Pandas, spicy Sichuan food, a big-ass Buddha, and a couple of charming ancient neighborhoods – that’s all you need to know about Chengdu.
Did you stop reading after the word “panda?” That’s the only thing I needed to hear to convince me to book a trip to Chengdu. Because c’mon, we’re talking about giant living teddy bears, and it’s the only place on earth where you can get up close and personal by volunteering with them. And if you’re lucky, you might even get sexually harassed by a panda!
Pandas Pandas Pandas!
There are two primary places to see pandas in and around Chengdu:
1. Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is China’s main panda facility and it’s only about 30 minutes from city center. At this beautifully landscaped, park-like panda base, you can see adorable baby pandas (eeeeee!), scores of gigantic adults munching on bamboo shoots, mamas playfully wrestling with their young, and twins climbing trees together. It’s laid out very intelligently so that you can get quite close to pandas without disturbing them. There are also elusive red pandas, which are damn cute. It’ll take a minimum of 2 hours to see all the pandas, but you can easily spend the whole day just watching them eat and play.
Pro tip: get there at 7:30 A.M., right when then park opens. The pandas are most active and visible in the early morning when they’re fed and it’s coolest. The park also gets packed with visitors as the day goes on. If you get there early, you’ll avoid the crowds.
2. Dujiangyan Panda Base is located about a 1.5 hour drive outside of Chengdu, and it’s where you can volunteer with pandas. Set in peaceful, mist-shrouded hills, this center is quite different from the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, and has far fewer visitors. This serene center has a hospital and quarantine area to treat and rehabilitate injured wild pandas, a retirement community for elderly pandas, a research center, and lots of enclosures for pandas that are returning to or leaving China. Here, you get to spend a lot of quiet time with the pandas…and without big, noisy crowds.
Volunteering is an incredible way to get some once-in-lifetime close-encounters with pandas while also helping them. The highlight for me was hand-feeding bamboo to some gentle, adolescent pandas. Oh man, just being next to them is amazing, but putting shoots directly into their mouths and having them reach out to grab bamboo out of your hand will melt your heart. You’ll spend the rest of the day clearing old bamboo from outdoor enclosures, restocking fresh bamboo, sweeping, and scooping poop (which does not smell at all, thus confirming that pandas are the most perfect animals on earth).
And you never know – you might even get goosed. While bent over and picking up bamboo leaves, I felt a big hand gently pat my butt. After spontaneously levitating several feet, I saw that the culprit was a playful panda who had pushed open a floor-level window and reached through it to cop a feel.
You too can have the chance to get sexually harassed by pandas by volunteering at Dujiangyan Panda Base. It’s easiest to book through an agent who will handle all the transport, fees and medical certification for you. I used West China Go – they were super responsive, affordable and professional.
To qualify for volunteering, you’ve got to get a comprehensive health check with blood tests to certify that you don’t have any communicable diseases, and have your doctor fill out and stamp their forms. (Oddly, they also require an HIV test. Do they think someone is going to try to have sex with a panda?!) When you book your volunteering stint, your booking agent will email you the forms for your doctor to fill out.
Volunteers also have the option of booking a photo with a panda, but it’s expensive. For roughly $265USD, you’ll get 20 seconds to sit next to a friendly panda on a bench and pet him/her. Normally, I’d never endorse a douchy photo-op with a wild animal since it supports the illegal wildlife trade and enslaves innocent animals, but that’s not the case with these pandas. There’s no panda trade – there are only 1500 in the wild, and they’re well protected. These pandas have been hand-raised by humans and are so fixated on eating their bamboo that they don’t even notice that someone is sitting beside them, grinning like a nutball while a camera snaps away. And all the money goes toward helping pandas.
When not being molested by pandas, check out Kuanzhai Xiangzi (which means “wide and narrow alley”), and Jinli Pedestrian Street. Both are beautifully restored ancient districts bustling with restaurants, chili shops, Chinese opera, tea houses and glowing red lanterns. Kuanzhai Xiangzi is the more authentic of the two since it features some original buildings from the 1600s. There you can see Chengdu’s famous mask-changing dance, check out puppet shows and enjoy their unique street art. The area is quite beautiful at night when it’s all lit up.
