Spring is the perfect time to visit Chengdu, China, the cosmopolitan and ancient city that is the capital of the province of Sichuan.
Our 10-day Easter holiday introduced us to what Chengdu has to offer visitors, including the delights of Sichuan cooking, the city’s famous tea houses, and the many tourist, heritage, and cultural attractions, that all add up to make Chengdu one of the most delightful cities in Asia.
We easily discovered the true face of Chengdu as we strolled around the city’s colourful side streets, and walked the tree-lined boulevards, getting a wonderful insight into authentic Chinese life.
And all the time, savouring the sumptuous Sichuan street food, we soon fell in love with this city of culture that exudes a relaxed and laid-back atmosphere despite its growing reputation as one of the great corporate and commercial centres of South East Asia.
Relaxing in Wangjiang Park
Situated in mountainous southwestern China, Chengdu prides itself on its easy-going approach to life and an old Chinese saying sums the city up thus: “The young should never come to Chengdu – and the old should never leave”.
Watching senior citizens relaxing around tables, playing Mahjong and sipping tea, in Wangjiang Tower Park and Bamboo Garden (Wàngjiānglóu Gōngyuán, 望江楼公园 ) on the banks of Chengdu’s Jin River was a testament to the perceptiveness the author of the above maxim.
We could easily have sat there for hours soaking up the laid-back atmosphere in the Park, also referred to as Wangjianglou Park and River View Pavilion Park, and dedicated to Xue Tao, a Tang Dynasty poet who had a special affection for bamboo.
You cannot visit Chengdu and not sit in one of its many tea houses, sipping Green Tea, or whatever variety takes your fancy, as an attentive waiter regularly tops up your glass from the thermos flask of hot water left by your table.
And one of the best places to enjoy this tea house culture is in Wangjiang Park. Drinking tea like this is a way of life in Chengdu and a lovely way of socialising.
Tea-time, all the time, in Chengdu
Everywhere you go in Chengdu you will see people carrying a thermos flask, containing boiled water for tea making. We were surprised to learn that drinking cold water has traditionally been considered bad for your digestion in China and it’s only in recent years that some of the younger generations have started drinking cold beverages.
While in Wangjiang Park, we noticed some women dancing gracefully in the shade of a bamboo grove – a common and delightful exercise activity in Chengdu’s public parks.
Wangjiang Park is sometimes called the Bamboo Park in recognition of the 100 varieties of bamboo growing in the park’s forest – and also perhaps because of the stunning tunnel of over-hanging bamboo trees that greets the visitor at the entrance to the riverside park.
Wangjiang Park’s River View Tower, dating back to 1889, is an impressive Pagoda with four levels. The upper two are octagonal while the lower two are square with every eave layer exquisitely decorated with sculptures.
From the top, you have lovely views over Jin River (see featured image above) and get a feeling that tradition and modernity sit well together in Chengdu.
After dark is the best time to see modern Chengdu. Walking along the river bank, we marvelled at the 21st-century high-rise architecture lighting up the skyline – and the many trendy restaurants, clubs, and cafes, located along the riverbank.
Street food like you’ve never tasted
We stayed in the Hotel Zen Urban Resort on Longjiang Road – a four-star, affordable hotel, that we have no hesitation in giving five stars for its magnificent standards in accommodation, service, food, value for money, and helpfulness of its friendly staff.
Located in the beautiful University quarter of Chengdu with its many music shops and cafes, Hotel Zen Urban Resort was the perfect base for us to explore this beautiful and energetic city where past and present seem to blend together seamlessly.
Food is everywhere you look in Chengdu. So much so that Chengdu’s world-renowned culinary culture was recognised in 2010 when UNESCO designated Chengdu the first City of Gastronomy in Asia.
Sichuanese is China’s greatest regional cuisine, its exciting flavours and diverse ingredients are best sampled in Sichuan Hotpot – the dish with its hot chilli and Sichuan pepper flavours is on most restaurant menus and had me reaching for a cool drink.
Other Sichuan dinner favourites such as Kung Pao chicken, Tea-smoked Duck, Twice-cooked Pork, Mapo Tofu, and Dan Dan noodles introduce the visitor to an exciting new world of Chinese food, far removed from the fare dished up in your local takeaway.
Wherever you go in Chengdu, you will see street food vendors selling tasty treats from snack stalls such as dumplings, noodles, and, my favourite, the stuffed pancakes, filled with fresh vegetables and other tasty fillings all cooked before your eyes in seconds.
And around every corner, you will find a street fruit vendor, selling fresh pineapple (bo luo) served on a chopstick skewer. It’s refreshing and a perfect dessert after one of the stuffed pancakes.
