chengdu

Living China

As we sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for our driver to take us to the airport, I had time to reflect upon my days in Chengdu. Many people go to Chengdu just to see the pandas and then leave! But we wanted to see the other sights this beautiful city has to offer. I’m glad we chose to focus on one small part of China, rather than do a crazy dash around a very big country!

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What made the trip so easy and unforgettable was Haba, a tourist guide we booked through Trip Adviser. Haba’s love and pride for the beautiful city of Chengdu was a pleasure to experience as he took us around town. He paced everything to our comfort, stopping when we wanted a rest and making sure all our needs were met. But Haba’s passion is giant pandas and his knowledge was invaluable to us on our trips to the Chengdu and Bifengxia Panda Bases. Haba’s love for the pandas was evident as he talked about them and photographed them with us. He seemed to know the names of all the pandas and he knew where all the overseas pandas were born. Without Haba we would not have known that one of the handsome pandas we were photographing was actually superstar panda Tai Shan! While we chatted to him about pandas he told us one of his favourite animals was the koala. He had been given a stuffed koala as a gift and it had ignited his curiosity and love for our native cutie. We had to laugh as Paul and I have always thought of koalas as Aussie Pandas. While koalas are not bears, they share similar characteristics – they are unbearably cute and climb trees 🙂

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On the days Haba wasn’t able to guide us he arranged for others to take us where we needed to go. This allowed us the opportunity to meet some local people and gave us an appreciation of the people of Chengdu. From the young Kuan, who took us on a bus and to a local restaurant he liked, the driver who took us to Leshan and whom we communicated with through gestures, to the other drivers who drove us around Chengdu and Ya’an, all of our guides and drivers were charming and friendly. They were also proud of their home and happy to show us around.

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I highly recommend getting in touch with Haba if you are going to visit Chengdu or the Pandas!

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We left Chengdu early in the afternoon and made our way back home and back to our dogs. I expected to be blown away by the pandas but I wasn’t expecting China to change me in fundamental ways – but it did. We really admired the public places and parks in Chengdu and the way the Chinese people used them. Everywhere we IMG_6173looked there were locals using the public spaces for tai chi, dance, singing, creating art, sport and just simply relaxing. Our local area has public facilities such as basketball courts and table tennis tables but we had never used them. One of the first things we did on our return was buy table tennis bats, balls and a basketball. We then went out there and started using our public places. Ironically, our sporting time is often accompanied by Chinese music as groups of our Chinese neighbours are out there doing tai chi and dance. It feels like being back in Chengdu!

Another change I’ve made is to my diet. I noticed that my body really responded well to rice based meals and, with the guidance of my part Malaysian naturopath, we have devised a predominantly Asian based diet. For years I’ve struggled with finding a breakfast I like but for the past year my main breakfast has been congee – a rice based savoury soup! It’s one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had 🙂 It also reminded me that I lived on a mainly rice based diet when I was young. Being allergic to the chilli family, I couldn’t eat the paprika packed Eastern European stews my mother would often cook. But I could eat the plain boiled rice – with a good dollop of butter!

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For me, the most important thing I brought back from China, apart from really great panda souvenirs, was a reinvigoration of my spirituality. Amidst all the noise and traffic in Chengdu there was also a deep sense of peace and tranquility. The parks, pagodas and bamboo reminded me of a time before modernisation and frenetic activity. It made me remember quieter times and I wanted to reintroduce those times back into my life. I’m now enjoying regular relaxing baths and pause often throughout the day to sip on green tea in my own bamboo garden. And yes, I do have a bamboo garden – you never know when pandas may visit! What has surprised me most is the slow re-embracing of my religious roots. I’ve been on a religious “sabbatical” for quite a while. But deep within my soul I hear the call to return to my old time religion. That’s a topic for another time – but not that far away – for one of the most important holidays for me is coming up – Halloween 🙂

As I finish writing about my Chinese adventure I realise just how much I deeply miss Chengdu. I miss the people, the place, the lifestyle and I especially miss those precious little pandas!

