Last week I travelled to Chengdu which turned out to be one of my favourite places in China so far! There was some debate as to whether to go or not before-hand as it is the capital of Sichuan province where the earthquake hit. But after ringing the hostel, checking the travel advice and deliberating we decided it wasn't worth cancelling our plans. Yes there had been aftershocks but none were felt in Chengdu which was on the other side of the huge province that is Sichuan. Being so far away, even the journey there was eventful. I started out from Yihuang on my own (Rob decided it was too expensive for him) which meant catching the last bus to Fuzhou then getting the last bus to Nanchang from there. I I have 4 lessons in a row on Friday so I packed beforehand and took my bergen to school with me and left the last lesson the second the bell went so I could get walking to the bus station for the bus at 5. Turns out the last bus is at 16:30 butcaught it by chance because I was walking in the road towards it and managed to read the characters on the front to flag it down. I was very pleased with myself - first time I've ever caught a bus Chinese style by reading the front of it! I double checked the destination with the driver, made small talk with the delighted Chinese people for a bit then set up camp at the back. It was actually quite pleasant; despite the bumpiness I stretched out across the entire back seat with my bergen behind me and had both windows open for a lovely draft while I explored lots of new music through my beats. The next bus wasn't so good, I had to run to catch it and in the process lost Y60 somewhere in the bus station (£6 but it feels like a lot more to me!). It was a bigger bus, coach style but this meant the windows couldn't be opened. Just what you want when the bus is 26 degrees. I was absolutely sweltering and only a long time into the journey did someone switch on the rubbish air con. I got dropped by the side of a city road in Nanchang at around half 9.
I was meeting Ella and Nicole in Nanchang to catch the train together but they hadn't arrived yet. So I went to Walmart - browsing big supermarkets is very exciting for us because everything seems so amazing. Whenever we travel we always take advantage of Western loos, fast food and supermarkets. Practically a day out for us… I bought lots of food to last me through the train journey - a Y3 French baguette, a Y10 pack of sausages and some breakfast biscuits, apples, peanuts, noodles and water. I even found an old woman selling cherry tomatoes outside Mcdonalds which seemed the perfect addition to my Western style picnic for the next day. I paid her fast and dived into Maccy-ds though to avoid the woman violently puking on the floor every few steps as she staggered towards a bus. I couldn't help but think 'bird flu.' Oh yeah, that's in my province now as well with 6 people dead already. Wonderful. Lots of people wear the medical masks and I get a bit jumpy when people sneeze and cough around me. I also have a cough and sore throat this week, but I'm sure it's nothing... I stopped to chat to some girls selling jewellery outside Walmart and they all flocked to me. About two would talk at once while the other 4 would giggle uncontrollably and mutter 'handsome boy' in Chinese to each other. I chatted for a while, better than sitting in Mcdonalds on my own, and as I was about to leave one girl said my 'big nose was beautiful.' Urmmm thanks? She asked if she could touch it - obviously the answer was go ahead and that's how I was put in the awkward position of 6 girls queuing in front of me to take turns at stroking my nose while other Chinese took photos. I took some photos with them then their boss appeared looking pretty angry. I smiled and said 'hello' and the girls explained when he left that he was jealous because my presence made him look so ugly. After that confidence boost I exchanged my train tickets and met the girls in Mcdonalds for some sustenance food before boarding time at 23:40. Considering we booked our tickets at separate times we were impressed to find we were only 3 compartments apart on a train about 30 carriages long. Not bad. We were all tired but somehow stayed awake to talk into the early hours before going to bed. I got the short straw on the bed, I read my ticket wrong and thought I was top where a man was climbing into bed. I checked with the guy by the window who said mine was the bottom bunk, a bigger problem because a man was asleep in that and had been since I arrived. The guy by the window started jabbing the sleeping guys feet and he sat up to reveal himself to be a scruffy train guard. He wiped the drool from his mouth, rubbed his eyes then calmly swung himself out of bed and blearily shuffled up the corridor. I was too tired to care that a smelly, dribbling train guard had slept in my bed. I flipped the duvet for the cold side and went to sleep.
