Like the majority of foreigners in China I live in one of the countries top three first class cities. The big three are of course Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and it is the old Imperial capital of Beijing that I now call home.
Moving to China, however, did nothing to quell the wanderlust that brought me to Beijing in the first place, which is why the chance to escape – if only momentarily – especially to the south to a second class city or two is always a welcome treat.
By second class I am referring to the arbitrary Chinese government classification of city importance, under which most provincial capitals fall, as does Sichuan’s capital Chengdu, the destination of my latest expedition outside the 6th ring road.
Chengdu, the Chinese will almost always tell you is famous for at least three things: hot women, even hotter food and a hot climate that gives the place a very relaxed and leisurely feel. Indeed, while the old Chinese term of Tianfu 天府 (Heaven’s Prefecture) has been banded about among many different cities in the past, it is Chengdu that for a long time has had the honor of holding this prestigious title.
My first close encounter with a true Sichuan beauty came in the shape of Xiao Jing, my girlfriend’s local colleague who kindly took some time out of her weekend to drive us around. The best way to describe her would be perky. To our great amusement on three separate occasions we had men pull up at traffic lights, lean out and ask for directions, whilst at the same time copping a good look – surely sense of direction isn’t that bad among Chengdu men? Xiao Jing, I am sure then represented something of the stereotype of the much hyped Sichuan cutie. She seemed almost bursting with energy, sporting a radiant smile and speaking all the time in high pitched Chengdu accented Mandarin that pierced the moist Sichuan air like a knife.
Our tour of Chengdu highlights began with the distinctly first rate Panda Research Base, on the northern suburbs of the city. Upon entering the base visitors find themselves wandering through thick bamboo groves that with every snake and bend help to build the anticipation in you and all your fellow visitors until the feeling is almost tangible – where are the pandas!
We were not disappointed, as we were rewarded with viewing a delightful mix of baby, adolescent and adult pandas during their feeding and play time. Whilst it is true the adults spend most of their time Homer Simpson like spread on their backs munching lazily on some bamboo shoots, the teenage pandas charged about their large, open air enclosures play fighting and generally causing havoc. There was one particular trouble maker, Fei Fei who would take great pleasure in stealing the other’s bamboo and running away as they chased after him. He does, in other words, eats, shoots and leaves.
The other highlight of my visit to Chengdu came in the shape of the last two things the Sichuanese capital is famous for: hot food and lazy days. Sufficed to say that although Sichuan cuisine may be too spicy and sometimes too oily for the pallets of some laowai, the subtle combinations of flavors between sweet chilly oil, red peppers and numbing pepper corns gave new life to meats, tofu and vegetables that left me want more. Special mention has to go to Chen Mapo, opposite the Wenshu Monastry. A well established Chengdu eatery, besides its famous ‘Mapo Tofu’, they serve Sichuan classics such as Kongpao Chicken and Dan Dan noodles that went down a treat.
Finally, if like me you are lucky enough to experience first class weather in Chengdu then follow the locals to one of the city’s many teahouses. No one in China does teahouse quite like Chengdu people. Everywhere from large swathes of parks to small islands of green underneath motorway intersections is home to collections of benches, deckchairs and bamboo tables. The air hums with the sounds tea being slurped, mahjong tiles clacking and the ubiquitous sound of Sichuanese chatter.
My weekend in Chengdu merely scratched the surface of this second class city with first class soul. For visitors lucky enough to have longer time, or for foreigners fortunate enough to settle there, Sichuan in general, like Yunnan, offers a host of amazing sights and getaways that will leave you coming back for more.
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