48 Hours In: Chengdu

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The capital of Sichuan province offers a mix of serene parks and startling modernity – and direct flights from the UK are about to start, says Julia Buckley

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

The latest long-haul link from the UK starts on 22 September, when BA launches flights from Heathrow to the capital of China's south-western Sichuan province. Better still, Chengdu has just become the fourth city (after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) to offer visa-free stays of 72 hours for transit passengers. And this is the month when stormy summer starts giving way to cooler weather.

The city has long been an intoxicating mix of relentless modernity and laid-back tea-house culture, its skyscraper developments mushrooming around ancient temples and gingko-lined parks where residents take time out for a cup of jasmine brew and a game of mahjong. Chengdu is also home to some of China's best-known residents: around 80 giant pandas live at the renowned research base on the outskirts of town.

Touch down

Chengdu's airport, Shuangliu International, lies 10 miles south-west of the city centre. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) will fly three times a week. KLM (0871 231 0000; klm.com) flies via Amsterdam from a range of UK airports, while Qatar Airways (0844 846 8380; qatarairways.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha.

Two bus routes from the international terminal run to the city centre. Route 300 (6.30am-8pm) runs south-to-north up the main thoroughfare, Renmin Nan Lu, terminating at the North Railway Station (1). Route 303 (6am-10pm) follows roughly the same route into the city, but terminates at the Minshan Hotel (2) in Jinjiang. Buses leave every 30 minutes and cost 10 yuan (£1); the journey takes about an hour.

Taxis are a quicker option, costing ¥50-70 (£5-£7). Note that drivers rarely speak English, so you'll need your destination written down in Chinese characters.

Get your bearings

Chengdu's urban sprawl continues for miles but, pandas aside, the main sights are largely confined to the city centre, which is looped by the Fu and Jin rivers.

Tianfu Square (3) is the city's heart; buses pass through here to most destinations, tickets cost ¥2 (20p). It's also the hub for the metro system – the two lines (north-to-south and east-to-west) converge here, with tickets also costing ¥2 (20p).

In the absence of a useful tourist office, hotels – especially budget options – can provide information.

Check in

The Shangri-La (4) is modern Chengdu at its most plush. It offers large, luxe rooms in a skyscraper overlooking the Jin River at 9 Binjiang Dong Jie (00 86 28 8888 9999; shangri-la.com). Doubles start at ¥1499 (£160), room only.

For a more local feel, the Buddha Zen (5), at 6 Wenshufang Jie (00 86 28 8692 9898; buddhazenhotel.com), has traditional rooms in a beautifully recreated Ming-style building beside the Wenshu monastery. Doubles start from ¥520 (£55), breakfast included.

Chengdu hostels can be more like budget hotels. Near Tianfu Square (3) at 10 Taisheng Bei Lu, Nova Travellers' Lodge (6) is basic but charming, with exceptionally helpful staff (00 86 28 8695 0016; www.dragontown.com/cn). Doubles start at ¥200 (£21), excluding breakfast.

Day One

Take a ride

You'll need an early start to catch Chengdu's famous residents at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (7) which lies six miles north-east of Chengdu (00 86 28 8351 0033; panda.org.cn). The 902 bus departs from Xinnanmen (8) bus station, near the Shangri-La (4) (every 15 minutes; ¥2/20p). Admission is ¥58 (£6).

At this time, most of the pandas are awake for their 9am feed, chomping through piles of bamboo before slipping into a post-prandial siesta at noon. To beat the crowds, start at the top, where mothers and toddlers play in the Moonlight Nursery, and work your way down, finishing with the cat-like red pandas and adult giants in the Swan Lake area.

Lunch on the run

From Xinnanmen (8), hop on the 901 bus to Jin Li (9), a pedestrianised market decorated in Qing Dynasty style. Touristy, yes, but its alley of snack stalls is the best place to get a feel for Sichuan cuisine. Fill up on spiced chicken kebabs, fish-flavoured tofu and hot bread with molten molasses. English translations and prices are clearly marked (from ¥5-20, or 50p-£2) .

Window shopping

South of Jin Li (9) is Chengdu's Tibetan Quarter. Wuhouci Hengjie leads to the main thoroughfare, Ximianqiao Hengjie (10), which is lined with shops selling Buddhist statues, prayer wheels, hand-crafted jewellery and woollen rugs.

