Our first morning in Chengdu was a bit of an early one, we met at 7am for breakfast at the hotel (a strong contender for the ‘worst breakfast ever’, I might add) and despite being really tired from such a busy few days, the excitement was almost tangible; it was panda day! Now, pandas hold a bit of a special place in my heart- my Granma absolutely loved pandas and part of the China dream she had was about seeing pandas in the wild, but she never made it to see them at all. Seeing them in China, for me, wasn’t just about the animals, but also seeing something for Granma too. Despite this sentimental connection, I honestly couldn’t have anticipated just how fantastic seeing them was going to be.
We started with red pandas- obviously they’re cuddly and adorable but everyone was waiting for the main event: The Giant Panda.
Chengdu Panda Conservation Centre is home to over 140 giant pandas, and has a very big emphasis on preparing pandas for release into the wild. I do have some moral issues with enclosed animals and one can’t help but feel concerned for their welfare, however this Conservation Centre is a sterling example of exactly how to do it- massive enclosures mimicking the natural habitat of the panda, minimal hand rearing etc- the epitome of good quality human intervention to potentially save a species that is at such high risk of extinction. Also, I really, REALLY enjoyed the hats at the gift shop….
It wasn’t long before my first glimpse of that black and white fur- I bounded up to the barrier in absolute awe; it really was one of the most special moments of my life. The gentle giant was nibbling away happily on some chunky bamboo, oblivious to the fact that my heart had swelled with excitement just to see him. What a moment!
I got a little frustrated as our guide (Kid) ushered us on quickly and I wanted to relish the ‘first’ panda I ever saw, but the crowds had started to descend by 8.30 and I trusted that Kid would make sure we saw everything. My trust was rewarded: five incubators all lined up with panda cubs nuzzling into blankets, barely a few weeks old, showing their first signs of black and white fluff- I thought my heart had reached its capacity of excitement and delight but I was wrong. These little beacons of hope for the future of their species left me teary eyed.
The next areas all progressed in age- the next ones we saw were a couple of months old and still snuggled into soft blankets but out of incubators, and then we got to my favourite part- the infants! The infant enclosure comprised of about five pandas each of only a few years old. Thanks to some drizzly and cool weather the tots were having an absolute ball bounding around, rolling on top of each other and climbing trees. I particularly felt affection for the one that managed to get itself wedged in between the rungs of a ladder- something that could have been done by me without too much difficulty! Leaving these little bundles of fun behind was a challenge- I could have easily watched them all day. We went on to see lots and lots of pandas, but the little ones were really my favourites.
After all of this excitement we took the much needed two and a half hour bus journey to see biggest Buddha in the world. Carved over 90 years, the legacy of this statue really preceded it- I had seen snaps on Instagram pages over and over again so I was really keen to see it with my own eyes. The carving dates from 815 AD to 905 AD, making it not only the biggest, but also one of the oldest carvings of its type. We decided to take a boat out to see it so we hopped aboard and within a minute we found ourselves slowing down-I was a little concerned as nothing was appearing- surely the biggest Buddha in the world would be visible from some distance? I think a part of the magic was turning the corner and it appearing seemingly from nowhere: a gargantuan toe peaking from behind a rock then a humongous knee cap, after which the full body emerged. It was unimaginably massive. The only thing to possibly help in grasping the enormity is the snaps of the people at the foot, barely a quarter of the height of the toes- incredible.
Following this we went for a stroll in the old town- an area of quintessential Chinese architecture: elegant pagodas, rich colours and decadent designs galore. As is customary in China, I got pulled into yet another photo shoot, this time a professional one- who knows, maybe I’m about to appear in Chinese ‘Ok!’ magazine!
On our return we headed out for a local delicacy- the Sichuan hot pot. The process involves a dish of boiling oil and spices being placed in a small well in the table, and then the customers order meats and vegetables which are served raw to the table to cook in the ‘hot pot’. In honesty I was rather sceptical, but I fell victim to the dreaded ‘fear of missing out’ so went along for the ride. It really was a pleasant surprise- it was totally delicious and fresh and I even enjoyed the spiciest part, which was very unexpected!
Fortunately the restaurant provided aprons to protect the customers from the boiling liquid as obviously, me being me, I splashed myself many times whilst trying to fish in the hot pot for delicious goodies- extracting cooked food was a bit of a challenge with chop sticks, but with team work and determination (and all out hunger) we all had a successful chomp through beef, shrimp dumplings, lotus root, mushrooms and fried rice. Coming in at just £4 each, it was an opportunity which couldn’t be missed. I was also quite pleased with the machine parked outside the doors which sprayed you all over to prevent the smell of the spices lingering on your clothes and skin- very refreshing after a long but wonderful day in Chengdu.
I also made a special little friend in the way of a little 8 year old Chinese boy who had never seen white skin before. He was very funny and so confident in trying to get to know us- he even showed us his handstand skills in the middle of the restaurant- what a little legend!