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By all accounts Chengdu, the fifth largest city in China with a population of 14 million, has a laid-back ambiance with a relaxing teahouse culture, a cool nightlife that includes craft-beer bars and trendy clubs, amazing food (if you like your food super-hot), and Sichuan opera performances. It sounds awesome doesn’t it? I think I should go there. Oh wait . . . . I did go there. I wasn’t there long enough to discover the teahouse culture or the hip clubs and bars, or the easy-going atmosphere, but I did catch a little of what Chengdu has to offer.

We strolled around the ubiquitous People’s Park. Every city in China has a People’s Park and they are much used by the local population. In Chengdu it’s no different. The Chengdu People’s Park is a large elegant green space in the centre of the city

with teahouses, lotus ponds, walking paths, and boating on the lake.

The park is where the locals join groups to sing and play traditional opera, or practice Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, ribbon twirling, or aerobics, or get together with friends to sing karaoke, or play cards

or Chinese Chess.

The People’s Parks are where everyone congregates to gossip and chat, to catch up on the news and each other’s lives, or to try to find a husband for their daughter or a wife for their son. It’s the Chinese equivalent of online dating, except it’s done by the parents: of daughters who are still single at the age of 28 and sadly considered “leftovers” such is the pressure in China for people to marry. And of sons, where the situation is perhaps a little more urgent.

Because in the past so very many female babies were aborted there is a huge surplus of young men. I’m mildly appalled, and admittedly mildly amused by this. What did they think would happen? Perhaps all these surplus men could swallow their pride and marry an over-the-hill 28-year-old spinster. If she would want to marry at all of course. There is a movement now among young women who are realising that, despite pressure from parents and society, they actually don’t have to.

These days in China you need to be a pretty special young man to merit a wife. Does he have a good education? A good job? A car? An apartment? And in Chengdu, where it’s apparently easy to get an apartment, personality and character are also considered. These parents are advertising their children in hopes of finding a spouse for their stubborn daughter or their surplus son.

Later we take a local bus from our hotel. It’s a long ride – nine stops and Peter, our guide, gives us warning that the next one is ours. A little before dusk we walk along the busy leafy streets of the inner city

to Jinli Snack Street in a restored part of Old Chengdu. We’re there for dinner; it’s the night I find drool-worthy battered-deep-fried spiralled potato. Bhakti, Thea and I go exploring. Jinli, it turns out, is not just one street of take-out food stalls,

but a labyrinth of red-lanterned streets

along which numerous small shops and stalls selling souvenirs and mysteries

compete for customers from the crowds who are mainly there it seems to get their food and end up here,

a large open space where everyone can gather to drink beer or tea, chew the fat (hopefully not literally) or disappear into their phones. This is the Chengdu I’d read about.

Oh yeah. We also saw a few pandas in Chengdu. Just one or two. Or three or four. Oh dozens actually. Nothing much. Just dozens of pandas eating sticks of bamboo, rolling around playing with each other, climbing trees, sleeping. Less than ten feet away. It was nothing really. You didn’t miss anything.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding covers 247 acres, 96% of which is green space. It has been developed to imitate the natural habitat of these unique bears, and create the best possible environment for rearing and breeding.

The non-profit research centre is concerned with the protection and breeding of China’s endangered wild animals and has been remarkably successful at breeding pandas. A large part of the acreage at the Base is dedicated space to accustom the bears to their natural habitat so they can be released back into the wild. As of 2017 over 170 Giant Pandas are housed there.

It is estimated there are about 2000 pandas in the wild, 70% of them in Sichuan. They are considered vulnerable but no longer endangered.

I have to say that our first introduction to the Base is not good. Before you get to the open spaces where the majority of the pandas live you pass by some indoor housing. I’m appalled to see two different rooms, one with one panda and another with two, where there’s so much poop on the floors that the bears are walking in it. I don’t know why these bears are being kept isolated: perhaps illness, perhaps something to do with the breeding program. Whatever the reason I’m dismayed at the state of their housing. Perhaps, because we’ve arrived quite early in the day the enclosures have not yet been cleaned. One can only hope so.

Things improve greatly after this. The open-air enclosures are huge, covering many acres. We arrive at breakfast time. The bears are fed great mounds of sticks from a specific species of bamboo, and they are fed close to the fences so they can be easily seen.

Of course I’m immediately completely captivated. There’s nothing in the world quite like them and I wonder why a panda makes one’s heart melt whereas a grizzly fills it with trepidation and awe. Perhaps I lived too long in the Canadian wilderness and heard too many scary bear stories. And have a few of my own.

Pandas are like koalas and sloths. They’re basically lazy and don’t do anything much but eat and sleep. This one couldn’t even be bothered to sit up to eat.

When they’ve finished eating they climb into the trees and have a little nap.

The research base also houses red pandas, which are not pandas at all. They had previously been placed in the bear and racoon families, but now are the only living species of the family Ailuridae. So neither racoon nor bear but just as cute.

There is a small lake, and a colony of black-necked cranes, and two pairs of Australian black swans.

It’s a pretty lake surrounded by greenery, and the swans are all coal-black elegance, but there’s no doubt that it’s the pandas that are the stars of this show. If I wasn’t in Chengdu long enough to really get a feel for the relaxed ambiance of the city I certainly got a feel for it at the panda base. You don’t get much more relaxed than a well-fed panda.

Next post: Sichuan opera – truly one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen even if much was lost in translation.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.