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Chengdu: Pandas and skyscrapers in China's flourishing megacity

Ever-mushrooming building developments, Chinese traditions and spicy cuisine combine in Sichuan's capital 

Julia Buckley
Tuesday 01 December 2015 09:56 GMT
Central Chengdu
Central Chengdu (Getty)

When I visited Chengdu two years ago, the capital of China's south-western Sichuan province felt like a city hovering between the past and the present. The laid-back Sichuanese would while away the hours in teahouses, amble around the parks, and buy fresh fruit from hand-drawn carts, while beyond, the chaos of construction – roads being dug up, entire blocks being torn down, subway lines being carved out of the ground (Chengdu currently has two, but plans for seven by 2017) – carried on at ear-rattling speed.

Chengdu's latest development, Taikoo Li, opened earlier this year. A shopping complex built around the centuries-old Daci Temple, its concept was imported from Beijing, with buildings styled as traditional hutongs – yet almost every one is filled with international brands.

Despite the changes, on my most recent visit, a few weeks ago, Chengdu seemed to retain its easy balance between old and new. The spicy food – always regarded as some of the best in China – is central to the city's culture, its “private kitchens” (tiny restaurants set up in apartment blocks) offering a doorway not just to the local food, but also the lifestyle.

And while ever-mushrooming developments may contain wall-to-wall chains, people still flock to the traditional craft stalls of Jin Li and Kuanzhai Alley.

“As the city becomes more international, local people still follow tradition,” says Seven Zhu, who works at the city's newest hotel, The Temple House. “They drink tea and play mahjong, and I know more than 20 of my colleagues go for traditional tui na massage after work. We're moving towards the future but we're also holding on to our history.”

Pandas (Alamy)

It's that natural merger of east and west that makes Chengdu such a treat. It's manageable in size, with acres of green space (at weekends it seems half the city flocks to People's Park for dancing and qi gong), and has one-man craft stalls alongside behemoth developments, and a food scene that goes from strength to strength. A city that used to be best known for breeding pandas (a record 12 were born here this year) is now a fully fledged destination in itself.


Chengdu's luxury hotels tended to follow the Chinese model of bigger and blingier equals better. But that was until The Temple House (00 86 28 6636 9999; opened in July as part of the Taikoo Li complex. A sibling of Hong Kong's Upper House hotel, it's set around a century-old building, originally part of the Daci Temple complex, which houses the lobby, library and a gallery. Its vast, superbly equipped rooms and apartment-style “residences” sit in glass-fronted towerblocks on either side. But it's the service that stands out, with staff going the extra mile to plan your days – invaluable if Mandarin isn't your forte. Doubles from 1,699 Chinese yuan (£175).


China's medical tradition, of course, dates back millennia, but accessing it as a tourist – even for something as simple as an acupuncture session – can be daunting. Not so at the recently opened Zan TCM (00 86 28 8628 5969;, which bears more resemblance to a spa than Chengdu's traditional communal clinics. Medical assessments are possible, though not encouraged, since the treatment plans are long-term; instead, get a taster with spa-style treatments such as tui na massage and moxibustion – a massage followed by heat application from smoking, herb-filled cones held over meridian points, which is as relaxing as a hot stone treatment.

Food at Man Jing Yuan


Chengdu's spicy cuisine is best experienced at its “private kitchens” – either tables set up in residential apartments, or private dining restaurants set up to look like homes. Open since May, Man Jing Yuan (00 86 28 6601 5708) – its English name, “Vegetarian Restaurant” – is a converted flat with just four restaurant tables and six private rooms. The decor is modern, the menu (à la carte and tasting) is presented on an iPad, and the superb food is imaginatively dished up. To wash it down, there's even a coffee bar in the corner, where entrepreneur Duan Guang Fu roasts his own blends. Reservations essential.


The Sichuanese are known for their love of tea, rather than alcohol, and as such, the nightlife tends to skew towards backpackers and clubbers. For a rather more refined experience, make for The Abbaye (00 86 28 6466 1756;, a Belgium-inspired beer bar that opened this month in Taikoo Li, serving around 60 beers in the most incongruous of settings: one of the heritage buildings of the Daci Temple complex.

Jing (00 86 28 6297 4192;, the bar at Temple House, is already the hottest ticket in town, with an imaginative cocktail list, a fire-pit at the outside bar and a DJ, booth built into the drinks shelves inside.


Chengdu's new shopping complexes may be filled with Western brands, but they're still worth a visit for their architecture alone. The New Century Global Center, which opened in 2013, is the largest building in the world (in terms of floor area): a marble-clad, gilt escalatored affair that puts Vegas in the shade. About a third of its space is taken up by a branch of the Korean store, Lotte.

Among the designer brands of Taikoo Li is Olé (00 86 20 3868 2166;, a supermarket stocking Chinese delicacies and Asian beauty products, and Fang Suo Commune (00 86 20 8658 6858) – technically a bookstore but more of a lifestyle collection, stocking everything from fashion to bonsai trees. Designed by Taiwanese architect Chu Chih-Kang, in 2014 it was named one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world by Architectural Digest.


Chengdu's main attraction is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (00 86 28 8351 0033;, six miles north-east of the city centre. The record 12 (six sets of twins) born this year are being cared for in the centre's two “nurseries” (visible through glass windows), while toddlers and adult pandas live in spacious enclosures outside (entry 58 yuan/£5.80).

For a more cultural attraction, the Jinsha archaeological site (00 86 28 8730 3522; in Chengdu's Qingyang District, houses an open “dig” of 3,000-year-old remains from the mysterious Shu kingdom. The top finds, on display in the on-site museum, include gold masks and the gold “sunbird” disc that is the emblem of Chengdu. Admission is 80 yuan (£8).


British Airways (0844 493 0787; flies direct from Heathrow from £477. Airlines with connecting flights include KLM, China Southern and Air China.

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