Chengdu, Home of Giant Pandas and Sichuan Hot Pot

2 Jun

Pandas

At the Lazybones Hotel in Chengdu we met Samantha, a twenty-three year old American from a small town in Ohio, who traveled all the way to the Capital of Sichuan Province for the chance to see, and maybe even hug, a giant panda. This rare Chinese mammal happened to be Samantha’s favourite animal. She loved pandas so dearly that she even had a picture of a panda bear tattooed on her lower back. While most tourists are unlikely to be as passionate about pandas as Samantha is, they still flock to Chengdu for the same reason that she did.

Neither Alex nor I had ever seen a panda bear in the flesh before coming to China. [ had seen a pair of red pandas at Taronga Zoo a few years back, but I don’t think this fox-like animal really counts as a panda. In fact I am sure clever conservationists decided to name this species the ‘Red Panda’ instead of the ‘Chinese Red Tree Fox’ to capitalise on the panda brand. I assume this was a clever marketing strategy conjured by those who cared about the animal’s fate. Few would pay to see and save from extinction the ‘Chinese Red Tree Fox’; call it a panda and everyone wants to support its cause. Anyhow, Chengdu was the way from Lijiang to Xian, and we thought why not stop by and see the pandas.

We booked a tour to the Giant Panda Research Base (GPR) through our Hostel. We paid 100 Yuan each for the tour which included transport to and from the GPRB, entry, and an English-speaking guide. In the course of our three hour visit we saw dozens of pandas, including baby pandas, go about their morning activities which consisted of eating bamboo and playing. Mornings are the best time to visit the pandas as they spend the rest of the day sleeping. At the GPR tourists are able to have their photos taken holding baby pandas. This popular add-on costs about $100 USD per person, which we thought was a little steep for a very quick cuddle. Even without this additional experience Alex and I felt panda-ed out by the end of our visit.

You can see our photos HERE.

Hotpot

Chengdu was famous for its picante cuisine long before it was home to the Giant Panda Research Base. Sichuan Hotpot is probably the most well known of the many local dishes renowned across China for their mouth-tingling spiciness. One evening we visited a hotpot restaurant recommended by our hostel along with Samantha and Oliver, a Londoner who was also staying at the Lazybones. Because we couldn’t read the Chinese menu, a waitress escorted us into the kitchen when we arrived at the restaurant so we could point to what we wanted in our hotpot four. We chose two catfish, which were still swimming in a large bucket of water when they were selected, and a large plate of thin slices of fatty beef. To us this seemed like plenty of food for four people, but the restaurant staff seemed confused as to why we weren’t ordering more meat.

Soon a huge steaming hot bowl of sichuan hotpot arrived at our table. The fish had been poached in this peppery-broth and was deliciously tender and fragrantly spiced. Each of us were given a small bowl of a thicker and stronger chilli, peper and coriander dipping sauce to give the fish an even stronger flavour. The pepers in the hotpot gave me the unique sensation of tingling lips. The feeling reminded me of that induced by the ‘snap crackle pop’ sherbet that I used to eat as a kid; the kind that audibly popped away in your mouth after coming into contact with saliva.

After we finished the fish, the waitress lit the gas jet under the hotpot and added the plate of beef to to this mixture. We ordered some small plates of sliced potato, lotus root and garlic chives to balance out the meat we were eating. The beef absorbed the complex flavours of the hotpot as cooked quickly in boiling communal bowl, as did the vegetables. What a feast! Thankfully we had plenty of cold beer on hand to calm our hot mouths and complete the meal.

I was happy to be informed by a colleague who was also recently in Chengdu that she had discovered a bottle of spicy Sichuan hotpot sauce for sale at Woolies in Canberra, and that it has the same tingling effect as the real deal. I look forward to reliving this great food adventure upon my return to Australia.

Opera

We were lucky to see a performance of the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu. Our hostel organised tickets to this performance at a discounted rate and also provided transport to and from the venue. The Opera was in the format of a serious variety show and included a number of song and dance routines by performers dressed in elaborate costume, a hand-puppet act, pieces by the traditional orchestra, a comedy skit, and last but not least, the famous fire-breathing and face-changing act. We were lucky that a screen at the bottom of the stage displayed English translations for the performance so we could understand the plots and jokes presented on stage.

The face-changing was really impressive. A number of masked actors on stage repeatedly changed their masks so skilfully and with such speed that the audience was not able to see how the transformation occured. Some actors changed their entire costume, from blue to red, and red to green, as a cape swished over their bodies. I left the Opera perplexed as to the mechanics of these magic tricks. Surely Wikipedia could tell me the face-changers’ secrets, but this would only ruin of mystery of their art that I find so intriguing.

Football

Chengdu was hosting the Asian Football (Soccer) Confederation’s Women’s Championship when we were in town. We decided to go to a game as matches were held at the Huge Sports Stadium almost direclty across the road from our hostel. I thought it would be fun to see Myanmar v the Democratic Republic of Korea. Sadly we missed this round but it still fuelled days of jokes about the Asian Dictatorship Cup. Instead we decided to be patriotic and bought $5 tickets to support the Matilda’s in their game against China. It is tough playing against the home team and the Australians lost the match 0 – 1. We were surprised to see a complete Police Band in the grandstand which churned out Chinese tunes in addition to upbeat versions of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Clip Go the Shears’, a very welcoming touch. Our girls played well and we were glad to hear that the Matildas’ subsequently won the Championship.

“Sir, clean your ear?”

I have already blogged about China’s beautiful public parks. Chengdu’s People’s Park upheld the Country’s reputation for wonderful green spaces. A plaque at the main entrance to the People’s Park tells of its interesting history; before the rebellion in XX, the People’s Park was a private space restricted to officers…

In addition to its special origins, Chengdu’s People’s Park is unique for being populated by men willing to clean ears, for a price. As we wandered through the gardens and then paused to have tea at an old tea house, a number of men approached us with requests to clean our ears. I am not an expert on this practice, but I gathered that it was as much about experiencing the sensation of the small metal rod inserted into the ear being tapped by another to produce vibrations, as it was about hygiene. Although the ear-cleaners could not have been more persistant, neither of us relented and accepted their services. I doubted the practice was safe; since I was a child my mother has always told me ‘never put anything bigger then your elbow in your ear’. I also lacked evidence that the ear-cleaning devices were themselves cleaned after use, and even if they were I didn’t like the idea of a stranger poking around my ears. Very odd.

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