China's Sichuan Province
TWO GIANT PANDAS sprawled like slovenly kings amid a pile of bamboo. In the morning’s hush, I could hear the loud crunch of a stalk, as it broke apart. The amplified snapping repeated rapid-fire as the bears chomped. They grabbed pieces, bit off segments, sucked out the juice, and let the fibrous remains fall from their mouths. When they gnawed down to the softer shoots, they chewed longer and swallowed more. And as soon as they finished, they’d grab another piece in their other paw.
Where my panda-besotted rose-colored glasses saw majesty, my fellow travelers managed to put China’s national symbol into a more familiar framework. “They look like beer-bellied sports fans reaching into the bowl of pretzels while watching TV,” my friend Susan exclaimed.
I’d arrived for the breakfast feeding at the Chengdu Breeding Center and Panda Preserve (where I was glad to find English signage). It’s the top attraction in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. The park draws hordes of Chinese who are extremely fond and proud of the starkly two-toned bears, which the country’s citizens have long considered the physical manifestation of yin and yang.
This rare breed (see below) lives just in China, and the 92-acre Chengdu center is the only public viewing area with numerous animals on display. Visiting this verdant bamboo sanctuary, you feel far removed from the congestion and noise on the streets. The entrance appears much like the gateway to a theme park, yet once you’re inside, the facility seems more like a woodsy modern zoo, one without cages. Electric trams zip you between lush viewing locations, museums, and dining facilities. A film with English subtitles helps to educate.
Late spring to summer is the best time to visit because that’s when pandas give birth. A newborn weighs approximately five ounces, about one-thousandth of its mother’s mass. (Adult female pandas weigh 200 or more pounds.) When they’re old enough, the youngsters make brief appearances in the outdoor “kindergarten” playground.
In addition to giant pandas, the Chengdu Preserve breeds rust-colored red pandas. These smaller creatures scamper about the ground and dash through the trees at roadrunner speed and seem to love playing hide-and-seek. They’re fetching, but the iconic giants steal the show.
THE BEARS AREN'T THE ONLY attraction in Chengdu, which is home to more than 14 million people—nearly six million more than New York City—but remains unfamiliar to many world travelers. Historically Chengdu was known as the first place in the world that printed paper money; for its production of flawless silk brocade; and as the home of the Sichuan Opera. Today, its bustling downtown sprawls over an area four times the size of New York City and ranks 11th in the world for the number of skyscrapers.
The ultra-modern buildings amaze first-time visitors. At night, sophisticated digital illumination leaps between towers, as if someone were playing a gigantic video game. My guide Maei encouraged a visit to the New Century Global Center, where many Chinese shop for high-end goods. She claimed the complex is twice the size of the previous mall record holder in Dubai.
Chengdu isn’t all malls and skyscrapers: you’ll also discover a few teahouses, green parks, and elegant ancient temples. The spaces provide residents a place to practice tai chi, a martial art typically performed as a slow series of movements that look like a choreographed dance. Like the pandas, it’s considered a fusion of yin and yang.
One of Chengdu’s best attractions is the Sichuan Opera, which presents less-formal performances than those in Beijing. Theatergoer Lauralee Dobbins, an American, says, “The Sichuan Opera is a thoroughly entertaining evening of vaudeville theater complete with singers, shadow puppets, comedy sketches, unusual musicians and, of course, the high drama of elaborately costumed Chinese opera. Comfy, cushioned rattan seating with complimentary tea service elevates the experience. Preshow activities—like dressing up in costumes, watching the performers apply makeup, and chair massages—make this a must-do experience.”
Devote a day to exploring Mount Emei, one of the most famous holy mountains in Buddhist culture. Dress for a major hike up and down hundreds of slippery stone stairs and past temples and tea plantations, then through clouds and bamboo forests. Consider buying a walking stick for support and try to ignore the monkeys that often pester hikers along the way. Stop at the midpoint or take a cable car to Jieyin Dian. Complete the grueling climb to the 10,167-foot summit and you’ll be rewarded with a chance to see the golden Jin Ding Temple and, if weather permits, a bird’s eye view of the world.
Nearby reigns the Giant Buddha of Leshan, which was carved from the hillside at the confluence of three rivers. Completed in A.D. 803, it is 233 feet tall—the world’s largest stone Buddha. Its feet alone are nearly nine yards long, large enough to accommodate 100 people. A popular way to view the statue is by riverboat.
I joined a group tour to visit more remote northern areas of Sichuan, including some of China’s most glorious national parks and ethnic rural villages of the Yi, Qiang, and Tibetan people. There, I saw water buffalo pulling plows, donkey carts carrying loads, and Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind. Despite the language barrier, I always received warm smiles and permission to take photos.
