. The hot water heated from an amazing solar stove in the courtyard. It had a rancid fatty taste quite indescribable and, to my pallet (Jim) beyond consumption. We observed if anyone finished their tea, their cup was immediately refilled, as often as needed. I am not ashamed to admit I pretended to sip my tea and therefore pass when refills were offered.
It was actually an interesting visit but we were not confident this was a typical middle class family. Her husband had worked for a government construction company and now appeared to enjoy the rewards for his patriotic years of service.
Our first dinner is quite unique. Our restaurant is named The Crazy Yak. We are the only guests in the restaurant. The menu included Yak dumplings, Yak meatballs and thin Yak fillets. Verdict? It was quite tasty.
After dinner there was a talk with a history professor from the local University. He spoke about Tibetan history from the 5th century. He was Chinese living in Tibet for seven years. He skillfully responded with the many Chinese/Tibetan questions from our group.
Next came an entertaining collection of Tibetan folk and opera dances. It was a nice end to a very long day.
Coming next, Part 5: Potola Palace, Serra Monestary and Mandala Temple