The Chengdu Checklist

After I received my internship offer from the United States Consulate in Chengdu, I immediately started googling. Mostly, I just didn’t recognize the city, and needed to figure out where it was. When I found out that Chengdu is pretty much the biggest city in Southwest China, the gateway to Tibet, and in Sichuan Province, I became really excited. Very quickly, I became obsessed with learning more about all about this city, the cool things to do here, and where to travel outside of the city.

Now, I’m two weeks from the end of my internship. Two of the other interns have already left, my roommate is leaving on Monday, and most of the rest of us will be gone by the 15th. I’ve had so many amazing experiences, hundreds of photos, and many more wonderful memories. I hope to share a handful with you as I work my way through my little Chengdu Checklist.

1) PANDAS!!!

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Sichuan is actually one of the last places where wild pandas exist. It is also home to the Panda Breeding Research Center and the Bifengxia Panda Natural Reserve. Maddy, Michael, and I took a Thursday off a couple of weeks ago to make the two and a half hour trek to the larger Bifengxia reserve. Leaving from our apartment at 6:30 AM, we (barely) caught the 7:10 AM bus to Yan’an, the closest city to the base. We reached the city around 9:30, negotiated with a slightly crazy taxi driver to shuttle us up the mountain to the research base, purchased our (student price!) tickets, and were on a park shuttle bus to see the pandas by 10.

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Fortunately for us, it was still relatively cool when we got to the park, so most of the pandas were still roaming around, doing important panda things. For the toddler pandas at panda kindergarden, this mostly involved tumbling over each other and chewing on bamboo shoots. Adult pandas seem to split their days between eating bamboo, napping, scratching their butts (much to the disappointment of the Chinese tourists), and sleeping in trees.

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They were pretty adorable. However, by the end of this trip, I was feeling pretty sick. I’m pretty sure I wound up with the trifecta of common traveler’s ailments; food poisoning, migraine headaches, and serious dehydration. I want send a shout out to Maddy for helping get me down the mountain, and to Michael for buying me an awesome panda shirt and being a good sport about the situation.

2) Mountain Climbing

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One of the reasons we chose to go to the Bifengxia Reserve rather than the Research Base, was because we had heard that the Bifengxia gorge was beautiful. Even in my desperate, dehydrated state, I was amazed by how beautiful the area was. The picture above is of one of two trails we followed after seeing the pandas. That particular trail led us past the source of one of the dozens of waterfalls in the area.

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3) Temple Visits

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I’ve visited a few different temples in Chengdu, and I’ve had pretty mixed results. Some, like the Green Ram Temple (which all three pictures are of) are very touristy and crowded. Generally, you aren’t allowed to take photos inside temples, but the really big popular ones have become very lax about these rules, instead focusing on preventing you from taking pictures of the statues and alters themselves.

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My favorite temples are in small monasteries. Cheap to get into, less crowded, quieter, populated by quiet monks and nuns, and much more authentic. Chengdu has some really fantastic Tibetan-Buddhist, Taoist, and regular Chinese Buddhist fusion temples. There are also a bunch of Mosques around the city, but those don’t really seem very open to visitors, so I haven’t tried to enter one yet.

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4) Fine Dining

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As much as I love Chinese street food, sometimes you want to get dressed up and go out to a fancy restaurant. Some of the interns, Consulate staff, and I went out to Yu’s Family Kitchen, where we had a 32 (!) course meal that was a modern interpretation on classic Sichuan flavors. Absolutely everything was fabulous.

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I really like using food as an excuse to get people together, go to a new part of town, and have a lot of fun. For example, after spending 15 minutes trying to catch a cab during rush hour, we all decided to ride the subway. Even in Shanghai, I have never been in a subway car (or bus or train) that was that crowded. After squeezing our way out, we proceeded to wander around for another ten minutes, trying to find the restaurant. For some reason, they don’t have a real address. Instead, they just tell you to go to the Wide and Narrow Alleys (another famous tourist spot in Chengdu) and it will be right near the entrance. By some miracle, we managed to find the place, despite the fact that they don’t even have the name of the restaurant posted outside of their door!

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Also, I want to thank Tahn, one of the Consulate officers who kindly paid for all of the interns’ meals. All of the officer staff have been wonderfully kind to us, as they realize that we are poor college students, at an unpaid internship where we must pay for transportation, housing, and food out of pocket. Actually, a number of the officers were shocked that we weren’t paid and didn’t receive any help from the State Department. Apparently, this varies significantly from post to post, and we must have just gotten unlucky with our post. At any rate, I don’t regret the decision to come here at all, even if my wallet is feeling a little light for the time being, long-term, I’m betting this experience will pay off.