Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shanghai weekend trip: Chengdu (alternatively, pandas, pandas, pandas)

One of the best parts about living in Shanghai is the ease of travel to a laundry list of holiday destinations (say what Australia for Christmas 2015 and Chinese New Year 2016??). It's a pity, though, that many of us don't travel very much domestically as a result. China, even when you live here, seems too big, too crowded, too spread out, and too difficult to traverse. English, even in major tourist centres, is lacking. Many people who live in Shanghai would prefer to go through the hassle of getting a visa to Vietnam than sort out a weekend holiday in Sanya. When I was in Bangkok this summer, I was shocked that the taxi drivers spoke English. I had completely forgotten how easy it was to travel in Southeast Asia (shameless plug for the ole No Plan Plans blog). In two years, I can count on one hand the number of taxi drivers I've had in Shanghai who spoke English.

But, stating the obvious, China has many incredible sights and a rich history. We have to remind ourselves that there are so many cool things we can do without having to go through the immigration line. Plus, there are airlines and high speed trains that can take you all over the country, often for pretty reasonable prices. (Note for travellers: flights are notorious for being extremely delayed so plane travel can be super frustrating. Keep it in mind.)

Embarrassingly, over the course of the Irishman's first 2 year contract, we only visited Harbin, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Zhangjiajie. Even more embarrassingly, for expats in general, that's a pretty long list.

At the beginning of the school year, a friend mentioned that she was keen to go to Chengdu to check out the pandas. I agreed it would be cool and we should do it "sometime". Luckily for us, Jen held me to it and emailed me two days later with a quote from a travel agent. My jaw dropped when I saw the amount ($700 USD per person for a four person trip, 1 night stay). On the condition that I sort out the itinerary (about $500 USD per person, 2 nights stay), we were off 4 days later! We are lucky people.

I would highly recommend other travelers and expats make the weekend trip. We didn't have to take any time off work and we had a wonderful experience. Check the bottom of the post for logistics info about how we did it.

Pandas (my favourite!)

The main attraction in Chengdu are the pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was not too far from our hostel. I had read online it would only be about an 80 RMB taxi ride away and I was tempted to just go over on our own. However, despite my desire to do things the cheapest way, it really was worthwhile to have a tour guide. The facility is really big and spread out. Our guide beelined us to the best bits and we didn't have to look at maps or wander aimlessly, trying to figure out if we'd missed anything.

Despite it being a holiday weekend, it wasn't very busy. From what I've read, the afternoon is when most Chinese tour groups turn up. We arrived around 8:30 am (the facility opens at 7:30 am) and stayed for a couple of hours. We watched the information video at the end of our tour, which I think was to keep us ahead of most tourists. At any time there weren't more than about 15 other people looking at the pandas in the same spot.

A note on the ethics of panda breeding

I am not an expert at all but this is my take on it. Panda breeding is an objective waste of resources. Some scientists believe that they should naturally have gone extinct a while ago. And conservationist Chris Packham even went so far to say, "I would eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with." And I get it. But they're SO CUTE! My much more ethical teenage self would be very ashamed. Look at baby pandas and try to argue they aren't worth a completely insane investment of money and research:

Best parts

I was completely in awe and giddy. Pandas spend the vast majority of their time eating and sleeping. At the time we went, soon after they wake up and eat breakfast, they were so much more active than I expected! They wrestled and climbed trees (slowly).

It was raining, so I was worried the pandas would be in hiding. Luckily, they didn't seem to care about the rain in the slightest!

It may have been luck, but I was shocked at how people behaved. At the most basic museum exhibits in Shanghai, people bang on glass, climb on exhibits, throw things. When we were at the research base, despite there being only low fences and no glass partitions in the open areas, people kept a respectful distance and didn't harass the pandas. I guess being a national icon has its perks. 

Not so best parts

As a Canadian, the red pandas were very disappointing. They are in the raccoon family. They look like raccoons. A little anticlimactic after SEEING FREAKING GIANT PANDAS. Other people on our tour were into it, though. The Irishman and I just chatted with the tour guide and got through that bit. 
Raccoon that doesn't have to work for his supper.

