Located in Sichuan Province on the border of the country’s southwest regions, Chengdu hardly seems the most obvious city in China for a long weekend break. Well, there are in fact several reasons, of which one is at the top of most visitors’ lists. Giant pandas! On the outskirts of this huge city of more than 12 million people sits the large Panda Reserve where visitors can see dozens of these amazing creatures, including the extremely rare Brown Panda. Its full name gives a better idea of the importance of the Reserve – Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Mercifully this is no zoo where the pandas are confined to small enclosures.
The complex covers 92 acres and was created to give the pandas a natural habitat to encourage breeding. Less than 2,000 giant pandas exist in the world of which some 1,600 live in the wild. So ensuring the continuation of the species is the prime reason for the Reserve. An additional 300 acres are now being developed to create conditions similar to the wilds of Sichuan where the pandas can live until being released back into the forests.There are also other zoos around the world taking part in panda breeding programs such as Adelaide Zoo.
You enter by taking paths through archways of bamboo, the staple food of the pandas. One panda will consume up to 15 or more kilograms each day. The trails then lead you through various compounds in the park with many opportunities to watch pandas in their natural environment. If you have US$150 or so to spare, you can even have your photo taken with a baby panda in your arms, one of the few kitsch touristic elements, along with a host of other merchandise. Yet the income from this makes up an important part of the funding of the Reserve.
I happen to loathe spiders. Yet, walking along one of the many pathways and admiring the morning dew on the leaves of a long hedge, my eye was caught by this tiny creature, the most colourful little spider I have ever seen with a body less than 1 centimeter long. My camera is auto-focus and I became infuriated when it just would not come into focus. After 10 minutes of trying, though, it finally worked and I got what I thought is a rather nice photo!
Another reason to visit Chengdu is its 72-hour visa free entry available to the citizens of 45 countries including most European nations, the USA, Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Within Chengdu itself there is a lot to see. I enjoyed an afternoon in what is quaintly named Wide and Narrow Street. This is exactly what it implies – an old-style long Chinese street that meanders through a park. On each side are mansions and old buildings offering different foods and crafts. There are open-air cafes and even an open-air Chinese Opera Theatre. Of course it is all just a reconstruction and there is an initial feel of Disneyland about it, the more so when one of the first shops you come to is Starbucks! But I gradually got caught up in the spirit of it all. It was fun!
Like all large Chinese cities, there are plenty of temples and museums to take up each day, including one of the largest dinosaur museums in the world just a short train ride away. I must also add here that in terms of meeting gay guys, Chengdu was the most amazing of all the Chinese cities I have visited. The apps just kept buzzing! I had made one major mistake. I am normally very picky when it comes to the location of hotels. Having had the Holiday Inn Express recommended and knowing it was close to the centre, I went ahead and booked it. Most unfortunately I had not realised there are three Holiday Inn Express hotels, and mine was much closer to the airport! Despite the location, there were far more guys wanting to meet up than I could possibly see on my four days and nights. With some 20 universities in the city, most of those getting in touch were students or recent graduates. When I had to inform one really nice student that I just had no time, he asked when I would leave the hotel for the airport. Learning it was midday, he asked if he could come round at 9:00 the next morning! I was exhausted when I finally got on the plane!
One of the great things about Chengdu is that it is within striking distance of several amazing sights. 150 kms away is Mt. Emei, known as one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. Nearby is the Giant Buddha of Leshan, the tallest stone Buddha statue in the world. But the most impressive I reckon is a short 40-minute flight away. The airport of Jiuzhai-Huanglong is set at 3,500 meters amidst amazing peaks on the Tibetan plateau. I have experienced landings at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport and the zigzag approach to Bhutan’s airport at Paro, but nowhere is as striking as Jiuzhai-Huanglong. Indeed you virtually land on the top of a mountain with sheer drops at both ends!
The airport links two natural wonders. On one side are the stunningly stepped calcified pools in the Unesco-listed Huanglong National Park. You can hike up alongside the pools or take a gondola. But if you go there on arrival, don’t even think about hiking for the altitude will kill you. Better first to go downhill a thousand meters to Jiuzhaigou. This is just a road packed with hotels and guesthouses on each side. The attraction, though, is another Unesco-listed Jiuzhaigou National Park. Set amidst three valleys, it rises to 4,000 meters. Don’t worry, though. From the moment the Park opens at 7:00 am, a fleet of minibuses whisks you to near the top so that you can leisurely walk down amongst some of the most glorious natural beauty anywhere. There are lovely waterfalls, beautiful colours and the clearest water I have ever seen in a multitude of glacial lakes. Feel peckish? Just walk over to the little road and a bus will soon appear to take you back to the entrance where there are various restaurants before you continue your exploration in the afternoon. There will be many thousands of Chinese also visiting, yet it is very easy to escape the crowds and gently wend your way down in absolute peace. A perfect interlude in a fascinating week.
Chengdu airport is now served by a wide variety of airlines. There are non-stop flights from many Asian capitals including low cost carriers. Intercontinental carriers include British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar, Etihad, Virgin Atlantic and United.
I’ve heard about the Chengdu Gay Kissing Competition but I haven’t been able to confirm if it was a one off or a yearly event. For more info about gay Chengdu visit Travel Gay Asia and also read the article The Gayest Little City in China.
Been to China or have a Chinese boyfriend? Please post your comments below
Contribution by Callum McLeod who is a Gay Travel Writer and Photographer who has traveled throughout and lives in Asia.