Monday, April 2, 2012

Giant Pandas in Chengdu

I thought their eyes were oddly human-like.   
The reason most tourists come to Chengdu is to visit the Giant Panda Research Center which is located on the edge of Chengdu.  This facility is dedicated to preserving the Giant Panda whose numbers have dwindled to an estimated 500 in the province of Sichuan although I've also heard there are up to 3000.  So, go figure.  Pandas are solitary animals who only come together to breed in a 72 hour period ONCE a year.  Can you imagine if that were true for humans?  Our teenage pregnancy rate would plummet if we females were only fertile 72 hours a year. 

Also, the male panda has a reputation for not being particulary amorous.  So, scientists in Chendgu have spent years figuring out how to breed the pandas.  The scientists use electrical stimulation, syringes, sprayed urine, and extra rations of apples.  Candles and romantic music are not part of the routine.

These are the babies after I think they are about 3 months old.
There are about 60 breeding pandas at the center currently. The tipping poing for releasing them into the wild is 300, so it is a busy place. When I first went to the Center in September, I saw 8 baby pandas that were in a crib. They resembled hairless rats although you could see that they were going to grow black and white fur. In October, they had their hair and were much bigger. (See photo!) These roly poly guys are now in an outdoor pen together. They look like they are about 30 pounds. I saw a fascinating BBC documentary about the Panda Research Center called "Panda Makers" filmed in 2010 if  anyone is interested.

Pandas are adept tree climbers.  This one was probably 15 feet up.

For a whopping $150, you can sit for 5 minutes with a toddler panda which probably weighs close to 100 pounds. For Zane's birthday, I bought us all this experience since the money is "used to help further the research". We each got to wear a surgical gown in order to sit next to an apple munching panda on a bench. It was a once in a lifetime experience to hug a panda. I can't say I've ever sat next to a bear before. And these are not your average bears...

I swear this guy was waving to me. 

The 100 acre park is gorgeous - it is covered with enormous bamboo trees although the bamboo the pandas eat is harvested elsewhere in Sichuan. A lot of careful attention has been paid to the landscaping with large flower beds everywhere interspersed with streams, lakes, and topiary. Even though the park is on the edge of the city, it's tranquil. It's always a relief to get away from the sound of jackhammers, horns, and the loud hum of constant traffic. 

It appeared to be too much effort to sit up and constantly eat the bamboo. 
Many were stretched out on their backs while munching on the bamboo.

It's easy to see why the WWF has chosen the panda to serve as its mascot for endangered animals.  I think even the most jaded among us would get gooey and sentimental over these adorable creatures!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Year's Eve on a sacred Buddhist Mountain

Top of the cliff looking across Buddha's head.  Raging rivers below.
Mark and the kids got here the day after Christmas.  I spent a few days finishing up grading and then we all headed south for a two-hour ride in a deluxe bus to see the Giant Buddha of Leshan.  This Buddha is now the tallest one in the world measuring 71 meters tall.  He was carved into the side of a cliff in AD 713 under the supervision of a monk who hoped the giant Buddha would calm the swift currents at the base of the cliff where 3 rivers merged.  It worked!  After 90 years of construction, the enormous amounts of rock and silt that were discarded by the sculptors filled in the hollows in the river and literally slowed down the churning water. 

Still giddy as we had not spent the night yet.
We hiked up the mountain and stopped at various Buddhist shrines before paying homage to the big guy himself.  After that, the 8 of us (my sister and family, too) crammed into a mini-van where we traveled another 45 minutes to Emei Shan which is one of the 4 sacred Buddhist Mountains in China. 

We hiked up about 4 kms to a Monastery to spend New Year's Eve.  A lot of the trail was just sets of winding steep stairs that were carved into the cliffs.  The trail followed a rushing river with ferns, cedar trees, and other lush jungle-like plants.  It was one of the most breathtaking hikes I've ever had.  Along the way there were tiny temples and small tables covered by tents where the locals served hot tea, soup, and snacks.  We passed through a monkey zone where monkeys were poised to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists. 

Hey hey we're the monkeys.  We're just monkeying around.

I love the cheerful fat Buddhas.
We finally made it to the Venerable Trees Terrace Monastery,  We spent the afternoon playing cards, reading, and huddling around a heater that was in the policeman's quarters in the Monastery.  None of us were sure if we were supposed to be there given that nobody spoke English and my Chinese language skills are pathetic.  Finally, at 6:00 pm we were hustled out of the room to a freezing cold dining hall where we had rice and vegetable dishes.  We were not allowed back into the only heated room with the cigarette-smoking policemen, so we wandered around this seemingly empty drafty multi-storied Monastery admiring the statues, inhaling the incense, and shaking our heads in a "how-the-heck-did-we-end-up-on-a-side-of-a-mountain-in-China-on-New-Year's-Eve? kind of way.   The only other tourists there were 2 Chinese people who seemed to be as bewildered as we were.

