Monday, July 18, 2011

Chengdon'ts in Chengdu!

May's trip was particularly special because one of my best friends, Lauren, accompanied me. Lauren was supposed to visit in June, and we had planned to travel to Thailand. Then I was told I would be summering in Malaysia, so those plans went out the window. Lauren was able to change her ticket and come to Hong Kong earlier. We decided that, with less time, we would forgo Thailand and see the giant panda in Chengdu, China. A few people had said that Chengdu is hard to get around without speaking Mandarin, but I ignored them. I knew people who had been there who did not speak Mandarin and they enjoyed it. Plus, I wanted to hold a baby panda. Language was not going to stop me.

The day before I left a man at the office asked me how I was going to communicate with the people. I told him that it would not be a problem. He chuckled and said OK. Another lady did not say anything about the language barrier but made a face of disgust when I told her that I was going to Chengdu. She informed me that "Pandas' butts are dirty." This revelation forced me to yet again change my plans, as I no longer wanted to play with panda butts.

After a great few days in Hong Kong, Lauren and I took off for Chengdu. I was looking forward to a relaxing trip. I thought we would stay at a nice hotel, escape the heat of Hong Kong, see some pandas and enjoy the city.

The man sitting next to me on the plane asked me if I spoke Mandarin. When I told him no, he asked how was I going to communicate with the people. After being asked this question for the second time, I began to get a little nervous. The man offered to help us get a cab upon landing, and I immediately started thinking of the movie Taken. But my gut told me he was not in an Albanian gang (and I am alive to write about it). He told the cab driver where we were going and did not come back to kidnap and force us into prostitution.

Chengdu was gloomy, gray and overcast. I was surprised that at our hotel nobody spoke English. Getting information out of the concierge took forever because of our lack of Mandarin and her lack of English. Somehow we managed to get some recommendations for places to eat and things to do. The next few days were not necessarily relaxing, but they were fun. We ate Sichuan food, explored, shopped and experienced the joy of squat style toilets sans toilet paper. (Always wipe with your left hand!) Meals were always a bit stressful because we did not know what we were eating. We lucked out in one restaurant that had an English menu. Another restaurant had communal seating, and the other people at our table happened to be visiting from Hong Kong and helped us order. Oddly enough, the place where we had the most trouble was my favorite restaurant, Pizza Hut. I thought Lauren was going to strangle out waitress.

As usual I did make a purchase on this trip! It might be the best purchase of the year – a panda costume, complete with paws.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Chengdu Panda Base. Actually, following some advice, we arrived when it opened. It was not yet crowded, and the pandas were out for feeding time and not hiding from the public. After watching some pandas chow down on breakfast, we dashed to the nursery to hold a baby panda. While we waited in the short line, we paid the fee, which goes to panda conservation, and put on scrubs: a surgical smock, plastic covers for your feet and plastic gloves. I was a bit disappointed about the gloves because I wanted to feel the panda's fur. The panda was so calm. He did not seem to mind being held. He was gnawing on a stalk of bamboo dipped in honey so that might be the reason for his mellow disposition. I asked five times what his name was but could not understand the reply of the panda keeper. So I decided to call him Kim Jong Panda. I think it goes well with Chairman Meow. Lauren wanted to steal Kim Jong Panda, but he was too large to fit in her purse. We each got to hold Kim Jong Panda for three minutes and take some photos with him, and then we explored the rest of the grounds. I am happy to report that the Kim Jong Panda's butt was not dirty. No skid marks on my surgical smock.
The Panda Base is well manicured and an enjoyable place to walk. There are peacocks wandering the grounds and a few red panda enclosures. The red pandas cool but not as exciting as the giant pandas.

The remainder of the trip was spent with Winnie, the tour guide we hired to make things less of a struggle. Winnie took us to the giant Buddha, the wet market in Leshan, Mt. Emei and, finally, a performance of the famous Sichuan mask-changing opera, Bian Lian.

The Buddha is the largest carved stone Buddha in the world and a beautiful site. You can climb it, but we viewed it from a boat, avoided the crowds and got a better view of it. The only drawback of the boat is you are forced to wear a large life preserver.

It was fascinating to walk through the wet market and observe the local people buying their food.(. . .wet market = open food market). Definitely different than a trip to Farmer Jack. (My Michigan roots are showing. Farmer Jack was the first grocery store that popped into my head… and it doesn't even exist anymore).

Mt Emei is beautiful. There are Buddhist monasteries to tour, cable cars to ride, trails to hike and out-of-control animals to dodge. Beware, the mules and monkeys are dangerous. The mules trot up and down the mountain carrying supplies to the monasteries – and they will run you over. They are not on leads or harnesses. The monkeys are just plain scary. I have never seen Lauren scared of any animal. I have seen her feed diseased dogs in third-world countries. When a monkey approached she said, “Let's get the f*ck out of here!”

Bian Lian was touristy but really fun. The performers change masks right in front of your face in a millisecond. As we sat in our Morticia Adam's chair, we were served tea, and for a few RMBs more, you can also get a massage while you watch the opera. Lauren even agreed during this performance that Chengdu was better than Thailand. Of course, she had had a few lychee martinis in her.
I am glad that we went to Chengdu, and it is on my recommended list, but have a Mandarin speaker with you or hire a guide.


  1. i would definitely be agreeable to having a baby panda as a wedding gift :) ~ anna

  2. Sounds amazing and I am sooo jealous that you held a panda.
    When you get a chance take a look at my blog (shameless plug)