Chengdu: More than just the Panda capital of the world

Think of Chengdu and the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Giant Panda Research centre but as I found out recently there is a lot more to this ancient town than the fluffy face of the world wildlife foundation.

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Young Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Panda Base

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China and has some outstanding places to visit that weren’t even on my radar before my visit in July. It took four hours to travel to Chengdu from Xi’an on the fast train, I accidently booked myself onto a first-class carriage but no complaints from me (that leg room was more than worth the extra £5)!

The metro system in Chengdu is easy to navigate for the most part, as long as you check the map before you get on the train it is almost impossible to get lost. There are however a few places that are not accessible by the metro lines such as the main market street, the panda base and the Leshan Buddha which is actually located outside of town (I will be writing a separate post all about how to get there soon because it is a bit more complicated than other attractions in Chengdu).

My accommodation was perfectly central and easy to get to from the main railway station when I arrived in Chengdu. I stayed in a quirky little backpacker’s called the Blacksmith Hostel and I have to say you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for luxury then I maybe wouldn’t stay here but it was perfect for me and my tight budget. My only complaint would be the lack of insect screen on the windows as the room was almost constantly filled with mosquitoes and I ended up covered in bites, literally from head to toe! The toilets and showers were both accessed from the balcony which made the thought of going to the toilet slightly unappealing in the middle of the rain storms that frequented my stay. I maybe wouldn’t stay there again, but it fulfilled it’s primary purpose of somewhere to pass out at the end of each day.

 

I spent 3 full days in Chengdu and hardly even scratched the surface on what the city has to offer but if you are heading there anytime soon then these are the places I recommend visiting;

 

  1. The Chengdu Research of Giant Panda Breeding

No trip to Chengdu is worth the journey if you don’t make it up to the research base on the outskirts of the city. This is usually the main reason people visit Chengdu and it was definitely my motivation for booking a trip to Sichuan province. The base is currently home to around 83 pandas varying from new born cubs to adults and is by far the best place to see these adorable creatures up close. The base has been working in Giant Panda conservation since 1987 and has played a huge role in taking the bears off the endangered species list. It rained the entire time we were at the base, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to see pandas up close and watching them interact with each other was beyond anything I had ever imagined before. There are plenty of places to eat around the park as well as a panda museum and red panda enclosures; definitely enough to keep you occupied for a whole day.

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You’ve never seen a happier human than me next to a group of panda bears!
  1. The Leshan Buddha

The largest sitting stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Buddha has to be seen to be believed! This impressive stone structure took 90 years to build and was completed only after the death of the Monk who originally commissioned it. There are two options to view the Buddha; you can take a boat down the river to right in front of the towering monument or you can view it by climbing to the top of the cliff face it has been sculpted out of and descending the steep stone steps that are carved all the way down the side of the figure’s surrounding walls. We opted to do both, and I would highly recommend this if you have the time.

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The Buddha from the boat
  1. Chengdu Museum

Firstly, this is a completely free activity, so you have no excuse not visit the museum! Secondly, I spent so much time wondering from floor to floor and learning about Chengdu’s history that the place was closing by the time I strolled out of last exhibit… oops! Seriously though this should definitely be on your list of things to do if you are interested in the history of the places you visit. The museum covers everything from the first settlers in the area all the way up to the present day including a very detailed and fascinating showcase of traditional Chinese shadow puppets. Add to all this that it is right in the centre of town you really have no reason not to have go and check it out.

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I waited ten minutes for this guy to leave so I could take a photo of the shadow puppets and ended up liking the photo with him in more than the one without…
  1. Jinsha Site and Museum

While you can find most of the information about the Jinsha site in the Chengdu museum if you are interested at all in archaeology then it is worth-while going to the Jinsha site to see the excavation process. As well as the impressive archaeological site there is a whole museum dedicated to the important finds found on location including the beautiful “Golden Sun Bird” a ring shaped piece of foiled uncovered in 2001 and the “Golden Mask” an eerie gold mask believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also on the site is a beautiful bamboo garden and “ebony forest” surrounding the two museum buildings.

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The excavation site at Jinsha Site Museum

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of history there is to find in Chengdu. I arrived knowing only that I was desperate to visit the Panda Base and left with a deeper understanding of the city and it’s culture. I could easily return to Chengdu and have a completely different list of things to do, there is just so much to this city it truly took my breath away. I know it is easy to book onto a tour that takes you to Beijing for the Great Wall of China, to Xi’an for the Warriors, Chengdu for the Pandas and back again, all in one week! But, if you can, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Chengdu in order to fully experience everything this city has to offer.

