The adventures of Gege and Didi are over, and the training wheels are off. I’m all alone amidst 1.3 billion Chinese, although I’ve started out with just a few million. That’s the population of Chengdu, the Sichuan capital. Plus the panda population, which are never great communicators anyway: too busy guzzling bamboo leaves. Or just resting.
I take a taxi cab from the airport to my chosen accommodation, right across the city. This 45-minute expressway ride costs just a few dollars, as registered on the meter. No arguments, no tricks, and here is your printed receipt. Easy. China’s big-city taxi fleets are a shining example to those of so many other cities around the world.
At the Traffic Hotel the front desk is staffed by a row of young women decked out in coral pink buttoned-up jackets with matching silk scarves. There’s a constant trickle of foreigners coming and going all day and half the night, but these show ponies command no more than half a dozen words of English between them. Advanced concepts like ‘laundry’ throw them into a complete tizzy. Head up the driveway to the allied Traffic Inn backpacker hostel and I’m greeted by any one of at least three friendly, personable staff, speaking tolerably fluent English, who wear jeans to work. At the hotel I get a nice clean room with private facilities, at a good price, but as the days pass, I find myself heading up the driveway for almost everything else: breakfast, wi-fi, conversation and advice.
Chengdu is Panda Central, so excursion number one is the obligatory trip out to the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base on the northern edge of the city.
For a giant panda, even mating is a tiresome distraction; this is a species, and apparently a very old one that was heading for the exit until the modern-day human population decided to intervene.
Assisted reproduction is the order of the day, and the neonatal nursery is fitted out with humidicribs; every newborn giant panda is effectively premature, a tiny, pink, creature, helpless and hairless, dwarfed by its hairy, rotund parent. Out in the open-plan enclosures, giant pandas lumber about, climbing up onto timber platforms to tussle with each other or to grab a paw-full of bamboo leaves. The animal’s apparent lethargy is interpreted as an ecological strategy to conserve the limited energy the animal derives from its monotonous diet. And then we meet the red panda, a compact and bushy-tailed critter than has more in common with foxes than with giant pandas.
So far, so good. Now to strike out on public transport. Fortuitously, my lodgings are right next door to the Xiannanmen bus terminal, from which coaches radiate out across the province, from sub-tropical bamboo forests to mist-clad sacred mountains, and the windswept Tibetan-populated highlands of the west.
With timetables, ticket counters and departure gates all labelled in English as well as Chinese, and newly-built freeways extending in every direction, it’s a breeze… until you reach your destination. Plenty of friendly souls, indeed, but language skills are conspicuous by their near-total absence. A young shop assistant shows me a thick English-language textbook, padded out with pompous discourses on socialist morality. Thank heavens, then, for Lonely Planet’s bilingual sketch maps and listings. Like a deaf mute, you’re reduced to point-and-shoot, and a true conversation becomes a treasured rarity.
Descending thousands of stone stairs on Mt Emei (‘Er-may’) through unremitting fog and rain, my acheing limbs carry me into Yuxian Monastery, a small retreat boasting a simple, single temple and a cluster of spartan bedrooms available for rent. Meals are strictly vegetarian: Mapo Dofu (hot spicy tofu) and steamed cabbage. But the company is positively eclectic: two Israeli software engineers, a Chinese-American IT manager and a couple of young Aussie foreign aid workers with whom I share an acquaintance in Papua New Guinea (!)
The Buddha has delivered enlightenment. And my Mandarin vocabulary has doubled: Ka Fe Ma? Do you have coffee? Meio! We don’t!