Winter Break Part II: Chengdu, Sichuan — Gateway to the West

One Week in Chengdu, Sichuan

I love what my Lonely Planet China Guidebook says about Sichuan: “Capital Chengdu shows a modern face, but just beyond it’s bustling ring roads you’ll find a more traditional landscape of mist-shrouded, scared mountains, and a countryside scattered with ancient villages and cliffs of carved Buddha’s. Central Sichuan is also home to the giant panda, the most famous face in China. To the north, the visage changes again into a fairyland of alpine valleys and blue-green lakes. Sichuan’s Tibetan face appears as you venture west.” Chengdu has been on my list of places to visit in China for quite some time now, having had many friends live there & love it, so I allotted myself a full week there to explore the city & it’s surroundings. I got in to the East Railway Station, and made my way to Lazybones Hostel near the Wenshu Monastery. Walking there, I already knew I would love Chengdu, as the way to the hostel was next to a small river, with green trees and sunshine overhead as old people sipped tea on the riverside.

While waiting for my friend Jayshree to arrive, I went with some newly made friends at the hostel for lunch at a local restaurant with outdoor seating, one I’d be back to visit many times. I ordered “chaoshou” in red chili oil and “zajiang mian,” both of which are Chengdu/Sichuan specialties that were on my list of foods to eat while here. Later, I fell in love with their “tianshui mian” as well. My first night, I also watched the hostel’s weekly Sichuan Opera performance, famous for face-changing, which was a nice introduction to one of China’s famous schools of opera. After Jayshree arrived, we went to the Jiuyanqiao Bar Street, which was beautifully illuminated and very fun. Already a great start to the week, feeling that Chengdu was vibrant and full of life.

Giant Panda Breeding Research Base

One of the first things on our list to do, and one of my personal favorites. Chengdu is the “Panda City” after all. The base itself was very peaceful and green, and since we went fairly early in the morning, there weren’t too many other visitors and the pandas were awake and active. I’ve never seen pandas so close before, and they were so cute and funny. First we saw the big adult pandas, then saw the 8 hilarious yearling pandas, who were definitely my favorites. They were always fighting, climbing, eating, and sleeping. Altogether cute little balls of fluff. We also saw the littlest baby pandas and the red pandas, and watched a video about the work the base has been doing to save the panda species from extinction, which was awesome to learn about. Most interestingly, I learned that pandas only eat certain kinds of bamboo, which grows in the mountains and has to be chopped and sent daily by local villagers. So much work for the picky pandas, who eat a ton & reject 2/3’s of the bamboo the villagers send!

Wenshu Monastery

Wenshu Monastery — another of my favorite places in Chengdu, not necessarily because of the monastery itself, which was nice, but mostly because of the surrounding area. After strolling around the monastery temple, which was very peaceful with monks and the smell of incense, we sat to have a tea alongside groups of chatty old people, crimson robed monks on their iPhones, and all sorts of other locals. Next we browsed the markets nearby, which was a really diverse area. Tibetans were selling the usual trinkets, while a Uyghur man next to them blaring Central Asian music sold lamb kebabs. Browsing the market stalls we passed many more old people sitting & drinking tea and playing cards. No one selling stuff was pushy; in fact they were super friendly and chatty, and seemed just amused to see us as a change to their daily routine.

Downtown: Tianfu Square, Chunxi Road, IFS, Taikooli

Another day, Jayshree & I explored the more modern, cosmopolitan, and consumeristic side of Chengdu, taking the metro to the city center at Tianfu Square, with views of the big Mao statue and skyscrapers. From there we walked down to the Chunxi Road shopping area, which was FULL of people, loud and noisy, and kind of reminded me of Times Square in New York or Nanjing East Road in Shanghai. It’s one of those kind of crappy but perpetually busy places in China I usually avoid. We did see a man selling some very cute hedgehogs, and stopped to eat “suanla fen” and “guokui”, two more delicious Sichuan foods I’d been wanting to try.

Next we went to the IFS, a super modern group of skyscrapers filled with luxury brands like Coach, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga etc. to try and find the iconic panda statue, which we never did find. Incredibly stunning architecture and store designs though.

We ended in Taikooli, which was also upscale and modern, with a fusion of old-style buildings, but brands like Nike, Kenzo, Michael Kors, etc. with many hip people walking around. They also had a number of cute cafes, one of which called the Abbaye Jayshree & I stopped in for happy hour and an early dinner. A truly lovely atmosphere with clear skies, warm temperatures, delicious food, and chill music. I could have been anywhere in the world in that moment. It was a good end to our day exploring Chengdu’s hip, modern side.

