Starting point of the Southern Silk Road
A very unexpected visit to a city I did not actually plan on any trip at all in these years nor in the coming future, however it worked great as a surprise having found the best air fare to the final destination Bangkok. Not only the stopover was meant to be 12 hours all during the day, but an almost last minute change of schedule from the airline translated in giving us an entire day over there. What is best, no need to even apply for a visa to enter China. someone travelling from a country A to country C via country B, in this case China, is automatically granted 72 hours visa free transit which allows, depending on the city of transit, to be ONLY in the city, or across an entire region such as the case of Guangdong Province. In our case, with the city was good enough for a little stroll and break a long haul flight.
Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province, might sound unheard to the average tourist, however we are talking about a city larger in population than any across the entire European continent including Russia. It’s home to over 10 million inhabitants, over 18 including its metropolitan area, this makes it the 5th largest conglomeration in China. It is a very powerful centre for finance, economics, education, industry, transport, communications and culture and its development and growth do not see an end in the near to mid-term future.
It is also world famous for being the capital city of the region from where one of the cutest animal on the planet lives, the giant panda bear. The main research and care base is some 2 hours northwest from the city, and this is the only one place in the world where you can hold one in your hands, a baby one of course.
Yet the city is more than mushrooming towers along avenues and pandas. Tea culture is the answer, and even if you do not like tea, everything that relates to it will easily transport you to the traditional and ancient China. Old alleys and streets aligned by beautiful tea houses, restaurants and bars, some of which so carefully ornate, with the red lamps everywhere that will be hard not to fall in love with it, even knowing it is merely few streets and districts here and there, nothing compared to other idyllic cities and villages we all have in our minds when thinking of China. The fact that Chengdu has more tea houses and bars than Shanghai despite having less than half the population is a statement on it own. The tea culture dates back to the times of the Silk Road, Chengdu being the southern starting point.
Touring and sightseeing the city is easy, but can be time consuming. Distances are too big, and sights scattered far from each other. Some can be central, as the major Tianfu Square and neighbouring streets, others several kilometres from the square. Luckily the brand new metro system is already covering the major areas, fast, reliable and inexpensive, and considering there are currently over 200 kilometres under construction, it will soon become one of the largest systems in China.
Two days is well enough. One is tight yet doable on the principal sites considering our experience, merely a 22 hours stop-over until the following flight. But if you plan to reach the Giant Panda Conservation Area, then increase your stay surely by an extra day. 3 would be the ideal then. It is also a great base in order to visit other places and cities, or the nature right next door. China is a very big country, bigger than what the perspective and view of the world maps display!
Lastly, some notes about food. Chengdu is considered and commonly referred as “the kitchen of China”, and it is officially recognised by the UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy. We are talking about local food here, not Western chains that although these exist, it is not that obvious as in Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen. Sichuan kitchen is one of the most widely available outside of China. Most Chinese restaurants across the world will serve the traditional hot pot. Yes, it is Sichuanese and probably you did not know (same here, I did not know), but ate it too many times in many cities. This is a spiced soup in which you add vegetables, fish, meat and any combination of these, and cook it to your taste, being able to repeat of the main ingredients until you are full. Noodles, wontons, dumplings, duck, chicken, pork and lots of vegetables are the main base of their cuisine. Finding a restaurant, although plenty everywhere, can be a bit tricky in the sense that no one speaks English, menus are majority in Mandarin and the only guide you have are the pictures of the dish on the menus. You have to guess most of the cases, but most important, try your best to explain no spicy, no chillies. They do love it, but sometimes is way too much.
For further information about Chengdu visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. China’s currency is the Renminbi (¥, CNY). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Chengdu
- Qingyang Palace Meaning the Green Goat Temple, is located at the west part of the city, the largest Taoist temple in Southwest China. It is located west of the Kuan and Zhai Alley, while the nearest metro station is Tonghuimen in Line 2.
- Kuan and Zhai Alley Meaning Wide and Narrow Lanes, is a small area contained within three streets just northwest from the People’s Park, near the same metro station, built during the Qing Dynasty. It became the most known and commercialized streets in the country during the Qin, Han and Three Kingdoms periods. There are lots of tea houses, restaurants, bars and shops in the historic old houses.
- People’s Park West of Tianfu Square, is the largest urban park within the city core. Beautifully landscaped, containing statues, monuments and tea houses, very nice to have a relaxed walk and rest from the rushed city.
- Tianfu Square The heart of the city, this large square surrounded by towers and shopping malls above the principal metro station and transport hub. At noon and evenings there is a water show coming from the fountains.
- Chunxi Road Few minutes walk east of Tianfu Square, it is the major commercial area in the city with plenty of up-scale shopping malls, restaurants and bars. Often referred as Tokyo’s Akihabara District when it become all lit at night.
