36 Hours in Chengdu
In high-tech Chengdu, the old way of life persists, with graceful teahouses, serene parks and a lively Tibetan quarter. Video: New York Times
The city in southwest China known for its Sichuan cuisine and home to 80 per cent of the world's panda population is going through a transformation. Hip hi-tech start-ups are moving in and with that more restaurants, high-end accommodation, galleries and shopping centres are opening up. Yet the laid back atmosphere of taking tea and sitting in parklands remains. As such, Chengdu offers the perfect combination for a city stay.
There are more than 100 pandas kicking back at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (www.panda.org.cn, tickets RMB 58 – $A11.70 per person) on the outskirts of the city. Plan to go early (from 7.30am) to not only avoid the mid-morning crowds but also witness the notoriously lazy pandas in action mode. Last year, six sets of twin baby pandas were born, you can see them stretching and snoozing in the Sunshine Nursery. There are spacious open-air enclosures where adult pandas happily munch on bamboo and red pandas frolic.
The famous "numbing and hot" combination of chillies and peppercorns in Sichuan cuisine is so renowned that in 2010 UNESCO designated Chengdu Asia's first city of gastronomy. For a guaranteed incredible eating experience head to the Wide and Narrow Alleys in the Qingyang District (www.gochengdu.cn). There's an array of restaurants as well as street stalls serving silken tofu topped with Sichuan peppercorns, rabbits heads, pig snouts and dan dan mian - the fiery noodle dish. Too much Sichuan cuisine? Head to Tivano, a modern Italian restaurant with a two-level wood oven hearth at the new Temple House hotel (www.thetemplehousehotel.com/en/restaurants-bars/tivano).
Chengdu's new shopping developments are worth visiting for their architecture alone. Best is the new Taikoo Li in the Jinjiang district, an outdoor shopping arcade incorporating traditional architecture inspired by the 1000-year-old Buddhist Daci Temple on the grounds. Here, there are high-end brands (Hermes, Chloe, Gucci) together with high street brands (Zara, Muji). Best is the underground bookstore called Fangsuo Commune featuring two 100-metre long book displays. Designed by Taiwanese architect Chu Chih-Kang, it was named one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world by Architectural Digest. (www.swireproperties.com)
The Chengdu saying goes, "Sunny days are rare, but teahouses are abundant", to find the best, head to the parks. The Heming Teahouse in People's Park (9 Citang St, Qingyang, Chengdu) is where you can see locals sipping jasmine tea while playing a game of mahjong or practicing calligraphy. If you desire, you can have your ears cleaned here too. Also central is Wangjiang Pavilion Park where you can wander the pagodas and pavilions (some of the oldest architecture left in Chengdu) and drink tea at one of the teahouses that line the river. (www.wangjianglou.com/en/)
The new Temple House, part of Swire Properties House Collective, cleverly incorporates a Qing Dynasty courtyard into the design. On site is an impressive library and an art gallery showcasing local art with exhibitions rotating every three months. There's a café, an Italian restaurant and a teahouse serving vegetarian cuisine as well as a popular bar, and the hotel is part of the Taikoo Li shopping district. The adjacent spa features a leafy courtyard, perfect for sipping on tea after a treatment. (www.thetemplehousehotel.com, their Gong Fu Panda package starts at $380 a room, a night)
For an over-the-top shopping experience head to the New Century Global Center, the largest building in the world (in terms of floor area). It's not just department stores, in this marble-clad monstrosity you'll find the world's largest artificial beach complete with sunrises and sunsets on giant LED screens, a water park and an ice rink. (www.whitewaterwest.com/paradiseisland.html)
Andrea Black was a guest of Swire Hotels and Cathay Pacific.