Our trip to Chengdu began with that fuzzy kind of tiredness you only get when travelling; the stale mix of excitement and exhaustion that in my case came from choosing to go out for dinner the night before (which then turned into drinks), packing until 3am and waking up at 7 for our flight. Nevertheless, we were in extremely high spirits on the morning of our Chengdu adventure, as it marked the start of 6 weeks travelling together!
For our journey to Chengdu we flew direct from Pudong International Airport; Pudong is significantly further from our apartment than the more local Hongqiao airport, but it meant we managed to get a return flight fairly cheaply at just a few weeks notice. As with most domestic Chinese flights, the cheapest way to do this from Shanghai was to book through Ctrip.com; the flights within China are almost always cheaper than anywhere else and they use RMB, which means there are no odd conversion rates on Chinese bank cards.
To get to Pudong airport, we took the metro from our apartment on line 11, changing onto line 2 at Jiangsu Lu station, and then following the line down to the Maglev Station at Longyang Road. Both line 2 and line 7 pass through Longyang Road so it’s pretty easily accessible from all sides of the city. The German engineered magnetic levitation train (Maglev) is the fastest transit device in the world, and takes passengers from Longyang Road metro stop to Pudong International Airport, achieving what would be an additional 30 minute subway journey in only 8 minutes. If you do have time and want to save money you can still take the Line 2 metro all the way to the end of the line for Pudong International Airport, which would cost around 4RMB VS the 40RMB Maglev train cost. The Maglev is still relatively cheap, just not in comparison to other transport in Shanghai where you can take an entire bus route for only 1RMB.
We rocked up at check-in at Pudong Airport exactly an hour before our flight, but weren’t particularly rushed as passengers were still being checked in for a Chongqing flight departing in half an hour. Although domestic security looked like it had an absolutely massive queue, it only took 20 minutes to get through to departures. We were through the gate at 10.45, right on time to grab some Dunkin’ donuts for breakfast and board our flight at 11.05!
On the way to Chengdu we flew with Sichuan Airlines, who we chose entirely because they were the cheapest option by far! We weren’t expecting much from the lowly rated airline but we were treated to easily the most delicious plane food we have both ever eaten! I’m usually a really fussy plane food-eater, but we devoured the rice, beef, vegetables, melon and yogurt even too quickly to take a picture! The air stewardesses didn’t speak much English, so if you’re flying with Sichuan perhaps make sure you know your Mandarin words for chicken, beef and tea, but they were all exceptionally friendly. The aircraft was fairly big with much more legroom than other smaller airlines, and amazingly every seat had an iPad in the front pocket! It was all in Chinese, but the games were easy to understand and there were short videos about all of the major cities in China. We sat watching them and adding places to our ever-growing bucket list.
On the way back we flew with Air China, who at best could be described as ‘fine’ but a more accurate description would probably be ‘not great.’ The fish and rice plane food was okay, but after our delicious Sichuan Airlines meal we did wonder why Air China couldn’t make theirs slightly better. The plane was smaller (and no iPads!), and we were treated to a mysterious 75-minute delay at Chengdu airport. However, this did mean it was dark by the time we arrived back in Shanghai, and whenever I return now I’m always enchanted by how beautiful it is to be greeted by the view of The Bund, and the city sparkling back at you.
Mr Panda Hostel, Chengdu: 30RMB per person, per night. 4 bed mixed dorm.
+ Super cheap + Extremely helpful owner with perfect English + Great location + Really comfy beds!
-No locks for luggage – Pretty cold at night – Lukewarm showers!
We arrived at the hostel and were warmly greeted by the hostel owner, who spoke perfect English! We quickly checked in, collected the key for our dorm, and paid for our 3-night stay. We paid a total of 90RMB p/p, and as it was literally the cheapest hostel we could find on hostelworld.com, we weren’t expecting anything great! The reception and common areas of the hostel were similar to what you might expect; slightly damp and dirty, but with a surprisingly almost homely feel created by the open kitchen area serving beef and chicken noodles for 10RMB.
We were on the first floor out of 3, and there were shared western style toilets and showers at the end of each floor. The showers were at best lukewarm and kind of pathetic, but the sinks produced hot water and had large mirrors with dim lights above them- what more could we ask for at £3 a night! There was even toilet roll, all be it hung in suspicious looking bags from hooks on the ceiling. On our first visit to the bathroom we were greeted by a big, hairy, Chinese man with his leg up on the side literally washing his feet in the sink, but in the setting even that seemed pretty acceptable.
