Day 4 & 5: Chengdu – The Land of the Panda Bear

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Sorry for no update yesterday. We had mostly a travel day heading off to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Chengdu is known for being the home to the Giant Panda, so let’s not waste any time and start with a panda.

Taking a step back, the travel did start to bring into specific relief an ongoing cultural observation on how China is incorporating elements of the market into its economy, but even Adam Smith may raise an eyebrow at the flight to Chengdu.

About two hours into the three-and-a-half hour flight, the airplane’s entertainment system stopped so that the airborne shop could open. Over the PA, the airline started to hawk backpacks, sunglasses, and more – all dutifully displayed by the flight attendant. Then, they pushed the trolley up and down the aisle (and made more than their fair share of sales). We are a captive audience– so why not sell “Ray Bans”? Their efforts were surprisingly not in vain.

After landing in Chengdu, we darted to the Holiday Inn Oriental Plaza (which looks nothing like any Holiday Inns stateside – first class all the way) and went to bed dreaming of today’s adventure – the Research Center for Panda Bears in Chengdu.

Sichuan province is the native habitat for pandas and this center has 180 of them – in all stages of natural development as it is one of the world’s preeminent facilities for the breeding of the adorable black and white bears. All of them seemed to be out to play in the nice 50 degree day. It is almost impossible to describe the sheer joy on everyone’s face while all of the children exclaimed “xióng māo,” which is Mandarin for “panda.” I practically filled my cell phone with pictures and videos of these endangered marvels of nature. The selection here is just a few of the intimate encounters this center allows visitors.

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After a full morning of cuteness, we dialed up the heat for the other trademark of Chengdu – Hot Pot. Before leaving for China, numerous people circled this meal on the intinerary as a unique cultural experience. Chengdu Hot Pot, a style of eating in which you cook meat and vegetables at your table in boiling broth, is renowned in China for the spiciness of its broth.

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When you look at the preparation below the inner ring broth is pure fiery goodness that challenged most in our party—the outer ring was tamer, though no less flavorful.

Everything tasted amazing cooked in this broth. We had: Beef, Goat, Lotus Root, Fish Dumplings, Chinese Mushrooms, Potatoes, Tofu Paste, along with Beef Tongue and Beef Stomach (tripe?). I tried almost everything and everything was delicious cooked in the sumptuous broth – though one of our party compared eating the stomach to chewing a garden hose, and he wasn’t wrong.

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That’s the stomach. No amount of boiling gets rid of that chew.

This day also was the first time we really put into specific relief just how inexpensive food and drink are here relative to the U.S. (It is hard to gauge because our hosts are treating us to all of our meals). In the heart of the Panda Research Center, perhaps the largest tourist attraction in Chengdu, was one of the highest-tech vending machines that I have seen with a touch screen selector. It sold half-liter bottles of Coca Cola for 6 yuan, which roughly equates to 95 cents. At the 7-11 next to our hotel that same bottle could be had for half of that price. As we were finishing out Hot Pot meal, we told our host how much a similar meal would have cost in Boston—we figured at least $400 once drinks, tax, and tips were included. He laughed and said some locals eat Hot Pot every day. And why not? The bill for all eight of us came to roughly $80 US.

The evening brought us back to business. We went to a formal reception hosted by Ivy International for the agents they woo to place students with their agency (and then to our schools). This elegant affair began with us being greeted by Ivy hosts and a flower either pinned to our lapel or worn as a bracelet. We had little to do at this event but sit as representatives of the types of schools Ivy has under its umbrella. It was still a rare opportunity to have direct face time with the people on the ground in China who actually refer students to our school. The more they know Archbishop Williams, the likelier they will be to direct an application. At the end of the event, one agent was proud of the potential student she’s sending our way, so the evening felt like a success.

Here’s a picture of our host, Berlin Wu,  promoting our school to the agents over dinner.

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Of course, there was also the food. I won’t give a course-by-course description in this upscale setting except to see if you can guess the protein in the dish below:

Yep, that was a turtle. And it was delicious.

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Tomorrow, we will resume our schedule of interviewing students. What a day, and I can’t help but reflect on how near perfect this sign is in the Research Center:

It’s near perfect, of course, because the verse is missing a line – The Lord God Made Them All. Before signing off, check out one more panda picture, snapped by one of my colleagues on this trip:

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