Arriving in China felt like we’d landed on an entirely different planet. One where we didn’t know the customs, how things worked or how to behave, where we couldn’t even communicate or manage the basics like get food, find our hotel or catch a taxi. Ah culture shock! I’ve missed you! This is the feeling that travellers are always chasing I reckon. Disorientation is such a buzz. As the world gets smaller and more connected it becomes rarer and harder to find. Disclaimer: I have been to China before but that was in the more touristed north east and more than 20 years ago. I do remember that it was hard travelling then but China has changed a lot in the last decade or so.
We came by bus from Laos and it was a massive construction site all the way from Luang Namtha to the border on the Laos side. China’s belt and road project is in full swing. The Boten/Mohan border crossing from Laos to China went very smoothly. We encountered no extortion, gun-waving or other intimidation. In fact, it was super fast and everyone was polite and helpful. It was the first hint of how high-tech China is now – passport scan, face recognition cameras, digital fingerprints and we were through. They must fully trust their luggage scanners as there were no people being stopped and searched. It feels a helluva lot friendlier and more welcoming than entering Australia.
As soon as we crossed the border into China, the construction stopped. The infrastructure is already built on this side and everything has blended back into the landscape. It makes me consider that maybe the disruption of the building stage might possibly be worth it in the end. I’m definitely thinking the railway is a good thing, not too sure about roads and buildings. Food for thought anyway. I love it how travelling constantly challenges my opinions and makes me question my beliefs.
Our bus travelled all day through mountain ranges with nothing but trees, mostly rubber plantations, secondary growth and reforestation. An incredible effort has obviously gone into tree planting. Everything is on a huge scale in China – enormous mountains, valleys, rivers, highways, bridges, wind turbines. This part of China is Xishuangbanna, a Dai minority province under the jurisdiction of Yunnan. It’s crisscrossed by futuristic sky roads on massive pillars spanning the valleys and tunneling through the mountains. Very impressive feats of engineering! Everything looks new and clean. It also looks empty. We saw very few people, towns, houses or traffic anywhere.
Our first interactions in China were in the bus stops. Nothing was written in English of course and nobody spoke English. We were yet to work out how to use a translator. We wanted coffee and something to eat. We couldn’t find anything that looked edible or even familiar. We did manage to order coffee at the first stop but I said yes to the wrong question so it ended up full of ice like a coffee slushy. Not quite what I wanted. The toilets are big long pits about a foot wide. You put one foot on each side and all the poo goes in the middle. There’s nothing to hold onto and no privacy – just a line of women squatting over this pit with their bums in the air. My big white bum was quite conspicuous.
Our first stop was a couple of nights in Jinghong. I thought if we stayed in a hostel they might be more prepared for tourists and be able to help us. We knew that social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.) is banned in China and also Google. You don’t realise how much you rely on google until you try to do something without it. Search engines, YouTube, maps, translation – it’s all google! Nobody in the hostel spoke English but they really tried. They did manage to get me onto ‘WeChat’ which is like the equivalent to Messenger but so much more. The Wifi was down the whole time though, so we really couldn’t do anything until we got a Chinese SIM card for our phones. Without internet we couldn’t even communicate, follow a map or buy vegetarian food.
Our first night we went to bed very hungry. The hostel had nothing but meat dumplings, so we went out to the shops nearby but couldn’t find a single thing to eat. First thing the next day we set off to get SIM cards and food. Sounds simple but wasn’t. Our phones won’t work on the Chinese mobile network for some weird reason. Strangely my old iPhone that I brought for backup does work, so now at least we have one phone between us. We asked in lots of restaurants for food but they all just shook their heads at us. Not sure if they had nothing at all without meat or if they couldn’t understand us. At last we found some street food – tofu and spinach pies! They were so delicious. Then we realised we were lost and couldn’t find our way back to the hostel. We had a map in Chinese but we couldn’t understand it and everyone we showed it to pointed us in a different direction. We were lost for many hours.
Our bus from Jinghong to Kunming got stopped and searched by the police a number of times. Quite similar to NSW really. They kept dragging the same poor guy off and searching him, then letting him back on. I don’t know what they didn’t like about him. Wrong ethnicity maybe? Kunming was our first experience of a big Chinese city. It has more than 6 million people but didn’t feel crowded at all. In fact it feels very refined and calm with a big tea culture. We stayed in a shared apartment on the 12th floor. What a beautiful and fabulous city! It’s like stepping into an episode of the Jetsons. Everyone whizzes around on silent electric scooters and motorbikes. Even the buses, taxis and a lot of the cars and trucks are electric. Everyone uses their phones for everything – to order and pay for things and to navigate. I feel so technologically backward in China.
At last we’re on the train line and could catch a fast train from Kunming to Chengdu. No more buses for now. Woohoo! The electric fast trains are incredible with a top speed of 300-350km per hour. The stations are like airports and riding the train is like flying with a view. It’s heartbreaking to think that railway lines are being left to rot in Australia when this is so obviously the transport of the future.
Chengdu is a big city of 8 million people or so. We decided not to go into the actual city right now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the air pollution rating was in the ‘Very Unhealthy’ range according to the groovy Real-time Air Quality Index (not good for JH’s asthma) and secondly we were only granted a 30 day visa for China, instead of the 60 we were expecting – so sadly we have to make some ruthless cuts here and there. Instead, we stayed right near the pandas and got up early to get to the ‘Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding’ before the crowds. As one of the biggest tourist attractions in China we knew it would be crowd hell.
Giant pandas came very close to extinction and are still classified as ‘vulnerable’. The breeding station grows the specific bamboo they eat and attempts to create the ideal conditions for them to breed. They’re then released back into the ever-shrinking ‘wild’. Pandas are every bit as adorable as I imagined – super cute, hilarious and ultra cool. They are classified as carnivorous but are actually vegan, choosing to eat only bamboo. Go the vegan pandas!
The breeding station also has some endangered red pandas. They are a beautiful rich red colour with the most luxurious tails. I imagine lots of horrible people have hunted them to steal their beautiful tails. They are omnivorous tree climbers but also prefer to eat bamboo.
I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of panda cubs in trees because there are not many things in the world that are cuter than that.