On the Giant Panda trail

Chengdu, Sichuan Province, 18-20 October.

Today on the high speed train we cover a distance of over 1,000 km to get from Luoyang to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, home of spectacular spicy foods and adorable panda bears!

With an urban population of over 11 million, Chengdu is one of three most populated cities in Western China, and the largest in Sichuan. Due to the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project constructed in the year 256 BC, the Min and Tuo River, two branches of the famous Yangtze river, supply an irrigation area of more than 700 square kilometres. This furtile land is why Sichuan Province is called Tian Fu Zhi Guo, the Heavenly State.

In this province Hotpot was invented, a cooking method where a simmering pot of soup stock is placed on the dinner table and hotpot dishes such as thinly sliced beef, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings or seafood are cooked tableside, similar to fondue, but hot enough to numb your tongue and lips for the rest of the day!

In Sichuan cooking Sichuan peppercorns (Ma) and dried chillies (La) play a central role. The dried chillies produce some serious heat on the Scoville scale, while the peppercorn causes the tingly lip-numbing sensation, lovely! Though deadly when prepared by the inexperienced chef, in reality not every dish in Sichuan cuisine is extremly spicy, but it’s always fragrant and usually delicious. It’s been my absolute favourite food on our travels so far!

The hostel we stay in is pretty comfortable. Just off a busy road next to a metro station, the inner courtyard is a pet lovers paradise; we count 5 cats, 2 dogs, some gold fish and even spot a turtle. We’re staying on the fourth floor. A gaping hole with no door at the end of our corridor leads to a rickety emergency exit stairway attached to the side of the building – pretty glad we’re not staying here in winter.. From the top of the stairs we look right into the garage of our neighbour, who runs a pretty professional looking illegal casino from there, the Chinese sure love a gamble!

We decide to give the temples here a miss and catch up on some much needed rest while in Chengdu. This city has a lot of expats and the quarter finals of the rugby world cup are on, so we spend a lot of time at the Shamrock Pub which is showing all the games. Most of the rugby fans we meet are in Chengdu for teaching, the go to gig for the native English speaker.

It’s nice to be able to speak with other people since our Chinese is not quite the level required for a good old existential debate (or even small talk for that matter..) Besides hello and thank you, and a few words for different foods, we know good morning (zao) and good afternoon (chi guo ma, lit. have you eaten?), plus one our Irish friend from the pub taught us: sha bi, which you can use on the public bus when another passenger snorts their nose and spits the contents out in the little bucket.

No trip to Chengdu would be complete without a visit to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. A short drive out of town, this is likely where the two faulty pandas who refuse to mate in Edinburgh Zoo are from. The centre consist of a huge park imitating the natural habitat of the giant panda, as well as nursing houses for the baby pandas, a training centre, playgrounds and research laboratories. It is home to about 83 giant pandas and red pandas, including their young.

When we arrive in the early morning the park is already crowded. Most people are queuing up for the shuttle buses which operate inside the park, but we decide to follow a quick-paced group of walkers who seem to know their way around the park. It’s best to arrive early not to miss feeding time and because the giant bears are most active in the morning. Come 10 AM they usually hunker down and sleep away the rest of the day.

Bamboo has little nutritional value, so the pandas are usually too tired to play, fight, mate, or simply stay awake. While they may lack an active lifestyle they certainly do have the cuteness factor!

Seeing the red pandas on the other hand is a lot more interactive. These little fellas are quite playful and curious. At the Research Base you can step right into their enclosure for a close encounter!

Chengdu has been pretty good. It’s easy to get around, a good place to meet a few expats and eat good food, plus the Panda Base is well worth a visit. After spending a lot of time in China’s big cities it’s time to discover the countryside. Our next stop is Baoguo village, just south of Chengdu.

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