“Chengdu Can Do!” – the unofficial city motto for the capital of the Sichuan Province in China, as seen from many banners and signs around town. What can Chengdu do? It can provide you with an amazing week full of the spiciest food ever, the cutest pandas ever, and as many flashy modern shopping sites to ancient temples and old streets. Like any city in China, Chengdu is an eclectic mix of modern life and traditional Chinese history and culture. While not nearly as glitzy and modern as other famous Chinese cities, Chengdu still boasts its own attractions and unique flavors (literally), making it a great place to tour around. Chengdu had been one of my top cities to visit in China for a while, mainly because I have friends living there. Coincidentally, my classmate and pal Angela needed to go there for work so we planned a trip together.
Chengdu was my first time ever in the mainland. As a Taiwanese, the reasons to set foot in China have been very few in my lifetime. China has such a wide range of land and people that its cities are all very different. However, I believe Chengdu provided me with a good experience of how Chinese people are…outside Taiwan. The differences are vast and varied. I’m sure if/when I visit other major Chinese cities I’ll encounter even more differences. I enjoyed my week in Chengdu and documented with lots of pictures.
My tour around the city began on Sunday at Jingli Ancient Street, an old shopping street in Chengdu. The street has been turned into a tourist attraction and is cut off from the main roads where cars drive. Over the entrance is a sign displaying the characters in Chinese. Everything in China is simplified Chinese, which can prove a little annoying sometimes. I pass by signs on the street and I don’t know if I can’t read them because I actually don’t know the character, or they’re just simplified in a weird way. Most of the time I can guess the character because it follows the same format as its traditional version.
Jingli was filled with tourists. There were vendors selling a variety of things: sugar candy, tea, combs, spicy Sichuan food, and many souvenir items with pandas on them. I bought some sugar candy, molded into the shape of an animal, and I tried some of the Sichuan liangmian, cold noodles. The Sichuan version is covered with oil, Sichuan peppercorn, chili peppers, and garlic. I wandered the streets of Jingli with my friends, and ended with dinner at a Tibetan restaurant across the street. Since Tibet is so close in proximity to Sichuan, there is a lot of Tibetan food, culture, and people.
Tibetan cuisine highlights included yak meat, Tibetan milk tea, and yogurt. Yak meat can be very tough when cooked, but ours was done perfectly to the right amount of tenderness. The Tibetan milk tea was the perfect combination of sugar and milk. We ordered a deep-fried yogurt dish, which was quite delicious: crispy and sour at the same time.
Monday morning I slept in and then went out to get lunch with my friends. I ordered Sichuan wontons – called chaoshou in their Mandarin. The chaoushou are nothing special, but they’re covered in mala sauce: peppercorns, chilis, garlic and oil. This is the classic mala flavor of Sichuan cuisine. You cannot find a single restaurant here that doesn’t serve something spicy. The food everywhere in Sichuan is always cooked to an angry red with chilis and their local Sichuan peppercorn, known for numbing the mouths of people who dare eat it. I’m a huge fan of wontons – really anything wrapped in a skin and then cooked – and these were delicious, but my mouth really did go numb. It’s called mala because that means spicy numbness in Chinese. It’s literally how your mouth feels. The locals have completely adapted but I need lots of water and rice to eat anything.
After lunch we went to visit Tianfu Square in the center of the city. The square is home to the statue of Mao Zedong, Communist leader and founder of the People’s Republic of China. The square is a big tourist spot, complete with a fountain and gardens. For a tourist spot, there was quite a bit of intimidating police/gun presence, but mainly because squares are great places for protests to start. Right next to Tianfu Square was the Chengdu City Library. My librarian mother had asked me to make a stop and tell her how it was, but it was closed on Mondays. So I snapped a picture of the impressive building outside.
We took the Chengdu subway home so I could experience it. Their metro system is still developing so there are only two lines in service. Two more will be completed soon. The metro system works well. You have to go through security before swiping your card. Security, meaning you put your bag through an X-ray machine, and then you give any liquids to the guard to scan. It was a little surprising because I had never been on a subway system that did that. It has its cons too – the rush hour lines are very long.
The following day I visited the New Century Global Center. The building was constructed in 2013 and houses hotels, department stores, an ice rink, and a water park. It is the largest building in the world by floor area (18,000,000 sq. ft. of floor space). Our Uber dropped us off on the side with the hotel entrances so we had to walk around the entire building and find another entrance. Inside I browsed the Uniqlo and Muji and it was like I had never left Taipei (I go to Uniqlo and Muji basically any time I go to a department store). The Global Center is great for a lazy day at the mall, or if you’re feeling inclined to play at a waterpark. Other than that, pretty much only the grand architecture is left to please you.
