A few weeks ago my younger brother visited me in Hong Kong and given it was his first time to China I decided to take him into the mainland and visit somewhere a little off the usual tourist trail. Our destination was Chengdu (成都), the capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China, for no other reason than it was somewhere I hadn’t been before!
Maybe it was the autumnal weather but my first impressions of the city were similar to those of many other tier-two Chinese cities I’ve visited – miles upon miles of cookie-cutter concrete apartment buildings built at a rate which only the Chinese could accomplish. Without the gloss of coastal cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a bit bleak.
Our base of operations during the visit was the Loft Hostel which was a cheap but characterful place to stay, built in what used to be a printing factory. On the ground floor, it had a nice cafe and courtyard area with free wi-fi access.
It’s centrally located on Zhong Tong Ren Lu, Xiao Tong Xiang (中同仁路, 小通巷四号), a residential street with many small bars and cafes which was good for an evening snack but on the downside meant it was a bit noisy at night (especially on weekends).
Ten minutes walk from the hostel a cluster of restored/reconstructed traditional streets can be found, known as Kuan-zhai Lane. While a little touristy you can get a taste of what life in Chengdu was like in times gone by.
The inhabitants of Chengdu have a reputation in China for their laid-back attitude to life and you’ll find more teahouses here than in any other part of the country. I’m not an expert on tea but know that for hardcore aficionados there are even tea tours/holidays which can be arranged.
A new sight for me on the streets of Chengdu was the presence of ear-cleaners, that is to say, professional aural hygienists with a staggering array of metal tweezers, tuning forks and feathered sticks who will thoroughly clean out your lug-holes for a modest fee. Apparently, it’s a dying art but those partaking in the ritual looked to be enjoying it and I secretly wished I had tried!
While walking the streets looking for a particular temple we wanted to visit we came across a group of workers beginning to resurface a road. An hour later when we walked back the same way we were surprised to find that they had almost finished.
Purely out of curiosity we decided to check out the ‘Chengdu Industrial Civilisation Museum‘ (成都工业文明博物馆) marked on our map, only to find out on arrival that it was closed while a new exhibition was being installed. Instead, we contented ourselves by clambering over an old steam train sitting outside and watched older folks flying kites in the neighbouring park.
Being in Sichuan, the food in Chengdu is generally spicy (微辣), very spicy (老辣), or hardcore spicy (骨灰级辣). Hotpot ranks near the top of this scale and the use of Sichuan pepper (花椒) causes your mouth to become somewhat numb, something I first experienced way back in 2007 while living in Beijing. A friend directed us to a very local place which served up a dish straight from the fires of hell!
Next up was some unknown white meat which I think was probably beef but given the strength of the spices could have been almost anything.
On the more tame side of things were these totally non-spicy meatballs which my brother, accustomed to student food, loved!
We did a lot of walking in Chengdu looking for various places and came across an operatic performance taking place in the corner of a construction site. All the workers had downed tools and were watching with rapt attention.
While I have seen more than my fair share of temples in Asia, Qingyang Gong Taoist Temple (青羊宫) was a pleasant place to take a stroll on a lazy afternoon in the chilly autumn air. The grounds are extensive and contain six halls on a central axis.
According to legend, Qing Yang Gong was said to be the birthplace of the founder of Taoism, Lao Tsu, although I’m fairly sure I’ve visited other temples claiming the same thing…
Tune in next time for the highlight of Chengdu; some very cute pandas!