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China: The realm of the great bear cat

The vegetarian bear that sometimes eats meat; the big-spending hotel guests who bring their own food; the grand irrigation system as old as Archimedes — nothing is quite as it seems in Sichuan Province

China: The realm of the great bear cat
Giant panda at the Dujiangyan Panda Base. Image: Duncan Longden

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Pan Pan has been doing his bit for modern China, and at the grand old age of 30, he’s earned his retirement.

“Pan Pan means ‘Hero Father,’” my guide, Jack Feng, explains. “He’s sired 130 cubs in 20 years.”

I look at the world’s oldest male panda, lying on his back in a generous green enclosure — one of 40 at the Dujiangyan Panda Base. The vegetarian bear chews noisily on a length of leafy bamboo. “That’s over six cubs a year,” I say. “No wonder he’s taking it easy.”

I ask Jack if the word ‘panda’ actually means something in Chinese? “People think it’s the Chinese name for the animal, but it’s not. We call it xiong mao, which translates as ‘bear cat’. There’s a story that the word ‘panda’ comes from a French missionary called Father Armand David, who was the first European to discover the animal. In 1869, he was shown a panda skin by a hunter and he asked what it was. The hunter described the animal using the words ‘fat’ and ‘big’. Which in Chinese is ‘pang da’.”

The word is also said to have some Nepalese roots too, but, regardless, during my two hours in the reserve, the animal I thought of as an ‘endangered vegetarian panda’ turns out to be none of these things.

The bear cat is an omnivore — in fact, eight million years ago it was a lean carnivore (it still retains relic canines in its lower jaw). And, thanks to the efforts of six panda reserves in Sichuan Province (as well as some heroic copulation by Pan Pan), it’s no longer endangered: in May 2016, the WWF officially reclassified it as ‘vulnerable’, with over 1,400 animals now doing quite nicely in the wild.

Pan Pan has also helped to reveal a simple truth. Like most people in the West, I think I know China — it’s the place where 1.35 billion people live in choked-up cities, marching inexorably towards lifestyles enjoyed in the West.

Clearly I’m in need of some re-education.

Locals and visitors enjoy the breeze on the ornate North Bridge in Dujiangyan. Image: Duncan Longden

Locals and visitors enjoy the breeze on the ornate North Bridge in Dujiangyan. Image: Duncan Longden

Luxury, Chinese-style

My lessons are conducted in a mountainous corner of Sichuan Province.

I base myself for five days at the new Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, a luxury resort located at the foot of Mount Qingcheng. It’s on the edge of a small city (‘small’ meaning half-a-million people) called Dujiangyan, which in turn is a satellite of the Chengdu megalopolis, peopled with a rather more substantial 15 million.

The resort is owned by US venture capitalists and offers a contemporary escape for wealthy Chinese — an almost unthinkable proposition 35 years ago, when the only five stars that Chinese people saw were those fluttering overhead on Chairman Mao’s red flag. It’s a walled compound with a distinct Zen vibe, with 113 suites that echo an ancient village and the sort of gardens that once moved emperors to poetry. Its three restaurants, spa and 30-metre swimming pool offer perhaps the greatest luxuries of all for Chinese guests — space.

But it’s not long before the very otherness of China becomes apparent. There’s the internet for instance. Or more exactly, there’s not the internet. I’ve got wi-fi in my suite but the ‘Great Firewall of China’ means I need to do a complex virtual private network workaround to access non-Chinese websites — and no amount of geek trickery will get me onto Twitter or Facebook.

Unlike in the West, the resort is practically empty most weeks. This is because the Chinese take their breaks according to a well-defined calendar of public holidays; it’s also because in 2013 President Xi Jinping cracked down on lavish (read ‘corrupt’) corporate hospitality, which had become a mainstay of Chinese luxury hotels during the working week.

At the weekend, however, it’s the exact inverse. The entire resort gets booked out, and an oddly Chinese tableau plays out: guests gather in the genteel courtyards with cardboard boxes filled with their own vegetables, fruit and even tea. They spend the afternoon reclined among the sprays of bamboo and trickling streams, indulging and snoozing.

Ninety-five percent of guests are Chinese and most of them come here to de-stress and, in particular, to breathe the air. Mount Qingcheng, which rises to one side of the resort, is thickly clad in forest and often wreathed in mist. The Chinese believe it to be the nation’s richest source of ‘negative ions’ — oxygen molecules with an extra electron to purify mind and body.

At 6am, I get to taste the air for myself in the grounds of Puzhao Temple. Built into a sheltered cusp of the mountain, the 200-year-old complex is surrounded by equally antique pine trees, which soar into the swirling clouds. A woman sweeps the flagstones of a courtyard and peacocks cry from tiled rooftops that curve upwards at either end.

