OK, so Chengdu is NOT on most China itineraries. Just another city of 12 million people that you have never heard of. I like Chengdu. I first passed through many years ago and have only been back a few times. But I think I will have to include it itineraries more often.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province. For a little scale, Sichuan is about the size of Spain but twice the population. It is warm, wet and fertile and has always been a place of relative prosperity. The pace of life is a little less frantic than much of China. Sichuanese and especially the denizens of Chengdu enjoy hanging out in teahouses and grazing on street food. Oh, did I mention the food? Sichuan food, yummy, spicy, hot, peppery…. Yow!
So the primary reason we went to Chengdu was to see pandas. The panda breeding center in town has the largest collection of pandas in the world and is the most successful breeding center by far. There are more than 100 pandas here, and you can get up close. The various enclosures feature pandas of different ages. Of course the babies are the stars. Note: the babies are not always on display; this is a working breeding center and they try to treat the animals well.
Some tips: Go first thing in the day. Chengdu is always hot, and pandas are native to higher altitudes. They do not like the heat. If you are there much past 11AM, most of them will have retreated to their air-conditioned buildings. They are much more picturesque in their landscaped enclosures. And they are more active in the morning, although most pandas spend the vast majority of their time sleeping. And like just about everything else in China, the place gets crowded. Mornings are at least a bit less overrun.
For a donation to the facility, you can hold a baby panda and get your picture taken. OK, you get to hold it for one minute and it costs about $300 USD. And the wait is at least an hour. However, how often do you get to hold a baby panda? Please note: If you are going to do this, you must make advance reservations (your guide can do this) and you must pay cash, local currency only. You can’t just show up and decide to do it.
So, I am going to take the plane all the way to Chengdu to see a panda? Well, yes, maybe I am. We did spend a bit of time in the restored/recreated old shopping lanes called Kuangzhai Xiang. Not sure how authentic it was; there is a Starbucks in the middle. We saw a show of traditional Chinese entertainment in a tea house setting. Very cool, very well done, much more relaxing atmosphere than the kung fu show in Beijing. We made a quick stop at Wenshu Temple, which is an island of peace and quiet in the middle of a crazy big Chinese city. And we went out to Sanxingdui museum, which is dedicated to the not terribly well understood ancient civilization of the Chengdu area (roughly 2000 BC). Featured are several giant bronze masks that are, well, mysterious. Very nice museum, well laid out, very cool stuff. Bit far from town, but worth the drive if you like that sort of thing.
But did I mention the food? As is true in many places, the food you find elsewhere in restaurants is a pale imitation of the real thing. Want real Mexican food? Go to Mexico. Real Thai food? Bangkok works… And if you want real Sichuan food, go to Sichuan. There is nothing else like it. And on this trip, we did something else rather special. We went to the suburbs of Chengdu to the town of Pixian. For the true aficionados, you will recognize this as the home of the most famous broad bean chili paste (doubanjiang); the most essential ingredient in Sichuan cooking. We visited the museum of Chinese cuisine, which was not great, but we followed that up with a hands on demonstration of the manufacture of doubanjiang (takes anything from 1 to 10 years), and then we had a hands on cooking lesson from a master chef. And we ate our homework. OK, we did three simple dishes and the stuff was already cut up and measured out for us. Training wheels… But it was an absolute blast. And I have to say, the homework came out pretty tasty.
There are other things in the area; the largest surviving Buddha in the world at Leshan, one of China’s sacred Buddhist Mountains at Emei, the oldest working irrigation system in the world. And it is a city in which you can stroll a bit. We walked to the brand new and very posh mall, which was not too interesting, but sitting in the plaza in front of the mall was a fun chance to mingle. There are enough foreigners in Chengdu that you can sort of blend in.
Yes, I would say do Chengdu. Three days is about right, but you could do four. Stay away from summer, it is hot and rainy. And bring your appetite!
To explore China, reach out to our award-winning China expert, Stan Godwyn.