Greeted by an eerily quiet airport after a half-empty flight from Bangkok; it seemed my first trip to China proper would to be of the stereotypical breed. Our driver and handler were amicable enough, but as I walked past the line of perfectly uniform taxi cabs waiting stoically for, well… no one exiting the airport after us, I couldn’t stop my imagination from running wild.
Would I have to wade through throngs of green-clad party youth, thrusting copies of Mao’s Little Red Book into my hands like so many evangelicals at a Greyhound stop? Would our van have to weave through a flood of bicycling commuters pedaling in silent irony toward their function as cogs in the great machine? Would the streets be choked with cheap cars and under-engineered/over-capacity public transport, used by people and poultry together? Or had I been listening to my aged, angry grandfather way too much. You know, the guy who might have spent an hour on shore leave in Hong Kong. Seventy years ago.
Spoiler alert: It was the latter.
During the five days I spent in Chengdu, not once did I see any evidence of an oppressive regime. I met dozens of locals and I’m relatively certain none of them were putting on a good face for visiting tourists, ever-worried that the Chinese equivalent of Big Brother was watching. I did see a couple of soldiers standing watch outside of a military building… but that’s no different than I see every day in Thailand. Or I’ve experienced in London. Or anywhere in the USA, for that matter. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Instead, I saw Chinese people engaging in the most Western of activities: Shopping at a variety of stores both local and international, buying expensive designer handbags, clothes from a mall, and junk food from the ever present quick stop on the corner.
I saw streets packed with Volkswagens, Hondas, and even more than a few Fords rolling around; and all of them in great condition. For every bicycle on the street there were 20 motorbikes, and most were electric powered. Hooray for the absence of the 2-stroke engine din everpresent in Bangkok! The taxi cabs I’d seen at the airport were also omnipresent downtown, none of them honking and all of them with working fare meters.
I rode for several stops on the cleanest subway imaginable, resplendent with a series of display screens in the tunnel walls timed to the speed of the train so the cheery, well-dressed commuters could watch videos (commercials, big surprise) out the squeaky-clean, un-etched windows. I even found a place to sit, as we weren’t packed in like canned sardines in chili paste and tomato sauce. On the surface, the busses were crowded, but they're all just a few years old, quite convenient, and remarkably clean. And without chickens, as far as I could tell.
This was Changdu? Who knew?
Your Changdu todo
To fully experience Chengdu, you need to be in the thick of things. We were invited guests of Niccolo Chengdu, a Marco Polo property that had opened up roughly a year ago. Because we know people who know people. Thanks, Amber & Eric!
Niccolo Chengdu hit all the marks, which is exactly what I expected from a five-star hotel. Specialty cocktails, outstanding Sichuan cuisine, a dizzying array of international food choices prepared by world-renowned chefs, luxurious accommodations with stunning city-scape views, and a high tea service in an amazing light box they sully by calling a “lobby” complete with a tea sommelier (yeah, that’s a thing). In short; we were treated like royalty. If this is what it means to be a luxury travel blogger, I may need to change my brand! But even if you don't have the Communications Manager and Director of Marketing acting as your personal guides for five days, rest assured you too will be treated like royalty when you stay! That’s just what they do at Niccolo Chengdu!
Choosing Niccolo Chengdu also means you'll be smack dab in the middle of Chendu’s Chun Xi Road business district, where you can shop till you drop. Or max out your credit cards, because this is the hi-so part of town. Niccolo Chengdu is also conveniently attached to the IFS mall that is attached to a convenient Metro (subway) stop, giving you full access to the city where you'll not run out of things to do. That’s if you decide to leave the hotel. Which is hard. Because the hotel is seriously great!
Assuming you do leave (though those bubble baths make it hard even after the water gets tepid), definitely make time to visit People's Park, where everyone can enjoy a lovely cup of tea and the more adventurous can get their ears cleaned. With metal sticks. Because that's a thing I did. It's hard to describe. Just watch the video. Even if you don't feel like risking a punctured eardrum for Snapchat, the park is a pleasant way to spend a good part of your day.
If you're craving tchotchke and souvenirs (because China), head to JinLi Pedestrian Street. Sure, the meandering streets are jam packed with touristy stuff... but look around at the tourists you’re sharing the street with. Except for you and a handful of others, they'll all be Chinese tourists from other parts of the country. So sure, it’s a place for tourists. But so is Disneyland and any Science Center worth its NaCl, and you don’t complain about those tourists, do you?
You'll have no end of food options in Chengdu, but I highly recommend taking part in a Lost Plate local food tour. This tuk-tuk based journey will make your mouth, eyes, and mind exceedingly happy as you visit some of the best food Chendgu has to offer. It’s also fantastic food that most visitors miss, simply because tourists don't know about the small shops off the beaten path featured by the people at Lost Plate. I recommend a light lunch before you jump in your tuk-tuk. And that you not freak out when you're invited to crawl through a window to get to the most amazing dumpling restaurant in town. Yes. A window. That you have to crawl through. To get into a restaurant. Welcome to Chendgu.
Beyond Chendgu is more for you!
As great as Chendgu is, the real beauty of the land lies just a few hours away by car. In the coming days, I'll post about our experiences the Dujiangyan Panda Base (which beats the pants off any zoo experience) and the trip to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha. Yes, every place in Asia seems to have a big buddha. But not all of them were hewn out of stone in the 8th century.
Each of those experiences are worthy of their own post, which is coming. Soon. I promise.