Mr. T returns to China for the third time

After the events of 2010, one was somewhat reluctant to revisit the Three Kingdoms. However, curiosity is a strong force and the decision was made early in the piece. That and the promise of seeing real pandas.

Getting there: Having survived the journey on Jetstar, the comforts of SQ were readily appreciated. The flight was pretty full in all classes and luckily the infants in the bassinet rows were remarkably well behaved. The flight was over 85% full in Y so meal choices for ‘dinner’ were rather limited (although you can’t really go wrong with any of the fish options they give you). Most notably, we took a very southerly track to overcome the head winds I guess. Rather than the usual track past Sydney, Alice Springs and onwards, we actually flew over Melbourne, then Adelaide and roughly the mid point of Western Australia. Despite all attempts, it did get a bit choppy and they did had to suspend service a number of times. The turbulence was overly concerning, it was just annoying.

On arrival at Terminal 3 (first time for me), we found out that you don’t have to take the Skytrain to Arrivals (even though the sign implies that you do). Just walk. It does you good. Immigration and customs formalities were quick and there were no issues with the bags. The taxi queue was basically non-existent so we were at the hotel just over an hour after landing.

Next morning, after a disappointing breakfast at the M-Hotel’s “Café 2000”, we had a little time for a walk and quick trip on the MRT from Tanjong Pagar to the famous Raffles Hotel. We didn’t go in (no time) but had a good walk around some of the interior areas not locked off to non-residents. A few notes about the current ownership and management of the joint – currently, the hotel buildings are owned by a Qatari sovereign wealth fund but managed by Raffles International (which is owned by, inter alia, Colony Capital [a US venture capital fund], Voyager Partners and Kingdom Hotels [essentially the Saudi Government fund hotel operation]).

The flights to Chengdu were the same as last year – Silkair runs three times a week to Chengdu direct from Singapore and is better than say Air China (who schedule services at seemingly ridiculous times such as 1am in the morning). But it is still like flying Pacific Blue or an Air NZ A320 from Auckland to Adelaide (the flight times are about five hours so roughly the same). The inflight meal was better than last year as I recall but I was rather regretting not having an iPod or something similar to just kill the boredom of the flight. It was one of the ‘newer’ A 320s (how do you know ? The seat covers are a bronze colour).

Chengdu Airport (Shuangliu) hasn’t changed much although they are building a massive Terminal 2 building right now. The international part of it on arrival sort of feels a bit like Wellington – you know it is an international port but it feels small, the baggage claim is only a couple of carousels and so on. Our people were there to meet us and get us to the hotel. The good news on that front is that the Millennium Hotel Chengdu felt a lot busier and this is good news for an excellent property. More so as it is clearly signposted along the road (how did they do that ?)

Chengdu !: Official population estimate of the city and environs = about 11 million. Unofficial population estimate (including itinerant workers and migrants) of the wider area = more like 20 million. The remarkable thing about the city is that it hasn’t really changed its name or location since about the 4th century BC when it became the capital of the Shu Kingdom. It developed into a regional commercial centre and has remained that way for Western China for well over 1200 years.

Chengdu has definitely become a favoured place for investment, something encouraged by the central government. Many multinationals have regional basis or facilities here and the technology park to the west of the city is testament to this. Major research and development facilities have been built or are planned here and the next industry to be targeted is apparently pharmaceuticals. Even Rakon Corporation of New Zealand has a R&D and manufacturing facility here.

While the brass hats enjoyed a dinner with high-ranking officials, we simpletons went to a cultural performance which included the famous ‘bian lian’ or “face changing”. Bian lian has been a staple of Sichuan Opera for centuries and one of the great bian lian performers claims that the art is subject to the Chinese Arts & Culture secrecy laws meaning that the techniques cannot be transferred overseas but the Government has denied this. Although that part of the performance was short, it was fascinating nonetheless. How they do it is a mystery. Some foreigners have learnt the art but it seems that they are not as good as the ‘native’ performers. All I know is the masks are actually made of silk and there would likely be various triggers in the costume to allow the changes to take place. It’s very hard to see how it is done. But be assured they do it very well. All in all, definitely one of things you must see in Sichuan.

After visiting the pandas (see below), we also visited the Temple of the Marquis of Wu, also known as Zhuge Liang’s temple – Master Zhuge became Chancellor in General Liu Bei’s administration in the 3rd century AD. Known as a scholar and inventor (the landmine and the semi-automatic crossbow were apparently both his inventions), he was a brilliant military strategist and nicknamed “Crouching Dragon” as a result. One story told of Zhuge Liang is how he avoided death from General Zhou. Zhou, knowing Zhuge’s ingenuity and cunning, set Zhuge the task of making 100,000 arrows in ten days. Zhuge, with a cunning plan in mind said he could do it in three. He did it by acquiring 20 large boats with a skeleton crew and by creating dummies made out of straw that looked like soldiers. Sailing the boats toward the enemy in thick dawn fog, the crews were ordered to go about preparations for battle, shout loudly and sound the drums. The opposing troops, not knowing where the enemy was and not sure of the troop strength, fired volleys of arrows which were ‘collected’ by the straw men. Zhuge easily completed the task and General Zhou had no choice but to relent.