Our room was a 4 bed mixed dorm, which we chose because it was the cheapest option at the hostel. Each dorm had two bunk beds, a wardrobe in the corner with 4 compartments for luggage (although no locks) and an air-conditioning unit that did an average job of keeping the room above freezing. Each bed had a curtain that could be pulled round, a wall plug, lamp and small shelf, with shower slippers provided and towels available to rent for 5RMB. My light didn’t work, however, and my plug was precariously hanging out of the wall which I learnt meant that more often than not I’d wake up and my phone would have fallen out from charging.
Overall though, as far as cheap hostels go, it was exactly what we needed. The owner was exceptionally helpful in booking a taxi and tickets for us, and even gave me a bowl of rice to put my phone in after I dropped it in a drink on my birthday night out…
Day 1- Sichuan Traditional Opera Show and Jinli Pedestrian Street
After getting to the hostel at about 5.30pm, we threw our bags into the dorm and sat down with a map to decide on our plans for our first evening. We had researched traditional Sichuan opera shows before arriving, and had the address of one that was supposed to be pretty authentic, although we didn’t really have any idea what that meant! We asked the hostel owner if it was close and he immediately picked up the phone and rang the teahouse for us, who then said they could come and pick us up and take us to the theatre at 7.30pm in time for the show at 8pm. We didn’t know what to expect but on the owner’s guidance that it was something not to be missed in Chengdu, we secured the tickets for 150RMB p/p including the taxi from the hostel (we later found out inside the teahouse that the prices ranged from 140-230RMB so we didn’t think we’d done too badly).
We grabbed a delicious Chinese family style dinner at a nearby restaurant and rushed back to the hostel to find the driver and his nice BMW already waiting for us. We grabbed our make-up bags and, I think pretty skillfully, both managed to completely re-do our now very airplane-worn make-up in the dark in the back of the taxi. As we arrived, we suddenly realised how little we knew about where we were going. This realisation meant it did seem slightly suspect to be driven past a row of beautiful traditional teahouses and theatres lit up and sparkling, and then walked through a side gate into a dark park, seemingly away from the other buildings. Sucking on a cigarette, the driver half-assured us that it was the correct way, and just as we were getting slightly concerned, we were presented with the front of the imposing Shufengyayun Sichuan Opera House. Shufengyayun Sichuan Opera House, we later found out, has a reputation as one of the most famous and popular Sichuan opera shows in the entire province.
The show was absolutely amazing. We were seated, brought tea, and quickly offered traditional Sichuan teahouse ear cleaning (which we declined?!) and massages (which we accepted!) for an additional 50RMB, and the added negotiated promise of moving just a few rows from the front (we’ve lived in China too long!)
Sitting at the side of the stage, receiving a Chinese massage in front of a glowing fire, whilst sipping green tea and watching the show begin, I felt like I had never had such a traditional Chinese experience in all my time here. The show lasted over 2 hours and included amazingly talented musicians, puppetry, shadow hand art, spitting fire, and the renowned changing faces performance. The changing faces section was absolutely unbelievable; the performers removed masks to reveal ‘new’ faces, seemingly without moving a hand to their face, and without any hint as to how it was possible. These stunts were intertwined with epic storytelling, combining the perfect mix of tragedy and comedy, moving seamlessly from section to section.
If you’re in Chengdu, just do not miss this. We both agreed it was without a doubt one of the best evenings we have had since arriving in China. I really can’t praise it highly enough, it was incredible, providing both exceptional entertainment, and a cultural history of such a variety of Chinese arts.
After the show, we took a taxi to Jinli Pedestrian Street, a section of Chengdu with small alleyways and shops and cafes that open out onto the street. By the time we got there lots of the places were closed, but it’s difficult to describe the beauty of hundreds of red lanterns lining the streets and river, reflecting off the wet pavements in the dark. Tired but very happy, we returned to the hostel and fell almost straight to sleep.
Day 2- Giant pandas
Day 2 was my 22nd birthday, and it started early! I thought nothing would get me out of bed at 6am on my birthday anymore, but the promise of giant pandas was definitely worth it! We fell out the hostel at 7am, picked up some steamed buns from a street vendor for my birthday breakfast, and hailed a taxi to the Panda Research Base.
