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Carefree Chengdu: City of pandas and poets

The story originally appeared in The Sunday Times on Sept 30, 2012

Published on Oct 2, 2012 6:50 PM
 

Eight young pandas loll in a leafy sanctuary. An impish one keeps swiping bamboo branches from a docile companion which munches on, unflustered.

The frolicking bears, about two years old, are smaller versions of panda pair Kai Kai and Jia Jia which arrived in Singapore this month from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in south-western China.

Giant pandas are a warm, cuddly symbol of China, the flip side of the fearsome dragon that also represents the powerful nation.

But all is play and innocence at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (www.panda.org.cn/ ; admission: 58 yuan or S$11.50) when I show up at 8.30am earlier this month. It is best to arrive in the cool of the morning when the pandas are active.

The base is a zippy 10km from downtown Chengdu. To explore the sprawling 200ha site, visitors can hop onto carts emblazoned with high-kicking Po from the Kung Fu Panda animated films, which are set in Chengdu and its misty mountains.

Ditch the carts. It is lovelier to stroll from enclosure to green enclosure through bamboo groves and catch surprise glimpses of some of the 110 giant pandas bred here since the base opened in 1987 and also the rare and mischievous red panda and golden monkey.

Captive-bred giant pandas, spread over several south-western sanctuaries, number 328, according to recent Chinese media reports.

Estimates of the wild panda population range from 1,600 to 2,000, possibly more.

In Chengdu, oblivious to their highly endangered status, a mother panda and its inquisitive baby nuzzle each other. Solitary animals nap on trees or lean against boulders, perpetually feeding.

Behind glass, gloved hands bottle-feed and clean up pink, puny newborns.

Life is sweet. Indeed, light-hearted Chengdu folks quip that they themselves are like pandas and know how to enjoy life.

There is a distinct languor in the Chinese megacity known for its relaxed tea houses, Tang poetry and also hip enclaves such as a music park with cafes and creative industries.

Chengdu is a gentle introduction to China and over four days, I seek out the free-spirited facets of the city with Mr Joey Gao, chief concierge of Singapore's Fraser Suites Chengdu, which opened in March (chengdu.frasershospitality.com/), and, later, an English-speaking guide I hire.

I like the traditional outdoor tea houses, though they are dwindling, under threat from the unrelenting pace of Chinese progress since the early 1990s.

Still, in the city's Renmin Park (12 Shaocheng Road, Qingyang District; free admission) and Wangjiang Pavilion Park (30 Wangjiang Lu; 20 yuan to view historic sites), the tea houses are filled with young and old who garrulously fritter away the summer afternoon.

Mostly, they clack mahjong tiles, a Chengdu obsession, while imbibing wonderfully fragrant tea topped up by hot- water pourers who waft from table to table.

Bowls of fiery Sichuan noodles are slurped. Vendors like the sinister ear cleaner are fended off. I imagine this has been the salubrious scene since the Qing dynasty when tea houses were men's clubs, with the clientele immersed in politics and business.

Besides hot tea, the Wangjiang Pavilion Park, which sits by the Jinjiang River flowing through the city, celebrates Tang poetess Xue Tao (AD768-831).

She loved bamboo, a Chinese symbol of virtue and longevity, and 150 varieties sprout in the gardens. They range in shapes from elegant filaments to chunky green rods that shoot into the sky.

Amid rocks inscribed with verses, circular moon-gates and statues of Xue, who once chanted poetry and made her own paper for calligraphy in this pastoral abode, I spy Chengdu residents entertaining themselves.

One man plays the soulful erhu with a laptop providing a bit of musical accompaniment. Others sing, dance and do taiji moves.

Another poetic site is the Du Fu Thatched Cottage (37, Qinhua Lu; admission: 60 yuan). Renowned Tang poethistorian Du Fu penned 240 poems over four years in Chengdu, after he fled to the city in AD759 during the An-Shi Rebellion, one of many that engulfed the region.

A renovated version of his home stands here, and also pavilions, plum trees and temples.

