Chengdu, the Panda Capital

Douglas Wissing lives in Bloomington, Ind. His latest book is "Traveling the Ohio River Scenic Route."

With a huff and a grunt, Cheng-Cheng lumbered out of a stand of bamboo as Shi-Shi, her son, waited for his mother on a platform of tree limbs. The year-old giant panda cub, already the size of a state-fair boar, pounced, and mother and son rolled and wrestled like bandit sumo wrestlers.

Back in Chengdu last summer to do research for a book, I couldn't help but grin as I watched their antics with a group of tourists at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where 23 giant pandas (more than a third of those in captivity) and more than 20 lesser pandas cavort in well-tended naturalist habitats.

This area is home to a population of giant pandas whose numbers have dwindled to about 1,000. The winsome animals, which grow as tall as 5 feet and weigh as much as 350 pounds, are somewhat inept at reproducing, and much of their habitat has been damaged. Now scientists fear that they will become extinct, so international organizations and the Chinese government have organized reserves to try to protect and preserve the population.

There are several places near Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan province to see the creatures, including the Wolong Reserve, 60 miles northwest, and the Chengdu Zoo. The zoo houses six giant pandas, but it pales in comparison with the research center. Humans have a nice place to stroll, but the monkeys and big cats are stuck in barren concrete enclosures, and the pandas look dispirited after the perky bunch at the center.

So the research center, which opened to the public in 1995, remains a favorite tourist destination. Since the center was established more than a decade ago, about $6.1 million has been spent on construction, including laboratories, vet facilities, a welcome center and a museum.

It's not the only reason to visit Chengdu, though, a city of nearly 4 million that's 940 miles southwest of Beijing. Chengdu is a modern Chinese boomtown with reinforced concrete high-rises, traffic snarls and air heavy with pollution, but traditional China still pokes its head through the modern veneer. Visitors can see it in meandering lanes of low wooden houses, in street vendors hawking endless kinds of goods, and in the tribal peoples from rural areas who come to Chengdu to do their big-city shopping.

Despite the urban appearance, Chengdu's background is agrarian. It lies at the western edge of Sichuan's fertile Red Basin, the rice bowl of China that also produces wheat, corn and vegetables, watered by more than 3 feet of rain each year.

Chengdu's historic roots go back more than 2,300 years, to the days when China was unified under one empire. By the 10th century, Chengdu was a bustling entrepo^t, trading in the agricultural commodities of its rich farmland and the coveted silk brocade jin that gave the city its first name, Jincheng, or Brocade City. The resplendent silks still cascade from Chengdu's looms, and the Jin River that flows through the center of town perpetuates the name.

In the 1700s, Father Martin Martini, a Roman Catholic missionary, saw Chengdu as a rich and noble city: "It is a much frequented commercial city; the palace of the king was magnificent; it was four miles in circuit, having four gates, and was placed in the center of town," he wrote.

The king's palace is long gone, replaced by the immense city plaza on Renmin Nan Lu boulevard, overseen by a colossal statue of Chairman Mao Tse-tung giving a beneficent wave. Walking down the boulevard one evening, I joined the crowds watching the park's colored fountains. Mao's statue was backlighted with thousands of yards of pulsing neon, advertising liquor, resorts and the ideals of the Communist Party.

Chengdu lies just east of the Himalayan Mountains' abrupt uplift and is a gateway into Tibet, so it has become a destination for increasing numbers of Western travelers who congregate at the hotels near the Jin River.

That's what brought me to Chengdu in 1996, a stop on an around-the-world trip. I was back last August to research my biography of Albert Shelton, an Indiana native who went on to become a renowned explorer and ethnographer of eastern Tibet, working in Kham from 1904 to 1922.

I checked into the Jiaotong Hotel, known to international backpackers as the Traffic Hotel. The Jiaotong, generally clean, comfortable and cheap, has dorm-style four-bed rooms with shared baths, though I splurged for a single room with a TV with two working channels. I wanted to explore this historic old city, check out the fine museums and revisit some of the incendiary Sichuan-style restaurants.

Sichuan was made for human delight--or at least the Chinese think so. Tian fu zhi guo--"heaven on Earth"--is a 3rd century name for Sichuan; Chengdu means "perfect metropolis." Chengdu is still a walking and bicycling city, with broad boulevards shaded by trees. Herds of cyclists whisk by, though China's rapid development is filling the once near-empty automotive lanes to traffic-jam levels with thousands of new cars.

Still, it is a city best traversed on foot to see the weave of its social fabric. On a jaunt along the Jin River one day, I heard the frantic clicking sound of neighborhood mah-jongg parlors, where dozens of tables of players intently clack the tiles, accompanied by unending commentary.. I headed to the four-story River Viewing Pavilion, in Wangjianglou Park, built in honor of Xue Tao. She was a Tang Dynasty poet who loved bamboo, exploring the aesthetic, moral and sexual symbolism of the graceful plant. She also wrote about her beloved Chengdu: "Moist warm winds dot with rouge and powder the Brocade City's spring. Silken threads of thin-drawn rain press petals' jade-white dust. This rare scene's washed with the urge for poems. Glistening flowers and unstrained wine belong to one at ease."

I pondered Xue Tao as I wandered among the bamboo, more than 150 varieties, ranging from tiny, slender species to towering groves. Lovers walked down the lanes, shyly looking sideways at each other, past families picnicking and toddlers merrily stumbling along in the diaper-less slit pants of Chinese babies.