We were warned by friends to get to the park for 8am when the pandas wake up and feeding happens, as for the rest of the day they are usually quite lazy and sleepy. We got to the park at 7.40am, which gave us just enough time to pick up a map at the entrance and find our way, with the assistance of some kind security guards, to the busiest panda enclosure. We were the only 2 visitors at that time, as most of the hotel and main tour trips aim to arrive at the entrance of the park for 8am. We wandered through and arrived at the enclosure at the perfect moment, just in time to see 5 pandas stroll out from their huts right in front of us. By this time, the sun was just starting to come up, and it really felt so magical and tranquil standing in the mist surrounded by forest, watching the pandas just a few feet away from us chewing their bamboo. We stood in almost complete silence for nearly 30 minutes, watching them peacefully eat and play, before the first visitors from tour buses started to arrive by about 8.15am.
After tearing ourselves away from our first pandas almost 2 hours later, we wandered around the park, watching the cheeky red pandas darting around. Despite the tour bus arrivals, the park didn’t get too much busier as it is low season at the moment, and it was a fairly cold and drizzly start to the day. We walked along Swan Lake (side note- I hate swans and I hated this, it was unbelievably pretty, but I hated it) and found a small stall at the side of the lake selling noodles for 10RMB, which we devoured, before sitting down and warming up with a coffee inside one of the cafes. On televisions all around the café walls they were playing the David Attenborough documentary on the giant pandas at Chengdu, which made it seem all the more surreal that we were actually there!
After coffee, we went to the panda nursery, which was probably the cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. We were told before we visited that there might not be any babies because of the time of year, but as we walked into the nursery, we were greeted by a little cot, containing two balls of adorable fluff, trying to cling onto each other to pull themselves up and walk!
After the adorable baby pandas, we walked the entire park, taking the shuttle bus to the peak to look across the forest, visiting the panda kitchen to taste some of the bread they feed to the pandas (really not great), and making the most of the Research center at the park, reading out every bit of information we could find to each other. Although we were told that the Panda Research Base in Chengdu is usually only a morning trip, and most organized tours take visitors back to the center of Chengdu by midday, after spending time staring at the pandas once more, we didn’t leave until almost 4pm. It was the perfect start to my birthday.
After the pandas we headed back to the hostel in preparation for my birthday night out! On the advice of friends who’ve visited Chengdu before, we headed to Helen’s bar, a chain bar that can be found throughout China, including Shanghai, and that we love for it’s outdated pop music, nachos, and metal buckets of gin and tonic for 40RMB (£4). That’s where the night started… it finished with street food at 4am after hours of dancing in a club called Jellyfish, and receiving copious free vodka and cranberries (one of which was briefly home to my poor iPhone) from an overly friendly promoter, who thanks to Queena definitely knew it was my birthday!
Day 3- Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage and The Pavilion Bridge
Slightly worse for wear, we didn’t wake up until at least 11.30am on day 3, and slowly faced the trauma of lukewarm hungover showers (and finding a bowl of rice in which to dry my phone out) before heading out! The poetry geek in me was particularly excited about where we were headed, as we decided to visit the thatched cottage home of the famous Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. We took the metro to the nearest stop, Tonghuimen, (all metro journeys in Chengdu are 2RMB/20p) before taking a short taxi ride to the address. This is a good place to mention that taxi journeys in and around Chengdu are extremely cheap, starting at 8RMB (80p), compared to a 12RMB flat rate in Shanghai. We also learnt very early on that in contrast to Shanghai, a red light on a taxi in Chengdu actually means it’s free!
We arrived at the Thatched Cottage Museum at about 2pm, to discover the cottage itself is set in 24 acres of beautiful forest. This contains a shrine to the poet, an incredible pagoda, a waterfall, and many other beautifully restored traditional buildings set along the river. It was a cold but bright and sunny day, and we spent almost 4 hours wandering around taking photos and visiting the cottage.
When we left, we took a taxi from outside the park to the wide and narrow alleys. Similar to Jinli Pedestrian Street, these are another charming set of scenic shops and cafes, set against a backdrop of traditional Chinese architecture, and worth a visit for a short wander around. It is also here that they have rows upon rows of stalls and small cafes serving traditional Sichuan snack food, which, although still really tasty, turned out to be the spiciest tofu and chips I have ever, ever eaten!
After our stroll around the streets, we headed back to the central Tianfu Square, grabbed coffees from adjoining Costa Coffee and Starbucks cafes, and as it was getting dark, walked together down the road towards the river. We walked along the side of the water enjoying watching dancing and Tai Chi in the parks, but getting slightly concerned we were never going to find what we were looking for. However, after about an hour of walking, a slight bend in the river led us around a corner, and we came across the absolutely breathtaking Pavilion Bridge. Lit up at night, it was truly magical. It was spectacular to stand back and watch a group of ladies dancing at the waters edge, with the bridge twinkling behind them, and was the perfect setting to spend our last night in Chengdu.
