Set on the western side of the Red Basin, CHENGDU is a determinedly modern city, full of construction sites, high-rise department stores and residential blocks. But it’s also a cheerful place: seasonal floral displays and ubiquitous ginkgo trees lend colour to its many excellent parks, and the population is also nicely laidback, enjoying its teahouse culture at every opportunity and unfazed by this being interpreted as laziness by other Chinese.
Continue reading to find out more about...
Chengdu was styled Brocade City in Han times, when the urban elite were buried in elegantly decorated tombs, and its silk travelled west along the caravan routes as far as imperial Rome. A refuge for the eighth-century Tang emperor Xuan Zong after his army mutinied over his infatuation with the beautiful concubine Yang Guifei, the city later became a printing centre, producing the world’s first paper money. Sacked by the Mongols in 1271, Chengdu recovered soon enough to impress Marco Polo with its busy artisans and handsome bridges, since when it has survived similar cycles of war and restoration to become a major industrial, educational and business centre. There are some downsides – the city’s traffic congestion and pollution can be atrocious – but on the whole it’s not hard to spend a couple of days here touring historical monuments, spiking your tastebuds on one of China’s most outstanding cuisines, and getting close-up views of locally bred pandas.
Chengdu’s surrounding attractions all make worthy day-trips from the capital, and most can be used as first stops on longer routes. Just to the northeast, the Sanxingdui Museum is stuffed with prehistoric bronzes, while unpretentious Qing architecture graces the picturesque market town of Huanglongxi southwest of Chengdu. Northwest, Dujiangyan sports a still-functional two-thousand-year-old irrigation scheme surrounded by wooded parkland, and nearby forested Qingcheng Shan is peppered with Taoist shrines.
HUANGLONGXI, 40km south of Chengdu, is a riverside village with a half-dozen Qing-dynasty streets, all narrow, flagstoned and sided in rickety wooden shops. Tourism aside – visitor numbers are frankly overwhelming at weekends or during holidays – it’s a pretty place to wander around for an hour and then have lunch or a cup of tea at one of the many riverside restaurants; it’s also popular with old ladies coming to pray for grandchildren to Guanyin, to whom all the village’s temples are dedicated.
From the old village gate, take the left-hand lane, which is almost narrow enough to touch either side as you walk down the middle. You soon reach the 500m-long main street; turn left for two tiny nunneries (one on the left, the other at the end of the street beside a beribboned banyan tree), both containing brightly painted statues of Guanyin, Puxian and Wenshu. At the opposite end of town, larger Gulong Temple (古龙寺, gŭlóng sì; ¥5) is in a wobbly state of repair: one of the halls features a dog-headed guillotine for executing criminals, while another contains an unusually three-dimensional, fifty-armed Guanyin statue.
Sichuan opera – chuanxi – is a rustic variant on Beijing’s, based on everyday events and local legends. Most pieces are performed in Sichuanese, a rhythmic dialect well suited to theatre, which allows for humour and clever wordplay to shine through. As well as the usual bright costumes, stylized action and glass-cracking vocals, chuanxi has two specialities: fire-breathing and rapid face-changing, where the performers – apparently simply by turning around or waving their arms across their faces – completely change their make-up.
Today, chuanxi has gone into a decline as a form of popular entertainment, though there are several places around town to catch tourist-oriented variety shows featuring short opera scenes, fire-breathing and face-changing, comedy skits, puppetry, shadow-lantern play and storytelling. These are pretty enjoyable and you might even catch occasional full-length operas. Venues include Shufeng Yayun (蜀风雅韵, shŭfēng yăyùn) in the Cultural Park (enter off Qintai Lu); the Ming-style open-air stage at the end of Jin Li, near Wuhou Ci; and the downtown Jinjiang Theatre (锦江川戏馆, jǐnjiāng chuānxìguăn) in a lane north of Shangdong Jie. Seats cost ¥120–220, depending on the venue and row.
Teahouses hold much the same place in Sichuanese life as a local bar or pub does in the West; some are formal establishments with illuminated signs; others are just a humble spread of bamboo or plastic chairs in the corner of a park, a temple or indeed any available public space. Whatever the establishment, just sit down to have a waiter come over and ask you what sort of tea you’d like – the standard jasmine-scented variety costs around ¥5 a cup, up to ¥40 or more for a really fine brew. Most are served in the three-piece Sichuanese gaiwancha, a squat, handleless cup with lid and saucer. Refills are unlimited – either the waiter will give you a top-up on passing your table, or you’ll be left with a flask of boiling water. In a country where it’s usually difficult to find somewhere to relax in public, teahouses are very welcome: idlers can spend the whole day chatting, playing mahjong, reading or just staring into space, without anyone interrupting – except cruising masseurs and ear-wax removers.