Friday, December 23, 2011

the panda research base in chengdu

the one place i enjoyed most in chengdu is the panda research centre. the centre started in 1987 is located some 10km from downtown chengdu. the best time to visit the place is in the morning, before 11.00 a.m., that is when the pandas are most active because it is also their feeding time.

although you do see a lot of bamboo clumps at the centre, the bamboos are not enough to feed all the pandas. the centre buys bamboos from the villagers who gather them from the forests.

the giant pandas like to climb trees and stay up there after they have had their meal. on some trees you can see as many as 6 or 7 pandas. pandas are actually quite shy animals; if the visitors make too much noise, they will move away from the edge of the enclosure. the panda population at the base has increased from 6 giant pandas rescued from the wild to more than 80 today.

besides the well-loved giant pandas, there are also other animals at the research base, including the red panda. the red panda is much smaller and it looks more like a raccoon than a bear. like the giant panda, it also has a black patch around each eye.

the enclosure that attracts a lot of young visiors is the baby panda station. if you like to cuddle one of these and have your picture taken with it, it will cost you 1000 yuan or around s$200 for the 5-minute experience. however, money cannot buy everything; if the panda is not in the mood, then even your 1000 yuan will not do the trick.

Friday, December 16, 2011

huanglong and jiuzhaogou

anyone who has been to jiuzhaogou - the valley of nine (tibetan) villages - will sure to extol the splendour and beauty of the place. many of my singaporean friends who frequently visit china have been to jiuzhaogou. i had expected to meet someone i know or at least hear these words 'so clean like s'pore' uttered when i was there for the two full days. however, i did not see anyone who looked or who spoke like a singaporean except for the singaporeans in my group.

we had reached our hotel at 4.00 a.m. in the morning as our flight from xianyang was delayed by 12 hours because of the inclement weather. when we landed at jiuzhai huanglong airport, our pre-booked taxi was waiting for us. fortunately, our accommodation was the one nearest to the jiuzhaogou park. when i got up at 6.45 a.m., there was already a queue outside the visitors' centre.

jiuzhaogou is well-known for its multi-tier waterfalls and colourful lakes. the best time to visit jiuzhaoguo is mid october when it is most beautiful but it is also the time when it is most crowded. you must be prepared to tolerate the 'survival instinct' of the local people. there may be more than enough buses to cater to the huge crowds of visitors but the way the local people push to board the bus would give you the impression that 'that was the last bus to heaven'.

i would dare say that the park is better maintained than any in singapore. at any one time, there is an army of cleaners going around picking up litter from the ground and even from the water. the only thing that mars the cleanliness of the place and the water is the sputum from the local visitors.

it is not just the lakes and waterfalls that add to the beauty of the place. the autumn foliage in its various hues also makes the whole place scenic. although the digital cameras are handy and in vogue, you still see quite a number of serious photographers lugging their huge single-reflex lens camera and their telescopic lenses.

those who have done their tour planning will normally take the bus to the 'top', where the long lake is, and make their way down. on the second day, you could start from the primeval forest and cover the other side of the 'y'. for those who like to trek, there is a trail, with extensive boardwalks, that leads all the way from the top to the entrance gate, a distance of some 30km.

most visitors to jiuzhaogou would combine a visit to huanglong. it is a good idea to start with a visit to huanglong because if you have already seen jiuzhaogou, then huanglong is not going to make much of an impact. the attractions are quite similar except that those at huanglong seem less spectacular.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

the terracotta warriors & horses

the terracotta warriors and horses museum of xian is a must see for all visitors to this ancient city, formerly known as chang-an. after lunch on the day of our arrival in xian, we were on a mini-bus on our way to the lintong district to see the spirit army of emperor shi huang ti, the first emperor of china. a huge statue of the emperor greeted us as we arrived at the site.

the museum was built on the excavation site, which consists of 3 pits or vaults, covering an area of 16 300 square metres. when it was first open to the public on 1 oct 1979, the entrance fee was 10 yuan. today, it will cost you 110 yuan to gain admission into the museum premises.

the clay warriors had been buried for more than 2200 years before they were accidentally discovered in march 1974 by some farmers digging for a well. however, well before that other people living in that area had also stumbled upon broken pottery while they were clearing the land or digging wells.

