Back from China Part 2: Chengdu and Giant Pandas

Chengdu Old Village

Chengdu Old Village

After the sprawling civilizationsof Shanghai and Beijing, (previous post) I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Chengdu airport only a month and a half after the terrible Earthquake– but I saw a city that had weathered a tragedy and was on its way back to normality. 


We talked a bit about it with our guide, who told us that he was taking a shower when the earthquake hit – his first thought was to wonder what downstairs was doing.   He told us that although the majority of buildings in Chengdu were structurally sound enough to deal with the tremors, only a few kilometres outside the city were the images that were reported on the world’s news, so horrifying and stark. Our driver lived nearer to the epicentre and was going to register the damage to his place that evening.  How strange, then, that Chengdu (out of all the locations in China I visited) felt the most like London – stylish, sometimes laid back, the old and new sitting comfortably together.  Both tourists and locals would hang out in the same places, another good sign.

Chengdu is wonderful in its own way, with giant pandas, monasteries and beautiful scenery – the relaxed attitude of our guide definitely influenced my view of this city.  In fact, this place turned out to be my second-favourite Chinese destination after Li Jiang.

Dinner was odd enough to photograph:


Eat your greens

... just a glass of water, please

... just a glass of water, please











[food digression: I feel it important to point out this strange pseudo-cuisine was only prevalent in the package-operated parts of our tour in Beijing and Chengdu; most places we found on our own (or our friends took us to) were incredibly tasty.  The above were specific meals laid on for tourists above shops or in hotels – for example, in Beijing, one gets dropped off at a jewellery factory after visiting the Forbidden City, then herded upstairs to eat after (presumably) buying stuff (- a few tours we did in Egypt had a similar “Steer tourist toward purchase” policy as well).  

We got the impression that every single person who visited before us absolutely did not want to try the local cuisine and would rather have chips.  However, once we explained to our guide that part of the adventure of travelling was eating, we ended up at a fantastic veggie-friendly buddhist temple 10km north of Chengdu City Centre, and I ate myself into a contented food coma there among breathtaking views and pineapple juice, so all was well in the end. /food digression]

The hotel we stayed at in Chengdu was very central indeed, and I think slightly disreputable, but that’s another story.  The next morning was Panda day!  Too excited to sleep the night before, I stayed up watching my camcorder batteries and power monkey charge as I chose my panda clothing…

…then at stupid o’clock in the morning, it was off to the Chengdu Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base, which is massive, and currently holds around 60 Giant Pandas, and a few red pandas too.  On arrival at the base, we had to walk for around 15 minutes before we even got to an area containing real pandas.  This place is like a gigantic health club for these adorable (if clumsy) creatures, a giant panda spa filled with bamboo and stuff to climb on. 

I quite fancied staying there myself.

Pandas are at their most active when they are being fed between 8am and 10am, and when we got there, we only had to share them with about 10 other tourists, another pleasant surprise!  We shot over 25GB worth of Panda Media (thank goodness for the Archos!), and I got some great footage of two pandas playfighting:

RSS / Can’t see the link? click here

By donating extra money at the base, (and if the pandas are in the right mood), you can meet a giant panda and stroke it!!  If you’re wondering what pandas feel like, the answer is just like you’d expect a panda to feel, all soft, furry and sweet.  The panda was stuffing its face at the time, eating apples, biting into one and holding another one just in case.  I’ll put some pics up when I can.  I think I may identify quite a bit with pandas, what with their fussy and ritualistic eating, their willingness to play and their frequent (and graceless) unintentional slapstick manoeuvres. 

I would like to return to Chengdu one day.

Back from China! Part 1

Ni Hao! Click on this pic for my China flickr gallery

Wow, I really missed blogging, as it proved almost impossible to do from behind The Great Firewall – other than that, China was one of the most astounding, amazing and unapologetically bonkers places I’ve ever visited. 

Landing at Shanghai was a great orientation, as it’s widely thought of as the chinese version of New York City, a bit more western than other parts of China, complete with tall buildings, copious shopping/eating destinations and big businesses doing bigger deals. Traffic lights are more of a suggestion than a binding law, personal space is widely considered to be negotiable, and even if you know a little Mandarin, it’s like learning English from a textbook and visiting Newcastle.

By far the most difficult thing for me to negotiate was the traffic.  To be honest, I find it faintly terrifying crossing the road in the UK – imagine trying to complete Frogger at a high enough level to be impossible (play the easy levels here!) and you get the idea.  Roads appeared to my foreigner’s untrained eye to be a complete gladiatorial free-for-all, although everyone still seemed to be roughly aware of other vehicles and pedestrians, working on the faith that people/vehicles/animals will simply get out of the way if they know how to walk/drive/gallop properly.

Car drivers use their horns like bicyclists use their bells,  announcing their position as opposed to sounding a warning.  Buses drive like boy racers, bicyclists drive like they have transplant organs to deliver, and pedestrians do some kind of quantum thing where they can exist in the same place as traffic without actually appearing to encounter it.

They play music on the trains here (I quite liked it, although I’m told it’s an acquired taste).  People come through with actual bowls of fruit and green tea instead of kitkats and bendy sandwiches.  Trains are fast, smooth and clean, and cost £3.50 for the equivalent of travelling from London to Oxford (about 60 miles). Amusingly, despite a vast gulf of cultural differences, there was still a man shouting on his mobile in our carriage (I like to think he was saying the Mandarin equivalent of “I’m on the TRAIN!  I’ll be home in 5 minutes!!”) – I settled myself in with my Accelerated Learning Chinese book with renewed determination. 

But I digress (as usual). So, after singing KTV with friends and sampling the Shanghai nightlife, it was off to Beijing for the classic tourist rat run, consisting of Summer Palace, TianAnMen/Forbidden City and Great Wall.  

One plane journey later, and I’m squeezed into the last vacant computer spot in a Blade-runner style Internet Cafe, realising why someone made up the phrase “culture shock”.  I was truly in the heart of the People’s Republic, surrounded by world-of-warcraft-playing Shaolin Monks (long story, we were next door to Beijing’s Kung Fu Demonstration Theatre, the show was on in an hour, these guys were killing time (and other players) before taking to the stage to kung fu each other). 

It’s hot and humid in Shanghai and Beijing, without being sunny, Despite the crowds, It’s low season in China.  The Olympic Games are only a month or so away, accordingly, tourist attractions were less crowded than usual, and I got some fantastic vid footage of the Great Wall, north of Beijing, which I shall hopefully trim up and stick onto youtube soon. 

The Great Wall was incredible, although walking in 35 degree heat for 3 hours armed only with warm bottled water, rehydration salts and comfortable shoes proved slightly tiring. It turns out that the main thing one does in Beijing is walk… and walk.  After a quick (2-mile) stroll around the Forbidden City, it’s a “gentle” ramble around the Hutongs, followed by a “soothing” hike up 60 steep stairs to the top of the Drum Tower. 

Sample dialogue included:

Tour guide: “Well, when I ran up the Great Wall, and it took me around 40 minutes, so an hour and a half should be enough to get to the top and back”
LJ: “Ok, see you in an hour and a half”
three hours later
LJ: “…need …water …and …new …cardiovascular … system”

Tour guide: “well, if you’ve done the Great Wall already today, then these 60 steps should be a breeze…”
LJ: “Ok, I’m up for this.  Great, let’s Gooooo!” 
60 steps later
LJ: “…legs …shaking …uncontrollably”

So, Beijing left me thoroughly educated and exhausted (in equal measures). 

Climbing (very slowly) into my plane seat,  I wondered what Chengdu, my next stop, would have in store…

Part 2 is here