Renmin Park, Chengdu

Child in a basket at Renmin Park, Chengdu

Chengdu’s Renmin Park (or People’ Park) is a good place to sample Chengdu life and see the locals at play.

My family and I came across this park by accident and were attracted by the tremendous din indicating that something was going on. On closer inspection it seemed that every square inch of this park was occupied by people doing a vast range of activities.

First of all there was the outdoor karaoke section where half a dozen or more performers were simultaneously performing different songs, ranging from Chinese opera to pop, and competing to see who could make the biggest racket.

Water calligraphy, left to right variety

Nearby, old men were practicing the art of water calligraphy – drawing Chinese characters on paving stones with a giant paint brush dipped in water.

Water calligraphy, vertical format

I don’t know what they were writing but the brushwork looked very accomplished. These fleeting works of art are a reminder that everything is temporary. The Chinese authorities probably approve of this medium too. In the event that something is written which is not in accordance with the Party line it self-erases within a few minutes.

Dancing in various forms seemed to be the most popular activity, particularly among women, with large groups doing formation aerobic dances for exercise and to keep warm. Ballroom dancing, fan dancing and tai-chi exercises were going on in other parts of the park.

Strictly come dancing in Chengdu

Other activities included boating on the lake, feeding koi fish, admiring bonsai trees, playing cards and mahjong, badminton, flying kites and model airplanes and taking rides at the mini fairground.

Vendors were making edible sculptures from candy while ear cleaners were roaming the park armed with frighteningly long, pointed scrapers and brushes looking for grubby-eared customers to dig.

The whole pace was a hive of activity. It seems the Chinese are not ones for sitting around and wasting their time. This probably accounts for their success.

Ballroom dancing veteran, Chengdu

Chengdu Attractions

A sign outside Chengdu International Airport boasts that Chengdu is the Best Tourism City in China. This seems wishful thinking. True, the city has the excellent Panda Research Base (see my last post) but what else is there for the tourist?

Foggy Chengdu

First impressions of this city of 8 million people (China’s 8th most populous) were not entirely favourable – a sprawling mix of modern high rise towers and drab residential and commercial blocks, not helped by the cold grey fog which enveloped the city during our brief stay.

Designer Shops in Chengdu

It looked better at night especially in the upmarket shopping area near Yanlord Landmark with Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior and Boss boutiques catering to the tremendous purchasing power of China’s growing wealthy elite. A recent survey found that 71% of Chinese agreed with the statement ‘I measure my success by the things I own’ (compared to only 16% of British adults). With that kind of materialistic attitude it is not surprising that foreign designer brands see China as their most important market for the future.

Tianfu Square, Chengdu

Chengdu is more than 2000 years old but you wouldn’t know it with nearly every building seeming to have been built within the last 30 years.

One of the few remnants of the original city can be found in a couple of parallel narrow alleys called Kuanxiangzi and Zhaixiangzi.

Zhaixiangzi Alley, Chengdu

These quaint streets, dating from the Qing Dynasty, were busy with tourists (mostly Chinese) in the run up to Christmas.

Starbucks in Chengdu

Even Starbucks has made an effort to fit in with the local architecture. For those preferring a more authentic experience there are plenty of traditional tea shops, cosy courtyard restaurants and street food stalls. This being Sichuan province, the air is full of the peppery spice of Sichuan cuisine.

Dimsum in Kuanxiangzi Alley, Chengdu

The shopping is good. Chengdu is famous for its embroidery and brocade work, and examples of this skill can be found in clothing, souvenirs and gifts. There are some quite smart art gallery shops too.

Laughing Buddha Sculpture, Chengdu

Away from the alleys, a walk along the embankment of the Jinjiang River near Hejiang Pavilion is a pleasant thing to do.

Hejiang Pavilion, Chengdu

Here the luxury Shangri-La Hotel enjoys a good view of the pavilion and the graceful (but new) Anshun Bridge on which sits a large restaurant.

Anshun Bridge, Chengdu

We enjoyed our stay in Chengdu. I suspect it is one of those cities where the more time you spend there, the more you come to appreciate its charms.

