From the enormous floral displays near the Mao statue on the impeccably socialist Tianfu Square through to the backpacks, hats, cuddly toys and T-shirts in the shops, there’s no way of escaping pandas in Chengdu, China’s giant panda capital. The stores even sell panda brand cigarettes!
The last few remaining pockets of giant pandas in the wild still exist in the mountains near Chengdu, and most people visit Chengdu for the Panda Base, which is almost single-handedly responsible for keeping this bizarre and endangered species in existence.
But China’s fourth-largest city has plenty more to offer families than the chance to cuddle a baby panda. And, while all Chinese cities can feel vast, bewildering and polluted to the first-time visitor, Chengdu is a remarkably accessible place that’s long on open spaces and short on grifters.
Here are seven things to do with kids in Chengdu, and a couple in the surrounding area.
1. See the pandas
At certain times of year, when the baby pandas nestle in their cribs like so many mobile soft toys, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding delivers an absolute overdose of cute as the world’s largest population of giant pandas go about their business amid the landscaped grounds (and, yes, there are red pandas, too).
Yet there’s plenty to learn here. The panda hospital provides gruesomely detailed insights into the various maladies afflicting pandas today, from parasites to toothache, complete with a panda operating theater and interactive touchscreen exhibits.
The museum spans panda lore from their early alleged use in warfare through to their peculiar position on the evolutionary tree – and there’s even a panda bakery!
Little ones in need of a wander will love the pond, packed with hungry koi carp that literally climb over one another when food is scattered on the waters, and patrolled by serene black swans.
Read more about giant panda encounters in China
2. Go to a theme park
Hardly known outside of China, the Happy Valley theme park chain is the nation’s answer to Disneyland.
And, as befits a city larger than any in the US or Europe, Chengdu’s has plenty to offer: several full-size roller-coasters and terrifying inverted rides for teens, merry-go-rounds, carousels, ride-on toys, ferris wheels and free play areas for littlies, and a haunted house with live actors.
A word of warning? Chinese safety standards, while better than those in the rest of Asia, are not remotely equivalent to those in the West: if something looks dangerous, it probably is.
3. Try an astronaut machine
The magic of the new capitalism only extends so far, and some of the exhibits in the vast Sichuan Science and Technology Museum that dominates Tianfu Square have seen better days.
Yet the ground floor features exhibits from China’s space program, among them deceptively simple machines used for training astronauts to control their bodyweight in zero gravity, and a rather more high-tech space simulator. Tickets are sold for these individually: to avoid disappointment, visit outside weekends and school holidays.
The upper levels, with interactive exhibits on sound, light, optical illusions and energy, green and otherwise, will please most children, while there’s enough physics, maths and engineering to keep teens and adults learning too.
4. Learn to cook
Chengdu is capital of Sichuan and Sichuan food is probably China’s most diverse and celebrated cuisine. While the fiery Sichuan hot pot packed with dried red chilis may be a bridge too far for some children, cooking courses make excellent fun.
Discover the tingly flavor of Sichuan pepper, which literally numbs the tongue and the lips, and the very Chinese principles of balancing color, heat and flavors, along with some of the defining dishes of Sichuan cuisine.
Younger children may enjoy a simpler session of kneading, filling and shaping dough to make the delicious dumplings known as jiaozi, then eating them with chopsticks. Older children might well appreciate a gourmet food tour.
Book a Sichuan Cooking Class
5. See archaeology in action
One challenge of exploring China with kids is the overwhelming size and scale of many historic sites. The Jinsha ruins, discovered inadvertently in 2002 during a building project, sit easily within the city limits, and are perfectly sized for small folk with short attention spans.
Budding archaeologists will love the signs marking where items, from musical instruments to statuary, were found – some have been left in situ. The civilization which built Jin Sha dates back around 3000 years, making this an impressively ancient site.
Once you’re done? The grounds have tea houses, fountains, an outdoor play area and plenty of room to run free.
6. See the biggest Buddha in the world
The Seated Buddha of Leshan, constructed in the eighth century, was the largest Buddha in the world even before the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. A couple of hours from Chengdu by private car, the trip takes rather longer by bus.
Carved into the cliffs by the Leshan river and partly overgrown with moss and ferns, at 233 feet tall, the Buddha will undoubtedly impress anyone with an inner Indiana Jones, particularly when viewed from a boat.
7. Be a panda keeper
Wild panda populations are so small and so dispersed that it is nigh-on impossible to see a panda in the wild.
Still, the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an, outside Chengdu, comes a close second: visitors can work as a panda keeper for a couple of days, helping feed and clean out the giant pandas that are bred there.
– Theodora Sutcliffe