Downtown Chengdu

Downtown Chengdu


Chengdu is China’s quiet achiever. So few people in the west are familiar with Chengdu compared with the economic powerhouses of Shanghai and Beijing, but they would probably be familiar with Chengdu’s culture. Chengdu, and the surrounding countryside, is the home of China’s giant pandas, while Szechuan cuisine (a corruption of the name Sichuan, the state of which Chengdu is the capital) has been a staple of Chinese restaurants in the west for decades. With the relaxing of Chinese visa rules, foreigners can now spend 72 hours in Chengdu city limits visa-free, allowing for a visit to the panda base at least. A tourist or transit visa would be required for an exploration of Leshan and Mt E’mei, as described in this article. I visited in August of 2012, transiting between Tibet and Bangkok.

Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Base

Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Base

Greater Chengdu, nicknamed “The Hibiscus City”, is home to 14 million people, making it about the same size as Delhi (and three times the size of Sydney). It’s a city of gardens, boulevards and temples. It’s also home to the worlds largest giant panda conservation centre where visitors can watch these beautiful creatures being forced to procreate (pandas are famously sexually reluctant, and would die out if it wasn’t for human intervention). On Saturday morning I headed out to the panda conservation park to see some of the cute bears. Scores of them were lolling around in their large pens, munching and playing.
Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Base

Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Base

Pandas only eat bamboo, however bamboo is very low on nutrients and they have to spend 16 hours a day eating the stuff to get enough energy to simply live. The rest of the time is spent sleeping, trying to conserve energy. This is in fact the reason why pandas won’t mate naturally – they can rarely muster up the energy to get it on. The panda base offers its inhabitants air conditioned indoor pens, to try and encourage the animals to save energy and stay out of the humidity outdoors – occasionally it works and a panda conceives naturally, but usually the only solution is IVF. The IVF laboratory is open to the public, although you don’t actually get to see the process – it’s all explained in a 15 minute video set to music by Enya.
Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Base

Giant Pandas at Chengdu Panda Base

Next door is where the panda cubs are kept in their humidicribs until they’re ready to live in the rough and tumble world of the pens. One tiny cub, just two weeks old, could hardly move she was so small. She was covered in fluffy pink and white fur, but with the same black path eyes that pandas are known for. She gets to spend a couple of hours each day with her biological mother – a sign on the top of her humidicrib said “If I’m not inside, I must be in my mother’s arms”. Cute! The red panda enclosure didn’t have the same cute factor, but being much smaller and energetic the red pandas are allowed to roam freely and mix with the human visitors.
Infant giant panda at Chengdu Panda Base

Infant giant panda at Chengdu Panda Base

I took a tour to the Panda Base, just to speed things up a bit, and I swapped email addresses with the bubbly tour guide Xiaoying (“but you can call me ‘Yumiko'” – without explaining why she had a Japanese nickname!). Yumiko was from rural Sichuan province, but lived in Chengdu for university where she was studying marketing. On the weekend she did casual work for the tour company to practice her English with the foreigners and for a bit of extra cash – “pocket money”, she giggled. I asked her if she had Facebook – “No – you know in China it’s difficult… but I’ve been thinking of opening an account” she said. Facebook is banned in China – the Beijing government use a ‘firewall’ to block out any foreign website which they deem “unsuitable”. However this “Great Firewall of China” is full of holes, and lots of Chinese people are illegally members of Facebook, and my hostel in Chengdu openly advertised that their computers are “Facebook friendly”! Yumiko is a member of Yengyengwa (which apparently, means “everyone”), a Chinese equivalent of Facebook which the government keeps tabs on. “It’s exactly the same, only everything is in Chinese” she told me, showing me a very similar page on her iPhone.
Red Panda at Chengdu Panda Base

Red Panda at Chengdu Panda Base

Later in the day the tour took us to the city of Leshan, about an hour and a half drive on another spectacular motorway south of Chengdu. There we took a boat ride on a river to view the world’s largest Buddha statue. Carved out of a cliff face, Standing at 71 metres, the huge carving is a world heritage site, and is over 1200 year old. From the boat we were able to take it all in; many tourists had taken the cheaper option to visit the forecourt, and found themselves dwarfed by the statue, where the fingernails are taller than the average human.