Zhaixiangzi Alley, Chengdu

Cuddling Pandas in Chengdu

Relaxing panda cubs at Chengdu Research Base

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is located 10km north of the city of Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province. It is a sanctuary for giant pandas whose natural remote mountain habitats have been destroyed or fragmented by human development.

With only about 2000 giant pandas remaining in the world , the Research Base plays a vital role in saving the species from extinction through its breeding and rearing programmes.

What are you staring at?

The world’s top zoos are lucky if they have a pair of giant pandas to show off to visitors. This place has dozens of them. The adult pandas, who are solitary animals, have their own individual enclosures surrounded by dry moats and landscaped with trees and rocks and with feeding platforms where visitors can get a good view of them while they are eating (which is most of the time!).

Adorable panda cubs at the Sunshine Nursery House

The cuddly cubs and ‘sub-adults’ are kept in groups and delight visitors with their playful antics and general cuteness. The above young cubs are about 3-4 months old and play, eat and sleep together in a large wooden crib at the Sunshine Nursery House.

Bamboo shrouded paths at Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base

The Research Base covers an area of about 100 hectares and is planted with bamboo forest and 400 types of trees including gingko, magnolia and willow. The Base includes a Giant Panda Museum, a veterinary hospital, research centre, kitchen and a number of panda enclosures and panda nursery facilities.

Panda Kitchen

In the wild, pandas eat different varieties of bamboo according to the seasons in order to gain the nutrients they require. Even for the captive pandas, bamboo makes up 99% of their diet. This is supplemented by bamboo shoots (a favourite treat), apples and steamed panda bread. Steamed panda bread is made of corn, soybean, rice, oats, wheat, vegetable oil and added minerals and vitamins and is cooked at the panda kitchen. Each panda eats about 600-1000g of this bread per day.

Red Panda

In addition to Giant Pandas, the Base is home to over 70 Red Pandas. These creatures are not related to Giant Pandas and more closely resemble racoons but they are also native to the Sichuan area and share the Giant’s love of bamboo. They too are a threatened species with fewer than 10,000 remaining.

baby swans

Another attraction at the Research Base is Swan Lake where you can feed colourful carp, ducks, black swans and their baby cygnets.

Panda Cuddling at Chengdu Panda Research Base

For panda fanatics like my daughter however, the top attraction in the park must be the opportunity to cuddle a giant panda cub. These panda encounters can only be offered when the pandas are in the mood and perhaps for that reason they are not promoted actively by the Base. You need to enquire at the Sunshine Nursery House. In return for a donation of RMB 2,000, visitors like this lucky girl get a rare chance to touch a panda.  They receive a photo, T-shirt, video and donation certificate as souvenirs.

If this sounds too touristy, panda lovers can alternatively do volunteer work at the Panda Base which mostly involves hosing down the pandas’ bamboo food, and cleaning up the enclosures.

I was impressed by the Chengdu Research Base which is clean and well managed with plenty of security to ensure that visitors do not feed, tease of otherwise mistreat the animals.

If you like pandas but don’t think you can get to Chengdu you can watch them online through the Research Base’s excellent free 24 hour Panda Cam service.

Chengdu Panda Research Base

Great Wall of China Trek

Great Wall of China

A few years back I took part on a trek of the Great Wall of China. It was of those charity fundraising challenges where participants have to raise a minimum sponsorship amount to cover the costs of the trip and enough left over to contribute to the charity’s coffers. I failed to raise the minimum amount and ended up paying for most of it out of my own pocket. No matter – all in a good cause!

I cannot remember the exact itinerary but the names Simitai and Mutianyu ring a bell. It was a nine day trip but the actual hiking was five full days. Although it seemed at the time that we were walking its entire length, we probably covered about 60km, or less than 1% of the wall’s length.

Trekking on the Wall

We avoided the most touristy and over-renovated part of the wall near Beijing and on most days we were walking on un-renovated sections with few other people around apart from our group of 25 or so hikers.

Some sections of the wall were in bad shape with crumbling watchtowers and thousands of uneven steps.

