One of the most pleasant areas of China to explore randomly, eastern Sichuan is focused around CHENGDU (成都, chéngdū), the relaxed provincial capital. Famed not least for its fiery cuisine, the city offers a number of easy excursions to nearby sights. Set on the western side of the Red Basin, Chengdu is a determinedly modern city, full of traffic, high-rise department stores and residential blocks. But it’s also a cheerful place: seasonal floral displays and ubiquitous ginkgo trees lend colour to its many excellent parks, rubbish is scrupulously collected, and the population is also nicely laidback, enjoying its teahouse culture at every opportunity and unfazed by this being interpreted as laziness by other Chinese.
Chengdu was styled Brocade City in Han times, when the urban elite were buried in elegantly decorated tombs, and its silk travelled west along the caravan routes as far as imperial Rome. A refuge for the eighth-century Tang emperor Xuan Zong after his army mutinied over his infatuation with the beautiful concubine Yang Guifei, the city later became a printing centre, producing the world’s first paper money. Sacked by the Mongols in 1271, Chengdu recovered soon enough to impress Marco Polo with its busy artisans and handsome bridges, since when it has survived similar cycles of war and restoration to become a major industrial, educational and business centre. There are some downsides – the city’s traffic congestion and pollution can be atrocious – but on the whole it’s not hard to spend a couple of days in Chengdu touring historical monuments, spiking your taste buds on one of China’s most outstanding cuisines, and getting close-up views of locally bred pandas. Further afield, you can make day-trips out to the picturesque Qing-dynasty market town Huanglongxi or organize a flight or train to Tibet.