By Shirani Alfreds
Our family recently went to Chengdu over a weekend (Friday to Sunday) to see their most famous inhabitants, the pandas. Given the 3.5 hour flight each way, people asked if it was worth it. Our answer is ‘yes’, given our agenda with a 7-year-old and 2-year-old was solely panda viewing and indulging Sichuan food. If you are ambitious to see a lot and your kids are older, you can also visit Leshan’s Giant Buddha, trek at Mount Emei or Qingcheng, or do the volunteer panda helper program. With drizzly weather, young kids and pollution, however, we felt lucky to simply visit the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center (“Research Center”) then stroll down Jinli Lu (heritage Sichuan Snack Street) to get lunch. There, we soaked up the atmosphere, observed a variety of ancient arts and crafts (our daughter tried cross-bows), and gazed at the eye-popping and intriguing array of Sichuan snacks. We left Mission Accomplished and satisfied with our short, spicy Sichuan experience.
Chengdu is an easily negotiated city either by taxi or metro but staying centrally gives you the option to walk to some city sights within twenty to forty minutes. You will need a car or taxi to go to the Research Center (40 minutes), Dujiangyan/Mount Qingcheng (1.5 hours), Mount Emei or Leshan (2-2.5 hours, but there is also a 40 minute bullet train to Leshan). If you plan to achieve a lot, I’d recommend hiring a car and driver. We took a taxi (RMB70) from the airport (hotel pick-up was RMB400). A taxi to the Research Center cost RMB70 each way and we walked from Jinli Lu to our hotel (30 minutes).
There are plenty of well-known Western chain hotels as well as boutique options but we chose to stay at Fraser Suites in a two-bedroom apartment. It had a kitchen, lounge/dining area, two bedrooms and bathrooms. Child-friendly facilities included a full-length pool (our 7-year-old was happy), a toddler pool (our 2-year-old could paddle) and a playroom for young kids just off the hotel dining room. Opposite the hotel was a Starbucks and a Carrefour, which are handy to stock up on food if you aren’t Sichuan foodies, or if you don’t opt for a breakfast inclusive stay. The hotel was also adjacent to a mall with plenty of (local) restaurants and food.
What To See and Do
Panda wise, there are two options. The first is the Research Center where you can view black and white and red pandas in large enclosures, including newborns (RMB58 for admission and kids under 1.3m are free). This is a good choice with young kids as you can be done in two hours and there is a lovely lakeside with a café where you can have lunch and kids can run around. The second option is in Dujiangyan at Mount Qingcheng, joining the panda volunteer day program to feed, clean and be up close and personal. The minimum age is 12 but younger children can do it with an adult chaperone. You may also stay at Dujiangyan instead of Chengdu for a more nature-oriented trip and then trek or bike the day visiting traditional villages (this area inspired the Kung Fu Panda movies).
Other activities in Chengdu are wandering down Jinli Lu to see and sample different snacks, or try various teahouses as is the Sichuan tradition. You can also visit Wengshu Temple, the largest Buddhist temple of the Tang Dynasty, the Jinsha site museum featuring exhibits of the Shu kingdom, the tomb of general Wang Jian with the oldest known carvings of Tang Dynasty court entertainment and Qingyang Temple, the oldest and most extensive Taoist temple from the Zhou dynasty. Further (and farther) options are exploring Mount Emei and Leshan. Both UNESCO heritage sites, the former is one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains and Leshan’s giant Buddha carved out of a mountain is a sight we were sorry to miss this trip.
What to Eat
Chengdu is a foodie destination known for its laidback teahouse culture and marvellous Sichuan food. Easily accessible as street food or in most restaurants are spicy Sichuan dumplings, stuffed with pork and drenched in a fiery red sauce. Wantons in vinegar sauce are another famous dish as well as my personal favourite – rice noodles in chilli vinegar sauce or sesame paste sauce, which our 2-year-old also devoured. Chengdu is also the home of the humble hot pot and Ma Po To Fu (tofu in spicy Sichuan chilli sauce, my husband’s favourite). Panda Dumplings were a kiddy hit, being sweetly filled with red bean paste, the outside white and fluffy with black accents for panda ears, nose and eyes.
1. Factor in flight delays and don’t plan too much the day of arrival (our flight was delayed two hours from Shanghai which left us just enough time to land, get to the hotel, have dinner then put the kids to bed);
2. If you want to achieve a lot, hire a guide and driver;
3. Visit the Research Center in the morning as the pandas are the most active for breakfast. It is less crowded before 11am;
4. Take Chengdu pollution levels into account for outdoor activities; and
5. If you or your kids aren’t spicy Sichuan food fans, pack sandwiches and meals/snacks to go.
Article originally appeared in Urban Family magazine. Permission to reprint was given to ShanghaiMamas