CHENGDU, China — 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.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 30, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
China route--The airline route on China Southern Airlines was incorrectly reported ("Chengdu, the Panda Capital," April 23). The China Southern flight to Chengdu stops in Guangzhou.
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.