Mist moved in and out all day long which contributed to the spiritual ambiance of the hike.
We had no choice but to finally retire to our bedroom which had a 3 foot grate all around the top.   This meant the cold mountain air moved in and out.  It also allowed us to hear the gonging and chanting of the Monks.  Each of us had a wooden slab to sleep on which was covered with a thin mattress with a folded woolen quilt on top.   Poor Zane got sick in the night which was unpleasant given that the bathroom was up two flights of stairs and just had trenches in the ground.  There was no hot water or heat although we did have one forlorn lightbulb hanging from a twisted cord in the center of the room.  Yes, we did experience enlightenment during our stay.

My nephew Milo and I hiking up the mtn.

Both kids said it was the worst night ever, but it surely will always be a New Year's Eve to remember. I guess if I had the stomach flu all night and had to hike down all of those stairs the next morning, I might feel differently, too.  I know that I won't ever forget listening to the sounds of the monks chanting early in the morning to welcome the New Year.

If only we had a bottle of champagne...   There is no doubt that the Year of the Dragon will continue to memorable.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Christmas in China

We live on the 21st floor of the 41 story building.
On Christmas Eve which was a Saturday I gave a final exam to over 100 students.  After that, I hurried home to my new apartment in a high rise building where I met my sister, brother-in-law and two nephews who had been traveling in southern China. 

This pagoda commemorates Xue Tao's poetry.
We spent Christmas Day walking around the Bamboo Park which is just across the river from my new apt. The park is dedicated to a famous female Tang Dynasty poet named Xue Tao.    It has over 150 varieties of bamboo which is not like the spindly plant that grows in my backyard in Albuquerque. Instead these bamboo plants are towering trees that arch over the paths in the park. It is easy to see why most of the pandas in China live in Sichuan province given the lush bamboo that grows wild everywhere in the mountains around Chengdu.

The candymaker.  Check out the designs on the white slab.
My favorite vendor in the park is the candymaker.  He creates custom designed suckers in intricate patterns on a white slab right before your eyes.  You spin a dial and whatever creature of the zodiac it lands on is the design that is created.  He deftly pours the hot burnt sugar liquid out in swirls and loops which instantly hardens around a bamboo stick into a custom-designed sucker.  I must take a better picture to show the amazing shapes that are created.  It's magical.

Nephew Ben getting a lesson in the top spinning.

In the park, there is always a group of retirees who gather to practice a game in which a top is suspended from a long string that is held in both hands of the participant. The person manages to gracefully turn, squat, and hop around while spinning the top on the string. The noise sounds like a swarm of locusts. Since the park is so close to my house I have been quietly observing this group for weeks. It looks much more active than playing bridge! 

On the weekends a traditional band meets to play Chinese folk songs in the plaza.  Often times a singer will join them and people will dance in front of the group.  In addition, there are dozens of people of all ages playing badminton. Exercise is taken quite seriously here.  People walk through the park swinging their arms in a windmill fashion or stomping and marching.  It is very rare to see an overweight person here let alone an obese one.

Wooden boats on the lake in the Bamboo Park
We all rented a wooden boat to paddle around the lake and canal that is in the middle of the park.  It was heavenly to be in a boat with experienced rowers from Pt. Townsend, Washington.  We finished the day by eating chicken soup and discovering that the $2 bottles of Great Wall of China Red Wine are not so bad after the first glass or two.  I hope everyone had a delightful holiday season!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Grocery Shopping in Chengdu

It's always an adventure to go grocery shopping in Chengdu.  I usually go to a supermarket called "Trust Mart" which is owned by Walmart.  It's about a 20 minute walk from my apt.  I have complained in the U.S. when I've had to park my minivan in the very last parking spot in the lot which meant pushing my cart the length of the parking lot.  Poor Amy.  How she suffered so. 

Tianfu Square.  The center of Chengdu.
Now, of course, I don't have a car.  So, I've learned to shop frequently so that I don't have to lug a lot of heavy groceries back on my walk.  I tried to balance two grocery bags on my bike, but cycling requires every bit of my attention given that cars drive on the sidewalks, they pass each other, and they constantly honk which is disconcerting while balancing grocery bags.

I've figured out how to take the bus to the super Walmart which is where the pictures are taken below. It costs about 30 cents to ride the bus, and they go everywhere in the city. I have been unable to locate a map in English with the bus routes marked on it, but the city is pretty easy to navigate. Chengdu has 3 major ring roads that fan out from the center of the city which has a beautiful square where the large Chairman Mao statue is located. I live between the first and second ring road, so I can hop on a bus on either ring road and get to the general area of most spots in Chengdu.

