Chengdu – hot pot and pandas!

Our first train was an overnight back to Lanzhou, where I passed the time teaching a little boy how to make a paper crane that flaps its wings and poos. Then we changed trains for a 36 hour journey to Chengdu, for which we had no beds. Feeling like we were dab hands at this by now, we immediately requested an upgrade, but both had mixed feelings when we were finally moved as the people we had met on the hard seats were really fun to talk to. I met an art student called Jiangku who showed me his amazing artwork on his phone and then painted a picture for me in the back of my sketchbook.

Our beds were at one end of the staff carriage, and they worked shifts so we spent the afternoon and early evening in the dark and just as we were going to bed, the lights were turned on! The train pulled into Chengdu in the morning, and we realised neither of us had written down the details for our hostel. We wandered around the station forecourt in search of Wi-Fi and finally got a connection (and breakfast!) at a dumpling café. We located the correct bus and set off on a journey through the city. The weather was warmer as we had travelled a long distance south; more autumnal than wintery. My first impressions of Chengdu were not great! An effort had been made to line the streets with greenery, but the poor bushes and trees were so smothered by grey layers of grime that it would almost have been better they weren’t there at all! I don’t know how they manage to photosynthesise, but they clearly cope.

Our hostel, Hello Chengdu, was lovely, and had a pretty garden and terraced area for dining and a cosy bar. We were worn out from our journey, so spent the day in our room organising our future travel plans. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, which is famous for the spiciest food in China. That evening, we joined a group of other backpackers for a vegetarian hotpot party on the terrace. It was a far cry from Lancashire hotpot! There were two simmering pots sat on stoves on the table. In one, the broth was not spicy, and the other contained a broth that could have you breathing fire. It is common for a choice of soups to be presented like this – it is the Chinese concept of yin yang, to provide balance with opposites. I gamely plonked myself down next to the hot one. First of all we added sesame oil, coriander, garlic and vinegar into our dishes. A huge array of fresh vegetables (including pea plants, which are SO good) and noodles were laid out on a platter and throughout the meal we kept plopping more into the boiling broths.  When ready, we would fish out what we wanted and mix it with the sauce we had made. It was extremely tasty and I thought I was coping rather well with the heat – even the Sichuan diners said the hot one was too hot for them! It isn’t simply the chilli that makes it hot; they also use a lot of Sichuan peppercorns, and these add a powerful tingling sensation that sometimes makes your tongue go a bit numb. However, I was soon to get my come-uppance, when shortly after finishing my meal, my insides decided they weren’t designed to deal with so much spiciness and I got rather well-acquainted with the toilet!

Over dinner, we met two retired Americans, who we recognised from the market in Dunhuang (it is indeed a small world!). Sheri was from Texas and Chuck was from Wisconsin and they were old friends who had decided to catch up and travel at the same time. After the fire in my stomach had settled, we joined them in the bar, ate dates and talked about our respective journeys. They highly recommended the panda tour run by the hotel, which we were booked onto for the following day.

The minibus to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding set off early in the morning, so thankfully we arrived before the big tour groups. We were supposed to spend only two hours there, but we were enjoying ourselves so much, we decided to stay on and get our own transport back. The centre is devoted to breeding pandas – both the giant pandas and also the smaller red pandas. Due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, their numbers have been dwindling in the wild. The aim of the centre is to eventually release pandas back into their natural habitat, and there are plans afoot to enlarge the site by 500 acres to create a naturalistic environment that will act as a stepping stone to achieve this target. Pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, but the research and dedication of staff at the centre has resulted in it being the world’s most successful panda breeding programme, with over a hundred pandas being born here since its inception.

