Trail of the Unexpected: Gentle giants of Chengdu

Pandas and a soaring Buddha statue greet Harriet O'Brien on a visit to this Sichuan city

Pandemonium? Evidently, the word was not coined with giant pandas in mind. In front of me was a scene of absolute panda-placidity. I was gazing at a group of the world's most prized and protected creatures: two pandas were resting with forelegs draped over a railing, while another three clambered to a platform where they almost instantly fell asleep. The one vaguely animated member sat on the ground below, lethargically munching bamboo shoots.

It was 8.30am and I had come to see pandas at their morning feed. I was told by my guide, Yo Yo, that the pandas had only just been released from their indoor night quarters. Perhaps they hadn't fully woken up yet, I remarked. Yo Yo laughed. They're always dozy, she explained; they typically spend about 10 hours of their day snoozing. It's thought they're so sedentary because they need to preserve energy: their bodies absorb only around 20 per cent of the bamboo shoots that they languorously consume.

We were at the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the northern suburbs of Chengdu in China. Most of the 55 or so pandas here were born thanks to techniques of artificial insemination that have been developed on the site. The same techniques were used with Tian Tian, the panda at Edinburgh Zoo (although her recent miscarriage highlights the precariousness of panda gestation).

At the Chengdu base, serious scientific work takes place alongside mainstream tourism: visitors stroll the landscaped park and watch pandas in at least 15 enclosures. The pandas attract around 2.5m tourists a year – from across China, as much as the rest of the world. That's about the same volume of visitors as the Tower of London. And numbers to the panda centre will no doubt be swelled as a combined result of British Airways' new direct service from Heathrow to Chengdu and relaxed visa rules that will soon allow transitting passengers flying via the airport to visit the city visa-free for up to 72 hours.

Of course it isn't only panda charm that brings BA here. Like so many cities in China, Chengdu has been growing at break-neck speed – yet what makes it particularly significant is that it's the hub of transport and communications in the south-western region of the republic.

Meanwhile quite apart from commerce, cuisine is a major factor here. Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, is said to serve the best food in China. I spent a day exploring the centre – and snacking. Elements of old Chengdu survive in redeveloped street complexes. Jinli, dating from the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago, is the city's oldest street. It's been neatly refurbished as part of a pretty pedestrian enclave of shops and restaurants. I moved on to the street food sector, with lines of booths displaying a flamboyant spread of quails, rabbit heads and a range of less challenging spicy kebabs, noodles and dumplings.

The epicurean outlook is more refined at Kuan (Wide) and Zhai (Narrow) Alleys. A two-year renovation programme has turned two streets of downtrodden 17th-century Qing Dynasty architecture into a chic zone of art galleries and tea houses.

A night at the opera followed. The Sichauan "opera" performed across town is a show of extraordinary acrobatics, music and dance – all in rich and vibrant costumes. Most productions culminate, as mine did, with an eye-popping display of "changing faces", a dance act during which performers change masks and costumes in the blink of an eye.

The next day I headed south to the astonishing Giant Buddha of Leshan. Leshan is a small town by Chinese standards, lying at the confluence of the rivers Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi. It was because the waters here were so treacherous that, back in the 8th century, a Buddhist monk started construction of what, at a height of 71m, remains the world's tallest stone Buddha statue.

The best views are from the water on a short river cruise from where it looks organically part of the sandstone cliffs. The face is inscrutable, its heavy-lidded eyes staring out over the rivers.

It was on my final day in Chengdu that I visited the giant pandas. I watched mothers with cubs, I paused by solitary males and I learned about the centre and how its successful methods of artificial insemination are "as pioneering as the Great Wall of China was in its day".

Probably as important too. After all, these are the national treasures of China.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Harriet O'Brien travelled with Wendy Wu Tours (0844 288 5396; wendywutours.co.uk). A three-night stay starts at £1,190pp with BA flights from Heathrow, accommodation, meals, visits to the Panda Conservation Centre and the Grand Buddha of Leshan; and visa fees.

Visiting there

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (00 86 28 83510033; panda.org,cn); Y58 (£6).

More information

cnto.org

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