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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Chengdu, Part 1: Pandas (of course)

It isn't easy being an endangered species...

Pandas. Our friends Barbara and Jeff, visiting us from Belgium, wanted to see China's warm and fuzzy examples of soft power projection. And in China, the best place to get a glimpse of these endangered creatures is just outside the city of Chéngdū 成都, capital of Sìchuān Province 四川省. Which is why last Wednesday we arrived in the smog-choked metropolis of 4.1 million people. After checking into our hotel, the five of us went out to explore the neighborhood, but soon sought refuge from the pollution in the Green Wood Cafe:

Though in many respects a modern, prosperous city,  Chengdu still presents a Soviet era-style face at times, from it's wide avenues and vast public spaces, especially Renmin Donglu and its disappointingly small Chairman Mao statue. I was expecting something more Kim Il-Sung-like, but the Great Helmsman is swallowed up by the museum behind him and empty square in front:

I really wanted to line up the statue with McDonald's and/or Costa Coffee in the foreground, but the vastness of Renmin Donglu defeated all efforts. My daughter demonstrates just how big the space is:

From the author of the Little Red Book, it was a short walk to People's Park 人民公园, with its lake, teahouses and revolutionary monuments. Normally bustling with activity, the lousy weather (alternating rain with smog in that unique way China has with atmospheric conditions) had kept the locals at home on Wednesday afternoon:

By this time, it was getting late in the afternoon and we were getting hungry. Our friends wanted to eat at a particular vegetarian restaurant that they'd found online, but when we came across a 200 year-old restaurant serving Sichuan cuisine, it was decided to end the evening there instead. It was a long wait to be seated, the time of which was passed by drinking tea:

The food was worth the wait, as was the special Tsingtao Beer we ordered to quench the spiciness of the dishes:

Following dinner, we took a taxi back to the hotel, where Barbara, Jeff and I had cocktails before retiring for the evening. The view from our room the next morning wasn't promising weather-wise:

The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base 大熊猫繁育基地 was only a half-hour by taxi from the hotel. The reserve is home to around 50 giant and red pandas, and offers an unparalleled chance to see more than the usual pair of pandas on view in various zoos around the world. Though the main purpose of the reserve is to get the pandas to breed (naturally or otherwise), it's the fee-paying visitors like ourselves that make it Chengdu's most popular tourist attraction:

The giant pandas didn't disappoint. Though not the most active of beasts, we made sure to get there around the time of their morning feeding, when they're at their most active (if you consider being covered up to the chest in bamboo to be an activity):

Some had already overdosed on the food...

For Amber on Thursday morning, the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base was the greatest place on Earth, as she took numerous photographs and made several videos on our iPad:

As the morning progressed, the beasts became more lethargic:

Their superstar status has obviously resulted in some inflated egos:

The less-popular red pandas were harder to see and even more out of it:

We purchased a souvenir for our daughter, and paid three times more for the plushy than if we had bought it back in Chengdu. Of course, the money goes toward the care, feeding and breeding of the pandas, and as China is a society governed by the rule of law and transparent accountability, we felt assured that our money would be well spent:

From the panda reserve, we had ourselves driven back to People's Park. With the weather having improved, the locals were out in force, and Barbara and Jeff learned firsthand just how unbelievably cacophonous a Chinese park can be, even on a weekday afternoon, thanks to the karaoke machines and "dancing aunties":

Among the many teahouses in People's Park, the most popular is Hè Míng Teahouse, where we stopped for some flower tea and spicy snacks:

The ear-cleaning services are optional:

Time passes slowly in Chinese tea houses, but eventually we managed to roust ourselves from our tea-induced languor and walked over to Nánjiāo Park and its Wŭhóu Temple 武侯词. The temple is dedicated to several figures from the Three Kingdoms period, known to every Chinese from the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I have no intention of ever reading. Our friends seemed to enjoy the temple and its surrounding gardens:

Amber, on the other hand, just rolls her eyes whenever she hears the words "three kingdoms". She was much more impressed with Jĭnlĭ Gŭjiē 锦里古街, a reconstructed "old street" adjacent to the temple. The cotton candy was a work of art:

Despite the many snacks on offer in Jinli Gujie, Jeff was keen to experience some Tibetan food, and there's a small Tibetan neighborhood to the southeast of Wuhou Temple. The Kampa Tibetan Restaurant is mentioned in Lonely Planet (as is Holly's Hostel next door), but Jeff insisted we go to a more authentic restaurant across the lane, and we were all glad we did. It certainly seemed more like the real deal: there was no English menu, the servers struggled to communicate in Mandarin with my wife and groups of monks were sitting around the dining room. The food was delicious and the butter tea was surprisingly good. Which makes it all the more a pity that I can't visit Tibet due to my present line of work:

Following dinner, we returned by taxi to our hotel, where Barbara, Jeff and I, after attempting to track down an elusive bar that has live music (which we found by asking a couple of Americans having coffee in a Starbucks, and which turned out to be totally devoid of music or customers when we eventually located it), we ended the evening once again back at the hotel bar drinking copious amounts of cocktails. It's really the best of friends that brings out the alcoholic in you.



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