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Chengdu

For thousands of years, the ancient city of Chengdu has been China’s most resilient hub for trade and culture, and, as the city expands skyward, the rest of the world is finally beginning to take notice

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One of Chengdu's traditional streets 

On the cusp of China’s fertile Red Basin rests the sprawling metropolis of Chengdu. For over 2,300 years Chengdu has been a centre of intrigue, lying at the heart of feudal China’s oldest and bloodiest conflicts. The Sichuan capital has seen the rise and fall of a dozen dynasties, and is the only city in China not to have moved or changed its name for two millennia. It should be no surprise then that Chengdu is now home to 14 million people. Yet, the city is barely known outside of China.

That’s starting to change. Over the last few years, Chengdu has launched a major campaign to help it emerge from the shadows of Beijing and Shanghai. Where once only a handful of locals understood English, the city now boasts an entire Western district. Stylish skyscrapers have stolen the horizon, and Chengdu is beginning to reclaim its status as a centre for international business.

Chengdu timeline

1200BC

Where Chengdu now stands, a settlement is established as the capital of Shu

311BC

The land is annexed by the neighbouring state of Qin

316BC

Chengdu city is established by Qin general Zhang Yi

256BC

Dujiangyan Irrigation System is built – it still functions today

1279

The Mongols sack Chengdu and kill over one million people

1644

Rebel leader Zhang Xionzhong takes Sichuan in a bloody coup

1718

Shaocheng, a ‘city within a city’, is built for Manchu soldiers and their families

1944

US Bomber Command launch an operation to base B-29 Superfortresses in Chengdu

1949

President Chiang Ching-kuo has to flee Chengdu during the Chinese Civil War

2008

A magnitude 8.0 earthquake strikes, killing 800,000 people

2013

The world’s largest building, the New Century Global Centre, opens to the public

Elsewhere, Michelin-starred chefs are flocking to the Sichuan capital, attracted by recent commendations of its historical gastronomy. Ancient Buddhist temples and reflective terraced pools allow for periods of secluded meditation just off the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and the sprawling markets are a comprehensive education in Sichuan cuisine. This is Chengdu, a city of plenty – and its journey to splendour has been long and arduous.

Distinguished history
Chengdu rose to prominence early in the fourth century BC, when one of the first ancient kings of Shu decided the city would make a formidable capital. Its geographical command over the Funan River and the plentiful Red Basin allowed the Shu Kingdom to flourish. Protective walls were constructed around the city, while innovations in irrigation boosted agriculture and trade. Hibiscuses covered Chengdu’s city walls, and it garnered a reputation as a civilised jewel in the chaotic wilderness of China’s feudal Five Kingdoms.

The city was conquered and rebuilt numerous times, serving as a capital for empires ruled by Han and Yuan kings alike. Ancient Chengdu’s wealth was unrivalled. It is the site of the first known paper currency exchange, and it eventually became the southern gateway to the revered Silk Road trading route. Its unique embroidery, silk, lacquer and jewellery were (and still are) widely coveted. Many also credit Chengdu with launching China’s goliath tea trade. Today, the city boasts more teahouses than anywhere else in China, and is the heart and soul of the country’s tea production.

Sugar and spice
The city’s cultural distinctions coolly surpass those of its powerful trade industry. Residents of Chengdu are stereotypically laid-back and the city is celebrated as a place of openness and liberal ideals. Over the centuries, any and every culture passing through the ancient city’s gates has been readily assimilated. From Ming emperors and Italian traders to Mongolian and Japanese invaders, Chengdu culture incorporated influences from across the globe and emerged with something unique.

The city has an inimitable brand of opera and distinctive styles of painting and poetry. Better still is its cuisine. Today, Sichuan restaurants can be found in all of the world’s great metropolises. Yet the region’s signature dishes are at their best when prepared the right way: in a quaint Sichuan kitchen. In Chengdu, chefs combine the purple Sichuan peppercorn with a signature blanket of chilli flakes; the cuisine is bold. The same can be said of Chengdu’s people.

