Strolling through a bamboo grove in Chengdu’s Wangjianglou Park, on a bend in the Jinjiang River, the silence is interrupted by a furore coming from somewhere up ahead. Amid the cacophony of agitated voices, muted in the drizzle, I hear the clatter of tiles and bouts of laughter. I cross a small stream and enter a clearing, where dozens of elderly people are sat in groups under makeshift umbrellas, sipping tea from thermos flasks and playing mahjong, one of the oldest games in the history of the world.
The mid-afternoon gathering is the first of many surprising discoveries in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and home to more than 14 million people. In a city that is plunging headlong into the future, with a population that’s expected to increase by one million people per year for the next 10 years and what seems like an impossible amount of new buildings under construction, it’s nice to see people taking time to enjoy the finer things in life.
When they’re not playing mahjong, the city’s elderly residents like to soak up the atmosphere in Tianfu Square, where an imposing statue of Chairman Mao presides over the comings and goings of the people, arm raised in permanent salute, or practice tai chi along the manicured promenades that line the city’s two principal rivers, the Jinjiang and Minjiang. The two converge in the heart of the city next to the Shangri-La Hotel, Chengdu, my home for the duration of my visit and the venue of the recent Fortune Global Forum 2013, which took place there this June, affirming the importance of this dynamic city among the world’s Fortune 500 companies.
I had arrived in Chengdu the day before on the inaugural Qatar Airways flight from Doha. Qatar Airways is one of a handful of international airlines that have identified the importance of China’s fourth largest city, both as an economic hub in Western China and as a gateway for international tourists, who come for two things: the chance to catch a glimpse of China’s famous giant pandas, and to taste some of the most fragrant and spicy cuisine in the world.
My room up on the 32nd floor of the Shangri-La looks down on some of the city’s most photogenic attractions including the Anshun Bridge, a masterful re-creation of one of the first bridges in the city, which glows a warm orange colour at night. The original bridge, which earnt a mention by Marco Polo in his diaries from the 13th century, was one of several landmarks destroyed by flood waters in the 80s.
In the lobby of the hotel, the works of nine contemporary Sichuan artists is on display, including the peach blossom prints of Zhou Chunya, a former student of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, whose work has been exhibited around the world. In the ballroom, three large paintings by Guo Wei depict a young girl with a panda’s head. The surreal works of art, part of a series thoughtfully named Panda, watch over proceedings as I join in with a tai chi class one morning.
Nearby, at Du Fu Thatched Cottage, tribute is paid to the life and works of Du Fu, one of China’s greatest poets, regarded in Chinese literary circles in the same way William Shakespeare or Homer are in the West. Here, at this tranquil spot next to a babbling brook, the wandering poet planted roots after fleeing the An-Shi Rebellion, living in the cottage from 759 AD until his death in 770 AD. It was here that the poet penned some of his greatest works.
It’s easy to see why the spot, so near to the city and yet a million miles away, inspired the poet, whose work is embellished with depictions of a society in flux, as the Tang Dynasty fell from power and the lives of its people changed forever. I wonder what he would make of modern Chengdu, as the city and its residents experience the reversal of this fortune.
Down the road, in Jinli Street, the traditional architectural styles of ancient China have been re-created in a small neighbourhood of dark wooden buildings festooned with bright red Chinese lanterns and bold calligraphy, each housing high-end boutiques selling local arts and crafts. Here, you can find the famous masks of the Sichuan Opera, and other tourist favourites like cuddly pandas and the local rice wine, baijiu, which is traditionally drunk as a toast. I enjoy some that evening after a feast of traditional Sichuan cuisine at the Shangri-La’s Shang Place signature restaurant, raising my glass to the future of Chengdu, and to its most famous residents, the giant pandas.
Call of the wild
On a gloomy afternoon in the picturesque landscape of Bifeng Gorge Panda Base, three hours’ drive from Chengdu, I get my first glimpse of the magnificent, indolent creatures.
An adult female sits in her enclosure no more than 10 metres away, with her back turned towards the small crowd of gawking onlookers, lazily munching her way through a pile of bamboo — part of the 25 kilograms she consumes in a day. Completely undeterred by the audience, she skilfully bites through bamboo branches as thick as a man’s arm, picking out the good bits and crunching through the fleshy interior. Pandas, it seems, do very little other than eat and sleep, a factor that perhaps contributed to their now precarious existence.
