Truth be told, we never knew what pandas sounded like prior to visiting Chengdu. I always had the notion of a deep grumble akin to a bear's growl, and it didn't even clue in the first time I heard these babies making the sweetest high pitched "Eeeeeeeeee!"
Baby pandas were our number one reason for visiting Sichuan. The ancient city of Langzhong turned out amazing and the Tibet an villages of Western Sichuan were unforgettable as well. But it all started because we wanted to see the famed Panda Kindergarten of Chengdu.
While one could see pandas in Berlin or Tokyo or San Diego, nowhere else in the world could you watch baby pandas en masse ... in fact ten of them together during our visit! No animal lover could possibly pass up such an overload of cuteness.
These babies were about 70 days old, still too feeble to walk and tiny enough to be picked up in one hand. On this day they're let loose in their outdoor playpen, free to flop around under the supervision of their human teacher.
One tried to wrap himself around a small tree. Another kept nibbling at her playmate's ears. My favorite was a slightly albinoid panda with light grey fur. My cheek muscles got tired from grinning for so long.
Panda Kindergarten is just a nickname for this small section of the much larger Giant Panda Research Base of Chengdu, the primary factory of panda cubs sent across the world as ambassadors for the Chinese government. It's a most unique instrument of soft diplomacy, and the pandas themselves never seem to complain.
None of the babies could stand on its own yet, each crawling on top of one another with those pink little paws. It was the most squashy and adorable play group ever.
And then there's nap time, just like any typical day in a kindergarten. These 2-month-olds recently moved from the nursery of newborns, and were still spending most of their day sleeping in cribs. In a few months they will move on to the next playpen with plastic slides and rocking horses.
This is the most active time of the panda's life. One more year and they will turn into these juveniles, acting like koalas and taking their lazy naps 30 feet up in the trees.
And then there are the slothful and lovable adults, often seen falling asleep in the most unlikely positions. This one probably fell into the ditch and decided to take a nap on the spot. Needless to say we saw more pandas in one morning than the rest of our lives combined.
We dropped by the panda hospital which was happily unoccupied on this day. Apparently giant pandas do take Western brand-name supplements like Caltrate and Centrum, as well as traditional Chinese medicine such as Indigo Woad Root and Nin Jiom cough syrup.
As a bonus there are also the much more active red pandas, constantly scurrying around and chasing each other's tails. I wish we had these in Canada instead of the look-alike raccoons, one of which took a bite out of my steak as I was setting up my barbeque last week. A word of advice for fellow travelers -- get there as early in the morning as possible. We were lucky to watch giant panda babies crawl around for a good hour, and by 11:00 all had fallen asleep. By noon even the adults were taking naps. It was the right idea to arrive by taxi first thing in the morning, and to go somewhere less touristy for lunch after all the pandas had dozed off.
We took a taxi to Yipin Tianxia for an excellent lunch at Wenxing Restaurant (see next article), then visited the Jinsha archeological site nearby. For those of us who don't want to travel all the way to see Sanxingdui, it's a pleasant "in situ" museum of the same ancient Bronze Age culture.
The crown jewel was the 2500-year-old gold insignia of the Golden Sun Bird, now adopted by Chengdu City as its official logo. I thought the artifacts here were less impressive than the alien-like bronze heads typical of Sanxingdui, but for a well-narrated archeological site in the middle of the city and served by a metro station, I certainly have no complaints.
Four stops on Metro Line 2 brought us to our favorite place in Chengdu aside from the Panda Research Centre. Similar to Shanghai's Xintiandi or Beijing's Nanluoguxiang, the Kuanzhai Alleys is a collection of Qing Dynasty streets remodeled and reborn as the trendiest hangout in town.
Once off-limits to commoners and reserved only for families of Manchurian nobilities, these narrow alleys of old imperial mansions have been transformed in the new millennium into Chengdu's premier entertainment district. While we had little interest in upscale fashion and overpriced teahouses, we quite enjoyed rummaging through random courtyards and anonymous back lanes.
The ambiance was charming especially in the early evening when all the red lanterns hanging from the storefronts lit up the streets. Occupying this particular courtyard mansion was an upscale private dining venue for contemporary Sichuan ese cuisine.
For decades these grand Qing Dynasty mansions had been divvied up by Chengdu's poorest citizens, giving rise to a small shantytown where large multi-generation families would cram into derelict wooden shacks, each claiming a corner of these once-lofty courtyards. It was barely a decade ago that many inhabitants were kicked out and the whole district gentrified into its current form.
But apparently part of the old neighborhood survived, just outside of the boundary of the three alleys designated for redevelopment. This elderly couple came out for some sun and practiced their Sichuanese Opera singing in public, much to the delight of a much younger audience. It's a rare glimpse of the Old Chengdu that may soon be gone forever.
Then there were the plethora of specialty snacks bizarre even to most Chinese. I can't be the only person wondering how thoroughly they cleaned the nostrils as even the locals didn't seemed too interested in these pig snouts.
Much more popular among the locals were these Rabbit Heads marinated in a suicide spicy glaze. While I'm not overly aversive to the presence of heads and feet in Asian cuisines, sucking on a rabbit's skull just takes too much work for too little meat for me.
Luckily there are much better dinner options nearby. We followed the advice of the locals and visited a highly-regarded street-side noodle house (Chunyangguan), about 15 minutes walk north of the Kuanzhai Alleys. It will be reviewed in the next article.
Two weeks later we stopped by Chengdu again at the end of our 18-day trip. On this final night we booked our hotel next to Chengdu's other medieval-themed pedestrian street known as Jinli. Practicing on the streetside -- and not for money -- was a team of amateur cheerleaders who seemed to be enjoying the attention.
While I enjoyed the Kuanzhai Alleys, I really didn't like Jinli. The Kuanzhai Alleys were at least refurbished and partially rebuilt from preserved Qing Dynasty mansions; Jinli is just a counterfeit antique of a grand scale. Yes there used to be a Jinli Street from more than 2000 years back, but that had nothing to do with this Disney-like rendition of a fake town.
But pandas and history were only part of Chengdu's attraction. Equally alluring were the culinary traditions in this capital of Sichuanese / Szechuanese cuisine. Following recommendations from the locals we visited several fascinating restaurants, from a hole-in-the-wall eatery to a formal restaurant widely recognized as the best in Sichuan. The next article will follow ...
That night we stayed at Yijia Inn, conveniently located a 3 minute walk away from Jinli and Wuhouci. While the room was small, it was also clean, comfy and well-priced below RMB 200 (CAD$36). The only drawback was the lack of a metro station.
Our other hotel was Maruika City Hotel near the Wenshuyuan temple. The room was huge by Chinese standards, priced even cheaper(!), and was within 5 minute walking distance to a subway stop. It's also within RMB 40 taxi away from the Panda Research Base, and that's convenient enough for us.