Chengdu, Sichuan, China – Panda research base
Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan Province, in the central west of China. We visited Chengdu mainly to see the pandas at the Panda Research Base, but there are lots of other reasons to go there too. One of the unexpected side benefits of a few days in Chengdu was the amazing shopping we discovered there. The city has one of the largest walking streets (pedestrian shopping malls) we’ve seen in China, lined with the most incredibly cheap boutique brand stores. Most clothing and footwear is made in China these days, but it’s still surprising to see it as these prices outside of bootleg markets.
With a population of over 10 million people, Chengdu can be pretty crowded in places, especially at the airport and the main railway stations, but also in the main shopping streets in the centre of town. During our shopping expeditions (and we had a few) the walking streets were literally wall to wall with people, but there was little sign of any of the crime that usually festers in such conditions.
Things to see and do in Chengdu
The main attraction of Chengdu for us was the Panda Research Base, located about 30 minutes north of the city. While you can go their on a bus tour, we just took a taxi from our hotel (about 25 RMB). Get there early (before 8.30 AM) for the best experience. The entry cost is 145 RMB per person, but it’s well worth paying an extra 100 RMB for a personal guide (the guide centre is just on your left as you walk in), as they will stay with you for about 90 minutes and will make sure you get the best possible experience from your visit.
When you get in early, you have the chance to get up close and see the baby pandas eating their breakfast. You might also get to see the panda babysitter (a mother panda with a cub who also looks after two or three other cubs) playing with her cub and the other cubs in her care. For a donation of 1000 RMB per person you can hold a baby panda and have your photo taken, but the experience is diluted somewhat by having to wear a plastic jumpsuit and gloves as they are worried about the pandas catching diseases from human contact.
All in all, we had a really good morning out, but it was all over by 10 AM as the pandas are pretty lazy and like to sleep for most of the day.
There’s lots more to see and do in Chengdu besides the pandas, though, including:
1. Jinli Ancient Street (锦里古街)
This is another historical reconstruction in the older part of Chengdu. While it’s obviously aimed at tourists, it’s still a very interesting area to wander around and we spent a half day there including having some lunch. It was obvious too that there would be some pretty decent night life in Jinli Ancient Street with a great range of bars, restaurants and night clubs to choose from. In the afternoons you will see lots of armchairs and occasional tables set up in the streets where locals relax and play mah-jong.
2. Wenshu Temple (文殊院)
This was an easy destination for us as it’s just down the street from the Buddha Zen Hotel. It’s a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monastery that’s still in general (and regular) use today. If you’re interested in history, the temple contains about 450 Buddha statues. There is also a very popular tea house set in the gardens of the monastery, where locals come to play chess and socialise with friends.
3. Kuanzhaixiangzi (宽窄巷子)
Literally means wide and narrow alleys and is another historical district in Chengdu, but this time perhaps a little more authentic. It dates from the Qing Dynasty (17th century) and is a great place to experience life in Old Chengdu. Here you will find traditional courtyard houses, market streets, some nice bars and restaurants and the Buddha Zen Hotel where we stayed.
4. Chunxi Road (春熙路)
The pedestrian shopping street district of downtown Chengdu, full to the brim with boutique and brand name clothing stores, restaurants, cafes, book stores, cinemas and well concealed market streets with real bargains. Stop for lunch at an authentic hotpot restaurant or, as we did, grab some authentic hand-pulled noodles and dumplings from one of the many street cafes.
Getting in and out of Chengdu
We visited Chengdu in the spring time, when the days can still be quite chilly although the average temperature should be 12-19 degrees C. During our stay it was down to less than 3 degrees C in the mornings and did not get much over 12 degrees in the daytime, but don’t let that put you off. Spring is still a great time to visit Chengdu as the winters are very cold and the summers are very hot and humid. And all year round it seems to be overcast (or at least very foggy). The table above (courtesy of Wikitravel.org) shows the climate in Chengdu at different times of the year.
Most visitors arrive in Chengdu by plane (we flew with Air Asia into Chengdu directly from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for less than US$100 each), or by train or bus. Chengdu is one of China’s top five international airports with direct flights coming in from Amsterdam, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Osaka, Phnom Penh, Seoul and Singapore as well as from Kuala Lumpur.
