Chengdu on the Cheap

Trip Start Feb 03, 2008
Trip End Aug 16, 2009

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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Breathe!" Serena told us, lifting her arms to the bamboo canopy above. "Wash your lungs!"

And we did, glad of the cool forest after the gray smog/fog that choked the rest of Chengdu.

As Dan and Serena and I wandered through the tunnels formed by the bending bamboo, I reflected on how iconically Chinese bamboo is, as much a symbol of the country as the pandas we were on our way to see. And, funny that the one icon depends on the other, and that we were walking through a giant copse of panda food.

A little farther down the tunnel (diligently breathing deeply to 'wash' our lungs) I could hear the buzz of people, glimpse the matching red baseball caps of a tour group and the sudden brightness of their cameras flashing.

We hurried up to the enclosure and watched two pandas, oblivious to the crowd, munching their way through a big pile of green leafy bamboo switches.

We were in Chengdu for an altogether unexciting purpose--to get my new passport at the US Consulate so that Dan and I could start booking plane tickets for this fall, after my old passport expires. But why just make it a business trip?

We had to come to Chengdu twice, once to make the passport application and next to pick it up. The first time we went shopping--I bought a wide-angle lens for my camera in preparation for our upcoming trip to XinJiang province--and eating. We ate pizza and breakfasted at McDonald's, two kinds of food unavailable in Zunyi. The second time we invited Serena, our colleague and my Chinese teacher, to come with us. It was Serena's first time traveling without her family and her excitement was itself exciting.

Serena helped us save a lot of money on the trip too. She had heard about a special offer meant to increase Sichuan tourism, probably to offset the losses from the May 12 earthquake last year. For a limited time, visitors to Chengdu could buy a special card for only one RMB. After registering the card on line, tourists use it to visit the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center and ten other places free of charge. Just counting the Panda Center, the "Panda Card" saved us 58 yuan each.

It was worth it to revisit the center, even if we had had to pay the full price. The pandas were just as cute as I remembered, lolling about on their wooden and cement play platforms, cubs gnawing each other's ears and play-fighting on a swing.

Also in Chengdu we visited two temples, including the enormous complex that houses WuHou Si. I always like visiting temples in the cities because they are a cool and quiet contrast to the traffic exhaust and jostling on the streets.

We spent a few hours walking on Chengdu's Chun Xi Lu, a famous shopping street. Actually, it's several intersecting streets blocked off for pedestrians. The stores that line them sell the sorts of things you usually see on shopping streets in big cities--clothes, electronics, bags, and snacks. We searched the area for a Sichuan snacks restaurant I had visited the first time I was in Chengdu but couldn't find it. Perhaps it has closed down or moved. We found one like it though, and delighted in the different plates of food. Serena said she enjoyed it, but it wasn't so different from Zunyi food.

So, we found her other foods to try, this being her first time out with foreigners. We had pizza and Tex-Mex food, Swenson's ice cream and key lime pie. We also got some people on the train to believe Serena wasn't Chinese for awhile. I think she had a lot of fun.

Then, just when the fun was getting expensive despite the Panda Card, Dan and I flew off to Urumqi, XinJiang province, to begin the second part of our vacation.

* * *
What it cost:

*Mix hostel-- 90 RMB for a comfortable triple (second trip)
*Loft hostel--90 RMB for an okay double (first trip)
*Panda card--1 RMB (from the HongQi supermarket chain service counter)
*Sichuan snacks--38 to 58 RMB for 10 to 16 small dishes
*Tex-Mex at Peter's Tex Mex--20 to 30 RMB per plate; baked goods 50 percent off after 8 p.m.--5 RMB Key Lime Pie!
*Pizza at Casa Mia--30 to 60 RMB per pizza


Tips for Other Travelers:

* Check out the site for information about the Panda Card discounts.
* Check out the tourist bus 902, which leaves from a stop near the river by XiNanMen bus station and goes to the Panda Center for only 2 RMB per person.
* Some taxi drivers charge a 2 RMB fuel surcharge, others a 1 RMB surcharge. There should be a sticker on the dashboard saying how much.
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