The Kunming-Chengdu leg of the train journey was the most amazing yet. It was a long trip with staggering scenery through garden plots and villages clinging to steep slopes and terraces as extensive and stunning as Yuanyang - though these were green and brown, not flooded with shimmering water. Some were no longer cultivated, some planted with pines, some abandoned.
We travelled up into striking, steep mountains and through many tunnels. Some very long, sometimes we went through a series of short tunnels, bursting out into a few seconds of stunning views down into deep valleys between each one.
We saw huge infrastructure projects under construction; railway tunnels, bridges, roads, quarries where half a hill had been taken away. At one point we travelled parallel to another railway line under construction with a string of tunnels and bridges partly built beside us.
In places the countryside reminded me of the Blue Mountains with eucalypts, large rocky outcrops and also patches of red earth, flowering acacias and blue gums.
We eventually arrived in a large city called Luipanshui where hordes of people got on. Then the train left in the opposite direction and we went back down the way we'd just come for a couple of hours! It was a side trip we’d not expected but I was so glad we’d done it.
We arrived in Chengdu when it was still dark and had an egg and bacon burger breakfast at the KFC near the station. (Earlier in the trip when we went to a Dico’s I’d thought I’d ordered a coffee with milk, but got a coffee plus a cup of hot milk. We dispensed with the creamer, mixed the two together and ended up with two nice hot milky coffees. A good trick which we do regularly now in fast food places!) The train station was in chaos and more and more of the travellers were looking like university and school students returning from the break.
Chengdu greeted us with cold, grey, wet weather, which brought us back to earth – a reminder of what awaited us back in Lanzhou. It was an interesting city though. We visited the central square, site of an old palace (a smaller version of the Forbidden City in Beijing) which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. It is now presided over by a large statue of Chairman Mao. The shops surrounding the square include Cartier, Bulgari and McDonalds.
We went to an evening Sichuan Opera performance. We’d bought VIP tickets so we sat in the front row and had tea and peanuts served during the show. (We were glad we’d got VIP tickets, as others where we stayed had got tickets for the teahouse and sat outdoors in the cold). We were a bit perplexed by a sign at the door as we entered offering a massage for Y50 or earclean for Y40. While we waited? During the interval? The performance was great – a nice mix of opera, music, dancing, slapstick (largely over our heads) and shadow puppetry.
The highlight of Chengdu however was undoubtedly the Panda breeding research centre. It was like a zoo entirely of Pandas. We went early to be there after feeding time and spent a delightful morning watching them eat, sleep and the young ones frolic in the "kindergarten" enclosure.
Chengdu was the place for Owen to be “struck down” – as we were getting ready to go to the airport for our flight to Lanzhou (train tickets sold out). It was a nervous but uneventful flight for him – at least it was only one hour not 17 or so on the train.
An inauspicious end to a fantastic trip.