Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, home of the Giant Panda, and the birthplace of one of China’s most delectable meals: the hot pot, is without a doubt one of my favourite cities so far. Within 5 minutes of leaving the airport my somewhat tired self was awoken by the glare of neon lights adorning the downtown buildings. Skyscrapers of size I’d not seen before were towering into the black of night, red lights flashing above followed by a dazzling light display flowing down the exterior. It was 10pm yet people were flocking the streets; businessmen, families, couples, people with shopping bags, and not just ordinary shopping bags, we’re talking Prada, Armani, Gucci; the sort of shopping bags that belong in the finest of the finest cities in the world. I don’t think it was the obvious wealth of the country that surprised me, it was the exuberance of it all. After all, I’d spent the last 7 months in countries where no less than 80% of people wear second hand or fake 90’s football shirts, shorts, and flip flops; of course in Mumbai, Delhi and maybe a baby’s handful of other cities you may find a bit of flash, but not like this, and I really wasn’t ready for it.
Maybe it was the two flights I had to catch, or the 4 hour delay in Lhasa (Tibet) that put me in an anxiously foul mood, but it’s safe to say that once I’d arrived in Chengdu, my mood increased ten fold; I’d even go so far as to say I was in a better mood than I’d even come close to in the last fortnight. Chengdu really gave me back my stride; I was coasting whilst in Kathmandu, waiting for something to happen and for time to pass, but that was over.
Of course, Chengdu isn’t all about bright lights, it is such a beautiful city during the day; you only have to walk 20mins in either direction to find a city park, or an age old set of tea houses or gardens-it really is nice to see-plus the city itself is spotless; there’s no litter anywhere and if there is a city cleaner will soon have it disposed of (there are even people here that go through bins to make sure the waste is in the right containers, such as recycling etc). One thing that is also noticeable is the separate lanes, and crossings, for anyone using scooters (which are all electric), bicycles, Segways (which the police happen to use), and small electric dust carts; this actually makes it quicker for people to cross the city, and not to mention the great underground and metro system they have in place which saves people from idly strolling across the road and being mowed down. Whereas they’ll swerve around you in India, they certainly won’t here.
One of my first days in Chengdu was spent with my Chinese friend who I’d met whilst teaching in the Monastery. We met up and for the whole day he showed me round some of the city sights, and we ate some true Chinese food; it’s safe to say that I really was thrown into the deep end. 12hrs into my Chinese adventure I was eating chicken feet, some sort of weed, and shrimp on a stick, followed by some tea in a local teahouse (which also acted as a gambling racket in which I didn’t partake), topped off with the famous Chengdu hotpot which, apart from duck bowels, pig tongue, more chicken feet, and squid, was an absolute blast (though the duck bowels were nice on reflection).
One thing of note here, and perhaps not for pet lovers, is that whilst dipping some sort of meat into the hot sauce heated by flames at our table, I asked what it was. My friend replied with something which I heard as ‘Dog’ but by the time he’d corrected himself to say ‘Duck’ it was already halfway down my throat and, if I’m really honest, I was a little unnerved at my own ability to have potentially just eaten Dog (which I’ll point out I definitely hadn’t- not then anyway). Yes, my first day was a real baptism of fire in terms of Chinese cuisine and pastimes but, again, I was genuinely happy.
As always during my travels, I like to discover the more down to earth, real streets that aren’t mentioned in tour guides or on maps; I’m talking about the back alleys that turn out to be the home of some of the best food you’ll find in that city.
You can either sit down in a well-lit restaurant and be waited on hand and foot by a bow tied penguin trying to coax you out of 60yuan, or stood in a dusty backstreet, lit by half broken lights, with a ‘pigeon on a stick’ in one hand, and a Tsingtao in the other, dropping 12yuan into the hand of a street vendor. I’ll go for the wobbly stool and leaky backstreet tap any day.
Now, I don’t say this often because I’m not a tour guide blogger in it for the top 10 lists, but when in Chengdu, you must visit the Giant Panda sanctuary. It costs about 3yuan to get there via the metro and 58yuan for a ticket but, once you see the Red Pandas playing around and the White Pandas lying around chewing on bamboo like they really don’t give a sh*t about anything, it makes the whole thing worthwhile. However, if you can, make sure you visit the nursery building, where you can see baby Pandas sleeping and feeding; it really is something I was pleasantly surprised at (I’m not a soft person but they were cute).
When looking around for things to do on one of my last days, I found that the Leshan Giant Buddha was only in a relatively local town, so I decided to head there. Now, this obviously was my first time booking a train in China, and, due to the language barrier and the general rudeness of the Chinese people, it can be a pain. Rather than just buying a ticket at a machine, you have to queue (which doesn’t exist in China) for an hour or so, then talk to a guy who clearly doesn’t want to be there, which I suppose is actually a lot like buying them in the UK the more I think about it. That, and a couple of other things, just makes the whole thing stressful (not to mention that it takes 30min metro to get to the station). Naturally though, by the time I’d been in China a few weeks I got this sort of thing pretty easily nailed down. However, my trip to Leshan (which was on a bullet train) turned out to be more than enjoyable; the 1200yr old Giant Buddha really is impressive, and pictures really don’t do it any justice.
Walking around a city such as Chengdu really is an assault on the senses, but in a different way to cities in India or Nepal. There’s of course the smell of tasty street food here down the right streets and alleys, and there’s the hustle and bustle of night markets, but what separates it from cities of the subcontinent is what you see. The streets are illuminated by multicoloured neon lights and flashing billboards advertising the latest watch or finest brand of whisky; there are no open sewers here, there are no crumbling walkways or cracks in walls, it’s obvious by looking around that this is a country that has money and, strange but not surprisingly, doesn’t rely on foreign tourism. Because it doesn’t rely on foreign tourism, then, English doesn’t need to be the common language ground, and so very few things (apart from the main cities) in China have anything in English. This, as you can imagine, creates some interesting and amusing conversations, some of which involve two mobile translators in order to try and convey the easiest of questions and answers but, as is no doubt going to be the case, I’ll have to just get by as best I can.
My first week or so in China proved to be the real kick up the ass I needed. As I mentioned earlier, the previous couple of weeks were spent waiting for the next thing to happen in a city that seemed to be under a permanent cloud, and it’s very safe to say that now that I’m back to travelling again, I feel a hell of a lot better…