Our final stop in China was Chengdu, the modern capital city of Sichuan province. We arrived in the pouring rain after a long night train from Luoyang; after settling in at our hostel and having a good filling brunch we set out to explore the immediate area. The city itself offers little in the way of headline sights; rather, Chengdu makes a great base for trips into the surrounding region and acts as the major transport hub for the province.
Sightseeing in/around Chengdu
The main places that we visited within the city were Wenshu Temple, People’s Park and Qingyang Temple, otherwise known as Green Ram Temple.
- Wenshu Temple is Chengdu’s largest and best-preserved Buddhist temple and is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Within the grounds there is a vegetarian restaurant and an atmospheric tea-house that only add to the peaceful air of the complex.
- People’s Park makes a pleasant escape from the hustle and bustle; there is a small willow-tree-lined boating lake and a number of traditional teahouses.
- Qingyang Temple is Chengdu’s oldest and most extensive Taoist temple and dates from the Zhou dynasty; within the grounds there is an unusual eight-sided pagoda, built without bolts or pegs.
We found the city easy to navigate with its user-friendly bus and metro systems. However, we also enjoyed simply wandering the streets, tasting some of the delicious street food on route. Though a great deal of Chinese street eats are far from being vegetarian, we did manage to find plenty of snacks that we could eat from sweet steamed buns, with a red bean filling, to mini pancakes and savoury pasties.
If you have time and are so inclined there are also a number of museums within Chengdu – Chengdu Museum, Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art and the Jinsha Site Museum.
Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
The main reason we’d been so excited to come to Chengdu was to finally meet the icon of China at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. The reserve lies 18km north of the city centre and required two buses to reach. It was, however, well worth the trip; seeing pandas had been firmly on our China bucket list for a good long while.
Thanks to the huge efforts of staff at the research base, the giant panda has now been brought back from the brink of extinction. Home to around 120 giant and 76 red pandas, the base focuses on getting these shy animals to breed. There are, however, only around 1600 giant pandas left in the Chinese wilds, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and sightings are extremely rare.
We were impressed with the centre just outside of Chengdu; the enclosures were large and well maintained and all of the pandas seemed relaxed as they happily munched their way through mounds of bamboo. They were so funny to watch, especially as they seemed to have a habit of falling over or falling out of trees! We hope to return during one autumn or winter to hopefully see tiny newborns in the nursery.
Whilst staying in Chengdu, we also did a day trip to the relaxed riverside town of Le Shan, home to the world’s largest ancient Buddha. This UNESCO World Heritage Site draws plenty of tourists so we made sure to get there for when it opened; our plan worked and we were lucky enough to have the 1200-year-old giant statue to ourselves for a short time.
Carved from a cliff-face overlooking the confluence of three rivers – the Dadu, Min and Qingyi – and 71m tall, the Buddha is indeed impressive. His shoulders span 28m and each of his big toes is 8.5m long; his ears are 7m. It is said that their length symbolises wisdom and the conscious abandonment of materialism.
After observing his head up-close, we descended the steep winding stairway to gaze up at him from the bottom, where a small shrine has been erected for worshippers. By the time we made it back up, a long queue had already formed on the stairs and we knew then that the early morning start from Chengdu had been worth it.
Within the grounds of the giant Buddha there are also a number of caves and temples, which can be enjoyed in relative solitude. There is the Mahaoya Tombs Museum, with tombs and burial artifacts dating from the Eastern Han dynasty, and Wuyou Temple, which, like the Buddha, dates from the Tang dynasty. The highlights of this monastery are the 1000 terracotta arhat in the Luohan Hall, each with a unique posture and facial expression, and the fantastic statue of Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), the Goddess of Mercy.
We also visited the Oriental Buddha Capital, a separate area with its own admission fee, but which merges seamlessly with the rest of the grounds. With an impressive collection of over 3000 Buddha statues and figurines from across Asia, including a 170m long reclining Buddha, it was, in our opinion, worth seeing as much as the giant Buddha himself.
Le Shan was an excellent trip from Chengdu and leaving the city on the first bullet train really paid off – if you are planning a visit anytime soon, we highly recommend that you do the same!
On our final day in Chengdu we took a train-bus combination out to Qingcheng Shan, the sacred mountain famous as the birthplace of Taoism. Covered in lush dripping forests, the mountain trails are lined with ginkgo, plum and palm and there are caves, pavilions, cascading waterfalls and ancient wooden temples to explore.
There are two separate trails, one up the front and one up the backside of the peak; the main entrance is on the front side – Qian Shan – and leads to paths that wind past eleven important Taoist sites. We, however, decided to take the route up the backside – Hou Shan – which we’d heard offered better hiking. It was, indeed, an enjoyable climb to the 2128m high summit, where the White Cloud Temple crowns the peak.
Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Within the same area as Qingcheng Shan, in the modern city of Dujiangyan, lies another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. This Qin dynasty waterworks project is the oldest and only surviving non-dam irrigation system in the world and is still used today to control the water levels of the Min Jiang. We didn’t make it to this site but would have liked to had we had more time.
Chengdu made for an exciting finale to our first adventures in China; there is plenty to see and do in and around the city as well as a relaxed tea-house culture and some of the best food in the country. We will certainly return to this provincial capital as Sichuan still has much in store for us; we especially can’t wait to dive into the old Tibetan kingdom of Kham with its vast open landscapes, high altitude plateaus and traditional nomadic culture.
Chengdu was, however, the end of the road for our 2018 trip. As we boarded the plane to Taiwan, we couldn’t help but feel a little sad having to bid China farewell so soon; our paths will undoubtedly lead us back to this remarkable country for many, many more eye-opening adventures.
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