12 Excellent Reasons to Visit Chengdu
March 26, 2014
Chengdu is justly revered for its teahouses, comedic operas of derring-do, pandas and national parks, but it’s now coming into its own as an economic powerhouse, containing the world’s largest building, which doubles as a shopping complex and triples as a theme park. Story by Jim Algie
Published on Mar 26, 2014
1. STEEPED IN CHINESE CULTURE
Once a kind of men's club to debate politics and make business deals, and once banned during the Cultural Revolution, the tea-house is mostly favored by older locals, who will spends hours at a time playing chess, checkers and mahjong.
For a paltry price, teahouses serve up bowls of scented teas such as jasmine and chrysanthemum, green and oolong tea. The policy is "one chair, one cup". Periodically, waiters come around to refill the cups with hot water from a copper kettle with a long spout.
At the outdoor venues, you can have your earwax removed, your eyebrows plucked, your shoes polished, or get a shoulder massage.
Travel tip: For old-school venues try the Heming Tea Shop in the People's Park and Jinjiang Juchang Tea Shop.
2 .WENSHU MONASTERY
This architectural homage to the God of Wisdom has a well-earned reputation for being the most immaculately preserved Buddhist temple in the city.
Dating back to the Tang Dynasty (China's golden age from the 6th to 9th centuries AD), the otherworldly edifice is endowed with some brilliant relief carvings and some 450 Buddhist statues in iron, stone, bronze and clay.
The temple's holiest of holies is the skull of Xuanzang, a Tang Dynasty monk kept in the monastery.
Travel tip: Don’t miss the Buddha image, wrought from white jade, which came from Myanmar.
3. NATURAL BOUNTY
Chengdu is a strategically situated base camp for exploring Sichuan province's five UNESCO designated sites, second only to Beijing, like the Huanglong Scenic Area, meaning "yellow dragon."
Its natural tableau of hot springs, waterfalls, and snow-shawled peaks, home to the endangered Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey and giant pandas, lives up to its enchanting moniker.
Enjoying a similarly vaunted reputation is the Mount Emei Scenic Area, which contains the world's largest seated Buddha. Carved from a cliff face, this 1,200-year-old icon was a century in the carving.
Travel tip: For another UNESCO site, legendary for its turquoise lakes, try the Jiuzhai Valley National Park.
4. PARTY CAPITAL
In recent years the capital has acquired the title of the country's "Party City" for its frenetic nightlife around the Lan Kwai Fong area, which is much huger than its namesake in Hong Kong.
This strip of bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants runs alongside the river in the center of the city.
For a Chinese experience, the Shao Lin Lu Bar Street is a lair for locals in revelry mode, perfect if you want to give your Mandarin a workout or test your liver as locals insist they cheers you.
Travel tip: Try the Jah Bar for a reggae groove or hit the Flower Town House Parties to get your dance floor freak on.
5. MONUMENT TO THE CITY’S METAMORPHOSIS
No sight looms larger or stands taller as a sign of Chengdu's transformation from cultural backwater to economic powerhouse than the New Century Global Centre.
Billed as the "largest freestanding building in the world," according to Chinese officials, this mega-complex is 20 times the size of the Sydney Opera House and three times larger than the Pentagon.
Travel tip: Don't forget to soak up the maritime ambience at the center's new Paradise Island theme park.
6. ANCIENT STREETS IN A MODERN CITY
In case you can't spare the time to visit the rustic villages on the outskirts of the city, then Jin Li Street in the middle of the city is a paragon of convenience. This small and cobbled thoroughfare is hemmed in by timeworn buildings made of bricks and wood.
The street contains much to enchant the eye and empty the wallet, from all sorts of antiques and trinkets to ink brushes and calligraphy to palm baskets, tree bark paintings, figurines made from sugar – and yes, there's a Starbucks too.
Travel tip: The street shows its best side when all lit up at night.
7. NATIVE SONS OF WORLDLY REPUTE
Sichuan province's favorite sons are political stalwart and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, who famously said, "It's glorious to get rich," Zhuge Liang, whose prowess on the battlefield was blown up to mystical proportions in the much-beloved Three Kingdoms Romance tale, and Du Fu, a poet, thinker and historian of Shakespeare-like stature.
Travel tip: Du Fu's rebuilt cottage, set amidst tranquil gardens, is one of the city's biggest tourism draws.
8. SPICES OF CHENGDU LIFE
Sichuan dishes have a seasoned history as the spiciest of Chinese cuisines.
Sichuan food, with its tongue-sizzling chili, garlic and local pepper, is some of the spiciest Chinese fare.
For a real taste of local culture, any visitor must dig in to local classics like the Sichuan hot pot and the spicy deep-fried chicken that are mined with chili waiting to explode in your mouth.
Long a staple of Chinese menus in the West, especially the hot and sour soup, Szechuan cuisine (as it's also called) includes many dishes that are not so hot, like "tea-smoked duck."
Travel tip: For a local hot pot try the Shu Nine Incense Hot Pot Restaurant, a chain with several local branches.
The giant panda is one of the world's most endangered and emblematic species. Of an estimated 1,500 individuals living in the wild and captivity, around 80% are found in Sichuan province.
The Chengdu Panda Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is a bona fide tourist magnet, attracting some 100,000 visitors every year. The largest such facility in the world, the center is home to around 60 creatures, as well as red pandas and other endangered species.
See this blog for more bear facts.
Travel tip: Feeding time is around 9am. That's when the pandas are most active. After lunch these slothful creatures, which make cats look hyperactive by comparison, are mostly dormant.
10. OPERATIC CABARET
One of the province's most famous well-traveled exports, Sichuan opera is more like a cabaret. Expect performers in blindingly bright regalia juggling, dancing, blowing fire, putting on magic shows and clowning around during comic interludes.
For many visitors the highlight is the rapid-fire mask changing.
Even though the performances are all in Chinese, the showmanship and comic pratfalls pole-vault the language barrier with grace and ease.
Travel tip: Most of the hotels and guesthouses and travel agencies in town can arrange your tickets and transport.
11. ANCIENT TOWNS ON THE OUTSKIRTS
Attesting to Chengdu's historic legacy are all the ancient towns girding the city. They can be a bit touristy but are worth visiting all the same.
In particular head for Huanglongxi, which dates back to 200 BC.
Formerly a bastion of strategic military value, its seven rustic streets were originally constructed during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.
Travel tip: If you're in search of a shopping excursion, check out the Loudai Ancient Town, a one-kilometer strip of shops heavy on crafts, kitsch and curios.
12. LITTLE LHASA
Chengdu is home to 53 of China's 55 ethnic minorities with Tibetans making up the largest number. Because of this, and its proximity, the city is also known as the gateway to Tibet.
To get a taste of that mountainous country, where yak butter tea is the tipple of choice for hardy herdsmen, you do not have to leave Chengdu.
The Tibetan Quarter, or Little Lhasa, has loads of arts and handicrafts shops attesting to the cultural glories of the original Shangri-la.
Travel tip: For a meal of pan-fried yak meat and potato with Tibetan bread, try the A're Tibetan Restaurant.