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China Deep Dive: Chengdu

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I had thought we would have to fly from Xi'an to Chengdu but it turned out the cities were closer than I realized and they were connected by a fast train that took only three hours to reach our destination. One of Mei Ling's closest friends in Miami came from Chengdu and she happened to be spending the summer there with her kids. So far Mei Ling had strong connections with people in every city we had visited and that had not even been a factor in our planning. It might seem strange that she had so many friends scattered around various regions of China but after being married to her for twelve years I was no longer surprised. My wife is the type of person that everyone seems to want to get to know better. Even in a class-conscious society like China she interacts seamlessly with people from every stratum. She has a very strong nature and she is fiercely loyal and generous to her friends and they always return the sentiment. I've described her before in this blog as a Jedi after seeing stone-faced bureaucrats suddenly bend over backwards to help us out of difficult situations and weary cabdrivers invite us into their homes to help cook a local meal. She's crossed a greater distance both geographically and socially from her beginnings than anyone I've ever known. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to share my life with her and help her achieve her dreams, and in return she has opened up the world to me in ways I never could have imagined.

We were picked up at the station by a minivan that Mei Ling's friend Lulu had sent. The driver didn't even want to let me load our own bags into the trunk even though he was older than I was. He drove us directly to the restaurant where we were meeting Lulu and her family for dinner and only after we went upstairs did I realize that the driver was her father. The ten of us sat around a huge round table in a private room and I was expecting one of those four hour banquets that I find so painful, but it seemed like someone heard my prayers and we were out of there in just over two hours. We quickly proceeded to the Fuqin night market which was in the same general part of town as our hotel, northwest of the center. This was a relatively small market that occupied an outdoor plaza surrounded by a very modern shopping mall. I made the mistake of buying some large snails which tasted like the bottom of a pond, which is how those creatures taste the majority of the time despite their appetizing appearance.

The Fuqin market was somewhat lacking in variety and atmosphere so we decided to move on to Kuanzhai Alley, which is actually a network of several pedestrian streets and courtyards. The streets themselves are centuries old but the area was redeveloped around 2003 to be more appealing to tourists and is filled with stores selling knick-knacks to impulse buyers along with the usual array of snack dishes. One repeating motif that was somewhat unusual were the arrays of spicy rabbit heads.

Tuesday morning we found ourselves breakfast in one of the busy markets close to the city center. It quickly became apparent that rabbit was one of the regional specialties as there was almost as much rabbit on display as there was chicken.

There was an entire restaurant dedicated to rotisserie rabbit with a long line outside. Across the street there was an interesting sculpture of a line of people waiting to be served at a noodle shop. The sculpture had a very unique design in that the figures closest to the shop were in bas relief against a painted wall and as the line went backward they projected further and further outward from the wall until they became freestanding statues. The group bore an uncanny resemblance to the one waiting for their roasted rabbits although the bronze figures seemed a little more resigned to the wait than the living humans. The rabbit was rather messy to eat and overspiced for my taste, but I felt very local when I ripped the spine off the carcass and bit off the two kidneys which were dangling from it.

After a little more walking we reached People's Park, a large public park very close to the center of the city. We met up with Lulu at the Singing Crane teahouse which was on an artificial island in a large pond within the park. Lulu had carefully read the list of typical Chengdu snacks that I had compiled in my research and they were already piled on the table waiting to be eaten. Aside from trying the regional foods we also had the opportunity to see the traditional Chengdu tea service using a pot with a three foot spout. The waiters combined dance and acrobatics while deftly pouring the tea from a distance without spilling a drop.

Cleo stayed with Lulu and the rest of us explored the different areas of the park. Public parks play a much greater role in daily life in China than in other parts of the world and they are typically more elaborate and beautiful than parks in Europe and the Americas. People's Park was one of the nicest we had come across thus far with a network of pathways passing through myriad gardens with a variety of sculptures and statues. The pond contained two islands connected to each other and the mainland by several arched bridges and it was quite pleasant to stand on the center of a bridge and watch people enjoying themselves on the colorful rowboats.

It took us some time to find another exit from the park and we proceeded to Tianfu Square which is at the geometric center of the four concentric ring roads that define the city. Like many central plazas in major Chinese cities it was so massive that it seemed barren despite the large and ornate fountain in the center. There were several large museums arranged around the square but those held no interest for us. It was probably a more interesting place in the evening when the fountain comes to life accompanied by lights and music.

To the east of Tianfu Square there was a large pedestrian zone packed with department stores and shopping arcades. The center of the action was Chunxi Road. Many of the stores had mascots in front to lure shoppers. They were very friendly but all I could think about was how miserably hot it must have been inside those giant costumes. I hunted around for some Chinglish T shirts but the stores were surprisingly high end and I couldn't find anything but authentic-looking sportswear.

We were reunited with Cleo once again at a special dinner Lulu had arranged at a hot pot restaurant called The Way of the Dragon in Kuanzhai Alley. The neighborhood was busier than it had been the previous night, probably because the weekend had now officially begun. The restaurant was the flagship location of a nationwide chain that combines high-end hotpot cuisine with tableside food preparation and cultural performances. The restaurant was sumptuously decorated and seemed to be a popular place for wealthy locals to entertain their out-of-town guests. This was the only place in Chengdu that I spotted any other Westerners, and they numbered just a few middle-aged men who appeared to be business travelers.

Once the hot pot was in progress we were treated to a series of chefs who artistically prepared bamboo shoots and noodles. The noodle guy was especially acrobatic using the hand-pulled dough like a lasso to circle the kids.

The main event was a performance called Changing Faces in which dancers with layers of fierce masks tightly pulled over their faces would trigger the outer mask to retract with a quick snap, revealing another mask underneath. As an encore one dancer came to our table for a close-up performance. I was never able to figure out how they made the outer mask snap up but the technique always worked seamlessly.

There wasn't much left for us to see in Kuanzhai Alley so we split into two taxis and joined up again at Jinli Ancient Street. Similarly to Kuanzhai Alley, Jinli Street was historically a center of commerce dating back to the Qin dynasty two thousand years ago but was redeveloped as a dining and entertainment area only twenty years ago. Although very little of the old-style pavement and construction truly dates back to the Qin dynasty, it is always best in China to suspend disbelief and focus on the overall effect. Independent of any concerns about authenticity, Jinli was a beautiful and energetic place with majestic traditional buildings, extensive and colorful illumination with lanterns and recessed lighting, and picturesque landscaping.

Besides the usual restaurants, street food, and souvenirs there were many skilled artisans demonstrating techniques such as silversmithing, flute-playing, and food preparation. There are also frequent cultural performances such as Sichuan Operas and wedding ceremonies although we didn't encounter those during our visit. We had already been to some impressive night markets during this visit to China but Jinli Ancient Street was the most spectacular in terms of its appearance and the variety of things to experience. It was a great way to complete our first full day in Chengdu.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:19 Archived in China Tagged family sichuan chengdu family_travel travel_blog tianfu_square people's_park tony_friedman family_travel_blog szechuan jinli_street kuanzhai_alley

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