On the 14-hour flight from San Francisco, a Chinese teenager marvelled at my decision to visit his hometown of Chengdu. "Why not Beijing or Shanghai?" he asked me. While the city of 14 million in Sichuan province can hardly be deemed obscure, it's not on the general tourist radar. Which made it all the more fascinating to me.
Chengdu is lower-key than China's more famous cities. As Mavis Mei, one of my group's two tour guides, told us, "Chengdu is known as a leisure city." Elsewhere in China, she said, people often have a full-time job plus a part-time job. But Mei knows no one in Chengdu with a part-time job. "If people have free time in Chengdu, they might hang out at a teahouse for an entire afternoon."
This made for extremely good people watching. While we visited all the tourist hotspots, my group went days without seeing another foreign face. Instead, we saw locals and domestic tourists enjoying leisure in the parks, restaurants, shops and streets of Chengdu. Here are a few of the top places to experience local culture. Unless you speak Mandarin, an English-speaking tour guide will make your travels in and around Chengdu a million times easier.
Chinese kids grow up knowing their history. At Chengdu's Wu Hou Temple, brightly painted, carved wooden statues commemorate important generals dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD). Mei identified these generals and told me their stories. Devoted friends still come to the shrine of blood brothers Zhang Fei, Liu Bei and Guan Yu to become "sworn brothers." This place is absolutely packed on weekends.
The more tranquil Du Fu Thatched Hut is in a 10-hectare park in one of Chengdu's most upscale neighbourhoods. Tang dynasty poet Du Fu is considered one of China's greatest. In 759, he built a thatched cottage in Chengdu. He wrote 240 poems in the next four years, including his hit "My Thatched Hut was Torn apart by Autumn Wind." Lots of locals buy an annual pass to stroll the pathways, gaze into ponds and lounge in pavilions. Some of the exhibits have English captions, so foreign visitors can learn about Du Fu's life. High-end craft stores offer good shopping.
Chengdu's Wide and Narrow Alleys trace their history back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when they formed a separate city within Chengdu called Mancheng City. Over the years, this area decayed. But in 2008 the alleys opened as a new shopping and tourism magnet, a sort of glimpse into old Chengdu life. Here you'll find historic tea houses, many courtyards, snack vendors, street entertainers, people dressed up like Sichuan opera characters, a local Starbucks, crafts and tons of shops.
For those who like their shopping more contemporary, Chunxi Road is the place to go for local and international designers. It's also a fantastic place to check out China's beautiful young people decked out in the newest fashions. My favourite shop was Hipanda, which sells a line of clothes featuring tough, pissed-off warrior pandas. They are still pretty darn cute.
Out of Town Excursions
Now that China is so modern and fast-paced, many city dwellers seek places to relax. And so a group of "ancient towns" has been developed for tourists. Sixty-four kilometres southwest of Chengdu, Pingle has become a popular weekend retreat. This peaceful town full of giant, shady banyan trees is fabulous for strolling, taking pictures and moving at a slower pace. We stayed at a hotel called The Upper House, which was decorated with antiques instead of the shinier look of modern Chinese hotels. You can cruise up and down the river on a tea boat, or watch a steady parade of locals crossing the main bridge.
Eighty-seven kilometres northwest of Chengdu, Qingcheng Mountain is sacred to Taoism. The Chinese are not generally religious, so most families approach this more as a fun outing than a spiritual journey. Like the two other mountains I visited, the trip to Qingcheng involved a combination of buses, walking up and down many steps, and gondolas, which the Chinese translate as cable cars. This trip also included a beautifully painted boat carved with dragons. Qingcheng has several claims to fame: it's one of the places Taoism originated, it's on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and it inspired Panda Village in the movie Kung Fu Panda 3.
If You Go
Several airlines fly from Vancouver to Chengdu, changing planes in Zhengzhou, Guangzhou or Peking. At press time, Sichuan Airlines was offering roundtrip flights to Chengdu for less than $500. The handy English-language site www.cometochengdu.com will help with trip planning.