Last year I traveled for the first time to Mainland China, a trip that had honestly been 40 years in the making. I’m not sure why it took me so long to finally visit, probably a whole host of factors. I was intimidated by nearly aspect of traveling there from the language and customs to the food and my general misconceptions. Almost as soon as I arrived fresh off my Cathay Pacific flight though I realized how wrong I had been. At least in the cities, traveling around China was far from being a challenge and I soon came to love spending time there. One stop in particular meant a lot to me personally, Chengdu. I was traveling in China with Cathay Pacific Airways, to show my first impressions of China and to share what I learned in the process. When it comes to Chengdu, those lessons were considerable and so today I want to provide a few reasons why everyone should visit this star city of China’s Sichuan province.
As soon as you arrive into the airport you start seeing them, pandas are on everything imaginable from water bottles to toys and more. I always thought that China had a preoccupation with this fuzzy ambassador, but in Chengdu it’s on an entirely new level. That’s because Chengdu, and really the entire province, is the gateway to the pandas and it’s here where millions visit every year to visit China’s most famous, and the cutest, wildlife mascot. In the 1950s, the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base started humbly, but by 2000 it had grown into the world’s authority on all things panda related. These beautiful and mysterious animals are amongst the least well understood in the world, making Chengdu and the reproductive research conducted there vitally important. Pandas call the mountain ranges near Chengdu home and the city has long been known as the panda capital of China as a result. Chengdu doesn’t only research pandas here, it also loans them out to zoological institutions around the world for conservation education and also in the hopes that these other zoos will be successful in producing baby pandas, adding to the worldwide population. The central panda research center though isn’t the only panda refuge around Chengdu, there are several others including the one that I decided to visit on a slightly overcast morning, what is officially known as the Dujiangyan Research Center of Giant Panda Breeding and Release but locally called the Panda Ark.
I didn’t just get to watch the pandas though, this is also where I had the very unique opportunity to hug one of these teddy bears come to life. For a donation to the center, visitors can either spend an entire day volunteering at the center, or just spend a few moments hugging a panda. I was short on time, so I opted for the panda hug but even this brief encounter was an extraordinary moment. A small group of us excitedly waited for the panda to be brought out, a younger one who immediately hopped up on a nearby bench, clearly used to the activity. The hug itself only lasted about 30-seconds, but it was a special moment and for all of us there truly was the culmination of a lifetime of waiting.
Jinli Street is an admittedly touristy place, but it turns out that it has been that way for millennia – seriously. This long and narrow street today is full of vendors, shops and important for me, food stalls. Walking around was heaven, smelling the strange and unusual scents and asking my interpreter countless times what everything was. From pork buns to pineapple sticky rice to roasted rabbit head, I was mesmerized by everything and wished I could somehow taste it all.
Next to this famous street is a large park and temple complex, the Wuhou Temple. Dedicated to an important Chinese historical figure, the entire complex is equal parts pilgrimage site and beautiful park, the two coalescing perfectly. It’s a quiet place for reflection, a relaxing walk in what can sometimes be a slightly chaotic city.
China loves to eat, a lot. Life revolves around your next meal and is a major aspect of hospitality throughout this massive country. So when a city in China is well known above all others for its epicurean delights, you know you’ve found a place that takes its cuisine very seriously indeed. The capital of the Sichuan Province, it seems that Chengdu has always enjoyed this reputation, combining locally sourced ingredients and infusing them with its powerful spicy heat that is now loved around the world. That heat comes from the Sichuan pepper, which has an intense fragrant flavor that produces what the books call a “tingly-numbing” sensation. I should at this point probably mention that I don’t like spicy food, at all. I think it’s genetics, but I have zero tolerance for anything spicier than ketchup, so I rightfully feared what lay in store for me in Chengdu. My first introduction to this famous food was along Jinli Street, which is known as Snack Street for a reason. Hundreds of vendors fill the stalls selling everything imaginable and visiting around lunchtime was the perfect opportunity to see the best of what the city has to offer.
Wide and Narrow Alley
One of the city’s most famous neighborhoods, the Wide and Narrow Alley is a series of ancient streets and courtyards, which today are home to some of Chengdu’s toniest shops and restaurants. While window shopping or grabbing a Starbucks wasn’t what I had in mind, I was interesting in trying the city’s most famous dish – the hot pot.
I like to think of the Chinese hot pot as a type of fondue. There are specific hot pot restaurants, and each table in them is equipped with inlaid pots and cookers, just like at fondue restaurants I’ve been to here in the States. I was led through this process through new friends I made, staff at The Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu. Knowing that I wanted to experience traditional Chengdu cuisine, they took an evening out of their lives – their free time – to take me to their favorite hot pot restaurant in town and teach me the proper way to enjoy this iconic dish. It was an incredibly touching gesture, one that still means a lot to me. The hot pot process though is fairly simple. Diners select the meats and vegetables they want to cook in the pots along with the type of stock. In Chengdu, this means a broth that is literally teeming with those red Sichuan peppers.
It was a fun experience but a spicy one, more than once tears welled up in my eyes but I loved the dinner. Hot pot is about the great food, but it’s also about the camaraderie, the conversation and being together with friends. Being in that restaurant, clearly a local and not a tourist favorite, I felt like I had been let into a secret, another piece of the puzzle in understanding the city.
China is one of the best destinations in providing great luxury hotels to visitors and Chengdu is certainly no exception. There I stayed at the refined Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu, a hotel high in the clouds overlooking the entire city. The hotel calls the 28th to the 41st floors home, guaranteeing all guests stunning views of the city that seems to stretch out forever. The rooms themselves are modern and refined, exactly what I expect from any Ritz-Carlton property, but with fun moments of flair. Whether it was the telescope in my bedroom, or remote-controlled everything, the room was as inviting a space as any I’ve enjoyed in a long time.
The hotel is a lot more than just the guest rooms of course, and during my stay I took advantage of many of them including their well-know restaurant – Li Xuan. Walking into the space, I knew right away that this wasn’t going to be an average dining experience. Antique sconces and lights adorn the walls and even the ceiling itself is a throwback to a different time and place. That’s exactly the point though in this restaurant that offers a unique fusion of classic Cantonese and Sichuan cuisine. It was also my first introduction to the spicy but flavorful dishes of the region and after enjoying one of the best meals I’ve been offered in a long time, I knew that it was the perfect culinary primer.
Although the Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu was the first luxury hotel in the region, there of course more popping up all of the time. But the Ritz Carlton Chengdu isn’t like the rest, they infuse the high levels of service and quality found at all Ritz-Carlton properties with the unique sensibilities and even flavors of the city it calls home. Ultimately that’s what any of us want when we travel, be it for business or leisure. We want to feel like we’re traveling, experiencing something new and different and not locked in those windowless conference rooms that were the bane of my former professional life.
No matter how you choose to spend your time in Chengdu, I think you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was by this, what surely must be one of China’s star cities.