Chengdu may have been our favorite city on this trip so far. We’d heard while in Chongqing that it (Chengdu) was a nicer place to live, and the descriptions we’d heard of its major characteristics – slower pace of life, teahouse culture, natural beauty, excellent cuisine, etc – reminded us of some of the things we liked about living in Hangzhou.
We arrived at the Tian Chen Lou Hotel (booked for us by Sarah’s Dad Tom, who I must say really has a knack for finding the best hotels) and were taken for dinner at a nearby restaurant by Grace, a friend of Tom’s who is about our age and works as a lawyer in Chengdu. We went with her to a Bible study where we decided to try to follow along in Chinese as best we could. There was enough repetition of some words and phrases that I thought I’d learned some new vocabulary…until I tried to recall it the next day. The only thing I’m confident about at the moment is that “daogao” means prayer. This ended up being the first of several experiences we’ve had with various groups involved with Christianity here. (More on this later, probably.)
We were staying near one of the city’s main tourist attractions, 杜甫草堂, aka “Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage” (or more literally, Du Fu’s Grass House). We’ve started to pick up a few things about Chinese history on this trip, but this was one time where we didn’t really know anything about Du Fu and it probably would have been a lot more significant if we did. Du Fu is apparently known as one of the greatest poets in Chinese history (he was writing around 200 AD, if memory serves). Like a lot of poets, scholars, and literati back in the day, he was also a government official, and from what I gathered after seeing the exhibits, the period when Du Fu lived in Chengdu was both bad for him, since he was driven there while escaping from some kind of uprising or rebellion, and good for him, since he really liked this grass hut, and he wrote some of his most celebrated poetry there. Unfortunately we didn’t leave with any examples of the poetry. (Incidentally, the only book I did leave Chengdu with was a hastily purchased copy of “Impressions of Chengdu,” a book which looked like an interesting travelogue while I was in the gift shop but which, upon further reading, seems to be more of a sycophantic PR piece. I could be wrong, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much more of it.)
We also spent time at a number of other tourist spots, including Jinli Street, which is one of China’s many popular “ancient” streets, revamped for tourist purposes. These streets are usually the best place to find all the local snacks in one convenient row, so we indulged in many of Chengdu’s famous (well, not necessarily famous to us, but allegedly famous) snacks, mostly involving the aforementioned ma la flavors. Spicy goodness was enjoyed by all. We ended the evening strolling around the area, using a very forlorn drunk man in a suit as a landmark, and finally finishing up at the Traditional Chinese Dairy Queen.
(side note by Sarah: I have been kind of obsessed with softserve ice cream and have thus far had ice cream at most of the major imported chains including KFC, MacDonald’s, Baskin Robbins, Haagen Dazs, and Dairy Queen. So far in my opinion, Dairy Queen does the best strawberry sundae. Just so you know, I have ONLY gotten ice cream and no other fast food at these establishments.)
(side note by Joel: Sarah has a free pass to eat ice cream since she is pregnant. I only partake occasionally.)
The next day we headed out of town to the Panda Research Base, which in our trip planning was Sarah’s #1 priority. We indeed saw the pandas. We saw many, many pandas. We saw adult pandas, baby pandas, and teenaged (so to speak) pandas. We saw pandas eating bamboo. We saw red pandas rubbing all over things to mark their territory. We saw a panda walk on its hind legs and climb a tree surprisingly quickly in order to get a treat shaped like a mooncake. (Lest you think this is cruel, we were told they do this once in a while to make sure the pandas get some practice working for their food, so they’ll be able to better fend for themselves if they’re released to the wild. I think.) And, in perhaps my favorite bit of trivia about pandas, we learned that these majestic animals eat 40 kilograms of bamboo a day, 32 kilograms of which they poop. We saw some. It was green.
Later that day we ended up at another set of tourist streets, known as the “Wide and Narrow Alleys,” which were also really interesting. They were much more geared, I thought, toward upper middle class tourists, so there was a lot more high end shopping, fancy restaurants, etc. Our only major stop was at the novelty gift shop “Jiong Box,” which I really enjoyed although I felt some embarrassment when I considered whether was basically the Chinese equivalent of something like Spencer Gifts. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s not. I got a couple of kitschy notebooks designed from mid 20th century Chinese English textbooks.
On Monday and Tuesday we stayed with a PhD classmate of mine, Todd, and his family. They have been in Sichuan province for almost 20 years with Mennonite Partners in China. It was so nice to be in a festive atmosphere complete with Christmas tree, hot chocolate, and
Christmas carols on the stereo. Todd took us to some of Chengdu’s churches including a brand new one and one which is over 100 years old, and the local Christian bookstore. We also had a chance to talk shop, as he’s also doing his dissertation on some aspects of university English education in China. It’s always nice to be able to talk to somebody who knows what you’re talking about. Sarah politely tolerated that bit.
Finally, we ended our time in Sichuan by taking in a very touristy but very fun show based on Sichuan Opera, one of the more famous styles of Chinese opera which is known for its “bian mian” or ‘face changing,’ in which performers change from one mask to another at an astonishingly rapid rate. It’s always a huge crowd pleaser. (I’d seen one similar performance in Ningbo a few months ago.) This was more of a vaudevillian type variety show, with a loose storyline involving a henpecked gambler, a pair of ill fated lovers, a magical mask which may or may not have enabled time travel, and so on. There was also a rap about Chendgu snacks, a scene involving fire breathing which seemed to take place in hell (or at least an anguished mental state), a lot of very skillful dancing, and classic Chinese percussion, the only part of the music that was performed live. (Recreation of the sounds, roughly: “doom clack doom clack dooodoodoodoodoodoodoom claclaclaclaclaclack!)
Earlier this week we flew from Chengdu to Xi’An, a city which also has a lot to offer in terms of history, tourism, and incredibly fast urban development. More on that soon!