Pandas. What more is there to say?! Yes, Chendu is a cool city with much to offer, both historically, and as the city develops, and not to mention phenomenal shopping, but I would guess that most people come to Chengdu to be as close to the pandas and this is the perfect place.
Oh my word, the Rhombus Park Aura Hotel (https://www.rhombuschengduhotel.com/) is absolutely divine! To be honest, I was nervous and even considered changing my hotel before I started my travels to a “known entity” – like the Grand Hyatt down the street, or the Marriott just a little further away – but I am so happy I didn’t. The room is stunning and looks brand new, the breakfast is fantastic and a great way to start your day, but most of all, the staff – Mia, Jennifer, and Daisy are the bee’s knees – were some of the kindest and most helpful people I met throughout my travels. Some of the staff speak little English – but hey, I speak no Chinese – but if they don’t understand, they’ll find someone who does. And for bonus points: when I checked out, it was a very early check-out because of my flight and Daisy made sure that a “to go” breakfast bag was available for the taxi ride to the airport. Perfect customer service!
The Wenshu Temple Vegetarian Restaurant is just a tad “up town” from where most of the hotels are located but trust me when I say that it is worth the visit. There are two restaurants here: the ground floor is a buffet and the second floor is the more upscale a la cart restaurant. Go for the 2nd floor: it won’t cost you nearly as much as you might think and the room is stunning. Although listed as vegetarian, I think it is vegan so be prepared for no milk or eggs – I didn’t see anything with either on the menu – and no alcohol. I’ve never been one for drinking fruit juices with dinner – it fills me up, taking up space for the great food – so I just settled for water. But here’s what I found funny here, as well as other places in China: the menus are typically on a tablet of some sort, with photos and descriptions. In any part of the United States or Europe, if I saw pictures of the food offered, I’d keep on walking! But in China, it seems to be the norm, and when you don’t speak or read Chinese, well, it was a welcomed help.
My last night in Chengdu was supposed to be a food tour with the Chengdu Food Tour but alas, I messed up my times and arrived 2 hours late. Being somewhat dejected and not too interested in venturing out to find something to eat, I opted to dine at the Rhombus Park Aura Hotel. And boy am I glad that I did! When I mentioned that I was vegetarian, the chef kindly came out to discuss what he could do, and what I was interested in and it was lip-smacking delicious! I think the chef was a little concerned that I didn’t eat all of my food – just a salad and some wok friend noodles and veg – but when I said it was delicious and just too much, he said “but you’re a big athletic man and I thought you needed a lot”, it made me laugh and not feel quite so bad for wasting my food. If you only had one night in Chengdu, I would go to Wenshu Temple Vegetarian but if you’re tired, or short on time, the hotel restaurant will not let you down and you shouldn’t feel bad for staying in.
My whole reason for going to Chengdu was about the pandas. Can you really travel all this way to China and not visit a panda park? Roughly 1 hour or more outside of Chengdu is the Dujiangyan Base of China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda. They have an amazing volunteer programme that costs 700RMB which entitles you to work with the pandas (cleaning cages), feeding them, speaking with the staff, and watching a 1 hr documentary. (I was skeptical of the documentary but it is fantastic and you really must watch it!) So here are some tips and tricks that I learned along the way:
- DO NOT BOOK A TOUR GUIDE TO THE CENTER! Everywhere I looked, I found ridiculously expensive “tours” to the center. But if you write to the centre directly email@example.com they will give you the information that you need in order to volunteer which, for the most part, is the completion of a health certificate from your doctor and an application.
- Once you arrive at the centre, go straight to the turnstile and ask for the Volunteer Programme. They will escort you inside, someone will be your “guide” and that’s who you stay with for the remainder of the day. Thus, why you don’t need a tour guide as noted above.
- Getting from downtown to the Panda Centre does require a transfer, probably from your hotel. This cost me 1200RMB and was mostly for the driver to wait all day. Yes, it’s expensive, but given that there are no convenient busses, and certainly no trains, the only other option is a rental car and there’s no way that I would drive in Chengdu (or anywhere else in China by myself).
- Pictures with the pandas are the most expensive part, at 1800RMB. But if you think of it as a donation, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it makes it a little easier to justify. You can pay in cash, or with a card, so don’t sweat the details! You will be given about “20 seconds” with the panda, and the guides will take pictures of you, as well as your travel buddy, so trust me when I tell you you’ll have plenty of photos!
The Wenshu Temple area is also a great place to visit and wonder. The Temple and the monastery next to it are stunning, with seemingly something different around every corner. I was shocked at how much land the Temple took up because, from the outside, it looks really quite small. But a note to the reader: there is a LOT of building happening around the Temple, all of which appears to be shops designed in the shape of the Temple buildings so what is currently a very quaint and, what I assume to be, true representation of old Chengdu will soon become very gentrified (like much of China).