Living humbly, the nobleman, concerned about the plight of the poorest, wrote poignant lines about the night an autumn gale blew his thatched roof away.

"The thatch flew across the river/was strewn on the floodplain/The high stalks tangled in tips of tall forest trees."

From Tang poetry to lustrous brocade to world-famous Sichuan cuisine, Chengdu loves the finer things in life.

For a glimpse of brocade history and gorgeous fabrics with motifs such as rosy clouds and mythical animals, pop into the little Chengdu Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum (268 Huanhua Nan Lu; free admission). Brocade and all-embroidery "paintings" are on sale too.

This shrine to brocade is within walking distance of the Sichuan Museum (251 Huanhua Nan Lu; free admission), which tells the story of Sichuan, its arts including jade weapons and vibrant minorities such as the Tibetans.

In its pursuit of leisure, Chengdu deftly melds the ancient and the modern.

It has refurbished several "ancient streets" such as Jinli. The 350m stretch has a 1,700-year presence dating back to the Shu Kingdom (AD221-263).

Chengdu denizens rival Singaporeans as food lovers and it is fun to sample street snacks for a few yuan in Jinli - rice steamed in tiny bamboo stems, doufu cubes doused in chilli oil, haw fruit on skewers and infinitely more.

The narrow alleys, splashed with scarlet lanterns, are more popular with tourists than residents.

But they do invite lingerers with their lovely architecture, bars and tea houses.

Farther afield, there are ancient towns such as Huanglongxi, or Yellow Dragon River, which my enthusiastic guide Echo Gao (1183546524@qq.com; 200 yuan a day) shows me.

It is 35km from Chengdu. Step through a 300-year-old gate for a glimpse of old Sichuan, with courtyards, temples and shops selling leaf-wrapped black beans, and more tea houses nestled on Yellow Dragon River.

From this waterway, reformist premier Deng Xiaoping, a famous son of Sichuan, set sail in the 1920s for Shanghai, then France where he studied.

For a bigger picture of how refined Sichuan society was, visit the sleek Jinsha Site Museum (www.jinshasitemuseum.com/homee.asp ; admission: 80 yuan). Cleverly curated, it houses bronzes, masks, ivory and fine artefacts from an archaeological site discovered in 2001.

An emerging spot is the Chengdu East Music Park (Jianshe Nanlu) with its cafes, music clubs, boutique hotels and creative industries, all rising within a revamped industrial site since last autumn.

Walking around, I see lots of industrial chic, with soaring towers and pipes, now vividly painted and splotched with sanctioned rock graffiti.

There is open space for performances and wannabe models pose next to mystifying sculptures.

I am intrigued by a start-up service that turns one's life story into a mini movie, complete with moody cinematic posters.

And so every corner I turn, there is playfulness and a pursuit of pleasure.

Amid wars and rebellions, the people of Chengdu think they live in a divinely bestowed or "tianfu" land. It is an attitude that extends from panda-land to hip playgrounds.

siewhua@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was made possible by Fraser Suites Chengdu.

Next week: Lee Siew Hua takes a road trip west of Chengdu to the vast Tibetan plateau.

Background story

GETTING THERE

Silkair flies non-stop daily to Chengdu. Flight time is about 41/2 hours.

Airlines operating longer flights with stops include China Southern, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways.

STAYING THERE

Luxury: Singapore's Fraser Suites Chengdu  ( chengdu.frasershospitality.com/ ) has 360 serviced apartments from studios to penthouses. Promotional rates start at 1,104 yuan (S$215). The city-view suites come with kitchenettes, washing machines, walk-in wardrobes, Wi-Fi and Herman Miller chairs.

Mid-tier: The 230-room Tianfu Sunshine Hotel ( www.tfsunshinehotel.com/ ), formerly the Amara, is an affordable quality hotel. Rooms start at $92 when booked on the Internet.

Budget: Wenjun Mansion Hotel (No. 180 Qintai Road, Chengdu 610041) is a 30-room inn with Wi-Fi and traditional Chinese room decor.

Internet rate for a standard twin room starts at $28.