I’ve been to China four times in the last five years. I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese in Beijing; taught Chinese University students English in Chengdu; explored Xi’an (going back for the Terra Cotta Warriors), Chongqing (don’t miss the evening river cruise), Luoyang (unforgettable cliff-carved grottos), Shenzen (shopping!), Kunming (must see the Stone Forest), Jiuzhaigou (enjoy the impossibly blue lakes), Hong Kong (the place to go for nightlife) and Taipei (I couldn’t get enough of the Shilin night food market). But I’ve never been to Shanghai—a staple and oftentimes the first stop on most China trips. Why? Chengdu stole my heart.
Located in the southwest Sichuan province and famous for being the home of the panda, Chengdu is a beautiful, hip city with loads of traditional Chinese charm, extremely kind people, and incredible food. For those looking to experience China without the extreme crowds of Beijing and Shanghai, Chengdu is the perfect option.
I’ll never forget the first time I had real Sichuan food in Chengdu. It’s a sensational feeling to be eating and suddenly realize you’re tongue is severely tingling. You look around the table at others, unsure of whether to admit this feeling you’re having. Suddenly a brave soul asks, “Does anyone else’s tongue feel numb?” and you all exclaim “YES!” It is the weirdest and greatest feeling, caused by the huajiao (花椒) spice, a peppercorn with a unique spicy flavor so strong it seems to numb your mouth. For serious foodies, or anyone looking to taste something truly different, trying Sichuan huajiao is a must. From the traditional, spicy green bean dish 干煸四季豆 to the interactive hotpot—you cook your own food at the table in a boiling hot pot—Chengdu is one of China’s best culinary stops.
The city is full of local landmarks, such as Tianfu Square with the large statue of Mao, temples and monasteries, markets, and local parks. An afternoon spent people watching at a tea house in People’s Park is one of the most relaxing ways to get to know daily life in Chengdu. In a country of 1.4 billion, people watching doesn’t get much better than China. You’ll see residents dress in everything from traditional outfits to head-to-toe designer garb. If you’re inspired to shop, stay next to the city’s most popular new shopping center at the ultra-modern The Temple House hotel.
Beyond the city
One of my favorite things about Chengdu is how accessible the countryside is. Just an hour outside the city are beautiful, lush, green mountains. People often forget that while China is known for cities, it is packed with incredible landscapes and rural towns set amongst this mountainous beauty. I recommend a few nights at the just-opened Six Senses Qingcheng Mountain for Sichuan cooking classes, hiking Qingcheng Mountain (the birth place of Daoism), exploring the local town and capping-off a perfect day with a tsingtao alongside the city’s rushing river below.
Don’t forget the pandas! Visiting the pandas is essential. Visitors can easily visit the main Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding located within Chengdu. But for a less crowded panda experience, the Panda Valley Breeding and Research Center in Dujiangyan is worth the trip. Do more than just observe these playful creatures by becoming a “panda caretaker for a day” at Panda Ark, another nearby panda center in Dujiangyan. I have seen the pandas three times and was just as excited to see them the third time as the first.
Visiting China is easier than ever
With the new single-application, 10-year China tourist visa for US citizens, China is now easier to visit than ever before. Anyone who has visited the China embassy in New York will understand my joy of not needing to return for 10 years! Knowing you have a visa at the ready, means China doesn’t need to be a once-in-a-lifetime destination, so travelers can take risks and diverge from the usual path. I say go for it, and put Chengdu before Shanghai.
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