Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pandas and Hotpots

Pandas Again, in the Cold!
In the morning, Yi Jun heads off leaving me to use their interesting bathroom, with squat toilet shower combo! For those in the West, just imagine standing on the toilet seat as you shower. Obviously the concern is that as you’re lathered up with eyes shut, your foot is going down the hole. Not pleasant, and a rather stressful experience all round!

I’m going to go find a Starbucks, I need some comfort! It’s raining as I leave, following Yi Jun’s instructions on how to get to the Panda Sanctuary using public buses. I pop into a mobile shop to pick up a SIM card first. One problem I’ve found in China when it’s wet is that your feet get muddy, then you walk into a shop or restaurant, which rarely have mats to clean your shoes, and usually have light coloured tiles. What can one do but leave a trail of muddy foot prints in your wake. Very embarrassing.

At the mobile phone shop with a herculean effort of sign language I buy a SIM. We establish that it will work, then I have a choice of numbers. I should qualify for a cheap one, as I don’t mind 4s in the number – the number four in Chinese sounds like the word “die”, so it’s unlucky for them. Not for me, gimme all the 4s! So I get +86 13408561363, that’s me! Anyway, I have a particular challenge using sign language to explain that I’d like to top up my credit, or “recharging”, as they call it here.

Next, they use my phone and call China Mobile. I don’t know why. They wait until it answers, then hand phone to me, where a guy speaks Mandarin to me. I don’t understand, and hand the phone back to them. After more conversation, they say they’ll call me back, which they do later with someone who speaks English. How can we help you? they ask. I don’t know!

Carrying on, at a junction I hop on 83. I think it’s right direction, but won’t be sure till, well, I don’t even know. Local buses cost 1Y, nicer new ones cost 2Y. Apparently it’s even cheaper with an IC smart card, perhaps half price. This bus rolls through the city, and I haven’t the foggiest where until we pass the North Train Station – finally a recognisable landmark with an English sign outside of it! Bravo! We’re going the right way.

The bus terminates at a bus station somewhere, and the driver points me at a bus stop for the 532 bus. I’m suspicious as it doesn’t have a board on it with the 532 route, so I go across to the main terminal gate to ask. The guy initially barks at me to go round to the building, as this is where the buses drive out. I show him the piece of paper with the Panda Place name on in Chinese and look helpless. He invites me to stand by the gate and he’ll put me on the bus.

When the first 532 drives straight past without stopping, much to his annoyance, they invite me into their office to wait. Much interest in my Croc shoes. I hear hun lun – they’re suggesting they might be cold. Bu lun, I explain, but damn slippery (sign language for the second half of that sentence!). Finally on the bus, and it approaches the panda park from the opposite side to last time which confuses me. Driver made sure I got off though. People in China are generally very helpful, they just don’t speak a drop of English, not even a bit! Even youngsters, unlike Japan.

In again, and I wait for Yi Jun for a while at the guide centre, she’s off doing a tour at the moment. Guides have to work in all the departments for a few months before becoming guides so they do really know their stuff. Eventually I get bored and wander up to Enclosure 14. Yep, my friend is lying on his back munching, as usual. Apparently he’s 16 years old, bit of an old timer, so definitely no energy to play. I like it here because it’s much quieter – doesn’t hold the tour groups for long because there’s nothing happening but good old munching and sleeping!

Heading on, I bump into Yi Jun’s group, and chat with Jason, a cycling tour guide from near the border with North Korea. I tell him I’d love to go, it sounds wacky there. He agrees. Yi Jun and I go for lunch across the road at a local restaurant. The guy recommends Yi Jun orders some expensive dishes, presumably because I’m there. She disagrees and orders a tasty spicy aubergine dish, some veges and a soupy egg dish.

It’s very cold today and because it was raining I wore jacket rather than fleece, something I now deeply regret!

On reception duty
Back to the centre, we wait in the freezing tourist reception centre, manning the desk. I wait for an enquiry I can help with. I know where the toilets are, and can send people with authority up to the butterflies upstairs. There’s little traffic so I stamp up my panda postcards. They keep the doors open to be welcoming, but there’s a biting wind blowing straight in towards reception! The other girls wind up Yi Jun and say dinner is her next time now she apparently has a western boyfriend!

Eventually it seems like we’re about to go, then damn, Yi Jun gets roped in to do a final tour, so we don’t leave until about 6:30pm. Whilst I wait, a security guard walks past the guide office, sees me sitting there, does a comical “urrrr” double-take then walks on. I think foreigners are regarded as strange things. Leo calls me, tells me he’s just booked Beijing, so I wind him up saying I’ve just changed my flights to go somewhere else. There’s something about the way Leo says you b****rd, I just love to hear the words!

Sichuan Hotpot
We leave and catch the local bus back to town. I’m kind of glad we’ve missed the staff bus, that might have been a bit awkward! Yi Jun takes me to eat hot pot, so I get to try the final famous Sichuan food. The place we try is called “Legend of Fish” and looks busy. What is hotpot? It’s basically a large wok of chilli, oil and spice, bubbling away with a gas burner underneath, and into which is dunked whatever you want to eat to cook – you fish things out with your chopsticks to eat.

Try if you dare..

There are split bowl options with half not spicy, just a clear soup, and half the evil spice mix, but Yi Jun doesn’t go for those, oh no!

Here it is..

So we tuck in, and I have to say it’s hot but not unbearable. You can specify how hot you want your personal bowl made as the waiter spoons some out for you, depending on your preference he won’t disturb the oil on top so much. Either way, it’s nice, but with those crazy Sichuan peppers my mouth is doing mad mad things, tingling like crazy. It’s funny how foreigner prejudices really come out in China when you eat – oh my goodness you can use chopsticks, how can you eat spicy food, you are a Westerner etc etc. I would point out how we’re not amazed when Asians can use knives and forks, but, err, Yi Jun can’t really use them, hehe!

Wow you can eat spice?!

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