It wasn't clear whether holding pandas was still an option. I have seen conflicting information online. Personally, I would be worried about passing on diseases to the pandas from the outside world. Last year, two pandas died of canine distemper virus at a facility that allowed pandas to be held and the scientists couldn't figure out how they contracted the disease. Not worth it for a fun photo op, IMO! (See teenage Ange, I still have some principles...)

Leshan Buddha (Irishman's favourite!)

Next stop on the tour was Leshan. We napped over the 2.5 hour bus ride. We arrived in the early afternoon and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Our tour guide ordered for us so we got a delicious mix of local food. She helped order non-spicy dishes for the people in the group who needed a little bit of a less intense Sichuan experience. Chengdu is located in Sichuan province which is famous for its spicy peppers that abound in many dishes. The traditional Sichuan spicy food wasn't any spicier than the fare I have had in Shanghai, which was a relief! We paid 150 RMB ($25 USD) per couple and were completely stuffed.

There are two ways you can see the Buddha: hike for several hours around it (along either side and in front) or take a 20 minute boat. You can't actually see the whole thing at once this way, due to its size. And thousands of Chinese people are pushing their way along the path with you. I deal with rush hour on the metro in Shanghai; I had no desire to experience going up and down hundreds of stone steps, being pushed, in the pouring rain.

Of course we chose the boat. The boat was fantastic. It wasn't too crowded and it stopped right in front of the Buddha for about 10 minutes while we took photos. You can see it in its full glory and have elbow room at the same time. I wouldn't do it any other way.

Wenshu Temple

So, I thought I would be adventurous (cheap) and be in charge of Day 2's activities. Based on TripAdvisor, I settled on Wenshu Temple and People's Park. We had breakfast at the hostel, checked out and left our bags with reception, and hopped on the metro to Wenshu Temple.

I don't know why this had such great reviews, including one stating that it isn't like every other temple out there in China. To our untrained eyes, it was like every other temple out there in China. Perhaps a tour guide would have made it more interesting. Positive review people, please feel free to comment below about what it is that we missed about the place.

The grounds were beautiful but I think People's Park would have been a better use of our time. 

We found a random food stall that did the job.

We planned to eat lunch at a vegetarian restaurant run by monks which came recommended online and by friends who had visited over the summer. We loitered around the temple, bored, waiting until we were hungry enough to eat. Then, when we went looking for the restaurant, it was closed! I failed as a tour guide. 

People's Park

I didn't expect to like the park. We have a People's Park and Century Park in Shanghai, which are lovely. Surprisingly, Chengdu's People's Park charmed us! It was busy but not super crowded. You could walk leisurely. People were ballroom dancing at various places in the park.

There are several tea houses in the park, a big part of Chengdu culture. We settled on a random one where the guys underwent traditional Chinese ear cleaning. Involving metal probing sticks, the cleaners dug wax deep out of their ears, flicking it to the ground. It didn't seem to be very hygienic but it was the thing to do! (Better the men than me...) A painful and brief shoulder massage followed, while Jen and I looked on and sipped our tea.

We hung out and drank tea for about an hour. The menu included English translations and they left us with a big thermos of boiled water to top up our glasses. 
They're trying to pretend they aren't scarred for life.
The open air tea house was full of locals sipping tea and playing cards. We also played cards and were the subject of interest for many people at the tea house. At this point, we're all used to being stared at so we didn't mind.


Overall, I would recommend anyone coming to China to visit Chengdu. I feel a bit guilty that our previous visitors didn't go there. The pandas and Buddha were incredible and I will remember them for a lifetime.

Next time, I will skip the Wenshu Temple and go to the Jinsha Site Museum instead, which gets good reviews. 



We used the Ctrip app to book our last minute tickets. Both flights were through Sichuan Airlines. Chengdu is around a 3 hour flight from Shanghai --not too bad for a weekend and yummy food (and terrible beer) is included in the ticket price. 

We left Friday around 7:30 pm and returned Sunday at 6:00 pm, early enough to be fresh for work on Monday. 

We could have found cheaper tickets if we booked more in advance or had more flexible schedules. Tickets cost around 1800 RMB ($300 USD) per person, round trip.


We opted for a higher end hostel, Lazybones. Each couple got their own room with a bathroom. Even with the short notice, they had 2 rooms available. Each room was 189 RMB (~$30 USD) per night. For budget travellers, they have a sister hostel, Mix, with super cheap dorms and private rooms (with no ensuite bathrooms).

We arrived around 11 pm on Friday night, met at the airport gate by a driver for the hostel (prebooked via email, 90 RMB or $15 USD). It was convenient and only about 10 RMB more than a taxi would have cost. Highly recommended!

The vibe at the hostel was great. Good food, both western and local Sichuan options, was available at fair prices. They had good coffee, which I have given up on expecting at hostels and hotels in Asia. We ate most of our meals there, enjoying everything from kung pao chicken to pizza.

Most importantly, they organized our first day tour for us through a travel agency. For 498 RMB (~$80 USD) each, we were taken to the panda breeding facility and the Leshan Giant Buddha (a 2.5 hour drive away from Chengdu). 

Tip: The hostel says they are an 8 minute walk from Tianfu Square. The bus for the tour drops you off "at Tianfu Square" --this is actually about 10 minutes away from Tianfu Square (i.e. ~20 minutes to the hostel) due to needing to use underground passageways to cross the busy streets. We walked to the hostel after our tour, which I would not recommend. The metro has a Tianfu Square stop which would be quicker to get the hostel (Luomashi exit A is right across the street from the Lazybones).

Sunday, April 17, 2016

No Shame: On going out in public in pyjamas

I have a love-hate relationship with the "no shame" attitude of older Chinese people, and I pick and choose how I mimic it in my real life. (I recognize most of the people my age here have wider public-private boundaries but I choose to identify with the spunky aunties who dance in parks and yell at overworked cashiers at the grocery store.) Having several hundred people butt in line in Zhangjiajie was one of the most frustrating experiences I have had in my life, adding hours to my wait in line for a cable car. It lost a bit of its charm.

I already can sense some of you are bracing yourselves for a racist rant about how Chinese people "don't behave themselves". I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by this No Shame series I will be thinking about before our summer Canadian Road Trip. (But if you want, you can go be offended by this one.)

More than ever, I'm afraid I have no idea how to behave in public. I talked about this a bit before; we're now pushier, don't even register brushing against another person, and are quick to shout for our servers to come to our table. For our brief Christmas trips back to Canada and Ireland, we've had to be very conscious to act "normal".

Photo: TutorMing

Appropriate public attire

It's pretty common for people (okay, mostly old people) to trot around in public in full top and bottom pjs. Even in downtown areas, you can see older aunties and uncles walking dogs in their fleece jammies and slippers at lunch time during the work week. Before the 2010 Expo, the government even tried to get people to stop wearing their sleepwear in public.

I've embraced it and I often take Pup out before getting dressed, especially on weekends.

This morning, in some pain from a poorly calibrated wine:food ratio last night, I walked the dog in my pyjamas. I was a sight in pink cotton bottoms with hearts on them, clashing red Senators t-shirt, and slip on sneakers with no socks. I assume the wide eyes of people viewing apartments was due to a one eyed dog and foreigner stumbling along the path, not my outfit...Maybe it was both.

He forgave me for my slow reflexes.

I have drawn the line from wearing my Hello Kitty onesie in public after an incident in our old apartment. It was cold and dark, so I wore the onesie on top of sweatpants and hoodie to walk the dog. Another dog decided that he wanted to pick a fight with Pup. I'm a horrible dog mom and before I jumped in to intervene, I hesitated. The thought that I would end up going to the hospital and being interviewed by police after being attacked by a small dog while wearing a pink onesie with ears and a tail paused my rescue for a split second. So now the onesie is private time clothing + excuse to wear a clothing shaped blanket on Hallowe'en.

Public-ish nightwear?

Okay, so I still know better than to strut my stuff in my fleece sheep nightdress in public this summer (even though it's Canada's loss. Both my mother and mother-in-law buy me amazing pyjamas and I'm glad for our short time here I can share them with my neighbours). But now I have another stress: What is appropriate when you are staying at someone's house?  

In my experience, men as guests and hosts can get away more with hanging out in their boxers and t-shirts but women kind of have to keep it together and be dressed for day time at all times. Am I inventing that double-standard? Comments welcome.