I also made a visit to Kuanzhai Alley 寬窄巷, an ancient alley similar to Jingli but with more historical preservation. Much of Jingli’s buildings had been rebuilt to look like their ancient selves, but the buildings in Khuanzhai Alley are more original. Kuanzhai Alley had many similar shops and stalls to Jingli: tea shops, jewelry, food, etc. Most peculiar were the ear cleaners sitting along the street clanging their metal instruments and calling people to come and get their ears cleaned. Yes, you read that right. These vendors are everywhere in Chengdu. People sit in a chair and the attendants clean their ears with metal instruments and cotton balls. This was possibly the biggest cultural difference I found between the East and the West that week, because Chinese people are completely okay with paying a random stranger on the road to stick metal instruments in their ears.
In Kuanzhai Alley I found the Panda Post Office, a place selling all sorts of cute panda merchandise and lots of panda post cards. I bought one and mailed it to myself in the U.S. as per tradition via the Panda Post.
Afterwards we attended a face-changing show. Face changing is a famous element to Sichuan opera and involves performers changing their faces (well, masks) in the blink of an eye while dancing and performing acrobatic movements. The show also involved traditional Chinese live music, dancing, comedy acts, and shadow puppets. The show was brief but very interesting. At the end, the emcee spent a little too much time trying to sell famous calligraphy than we would have liked.
For dinner we did what all the Sichuanese love to do: eat hot pot! Hot pot is essential to Sichuan, since the mala hot pot originates here. The Sichuanese love hot pot so much that they turn every form of food, foreign and local, into hot pot. If another country’s food comes to Chengdu, they create a hot pot for it. There’s nothing like an enormous boiling vat of red hot soup covered in peppercorn, chilis and oil to make your eyes water and lips go numb! In Sichuan, the locals can stomach a plain mala hotpot all on its own. They cook their meat, tofu, vegetables, and seafood right in the mala soup and dip it in even more oil before eating it. We ordered a split hot pot, with the mala pot separated from a plain pot. The hot pot was unbearably spicy but delicious. We mainly cooked our food in the plain pot and dipped it quickly in the mala before dousing it in oil to tame the flames. We still needed lots of sweet beverages to calm the mala in our mouths.
One of my favorite parts of the trip happened the next day. Angela and I woke up bright and early to go visit the Giant Panda Research Base on the outskirts of Chengdu. The city is known for its breeding base of the giant pandas, an endangered species found only in China. The Research Base was structured pretty much like a zoo – stone paths leading everywhere, bamboo trees shading the walkways, koi fish ponds, and plenty of panda exhibitions. Some of the older pandas were housed in indoor rooms filled with bamboo. Others were in outdoor spaces. They were the laziest, cutest, most roly-poly animals I’d ever seen. They would sprawl out on the ground or on a pile of bamboo shoots and gnaw at the bamboo happily, leaving bits and pieces on their furry tummies because they were too lazy to clean it up. The panda cubs were far more active than their older counterparts, but it was still in a very slow, lagging way. It was so enjoying to watch. Four pandas played on a wooden platform. They wrestled with each other, fell off the platform, lollygagged around, and ate more bamboo. Some of them had climbed up to prime sleeping spots on the tops of tree trunks and sprawled there to sleep in the sun. The life of a panda is sure great.
After a morning spent with pandas, we headed back downtown at noon to get lunch. Angela and I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Jinsha Museum. It’s a fairly new museum dedicated to the recent discovery of an ancient civilization that lived in Chengdu before the Chinese came. What was astounding was that these archeological discoveries had only been made in 2001! The entire museum, complete with an outdoor park and grounds, housed the actual location of the archeological discovery, plus all the artifacts found in the dig. It was an incredibly interesting museum to visit.
Our final day in Chengdu, Angela and I took the morning to visit Dufu Cottage. Dufu was a famous Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty who lived in Chengdu for a period of time. Dufu Cottage is another famous tourist spot in Chengdu and has been transformed into a museum as well. The cottage is surrounded by several historical buildings for the museum, all nestled in a large garden in the middle of the city. Dufu Cottage was a wonderful escape from the smog, dust, and cars that clog the rest of the city. The garden was peaceful and quiet, filled with flowers, trees, and ponds. It was quite favored amongst the elderly folk of Chengdu as a relaxation spot.
Angela and I parted ways at noon because she had some work to take care of. I met up with my Chengdu friends for lunch at a dry pot restaurant. As mentioned earlier, Sichuanese love their hot pot so much they recreated a reverse called dry pot. Dry pot is essentially what you would get in hot pot – meat, vegetables, sizzling spicy Sichuan pepper, etc. – but without the steaming soup. Ideal in hotter weather. We ordered a rabbit meat dry pot and it was very delicious. It was my first time trying rabbit. Visiting China had sort of made me throw out all my morals and culinary fears for the week (I had tried yak meat, chicken heart, and blood up to that point), and therefore I ate the rabbit dry pot without a second thought. Rabbit is quite good, just bonier chicken.
