Paparazzi and Pandas: Hong Kong to Chengdu

“Can I have a
?” asks an old man. “Here, we take one together,” he says,
leaning in and putting an arm around me.

Famous? Not quite, but standing on “Wide and Narrow Valley”
street in Chengdu
I might as well be, based on the hoards of people clamouring to
take my picture. My host had warned me that it was customary for
locals to take photographs of almost everything – Western tourists
being a favourite subject – and I was becoming pretty used to the
VIP treatment.

I’d been in China for just under a week, courtesy of Swire Group
and Cathay Pacific, to experience
Hong Kong
‘s architecture and food scene – and to explore the
lesser-known city of Chengdu. I was also promised a panda

From festooning myself on a gigantic armchair in Cathay
Pacific’s lounge at Heathrow to touching down in Hong Kong, where I
was greeted by my chauffeur and whisked off to The Upper House, my
feet had barely touched the ground. My head, somewhat
unsurprisingly, was also expanding rapidly.

A far cry from the frenetic bustle of the megacity, The Upper
House feels like a spa retreat. Soft lighting and muted interiors
contribute to a tranquil ambience along with thoughtful touches –
the lift doesn’t have a “close” button to so guests feel less
rushed. The smallest of the hotel’s 117 rooms is 730 square foot; a
rarity in chock-a-block Hong Kong. My suite (because I am
celebrity, lest you forget) has harbour views and feels more like
an apartment. This is entirely down to architect Andre Fu, who
designed the rooms to create a feeling of serenity and

Next on my itinerary is dinner at restaurant Mott 32, which is a
convenient five-minute walk from The Upper House. With smoked black
cod, Wagyu beef and its own gin cart, it’s the best cure to
reawaken your taste buds after a long flight. As a person who can
sleep anywhere and through anything, I may not be the best one to
evaluate a restful stay at The Upper House. Still, I slept so well
I actually overslept, resulting in a very quick yet satisfying
breakfast at the hotel’s own Café Gray Deluxe restaurant and bar. A
favourite amongst locals for afternoon tea (yes, afternoon tea is
huge in Hong Kong, especially among the Instagram crowd) the
restaurant has a fantastic view overlooking Victoria harbour, and
is the home of Chef Grey Kunz.

Full from breakfast, we set off for our first destination in the
city, the Chin Lin Nunnery, situated in Kowloon. A somewhat
lesser-known tourist attraction, the immensely peaceful and magical
gardens are the perfect way to spend a bleary-eyed, mildly jet
lagged morning. Having ticked off this mandatory tourist hot spot
and Kowloon Walled City (be sure to book “Sam The Local”, who, as
the name suggests, is a local from Hong Kong who organises personal
and insider tours) it was time for lunch. Sam takes us to one of
Hong Kong’s most popular Cantonese restaurants, Duddell’s. Situated
in the heart of the city, their speciality, a whole crispy salted
chicken, is delicious beyond hyperbole. For dim-sum fans this is
the place and I am told that Duddell’s has now reached London, with
a new restaurant recently opened in London Bridge.

In the afternoon we drive to Repulse Bay, which has a strikingly
different feel to the city centre. The combination of driving
across the city with my mild jetlag spawns meditative thoughts on
how much Hong Kong has changed in recent years. Once overcrowded,
the city is now regenerating its compact and densely populated
past, focusing on what is already has and choosing to enhance it.
My moment of contemplation continued while in the oversized bath in
my room overlooking the island side of the city. Looking onto
half-jungle half-tower blocks, I am struck again by the
juxtaposition of these pockets of tranquility, to the bustling
energy of one the busiest cities in the world.

“Do not be fooled by The Upper House’s tranquility, this is one
of the busiest areas of Hong Kong” says Toby Smith, the new
Managing Director of The Swire Group, and echoing my exact thoughts
over dinner in Café Grey Deluxe’s private dining room. For those
that do not know, The Swire Group is one of the largest companies
in China, consisting of real estate, hotels and the well-known
airline Cathay Pacific. Although the group is large, every element
of my experience is extremely considered; even connecting to the
Wifi is remarkably sleek – my concierge did this for me upon
arrival in my room.

The next day, I am delivered to the airport and to begin the
next chapter of my trip in Chengdu. It is apparent as soon as the
plane lands that we are officially in mainland China. It is
striking how different this city is to Hong Kong. With so much more
space to play with, Chengdu has developed vast boardwalks and
concrete squares to cater for the sheer amount of people who call
this city home. Swarms of yellow, red and green bicycles pedal
alongside us, while immaculately dressed young women clutching
brightly coloured handbags giggle as they walk past.

Once at The Temple House, I learn that its entrance is a
restored Qing dynasty heritage building. The blend of the temple’s
traditional architecture with the modern design of the surrounding
rooms of the hotel feels harmonious. An L-shaped exterior building
hugs the main courtyard behind the temple, which is open to
surrounding complex. After the tour, it’s lunch at neighbouring
vegetarian restaurant, MI XUN Teahouse. The menu ranges from tofu
to petals and marzipan – the overall result is delicious, if
somewhat perplexing.

Before dinner, we are taken to the Wide and Narrow Alley tourist
spot in the centre of Chengdu followed by hot pot at Da Miao.
During the meal, a mask performance takes place, where I taste the
delicacy “yellow throat” (aka pig’s throat).

The following morning, armed with coffee and croissants from the
in-house French bistro, The Temple Café, we set off for the panda
base just on the outskirts of Chengdu. We had woken early because
by noon the pandas are fast asleep and the crowds descend. Along
the path, a short way through the sanctuary, I spot my first paw.
Then, a furry head pokes itself through the leaves, nibbling at the
nearby branches. I’m struck by how large the pandas are, I imagined
them smaller but a full-grown panda is not far off an adult

A child and I both gasp as a pair of young pandas tug at one
another’s ears. One slips and falls through the branches, crashing
to the ground. From this, and witnessing the slow pace of the
pandas, it does not come as a surprise that these animals were
endangered until recently. This base is a sanctuary for the
species. In a small cabin-like temple, we walk through a viewing
area, where the newborns are laid out in their cots, and some in
incubators. If I were to sneak one into my bag, it could easily be
mistaken for a cuddly toy, I muse.

The day gets better as we return to The Temple Café for a light
lunch on the square, followed by treatments at the adjacent MIXUM
SPA. The spa is situated in one of the adjoining temples. On entry,
we are asked to make a silent wish at the well before our
treatment. I lay down and close my eyes and notice once again, in
the heart of a loud city I have been given another space of
solitude to escape to. It strikes me that out of all of the places
I’ve been to, China has made me appreciate how large the world and
its populous is. Chengdu is just one of eight cities in China with
over 10 million residents. Perhaps that is why they have learnt how
to create such tranquil hideaways, in which to take sanctuary from
the commotion of everyday life.

As the afternoon draws to a close, I walk around the square past
a king-size Apple shop, and see two girls giggling on their very
accessorised phones. My whole experience of China has been just
like this, observing somewhere so unknown yet so familiar… I clock
another person turning to take my photograph on the street. As my
trip nears to a close, with it my celebrity status, I plume and
position myself for my closeup, relishing my last minutes of fame
before my looming return to reality.