I’m here to get personal instruction in Qingcheng tai chi, the slow-mo version of a local brand of kung fu. My instructor is a very serious 25-year-old grandmaster called Mr Liu, who demonstrates his elegant, taut-muscle ballet and bids me to follow his patterns. It all goes quite well until he becomes irritated by (of all things) my hand positions, and repeatedly halts his instruction to painfully yank my thumbs into more acceptable right-angles.

My interpreter, Una, whispers to me, “The hands are important; they’re like coded messages of the soul!”

After my session, I decide the negative ions haven’t done much for me, especially my thumbs. But there’s no question — the solace of a Chinese dawn in a misty temple courtyard is dizzying.

South Bridge, Dujiangyan. Image: Duncan Longden

South Bridge, Dujiangyan. Image: Duncan Longden

A dragon tamed

The forests surrounding Mount Qingcheng are home to scores of far older temples, their tiled roofs crowned with dragons and other beasts of the zodiac. But the most famous of all, Tianshi Dong, is a plain thing by comparison.

It takes three hours to climb over 2,620ft on a mountain path, mostly in the company of Chinese tourists who stop frequently to pray or eat Sichuan hot pot and take selfies. The path climbs through gorges and forests, past a 2,000-year-old gingko tree before reaching the Tianshi Cave. It has a crude timber fascia built across it and smells like the mountain — of earth, damp vegetation and wood smoke.

Two thousand years ago, Zhang Daoling is said to have sat in this cave and taught his acolytes that a natural harmony could be found in all things, that yin could be balanced with yang. It’s why Mount Qingcheng is regarded as the birthplace of Taoism.

China has been steered by Taoism ever since, the philosophy influencing the practitioners of astrology, martial arts and traditional medicine. Chinese alchemists spent centuries concocting potions in the pursuit of Taoism’s purity of spirit and body and, in the ninth century, they happened upon three powders that would violently ‘fly and dance’ when mixed. Frankly, I’m astonished to learn that it was Taoists who gave the world gunpowder.

A little over six miles from the cave, down on the floodplains of Dujiangyan, another monumental experiment was underway in ancient times.

In 256BC, at roughly the same time that Archimedes was crying ‘eureka’ after displacing water in his bath, the governor of Chengdu embarked on a massive hydro-engineering project that’s still in use today.

Jack Feng patiently explains the complexities of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), while we look upon it from the flanks of Mount Yulei. “Governor Li Bing needed to control the Minjiang River which flooded regularly,” he says, pointing out the broad, fast-flowing waterway, heavy with grey sediment. “So he used tens of thousands of people to build a levee. Then he dug this new river alongside it.”

From our vantage point we can see Li Bing’s man-made river splitting from the natural channel to flow through the ancient centre of Dujiangyan. It was shaped to naturally purge itself of excess silt and as a consequence, the water is the colour of jade. Adding to the celestial vista of mountains and rivers are ornate bridges and the spectacular Dragon-Taming Temple. The whole engineering project took four years and meant removing part of the mountain. Today, Chinese visitors walk a three-mile circuit around the site to marvel at the ancient feat.

Not only was the dragon tamed, the floodwaters were diverted for irrigation, turning Sichuan into the most fertile and richest of China’s 31 provinces. Today, it’s still a veritable food basket that wants for nothing, and the people of Sichuan are still caricatured as indulgent sloths, happiest only when eating themselves silly. Personally, I don’t blame them for indulging; Sichuan cuisine is spicy, rich and oily. In the small noodle shops along the ancient streets of Dujiangyan, the plates come in small blizzards. Similarly unrelenting is the variety of ingredients. On my visit, I encounter braised bullfrog, stewed yak, sliced pig ear, hot and sour jellyfish, deep-fried scorpions…

At the Cerelia farm alongside the Minjiang River, I’m introduced to another oddity of Chinese cuisine: an ugly, triangle-headed, armour-plated monster that grows to over 6ft in length. Cerelia has 10,000 sturgeon in a vast grid of concrete troughs. The largest of the fish put their shovel-sized faces out of the water.

Office director Mrs Yu tells me the bigger fish are fattened up to provide caviar, which is exported to Dubai. The smaller ones are culled for their prize flesh. When I admit I never knew sturgeon was a delicacy, I’m whisked off to the family restaurant, where I’m treated to an impromptu banquet of sturgeon done not once but seven ways. It’s so good that the caviar is almost a sideshow.

Interior of a traditional home, with meat hanging from the ceiling to air-dry. Image: Duncan Longden

Interior of a traditional home, with meat hanging from the ceiling to air-dry. Image: Duncan Longden

People of the mountains

“What are you doing here?!” asks an English-speaking Chinese woman. “Even most Chinese don’t know this place exists!”

