Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, Chengdu, China: This is what luxury looks like in China

Picture a "luxury resort" and you probably think of a tropical beach populated by only yourself and an approaching waiter. So what does a luxury resort look like in China? 

You may be surprised  …

It's early morning at the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain resort, where a little old lady glances up at forested peaks still wreathed with mist. She's headed for the resort's fine restaurant, Farm2Fork, where staff lay on a gargantuan breakfast buffet. She stops at the entrance, distracted by two old-fashioned grocer's bicycles: their baskets have been piled with earthy potatoes, buxom cabbages and husk-wrapped corncobs, harvested from the resort's garden. It's an artful display.

The little old lady regards the corncobs carefully. And tucks one into her jacket.

Like many Chinese guests in the foreign-owned resort, the old lady is with family, accompanying her son who has made his millions in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu. She has arrived in the resort's luxury Tesla limousine, been personally welcomed by manager Manish Puri and feted by the sensational New York-trained executive chef Rick Gonzalez. 

Yet here she is, confusing the decor for rich pickings. And she's not the only one, in fact both bike displays and gardens have to be frequently replenished. 

"Broadly speaking, the Chinese are quite new to what we understand as luxury in the West," an expat tells me. "Whereas we equate luxury with attention to detail and refinement, they equate it with volume. We might appreciate a beautiful 350-gram cut of grain-fed wagyu, but they want steak – and lots of it."

This makes sense. Not so very long ago, the little old lady's idea of luxury probably was getting anything to eat at all. The Chinese famine of 1959-61 killed up to 45 million, and because it was a failure of Mao's policy, the next 15 years were spent killing a further 8 million more to ensure no one dared say so. 

"Forty-five million" and "8 million" are very Chinese numbers. One number, however, weighs most heavily and that, of course, is 1.35 billion. 

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Unlike the Six Sense's other boutique properties worldwide, Qing Cheng Mountain is quite large, hosting up to 230 guests. Unlike the other resorts – which all embody that classic sense of wild isolation – Qing Cheng is on the very edge of the city of Dujiangyan (albeit at the foot of the mountain). And unlike the Six Sense's other resorts, where you'll pay $US500 to $US1000 a night, it's remarkably cheap. 

The Chinese like to visit luxury resorts at weekends and on public holidays. So if you book a midweek stay it's relatively empty. Upshot? You can score a 79-square-metre suite for just $US240 ($325) a night.

The year-old resort is finessed, lush and stylish, a walled compound of palpable zen. The 30-metre swimming pool is a temple of contemplation; the spa is a cloister of light, textured with white pebbles; and the traditional-style buildings are set in gauzy gardens, with fragrant paths leading to quiet places where you can contemplate the mountains anew.

It's also the place to encounter three of China's rarest luxuries.

NEGATIVE IONS

In the 19th century, wealthy Brits escaped their rapidly industrialising cities to take the restorative waters of spa towns like Leamington and Bath. In the same way, so the Chinese seek out this mountainous corner of Sichuan province.

"They come because of the fresh air," says Olaf Kotzke, guest relations manager at the resort. "In particular they want the 'negative ions', which has become popular over the past few years. Qing Cheng Mountains has some of the highest levels in China. It helps them with stress and burnout. 

"They also come because Qing Cheng Mountain is the birthplace of Taoism." 

On my early-morning hike up the mountain, I'm finding the ion concept a little hard to swallow (they're supposedly good for blood purification) but there's no doubting that the air is fresh. And there's no missing the Taoism, either. 

Hard on the heels of my guide, I trail up the 1250-metre peak through steep gorges and thick forests where the acolytes of Lao Zhi were said to have seen wisdom and perfection in nature's balance. During the four-hour climb, I encounter a 2000-year-old gingko tree hung with red ribbons emblazoned with wishes for good fortune, a tea plantation, and a dozen ancient temples where Chinese visitors offer prayers and light incense. 

I'm quite familiar with these temples – how their distinct eaves curve gracefully among soaring pine trees, how their ornately carved dragons offer flashes of red, green and gold among the mist. Somewhat to my shame, however, I'm familiar not through the Taoist text Tao Te Ching, but rather because I've seen Kung Fu Panda 2

In 2008, heads of Hollywood studio Dreamworks visited Dujiangyan and its famous mountain. They were impressed enough to return in 2011 and restyle their animated sequel, turning Qing Cheng into Peace Valley where the eponymous panda lives. 

