Can-do Chengdu

Hug­ging a panda will leave you hap­pier but poorer. Vi­jay Vergh­ese asks: how deep is your love and how big is your purse?

Hong Kong Tatler - - View From The Back -

Iwalked through the for­est, fol­low­ing the un­mis­tak­able haunt­ing Celtic strains of Enya. The mu­sic pulled me in un­til at last I ar­rived at a small pink house in the woods, from where the silken voice em­anated, singing of love and loss on windswept moors. My heart went out to those lonely, weep­ing Scots­men, keep­ing one hand free to dab their eyes and the other re­strain­ing their kilts from mis­chievous win­try up­drafts just wait­ing to cause a Youtube sen­sa­tion.

With some trep­i­da­tion, and con­sid­er­able an­tic­i­pa­tion, I walked into the dark­ened in­te­rior and saw her. She was not as I imag­ined: tall, svelte and raven-haired. Ac­tu­ally she was short, squat and furry. The movie on the small screen showed her go­ing through es­trus (be­ing in heat), hav­ing a good time—or as much as could be mus­tered given a hope­lessly dis­in­ter­ested mate—and giv­ing birth to a cub. How Enya and es­trus were paired in this bam­boo for­est feel-good thriller re­mains a mys­tery at the ever-popular Panda Base in Chengdu.

This is a tran­quil pic­ture-post­card bam­boofor­est idyll—from about 7.30am to 9am. Then come the fat­tened buses, dis­gorg­ing scream­ing, flag-wav­ing tourists who speed­ily put an end to dis­creet panda snogs. This is why, in front of a cam­era, pan­das only chew bam­boo shoots. Or sleep. Many have for­got­ten about the birds and the bees and, last year, Ke Lin and her mate were shown rib­ald videos of “panda porn” to get things mov­ing. To save th­ese lov­able beasts, you need to get up close and per­sonal—but there’s a price tag of RMB2,000 for what must be the costli­est hug in the world. This comes with a close-up panda photo-op. (Check what films she may have seen lately.)

Pan­das are ubiq­ui­tous. The first sight as you step off the plane is of lit­tle pan­das, en­joy­ing a gam­bol to­gether—on As­tro­turf amid the palm trees, their nat­u­ral habi­tat, at least at the air­port. In the old and char­ac­ter­ful area re­ferred to as Wide and Nar­row Al­leys, lo­cal vis­i­tors will un­err­ingly lead you to gawp at one of Chengdu’s most pho­tographed sights— Star­bucks. I bade quick farewell to Seat­tle’s finest to sam­ple, in­stead, the multi-course State Ban­quet at the stun­ningly at­mo­spheric Diaoyu­tai Bou­tique ho­tel. With orig­i­nal in­gre­di­ents and tra­di­tional low-fat, low-salt menus, the of­fi­cial ban­quet from the Diaoyu­tai State Guest­house can be sam­pled here—it was lav­ished by Deng Xiaop­ing on Queen El­iz­a­beth in 1986 and served to dig­ni­taries at the 2008 Sum­mer Olympics.

Ex­pe­ri­ence con­stantly chang­ing set menus in­clud­ing wagyu beef steak with wasabi and cheese, and mat­su­take mush­room chicken soup—the mush­rooms sourced at al­ti­tudes of over 3,500 me­tres and the three-year-old chick­ens cooked for a fash­ion­ably sweaty eight hours. You’ll fork out RMB1,600 (and up) for this divine in­dul­gence. The Diaoyu­tai pedi­gree runs back 800 years, to when the em­peror’s fish­ing pavil­ion slowly mor­phed into a guest­house. With soar­ing wooden pil­lars and high rafters, all that’s miss­ing here is Enya.

Vi­jay Vergh­ese is the ed­i­tor of Smart Travel Asia, smart­trav­e­la­

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