People’s Park & the Tibetan Quarter

Unexpectedly some of my favorite places in Chengdu. While I expected a nice stroll around a park, People’s Park was way more interesting than just that. I had read about how, historically, the Sichuanese have loved and appreciated the arts, which sort of gave birth to their chill, teahouse culture too, and the park was a true representation of that. There were tons of people there, mostly elderly, and I ran across several public performances, which included singing, dancing, and costumes, and drew large crowds of onlookers. It was so fun to experience, and I really felt “among the people”. I continued walking around the park, coming across marriage markets and old men playing mahjong. At the lake, I saw two monks rowing a boat, and bunches of Tibetan families in traditional dress. Later, I sat down at Heming Teahouse for a cup of Sichuan “maofeng” green tea, watching people nearby get “ear cleanings.” Interesting.

Next I went to the Wuhou area, and visited the Wuhou Shrine, built to commemorate Liu Bei, one of Chengdu’s former warlords during a period of dynastic disunity, and several of his loyal ministers and warriors.

Then I had a Tibetan dinner of yak butter tea, yak meat momo, and a tsampa yak meat soup. The momo were good, but the others I found really heavy, salty, and buttery, and after a while I really couldn’t eat anymore. It was interesting though; being so close to the Tibetan Quarter, most of the customers were Tibetan.

After dinner, I set out to explore the Tibetan Quarter, and soon found myself in another world, surrounded by only Tibetans, identifiable from their clothing — the women’s long skirts and long hair, the broad rimmed hats of herders, crimson robes of the monks with their matching crimson parkas, and the many prayer beads — to their language — everyone spoke Tibetan, and many shop names were in Chinese and Tibetan — to their sun darkened faces, bright eyes and rosy cheeks. I saw monks and families of Tibetans stopping in shops for religious articles, and then stumbled upon an outdoor market where all the usual Tibetan trinkets were being sold, but since they were sold by Tibetans to Tibetans, I took an extra interest. I was literally shopping alongside monks, such a cool experience. One of the vendors there told me he’s from Garze, a Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Western Sichuan. Walking almost out of the Tibetan Quarter, I ran into a big group of people dancing in a circle to Tibetan music. All in all a good time, and a cool first introduction to Tibetan people and culture for me.

Leshan Giant Buddha

I spent one day to visit the Giant Buddha in Leshan, an hour from Chengdu by high-speed inter-city train. It’s the world’s largest stone Buddha. 71 meters tall and over 1200 years old, it was carved out of the surrounding red sandstone cliffs to calm the nearby rivers. The area itself was beautiful, with mountains and rivers, and green moss to contrast the red rock. Many of the smaller Buddha carvings around the area had been scratched out during the Cultural Revolution, but some still remained in tact. The big Buddha was truly big; I was smaller than it’s ear! I took a path carved in the side of the cliff face alongside smaller carving to get down to the Buddha’s feet, then climbed back up to look at more caves, temples, and pagodas in the area. The Leshan area is pretty tourists and obviously newly developed, with a sparkling high-speed train station, convenient tourist buses, and loads of modern skyrises, and I was glad to come in the off season with no crowds.

Jinli Street & the Wide & Narrow Alleys

Both are “old streets”, which are always a popular destination for both Chinese and foreign tourists. I visited Jinli Old Street one evening, shocked to see a group of monks hanging out in the Starbucks there, and looking at many cute souvenirs under the red lights. It was a nice stroll. I thought the “Wide & Narrow Alleys” we’re nicer though. They had an artsy feel, similar to Nanluoguxiang in Beijing or Tianzifang in Shanghai. It was, you could say, an Old Street with Sichuan Characteristics. Nearby were lots of vendors selling Sichuanese snacks, cute shops, teahouses, restaurants, and Sichuan Opera performances. Lovely time.

Sichuan Impressions: Food, Teahouses, & Relaxed Vibes

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Sichuan Hotpot

I think I can confidently say Chengdu is my favorite city in China. For me, the highlights of the whole trip were the relaxed and friendly attitudes of the local people. As one of my new Chinese friends at the hostel told me, “The Chengdu life is really slow. After sitting to eat, they sit to have a tea and talk with friends, then sit to play mahjong.” I loved spending many hours in teahouses myself, and enjoyed the alfresco meals of spicy Sichuan food. Hotpot was another great experience for a foodie like myself — the boiling, spicy soup broth filled with the famous Sichuan peppercorn. I just found the people here much more relaxed than in other cities, and more willing to engage with me in conversations. I also loved being surrounded by such diverse cultures and peoples. It was a very interesting mix, and why Chengdu is known as the “Gateway to the West”. Although for me, I’m making my way north to Xining in Qinghai Province before heading further west.

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