Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shanghai weekend trip: Chengdu (alternatively, pandas, pandas, pandas)

One of the best parts about living in Shanghai is the ease of travel to a laundry list of holiday destinations (say what Australia for Christmas 2015 and Chinese New Year 2016??). It's a pity, though, that many of us don't travel very much domestically as a result. China, even when you live here, seems too big, too crowded, too spread out, and too difficult to traverse. English, even in major tourist centres, is lacking. Many people who live in Shanghai would prefer to go through the hassle of getting a visa to Vietnam than sort out a weekend holiday in Sanya. When I was in Bangkok this summer, I was shocked that the taxi drivers spoke English. I had completely forgotten how easy it was to travel in Southeast Asia (shameless plug for the ole No Plan Plans blog). In two years, I can count on one hand the number of taxi drivers I've had in Shanghai who spoke English.

But, stating the obvious, China has many incredible sights and a rich history. We have to remind ourselves that there are so many cool things we can do without having to go through the immigration line. Plus, there are airlines and high speed trains that can take you all over the country, often for pretty reasonable prices. (Note for travellers: flights are notorious for being extremely delayed so plane travel can be super frustrating. Keep it in mind.)

Embarrassingly, over the course of the Irishman's first 2 year contract, we only visited Harbin, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Zhangjiajie. Even more embarrassingly, for expats in general, that's a pretty long list.

At the beginning of the school year, a friend mentioned that she was keen to go to Chengdu to check out the pandas. I agreed it would be cool and we should do it "sometime". Luckily for us, Jen held me to it and emailed me two days later with a quote from a travel agent. My jaw dropped when I saw the amount ($700 USD per person for a four person trip, 1 night stay). On the condition that I sort out the itinerary (about $500 USD per person, 2 nights stay), we were off 4 days later! We are lucky people.

I would highly recommend other travelers and expats make the weekend trip. We didn't have to take any time off work and we had a wonderful experience. Check the bottom of the post for logistics info about how we did it.


Pandas (my favourite!)

The main attraction in Chengdu are the pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was not too far from our hostel. I had read online it would only be about an 80 RMB taxi ride away and I was tempted to just go over on our own. However, despite my desire to do things the cheapest way, it really was worthwhile to have a tour guide. The facility is really big and spread out. Our guide beelined us to the best bits and we didn't have to look at maps or wander aimlessly, trying to figure out if we'd missed anything.

Despite it being a holiday weekend, it wasn't very busy. From what I've read, the afternoon is when most Chinese tour groups turn up. We arrived around 8:30 am (the facility opens at 7:30 am) and stayed for a couple of hours. We watched the information video at the end of our tour, which I think was to keep us ahead of most tourists. At any time there weren't more than about 15 other people looking at the pandas in the same spot.

A note on the ethics of panda breeding

I am not an expert at all but this is my take on it. Panda breeding is an objective waste of resources. Some scientists believe that they should naturally have gone extinct a while ago. And conservationist Chris Packham even went so far to say, "I would eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with." And I get it. But they're SO CUTE! My much more ethical teenage self would be very ashamed. Look at baby pandas and try to argue they aren't worth a completely insane investment of money and research:

Best parts

I was completely in awe and giddy. Pandas spend the vast majority of their time eating and sleeping. At the time we went, soon after they wake up and eat breakfast, they were so much more active than I expected! They wrestled and climbed trees (slowly).

It was raining, so I was worried the pandas would be in hiding. Luckily, they didn't seem to care about the rain in the slightest!

It may have been luck, but I was shocked at how people behaved. At the most basic museum exhibits in Shanghai, people bang on glass, climb on exhibits, throw things. When we were at the research base, despite there being only low fences and no glass partitions in the open areas, people kept a respectful distance and didn't harass the pandas. I guess being a national icon has its perks. 

Not so best parts

As a Canadian, the red pandas were very disappointing. They are in the raccoon family. They look like raccoons. A little anticlimactic after SEEING FREAKING GIANT PANDAS. Other people on our tour were into it, though. The Irishman and I just chatted with the tour guide and got through that bit. 
Raccoon that doesn't have to work for his supper.

It wasn't clear whether holding pandas was still an option. I have seen conflicting information online. Personally, I would be worried about passing on diseases to the pandas from the outside world. Last year, two pandas died of canine distemper virus at a facility that allowed pandas to be held and the scientists couldn't figure out how they contracted the disease. Not worth it for a fun photo op, IMO! (See teenage Ange, I still have some principles...)

Leshan Buddha (Irishman's favourite!)

Next stop on the tour was Leshan. We napped over the 2.5 hour bus ride. We arrived in the early afternoon and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Our tour guide ordered for us so we got a delicious mix of local food. She helped order non-spicy dishes for the people in the group who needed a little bit of a less intense Sichuan experience. Chengdu is located in Sichuan province which is famous for its spicy peppers that abound in many dishes. The traditional Sichuan spicy food wasn't any spicier than the fare I have had in Shanghai, which was a relief! We paid 150 RMB ($25 USD) per couple and were completely stuffed.


