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The timeless appeal of dynamic Chengdu
2015-05-28
By Lu Feiran

I recently revisited Chengdu after my first trip there 13 years ago. Its face has changed but many of its charms have not.

Despite being the capital of Sichuan Province, the city is relatively small compared with Shanghai. The pace of life is slower and more relaxed. The legendary spicy cuisine still burns the tongue, and the clack-clack of mahjong tiles is heard everywhere.

In recent years, we in China have read about the “go west” development policy of the Chinese government. The aim is to spread the wealth and cosmopolitan aura of coastal cities like Shanghai inland to underdeveloped areas of the country.

I was excited to see what new surprise the city held in store.

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Greenery and culture

I was fortunate to choose spring for my return to Chengdu. The air was fresh and the trees and other greenery had that lovely look of seasonal rebirth. The urbanization of the city hasn’t diminished its greenness.

I started my tour of the city in the Qingyang District, the busiest area. Even there, I was dazzled by greenery.

There are two main scenic attractions in the district: the Qingyang Palace and the Du Fu Thatched Cottage.

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Both have profound historical and cultural significance, but their settings were different in a most appealing way.

Perhaps it was that bit of morning drizzle that gave the trees such a rich shade of green. Or maybe it was their stark contrast to the street trees in Shanghai, which often take on a grayish hue in smog and fog.

The southern gate of the Du Fu Thatched Cottage is linked with Huanhuaxi Park, the biggest park in the city. There’s an artificial lake there that is full of people no matter what the day or hour. Summer is the best season for watching birds, and the banks of the lake were already filled with photographers and their camera equipment.

Although the park was built in 2003, you couldn’t guess its age by the size of the trees. They have flourished. It’s easy to forget that you are in a city full of construction.

Qingyang Palace was the biggest Taoist temple I have ever visited in a city. My limited knowledge about Taoism comes from history textbooks and Chinese science-fiction dramas. The temple contained a wide collection of figures of Taoist gods.

First built during the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC-256 BC), the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. It is said that after Lao Zi, the main god of Taoism preached in the temple, it became a place where gods and goddesses gathered.

During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), two emperors stayed in the temple to escape a political rebellion, giving the temple fame throughout the country.

The newest incarnation of the temple came with reconstruction during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The temple may be a popular tourist attraction nowadays, but to Chengdu residents, it’s merely a lovely place to relax and meditate on life.

The teahouse in the back of the temple was fully packed, even a weekday. People of all ages were gathered around square tables, chattering and eating snacks. I was little disappointed; they weren’t playing the ubiquitous mahjong.

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The Du Fu Thatched Cottage is in close proximity to the temple, but its atmosphere was worlds away.

It has no fabulous Chinese architecture or sculptures. What it offers is a tranquil, natural environment. In addition, it might be the best place to get to know one of China’s greatest poets.

Du Fu (712-770) is said to have loved thatched-roof cottages. There are at least three of them still left in China. The one in Chengdu is the best known.

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Du moved to Chengdu to escape political upheaval. He stayed for four years and wrote 240 poems there, including many describing his passion for the thatched cottages he built himself.

The cottage in Chengdu was damaged after Du left but rebuilt several times in later dynasties as a measure of respect for the poet. The cottage standing there today is actually a replica built in the Qing Dynasty.

Du’s residence complex also includes museums. One contains authentic relics unearthed from the nearby area.

Nature and history

On its outskirts, Chengdu reveals its ancient face. As I had expected, this part of the city hadn’t changed much from my last visit.

Dujiangyan, an ancient water conservancy project, was built 3,500 years ago and has survived the ravages of time. The designers and builders of the project, Li Bing and his son, are now regarded as gods protecting Sichuan.

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Like most Chinese people, I knew about the project from textbooks. But seeing the site went beyond words in books. It was fascinating to view the reality of ancient wisdom.

The dam has supplied water to surrounding farmlands for centuries, turning Sichuan into the “country of heaven.”

In addition to its value to water conservancy, the site has become one of the province’s most popular tourist attractions.

Another place not to be missed is Qingcheng Mountain, another Taoist site in the greater Chengdu area.

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It is said that the mountain is the true origin of Taoism. During the East Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) Zhang Ling, the founder of Taoism, was said to have preached at the mountain.

Now both Dujiangyan and the mountain are popular getaway destinations for Chengdu residents.

A personal friend of mine, who was born and grew up in the city, said every summer the family spends around a week in the area as a cool retreat from the Chengdu heat.

“The temperature is about one or 2 degrees Celsius lower than that in the downtown, and the waterfalls, creeks and small ponds are just so fresh and clear in the summer,” my friend told me. “We are indeed fortunate to have such special places so close to the city.”

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Dining, nightlife and shopping

As one of China’s eight main cuisines, Sichuan food is known around the world. All the specialties of the province can be found in Chengdu, from zesty hot pots to small snacks.

I have never been much of a fan of hot, spicy food, but I didn’t need to worry about starving. Not all the food in Chengdu will burn your mouth. There are plenty of “cool” snacks and dishes available. The “white-soup” hot pot, for example, was my favorite.

The soup was clear — not bland but not spicy. The ingredients were exceptionally tasty.

As for snacks, the shrimp pancake I tried in Jin Li, an ancient business area downtown, was another pleasant surprise. The seller boiled shrimp, then used the water to make the pancake batter. The fragrance of spring onion and the light seafood flavor created one of the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted.

Street food seems to be a lifeline for the people of Chengdu. Ask them to recommend a “snack food street,” and 10 people will give you 10 different answers.

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I did a bit of personal reconnaissance on food and entertainment and found that Jin Li is a great place for viewing the ancient business culture of Chengdu but not so great when it comes to snacks. Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi is the place to go for nightlife. Wenshuyuan and Sansheng streets are the best for authentic Chengdu snacks.

I should add that any list of “bests” in Chengdu is subjective. Visitors are advised to just follow their palates in deciding where food is the tastiest.

As for shopping, Chengdu has become one of the biggest luxury-goods markets in China. Chunxi Road, Hongxing Road and Taikuri are the hot spots for top-tier brand merchandise, while Jin Li offers specialty products of the city.

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