Tuesday, June 10, 2014

China 2014 part 8 - Chengdu

headed mostly south into Sichuan

I got up at about six -- it was raining, and we're far west and south enough that the sun isn't coming up till like five.  I'll need to set my alarm for the pandas tomorrow.

v35. Grainy river; first impressions of mountain China.

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0721. Forewarned is forearmed.  This train doesn't even have a flush, so "aim well" and "throw water".

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0722. Misty mountains deep.

0723. (DNCO).

0724. (DNCO).

Any other place, any other time, these would have been deleted on site for DNCO.  But you only experience the mystery of arriving in Sichuan at daybreak for the first time once, so they got kept as a hedge that they might turn out. They didn't.

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0725. Upriver over bridges.

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0726. Another break in the cliffside.

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0727. Small lone houses on the slope.

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0728. Up over an erosion wall.

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0729. Ahead on a curve; the trains are shorter and faster than in Siberia, so there's fewer of these.

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0730. Range through a pass.

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0731. More distant peaks.

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0732. Mountain and torrent.

v36. Keeping up.  If Sichuan is reminiscent of Japan, it's the climate and the youth of the mountains; the Chinese build their roads to proper standard.

0733. (DNCO).

0734. (DNCO).

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0735. Buddhas in the cliffside, coming in to Guangyuan.

This was a long enough stop to clean up from breakfast and get this all written; Chengdu's about five hours away, and squaring my pack will be the stuff of minutes.

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0736. Town and distant range.

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0737. Ringing the horizon.

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0738. More serrations over a village.

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0739. Cloud catches on a mountain.

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0740. Again, with less old building.

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0741. Burning the slopes clear.

0742. (DNCO).

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0743. Mountains and river.

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0744. Clear as glass.

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0745. Amazing reflections.

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0746. Top of the peak.

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0747. Mirrored in the flat water.

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0748. Erosion and terraces.

v37. Along the reflecting stream.

0749. (DNCO).

0750. (DNCO).

0751. (DNCO).

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0752. Town and misty slope.

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0753. Down a valley.

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0754. Characteristic bare rock of Sichuan.

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0755. More, and some of the river.

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0756. Peak ahead, wreathed in clouds.

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0757. Farm town and range behind.

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0758. Reclining Buddha and temple.

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0759. More of the temple complex.

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0760. Hilltop pavilion, coming in to Mianyang.

- Chengdu -

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0761. For reference, trains to 成都 go to the north station.

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0762. Chengdu.  This is a new, big-built city in most of its modern parts.

Hiking around to get to the hotel, I noticed an odd thing on the license plates of the cars around.  In Heilongjiang, the plates start with the 黑/black character from the province name, and in Shandong, it's the 山 and 东 stacked, because both characters are extensively used in other names.  However, even though no other province uses the 四/four in Sichuan, the license plates here start with 川/river; even though the government is officially opposed to superstition, and most Chinese are ok with living in a building that has a fourth floor, they knew that asking everyone in Sichuan to put a 四 on the back of their vehicle would be asking for a popular uprising.

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0763. Washing up.  This room didn't have anywhere to run a clothesline, until I made it have one.  These can take the next up to 36 hours to dry out, I've got enough clothes till then.

The hotel is in a touristy backyard by the Wenshu monastery, so there's no shortage of stuff to see and crap to buy.  Washing up took a while, so I ate another sausage and had some tea around 2:30, then went to find a beer store, see some sights, and depending on the time, maybe get a first taste of real Sichuan for dinner.

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0764. Hotel furnishings.

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0765. Buddha downstairs.

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0766. Sole evidence -- unless I grab a can to drink in GZ and post back.  (Spoiler: this did not happen.)  Best Zhonglish.

0767. (not germane)


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0768. A dark passage.  The courtyard around the hotel's locked up at night; good thing the train out isn't till 1700 tomorrow.

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0769. Open to the sky.

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0770. Buddha and garden downstairs.

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0771. Empty stalls.

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0772. Morning back street view.

I made the subway and bus connections fine, and rode out the last leg to the panda base in a little bus made mostly of wood.

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0773. The 87 steams off.

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0774. Open land (for now) in the Chengdu suburbs.

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0775. After the tiger base, maybe not such a good omen.

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0776. Wooded paths inside.

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0777. Trees and bamboo all around.

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0778. Artificial fall by the path.

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0779. Sculpture display.

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0780. There's more to this quote, usually, but rule 8 of the park interdicts superstition along with gambling, drugs, and pornography.

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0781. Thick stand of bamboo.

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0782. Backs to the wall.

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0783. The soil's beat up here too; sprinklers keep up the greenery.

v38. A morning's rest interrupted.

