When we began casting around for summer vacation ideas, we started off with a beach holiday in the Philippines and ended up with Chengdu and Xian in China. I have long felt that we should be taking the kids to (mainland) China, seeing as we live in Hong Kong and China is basically both our backyard and the mother ship. V and I have been to Beijing and Shanghai, so we looked further afield.
What sold V on the idea was the possibility of travelling between cities by train. We pretty much planned the trip around that, looking at where we could get a reasonable (in terms of number of hours spent) time on the train to and fro. China has a great high speed network, but perversely we wanted a slower train that would give us an overnight journey. This is fuelled by V’s nostalgia of train trips in India, an enthusiasm I do not share because I am scarred by the toilets and my later experience with creepy men. But I went along with the overnight train journey plan because I figured a) the kids would enjoy it b) V was being like a kid himself c) I expected China trains would be better than India trains (though I did wonder about the toilet). V and I had travelled up to Shanghai from Hong Kong by train but at my insistence by first class cabin with our own private loo. (More on the train later)
So, after some back and forth, we settled on Chengdu as the base, basically because a) pandas b) spicy food, and then figured that the train to Xian gave us a doable 16 hour journey (please note, the super fast journey is 4 hours so we were voluntarily taking the scenic route), plus Xian is home to the Terracotta Warriors and yummy food too. Priorities.
We flew to Chengdu with Cathay Dragon, which surprised us by having a full in flight entertainment system. Here was our Chengdu itinerary:
1. Day 1:Jinli Street
We arrived in Chengdu airport and queued up for a taxi. Took about half an hour to get to our hotel, Fraser Suites (more on that later). We were pretty tired, but I dragged everyone out to Jinli Street. As we neared, V started to get excited because it seemed pretty buzzing. Jinli Street is right next to the Wouhouci Temple which is an attraction in itself, but one we skipped because we are fairly familiar with Chinese temples.
As we entered the street, one of the first teashops on the right advertised the Sichuan opera face-changing show. The show had just started, but I jumped on it despite the fairly exorbitant fee of 50 yuan each, because I wasn’t sure we’d get another chance. Turned out it was a good thing we were a little late, because the first part was a tea ceremony explained in Chinese and I don’t think the kids could have sat through the whole thing. Luckily, after about five or so minutes, the woman did a dance with the long-spout copper teapot. She also asked some volunteers to come try posing and pouring from the teapot which demonstrated that it was no mean feat.
After that was the highlight – the Sichuan opera face changing (which I was beginning to think was not going to happen). It was absolutely fabulous, though the kids said it was a tad scary. The best place to watch Sichuan opera is Shufeng Ya Yu, and I would probably have loved this show considering how spellbound I was in the 5 minutes sampling I got, but I doubt the kids would have sat through an extended show, leave alone one that started at 8 pm. Nevertheless, I was glad we had that experience.
While the tea shop proper looked quite nice, the little hall in the back where the performances were held was a bit cramped, hot and according to V dirty, so maybe shop about a bit, but definitely go for one of these shows if you can’t do the full Sichuan opera performance.
We then wandered down the lane, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the trinkets which were quite well priced. We skipped buying anything then, but later we bought these little plastic face-changing toys for 20 yuan each which kept the kids entertained a lot.
Everyone was flagging and we thought the restaurants looked touristy so we took a cab back to the hotel. In the mall opposite, we found reasonably priced options and had delicious noodles and dumplings.
Day 2: Leshan Buddha
This is a huge Buddha statue carved out of the mountain face during the Tang dynasty. It is a Unesco World Heritage site, the biggest carved stone Buddha in the world.
We went on a Sunday, not the ideal day, but my plan was to avoid the panda sanctuary on a Sunday. We left as early as possible, which was around 8 am. To beat the crowds, go earlier. We ended up eating KFC at the station before setting out to the Buddha, which meant we were further delayed.
There are two ways to take in the Buddha – hike up the mountain, then descend to its foot, or take a boat ride. Because of the kids, we planned on the latter. However, when the taxi dropped us off at the pier, we found out there were no boats that day due to the squally weather (the slight rain was actually a blessing as it meant it wasn’t too hot). So we jumped into another taxi to the entrance to the Buddha itself. The distance is walkable, but we didn’t want to chance wandering around cluelessly.
We were apprehensive about time, since we had booked our train back at 3.30 pm which gave us about 3 or so hours to complete the whole thing. Nevertheless, we couldn’t not see the Buddha so we started climbing. The climb wasn’t too onerous, and there are little niches with Buddhas to look at en route, until you reach the point from which you begin your descent.
Here we realised there was a massive queue that looked like a stampede waiting to happen. It was the reason I had wanted to skip the climb and do a boat instead, but seeing the human jam in person made me even less inclined to join it with the kids. Fortunately, at that point, you can actually get good pictures of the Buddha head.
This is also the entrance to a large temple complex, which we explored instead, and it was pretty nice.
After wandering around a bit, we descended and took a cab back, skipping the restaurants that could have been lunch options on the way.
