Next up on was another overnight train into West China and Sichuan province – famous for spicy food, mountains and – of course – panda bears. Our train from Xian brought us to the regional capital of Chengdu. Chengdu is one of the second tier of Chinese cities and the gateway to western China. It is probably the biggest city of 15 million people you’ve never heard of!
Again like much of China Chengdu is something of a construction boom-town with roads, airports and subway lines springing up at a rate of knots. Interestingly some of the old times were on display with a large statue of Mao in the main square – the first we’ve seen so far.
Not far from Mao were the raft of luxury shops such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani and so on which seem to be peppered all over large Chinese cities. China is the world’s largest luxury market but I never saw many people in any of the stores. You do wonder though what the old comrade would make of it all – if we were in a grave instead of a mausoleum in Beijing he would surely be spinning.
I was staying at the Hotel Zen urban resort which was quite peaceful except for the construction lorries which grinded in first gear just outside until midnight each night.
Our first stop in Chengdu was to the panda breeding centre just outside town. It pays to visit first thing in the morning as that is when the pandas are most active (a relative term) and are up feeding.
Although the mascot of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) they are a bit of a conservation nightmare. They are extremely picky eaters of only bamboo which is low in nutritional energy, they are rarely in heat, don’t often mate when they are and can sometimes kill their cubs by accident due to a lack of mothering instinct. They would almost certainly be extinct if they weren’t so charismatic, clumsy and darn adorable to humans!
We were some of the first into the park and so we had the place to ourselves and there is a great thrill of sneaking to watch Pandas munching away while they remain totally oblivious.
We were able to watch as the adults ate, played and jostled with each other on the platforms. They really are quite playful and human-like, we even saw two of them bickering over a set of bamboo!
Although they may not realise it they are prime Chinese diplomats – a gift of a panda is a typical gesture from China in order to recognise or foster good relations. Edinburgh zoo has two of them and the joke goes that there are more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs!
The most adorable of the lot however were the lazy babies just getting going for the day in the nursery.
The red panda – which is actually not related to the giant pandas – was somewhat overshadowed by their more famous namesakes but still quite charming in its own little way.
One of my favourites was this shy guy sitting around with absolutely no time for tourists like me!