The enclosures on the whole were spacious and full of lush greenery. Most of the giant pandas were in separate enclosures, as they are naturally solitary animals, but the young adults and babies were housed in groups. They are such wonderfully entertaining animals! They don’t really do much, but that is part of their charm, and makes them wonderful subjects for sketching. Flopping backwards, legs akimbo and reaching languidly for a branch of bamboo to chew on, they appear delightfully lazy. I think most people who visit probably see a little of themselves in the pandas; if you’ve ever had a pyjama day you will know what I mean. Stick a telly in front of them, and substitute the bamboo with some snacks and a beer (or a tea if you’re me!) and you’d be hard put to tell the difference! Especially if you’d had a late one the night before and had the eyes to match! However, we must not be too disparaging of the pandas’ lack of activity. Their diet of bamboo is very fibrous and hard to break down, so that is why they lead such a sedentary lifestyle. If they are sitting in the middle of a bamboo grove, there is no need to run around expending unnecessary energy – they can funnel it into digesting their food. The bamboo they eat does not actually grow on site. The centre has a dedicated team of harvesters, who go up into the mountainous regions and select the choicest bamboo for their fussy charges. They have to travel a long way and carry huge bundles on their backs, but even then, the pandas reject up to 80% of it!

The young pandas were adorable to watch. Unlike the adults, they were playful, roly poly little bundles of fun, tumbling over each other, clumsily falling off platforms and trying to chase and eat the camera lead belonging to a film crew who were endeavouring to get footage of them inside their enclosure. They were like big puppies but possibly with a little less common sense. One little panda had found a very comfortable place to chill out in the fork of a tree, seeming almost to hang by his chin, with a rather glum expression on his face. It is hard to express just how cute they are; all your cuddly baby instincts kick in, but they are fluffy as well! It’s a bit like seeing your favourite childhood toy brought to life.

The red pandas were housed in groups and in several enclosures, there was a walkway through their habitat. They are similar in appearance to raccoons, though a little bigger and with a beautiful russet red coat. They spent most of their time in the trees, but would occasionally saunter along the paths the tourists trod. When this happened, inevitably the poor thing would be surrounded by a crowd of Chinese tourists taking photos and trying to stroke it, in spite of signs advising against it. The pandas were remarkably relaxed about this, but I imagine people get bitten from time to time. It is silly to surround a wild animal and not give it an escape route!

The centre was somewhat of a maze to navigate and whilst we spent all day there, we still did not manage to see everything, although we did manage to sneak in a David Attenborough documentary over lunch! I love how even in China, he is king of nature programmes. I would have liked to visit the veterinary centre to learn more about the role they play in the breeding programme and training of pandas for medical procedures, and of course I would have liked to see the teeny tiny newborn babies too. We could easily have returned for a second day. We have visited a lot of huge cities in China, and given the population of the country it seems they are set to burgeon further. Consequently China gets a lot of bad press about environmental issues (notably the extremely sad recent extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin), so it was refreshing to see the other side, to see conservation in action that really seems to be working.

That evening, we joined the hostel staff and some of the other guests to see an acoustic guitar concert in a small café venue. The guitarist was an Italian friend of Georgia, who worked on reception. It is usual for English-speaking Chinese to give their ‘English’ names instead of their Chinese ones to foreigners. It does make it much easier for us! He was very talented and used a multi-track recorder to loop rhythms and tunes to create a multi-layered sound. It was fun to have a night out, as so often we just collapse with exhaustion in the evenings! They then took us on a night time walk along the riverbank, and we saw the nicer side of Chengdu, with pretty lights dancing on the water, vibrant bars and old buildings. We had dinner in a street-side café, where they chose some dishes for us – some sort of stewed tendon (quite soft and melted in the mouth) and cowheel, which I am sorry to say I avoided. I am still scarred by memories of my mum boiling up cowheel in the kitchen and stinking the house out! I am told it tastes nothing like it smells when it’s cooking, and is actually rather delicious, but the tendons were enough of a culinary adventure for one night, especially after the previous day’s hotpot incident!

We were nearing the end of our China adventure, and were now plotting our route out of the country and into Vietnam. We had to make some difficult decisions, realising we couldn’t possibly do everything we had planned to in the time we had left before our visas expired. Instead of heading southeast towards Guangxi province and the spectacular scenery of Guilin, we continued southwards towards Yunnan, making a short day stop in Zigong, Sichuan along the way.

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