Until only a decade or so ago, Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, ranked among the nation’s many obscure cities. Located on the edge of the fertile plains of Sichuan’s Red Basin, the city is sheltered by the Qinling Mountains and has regularly been referred to as the ‘Land of Abundance’. Although it was a commercial and cultural core of activity for the people of Sichuan, foreigners rarely ventured that deep into the Middle
Kingdom, preferring to play it safe in cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.
But Chengdu, with a population of over 11 million, has come of age, thanks to widespread foreign investment. Recently named China’s fourth ‘most livable city’, it now boasts
a busy arts scene, a burgeoning expat community and enviable food culture. The past two years has seen a rise in international investment, evident in the sleek new commercial towers, bustling bistros and posh restaurants surrounding Tian Fu Square, where, each evening, elaborate music-synchronized aqua shows draw crowds to the base of an enormous statue of Chairman Mao.
Despite the popularity of Shanghai, Beijing and cities to the east, Chengdu has blossomed into a cultural, commercial and scientific hub for central China. Its universities are attracting students from across the province and beyond, and the city boasts more than its fair share of galleries and museums, which pay homage to both its Chunxi Road’s colourful shops draw the crowds historical roots and modernist future. Don’t miss a staging of Sichuan Opera, which is usually performed at traditional guesthouses. Resembling more a multi-faceted talent show than a usual stage production, expect a bit of everything from magic to story telling, singing to sword fighting. One of the most loved opera houses, Shu Feng Ya Yun, is located in Chengdu’s Cultural Park, but be sure to make reservations in advance.
If you’re a history buff, then delve deeper into Chengdu’s past at the Jinsha Excavation Site. Discovered by a construction company in 2001 and opened to the public in 2006, the 74-acre archaeological complex displays other-worldly artefacts dating back to the 3,000 year old Shu kingdom, including hundreds of works of art, religious symbols and weapons, jade carvings, gold plates and stone idols. A gold foiledsun – said to represent the ancient God of the Sun – at the centre of the dig boasts four flying phoenixes, as well as an icon of a tree of snakes. With finds similar to those at the acclaimed Sanxingdui dig, some 40km from Chengdu, historians believe these are the remnants of a once powerful kingdom that ruled much of modern day China.
The museum, which now covers the site, has guided tours and a comprehensive collection of metal and pottery works, and is considered on par with the likes of Xian’s renowned Terracotta Warriors. The Wenshu Temple (15 Wenshuyuan, off Renmin Zhonglu Rd) is a Buddhist shrine which lingers from the Tang Dynasty, and is dedicated to the Manjusri Bodhisattva, the God of Wisdom. There are over 450 statues and individual shrines, and the temple remains popular with the city’s followers as well as amateur photographers. A far more modern take on Chengdu can be found at the Sichuan Science & Technology Museum, located at Tianfu Square (1 Renmin Zhonglu Rd). This sprawling centre houses exhibits on scientific innovation, aerodynamics, space, mathematics, physics and robotics.
Unlike the Jinsha site, the museum is much more hands-on, making it a great wet weather alternative. The entire museum is bilingual, so you won’t be lost in translation as you navigate Sichuan’s scientific development. One of the most popular exhibitions covers China’s ambitious space programme that includes models of the Long March rockets used to launch satellites. No visit to Chengdu is complete without a stop at the Chengdu Panda Base (www.panda.org.cn), officially known as the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. You can take a guided or audio tour, explore the research centre, capture the world-famous pandas at play, and learn about the efforts to save their dwindling population. Finally, if you want to be among the people of Chengdu, rise early and join the tai chi troops, clutches of chess-playing old men, and martial artists who congregate in the city’s Wangjianglou Park, also known as the Bamboo Park. Located on the south bank of the Jinjiang River, the park is home to the iconic Chongli Pavilion, and a lush bamboo forest. Alternatively, you’ll find the the city’s youth at the chic coffee shops, bars and galleries of the restored Kuanxiangzi and Zhaixiangzi alleys in Shao Town.