Chengdu was the birthplace of nearly every peasant revolt in ancient China. Later, it was the site of the kingdom’s heroic last stand after Mongolian raiders had swept across China, leaving the country in smouldering ruin. More recently, Chengdu was the main source of insurgence against the Japanese in World War II, and was the final city on the Chinese mainland to stubbornly fall into communist hands – prompting Chiang Kai-Shek’s famed flight to Taiwan in 1949. Yet by no means was the feisty spirit sewed into Chengdu’s regional culture stamped out by the rise of Mao Zedong’s solemn brand of communism. It continues to show constantly in the city’s arts and its increasingly bold business community.

Big business
Over the last decade, young people have flocked to Chengdu en masse. In comparison to most Asian cities, it costs little for entrepreneurs to start a new venture. Better yet, its large graduate population provides a desirable and intelligent work force. Chengdu’s municipal government has also been successful in attracting foreign investment. Last year Chengdu was the number-one investment location in inland China, and over 200 of the world’s Fortune 500 companies now maintain a strong presence
in the city.

This has spurred competition within its nine counties; the world’s top architects have found themselves in heavy demand across the city. With the help of Tishman Speyer and Singapore’s CapitaLand, previously unused lots are becoming ambitious architectural works. Hong Kong nightlife magnate Allan Zeman was even recently tasked with breathing new life into Chengdu’s booming nightlife district by way of a 1.2bn yuan development project. Inner Chengdu is now littered with skyscraper projects, while public green space is being expanded. Yet facades of Qing-era homes are still visible in the city landscapes that trace the ring roads dissecting the city. Chengdu has evolved into a cutting-edge metropolis but areas of the city maintain the rustic charm visitors expect from China’s oldest cities.

Throughout the city’s history, Chengdu’s leaders have caused upheaval by tearing down ancient sites in favour of flashy modern projects. Mao Zedong dismissed the city’s 2,000 year-old fortress wall as an “ugly inconvenience to traffic”. The ancient wall was immediately torn down, and today only a few scattered piles of rock indicate where it once stood. From the 1950s onward, this practice continued – particularly in the 1990s, when foreign companies began to take an interest in Chengdu and its 200 million-strong consumer reach. Today, only a small proportion of inner Chengdu’s buildings have any historical significance. The city’s thorough (and often controversial) modernisation has chased quite a few locals into the surrounding hills, and some older residents love nothing more than to reminisce about the days before steel beasts governed Chengdu’s skyline. Yet their grumblings haven’t gone unnoticed.

Bodies such as UNESCO have started to take interest in local conservation efforts – especially concerning Chengdu’s Buddhist temples. Ever since the arrival of Emperor Xuanzong in 712 AD, the city has had a reputation as a centre for Buddhist education and worship. Its temples provide residents with much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of city life – Wenshu Temple is particularly stunning. Lesser temples are still sprinkled in between Chengdu’s impressive high rises, and serve as after-work centres of reflection for overburdened locals.

Just across Tianfu Square, outdoor teahouses surround a towering statue of Chairman Mao. Here, concerts are regularly staged on hot summer nights. Westerners can stroll up Kuanzhaixiangzi and discover local treasures in its tiny shops, or enjoy the comforts of home in mega-malls stocked with multinational retailers. Just north of the lauded Sichuan Opera House, animal enthusiasts will find the globe’s leading centre in panda research. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is home to 50 pandas and is the primary source of studies into the mating habits of the famously bashful bears. For a quieter cultural experience, plenty of westerners find solace sipping on Sichuan tea in a secluded park, while trying their hand at weiqi – a simple and wildly popular strategy game.

Endless potential
Last year, getting around in the city finally became simple with the completion of a major subway expansion. Like any great metropolis, Chengdu is cultivating its own subterranean city, digging deeper into the earth as its buildings climb higher. Consequently, European and American travel providers are finally starting to realise the city’s potential. In 2010, American Airlines began operating their first nonstop flights to Chengdu, while British Airways have scheduled their first flights to Chengdu from September 2013.

As the city continues to expand, there’s no better time to explore. Chengdu sits at a precipice. The city is evolving quicker than ever and as it starts to open more doors to the west, its distinctive culture will inevitably follow historical precedent and absorb some of the traditions of its new visitors.

