When some people think of China, they think of panda bears, those seemingly cuddly black and white bears, the model for many stuffed animals.
Although China has given away some pandas to live outside the country, the best collection of pandas is at a research facility outside the city of Chengdu, approximately 14 to 15 million in population in the center of China in Sichuan Province, known for spicy food. Get to Chengdu by air or you can take a high speed “bullet” train.
Arriving at my hotel in Chengdu, I was greeted by a hug from a person in a panda bear costume. The taxis in Chengdu have pandas on their hoods. But Chengdu isn’t all about pandas. It’s an amazingly clean, new and sprawling city of new roads and skyscrapers. It proved to be one of my favorite Chinese cities. One unique and representative thing about Chengdu: Global Center, the world’s largest building is here. A combination of shopping center, hotels and offices, Global Center is so large in an urban setting, I couldn’t get far away enough to get it all into one photograph. Chengdu also has an abundance of green spaces and parks, and excellent ethnic restaurants from around the globe.
The panda research facility, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about two hours outside the urban center in a rural area that grows a lot of tea. Stop at one of the many roadside tea houses to sample some of the authentically locally-grown green tea, a specialty of Sichuan.
Even though I visited on a weekday, as is typical with Chinese tourist attractions, the panda park was packed with people, mostly Chinese visitors. I suspect if I visited on a weekend or holiday, it would be a totally unpleasant experience battling the crowds to see the pandas. Even on a “quiet” day, I sometimes had to wait a few minutes to get to the railing beyond which the pandas were spotted in their natural habitat. A separate area of the park has a different panda, the red panda, also in their natural habitat.
The panda park was started in 1987 with six pandas rescued from the wild. China has grown it into a cross between a national park and single-purpose zoo. The park contains areas that are devoted to shops selling everything panda-related, from stuffed animals to T-shirts and candies shaped as pandas. I couldn’t resist buying some panda ears mounted on a headband. There are also scattered cafes throughout the park, a movie theater and museum.
Chengdu does tend to get warm during spring through summer, so you want to be able to get out of the sun as you visit the park. There is no air conditioning, even in the indoor exhibitions, but there are many shaded areas. Dress lightly and carry water. The city of Chengdu is in a geologic bowl which fills with grey pollution that blocks sunlight. This makes for lighter skinned Chinese–something that is valued.
Chinese regard women from Chengdu as the prettiest in China for their light skin color. Chengdu also has the reputation as a laid-back city, akin to Portland, Ore., although to the tourist this isn’t readily apparent.
If time permits, make the trip to Lishan, about two hours from Chengdu, to see the Great Buddha carved into a mountainside, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a pilgrimage destination for many Buddhists.
Hidden gem: While in Chengdu, don’t miss Jinli Street, a renovation of one of its oldest streets in the architectural style of the Qin Dynasty. I observed no American tourists, although there were many from China and around the world. If you love hustle/bustle, you can stay at Jinliyinlu Hotel in the center of the area. Along this street many bars, restaurants, and tea houses mingle with stalls selling souvenirs and delicious local foods … and people watching is superb.