Chengdu: Pandas, the Giant Buddha of Leshan, and very very spicy food

Distance Travelled: 10,160km
Date: 31st July – 5th August

Arriving into Chengdu without booking accommodation is a bad thing to attempt. Fortunately, I got lucky, and was able to get myself a room in the nicest hostel I stayed in while in China. The first night I had to stay in a single room for the extravagant cost of £12 (it felt like a huge amount of money then- in Australia the average has been about £20 for a dorm room).


Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel wasn’t as fancy as, say, the Rock and Wood Hostel in Shanghai, but it had a much better feel to it, almost like a small isolated community in the middle of this giant city (and it is massive city – about the size of London). The dorms all looked out over a central courtyard, with winding paths and koi ponds, and there were resident rabbits hopping about the place.

The Garden

The Dorms

The first night I was there a pool tournament was held where I managed to come second winning six beers in the process (plus one for remembering the name Aerindse all night, a feat which was more difficult than the pool games). After a few free beers, a group of us headed out for some street food noodles and then onto a club.

Sidenote: I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but street food in China (and most of Asia really) is amazing. Usually significantly better than the food you’ll get in restaurants back home. I’m not certain that this wasn’t a combination of novelty, excitement about travelling, and rose-tinted hindsight, but I really don’t think so.

Anyway, the club we ended up in was MUSE. You could tell it was one of the classier places in town, because all the English written on shirts was correct, although rarely in an intelligible context. It was here that I was properly introduced to the club drinking culture, touched on when I wrote about Xi’an. Basically, if you’re a white guy in a club (and it is mostly directed at guys, for some reason), especially if you’re tall like me, you’ll be offered a regular stream of shots to share with the locals.

Apparently it’s part of the culture and people lose face if you turn them down. I was only told this the following morning, but fortunately I hadn’t inadvertently insulted anyone the night before.

Another bonus was that we all got free entry to the club, and I’m fairly sure that was on account of being westerners.

On other nights the hostel ran a pub quiz (in which I did poorly, possibly due to having a pair of very shy Chinese girls on the team who had to be coaxed to attempt any answer. They were charmingly gleeful to get a set of questions on Chinese history though), a cinema night and Baijo drinking games. The latter wasn’t hugely popular, but it was a fun night.

The big draw to Chengdu for most travellers is the native population of pandas. There are some living wild in the countryside around, but they are too secretive and rare to been seen by any but the very luckiest. Instead, a short bus ride from the city centre is a captive breeding centre, the largest in the world.

So, on a baking hot summers day, I jumped in a taxi to go and see them. The taxi was a necessary expense, as I’d got up later than intended, and going to see the pandas any later than about 9:30 is a waste of time.

This is because pandas seem to love sleep more than a teenager with school to get up for. I’m convinced that if they could they’d never move. As it is, they have to be awake to eat, but as all their food is brought by an army of workers from the surrounding countryside and they don’t have to go look for it this only takes up a couple of hours in the early morning. After which, they just drape themselves over the nearest log, bench, hill or tree and sleep off their tiring morning.

I was quite jealous.

A permanent sign, because they are always asleep

It’s no wonder that the World Wildlife Fund, among many others, has picked the panda as its logo and mascot. They are undeniably cute and charismatic. The younger ones will play, bowling around on their stumpy legs, and they’re fun to watch eating – stripping all the tenderest leaves and shoots off bamboo and piling up a mountain of discarded vegetation.

For 1000RMB (about £100), you could hold one. I decided against it, but one of my friends still has her facebook profile picture showing her with a panda on her lap, and it’s awesome.

The thing that everyone thinks of when talking about pandas is how little they appear to care about the endurance of their own kind. As a species, their survival instinct does seem sorely lacking. Not only is it notoriously difficult to get them interested in mating, but their maternal instincts don’t seem to exist.

So inept are first time mothers that they will often react to their own child by batting the newborn around until it dies, unaware of what they should be doing. It’s ridiculous. And so we spend millions trying to get the species to hang on to life.

I should make it clear that I don’t think this is a bad thing. On the contrary, if we lost the panda (and the Tiger, the Kakapo, the Polar Bear, the Mountain Gorilla…), the world would be just that little bit emptier, and colder, and bleaker. And we have a responsibility to try to heal the wounds we’ve carved in the world, destroying habitats and polluting those that are left.

There were also red pandas. They were cool too, although utterly unrelated to their more famous neighbours.

Szechuan Food
As a city, Chengdu isn’t that exciting. Its charm lies in its location as capital of the Szechuan region. It was probably my favourite place in China, and that was mostly down to the things I saw nearby, and the cuisine. Although there are a plethora of tea shops, selling dozens of varieties of tea cheaply. I spent a few very pleasant afternoons hanging out in them with good company.