If you are arriving by plane, the international airport is about 20 km from the city centre and a taxi costs about 45 RMB (USD$7.50) … but make sure they use the meter (Chūzū chē jìjià qì) as some taxi drivers will zoom off and you won’t notice they’ve not turned the meter on. Then they will try to charge you a fixed fare of 80-100 RMB for the trip. The meter switch is a plastic box with a light in it on top of the dashboard on the right side – make sure it’s down, not up. The meter itself is in the centre of the dashboard and will show a flagfall of 8-9 RMB depending on time and taxi type. If the taxi takes you on the airport expressway (Jīchǎng gāosù gōnglù) there will be an extra charge of 10 RMB for the toll but it will be a lot faster. The taxi stand is outside the domestic arrivals hall on the right side. There will usually be a queue so you just have to wait your turn. There will be lots of fake taxi drivers in the main arrivals hall and outside the terminal trying to get you to pay 100 RMB or more for a ride into the city. Just say “Bù xīwàng” and walk on.
Chengdu is on the main railway line to Lhasa in Tibet and has direct rail connections to Beijing, Kunming in Yunnan province, Guilin in Guangxi province, Chongqing and Xi’an. We left Chengdu by train for Xi’an, which is 18 hours away, but I’ll talk about that more in the Xi’an Travel Guide.
If you are arriving by train, you either arrive at the South Railway Station (from Kunming, Chongqing or Guilin) or the North Railway Station (from Beijing or Xian). In either case, the taxi fare into the city centre is only about 10-13 RMB. The taxi queue is outside the station on the right hand side and can be quite long. The same cautions apply about making sure the meter is running, but the taxi scams that operate from the airport don’t seem as common around the railway or bus stations (perhaps because their fares usually have less money). If you don’t want to wait in the queue, look for a glass structure with blue frame about 50 metres outside either station. This is the entry ramp to the Chengdu Metro (Chéngdū dìtiě lièchē) train which runs north and south through the city with fares about 2-4 RMB per trip. It’s fast, clean and easy to use and you can get off at Zongfu Road or Wenshu Monastery stations and easily hail a taxi to take you to your hotel.
I can’t tell you very much about the long distance bus situation here, as we didn’t travel that way at all (and we generally prefer not to, due to their terrible accident record). But there are direct buses to Chongqing and to lots of lesser known destinations. There are three bus stations, depending on where you’re arriving from or leaving to. These are Chadianzi (茶店子汽车站) to go to Songpan and Jiuzhaigou, Xinnanmen (新南门汽车站) to go to Leshan and Kangding, and Wuguiqiao (五桂桥汽车站) to go to Chongqing.
When ever you use a taxi in Chengdu, it helps to have your destination name and address printed in Chinese because almost none of the taxi drivers in Chengdu speak even a little English.But they will try their best to get you to where you want to go. If the driver tries to negotiate a fixed price (which is illegal, by the way). just insist on using the meter as it will always be cheaper.
Places to stay in Chengdu
We stayed at the Buddha Zen Hotel (成都圆和圆佛禅客栈) in Wenshufang Street, Qingyang District near the Wenshu Monastery. It was a little hard to find this hotel (especially as we arrived in the middle of the night in the pouring rain), as it’s down a cobbled walking street in the heart of a reconstructed historical district. It ranks as a 4-star hotel and it earns every one of them and more. It’s also the number one ranked hotel in Chengdu on TripAdvisor based on traveller reviews, which is how we came to stay there!A standard “superior double room” like the one we stayed in is around USD$100 per night, but there are deluxe rooms at around USD$175 if you want more space. The rooms are simply stunning! In fact the whole hotel is stunning!
This part of town is restored in the traditional Chinese hutong style and the Buddha Zen, while not famous, is the centrepiece of this district. Its architecture is like a Chinese imperial palace and the rooms are very spacious and comfortable, even including a large suite for families. The staff at Buddha Zen cannot do enough for their guests and although it has 35 rooms, it’s no wonder the place is booked out well in advance. For about 350 RMB a night (Superior Room) it’s not cheap, but excellent value and was a highlight of our visit.
Some other hotels you might consider if you can’t get into the Buddha Zen would include:
- Crowne Plaza Chengdu Panda Garden in Xindu District, near the Sichuan Silk Museum, a 5-star hotel near the Panda base with rooms from around US$110 per night.
- Chengu Fraser Suites in Zhihui Street in Jinjiang District, popular with business travellers and close to Tianfu Square and the shopping street. Room rates are around US$150.
- The Ritz-Carlton Chengdu in Shuncheng Main Street, Qinyang District, is a 4-star hotel with rooms from US$265 per night, but the service is very good and they arrange very popular panda tours for guests.