My tour bus traveled up narrow switchback winding roads in the Min Shan range to reach northern Huanglong. The range’s snow-gilded crags receded into the distance, a seemingly endless horizon. We stopped at a peak where a sign said the elevation was 3,960 meters (about 13,000 feet). I felt as if I’d reached the top of Mt. Everest.
In Huanglong [Yellow Dragon] National Park, masses of hikers take a cable car to the Snow Peak area around 8,000 feet up, and then make a three-to-four-hour trek down on boardwalks. The crowded trail passes gorgeous crystal-clear mineral shoals, calcified ponds, the Huanglong Temple, and cascading travertine pools known as the Dragon‘s Scales. No wonder the park is nicknamed “The Fairyland on Earth.”
At Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, electric-powered buses dropped us at the monstrous, showstopping Nuorilang Falls. The roar from the 105-foot-wide waterfall fills your ears long before you see it. Nearby, Long Lake shimmers with near-neon teal, green, and purple, a mix that seems otherworldly and is caused by calcium carbonate deposits. Legend claims that what you’re seeing are broken slivers from the Tibetan goddess Semo’s mirror.
Sichuan brings a burst of bright, familiar flavors, as the region serves up one of China’s most famous cuisines. Try a hot-pot restaurant where soup simmers in the center of the table and diners add meat or vegetables.
The traditional broth is made from broad bean chili paste, black bean paste, Tibetan butter, and Sichuan pepper. When foreigners bite into a peppercorn (rather hard to avoid), their mouths begins to tingle and feel numb, as if they’ve had a shot of Novocain. The sensation goes away after a few minutes.
The Chinese believe Qi is the breath or energy that combines negative and positive forces. And like the whole country, Sichuan indeed presents dramatic contrasts. People strive to build the latest and greatest yet thankfully hang on to ancient philosophy and some of their old ways. From crowded cities to hillside rice terraces, landscapes shrouded in mist and ancient religious temples, Sichuan province offers the opportunity to feel qi run through your own body.
About Giant Pandas
Once they’re grown, giant pandas must consume 40 percent of their body weight every day, which typically takes 14 hours. They devote the other 10 hours to napping. Some prefer to rest in trees, although their weight appears too heavy for the weak limbs. As if to please tourists waiting for more photo ops, the clumsy big-eyed critters climb with perseverance and then cram themselves in between branches and slip into dreamland.
Seeing these bears in the wild remains nearly impossible. There, fragile baby pandas often fail to thrive, and with dwindling habitats, the species teeters on the edge of endangerment.
After a mid-1980s bamboo die-out killed 184 bears, the Chinese government set up population-boosting panda bases like the Chengdu program. They have been successful at artificial insemination and bottle-raising newborns, including twins. This past year brought a bumper crop of 23 cubs at Chengdu, and the total panda population has grown from 1,000 in the 1970s to 1,800. So far, none have been released into the wild, though researchers at Dujiangyan Panda Valley, another base in the province, hope to reach the goal.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS: (A+): Chengdu offers five-star hotels from familiar brands such as Ritz- Carlton, Kempinski, and Shangri-La. Consider the Tibet Hotel for Buddhist-themed luxury lodging and a fantastic breakfast buffet including yak tea.
FOOD (A–B): If you like to feel the burn, you’ll love Sichuan foods and snacks. Hot-pot restaurants are popular. Chengdu snacks, as the locals refer to them, are dumplings, rice balls, wonton, and Sichuan noodles.
ACTIVITIES (A): The Panda Breeding Center is the most popular destination, followed by the Sichuan Opera and luxury shopping. Day or overnight trips bring travelers to Tibetan villages, stunning national parks, and ancient temples and religious sites.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: Sichuan is a province in southwest China. Chengdu, its capital, is among the country’s largest cities, with 14 million residents.
CLIMATE: Chengdu’s heat climbs to the high 80s (F) in the summer. Winters are cold. The high plateaus are cold year-round.
LANGUAGE: Since 1913, the official spoken language has been Mandarin, but over 200 dialects thrive across China. Different regions may not understand each other. They share a written script.
GETTING THERE: You can fly into Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai, then on to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport, a major hub that handled 42 million passengers in 2015.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: You’ll need a visa for entry. (Work with a specialized agency as the application is written in Chinese.) If your itinerary includes high elevations, ask your physician about altitude-sickness medication. Credit cards are widely accepted but carry Chinese yuan for street vendors and taxis.