Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, also known as the “land of abundance” or the “land of plenty,” has been on my list of places I’ve really wanted to visit since I first came to China in 2006. As I’ve always loved spicy cuisine and pandas, Sichuan province has been historically famous for both, so what could possibly be better? Sichuan is home not just to pandas, which are native to this part of China, but also to the infamous Sichuanese peppercorn, otherwise known in Chinese as ‘hua jiao,’ which translates in English to “flower pepper.” It’s not the stereotypically “spicy” pepper you’d imagine from something like a jalapeño or a Thai chili pepper, but rather a “hot and numbing” sensation that is full of fury and certainly awakens your entire tongue, mouth, and throat. To date, I’ve never quite had the same sensation (and thrill) from eating almost anything else. It’s incredibly unique and intensely delicious. As far as I am aware, to this date, these peppercorns are still only grown here in Sichuan province.
So of course, the first thing we did when we arrived in Chengdu after a night’s rest was to wake up as early as possible to take a cab to visit the Giant Panda Research Base, which is about 40 minutes outside of Chengdu. The panda base is home to about 50 different giant pandas, including babies that are as small as just two inches long. We waited in quite a long line just to get a 3-second glimpse of them. I barely had enough time to snap a photo while a clearly bored and irritated security guard kept yelling at us in Chinese to keep it moving and not to stop and linger.
I’m not really sure what it is that attracts us to pandas. Yes, it’s great to see them because they are endangered, and it’s great to support a research base that is trying to help panda conservancy. But like koalas, pandas are some of the laziest animals that probably exist. All they really do is eat, sleep, play, have sex, and that’s really it. But there is something so endearing and human-like about their movements, their affectionate touches and interactions with other pandas, that always makes my heart feel gushy. They are just so cute; there’s no other explanation for my obsession with them. Before arriving, I read that in the summer time, the pandas are probably at their peak of laziness (in their natural habit out in the wild, they are at their most content at temperatures under 19 C, or 66 F). So if visiting in the summer time, it is best to visit first thing in the morning since they will be most active… as that is when they expect to be fed endless cut and trimmed bamboo. And given Sichuan can get excruciatingly hot and humid in the summers, when the temperature is too high, the pandas retreat indoors at the Panda Base to their cushy air-conditioned indoor environments. What a life!
Pandas, from what I have read, seem to encompass the “Chengdu way of life,” as Chengdu and perhaps all of Sichuan is known for its laziness, or rather its laid-back culture and general daily life. It’s common practice for people from all walks of life, whether it’s restaurant workers, white-collar and businessmen, to retreat in the afternoon for a few hours for their version of a siesta, into the endless tea houses across the city to drink tea, play games, and even talk business, but in a far more casual setting. Chris and I went from one area to the next at the Panda Base, and once, while I was watching a panda eat a generous portion of bamboo, he looked over at me and asked when I wanted to head to the next area.
Me: I don’t know… maybe in two hours?
Okay, so we didn’t actually stay in that exact area for two hours, but we did spend about half the day just watching these lazy, adorable creatures play, splash in water, climb trees, and eat bamboo. I can’t even count the number of photos and videos I got of these cute little things, and I kept playing the videos over and over again when we got back to our hotel. I’m so happy that China is doing its part to conserve its native wildlife so that everyone around the world who comes to Sichuan can enjoy these beautiful animals. I feel so lucky to have come here today and seen these guys in real life.