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“Can I have a photo?” 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 sighting.
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 homeliness.
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 bear.
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.
The Upper House
Room rates from:
Studio 70 from 5,200 HKD (£510)
Studio 80 from 6,100 HKD (£599)
Upper Suites from 17,000 HKD (£1670)
The Temple House
Room rates from:
Studio 60 from 1,509 RMB (£170)
Studio 70 from 1,709 RMB (£200)
Studio 90 from 1,909 RMB (£220)
The Temple Suite from 2,509 RMB (£290)
Deluxe Temple Suite from 3,309 RMB (£380)
Courtyard Suite from 3,200 RMB (£375)
Deluxe Courtyard Suite from 6,900 RMB (£810)
Penthouse from 70,000 RMB (£8,220)
Cathay Pacific now offers a choice of three routes between the UK and Hong Kong, and onwards to over 190 destinations globally. These include five flights daily from London Heathrow, and daily flights from Gatwick Airport and Manchester Airport.
Currently, the Gatwick and Manchester routes feature the new A350.
The lead-in fares for a business class return flight are as follows:
London-Hong Kong – from £3,580
London-Chengdu – from £3,860
For further information, visit www.cathaypacific.co.uk or call 0800 917 8260.
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