Chengdu (成都), Sichuan Province
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is one of the most livable cities I’ve found in China. If I were moving back to anywhere other than Beijing or Shanghai, this might be my top choice. The food is fantastic (if you like spice, that is!), and the potential for traveling outside the city is huge. You’ll need to stop here en route to other places in Sichuan, such as Jiuzhaigou, Emei Shan or the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. It’s also a good place to recharge your batteries if you are China-ed out — there are heaps of non-Chinese restaurants and several Starbucks.
Places to See
Chengdu is not a great sight-seeing city, but there is enough to fill the days that you will inevitably spend here if you are doing a tour of Sichuan Province. In my book, the teahouses are the highlight — I could easily have spent a few more days here, seeing sights in the morning and whiling away the afternoons with the locals, drinking tea, playing cards or trying to learn majiang. Leshan, two hours away from Chengdu, can easily be done as a day trip.
Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
Sure, all of China is identified with pandas — but Sichuan is where they actually live. Or used to live — the panda population has shrunk dramatically in recent years. This research base is dedicated to rebuilding the population by teaching pandas how to procreate. It’s also a very fun place to visit — who doesn’t want to see pandas rolling around and stuffing their faces with bamboo? The facilities are surprisingly un-zoolike, and the pandas have plenty of space and “wild” environment to play in.
Guidebooks assert that it’s best to get there when it opens to see the pandas at their most active, so hostels (including Mix Hostel, below) offer tours that get you there as soon as the base opens at 8 a.m. Mix’s tour cost 100 RMB and included entrance, transportation, breakfast and a guide. Otherwise, the public bus will drop you off at 8:45 a.m. for a mere 2 RMB. If you’re going to pay the full ticket price, the tour is worth it, but if you could get a student ticket, you might consider sacrificing an hour of panda time for the considerable savings.
Entrance to the base costs 60 RMB (30 RMB for students). For around $100, you can hug a panda — although I’m not sure the pandas like it.
This is an excellent temple for wandering or resting. The red-and-black painted architecture is not especially memorable, but the ambience is peaceful. Little pagodas like the one pictured at top are perfect for quiet reflection. Once you’ve fed your spirit, feed your stomach at the nearby Gong Yin Pin Ming. A warren of “old” streets to the east of the temple houses more shops and restaurants.
Entrance to the temple costs 5 RMB. It is located in the northern part of town, off of Renmin Beilu and just south of the Wanfu Bridge.
People’s Park Teahouses
Teahouses are one of the most unique aspects of Sichuanese culture, and Chengdu’s People’s Park (Renming Gongyuan, 人民公园) is a great place to sample what they have to offer. For 10-20 RMB, you get a cup of tea and a seat for as long as you want it. Buy a deck of cards (5 RMB), read a book or simply watch the people around you as they leaf through newspapers and play endless games of majong.
Food & Restaurants
Sichuan is the origin of many of the dishes famous in American Chinese cuisine, such as kungpao chicken and dry-fried string beans. Chengdu has plenty of restaurants serving these classics, but the city is particularly famous for its 小吃 — snacks — and restaurants specializing in them can be found all over town. Some offer snack “sets” that would be a good way to sample many of them in one sitting.
Gong Yin Pin Ming
This little restaurant near the Wenshu Temple should be on the top of your list for Chengdu. It’s a great place to try Sichuan snacks, including chaoshou (抄手) — wontons in a spicy sauce. But you must, must, must also get at least one bowl of tianshui mian (甜水面). These thick-cut noodles come in an addictive spicy-sweet-sesame sauce that is loaded with numbing Sichuan peppercorn. Credit for this find goes to Eating Asia, who visited Sichuan about four months before me.
Per Eating Asia, the restaurant is located at 39 Wenfu Yuan Jie, just down the street from Wenshu Temple. Facing the entrance of the temple, turn right and walk a block or two. There will be a restaurant with a large picture window on your right, with white-coated women serving up bowls of noodles. That’s the spot. A filling selection of snacks will run you about 8 RMB per person.
Peter’s Tex-Mex Grill
So you’ve been in China for a month or two — or eleven — and you’re desperate for an enchilada. Surprisingly, Chengdu is the city for you. There are four branches of this restaurant in various sections of Chengdu. Although they serve a range of American foods, we focused on the real Tex-Mex and were not disappointed. Although portions were small, the flavors were authentic and definitely hit the spot.
Half a serving of seven-layer dip and a plate of enchiladas cost 55 RMB. The restaurant is located near Sichuan University, at 117 Kehua Beilu (科华北路117号).
Sim’s may be the granddaddy of Chengdu hostels, but we were very happy to stay at the centrally-located Mix Hostel. Prices are a bargain ($12 for a private room), the staff was helpful and the facilities were spotless. Even the decor was attractive. This would be an especially great option for solo travelers. The hostel has a very hopping vibe, and nightly dumpling-making parties are an easy way to meet travel buddies. It also provides Tibet travel services and helps connect you with travel companions.
We stayed in a double room without air-conditioning and with a shared bathroom for 80 RMB per night. Dorms range from 15 to 35 RMB per night. The hostel is located at 23 Xinhuixi Lu (万福桥星辉西路23号), a block north of the Wanfu Bridge. Book rooms through Hostelworld. It is in easy walking distance of the Wenshu Temple, making breakfast and lunch visits to Gong Yin Pin Ming very easy.
Chengdu is the transit hub for Sichuan Province. To get here from other places in China, you can choose between trains, planes and buses. To get to other sites in Sichuan, though, you’ll probably be relying on buses.
For Leshan: Buses to Leshan depart regularly from the Xinnanmen bus station in the southern part of town. The journey takes 2 hours and costs between 40 and 55 RMB, depending on what type of bus you take and whether you go directly to the Giant Buddha or not.
For Emei Shan: Buses to Emei town and Emei Shan also depart regularly from the Xinnanmen station. Tickets cost roughly 40 RMB. If you plan to climb the mountain, be sure your bus is going to “Baoguo village,” which is the gateway to the mountain.
For Jiuzhaigou: Buses to Jiuzhaigou depart at 7:30 a.m., 8 a.m., and 2 p.m. from both the north (Chadianzi) and south (Xinnanmen) bus stations. The ride takes about 9 hours, as of May 2010, but a new, shorter route should open in October 2010. Tickets cost about 150 RMB.
For Langzhong: Buses to Langzhong depart several times per day from the Beimen bus station on the 1st ring road. Tickets cost 94 RMB, and the ride takes 5-6 hours.