There are little more than 1,600 giant pandas left in the wilds of China. Deforestation, habitat loss, poaching and naturally poor parenting skills have decimated their numbers in the last half a century, to the point that it seemed likely that the beautiful black-and-white bears might disappear forever. The first panda reserve was established in Chengdu in 1983 to help boost panda numbers and today their efforts seem to be paying off.
The Panda Kindergarden lies in another part of the reserve and it’s where I meet Hanhan, a one-year-old male panda who is much more interested in eating his small bamboo snacks than posing for photos with the lucky few. Hanhan is one of five pandas born at the reserve last year. His adolescent playmates are sleeping in the high branches of a nearby tree while he meets wide-eyed visitors who have come from all over the world to see him.
There are several other panda sanctuaries like this in the Sichuan province, but the spectacular setting of Bifeng Gorge, draped in greenery and the occasional picturesque waterfall spilling down the steep sides of the gorge, makes visiting this one a particularly pleasant experience.
Later that evening, I’m revived from the long drive with a Wushu massage at the Shangri-La’s CHI spa, where a masseuse combines deep-breathing exercises with massage techniques inspired by the ancient Chinese martial art of Wushu to relax my body and mind. It certainly does the trick as I drift off to sleep that night, dreaming of black-and-white bears hiding in the trees.
In with the new
While Chengdu’s panda population and elderly residents enjoy a peaceful existence, the city’s younger, affluent citizens want more from life than bamboo and tea in the park. And there is plenty to keep them busy.
Next to Shangri-La is the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district, a long, narrow collection of buildings covered by a white roof of translucent hexagonal tiles that glow pink, red and purple at night. Underneath the canopy, beautiful women in expensive dresses and gents in Italian suits queue up outside high-end bars and exclusive nightclubs every evening, in a scene that’s more reminiscent of Shanghai or Beijing then a regional capital.
Just around the corner, there’s a Bentley Mulsanne in the window of the British carmaker’s showroom and I can’t resist going in to have a look. The price tag lists it at RMB 5.68 million (US $928,000), almost twice the price as other parts of the world, thanks to the huge taxes imposed on luxury goods in China.
One morning, I see three newlywed couples posing for photos on the banks of the Minjian River next to the hotel. Nearby, three distinct motorcades of luxury cars wait patiently. The biggest comprises four Bentleys, five Mercedes and five Rolls-Royce, including a vintage Phantom. Despite the prohibitive taxes, it seems as though business is good for high-end carmakers.
South of the river, in the Yanlord Landmark development, several designer malls and flagship stores from luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci are poised around a wide intersection. At night, the Chunxi Road pedestrian shopping district is lit up with a thousand neon lights from the stores showcasing hundreds of local and international brands.
Further south, towards the airport, a sea of cranes fills the skyline as far as the eye can see, as a swathe of new developments grow up out of nothing. The government’s “Go West” campaign, designed to attract foreign investment to the Western region through tax breaks and other incentives, has been highly successful, as banks, electronics companies and carmakers all clamour to set up regional hubs in the city.
Most impressive of all is the vast New Century Global Center, which became the largest stand-alone building in the world when it opened in July. Big enough to house 20 Sydney Opera Houses or 16 Wembley Stadiums, this colossal structure has to be seen to be believed. Comprising several shopping malls, offices, conference centre, 14-screen IMAX cinema, five-star hotel, waterpark, ice-skating rink and a 400-metre artificial beach, the building is the epitome of the Chinese Dream. Opposite, the 140,000 square metre Chengdu Contemporary Arts Centre designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, will be home to theatres, a museum, exhibition space and a conference centre and a raft of entertainment options when it opens in a few years time.
The pace of change in the city is dizzying, and I can’t help but feel that if I return to Chengdu in the future, I will find a very different version of the city. I wonder what Du Fu would have made of it all, sitting in his cottage by the babbling brook, penning his thoughts and stroking his long, white beard.
Back in the park, life goes on. The old folks continue to play mahjong, perhaps indifferent to the tidal wave of change that’s surging over the city. At Bifeng Gorge, the pandas, blissfully unaware of the upheaval, continue to munch on bamboo and loll around in the grass. These are scenes that time and progress are unlikely to change.
The Golden Book
Shangri-La Hotel, Chengdu
Tel: +86 28 8888 9999