China: home to amazing food, dubious hygiene and baby pandas (swings and roundabouts really). I’ll admit that before I went I had no knowledge whatsoever about the country. Lucky enough to have spent the best part of forty days there last June and July both travelling and with Queen Mary, it’s obvious that I returned mentally slapped with the sheer vivacity of the country.
I spent the best part of my time in Chengdu, the capital city of the Sichuan province. The city is an odd mix of centuries’ old cultural heritage nestled between half complete concrete hotels. There’s more than plenty to do in Chengdu: inside the city there’s the Green Ram Temple, a sprawling and beautiful compound. Still used and maintained as a traditional Taoist temple, it’s common to find monks cleaning, praying and (oddly) whatsapp-ing other monk friends on ridiculously high-spec phones. It’s easy to wile away several hours here: as Chengdu’s oldest temple, the walls recant hundreds of years of Chinese history, fabulously retold through indecipherable writing.
Possibly the best thing to see in Chengdu though is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Less than an hour’s drive from the heart of the city, it’s an animal lover’s dream. It’s host to an array of peacocks, red pandas and (obviously) the famous giant panda. My particular highlight includes watching a baby panda run away from its mother, climb up a tree, then fall out in an impossibly cute and hilarious cartoon-esque manner. Be sure to get there as early as possible though, since the giant pandas will go to sleep inside if it gets too hot in the afternoon.
A few hours’ travel outside the capital takes you to another monument, the Leshan Giant Buddha. Carved into the side of a cliff, the Buddha is an astounding feat of engineering at over 230 feet. However, consider weekend visits carefully; queues can take up to three hours to get to the foot of the statue. A small warning too: walking back to the top of the statue is like doing the bleep test, but vertically, and about a hundred times more soul crushing. Yet the visit is still highly-recommended.
Despite all these sites, by far the most amazing thing to do in Sichuan is to visit Jiuzhaigou National Park, or ‘Valley of Nine Villages’. Famed for its dazzlingly coloured lakes and pools, ranging from deep azure blues to stunning jade greens, this place has to be the one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Fantastically vivid pools stretch to the horizon, and light rains create mists that quietly tumble over forested mountain peaks. If you’re lucky enough to go in winter, sub-zero temperatures freeze the numerous bellowing waterfalls into intricate jigsaws of ice. This park is an essential.
Getting there is a bit of an accomplishment (I was genuinely offered several badges declaring that I’d made it there). You need at least three or four days in total: travelling one way literally takes an entire day, and many roads are still blocked from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The journey though is spectacular and the move from the dense urban sprawl of Chengdu into the rolling plains of Tibetan plateaus is captivating. Be prepared to drive down roads that never seem to end, and witness landscapes scarred by landslides.
Personal highlights that still make me grin include playing ‘mystery menu’, in which you should be prepared to eat almost anything; my friends and I somehow kept getting bullfrog. Another is just seeing Chinese people react to westerners (hear me out here). It will be inevitable if you’re fair skinned and light haired for the Chinese to include you in any and all family photos. They will take selfies with you, ‘request’ that you hold their cute baby children, and in one hilarious instance, play music from their iPads and video themselves with you in the frame. Whether you want the fame, however, is something you don’t get to decide.
Sichuan is only a fragment of what must be an even more amazing and mysterious country. Being in such an alien environment is joyfully baffling. The fact that almost no-one speaks English (even in one of China’s biggest cities) gives a cultural immersion like no other holiday. I could easily write ten times the amount on the short time I had there, but really you should just go and see for yourself.