When I was a child, like many before me, I spent an inordinate amount of time with a shovel, intent on digging a hole that would take me to China. My obsession started when my grandmother read me “Walden,” where Henry David Thoreau wrote: “As for your high towers and monuments, there was a crazy fellow once in this town who undertook to dig through to China, and he got so far that, as he said, he heard the Chinese pots and kettles rattle.” I shall never forget the dreams I had then of blue and white teapots, bolts of colorful silk fabric all in a row, noodles in bright bowls — and pandas.
It’s a trek to get to Chengdu, China’s fourth-largest city. But I didn’t have to hew a tunnel to arrive this time. Instead, I hopped a late-night flight on Hainan Airlines’ new nonstop route from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Chengdu, now considered a tech hub, the capital of Sichuan Province, may best be known to gourmets as the sanctum of blistering, chile pepper-driven, UNESCO-listed cuisine (think kung pao chicken). Once nicknamed the Brocade City for its textile roots, it dashed into hipster times and incipient modernity fairly recently, when the Chinese government managed to get a slew of Fortune 500 companies to headquarter here. Today, consortiums from Dell to Nokia to Honeywell to Coca-Cola call it home.
With so much global infusion came a trendiness lapped up by Chengdu’s populace, though the character of the old ways abounds. Amid intriguing duality, I can shop in this capital at Hermes and Marimekko in the city’s hottest shopping area, Taikoo Li (a mixed-use development with restaurants, tony shops, narrow alleyways, galleries and bars) just as easily as I can find traditionally clad vendors on cobbled streets offering services from ear cleaning to shaving to fortunetelling. I can partake of storied nightlife downtown or join people of all ages in a game of mahjong in the park, in teetering chairs in front of tiny grocery stores and at tables in teahouses. (Anywhere, really, as Chengdu’s passion for the game purportedly ranks the highest in China.) In Chengdu, I can sip tea in People’s Park or tipple a Negroni infused with Sichuan pepper (try the one at Jing at the Temple House). When hungry, I can nosh on perfect pizza or knock back street food — think dan dan noodles or garlicky rabbit, wok-cooked on a sidewalk. There’s even a traditional lovers’ lane where parents go to make matches for their children, though possibly most modern couples meet their true loves online or in a bar.
My hotel, Swire’s the Temple House, mirrors the city by deftly melding Chengdu’s newfound swank and modernity with its graceful past. Built into the bones of an ancient Daci temple, the hotel has a mystical quality at first glance, with its dramatic, bamboo-tree flanked entrance — a passageway that leads to a 100-year-old Qing dynasty courtyard. Ornate, this space holds a library of rare books on one side and a contemporary art gallery on the other. Amid the mist, this entrance has the allure of an otherworldly portal. Through it, the hotel’s sleek interiors await, a reminder of Chengdu and its contrasts.
Like a living room, The Temple House’s second courtyard welcomes guests and locals to linger. Its center green space, with round, grassy hillocks, was built to suggest the tea plantations that fill the countryside nearby. In this area, the hotel holds a festive weekly gourmet picnic, complete with live music, water guns, bubble blowing machines and wine. More demure tipplers can sip traditional tea from delicate cups at the adjacent Mi Xun Teahouse, set amid the monk’s former mulberry garden.
Despite Chengdu’s many charms, the giant pandas most steal my heart. I finally get to see them at the awkwardly named Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is just a long way of saying “zoolike expanse.” The verdant grounds, with winding paths for visitors and open, protected habitat for pandas, take hours to explore. Home to some of the 1,800 remaining pandas who hail from this part of China, the outpost is filled with fluffy, fat cuteness. Imagine voracious, indolent creatures lolling atop hammocks and tree trunks, leaning up against one another, chomping bamboo after bamboo as if it were their last meal on earth. One chubby, insatiable fellow even eats while supine, using his stomach as a table to hold his hoard of bamboo. My favorite residents, a group of young pandas, sit together in a pack, stealing one another’s bamboo as toddlers might pilfer a friend’s lollipop. Like everyone else, I end my visit in the shop incredulously buying myself a panda ear headband. (I confess to eventually being shamed into donating it to a child.)
Distinct from busy Beijing, historical Shanghai or the spiritual Yunnan Province, Chengdu reminds me of Austin. Our city has startling sun while theirs has a cloudy miasma. But the two burgs share that university-town vibe, a rebel-meets-intellectual kind of electricity where curiosity, art and history thrive. Both towns have an animal mascot. Sorry, Austin, but Chengdu’s giant panda is a lot cuter than our albino blind salamander or the bats. Unflappable, both cities crave “hot as hell” foodstuff. Chengdu puts out buttery, mouth-scalding hot pots, their form of fondue, while we relish our queso. And Chengdu, brimming with IT types, shares Austin’s cool-kid chic. Chengdu is fast becoming that spot everyone wants to say they’ve visited. It’s the new China — and you don’t just have to dream about it anymore.