The first sight of the cuddly creatures elicits a series of 'Awws' from us. Shi-shi waits for his mother on a tree, both looking like Sumo wrestlers on a sabbatical. We are at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda breeding in China, an oasis of greenery with golf carts for transportation.
Chengdu is best known for these iconic black and white pandas, and we're taught how they are reclusive and one of the oldest surviving species on Earth. Twelve million years ago they were meat eaters, but, for reasons not understood, became vegetarian. They feast on bamboo shoots, but here at the Panda Center, they are also given milk and eggs. The male Pandas may look healthy, but they suffer from a low insemination rate the reason this center undertakes artificial insemination. The rare red panda, which looks more like a fox, is also here and we get to cuddle one at a fee of 100 RMB (Rs 688).
City of spice
Chengdu has seen the rise and fall of several dynasties. The southern Silk Route started here and during the Song dynasty it began to issue the world's first paper currency. Today, Chengdu is a laidback place whose hedonistic people love spicy food, tea, mahjong and the opera! Traditional Chinese architecture, glitzy malls, tree-lined streets and vast green spaces all come together here. It is also the birthplace of Sichuan food fiery, spicy dishes made with peppercorns. The signature Sichuan dish, Kung Pao chicken, comes with a liberal sprinkling of peanuts and Sichuan peppers.
The ancient Jinli Street extends from a gate house with red lanterns and paved streets, and is a recreation of the traditional timbered tea houses. In ancient times, it was one of the busiest commercial boulevards. Adjacent to the street is the Wohou temple. Today, there are tea houses and antique shops selling Sichuan masks, traditional combs, porcelain and folk handicrafts. We watch craftsmen make clay figurines and paper cuts. The street food here is a medley of colours and smells agar agar jelly with red hot pepper, beef in bamboo leaves, smoked tofu, crawling crustaceans and porridge.
A change of face
In the evening, we watch the Sichuan opera, which dates back to more than 250 years. It is a variety of acts where the grand finale is the face-changing opera. The waiters pour jasmine tea in our cups with long-spouted brass teapots as we watch the show. There is a session of slapstick comedy and a stick puppet show, and the face changing opera is the dazzling finale. The performers peel off one mask after the other but how do they change their costumes?
We drive to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha, carved out of a mountain in 300 AD, at the confluence of three rivers at 71 metres, it's as tall as a 20-storeyed building. It's reminiscent of the Bamiyan Buddha which was destroyed in Afghanistan. It was the inspiration of a Buddhist monk who thought that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the ships. The locals say, "The mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain!" The Buddha is mossy, but striking. We watch people climb the stairs on either side even his toenail accommodates one person. Chengdu and Leshan have been a welcome break from the hustle, bustle and history of Beijing!