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0784. Tucked up in a corner.

v39. A pile of fish in the pond.  The ubiquity of carp and insecurity of the panda is a great lesson in evolution.

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0785. Deep greenery of the forest.

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0786. Habitat structure.

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0787. And how it appears.  The wires and moat are hidden, so it's like you're right on top of these large, massive, and pointy if no longer carnivorous animals.

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0788. Some friends picnicking in the sun.

v40. A test setup of "Pandas Eating Things".

v41. Close up on five-finger-thumb feeding action.

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0789. Sitting up, after more of the tourists moved.

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0790. A green arching arbor.

v42. Short subject: Baby Panda Gets Unstuck.

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0791. Mom chews through some bamboo.

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0792. Starting on a ladder.

v43. Short subject: Baby Panda Climbs Down.

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0793. Mom and cub.

v44. Short subject: Baby Panda Has Trouble With A Ladder.

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0794. That isn't food yet, but it sure smells good.

v45. Short subject: Baby Panda Doesn't Know How To Eat Bamboo Yet.

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0795. Baby panda bugging mom.

v46. Panda family life.

This was the smallest cub on display at 8 months.  Pandas do not breed frequently, so there weren't any normal-person-handleable (I could probably have picked this guy up, but I have a longer body length and more mass than the average adult panda) cubs around to be photographed with for 2000元.

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0796. Back to the audience.

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0797. Chowing down.

v47. Contentedly chomping away.

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0798. Closer in.

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0799. Double-fisting it.

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0800. Closer still.

v48. Ambidextrous gobbling.

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0801. Mid-chomp.

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0802. Still packing it away.

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0803. Looking for another good one.

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0804. Clearing the front pile.

v49. Sooo done with looking at tourists while she's eating.

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0805. Still sitting, still chewing.

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0806. Pile of pandas in the shade.

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0807. Bad view through some trees.

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0808. Lounging around.

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0809. Plowing through the forage.

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0810. Piled up under a post.

v50. Grazing and lounging.

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0811. The first goddamn thing you see, entering the red panda enclosure.  This becomes important later.

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0812. Red panda at breakfast.

v51. More interested in eating than tourists.

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0813. A better view.

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0814. Still curled up.

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0815. Arch of bamboo and a den log.

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0816. Red panda asleep in the trees.

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0817. Arbor over the path.

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0818. Pool in the habitat.

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0819. A disappearance in progress.  The culprit is among us.

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0820. Red panda, well hidden.

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0821. A better look at that guy in the tree.

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0822. Still there.

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0823. Again.

v52. Stirring awake; I'd rather sleep than deal with tourists too.

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0824. Ducking his head.

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0825. This will not end well.

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0826. A crowd of Chinese tourists, the kids trying to pet it, boxes in a dangerous wild animal (see 0811).

I try to avoid taking pictures of ordinary people, because 中国人民 are not a tourist attraction, but this shit needs called out.  Chinese people frequently disregard access chains at museums and climb on stuff they're not supposed to stand on (the museum at the Pearl Tower in Shanghai was particularly bad for this), and mostly interpret "no photo" signs as "do not take a picture of this 'no photography' sign".  And here, a large number of people are disregarding well-posted warnings to stay 3m back from a wild animal, some of them urging or at least not stopping their kids to pet something that is known to attack when messed with.  Also, this is a friggin conservation area.  It's not good for rare, endangered red pandas to get chased around by a herd of humans.

This has to stop.  There are PSAs out on "don't spit everywhere", "don't clear your nose onto the floor in a crowded elevator", and "don't litter", with the punchline "because it makes you look like a caveman"; perhaps the next series might include "pay attention to posted rules occasionally".

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0827. Seeking a way out.

v53. The escape is made good.

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0828. The nap, not the food, is the priority.

v54. (DNCO).

v55. (DNCO).

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0829. Another panda in the foliage.

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0830. Engrossed in the food.

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0831. Searching the pile.

v56. Poking about for a good bit.

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0832. Found one.

v57. Picking through the food pile, scratching an itch.

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0833. Long shot through the forest.

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0834. Water-tumbled stone out front.

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0835. How it's made.  The rivers in China tend to have a high silt content and an extremely violent spring flood.  The water knocks boulders loose, and any areas of heterogenity see the softer stone get ground out, over the couple years or decades to wash the rock from the mountains to the plains.

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0836. Thumbprint rock.

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0837. Apartments over the base kitchen.  The park is entirely within city limits and barely outside the first ring road.

v58. Peahen poking around on the road.

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0838. A whole group together.

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0839. Unbothered by tourists.

