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Where memory lanes meet 21st century
By Li Anlan

Kuanzhai Lane (宽窄巷子) is a fusion of tradition and fashionable, business and leisure in the heart of Chengdu. Its name literally means wide and narrow lanes, and present-day Kuanzhai Lane consists of three lanes: Kuan Lane (宽巷子, literally Wide Lane), Zhai Lane (窄巷子, Narrow Lane) and Jing Lane (井巷子, Well Lane).

Among the elegant architecture and courtyards are distinctive and chic stores and businesses, including restaurants, "private kitchens" (high-end private restaurants), cafes, bars, salons and a wide variety of shops. The combination of business, culture and history makes Kuanzhai Lane not just a retail area, but representative of the city and its spirit in the modern era.

Back in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Chengdu was divided into two small cities: the Greater City in the east and the Lesser City in the west. Kuanzhai Lane is situated in the latter.

In 1718, the 57th year of the reign of emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the government sent soldiers to Tibet to expel invading Dzungars. After the war, more than 1,000 of these soldiers and their families settled in Chengdu permanently, giving the city a substantial boost.

Originally there were 42 alleys in the Lesser City, but only the three comprising Kuanzhai Lane remain today. There you can still see the stones where people used to tie their horses, bearing testimony to the glory days of Kuanzhai Lane.

In 2004, a four-year restoration project began in Kuanzhai Lane, restoring and rebuilding historical relics and architecture. Reopened in 2008, it is now an all-around destination that satisfies visitors' appetites for both delicious food and culture.

Wandering around the labyrinth of lanes, there is much to explore and try. Old-fashioned tea houses and restaurants serving authentic Sichuan and other cuisine stand alongside, modern chic Western-style restaurants, bars and cafes, adding a twist of the 21st century to the ancient gray stonework.

Kuan Lane, also known as Xingren Lane back during the Qing Dynasty, is where visitors can experience the traditional attractions of a typical Chengdu leisure street.

At Zhai Lane, originally called Taiping Lane, the combination of Chinese and Western styles offers diverse and fashionable choices.

Jing Lane, in the past known as Ruyi Lane, was given its current name because of the old well at the western end of the alley. Here you can find traditional Sichuan-style handicrafts, as well as modern bars.

The 400-meter "brick" culture wall documenting 1,000 years of history is also a must-see attraction in Kuanzhai Lane.

Different kinds of cuisines can be found at the classic private kitchens, while tea houses offer not only refreshing drinks but slower-paced leisure missing from modern lifestyles. Visitors can also enjoy traditional Sichuan Opera performances in restaurants and tea houses, including the famous bian lian (变脸, face-changing), a famous element of Sichuan Opera which sees performers change colored masks repeatedly during a performance.

Da Miao (大妙) serves authentic Sichuan-style hotpot, one of the most popular delicacies of Sichuan cuisine and a must-try for visitors. Located in Zhai Lane, it is the only restaurant of its kind in Kuanzhai Lane. While savoring the great spicy food, famed for its numbing heat, you can also enjoy a bian lian performance.

Traditionally, only males were allowed to learn the secret art of bian lian when it was passed down within the family. It was feared because women would marry into another family, they may reveal the art's mysteries to outsiders. But at Da Miao, there is a female performer.

Shang Xi (上席), also named Seat of Honor, is a private restaurant offering authentic Sichuan dishes. Founded by famous Chengdu poet and food critic Shi Guanghua, this restaurant seeks to revive traditional Sichuan dishes that have almost been lost.

Wei Dian (味典), or Sichuan Snack, at Jing Lane, is a restaurant that offers more than 70 kinds of special Chengdu snacks. From baked egg cake (蛋烘糕) to Northern Sichuan-style bean jelly (川北凉粉), visitors can find treats to suit all tastes.

Tea houses are also hard to miss in Kuanzhai Lane, offering a taste of a slower Chengdu culture.

At Yi Yin Tian Xia (一饮天下) in Kuan Lane you can experience an old-style tea house experience. Drinking tea and playing mahjong or just chatting with friends is a good way of whiling away some time and getting away from busy city life.

Lu Fu Tea House (陆福茶艺) is situated in a courtyard in Kuan Lane. In the evenings, visitors can relax with top quality teas while enjoying performances such as magic, fire breathing, cross talk comedy and bian lian.

Western cafes and bars blend in harmoniously with the traditional Chengdu alleys. Starbucks in Zhai Lane, which embraces traditional style with paper-cutting decorations and red lanterns, has the largest outdoor area in Chengdu.

White Night Bar (白夜酒吧) was opened by famous poet Zhai Yongming in Zhai Lane more than a decade ago. The décor embodies elements of history, art, literature and culture, and the bar holds regular cultural events, exhibitions and parties.

When visiting Chengdu, it is also fun to stay at an interesting quality inn at Kuanzhai Lane. Dragon Town Hostel (龙堂客栈)of Kuan Lane established in July 2002, receives more than 10,000 guests a year - 80 percent of whom are from abroad - and is a very popular choice with backpackers. Emphasizing its casual and homely vibe, the hostel once hung a light-hearted sign stating: "People in suits and leather shoes are not welcome."

Retail stores in Kuanzhai Lane sell traditional Sichuan handicrafts such as Shu embroidery, as well as works from young designers. Also, check out the interesting book shops while exploring the alleys.

Kuanzhai Lane is almost like a city within the city, a double-sided mirror that reflects the lifestyles of both a magnificent past and an energetic present; the splendor of the East and the elegance of the West. To both locals and visitors, it is a fascinating destination that epitomizes Chengdu City: at once traditional and leisurely, modern and dynamic.

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