The city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province is just beginning to attract foreign tourism, it is immersive and an interesting time to go, but also difficult for independent travelers who don’t speak Chinese. Without our two local guides, Mavis Mei and Tiffany Shi, my group of eight would have been totally lost. These are my top ten favorite things to do.
1. Chengdu Panda Research Base
China began opening panda bases in the 1980s to conserve their cutest national treasure. Now there are 32 panda bases, but the Chengdu base is the only one open to the public. About forty pandas currently live there, including darling, playful six month-old babies. Crowds of Chinese and international tourists jostle for a position to photograph cubs wrestling and playing. This is the number one thing for tourists to do around Chengdu, the visitor center displays and a 20-minute film about pandas have English captions.
2. Wu Hou Temple
This shrine to Liu Bei, a Han Dynasty warlord born in 161 AD who was posthumously made emperor of China, would have been lost on me without Mavis Mei’s explanations. China’s ancient generals are preserved here, carved from wood, brightly painted and huge. Many of these statues date back to 1672 and 1849. Like many places I visited in China, the word “temple” refers to a complex of buildings with lots to see. Mei told me that devoted friends still come to the shrine of blood brothers Zhang Fei, Liu Bei and Guan Yu to swear fidelity to each other. My group visited on a Wednesday and the crowd was manageable, but when we drove by on Sunday, the place was absolutely packed.
3. Du Fu Thatched Hut
Tang dynasty poet Du Fu is remembered as perhaps China’s greatest. He built a thatched cottage in Chengdu in 759. During his four years in residence, he wrote 240 poems, including his hit “My Thatched Hut was Torn apart by Autumn Wind.” Today visitors stroll the 24-acre park and museum built around the thatched hut site. Lots of locals buy an annual pass and escape the busy city streets to hang out here. Shops sell nicely made pottery and other crafts.
If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms,
A great shelter for all the world’s scholars, together in joy,
Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.
Oh! If I could see this house before me,
I’d happily freeze to death in my broken hut!
–Du Fu, ‘My Thatched Cottage was Torn Apart By Autumn Winds’
5. Try a Hot Pot
Hot pot restaurants are a Sichuan tradition. The server brings a big pot of spicy broth and heats it on your table, while the broth comes to a boil, you go to another part of the restaurant to assemble your personal dipping sauce from ingredients like salt, garlic, cilantro, green onion, diced peanuts and sesame oil. Myself and two others in the group are vegetarians so our translator helped to get a the restaurant to make its first ever vegetarian broth for us. A tiered wheeled tray by the table carries raw ingredients.
In our case, this meant mushrooms, cauliflower, greens, sprouts, tofu and various mystery vegs. You drop your vegetables or chunks of meat into the broth, let it cook for a few minutes, then dip it in your sauce and eat. My lips and tongue went numb and had this weird buzzy sensation. Turns out numbness is a side effect of Sichuan black peppercorns. This is worth trying at least once for the local experience and lively atmosphere of the restaurant.
5. Visit Mount Qingcheng a Taoist Mountain
Taoism is a traditional religion from China, and Qingcheng Mountain, 54 miles from Chengdu, is a stunning place to visit ancient Taoist temples. These temples are reported to be the birth place of Taoism and is over 77 square miles of stunning scenery and culturally significant relics. The trip involves a combination of buses, walking up and down many steps, and gondolas, which the Chinese translate as “cable cars”.
This trip also included a beautifully painted boat with dragons on it. A trip here is more festive than religious. The candy makers are especially memorable. Two young men with big mallets work as a team, rhythmically pounding peanuts as they chant a song that has to do with pounding peanuts to make candy.
6. Chunxi Road
“If I’m not prepared, I don’t want to go there,” Mei said of Chengdu’s biggest and most upscale shopping district. Girls dress up to shop on Chunxi, and locals don’t want to be caught there underdressed. You can find Prada and Armani here, but also local stores and downmarket international chains like H&M. Highlights of the shopping area include The Bookworm, a huge and beautiful bookstore, and Hipanda, which makes a line of clothes featuring tough warrior pandas. Which, honestly, are just as cute as their cuddly cousins. Chunxi Road is probably the best place to people watch and check out local street styles.
7. Wide and Narrow Alleys
Chengdu’s wide and narrow alleys are an old shopping district that’s been revived. Another great people watching spot full of both Chinese tourists and locals. You’ll find many small shops, old buildings, tea houses, street snacks and even a Starbucks. I recommend grabbing the opportunity to get your photo snapped with somebody dressed up like a Sichuan opera character.
8. Mount Emei
Mount Emei is one of the most famous Buddhist mountains in China, with a huge nearby infrastructure of hotels and restaurants. It’s an all-day affair to get to the top of the mountain. Since we were there on a foggy, low-visibility day, we decided to only go as far as mid-mountain to visit the yellow 10,000 Years Temple. My favorite statue was the huge Buddha atop a white elephant, whose four feet stand on pink lotus flowers. Mei, who isn’t religious herself, explained the local belief: “If we light incense here, God hears what we pray for.”
Many people buy bamboo walking sticks to help them navigate the hundreds of sometimes slippery stone steps. Since I was looking slow and vertiginous even with my stick, a local guy grabbed my hand and walked me down about 200 steps, though we couldn’t say a word to each other. I found this spontaneous helpfulness extremely moving. Mount Emei is famous for monkeys, but I wasn’t sorry we didn’t see any. Many of us had past experiences with rascally monkeys, including Mei, who lost her whole purse to one when she was 15. The mountain is also known for dinosaur fossils and the yellow “withered leaf” butterfly.
9. Leshan Buddha
Since the Taliban’s unfortunate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Leshan Buddha has the honor of being the world’s biggest Buddha statue. The Leshan Buddha took 90 years to carve the 71-meter figure from the stone mountainside, from 713 to 803 AD. Visitors take a boat to get up close for photos. I nicknamed it the Mossy Buddha for the green tint to its mammoth knuckles and the plants growing between its toes.
10. Spend a night in Pingle Ancient Town
Visiting the town of Pingle was one of the highlights of my trip to China. This peaceful town 58 miles from Chengdu dates back 2,000 years. Depending who you believe, it was either on or just off the southern silk road. A series of “ancient towns” have become popular weekend retreats from the big cities over the last 20 or 30 years. They attract people who enjoy exploring old buildings, giant shady banyan trees and a slower pace.
We stayed at a hotel called The Upper House, which was decorated with antiques instead of the shinier look of modern Chinese hotels. You can hire a tea boat to cruise down the river while you sip tea. Or hang out by the old bridge and watch the steady parade of locals coming and going.
As China’s fourth largest city with a population of 14 million people Chengdu is an amazing place that has embraced modern life while preserving history. There was so much more to see. When you go, consult Chengdu’s new English language website to plot your best travel strategy.