Thanks to the wonders of high-speed rail, we now make the journey from Guilin to Chengdu (about 1430km) in a mere 7 hours. Waving goodbye to using the 27 hour sleeper train adds a whole extra night onto the time we spend Chengdu. There’s now a more relaxed pace to activities while we’re there, giving Dragon Trippers a chance to fully absorb their surroundings. Here’s a little bit about the city and, if you find time, some independent activities to enjoy.
Living by the slogan ‘Fast City, Slow Life’, Chengdu has been voted as China’s happiest city for 5 year’s running. It’s home to more than 14 million people but it doesn’t have the frantic feel of Beijing or Shanghai. It was put on the travel map for its Panda Research Centre but there’s so much more to explore in the city itself. If you haven’t already caught our drift, it’s a top location to spend a few nights when exploring China.
First things first, we want to draw attention to where we stay. Mrs. Panda Hostel has been our choice of accommodation in Chengdu for a while now and it makes for a cosy base for the 3 days we stay there. Relax and mingle in the bar and garden or get competitive with its board games and pool table. The hostel has an onsite restaurant selling both Chinese and Western style dishes, in case you’re missing the tastes of home.
If you’re looking to relax away from the hostel then Chengdu’s People’s Park is a must, which you can walk to in about half an hour from where we stay. It’s likely you’ll find strangers standing shoulder to shoulder, gathered around stereo systems watching and cheering as someone sings karaoke. Take a wander through old-style flower gardens and feed the fish, or choose a teahouse to sit in and relax as you watch the locals getting their ears cleaned by professionals. Watch as street food vendors spin gorgeously impossible shapes out of sugar and visit one of the stalls selling popular Sichuan snacks.
Which brings us on to an important topic: Chengdu’s incredible food. Sichuan province’s food is renowned for being the spiciest in China. On The Dragon Trip, one of our activities as a group is trying the region’s iconic dish, Sichuan hot pot. Hot pot might be best explained as ‘the fondue of the East’ in which diners dip raw vegetables and meat into a bubbling broth in the centre of the table. It’s a must if you want to experience authentic Chinese culture on your visit. If you’re looking for famous Chengdu snacks to try in the city then dan dan noodles, Chengdu wontons, and Sichuan sticky rice balls are all delicious local delicacies. Remember, if you aren’t a fan of spicy food, don’t worry, just remember the words ‘bu yao la de’, to make it clear you don’t want the food too spicy.
Having a relaxing wander around Chengdu is a great experience but, if you have time, you can go much deeper into what the city has to offer. On The Dragon Trip we head out of the city to see the Leshan Buddha though not everyone on the group always wants to join. For anyone looking to stay closer to base we’d recommend exploring the city’s Tibetan Quarter. The Sichuan region is right next to Tibet (or ‘Xizang’ in Mandarin) meaning there’s a large Tibetan community in Chengdu. The district is home to tens of thousands of Tibetan people and there are many Buddhist monks walking through its streets. Its markets are full of brightly coloured clothing, Tibetan art and Buddhist statues. Be warned, if you don’t want to get ripped off then bargaining is essential at these markets!
As for nightlife, Chengdu has always been one of our stop off points where we like to go out and party. With everything from English style pubs to bustling local clubs, the area around Sichuan University springs into life after the sun goes down. However, don’t be surprised if you walk into a club and find the dance floor empty with everyone sitting at tables or booths; it is a popular pastime to play drinking games with dice while you’re out so pull up a chair and learn the rules to Liar’s Dice.
We liked the old sleeper train – there’s a romance to long-train journeys which has always gone hand in hand with travel experiences. But choosing between extra time in Chengdu or time sat on a train is an absolute no-brainer.