Che… what!? If you’ve asked me about Chengdu last year, I wouldn’t have even heard of it. It is not widely known among people born outside of Asia, but seriously, what a place! Not just the city, but the entire region has this magic enchanting the untrained traveler.
So what is Chengdu – a modern city in the very heart of China. It is known to be the administrative capital of the Sichuan province. A funny story is that the city IS big (and if you check it out in let’s say Wikipedia this can easily be confirmed), but if I ask some of my Chinese friends they would say Chengdu is “a relatively small city, just 16 million people”. The architecture is a mixture of modern and traditional buildings (which for once seems to be working well). So are the people and the culture – on the very same table you can see on old lady in some traditional clothing, a middle-aged man with the jeans and old scrappy t-shirt who probably came by his moped, and a young businessman in a fancy black suit. For even bigger contrast, the businessman will be eating some dumplings with a bowl of noodle soup whilst the other two will be having burgers.
However, being a major city, Chengdu has its negative sides – the level of air pollution is substantial, the traffic can be unthinkable, and not speaking Mandarin is at least challenging. It is a place that you need to get to know first before falling in love. The following story is based on my personal experience during my trip from London in the spring of 2016.
I was invited by a friend to stay there for a week. The Sichuan region has humid subtropical climate, but it has distinct four seasons, so picking up the dates was not hard at all. The city has its own airport (and quite a busy one) and there is this very convenient 10-hour direct flight from London. When I landed, the sky was grey and hazy and the air was was very humid. The good bit was – it was warm. I had my friend waiting for me at the airport, so the commute to the city center was an easy thing for me. However, if you’re travelling by yourself, there’s some pretty good advice –
- Prepare some cash (CNY) and don’t rely too much on credit and debit cards. There are very few places taking cards and even if you decide to use an ATM there is a big chance for your card to get blocked.
- Have all of your addresses (hotel, restaurants you plan to visit, places you want to see) printed in Mandarin or at least some decent photos of the locations. 90% of the locals do not speak English and do not understand the Latin alphabet.
Back to the story, we got a taxi. There are all the public transports you can think of – underground, busses, motorbikes and scooters, rickshaws, uber. But taxis are very cheap and fairly safe. It was around noon time and we were starving so the first thing we did was to find a good place and have a quick bite. We went to a place called ‘Moka bros.’ in the middle of an open shopping center called Taikoo Li. It is one of those places with the healthy snacks and smoothies but converted by the Chinese cuisine. I have to say it was delicious.
After lunch we just walked around Taikoo Li. I wouldn’t recommend spend too much time on shopping there as the prices of imported goods are more expensive than in the US and Europe. But the place is a very good starting point to feel the cultural contrast. It is like a small neighborhood made entirely of one to two-storey buildings. This small modern village is built around an ancient temple and the same time is surrounded by tall skyscrapers which look like they are protecting their smaller siblings.
Most of the people in Chengdu have their dinner around 6 pm. The restaurants are full, so if you want to have an early dinner you better make a reservation. On the contrary, do not go too late as you might not find a serving kitchen after 9pm. I wanted to try something more traditional for dinner and my friend recommended a good place on the last floor of a building. However, we couldn’t manage to find this restaurant. On the street we were walking there were similar looking restaurants in every building. We went to see a few before we gave up and sat down in a random one. The Sichuan cuisine is very distinct to the other Chinese food I’ve tried (mostly in London). It is full of spicy chilies and peppercorns. If you like spicy food then you’ll definitely like the dishes we had. And because it was my first time in China I couldn’t resist not to order some Beijing duck – sometimes the classics matter.
The next few days were chilled. My friend was working during the day time so I was exploring Chengdu by myself. The city center has a good pedestrian area with plenty of shops, small restaurants and cafes, bakeries and various quick food pavilions. It looks busy but if you take a look you’ll see the city is full of young people, talking on the benches, playing mahjong, or simply drinking tea. It just seems calm and peaceful. Well, calm was definitely not how I was feeling when I needed to cross a road. Never trust a zebra crossing over there – it means nothing to the drivers.
Day 3 was the first time we saw the sky. And honestly, it changes everything. The city has some good parks and green areas so spending time there with the good weather outside, is simply miraculous. And of course, what Sichuan is popular for – the panda bases. There is one in the city you can go to, however, we decided to visit another one in the province and this is a whole different story.
A very special place to visit is the Du-Fu Thatched cottage. It is named after a famous poet from the past, Du Fu, for whom history says he spent 4 years there writing 240 poems. The cottage itself is a big park in the middle of the city- it is a relaxing area with plenty of gardens, bridges, streams and pavilions but also there are plenty of ancient buildings, statues of poets, tea houses, and of course, a temple. We noticed quite a few people go there for meditation. Bear in mind it is also a museum so do not forget it has specific opening hours. The visit can take you up to a couple of hours so ,allow some good time before the late afternoon.
The park closes at about 6pm, however, if you’re still in the mood, there is the Huanhuaxi Park right next to it. It is an open to public park with walking areas, kids playing sports, dog walkers, and a massive lake.
There are several traditional crafts streets in Chengdu which we visited in the next couple of days. I highly recommend Jinli ancient street. It is quite crowded and might be considered as ‘fake’ by someone, but it is a very good place to buy souvenirs, have some interesting food on foot and take decent photos. Also, you must see one of the changing masks shows there. You do not need a reservation, it is cheap and totally worth it. Alternatively, if you prefer to escape the crowd you can go to Kuan Zhai alley where you can enjoy some traditional craft shops surrounded by shops cafes and bars. If you have the time – simply visit both.
One thing you must most certainly do is try the traditional hot pot. Almost every restaurant in Chengdu offers hot post, but you need to choose wisely. We made our research and went to a top one. It was relatively expensive compared to the other food we had there but there’s not a single drop of regret. I will probably never forget the food - every bite was an explosion of flavors. Choose a good place, make a reservation, pay a bit more, but enjoy and embrace the magic.
Chengdu has a bit of allure for everyone – from nature and animal enthusiasts, through classical and modern architecture admirers, to good-food seekers. Whoever you are, whatever you are, I promise you’ll love it….