I was hurrying down the corridors of Panda Story Cinema when something stopped me in my tracks: A video of a pair of newborn panda cubs. It was the first time I had set eyes on newborn cubs, and I did a double take. They were very tiny, pink and virtually hairless – no remote resemblance to the cuddly giant pandas that we are all familiar with.
This was the first of many delightful encounters I had during a media trip to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in China.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was the first stop on our itinerary. Just 10km from downtown Chengdu, this sprawling 100ha sanctuary houses the world’s largest population of captive-bred giant pandas and red pandas (which look more like raccoons).
Wild bamboo forests, brooks, a lake and man-made caves simulate the panda’s natural habitat. Clusters of towering bamboo provide much welcome shade along the walkways that meander through the open enclosures.
Pandas are most active in the morning, so that’s a good time to visit the base. These bears are known to be quiet and solitary by nature but, boy, are they playful. I heard a young panda squeak and honk as it played on a climbing frame. It worked its way to the top, and turned around in circles, trying to figure a way down. As it headed down a vertical flank, it lost its balance and tumbled to the ground. Seconds later, it was up on the climbing frame again.
Giant pandas are a delight to watch, whether they are playing or crunching heaps of bamboo. They eat while sitting upright, clutching the bamboo stem with their five fingers and an extended wrist bone that works like a thumb.
I could hang around for hours watching these cute bears, but we had a packed schedule and soon it was time to leave.
The panda base is a must-visit if you are in Chengdu. It is a remarkable showcase of the country’s hugely successful breeding programme for giant pandas. The base boasts the largest giant panda sperm bank in the world, and has bred 165 pandas to date.
The following day, we visited the Jinsha Site Museum which sits on an archaeological dig site. Jinsha was the capital of the Shu kingdom, which was one of the Three Kingdoms in ancient China. Large palace foundations, and ceremonial and burial pits dating back some 3,000 years, have been discovered over a stretch of 5sqkm. Excavation is ongoing and, to date, more than 6,000 artefacts including gold, jade, bronze, stone and ceramic ware have been unearthed, together with tonnes of ivory and thousands of boar tusks and deer horns.
The museum, 7km from the city centre, sits on a lovely 300,000sqm park. The relics hall features one of the most important excavation areas – the ritual site. Most of the artefacts were excavated here. The site was well-labelled with nuggets of information that piqued my interest in a highly developed ancient civilisation that once prospered here.
The exhibition hall nearby displays the main artefacts found at the site. The exhibits are well organised, with just the right dose of information to fuel visitor interest. Very impressive, indeed.
Next on our list was the Leshan Giant Buddha and Mount Emei, both Unesco World Heritage Sites. Leshan is about 150km from Chengdu. Its biggest attraction is the 71m towering Buddha, carved out of a cliff at the confluence of the Dadu, Min and Qingyi rivers.
The immensity of the Buddha is best viewed from a boat, so we boarded one at the wharf, and headed downstream. After a short ride, the boat turned around and stopped in front of the cliff.
Here we were, face-to-face with the largest stone Buddha in the world. It’s sheer size blew us away. Built during the Tang Dynasty 1,200 years ago, it has withstood the ravages of time, thanks to an innovative drainage system inside the body that mitigates weathering. It took thousands of men and 90 years to complete work on this cultural icon which has been drawing crowds ever since. The Giant Buddha faces Mount Emei, our next destination.
The first Buddhist temple in China was built on the summit of Mount Emei more than 2,000 years ago. Today, dozens of temples dot the slopes of this 3,099m mountain.
The view from the main peak, Golden Summit, is said to be spectacular. But heavy mist obscured our view that afternoon.
Nevertheless, it felt almost surreal walking amidst drifting mist high up in the mountain, wrapped in the splendour of nature. The crisp air, short mountain hike and thrilling cable car ride made it an unforgettable experience.
On the last day of our tour, we hit the road to Taoping Qiang Village. Located 160km west of Chengdu, this 2,000-year-old Qiang minority settlement is an architectural wonder. It has survived major earthquakes through the centuries. The 7.9-magnitude Sichuan earthquake of 2008 reduced entire villages to rubble, but Taoping village, 20km from the epicentre, remained unscathed.
The village is characterised by blocks of five-storey stonehouses, a labyrinth of alleys and three imposing watchtowers. Spring water from the mountains is channelled to every household via a network of hidden trenches. This elaborate water system cools down the houses, quells any fires, and serves as an escape route from enemies in the days of old.
The honesty and warmth of the village folk shone through as they chatted with tourists who stopped at their stalls to pick up souvenirs and fruits. They leave visitors with endearing memories of a humble village where age-old values are dear to heart.
Besides tourist attractions, Chengdu is a haven for shoppers and foodies. Our four-day tour of Chengdu was packed with one gastronomic adventure after another. We had our fill of some of Sichuan’s finest cuisine, and I miss their succulent tea-smoked duck, delectable Ma Po tofu, spicy Dan Dan noodles, and aromatic green tea.
Indeed, this mega-city has so much to offer that my first visit leaves me hungering for more.
The writer’s trip was hosted by Dorsett Grand Chengdu and AirAsia X. AirAsia X flies from Kuala Lumpur to Chengdu daily. Visit www.airasia.com for details.