The Chinese call the giant panda a "living fossil". The cuddly, toylike bear regarded as a national treasure has been living in China's forested central region for the past eight million years. And all that time, it's been methodically chewing through bamboo.
Its finicky diet choice is also its undoing. Out of some 58 types of bamboo in Sichuan Province, the giant panda has an overwhelming preference for one in particular: arrow bamboo. When they're not sleeping, that's exactly what the pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding are munching. Slouching over pyramid piles with their legs splayed like big babies, they rip and tear through the fibrous stalks until they reach the soft centres. Arriving early in the day, for feeding time, ensures an eyeful of this somehow transfixing pastime.
As you'd expect, the iconic giant panda is dotted throughout the 14-million strong city of Chengdu. Toys and pictures poke from every corner - there's even one climbing up the side of luxury shopping centre building, IFS. Yet Chengdu is much more than its famous symbol. The capital of Sichuan Province has existed for about 2300 years, and like those pandas, its history peers out from discreet alleys and streets tucked away from the shiny, new hotels, brand name boutiques and frenetic pedestrian malls. Here's how to see a city named China's happiest for the past five years.
Visit those pandas. The research base is home to more than 100 pandas - it opened with six in 1993 - and is one place where China, rarely in the news for positive environmental stories, is doing good. There are now fewer than 2000 in the wild. Efforts to grow existing panda populations through breed and release programs and habitat protection helped the species move from endangered to vulnerable status in 2016. The centre hopes to ensure the salvation of China's most famous ambassador.
Inside the vast grounds of mainly open sanctuaries made to mimic natural habitat, one of the most heart-bursting moments is seeing baby pandas play fighting on a rug in the "Giant Panda Kindergarten". Like cheeky puppies, they chew material edges and roll clumsily down the hill, legs stretched outwards. Elsewhere, older pandas doze above the eye line, their bodies wedged in tree forks. Limbs spill from either side, dangling freely, the bears seemingly oblivious to the crowds of shutterbugs below.
TOP TIP: The research centre is about 10km from the city centre of Chengdu. Arrive early (about 8.30am) and take the mini locomotive to the far end of the research base and work back.
Come hungry and with time on your side - vibrant, bustling Jinli Street is somewhere you'll want to spend hours. Hidden behind a grey brick Chinese gateway, the pedestrian thoroughfare is part of a labyrinth of traditional streets blending artisanal wares with touristy trinkets, all set to the sizzle and scrape of street food preparation. The deeper you go, the more you see: skewers of raw pork, suspended whole duck, glazed rabbit heads, rice-stuffed roast meat and deep-fried corn are sold at hole-in-the-wall stalls. Restored, dark wood buildings decorated with red lanterns give way to wending waterways and curved bridges as stallholders blow sugar into 3D creatures, street performers clown around and people tie red strings to worship trees.
If you have engaged an English-speaking, Chinese guide - it's worth doing - ask if they'll hire you one of the public bikes that are strewn on roadsides everywhere. They cost 1 RMB for one hour (about A$0.20c) and are activated using an APP and QR code that most locals have on their smartphones. Cycling along the bike paths (separated from the busy, but slow traffic) may end up being one of your holiday highlights, until you reach the People's Park. With apartment living the norm in China, everyday life and leisure is held in public places. Elderly people perform modern dance with parasols, or theatrical shows with brass bands, the volume monitored by a decibel metre (state rules restrict it to 100db). Teahouses are stung with the waft of cigars and water calligraphy is painted on the pavement. Younger folk kick shuttlecocks to each other, or play net-free badminton. It's also here that parents shop for suitors for their offspring. "Young people work very hard these days and have no time for dating, but their parents get very worried and they want grandchildren, so it's like arranged marriage, they go to the People's Park for the marriage market," says tour guide Maya Miao. "The person must have the required height and salary, and it helps if they have an apartment or house," she says.
TOP TIP: Good English-speaking local tour guides can be found through China International Travel Service.
Sichuan hot pot is the must-have dining experience in Chengdu. Aim for a balcony seat at one of the historic wooden restaurants on Qintai road, which are illuminated at night. Plates of raw and frozen meat, fish and vegetables crowd around two bubbling broths - one filled with spicy Sichuan pepper and chilli, the other a pork bone stock. Feed the ingredients in and fish them out when they're cooked, countering the chilli-buzz with bottles of snow beer. Chase the meal with a face changing performance in an open-air opera theatre nearby, where tea is poured from traditional pots bearing ruler-straight spouts that measure 1m in length. Performers, decorated with ornate headpieces and capes, wear masks that change colour and expression before your eyes. The illusion is as curious as it is entertaining, and is often the finale of a long, usually English subtitled show of dancing, storytelling and shadow puppetry. For those who arrive early, there are 15-minute massages and Chengdu's famous, if squeamish ear cleaning services.
The author travelled as a guest of China Air Southern
China Southern Airlines flies to Chengdu (via Guangzhou) from Sydney (Twice daily), Melbourne (twice daily), Brisbane (daily), Perth (four times a week) and Adelaide (three times a week).
The centre opens 7:30am to 6pm, year round. You can get there by public bus or metro, but it's simplest to either take a taxi or jump aboard a Chengdu sightseeing bus, which stops at the research centre.
Entry is 58 RMB (A$11.55) per person.
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