Day 1 - Chengdu's Pandas & Ancient Streets

by - 23:07

Holiday Inn Express Chengdu Wuhou 智选假日酒店-成都武侯

The tour agency had arranged for us to stay at Holiday Inn Express Chengdu Wuhou hotel which is located in the south-eastern suburb of the city. The hotel is located beside the 2nd Ring Road of the city and offered a shorter journey to the airport for our early morning flight the following day as compared to a hotel in the grid-locked city centre.
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Lobby of the international four star rated hotel. The hotel offers free WiFi in the lobby area as well as in the guestroom floors, but the WiFi reception is weak and sporadic when accessed from the hotel room.
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The standard twin sharing room is similarly equipped and decorated as other Holiday Inn properties in China with a good selection of local and international TV channels as well as a choice of pillow firmness. It is however, a regrettable fact that the advanced climatic control system was difficult to operate. Moreover, we could not simply open the window for "natural air-conditioning" in the stifling summer heat as compared to what my friend and I had done in Qingdao earlier this year in mid-winter!
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Breakfast was catered for at the hotel's restaurant on the first day of the tour as it was not served onboard the overnight flight. The standard spread of Chinese dishes and pastries were available at the self-service breakfast buffet, while patrons could order individual portions of porridge and noodles from a counter to be delivered to their table.
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Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base 成都大熊猫繁育研究基地

The historically important city of Chengdu has much to offer to visitors with its large number of interesting heritage sites dotted around the ancient capital. Being a gateway city to Tibet on this trip, we had a comparatively relaxed itinerary on the first day as we only visited two major new attractions in the city.
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Chengdu is inexplicably associated with one of China's most recognizable national treasure as visitors from all over the world flock to the city to have a glimpse at the giant pandas. The lush virgin bamboo forests and ideal climate in Sichuan province play host to these adorable animals and an unprecedented global effort had been made over the past decades to ensure the continued survival of the giant pandas. To this end, two major panda conservatories had been set up in Sichuan province, with the original facility being located in the midst of the panda's natural habitat in Wolong. Located 100km from Chengdu, the facility had been significantly damaged in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake and now function as a nature reserve for the pandas with few tour groups visiting the facility today. In its place, a new facility was set up in the northern suburbs of Chengdu as a showcase facility to visitors and academic research to improve the breeding success of the giant pandas.
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Featuring a stylised representation of the giant panda, the distinctive gateway to the breeding centre dominates the new entrance plaza and and houses the ticket office. The entrance fee cost RMB 50 for an adult.
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Visitors to the centre can choose to explore the 100 hectare grounds on foot or ride one of the electric carts for RMB 10.
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A sculpture situated near the entrance to the grounds epitomises the core function of the facility - to ensure the continued success of the Giant Panda breeding programme and to raise awareness of the vulnerability of these endangered animals. The facility currently boasts the largest captive population of giant pandas and red pandas in the world.
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The facility is separated into different zones which traces the different stages of a giant panda's development from birth. The first stop of the tour deposited us at the Giant Panda Kindergarten enclosure which houses pandas up to two year of age.
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Visitors were immediately drawn to the cuddly shape of a baby panda rolling about and exploring its surroundings before retreating to the cool shade of a nearby tree.
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The mid-morning summer heat had unfortunately meant that most of the pandas in this zone decided to seek respite in their sheltered air-conditioned enclosures instead of being in their open play pens. It is often recommended that visitors visit the park in the morning for a significantly higher chance of spotting the giant pandas in action during the summer months.
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The baby pandas are under the watchful eyes of the staff and are especially on the lookout for potential risks of heat stroke during the summer months. In fact, we witnessed one of the pandas being forcefully extricated from its perch atop a tree to the relative safety of its cooled enclosure after enjoying too long a nap.
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Apart from observing the adorable pandas, visitors also have the opportunity to cuddle a panda for a photograph at the adjacent nursery for an exorbitant RMB 1,300 per session. However, there was certainly no lack of demand during our visit as we spotted a long queue of predominantly Westerners patiently waiting for their turn at the nursery!

