I had agreed with Andy to meet at 7.30 am in the hotel after breakfast. Before that I had to get the blog done; it is truly unfortunate that I cannot upload the blog posts or photos on Facebook. Also to be organized in the car were the few articles I had picked up from IKEA and Decathlon. All of it was done in time to be at the dining hall by 6.45. Breakfast was charged Yuan 20, but it was slightly above basic. I had a couple of toasts, fried egg in cucumber, a small piece of cake and an apple.
The Sichuan Province is the home of the Giant Pandas. About 1800 of them are known to inhabit the wild even now. Chengdu has one of the largest Panda research and breeding centres in the world. A visit to Chengdu is never complete without a visit to this home of the Pandas. By 8.30 am Andy and I were among the first to seek entrance to the park. The playful Panda looks like a cross between a bear and a raccoon! The panda was one of the mascots of the Beijing Olympics. At the entrance there is a statue of a mother and child panda in a playful pose. Visitors try to strike the same pose in front of that for pictures. Large battery operated carts ferry people from and to various locations within the park. Andy and I decided to walk and enjoy the wonderfully ‘sculpted’ panda environment.
Bamboo is the staple and hence, it is natural that almost the entire park is covered with the type of bamboo eaten by the panda. The panda eats only 27 varieties of bamboo. The poor digestive system of the panda makes it eat nearly 25 percent of its body weight every day! The female is in heat just once a year. She cares for the litter for almost a year. The young toddler pandas are taught how to look for food and water by the mother. Pandas are said to be excellent ‘hunters’ of water. The park has excellent natural surroundings to observe the routine of the pandas without being intrusive. The park also has a few red pandas. The red pandas are much smaller than the Giant Pandas and resemble a raccoon more. A short video is played at regular intervals in a small theatre that showcase the life of a panda. The exit from the park is through a large number of stalls that sell panda souvenirs. It is hard to give them a go by!
The Champion has been a head turner everywhere. The country didn’t matter nor the place; the branded car was a source of curiosity and appreciation. The parking lot of the Panda Centre had a fair share of curious onlookers too, even from among the early morning visitors to the Park. The comfort stations that we parked in on the freeways also had people coming by to read the stickers. One of them even came to tell me that the steering was on the wrong side of the car! On the freeway some would drive abreast, fall back a bit and come up on the other side to see the stickers on both sides of the car. I suspect that the Champion has been enjoying all the attention that she was getting! A woman is a woman, whatever the attire.
By 10 am we were in the car headed to the next destination. The trouble was that the destination was not clear. Xi’an is over 700 km from Chengdu. Since we were technically late to cover that before nightfall Andy said that we could take the decision to halt depending on how we managed the distance. We need not have worried. The superb network of freeways that seemed to go effortless through mountains and gorges and over rivers and ravines never once strained the body or mind. I felt sleepy at times because there was nothing to concentrate on – no potholes, cattle or people to avoid! And traffic was fast moving and disciplined, without an exception. Therefore, I pulled up a couple of times into comfort stations for power naps!
During the latter part of the drive we crossed over from Sichuan Province to Shan Xi. The road infrastructure is better in the Yunnan and Shan Xi provinces than in Sichuan. At some places along the route I saw the old narrow roads that ran between the provinces. The roads were alongside the mountains then and now it is through it. It must have been mighty painful to travel across the mountain ranges before the network of tunnels and bridges were established.
The highlight of the 760 km drive this day was the Qinling mountain range that runs from the east of China to the west. It divides the country into its southern and northern parts. The Pass was an awesome experience with some of the longest links of bridges and tunnels I have ever been on. Some of the tunnels never seemed to end and the legs of some of the bridges were so tall that I wondered if only human effort was involved! Road warnings were adequately displayed, speed checks were enforced and road surfacing was top class. Not once did I detect indisciplined road use. The weather changed dramatically once we got over the Pass. It had been rainy and cold on one side. The other side, towards Xi’an, was flat and dry, though there was a slight nip in the air. Xi’an is the first major city in the north and the beginning of the Silk route
By 4 pm we were quite sure that we would be able to reach Xi’an by 7 pm. And we did, in the end. Andy found a cheap Inn with free private car parking. For about Rs 1500 the basic room with breakfast was a very good deal. Xi’an is home of the Terracotta Warriors. It was this that made me decide on this halt destination. And the hotel is not very far from the sites to visit.
Just a few buildings away from the 7 Days Inn, where we were staying, is a typical Chinese restaurant. As in many places in China, as I walked in conversation ceased and heads turned to ‘take in’ the stranger. But normalcy was restored once Andy and I occupied a table. I was not very hungry because I had had a tub of noodles with chilli sauce and a leg of chicken for lunch at one of the comfort stations. Andy ordered a meal of spicy pork, veggies and rice. I, of course, began my part of the meal with Tsing Tao beer, a very popular brand.