Last week we took a quick trip over to Chengdu for some sightseeing and panda hugging. Yes, panda hugging. What a great trip! Well, how could it be bad if pandas are involved in any way, right? But really, we were delightfully surprised by Chengdu. It is a city that feels like what you would imagine China to be, encompassing history, culture, and many modern conveniences (like toilets in addition to squatty pottys-woohoo!) that make for a well-rounded trip to this wonderful area. If you are planning a trip to China, be sure to put Chengdu on your list. You won’t be disappointed!
Friday: Arrive late afternoon. Visit Chengdu Wide and Narrow Alleys to sightsee and shop. Hot Pot dinner.
Saturday: Morning: Dujiangyan Panda Base. Visit and hug pandas (about 2 hours). Afternoon: Dujiangyan City (a Chengdu ancient town). Eat lunch, shop, explore. Evening: Walk around downtown Chengdu, eat dinner.
Sunday: Morning: Leshan Giant Buddha. Early afternoon: Explore Leshan, visit a wet market. Late afternoon: Leave.
Where to Stay
We stayed downtown at the Shangri-La Hotel. It was clean, well-appointed and offered Western food choices that pleased the entire family. To our surprise, upon check-in, we were placed in a two-bedroom apartment-style room. This worked perfectly for our family of four and provided three bathrooms which, when you are the only female traveling with three males is greatly appreciated. The hotel offers an ok indoor pool and fantastic workout facility as well as a restaurant and bar. I would highly recommend the Shangri-La not only its amenities but also for its location. We were able to walk to many restaurants along the river and were less than a mile from shopping.
Things to do
All I really needed out of this trip was to hug a panda. However, we ended up doing so much more.
Wide and Narrow Alleys
A shopping and dining district restored in the ancient Ming and Qing period architectural styles, this stop was a location we all enjoyed. The buildings were beautiful and interesting installation art pieces could be found throughout many of the alleys. Souvenir and tea shops line the streets offering something for the old and young alike. We especially enjoyed eating a hotpot dinner which was an experience in and of itself.
- Hotpot is a dining experience similar to fondue. You are given raw vegetables and meat, then cook them in boiling water/oil. Being in the Sichuan Provence, food can be very spicy. They often use a pepper called a numbing pepper which does, in fact, numb your mouth. So use caution when ordering your level of spiciness.
- Sichuan food includes a lot of oil. Many of us do not eat very much oil as a whole, so doing so may affect your stomach in different ways. It may taste good when eating, but you could pay for your indulgence later. Better to start with a small amount and work your way up.
- Locals have a taste for rabbit and pig. And I don’t just mean the meat portions of the animals. Be prepared to see heads, brains, intestines, and feet being cooked up by street vendors and displayed proudly for you to enjoy.
Dujiangyan Panda Base
Did you know outside of a zoo, China is the only place you can find pandas in the wild? Also, the first of these cute creatures that was taken out of the country was done so under the deceptive classification of it being a “puppy”.
Short for the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP), Dujiangyan Panda base is one of three conservation parks in China. If you want to get up close to pandas, this is the place to go. The CCRCGP is a lovely park that houses about a dozen pandas. You can observe them in their zoo-like habitats or splurge for an optional private audience with one of these gentle creatures. This is the only park left out of the three that still offers this amazing one-on-one experience and we were told that this sort of personal interaction may be gone from this location soon as well. Two of us out of our group of four chose to interact directly with a panda and we were so happy we did.
- As mentioned, sitting with a panda is an additional option for your visit to the park, and a bit of a pricey one at that. 1800 RMB ($285) to be exact and your full panda loving experience lasts exactly 20 seconds. Yes, you read that right…20 seconds.
- If you choose to interact one-on-one with a panda, you will be asked to put on a full jumpsuit, shoe covers, and wear plastic gloves so there is never direct skin to fur contact.
- When entering your panda session, you are allowed to sit next to a panda and put your arm around it. 20 seconds goes fast and it becomes more of a picture-taking opportunity than anything. They allowed two of us to go in together so when it was my turn I had one person (an employee) taking pictures and the other (my son) videotaping.
- In addition to merely sitting with a panda, there is another, more expensive option where you can feed the pandas, clean their stalls, and make special panda “cakes” for them, but we felt fulfilled by our short interaction so we did not pursue this option.
