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Chengdu's economy is thriving, but the city's real riches are its pandas and parks
I wasn’t surprised when my bus made an impromptu stop at Chun Xi Road. Before I left for Chengdu in Western China, I read on a local website that going to the capital of the Sichuan Province and not seeing the shopping strip would be like going to NYC and not visiting Fifth Avenue; it’s lined with 700 shops.
Fourteen million people now live in Chengdu, which has been going through a decade of explosive economic growth. It’s a huge metropolis with glass skyscrapers, high-end shops and a new subway system. The 18-storey New Century Global Centre is the biggest complex in the world with 1.7 million square metres of useable floor space. It includes a Mediterranean-style shopping village, an Olympic-sized ice rink and an entire beach resort: artificial sun, artificial sea breeze, artificial waves.
In 2013, Fortune magazine held its invite-only Global Forum in Chengdu for presidents of the biggest companies in the world and the city announced that 45 countries, including Canada, could visit visa-free for 72 hours, a policy that only Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou share. (In March of this year, China’s foreign minister announced that Canadians can now get a 10-year, multiple-entry visa for travel to the country for stays of up to 180 days.)
Chengdu is, however, more than just big business and money. It’s also the gateway to some jaw-dropping UNESCO sites and it has pandas — just 15 kilometres north of the city.
In the nine years between 1974 and 1983, about 250 giant pandas starved to death in the Minshan and Qionglai Mountains, north and south of Chengdu. The Chengdu Zoo was able to save 63 and many were released back into the wild. Six of the animals were kept and, in 1987, they were the beginning of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (1375 Xiongmao Avenue; panda.org.cn; admission $12). Known as the Chengdu Panda Base, it’s grown into a 100-hectare park that’s home to nearly 100 giant pandas that have been artificially breed. Fact: pandas don’t like to have sex. Females are keen only about once a year. Even panda porn and Viagra haven’t helped. No wonder there are only 1864 of these largely solitary creatures in the world.
The 28-year-old research and conservation facility is one of the largest giant panda breeding centres in the world. About 600,000 people visit every year, some tiptoeing through the park as I did, desperate to spot a bear among all the gingko, magnolia and willow trees, bamboo forests, and manmade dens and caves. My first sighting was of a smallish-sized bear lying spread-eagle on his back in the grass catching some Zs. He was so fluffy, I actually wondered if he was real. I saw dozens of bigger pandas after that, slumped over chomping on bamboo (they eat about 40 kilos a day), and newborn babies, six or seven of them huddled together in big wooden cribs behind glass. I saw red pandas too!
Go in August or September if you want to see babies; avoid days that are over 25°C when pandas retreat into their air-conditioned caves.
(Note: four pandas at the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue and Breeding Center in Xian died of canine distemper this past January and February. Visitors at the Chengdu Panda Base are no longer allowed to hold pandas for photo-ops as a precaution.)
The valley and beyond
There are more giant pandas and also golden snub-nosed monkeys in the Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area (huanglong.com; adults $40 during high season, April to November), a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992.
The national park isn’t in Chengdu, it’s about 300 kilometres northwest of it, but Chengdu is ground zero for 50-minute flights and bus tours to the site. About 10,000 people arrive daily at the park to see the 5588-metre snow-capped peaks and cascading mineral pools formed by calcite deposits.
The 3.6-metre-long Huanglong Valley and the golden limestone that stretches throughout give the park its name: Huanglong means “yellow dragon.” The Five-Coloured Ponds near the dragon’s “head” form the biggest cluster of travertine terraces, close to 700, and they’re hugely popular with tourists. Don’t be surprised if Chinese women push you out of their frame when trying to pose for photos. I saw the littlest of ladies turn Incredible Hulk strong when attempting to take a selfie.
The altitude of Huanglong ranges from 3200 to 3600 metres so the air is thinner. You can take a cable car through the park ($24 round-trip) or hike along the boardwalk as I did, moving slowly because of the elevation and crowds. The hike took three hours. Interestingly, among the hundreds of Chinese, were Tibetans dressed in traditional robes. Huanglong is in Songpan County in the eastern foothills of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
The neighbouring Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park (jiuzhai.com; adults $42 during high season) contains nine Tibetan villages, which give the park its name; Jiuzhaigou means “nine-village valley.” Still, its turquoise-coloured lakes and waterfalls are its most famous features. Like Huanglong, Jiuzhaigou’s popularity is understandable given the Chinese affinity for natural beauty and the country’s many crowded and often smoggy east coast cities. The parks will also be popular with you.
Fall is a good time to visit when rainfall fills the pools. I visited in September and it was cool so bring warm and waterproof gear.
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