The large supermarkets are located on 2 or 3 stories instead of spread out on one floor. You have to ride these moving ramps up and down which accommodate shopping carts and tired Walmart shoppers like the little girl here. She stared at me the whole way up the ramp.

I was merrily snapping pictures in the store until an angry looking butcher told me to stop. Here are some shots I thought you all might enjoy seeing.
Chicken feet.  It's what is for dinner.

Sausages for sale.

The fruit is gorgeous and yummy.  Durians look like weapons, eh?
I've never seen anyone buy a manta ray to cook.  We are miles from the sea!

Anybody hungry for some pig feet? 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A glimspe at rural China

These 3 exquisite 14-yr-olds were my guides when I got to the village.
I had a marvelous time on Friday at some workshops I facilitated at the Liajiamiao village which is east about 3 hours by bus and car from Chengdu.  Since Chengdu sits in a basin, we had to climb through some mountainous passes.  It was weird to see pampas grass, exotic ferns, and asiatic lilies growing in the wild.  I'm used to seeing them as container plants at Lowes.  It is much more subtropical here than I had imagined.  

The teachers and I are playing an introduction game. 
At a Consulate function, I met Professor Zhou who works for the West China School of Public Health in Chengdu.  She has lectured all over the world on the topic of public health policies and has taken a special interest in the village where I went because it is so isolated from the urban area of Chengdu.  Two of Professor Zhou's post graduate students accompanied me on a 2-hour bus ride to the town where the Director of the school picked us up for the hour ride to the village.  I met about 30 teachers for a "theory and practical activities" workshop.  They were outgoing and eagerly participated which was gratifying for me. 

 Everyone is very comfortable squatting.  I'm still getting used to it!
My favorite part of the day was working with the 50 middle school students. I was told this village was full of "left behind" children which means their parents left them in the village with their grandparents because the parents have to live in the city to work.  So, it is a village of very old people and children.  The grad students told me that Professor Zhou is doing a psychological study on these left behind children.  The students said that the School of Public Health was designing some intervention programs to see if the programs would influence the outlook, behavior, and the physical health of the left behind kids.

I took some pictures of the students playing Simon Says and Duck, Duck, Goose with English phrases, and in their chains of introductions.  They seemed to enjoy the outdoor active English games the most.  Kids are kids everywhere, eh?   
Cluck cluck.
I had to use the restroom so my 3 guides jumped up to show me where it was.  They held my hands, and we practically skipped to the outhouse behind the school that had no running water or a complete wall on the back.  I just can't imagine Izzy and her friends holding my hands and skipping to an outhouse where all of us would squat over our respective holes in the ground while at the same time maintaining our conversation.

I gave each student a state quarter from the United States which was a big hit.  As a mother of two middle school children, I wish I could have given more.  Their gift to me was their initial shy smiles that turned into laughter during the games.  I'm not sure they have seen very many foreigners flap their arms and cluck like a chicken.

Afterwards, I had an amazing banquet with all of the teachers in which all of these beautifully prepared dishes kept appearing by magic in this tiny cafe. The food is all placed on a gigantic lazy Susan in the middle of the table that it twirled around at a slow pace for everyone to pluck out of the bowls what they want.  Each teacher stood up and toasted me for bringing honor and new ideas to their classrooms.  So, I had to toss back quite a few beers given that was the only beverage available.  It was very weak, so I managed to maintain my dignity!   I'm proud to say that I can now boast that I have eaten pig ears.  
They didn't taste like chicken.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Mom and Dad on our way to dinner out the Little North Gate
On October 1, China celebrated the 62nd anniversary of the founding of Communism.  This holiday is called Golden Week for instead of taking a day off, we had a 7 day holiday.  (Classes that were scheduled for Thursday were made up today and Friday classes will be made up tomorrow).  Lucky for me, my parents visited last week so we spent a week of whirlwind touring around Chengdu and the surrounding area.

Lynn and Mia at our table.  Tons of students were at this campus hotspot for hotpot.


Ma and Pa arrived on Friday night and were immediately taken to a hotpot dinner by two of my lovely post graduate students, named Lynn and Mia.   A “hotpot” is a boiling pan of spicy chili oil and broth that is flush with the table.  The gas canister is hidden from view under the table.  You can get the spicy broth which is traditional in Sichuan as well as a mild broth mixture. The round pan resembles a yin and yan symbol with red on one side and white on the other. 

The oil mixture had mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes as well as unidentified spices in it.