- All money spent in the park goes towards research and upkeep of the park. Charity tax write off perhaps? I’m joking, but at least you know the ridiculous amount of money you spend on this experience goes towards something worthwhile.
- Although the experience was expensive and brief, we were very happy we did it and I would recommend it especially because it truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and honestly, pandas are just so darn cute.
Chengdu Ancient Town
From the CCRCGP we went nearby to Dujiangyan City. This area was the epicenter of a massive earthquake that hit the area in 2008. As a result, many buildings collapsed and needed to be rebuilt. Thankfully, the local people believed it was important to rebuild in the old style so the area still looks as it did 2,000 years ago. In addition, the location is home to an ancient irrigation system that results in beautiful aquamarine rivers flowing through the town. Here, we ate a traditional Sichuan lunch, shopped, and wandered through the alleys enjoying the architecture.
Leshan Giant Buddha
Located at the head of three merging rivers, the Leshan Buddha was built to watch over the area where many shipwrecks took place. In 713, construction was begun by a local monk who believed the giant Buddha would watch over ships and help calm the turbulent waters of the merging rivers. The monk, Hai Tong raised a substantial amount of money in order to pay for construction of the large statue. When a corrupt politician discovered how much money Hai Tong had raised, he demanded the sum be given to him. Hai Tong told the politician that he would rather gouge out his eyes than give someone so corrupt the money. The politician told him if that’s the way he felt, to do so and without hesitation, Hai Tong gouged out one of his own eyes. Needless to say, he probably came across as a bit crazy and scared the politician away. He was then free to continue construction of the giant Buddha. The carving of the statue resulted in such massive amounts of rock falling into the waters below that it altered the currents, thereby resulting in a safer passage for ships. So I suppose Hai Tong was correct in his belief that the Buddha would protect ships that sailed the waters. Perhaps not in the way he intended, but it protects them to this day all the same.
- There are two options for viewing the Leshan Buddha. A hike up to the top offering close-up views of the head with an optional walk down to the feet, or a 20-minute boat ride to get a full view of the Buddha in its entirety. We chose the boat option and were glad we did. Unless you arrive very early, the hiking area can get very crowded whereas the boat is limited to 30 people.
- If you choose the boat option, stand on the right side of the boat for the best views. It may not seem like the correct side when you are approaching the Buddha, but the boat turns around and stops for a few minutes to allow for pictures.
After we visited the giant Buddha, we took a walk around town. Leshan is a lovely area along the river. Willow trees line the streets and you get a sense of a more laid-back vibe. We took a turn off the main path to visit an open-air wet market with vendors selling all kinds of food. Yes, all kinds. We started in the produce and grain section of the street then moved further along to the butchery section. Although living in China has brought us past many wet markets, we continue to find them fascinating. Especially when you can do something like pick out the live chicken you want for dinner and have them butcher it for while you wait. It is certainly a different shopping experience than grocery stores back home. That being said, be cautious if visiting any wet market in China especially if you are traveling with young, possibly sensitive children, or vegetarians. Honestly, many times I feel a bit like becoming a vegetarian myself after leaving a local market. 😉
Thoughts and Things
- We hired a driver and a guide for this trip, which we tend to do more in China than anywhere else. The language barrier can be very challenging and we learn more having a guide explain the sites we are seeing along the way.
- Each trip (to the pandas, the Leshan Buddha, and the airport from the Leshan Buddha) was a two-hour drive. Again, a great reason to hire a driver.
Honestly, we did not expect to like Chengdu as much as we did. There was so much more we could have done in the area. A weekend was sufficient to hit the highlights, but the area is so rich in culture and resources we would have liked to do more. We have traveled all over China from The Rainbow Mountains along the Silk Road to X’ian to see the Terra Cotta Soldiers, to Beijing to visit the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, and Mutianyu to climb The Great Wall. Apart from Mutianyu which I can’t recommend highly enough, and our hometown of Shanghai (of course), Chengdu is at the top of our list. The area offers culture, good food, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience all in one trip. Our only regret is that we didn’t stay longer. So if you are planning a trip to China, be sure to include a stop in Chengdu, and if you go, make sure to give a panda an extra hug from me!