The panda province

The giant panda is seen as the symbol of China, and, more specifically, of the south western province Sichuan. More than 30 percent of the world’s population of these docile black and white bears (often labeled a national treasure, they are loaned to other countries as a sign of friendship and successful international relations) live in sanctuaries in this province.

The capital is Chengdu, home to more than 10 million people and a global business hub with a social teahouse culture, lively nightlife and a reputation for spicy food. Venture outside the city, and the pace instantly slows as skyscrapers and bustling streets give way to gorgeous Insta-worthy lakes and valleys, and sacred mountains.

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What to see and do in Chengdu and Sichuan

Perhaps the best example of Chengdu’s old-meets-new approach is the Taikoo Li district where a complex of designer fashion boutiques has been built around the tranquil Qing Dynasty Daci temple. Set within a heritage building a five minute walk away is the contemporary Mi Xun tea house (the city has the largest number of tea houses in the world) where there are more than 60 varieties of tea on the menu.

For a more traditional shopping experience, take a wander down Wide and Narrow Alley. Once home to high ranking military officers from the Chinese army, it is now two criss-crossing shopping streets where food stalls sell snacks such as pineapple rice, kung pao chicken and rabbit heads, and wooden huts are filled with calligraphy kits and tea sets (both make lovely gifts to take home). If you are interested in seeing Sichuan Opera (it involves the ancient art form of ‘face changing’ where performers wear colorful masks, which they switch in a flash as they alternate characters), one of the best places to catch a show is the Jinjiang theatre in the city centre.

Spend a day at the Chengdu Panda base where you can watch as the animals lay on their backs chomping steadfastly through clumps of bamboo, curl up into fluffy balls to sleep in the trees frame (pandas doze for up to 14 hours each day) or if you are lucky, lark about on a climbing frame. Nearby is the city of Dujiangyan where street food stands sell pig snouts and scorpions on sticks. You can hike up Unesco World Heritage Site Qingcheng Mountain, which is dotted with temples and often shrouded in bewitching early morning mist (there is also another, often less crowded giant panda base here if you have not had enough of a fix already).

For a flavor of real Sichuan countryside, head north to the Jiuzhagoui Valley national park and nature reserve. Another Unesco World Heritage Site, this vast park has more than 100 lakes, a handful of waterfalls, mountains and Tibetan villages. It is spectacular all year round, with glittering lakes and fields of green in summer and magical snow-capped mountains in winter.

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