Entrance fee to the Buddha complex: 90 yuan
Getting there: Take a superfast train from Chengdudong Station (Chengdu East) to Leshan and then a taxi to the Buddha. It’s about a 1 hour train ride and a 20 minute or so scenic taxi ride.
Train cost: approx. 80 yuan per adult (less for kids) for a second class ticket. Taxi from Leshan sation to the Buddha: 40 yuan. There is also a bus, no. 3, but we figured a taxi was faster.
Tip: Book train tickets back to Chengdu while booking the train to Leshan or you may not get your preferred time.
Day 3: Panda sanctuary (or Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding)
This was my main agenda. On the advice of just about everyone, we attempted to get there at 7.30 am which is when the pandas get fed and when they are the most active, after which they reportedly just do a panda and go to sleep.
There was already a fair crowd there when we arrived, but nothing compared to the hordes that arrived later, so that’s another motivation for an early start.
There is a shuttle to the panda enclosures, but the queue looked long already, so did the 10 minute or so walk, which is very pretty, through bamboo arches. We were rewarded with our first sight – five panda yearlings actively (for pandas) chomping on bamboo. One of them was lying on his back and eating, which immediately became my life’s ambition.
After staring at them for a while, we moved off in the quest for more, sidestepping water gushing downstream. We found the red panda enclosure where we spotted two active “raccoons” as Mimi called them.
We then queued up for the incubator area of baby pandas which are basically pinkish rats with white bristles.
After this, we made the mistake of stopping at an enclosure where a park attendant was hacking bamboo pieces, ostensibly for an imminent feeding. So we waited … and waited… and the kids got hot and angry. Nothing happened, so after 20 minutes (!) of fruitless waiting we left our prime vantage point and proceeded to another enclosure but the kids began clamouring to leave. I had not had my panda fill, so I was not happy, but I was outvoted. Luckily, while leaving we saw some pandas in amusing sleeping positions – one with his foot up in the air, the other two high up in trees.
Although not as long as I would have liked, this was the highlight of my trip, confirming the panda as my soul animal.
Tickets: 58 yuan a person
Chen Mapo Tofu
Since we were done with the panda sanctuary fairly early, we decided to venture out for lunch to one of the iconic Chengdu restaurants. It is located in quite a touristy area, but the shop itself is humble and our entire meal of mapo tofu, 3 steamed rice, kung pao chicken, steamed dumplings and spring rolls (the only one to avoid) cost 79 yuan. I loved the mapo tofu, although Mimi had a meltdown and we later had to get her cha siu faan (bbq pork and rice, HK style) from a Hong Kong-style restaurant in our hotel mall.
There are several branches but the one I picked out was in Jinnui, and turned out to be in another interesting area full of jewellery shops and tea houses.
I was determined to see this park, so dragged everyone out in the evening. It is just by the metro station of the same name, and home to tea houses where people while away their time and clumps of dancing aunties.
The other attraction is the “children’s arcade” which has a number of mini rides for the kids. Despite my best efforts we got there around 5.30 pm when a number of the rides were closing so definitely try to get there earlier. Or maybe not, because this way we could restrict the kids to two rides each.
I would have liked to walk around the super beautiful park more, but it was late so we got home.
So as mentioned earlier, a big motivation for our trip to China, was the train ride between cities. Unfortunately, when we got to the station, we were informed that that train had been cancelled – just like that. The only option was to get a refund and book a superfast train to Xian.
This was a disappointment, and a bit of a complication because we would arrive in Xian that night rather than the next morning. So we had to book an extra night at our hotel, which was now much more expensive. Luckily, the hotel was nice enough to give us the same room and rate when we arrived.
It was a bummer; on the positive side, even though we didn’t speak the language (except for me in drips and drabs), we were able to get our refund, rebook tickets and get to the new station all in good time.
We booked our train tickets through China Highlights.
Where we stayed in Chengdu: Fraser Suites
We had a twin room delux, which was spacious and had everything we needed including a washing machine that we didn’t use. The toilet was bigger than one of our bedrooms as was the walk-in closet. The kids loved the room.
It was also well located, connected to a mall (admittedly with a lot of luxury products but also some restaurants, including the abovementioned Hong Kong style restaurants). Opposite was a mall with a Carrefour and many more restaurant choices, as well as Starbucks, KFC etc. The room rate included a good buffet breakfast.
Staff at the hotel we very helpful. The hotel has a pool that we didn’t end up using, much to the kids’ irritation. It’s entrance is off the main road which means that one may not get the full flow of taxis, so it can take a little while (maximum 10 minutes) to get one, but we always got one. It’s also a short walk to the Jinjiang metro station, but we only used it once.
I had heard that it’s hard to get taxis in some Chinese cities, and people generally use car hailing apps, but we didn’t really have a problem. The only thing is to put down all your addresses in Chinese.
Coming up: Xian
I’ve tried to write down details that might be useful to travellers in addition to general rambling but feel free to ask for more information in the comments.