in special glass-cases are the displays of the two miniature bronze chariots. i would not call them miniatures; they were actually scaled-down version of the emperor's personal chariots. the weapons and the adornments of the charioteers were painstakingly reproduced. there were even tiny arrows that could be shot from the functional crossbows.

many people are not aware that not one of the clay figures was found intact when they were unearthed. all the warriors on display at the various pits have undergone reconstruction and restoration. another thing that most people do not know is that the terracotta warriors were not always of that dull colour. once they were very colourful, being painted with laquer of different colours.

what is really remarkable about the terracotta warriors is that they are life-size and they are all unique. each warrior is different from the next; no two warriors look the same though most of them wear the moustache in the same style.

although thousands of warrior figures have been unearthed, very few of them have been taken out of china because they are considered priceless treasure of the nation. when i was in xian viewing the thousands of pieces, there was an exhibition in singapore at the asian civilisations museum featuring a few pieces of the terracotta warriors. i think the first exhibition outside china was held in europe. it was reported that the responses in europe were overwhelming.

only a few visiting heads of state have had the honour and privilege of viewing the famous clay warriors at close range. these few people, including queen elizabeth of england and president clinton of the usa, were taken down to pit one to be up close with the pottery soldiers.

what i find particularly mystifying about the uncovering of these artefacts is that according to some projections, there are more than 8000 of these figures but so far only about 2000 have been unearthed. why have they slowed down the excavation process?

according to some friends i have checked with, the authorities are waiting to acquire the technology to take out the figurines from an area that has been flooded with mercury. it has been reported that toxic mercury vapour is present in the area where the emperor was buried.

like everything else in china, not all the terracotta warriors that you see in china are authentic. there are a number of potteries that make these figurines for sale and they look very much like the ones on display at the museum in lintong.

i have seen terracotta warriors in the compound of a transport company in kranji.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

si sek pai - four-colour card game

your grandmothers or aunties would most probably have played this game. it used to be the favourite pastime of old folks, especially elderly ladies. i hardly see senior citizens playing this card game these days. it is a bit like mahjong and it has some of the characters of chinese chess. however, unlike mahjong, you cannot draw and keep a card; whatever is drawn must be shown to the other players.

a friend just told me that he had seen some aunties playing si sek pai at a void deck in ang mo kio.

i suppose like any card game, there is bound to be some modifications of the rules and there are variations to the game. if you have played gin rummy with different groups of friends, you may most probably have to adjust to the rules laid down by the different groups. with some groups, the first meld thrown down has to be four cards, although generally three cards is the rule. even when it comes to counting deadwood - those cards caught in your hand - when someone else has 'ginned', some count ace as 1 point, some, 10 points and yet others, count it as 20 points.

in si sek pai, the regular group of people would set their own rules to suit their playing style and to suit the circumstances.

in si sek pai, these 3 different characters of the same colour, green in this case, actually form a meld. this is a 3-card meld consisting of the chariot, the horseman and the cannon. a 3-card meld can also be made up of three identical cards, which in mahjong, is called a 'pong'. a meld which is in your hand or which you have drawn yourself is normally worth more than one which is displayed.

another 3-card meld that comprises three different characters is that of the general, adviser and elephant. in si sek pai, the general can form a meld even when it is by itself. this means you can have a one-card meld, something which does not happen in mahjong. in the game of mahjong, the smallest meld is the 2-card or 2-seed which is referred to as the 'eye'.

in si sek, the 4-card meld may be formed by the same character in four different colours or they can be the same character in one colour.

each si sek pack contains 112 cards, 28 of each of the 4 colours - green, white, yellow and red. again, different groups of players play with different number of cards. some play with two packs of cards while others play with one-and-a-half packs of cards. some even have jokers in their pack of cards.

this particular group which i was watching lay down the rule that you can 'game' only when you have a minimum of 20 points for the total of your melds. however, there are other groups which stipulate that 21 points is the least before declaring yourself a winner. why is there this disparity? as with other types of games, there are different ways in which they score and different scores for the same meld.

it would seem that the aunties play this game as a pastime as the stakes were small. even then you could hear arguments now and then and if your luck was bad, you could incur quite a substantial loss, say your one week of marketing money.