Chengdu: Home of the Panda
Ever since Alex and I fell in love with pandas (mid 2007) and went to see the eight Olympic pandas at the Beijing Zoo (September 2008), it has been our dream to go to the city of Chengdu (home of the panda center). This past weekend, it finally happened… Alex and I went to Chengdu to see my mom (who was attending a conference) as well as go to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base! Even though it has been three days since I sat next to a panda, and even though I have pictures and videos to prove it, I still can’t believe that we actually went to the panda research base and held a panda!
Our flight into Chengdu from Seoul was delayed so we didn’t actually make it into Chengdu until half past midnight. One of my mom’s students, who grew up just outside Chengdu, picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at our hotel. He told us that we would be going to the panda base on Friday morning (basically in a few hours). After five hours of sleep, Alex and I woke up excited and nervous- We couldn’t believe that this day had finally come! Once at the panda base, we immediately headed for the panda kindergarten area, where we were given a brief history of pandas as well as a lesson on a baby panda’s birth and how to care for the pandas. We then donned robes, foot coverings, and gloves, and waited in line to hold a one year old panda. The panda keeper said that each morning, they pick the most sweet tempered panda for the public to hold. The panda keepers fed the panda honey-dipped bamboo while we each had a minute to sit next to, coddle, and pet the panda, all the while grinning from ear to ear, with a smile that says, “I can’t believe this is actually happening!!” While Alex and I waited in line, we saw a panda keeper holding a baby panda (maybe only a few months old), rocking it and singing a lullaby to get it to go to sleep. It was ADORABLE!
As I sat next to the panda, I had a few initial thoughts: 1). I’m sitting next to a bear, 2). The panda’s fur is a lot more bristly than I imagined it would be (Noodles, by comparison, is extremely soft), 3). He/she smells damp and forest-y, 4). Bamboo breath does not smell good. And just like that, my one minute was up! After we were finished, we were given a framed picture of of us and the panda, a t-shirt, and a certificate saying that we had donated to the panda research center.
We then went around the rest of the center, but by 10:30 AM, most of the pandas were in a breakfast-induced sleep. (I had read that it’s best to walk around at 9:30, in order to see the pandas eat breakfast- apple chunks and panda biscuits. They apparently all get in one line, and wait obediently for their breakfasts- it’s supposed to be SUPER CUTE.) Some of the pandas put their sleepy heads on logs so that they can prop up their heads while sleeping. We saw two baby pandas in the panda playpen, also sleeping. Once in a while, their little paws would twitch! We also saw a couple of red pandas, and while they aren’t as cute, it was still awesome to watch them eat out of their food bowls.
Alex and I could have spent an entire day (or week) at the panda base, but we left after a few hours, to get lunch at a traditional Sichuan hotpot place. The hotpot broth was red with chill oil and peppers! Alex and I were adventurous: we tried cow’s stomach and goose intestine. By the end, neither one of us could feel our tongues. Sichuan spice is different from other spice- it’s both hot (from the red chillies) and numbing (from the Sichuan peppercorn).
After lunch, we went to the Jinsha archeological site and museum. This site was discovered by accident a decade ago and contains relics dating back to 1000 BC. The relics include a bunch of pottery, an intricate gold mask, jade, and one ton of elephant tusks. There are also fossilized banyan tree roots, suggesting that at one point, Chengdu had a very tropical climate.
We went to the Kuan/Zhai (wide/narrow) Ancient Streets for dinner. It’s a very lively area that has been renovated to look old. The architectural style is from the Qing Dynasty. There are lots of tea houses and restaurants, as well as a Starbucks (which Alex of course visited). We ate at a traditional Sichuan-style restaurant. I’m pretty sure the meat in the spicy stew we ate was turtle… So, that was a first. We also had the hairy crab that the Chinese love so much… Alex and I really aren’t sure what the big draw is. (We prefer Maryland crab with Old Bay seasoning, over the hairy crab.) We tried a local yellow rice wine (sweet, served warm, with slices of ginger). It actually tasted pretty good! For dessert, we had gelato from a food stall. Honestly, it was the best gelato that I’ve had outside of Italy!! The mango and coconut flavors perfectly complimented each other. We then watched a traditional variety show at a tea house, before calling it a night.
Saturday, we visited the Dujiangyan (都江堰) irrigation system, which is located an hour’s drive outside of Chengdu. Engineered and built 2,000 years ago, the Dijiangyan irrigation system helped to divert water from the Min River, so that it would not flood the surrounding cities during certain times of the year. The levees were made of bamboo strips woven together into long baskets and filled with rocks. The engineer Li Bing had to use a combination of fire and water to crack the rocks to create a channel in the mountain (this was done before gunpowder was invented!!). We walked across a couple old suspension bridges that rocked a lot as people walked by. The city itself is pretty neat since it still has some of the original city walls and gates.
After getting back to the city of Chengdu, we went to Chengdu Renmin Park, where locals gather to feed goldfish, have tea, and play cards. The park was full of people relaxing and having a good time. The people of Chengdu have perfected the leisurely lifestyle- their pace of life is nicknamed “panda pace.” 🙂 We practiced our panda pace by taking a stroll around the Jinli Pedestrian Streets. This area also has alleys that are lined with shops and restaurants with “old” architecture. We ate a bunch of spicy street food, watched a shadow puppet performance, and saw a street vendor create figurines out of sugar putty. We ended the night by having drinks in an outdoor terrace, listening to a guitarist sing songs in Chinese. It was a wonderful, relaxing end to our panda-paced weekend.