East of Jin Li (9), Wuhouci Dajie houses a string of upmarket tea shops. Traditional clay pots can get very expensive, however XuFu Tea Industry (11) at No 123-10, sells reasonably priced Sichuanese gaiwan chas.

An aperitif

The Sichuanese are renowned for their tea consumption and traditional teahouses are everywhere. A particularly atmospheric one is the Xiang Yi Pavillion at the Wu Hou temple (12) at 231 Wuhouci Dajie – a shrine to China's 3rd-century Three Kingdoms period, with a complex of 17th-century pavilions, halls and temples surrounded by formal gardens (00 86 28 8555 9027; wuhouci.net.cn). Closes 6pm.

Dining with the locals

One of Chengdu's "private kitchens" – restaurants run from people's own homes – is Xiaojing Sifancai (13), or Little Chengdu (00 86 1861 3219 449). It operates a strict reservation-only policy and little wonder; Laura Liu has room for only two tables in her flat in an apartment block at 8 Gaoshengqiao Nan Jie (Room 902, Unit 2, Building 11, 2 Qi, Luofu Shijia Residential Compound).

There's no menu; just name your price – between ¥100-300 (£10-£32) – and spiciness level, and she'll improvise a multi-course tasting menu, including dishes such as rice-stuffed lotus root and steamed seabass with Sichuan peppers.

Hot-pot restaurants, serving Sichuan's signature dish, are everywhere. Wu Ming (14) is a solid bet at 242 Wuhouci Dajie (00 86 28 8555 9911; cnwum ing.com). Otherwise, the area around Yulin Nan Lu, south-east of Wuhou Ci, is famed for its hot-pot restaurants – try Spicy Space (15), in the plaza at No 15.

Day Two

Sunday morning:go to temple

A working monastery near the Fu river, Wenshu's (16) sprawling complex of Qing dynasty temples, pagodas and gardens (00 86 28 8693 0623; konglin.org) is a peaceful oasis (8am-6pm daily, though you can often sneak in for a stroll after dark).

Out to brunch

On the east side of the Wenshu grounds is a hugely popular vegetarian restaurant where monks and visitors alike try Sichuan specialities made with faux duck, rabbit and even shark (11.30am-1pm daily; dishes from ¥5-25/50p-£2.50).

Take a hike

Chengdu weaves modern developments around its past. Start at Daci temple (17) at 23 Dacisi Lu – which has an authentic feel, despite a redevelopment.

Next, follow Dacisi west to pedestrianised Chunxi Lu (18), Chengdu's foremost, neon-lit shopping street. A little further is Tianfu Square (3), Chengdu's main plaza, with its huge statue of Chairman Mao backed by floodlit fountains that waltz to music.

Near the south-west corner, at 2 Xiaohe Jie, is Huangcheng (19), a mosque dating back to the 16th century, though it was rebuilt after destruction in 1917. Finish at Ping'an Qiao (20), a Catholic church at 25 Xihumanen Jie, north-west of Tianfu. Built in 1913, its scarlet façade makes it looks more like an opera house.

A walk in the park

Mahjong, tai chi and tea-drinking feature amid the tranquil, Zen-style gardens of People's Park (21). There's a retro funfair and a large boating lake – but most people converge at the central obelisk for martial arts and bizarre Chinese line dancing, or at the 100-year-old lakeside Heming teahouse, where itinerant "doctors" inspect customers over a cup of bamboo tea.

Cultural afternoon

Little is known of the Shu Kingdom, which ruled Sichuan in the first millennium BC, other than the astonishing remains around Chengdu. At Jinsha (22) – a 10-minute taxi ride from People's Park (21) – one building houses an open "dig" of sacrificial pits, the other displays some 10,000 finds, from jade tools and delicate masks to the gold foil "sunbird disc" that's now the city's emblem (00 86 28 8730 3522; jinshasite museum.com; ¥80/£8; 8am-6pm daily).

Icing on the cake

See Sichuan Opera's "face-changing" act – where performers switch masks with every swipe of their hands. The large Jinjiang Theatre (23) at 54 Huaxing Zheng (00 86 28 8662 4060), is a popular choice; ¥120 (£13).

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