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