In May, the fourth most populous province of China, whose capital is Chengdu, presented to the public a new international tourism logo. Narrowed down from the hundreds of entries submitted, the winning choice depicts the English letters for “Sichuan” colourfully formed into the shape of a panda, with, hovering above it, the red symbol for spicy – the one that can be found beside hot dishes on menus across the region. Beneath the whole are the words “Sichuan, more than pandas”.
Catchy? Debatable. True? Surprisingly, perhaps, yes. While the endangered animal, whose numbers remaining in the wild amount to an alarmingly paltry 1,864, is historically one of the main draws to this region (it’s their natural habitat and many of the country’s panda reserves have been created here), there is, in fact, a wealth of other, lesser-known attractions that could keep a visitor to Chengdu and its surroundings entranced for days. Sacred mountains, 1,000-year-old temples, “changing faces” opera performances and, of course, inherently authentic permutations of a quintessential regional Chinese cuisine are just some. Add to this roster a surprising number of museums and art galleries, new, desirable, low-rise shopping areas and leafy parks replete with both unfurling lotuses and ubiquitous teahouses (at which stops for an obligatory game of mahjong or xiangqi – Chinese chess – punctuate the days of these easy-going residents), and you find a pace of life utterly other to the urban thrum of Beijing or the high-octane glamour of Shanghai. Though it clocks in at over 2,000 years old and claims 14m-odd citizens, Chengdu is accessible and friendly – staying true to Sichuan’s moniker of “heavenly state” – and also gratifyingly modern.
“To get rich is glorious,” said Deng Xiaoping, one of Sichuan’s most famous sons – and rich is exactly what Chengdu has become. The city is positively booming. In 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake had its epicentre just 80km away; an estimated 85,000-plus people died throughout the region, whose infrastructure and economy were dealt a near-terminal blow. But the government rallied, pouring money and manpower into repairs and leveraging the efforts and investment to transform Chengdu into a major regional hub. Car manufacturers, IT companies and retailers were all offered subsidies and tax incentives to build. Cut to 2015, and Chengdu lays claim to producing a large proportion of the world’s iPads (75 per cent, I was told), made at the city’s Foxconn factory – a $2bn investment. Meanwhile, estimates vary as to quite how many of the Chinese Fortune 500 are represented in Chengdu (ranging from 270 to all 500); what is known is that high‑net-worth individuals are a growing breed here.
And the ultra-rich, of course, need places to both stay and play. This has had a most interesting knock-on effect, with luxury hotel marques hotfooting it to Chengdu. The past couple of years have seen the arrival of Ritz-Carlton and St Regis (with a local twist on its classic Bloody Mary, incorporating Sichuan peppercorn oil and pickled chilli), while 2017 promises a W, a Four Seasons and a Mandarin Oriental. This spring heralded the opening of Niccolo by Marco Polo, the first in a “collection of contemporary urban-chic hotels” for this brand. The 230 rooms tick all the luxe boxes, with white marble bathrooms surrounding freestanding tubs, muted colours and stretches of thick linens and leather. Marco Polo is a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Wharf (Holdings) Ltd, the company behind the hugely successful Lane Crawford shopping centres. Interestingly, it chose the city’s International Finance Square (IFS) over Beijing and Shanghai for its flagship mainland China outpost. Along with the hotel, there are 90 designer brands making their Chengdu debuts in the square (plus an ice rink, an Imax cinema and – just to emphasise a sense of place – a model giant panda clinging to the central façade).
Niccolo’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li, the city’s new low-rise shopping paradise, where big names jostle along tiny lanes, from Tiffany & Co to Jimmy Choo to Michael Kors, all set in heritage-style buildings. Beneath is a cavernous subterranean level, with shops such as bookstore Fangsuo, where locals curl up on the stairs, lost in the pages of a new find. Taikoo Li has, in total, 300 boutique, dining and lifestyle outlets: so far, so typical Asian metropolis. Far more significant, though, is a series of beautifully restored heritage buildings, with the jewel in its crown Daci Temple, founded several thousand years ago and now faithfully and sensitively restored. It is one of Chengdu’s most important religious sites, a place where Buddhist monks have remained through the thick and thin of Chinese history. Amid the swirling smoke of incense sticks stands a black wood-carved Guan Yin, goddess of mercy, her hand outstretched in a compassionate gesture against a background that’s a riot of blue waves, reminding worshippers that she is the protector of fishermen.
When the Taikoo Li project was launched in 2009, it was with no conspicuous drive to preserve history or heritage. However, the efforts of Hong Kong and China specialist Swire group – which was a co-developer here – to do just that have been enormously well received by locals. Two of the traditional courtyard buildings have been incorporated into Swire’s stunning Temple House, which joins Hong Kong’s Upper House and Beijing’s Opposite House in the group’s very small, very exclusive portfolio of luxury hotels. Temple House radiates the success of architects Make’s efforts to marry cultural preservation with contemporary design. The entrance gate, which dates from the Qing Dynasty, opens onto a stunning courtyard where bronze cage lights illuminate a gallery on the right and a library on the left. The lobby is washed in quiet tones and contrasting textures – smooth and rough granite on the floor, organically undulating walls. In the rooms and suites, airy spaces lined with bleached oak floors and softened with yak‑wool throws from the neighbouring Tibetan Plateau are elegantly divided into bedrooms and bathrooms with slatted or latticed woodwork. Vividly green grassy spaces between the buildings have steps to reference Sichuan’s naturally tiered landscape (and ingeniously conceal the windows that allow light to flood into the huge pool and gym beneath).
In September, the company’s first spa will open in the second heritage building, complete with a teahouse in the courtyard and a men’s grooming area – which will probably not, one imagines, include the “ear picking” found readily on offer on Chengdu’s old-town streets, such as the Wide and Narrow Alleys (Kuai Zhai Xiangzi). This is an interlinked network of ancient restored streets, where clouds of aromatic steam rise from shopfront cooking stations, and quirky lifestyle shops offer artisanal delights (among the best of which is Fingertip Art, for its embroidery by the region’s Qiang ethnic minority). Also nearby is the Shufeng Yayun Teahouse, whose traditional Sichuan opera is not to be missed. From puppet shows to animated animal shadows, fire breathers to dancers, a series of enthralling sketches plays out – including the “changing faces”, whereby, with a flick of a fan, a red mask becomes green, a black one white and so on.
The breadth of pleasant surprises in town – both ancient and contemporary – notwithstanding, one of the most compelling reasons to come remains the giant pandas. A national treasure and an acutely endangered species, they certainly know how to hold your attention, reclining while they chew contemplatively on bamboo leaves, rolled cleverly into cigar shapes for more speedy and convenient enjoyment. The staff at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding are working hard to educate the public and rehabilitate injured pandas where and whenever possible. At Panda Valley, a newer reserve that opened last year, you can get much closer to the animals, watching the rough and tumble of benevolent mothers with their cubs.
Both of these bases are about an hour from Chengdu city and within easy striking distance of each other. Since June, another attraction has been in welcome proximity: the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, spread over 62 hectares of thickly forested rolling land with a view of the sacred mountain, its slopes studded with beautiful Taoist temples. At the mountain summit a red and gold pagoda rises through the mists that tend to hang heavy here, instilling silence over the faintest whisper of bamboo.
This is Six Senses’ maiden foray into China and has been a long time in the making, but it upholds the eco credentials that have remained dear to the company, even if it manifests a less barefoot version of the luxury that is found at its established sister properties. However, it has introduced many novel concepts; among these is its vast, and vastly impressive, organic garden, where mushroom-cultivation huts punctuate alternating fields of corn, cucumbers and rice paddies, underpinning a farm-to-fork ethos that is, here, highly unusual. Sustainable wood was used to build the 113 villas and suites, which are tightly clustered around courtyards, set over streams with moon bridges or nestled in lush, vividly green bamboo thickets. The spa – all 1,710sq m of it – is a major winner, an elegant essay in white bamboo walls with woven clouds suspended from the ceiling that draws on the Taoist roots of its location with traditional regionally nuanced Chinese medicine treatments. The adjoining swimming pools, outdoor and indoor, are enormous.
For those who want to venture off premises, there is Olaf, the resort’s guest experience manager and all-round secret weapon, who speaks enough of the local dialect to both curse and charm in it. Ask him to take you to the simple streetside Dou Hua Xue Wang restaurant, where you should order the aubergines deep fried with ginger and a local beer, and raise a toast to those who decided to foster a new era of sophisticated tourism here. For whether the gilded shops, ultra-luxe hotels and resuscitated monuments conspire to lure curious, savvy foreigners or not, there’s now, indisputably, far more to Chengdu than just the pandas.