The fight starts in the middle of the park. First a jostle, then a shove, then a wild haymaker to the side of the head with a Margaret Thatcher-style handbag. The two middle-aged combatants are finally separated, amid a pile of bamboo poles in a muddy flowerbed.
Welcome to Sichuan, where the food isn’t the only hot stuff. The women here are considered to be the most beautiful in China, and competition for partners can get fierce. In fact, it can get downright dirty.
These two soiled 50-something brawlers are both seeking love – but not for themselves. This is ‘Marriage Match Corner’ at the sprawling People’s Park in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu. And the women are advertising their adult offspring.
In this shaded pocket at the park’s heart, hundreds of parents attach their children’s headshots and vital statistics to bamboo poles, along with a list of potential deal-breakers. “Must not wear glasses”, translates our sweet guide Sugar. “Not from a single-parent family”; “Must not be over 33”. It’s like analogue Tinder, but it’s the parents doing the merciless swiping left and right, in order to secure pole position in the flowerbed. The stakes are high: in a country where over-25s are dubbed “Christmas cakes” (nobody wants them after the 25th), Marriage Match Corner produces more than 100 weddings a year. And that’s a cake people do want a piece of.
It’s like analogue Tinder, but it’s the parents doing the merciless swiping left and right
The two things most uninitiated Europeans are likely to know about Sichuan is that it’s famous for spicy food and giant pandas. But there’s considerably more to China’s intriguing southwestern province, particularly blossoming Chengdu itself.
The celebrated Chinese poet Li Bai once described the journey to this isolated territory, as “harder than the road to heaven”. But British Airways recently made a mockery of that by introducing direct flights from London five times a week.
Always a backpacking hub thanks to its giant pandas, Chengdu is being transformed into a major business centre by the Chinese government’s ‘Go West’ initiative, which offers tax breaks to companies investing in the west of the country. More than 250 of the Fortune 500 companies now have offices here, the city’s population has swollen to 14 million, tourism was up by 20% in 2014 – and suddenly the rest of the world has started paying attention.
With a history reaching back more than 2,500 years, Chengdu was once nicknamed ‘Jin-Cheng’ or ‘City of Silk’. Situated at one end of the South Silk Road, its woven fabrics were sought after as far away as the Roman Empire. Today the city is buzzing once more. The People’s Park is full of music, laughter and energy (as well as mud-wrestling mothers), while daily business is conducted at a relaxed pace over cups of steaming jasmine in the city’s teahouses.
At Chengdu’s centre, the pretty Wuhou Temple is a wonderful throwback to the romantic pseudo-Arthurian legends of China’s Three Kingdoms, while ancient Jinli Street next door throbs with life. Here, on a narrow thoroughfare best described as Carnaby Street meets Diagon Alley, the hot street food on offer includes such delicacies as fried duck tongues, roasted trotters and boiled rabbit heads.
Then, of course, there are the pandas. Chengdu is a city more obsessed with bears than Chicago, and their furry faces are everywhere – from badges and bridges to billboards and buses. Some of the major hotels even employ door staff in full giant panda costumes to hug visitors as they arrive from the international airport.
Some hotels employ door staff in full giant panda costumes to hug visitors as they arrive
The real bears are six miles outside the city, at the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Starting with a handful of rescued pandas in the late 1980s, the base now has nearly 100. The successful breeding programme is thanks in part to ‘panda porn’ being screened to the bears on the solitary day of the year when females are fertile.
Aside from pandas, there’s another giant in Sichuan. Two hours’ drive away in Leshan is the world’s biggest stone Buddha. Towering over the convergence of three wild rivers, it was hoped that the gargantuan 230ft figure, hewn from the face of a mountain in the 8th century, would calm the hazardous waters and protect shipping to and from Chengdu. It worked: rubble from the project inadvertently choked the rapids and made the rivers safe. Today the Giant Buddha is best viewed in all his splendour from a boat on the murky waters at his feet.
But even the mighty Buddha of Leshan is dwarfed by Sichuan’s biggest attraction, nearby Mount Emei. One of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, it soars to 10,200ft, and is criss-crossed by 65km of trails connecting a multitude of ancient temples all the way to the summit.
The good news for tourists is that there’s no need to undertake the full two-day hike to reach the top. Instead, a new high-speed rail link with Chengdu, paired with a state-of-the-art cable car and regular shuttle buses mean you can bust through the clouds to Emei’s peak on a day trip.
So good are the new transport connections and so popular is Mount Emei as a destination that a cluster of world-class hotels are already springing up at its base. Among the more impressive is the Anantara Emei Resort, boasting a spa that even the most relaxed of Buddhists will be thankful for after a day tackling the mountain.
Perhaps most importantly – and most refreshingly for a five-star property – the Anantara will tool you up with fighting sticks and catapults to keep the local residents at bay during your ascent of the mountain. Like sly Dickensian cutpurses, they hunt in packs and they’ll lift your wallet, camera or phone within seconds if you leave them unprotected. However, to be frank, they’re always going to be more interested in your lunch. Known by a number of (not always complimentary) names, but most commonly as Tibetan macaques, the furry felons are surprisingly dextrous when it comes to opening bags, unscrewing bottles and peeling Mars bars from their wrappers like bananas.
the Anantara will tool you up with fighting sticks and catapults to keep the local residents at bay during your ascent of the mountain
Of course there’s better food on offer in Emei itself, and Sichuan as a whole, particularly if you like it spicy. Many of the dishes, including the signature hotpot, are laced with a mouth-tingling combination of heavy-duty chillies and dried Sichuan peppercorns, producing the famed mala effect – ‘hot and numb’. Don’t be put off, though, there’s plenty of pleasure to be had in this kind of pain. (OK, perhaps not from the mala rabbit heads.)
One of Chengdu’s most famous residents, the 8th-century poet Du Fu, wrote: “Wind, light and time ever revolve; let us enjoy life as best we can.” An important international city in antiquity, Chengdu’s fortunes have again revolved to the top. As international business floods in, so do restaurants and luxury hotels. A second major airport is already under construction, while the population continues to swell. Once the start of a famous continent-crossing trail, China’s Silk City is going places again.
Jonathan Thompson was a guest of British Airways (ba.com), which flies direct to Chengdu from £740 per person return, and of Anantara Emei Resort & Spa (anantara.com) which has double rooms from £141 a night, B&B. Both group and tailor-made holidays can be arranged through Wendy Wu Tours (084 4288 5396, wendywutours.co.uk).