There are two ways you can see the Buddha: hike for several hours around it (along either side and in front) or take a 20 minute boat. You can't actually see the whole thing at once this way, due to its size. And thousands of Chinese people are pushing their way along the path with you. I deal with rush hour on the metro in Shanghai; I had no desire to experience going up and down hundreds of stone steps, being pushed, in the pouring rain.

Of course we chose the boat. The boat was fantastic. It wasn't too crowded and it stopped right in front of the Buddha for about 10 minutes while we took photos. You can see it in its full glory and have elbow room at the same time. I wouldn't do it any other way.

Wenshu Temple

So, I thought I would be adventurous (cheap) and be in charge of Day 2's activities. Based on TripAdvisor, I settled on Wenshu Temple and People's Park. We had breakfast at the hostel, checked out and left our bags with reception, and hopped on the metro to Wenshu Temple.

I don't know why this had such great reviews, including one stating that it isn't like every other temple out there in China. To our untrained eyes, it was like every other temple out there in China. Perhaps a tour guide would have made it more interesting. Positive review people, please feel free to comment below about what it is that we missed about the place.

The grounds were beautiful but I think People's Park would have been a better use of our time. 

We found a random food stall that did the job.

We planned to eat lunch at a vegetarian restaurant run by monks which came recommended online and by friends who had visited over the summer. We loitered around the temple, bored, waiting until we were hungry enough to eat. Then, when we went looking for the restaurant, it was closed! I failed as a tour guide. 

People's Park

I didn't expect to like the park. We have a People's Park and Century Park in Shanghai, which are lovely. Surprisingly, Chengdu's People's Park charmed us! It was busy but not super crowded. You could walk leisurely. People were ballroom dancing at various places in the park.

There are several tea houses in the park, a big part of Chengdu culture. We settled on a random one where the guys underwent traditional Chinese ear cleaning. Involving metal probing sticks, the cleaners dug wax deep out of their ears, flicking it to the ground. It didn't seem to be very hygienic but it was the thing to do! (Better the men than me...) A painful and brief shoulder massage followed, while Jen and I looked on and sipped our tea.

We hung out and drank tea for about an hour. The menu included English translations and they left us with a big thermos of boiled water to top up our glasses. 
They're trying to pretend they aren't scarred for life.
The open air tea house was full of locals sipping tea and playing cards. We also played cards and were the subject of interest for many people at the tea house. At this point, we're all used to being stared at so we didn't mind.

Reflections

Overall, I would recommend anyone coming to China to visit Chengdu. I feel a bit guilty that our previous visitors didn't go there. The pandas and Buddha were incredible and I will remember them for a lifetime.

Next time, I will skip the Wenshu Temple and go to the Jinsha Site Museum instead, which gets good reviews. 

Logistics

Flights

We used the Ctrip app to book our last minute tickets. Both flights were through Sichuan Airlines. Chengdu is around a 3 hour flight from Shanghai --not too bad for a weekend and yummy food (and terrible beer) is included in the ticket price. 

We left Friday around 7:30 pm and returned Sunday at 6:00 pm, early enough to be fresh for work on Monday. 

We could have found cheaper tickets if we booked more in advance or had more flexible schedules. Tickets cost around 1800 RMB ($300 USD) per person, round trip.

Hotel

We opted for a higher end hostel, Lazybones. Each couple got their own room with a bathroom. Even with the short notice, they had 2 rooms available. Each room was 189 RMB (~$30 USD) per night. For budget travellers, they have a sister hostel, Mix, with super cheap dorms and private rooms (with no ensuite bathrooms).

We arrived around 11 pm on Friday night, met at the airport gate by a driver for the hostel (prebooked via email, 90 RMB or $15 USD). It was convenient and only about 10 RMB more than a taxi would have cost. Highly recommended!

The vibe at the hostel was great. Good food, both western and local Sichuan options, was available at fair prices. They had good coffee, which I have given up on expecting at hostels and hotels in Asia. We ate most of our meals there, enjoying everything from kung pao chicken to pizza.

Most importantly, they organized our first day tour for us through a travel agency. For 498 RMB (~$80 USD) each, we were taken to the panda breeding facility and the Leshan Giant Buddha (a 2.5 hour drive away from Chengdu). 

Tip: The hostel says they are an 8 minute walk from Tianfu Square. The bus for the tour drops you off "at Tianfu Square" --this is actually about 10 minutes away from Tianfu Square (i.e. ~20 minutes to the hostel) due to needing to use underground passageways to cross the busy streets. We walked to the hostel after our tour, which I would not recommend. The metro has a Tianfu Square stop which would be quicker to get the hostel (Luomashi exit A is right across the street from the Lazybones).

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