Walking around the temple, one is struck by the statues of Liu Bei and several generals through the ages. Some of the statues are very old, many were done in 1849 (although the significance of the year is lost on me). The temple is also home to some relics / artefacts from the Three Kingdoms. Although most of the guides are in Mandarin, there are some basic explanations in English.

The centre of Chengdu is Tianfu Square. ‘Uncle Mao’ stands in front of the royal palace which is now the Sichuan Museum of Science and Technology. The square is massive (as you might expect in any Communist country) but they plan to develop the area underneath to be the city’s transportation hub. One subway line has been completed and runs roughly north to south through it. At least 14 are planned eventually and work has started on three others already. Walking for two blocks south of the square, you might almost be forgiven for thinking that this is any other Asian city. Trees line the streets, shops are modern and the department stores / luxury boutiques are well finished and well stocked of goods but devoid of people almost. The Yanlord development looks the best.

We expanded our knowledge of Sichuan cuisine as well. Various hot pot dishes, dan dan noodles, pork done in a number of ways and varieties of other exotic dishes were somehow managed to emerge at every meal. And one should be prepared for the heat. Technically, the Sichuan Pepper is not ‘hot’ but causes a numbing sensation in the mouth and tongue. But likely you won’t care about that as your first reaction will be to reach for a glass of water and your napkin roughly at the same time. But you can eat very well in Chengdu and for relatively little money.

Pandas: We visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Definitely a highlight and worth seeing if you are in Chengdu. This is the closer facility of two in Chengdu, the other is way out west and located basically in a forest (and was also partially destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake). It was the only place where we saw significant numbers of foreigners (quite a few Australians and Germans, I noticed). The facility is actually a non-profit organization engaged in wildlife research, captive breeding, conservation education, and educational tourism and was founded in 1987. Starting with only six pandas, the Base now has over 80 and apparently has not had to take any giant pandas from the wild for 20 years. The Base’s research facilities assist other institutions holding giant pandas with technical support and they send out experts to assist with care, rearing, and breeding. They are quite proud of their work which was exemplified in a short video presentation we saw at the end of the tour which covered everything from the secrets of breeding (naturally and artificially) right through to general wellbeing. The English commentary (voiced by ‘Richard’ who clearly is an Australian) is a faithful translation from the original Mandarin and as a result is quite funny as it pulls no punches.

That aside, the morning (about 9am) is a good time to see them. It’s breakfast time and they wander out of their enclosures, find the bamboo, sit down and start chomping. They aren’t put off by the people or the cameras (although a few of them will turn their backs to you), they just want to eat. We got to see adults, adolescents and I just caught a glimpse of a young cub. “Supermom” was also in residence – she’s nicknamed that as she has had 12 cubs in the last 17 years which must be some sort of record. It was highly amusing to see her chomping away at breakfast while her three cubs were sleeping up a tree above. Who knew that young pandas were like koalas in that respect ?

Back to the Lion City: With some of our party moving on to Guangzhou on a seemingly masochistic schedule, we parted company with them after seeing the pandas. That gave us a bit more time to ourselves which was very welcome. But we were somewhat keen to leave by this time and after a good lunch at the restaurant on the Anshun Bridge, we headed to the airport. Like I said, the facilities at CTU are a bit basic. That includes check in. Interestingly, they screen the bags right after they accept them which presumably means there is no way of putting the x-ray machines down below. Airside is a bit sparse too and the prices for souvenirs are high – roughly 50% or more than what you might get in the ordinary shops as I found out.

Eventually, the plane got there – an older Silkair A320 (blue seat covers) and we had got shunted to the back – not bad thing in a way as we had a vacant middle seat and leg room was better than what you get here. So time to try and have a nap (if you could). But not before an enforced delay ! For “military airspace reasons”. Now, this 45 minute delay seemed a bit too coincidental – remember that Chengdu is the HQ for the Chengdu Military District, the new Chinese stealth fighter is the J-20 ‘Chengdu’. And the second test flight took place a couple of days prior (according to Chinese Military Media). Coincidence ? Unlikely.

The flight back seemed much longer than the flight up. But we got there and made our way to the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel. The next two days were interesting and details can’t be gone into here but suffice it to say that the boardwalk to Sentosa Island is a good walk and some of the activities there look like fun. If you want details of shopping etc, well you should read my last trip notes, shouldn’t you ?

Check your equipment on the way back: Singapore Airlines and I don’t have a good relationship when it comes to flights. On the first trip four years ago, they used a leased ex-Malaysian Airlines 747-400 with too few business class seats which was not particularly comfortable. This time, they are downgauging aircraft (until well in to May, I hear) and substituting 777-300s and 777-200ERs. This might seem the pinnacle of flight-nerdiness to you but it is important. Seat layouts are not the same, the in-flight entertainment is old, the seats are dated and the look and feel are dated. Luckily, the 773 we flew on did had exit-row seats and wasn’t too bad (although my IFE screen was rather off-colour). But if you paid for Business Class, you would have been ripped off. But I couldn’t complain (except for the screaming infants at the front).

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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