For our trip, we'll be staying with family, friends, acquaintances, Airbnb hosts, etc, overnight. My general rule when we've been traveling has been to wear PJ shorts and a top that has a built in bra to bed or my husband's t-shirt and boxers (travel hack: steal your travel companion's clothes as much as possible. I also did this on my Asia backpacking trip with girlfriends). Basically, wearing things that, if seen for a split second in a bedroom to bathroom walk, would not draw attention to boobs in any way. 

Six weeks of avoiding being seen in my pyjamas is something I am not looking forward to, but I figure I have to try to respect the cultural norms of my homeland. First world problems. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Staying Happy Travel Tips: The Folder

File this under marriage advice, as well.

We are lucky and get to travel quite a bit. And the actual travelling, transporting your body from home to somewhere else and back, is usually stressful, frustrating, and prone to error. Especially living in China, we hear a lot of horror stories from lost documents to messing up visas. Trying to make things as idiot proof as possible is key, whether you travel every couple of months or every few years.

Tired of searching for passports, fumbling in the airport for boarding passes, constantly forgetting where we put our Chinese Departure Cards (which they give you when you receive your Arrival Card. You don't actually need to keep the departure card side as there will be some available at the airport, but it's nice to not waste paper and to be able to fill out the form in advance), scrounging around for pens, etc, I put together The Folder.

Missing from the photo are paper clips and a couple of envelopes to sort out things like new vs. used boarding passes, keep maps and other paperwork organized, and have official forms together and on-hand.

We keep our passports in The Folder at all times (thieves, unless we're waiting for a visa renewal, it's in the black bookshelf to the right when you come into our apartment). We keep a handful of pens, highlighters, and Sharpies in there. Post-it notes are super handy. I like to use them to mark the last entry stamp into China and my visa page to speed things up when going through Immigration.

We are crazy about keeping everything in The Folder while we travel. The moment we get our boarding passes and baggage tickets, they go in there. Yes, we're constantly opening and closing The Folder while we go through various checkpoints, but it's easier than trying to remember which pocket you put it in and having moments of panic trying to figure out who had the passports last.

The only stress is figuring out who has The Folder. (Just kidding, it's always me.)

Presumably other people have similar strategies. If you care to share, please comment below!

Secondary travel tip - Check your passport & visa situation (duh?)

This should be common sense but over and over again we see people failing to do this. I think the more you travel, the more you take for granted. And this can be an expensive mistake to make. 

Many countries require at least 6 months before your passport expires when you visit. We know a family whose amazing spring break trip didn't happen because one of their children had a passport that is due for renewal in slightly less than 6 months. Which they found out at the airport. And they are super educated, well travelled people. Lesson: Teach your kindergarteners to maintain their own records. 

We also have friends who have had relatives rebook their flights at full cost because they didn't realize that you needed a visa (which EVERYONE does, basically, unless you are Chinese) to visit China. Or friends from the US who assumed they could get into Australia sans visa and had to pay a fee at the Shanghai airport to get a rush visa, right before their flight.

Monday, April 4, 2016

When We Were Young and Happy Canadian Road Trip First Draft

For as long as I can remember, the Irishman and I have planned to drive across Canada.

We spent today, Qingming holiday Monday, plotting out our first draft. Despite brutal Chinese internet, we managed to get it all down on Google Maps, schedule and all. A YouTube Canadian music playlist even worked about 50% of the time. 

So, yes, it's just the bottom bits. No Northern Lights for us this time. We have a lot to cram into 6 weeks. Our longest driving day should be <10 hours and there are a lot of charming Airbnb options along the way. 

The Irishman came up with a general schedule about a month ago and we went over it again today, checking lodging options, tourism stuff to do and ferry schedules. It looks very doable and hopefully not too rushed. Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver, you'll all be sick of us by the time we roll out. 

It's almost time to book flights! And start rereading Anne of Green Gables! And figure out what people do to rideshare these days --I assume Craigslist has become super passé since I last lived in Canada? Help! 

I have managed to block out most of my fear since the Toronto to Ottawa rideshare who got very drunk, had a meltdown, forgot her diabetes medicine in the car causing us to have to drive to Kemptville from Ottawa late at night, and groped me repeatedly through our drive. Is there an app where you can rate people for being absolute nightmares and prevent others from facing the same fate? Comment please!