After lunch my friends took me to Taiguli, a sleek, modern outdoor shopping center in the city. Taiguli is filled with designer stores, trendy bars, hip burger cafes that probably charge 99 RMB for a camembert cheese lamb burger. It’s a lot of stone, rugged wood, and Ikea furniture. Taiguli had an enormous 4-floor Muji that I shopped at quite happily. If you can’t tell, I love Muji with all my heart. I will be making an entire blog post about it soon.
We ended our time in Chengdu ironically, eating Beijing duck for dinner. It was my first time trying Beijing duck, actually. As a less-than-enthusiastic fan of meat, I didn’t think I would like it. But little did I know that Beijing duck isn’t just eating plain roasted duck. It’s dipped in delicious Beijing duck sauce and wrapped in thin tortilla-like skins (similar to spring roll skins) with raw cucumber and onion. The sauce is what makes the Beijing duck, for me.
We thought our adventures in China were over at that point, but arriving at the Chengdu International Airport and 6:00am the next morning proved us wrong. We were told at check-in that our tickets were not recognized because we purchased them online on a third-party site and were sent to a variety of different counters to speak with different people. Finally when they told us we could check-in, the check-in had closed, making us miss our first flight to Shanghai for a transfer. We then proceeded to try and find a slightly later flight to Shanghai. But the airline employees told us we had to call their company and talk to them on the phone because we had bought our tickets online (note to self: don’t buy tickets online in China anymore).
Angela battled the crackly receiver and confusing Chinese phone operator while I tried updating my Chengdu friends via Angela’s cell phone (because my internet roaming had ended in China). It was at least an hour of “這是什麼意思？” and “有別的選擇嗎？” and “對不起，我的中文不好，我聽不懂”. Basically half of what the lady said was in complicated Chinese.
The whole situation was a mess. We couldn’t get on a flight unless it was 2 hours in advance. We could only book through the phone. We couldn’t stay in Chengdu an extra night because there were no flights the next day. We had to pay $200 USD in difference for a new flight to Shanghai. Oh wait, we couldn’t do that anymore; the 2 hour gap had passed. Finally, by the grace of God, we found a flight to Shanghai where we we would layover and then fly to Taipei in the morning. Luckily, Angela had a friend there who could let us crash for the night and we’d only have to pay about $45 USD in ticket price difference. But our problems weren’t over yet! Angela tried paying her share with her American credit card and it failed. It seems any sort of basic thing in China is near impossible if you’re a foreigner. I tried my Taiwanese card, which worked. When we asked if we could swipe it again for Angela, we were told no, a card cannot pay for more than one transaction. (????) It looked like a hopeless situation until Angela called her boyfriend in Taipei and borrowed his Taiwanese card. We were through!
It was because of this whole debacle that we found ourselves sprawled out in a beef noodle soup shop an hour later with our luggage and coats everywhere, thankful to be slurping down a bowl of Taiwan home. This was our first encounter with the crazy ridiculousness that are Chinese airlines. We would be prepared next time.
In the end, the mess turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise. I got to see Shanghai for about 14 hours, which was lots of fun! The world of high-end, glamorous city life was at our fingertips for the night. We strolled down cobblestone sidewalks past international designer brand stores, the strong stench of Hollister cologne wafting right down to the streets. Every tenth person was a foreigner, and where in Chengdu they were a rarity to be stared at, here in this international city of booming business and finance, foreigners were just another part of life.
We dropped off our luggage at the Ritz Carlton apartments (oh, did I mention Angela’s friend works for the US Embassy, so she has an okay place to live?) and said hello to our gracious host. Then we went to find some Shanghai food for dinner. We feasted on xiaolongbao, fried rice, tofu, and pan-fried buns that night. With our stomachs full and hearts happy, we wandered over to the Bund, a famous tourist spot overlooking the Huangpu River. The skyline across from us was almost completely shrouded by the pollution. Air quality in Shanghai is considerably worse than Chengdu. It was such a shame, having such a beautiful view of the city lights with a magnificent line of Western-style buildings behind us, all perfectly lit for night photography.
We caught our plane to Taipei at the crack of dawn the next morning – not before having to take a sketchy airport shuttle bus practically across town to the other terminal – and landed in Songshan Airport that afternoon. We were exhausted but so happy to be home to traditional Chinese characters, better air quality, escalator queues, dust-free streets, and Taiwanese accents. Traveling is fun, but getting home is nice too.
My time in China definitely gave me a new perspective of Chinese culture. It’s quite different from Taiwan. There are accent differences, different usage of tones, different vocabulary words, and different mannerisms. The Chinese communist government was also present in many things, from the propaganda posters on the streets, to the red communist scarves schoolchildren wore, to the everyday use of Internet, or lack thereof. Almost everything in China is censored. My phone was physically incapable of going on the Internet for the entire week. I found a Chinese copy of 1984 by George Orwell at bookstore, and knew immediately that the pages inside were missing some crucial plot information about a certain fictional government that censored history books.
My trip to China was very eye-opening to lots of things: the differences of Chinese and Taiwanese culture, the long history and culture of China, and the hold the present government has on its people. There’s still so much more of China I’m so eager to explore.