After our bus ride from Songpan, we reached Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. This was the first big Chinese city where we actually spent some time (Lanzhou was also big, but it was just a short stop in transit).
Although Chengdu is a huge city, it’s a very pleasant place. The atmosphere is relaxed, there are actual trees here and there, and the smog isn’t that bad.
We checked into the Mix Hostel, which was the first backpacker-geared hotel for Pnina and I since we entered China. The place was obviously very popular — when we arrived, all the private rooms were taken so we had to settle for dorm beds, and not long after all the dorm beds were gone too. There was a fun mix of foreign backpackers and local students looking to improve their English. There was also a travel desk, laundry, movies, and cheap beer. Best of all, the hostel makes its own custom tourist map for Chengdu, which includes everything you need – bus routes, attractions (with names in both English and Chinese), etc. They give this map out for free. We found that we could basically put away our Lonely Planet and just use this map while in Chengdu. More hostels should make maps like that.
Pnina and I at Mix Hostel with a couple of local girls who wanted to practice English:
Getting some dirt-cheap food in a street-side stall not far from Mix Hostel:
A big thing in Chengdu is to spend hours sipping tea in one of the many tea houses around the city. Pnina and I stopped in one of these tea houses in Renmin Park, just west of Tianfu Square (at the center of the city). The park was free to enter and it was a very fun place to wander around. There were lots of locals hanging around, playing Badminton, doing Tai Chi, leading impromptu aerobics or dance classes – there was music everywhere. The tea house we found had a nice view over the lake, but the tea itself was so-so and the prices were obviously geared for tourists.
Pnina kicking back with a book at the tea-house (which, you’ll note, is not really a house at all):
People doing slow-motion Tai Chi in Renmin Park:
Locals playing Badminton in Renmin Park:
One afternoon we wandered into a modern shopping area south of city center. There were a few pedestrian streets with name-brand stores and all kinds of restaurants. It was a good place to get our western-life fix. For example, we found some actual good pastries in a shop called Bread Talk; this may not sound so exciting, but after weeks of having nothing but rice and noodles, finding good bread made our hearts skip a beat.
The shopping area seen from a pedestrian bridge:
I don’t know why, but the Chinese are nuts for clothes from the Italian brand Kappa; anyone who can afford it has it.
All around the shopping district we found wedding photography stores. They were full of young couples sitting at round tables with a salesperson, flipping through album after album of samples. Chinese people love fantasy-style photo shoots, and some of them definitely fall on the effeminate side of the spectrum. Can you imagine a (straight) groom in America getting dressed like this for his wedding photos??
This shoe reminds me of Magritte’s Ceci N’est Pas Un Pipe:
And, again, lots and lots of silent electric scooters.
Speaking of electric scooters, sometime later we read an interesting article in IEEE’s Spectrum Magazine talking about the total environmental impact of electric vehicles (How Green Is My Plug-In?). The main point was that some electricity is clean (e.g. hydro-power, wind-power) and some electricity is very dirty (e.g. coal-powered). So, if you charge your electric vehicle in an area that has clean electricity, that’s good, but if you charge it in a place that has dirty energy, it may actually be worse than using a gas-powered vehicle. The countries with the cleanest energy are Norway and Brazil (hydro/wind) and France (nuclear). China happens to have some of the dirtiest electricity in the world, mostly coal plants, so it’s possible that all these electric scooters are not actually helping the environment much, just shifting the smog out of the city and towards the sites of the power plants. But the article also said that in all countries there are some variances – some areas may actually have very clean electricity even if the country as a whole doesn’t. And indeed all through Sichuan province we saw lots and lots of hydro-electric power plants. In some cases it seemed like every 10 miles there was another one. So maybe the electric scooters are good after all. By the way, in the US, the northwest has some of the cleanest electricity around, again because of all the hydro-electric plants, so having a plug-in vehicle in Seattle is goodness.
Panda Breeding Center
Pnina and I were hoping to see Panda bears in the Wolong Nature Reserve, but we changed our plans when we heard that it basically shut down after the 2008 earthquake. All the bears from Wolong were relocated to the Bifengxia Center near Ya’an, and that center isn’t geared for tourists like us. So, as a fallback we decided to visit the Panda Breeding Center just north of Chengdu. We didn’t have high expectations for this place; we imagined that it was something like a zoo. But it turned out to be really fantastic, easily one of our top experiences in China. It’s likely that in Wolong or Bifengxia you see Pandas in a more natural setting, but I can’t imagine that it’s possible to see them as close-up as we did here in the Chengdu Breeding Center.
First off, a note about logistics. The hostels in Chengdu can organize tours to the Panda center, but we don’t recommend taking them. The tours cost 100 yuan, which is considerably more than going on your own, with no clear benefit. From the Mix Hostel you can grab bus #1 to the north bus station, followed by bus #532 to the Panda center. Each bus costs 1-2 yuan, and the entrance to the Panda center costs 58 yuan.
The important thing is to get to the Panda center as soon as it opens at 8 AM. The Panda bears are fed in the morning, and this is by far the best (only?) time to see them up close. After that, the pandas retreat into their shelters for the afternoon, where they are largely out of sight. If you go by bus, it should take 45-60 minutes to reach the center, so plan accordingly.
There are about a dozen enclosures in the Panda center, each one housing a group of Pandas of different age groups. Each enclosure does its feeding in a slightly different time, from around 9 to 11 in the morning, and unfortunately there’s no schedule to follow – you just need to wander around and look for caretakers who are preparing big bunches of bamboo branches for the feast. Then claim a spot close to the rail and wait for the show to begin.
