Land of the Giants... Chengdu pandas
Could there be a less appropriate national icon than China’s giant panda? More slothful than the sloth and with a body poorly adapted to its environment, giant pandas couldn’t be less like thrusting, super-efficient, modern China. And yet at the Giant Panda Sanctuary on the outskirts of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, they lavish unstinting care on these improbable creatures.
Natural carnivores, giant pandas are too cumbersome to hunt. Yet they are so ill-adapted to their staple bamboo diet, they can only digest 20% of what they consume. So, like the caterpillar, pandas have to eat constantly, lolling around all day long, munching bamboo (when they're not sleeping that is). Solitary creatures in the wild, giant pandas have little to do with one another, can barely be bothered to mate and make very bad mothers, abandoning all but one cub to their fate. In the sanctuary they are mostly artificially inseminated and the rejected cubs are fostered by keepers, reared in incubators and bottle-fed.
Nevertheless, to the Chinese, giant pandas symbolise happiness and good fortune. And perhaps it is the giant panda's good fortune to be cute, adorable and somehow mesmerising to observe? A slight twitch of the paw engenders mass oohs and aahs from the watching throng. But cynicism aside, our visit here was one of the highlights of an enthralling trip to Chengdu.
Chengdu is a city of 14 million people, about half of whom live in the central district between a series of ring roads. It's an important commercial and manufacturing hub (80% of the world's iPads are made here) but it's also a friendly city and we find much to excite and delight us during our few days here. In a way it's a microcosm of the new China: a fascinating fusion of old and new, showing the contrasts and contradictions inherent in China's headlong rush to modernity.
Chengdu hot pot
Arguably in all senses, at Chengdu's modern heart is Tianfu Square, a popular park over which presides a huge statue of Chairman Mao. Still revered as the great leader who made modern China possible, Mao's 1960s Cultural Revolution ruthlessly laid waste to China's decadent imperial past – ancient city walls and the vice-regal palace were swept away. But a new reverence for the past has prompted a rethink: now carefully restored historic buildings sit alongside the glistening new skyscrapers and glitzy boutiques of the modern city. Replicas have been made of those buildings beyond repair, and although they may have a whiff of Disneyland (a few too many red lanterns), the intention is admirable.
One central site steeped in history and legend is the striking Wu Hou temple. This important, ancient, Sichuan shrine harks back to the legendary Three Kingdoms period when a King Arthur-like brotherhood waged epic battles and undertook fabled adventures, which are still recounted in modern culture. A shrine has stood on this site since 221AD, though this atmospheric incarnation – set in peaceful gardens with breathtaking sculptures and a wonderful teahouse – dates back to the 1670s.
Nearby is Chengdu's Wide and Narrow Alley. This warren of tight thoroughfares was created during the 17th-century Qing dynasty to billet soldiers stationed here to control rebellious Tibetans (Chengdu lies on the edge of the Tibetan plateau). The officers lived in the grander houses of Wide Alley, the other ranks in Narrow Alley. Now the area houses a characterful collection of shops, cafes and tea houses, at their most atmospheric after dark. You can buy pretty porcelain tea sets, any amount of panda-inspired paraphernalia or sample intriguing street food. Spicy rabbit heads are a popular delicacy (the tongue is apparently the best part) and the spun sugar animals on sticks are a definite improvement on candyfloss. Home of China's famous (and famously fiery!) Sichuan cuisine, this is just one of the city's foodie hubs. It's impossible to resist sampling the steaming cauldrons
of flavoursome, tongue-numbing broth, grilled meats and noodles, available everywhere from street stalls and corner cafes to ornate, award-winning restaurants.
Giant pandas eating bamboo
The Songxian Qiao antique market is another fun place to shop, not that you will find a lot in the way of antiques. Much of the so-called ÒoldÓ in China is actually fake, but the fakes are so convincing that it hardly matters. I bought a silvery pendant engraved with priest-like figures and Chinese characters only to find, a few stalls along, another, then another. Possibly more genuine is the Mao memorabilia: stirring propaganda posters, Mao figurines, little red books and poignant old photographs. For undisputed examples of ancient China we head out of Chengdu, first to the Sanxingdui Museum 24km north. It is devoted to the enigmatic remains of the Ba-Shu civilisation that occupied Sichuan more than 3,000 years ago but, incredibly, stayed hidden until 1929 when the first artefacts were uncovered during building work. They are unlike anything I have ever seen before: strange bronze masks with stylized faces that are almost inhuman, like some strange, extra-terrestrial beings. Some have eyes protruding on long stalks and others are mounted on elongated slender bodies with huge hands coiled to hold we know not what. Elegant ceramics, exquisite jade and jewellery compound the mystery and are breathtaking in their beauty and the skill of their craftsmanship. You can also get a small taste of these wonders in Chengdu's Jinsha Museum.
Further north is another, rather more comprehensible survivor of China's distant past: the irrigation project at Dujiangyan. What sounds like a works outing for the Red Guards Youth Corp is actually a fascinating example of an ancient technology that still works perfectly today. Completed in 256BC (the same era as China's Great Wall) by engineering genius Li Ping, the vast dam was designed to regulate the flow of the Min river (a tributary of the Yangtze) and irrigate local farms. A clever arrangement of stones, pillars sunk into the wide riverbed and huge gates splits the fast-flowing river into two channels. Rather terrifying rope suspension bridges carry you from one side of the river to the other but the location is spectacular: high mountain peaks, thick forests and the jade green torrent swollen with snow-melt roaring below.
Our tour guide has one last excursion in store for us. At the Confucian temple in Dujiangyan we are to be inducted into the disciplines of Confucianism. Self-consciously we don the long, cream robes of the initiates to be taught the rudiments of archery, stone rubbing (similar to brass rubbing) and calligraphy. As we bumble through our tasks, we quickly attract the attention of excited groups of Chinese tourists who are also visiting the site. They follow us around relentlessly, cameras and selfie-sticks at the ready, snapping and aahing our every move. Just for a moment, we know how it feels to be one of those lumbering, bamboo munching, giant pandas.
Wuhou Temple, Chengdu
Recommended C&K tour - China: The Grand Tour (16 Days & 14 Nights from £3,370 )
This comprehensive tour of China visits the treasures of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, picturesque scenery between Guilin and Yangshuo and the pandas at Chengdu. Cruise the Yangtze river and visit the Three Gorges Dam, before ending the tour in cosmopolitan Shanghai. Speak to one of our China experts to find out more.
Our China expert Sabastian filmed these playful pandas on a trip to Chengdu last year.