Chengdu Do (by Carmen)
We were finally in Sichuan! Where bamboo forests sweep across the land. Where Tibetan culture lives strong among the rugged western mountains. Where pandas munch away happily. Where the biggest Buddah in the world lives. Where one of the four holy mountains of China juts out of the earth. Where earthquakes show their raw power. And where you can find some of the most glorious food in all the world. Of all it’s attributes, the food is what really drew us in. A whole post could be dedicated just to the food – and that is in fact what Nathan will do in the next couple weeks. But for now I am going to focus on what we did in Chengdu, the lovely capital city of Sichuan.
Most people merely pass through Chengdu on their way to the other sights of the province, but we found ourselves plenty busy in the city itself. One of our first activities was the Wushou Temple. The peaceful grounds of this temple can make you forget your in the city. We walked among the various enclosed courtyards and watched as the orange robed monks were called to lunch via a wooden drum.
Another cool sight was the Sichuan Museum. Quite a few other travelers we have met are anti-museum, considering them to be boring or something. I am definitely not in agreement. I love museums – the calm and quiet atmosphere, the (hopefully) interesting displays, and the act of learning and gaining new knowledge. At the Sichuan Museum we viewed elegant pottery, extremely delicate embroidery, cut paper arts, shadow puppetry and intricate bronzeware some of which was 2500 years old! Through these artifacts I gained a greater appreciation for local culture. All for free – good deal.
Near the museum is the Green Ram Temple which is part of the Taoist religion. Taoism is not a religion I know much about. From what I read, it is based on a few ambiguous texts written in the in the 6th century BC. But they do embrace the yin yang which I totally decorated my notebooks with in middle school. So I get that ; )
By night we did something we had not yet attempted in China – riding a bicycle. Twenty years ago bicycles were the symbol of the country. Everyone has seen those pictures of thousands of Chinese cyclists pedalling down the street. But no longer. The electric scooter has taken over as the way to get around making cycling a less safe endeavour. But we decided to go for it, at night no less, because it was part of a group that our hostel had organized. So the guide, Nathan, me and seven Spaniards crisscrossed the city, avoiding scooters and snapping pictures.
The next day we met up with a new friend, Eric, who we happened to meet while travelling in Yuanyang. He teaches English in Chengdu and graciously showed us around for a day to see some sights including the Sichuan University and the Tibetan neighborhood.
While we were walking around we happened upon a market where they were selling fresh produce as well as a few snacks. Even though we had just feasted on some dumplings I couldn’t pass up a special steamed dough wrapped in a corn husk. It looked like a sweet tamal, one of my favorite Mexican treats. And to my surprise it tasted like one!
Later we chilled out Sichuan style in the lovely Heming Tea House in the People’s Park. Nathan ordered the popular chrysanthemum tea with goji berries which comes out with big rock sugar cubes at the bottom. People love to hang out at the tea houses to gamble, chat and/or get their ears cleaned by the professional cleaners walking around. Everyone who comes to Sichuan has to do one of these things. I decided on the simple tea and chat option.
Another specialty of Sichuan is the opera. It is supposed to be very dramatic with a special masks painted with colorful, elaborate expressions. They have a technique that allows them to switch the masks in a fraction of a second. And the Sichuan opera has fire breathers and acrobatic flips (take that Madame Butterfly!). We were excited to attend the opera matinee performance but as we settled in for the show we realized we had made a mistake. We were indeed at the opera but it was not a Sichuan one. No masks, no fire, no acrobats…and where’s the fun in that? Instead we were at a simple performance where the most dramatic act was when one character shook her feather headdress at another character. And if you’ve never heard Chinese opera it isn’t exactly melodious. After three hours of tolerating the screeching and hoping for fire, I had to concede that the language barrier had cheated us out of the Sichuan opera we wanted. Oh well.
The opera is just one way to be entertained in Chengdu. Another is simply to walk the streets. On our meanderings we encountered plenty of oddly shaved dogs, including a hilarious chow chow that ran inside after we started laughing. And then there are the bottomless children. I agree this is a much more frugal and ecological way to handle child bathroom needs compared to diapers. But I don’t appreciate the fact that parents let their kids pee and poop anywhere they please. It’s simply not hygenic. I don’t know what the answer is but in the meantime being mooned by tiny butts all day is pretty amusing.
If you’ve walked around too much then it’s time for another tea house. The River Viewing Park was a particularly pretty garden. It was filled with cozy tea corners where one could watch the bamboo grow.
Contrasting to the cozy green parks are the ubiquitous large office parks and freeways at the edge of the city center. This is the case with all Chinese cities but Chengdu is attempting a bit of one-upmanship with the Global Center. We passed it on the bus and it is HUGE. 1.5 million square meters of floor space, which is bigger than the current tallest building in the world. It supposed to be filled with hotels, shopping, fake beaches, and fake villages all lit with fake sunlight. Pretty much the epitome of Chinese tourism.
Back in Chengdu city center, we had a lucky coincidence. At the expat-oriented bookstore called Bookworm, the month of March is dedicated to hosting a literary festival. By chance, we were in town to hear an author I admire give a talk. Jen Lin-Liu wrote Serve the People, a memoir about life and food in China. I loved how in the book she worked with dumpling wrappers, noodle makers, home cooks and even high end restaurateurs to get the story behind the food and delve deeper into the culture. She is publishing a new book in July about her travels following the origins of the noodle along the Silk Road. Sounds awesome and I can’t wait.
See, even in the non-food post on Chengdu I can’t help but mention it! I’ve covered pretty much all the things we found to do in Chengdu except one – pandas! They were so adorable they’re getting a post of their own. So stay tuned for the rest of our Sichuan adventures.