By no means is Chengdu a quintessentially Chinese city. Like its distinctive, blazing spices, the people of this city epitomise adaptability and entrepreneurship. Chengdu’s history is intriguing and its progressive spirit knows no bounds. There’s nowhere in China quite like Chengdu.

shangri-la

Where to stay: Shangri-La Hotel

The short drive from Shuangliu International Airport to the Shangri-La – by rivers, lantern-lit bridges and tall trees – is the perfect introduction to Chengdu. Guests are greeted by an opulent lobby and taken to rooms that offer sweeping views of the river from luxurious and spacious interiors. Take a walk along the river in the morning and witness the city coming alive, or relax back at the hotel with restorative treatments at the CHI Spa.The hotel has been showcasing the rich artistic culture of Chengdu since it opened in 2007. It boasts a gallery featuring the work of contemporary artists from the Sichuan province. Be sure to speak with the concierge, who will be more than happy to arrange a visit to the artists’ studios. The hotel has a selection of tempting restaurants and bars on site. Shang Palace gives guests the chance to sample local foods, with a menu of Sichuanese and Cantonese dishes. For a more casual dinner, Mooney’s offers western food, beer and whiskies, accompanied by a live band. After dinner, Lobby Lounge serves cocktails in a sophisticated setting with live entertainment The hotel also has a large gym, lap pool and even a small wading pool. Staff are always on hand to divulge knowledge of less familiar tourist sites, ensuring every guest has a unique experience in the city.

new-century-global-centre

Where to shop: New Century Global Centre

Pictures don’t seem to do it justice, but the New Century Global Centre is, China claims, the largest building in the world. Standing 100m tall, 500m long and 400m wide, the structure could hold four Vatican cities within its 420 acres.Designed by celebrated British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, whose recent projects include the 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre, the building took three years to complete and has a futuristic ocean theme. An artifical sun will shine at all hours, maintaining a steady temperature and there is 400m of simulated coastline. Huge waves roll onto the fake shore, while the world’s largest LED screen displays visuals of watery horizons. Elsewhere a replica Mediterranean village basks in the fake sun.The building, which opened earlier this year, is already filling its 18 storeys. So far the structure is home to offices, an immense shopping centre, a water park, an ice-skating rink and two five-star hotels. A host of restaurants overlook stages, from which nightly music spectaculars entertain guests. Diners are even treated to an artificial sea breeze.

Where to eat

food-1

Yu’s Family Kitchen

This exciting restaurant is located in the Kuanzhai Alley district, where the rich and powerful families of ancient China lived. The spacious dining room is decorated with classic Chinese furniture and water ink paintings line the walls, giving it a homely feel. Chef Yu Bo’s food is carefully sourced and the preparation, presentation and variety of flavour may astound even the most accomplished gourmand. Sample his work thoroughly by ordering the 18-dish tasting menu. The culinary journey begins with shark-fin soup and abalone, and ends with alligator and pan-fried egg with black truffle and gold foil.

43 Tongren lu Zhai Xiangzi

food-2

Shizilou Hot Pot Restaurant

No traveller should leave Chengdu without eating hot pot. Arguably the best-tasting food the city has to offer, and by far the spiciest, hot pot is believed to have originated in Mongolia and spread to southern China during the Tang Dynasty. Shizilou is one of the largest hot pot restaurants and has received numerous national awards. Try their unique Yuanyang hot pot, a variation on an old-fashioned dish. The pot in which it is served is divided into two parts by a copper slice in the middle. Chillies are the most important ingredient, but the other elements are chosen by the customer.

2 Wannianchang Road
Chenghua District

food-3

Zhanglaoerliangfen

Hand-pulled noodles are a staple of Sichuan cuisine, but require extraordinary skill to create. The city is home to hundreds of cangyingguan, or ‘fly restaurants’ – a reference to the buzzing atmosphere and high turnover of customers. Many small street carts and hole-in-the-wall cafés serve up superior noodles in a thick, spicy broth with fresh pak choi, but if you’d rather visit a slightly larger restaurant, Zhanglaoerliangfen is hard to beat. This small, decades-old establishment offers thick, fresh noodles covered in a sauce of chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, sugar and sesame seeds. Simple, but delicious.

Wensuyuan Street
Chengdu City

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