Chengdu offers a modern twist on ancient China
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Shuffling with the crowds along Kuan Zhai Alley, a network of lanes dating from the Qing dynasty, I breathe in deep.
A familiar blend of smoky chilli, toasted Sichuan peppercorns and crushed garlic invades my nostrils; it instantly feels like home.
This is my first visit to Chengdu in three years, and, like each of my previous visits, the city has taken on a new visage. But in a place like this, it doesn’t take long to get reacquainted.
Tradition: The area is known for its ancient architecture, like this temple complex on the outskirts of the city
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in south-west China and arguably where the cream of Chinese cuisine can be found.
It’s impossible to walk down a street without smelling something delicious.
There are a few spots I always visit because I know I’ll find the best street food. Kuan Zhai Alley is one, crammed with stalls selling bites such as guo kui – fried bread filled with pork mince.
Although Chengdu has a reputation for good eating, it is the history and culture of this one-time capital of China that draws visitors.
Street food: Chengdu is also famed for its delicious Sichuan-style treats, available from stalls
Kuan Zhai Alley, for example, was once home to Manchu soldiers during the Qing dynasty and is one of the few remaining examples of imperial-era architecture in the city.
For those after a more modern feel, Taikoo Li is perhaps the best example.
China Southern flies twice daily from Heathrow to Guangzhou, with connecting flights to Chengdu. Fares start from £442 return. For further information, visit global.csair.com.
The Temple House Hotel (thetemplehousehotel.com) in the Taikoo Li complex has rooms with king-size beds, with prices starting at £175 per night.
Housed in imperial Chinese-style wood and glass buildings are luxury stores including Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.
But at the heart of this faux-retro complex is Daci Temple, a Buddhist sanctuary originally built between the 3rd and 4th Centuries. It has been rebuilt several times over the years.
Despite efforts to harmonise the Taikoo Li architecture with that of the temple, the juxtaposition of old and new is sharpest here.
Outside the temple, an afternoon tea will cost you the equivalent of £25. But inside, on rickety chairs, you can still experience the tradition for as little as £1.
That’s the thing about this city: the way it keeps pace with modernity means it never feels foreign, wherever you’ve come from.