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0840. In the museum; unlucky bird, lucky panda.

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0841. Comparison check.  The pandas are probably Ursidae, but I'm not completely convinced by any of the proposed classifications.  Fortunately, this is why cladistics is a thing.

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0842. Thumb spurs.

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0843. It's a good thing pandas can't read; that's pretty brutal.

Additionally, another panel suggests that female pandas are really, really choosy about potential mates: between defective equipment and unrealistic partner expectations, it is not a surprise that most of the panda cubs born in captivity have come via artificial insemination.  The species is not exactly fighting extinction real hard on its own.

The hard question, though, is why should it?  In nature, the niche of the giant panda is a walking compost barrel system to replenish the soil of the mountain bamboo forest.  Pandas eat bamboo, notionally digest it, and crap out ground-up, bacteria-rich, bamboo mulch from which more bamboo can grow.  Their horribly inefficient digestion -- this is still a carnivore gut which can't break down cellulose, so they're getting about 1/4 of the herbivore-available nutrition from a largely nutrition-void diet -- means that they are continually eating, continually churning vegetation.  If the bamboo forest is gone, there's no need for its compost processor.

However, there is the desire for it, from another group of large mammals who mostly just sit on their butts and shove food in their faces all the time.  Humans want to save the panda so we can look at baby pandas falling over stuff, not because we intend to leave any significant amount of alpine bamboo forest undeveloped and want mulchers maintaining it.  Thus the extraordinary effort to save a cute but pointless creature that has painted itself into a really hard ecological niche: if we can save the panda, which a competent design review would not have released as an alpha, and which is content, on its own, to go extinct as one of millions and millions of speciation branches that didn't really go anywhere great or groundbreaking, it shows that mankind is ultimately stronger than nature.  If we can save the panda, there is nothing we cannot reshape -- it may even be in our power to save ourselves, and pass the world to the next generation as something other than a burnt-out cinder.

Xi'an, as noted, is part of a story that China desperately needs to tell itself.  The Chengdu panda base, crawling with more Westerners than I have seen anywhere on the mainland (the Happy Valley races in '10 have it beat, but not by much), is a story that we need to tell each other as a species.  But is it true?  Only time can tell, but in comparison to Harbin, it's not encouraging.  The Harbin tiger station has a lot of animals in deplorable conditions, but they have a lot of animals, over 2000 in the 2010 census and probably more in the 2015 check, despite extensive rewilding.  The panda base has fewer than 400; they're where the Siberian tiger project was 20 years ago, and the giant panda doesn't have 20 years to spare.  The reserves that have been cut out of the mountaintops to date are all the habitat there's going to be, as the Chinese population keeps increasing, while more and more of the Amur country and Okhotsk coast can be blocked off for tigers, as Russia's population falls and shifts out of the Far East.  The breeding difficulties make it harder; the panda's not longer so surely on track to "extinct in the wild" status as before this facility was founded, but the light at the end of the tunnel is not unambiguously visible yet, not at all.

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0844. Upstairs in the butterfly hall.  It was still early, but the tourists were starting to come in torrents, so I had to clear out to somewhere mostly empty.

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0845. Pugmark in the cement, heading out.

I went back to the station by bus, then into downtown by subway.

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0846. Tianfu Square; Mao and fountains.

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0847. Red flag, golden pillars.

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0848. Fountain sculpture and a modernistic hall.

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0849. Sculpture pillar in the recessed plaza.

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0850. Mao in front of the science museum.

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0851. Southwards; presumably Renmin Road on this side too.

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0852. Back into the square from the north exit;  I saved 2 yuan (on a cool souvenir ticket) and hiked it back to the hotel area rather than taking the metro.

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0853. Goddess in green and silver.

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0854. Chengdu stadium; probably built as an Olympic soccer site, but it's now kind of a white elephant, and at least partly under construction/demolition.  They probably have a team in the CSL, but not one good or well-supported enough to fill this thing every other week.

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0855. Entrance to the monastery street.

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0856. Subtle symbolism.

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0857. Golden lion looks down from the top.

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0858. Monastery entrance.

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0859. Roof gables of the monastery.

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0860. Entrance to White Cloud Silk Street; no pseudomystical cooldown unblown, because white people fucking love that shit.

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0861. Cat in the restaurant.

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0862. Authentic Sichuan.  This is a variation on the "popcorn chicken with chiles" dish that you get elsewhere, but hotter and with more vegetables: lotus root, celery, onion, garlic, peanuts, and potatoes.  It was a little big for one person, and a little hard to eat until they took mercy and brought out the rice I forgot to order, but in every other way excellent.  It was more, at about 120 yuan, than I wanted to spend on lunch, but I got a lot of good food, a good experience, and a cap I've never seen anywhere else before.