Leshan Giant Buddha

Leshan Giant Buddha

We also had a Chengdu hot pot for lunch included in the tour price. If you haven’t tasted Chengdu hot pot, do yourself a favour and go to a restaurant that serves it. A bowl of boiling broth (usually made from vegetable or meat stock) is placed over a gas burner in the centre of the table. You order a couple of meats and vegetables which then arrive at your table chopped on plates, but raw. You then add them to the hot pot as you like; either cook them all at once, or add them one at a time to have separate dishes. A small soup bowl is served so you can finish off the broth after the meal. Top end restaurants will often have “set hot pots” – that is, a set combinations of meat and vegetables that the restaurant recommends you try. However in China, and particularly at the cheaper, street side restaurants, you can actually go to the kitchen fridge yourself and pick out your ingredients, which is a godsend to anyone who is worried about unfamiliar Chinese menus. Chengdu hot pot is usually insanely spicy, but the touristy restaurant we went to in Leshan, and many Chinatown restaurants in western countries don’t add spice to the broth unless you ask for it. After Leshan, the tour dropped me off and I made my way the short distance to nearby Mount E’mei where I spent the night.

Morning mist rises off Mt E'mei

Morning mist rises off Mt E’mei

The next morning I woke up early and took a bus and a cable car to the top of Mount E’mei. Unlike the Tibetan regions, Chengdu and Leshan are quite low, and are built on sweaty, humid plains. Mount E’mei is an exception to this – from the flat lands of Chengdu and Leshan at 380 metres, Mount E’mei rises a whopping 3100m almost straight up – spectacular to say the least. The cable car, packed with tourists, played some screaming Chinese pop song as we ascended in the early morning light. When we arrived at the top, we were almost too late; the cloud had rolled in for the day, and the surrounding plains had disappeared under a carpet of cottony mist. However the peak was still clear – for a while. At the top Buddhists prayed at an auspicious temple, while others lit incense and candles. The cloud rose up the side of the mountain, creating a sort of wall bordered by the sheer cliff face. Prayer flags were everywhere, and the air was cool on my face. It was like one last taste of Shangri La.

Temple atop Mt E'mei

Temple atop Mt E’mei

I took the bus back to Chengdu that afternoon. Back in Chengdu, it was a hot and muggy Sunday afternoon. locals were cycling through the riverside parks, while cicadas chirped in the trees. With less pollution, it could’ve been an early December day in Sydney.

When to go

Spring in Chengdu is particularly nice – go in March or April, or in autumn, which is September to November. Summer can be hot and humid, while winter can be freezing.

Essential Stats

Culture shock: 8/10

Language difficulty: 8/10 – not many people speak English

Quality of food: 7/10

Cost: 5/10

Physical demand: 4/10 – unless you choose to walk up Mount E’mei!

Advice and warnings

The usual precautions apply – no walking alone at night if you can help it, keep a close eye on your valuables, etc. Be aware of pickpockets, especially in crowded places. Check Smart Traveller or the British Foreign Office for more comprehensive warnings.


Except for some transit travellers, everyone needs a visa to travel to the the People’s Republic of China. Applications can cost up to US$100, and take several weeks to process. Contact your nearest Chinese diplomatic mission for details (MelbourneIslamabadSydneyDelhi). Speak to your travel agent about the option of a 72-hour visa free transit.

Getting there and around

Sichuan Airlines flies directly from Melbourne to Chengdu from $1058, but the website is almost totally in Chinese script, so unless you understand Chinese, you’d be best to book with a travel agent.

Alternatively Cathay Pacific flies from Melbourne to Chengdu via Hong Kong from $1289, and from Sydney to Chengdu via Hong Kong from $1254.

Etihad flies from Lahore to Chengdu via Abu Dhabi from PKR 122,553. From Chennai, the best option is Cathay Pacific from INR 35,192.

Alternatively discount airline Air Asia flies from Melbourne and Chennai to Chengdu via Kuala Lumpur.

By the time you read this, the Chengdu Metro should be open for business, but taxis around Chengdu are fairly cheap and also worth considering.



I stayed at the excellent Sim’s Cosy Garden Hostel, known now as the Hello Chengdu International Youth Hostel. Upmarket options include the Millennium Hotel Chengdu and Shangri-La Chengdu.

Comments (2)

  • Agness Reply

    I went to Chengdu over 1 year ago and I must say that the Giant Buddha was stunning and incredibly massive. Much bigger than I thought. Unfortunately, I have not seen pandas and it’s one of my biggest China travel regrets :-(. Maybe next time…

    May 9, 2014 at 10:40 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      A perfect reason to return then!! Thanks for reading Agness 🙂

      May 9, 2014 at 3:04 pm

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