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China: Beijing, Chengdu, Guilin, Shanghai, Xian
Chengdu, China: In the province of the Giant Pandas
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Off the 1500 or so Giant Pandas surviving all over the world, over 130 are happily settled in the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre. On the verge of becoming extinct, Giant Panda have got a new lease of life - thanks to the efforts of various Panda breeding programs in China and few other select countries.
Generally speaking, Giant Pandas are gentle animals and if left undisturbed are harmless. Strict vegetarians (though in the wild they have been known to eat meat) they live on bamboo shoots. An adult Panda consumes about 40 kgs. of stuff every day. When they don't eat, they laze around. Cubs are more active though. I saw them use their buts to slide down slopes! With a life span of about 20 years, sex is not a priority to Giant Pandas. Females can conceive only on a particular day once a year. If the guys miss it, that's it.
Giant Pandas would give birth to about 8 or 9 offspring in their lifetime. One baby at a time. Twins are known to be born, but usually only one survives. Looks like China's one child per family has been taken very seriously by these beautiful creatures too. At birth these big animals weigh less than 100 grams. Spotless white at birth they get their black spots over the next few months.
Capital city of the picturesque Sichuan province, Chengdu is a 60 minute flight from Xian. The city has a history going back 2300 years. It's surrounded by mountains all around hence fog and cloud usually hangs on the city. My English speaking guide, June Chen (she was born in that month and thought that was a good English name) was at the airport with her driver to receive me. The drive to the city centre was about 30 minutes. Taxi would have charged about RMB 70 while the bus just RMB 10. I was hosted at Xin Liang Hotel and was promptly ushered to my room on the 18th floor. The room was well appointed but unfortunately despite the height it offered no good view save for buildings all around. Good night.
At 8:30 AM the next morning we left to the Giant Panda Breeding Centre. While the distance was just 15 kms. the rush hour extended our drive to about 40 minutes. The Centre is almost a bamboo forest spread over sprawling 35 hectares. There are 14 enclosures. Only a few are accessible to the public. Giant Pandas are segregated by their age… adults, teens & cubs. There's also an enclosure for Pandas - watch my word, I said just Pandas - they are almost red, much smaller and pretty active. The black & white ones with sunglasses are known as Giant Pandas. Pardon my ignorance as I was not well versed with Giant Panda & Panda lingo.
The breeding centre has a state-of-the-art maternity ward for the Giant Pandas. When the to-be Giant Panda mothers approach labour, they are shifted to special wards. There every movement is watched with care being taken that the delivery goes off well. Newborns have their own incubators. Apart from mother's milk the babies are fed with vitamin enriched milk. As they grow their diet is supplemented with eggs and later bamboo shoots.
Couple of hours is easily spent in this tranquil centre which also has a lake that's dotted with water birds, colourful fish and lotus flowers in different shades. A 15-minute documentary on Giant Pandas is worth watching. By the way, you can hold a Giant Panda to take a picture but that would cost RMB 1000. I let go the option. Entry fee to the centre is RMB 58. Money well spent.
From the Giant Panda Centre we headed towards the city to visit the Wenshu Temple. This is Chengdu's oldest and the largest Buddhist temple that was built during the Tang Dynasty. It was rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty. The complex is a fine example of Chinese architecture especially the exquisite relief carvings. Within the premises there's a school that imparts knowledge on Buddhism to disciples, most of whom have given away their worldly wealth to become monks. There's also a school that teaches Chinese calligraphy and music that's played on ancient instruments.
I was fascinated with the restaurant that was also within the complex. It was strict vegetarian save for eggs. The menu card read like any another Chinese restaurant with cuisine associated with chicken, duck, beef, pork, fish, et all… the food was made to look and taste similar to the original… but using vegetarian ingredients. I certainly recommended a try. I had my lunch there.
Tea houses are a common sight in Chengdu. Locals spend hours in tea houses chatting, relaxing, reading… anything that brings them back to the good old days. It is believed that Chengdu ranks amongst the top Chinese destinations to migrate for good. The Wenshu Temple has a tea house too. Entrance to the temple premises is just RMB 5.
30-minute drive from the temple got me to the famous Jinli Old Street. Actually it's not a street. It's an entire village that was built in 2004 but in traditional style of Sichuan Province of the Qing Dynasty. The village takes you back to China's charming past as you make your way through stores of Chinese curios, folk art performers and food kiosks. After walking around the village for about 90 minutes I headed back to the hotel.
That evening, I explored Chunxi Lu, an area very near to our hotel but exclusively reserved for pedestrians. Paved squares, wide streets, illuminated store fronts, restaurants offering world cuisine immediately reminded me of Europe… well not as expensive but not cheap either. Contrary to popular belief, shopping in malls is not cheap. Yes, you can certainly save money by finding shopping centres that house scores and scores of small shops. Every neighbourhood would have one if not more.
Next morning we left the hotel at 9AM to begin our 2 hour journey (about 140 kms.) to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha carved in a cliff. Leshan looked to me like an industrial town. The growth was natural as the town is situated at the convergence of 3 rivers. These rivers provided the town with efficient transport system to ferry their produce around China. Even today, waterway is an important mode. Sichuan Province alone has over 1300 rivers and tributaries thus making the land around very fertile. The Province is known as the 'Land of Abundance' due to a healthy growth of fruit, vegetables and grain.
In the early 8th century lot of fishermen and traders lost their lives due to the rapid flow and turbulence at the conjunction of the 3 rivers. Haitang, a monk, dreamt that if Buddha was carved on the cliffs of the bank, it would protect the travelers. Funds were raised and work began in 713AD and the statue of the Buddha was ready in 803AD. It is a fact, that since then, there have been no mishaps at the location. The statue stands 205 feet tall, its head is 45 feet high and width is majestic 30 feet. The statue is the largest of its kind in the world. Well, earlier the credit went to the Buddha statue in Afghanistan, which was destroyed by the Taliban forces.
Despite the fact the cliff is sandstone which is very susceptible to erosion, nothing has happened to the statue. The main reasons being that the statue has been carved deep inside and that provision for water seepage has been made. Water collects on the head of and runs down from the shoulders without affecting the statue. And of course, the strong belief that who could destroy mighty Buddha?
There are two options to visit the location of the statue. Take a cruise that costs RMB 70. The two-deck boat goes all the way to the foothills giving a complete view of the massive carving. The boat then turns around and crossed to the other side of the bank giving a fine view of the mountain that resembles the shape of sleeping Buddha. Alternatively, you could walk your way. Once there steep flight of stairs will take you up giving you a birds eye view. The way the steps were made, I am sure it would need plenty of energy and time to complete the round. Of course, I opted for the waterway.
Before driving back to the airport, I made a little detour to Chengdu town since I had some time on hand before I could catch my flight to Guilin. Jude took me to a garden called People's Park. Of course the entry was free. I was amazed to see the nice landscapes, manicured gardens, a lake with boating facilities and above all many groups of people singing and dancing. On select days of the week, people from the neighbourhood bring their musical instruments, microphones and speakers to create and enjoy their music. This works well for middle aged folks as this doubles up as a mode of exercise. There are many such parks in Chengdu. And sure enough the park also had a tea house.
Chengdu is indeed a laid back city.
Chengdu Image Gallery Photo viewer
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