Chengdu: Two tales of a city

31 Aug 2015 by Tamsin Cocks
“Chengdu is a very laid-back place”, said the beaming concierge in English that exceeded my expectations. “People here like to enjoy their free time with shopping, drinking tea or socialising. We don’t rush around.” It’s not the first time I’ve been told that leisure time is sacred in the Sichuan capital, where serene teahouses are in abundance and the sleepy Giant Panda is the city mascot. Some attribute this laissez-faire attitude to the devastating effects of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, after which people took a determined “life’s too short” approach. Then again, proverbs have been handed down for generations that “the young shouldn’t go to Chengdu, and the old shouldn’t leave” because of its relaxed nature. Of course, this is only one side of the story. Ranked as a “tier 1.5 city”, Chengdu is marching full steam ahead to becoming a major economic power, and is frequently referred to as the fourth-most-important Chinese city after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Business is booming in the western China capital – in 2014  GDP surged by 8.9 per cent (ahead of the national average) to break through the RMB1 trillion (US$156 billion) benchmark. Eight pillar industries include technology (almost half of the world’s iPads are assembled in Chengdu), communications, finance, food processing, automobiles, aerospace, manufacturing and light industry. More than 260 Fortune 500 companies have established branches in Chengdu, in addition to thousands of other foreign corporations such as Sony, Toyota, Motorola and Microsoft. Chengdu is also determined to become a world destination for leisure, fashion and culture. Massive commercial complexes and shopping malls have been springing up rapidly to feed both the desires of a rising middle class and a burgeoning tourism industry – Mastercard highlighted Chengdu as the second-fastest-growing city in the world (in terms of international visitors) in its 2015 Global Destination Cities Index. Being a transport hub and trade centre is certainly a key factor in this growth. In the past few years, the city has seen a dramatic increase in worldwide flight operations and now offers 83 international routes connecting it to cities including San Francisco, London, Moscow and Melbourne. The government is planning a new airport that will boast six runways and four terminals. The first phase, capable of processing 40 million passengers, is expected to be complete by 2018, with the final capacity to handle 90 million passengers by 2040. Domestically, Chengdu is one of the most important transit hubs in western China, with four key rail lines connecting the whole of the southwest. The Chengdu-Europe express rail freight service also launched in 2013.   FIRST IMPRESSIONS Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is one of the 30 busiest airports in the world, handling 37.7 million passengers last year. Unfortunately, the arrivals terminal (for Hong Kong passengers at least) gave an underwhelming welcome. A sad looking panda display didn’t detract from the small, shabby luggage terminal that slowly creaked to life about 15 minutes after we had cleared immigration. Departures, on the other hand, seemed more modern and fairly efficient, with 207 check-in counters plus a number of shops and food outlets. Once airside, there is a small selection of duty-free and souvenir shops (mainly selling pandas) and a spacious Starbucks. The airport is about 30 minutes away from the downtown business and commercial Jinjiang area by car. Taxis are available for around RMB60 ($US9.60) to the CBD. Other transport choices include the train, or shuttle buses with a number of drop-off locations. The subway system, which opened in 2010, currently has two lines in operation but continuing development is expected to swell this to ten by 2019, including an airport line due to open in 2018.   WHERE TO UNWIND Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li The global launch of the open-plan, low-rise commercial development Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li (Chengdu) is the latest joint venture between Swire Properties and Sino-Ocean Land, costing upwards of RMB8 billion (US$1.2 billion). Billed as a “shoppers paradise”, the 74,000 sqm area combines heritage, culture, commercial interests and art to create a unique destination in the heart of Chengdu’s premium Jinjiang district. Centred on  the shaded, incense-filled courtyards of the 1,700-year-old Daci Temple, the shopping and entertainment district has been planned with a “fast and slow” concept to represent the dual nature of Chengdu. In the alleyways of the slow lane, well-heeled consumers browse premium lifestyle shops like Moleskine, Swarovski and Bang & Olufsen housed in traditional Sichuan-style architecture, before stopping off for some al fresco refreshments at international food and beverage outlets. In the fast lane, high-powered fashion brands and tech giants beckon to serious shoppers from their gleaming flagship stores. An underground mall houses a nine-screen 3D cinema showing English movies, a spacious international supermarket and “one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops” Fangsuo Commune – a cavernous treasure trove of stationery, gifts, a cafe with signature teas and a professional barista, plus a giant adventure zone for kids. Heritage sites are also to be found throughout, including the refurbished Guangdong Clan Hall and the Tower of Entombing Writings – first built during the Ming dynasty. Modern art sculptures inspired by Chengdu add a distinguishing element, as does artwork commissioned by the local government to celebrate the development. Entitled Chengdu Garden, a colourful 10-metre piece is a playful collaboration between American contemporary pop artist James Warhola (nephew