Moving Abroad: How to do it and why you should!

Lonely Planet Books about China

Moving to a completely new country can be a terrifying idea. Leaving everything and everyone you know behind, packing up and moving your whole life to another part of the world might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for some it might be exactly the right move (pun not intended). I’ve been living in China for three months now and while I might not be an expert on all things relocating related, I like to think I have learnt a thing or two in the past couple of months. If you are trying to decide if moving abroad is for you and want some words of worldly wisdom then, well, I guess that’s why you clicked on this post (unless you are just my number one fan and read everything I post on here… Hi mum!) so keep on reading to find out how to do it and why you should!

 

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I am not a glamorous traveller…

How to do it:

 

  • The first thing you need to decide is what you want to do in your destination country. You can do almost anything you do in the you home country abroad; from waiting on tables to working in a hotel to teaching to volunteer work. Really if you have the skill then you can take it and apply it anywhere. One of the easiest and most common ways to relocate yourself is to become TEFL qualified. This is exactly what I did, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I got my TEFL qualification through I-to-I TEFL, completing their 120-hour online course all from the comfort of my own home, various coffee shops around Aberdeen and my good friend Hannah’s front room (cheers again Hannah for letting me sofa surf). Pretty much, adding TEFL to your skill set isn’t going to do anything apart from open up your options in terms of what countries you can choose to work in.

 

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I-to-I TEFL
  • Speaking of, the next thing you need to decide is where you want to move to. When I was trying to decide on a place to travel to my plan was originally to go to Thailand, this didn’t work out due to timing issues but luckily second on my list was China and this worked out perfectly for me. Depending on what you choose to do abroad, the options of where you can move to will vary (there isn’t really much need for TEFL qualified individuals in America now is there?) but that is all part of the fun of researching your destination country. My original plan was one year of TEFL in China and Vietnam and then waitressing/bar working my way around Australia. That plan has changed slightly but my point is think about what your skills are and where you can apply them and choose the destination that best suits you. Another important factor is also, obviously, where in the world has always fascinated you, what culture interests you the most and what do you want to get out of your time living and working abroad? All of these things should affect your decision, I started with the idea of moving to South East Asia because visiting this part of the world has been at the top of my to do list since I was in secondary school (literally I made a binder on it and everything) and let it grow arms and legs from there until I ended up teaching English in the South of China!

 

Lonely Planet Books about China
Ready to go?

 

  • I recommend finding yourself a company to apply for jobs through if you are planning to teach English. I-to-I are partnered with a company called ImmerQi who specialise in teaching internships and other work placements in China. From providing a week orientation in Beijing to the help and support throughout my placement (Ben I hope you are still reading these because this is the genuine and sincere shout out that you have been so desperately waiting for) they have been excellent! If it is your first time working abroad then going through a company like ImmerQi gives you that little bit of extra reassurance in case something goes wrong. It also means you have someone to fight in your corner if things aren’t up to scratch at your placement or like me you need a meal allowance because you are allergic to everything in the canteen .

 

  • Visas, they are a pain in the back side but an important and mandatory part of moving abroad, so what are you going to do? Apply for them, that’s what!! And don’t make my mistake and leave planning your visa application to the last minute. Honestly it was one of the most stressful months of my life! Even if you can’t apply for your visa until a month before you leave, make sure you get all of your documents organised and ready to go for when you need them. Your company should tell you what you need to do in order to apply for your visa, whether it is a placement company like ImmerQi or your new employer, it is in their best interest as well as yours that your visa is present and correct. Also, this probably won’t be their first time employing someone from overseas, so they are really the best people to ask all the technical questions to. Another invaluable source of information is the embassy you are applying for your visa through, I phoned the Chinese embassy in Britain multiple times and even ended up emailing back and forth with them to make sure everything was perfect in my application before I sent it off, Visa applications are expensive and non-refundable you do not want to mess them up!

