You hear tales of the sleeper trains in China. Jam packed with noisy noodle slurping locals stealing your seat, or in this case, bed. Smoking in the corridors. Spitting in the corridors… Happily this was untrue for me, and the night passed in a quiet, gently rocking style as the train trundled at a leisurely 60 mph to its final destination at Chengdu at a very sensible time of 10am. Cheaper than a hotel!
Where Xian was dusty and brown, Chengdu is fresh and grey. It is a notoriously damp city, being pushed up against the eastern-most lumps of what ultimately becomes the Himalayas much further to the west. It rains nearly daily and a thick layer of cloud blankets the area. As an Englishman, I felt right at home.
Chengdu is a city that is making waves. It is increasingly seeing big international brands making their Chinese base here and wants to see itself as a technological capital, not just of Szechuan of which it is the provincial capital, but of all South Western China. The immense skyscrapers, neon and lcd signs surrounding the central park/plaza do a lot to support that, while the most luxurious brands imaginable do business around the corner with two floor window displays showing the goods; Prada, Hermes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton… the list goes on. Meanwhile, a statue of Mao cheerfully waving in the other direction stands oblivious, never being more incongruous than he is here. Apparently China was once a Communist nation. Who knew.
Most visitors come to Chengdu for one reason, and that reason has two black eyes and a very good case for evolutionary extinction. Yes, the icon of China is the icon of Chengdu, as the national Panda centre is based here. Nowhere else in the world are so many cuddly black and white bears concentrated in such a limited space. Each fluffy bamboo muncher is named by a (usually corporate) benefactor who pays substantially for the privilege, and basically sits around eating or sleeping. In the wild this is pretty much all they do as well, so you can’t fault the place for keeping them authentically. One can also pay to hold a baby panda for a photo op, but this costs $300US at the time of writing, so I felt I had to give it a miss. The price is high, but justifiably so. For supply and demand purposes, the price would be high anyway, but it were not, every Tom, Dick and Harry would want to hold the baby Pandas which wouldn’t exactly be ideal for their health, not least because they get to eat honey while you hold them. Instead, visitors can file past them and coo from behind a window while a restless rent-a-cop hurries everyone along.
And that’s about it to be honest! There are also Red Pandas at the sanctuary who also eat bamboo in prodigious quantities, but are lot more active, so getting photos of these guys can be hard. It’s worth the effort though as they are pretty cute in their own right!
Another local attraction is the biggest stone Buddha in the world. At 81 metres high, the Leshan Giant Buddha was constructed in 713 AD when a local monk declared that it would calm the river above which it sits. It actually did just this, but mostly due to the amount of rock that was deposited in the river from the construction of the masterpiece.
Apart from being a hell of an impressive feat in its own right, the construction of the Buddha is a technological marvel also. A complex drainage system was built in to the stonework so that water drains through the statue straight in to the river, avoiding the weathering that would otherwise have destroyed the Buddha, particularly since the rock from which he is made is a soft sandstone. Easy to carve; easy to wash away. He is showing his age however, as airborne pollution scours his skin, and the elements are free to attack him directly, since the wooden pagoda that covered his head was destroyed by the Mongols many years ago.
Time keeps ticking. The 30 day visa had become a countdown, so with just enough time to scorch my palate with a fiery Szechuan Hotpot, I hopped on a flight out of Chengdu, across the mountains to the west to Lijiang, one of the most touristy places I have ever had the misfortune of visiting. But that’s next time!