The Eggs Benedict was divine that morning at the Etihad Airways First Class lounge in Abu Dhabi, perhaps a prelude of things to come for this trip. It was my first time traveling with Etihad and they had me at the eggs Benedict. The flight was smooth with very little or almost no mid-flight turbulence although the captain was thoughtful with gentle reminders to fasten our seat belts.
We arrived at Chengdu surprisingly fast, either that or I simply didn’t notice as I slept through most of the journey. The first night was mostly a blur since all we did was get into the hotel, freshen up, dinner and sleep.
It was an early call to meet at the lobby the next morning, understandably so because our destination is an hour and a half away from where we’re staying- the panda base. The drive gave me the opportunity to check out what Chengdu city is like- the buildings, the roads, the bridges, the people, the river, the trees etc. It got me thinking how a city so big with a population of so many can actually keep their city so clean, then it dawned on me, discipline but then before I get deeper into that thought, the loud honking of our bus to avoid a collision brought me back to reality, what an irony.
On our journey towards the panda base, I wondered why the city looked empty, I got my answer when we finally arrived- they’re all here. The panda base is both a sanctuary and a research facility where pandas can live and breed in an environment that mimics their habitat. A big bamboo forest that bends down into the paved or wooden walkways forming a canopy of refreshing and welcoming foot paths to visitors from an otherwise muggy city climate, leading them into where this sanctuary’s main attraction can be seen hanging out, the giant pandas. Where there are pandas, there are people, a lot of people. Phones out, cameras clicking and the constant almost ogling admiration for these truly cute creatures, I felt bad. Imagine people flocking and gawking at you all day, being boisterously loud in what supposed to be a sanctuary dedicated solely for you. But one look at these pandas, with their devil may care attitude and the complete tolerance of the frenzy that’s going on around them, I guess it’s alright maybe being born and bred in this place made them into the indifferent creatures I see before me.
Lunch was courtesy of our very gracious host, the China Tourism Board, we were treated to what will be a repeating pattern of all our future Chinese gastronomic adventures for this trip- the lauriat food service. Lauriat or “lao diat” in Fookien is a sit-down banquet served on a lazy susan (turntable) composed of 8 to 10 dishes at the very least, served in family-style platters all at the same time. Chengdu is in the province of Sichuan, famous for its cuisine all over the world, (most of us are familiar with “Szechuan Chicken“ or the varied spellings it has taken in different parts of the world is actually “Sichuan”). We learned that the heart and soul of the Sichuan cuisine is a fermented paste of beans and chili, a perfect segue to our next destination, the Sichuan Cuisine Museum.
The Sichuan Cuisine Museum was, for me at least, the hidden gem of this trip more for the experience than its exhibit. The open, lush and tranquil central courtyard gives you a feeling of an ancient Chinese castle where the Emperor houses his best chefs and their apprentices providing for a conducive atmosphere where recipes can be well thought of, tried and tested before they are served on the tables of the royal family. The museum tour is arranged in such a way that its visitors start learning the history of the cuisine, then lead into jars and jars of the fermented bean and chili paste to see how it’s made, followed by an actual sampling of Sichuan’s most common cuisine (both sweet and savoury) and finally an actual cooking session where you get to eat the food that you made a museum cannot be more interactive than that.
Chengdu is geographically laid out like a giant spider web where everything emanates from the center and sprawls outward on all directions as you move towards its outskirts. That night, to say that we stayed in the center of the city will be an understatement. The JW Marriott is right smack in the middle of the city and is a perfect location for first-time tourists as it can be the perfect reference point to all the places you want to go. Located primarily in what looks like the central business district, I felt this is more of a no-nonsense hotel catered to perfectly suit the needs of businessmen during their official trips. I never really had the chance to tour the rest of the facilities and experience any of the amenities the JW Marriott has to offer but if the breakfast buffet the morning after was a reflection of any of that then I will say it’s well thought of, perfectly executed and served with a smile.
It was yet another early morning call, understandably so as we were scheduled to go up the mountains. I, for one, am not the outdoor type but I tried to keep an open mind. I piled up on calories and carbs from the breakfast buffet to compensate for the lack of sleep and to make sure I have the energy to tackle the activities ahead or it was just an excuse to partake of the fabulous breakfast spread at the JW Marriott, either way, I was ready.
Mount Qingcheng is considered one of the most sacred places of Taoism in China and also known as “the most tranquil place in the world” it manages to live up to its reputation despite the number of people who flocked that day. The sound of leaves rustling under your feet, the melodious whistle of the gentle breeze as it ruffles through the verdant vegetation and the splashing sound of random waterfalls and the gentle streams that jut out of the mountain side seem to drown all your stress away as you make your way up the mountain via a labyrinth of wooden planks, stone steps and elaborate shrines and temples. The clean crisp air fills your lungs with such vigor that you feel more renewed than exhausted. Mount Qingcheng is Chengdu’s living testament that men’s ingenuity and nature’s magnificence can sustainably co-exist, a lesson of both pride and humility.