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Day 5 – Bifengxia Pandas

IMG_7282Bifengxia Panda Base is in Ya’an, approximately two and a half hours drive from Chengdu. Originally built as a research facility, it only became a tourist spot after the devastating earthquake in May 2008 destroyed the Wolong Panda Reserve. The pandas from Wolong were moved to Bifengxia and where the pandas go, so do the people!!

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We arrived at Bifengxia just as it opened and were treated to the sight of empty enclosures – we were so early the pandas weren’t even awake yet! We waited at one enclosure and saw a panda poking its head out of its den. It ventured out but when it saw there was no bamboo, it went back in. The attendants arrived armed with bamboo and the hungry but happy panda got down to the day’s business – eating! We saw a few more of these older pandas before arriving at the much anticipated Panda Kindergarten!

In the first Panda Kindergarten enclosure we were greeted by the vision of two adorable cubs playing and rolling around. There was even a yellow swing in their yard. They were eagerly waiting for the attendant to bring them milk in metal bowls. After slurping down their drinks, the attendants used a tea towel to wipe the face of one of the baby pandas. When they went to the next panda it decided to resist them and rolled around in the spilt milk instead. The attendants were laughing and trying to grab and clean up the cheeky cub. I thought “what a hard job they have – and how do I apply!”

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The next Panda Kindergarten enclosure contained five young cubs. Their enclosure also contained toys including a plastic slide and rocking horse that have been featured in many adorable photos! There was fresh bamboo and the pandas were munching away. We watched them play, frolic and then eat. Typical pandas, they weren’t in the mood to do much more than eat so we thought we would check out the rest of the park before returning to see if any antics would be on display.

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The next section we visited was the overseas born panda section. One of the pandas housed there was Tai Shan Butterstick! He was nicknamed Butterstick after a zookeeper at the National Zoo in Washington said that he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born. We were so happy to see him. We snapped photo after photo of this handsome bear. We visited all the other overseas born pandas before returning to the Panda Kindergarten.

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And we are so glad we did. The five young pandas had finished their bamboo and were ready to rumble! They fought with each other, chased each other, rolled around together and then, to the delighted gasps of everyone watching, they ran up trees and showed us just how arboreal pandas really are. We watched spellbound as one daredevil panda travelled along a tree limb and then kept walking along, even though the limb was getting thinner and thinner. Then, graceful as a tightrope walker, the nimble panda turned around on the limb and promptly sat down. We all screamed as we were terrified that the little bear was going to fall. But the panda settled into a koala-like pose and amazingly didn’t fall. The pandas settled into the trees where they would spend most of the afternoon. It was sadly time to leave and my heart broke a little as I realised this was the end of the panda part of my trip to China.

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Bifengxia Panda Base is in a mountainous area with spectacular peaks, deep gorges, waterfalls and beautiful forest. There are trails through the gorge for either short or long walks. Paul and our guide Haba chose to go for a short one hour trek through the gorge which Paul said was spectacular. I chose to stay behind in the car with the driver and meet Paul at the end of the track where there was a waterfall and a 91.8 metre tall elevator that takes travellers from the bottom of the gorge up to the carpark. It is apparently the tallest sightseeing elevator in the world. The view from the top down over the waterfalls was spectacular. After an extraordinary day, we returned to our hotel for our final night.

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Day 4 – Chengdu Pandas

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As we jumped into a taxi and rode towards the Chengdu Panda Base, we couldn’t contain our excitement! We had seen pandas only twice before. In 1988 giant pandas Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao toured Australia and we went to see them at Melbourne Zoo. In 2010 we did the VIP tour in Adelaide to meet the pandas Wang Wang and Funi. Now we were about to see pandas in their homeland, in their natural environment – and we were going to hug one as well 🙂

We arrived at the base and our guide quickly secured our spot for the panda cuddle. With time to spare we saw our first pandas in China – 5 baby pandas in a cot! We couldn’t believe how cute and fluffy they were. We could have spent the whole day watching these sweet little cubs sleep but there were more pandas to see and we wanted to see them!