of famed pop artist Andy Warhol) and child prodigy Aelita Andre – a seven-year-old from Melbourne, Australia. (Address for Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li Chengdu: 8 Middle Shamao St, Jinjiang district, Chengdu; Chunxi Rd metro station exit) swireproperties.com and soltklcd.com (Chinese only) Lan Kwai Fong Enjoying an idyllic setting alongside the Jin River, Lan Kwai Fong Chengdu attracts a modern, cosmopolitan crowd. Stylish restaurants, Bavarian beer halls, live music venues and a smattering of cafes and ice cream parlours open till late. The area has a great buzz to it, particularly at weekends. nlkfchengdu.com/en/ Siguan Lu For those who fancy a stroll – head out of LKF and turn left towards the Veranda Bridge Restaurant, majestically poised over the river. It’s about a 15-minute walk that involves one terrifying main road to cross (there’s no shame in attaching yourself to a group of locals like a lost duckling!). This brings you out into Siguan Lu, a lively strip of bars where local artists perform, mainly in Chinese.   WHERE TO EAT Fun Fondue One As the Sichuan capital, Chengdu is famous for its fiery cuisine, and hotpot is a local favourite. Fun Fondue One is a modern, stylish venue to sample this local delicacy. Diners are seated at their own hotplate, choose a soup base, and then simply select meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes from the conveyer belt to cook. Supplement your dinner by creating your own sauce and selecting from a variety of side dishes. Lemon-flavoured water is mercifully available in abundance to soothe inexperienced palates. Expect to pay around RMB110 (US$18) per person. (Address: Shop 2331, L2, East Lane, Taikoo Li; Open: 11am-10pm; T: +86 28 69001986) Green Tea  Atmospherically designed with deep reds, dark wood and oriental furnishings, Green Tea has the feeling of a traditional town in ancient China. The tick-what-you-want menu offers authentic Chinese dishes from several regions, plus a number of house specialties designed to bring out the numbing properties of the aromatic Sichuan peppercorn. The 178-seat venue is an extremely popular choice with locals, so book in advance or be prepared to queue. Around RMB65 (US$10.50) per person, based on sharing. (Address: Shop 2328, L2, East Lane, Taikoo Li; Open 11am-9.30pm; T: +86 28 64656915). Blue Frog If you’re hankering for some Western comfort food, head to Blue Frog. With the option of indoor or outdoor seating facing the tranquil Daci Temple, this buzzing all-day restaurant has a great atmosphere, sharp service and some of the best burgers in town. Other options include pasta, ribs and salads. Average spend RMB100 (US$16) per person. (Address: Shop 1307, L1, East Lane, Taikoo Li; Open: 10am-11pm; T: +86 28 81473258) nen.bluefrog.com.cn   WHAT TO SEE Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding For two million years, lush bamboo forests in the province have supported the highest population of pandas in China, making it a natural place to focus conservation efforts. The park itself is beautiful. Guests walk under canopies of bamboo trees, meandering between large green enclosures. Don’t miss the “Giant Panda Sub-Adults” enclosure, where a slew of adolescent cubs play, munch and mosey around. The baby panda maternity clinic is also a must – bizarrely human, with incubators and midwives in scrubs tending to the pink, rat-like infants. You’ll be lucky to see them, however. Even though twin cubs had been born the day before our visit, all we saw was a little pink tail poking out of a blanket. It’s signposted in English and easy to navigate. (Address: 1375 Panda Road, Northern Suburb, Chengdu. Open 7.30am-6pm every day; Entry RMB58/US$9 per person) npanda.org.cn/english   WHERE TO STAY Niccolo Chengdu Marco Polo’s new luxury brand debuted in Chengdu in April this year. Adjoining the IFS commercial block, it has a convenient central location. The 230 rooms and suites are large (ranging from 45 to 200 sqm) with views of either Taikoo Li or the sculptural garden joined to IFS, where a giant panda can be seen crawling onto the building. An excellent international breakfast buffet is served in the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant Niccolo Kitchen, while Chinese cuisine is served in Yue Hin on the second floor. The Tea Lounge is a chic, airy space to enjoy a selection of teas from the dedicated tea sommelier, or head up to The Bar for a range of cocktails. A large ballroom and several meeting rooms can accommodate business needs, while a high-tech fitness centre and indoor swimming pool are available for guests to relax. (Address: Tower 3, IFS, No.1, Section 3, Hongxing Road, Jinjiang District, Chengdu) nmarcopolohotels.com/niccolo Temple House, Chengdu The third property from the Swire Hotels House Collection opened its doors in July and is part of the Taikoo Li development. Guests enter the lobby through a beautifully restored Qing dynasty courtyard, while the 100 rooms and 42 serviced apartments are housed in two gleaming towers. The F&B offerings are top notch, with Tivano, an art deco-inspired restaurant serving quality Italian food or all-day dining at The Temple Café. With a selection of indoor or outdoor seating, Jing is a speakeasy-style bar with classic cocktails and DJs. For something different, the teahouse offers a light menu of healthy vegetarian bites. Inspired by a traditional Chinese apothecary, the restaurant opens onto a lush courtyard and is adjoined to Mi Xun – an urban day spa. Additional facilities including a gym and swimming pool, plus thoughtful touches such as a paperless check-in that can be done in your room, complimentary minibar and a rotating art gallery make this an excellent choice. (Address: No. 81 Bitieshi Street, Jinjiang District, Chengdu) nthetemplehousehotel.com
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