Pandas and chili peppers: the two most used words in Sichuan's bustling capital, Chengdu. It's not the first city on everyone's mind when they think of China, but it probably should be. If you have any vague idea of the infamous Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in China, Chengdu is where you're thinking of. The city is crawling with pandas; not literally unfortunately. More so overflowing with panda tourist merch, panda sightseeing tours, panda volunteer guides, panda themed cafes, and so on. Giving the pandas a run for their money, is the food; or more specifically, the spice. The Sichuan province is arguably the most popular region in China for food. Known for their fiery chili oils and red peppers, beware of any dish with the label “Sichuan flavor”. But wait, there's more! Not only is Sichuan food ablaze with flavor, it also has a unique numbing sensation using peppercorns. So, if you're trying Sichuan food for the first time and your tongue starts to tingle, don't be alarmed. Regardless of your preferred tastes, this is a unique flavor you must try once in your life.
Ideally, you'd have more than 2 days to spend in this massive city; but as any well-seasoned expat knows, vacation time is few and far between. So, with an overabundance of spicy street food stands and panda-centric tour offices, how do you choose the best way to only spend 48 hours in Chengdu? Of course, there are an infinite number of possibilities, but here is what I chose:
Panda munching on a bamboo breakfast, Giant Panda Breeding Research Case, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Black and white, roly-poly, fluffy furballs. How could you travel all the way to midwestern China and not see the most legendary attraction: the pandas? Make sure to arrive at opening time (7:30am) to see them at their most active. There is something heart-melting about watching a real- life teddy bear sit up straight like a human toddler and munch on bamboo without a care in the world. In the afternoon you can watch them saunter up the trees and snooze the rest of the day away. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is also one of the few places in the world where it's sometimes possible to cuddle a baby panda; provided you have $300 lying around. Yes, that's right, about 300 USD to hold and snap photos with a baby panda for approximately 60 seconds; and the price continues to skyrocket year after year. So, if that's your thing, you may want to check it off your bucket list now, or risk having to take out a loan in the future.
There are gift shops and cafes/ restaurants on site but as with any tourist trap, its worth it to bring your own snacks and water, and steer clear of the price gauging. Luckily, there is a shopping plaza just across the street from the research base, with reasonably priced (spicy) food. General rule of thumb: eat where the locals eat. It's always the cheapest and has the best food. Just make sure you have a cold drink ready for when that chili oil hits.
In the late afternoon, head back to the city center for some sightseeing and exotic food sampling. Jinli street is an ancient outdoor street market where locals and foreigners alike venture through gray brick alleyways steaming with various boiling liquids. Indulge your taste buds in traditional Chinese delicacies like tangyuan (汤圆), or glutinous rice balls typically filled with either black sesame or red bean paste; and cong you bing (葱油饼), also known as scallion pancake. Jinli is beautiful to see in the late evening and night. As the sun drops lower, the lanterns come on and cast a red glow throughout the market, making the atmosphere even more striking. The area is only open until about 8 or 9 so if you're looking for a night out, you'll have to take the party to Jiuyanqiao Bar Street across town.
From left to right: tangyuan, sweet and spicy pork noodles, panda latte art
Hopefully you didn't stay out too late, because you'll want to rise early the following day and catch the early train to Leshan. Less than an hour from Chengdu East Railway Station, Leshan is famous for one thing: The Giant Buddha; and it is giant. Standing at a whopping 233 ft, the Giant Buddha is the largest stone Buddha in the world. Even more notorious than its size is the color. Crafted from Cretaceous red bed sandstones that exist in the blending of the Min River and Dadu River, the Leshan Giant Buddha's noteworthy red color has been gracing Instagram feeds and casting a shadow of jealousy on followers for years. It's a quick and easy hike to the head of the Buddha, but stray far during major holidays, when lines have been said to take up to 3 hours. The entrance fee is 80 yuan ($11) per person, not including other scenic areas of the park. Still, a bargain. The best view of the Buddha is by river boat cruise, which has a small discount at only 70 yuan. It's recommended to do both to get the full experience.
Adjacent from the park entrance is a bus stop. Take any line about an hour back to the train station. After returning to Chengdu in the late afternoon, make your way back to the hostel, relax, and prepare for dinner. By prepare I mean arm yourself with elastic waist pants, a cold bottle of water, and any antacid medication you can find; because you're having hotpot. There are a million and one hotpot places in Chengdu alone, so what to do if you can't choose? When in doubt, ask a local. We went to the front desk of our hostel, and the lovely English- speaking staff recommended us to a popular, budget friendly hotpot chain only 10 minutes' walk from our location.
Typically, hotpot isn't my ideal choice, but I must make an exception for Bashu Dazhaimen Hot Pot. From the moment you innocently trail upstairs to the second floor, the aroma of spices and grilling meats take your senses hostage; leading you, blindly, to a modest wooden table. The staff will expel you from your hungry daze by offering an apron, a bag for your coats, and a hair tie, for those with dangerously long locks. Over the clanking glasses and chatty Chinese, you'll notice how reasonably priced the dishes are; so, go crazy. Order a double pot for when you're feeling spicy, and for when your taste buds have had enough. Hours fly by as you alternate between slurping up chili oil-soaked tofu, and dramatically fanning your mouth whilst begging the waitress for another glass of cold water. After all is said and done, you won't ever eat at another hotpot as intoxicating as this one, but the memory (and flavor) makes it all worthwhile.
Chengdu has no shortage of cultural, adventurous, and flavorful attractions. But there is only so much you can do in 48 hours before its back to the grind. In honor of this charming city, here are some additional bucket list items in Chengdu:
Where to stay: Lazybones Poshpacker Hostel
Where to play: Wenshu Monastery, Mount Qingcheng
Where to party: Lan Kwai Fong
Don't make the mistake of overlooking this remarkable big city in China. Its perfect for a solo adventure or making memories with friends, new and old. However you spend your 48 hours, Chengdu will never disappoint.
Jinli ancient shopping street, Chengdu, Sichuan, China