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We walked along beautiful paths surrounded by bamboo to the next group of pandas – a mother and cubs. The playful pandas entertained and delighted their spellbound audience. They ran around, dropped from trees and structures and one young panda even suckled on the mother while she reclined on her back. It was breathtaking to see them in these beautiful enclosures surrounded by their natural habitat. We got to see quite a lot of the park but the time had come to meet the little panda!!

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We were taken into a room and shown an informative video about pandas. Then we were taken to the hugging room 🙂 We were given a protective coat, booties and gloves to wear and waited in a line before an exquisitely carved bench. Next to the bench was a tray with a jar of honey, slices of apple and bamboo. A keeper arrived carrying the young Miao Miao and settled her on the bench with some of her treats. She had a good look at her adoring fans, then proceeded to lick a honeyed apple slice. When she was finished she turned to the keepers and stared at the table. They ran to assist her, offering a sweetened bamboo stick. She graciously accepted it and happily munched on it while she prepared to be greeted by her spellbound audience.

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One by one we took our turn to sit by the little princess. When my turn came I was overwhelmed with emotion. I sat next to the little panda and cuddled her. She looked up at me and munched away at her bamboo. So many thoughts were going through my head – how lucky I am to be sitting next to her, how cute and adorable she is, how soft yet wiry her fur is, how pinchable her ears are, can I take her home with me? – were some of my jumbled thoughts. Mostly I thought about how endangered pandas are and how important it is to protect them and do all we can for them. I was also surprised at how much time we had with her. I was expecting to sit down and then jump up a few seconds later but they let us sit for a good while – of course I would have liked longer, like maybe a few years! It was Paul’s turn and they let him sit next to me for a few photos as a couple so I got extra Miao Miao time 🙂 I reluctantly left Miao Miao and the bench so Paul could cuddle the precious little cub. We said farewell to Miao Miao and went back to exploring the reserve.

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One of the next things we saw was a group of tiny baby pandas sun-baking on a plank of wood. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing – our brains nearly stopped working! As we watched these sleeping cuties one panda woke up and bravely wandered off the plank. When it wandered off too far it stopped and started squeaking. It was too much cuteness for me. I wanted to jump into the enclosure, take the squealing cub, and smuggle it home with me and Miao Miao. But before I could jump in an attendant came and rescued the cub, placing it back on the plank. A few minutes later he returned with a bucket and scooped up a couple of cubbies and left. We were told some VIPS were going to have their photos taken with them. Not long later the bucket returned and the celebrity pandas were scooped out and promptly went back to sun-baking. Later in the day we were lucky enough to see these baby pandas asleep in their cot in the nursery.

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We ended our day with red pandas. They were in a part of the reserve where they could wander around freely. The fence along the walkway had holes for the red pandas to wander through. I stood, stunned as I watched a red panda climb down a tree, go through a gap in the fence, walk past me, go through a gap on the other side, and then sit next to a bowl with food. It was surreal and heaps of fun! Chengdu Panda Reserve surpassed my expectations. It was incredible and I’m glad we chose to spend a whole day there. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow and our trip to Bifengxia Panda Reserve.

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Note: Neither Miao Miao nor any other cub were smuggled out of the panda base onto a plane to Melbourne. The bamboo in my backyard is for decoration only. 🙂

Day 3 – Getting To Know Chengdu

We started day 3 at the Qingyang Temple. As soon as I smelled the incense and saw the decorative iconography I began rummaging in my bag for aIMG_6072 jacket to cover my bare arms. Our guide said it wasn’t necessary but I just felt uncomfortable walking around bare armed and tattooed in this ancient place of worship. My early childhood experiences of Eastern European Orthodoxy were rearing their oppressive heads – again. So I covered up, stepped over the threshold and entered the beautiful Taoist Temple.

Qingyang Temple is small and intimate. Although much, much older than Eastern Orthodoxy, I’m surprised at how similar this place of worship feels. I smell incense, hear chanting and see images of fantastical deities and holy people. Food and drink are left as offerings and there is a quiet and peace all around. It doesn’t seem that different to the Orthodox Churches I remember from my youth. But the architecture is different. Pagodas, one of my favourite architectural forms, replace the Cathedral like structures I’m used to.

