Zhang picks me up at Chengdu’s Shuangliu International Airport, one of China’s air hubs and the gateway to the country for many foreign visitors. She deftly drives her beat-up car through the endless suburbs of the city, capital of the Sichuan province. People elsewhere in China consider Chengdu provincial: a leisurely town where folks sit around, slowly sipping tea. But they clearly haven’t been to Chengdu recently.
“One year ago this wasn’t there,” Zhang says, pointing to one of the many elevated ring roads we pass under, which stretches so far on both sides that it seems to merge with the clouds.
Zhang is a Chinese teacher who has volunteered, through friends of friends, to show me her home town’s hidden charms. Useful plan, because the city is impenetrable to the naked gaze, block after block of drab grey sameness with the occasional brownish “Louis Vuitton Opening Shortly” signboard. Suddenly Zhang swerves to avoid a collision. “This area is lethal disorder,” she exclaims. “Lot of construction happening, roads dug up, many difficulties.”
Chengdu grows fast—it is a city of almost 15 million. To decongest the centre, the municipality has introduced a system whereby only cars with certain last digits on their registration plates are allowed to drive on certain days. But as Zhang shows me over the next two days, Chengdu is a lot more than a transport hub. After all, its history as a cosmopolitan trading centre stretches over thousands of years, and some of that ancient charm is still around.
We head off to the famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding as early as possible—the feeding starts around 8.30 a.m. and is usually over by 10 a.m. Pandas are notoriously lazy and fall asleep as soon as they finish their breakfast of bamboo, not waking up until breakfast the next day. Apparently, the bamboo contains some sort of addictive chemical that zonks them out. Considering that 99 per cent of a podgy adult panda’s diet consists of bamboo, they spend most of their lives eating, digesting, and sleeping. The cubs, who haven’t yet acquired the bamboo habit, keep playing their kung-fu style games between the sleeping adults until they are exhausted. By late morning there is a definite lull in the air, but then there are souvenir shops dealing in cute panda-themed toys where visitors can amuse themselves.
These pandas are intended to be released into the wild, so the enclosures are designed to resemble authentic habitats. Baby pandas are born in the autumn and if you visit in the spring you’ll see them as cubs. About 80 per cent of the world’s panda population, or more than a thousand animals, are found in the Sichuan province (Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 1375 Panda Road, 17 km north of city centre; www.panda.org.cn; admission ¥58/₹570).
The salient feature of Tianfu Square in the centre of town, is the huge Chairman Mao statue that overlooks it, giving off a vibe of old communist China. The square is right on the main street Renmin Lu, so visitors are bound to cross it frequently.
Near the fountain in the middle of the square, is an underground shopping centre and metro hub, where apart from catching the tube you can do some quick shopping, pick up snacks, and use clean, free public toilets.
There are a number of shops and eateries southeast of the square, especially along the street known as Chunxi Lu. Here you find both Chinese and international cuisine, hundreds of posh boutiques and cheap markets, from malls to roadside stalls. Local textiles are in high demand, brocade and silks being specialities since ancient days.
For a quick snack on the go, look for street vendors who offer steamed buns stuffed with pork or beef (¥1-5/₹10-50).
A 15-minute walk west of Tianfu Square is People’s Park, which attracts crowds of karaoke singers, geriatrics dancing in groups or doing t’ai chi, men practicing calligraphy on the pavements with big brushes, or artists sketching portraits with crowds of onlookers providing encouragement.
There are several teahouses in the park. A flask of hot water, which keeps your jasmine tea going for hours while you munch on sunflower seeds, will cost ¥15/₹150. No wonder then that drinking tea is the favoured local pastime and social activity (Also known in Mandarin as Renmin Park; entry free; teahouses are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
Chengdu has a branch of the Bookworm chain of bookshops (others are in Beijing and Suzhou) that stocks a very good selection of books in English, including Chinese literature in translation, which can be surprisingly difficult to find in China. I found a copy of the hard to obtain China in Ten Words by the radical author Yu Hua and also, the latest editions of travel guidebooks. There are regular talks with writers and in March they host an international festival of literature featuring both Chinese and international authors. After browsing and shopping, it is a good idea to proceed to the chilled out in-house bistro. It specialises in Continental cuisine, in case you’re fed up with noodles (2-7 Yujie East Road, opposite Sunjoy Inn, off Renmin Road; www.chengdubookworm.com).
