In a country where it often feels like you have to crawl over 20 people just to cross the street, Chengdu in southern China is a rare quiet breath. Despite housing 17 million people, most of the surrounding land is countryside, with the astonishingly beautiful Tibetan Plateau a bumpy hour away by car. Tranquil is the wrong word. China doesn't do tranquil, but Chengdu definitely doesn't feel like it's rushing to get anywhere. The people here are more laid back than their northern cousins, happier to sit and watch the world go by. Perhaps it's the presence of so much green space, or the beautiful Jinjiang River that meanders through the city.
A comfortable bed
Chengdu's mid-range accommodations seem to be based on those Hollywood sets where the beautiful facade hides the ugly shack behind. Here's my advice: avoid the mid-range and aim yourself squarely at the budget or high end of the market.
The Shangri-La (www.shangri-la.com) has great views over the city. Rooms begin at 1,394 yuan (Dh830) per night, but if you've got slightly deeper pockets, spring for a Horizon Club room at1,993 yuan (Dh1,187). This gives you access to the club lounge, which is just about my favourite place to be at 5.30pm. This is when the buffet opens and the fantastically friendly staff arrive with complimentary teas and beverages.
On the budget side, I really like the Loft Design Hostel (www.lofthostel.com). Formerly a printing factory, it has huge bare rooms filled with colourful Ikea furniture, but there's free Wi-Fi, electric blankets, pool tables and a massive common room. Private rooms cost from 100 yuan (Dh60) per night.
Find your feet
Navigating Chengdu is pretty easy thanks to the Jinjiang River, which wanders through the city like a dazed rhino. If you're ever lost, just follow the river until you hit a metro station, then get yourself to Tianfu Square - the heart of Chengdu. You'll know it immediately because you'll be under the unblinking stare of the giant Mao statue at its centre. If a local tells you to "meet under Mao", this is what they mean. The other big landmark is Chunxi road, from which Chengdu's shopping district sprawls outward in a messy pile.
Meet the locals
The People's Park is about a 20-minute walk away from Tianfu Square, and every morning plays host to nearly every old person in the city. They fan dance, practise their calligraphy on the square with huge brushes and buckets of water, sip tea, play mahjong and gossip relentlessly about their relatives. Come evening, the students arrive - sitting in groups on the grass with their books scattered about them, laughing and chatting. Wander around for awhile and eventually somebody will ask you to join them. There's a likelihood that you will end up singing karaoke at 2am in some neon-lit monstrosity on Chunxi road but I still suggest that you say yes.
Book a table
Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province and is famous for its mouth-searing hotpot; a bubbling cauldron that sits on your table on an open flame. You pick the things you want to dunk into the soup from a list and they're delivered en masse. The longer you leave them in the bubbling inferno, the spicier they get. If you're a masochist, it's an interesting game of chicken with friends. Try Huang Cheng Lao Ma, which offers hotpot followed by Chengdu opera and mask-changing performances for around 125 yuan (Dh75). It's a little bit touristy, but everybody speaks English, which is a necessity considering you're picking off a menu containing chicken feet.
Down at the budget end, the dumpling sellers on Xinsheng road offer some of the city's tastiest, most little-known treats. Expect to pay a few dirhams for three. Price depends on their mood.
Whether you're looking for a Little Red Book, communist-era coins or bizarre sculptures of dragons and quasi-mythological animals, you'll find them at the Songxian Qiao Antique Market, near the beautiful Song Xian Bridge. Don't go expecting beautiful environs, this is a concrete sprawl with stalls squished together wherever there's space. Bargain hard and don't be afraid to walk away. Chances are the sellers will chase after you with a better price.
What to avoid
Visiting in the heat of July.
Mount Qingcheng, about 40 kilometres outside of the city. Covered in pagodas and surrounded by lakes, this is the very definition of ancient China - and it's an absolute doddle to reach from Chengdu. For an easy life hire a taxi for the day for around 620 yuan (Dh370).
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Chengdu four times a week. It takes seven hours and a return ticket costs from Dh1,290.
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