After lunch, I poked around a little more, and found a neat souvenir for me rather than a special one for the boss.  The vendor quoted me 200元 for a Yunnan trade dollar, but I was able to get him down to 65 by actually haggling for once, and if I'd opened at 40 rather than 50, I might've gotten it cheaper.  That makes it almost certainly a modern reproduction with next to no actual silver in it ($11 for an ounce and a half is well below spot price), but what I paid is a fair enough price for a neat piece.  I'm still looking for a Morgan with a chop in it, but this one's cool, and life will go on.

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0863. The back gate.

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0864. Lit up at night.

Dinner was a $33 hotpot instead of a $1.50 bowl of noodles, but fuckit, I'm not here forever.  I have enough, even if my card stays off, to get out from GZ, and then do the SEZ leg in that currency.  I won't have enough to eat chicken -- which I shouldn't do anyway --  and I may have to give up on the chopper, but I can do this.

Feeling stuffed, I passed on Tianfu at dusk; I was there at noon today, and the fountain show was nice, but not worth the hike.  Instead, I checked another super and got at least one new cap; this makes 36 caps and 40 elements with the station supers to check tomorrow, and the Pearl region mostly not collected from....at least in the last three years.


The washing is all dry, and I have a good start on packing.  Light tourism, a last beer check, and another pull try after ASAP-breakfast this morning, and then I finish baling shit up and head for the Hbf.

I will never, ever,ever understand the kind of Westerner who bothers to come to interior China and then, once there and faced with a breakfast of cured ham, dumplings, fat noodles, watermelon, and delicious veggies, stacks up a mountain of toast and orders a scrambled egg.  It's like we're two different species.

This morning's hike was an unqualified success in all respects.  I took a number of cool pictures, found a reliable ATM brand, started to rebuild the helicopter fund, and even found a new cap that I had somehow missed so far.

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0865. Nunnery hall front and Spanish moss.

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0866. On the front itself.

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0867. The residential gate.

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0868. One country, two systems.

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0869. An urban corner of Chengdu.

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0870. Folk area gate, with bronze sculpture and an awesome old apartment building.

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0871. Stone hall and old city map relief at the entrance to the "folk culture area".

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0872. It's signed, so this is "graffiti" rather than "copyright abuse".

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0873. Folk area manhole covers.

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0874. Hall carving in the hotel.

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0875. Chinese national soft drink.  A sweet tea with ginseng, this is advertised constantly and placed prominently in most stores and restaurants.  It may still be more consumed than the American Big Two (separately, not in combination) locally.

It's real hot out already, but I'm still planning to hike to the station; it'll kill more of the 5 1/2 hours I have between checkout and lineup, and I'll get to see the river here.  As a plus, it's more steps, which I need to pile up for tomorrow, where I'll for the most part be just bunked out flat again.

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0876. Trees and wall, heading out.

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0877. Along the river; the green's not so cool paired with this haze.

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0878. Golden bull by the Wanda Plaza shopping center.

Going past here, I saw something unusual: the aftermath of the first auto collision I'd seen in China.  You'd think that with the corners that Chinese drivers cut all over the place, the way that motorbikes generally disregard the traffic rules, and the amount of walking in the street that pedestrians have to do, there'd be more, but in general Chinese traffic does a pretty job of not running into each other.  The ridiculous accident and fatality statistics come from the absurdly large population; South Korea sees significantly more accidents per capita, but they also mostly prevent pedestrians from wandering around on dedicated vehicle roads, and China doesn't.

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0879. Chengdu Hbf; people imagine that all public transit in China looks like this, but not really so much.

After a nice cheap lunch across from the station, I absolutely failed at getting new caps, but bought my groceries for tonight and tomorrow and headed in.  Of special interest is my first bowl of 火车面; the chopsticks I've been carrying around will finally see some use.

The upper hall's nearly cleared out.  It's about three hours to lineup, but there's two hours till the next train (after the current one) opens.  Well to enjoy the space a little bit; there wasn't really anything like this in Xi'an, and certainly to fuck not in Harbin.

The one difficulty is that the train ends in Zhuhai rather than Guangzhou.  I've got to get up and packed at 4 AM uebermorgen/后天, and then bundle myself out on the clock.  Good thing I've still got that alarm clock packed somewhere....

Thirty-odd hours with a kid in the next bunk.  Joy.  The setup of the Chinese soft-sleeper's like the Russian second-with, and my first (and last) 火车面 was not terrible.  Sausage, tofu, sleeping, and a reset on the morrow.

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