Nonchalantly parked outside a hotel

Szechuan food is one of the most distinctive styles of Chinese food, dependant as it is on two main ingredients. The first is the Szechuan pepper. This is an odd spice- it looks like a black peppercorn that has split up, and has an analgesic effect as well as a mild spicy kick. This means that your mouth and tongue get a tingly-numbing sensation as you eat. Only a mild one – it’s not like a dentist’s local anaesthetic – but it’s definitely noticeable, and good fun.

The second is chili. Lots of it. Almost everything is exceedingly liberally dosed with both peppers, and as I like spicy food it was great for me. A good example of this is Kung Pao Chicken. There’s an ‘Americanized’ version, and the proper Chinese one. Back in England, for some reason, we get the Americanized version. It was altered because there used to be a ban on Szechuan peppers entering the US. This meant that they developed a much blander version, without the unique qualities that the seed lent to the food, and usually with about half the chili.

Kung Pao Chicken

The other amazing Szechuan food was Ma Po Tofu. To date, the only genuinely delicious use for tofu I’ve come across. The tofu cooks with the spices, absorbing them. I’ll probably write up a recipe for both of those when I have time.

Ma Po Tofu

I’ve travelled quite a bit now, sampling spicy food around the world, and back home when I would cook with Sean we’d add large handfuls of chili to our food, and still Szechuan hotpot is by far the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten. It was glorious.

On my last night in Chengdu three other backpackers and I went out with a couple of local guides to a hotpot restaurant. None of us knew quite what we were in for.

The outer ring is an extremely spicy soup in which you dunk a selection of meats, seafood, vegetables and soy products until cooked, when you remove and eat. The soup is boiling hot, and too spicy even for the locals to drink.

The inner ring was nothing but chili oil, szechuan peppers and fresh chili. This is where the brave and foolhardy dunked food to cook. And, of course, it’s where I added my food to.

We had dozens of plates of fresh food, all added to the hotpot, and all blowing my head off in new and exciting ways. The beers in the photos aren’t just because we wanted a drink – they were necessary to keep the fire at bay.

After dinner, we spent the night in the oddly named Emperors Pub (oddly because it was a club), before heading back for a Baijo nightcap.

A Pilgrimage to Leshan
The next morning, I was only able to roll out of bed close to midday. I’d arranged to visit Leshan, but only managed to leave the hostel at 1pm. This was to cause problems later.

LeShan (literally, happy mountain) is the site of the largest seated Buddha in the world, and by far the largest pre-modern sculpture in the world. It’s carved out of a river cliff, just upstream of the confluence of three rivers. This stretch of river used to be notoriously rough and hazardous, sinking many unwary ships. So to appease the river, the locals decided to carve a guardian Buddha to watch over them. In doing so, they dumped the rocks they’d into the river, altering the flow of water and calming the flow. Success!

There are other stone carvings in the park, but nothing even approaching the same scale.

The first sight you get of the Buddha is of his head, dwarfing everything around it. After that we had to join a queue to get down to the bottom. It was probably only about 100m long, but took hours to get through. It wound backwards and forwards along the top of the cliff, so we would get frustratingly close before having to turn around again. There were icecream sellers at strategic points though, so it wasn’t all bad.

My camera was playing up, so this is the last photo I was able to get. The ones below are stolen from the internet.

When we got to the cliff edge, we found out what was taking so long- Chinese tourists will not stop taking pictures. The path down is only wide enough for single file, and everyone seemed to take photos on every. single. step.

But the view from the bottom was worth it.

Walking out from the Buddha, we came out at the opposite end of the park, via a cool bridge.

A slightly hair-raising taxi ride took us back to the bus station moments before the last bus back to Chengdu. I thought this was fine, but when I arrived back at the hostel and asked the staff where I could get a bus to the train station, the girl in reception gave me a wide-eyed, scared look, and told me that there was no way that I’d make it in time.

I had to run and grab my bag, and by the time I’d covered the 20m back to the desk, the receptionist had already ran out to the road, and was trying to hail a taxi for me. I ended up making it, but we had to take the toll way and speed the entire way, weaving in and out of traffic.

And then I had a 32 hour train ride ahead of me. Learning from previous experience, I had booked a seat. This was a huge improvement, but it was a ‘hard seat’, so was still pretty uncomfortable. Chengdu was to be my last proper destination in China – I passed through Nanning on the way to Vietnam, but didn’t stay there.


Yes, this is late. And yes, I missed last weeks update. I was busy. Updates should come regularly again from now on, but I’ll post two this week to make up for it.

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