We had not gone away in April, so we (me) thought we should take advantage of a 4 day weekend and go to Chengdu to see the Pandas. 3 of those 4 days were a public holiday… May Day. We were to fly out from Wuxi early Thursday evening, would see the Pandas on Saturday and go to a place called Leshan on the Friday, home late on Sunday evening, relax Monday in Suzhou. That was the plan…
We hadn’t booked anything but our hotel which was within spitting distance of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and while in the airport we booked the train to Leshan. We had been told that drivers were expensive and that it was quite far from Chengdu. We booked the train for Friday 9am… within 5 minutes of booking it, we had an announcement that the flight to Chengdu was delayed. No estimated time of departure. The last time this happened to us, we were flying to Datong, and didn’t get into our hotel until 3am. This time it would also be similar.
Landing in Chengdu, finally, we got a taxi. It being the middle of night we were prepared to be ripped off, but to be fair to the driver, he put his meter on and asked us to phone the hotel. It transpired he wanted us to know we would have to pay a surcharge because a) it was late at night and b) the hotel was miles away and effectively he wanted to be compensated for the return journey back into civilisation. Understandable, and indeed it is a scheme that is backed by the city government. We arrived at the hotel, checked in, woke up early, got a taxi to the station to go to Leshan… only to have a momentous China Moment. Where was the place to pick up the tickets??? Finally we found it, only to be told that we were at the wrong station. We took a taxi to the other station, only to be told (we knew we had missed the train) that there were no more tickets available to Leshan. Leshan only has one train station but two train stations that service it in Chengdu. I, known for my sullen sulks was not happy. I was going to Leshan regardless, and so I booked the driver for 8am the next morning. We then made our way to the Pandas. The books, guides and anyone you ever speak to about the pandas tell you to go early in the morning, certainly before 10am. I was therefore not hopeful of anything as we approached 09.50. I was still annoyed. However, we arrived at the base, and made our way to the first enclosure. Probably they tell you go to early to beat the crowds if nothing else!
Eleanor being small got to the glass first and saw two pandas eating. We made it to the front and I took the selfie of the people behind me. This was a Friday – people were meant to be at work!
We stayed for ages looking at the first enclosure at one panda devouring the bamboo and another panda resting on a rock. The base grows bamboo, but it can’t grow enough to satisfy the pandas voracious appetite.
We then walked on and came to an area that was open with a platform covered in bamboo. One panda was walking towards us as we arrived. Again Eleanor got to the front and we positioned ourselves just behind her. As people moved on, we got to the front. There was one panda high up in the tree who got himself into all sorts of positions before eventually sliding down the tree. They were all fascinating to watch, and I could have stayed there all day. We saw two fighting over bamboo, they were anything but sleepy.
We then moved on, and found the “toddler” enclosure. Again there were plenty of people around, but everyone was quiet just watching these creatures at play. The toddlers were definitely playful. 2 of them fought on a branch, while 1 looked on from above. the others scrambled over the branches completely unaware that they had hundreds of cameras trained on them capturing their every move. We all agreed, this was a special day, and was not like the zoos we have been to in China. This is a breeding place, but also a tourist attraction. The Giant Pandas are well cared for, whilst the public are kept to a distance. My mood had improved.
Lunch was obtained in one of the many eateries on site. As the weather was warming up and we were tired from our previous late night and early morning, we went back to the hotel. Only 5 minutes down the road to the hotel by car but the taxis were fleecing everyone as the waiting taxis refused to put the meter on and wanted a flat, extortionate fee. Eventually we were successful and we were able to spend the afternoon by the pool. I slept while Eleanor swam.
I am betting that prior to me either posting on facebook (if you are a friend and can remember our antics in May) or reading this blog, that you won’t have heard of Leshan, and why I wanted to go. Leshan is where there is a Giant Buddha (Da Fo). At 71 metres or 233ft tall, the statue depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. The figure is a disciple of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. His shoulders are 28 metres wide and his smallest toenail is large enough to easily accommodate a seated person.