The Bookworm – food for thought
The arts scene in Chengdu is vibrant. The city’s poets, writers, musicians, and creative people have staked their claim to The Bookworm Chengdu on 2-7 Yujie E St, Wuhou, where we were delighted to meet the man behind The Bookworm, Dublin-native, Peter Goff, who along with his wife, Sabrina are the most affable hosts.
It’s great to see a fellow Irishman running a successful business in China, particularly one that brings dining out, the arts, and socialising, all together in such an innovative way.
We discovered that The Bookworm is much more than a restaurant – it has a library, and bar, and it is a popular venue for music, comedy, and an annual Literary Festival.
Every March, The Bookworm International Literary Festival attracts Chinese and international writers to venues in eight Chinese cities, including the Bookworms’ other restaurants in Beijing and Suzhou. The Festival has a growing reputation worldwide among authors and publishers.
The Bookworm is something of a home from home for expats in Chengdu and a great place to go if you need a change from Chinese food.
Temples, Pandas, and Scooters
We visited the Wenshu Monastery, also known as Xinxiang Monastery, near the city centre. It is the best-preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu, where worshippers make offerings of incense, flowers, and candles, in this tranquil, sacred place with its own lovely gardens and ponds that is an escape for many locals from the chaos of a noisy, modern metropolis.
The sounds of Chengdu are dominated by the constant hooting of car and scooter horns as drivers jockey for position, particularly at busy junctions.
The city boasts three new ring roads, layers of flyovers, in-city road tunnels, an expanding subway system, and first-class rail and bus services.
Chengdu also has a great taxi service that is cheap and cheerful and, as we discovered, the cabs are the fastest and most convenient way for visitors to get around.
The variety of vehicles such as electric scooters, bicycles, and tricycles, add a colourful and exciting dimension to Chengdu’s streets, which I found fascinating.
It is not uncommon to see three people on one scooter. Indeed, some of the sights you see while watching the electric scooters silently glide by are hilarious – such as a child pillion passenger holding a mobile phone to her mother’s ear.
There is barrier protected lanes along the road for scooters and bikes, but the traffic laws seem very flexible, particularly at busy junctions where at rush hour all seems chaotic with the constant blowing of horns, but there is no aggression, just a hoot to say watch out I’m coming.
We normally avoid any attraction that remotely resembles a Zoo – but it is impossible to visit Chengdu and not travel to Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to see the Pandas up close.
The non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas is located a few kilometres outside of Chengdu, and we took a taxi there – but you can also get the bus.
It’s best to visit Panda Park early in the morning when the Pandas are feeding. Later in the day, particularly during the intense heat of summer, the rare animals retreat into the shade of their shelters.
An unforgettable visit to Pixian
The high point of our stay in China was our three days in Pixian (Pi County 郫县 Pí Xiàn), a go-ahead city 30 kilometres west of Chengdu, where we enjoyed the most wonderful welcome and the extraordinary hospitality of our Chinese friends.
While in Pixian we had the pleasure of visiting the Wang Cong Temple and Park, located in the southwest suburbs of Pixian County. Strolling its many tranquil paths, lined with many varieties of blooming azaleas, we learned how the park contains the tomb and a temple commemorating the two emperors of the ancient Shu Kingdom.
Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Our other adventure out of Chengdu was a day trip to Dujiangyan ( 都江堰市 Dūjiāngyàn Shì ), 60 km north-west, to marvel at the Dujiangyan Irrigation System that dates back to the 3rd century B.C. and still prevents flooding and controls the waters of the Minjiang River ( 岷江, p Mínjiāng ). The irrigation system distributes the water to the fertile farmland of the Chengdu plains. A World Heritage-listed site, it has been also declared a State Priority Protected Site in China.
Although you can take a train, we hired a driver and jeep to get there that cost us just €40 for the day.
There are beautiful ornate gardens just inside the entrance gate that are worth visiting. We also climbed the mountain after crossing the suspension bridge to the right side of the river. This is usually a place for panoramic photos of the irrigation system – but unfortunately, heavy rain had us running for shelter.
Dujiangyan was devastated by the earthquake of 2008 with a huge loss of life, particularly among school children. We were glad to hear that the city has now been rebuilt and is looking to a brighter future.
Our trip to Chengdu was all too short, but we plan to return and enjoy some of the other attractions the city has to offer such as the Shu Feng Ya Yun Sichuan Opera and the city’s many museums.
One important tip for anyone visiting China: Chinese are among the most courteous people you will ever meet so it is worth the effort to learn a few basic words in Mandarin which will be greatly appreciated by the locals. And while not essential, it is good to know how to use chopsticks – it will make your holiday in China all the more enjoyable.