Appropriately enough, Qing Cheng Mountain is also home to pandas, though none of them practise kung fu (not even the unique Qing Cheng Tai Chi), and none of them are in the wild.

Yet. 

PANDAS PANDERED

Panda Valley is a "panda station" a few kilometres from the resort. It's built into a lush, landscaped valley and houses some 100 giant pandas, which is no small number given there are only 2000 left on the planet.

"In 2016 there were 422 pandas in zoos, and around 1600 in the wild," says local guide Jack Feng as we thread our way along tree-lined paths that twitter with birds. "All the pandas here were born in captivity."

We stop at walled enclosures to watch pandas doing what pandas do – namely, sitting back and eating enormous amounts of bamboo to draw what little nutrition they can. Eight million years ago the animal was thinner, fiercer and ate protein-rich meat; it was presumably less cute but one suspects it was rather better at fending for itself. 

"At Panda Valley, some of these animals will go into a semi-wild area and be trained how to find their own food and recognise predators," says Jack. "After two or three years they will be reintroduced to the wild."

Pandas undergo their human detox in a 3.8-hectare reserve further up the valley. It's remotely monitored and features model leopards that roar when pandas approach. Any animals needing attention are treated by keepers wearing panda suits.

It's all something of a Chinese puzzle. Modernity and capitalism has chronically depleted the panda's natural habitat, so modernity and capitalism are being asked to fix it. This panda rehab is subsidised by gate fees as well as one of the world's most expensive animal encounters: for $US350 you can have your photo taken with a bear, an experience limited to just 10 seconds. Even a very famous newspaper baron, who visited from the US and donated $750,000, was given only 10 minutes. 

ANCIENT WISDOM

The small mountain city of Dujiangyan ("small" meaning half a million people) is 2000 years old, with an extraordinary river system recently given World Heritage status by UNESCO.

In 256BC (that's 200 years before Caesar was born), the region was constantly flooded by the fast-flowing Minjiang River. So the local governor – a remarkable man called Li Bing – decided to cut a new river alongside, to control the river's deluge and take excess water for irrigation.

The project was monstrous, even by today's standards, and necessitated that a substantial chunk of mountain be demolished. Since gunpowder was still a thousand years away (invented by Taoist alchemists, as it happens), tens of thousands were mobilised to fracture rocks by heating them with bonfires then cooling them with water. 

Four years later, the 20-metre-wide channel was completed and a new silt-free river ran with a lovely jade hue. Not only were the aesthetics pleasing, the irrigation turned Sichuan into China's wealthiest food-basket province. 

I join thousands of weekend visitors doing the 4-kilometre circuit of the project. It encompasses a mountain track, two cable suspension bridges and the Dragon-Taming Temple with its imperial view. 

It's a compelling yet weird tourist experience: the river project is striking to look at but the hydro-engineering project is fearsomely complex. Nonetheless, the Chinese take time to understand it, fathom the physics and seal the deal with plenty of selfies. 

It's best after dark when the ornate bridges, the mountainside temples and the jade river are lit into a dazzling whole, and everyone congregates in the ancient city centre.

Six Senses' Olaf Klotzke leads me on a night-time tour through riverside streets lined with small timber bars and food stalls. The air sizzles and crackles, smokes and steams. Food, he explains, is one of the legacies of the river project – not just the super-spicy Sichuan cuisine, but in its sheer abundance and the locals' insatiable appetites. "In Sichuan, people don't greet you with 'How are you'?, they say 'Have you eaten'?"

I watch revellers dining in the celestial jade glow of Li Bing's river, enlivened by more than a little plum wine, constantly calling on waitresses for more dishes. The long line of tables is besieged by musicians playing Western pop, and entertainers in costumes dressed as characters from Kung Fu Panda

Such is the carnival-like indulgence that I have to remind myself where I am. But this is the rebalancing of a nation in the throes of furious change. New yins and new yangs – the Taoist mountain revered for new-fangled negative ions, the 8-million-year-old panda being helped into the wild by electronic leopards. And the little old lady in a luxury western resort remembering a time when fresh vegetables didn't come along every day. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sixsenses.com

GETTING THERE

Fly to Chengdu with Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) via Singapore, or Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong; flights depart Melbourne and Sydney.  Do the one-hour transfer from Chengdu city to Dujiangyan by high-speed train ($3) or from the airport by resort limo ($280).

STAYING THERE

Suites at Qing Cheng Mountain Resorts start from $332 a night. 

Max Anderson was a guest of Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain