Always a draw for its pandas and hotpots, Sichuan’s provincial capital is more enticing than ever these days as it emerges as a cosmopolitan Chinese metropolis whose backyard just happens to be an incredibly beautiful part of the country.
By Amy Fabris-Shi
Photographs by Callaghan Walsh
Everyones loves pandas. They are right up there with terra-cotta warriors and holy mountains on China’s bucket list of attractions. And the southwest provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi are the only places in the world where you can find the endangered species living in its native habitat.
Like most travelers, playing with pandas and scorching my taste buds on ma-la (“numbing-spicy”) Sichuanese cuisine were the main incentives for me to board the 3.5-hour flight west from Shanghai to Chengdu. But touching down in Sichuan’s provincial capital, it became clear that the red-hot allure of this city of 14 million is evolving in new ways too.
Chengdu’s location has always given it a strategic edge. As far back as two millennia ago, it was the starting point of the Southern Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking China, Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East. Caravans bound for Burma and Afghanistan would leave here laden with locally manufactured Shu silk brocade, textiles, and bronze. When they eventually returned, it was with a wealth of ivory, seashells, and porcelain.
Today, Chengdu is the gateway to China’s rapidly developing west and is fashioning itself as an automotive, software, and logistics hub. Two-thirds of the world’s iPads are currently manufactured here, and in September, a report by California-based think tank the Milken Institute named Chengdu the best-performing city in China. Infrastructure has expanded quickly, including two subway lines (with another three in the works). Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is one of China’s four busiest, welcoming flights from 83 international destinations including London, San Francisco, Melbourne, and, as of mid-December, Paris. Construction of a second airport designed to handle 90 million passengers annually is currently underway southeast of the city, with its first phase expected to open in 2018.
For now, Chengdu’s past and present, grit and glamour coexist in one madly bubbling hotpot. As my taxi navigates the wide, traffic-choked streets, we pass epic-scaled skyscrapers and ritzy malls that sidle up to ancient temples. Fancy new hotels—a St. Regis and Niccolo among them—rise above the hubbub. And at Tianfu Square, a 30-meter-tall statue of Chairman Mao dominates the central plaza, his arm outstretched over milling crowds and dancing fountains.
My immediate destination is the mysteriously titled Bitieshi Street, the only lane in the city that has retained its Manchurian name from the Qing era. We pull to a stop outside a stylishly weathered gray-brick wall, whose scarlet gate marks the entrance to Chengdu’s hottest new hotel, The Temple House. The entrance is through the garden courtyard of a century-old building where government scribes once translated documents between Mandarin and Manchurian, the language of China’s Qing dynasty rulers. Behind carved wooden doors and balustrades are vaulted chambers now home to a contemporary art gallery, a residents’ library, an event space, and the reception area.
The third property in the Hong Kong–based Swire Hotels group’s House Collective (the other two are in Beijing and Hong Kong), the months-old Temple House has dispensed with check-in desk procedures, so after a cheerful greeting I proceed into a dramatically upsized modern Chinese courtyard framed by streamlined gray towers housing 142 rooms, suites, and serviced residences. Like all the guest rooms here, mine is spare and hip. Light oak floors and walls are contrasted strikingly with ink-black open-plan bathrooms, and large windows overlook Chengdu’s urban patchwork.
The Temple House anchors the new Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li complex, a 10-hectare open-air mall constructed around six ancient buildings, including the millennium-old Daci Temple, one of the city’s most revered holy sites. Worshippers can now light their incense sticks then amble across the courtyard into any of the 300 restaurants, luxury-brand boutiques, and creative galleries that inhabit Taikoo Li’s art-adorned lanes and piazzas. Bypassing the shiny Gucci and Hermès stores, I discover some interesting homegrown brands and boutiques, like the staggering subterranean Fang Suo Commune. Defined by dramatic concrete pillars and catwalks, the 4,000-square-meter bookstore and creative space is filled with a handsomely curated mix of books, fashion pop-ups by Chinese designers, artsy knickknacks, and a café. Nearby, Monosociety stocks a sophisticated collection of stationery, adult coloring books, and puzzles, while an outlet of Hi Panda comes with serious pop-culture attitude emblazoned across sweatshirts, tees, and caps. If you’re looking for some fun souvenirs, this is a good place to start.