Watching baby pandas, visiting mountain temples, eating home-made dumplings and getting to know the locals... we may have had only a short time in the Chinese city of Chengdu, but we crammed a lot in!
Chengdu is a great place to include in any itinerary to China. It's well located for organising trips to other parts of China, including Tibet and the Yangtse river. Originally we'd planned to spend much more time here taking advantage of these opportunities but we got side-tracked in Laos (that's another story), so only spent three days in Chengdu after all.
First, the city itself. Well, it's China and a big city, so expect lots of people and lots of traffic. We were there over a weekend and it was nigh on impossible to get a taxi on Friday or Saturday, but fortunately the city has good and frequent buses and at only 2RMB (20p) a journey, they're cheap too. We stayed at Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel and it was brilliant - a backpacker's dream, really, but it doesn't just cater to backpacking gap year students (although there were plenty of them about). Sim and his wife have two young children and they have gone out of their way to make their hotel both family- and traveller-friendly.
Why was it so good? Well, the staff for one. They speak good English and really want to help. They don't just want to sell you one of their own tours but will help you arrange what you want to do at the best price for you; they can organise tours and set you up for Tibet and a Yangtze river cruise. Secondly, the facilities: the rooms were great, with beds almost like futons, on raised wooden platforms with plenty of storage underneath - very comfy. There's air con, of course, and all the rooms have DVD players (they have an extensive range of movies on DVD that are free to borrow). We also got fruit in the room. There's a DIY laundry and large drying area, restaurant (serving western, Chinese and Japanese food at sensible prices), Internet (free for the first 10 minutes, with sensible charges after that), free wi-fi area, book exchange, photos of scenic sights, bicycle hire - and probably more that I have forgotten. The price was 160RMB (about £16) for a double room.
Sim's were great in helping us to buy the all-important Panda Card that gets free entry into the many sights. We went on the Sim's trip to the Giant Panda Research Centre - well worth it at 30RMB each for the transport in a mini van. Take your passport and Panda Card and the entrance will be free. The Centre is open every day and my advice would be to get there early; we arrived about 8.30 and left around 11. We saw the adults, the 'teenagers', the new babies (only one month old in August 2009 - so cute), the red pandas and the museum displays, and watched the film about the centre, all without too many other people crowding around us. When we left at 11am, the queues to get in were horrendous. So go early!
Our other trip was to Mount Qingcheng, a Taoist mountain shrine some two hours away by bus. Again, take your passport and Panda Card and the entrance will be free. To get there, we took a local public bus down to the Tourist Bus depot and from there bought a ticket (20RMB one way) to Qingcheng. On the bus we met a Chinese family who then adopted us for the day, which was brilliant, as we ate so well - they had packed so much food and the home-made dumplings were delicious. So the public bus was much better than a tourist tour for that reason.
At Mount Qingcheng, there are a lot of steps to climb, but plenty of places to stop and rest, and lots of pagodas and temples to feast your eyes on. It's a spiritual place. We were there on a Sunday and it was very busy with Chinese families (we saw only a small handful of westerners), so if you want more peace and quiet, I'd say go during the week. There are also two parts to the mountain, called the Front and Back Mountain. At the time of writing, the Back Mountain was still closed after the roads in the area were damaged during the 2008 earthquake. Likewise, the cable car on Front Mountain wasn't running either, so check first if you are wanting either of these.
We spent about six hours on the mountain and didn't reach the top. There are plenty of places to stop, and places to buy food and drink. There is also a place to stay halfway up, which would be pretty cool, as I guess you'd have the mountain pretty much to yourself and it would be an awesome way to start the day. If you do try to do it all in one day, just remember that you have to come down all those steps as well, and they were more of a killer on the way down than they were on the way up!
Another word of caution. The bus we got back to Chengdu didn't return to the Tourist Bus Station but to another one. Fortunately, we had a map on us so could see where we were, and then we did manage to get a taxi back to the hotel. But it may be worth checking with the driver exactly where in Chengdu they are terminating - or be prepared not to end up where you started!