The sight of the throngs of tourists gathered at the foot of the mountain at the end of our journey snapped me out of my meditative bliss and suddenly I feel the toll on my body from all the climbing we did. Fortunately, we were scheduled to stay at China’s first Six Senses Spa and Mountain Resort at Qing Cheng Mountain and get to enjoy the many signature treatments of their world famous spa. Six Senses suites are very generous with space, my almost villa of a room is 850 square feet (79 square meters) with my very own courtyard veranda and a spectacular view. My temporary retreat for the next 2 days had a living room that connects to a spacious bedroom featuring organic cotton bed linens and personalized pillows. The bathroom had a garden-view bathtub plus a separate rain shower and toilet. Antique-style wooden décor perfectly works with the advanced smartphone apps to control air conditioning, lighting and television.
Once settled in my own private villa, I had a golf cart pick me up and drive me to the spa where I chose to get the Six Senses Signature treatment. The massage was magnificent, almost magical that I didn’t want it to end. If not for the private dinner hosted no less than Manish Puri, GM of the Six Senses I would have opted to sleep and spend the rest of my night lying in that massage bed. Again, driven by my own private golf cart, I made my way back to my villa to get ready for dinner. I was skeptical heading out to dinner, we were 5 strangers brought together because of this trip, there was really nothing to talk about. Luckily, dinner was exquisite that it was enough to be the topic of the evening’s conversation that went on and on as each dish was served. It was an evening of culinary seduction. Our palettes were tickled by an appetizer of roasted cherry tomatoes and beets topped with ice cream, we were left wanting more and was teased by the sweet, savory, spicy battered crispy king prawns that followed. It was not enough, we wanted more and more we got, the salmon that came was cooked to perfection served with a curry sauce and a puree of sweet potato and as if to make sure that we do not forget this evening, the dessert First Peach of Summer, an ice cream popsicle of fresh peach coated with salted caramel was divine- the experience, unforgettable.
The next day, I got to tour the property and was in awe of what lies before we. The view from every corner was magnificent, Six Senses Mount Qing Cheng was indeed majestic but humble, showcasing the beauty of nature all around it instead of competing with it. It somehow managed to infuse luxury in its simplicity, it strips you down to basics by giving you the most luxurious of experience. It sounds ironic but you have to experience it to believe it.
Our next destination is yet another testament of how the Chinese have learned to master harnessing the beauty and power of nature without exploiting it but rather respecting it.
Constructed more than 2000 years ago, it claims to be the oldest existing no dam irrigation system in the world, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is still an architectural wonder by modern standards. Walking around the area, one is dwarfed by its magnificence, the sheer magnitude of the structure and how the ancient Chinese have managed to tame and use to its advantage such a formidable force of nature is truly remarkable. Walkways and parks with well-manicured gardens, fountains and ancient temples are abundant in the area but fail in comparison to the history and marvel that is Dujiangyan.
Personally, I have had my fair share of exploring the outdoors on this trip. Time to head to my kind of “outdoor” the jungle- the concrete jungle. I already had high expectations going to our next hotel because even our Chengdu local tour guide was jealous that we are staying at the Niccolo Hotel. It was described to us as “contemporary urban chic.” The guestrooms and suites were luxurious, an understated sophistication achieved through the use of natural textiles and leathers in subtle earth tones. The description earlier was correct.
Located at Chengdu’s very posh International Finance Square (IFS) within the business district, the hotel is centrally located within the city’s highly desirable and fashionable address. It is a complex of offices, boutiques and restaurants very popular among the locals. I had a very nice lobster pizza at the eclectic Niccolo Kitchen that night, a welcome break from all the Chinese food that we have been eating non-stop, not that I’m complaining.
I wanted to have a dip in the hotel’s stunning 20-metre indoor pool after dinner but the immaculate soft silky white sheets and the soft bed beckoned me to sleep instead. I was weak, I succumbed.
The remaining days were spent exploring the shopping circuit of Chengdu. There were a lot of streets lined with a plethora of quaint little shops selling locally manufactured merchandise from exquisite ceramic tea sets, different organic curated tea blends, intricate bronze and metal sculptures, embroidered fashion pieces and accessories, local delicacies and Chinese fine art.
This part of China keeps itself abreast with modern fashion as well and Niccolo Hotel is right across the street from Taikoo Li, Chengdu’s premium fashion district. Built to wrap around a complex of ancient temples, Taikoo Li is a very open, spacious low-rise shopping and leisure area tastefully constructed among historic lanes and elegant ancient architecture that draws a lot of local crowds. It features an array of cafes, restaurants and shops from Michelin-starred to Starbucks, Hermes to Zara. Expect some very unique pieces that you might not find in the same store from your side of the world.
Surprisingly, with the inability to access social media in China, this Chegdu trip was not only a welcome break from the heat of the Middle Eastern summer but more so a chance to temporarily disconnect from the digital world. A break of sorts to appreciate the wonders around me, be it natural or man-made. I found Chengdu to be very charming, there is always something interesting at every turn. This was my first window to China and it got me excited to see it more.