The park is set within a luxuriant bamboo forest which also double as the main source of nutrition for many of the park's inhabitants. The tall bamboo plants that flank both sides of the main pedestrian paths also help to keep the environment cool for visitors in summer.
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After admiring the baby pandas, we moved on to the next enclosure which featured sub-adult pandas that are between 1.5 years and 5 years of age and transitioning to become adult pandas. At the point in their lives, they are at their most active and spend much of their time feeding on bamboo and exploring their surroundings.
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The enclosure for this group of pandas are among the largest in the facility as the adolescent pandas are presented with thoughtfully crafted structures and landscaped grounds to satisfy their innate curiosity. In addition, the individual pandas are also allowed to interact freely with other pandas to boost their chances of successfully breeding when they develop into adult pandas.
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In comparison to the rather shy baby pandas, the sub-adult pandas in this zone were more sociable and posed for photos from the onlookers and enjoyed being in the centre of attraction.
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Bamboo is the main staple for pandas and provide a good source of cellulose but is a comparatively poor source of nutrition. As a result, adult pandas can feast up to 18kg of bamboo a day just to provide sufficient energy to last them through the day.
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The pandas are easily exhausted after foraging around the enclosure in the summer heat and one particular individual collapsed onto the platform in an attempt to catch its breath following an 'exhausting' climb.
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Oblivious to the attention around it, an exhausted panda decides to take a noontime nap on the top level of the platform. Adult pandas typically spend 8-12 hours a day sleeping to conserve its energy.
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Information plates are located around the enclosure which provide information about the pandas that are being exhibited in the enclosure. It is perhaps a pity that it is not easy to distinguish the different pandas apart as they look very similar!
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The full grown adult pandas were housed in their own air-conditioned enclosure during our visit. The entrance to the enclosure was framed by several panda adoption plaques from various organisations such as Cambridge University Press.
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After stepping onto a disinfectant mat, we entered the enclosure which was made up of several prison-like cells with thick metal grilles and tiled walls. Visitors were kept a safe distance from the grille and had a brief glimpse of a pair of pandas enjoying a pile of bamboos being ushered out of the enclosure to make way for other visitors entering the area. Stern workers kept a very close eye on the visitors and chided anyone who dared to even allow their hands to cross the barrier. A brief explanation was given that there had been incidents where a giant panda had reached across the grille to grip a wayward visitor in a vice-like grip.
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With the giant pandas tucked away in their enclosures, other animals in the facility seize the opportunity to take centre-stage in the open air enclosures. Much cajoling from the crowd could not convince this male peacock to exhibit the splendor of its colourful plume.
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Red pandas are also featured prominently in the compound and are not related to the giant panda despite its name. It is also the sole member of the Ailurus genus and is loosely related to the weasel and raccoon families.
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One of the few similarities that the red pandas share with the giant panda is its preference for bamboo as its main source of food, although it feasts on a variety of other plants and small animals as well.
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The electric carts do not operate on a regular shuttle route within a park but function more as a taxi as our tour guide had to call the dispatcher for a pick up after we had finished touring the different panda enclosures within a park.
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A well-stocked souvenir shop near the entrance plaza sell a wide variety of panda related merchandise ranging from stuffed toys to more exquisite hand crafted art pieces. Typical prices include RMB 5 for a lanyard and RMB 80 for a medium sized panda stuffed toy.
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We headed back to the city centre of Chengdu to have a late lunch at Rong Shun Yuan 荣顺圆 which seemed to be geared towards providing meals for tour groups and as a venue for wedding banquets. Apart from the typical Sichuan cuisine which had been toned down to cater to the tastes of most Singaporeans, other highlights from the meal included saffron tea and a very tasty biscuit which was made from purple potatoes 紫薯饼.
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Higer KLQ6700 series coach 川A6868 was rostered to ferry our tour group around Chengdu for the day and was photographed parked outside the restaurant during lunch.
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Chengdu's Wide & Narrow Alleys 宽窄巷子

Chengdu's wide & narrow alley refers to a block of preserved mansions and shophouses in central Chengdu which date back to the Qing dynasty. It was originally the residence of influential families which had served under the Eight Banners Army in the Qing dynasty, and had since been converted to an eclectic mix of bars, restaurants and teahouses after an extensive four year long renovation.

