There's plenty to do in what’s known as the Heavenly State

How’s your hearing? Mine’s much better than it was since a recent trip to China. I’m not suggesting you go all the way there to sort it, and it’s not for the faint-hearted, but think of it as an added extra if you visit. Anyway, more on that later.

I was visiting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province which is gearing up as a travel destination. In fact, it has seen a 20 per cent upswing in tourism in the last year.

It’s no coincidence that that’s exactly the time British Airways has been flying there, with direct flights five times a week in its super-smooth Dreamliner. People go for the food, the culture and the pandas.

I’ll be writing about the pandas, who deserve a feature all their own, next time, but I’ll say now that you can’t avoid them. Panda eyes shine out at you from advertising hoardings and there are statues everywhere, even at the airport when you arrive. There are parts of the airport that aren’t quite finished yet, but don’t worry, empty areas have been lovingly filled with cuddly toy versions of the province’s signature inhabitants.

Before I met the real thing, though, there was plenty to do in what’s known as the Heavenly State. Chengdu (the e is sounded as though it were the u in cushion, Chung-doo, though the locals won’t worry how you say it) is busy, but not choked with people like Beijing or Shanghai. There’s a little more room to breathe, even if you’re never alone.

And if you visit tourist destinations like the inevitable but worth-a-look Wide Alley and Narrow Alley area of town, things can get pretty hectic. Wide Alley is essentially geared to souvenir shops (yes, more pandas!) with key rings, scarves and other highly affordable little treats available. Explore further and you’ll come across postcards with cute colour transparencies picturing beach scenes, giraffes and dogs. And pandas.

But to get there you must hive off onto Narrow Alley, which is where things get very eventful, though as with the rest of Chengdu, you always feel safe. There are bars with preposterous multi-coloured effervescent cocktails, alongside shops with elegant, unhurried tea-making rituals. If you want to take a drink with you as you walk the street, there are novel plastic glasses: choose from a bikini-clad woman’s body or a machine gun.

 

There are street stalls where molten sugar is blown, stretched and swirled into the shape of an animal. It is fast, exact and impressive work, though whether you actually want to eat it afterwards is another matter.

Along the way, the restaurants – Tardis-like in their size behind small-scale entrances – offer opera performances as you eat. When I say opera, don’t go away expecting Nessun Dorma. This is Chinese Opera which involves a lot more dancing than ENO manages. Coyly smiling women dominate ludicrously comic men and embark on storylines you may never comprehend. It doesn’t matter – the visuals are spectacular and serve as a decent background to your food.

And anyway, the opera is the curtain raiser for something really extraordinary: the bian lian, also known as the face changer. He is a gaudily-clad man in a fearsome silky mask. As he dances you suddenly spot that he’s now wearing a different mask. He must have switched when he waved his fan in front of his face, right? Okay, so you watch closely now in case he does it again. He will, over and over, sometimes with the fan, mostly without – and always so fast you can’t see it. This is a real spectacle and if you get the chance to see it, don’t blink. I’d particularly recommend Damiao Hotpot restaurant and Chengdu Impressions: at both, the face changers are wonderful.

The food’s pretty good at both, too, though at the first one you must make your own dinner. Scalding hot pots of water sit in front of you on the table and you plonk meat and vegetables in until they’re cooked. When they are, they’re worth the wait. Though not quite as yummy as at Chengdu Impressions where it’s served more conventionally. The food tends to be spicy, very spicy or oh-my-god-where’s-the-water? But it’s flavoursome and delicious. No surprise given that Chengdu is where Sichuan food originated.

Some dishes may defeat you, like when my guide told me: “This is a real delicacy. Really tasty. But I’m not sure you’re going to eat it. It’s animals’ insides.”

In much of Chengdu, Western and international food is available too. I was staying at the five-star JinJiang Hotel. The restaurant there is excellent, with acres of buffet food to choose from at lunch and dinner.

Anyway, back to my ears. The People’s Park in the centre of Chengdu is calm and beautiful, a great destination on a sunny day. Scores of locals play mah jong or practise tai chi. Sit down at one of the tea houses and there are teams of blue-coated professionals ready to massage you or let you experience ear-picking. The massage was quick and perfunctory but enjoyable. And it’s the ear-picking that improved my hearing. The masseur straps a torch to his head and brandishes a series of scary-looking tools: brushes, hooks and needles. All were crammed into lugholes for five minutes or so. It was completely painless. Well, for me at least: my companion, Squeamish Charlotte as I now call her, was merely watching. Still, this was enough to have her squirming every time a little bit of ear wax was removed. And there were many. Some claim they experience an ear-gasm when a tuning fork is sounded in the ear. No such luck, but my hearing was genuinely improved. It cost £2.

There is more to do in Chengdu – a visit to the ancient city of Anren was serene and charming. The Wenshu Temple is beautiful and extensive. And if you’re after a handbag, say, there are bustling markets with affordable and beautifully crafted wares, many with familiar labels (not so squeamish there, were you Charlotte?). A week’s worth of entertainment, easily. And I haven’t even started on the pandas.

Getting There

British Airways (ba.com) flies to Chengdu from Heathrow five times a week. Flights cost from £754. The JinJiang Hotel (jjhotel.com), a member of Preferred Hotel Group, is the oldest five-star hotel in Chengdu. Rooms cost from £90 a night.

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