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Sunday, 27 December 2015 14:05

The Other China: Pandas, Buddhas and Lesser Gods

Written by  Maria Lisella
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ASIA-China
As one of the world's most ancient civilizations, China is on just about every modern traveler's bucket list. It has catapulted into the 21st century at lightening quick speed, making it all the more fascinating.
Even though China has modernized, traditional life continues in provinces like Sichuan where stores open on to the streets, senior citizens play Go and Mahjong, grandmothers carry babies in straw baskets strapped to their backs and people squat at roadsides to inspect vegetables while quibbling over prices
with farmers.

MAKING THE TRIP
So, when I received an invitation to join a group of travel professionals from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), I filed for my visa, packed and boarded the China Eastern flight (MU588) that would take me 8,139.96 miles to Chengdu.

Competition over the Asian skies is heating up, and China Eastern (MU) is responding. Ranked as the top Chinese carrier by Aviation Week, MU is a Sky
Team member.
Riley Zhu, MU's Customer Service Manager at JFK, said the carrier is set to begin providing more service in 2016: Following its frequency increase on the Los Angeles-Shanghai route, a new midnight flight will be added to its New York-Shanghai non-stop service this month, and MU will launch Chicago service making this its 7th North American gateway. First and Business-class passengers can expect ground transfers to and from their flights. http://us.ceair.com
The FAM coincided with the 2nd Sichuan International Travel Expo (SCITE) September 25 to 27, 2015, which PATA co-sponsored. New York PATA Vice-Chairman, Bing Sun who also heads New York-based China & Asia Travel Service (www.chinaasiatour.com), organized the U.S. group of 21 members, including two media participants to visit the province of Sichuan, and attend the Travel Expo. The FAM visited Chengdu, Zigong, Yiben, Leshan, and Emeishan.
Most participants had been to China before; all were impressed; some quibbled about culinary choices and said their clients might need more options at lunches and dinners. Accommodations overall rated high marks but were uneven and under par in two of the four or five hotel stays. One participant said this was to be expected since international tourism is new to Sichuan.
Paul Salamone from Texas-based Professional Travel said, "Sichuan is a great province with cultural and natural attractions; I can imagine itineraries that use it as a gateway to Tibet and Xi'an, possibly by overnight train."
Circled by mountains, Sichuan cascades steeply downward into a deep round basin, so weather tends to be humid or rainy with mostly mild temperatures. Chengdu is the capital. Its four-lane wide boulevards are lined with eucalyptus trees. We overnighted in the five-star Minyoun Royal Hotel set in the business district 30 minutes from Chengdu Airport. www.minyounhotels.com

MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS
Zigong, a bedroom community to Chengdu is home to two major attractions: the Dinosaur Museum and the Salt Industry History Museum. After scientists discovered a massive Jurassic dinosaur cemetery in the area, a museum and park was created in the 1980s.
The Salt Industry History Museum is housed in a magnificent 17th century guildhall in the richly ornate style of the Qing dynasty with verandahs overlooking the inner courtyard. The exhibit features the processes of brining, drilling, and extraction covering more than 2,000 years of industrial China.
About five hours from Chengdu is Yiben, the first city upstream on the Yangtze River. Nothing could have prepared participants for the 23-minute cable car ride that glided above the vast forest called the Bamboo Sea, climbing to an altitude of 3,000 feet. The air is rarefied, the view stunning, it is a locale used for scenes in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Before trekking into the Xingwen Stone Forest Geological Park, we visited the cliff coffins, 400-year-old tombs that were left behind by the Bo people. The coffins are suspended from the mountain cliffs.
Alejandro Garrido, owner of Aviajar Tours and Travel in Maspeth and Woodside, New York has been to China two times before this trip. "I would like to see an itinerary that takes you from Beijing, Shanghai to Chengdu or direct to Leshan."
Leshan is blessed with the biggest Buddha under heaven. Visitors ride ferries or climb steps to be face to face with the 232-foot Giant Buddha carved out of a cliff during the Tang dynasty, perched above the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qinghyi rivers.
Arleta Cosby from Cosby Travel Consultants in Alexandria, Virginia who had recently visited Shanghai and Beijing, said she thought her clientele, would find it mostly comfortable.
"For me, the river excursion to the Buddha was a highlight, I felt people were very welcoming, but there are a few caveats such as the food - hotels may have to have a bit more choice for those who cannot tolerate spicy food."
Nearby is the must-see Mt. Emeishan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. Even in inclement weather, the misty rain produced an enchanting effect as devout citizens lit candles commemorating the dead just before the Moon Festival.
Returning to Chengdu, the group was hosted at the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Center. If visitors arrive after feeding time, chances are, they will see lots of sleepy pandas. Founded in 1987, the Center is a world-class research facility that began with just six giant pandas, and had 124 by 2008.
Chengdu is not all finance and big buildings, its Jinli Streets are old, winding and fun lined with nightspots, teahouses, inns, wine bars, crafts shops, local snacks and folk crafts. Visit the China National Tourist Office at www.cnto.org

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