One of the most pleasant areas of China to explore randomly, eastern Sichuan is focused around CHENGDU (成都, chéngdū), the relaxed provincial capital. Famed not least for its fiery cuisine, the city offers a number of easy excursions to nearby sights. Set on the western side of the Red Basin, Chengdu is a determinedly modern city, full of traffic, high-rise department stores and residential blocks. But it’s also a cheerful place: seasonal floral displays and ubiquitous ginkgo trees lend colour to its many excellent parks, rubbish is scrupulously collected, and the population is also nicely laidback, enjoying its teahouse culture at every opportunity and unfazed by this being interpreted as laziness by other Chinese.
Chengdu was styled Brocade City in Han times, when the urban elite were buried in elegantly decorated tombs, and its silk travelled west along the caravan routes as far as imperial Rome. A refuge for the eighth-century Tang emperor Xuan Zong after his army mutinied over his infatuation with the beautiful concubine Yang Guifei, the city later became a printing centre, producing the world’s first paper money. Sacked by the Mongols in 1271, Chengdu recovered soon enough to impress Marco Polo with its busy artisans and handsome bridges, since when it has survived similar cycles of war and restoration to become a major industrial, educational and business centre. There are some downsides – the city’s traffic congestion and pollution can be atrocious – but on the whole it’s not hard to spend a couple of days in Chengdu touring historical monuments, spiking your taste buds on one of China’s most outstanding cuisines, and getting close-up views of locally bred pandas. Further afield, you can make day-trips out to the picturesque Qing-dynasty market town Huanglongxi or organize a flight or train to Tibet.Read More
HUANGLONGXI (黄龙溪古城, huánglóng xī gŭchéng), 40km south of Chengdu, is a riverside village with a half-dozen Qing-dynasty streets, all narrow, flagstoned and sided in rickety wooden shops. Tourism aside – and visitor numbers are frankly overwhelming at weekends or during holidays – it’s a pretty place, also popular with old ladies coming to pray for grandchildren to Guanyin, to whom all the village’s temples are dedicated.
The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
Two animals share the name panda: the giant panda, black-eyed symbol of endangered species worldwide; and the unrelated, racoon-like red panda, to which the Nepalese name “panda” was originally applied in the West. The Chinese call the giant panda da xiongmao, meaning “big bear-cat”.
News of giant pandas first reached Europe in the nineteenth century through the French zoologist and traveller Père Armand David, who came across a skin in China in 1869. They are decidedly odd creatures, bearlike, endowed with a carnivore’s teeth and a digestive tract poorly adapted to their largely vegetarian diet. Though once widespread in southwestern China, they’ve probably never been very common, and today their endangered status is a result of human encroachment combined with the vagaries of their preferred food – fountain bamboo – which periodically flowers and dies off over huge areas, leaving the animals to make do with lesser shrubs and carrion, or starve. Half of Sichuan’s panda habitat was lost to logging between 1974 and 1989, which, coupled with the results of a bamboo flowering during the 1980s, reduced the total wild population to just over a thousand animals, scattered through reserves in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou.
Some 8km northeast of central Chengdu, the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (大熊猫繁育研究基地, dàxióngmāo fányù yánjiū jīdì) offers close-up views of both giant and arboreal red pandas. Perhaps uniquely for China, this zoo is a pleasant place, full of lawns for visitors and spacious pens for the animals, who are fed truckloads of fresh bamboo by concerned staff. Try to get here early, as the pandas slump into a stupor after munching their way through piles of bamboo at around 10am.
Sichuan opera – known here as chuanxi – is a rustic variant on Beijing’s, based on everyday events and local legends. Most pieces are performed in Sichuanese, a rhythmic dialect well suited to theatre, which allows for humour and clever wordplay to shine through. As well as the usual bright costumes, stylized action and glass-cracking vocals, chuanxi has two specialities: fire-breathing and rapid face-changing, where the performers – apparently simply by turning around or waving their arms across their faces – completely change their make-up.
Today, chuanxi has gone into a decline as a form of popular entertainment, and most locals are not much interested. There are several places to catch a show around town, however, catering to tourists with nightly variety shows featuring short opera scenes, fire-breathing and face-changing, comedy skits, puppetry, shadow-lantern play and storytelling. These are pretty enjoyable and you might even catch occasional full-length operas. Venues include Shufeng Yayun (蜀风雅韵, shŭfēng yăyùn) in the Cultural Park (enter off Qintai Lu); the Ming-style open-air stage at the end of Jin Li, near Wuhou Ci; and the downtown Jinjiang Theatre (锦江川戏馆, jǐnjiāng chuānxìguăn) in a lane north of Shangdong Jie.