Fascinating visit to land of pandas

 

SINCE 2015, the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Kuching has been organising annual study visits to the different parts of China for Sarawak media members and the tour this year was the longest.

The 18-day trip from Sept 10 to 27, comprising eight Sarawak reporters, covered Chengdu, Chongqing, Yichang, Wuhan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Though most parts of the tour had us walking more than 10,000 steps (according to step-counter app) everyday while traversing the country, it was, nonetheless, an eye-opening experience, enabling us to sample the local cultures, the lifestyles, and of course, the delectable delicacies.

 

A panda ready to take a nap at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Centre.

Chengdu, Sichuan

On Sept 10, we took off from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur for a connecting flight to Chengdu, our first stop on the itinenary.

Chengdu city in Sichuan Province gave us the impression of a leisurely place despite its 14-million population.

As a cool breeze greeted us upon arrival, we were told summer had passed and the city was ready for autumn with the outdoor temperature dipping to 20 degrees Celsius and even lower when it rained.

The local guide Zhuang Qing told us we were lucky to be visiting in early September as the weather was nicer — cooler and more comfortable unlike the hot summer.

A red panda or red bear cat, a mammal native to southwestern China and Eastern Himalayas.

On the second day, we were brought to Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Centre where we spent more than four hours looking around the beautiful facility for China’s ‘national treasure’, and enjoying the scenery and the clean air wafting from luxuriant bamboo plants.

Bamboo is the staple of pandas. It’s also important to know this woody perennial evergreen plant helps fight harmful airborne pollutants. So, it was really revitalising to breathe the fresh air amidst the profusion of bamboo and absorb the energy emitted.

There are four panda bases in the whole of China and the one in Chengdu has the most pandas — more than 50. The other centres are Wolong Panda Research Centre, Dujiangyan Base and Bifengxia Giant Panda Base.

Apart from serving as the breeding ground for pandas, the base also looks after other rare and endangered wild animals on 90 acres of land with caretakers on hand to feed and attend to the needs of these animals round the clock.

A koi pond accidentally turned into a ‘wishing pond’.

Peak season for tourist visits is usually between July and August — around school holidays in China. However, the size of the crowd we saw during our visit to Chengdu Research Base was quite incredible too.

 

Alley and courtyard

Our next destination was Wide and Narrow Alley (or Kuan Zhai Xiangzi), a popular tourist destination, comprising three parallel lanes — wide, narrow and hatch-shaped with a courtyard compound.

Amazingly, every alley and courtyard has its own stories to tell. Wide and Narrow Alley is said to be one of Chengdu’s most colourful reserves steeped in history and culture.

It can be dated back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) when the area was the site of a city called Man Cheng with court quartered troops.

The majestic Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (or Puxian) statue slightly shrouded in fog at the
top after rain.

However, the city fell into a state of ruins over time and instead of demolishing it, renovations were carried out to turn it into a business centre for tourism and recreation.

As I walked into one of the courtyards, a beautiful koi (carb) pond at the centre painted a peaceful scenery. I quickly noticed the thousands of coins in the pond teeming with fish.

A woman selling souvenirs told me the pond wasn’t supposed to as ‘wishing pond’ but people kept using it as one.

“I look at it as a good omen though because a serious incident happened once in the city and the local government decided to dig up all the coins and donated them to affected families,” she said, adding the tourism industry also helped

Beautiful artworks done with caramelised melted candy at Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi.

make the city vibrant again.

After thanking the woman, I left the alley, fascinated by the inspiring story behind one of the courtyards.

I feel one should spend more time exploring each of these courtyards, aside from sight-seeing, as the alley is such an interesting place.

 

Irrigation system

Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation infrastructure, was another iconic place and popular tourist spot we visited.

Built around 256 BC by the state of Qin, the nearly 3,000-year-old irrigation system, said to be the oldest and the only surviving non-dam-irrigation system, plays an important role in irrigation and flood control.

It was dubbed a wonder of Chinese science, a magnificent feat of engineering, at the time of its construction.

The infrastructure, built on the Min River and the Yangtze, the longest river in China, irrigates over 1.65-million acres of farmland, drains flood water and provides water resources for more than 50 cities in Sichuan Province.

Today, the facility, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site, is still in use as a vital flood control apparatus. It receives tens of thousands of visitors almost every month.

 

The Golden Summit Temple.

Pilgrimage tour

On the fourth day, we were brought on a “pilgrimage tour” to some of China’s most significant holy sites of Buddhism.

First, we travelled some 170km from Chengdu city to the southwest area of Sichuan and Mount Emei where the temperature dropped close to zero.

Away from the busy urban city, modern buildings and crowded streets, the atmosphere and landscape were replaced by cool breeze and fresh air, beautiful mountains and trees turning from green to a heart-mellowing yellow of autumn.

Mount Emei (Towering Eyebrow Mountain) has a very high status in the hearts of the Chinese.

Rising 3,099 metres above sea level, it’s well known as a religious spot and home to the Golden Summit Temple (Jingding) as well as other holy sites such as Baogu Temple, Fohu Temple, Wannian Temple, Qingyin Pavilion and Heilongjiang Tunnel.

Pilgrims stand, kneel and bow every three steps in rhythm with the chanting of Buddha mantra.

The Golden Summit Temple is known as the highest among China’s four mountains of Holy Buddha. The trail from the foot of the mountain to the summit covers some 60km.

We were told to brace for any sudden weather change during our hike as the atmosphere around the Emei mountainous region is known for its drastic change every kilometre of the

The control gate of Dujiangyan Water Conservancy project which helps control water distribution from the Min River and the Yangtze.

ascent.

Before reaching the Golden Summit Temple, pilgrims and visitors were greeted by the majestic statue of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra or Puxian.

The 48-metre high sculpture, said to be the 22nd tallest in the world, is massive image facing in ten directions — each according to Bodhisattva’s ‘Ten Truths of Universal Worthiness’. Since the arrival of Buddhism in China, Mt Emei has become an important centre of retreat for pilgrims.

As I was nearing the summit, there was a long row of pilgrims on the side who stood, kneeled and bowed every three steps in rhythm with the chanting of Buddha mantra by a monk.

The tour guide explained that every elephant carving around the temple has six ivories, each representing a different sense — visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and cognition.

“Buddhism teachings encourage its followers to learn to let go of their life problems before they can truly embrace Buddhism, and based on the six senses or modes of perception, the state of mind will only grow strong and calm,” the guide said as she encouraged Buddhists among us to circle the statue three times to mark the completion of our tour to Mount Emei.

The pilgrimage tour also took us to the Le Shan Giant Buddha, the Baoguo Temple and the Buddha Monastery, familiarising us with the teachings of Buddhism and how deep they influence Chinese society.

After a five-day tour around Chengdu and its vicinity, my tour mates and I agreed it’s a city of diversity, blending ancient history with modern values and showcasing pandas and a slew of perennial attractions that promise a different experience on each visit.

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