Chinese sleeper trains don't seem to like people sleeping so I was woken by the standard awful music playing through the train at about 06:30 with light streaming through the windows that someone had opened the curtains on. I went for a shave and didn't cut myself from the train's swaying motion but I did made a woman laugh as I stood poised with razor waiting for a period of calm before I could shave another bit. I flannel washed, nearly stood in a squatty potty and discovered I had no toothbrush so provided more Chinese entertainment by repeatedly brushing my teeth with my finger. By this time the girls were coming round and we whiled away the rest of the day playing cards and talking. Ella and I watched The Office together for a long time and then played the music game and introduced lots of decent music to each other. Then I read Game of Thrones and finally when boredom was almost kicking in I walked the length of the train twice, talked to a smoking guy but left when he blew in my face (quite a feat considering he was about two foot smaller than me) and, I'm ashamed to say, took photos of myself with the Ash Ketchum hat Beth bought me for Christmas in the mirror doing various pokemon poses. Yes, I sank to new lows, but the best thing is I was caught in the act by 9 different train guards. I'd seen about 3 the entire time I'd been on the train. Ah well, I continued the pokemon theme by playing Nicole's gameboy and fire-red - I got the ultimate experience with a head torch to light up the screen and my beats to blast the repetitive music at me. Don't judge, these trains really can be mind-numbing. I munched my way through lots of food as well - best of all was the entire, slightly stale French baguette. That's the second time I've had proper bread this year, the first being when we found an M&S in Hong Kong. Everything was so eye-wateringly expensive that I settled for paying a quid for a small baguette and eating it as slowly as possibly. The train wasn't even that bad to be honest though and we were glad to go to bed for the second night on the train even if it meant being woken at 3 in the morning. We got to the hostel at about 4 in the morning where the staff let us lie on the benches in the bar to wait for Beth and Cat to appear. They arrived the day before us from Gansu and were staying in comfy beds somewhere in the hostel.
I contented myself with another flannel wash in a cold water basin outside and classed myself ready to meet the girls and catch the bus to Mt. Emei. We left at 7 and the 3 hour bus journey was welcome for some sleep ...which I didn't get a wink of. We hired a car to our starting point, got lunch and began our ascent. Before we got 10 steps up we had to call a halt for Nicole to go back to look for her camera and this was the beginning of a series of events in which everything that could go wrong did, helped along by lots of bad decisions on our part. Nicole didn't find her camera but Beth, Cat and I had spent the time waiting for her return in very high spirits, buzzing to start the ascent. The girls all bought bamboo walking sticks which led to energetic 'old bamboo' dancing (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang anyone?!) and funny looks from Chinese people. There were lots of old guys lounging about in carrier chairs waiting to carry lazy people up the mountain and one guy let us try his out for some photo opportunities. The climb went well for a couple of hours… Until we met some Chinese guys and asked them how much further. They replied with 10 hours and the next pair said the same. We grouped up to check the map and realised we'd started climbing from the wrong bit. Our friends had done this mountain in their travels and it took them 4 hours - we thought they started from the temple drop off point but they had got a second bus to somewhere much nearer the top. We turned around and started back down again because even a good climbing rate would have meant peaking in the early hours of the morning.
By the time we got to the actual place it was late afternoon and it was starting to get chilly and misty. The second start was a bit less cheerful than the first and we trudged on upwards in damp fog. We stopped for a meal and were told we could stay on the top in a monastery which reassured what we already knew and was marked on the map. They said 30 minutes away so we set off in the dark back up the steps again. At a T junction we met some stall holders settling down for the night and they told us there were no lodgings higher up but we ignored them because we're use to Chinese people lying to us to make us pay more money or go with their friends. We kept climbing. Eventually, a lot more than 30 minutes later, the steps stopped. Something big loomed out the darkness with red candles flickering around it. We realised we'd peaked by complete accident and this was the huge Buddha statue on the mountain top, albeit shrouded in mist. I nearly walked into what I thought was a moat but Ella used her stick to assure me it was just a big step until I stepped on it to find… a thick carpet. We couldn't see a thing so set about trying to find lodgings. There were some buildings to our right so we descended for a little bit again and knocked on the door. The man that came out said it was for workers only but told us to follow him. He took us right back to the top again (he stopped and pointed at the public toilet and we genuinely thought he wanted us to sleep there - something that had already been seriously suggested) then round lots of small paths behind the peak to a small building and left us. We were very pleased until we found it was a meteorological station. The guy wouldn't even let us sleep on the floor because it was a secure government building. We had to return the way we'd come but by this time I think most of us were a bit giddy from the altitude or just past caring. Ella and I began our favourite pun game and everyone joined in with some real classics. We all just had giggling fits at each new terrible pun. 'My judgement's clouded' and 'my memories a bit foggy' (when we couldn't remember which path to take) had us in stitches, I think it was a 'you had to be there' kind of moment. We passed the public toilets for the third time and I tried to set up camp in there to spend the night. They were clean and warm from two heaters but the girls refused. We descended back down the mountain to find a bed and knocked on every door we could. We sweet-talked the policemen but they wouldn't even let us sleep on the floor. I was tempted to get myself arrested for a cell for the night but I decided to save that for a last resort. The fancy hotel was far too expensive but eventually we found somewhere that would give us a room (they made us take two rooms because they realised we had no-where else to go). My Y60 bed felt amazing.
