One of the shortest stops over the duration of the trip was our brief stay in Chengdu. The primary reason for us picking this stop was to visit the Panda Research Center so we woke up at 530 am to be one of the first in line to get in to the park. Pandas eat early in the AM and the crowds are better so we were told to arrive early and we certainly could not have gotten better advice.
Upon arriving around 710, there were probably 100 people in line before us despite it not opening until 730. We couldn’t figure out how to get tickets and I overheard some English and found a nice couple of Americans who live in Shenzhen but were visiting with their parents for the weekend. I struck up conversation and she helped me get tickets to the park (since we can’t use their equivalent of Venmo) and learned they’d been here before.
When the park gates opened, Debbie and I decided to follow their lead since they knew where they were going. The park was very spread out- we walked nearly 20 minutes before we saw the first panda (at a very fast clip) and certainly appreciated the benefit of arriving early. We reached the biggest enclosure and had virtually unobstructed views at the cutest animals (note – if you want some good panda videos and pictures let me know, maybe we’ll just upload an album to Facebook of only pandas). After making it to the pandas with this group, we discovered that they were going to be on our food tour later this evening.
We saw at least 20 pandas in different environments as well as walked through a red panda environment where they joined you on the path (Debbie missed this memo and freaked out when one “escaped” and was on the walking path). We spent nearly 3 hours exploring before making our way back to the hotel to rest up and find lunch. P
We’ve taken for granted that all of our prior China trips we’ve had some help and it’s actually VERY challenging to get around here and eat what you want with zero language abilities. We were trying to make our way to a hot pot place when we stumbled into a restaurant that was very crowded and looked inviting. We sat down and tried to order using a combination of google translate (which doesn’t work well), picture menus, and pointing at other peoples plates. We spent about $20 on some soup that had an unknown meat in it (not our favorite), some steamed bbq pork buns (hoping they were pork) that we enjoyed, and a corn bread pancake that we dipped into the soup. For having no idea what we ordered, it was a successful outing but showed that we’re in for a “treat” when we head further out of the city for our next stop.
We came back to the hotel and napped for a few hours before our evening food tour (courtesy of Sam) began. We navigated the metro and arrived super early so had time to walk around before joining up with the group. We had five other Americans in the tour with us- the four from the Panda research center in the morning (we had made that connection while walking with them, crazy small world) as well as a gentlemen from DC who works with the US consulates and embassies. The company made for a great experience as well as an awesome guide and easily the most well organized foreign adventure we’d been on.
We met Patricia (our guide) who gave us the lay of the land, explaining what we’d be eating and drinking over the next 3-4 hours as we made our way through residential areas to visit local hot spots, complete with our own private tuk-tuks and unlimited beer.
While initially worried about being in the spicy Chinese food capital of the world, we tried all but one dish and loved nearly everything we had.
First, we stopped at a desert crepe place and sampled 4 varieties of their local specialty – sweet, spicy, strange, and potato (these are the descriptions we were working with). Debbie and I each tried the sweet and potato ones – they were delicious and exactly what you’d expect for a crepe with these fillings (30 cents each).
Second, we went to someone’s apartment turned restaurant. About 4 years ago this couple started making dumplings out of their house and it became so popular that they moved out and converted their apartment into a restaurant. To help keep their neighbors on board (and deal with the noise), they installed an entrance/exit coming out of the bedroom window and likely pay off the surrounding tenants with food everyone in a while. This was easily our favorite stop- we had dumplings served in 5 different types of sauce/soup- plain, a house specialty (spicy / tangy), peppercorn, sour, and a dry rub chili spice. Each was delightful in their own regard.
Third, we made our way to a noodle place and tried 3 different types of noodles- one was cold (thin noodles) with the traditional Sichuan flavors, another had super long thick noodles and a peanut/soy base, and a third which was the regional specialty dan dan. Each person in the tour had various favorites here and we ordered a second round to make sure that everyone got to eat enough.
The last food spot on the tour was a stir fry spot. We walked into the restaurant and sat at a big table and received the last onslaught of food- some strange beef soup, Chinese spare ribs, eggplant stuffed with minced pork, and some sort of sautéed leafy green vegetable. Debbie loved the eggplant dish and the rib might have been the single best item I consumed.
Post final food spot, we ended the tour at a bar with a beautiful view from the 45th floor of a building and hung out with the guide and fellow participants before making our way on the train home. F
Next Up- we’re headed to a place in China maybe we’ll learn how to say while we’re there- home to the national park of the dubbed Avatar mountains and the famous glass bottom bridge