When I tell people that I taught English in China, I’m usually answered with, “Oh, cool, were you in Beijing or Shanghai?”. When I explain I lived in Chengdu, southwest Sichuan province, I’m usually met with blank stares or “that’s where the giant pandas are, right?”.
It probably is the Giant Panda Research Base that puts Chengdu on the map for travellers—after all, taxis here have cartoon pandas stamped onto the bonnets! – but there are so many more things to do in Chengdu.
After accepting a teaching post there, I made the 25-hour-long train journey from Beijing along with a group of other new English teachers (don’t worry, there’s also an airport!).
Living in Chengdu gave me the chance to explore what else the city had to offer, and didn’t require a big budget, either. When you get there, here are eight things worth seeing in Chengdu.
1. The must-do: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
You should definitely head here first thing in the morning to get a decent spot for taking photos of (and laughing at) the panda cubs. We also found that as the day went on more pandas stayed indoors to keep cool.
We spent most of the day wondering how these scarily-giant, beautiful creatures were just so… docile. As they lay there, chomping through bamboo, staring back at us, we were half in awe and half weirded out by them and their lazy lifestyle: we were pretty jealous of it too, to be honest.
And then, right at the other end of the spectrum are the energetic red pandas, with a fox-like appearance. It’s a naïve idea to try and get a photo of and/or with them though, as they seem to prefer jumping out at you before dashing away again.
2. Sichuan culture: Qintai Road
Okay, it’s pretty touristy, but jump off at Tonghuimen metro and wander down Qintai Road for an experience of ‘old China’ with its traditional-styled architecture and statues.
You’ve got to try the Sichuan hotpot whilst you’re here – if you like spice, good, and if you don’t, good luck. The hotpot is a communal pot of spicy broth that bubbles away at the centre of the table. You dunk in various meats and vegetables to cook, and whilst there are regional variations of the hotpot, Sichuan is notorious for being the spiciest. The amount of times I accidentally swallowed a black peppercorn and numbed my tongue for the rest of the day… trust me, steer clear of the peppercorns!
On the other side of the road is Shufeng opera house, where we took in the Sichuan Opera. It consists of a variety of performances, from comedy sketches to hand silhouette puppetry (yep), and ends with the extremely popular biàn liǎn; the Face-Mask Changing display. The actors are able to change their masks in a split second: how do they do it? I’ll keep the mystery to myself (I had to Google it) and let you figure it out for yourselves.
3. Nightlife: Jialebi
Jialebi has a thriving expat area bursting with bars, clubs and KTV bars. Fifteen of us— an assortment of hostel roommates, friends from Shamrocks and Jellyfish bars and friends made in between— bundled into three tuk tuks and were whisked away to one of the many KTVs in the area.
KTV is where you hire a karaoke room with your friends to sing the night away, and groups over six or so are likely to have free alcohol thrown in too. It’s the sort of place where you’ll make friends with everyone in the other rooms, and by the end of the night you’ll be serenading one another in all of the wrong notes.
4. Day trips: Leshan and Mount Qingcheng
Both trips here are UNESCO listed and bucket-list worthy, and with good reason too. The impressive Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest stone-carved Buddha in the world. We hiked up to the top, marvelling at how its sheer size, detail and precision could be sculpted from a cliff. You can also take a riverboat, which pauses at the Buddha’s feet, making for a perfect photo opportunity of the Buddha towering above you.
We also took a day trip to Mount Qingcheng, which had been integral to the founding of Taoism. There are well-placed, colourful temples dotted up the hill, designed for you to make offerings at and are perfect for respites and water breaks.
5. Local life
When I first nervously arrived in Chengdu, a group of us visited People’s Park, a picturesque public park (with an eponymous metro station nearby). After watching the locals perform their dance routines, they invited us to join in!
For me, this friendly gesture summed up the warmth of the Chinese, and how welcome I was made to feel there. Another way to experience the local way of life is by relaxing in a teahouse and playing (or attempting to play) a classic game of mahjong.
6. Girl power: Wangjianglou Park
The Sichuanese are known for being pretty laid-back, so that’s right, here’s another park! This tranquil, bamboo-filled park runs along the riverside and is dedicated to Xue Tao, an ancient female poet.
We walked up an appetite and made our way to the other side of the river to feast ourselves at Damiao Hotpot, remembering to be careful with those peppercorns…
7. Archaeology: Du Fu Thatched Cottage
Du Fu is widely considered as one of the greatest Chinese poets, and this museum showcases his life as well as the lives of others during the Tang Dynasty. There are sprawling gardens with trickling waterfalls and romantic pavilions, making for perfect selfie-spots, or just a place for peace and quiet.
Also, check out the top floor of the pagoda for sweeping city views from above the treetops.
Visit the pedestrianised shopping street of Chunxi Lu, just over 1km in length and offering over 700 shops, or if you fancy a challenge, haggle your way through the hectic, six-floored Chunxi Road Market, which is hidden away on one of the street corners.
For a more mellow atmosphere, check out Wide and Narrow Alley (Tonghuimen metro stop is closest) offering a folky-hipster vibe with cool cafes, edgy art shops and quirky street foods.