I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR CHENGDU

Twenty-four hours in the gi­ant panda cap­i­tal of the world

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION CHINA - FLEUR BAINGER

The Chi­nese call the gi­ant panda a “liv­ing fos­sil”. The cud­dly, toy­like bear re­garded as a na­tional trea­sure has been liv­ing in China’s forested cen­tral re­gion for the past eight mil­lion years. And all that time, it’s been me­thod­i­cally chew­ing through bam­boo. Its finicky diet choice is also its un­do­ing.

Out of some 58 types of bam­boo in Sichuan Prov­ince, the gi­ant panda has an over­whelm­ing pref­er­ence for one in par­tic­u­lar: ar­row bam­boo. When they’re not sleep­ing, that’s ex­actly what the pan­das at the Chengdu Re­search Base of Gi­ant Panda Breed­ing are munch­ing. Slouch­ing over pyra­mid piles with their legs splayed like big ba­bies, they rip and tear through the fi­brous stalks un­til they reach the soft cen­tres.

Ar­riv­ing early in the day, for feed­ing time, en­sures an eye­ful of this some­how trans­fix­ing pas­time.

As you’d ex­pect, the iconic gi­ant panda is dot­ted through­out the 14mil­lion strong city of Chengdu. Toys and pic­tures poke from ev­ery cor­ner – there’s even one climb­ing up the side of lux­ury shop­ping cen­tre build­ing, IFS. Yet Chengdu is much more than its fa­mous sym­bol.

The cap­i­tal of Sichuan Prov­ince has ex­isted for about 2300 years and, like those pan­das, its his­tory peers out from dis­creet al­leys and streets tucked away from the shiny, new ho­tels, brand name bou­tiques and fre­netic pedes­trian malls. Here’s how to see a city named China’s hap­pi­est for the past five years.

MORN­ING

Visit those pan­das. The re­search base is home to more than 100 pan­das – it opened with six in 1993 – and is one place where China, rarely in the news for pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ries, is do­ing good. There are now less than 2000 in the wild. Ef­forts to grow ex­ist­ing panda pop­u­la­tions through breed and re­lease pro­grams and habi­tat pro­tec­tion helped the species move from en­dan­gered to vul­ner­a­ble sta­tus in 2016. The cen­tre hopes to en­sure the sal­va­tion of China’s most fa­mous am­bas­sador.

In­side the vast grounds of mainly open sanc­tu­ar­ies made to mimic nat­u­ral habi­tat, one of the most heart­burst­ing mo­ments is see­ing baby pan­das play-fight­ing on a rug in the Gi­ant Panda Kinder­garten. Like cheeky pup­pies, they chew ma­te­rial edges and roll clum­sily down the hill, legs stretched out­wards. Else­where, older pan­das doze above the eye line, their bod­ies wedged in tree forks.

The re­search cen­tre is about 10km from Chengdu city cen­tre. Ar­rive early (about 8.30am) and take the mini lo­co­mo­tive to the far end of the re­search base and work back.

LUNCH

Vi­brant, bustling Jinli St is some­where you’ll want to spend hours. Hid­den be­hind a grey brick gate­way, the pedes­trian thor­ough­fare is part of a labyrinth of tra­di­tional streets blend­ing ar­ti­sanal wares with touristy trin­kets, all set to the siz­zle and scrape of street food prepa­ra­tion. The deeper you go, the more you see: skew­ers of raw pork, sus­pended whole duck, glazed rab­bit heads, rice-stuffed roast meat and deep-fried corn are sold at hole-in-the-wall stalls. Re­stored, dark wood build­ings dec­o­rated with red lan­terns give way to wend­ing wa­ter­ways and curved bridges as stall­hold­ers blow su­gar into 3D crea­tures, street per­form­ers clown around and peo­ple tie red strings to wor­ship trees.

AF­TER­NOON

If you have en­gaged an English­s­peak­ing Chi­nese guide – it’s worth do­ing – ask if they’ll hire you one of the pub­lic bikes strewn on road­sides ev­ery­where. They cost 1RMB for one hour (about 20 cents), ac­ti­vated us­ing an app and QR code that most lo­cals have on their smart­phones. Cy­cling along the bike paths (separated from the busy, but slow traf­fic) may end up be­ing one of your hol­i­day high­lights, un­til you reach the Peo­ple’s Park. With apart­ment liv­ing the norm in China, ev­ery­day life and leisure is held in pub­lic places. El­derly peo­ple per­form mod­ern dance with para­sols, or the­atri­cal shows with brass bands, the vol­ume mon­i­tored by a deci­bel me­tre (state rules re­strict it to 100db). Tea­houses are stung with the waft of cigars and water cal­lig­ra­phy is painted on the pave­ment. Younger folk kick shut­tle­cocks to each other, or play net­free bad­minton. It’s also here that par­ents shop for suit­ors for their off­spring. “Young peo­ple work very hard these days and have no time for dat­ing, but their par­ents get very wor­ried and they want grand­chil­dren, so it’s like ar­ranged mar­riage – they go to the Peo­ple’s Park for the mar­riage mar­ket,” says tour guide Maya Miao. “The per­son must have the re­quired height and salary, and it helps if they have an apart­ment or house,” she says.

Good English-speak­ing lo­cal tour guides can be found through China In­ter­na­tional Travel Ser­vice, CITS (cits.net).

LATE

Sichuan hot pot is the must-have din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in Chengdu. Aim for a bal­cony seat at one of the his­toric wooden restau­rants on Qin­tai Rd, which are il­lu­mi­nated at night. Plates of raw and frozen meat, fish and veg­eta­bles crowd around two bub­bling broths – one filled with spicy Sichuan pep­per and chilli, the other a pork bone stock. Feed the in­gre­di­ents in and fish them out when they’re cooked, coun­ter­ing the chilli-buzz with bot­tles of snow beer. Chase the meal with an open-air opera theatre per­for­mance, where tea is poured from tra­di­tional pots bear­ing ruler-straight, 1m spouts. Per­form­ers with or­nate head­pieces and capes wear masks that change colour and ex­pres­sion. For those who ar­rive early, there are 15-minute mas­sages and Chengdu’s fa­mous, if squea­mish, ear-clean­ing ser­vices.

THE AU­THOR TRAV­ELLED AS A GUEST OF CHINA AIR SOUTH­ERN

PIC­TURES: ISTOCK

Be mesmerised by baby gi­ant pan­das at the Chengdu Re­search Base, visit Panda House for sou­venirs, and try the Sichuan hot pot, a bub­bling broth with a chilli buzz.

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