From Xi'an I headed south-west through amazing countryside to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. With its wide boulevards and glistening glass and steel skyscrapers it's hard to tell this city apart from others in China, and for that matter other large Western cities (were it not for the huge statue of Mao peering over the central square).
Chengdu is famous for being the home of the giant panda research base, which is certainly the largest tourist attraction in the area. I went along for the 8am feeding when the pandas are most active. Pandas are clearly the most useless animals on the planet. Firstly they don't reproduce, which is arguably the primary purpose of life; secondly they essentially only eat bamboo, which is low in nutrients and every now and again flowers and dies off en masse, taking wild pandas along with it; thirdly they are black and white in a jungle environment - probably not the best camouflage (not that all animals should be camouflaged in their environment - sheep are probably white because they gain a competitive advantage by being visible to other sheep, as they are so dumb they can't survive without their herd, but I'm pretty sure this doesn't really apply to pandas). Having said that, pandas have one redeeming feature that is keeping them alive: being adorable.
The following day I tagged along with two Dutch girls, Malva and Merel, whom I met on the panda trip to visit nearby Leshan. Leshan's claim to fame is the Giant Buddha, carved into the rock-face at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers, which at 71m tall is the largest of its kind in the world. We joined the queue of people climbing down the cliff-face in single-file, all jostling for the best views despite the slippery steps and precarious incline, but the sight was worth it.