Friendly people, delicious food, green parks, active temples – even pandas. Why Chendgu doesn’t get more coverage in the tourist press, we don’t know. It quickly became our favorite big city (population over 10 million) in China. Although Chengdu is not stocked with high-profile tourist sights like Beijing and Xi’an, to quote another tourist: “There’s something that just feels right about the place.”
We arrived in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, in early June 2008, not long after the devastating May 12th earthquake. Many questioned our judgment to visit so soon, but guest houses assured us the city was safe. Our flight there from Nepal via Tibet carried around 20 passengers. It was clear most people were staying away.
Temple and Tea
Sights like Wenshu Buddhist Temple were virtually devoid of tourists. Instead, they were full of locals saying prayers and making offerings to earthquake victims.
At the packed temple teahouse, a group of older women invited us to sit with them under their umbrella so we could avoid the afternoon sun. Though we did not share a common language, we took turns flagging down the kettle boys to ensure everyone’s tea cup was full of hot water.
The afternoon passed peacefully as we watched old friends and children do their teahouse thing – talking, playing cards, reading, and taking naps. We even watched the ear cleaner as he skulked around and rang his bell to attract his next brave client.
A World War II and Family Connection
Later that afternoon, an energetic grandfatherly type approached us on the street.
“Are you American? Yes? I could tell!” In his excitement, he asked and answered for us – in surprisingly good English.
He explained how he knew members of the U.S. Air Force from World War II (WWII). American air support pilots, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, transported goods to Chengdu and performed flyovers. The man completed his praise by rattling off an encyclopedic list of military planes employed by America in the region.
“The Americans, they helped us fight the Japanese. Good country, America. Good people, America.”
“Was he in Chengdu?” the man asked.
“No, Kunming.” I responded.
“Kunming, huh? Good country, America. Thank you.”
With that, he shook both our hands and went on his way.
I was surprised, proud, humbled. We were so taken aback by the interaction that we forgot to take a photo. Some images are meant to live only as stories, apparently.
A Portal to the Old World
Picture this: on one side of street, the five-star Shangri-La Hotel and swish night clubs. On the other side: a stone gate and alley to a low-rise traditional neighborhood of old Chengdu.
Our guest house had informed us that this was one of the last remaining old neighborhoods in all of Chengdu.
Block by block, the neighborhood was being cleared for new development. During our visit, the bulldozing continued unabated. But so did life. Flower and vegetable vendors continued to sell their fresh goods on the edge of demolished plots. Entrepreneurs continued to cook and sell from buildings that will likely not be standing in a few months.
Locals were incredibly friendly, though. They invited us to join them for lunch, waved, showed us how to make dumplings and just smiled a whole lot. A grandfather motioned us to enter a doorway. Feeling like we were intruding, we turned around to leave but he insisted we continue inside. What looked like a ragged house from the outside was a tranquil, green courtyard – a jungle in the big city.
As we exited the neighborhood, a young man smiled and greeted us with a few words of broken English. “Welcome to China!” he said.
Like the “Welcome to China!” we received in Urumqi six months prior, there was simply nothing more genuine.
Chengdu Travel Information: Transport to and Accommodation in Chengdu
- How to get there: We flew from Kathmandu, Nepal via Lhasa on China Air ($370+tax). Domestic flights are available to Chengdu from throughout China, as are trains.
- Where to stay: We stayed at Mix Hostel. Friendly, clean and reasonably priced. Free wifi internet, too. Price: 90 RMB (with IYH discount) for double room with A/C. Address: 23#, Ren Jia Wan, Xing Hui Xi Lu, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, Tel: 028-83222271.
- Where to eat: You can’t miss the “hurts so good” Sichuan hot pot. There are several hot pot restaurants in close vicinity to Mix Hostel. Another good Chengdu snack food pick is Longchaoshou Canting on the corner of Chunxi Lu and Shandong Dajie in downtown Chengdu's shopping district. The cafeteria/restaurant features great transparent dumplings.
- What to do: Visit the Wenshu Temple and the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center. Take a taxi to the Shangri-La hotel and find the portal to the old part of town. Bring an empty stomach – the food looked as good and authentic as we had seen anywhere in town.