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Chengdu

Chengdu is a sprawling metropolis set on the western end of the fertile Sichuan Basin, a region commonly fought over during ancient times. The energetic city is the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan. As the economic hub of Southwestern China, but also home to a large, thriving community of students and intellectuals, Chengdu embodies liberal thinking and progressiveness across a wide range of interests and pursuits.

To prospective travellers Chengdu is perhaps best known for the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. An ambitious project located on the outskirts of the city on Futou Hill, the centre is devoted to research, breeding, captive conservation of the endangered Giant Panda, and education.

Certainly a worthwhile reason to visit the city, but beyond this one of the biggest draws to Chengdu must be the exceptionally delicious cuisine. As it is becoming internationally recognised as one of the top cuisines of the world, Sichuan cuisine is getting easier to find outside of the Middle Kingdom, but rarely will it be as authentically sumptuous as that found in China or specifically, Sichuan province.

Sichuan cuisine is fragrant and mouth-watering, incorporating a heady mix of hot chilli peppers and the unique Sichuan pepper, with its numbing properties. One of the most popular dishes is ‘hot-pot’, a bubbling cauldron of numbing-spicy broth that is placed on the table over a flame, raw meats and vegetables are ordered and cooked by dipping in the broth, then eaten with a sauce made from ingredients chosen from a sauce-station. Other dishes that must be sampled are the luscious ‘gong bao ji ding’, commonly known as ‘kung pao’ outside of China, ‘ma po tofu’ an aromatically numbing, spicy tofu dish, and ‘dan dan mian’, a delectable and addictive bowl of noodles with complex and delightful flavours.

Numbing-spicy Sichuan food aside, the prevalence of Buddhism is undeniable. Chengdu's Wenshu Monastery, the holy mountain of Emei Shan, and the world's largest stone-carved Buddha are some of the most fascinating travel destinations in China. Trek along winding mountain paths with playful macaques and dramatic backdrops of emerald green peaks, and be amazed by the size of the Giant Buddha at Leshan, carved into stone by devotees in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Within the city itself one can spend hours in parks watching Chinese elders performing Tai Chi, playing Mahjong, tea-drinking and square-dancing, against the atmospheric backdrop of lush sub-tropical vegetation, giant bamboo groves, and in the distance soaring skyscrapers, all adding to the ambience. Du Fu Thatched Cottage is a must-see sight in the city. A recreation of a cottage lived in by the renowned poet Du Fu in the 8th century, the present buildings date from the 16th century. The beautiful and stylish buildings are set in 24-acres of splendid, classical Chinese gardens; lush, tranquil and extensive, a true oasis in a busy city.

The central position of Chengdu means that summers are hot and humid, and best avoided. Really the best time of year is spring or autumn when the weather is much kinder. If venturing out of the city to visit Mount Emei and the Giant Buddha, the flora will be at its peak during these months.

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