Sichuan is famous for a special peppercorn that I’ve never had in the U.S.  It’s called a huajiao pepper that effectively numbs your mouth.  The food here is not as fiery spicy as New Mexican jalapeno dishes.  What makes the food unique is the use of this huajiao pepper that makes you feel like you are recovering from a dental filling.  It’s an odd yet pleasant culinary sensation to have a spicy bite of food that turns your mouth momentarily numb after you’ve swallowed it.

After the pot of oil is brought to your table to start heating, you are given a long list of ingredients from which to order.  Then, the selections are artfully arranged on a rolling vertical tray contraption.  We nixed the bullfrog, special duck intestine, and duck blood curds and settled instead on sliced lotus roots, tapioca noodles, shrimp dumplings, Chinese cabbage, tender beef, bamboo shoots, and 4 different kinds of mushrooms that were heavenly.  One by one you drop the various ingredients into either side of the boiling oil mixture  So, basically it is fondue Chinese style.  (No chocolate, though!) 
After you pull out the ingredient from the oil, you drop it into your own little bowl of oil, vinegar, fish paste, cilantro, and garlic.  Each person decides how much or if any of each of these ingredients he/she wants.  

My parents did a fine job of navigating solely with chopsticks.  I think beer helps!  I’m sure there is a scholarly paper in the making here of studying the relationship between chopsticks dexterity and beer consumption.  The food is so just so fresh and complex that the incentive to use the chopsticks is another factor to mention in this research.   
I must say as a food inhaler that using chopsticks has slowed down my rate of consumption which is certainly another positive quality in a country in which meals are enjoyed and not rushed.  

We spent the rest of the week visiting temples, parks, giant buddhas, sacred mountains, monasteries, and pandas.  More to come!   

Credit to papa for several of the photos in the next few entries.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sichuan University

Water lily pond close to the Foreign Languages Building where my office is.

I'm teaching at Sichuan University which has 40,000 undergraduates and 20,000 graduate students.  There are 3 campuses - the oldest one where I live is in the center of Chengdu and the brand new one where I teach 3 days a week is a 45-minute bus ride away. I don't have anything to do with the Medical School campus!

Chairman Mao is located by the East Gate.  

The main campus is surrounded by an 8 foot wall, so it is a self-contained entity.  It takes about 30 minutes to walk from the north gate to the south gate and 20 minutes from the east gate to the west gate which gives you a rough idea of how huge this campus is.  Driving is discouraged on campus because the streets are narrow and full of students, bicycles and motorbikes.  However, there are still cars zipping about which makes riding my bike an adventure!  I still haven't quite figured out the choreography of the transportation dance in China.

Water lily on the pond near my office
There are enormous shade trees on campus as well as parks with palm trees and banana trees and lotus and waterlily ponds.  I've tried to take capture the beauty in my photos but Ansel Adams I am not. There are park benches around the large ponds and people hang out and read and talk.

There is a supermarket about 2 blocks from my guesthouse and bicycle repair shops set up on the sidewalk every block or so.  Most of the food stands are located just outside the campus at each of the gates.  My students have taken me to eat at some of these stands which I'll describe in a later posting.  Retired teachers are allowed to live on campus so there is a wonderful mix of ages in the high rise apt buildings all around campus. There are 2 primary schools on campus and one middle school and one high school, so I see children all the time which makes me miss my own.

Foreign Language Building.  My office is on the 3rd floor.
Today I was invited to watch a group of retired women who are taking a singing class in which they sing English songs.  I walked in on 25 women singing "Way Down Upon the Swanee River".

Surreal doesn't begin to explain this day.

The singing instructor was a tiny woman about 30 years old who belted out an operatic version of Swanee River that almost made me cry.  She is a voice teacher at the Sichuan Music Conservatory which is near my university.  She invited me to see a performance on her campus tonight of a violin, cello, and piano trio visiting from Vienna.  I'm still speechless.  What a musical adventure I had today.

I hope you enjoy the photos of my lovely campus.

This is the Main Administration Building located at the North Gate

Do you notice how people ride their bikes and motorbikes on the sidewalks?  Also the map in the background has north on the bottom and south on the top...  Each map around campus seems to have a different orientation...
This kitty lives by the South Gate.  I don't think he looks particularly happy to be on a leash.  I know my look-alike cat Sylvester would not be thrilled to be leashed to the front door!
This is the outside of the Foreign Experts Building where I live.  My room is on the second floor and faces south.  You are looking east at the front of the building.

This is the plaza I walk across to get to my house which you can barely see between the pillars on the right.  Between classes this plaza is filled with undergraduates since these buildings here are full of undergraduate classrooms.  You can see a couple of tiny people in the picture to give you some idea of the scale of this massive building!