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Chengdu (Chéngdū, 成都) is a city that has managed to retain its easygoing Sichuan charm, despite many of its old wooden buildings and narrow streets having been replaced by glittering skyscrapers and shopping centers. Full of lush, green parks, lively temples, outdoor markets, bustling open-air restaurants and a maze of side streets, a tour of Chengdu makes for a unique and pleasurable China experience.

Far from the central powers of eastern China, rugged Sichuan has maintained its distinct culture. From Sichuan opera, with its distinctive "face changing" tricks, fire breathing and gritty humor, to mouthnumbing spicy food and the stunning natural beauty of the region (and its women, so they say), Chengdu is not to be missed. And of course, no visit to Chengdu is complete without going to see the pandas. Venture out of the city to the nearby mountains and drop in to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where hordes of Sichuan's famous bamboo-munching giant pandas live in a protected environment.

Sichuan cuisine is famous throughout the world for its tongue-numbing pepper, fiery chili and steamy hot pot, making the province's capital a delicious place to be (those who don't care for spicy fare shouldn't worry—there are plenty of milder alternatives among Chengdu's  many restaurants). For a real taste of Sichuan culture however, follow the lead of the locals and head to a Chengdu teahouse. But don't rush it—the idea's not to grab a quick pick-me-up, but to unwind and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.

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The administrative seat of several ancient kingdoms, Chengdu has a 2,300-year history as an important center of study and trade. During the Han Dynasty, the city was called Jincheng (Brocade City) after its thriving silk brocade industry. Once the Han Dynasty fell, giving way to the bloody Three Kingdoms Period, Chengdu became capital of one of the Shu Han (Kingdoms of Shu).

The city continued to develop as a regional center into the Tang and Song dynasties and is known for certain innovations—for example, paper money was first printed and used in Chengdu during the Song Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty, it was home to China's best-known pair of poets, Du Fu and Li Bai, perhaps the most famous of many artists and writers who have lived and worked in Chengdu over the centuries.

During World War II, Chongqing, then a part of Sichuan, served as the Nationalist fallback capital after Japan's brutal seizure of the previous capital of Nanjing. Thousands of Chinese officials, scientists, scholars and businesspeople came to Sichuan at that time, bringing a wave of industrial development. After 1945, the Communists rapidly beat back Nationalist forces throughout China, finally besieging Chengdu, where Chiang Kai Shek's army made its final stand before fleeing to Taiwan. The People's Liberation Army took the city on December 10, 1949, and with it, all of Mainland China.

The surrounding Sichuan countryside suffered greatly during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), with many perishing of starvation, and Chengdu lost a number of historical monuments, buildings and artifacts during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In recent years, the city has come roaring back and now exists as a modern industrial metropolis of over 10 million inhabitants.



Chengdu experiences pleasant springs, hot and humid summers, cool autumns and temperate but damp winters averaging 5 ºC (41 ºF). July and August can be uncomfortable, with temperatures reaching 35 ºC (95 ºF). In the heat of the summer, many locals seek relief in weekend mountain retreats or venture out after sunset to do business, shop and eat. Summer also sees periods of heavy rain. The best time to visit Chengdu is between March and June or between September and November when it's cooler and less rainy. One explanation for the locals' love of hot and spicy food is that the chilies and pepper help the body cope with the damp climate.

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