Put simply – it is massive. Was it worth 5 hours in a car, most of it in traffic there, and 3 and half hours on the way back and a 1000RMB? Yes. But then I have to say that – I made everyone do it. However, the family agree that it was worth it. We left the hotel at 8am on the Saturday – the first day for people not working on a bank holiday weekend. What should have been a two ish hour journey was five (150km). We weren’t even out of Chengdu when we hit our first traffic jam. We arrived in Leshan at 1pm, we ate at the first place we saw, and were disappointed. I had a traditional Sichuan dish, Kung Po Chicken, a spicy stir-fry dish made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chilli peppers. Supposed to be spicy? It was bland. I am not sure whether they looked at my skin and decided I couldn’t cope with the spiciness, but I was not happy with my choice but we were fed and watered and ready for some sightseeing. From the restaurant we then bought tickets and we were taken by mini van to the start of the park. We entered into caves, a number of caves had small or large buddhas, some carvings were pornographic. Eleanor was marched through them pretty quickly. The others were more child friendly, and we stopped to be typical tourists.
We then moved on, and up through the parklands and forest. We finally got the top, maybe around 3pm. All the guides had said get there early…finally it dawned on us why… This was a 2 hour wait, in the heat with an 8 year old with no promise of an adrenaline fuelled roller coaster at the end.
We very nearly ducked out, but we persevered and finally we made our way down the precipitous passageway of 250 steps, which zigzags through 9 turns (Nine Turn Walkway). Not for the faint hearted.
A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the Leshan Giant Buddha when it was built. It is still in working order. It includes drainage pipes carved into various places on the body, to carry away the water after the rains so as to reduce weathering.
When the Giant Buddha was carved, a huge thirteen storey wood structure was built to shelter it from rain and sunshine. This structure was destroyed by the Mongols during the wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. From then on, the stone statue was exposed to the elements. (wikipedia/Lonely Planet) You can also do a boat journey along the river which gives you a different view of the Buddha. Perhaps if it had not been so busy, we may have contemplated that for a different view.
By 5.30pm we were back in the car and at 8.30pm back in the hotel devouring the buffet.
On the Sunday, we weren’t flying until 8pm, so we decided to go into the centre of Chengdu, ostensibly to get a Starbucks mug for the collection. We took a taxi from the hotel into the centre. We avoided traffic, but were struck by the amount of cars on the side of the road by the panda base… We were lucky to have gone on the Friday.
We went to People’s Park, the Lonely Planet Guide suggested He Ming Teahouse which is “always busy, but rarely overcrowded, this is one of Chengdu’s most pleasant and popular spots to while away an afternoon over a bottomless cup of flower tea. The menu is in English. Having your ears cleaned is optional.” We found it, well Martin found it, we ordered and found a table quite easily. 2 hours later we got up to go and find lunch.
Our bottomless cups were flasks of hot water that were refilled when asked. We had brought some nuts with us as a snack and we people watched people who were also people watching and watching people getting their ears cleaned. I was fascinated by the practice, but not fascinated enough to have a try. The older generation just sat there whiling away the time too, some with family, others with their husbands – there was no conversation, just tea drinking.
Starbucks was found, we had a pie for lunch and the mug was duly obtained. I also went on a Starbucks hunt at the airport as we found out that Leshan also has a mug. It was duly purchased as well. Our panda collection also expanded. Top right is my panda from when I was a baby. Top left is the one that was purchased for Eleanor at the panda base, the bottom two were given to Eleanor by the hotel, and the middle left is one that came from Edinburgh zoo, and the middle right is a puppet given to Eleanor by a hotel in Hong Kong. At 6 pandas we are stopping. The mug collection is now over 60…we aren’t stopping there. Will we travel in China on a public holiday again? Maybe not.