Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in western China. Located on a fertile plain with low mountains to the east and high mountains topping 5000 meters to the west, Chengdu is known in China as the “Country of Heaven”, a phrase that is often translated into English as “The Land of Milk and Honey.” For visitors, Chengdu is home to China’s most famous animal, the panda, as well as being the jumping off point for the spectacularly beautiful Jiuzhaigou to the north and the Tibetan plateau with areas like Danba to the west.
Best Time to Go
Chengdu has a mild climate, with summers that don’t quite get as hot as elsewhere in China and winters that don’t quite get as cold. The rainy season is generally in July and August, but you won’t get much sun here at any time of the year—Chengdu is famous for having very few sunny days. The most pleasant times to visit are spring and autumn.
Getting to Chengdu
Chengdu’s airport is one of China’s main hubs and handles flights from all over the country as well as some international destinations. It is located 20 km from the city center and a taxi will cost about 45 Yuan. Take one from the official taxi stand. If you get a driver who doesn’t want to use the meter, just get out and find another one. Don’t even bother negotiating, as you’ll likely have problems with the driver trying to get more out of you later. To save money, take bus #303 into the city for 10 Yuan. It will drop you off on Renmin Nan Road, Section 2.
Chengdu has three train stations, with most trains arriving at either North Station or South Station. Both are connected to Line One of the Chengdu Metro. The East Station does not yet have a metro connection, but you can take a city bus downtown. It is unlikely you’ll arrive at the East Station.
None of Chengdu’s three bus stations have metro connections, but several bus lines stop near each of them. The accommodation you choose will be able to provide you with directions from the stations, including which bus to take. You could also ask at the information counter in the station.
Line One of the Chengdu Metro (the North-South Line) has been completed and Line Two (East-West) is currently under construction, but is partially operational. For many destinations you will have to rely on the bus system, which is extensive, convenient and very inexpensive. Your hotel or hostel can help you with the buses. Naturally you can also take a taxi. They aren’t too expensive either, as long as you only use licensed ones with drivers that use the meter. Finally, most guest houses will offer bicycles for rent.
Chengdu is blessed with a bunch of excellent hostels, more than any other city I’ve been to. Dorm beds generally cost between $5 and $10 and single rooms go for $10 to $20. With prices like that, there’s really no reason to stay in a hotel, especially considering all the extras provided by most of the hostels, like hot pot parties and various other activities and events.
There are too many excellent hostels to list here, but three great ones I’ve been to personally are:
Dorm beds will usually be available outside of popular travel periods, but if you’re looking for private rooms, you’re better off booking ahead as they were always full when I was there. If you prefer to stay in a hotel, the Chengdu Pasay Inn has single rooms for under $15 and an excellent location downtown.
Eating & Drinking
Chengdu’s main bar area is located on the south shore of the Jin River, next to the Anshun Bridge. When I was there, Club 88 was the hottest club in town, but things change quickly, so ask your hotel staff before going out.
Chengdu—and Sichuan province as a whole—is famous for spicy food. If you can’t handle chili peppers, I would recommend just eating something else, as taking the spice out of Sichuanese cuisine leaves you with a bland plate of oily food. Nevertheless, if you’d like to ask for your food to only be a little spicy, say “wei la”. Not spicy is “bu yao la.” And just in case, very spicy is “lao la.”
Hot pot is probably the best known Chengdu food, which is ironic since it actually originated in Chongqing, Chengdu’s regional rival . Still, you’ll find it everywhere and it’s worth trying at least once, especially if you are not planning on going to Chongqing.
Avoid places aimed at tourists, as these will be overpriced and usually serve less authentic food. If you are looking for slightly westernized Chinese food, the hostels are usually your best bet. They are also usually the best place to get western food. To save money and get the most authentic local food, eat at the smaller restaurants (they won’t have English menus) or at street food stalls, if you can still find them—the government has been trying to do away with them.
Thieves work the areas around the bus and train stations and the crowded markets or other tourist areas. Beware of pickpockets on crowded buses; they will slash bags and pockets with razorblades. Also take care of your bag when riding a bicycle.
Things to Do
- People’s Park:great place for people watching—see how the locals unwind; includes an area serving all the famous Sichuan snacks and many tea houses serving cups of tea for ￥10; no entrance fee to the park
- Drink tea: Chengdu is famous for its tea houses and you’ll find them all over the city; make sure to get the prices before ordering, as some tea houses, especially those geared toward tourists, are ridiculously overpriced.
- Chunxi Road: lots of boring stores (like Nike, etc), but is a good place to eat
- Chengdu Panda Research Base: biggest facility of this kind on earth; entrance fee is ¥58, English-speaking tour guides are ¥100 and a photo holding a baby panda is ¥1300; around ¥50 for a taxi or take tourist bus 902 from Xinnanmen Bus Station or public bus #97 or #198; all hostels have tours for around ¥110 which includes transport and the entrance fee; visit in the morning (8am) when pandas are most active; feeding time is around 8:30-9:30
- Old Towns: like most places in China, Chengdu is surrounded by a number of touristy ‘old towns’; it’s worth visiting one of these at some point during your trip to China, but there are better places to do this than Chengdu; all hostels offer tours or you can get there by public bus (usually from the Xinnanmen bus station)
- Siguniangshan: A beautiful national park area comprised of the Four Girls Mountain and three valleys located 220 km west of Chengdu; getting there has been difficult since the 2008 earthquake, but that may no longer be true, depending on the state of the road repairs
- Jiuzhaigou: an amazingly beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site and World Biosphere Reserve located in northern Sichuan on the edge of the Tibetan plateau
- Danba: several picturesque Tibetan villages clinging to steep river valleys below towering mountain peaks
Money Saving Tips
- take bus #303 to downtown Chengdu from the airport
- take public transport (the metro or the bus system) or rent bicycles to get around the city
- eat at local restaurants, which are numerous
- avoid the incredibly expensive tea shops at Kuanzhaixiangzi; Chengdu has a ridiculous number of tea houses and there’s no reason to overpay; cups at the People’s Park, for example, cost about 10 Yuan
Photo courtesy of Dennis Kruyt.