‘Now, that bear is definitely not white,” said the Dutch tourist next to me. The giant panda turned in our direction at that moment and let out some kind of loud sneeze or snort as if to say, “Give me a break, pal.” It was raining and muddy, after all, and even slightly smudged, the panda bears at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding were still absurdly adorable. The bear ambled off to climb a nearby jungle gym-like structure, fell off it once or twice, eventually gave up, and finally settled on a choice piece of bamboo to munch on.
Pandas reside almost exclusively in central China, and while a handful can be seen in zoos worldwide, the research base in Chengdu, the thriving seat of China’s Sichuan province, is one of the few places to see dozens of the animals thriving in a pseudo-natural habitat. It’s just one of many compelling reasons to visit. Despite being one of the country’s largest cities, Chengdu has largely flown under the radar for the tourist set; deep in the heart of China, it’s closer to Tibet than to Shanghai.
After recently spending 10 days there over two trips, I can say that it’s a fantastically exciting, progressive city, with plenty of museums and urban temples to explore, great shopping, as well as a famously spicy cuisine that will torch the careless.
Animal attractions can be dicey, particularly in China (I once had a very depressing visit to the Beijing Zoo), but the research base is very well done — the animals seemed happy and active — and seemed to serve a larger purpose: conservation and research of a threatened species that’s notoriously slow to reproduce. The price was right, too: only a little more than $9 for admission. My advice is to get there in the morning — not only will you beat the crowds, but it’s the pandas’ breakfast time so they’re more active than usual. Don’t miss the nursery, either, which may have some very cuddly snoozing babies (there were three when I visited).
How to get there? I recommend Chengdu’s clean, efficient subway system, and suggest you get used to taking it. The metro, which went into service in 2010, has been built with blinding, almost frightening, speed. There are now six subway lines in operation, meaning that a new one is added every 16 months or so in a city of more than 14 million people. Single-ride tickets vary based on distance, but expect to pay between 30 to 75 cents when you ride. You’ll also notice no one bolting down the stairs to make a train in Chengdu; there’s almost always another one about three minutes behind.
My lodging at the Chengdu Panda Apartment (Chengdu is proud of its pandas and you will see them in advertising and the names of businesses everywhere) was tricky to locate — it’s hidden in a residential apartment block — but the room was comfortable and the price reasonable (about $43 per night). The decor was, as you might guess, extremely panda-heavy: blankets, towels, bedspreads — everything. Fortunately, I thought it was pretty cute.
If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, I also stayed at the Sheraton Chengdu Lido Hotel, just one stop north of Tianfu Square, on the metro’s primary north-south line, for just $77 per night. Getting into the city from the airport, incidentally, is fairly hassle-free. While there are shuttles into downtown, I would download and set up Didi Chuxing before your trip. My ride into the city cost just $7. One nice perk of the app is that if you message your driver in English (to tell him or her where you are, for example), it is automatically translated into Chinese.
Taxis are also easy to hail in Chengdu, as are guys on motorbikes who will, for a fee, let you hop on the back and shuttle you to your destination. But I found that walking is the best way to get around Chengdu — the city isn’t as hectic as Beijing or Shanghai, and it’s a pleasant place to take a stroll.
For example, I walked to the Wenshu Monastery, a gorgeous and peaceful (and free) place to visit and learn about Chinese Buddhism. Built during the Sui dynasty (A.D. 581-618), the monastery is populated with almost all-wooden structures that are in remarkable shape. The Hall of Three Great Buddhisattva and the Mahavira Hall house gleaming, intricate Buddhist icons and treasures; you won’t be able to take photos of the statues themselves, but can photograph freely on the grounds. Don’t miss the Peace Pagoda of a Thousand Buddhas, a strikingly ornate 11-story tower that’s the tallest iron pagoda in China.
Wenshu has one other perk — a lively garden area where tea and vegetarian food are served. It’s here that you can get a true sense of daily life in Chengdu. Purchase a package of tea from a small kiosk near the entrance (jasmine tea was $2.36) and grab a thermos of hot water and a bag of sunflower seeds or lightly sweetened peanuts (80 cents, paid on the honor system). Show your tea receipt to a worker and they’ll give you a ceramic cup with a lid. Find yourself a seat in the meditative environs and drink tea and munch on snacks to your heart’s content. You’ll notice dozens of locals doing the same while laughing, chatting and playing cards — this is typical Chengdu.
Another of Chengdu’s historical treasures, the Jinsha Site Museum, has only been accessible recently, as it was accidentally discovered in 2001 during real estate development. What was uncovered is something of a lost city: Excavation of the ancient capital of the Shu Kingdom, dating between the 7th and 12th centuries B.C., has unearthed different pottery, jade, ivory and gold artifacts. Walking the grounds, which include a small bamboo forest and garden of fragrant Japanese allspice, was worth admission alone (usually $12.60 yuan, but only $6.30 during the winter season, with an additional $6.30 for an audio guide).
I was able to take advantage of another winter discount at Wuhou Temple, also known as the Temple of Marquis, paying $4.75 yuan instead of the usual $9. The temple is dedicated to the life of Zhuge Liang and the Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220-280), an era revered among Chinese for its political intrigue and military strategy. While visiting Wuhou, take some time to browse Jinli Street, which runs along the edge of the temple. There you’ll find, concentrated in one fairly touristy area, an enormous variety of regional cuisine: Roujiamo (a hamburger-like sandwich, $1.60 yuan), spicy tofu covered in fish mint ($1.60 yuan), and skewers of baby squid ($3.20 yuan). I picked up a block of glutinous rice cake slathered in chili, scallions and hot oil for $1.25 yuan.
Markets are another great place to check out Chengdu’s seemingly endless food offerings. Jordan Porter, who runs a local food tour company called Chengdu Food Tours, tipped me off to a bustling local market near the west side of the 1st Ring Road called Qingyang Market. It has everything you could want, from pig’s feet to sugar cane stalks, homemade sausages, crocks of blindingly potent baijiu (grain alcohol), fresh tofu, spices and vats of doubanjiang, a spicy, fermented bean paste. After doing a couple of loops, I sat down at Yanjing Mian, a small restaurant near the market’s entrance, for a piquant bowl of hand-pulled noodles with pieces of short rib ($1.60 yuan).
If you decide to go the safer restaurant route, you won’t be disappointed. Chuan chuan is essential Chengdu — skewers of different meats and vegetables sitting in a bath of spicy oil (dinner for two might run $9.45 to $12.60 yuan) — as is getting an entire fish. My first night in the city, I met two friends, Chengdu locals, at Kao Master, a restaurant on the seventh floor of the International Finance Square Mall, near the extremely hip Chunxi Road area.
We opted for a whole hot-and-sour fish (qianyu, from Guizhou province, $20.30 yuan), tangy and flavorful, and slathered in bright orange chili peppers. As I popped one, and then another, of the blisteringly hot peppers into my mouth — primarily to demonstrate that I was a foreigner with an iron gut and unafraid of spicy local cuisine — one of my companions, Jasmine, looked at me quizzically. “Why are you eating all those?” she asked. “They’re just for flavor.” Lesson learned.