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:
[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:
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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.