Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province. It is also the home of pandas and that makes it one of the premier stops in China. In fact such is the draw that I pretty much saw more western people queuing up in the pouring rain at 8am in the morning at the Panda breeding centre then I have seen in all the other places I’ve been in China put together.
It hadn’t been an altogether easy journey to get there. Two days prior I had left at around 7am, followed the instructions to the local bus and then forgot to check what direction to go in and found myself dropped off at an industrial park over the other side of town. Due to pandas notorious lack of activity other than at feeding time, which is very much an early hours thing, the day was a write off.
The following day, I joined Brandon from America to do a day trip to a place called Leshan. One of the amazing things about travelling is how a five hour round trip by bus is accepted as a day trip. Even more so when we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before hand and set off mid morning. It was all worth it. Leshan is home to the largest Buddha in the world. Completed around 800ad it is whopping 71 metres tall. I think I am the same size as one of its finger nails.
The crowds were also pretty insane. In fact we spent much of our time there in a queue waiting to go down the walkway, carved into the cliff face. Unlike in the rest of China, the government has decided to stick with the tried and tested old route rather than build a more modern and efficient replacement, which has made things very slow, but still very much worth it.
Panda day came bright and early again the next morning. This time I caught the bus in the right direction. It all went very smoothly and I arrived at around 8am in the rain. It’s never the best of ideas to go and see animals when it’s raining, but there was no chance I was going to postpone the visit again.
The breeding centre is kind of a zoo, but not a zoo. The pandas are not kept behind bars, but rather they have fairly extensive areas to roam, with a moat keeping them from the walkways. I headed over to the cubs section, who now to my eyes resemble adults, but they still seemed to retain their playful side. A pile of bamboo was put on one of the wooden platforms, and soon the pandas wandered outside and began to lay back, enjoying their morning feed. They are highly animated creatures, with fantastic bamboo eating technique.
After a while, I visited some of the older and supposably bigger pandas and again, I can confirm, that they had their cute factor. Except they don’t do a lot. After each panda finished their bamboo, so they seemed to finish their day. They found a spot, laid down and slept off what was a highly energetic start. As the rain continued to fall, I found myself looking at this panda and feeling like I knew exactly how he was feeling:
I left shortly after. The problem with it only having pandas is that after a while, you really can only see so many pandas. There’s not much variation. They are magnificent animals in their own right, but there is a reason why something so big, with the potential to be so ferocious, can be so close to extinction.
From Chengdu I headed to Xi’an – home of the Terracotta warriors. I visited them the following day. I went with certain reservations. People who I had spoken to had not been particularly positive about the experience with most labelling it as a disappointment. Having now been I both understand what they mean and yet disagree as well. The problem with it is that there is no information. I got the impression that the museum expects everyone to go as a tour and so if, like me, you go independently then they’ve put nothing in place to help you understand the historical significance of what you are seeing.
That said the sight does speak for itself. It’s separated into three pits. I started with the least spectacular one and worked my way up. Pit three was small and mostly a mess of broken warriors. It was disappointing. Then I moved onto pit two, which is huge, but with very few warriors. Most again are in a thousand pieces on the floor. It did though contain a number, which you could go and look at closely and the complexity of the designs really stood out.
Every facial expression, every item of clothing, every stance is different. The detail is quite spectacular. My impression of the place really rose though when getting to pit one and seeing the classic scene of them all standing in rows. I battled through the crowds and marvelled at the sight.
Again the work and level of detail is quite something. All in all it is truly a wonder of the world, without a museum to do it justice. The true brilliance of it is that there is so much more to discover and from what I understand the true discoveries have only just begun.