Having planned on on spending a few days in Tibet, we ended up spending a week in Chengdu waiting for our flights to Guilin. Turns out applying for the special Tibet permit a week in advance when you have a degree in journalism isn’t the best way to get permission to go there.
It started out great: our first night we joined a free walking tour run by the hostel, made friends with a Dutch couple and wandered through the CBD towards the river. Along the way we picked up some street food: dumplings, noodles and pig trotters (yes, pig trotters. Fatty, spicy and served in a plastic carrier bag).
Our guide found some money floating along the footpath which obviously led to one of the riverside pubs, where we were inaugurated into the circle of People Who Have Been Taught Chinese Dice Drinking Games, closely followed by the circle of People Who Have Lost Very Badly at Chinese Dice Drinking Games. It was great fun.
The next day was not as fun. We left the hostel at a semi-reasonable hour and I convinced Leigh to go running-shoe shopping with me. Turns out that’s not nearly as fun as high-heel shopping and I didn’t buy anything anyway, as I was hungry and probably subconsciously realised that if I bought running shoes, I would have to use them. We somehow ended up in the only part of China with no street-side vendors or restaurants (budget or otherwise), when we saw people walking down into a basement where there was a menu plastered on the wall. Two minutes later we were in an underground food-court style place which you couldn’t really call a food-court because there was only one place to buy food. It was kind of dingy but we lined up, pointed at a couple of things on the menu, took our tickets to the collection counter and carried our soppy dirty tray to a table.
It was awful.
It was so, so bad.
Things I have eaten that were less bad than that meal include fried spiders, grubs on sticks, the aforementioned pigs’ trotters, risky carbonara sauce, day-old kebab and chicken blood jelly. One of those is quite likely responsible for a mild bout of food poisoning and it was still not as bad. Why? There was a mystery herb or spice which gave a mildly hot sensation before becoming a taste of aniseed so strong that my tongue began to swell and my mouth went a little numb – although not numb enough to block out the feeling that my tongue was being drowned in a bottle of liquorice extract. It was so bad that we left, walked straight into the KFC across the road and had chicken burgers. If I was still “dating China“, this was the part where I learn he likes to season everything he cooks with nose pickings and toenails. Only worse. I was burned.
Obviously, we recovered. Eventually. There may have been one or two more meals consisting of safe, comforting cheeseburgers and ice cream but after a day (…or two), we were back at it:
Really, how can you stay sad with local food when there’s a man dancing noodles around the tables next to you?
After lunch we struggled our way to the right bus to visit a museum in the city’s west, only to arrive and find it was closed for construction work. We killed the rest of the afternoon wandering back to our hostel via the People’s Park before catching some Sichuan Opera. The show promised fire-breathing so I even managed to convince Leigh to come along. It was a bunch of different acts loosely connected by the story of “Pi-yu” (Ping? Pong? Pi? Pee? I’ve forgotten), a drunken gambler browbeaten by his wife (there were subtitles so we could follow the jokes, it was pretty funny). The most impressive part was the face-changing at the end though, the dancers wear different masks that I thiiink are spring loaded, because with the flick of a head their current mask will disappear and be replaced by a new one.
Then came our main tourist jaunt in Chengdu, the only appropriate way to make up with China after the Terrible Food Incident.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is a short drive north-ish out of the city – I was surprised how quickly the landscape went from inner city to ring road to lush countryside. Our guide didn’t speak much English but he got us in quickly and proceeded to wizz us around the different enclosures with enough time to take photos, spot pandas in trees and generally be amazed while staying ahead of the big tourist groups. It was great.
Then it got better. Around 9 o’clock, he rushed me to the registry office where I was the third person to sign off on a £200 donation to the centre while Leigh shook his head in the background. To be fair, I’m not usually so altruistic, but this donation meant I had a chance to get up close and personal with one of the pandas.
First, a group of 10 of us were led to a separate area where we had a short lecture about pandas: their physiology, breeding habits, cultural significance, etc. Did you know that Giant Pandas used to be predominantly meat-eaters? Technically they’re still classed as carnivores, even though 99% of their diet now is bamboo, which has so little nutrition they need to eat up to 38kg of it EVERY DAY. It’s the worst example of evolution I’ve ever heard of. Also, baby Giant Pandas are so hopeless the staff have to squeeze their poo out of them for the first part of their lives!
Then we got dressed.
Then we prepped some bamboo shoots (they’re only young so you peel a few layers to get them started)
Then this little guy came out. His name is XiaoXiao, he weighs 166kg and he was born on the 23rd of August 2013. He’s very soft to hug but to be honest… he was more interest in honey-coated bamboo than in me!
When it came to the fifth person’s turn to have their 60-second panda experience XiaoXiao decided he’d had enough bamboo and wanted to climb over the chair. That’s when one of the staff scooped him up and took him back out to the enclosure (aka Panda Kindergarten, where they keep the young ones). I assume that one of the 6-18 month old pandas was brought out for the others to have their photos taken, but it did occur to me that there’s a stress on the “donation” description – it’s definitely not “pay to hug a panda”. If all the pandas are having a grumpy day, you might not get to have the photo at all. Which sucks for the people but seems good for the pandas and a nice compromise between the horrible sedated-orang-outang-in-a-cage-for-tourist-photos and the need to raise money to help keep the research base going.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding highlight: Up close & personal with XiaoXiao – what else?
Chengdu Researh Base of Giant Panda Breeding verdict: It would have been great even without the photo op. Giant Pandas are born around July-August each year so there were lots of babies to peer through the glass at. If I’d been more organised, I would have joined one of the volunteer programs to spend a few days there (mostly shovelling poo, but when it’s baby Giant Panda poo… who cares?).