A short walk down a leafy lane from Xue Tao's River Viewing Pavilion is the Sichuan University Museum. British and American missionaries constructed the monumental building in 1914, an odd hybrid of no-nonsense Western missionary aesthetics with romantic Chinese detailing. The stolid, multistory masonry bulk is festooned with dragon water spouts and romantic rounded Chinese doors and elaborately carved window trim. The effect is a bit like looking at a small-town turn-of-the-century American bank in drag.

The museum houses more than 40,000 objects in four galleries, including a large collection of Chinese calligraphy and the outstanding ethnographic collection of American missionary and scholar D. S. Dye, which comprises Tibetan material from western Sichuan and artifacts from Sichuan's many other minority groups, such as the Yi and the Lolos.

The extremes of temperatures, which range from the 40s in the winter to the 90s in the summer, and the rich agriculture base have given rise to a fiery cuisine. Indeed, the Sichuanese claim their chile pepper and Sichuan peppercorn cools them in the summers and warms them in the winters.

The day I arrived I hied over to Longchaoshou Special Restaurant for some of its vaunted snacks. For about 60 cents, I got a lineup of small dishes, including chicken feet in a Sichuan sauce (a rubbery, soy-drenched experience) and mapo doufu, Chengdu's noted soft bean curd in a sauce of minced beef, soy sauce, garlic, numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chile oil. By the end of the meal, my lips were stinging and my mouth felt as if someone had set off a smudge pot inside. Sizzling and satisfying.

Another day I chowed down at the Chengdu Restaurant, a collection of large and small dark rooms where groups can sample a variety of Sichuan cuisine, from tiny snacks to lacquered duck (a black, toughened exterior yielding to tender meat), on tables slick with the last group's residue. Hotpots, filled with boiling oil or broth for dipping, are also a popular Chengdu dish, another spice-charged Sichuan tradition meant to be eaten with a group of people.

Chengdu also is noted for its teahouses, where factory workers and intellectuals mingle over bottomless cups of the brew. In the Mao era, authorities closed the teahouses, contending they were hotbeds of counterrevolutionary ferment, but they are again bustling, from the small one at the park honoring the poet Du Fu to the tree-shaded tea court along the Jin River across from the Traffic Hotel to the sprawling Renmin Teahouse in Renmin Park. They are half living room, half office, the place where all castes come to gossip and get caffeinated.

One Sunday afternoon, I went to the teahouse at the Wenshu Monastery, a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monastery off a bustling modern thoroughfare in the northern part of town. The lane to the monastery was a walk back into medieval China, populated as it was with fortunetellers, earwax removers and incense sellers jostling with beggars presenting their infirmities as rationales for largess. Once I got past them, the monastery and teahouse formed an island of calm.

The teahouse is a collection of wooden and masonry open-front buildings with fires winking inside, sheltered pavilions and courtyards, all helter-skelter under the shade of ancient trees. For a few cents, a slender attendant in worn-out rubber sandals gave me a chipped cup with a few leaves of stone-flower tea and poured steaming water from a dented, sooty copper teakettle.

I was lounging in one of the hundreds of bamboo chairs, expecting to spend the afternoon reading, when a Chinese man pointed to the sky and tugged me under a shelter. As the deluge began, I found myself the center of a crowded table in a bamboo pavilion. An interlocutor simultaneously practiced his English and ferried questions and answers back and forth. I never did get any reading done, but I learned a lot about Chinese politics, modern economics--and perhaps most important, the desire and willingness of people continents apart to bridge two worlds.

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GUIDEBOOK

Checking Out Chengdu

Getting there: China Southern Airlines flies direct from LAX to Chengdu, with one stop in Beijing. Restricted round-trip air fares begin at $2,075, but package tours can make a trip to China more affordable.

Seeing the pandas: The best time to view them at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is from 8:30 to 10 a.m. A taxi is the only way to reach the center, six miles from downtown on Panda Road, telephone 011-86-28-351-6911.

Where to stay: The Minshan Hotel on Renmin Nan Lu, tel. 011-86-28-558-3333, fax 011-86-28-558-2154, Internet http://www.asiatravel.com/china/minshan, is a sleek, 21-story international business hotel. Doubles range from $120-$250.

The Jiaotong Hotel (often called the Traffic Hotel), 77 Lingjiang Road, tel. 011-86-28-545-1017, fax 011-86-28-545-2777, Internet http://www.sinohotel.com/chengdu/traffic, is a longtime favorite of backpackers. Doubles with private baths begin at $50, and four-bed dorm rooms cost about $20.

Where to eat: The Long-chaoshou Special Restaurant, near Chunxi Lu and Dong Dajie, local tel. 666-6947, offers snack courses that run the Sichuan culinary spectrum from sweet to fiery. Cost: between 60 cents and a couple of dollars.

At the Chengdu Restaurant, 134 Shangdong Daijie, tel. 666-6085, dinners run from $1 to $4.

The Wenshu Monastery, tel. 674-2375, is a 15-minute walk north of the giant Mao statue on Renmin Zhong Lu. Dishes run from 40 cents to 80 cents. A large bowl of rice costs about a dime.

For more information: China National Tourist Office, 600 W. Broadway, Suite 320, Glendale, CA 91204; tel. (818) 545-7507, fax (818) 545-7506, Internet http://www.cnto.org.

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