IMG_6064The larger Wenshu Monastery is our next stop. This has a very different feel to me than Qingyang Temple. Although there is still incense, chanting and similar iconography, it doesn’t remind me at all of my youthful Orthodoxy. This is more what I was I expecting. Stunning pagodas, beautiful trees and a lake. The scenery is breathtaking and peaceful.

In direct contrast is the next place we visit, ancient Jinli Street. Bustling with people it is full of sound, colour and action. There is so much to see and do.

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IMG_6206Paul was so excited when he found a shooting arcade featuring an ancient design, lever operated, repeating crossbow. He naturally had to give it a go!

From the bustling Jinli Street we move onto the much quieter Tibetan Quarter. Chengdu is the gateway to Tibet so it’s not surprising it has a Tibetan Corner. The streets are dotted with shops selling traditional Tibetan wares and elaborate religious iconography. It is a very interesting part of Chengdu and well worth a visit.

IMG_6156Our final stop for the day is Baihuatan Park. Unlike the People’s Park, Baihuatan is less crowded, quiet and tranquil. Bird life and butterflies are abundant. There is a delightful bonsai garden and a stunning pagoda perched near a river. After our exhilarating day it is a pleasure to just sit and observe nature. It makes me think I need to include more quiet time in my life back home.

We return to our hotel and stop by the bar for a pot of tea. No sooner do we sit down when we hear excited voices say “I know those accents – Australians!” Thinking some fellow Aussies are about to befriend us we are surprised to find two Malaysian men introducing themselves. They ordered beer and chips as they thought that what’s Australians drink and eat! They’re not wrong 🙂 Their wives join us and we soon learn all about each other. What I wasn’t expecting was the political turn the conversation took. We groaned when asked about our newly elected Prime Minister. Realising we were not fans they comfortably asserted that he was “an idiot.” Sadly, we couldn’t argue, especially when we realised what they were mainly objecting to was his anti-climate change policies. They were architects and, like us, environmentalists so it was a subject close to all our hearts. We ordered more beer and this time spring rolls and an evening of informative conversation followed. As exciting as the evening turned out to be we were way more excited about where we were going the next day –
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China – Day 2

Leshan Buddha

IMG_5869One of the things I really wanted to see in Sichuan was the Leshan Giant Buddha, the largest stone Buddha in the world. Carved into a cliff face at a river junction you can climb the roughly 71 metre (233ft) statue or, for a more relaxed viewing, catch a ferry. I chose the ferry option! One of the advantages of the ferry is that you can see the magnificent statue in its entirety. Although I knew how big it was, nothing can prepare you for the spectacle of seeing this huge Buddha slowly come into view as the ferry leisurely flows along the river. You can see the people climbing the Buddha and they look like ants.

One of my favourite sights was seeing a Buddhist Monk standing at the feet of the Buddha, looking at the tIMG_6101ourists on the ferries and taking photos of them. I couldn’t help taking a photo of him! In fact a few of the Chinese tourists were taking photos of themselves posing as the statue with the statue behind them. I had to laugh. At one point I realised I was getting in the way of peoples’ photos so I moved. Paul discreetly came and told me that the couple had been lining me up and they were disappointed that I had moved. They wanted to be photographed next to the purpled-haired woman with the panda tattoos! I discreetly went back to my spot and sure enough the wife came next to me and had photos taken then her husband stood next to me and had his photos taken. I made sure I moved my arm into different positions so they could get shots of all the tattooed
pandas 🙂

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We realised we weren’t going to make it back to Chengdu without a toilet stop and that’s when the fact that our driver couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak a word of Chinese became a real issue. As we tried to mime needing to go to the toilet using hand gestures, I was beginning to think that not getting to a toilet wasn’t going to be a problem as we were more than likely about to be arrested! Luckily one of the women selling tickets for the ferry understood our dilemma and we were soon being guided to the much needed facilities.