- Daci Monastery Along Chunxi Road towards the east, it was the largest Buddhist monastery in Chengdu. First built in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), was later rebuilt several times with the current structure mostly dating from the Qing Dynasty.
- Anshun Bridge Although of recent construction (2003), was built to replace the older one across the Jingjiang River that was destroyed in a flood of the river first in 1943, then again in 1980. Located towards the southeast, meters away from the Niuwangmiao metro station (Line 2).
- Wu Hou Shrine Famous not only for the ancient temple structures, but also for the vivid red colour of the curved walls surrounded by tall bamboo in the traditional Chinese gardens and bonsai. It was built in memory of Zhuge Liang, the minister of Shu in the Three Kingdoms Period. There’s an entrance fee of CNY 60.
- Jinli Historical District Surrounding the Wu Hou Shrine, it is one of the major landmarks of Chengdu. The very traditional Chinese architecture on the buildings, countless tea houses and restaurants together with the many visitors make this place the trendiest of them all.
- Wenshu Monastery The best preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu, was originally built during the Tang dynasty over 1300 years ago, although rebuilt and expanded several times in later years. Located to the north of Tianfu Square, by the Wenshu metro station.
- Baoguang Monastery Located in Xindu District, already outside of the city core towards the far north. Was built during the East Han period, destroyed during the Ming Dynasty in the early 16th century, yet rebuilt in 1607, by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty.
Giant Panda Breeding Research Base Outside of Chengdu, at the northwest. The only facility of its kind in the world, and also incredibly near to such a large city, however considering it is the place where pandas live then it all makes sense. The facilities are open to investigation and conservation of the pandas, and also to tourists to be able to enjoy and admire every aspect of their lives.
- Luodai Ancient Town Located east outside of Chengdu, some 30 kilometres away, it is possible the best near place where to admire the famous old architecture of the wooden houses, tea houses, shops and restaurants. Very fashionable and rarely visited by tourists hence quite unique, a really wonderful addition to your visit should you have the time.
Shuangliu International Airport is some 20 kilometres west of the city centre. It’s one of the largest and fastest growing in China, a principal hub for Air China and with great connections across 5 continents. It has been made easily connected with the city by the brand new metro line 10 recently opened. Alternatively, one can take bus number 1 (express) or 2 (local service) for between CNY 10 and 15, often and reliable towards Renmin Nanlu, Tianfu Square and North Railway Station (Huo Che Bei Zhan, or simply Chengdu Station).
Reaching Chengdu overland is now faster than ever thanks to the high-speed bullet trains and ever rising transport infrastructure energetically being constructed through the entire country. Direct connections towards Beijing, Shenzhen or Shanghai along the east coast; Xi’An, Kunming, Chongqing, and of course all other major cities in the Sichuan Region.
Once in the city, the metro is the best and fastest way to move, without the need to speak a word in Mandarin. Ticket machines can be selected in other languages, and fare range between CNY 2 and 4 depending on distance. Currently there are 5 lines, with another 15 under construction, hence check a map closer to your trip since it will be changing and updating constantly through the years as new stations open. Buses in the other hand cover the entire city and beyond to the metropolitan area. These follow the same way as for any other city in the world, pre-defined routes and dedicated bus stops listing all the lines that do call at such stop, however the funny side for a non-Chinese tourist is that everything is in Mandarin. The main point to remember when taking buses is having the fare ready, the machine does not give any change, you just simply drop the coins in the slot near the driver and that’s all. If you over pay because you have no change, don’t worry, you are not losing almost any money after all!
A growing city of this size and so fast, becoming one of the major centres in Southwest China and a city focusing more and more in tourism does translate in having already an enormous selection of hotels and places to stay catering everyone from the very top to the more modest and everything in between. Finding a good deal should be the easy task. But where should you stay or aim for the best? This is simple, anywhere near, preferably at walking distance to Tianfu Square will be your best bet without hesitation. Really central, easy to move everywhere, most of the sights, countless food choices and shopping areas just minutes away. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Dorsett Chengdu, located just north of Tianfu at 168 Xi Yulong Street, couple of minutes walk from the Luomashi metro station (Lines 1 and 4). As for the location, it could not be any better, walking distances to all the city centre attractions, and linked to the metro network to everywhere. The staff was very helpful and caring at all the times, very friendly and welcoming, and so was the property, very well designed and taken care. Spacious room, super comfortable and quiet, with everything you could need in the sense of comfort and toiletries. The breakfast was very tasty, with a wide choice of both Eastern and Western dishes. Our only downside? being here only for one night! We could have stayed longer but unfortunately this was a very explicit stop-over.