From Hainan we flew up to Chengdu, a city of seven-and-a-half million people and the capital of Sìchuan Province in Southwest China. Mark’s had a fascination with Sìchuan cuisine for some time and Anita in particular really wanted to see the giant pandas to be found there, so it seemed a pretty appropriate place to spend our last few days with by brother and his family.
The highlight of our couple days there was definitely the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. We got to the center before 8:00 AM on a Monday morning and had the opportunity to watch them with only a few other tourists around. Highly recommended!
Giant pandas – now the symbol of the World Wildlife Foundation – are among the rarest animals on earth; there are only about 1,500 of them left. A big problem is that they are described as “sexually reluctant,” and thus incredibly difficult to breed. Then even when they successfully birth, the infant pandas have high death rates. A movie we saw at the breeding center showed the newly born pandas: blind, completely unable to do anything for themselves, and about the size of a stick of butter. The mothers – 1,000 times the size of the infants – are clueless on how to take care of something so tiny. One wonders what evolutionary forces led to such a bizarre reproduction cycle.Along with the giant pandas at the center, they also have a number of red pandas. I’d not only never seen a red panda before, I’d never heard of them. They look more like a slightly oversized – and very cute – raccoon than a bear, and in fact are not particularly closely related to giant pandas. As arboreal animals we saw a bunch of them up in trees, eating, napping, and just in general hanging around. Very cute, but I have to say no where near as impressive as the giant pandas.
The other big excursion for us was a day trip to Mount Qingcheng, described variously as one of the key centers of Taoism for over 2,000 years and even as the birthplace of Taoism. Either way, it’s a beautiful retreat with trails and pagodas and temples and lots and lots and lots of Chinese day-trippers from Chengdu. Part of the fun was just figuring out how to get there and then to the top. Travel included subway, a big bus, a little bus, a little tour car to the entrance, a little boat ride at one point, a cable car, and many, many steps up to the main temple. Then, to my enormous surprise, we stopped for lunch right outside the main entrance. The restaurant was very homey, not bright or fancy at all, but the food was fantastic with enough choices to satisfy the variety of tastes assembled at a table with little kids, adults who don’t like spicy foods, and me and Mark, who do.One of the things that we’ve noticed a bit in China, and we saw in spades in Chengdu, is how easy transportation is. The highways, for instance, make the freeways in Massachusetts look like third-world disasters. The subway in Chengdu was incredibly fast, efficient, clean, and easy to follow. We were amused at 8:00 AM on Sunday morning as we were trying to get a subway to the bus station, to just miss the train we wanted. We looked at the monitor and saw that the next train was coming by in three minutes. At 8:00 AM on a Sunday, all for just 50 cents each! And if all that weren’t enough, the taxis are super cheap, too; a 30-minute ride up to the northern suburbs to see the panda breeding center ran us about $6.50. There are definitely things to like about traveling in China.
Finally, a word about the food. Sìchuan food is hot. Really hot. In some ways, though, our limited experience so far is that it’s not exactly or not just the spiciness. They use a peppercorn here that gives a unique and fascinating tingle to your mouth. Hot, yes, but more than that, something I’ve never experienced with any other food. And the good news is that it’s hot enough that there is only so much I can eat; no matter how much I want to keep going, my burning mouth keeps me from overeating. That, and the fact that my last night there I had an awful reaction to something I’d eaten earlier. After saying goodbye to my brother and his family Mark & I went to dinner at a place we’d eaten our first night that has spectacular Sìchuan food and I couldn’t eat more than a bite of it. It didn’t last too long, though, so I’ll be able to enjoy more of it over the next few days before heading to Hong Kong for Mark’s knee surgery.
The only sad part of the experience was saying goodbye to Al & Anita and the kids. We spent two weeks with them here and had a really great time. The kids were real troopers when the walks were too long and the food too weird for them; they’re either just really good kids or really good at acting that way around their uncles. Either way, it worked for us. Now we have to start planning a couple weeks with them in a year or two in South America or Europe!