The area is bounded by 3 parallel alleys: Wide Alley or Kuan Xiangzi 宽巷子, Narrow Alley or Zhai Xiangzi 窄巷子 and Well Alley or Jing Xiangzi 井巷子, of which the 2 of the most characteristic alleys lend their name to the development.
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Much effort had been made to showcase the past history of Chengdu, and visitors are greeted with several interactive art installations along Changshun Upper Street 长顺上街 as they walked in from the main access point along Jinhe Road 金河路. Clockwise from top left: Typical items found in a Chengdu household in the 1970s; 'Breathing Tiles 呼吸瓦墙' The individual nails set in a preserved tiled roof section could be moved to form designs to the visitors' content; An artwork based on a traditional Chinese paper cut illustrated the importance of opera in the city's history; Visitors can peer through portholes to watch re-enactment of a Eight Banner Army training in Kangxi Year 51 during the Qing dynasty.
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Trishaws were a common means of transport in Chengdu in the 1970s and '80s and were locally known as "Ba Er Duo 耙耳朵" as they originated from hen-pecked husbands being obliged to ferry their demanding wives around the city in these modified bicycles.
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It is relatively easy to get around the different attractions in Chengdu using the comprehensive public bus network and the newly opened metro, but language might be a potential barrier as the bulk of the signs and announcements are only in Chinese. A sightseeing service which plies between the major tourist attractions of the city is operated by Rural Wenjing Travel Services on a fixed timetable with limited trips. Half hourly trips are operated between Wide & Narrow Alley and the service's main hub at Wuhou Temple. Decked in the service's striking livery, 川F55484 was photographed laying over along Changshun Upper Street.
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Narrow Alley is lined with themed period cafes and restaurants and gives an insight to the slower pace of life in the city.
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From left to right: An elaborate opera & tea house at the eastern end of the narrow alley; Plaques provide useful information about the architectural details and history of the former residences along the alley; Modern art expression meet the timeless charm of Qing dynasty masonry
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Resembling posh art galleries than restaurants, gourmet eateries along narrow alley serve up a range of cuisine ranging from experimental fusion food to seafood and Sichuan's distinctive hotpot.
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The unique architecture of the preserved residences often make them a natural choice for film producers producing period dramas and movies.
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The wide & narrow alleys are also popular with couples capturing precious photos of their nuptial bliss.
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Situated in the middle of a row of traditional tea houses, the local Starbucks outlet draws in crowds of curious visitors who gawk at the unlikely combination of one of USA's most recognisable icon being housed in a mansion that dated back to the late Ming dynasty. Most Starbucks outlets in China offer free WiFi access, but it proved to be a frustrating experience to connect with the WiFi network at this branch.
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An ornate mansion had been transformed into a specialty restaurant serving vegetarian dishes. Although being one of the lesser known specialties of the city, they have a distinctive taste that is certainly not suited for everyone's palate.
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Narrow alley was referred to as Taiping Lane 太平巷 during the Qing dynasty and now houses a row of trendy pubs at its western end.
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Informative street signs direct the way to the alleyways which link the 3 parallel feature alleys in the block.
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Canvas artworks of famous sights and street scenes of Chengdu are exhibited along the alleyways linking wide and narrow alley.
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Despite its name, wide alley does not feel appreciably wider than the parallel narrow alley. Instead, the leafy sidewalk and abundance of traditional teahouses makes it feel less commercialised and touristy.
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Drinking tea and playing mahjong in the company of friends is a popular afternoon pastime in Chengdu since the olden days. Apart from serving tea, teahouses also serve a tantalising variety of street food as well.
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A museum along wide alley serves as a boutique teahouse and also allow visitors free access into one of the preserved residences in the block.
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From left (clockwise): Instead of concrete walkways, stone stepping blocks are set within a small canal which rings the central courtyard of the mansion; an oversized replica of a typical bamboo chair favoured by the locals when relaxing at a teahouse; An imperial edict which had been cast in stone. A small placard beside the exhibit warn of a hefty RMB500 fine to deter curious visitors from touching it.
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Different interpretations of the Door Gods or guardian deities could be found on the wooden doors along wide alley. These traditional decorations are conspicuously absent along the parallel narrow alley.
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Wide and Narrow Alley was reopened to the public in 2009 after years of restoration and substantial investment by the local government. A new entrance plaza along the northern side of the block was being constructed at the time of our visit.
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Known simply as the Small Western Mansion 小洋楼, the pastel yellow building prominently stood out from the monotonous grey walls of the other mansions along the alley. The design of the mansion was heavily influenced by western architectural styles and now appropriately houses a French restaurant.
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The western styled mansion stands at the corner of an alleyway which links Narrow Alley with the third parallel alley, Well alley or Jingxiangzi. The alley is rather quiet and devoid of activity during the day but transforms into one of the hippest areas in the city when the numerous pubs and opera houses are open in the evening.
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Another art installation along Well Alley depicts a street scene from the 1980s where a vegetable peddler pushes his cart through a rain soaked Narrow Alley.
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Chengdu Public Bus 成都公交车

Our day tour ended early and we were ferried back to our hotel at 4pm with the rest of the day at our leisure. As our hotel was located in the densely populated Wuhou suburb along the 2nd Outer Ring Road, there was a healthy number of public bus routes in the vicinity of our hotel which some of the tour group members took advantage to indulge in more shopping and eating in the city centre.

Locally manufactured Shudu 蜀都客车 buses by Chengdu Automotive Holdings 成都客车股份有限公司 were preferred by the local city bus operator over King Long & Yutong buses which make up the bulk of the fleets of city bus operators in many other Chinese cities.

川AK2615 is a Shudu CDK6185 articulated bus which serves the busy trunk route 1 to Zhaojue Temple Transport Hub 昭觉寺公交枢扭. The low entry chassis also allows the bus to carry passengers in wheelchairs via a folding ramp at the centre door.
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川AL6089 is another low entry Shudu CDK6122 deployed on route 1 and features a unique bodywork which probably served to highlight its zero step boarding and alighting feature. The extra hump at the rear of the roof may also indicate that it is a CNG powered vehicle.
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Normal diesel powered Shudu CDK6122 buses form the backbone of the local operator's fleet, such as 川AJ9050 which was photographed being stuck in one of the city's notorious traffic gridlocks while working route 111 to the city's southern railway station.
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川A84689 is a non wheelchair accessible Shudu CDK6121 bus and precedes the newer CDK6122 low entry buses featured earlier. These buses have a 7 element LCD route display which is affectionately referred to as "calculator destination sign" by many bus enthusiasts due to its resemblance to that used on calculator displays. A shortened 10m version based on the same chassis designated as the CDK6101 was also spotted working various trunk routes during my short bus spotting session.
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