Monday, June 28, 2010

Adventure in Chengdu

This weekend we ventured off to Western China, the gateway to Tibet, Chengdu.  It's in the Sichuan province, which you may know from its fame as a type of Chinese cuisine - very, very spicy, and not like any Chinese food in the U.S.  I really wanted to try to get to Tibet while we were here, but this is as far West as we got.  My interest in Chengdu started within a few weeks of arriving in Shanghai when I learned that it was the home of one of the largest Giant Panda research and breeding facilities in the world. 

So, for my last weekend in China, that's what we did.

I think Nick has mentioned the wild drivers here in Shanghai.  Well, they are nothing compared to the crazies in Chengdu.  Traffic is awful, despite the relatively small size of the city (only 3 million); people straddle lanes, turn left into oncoming traffic and pass in the emergency lane.  We had one taxi driver who almost killed us and several bikers and pedestrians on the 10 km trip to the panda facility.  Anyway, we were happy to get to the airport on Sunday in one piece.

Our trip started out with a trip to Lashan and the Giant Buddha there.  Because there was very little in English at the Oriental Buddha Theme Park, yes, that's right, it's called the Oriental Buddha Theme Park, we don't know much about it except that it was carved into a mountainside during the Tang dynasty (some 1400 years ago), and it was very, very cool.  They also had smaller carvings of different types of Buddhas around the park.

Notice that the eyebrows are the same on Nick and Buddha

My favorite Buddha - the jolly, fat one.  Kinda like santa without the white hair and beard.

We hiked all the way down and all the way back up through steps and caves along the mountain.

To give you a sense of the scale, that's his big toe.

We spent about 3 hours hiking around the park, up and down hundreds of steps and were sweating like crazy.  The humidity was about 100 percent and it was about 85 degrees.

After a good shower and dinner, we explored Chengdu and found a charming area on Jingli Lu (street).

Yes, that's fish on a stick and no, we didn't partake.

Day two in Chengdu, was the day for the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center.  After the harrowing taxi ride, we made it.  It was pouring rain, but we didn't let that slow us down and apparently the pandas didn't mind, either.

Cutest little guys!

And, I got to experience one of the coolest things ever:

For a donation to the research center, you could hold a panda cub!  This is ya-ya and he is about 18 months old. He was just precious, sitting on my lap enjoying bamboo dipped in honey.  I could've sat there all day, but the keepers made me get up after a few minutes.

Giant pandas are called "living fossils" because there is evidence that they may have been around as long as 8,000-9,000 years ago when they were much more fierce creatures.  Today, there are only about 1,600 pandas in the wild (about 275 in research bases and zoos).  Their homeland gets smaller and smaller each year.  The earthquake in 2008 devestated much of their habitat, too.  Thanks to the important work of research facilities and zoos, they can hopefully keep this amazing and gentle animal out of extinction.

We also saw a few red pandas; they're cute, too.  We didn't see as many because many of them were expectant mothers and they closed off their habitats.

This was the first trip within China that Nick and I took without the help of a guide or dedicated driver, and Chengdu isn't for the faint of heart.  It's not like getting around in Shanghai or Beijing.  We were pretty proud of ourselves for getting around so well without help and with my limited Mandarin.  I think we only saw about 10 Westerners all weekend and they were all at the panda center, and the Chinese don't speak much English there since it's not a huge tourism center.

It's been an amazing eight months, but I am happy to be coming home this week.  Nick follows soon.  Not sure how many more updates that we'll have, but I hope to revisit the site soon to detail our experience in Vietnam.  Still no big movement there, so please keep Nate in your prayers.

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