A city of pandas, life and everything spice

|     Lyna Mohamad in Chengdu, China     |

ONE of the things that most amazed me about China during my time there for the ASEAN-China Media Cooperation Forum was the cleanliness, well-organised nature and rich civilisation of Ningxia and cities such as Beijing and Chengdu, though I might add that among the three, I sense a difference in the latter in terms of environment.

The capital of Sichuan Province and home to 14 million residents, Chengdu feels immediately different – I can’t put my finger on it, but what I do know is that my preconceived impression of the place was that of a city much like Ningxia: rural, sparsely populated and situated in the midst of a desert frontier. How wrong I was.

The city surprisingly is one of the country’s most liveable, and is also widely considered the most laidback in the whole of China. There’s a relaxed clip to the natives’ steps here, and Chengdu strangely entrances you in such a way that the rustling of gingko leaves in the streets captures your attention more than the numerous tall buildings that populate it.

A pleasant mix of modern and old China, the city naturally nudges you toward the notion that this is its main allure: a place of nooks where you can be enchanted spiritually, of centuries-old sites, of relics from dynasties past, of literary treasures from a lost time. Indeed you can find here all of these as well as some of the best ancient architecture in China.

But there’s more. Chengdu also draws visitors due to its bustling nightlife – those in the know rave about it as a techno hub – and its other more mainstream attractions: spicy food and pandas.

Ask anyone where to find the spiciest food in China and you will invariably be pointed towards Sichuan. Sichuan cuisine is globally synonymous with spicy, and one can experience this quality in all its glory by sampling Chengdu hotpot, one of the city’s most famous culinary products. (The city notably joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network in 2010, becoming the organisation’s second “City of Gastronomy”.)

Thankfully the weather that greeted my fellow delegates and I upon arrival at the city was not as hot as its cuisine – comfortable 20-degree weather coupled with semi-grey skies welcomed us as we began our sojourn in Chengdu.

We went straight for the Chengdu International Railway Port before heading to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding – a world famous giant panda ex-situ research, conservation and breeding base – and attending a session with the CPC Publicity Department of Sichuan Province.

People walk along an alley in Chengdu
A statue of a panda attempting to climb a building
The author poses on the other side of the panda statue
Chengdu is widely considered the most laidback in the whole of China
A train on a subway station
Parts of Chengdu features buildings with architectures that combines Chinese and Western style
People walk around the city
Panda-themed mini buses available charter

Our day concluded with a wonderful dinner at one of the city’s popular restaurants (which was quite the experience with the seemingly never-ending stream of dishes arriving at our table) and a visit to Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi (Kuan & Zhai Alley), after which of course we had to do some obligatory exploring of the tourist attractions at the square and experience its local culture.

Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi is one of the three renowned historic preserved districts in the city and is made up of three parallel Chinese old-style alleys – Kuan Alley (Wide Alley), Zhai Alley (Narrow Alley) and Jing Alley (Well Alley), 45 Qing Dynasty-style courtyards, traditional teahouses, modern villas and gardens.

Together with Daci Temple and Wenshu Monastery, Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi is a microcosm of the city’s history and a crisp representation of typical Chengdu life. The complex’s history is a deep one – stretching back to the Qing Dynasty circa 1644–1911 AD.

Kuan Alley depicts the leisurely life of Chengdu natives, and allows visitors to experience the customs of the city and the all-but-lost folk lifestyles of the old Chengdu. Phoenix trees, traditional courtyard houses and old teahouses form the core attractive elements of this unique site.

An old Chengdu “Life Experience Center” located within the complex meanwhile adds to the site’s mystique, transporting visitors back in time and giving them the experience of being guests of a 1930s-era Chengdu family.

Zhai Alley stays on the page of Kuan Alley and also showcases the life of old Chengdu, but with a “slow life” theme. Curiously wider than the latter, Zhai Alley features buildings with architecture that combines Chinese and Western styles, and displays the city’s elegant courtyard culture.

The alley was decorated with bamboos, vines and traditional wall lamps after undergoing a refurbishment in 2003. Since reopening in 2008, it has become a popular entertainment and nightlife area as well as a famous tourist site – teahouses, coffee outlets, restaurants, shops selling a variety of local souvenirs as well as themed culture salons showcasing the fashions of France, Germany, America, India and Japan can all be found here.

But perhaps the abiding memory visitors will have of the block is that of the countless food stalls scattered throughout it. These makeshift businesses sell a variety of tempting local delicacies like sweet bean curd jelly, zheng zheng gao (steamed rice cakes), liang gao (a type of spicy glutinous rice cake), dan hong gao (a local roast cake), steamed bamboo leaf-packed beef, and even Persian bonbon.

With time to kill before I fly back home after being done with my ASEAN-China Media Cooperation Forum itinerary, I decided to do some more exploring of the city.

A friendly staff member of our host in Chengdu took me along on a train ride from the hotel to the city centre, a memorable experience as I got to use my “panda” coin ticket for the first time. As we made our way out of the train station, I was again amazed at how well-structured the commercial centre was, so much so that I didn’t realise that we were actually walking around the big city from one end to the other – on foot!

I for one normally shy away from cities when I am on work trips unless of course there are visits to shopping centres involved, but walking around Chengdu turned out to be a pleasant and enjoyable experience, even though it could’ve been better if I had brought more RMB with me.

Speaking of RMB, it is a bit of a hassle when you find yourself needing more of the local currency in Chengdu as there didn’t seem to be any moneychangers there (and neither did I see any in Ningxia or Beijing). You are only allowed to change money at the banks, and even then they do not accept cash, only credit or debit cards.

So my advice to those who wish to travel to China, in particular Chengdu: please do change for RMB before flying off as there is so much to do and shop for here. The common cities of this massive country like Beijing and Shanghai might be first in your minds, but it’s certainly worth venturing southwest-wards to sample a region of pandas, deliciously spicy cuisine, eclectic cityscapes, and non-cliché tourist hotspots within day-trip distance.

Yes, Chengdu really is all that, and once you get to know it better, you’ll find that the city’s appeal extends far beyond its more obvious travel brochure attractions.

There’s a certain uniqueness and singularity about the city: like a sort of island resting on its own within this vast expanse of China, minding its own business and happy to be discovered naturally. Which strangely sounds very much like Brunei, just on a much larger scale I suppose.