The border clearance was really straightforward. On the Kazakh side they just stamp your passport out, while in the Chinese one you just have to fill in an immigration card, show your passport with your Chinese visa in it and that's it. No lugagge check, no customs declaration, nothing. So we were already in China!
Now the thing was waiting for our bus to come through the border, and that was going to take a while, so the driver told us to go to the bus station to have something to eat and wait there to retake the journey to Urumqi. We withdrawed some money from the ATM (our first yuans) and when the bus arrived continued with the trip, this time through a nice and smooth Chinese road, which, after some 3 or 4 hours stopped somewhere before our final destination (Chinese overnight buses always stop in the middle of the night for the drivers to sleep) took us to Urumqi.
Somehow we made it to the train station and first thing we noticed was the extreme police and military presence there. It looked like a war was about to start or something. Armed men everywhere. This is because there was a terrorist attack in that station last April, so now besides the military presence, to enter the station you have to go through endless security controls.
Anyway, after the controls and everything we could book a ticket to Chengdu for that same day at 5pm, which meant in 2 days we would be in the city of Pandas and we would hopefully be able to start the arrangements for the Tibet tour!
We finished our meal, we headed back to the station and after clearing several security controls we went to the waiting hall. Chinese train stations are really crowded, and they look more like airports: there are shops and restaurants inside and a waiting hall for every train, which is announced in an electronic screen. Quite a good system, though.
Half an hour before the departure of the train, they opened the gates and we could get into it. We booked a hard sleeper place (a bunk bed in a 6-bed opened compartment), so we left our things there and started our journey to Chengdu.
And exactly 49 hours after jumping on the train in Urumqi, we jumped out of it in Chengdu. The first mission was to find our hostel (Mix Hostel) to have some rest, as it was already more than 3 days since we started in Almaty without a normal bed. Luckily the hostel was quite close to the train station and with a short metro ride and a few minutes walking we were there.
We arrived in the hostel to find out that hostels in China reamain the same as 5 years ago. And this is really good news! Chinese hostels are probably the best ones in the world! They are cheap, staff is nice and helpful, they have a courtyard where to sit and order drinks and food (both Chinese and Western) and rooms are nice and clean. So after being welcomed by the staff and leaving our stuff in the room, we ordered the first Tsingtao beer for 6 yuan! Yes, I still love China!
Talking with the staff there, we finally decided to apply for our Tibet permit from the 10th until the 16th of February. They had to send the passport and the Chinese visa to the Tibetan Bureau 15 days before the tour, and it would be only one week before the tour that we would know if we could go or we could not. So not much to do than wait and book our train tickets to Lhasa in case the tour thing worked (otherwise we could cancel them). We had some 3 weeks to spend in China in case we were going to Tibet, so decided to spend 3 days in Chengdu and then head south to Yunnan, a place I missed 5 years ago and regarded as really nice and with really good weather.
People's Park is quite close to the Mao Statue and the main square of Chengdu. While the statue looks the same as 5 years ago, the square is totally transformed: a big shopping mall, the entrance to the metro and skyscrapers all around confirm that yes, Chinese have been into the constructing thing these last 5 years.
So yes, quite a big change from the Stans, but a really nice introduction back to China!
Next day was devoted to visit the Pandas in the nearby Breeding Center. 5 years ago I was there but on a tour which I didn't really enjoy, so this time no tours, we woke up early morning and took a bus to the center. We got there quite early so the Pandas were still sleeping, but after a few minutes they started their activity. We spent 4 hours in the center, visiting all the compounds and really enjoying the visit at our own pace, not at the pace that some idiot sets on you.
From there back home to sleep a bit. The next day was supposed to be our last one in Chengdu and from there depart to Kunming, but when we went to the train station to book our tickets, surprise: all the trains were full! This is quite common in China, as a lot of people use the efficient trains, so you have to book well in advance if you want to secure a place. Anyway, we booked the ticket for a day later so we had an extra day in Chengdu devoted to walk around the city a bit more, to visit two more "traditional" streets and to have some haircut!
Back to the hostel, some Tsingtao, a Skype Videochat with Centre d'Estudis Prat, and to bed. Next morning we woke up and went straight to the train station to catch the train to Kunming. It was again an overnight train taking 20 hours but again in a hard sleeper place, so no problem. And besides, Kunming and the Yunnan province are supposed to have a permanent Spring weather all year long, which was quite appreciated after being in cold weather from Mashhad, in Iran. Now it was just about to enjoy a couple of weeks in the South of China and waiting for an answer about Tibet.
For more information on Chengdu don't miss our Chengdu Travel Guide and all the pictures from China!