Chengdu: Panda land

The complete set of photos and videos are here

When we booked the 11:30pm flight from Xi’an to Chengdu along with an executive apartment style hotel we had no idea what a bad combination this would be. A word on air travel in China first: it’s best avoided. Despite a plethora of humongous airports the system is jammed and delays are common, maybe inevitable. We boarded our plane on time but then sat there for another 90 minutes waiting for approval to take off. At least there was a trashy Chinese historical drama to watch but after a while all the male characters with wild beards and hair merged into one and we really just wanted to sleep.

The flight got in at some ungodly hour, 2:30 in the morning I think, but the taxi queue was still humming and we jumped in one. We used an online service to book the hotel and they sent a text message to Sarah’s Chinese SIM in mandarin with the address on it. Sadly our driver couldn’t read but we hadn’t left the airport yet so he got the taxi queue attendant to translate. We were on our way but without much confidence which was confirmed when we pulled up outside what looked like a dark office building. Sarah got out and confirmed it. We hailed a passing construction worker (yes, they are still going at 3am) and he seemed to think we should be a couple of streets over. So we drove there but with no luck. Huge trucks were roaring by but we managed to get the attention of some more construction workers who indicated that we should go back where we had just come from. The taxi driver seemed to be losing his temper by this stage, so we cut our losses and hopped out of the taxi with our bags on the quietened street. At least it wasn’t raining.

We roused the security guard at the office building and showed him the address on our phone. He pointed us further down the street where we asked another random security guard. We were definitely getting closer because he pointed us into a reception area which was lit, it just had no-one in it, only a couple of lifts. We tried ringing the number for the hotel but they only spoke Chinese so we had to give up on that. After a brief pause to gather ourselves we went to the fancy hotel next door and showed them the text message. The receptionist kindly led us back to where we had just been, got us in the lift and then left. This was definitely getting us closer but we still didn’t know what floor we were going to and the receptionist had run off to man his hotel. We tried the first level we could get to, 17, but this was fruitless.

So we came out again, much to the bemusement of the security guard who must have been wondering how much help these foreigners needed. We wandered off down the street a bit looking for a map that might explain where we were going wrong. We encountered yet another helpful security guard who didn’t speak much English but was keen to help us solve our problem. So we rang our hotel and put him on. He seemed to figure out where we needed to go in no time but he couldn’t communicate this to us. He just pointed back the way we had come and indicated that we should go higher. We left him with thanks and headed back to the lift. We examined the text message more closely and saw that there was a number in the Chinese version of the address that wasn’t included in the English version: 2712. We were so tired that this seemed like a useful lead. We headed up to level 27 in the hopes of ending this living riddle and found Flower Garden Hotel, not the name of the place we booked with but the same telephone number. So we headed in and got the young night worker out of bed to communicate with us via the blessed Internet and Google Translate. We seemed to have the right place and got a key, a very nice room on the 31st floor, and most importantly a bed, and all before it hit 4am. We collapsed into sleep.

We didn’t come to Chengdu to wander the streets late at night, entertaining though that was. The main draw-card for Chengdu is the Panda Breeding and Research Centre, but before we got there we managed to amuse ourselves with some of the other lesser, but no less amazing, attractions in the capital of Sichuan province.

First up was the Wenshu temple built in the Tang dynasty which had beautiful statues and architecture along with the usual mountain of incense being burnt.

As nice a place as it was I was more interested in the lunch afterwards which was a little degustation (ordered with the kind help of an English speaking gentlemen) full of chilli, noodles and dumplings. It went down a treat.

We followed that up with some Chinese opera. I was apprehensive to be honest. As great as many aspects of Chinese culture are, traditional music is not high on my list of likes. It often sounds like a cat being strangled to death. The opera we saw was not all that traditional.  It was aimed more at the tourist crowd which meant stunning lighting and visual effects, acrobatics, knife throwing and a decent attempt at comedy, along with a traditional orchestra and lip syncing. The costumes were a highlight, with the changing of face masks being a traditional part of Sichuan opera. There are multiple masks which are ripped off with hidden string at key moments. The effect is startling. In the blink of an eye one amazing face mask is replaced with another. The best acrobatics were the couple who gracefully swung around the stage on a length of cloth. I can’t do it justice with my description but it was lovely.

