After Guilin and Yangshuo we flew to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan – home of delicious, tasty food, giant pandas, and giant sculptures.
First stop out of the city was Bifengxia to see the panda sanctuary there. You can also see them at the in Chengdu panda base, which the travel organisers recommended instead, but we had heard that Bifengxia was better so asked for it instead.
I got suddenly ill after breakfast at the hotel so wasn't exactly keen for driving for hours, but in the end we got there about midday which still left plenty of time to see everything.
Bifengxia is a valley, but the attractions there are a combined zoo and panda base. We got very nervous when we arrived and went into the zoo visitor centre – zoos are not at all what we wanted, and we suddenly worried that we had been misunderstood. But nope, all good, just the same ticket offices and administration, and the panda part is certainly nothing like a Chinese zoo.
We were very glad we had got local travel companies to organise all this stuff (including English-speaking guide, and our own van/driver) – there is no way we could have figured out what the situation was with no-one speaking English around (many signs in English however).
So, pandas. Giant, cuddly, lazing around eating bamboo pandas. There are dozens there – the base was increased after earthquakes affected one of the other bases – of all ages from babies through to mature adults.
They are all incredibly cute, well, bear-appropriately fat, and interested in very little other than eating.
They are actually by nature solitary animals once they reach maturity, but tolerate the presence of others in captivity.
Some at Bifengxia are being bred for repopulation, but some have returned from periods overseas (as I understand it they are never given permanently as they are considered national treasures, but are loaned for breeding and goodwill purposes) and are considered too used to artificial environments to ever release.
If you become a ‘donor’ of a certain, sizable, amount, you will be treated to a very brief but very precious donor activity – holding a baby panda. They are around 30kg so not light, but fairly happy to sit anywhere as long as they are in the process of eating something, and really not too fussed about any other details. Exceptionally cute!
You can do that at either Chengdu or Bifengxia. Reports suggest Bifengxia is better as at Chengdu there is strictly no-one else allowed to go in with you to take photos (the staff will however take some for you).
The travel organisers had stated that they recommended Chengdu over Bifengxia on the basis of traveller feedback, which I presume regarded the drive of 3h to get there. If you are really interested, as we were, I would say it's worthwhile.
The pandas are not the only thing to do – we also went for a nice walk down the scenic and tree-covered river valley in the park there – a tall almost freestanding elevator will take you back so this is not as energetic as some of us are used to, but suitable for a broader range of visitors.
We drove on to Ya'an and overnighted in an OK hotel… We were rapidly adjusting to hard beds, and delicious dumplings.
The other big thing we wanted to see in the area was the massive 71m-high Leshan Giant Buddha, carved well over a thousand years ago.
If you have time to wait in the queue (several hours long in peak summer holiday season, which is unfortunately when we were there), you can walk down the zig-zag path beside the buddha and see it from below up close. Otherwise you can take a short boat cruise on the river to view it from there, and/or go into the area at the top of the hill to see it from head-level (and see the temples etc. on the hill).
We did both and were happy that we did. The view from the boat was probably the best and also had good time for photos (though some travellers have found their boats stayed a very short time in view of it), but going up top you could spend as long as you want – and check out the queue to go down.
After a delicious lunch – almost all the food in Sichuan was great, and not even too spicy for people like me who like their mouth to not burn off which I had been hearing about Sichuan food – we drove back to Chengdu and overnighted again before flying on to the mountains.
We didn't have time to do much in Chengdu, but wandered around one of the tourist streets near our hotel that was recommended by the guide (nice – not at all pushy or tacky) and got a bit of sleep.
If we had had another day in the area, we would have also gone to Mount Emei, which if you're fortunate with the weather sounds good. But there was a whole country we had to fit in our four weeks, so we decided to make time for Huangshan later in the trip instead.
Next up: Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou.