I wrote this as I snaked across the Chinese countryside from Chengdu, Sichuan to Lanzhou, Gansu on a 21 hour train ride. Chengdu was well worth the trip. The highlight had to be our trip to the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center just north of the city. This is home to scores of cute, fluffy pandas.
Pandas are China’s national treasure and severely endangered for a few reasons. One reason is because they have evolved into sedentary fur balls that sit around eating bamboo by the kilo. This has made survival in the wild difficult because of mating habits that have been affected by this lifestyle. They are also greatly endangered because they naturally give birth prematurely and mothers don’t always know what to do and may kill or abandon the pink, squealing mole rat it just gave birth to.
For these reasons, China and many partner scientists have invested a lot of time, money and energy into researching and artificially breeding the cutest little things you ever did see so this iconic species can survive.
The Chengdu center is spread across the hills in a northern Chengdu suburb with lots of natural enclosures and air conditioned buildings for the pandas. It gets too hot for them there so they need A/C through the summer.
I had wanted to volunteer for a day or two at one of the panda bases but found out too late that you need a medical form filled out to do it. Someday I’ll go back with a bit more money to spend a few days volunteering as a panda keeper and also getting a photo holding one. That I could have done without being a volunteer but it cost 1,300 RMB or around $200 to do it, and I didn’t have that kind of cash this time.
We got to the center right after they opened at 8 a.m. beating the tour groups and the heat that would send the pandas inside. First we found the enclosures of the small red pandas that are just as cute but less doted on than their black and white cousins. From there we made our way around finding mothers with cubs and big lazy black and white blobs munching on bamboo or just loafing around. We saw younglings climbing and playing and the unique eating methods of unsheathing the bamboo to get to the green succulent part underneath.
Our trip was arranged through the hostel with a bunch of others so we could get a car directly there since buses couldn’t get there early enough and taxis would try to scam you. I enjoyed our trip there and loved seeing so many of China’s national treasure in one place.
That afternoon we made our way to the Wenshu Monastery in the northern part of downtown. This Buddhist temple is a Zen temple meaning when it was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty it was designed by principles of Zen. The original temple was built in the 7th century A.D. But like so many other places in China it was destroyed some time at the beginning of or during the Ming era and rebuilt some time over the last 500 years.
The temple itself isn’t anything to gawk at but the surrounding gardens are quite nice. My favorite part was the pond of long life where there were hundreds of turtles living and a few over-sized bullfrogs. There is also an elaborate library in the rear with some nice paintings and statues.
Surrounding this monastery is a series of “old” streets with shops and restaurants. However, this isn’t a fantastic market when compared with the one in the Jinli area around the other temple.
Sichuan Hotpot and Ear Cleaning
We finished our Chengdu experience with Sichuan hotpot. We had to do this to make our trip to the province complete even though I can’t stand spicy food. We joined a few new friends from the hostel (Shivani from Sydney, Will from Austin, Simon from Norway, and Eric from Canada) and to get this eye-watering meal and had a good time with some tasty but tongue burning food.
This hotpot is a special variety, for those hotpot connoisseurs out there, where you put the bits and pieces in on skewers to cook and then you don’t have to fish it out when you go in to eat it. They charge by the skewer and have just about everything available on the skewers to eat including lots of meats, fish and veggies. Our group of six had about 80 skewers and paid about 25 RMB per person. I don’t like spicy food but now I can say I’ve had real Sichuanese food, known for its spicy tendencies, in Sichuan, China.
One Chengdu adventure we observed but did not participate in was the royal ear cleaning. I didn’t really feel comfortable having complete strangers poking long sharp sticks into my ears, and I don’t know who else’s ears they’ve been in. But don’t worry because you can do it if you want. You can find them all over the city.
I won’t post this while on the train but as I wrote I was riding for hundreds of miles to Gansu Province where we’ll ride camels in the desert near the Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang.