I don’t quite know where to start with this post, Chengdu was memorable for so many reasons, obviously seeing the panda’s for sure, but Chengdu really overdelivered on all fronts.
First of all, I really wanted to travel overland from Wuhan, but it was an 8 to 10 hour train journey, which is pretty much an entire days sightseeing, and with a flight taking only 2 hours and for not much more money, we went with the flight option. The internal flight itself was an experience, a shaun the sheep video, followed by the most terrifying government information film on drug smuggling, the inflight entertainment was varied, I’ll give it that.
We arrived at our hostel, Lazy Bones, early evening and had a wander in the local area, going straight in for some very spicy Sichuan food at a local restaurant and spent the remainder of the evening swapping tales with fellow backpackers at the hostel, the hostel was incredibly cheap, but super modern and one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in for price, friendliness and location.
The next morning, we got up early for our pre-booked guided tour (booked via our hostel) of a place that has been on my bucket list for years, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. With no direct buses or trains to the research centre, your best bet besides booking a tour is to take a taxi, taking roughly 30 minutes.
Starting in 1987 with just 6 giant pandas, the breeding and research centre just outside of Chengdu now has 83 panda’s living their best life, along with the ferocious little red pandas. It was just magical seeing the pandas in real life as we wandered down the bamboo lined paths, taking us to the nursery, research centre, cinema, the giant panda kitchen, the veterinary centre and of course the outside enclosures. So magical indeed that I threw up in a cluster of bamboo trees, I think it was a combination of overexcitement, far too many Sichuan chilis the night before and strong black coffee on the early morning drive over.
We got to watch the pandas play, eat, and sleep, all while learning about the incredible work that the researchers are doing to ensure that the conservation of these fascinating bears continues. Those with extra cash to splash can pay to meet the pandas in person, but for us, we managed a quick selfie with a giant panda and a quick photo with a curious red panda, curbing the urge to give it a tickle, as these small red bears are known to be a bit aggressive. What a privilege to spend the morning there, seeing these endangered but beautiful animals in their native China and meeting those who have dedicated their lives to their survival, it’s a trip I will never forget.
That evening, after a restful afternoon, settling my stomach and feeling much better, we booked tickets for the Sichuan Opera House through our helpful hostel, for a display of shadow puppetry, magical face-change theatre, as well as traditional singing and dancing. Oh, and unlimited cups of green tea, every single time we finished our cup, a waiter would instantly re-appear to fill our cup again, causing us to sip a bit slower to avoid a trip to the bathroom mid performance!
Next morning, revived with a bowl of porridge from the hostel, we caught a taxi 15 minutes through the manically busy traffic to the People’s Park, also known as Renmin Park. It’s a popular and busy park filled with both locals and tourists, and it showed an incredible insight into everyday Chinese life. Around every path was an open space filled with people taking dance classes, tai chi, aerobics, a karaoke session and we even spotted a man practicing his Samurai sword moves along a hidden path, and so began another day of memorable experiences.
But Renmin Park was just the gift that kept on giving, it is here where you can experience the ancient tradition of Tao er or Ear Scooping. Within seconds of sitting down at a table, a serious looking man came over with some serious looking instruments and before I had time to change my mind, I handed over my money and he set to work. It was not uncomfortable, he sort of twirled and scooped his way around the inside of my ear. It was like someone was giving you a light tickle inside your skull, he also used a vibrating tuning fork (like I use on patients back home) which gave the most unusual, but again not uncomfortable feeling, the funniest thing though was watching my friends reaction as I sat there oblivious to what he was doing. Then it was her turn, and I got to experience it from the other side, then with our newly cleaned ears we sat and drank our Jasmine Tea, watching other slightly cautious tourists and seasoned locals take their turn.
We exited the park east to explore around the huge Tianfu Square, the largest open square in the region, a giant statue of Chairman Mao presides from the sidelines, with skyscrapers, shopping malls and cafes stretching off in every direction. We shopped, ate dumplings, petted the cutest of dogs and even got a photo with yet another golden horse, as the final days of the Year of the Snake wound down until it was the horses turn again.
I had just about recovered from my spicy Sichuan dish from our first night, when it was time for the hostels weekly hot pot evening. We arrived in the dining room to be greeted by a large sizzling pot in the middle of the table, surrounded by thinly sliced meat, vegetables and a whole array of dipping sauces. Unfortunately for pretty much all of us, including a traveller from northern China, it was just too spicy for us to enjoy. We all really tried our best to eat it, but it was blow your socks off, turns your tongue numb hot, luckily the accompanying beer was cool and refreshing and after admitting defeat, we all set off to buy yet more dumplings from a local street vendor up the road instead.
On our final full morning in the Sichuan province, we got a taxi to a little piece of the Himalayas, or rather Little Lhasa. Chengdu is a popular starting place to travel onwards to Tibet, although it’s over 2000km’s away, it’s the closest Chinese city to the Lhasa, so many overland tours to the mountainous kingdom begin here. Little Lhasa or the Tibetan Quarter is mainly based along Jinli Pedestrian Street, and is full of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and little market stalls. With over 10,000 Tibetan’s living in the city, the area is a cultural hub, full of people walking in traditional dress and monks making their way to the temple, there is an obvious increase in police presence here too, a constant reminder of the many restrictions these people face on a daily basis.
Tibet is famous for many things, one of those things being Yak Butter Tea, so we headed up a steep set of stairs to a cosy little tea shop, full of kittens for some bizarre reason. We ordered a pot of this buttery, slightly salty hot tea, settled into the comfy couches, people watched and played with the kittens for probably a good hour, another one of those memorable moments from the trip.
It was an early evening of more dumplings for dinner, before my Welsh Mandarin speaking travel companion and I were to part ways for a few days. She had to return to Wuhan and I was travelling onward alone by train to Xi’an, until we were to reunite in Beijing for the new year celebrations. The adventures continued . . .
EATS – Hot Pot is the dish to try when in Sichuan, just maybe have a back up, if like me you couldn’t handle the chilli. Hot Pot restaurants are all over, our hostel provided us with our very own hot pot experience, but also had plenty of recommendations if you wanted to go it alone. I also picked up some dumplings at little road side stalls, always hot, always fresh and always delicious.
COFFEE AND CAKE – After not having too many sweet things so far on this trip, we found the Taiwanese chain 85 degrees at various spots around the city, selling both hot and iced coffees along with cute little cakes, it made the perfect pick me up.
TOP TIP – If you have time, a popular day trip is to the UNESCO Leshan Giant Buddha I really fancied it, but chose to spend my final day seeing more things inside Chengdu, but you always need a reason to go back right?
ALWAYS BE POLITE – Kāfēi – Coffee, Hǎo – Ok. (there are many different ways to say Okay depending on the context, next time I visit, I am taking a translation app!)