We arrived in Chengdu, home of the giant panda, halfway through our 16-day Wonders of China tour.
And while China’s many sights don’t come more wondrous than this amazing animal, the biggest wonder is that the species is still here.
Somehow, it seems designed for extinction. Its only food, bamboo, is so nutrient-poor that an adult panda needs to munch 30lbs a day, and all that eating doesn’t leave much time or energy for sex.
But pandas aren’t really bothered. In fact, they seem to have permanent headaches. Chengdu’s famous research base has even made a panda porn film to get its buttoned-up bears in the mood.
If they do get it on, any resulting cubs have a fight on their paws.
Panda newborns weigh about the same as a hamster and need so much care that when twins are born in the wild, the mother leaves one to die.
But the devoted team at Chengdu trick them into raising both by distracting mum and then swapping the twins several times a day.
It’s brilliant to watch the pandas at every stage of development, from tiny babies through to mature adults. Gradually, a few bears at a time, the scientists are releasing their success stories into the wild. Chengdu was just one stop on this Mercury Holidays tour.
A full-on sprint around China’s highlights, it started in Shanghai, took in a four-day cruise along the beautiful Yangtze River, headed to Xi’an to do battle with the Terracotta Warriors and then finished in Beijing.
Chengdu was also where we boarded the bullet train. Even its luggage transfer system is a masterpiece of planning.
While we toured temples and drank tea, Max, our terrific Mercury tour guide, had lined up teams of porters to pick up our cases at the hotel, transfer them to the train, collect them at the other end and deliver everything to our Xi’an hotel.
All included in the price, it ran like clockwork. Sadly, so did the bullet train. Our cameras were ready for the speedo to hit 300kph, but it didn’t nudge much above 230.
Four hours later we were on a bus driving past the walls of Xi’an, a city steeped in the colourful culture you would expect from the starting point of the Silk Road trading route.
Xi’an’s food tends to be hot and sour, and the best place to try it is the Muslim market in Huimin Street. Squid on a stick, inset, is a
popular choice. But the biggest draw here is the Terracotta Army, one of the world’s greatest ever archaeological finds, unearthed in 1974.
China’s Emperor Qin built thousands of warrior statues to protect his tomb and guide him in the afterlife.
Nothing prepares you for row after row of life-size soldiers – 6,000 of them lined up in trenches – stretching into the distance.
No two are the same. There are cavalrymen, archers, infantrymen and chariot drivers. Some sit on horses, others kneel to aim bows.
Our final stop was Beijing, where the country’s present rulers were setting up an equally imposing show of strength for their republic’s 70th anniversary.
The preparations meant the Forbidden City, the magnificent palace complex at the city’s heart, was off-limits.
It was touch and go getting past checkpoints to see Tiananmen Square. This 109-acre space is home to many of China’s most revered
monuments and museums, and is where the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. It was also the scene of a bloody crackdown against student-led protests 40 years later.
Across the city the Summer Palace, a gorgeous collection of mansions, gardens and lakes, was home to many of China’s rulers.
But when it comes to power symbols, the Great Wall takes some beating.
Stretching around 5,000 miles, it is more than 2,000 years old. Some parts are just rubble, others have been so well restored that little of the original remains.
We visited the Mutianyu section, 45 miles from Beijing and pretty user-friendly. The scenery was spectacular but there was a cable car to get up there, plus handrails and a Subway café at the bottom. (Don’t knock it…we’d had Chinese food for a fortnight!)
A few days later, I watched China’s 70th anniversary celebrations on TV – huge armies, fearsome leaders and a people whose history has taught them to endure.
I wouldn’t want to live there. But I’m so glad I’ve seen it.
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