Then it was off to a popular looking restaurant on the way home which turned out to do hotpots. The staff seemed delighted to see us, no doubt because they were planning to add a little tourist tax to the bill, which still came in under $15 for two people, the sweet spot for most of our meals in China. We really had no clue what to do and there was no English being spoken but they just took us to a separate area which had bundles of meat and vegetables all ready to be dunked in the two types of broth bubbling away in the centre of our table. Once cooked we were instructed to dip the items in a bowl which had sesame oil, a heap of crushed garlic and chilli. It went down a treat with a few beers.

Chengdu also has a great park which is very Chinese in style, landscaped to within an inch of its life and just jam-packed with activity. In one corner there was a crowd of people line-dancing to extremely loud pop music and competing with the guy in the next spot over who had attracted a crowd singing traditional Chinese songs. There are people playing badminton, practicing calligraphy with water and brushes on the pavement, karaoke machines galore with people singing opera, flying kites, flag bearing dancers, people in boats on the lake, and yes, some more people dancing over there. It was kind of a relief to get to the teahouse where we only had to deal with the touts offering a massage/ear cleaning combo. Being the daughter of an audiologist Sarah couldn’t let anyone stick something smaller than an elbow in her ear although she would have found getting them cleared out a very satisfying experience. We settled for a chrysanthemum tea and a lemon tea which was delightful to sip in an old teahouse while overlooking the lily pond.

Enough faffing around, it’s time for the pandas! The research centre is in a lovely setting full of trees and mist on the morning we were there. In fact we got there before some of the pandas had emerged from their beds (and yes, they do have beds). Some were lying in their air-conditioned rooms, although they did get out of bed to lie on their backs on the floor and nibble a bit of bamboo leaf to get warmed up for the main meal. We wandered further uphill to find some enterprising young pandas already attacking the day as only a panda can, on their back. They are truly the couch potato of the animal kingdom. Homer Simpson is their role model. They eat lying on their back and are missing only a stubby and the cricket on TV to complete the image. They camp themselves next to a big pile of bamboo, strip the leaves off with their teeth till they have a big bunch, then hold it in one hand as they munch on it. Then the stem gets some treatment with the bark stripped before the core is munched up. There was a younger panda nearby who hadn’t cottoned on to the seriousness of bamboo eating and was more interested in playing with his food. Other pandas hadn’t fully woken up yet. They were out of bed but lying limply in trees or wooden platforms, presumably until hunger forced them to get up. Bamboo doesn’t give you much energy so pandas are in the same boat as our own koala bear in having just enough energy to eat their body weight in food before sleeping for the rest of the day.

The favourite videos we took are the fight over bamboo and the dedicated eater

They are an adorable animal and you can see how once a young guy leapt into their enclosure to give them a hug only to discover that they have teeth and claws that can be used for other purposes as well. Their cuteness is really just a cunning tactic to draw you within striking distance:  And you really have to watch out if they covet your jacket.

In China it is customary not to tip, which I love. It makes everything so much simpler. Here is the price, you pay, and they bring change. We even had a waiter chase us when we left a very small amount of change to make up for an order mixup. This followed a waitress at another restaurant chasing us for two blocks to return a cheap umbrella I had left behind. It’s hard to imagine this happening in many large Western capitals.

We had dessert at a place which did enormous ice-cream sundaes (the one with green tea and red bean was awesome) but this place was also churning out plates of Western-style roast meat and veg – little corn cobs and a few slices of carrot with meat and gravy. It was full of trendy hipsters much like an exotic new Vietnamese place would be here.

We left Chengdu on a rainy afternoon when all the taxis seemed to be taken and the few that looked empty weren’t stopping for us. Just as time was getting tight to make it to the airport in time a young guy in a black car pulled up, part of the unofficial transport system that seems to spring up at the best moments when you’re travelling. We don’t normally get into unmarked cars, except in Africa when that’s the only choice, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Sadly, in terms of an exciting ending to this post, the trip was uneventful and we scooted back to Beijing where it was raining cats and dogs and the taxi driver tried to massively overcharge us. We paid him a fair amount and walked through the rain on this warm summer’s night near midnight back to Rich’s apartment where we let ourselves in and rested once more.

The complete set of photos and videos are here

3 comments to Chengdu: Panda land

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>