Jack Feng has driven me two hours from the lush forests surrounding Qingcheng into barren mountains to the north where only goats seem to thrive. The steep rocky slopes are inhabited by marginalised people from one of China’s minority groups, the Qiang people.

The village of Taoping dates to 111BC, and is built of stone so carefully mortared into the slopes that it appears to be part of the mountain. We duck into cool dark passageways, to the sound of snowmelt gushing through channels underfoot; overhead, the dwellings are piled high, with four ‘blockhouses’ reaching a full, nine storeys. They’re reminiscent of the ancient dwellings of the Pueblo people of the American Southwest — the difference being these dwellings are still occupied.

Swarthier than the majority Han Chinese, the Qiang are more similar to China’s largest minority, the Tibetans, who neighbour Sichuan to the west. Their roofs are crowned with goat horns, symbols of animistic beliefs that, like them, have survived to the modern age.

I talk to an old lady selling trinkets to tourists. She wears brightly coloured silk and invites us to feel the quality of her handmade jacket. She speaks Mandarin to Jack, telling us she knows her family has been here for at least 1,000 years, but is unsure exactly when they first arrived. “She says that only the rich families have records,” Jack tells me.

Inside the houses we see extraordinary layers of Chinese history. One owner, Mr Chen, shows us into his kitchen; it has a wooden floor and central fire pit, the ancient walls are lined with pictures of Mao and the rafters hung with fatty slabs of air-dried pork. There are even slits where arrows were once fired to repel invaders. He shows us a photo of his father in army fatigues in the 1950s when he was fighting with the North Koreans against the Americans.

We climb handmade ladders to the top of a blockhouse and survey the village. Jack says it’s a miracle the structures are still standing after centuries of warring between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans. He adds that there was also a much more recent threat to their survival. On our return drive to the resort, Jack detours down a long, rough road through a narrow mountain gorge to show me what he means. We arrive at the village of Yingxiu, which looks very new and is nestled within a ring of green mountains. At its centre is a lively outdoor market where gaily coloured stalls sell toys, panda souvenirs and bowls of hot noodles. We pass through them to emerge on a scene of staggering violence.

I’m looking at a modern middle school, a five-storey complex. Only, it looks like someone has tipped it over at one corner and sent it crashing to the ground like a stack of crockery. Elevated boardwalks circle the entire upended school building. We peer into classroom floors, steeply angled and littered here and there with the accoutrements of contemporary secondary education. At one corner, five floors are pancaked into a single layer. The ruin looks oddly ancient — more ancient than the upstanding blockhouses I’ve just seen.

“What is this?” I ask, both perplexed and shocked.

“It’s a monument. Yingxiu was the epicentre of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.”

In May of that year, Sichuan was hit by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake that was felt as far as Beijing. Around 90,000 people died, 350,000 were injured and five million made homeless. Yingxiu was flattened; 5,000 people were buried in a pit because the town was cut off for a week and the survivors feared disease.

When I return to the resort I soon learn that everyone has a Wenchuan story. Marketing manager Una Zhang lived with her family in a car for a week, so fearful were they of aftershocks. Guide Jack Feng remembers cowering with his school friends in a stairwell. Fellow guide Olaf Klotzke recalls the shock of seeing naked people in the street — they’d been showering when the earthquake struck and had fled for their lives.

My visit to Sichuan lasts only five days, but there’s a strange intensity to the trip that makes it feel twice as long. I think it’s down to the fact that I’m constantly exposed to things that are unfamiliar — the ancient genius of the irrigation system, the modern genius of farming river monsters for caviar, the ancient stone ruins crowned with horns, the contemporary school ruins hung with sadness, the five-star resort where wealthy guests bring their own comfort food, the ‘Hero Father’ panda doing it for China…

I’m left feeling like an acolyte who’s come down out of the swirling mists of Mount Qingcheng, his eyes just a little more open.

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways flies nonstop five times a week between Heathrow and Chengdu. Airlines that fly with one stop include Singapore Airlines, Air China and Cathay Pacific.

A one-hour transfer from Chengdu city to Dujiangyan by high-speed train costs around £1.50.

Day trips for guests at Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, with an English-speaking guide and driver cost around £100-£140 per person.

When to go
March to June and September to November are best. Avoid the cold winter, and July/August, which can be wet.

More info
gochengdu.cn
cnto.org.uk
Lonely Planet China
. RRP: £19.99

How to do it
Steppes Travel has five nights, B&B, at Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain from £1,560 per person based on two sharing. Includes international economy flights with British Airways, plus private transfers. Each private tour day-trip cost £100-£120 each.

Alternatively, budget travellers could share a room at Xiuxishu Boutique Hotel (from £40 a night), use Chinese tour companies booked through Ctrip and/or take local cabs and do the whole trip for around £800-£1,000 each, flying with Air China.

Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)