 

  • It is sad but true, we can’t get anywhere without a little bit of money to help us along. As well as a bit of help from family members, I worked as a waitress from October to January to save up enough money to make my dream of travelling the world a reality. Everything adds up so keep track of what you have paid off and what still needs to be paid. Flights, visas, vaccinations and insurance are the most expensive costs that you will have to deal with when moving abroad, they are also the most important and should be at the top of your list. After these are dealt with you need to think about spending money, you probably won’t receive your first pay check until a month after you arrive at your destination country, so you will need a little bit of money to live on until you do eventually get paid. Then you need to buy a rucksack, first aid kit and a travel organiser (trust me this is an essential if, like me, you have a tendency to misplace important things…) Once all of this is out of the way then you can go and buy that perfect bikini or sundress to take with you to your new tropical destination.

 

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Chinese Yuan

 

  • I absolutely hate packing, I overpack like my life depends on it, I’m a “but what if I’m suddenly invited to the Oscars of China and I have nothing to wear” kind of packer. Basically, my years as a girl guide had a lasting impression on me and I like to “always be prepared”. The issue with this is that you end up with a rucksack that weighs more than you and won’t close without excessive force that you somehow have to get from one side of the world to the other. Not ideal, especially if you are travelling alone! It is in times like this I need to bring in outside help and as my Grampa wisely pointed out “you only need to pack for two weeks really, and then you can just wash everything and wear it again”. Words of wisdom duly noted and with my Nana supervising and questioning everything I tried to pack into my bag I managed to pack only the essentials. Anything you find yourself needing once you land can most likely be bought at your destination (I told you I needed to pack my blue denim shorts as well as my white denim shorts Nana…) or if they can’t be bought then they can always be posted over by a family member, if you really need it that desperately!

 

Why you should:

 

  • Living in a completely different country is such an incredible opportunity. China is actually the second country I have lived in, Scotland obviously not included, I spent three months living and volunteering in South Africa. When you visit a country for a short holiday you only get a snapshot of how that country works, maybe pick up how to say “Hello” and ask for the bill in that countries language and maybe have a cultural experience or two depending on the type of holiday you choose to take. Living in a country for an extended period of time allows you to truly immerse yourself in the culture. For me the thing that appeals most to me about travel is the opportunity to learn about another culture, this is why pool holidays or Ibiza has never really interested me. Before South Africa I had been on one holiday abroad and it was a pool holiday with a friend and her family when I was 16; I had a lot of fun on that holiday (I think because of the company and it was where I discovered my love of tofu) but I wasn’t involved in any of the planning, there was no sight-seeing and I didn’t feel like I learnt anything from my time there. At 18 years old and three months in South Africa later I knew what kind of “holiday” I preferred; solo, action packed and plenty of opportunity to learn about the country I am visiting.

 

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The hospital I volunteered at in South Africa: 2012 was a good year for travelling but a bad year for my hair…
  • Moving away from everything familiar is also an opportunity to learn about yourself. This is especially true if you travel on your own, being solely responsible for yourself in a foreign country makes you learn a lot about yourself very quickly. Travelling alone for a long period of time means you have to learn to rely on yourself, your own sense of judgement and puts you fully in control of your own life. In South Africa I learned a lot about how to budget my money while travelling, I became a lot more confident in myself as time went on (the first night I arrived I cried myself to sleep, I had never felt so alone, by the time I it came leave I wanted to cry because I didn’t want to go) and I discovered that I could do a lot more on my own than I had thought possible. Since then I have achieved so many things that I don’t believe I could have done if it wasn’t for those three months in South Africa. In China I have discovered that I have a keen interest in language and how different languages grow and develop over time, I have realised that I am actually quite brave (turns out I am the only one in my flat that isn’t scared of cockroaches, who’d have thought?!) and I have found a job that I absolutely love!

 

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How could I not love my job when I get to see these adorable faces everyday?
  • Working and volunteering abroad forms some of the strongest friendships you can find in this world. I have made some incredible friends and even more incredible memories from my time in South Africa. Thinking of those memories and friends will always make me happy no matter where I am in my life. When the opportunity comes to meet up with those you formed friendships with while living abroad it will be as if no time has passed, you know a friendship is solid when you only see each other every four years but it’s as if you only saw them yesterday (Hey Lynda, if you are reading this, two year until the next reunion)! When you live and work so closely with people who are just as far away from home as you are, are completely new to the whole experience just like you are and share the same passion for travel as you do, how can you not end with friends for life?!

 

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2012 vs 2016: Like no time had passed (glow-ups are real people)!

 

I hope this has been helpful for somebody out there, I know I could have done with a post like this before I left the U.K. for South Africa back in 2012, but I don’t even think I knew what a blog post was back then… Feel free to email me with any questions you might have about moving abroad or teaching English as a foreign language!