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Sichuan Province, 504km (313 miles) NW of Chongqing, 842km (523 miles) SW of Xi'an

Ask any Chinese what to do in Sichuan's capital of Chengdu, and 9 times out of 10 they'll tell you to drink tea and eat hot pot, such is the city's reputation as a culinary capital that knows how to take it easy. Indeed, Chengdu's cuisine is irresistible and tea drinking is a custom that took hold here 1,300 years ago and never let go. With few genuine ancient sights within the city proper (Du Fu's cottage is only a replica; Wuhou Temple is ho-hum), drinking tea may be Chengdu's most durable link to the past. But what Chengdu lacks in ancient sites, it makes up for in charm and atmosphere. Like so many cities in central China, Chengdu has a pretty little river running through it. The narrow Fu He and its southern tributary form a sort of moat around the city, sections of which are lined with attractive restaurants and teahouses. The city is also in the midst of a building boom, but a few old ramshackle warrens and outdoor markets still survive just west of the city square.

Chengdu is the gateway to scenic Jiuzhaigou, the Buddhist mountains of Emei Shan and Le Shan, and one of the most important panda breeding centers. It's also a traveler's haven and a place to gather information between trips. People are friendly and the pace unrushed. And because Chengdu is one of the few cities with daily flights to Lhasa, many travelers come here to arrange transportation to Tibet.