Relieved, in more ways than one, we sat back for the two hour trip back to Chengdu. I made sure to keep my eyes open for the pug we had seen sitting outside a store on our drive to Leshan. I was convinced it was a statue, Paul was convinced it was real. Sure enough the very live pug had moved and was now sleeping on its side. I was so happy to see it as we had only recently lost our beloved pug Wolfy. With bittersweet memories we arrived at our hotel.

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We had a few hours to spare and decided to walk around the neighbourhood. The noise and the traffic – featuring swerving buses, cars and bikes  – has to be seen and heard to be believed. Crossing the roads was a real challenge but we just followed what the locals were doing. We went into shops looking for panda souvenirs and weren’t disappointed. Again we found the people to be friendly and helpful and extremely curious. We felt safe in our environment and were happy that we ventured out on our own. In fact the only scary thing about Chengdu was just how much panda paraphernalia they had for sale!

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A Glimpse Of China

One year ago my partner Paul and I celebrated 25 years of not being married by going to Chengdu in China to hug a panda! I can’t believe a year has passed so quickly and I can’t believe I haven’t written about this extraordinary trip. So I’m going to do something different. If all goes to plan I’m going to do a daily travelogue recounting each day in China only one year later 🙂

Day 1 
Discovering Chengdu

We left Melbourne just after midnight and landed in Chengdu early that afternoon. We wanted to hit the ground running so arranged for our guide to pick us up from our hotel not long after we arrived.

IMG_6066Our first adventure was to catch a local bus which would take us to the People’s Park. The ride was fun although my purple hair and panda tattoos were getting lots of attention! The park was a huge, wide open space where the locals could ride canoes, dance, sing and play games. A stunning Tea House by the lake offered refreshments. One of the more IMG_6062fascinating things we saw was an unusual form of dating service. Laminated A4 sheets of paper containing personal ads were hung on bamboo stakes. Prospective daters could stroll leisurely through the park while perusing the ads. What I loved most about the park was that it had the sense of really being a people’s park. The locals used and enjoyed everything on offer.

IMG_5776After the park we went for a walk down some old parts of town. Our guide took us to see a 3D art mural wall which was fascinating. It was time for tea and a few locals watched as Paul tried to work out payment. Fumbling with the Chinese money, he finally got it right and was rewarded with a round of applause! I found the locals to be curious but friendly, shyly asking if they could touch my hair and my tattoos. It didn’t take long for me to bond with them and within a few hours I had fallen in love with Chengdu.

It was time for dinner and I was a little nervous. I love Chinese food but am allergic to chilli. Chengdu is in the Sichuan Province known for its hot and spicy food. Our guide took us to a place where he would eat so we were really looking forward to sampling truly local cuisine. I played it safe and ordered plain rice with a dessert – sweet cornmeal fritters! They were divine. Paul could be more adventurous and the dishes he ordered, according to him, were delicious.

IMG_5815After dinner we were driven to Tianfu Square in the centre of the city, famous for its giant statue of Chairman Mao. Like many major cities, Chengdu came alive at night with lights and people. We sat by a fountain and watched the nightlife. It was a picturesque place to spend time while waiting for our next adventure – a night at the opera!

I had read all about the Sichuan Opera and couldn’t wait to see the face changing magic the shows are famous for. As we waited in the theatre for the show to begin I could feel jet lag creeping up on me and actually started to doze off. But then the lights came on and the performers came on stage. I woke up immediately. The colourful costumes, singing, dancing and music were enough to keep me awake! We couldn’t follow the story lines but we enjoyed the show. What amazed me most was the face changing spectacle. It is hard to describe but one moment they have one face and then they wave or flip a hand and another face appears. It was so quick and yes, so magical. The actors came close to the audience so we could see them up close but it was still hard to see how they did it. One performer had a head piece with little puppet faces on it and with one movement his and the puppets faces all changed!! I’ll never forget that show. We left exhausted but exhilarated, happy to see a guide waiting to drive us to our hotel.

We had a great night made all the more special by the adorable stuffed panda waiting for us in our room. Chengdu Panda – as we named her, was a welcome gift from hotel staff and the perfect way to end our first day in Chengdu.

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