Chengdu - More Than Just Pandas

Chengdu - More Than Just Pandas

The popularity of Chengdu as a travel destination in China is on the rise. This vibrant south-western city is firmly establishing itself as one of country’s best choices for visitors.

Senior travellers looking for an adventure in China that combines nature, culture and good food may decide that Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, hits many of the right buttons.

It may have a long way to go before attracting visitors on the scale of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Xi’an with its famous terracotta warriors. But it already features in most lists of top 10 Chinese tourist destinations, thanks largely to its reputation as the country’s panda capital. And the signs are that it’s set for a visitor boom. 

The historic Anshun covered bridge in Chengdu. Image: bljbkk

The Australian company Kayak, which analyses online travel searches, studied data from millions of searches in 2017 and determined that Chengdu was the fastest-growing preferred destination for Australians in terms of searches.

Its search popularity grew by 133 percent over the previous year, followed by Da Nang in Vietnam with 109 percent and Athens, Greece, with 100 percent.

In other words, Australian interest in Chengdu is growing fast, something that’s likely to translate soon into greater visitor numbers. And this could be true of visitors from other countries too, if National Geographic’s inclusion of the city in its 2017 list of best trips is any indication.

At Chengdu’s panda breeding centre. Image: © Alan Williams

The city’s biggest drawcard is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, one of the best places in the world to see these vulnerable animals in a natural environment.

The giant panda is native to western China. The World Wide Fund for Nature – which uses the animal as its logo – estimates there are just over 1,800 pandas still surviving in the wild. Sichuan has several panda reserves but the sanctuary in Chengdu is the only one that’s easily accessible.

Travellers can visit the centre on their own or join a half-day tour. The spacious reserve offers plenty of opportunities for walking, and visitors can watch the pandas in their large enclosures. There’s also a baby panda enclosure, and red pandas, a much smaller mammal, can be seen too.

Crowds at the panda breeding centre. Image: © Alan Williams

The best time to visit is in the morning, when the pandas are at their most active. The centre is popular so be prepared for large crowds; the pandas here must be among the world’s most photographed animals.

Another attraction is Chengdu’s laidback lifestyle. Many visitors consider it a far more relaxed city than Beijing or Shanghai. Hand in hand with this is its tea house culture – it’s full of such places where customers can relax and watch the world go by – and its fame as the centre of Sichuan’s spicy cuisine.

A sizzling combination of garlic, chillies, ginger and Sichuan peppercorn ensure the province’s food is among the boldest in China. The restaurant at Wenshu Yuan Monastery is among the best places to experience a vegetarian buffet or hot pot.

The Wenshu Monastery pedestrian district. Image: © Pixattitude | Dreamstime

Chengdu’s relaxed feel doesn’t mean it’s standing still. The population of the greater Chengdu area is more than 14 million. It’s one of China’s fastest growing cities and a centre for electronics manufacturing and new digital technologies. Its skyline is changing by the day; I first visited it in 2007, and when I returned in 2017 I could hardly recognise the place. With this rapid development has come typical big city problems, including serious traffic jams and worsening air pollution.

Despite this, Chengdu has preserved some of its historic areas and restored others. Among them is the upscale Wide and Narrow Alley district, restored several years ago, which combines old architecture with modern shops. Here and elsewhere, it’s sometimes hard to tell which buildings are truly old and which are simply built to look old, but the guesswork is part of the fun.   

The area around the Anshun Bridge over the Jin River is a popular dining and entertainment district. And the arched bridge is an attractive sight when lit up at night.

Inside the New Century Global Center. Image: © Alan Williams

For shopping on a grand scale, Chengdu boasts the New Century Global Center, which lays claim to being the world’s largest building in terms of floor space. It houses a seemingly endless mall as well as a swimming area with an artificial beach. Though huge, the mall has little character, and visitors may find shopping more satisfying in the Chunxi Road Pedestrian Street area, with its wide range of stores.   

A popular day trip is a visit to the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, northwest of the city. It was built more than 2,000 years ago as an irrigation and flood control system and still used today.

The impressive Leshan Giant Buddha. Image: fannyss

For travellers wishing to explore further afield, a stay in Chengdu can be combined with a visit to Mount Emei, with its forests, waterfalls and temples, and the nearby Leshan Giant Buddha, said to be the largest Buddha statue in the world.

Chengdu is also a gateway to Tibet, with air, rail and road links to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Travellers returning from a high-altitude adventure in Tibet may want to spend a few days in Chengdu to relax and get their breath back.

Header image: © Plej92 | Dreamstime

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