Day 3- Tibetan area, Wenshu Monastery and Sichuan hotpot
On our final day in Chengdu we woke up bright and early, and were out of the hostel by 8am, getting street food egg pancakes for breakfast and smiling at the dusty sunrise in the distance.
We hopped on the metro, and got off at Tonghuimen, where we hailed a taxi to take us to the nearby Tibetan area of Chengdu; another place we’d been told by friends that we really had to visit. The taxi driver seemed fairly confused as to why we wanted to go there, and kept confirming with us that we were sure that that was where we wanted to be, as there are no tourist attractions in the area, and it is just a traditional neighborhood. We were certain though, and when we arrived we were so glad we’d made the effort. As it was still early, the locals were just beginning to wake up, and we walked the traditional Tibetan streets looking at the intricate architecture and passing many Tibetan monks along the way. The area was fascinating and entirely unique to anywhere we had visited before. Whilst taking a photo of a couple of the monks about to cross the road, I noticed one of them trying to take a sneaky selfie with me, which is when he turned around and grinned at me, as we held our photos of each other.
At about 10am we got the metro back to Wenshu monastery metro stop near to our hostel, where we walked up to the monastery itself. I feel like beautiful religious buildings have spoiled us since moving to China, and the monastery didn’t disappoint. It was both calming and enchanting walking around the grounds and gardens, watching burning incense fizzle into the air, as we began to conclude a busy and exciting trip. It is forbidden to take photos of the building itself, but Wenshu monastery is one of the biggest and best-preserved Buddhist temples in the province, and lives up to its size with imposing architecture and intricate design.
We spent about an hour at the monastery and then realized there was only one thing left on our list of things to do before we left Chengdu and Sichuan province- to try the infamous spicy Sichuan hot pot! We asked a few shopkeepers in the area and on the advice of some extremely helpful ladies, eventually found a restaurant not far from the monastery. As we walked inside and were led upstairs, we knew it was exactly the kind of place we’d been looking for. Tables centered on large hotpot fires filled the room, and everywhere you looked different food and spices were being thrown into dishes. The giant pots sat filled entirely with red chili peppers and infamous Sichuan spices, holding in the centre much smaller pots containing bean sprouts and a thin soup.
Although very wonderfully authentic, the issue with this was that no one at the restaurant spoke any English, and although we were able to ask for what we wanted inside the hot pot, ticking this off on a very complicated Chinese menu with the characters for unusual words such as ‘coriander’ and specific types of lettuce, proved slightly more difficult. A lovely waitress eventually came over and shooed the men who had been trying to help us out of the way, before ticking the items for us and selecting things she thought would go well with the beef and vegetables we had asked for. Within a couple of minutes, trays and trays of an assortment of vegetables, salad and meat arrived, and the lady kindly took us through the process, showing us how to put the spice and soup in our individual bowls, mix in the coriander and soy sauce, before placing the meat, and eventually the vegetables, in the chili filled liquid.
Once the food had soaked up ‘enough’ spice, we were instructed to take it out and place it in the smaller pot in the centre, before serving ourselves from there. I am a self confessed lover of spicy food, and add chili to most of the dishes I cook, but that meat- which had literally been soaked in a pot of boiling chili- was without a doubt the spiciest food I have ever eaten, putting the tofu of the previous day to shame. It was tasty, but unbelievably fiery, and by just a few minutes into the meal we both realised our lips and tongues had gone almost completely numb! The whole dining experience was really fascinating, and we were pleased we’d managed to fit it in whilst in Sichuan province, but do not underestimate the fire of Sichuan spice!
After the hotpot we went back to the hostel and checked out, before returning to the airport by shuttle bus and taking our flight back to Shanghai. After being in Shanghai for such a long stint recently, it’s been easy to get lost in the busy hustle and bustle and forget how amazing every single day is living in the city. Chengdu was an incredible trip, and it has only fuelled our excitement for our big backpacking trip starting this Thursday on the 21st of January! Our last full day in Shanghai tomorrow will be spent prepping and packing, with some last minute drinks with friends thrown in for good measure. Then we’re off! South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong await us. I won’t be taking my laptop with me on our travels, but I will keep trying to Instagram at least once a day to keep everyone updated on our adventures. The blogs will certainly be coming, but are going to wait until my return at the end of February. The plan then is to post a blog on each city of our trip, throughout the following month once I’m back in Shanghai!
Wish us luck as we navigate our way through Asia, follow our antics on Instagram (@fromshanghaitoparis), and see you on the other side! Adventure awaits!