The whole point of coming up here was to watch the sun rise, supposedly a beautiful sight from the top of Emei Shan. So I was up and re-climbing the mountain again at stupid 'o' clock in the morning in ridiculously thick fog. When we peaked we could see a bit more of the stunning statue; part of an elephant tusk loomed out of the cloud. We stood shivering in the mist for about an hour waiting for the sun to rise before deciding that nothing was going to happen and we should just give up. Of course the sun did actually rise… but all that happened for us was the fog turned a bit whiter and if anything visibility got worse. I still have no idea what the famous Taoist statue on top of the mountain is meant to look like. So Chengdu wasn't off to a great start but at least the driver off the bus gave me the 'special seat' right at the front and we had a lovely little chat.
Back at the hostel we met Charlotte and later in the evening Travis as well. We had met Travis on the mountain but no-one knew if it was him. I was adamant the guy from the mountain was American and fat with facial hair and glasses. Turns out it was the same guy although this time around he wasn't fat, had no facial hair or glasses and was Canadian. Also, he'd been listening in to our conversation when we thought we were being subtle. Oops. Another embarrassing moment was when I talked to a friendly looking Chinese guy at the bar, he smiled and nodded and I went back to playing pool. 10 minutes later, when I'd lost again, I went back to continue my conversation. He kept smiling then said 'I am not Chinese, I am from Holland.' Oops again. Thankfully he thought it was funny and said he got it a lot, he came and joined our table as well. We met loads of cool foreigners but everyone we met was on their last day which was annoying. Callum was flying in from Hong Kong in the early hours so we drank and chatted with the other foreigners until we were the only ones left. In the end Callum didn't get in until 4 in the morning.
It was great to see Callum again in the morning - strange to think Callum, Ella and I were all strangers on selection together a year and a half ago and now we were travelling in China together! Our first proper day in Chengdu we went to an 'ancient village' which wasn't that good really. It was just a tourist attraction and we saw parts of the 'ancient village' being built while we were there. I got to paddle in a stream though so that was fun. The most memorable part of the day was getting home… The bus station was a mob of sweaty people crammed in and supposedly 'queuing' for the buses of which there were none. Every time one appeared they surged forward shouting to cram themselves onto it. We went Chinese for a bit and hopped over seats in the middle to push in near the front. But even that didn't hold much hope so we tagged along with two other foreigners to share the price of two taxis between us. Well worth it! When we got back Charlotte and Travis had already gone but tonight we had a Belgium guy, a couple from Israel, the Dutch guy, a Chinese girl, a Chilean girl and an American couple among others - I love hostel bars! We all got dressed up and drank baijiu and headed off to the infamous 'Jellyfish' club which we'd heard so much about. It was alright but the night brought itself to an end when an unconscious girl was carried out of a neighbouring club and woke me up from my table. I've never sobered up so fast in my life - give someone a scare and they'll be right as rain I promise! It was good to know I could have done something if I needed to but she started breathing while I was still standing up and they put her in the world's worst recovery position. Her boyfriend was an idiot though, Callum told him to put her head back and open up her airway and he told us he knew what he was doing, she was fine and to go away. Fine, I hope she throws up on you. We suspect drugs for that one because people had seen her suspiciously energetic just before she collapsed.
Going to split this in two because there's so much to write from Chengdu! That was the not so great first few days, it improved a lot after that...