Pandas are impossibly cute. They look like stuffed animals come-to-life. They also tend to resemble humans in their posture; e.g. they have a kind of thumb, so when they hold a bamboo branch it looks human-like. When they feast they like to lie back and cover themselves in food; they look like slob couch potatoes. It’s awesome. We stared at them for a good 2-3 hours, taking I don’t know how many photos, and we could have easily watched more.
Toni and Pnina heading into the Panda Center, under a canopy of bamboos:
Our first Panda sighting! This guy spent 15 minutes scratching himself while we snapped dozens of photos. Then he grew tired of us and walked off. 🙂
We took a detour to see some red panda bears in another enclosure. In retrospect this was probably a mistake since (we believe) these bears can be seen anytime of day, but they were also really cute and hard to leave:
OK, back to the giant panda bears and now it’s feeding time! Look at these bums lying back covered in their own food. They rule! 🙂
This was a photo of a photo (no, we weren’t there to watch the caretakers feed infant Pandas). Notice how tiny they are when they’re born:
Another enclosure with adolescent Panda bears. These guys had a 3-way wrestling match going:
A young Panda drinking milk:
Another enclosure with older Panda bears:
This guy looked like a Subway rider with his hand up for support. Not sure why he needed his hand – he was sitting down:
Pnina and I by the enclosure (notice the subway-rider in the back):
After the meal, time to wrestle:
When the last of the pandas finished eating and retired, we checked out the short documentary movie they had playing on repeat in the small theatre. The movie was pretty interesting. It talked about the center’s efforts to breed pandas, which so far have been successful. The panda (symbol of the World Wildlife Fund) is still endangered, but their numbers are now over 1000 and growing. The most interesting clip was of a mother who gave birth to a squirmy little baby panda and, not knowing what it is or what to do with it, proceeded to bat it around her cage! The researchers had to barge into the cage to rescue the poor thing. How scary! How strange that mother Pandas don’t always have a motherly instinct to protect their offspring. It was also interesting to learn that inbreeding is a serious problem for Pandas (now that there are so few of them), so scientists go through DNA-pairing efforts to find good mating partners.
After the movie we strolled around the panda center a little more. They have a man-made lake with hundreds of coy and a few black swans.
Elephant-shaped bushes in the Panda center grounds:
Hundreds of coy going nuts for some food pellets. Some of them actually wiggled their way onto dry land to get the stray pellets:
Butterfly in the garden:
We took one other day-trip out of Chengdu’s center to the nearby town called Huanglongxi (note: the name is similar to Huang Long, which was that other park we saw further north, but as far as we know there’s no special relation between the two). Huanglongxi is a popular tourist town. It still has some picturesque Qing-dynasty streets, and it was used for some scenes in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The atmosphere in Huanglongxi was very carnival-like, but in a good way; people walk around buying all kinds of snacks and chachkis. There are some temples too, but mostly it’s fun to just wander from street to street with no particular destination.
Old architecture, new gift shops:
For a fee you can be carried around the city like a shogun:
Making toffee; this was a serious workout – the guy pulled the white toffee a good 2-3 meters back and then collapsed it back on itself:
The water under this bridge was completely covered in algea – what a sight! On our way out, a few hours later, the green stuff was mostly gone, somehow brushed away by local “pool cleaners” on boats:
Lanterns on the same bridge:
Shahaf, Pnina, Toni:
Messing around with an old, oversize grinder contraption:
Piles of dried seafood, mostly shrimp and fish:
This was fun – you come up to this stand, pay your fee, then spin the needle around. The position where it lands specifies what animal you get. Then this candy-artist proceeds to draw your animal from caramelized sugar. Then it cools and you get a sugary popsicle to go:
No cause for alarm here, just making some fiery Sichuanese dishes. Many of the kitchens had big windows on the alley-side, so you can walk by and watch the action:
For a fee this calligrapher creates a banner for you, though we couldn’t determine the significance of these characters:
One of the temple grounds. It was free to enter Huanglongxi, but we had to pay a minor fee to get in here:
Adding oil to the lamps around the shrine:
Museum of Industry
On our map from Mix Hostel there was a photo of a very large statue of a wrench at some Museum of Industry southeast of city center. We had a free afternoon, so we decided to check it out. Well, the wrench was there and it was pretty cool, but the museum didn’t look too interesting otherwise, so we didn’t bother going in (there were lots of windows around the building so it was easy to tell what’s inside). Still, the trip was worthwhile because in the upstairs balcony they had a free photography exhibit showing scenes from the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake. Some of them were very graphic.
I’m crushing you!
The poster for the photography exhibit. Whenever I see “unforgetable” I think Nat King Cole, which is probably not the intended effect:
A bus submerged in water:
One of the many child victims of the quake:
Bonus Shot #1: the biggest company in China
After some time in China it occurred to us that a certain company with the following S-logo seems to make really a lot of different product. We started paying more attention and realized that the logo appeared on literally every single product we bought – snack foods, soaps, whatever. It was very strange. We kept thinking of the big brands in the US (e.g. Kraft) and none of them have this kind of monopoly. Then we asked a local person about it, and realized that this logo actually stands for “safety, quality” (note the S sits inside a Q) and it’s a stamp the Chinese government’s “FDA” puts on all products that pass the bar; yeah, it’s not a company at all. Oops!
Bonus Shot #2: Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one??