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Photos by David Cogswell
It's great to have connections.
I arrived in Chengdu after attending the Third Annual Sichuan Travel Expo in Leshan, China, and checked in at the Chengdu Airport JS Express Hotel to prepare to catch the flight to Shanghai the next morning. I had one afternoon to spend in Chengdu.
Fortunately, I was traveling with Haybina Hao, vice president of international development of The National Tour Association, and she had connections in Chengdu with an NTA member tour operator: Sichuan Comfort International Travel Service Ltd.
Haybina made a phone call, and in only a few minutes, a van pulled up, two delightful people got out and introduced themselves to us. They were Ms. Tan, of Sichuan Comfort International Travel Service Ltd., who goes by the name Syrena, and her brother Mr. Ni.
From that moment, we were in their hands. They extended a maximum of Chinese hospitality, taking us on a tour of Chengdu until we were worn out and ready to get some sleep to ready ourselves for our flights the next morning.
It was a whirlwind tour - the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Kuanxiangzi and Zhaixiangzi alleys, Chengdu Impression restaurant and theater and Tianfu Square. It was a many-faceted experience of Chengdu within a few hours.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Our afternoon in Chengdu started with a visit to the Panda center, a 92-acre plot set aside for breeding and raising the popular black and white bears.
Pandas are uniquely charming. They are in the bear family, but unlike but our North American black bears, brown bears and grizzly bears, the pandas are not aggressive or dangerous. They resemble big teddy bears.
The Panda Research Base is not a zoo. The animals are habituated to interaction with their caretakers, but they not confined in cages. They are not captured animals, but are bred there. Part of the program is to train them to be released into the wilds. The center exists to help the species survive. Meanwhile, the steady flow of visitors to see the popular bears keeps funding pouring in to care for them.
The pandas are hysterically comical. They are lazy, slow moving and clumsy looking as they waddle and roll around. They subsist primarily on a diet of bamboo, and when we watched one of the giants lying on its back, belly up, holding a stick of bamboo in his paw and munching on it with a look of exaggerated contentment, it was truly hilarious.
I watched a couple of the caretakers working with a couple of pandas - feeding them honey on a stick, which they lapped up eagerly, and rubbing their tummies occasionally as a gesture of affection and reward. It was tender and sweet, and funny.
We saw tiny babies, and learned that they although they were only about the size of a German Shepherd puppy, they were already six weeks old. They are born tiny and hairless.
China is the only place you can see pandas. They live in Sichuan, Shanxi and Gansu provinces, and the Panda center is the best way to see them. It's really worth the time if you are nearby. There is something about pandas that people really love. And I guess the feeling is mutual, at least when the people come bearing gifts of honey.
Kuanxiangzi and Zhaixiangzi Alleys
Next, we visited a neighborhood that dates back to the period of the Qin Dynasty.
In that district, some ancient streets are blocked off for pedestrians only, and buildings as old as 2,000 years old have been renovated into sparkling new, brightly colored and imaginatively designed shops, restaurants and nightclubs.
Each building is distinct, apart from the others, with its own separate history going way back.
Chengdu is still not heavily touristed beyond Chinese domestic tourists, but people of all ages and a variety of backgrounds can be seen in the alleys, couples, families with babies, groups of teenagers, elderly people whose lined faces tell rich, wordless stories. It was a glimpse of the entire range of Chinese life. The environment is richly scenic, full of bright colors, ancient styles of architecture on vintage buildings that evoke colorful histories and modern, innovative uses of ancient spaces.
After we had tired of walking around, window shopping and people watching, we took a table at a restaurant whose name in Chinese characters translates to "Chengdu Impression." We sat around a rectangular wooden table while waitresses brought endless refills of delicious jasmine tea and bowls of many varieties of Sichuan cuisine - including dumplings and peanut chicken.
Most of the dishes I don't know the name of, but my taste buds immediately recognized them as fine and delicious.
As we ate, we watched a series of performances. First, a woman playing a Chinese dulcimer in an ancient Chinese style of music. She was followed another woman playing a single-stringed bowed instrument, producing a familiar Chinese sound with sliding tones evocative of tales of ancient Chinese history. Various instrumental combinations followed. At one time, there were four brightly clad musicians playing in ensemble.
Then the musicians left the stage and the actors took over.
The acting performances began with a comic sketch of a henpecked man being totally and painfully dominated and controlled by his beautiful and manipulative wife. There were no subtitles, but the silly, exaggerated actions and gestures spoke volumes, and I laughed along with the people who really understood what the actors were saying.
There was more singing, acrobatics and silliness and finally the show was brought to a conclusion with a strange face-changing performance in which two robed men with wildly colored masks with demonic faces danced and leaped around dramatically.
Every few moments the masks would change from one image to another one radically different from it. People gathered close to the stage watching intently, apparently trying to figure out how these men accomplished the strange face-changing trick.
When the show concluded, we filed out with the rest of the audience and headed toward our hotel, taking a final scenic drive through the city of Chengdu with one particular stop.
Near the city center is a square, a popular park site with waterfalls and gardens and a giant statue of Mao Zedong overlooking it all with his hand raised in a calling gesture. The park was populated by many people enjoying the environment and vendors set up on the sidewalks around the perimeter.
At least as exciting as the park itself and the statue of the giant Mao, were the skyscrapers surrounding the park.
Though Chengdu is only about the seventh-largest city in China, it is a major city with a metropolitan population of 18 million. With China's mushrooming development over recent decades, the city is packed with colossal, glimmering skyscrapers that are each individual works of art on a massive scale. The towers surrounding and within view of Tianfu Square were extraordinary for their dazzling lights. They presented many varieties, configurations and designs of colored lights that change constantly in an ongoing spectacle.
Witnessing such extravagant displays of architectural and lighting innovation made me feel as if I had come from a much older, more staid world. It was hard to escape the feeling that we in America are being left far behind. I'm afraid we must accept the fact that we are now well into the Asian century and the period of American dominance of the world scene is now history.
It's an odd feeling, but hard to avoid when China is making such dramatic strides, and we seem to be stuck on the sidelines. What is good about it, is that there is nothing stopping us from going to China and experiencing these things ourselves.
I did, and I was inspired and energized, and eager to bring that energy back home and apply it to my own world.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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