To fully appreciate the antiquity of the city, one must visit the monumental Jinsha archaeological site in western Chengdu. A covered hall protects a full-fledged excavation that can be viewed from convenient walkways and platforms. The five-square-kilometre site was discovered in 2001 and parts of it were opened to the public by 2007, though excavation is still in progress. Signboards explain the significance of the various pits, evidence of the fact that Chengdu was already an important place 3,000-4,000 years ago. As the political centre of the Shu kingdom, it is believed to be almost as old as the Late Harappan civilisation.
Many of the fantastic treasures unearthed here and elsewhere in the province are kept in the adjacent museum. Must-see objects include an attractive golden ritual face mask. The museum shop has superb souvenirs and interesting literature in English (Jinsha Site Road, off Qingyang Avenue, about 5 km northwest of centre; www.jinshasitemuseum.com; admission ¥80/₹800).
Chengdu has two temples of interest that are short walks from the central Tianfu Square. The quiet Daci Temple (30-minute walk along Zongfu Road until it becomes Dacisi Road; entry ¥3/₹30) is notable as the place where Xuanzang, the backpacker monk who famously walked all the way to India in the seventh century, stayed for four years while preparing for his epic journey. The temple has ancient sutras and is also said to host relics of Buddha. The grounds have a vegetarian food counter and a popular teahouse where a cup of jasmine tea and a flask of hot water cost just ¥5/₹50. Then stroll along the pleasant riverfront two blocks east.
The colourful Tang-era Wenshu Temple (Wenshu Yuan Road, just off Renmin Road; sometimes called Monjusri Temple) is a 35-minute walk north of Tianfu Square. It has a number of interesting courtyards, hundreds of Buddha statues, and monks playing ping-pong in their free time. Part of Xuanzang’s skull was enshrined here after his death. The temple also has a vegetarian canteen.
The Wenshu Temple area has something of a festive atmosphere with plenty of Tibetan souvenir stalls, trinket sellers, and roadside kebab vendors (try the lamb yangrou skewers, which cost a few yuan).
For a sit-down lunch, pick a restaurant that seems popular with the locals on the streets opposite Wenshu Temple. The menus have photos of the dishes, so just point to anything that looks tasty and you’re unlikely to go wrong. Even though you can order the famous mapo doufu (spicy tofu) anywhere in China, the dish is said to have originated here in the 19th century at the restaurant called Pockmarked Mother Chen’s Spicy Bean Curd Eatery (Chen Doufu; Jiefang Road). Other local classics are twice-cooked pork and kung pao chicken (a hearty meal for two costs ¥50-100/₹500-1,000).
Chengdu has been billed a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and eating in the city can be quite an experience. The most distinctive thing about this cuisine is the famous Sichuan pepper, so powerful that it is apparently used as an anaesthetic by rural dentists who can’t afford drugs. Biting into the peppercorns numbs the entire mouth; they also have a piquant, sour aftertaste.
The city’s famously spicy hotpot, which originated in nearby Chongqing, is a treat to be shared: a bubbling pot of broth into which you dip meats and vegetables until the morsels are cooked. The local thick potato noodles are quite fabulous, as are the tiny filament-like mushrooms. For a helpful guide on what else to order, consult eatdrinkchengdu.info/2009/04/hot-pot-menu.html. Hotpot is delicious but can get very messy!
Chengdu has lots of hotpot joints, among the better known are Huangcheng Laoma (Qintai Road), Chongqing Kongliang Shanyu (Qinjiang Road), and Loama Tou (Yulin Zhong Road). If you’re still up for some fun after a fiery dinner, ask a taxi driver to take you to the nearest karaoke bar where you can party all night.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Pandas, Tea, and Hotpot in Chengdu”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).