Located beside the Wuhou Temple is Jinli Pedestrian Street. This street has been bustling ever since 220BC. It’s been totally recreated from scratch, so it has an interesting new-but-old feel to it. In addition to sampling all the food stalls and buying weapons-grade hot chilis, you can also get your ears cleaned in front of a tea shop. This is a very weird offering specific to Chengdu, and all the locals LOVE IT and swear by it. (Despite our local friends’ urging, we did not partake.) I liked Jinli best in the daytime, and the Wide and Narrow Alley at night.
Note: almost no taxi driver speaks or reads English, so take this photo with you and point to the place you want them to take you:
Prepare for numb lips
Sichuan is famous for its spicy oils, a huge variety of peppers and chilis, and insanely tasty, unique food. If you’ve ever eaten Sichuan food in other countries, it only hints at how delicious and varied the cuisine is in Chengdu. From mao pao tofu (my husband’s favorite dish), to crispy bits of mystery protein covered in angry dried chilies, wontons, glutinous rice balls, dumplings and the famous “Dishes of Three Kingdoms,” your taste buds are in for a treat.
Leshan Giant Buddha
If you’re in town for a few days, you can also visit the Leshan Giant Buddha, which is couple hours away by bullet train. Located at the confluence of three rivers, it was carved out of the cliffs between 713-803BC with the hope that it would protect fishermen who braved the turbulent waters. It’s the largest stone-carved Buddha in the world, and you can walk down a steep set of stairs beside it to take it all in.
I also booked this trip through West China Go, and while the Buddha was impressive to see, my favorite thing about the tour was getting to hang out with my super fun guide, Summer.
It was fascinating chatting with her about the incredibly fast pace of infrastructure development and change within Chengdu, and learn what life is really like for locals. Plus, she’s hilarious and we laughed together the whole day. If you go on this tour with Summer, she’ll also take you to a great little locals-only lunch spot beside the river, where you might just get to meet some people who would love nothing more than to put you in hilarious poses for photos with them. She’ll also take you across a beautiful little walking bridge to tour an old temple on the other side.
To travel to China, you’ll need to get a visa, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to secure it before your trip. You’ll need to fill out their forms online, bring a copy of your flight itinerary and ticket receipt, and your passport. If you live in Penang, there’s a new Chinese consulate office (at 17 Bishop Street in Georgetown) that’s super efficient – I got my visa in just 6 days. (Note: If you type in “Chinese Consulate Penang” in Google Maps, it’ll take you to the consulate’s home, which is very pretty, but not much chance of you getting your visa there. So be sure to go to 17 Bishop Street instead.)
Essential Travel Tips
Be sure to keep a copy of your hotel name and address in Chinese characters to give to taxi drivers. Most don’t understand the English names of even the most popular hotels.
It’s also very helpful to download the Google Translate app, and then download the “Chinese, traditional” language pack so you can get translations even when you’re offline. It saved my butt many times. You simply type or speak a sentence, and it pops out a translation in three forms: Chinese characters; English letters with phonetic pronunciation; and voice playback.
For your flights, if possible, avoid transferring through Guangzhou. It’s one of the most inefficient, spread out, worst-run airports in the world. People frequently miss flights since it can take quite a while to get from one part of the airport to another, and upwards of an hour to get through their transfer area. Flying through another hub, such as Hong Kong or Shanghai, will make your trip a lot less stressful.
Where to stay
The higher end hotels have English speaking staff, which is hugely helpful. They also have Western food, which is really helpful when you need a break from lip-numbing Sichuan cuisine with sometimes totally unidentifiable ingredients. Much to the pleasure of my cheapskate heart, I was pleased to see that the fanciest hotels cost next to nothing. If you can swing it, I highly recommend staying at the Ritz Carlton in the center of town, which is one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever stayed in, and it’s shockingly affordable. Their breakfast buffet is to die for – go hungry!
Enjoy your trip, and say hi to the pandas for me!