Bamboo branches and the pandas who eat them
The next stage of our journey moved us deeper into the country to south western Sichuan Province. Known for its spicy cuisine and more recently, tragically, as the epicentre of the devastating earthquake of May 2008, Sichuan – specifically Chengdu and the Giant Panda – is one of the country’s biggest draws. It was primarily for the endangered bear that we travelled to Chengdu because, to be fair, there’s not much else to write home about in the regional capital.
After the relatively modest accommodation afforded in Yangshuo, and before we headed into deepest, darkest Xinjiang, I decided that a couple of nights at Chengdu’s Kempinski Hotel wouldn’t do us any harm. A number of contributing factors had led me to this particular establishment, primary among them its proximity to the Chengdu chapter of my favourite watering hole – The Bookworm. Chengdu is very much a “modern” Chinese city; it has its luxury brand stores (Gucci again topping the list), top 5 star hotels (enter, stage left, The Kempinksi, Shangri-la and Sheraton hotels) and…a giant statue of Chairman Mao in People’s Square. The Great Helmsman stands there, resplendent in flowing winter overcoat and waving in silent benediction to the masses, most of whom are not even aware of his presence. Like I said, a modern Chinese city.
On the Thursday morning we rose early to go to the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, only 30 – 45 minutes from the hotel. More famous is the Wolong Panda Reserve, but at 3hrs out of the city it didn’t seem practical to visit. Not when you consider that Panda’s are essentially lazy creatures who tend to doze off mid-morning after their breakfast. I know how they feel! So off we popped with our driver, Mr Zhou (I think that was his name – it could have been Chou but he spoke Mandarin with a regional accent so it was hard to tell) who helped us gain entry into the centre (they spell it one way, I another) with a wodge of 2008 tickets. I love China. People can be so resourceful when they have a surplus of something (former U.S. President George.W. Bush might want to take note).
It wasn’t long before we caught a glimpse of our first Giant Panda. They really are terrific animals and, a little like an ice-cream on a hot day, never fail to bring a smile to your face. Having said that, it’s little wonder they’re on the WWF endangered species list. First of all, they’re quite solitary animals and tend to not enjoy the company of others. Secondly, in a cruel twist of fate, they’re essentially herbivores with the digestive tract of carnivores. You have to wonder if God was tired at the end of a long day and added the panda to his “Let’s See What Happens If…” list, joining salmon and their ritual of reproduction. And nothing puts a smile on your face than the sight of nine or ten panda cubs falling over each other as they romp around their enclosure. There was an option to have a photo taken with a baby panda (I paid for the privilege of holding a koala once when in Australia) but the exorbitant cost put me off somewhat. In related news it apparently costs approximately US$1m per annum for zoos to “hire” a panda. Expensive beasts.
After a while though the smile begins to fade, the ice-cream melts or your wine gets warm. Either way, you’ve had enough. So we headed back into town to spend the afternoon resting before an evening sampling the local speciality – hot pot.
I am a huge fan of hot pot. Many aren’t. My partner Daniel doesn’t see the point or nutritional value of eating boiled meat but then he’s not right all the time. However, on this occasion there was a slight problem which dawned on me after we sat down in a chain restaurant that I knew from Beijing. I had never ordered hot pot in my life. Not once. Every time I’ve been out for it someone else has ordered for me and so, although I could read the menu well enough, I had no idea what anything was! Luckily no-one else in the Group had the faintest idea what to expect anyway so it wasn’t very hard to make believe that everything I ordered was normal. The cow’s stomach was harder to cover up but, naturally, I got out of it by arguing that what I had said was “I don’t want tripe” and clearly the serving staff had simply focused on the fact that I had said “tripe”. It’s easy to get confused when foreigners speak Chinese don’t you know? A total disaster from my point of view and a clear indication that the next time I go for hot pot I should pay attention to whoever orders.
To end the piece and, to go full circle, we found ourselves in The Bookworm after supper for a much needed gin, beer, wine and brandy. There is something tremendous about an establishment that can give you the same feeling upon entry as the more familiar venue located over 1,100 miles away. I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that The Bookworm in Chengdu and, specifically Pete Goff (The Bookworm co-owner) played a pivotal role in relief efforts after the May 12 earthquake. More information here: Sichuan Quake Relief. Such a great place.
“China Experience” Rating: 10/10
How could you not give it 10/10? There’s luxury brands, iconic pandas, the (usually not-disastrous) dining experience…and Chairman Mao.