For many of Chengdu’s visitors the main reason for trekking to this part of the country is to see the pandas. Time permitting there is so much more to see and do in the gateway to Sichuan. Because it is not one of the main cities popularly heard of I expected to be going to a country town. This is a by-product of growing up in sparsely (some might say barely) populated New Zealand. It is estimated over 3.3 million people live in the city of Chengdu and over 10 Million in the surrounding areas, hardly a small country town. Chengdu has, in recent times, become a centre for information technology and houses many research and development arms of global organisations.
As soon as we land and make our way to the hotel it soon becomes apparent that this is neither a small town nor is the only attraction the pandas. Chengdu people have a reputation within China as being laid back. There’s a perception (which to be fair we gained from talking to Chinese friends in Shanghai) that the locals here spend a lot of time in the many teahouses you see scattered in the city. Maybe the rest of China thinks Chengdu is a small country town.
Finding a hotel proved interesting as were relying on the internet once we were in China as a source of information. After a small change we ended up very happily located at the Sofitel along the banks of the river.
One of the recommendations from our hotel was to go to Jinli Street. This is a cleverly restored ancient street with wall to wall interesting old style crafts including Shu Embroidery, lacquer products, folk handicrafts, handmade puppets and calligraphy. The atmosphere is lovely and there are people everywhere and the streets are lined with food stalls and teahouses.
Chengdu Panda Centre
The highlight of course is the Chengdu Panda Centre that is a short taxi ride out of town. Make sure you are out early in the morning so you can see the panda’s feeding. This is not only important because of the interest in watching them eat but more importantly as the day warms up all they do is sleep. Turning up at feeding time means you may be lucky enough to see these playful animals rumbling with each other.
For a “donation” to the reserve you can line up and hold a baby panda. Beware they only take cash so be sure to have enough in your pocket. You will be dressed in protective over shirts and gloves. Protection for the panda not you. It’s certainly an experience but an equally thrilling thing to do for considerable less of a donation is to hold a red panda. We had the pleasure of holding them while feeding them apples. This was definitely a case of the dream not quite being exactly as I expected. On our visit the keepers could not catch the small baby panda and could only find the grumpy teenager. This “baby panada” could barely fit on my knee and was not impressed about being woken up to be held for, of all things, a tourist taking photographs. So instead of a cute cuddly panda I got angry disgruntled panda and it looks suspiciously like the panda has less interest in chewing on the apple than it does on taking a bite out of me.
The grounds at the Chengdu Panda Centre are set in lovely jungle clad rolling hills. Each building is well designed and offers information on the programs. It’s well worth going to the laboratory and hearing about the breeding program and all the science behind the work going on to protect the pandas. Just learning about the effort required to keep the food up to the compound is interesting.
After a day of panda patting come back to town and visit Wenshufang Street. This is right next to the Wenshu Buddhist Temple and is another pedestrian area to visit in Chengdu. Also carefully restored so you can see the traditional rice paper lanterns, old architecture and many gorgeous restaurants and food stalls. There is more of the famous Sichuan food. Try dishes such as Mapo Toufu or Dandan noodles.
Chengdu Antique Markets
Another recommendation from the hotel was the Antique Markets. These markets are opposite the Sichuan Fine Arts Exhibition Hall and are open every day. It’s a lovely way to spend a few hours as vendors display their wares along the walkway next to the river. Here you see how Chengdu has got its reputation as being relaxed and you have the feeling this is a lot less contrived for the tourists. Let’s face it not many can afford the excess baggage bill for a large stone urn. But you can wander around seeing everything from old books and cards through to garden urns and lacquer furniture.
Summing up Chengdu it’s a fabulous stop to enjoy a different part of China and of course the famous pandas. We did find it hard to research from within China so I would take a look while you have the freedom of no internet restrictions.