A mini-guide to Chengdu: China’s lesser known gem
Chengdu is China’s lesser known gem. It has secrets that the rest of the world does not yet know, ripe to be explored and savoured. Infused with history and culture, Chengdu is set on the 2,000 year-old Silk Road and it has a totally different feel from other cities and towns in China. One of the distinguishing features of Chengdu is the fact that it manages to effortlessly combine the feel of a cosmopolitan, up-and-coming city whilst still being a historically unique destination. Here I have put together six of the things that make Chengdu stand out from the crowd.
Regarded as a symbol of valiance and peace, Giant Pandas are China’s national treasures. Pandas are just as cute in real life as you imagine them to be, but unfortunately, they are an endangered species, with approximately only 1,000 wild pandas left living in their natural environment. The Giant Panda Research Base has long been the reason for visitors to Chengdu, and quite rightfully so. Nothing can beat seeing these cuddly bears going about their daily, rather lethargic, business. At certain times of the year you can also see these furry bundles in baby form – they are adorable. An hour or so outside of Chengdu, it’s also possible to visit the Dujiangyan Panda Centre and even spend a day volunteering, which if you are lucky, holds the possibility of holding one of these sooty-eyed creatures.
It is generally believed that the first settlers in China set up camp in the central plains, close to the city of Xi’an. However 25 miles north of Chengdu, lies a site that puts these theories to the test. Only excavated in the late 1980s, the burial pits of Sanxingdui reveal extensive evidence that 32 centuries ago a sophisticated society inhabited the area. Not only this, but some of the most beautiful art pieces in the world from this period have been unearthed in Sanxingdui. How intriguing that the site is home to two sacrificial pits that contain elegant ivory and jade artefacts, along with the intricate gold and bronze castings that date back to the first millennium BC. Would Chengdu be more popular had the discovery of Sanxingdui been made 11 years before that of Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, as was the case?
In 2010 Chengdu was awarded the title of City of Gastronomy by the UN Scientific and Cultural Organization, becoming the first Asian city to do so and only the second in the world (the first being Popayan, Colombia). Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province, and the Sichuanese technique, one of China’s four major styles of cooking, reigns supreme. First-hand experience of the taste explosions on offer is necessary as you would struggle to recreate any of the tongue tingling dishes outside of China. For example, when making the classic mapo tofu (spicy bean curd) the bean curd should be made from organic beans produced in northeast China, as the tofu here is the most fresh and tender. The peppercorns should come from Hanyuan county in the southwest of Sichuan, as they are known for their lasting taste. The broad bean paste should be from Pixian country, which is viewed as being the ‘soul’ of Sichuan cuisine. Yet, even apart from this triangle of key ingredients it takes almost another 20 more to even begin to adequately produce a dish of mapo tofu. What is better than sampling the delights of local cuisine in its real home?
4. Face-Changing Opera
Sichuan Opera is uniquely characterized by its close relationship to circus acting, combining acrobats, magicians, fire spitters and clowns. However, Chengdu adds another element to this already dramatic style of performance – face changing. Face changing, or bianlian, has its origins over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty and its precise techniques are another secret of Chengdu. Modern day performers use full-face painted silk masks, which can be worn in layers of as many as twenty-four. The most skilled ‘face changers’ can change about 10 masks in 20 seconds. However, these magical performances also benefit from the fact that they follow the story-telling traditions of the Beijing Opera and the shows have a long history and meaning in Chinese culture. It is easy to get absorbed in an opera display whilst enjoying a cup of green tea and a mouth-watering Hot Pot in one of Chengdu’s famous Teahouses. Just another unique reason to visit this city.
5. The Temple House
Walk through a historic courtyard of the Qing dynasty and enter in to a stylish, contemporary and what can only be described as ‘cool’ hotel lobby. If Chengdu blends traditional and modern then The Temple House, third for The House Collective, is an impeccable reflection of this infusion. Guests can’t help but feel as if they are the coolest resident in town staying at this new property. Service is spotless, design is chic and cocktails are enticing. You might have to summon some will power to leave this “Temple’s” bubble and discover the other allures of Chengdu…
The best part of all of this is that Chengdu has now become easily accessible to the rest of the world and is a great starting or finishing point for any trip. British Airways launched direct flights between London and Chengdu in 2013, becoming the first to link the British capital with a city in central or western China. Chengdu also plans to play an important role in becoming a gateway between China and Europe, developing transport systems and infrastructure. For example, Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is the largest hub in central and western China with more than 80 international routes to places as far and wide as Frankfurt, Moscow, San Francisco and Melbourne! A few days spent discovering Chengdu en-route to another destination is also a fantastic option.
This is just the start of what Chengdu has to offer, and I can only see the city adding to its long list of positives in the future. It may not be forefront of people’s radars when it comes to China right now, but this is definitely a city to watch.
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