Inner Circle

The City of Beginnings

Jordan Hu spends four days in Chengdu to learn about the stories behind the city’s pride and joy: hotpot and pandas.

The City of Beginnings
I was surprised to learn that Chengdu was, in fact, the launching point of the Silk Road’s Southern Route.

When you think of Chengdu, the first things that probably come to mind are pandas and hotpot. During my few days in the capital of Sichuan, I discovered that this city’s significance dates back to the Silk Road and even further to the birth of Daoism, the only religion to originate from China. But the pandas are a good start in this city of many beginnings.

In response to the panda’s rapid loss of habitat and declining numbers, the Chinese government established the world’s first panda conservation programme. The three bases in Duijiangyan, Ya’an and Wolong work together as one unit to rescue, breed and release pandas back into the wild. 

Walk on the Wild Side

On my first day in Chengdu, the staff at Shangri-La Hotel, Chengdu arranged a tour for me to the Dujiangyan Panda Base, the rescue centre and current home of Bao Bao, the female giant panda cub that just returned from the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington DC. I didn’t get to see the famous cub on my first visit as she was being quarantined, but I could not have asked for a better first panda experience.

The 30 pandas at the base either have their own stone enclosure or share one with a sibling. Each enclosure comes complete with a small pond, a tire swing, trees to climb and plenty of bamboo and special “panda bread” to eat. The sun was out and they were all napping in sunny spots on the grass, eating bamboo shoots off their bellies and wrestling with their siblings. The highlight of the day was watching a young panda climb to the topmost branch of a tree, slip slightly before correcting himself then fall asleep sitting upright with his head on his paw like a bored college student in a lecture.

The peaceful atmosphere of the bamboo forests surrounding the panda base was even making me feel sleepy. At Qing Cheng Mountain, a literal stone’s throw away, it was so quiet all I could hear were birds chirping and the sound of rustling leaves from the tall trees overhead. It was very easy to imagine Zhang Dao Ling, founder of the first organized form of Daoism, contemplating the Dao by the riverside or teaching students in one of the many caves in the mountain. After claiming that Laozi appeared to him in a dream, Zhang established the Way of the Celestial Masters movement and for a time, governed a completely independent society in the north of Sichuan.

The start of the Silk Road

The second day of my trip began at the Chengdu Museum located next to Tianfu Square in the city centre. The massive building looks as if it is made out of thousands of bronze pyramids fitted together to form an incomplete cuboid. It houses six stories of exhibits that trace Chengdu’s history over 4,000 years to the Bronze Age, covering the different dynasties and the city’s modern history.

I was surprised to learn that Chengdu was, in fact, the launching point of the Silk Road’s Southern Route. In 125 BC, Zhang Qian, China’s envoy to the rest of the world, reportedly found cloth from Sichuan in present day Afghanistan and discovered the existence of a southern trade route. The route connected the southwest of China to the Middle East by way of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.

History in a hotpot

Hotpot was actually a dish developed by traders along the southern route. When travellers met each other along the way, they would take whatever ingredients they were carrying and combine them in a big pot over a wooden fire, hence the name “hotpot.” Today, this bubbling pot of numbing spiciness is a symbol of Sichuan cuisine and can be seen on every street corner in Chengdu.

From learning of Chengdu’s pivotal role in the Silk Road, I took a taxi across town to examine the impact of this cross-cultural exchange at the Wukuaishi Market. Here human-sized bags of Sichuan peppercorn rest next to huge scrolls of cinnamon from India. In between bags of spices and tea in this open-air warehouse, I saw a game of mahjong being played, children running about and families eating lunch together.

Tea, another commodity introduced to China by way of the Silk Road, is a huge part of the Chengdu culture. In China, the city is famous for its laidback attitude and the people’s love of leisure activities. An afternoon well spent for a Chengdu native consists of tea, a game of mahjong or cards and some more tea. Just like hotpot restaurants, teashops are ubiquitous.

For my final day in the city, I enjoyed a cup of tea at People’s Park alongside the senior citizens who congregate there for Chinese opera and line dancing. In between sips of tea, I pondered the many beginnings of this city. To think that the tea leaves swirling in my cup were the result of an ancient trade route was enough to occupy my mind for the entire afternoon. 

 Book a two-night stay at Shangri-La Hotel, Chengdu from just 3,500 GC Award Points per night Back to Inspiration 

Showing 1 comment

  1. Alain Van Den Berghe: 1 year, 7 months ago

    Thank you Mr Jordan Hu for your story.
    Shangri La hotels we do know some but it will be the first time to visit China.
    Shangri La Chengdu, in next easter holiday will be our first Shangri La on mainland China.
    So also for us Chengdu will be the city of beginnings.
    We already booked the Panda base excursion through the hotel, a half day city bike tour, Chinese opera and an excursion to see the Giant Buddha in Leshan.
    Chengdu I hope, will be the door to discover the greatness of China little by little.

    After oir stay we will also post our experience here.

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