Plenty of uneven steps

I found the hike quite hard on the first day, mainly from the cold as I was living in Dubai at the time and not used to the late October temperatures of northern China. My fellow hikers had all travelled out from UK and had no such acclimatisation problems. By the fifth day I was just getting into my stride and would have liked to go on longer.

We were not on the wall the whole time. There were side trips to a waterfall and a visit to the humble house of local farming family. And there was the longest flying fox I have ever tried. It looked a bit scary but it chopped half an hour off the walking time.

Destination: red roof building across the lake.

Accommodation was in simple, traditionally designed lodges. We had to share – two of three to a room and there were a few complaints about my snoring! Food was very good and lots of it. As you would expect for a do-gooders’ trip of this nature there were plenty of options for salad-loving tofu-munchers like me.

At the end of the hike there was a day in Beijing for sight-seeing and to visit one of the projects run by the charity.

Gap in the wall.

Would I do it all again? Well if my knees were up to all those steps, I would certainly like to see the Great Wall again. The views were fabulous and the sight of the wall itself snaking its way over mountains for mile after mile is something special. But I don’t think I would do a charity trek again. I have stopped supporting these major charities ever since I saw job adverts in the Economist offering whopping six figure salaries for some of their top positions. I realised that the combined funds raised by everyone on our trek would not cover one of these guys’ salaries. Call me old fashioned, but I think people who work for a charity which relies on public donations should do it for nothing, or next to nothing. So these days I prefer more direct assistance to those in need and cut out the middle man.

Thrifty Traveller at the Great Wall 2004

Red Hot Stamps From Red China

I have a reasonable collection of People’s Republic of China postage stamps which I acquired many years ago.

They have been quite a good investment as PRC stamp prices have risen sharply in recent years driven by the increased purchasing power of millions of Chinese collectors.  Of course nothing is a good investment until it is actually sold and profits taken and that is especially true in stamps where prices can go down just as sharply.

So, although I am very attached to my collection, I have decided to sell it before the bubble bursts.

I have taken a final look at them before they go and I thought I would show you a few interesting items.

liberation of tibet 1952

In the early days of the PRC they issued fairly normal looking stamps for the time. The above stamps are from a 1952 set called Liberation of Tibet. Note the use of Tibetan script.

Huangshan1963

By 1963, China was issuing very attractive stamps such as this one depicting Huangshan, a beautiful mountain that I hope to climb one day with my friend The Weary Traveller. I would need a visa for China so I am going to make no comments about the aforementioned Liberation of Tibet.

1968anti-americandeclaration

Then came the Cultural Revolution (remember the Little Red Book?) and most of the stamps issued at the time featured Mao and his thoughts. The above stamp from 1968 is called the Anti-American Declaration. I cannot read Chinese but it probably says something like “Stop bullying us America, we’ll revalue the Yuan at our own pace”.

1968revolutionaryarts

Even the arts were not spared from the propaganda as this battalion of ballerinas shows.

There are a few interesting PRC philatelic rarities which unfortunately I do not own:

1956Tianaman 74355

The above left view of Tiananmen Square was withdrawn before issue because the sun’s rays were felt to resemble the glare from a nuclear explosion. The version on the right was issued instead.  The stamp on the left sold for HKD920,000 in auction in September,  well above its estimate of HKD500,000.

1968GreatVictory

This 1968 Great Victory of the Cultural Revolution stamp depicting Mao and Lin Biao (Mao’s heir apparent) was distributed to post offices but withdrawn before the official issue date. One post office in Hebei was said to have sold a few before the issuance date which explains the rarity of the stamp ( I wonder what happened to the postmaster!).  I don’t know why the stamp was withdrawn but Lin Biao died in a plane crash 3 years later after a failed coup attempt.  A similar block of 4 of these stamps sold for nearly HKD7million this year.

wholecountryred1968

Finally, this 1968 stamp called The Whole Country Is Red was withdrawn when it was noticed that the Xisha and Nansha Islands (the still disputed Paracels and Spratleys Islands respectively) were missing from the map of China. Since these islands are so microscopic the artist could have argued that they are in the crowds somewhere but Mao wasn’t a person to argue with so the stamps were destroyed apart from a few whose lucky owners can now sell for HKD750,000 a piece.