Whether you’ve come to see pandas or ancient pavilions, get stuck into some serious shopping or head out of town to explore ancient towns and mountain temples, Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu is well-worth allocating a few days for.
Downtown Chengdu has numerous pockets worth exploring, and right at its heart is Tianfu Square. It’s landscaped to resemble a yin-yang symbol with fountains, sculptures, an oversized statue of Mao Zedong and plenty of open space.
Beneath all of this is a shopping mall, loads of eateries and a bustling metro interchange. Those looking for a bit of history and culture can get their fill at the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum, as well as the Chengdu Museum New Building; both on the square’s peripheries.
Home for us was Sam Cozy Hotel in Chengdu’s Qingyang District, not too far from the heart of town. There’s a cinema next door, Wal-Mart ten minutes down the road and numerous places to pick up fresh produce or grab a bite to eat.
Opposite the hotel is this convenient little eatery which is very much about home-style Sichuan cooking. Lou She is as un-fancy as they come – bright lighting, tiny plastic stools and vinyl tables topped with bottles of vinegar, soy and chilli. The menu is in Mandarin, but photos of the more popular dishes are plastered about the walls; which makes choosing a little easier for someone like me.
As an evening shower cooled things down outside we tucked into bowls of dry noodles with meat sauce (9) and something typical of the region – sweet potato noodles with pig intestine (10).
Mornings can kick off with several of these steamed bundles of pleasure, found at a hole-in-the-wall a few doors down from Lou She. No tables or small stools here, as it’s all about grabbing what you want, and going. These meaty bao are filled with juicy deliciousness, and seeing the vendor’s only open at breakfast time, grab an egg, or two, and you’re all set.
Next door is Jinsha Temple, an enclave that provides a little peace and tranquillity from the bustling city outside. Originally named Huaguang Temple, it was built during the Qianlong reign of the Tang Dynasty, back in the 1700s.
Its three pavilions are dedicated to the gods Guanyin, Maitreya, Manjushri, Puxian and Shakyamuni, all of which are visited by devoted locals lighting incense, candles and saying a prayer, or two.
Adjacent to Lou She is a restaurant we tried a couple of times; for breakfast and for dinner. The steamed pork bao was so loaded with garlic chives that I found myself eating just the casings. Way too strong for me! That beef & noodle soup, however, was a complete flavour bomb. Along with 4 boiled eggs, the breakfast spread was a measly ¥21.
Our dinner spread was a little more substantial and, with a couple of cold beers, totally hit the right spot. My beloved braised eggplant (29), some salty beef (39) and fried beef with onion (29) were all pretty good.
The name of this restaurant? No idea. I totally forgot to jot it down.
When it comes to handicrafts, folk art, local snacks and Sichuan specialities, Jinli Street seems to have it all.
Found east of Wuhou Temple, the ancient street of Jinli feels like you’ve stepped back into the Qing Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) when it was the place to come for baldachin – a rich, ornate cloth.
Since its 2004 restoration, the precinct has been a magnet for visitors wandering its flagstone walkways and lapping up its atmospheric Qing Dynasty architecture, meandering canals and lush gardens.
It’s not all about old buildings, waterways and greenery, however. Numerous stores sell paintings and calligraphies, Shu embroidery, lacquerware, shadow puppets and more.
The further you walk along its 550m length, the more you discover. Cafes, teahouses, inns, bars and so many vendors selling food. This may be a revitalised ancient street, but in true Chinese fashion it’s now all about making a buck.
Visiting Jinli Street with an empty stomach is seriously advisable. The array of food is as overwhelming as it is varied. Steamed and fried dumplings, skewers of pig snouts and trotters, all types of seafood and spicy, marinated rabbit heads.
Then there’s fried silkworms, beggar’s chicken (roasted in clay), skewers of sticky sweet rice balls and the most famous of them all – san da pao; literally meaning “three gunshots” (sweetened glutinous rice balls tossed in toasted soy & sesame, then doused in brown sugar syrup). Check this YouTube to see it being made and find out why it’s called what
Tibet Street – Little Lahsa.
Visitors to Chengdu may not even be aware that the likes of 60k+ folk from China’s autonomous Tibetan region reside there. Many are based in the Tibetan Quarter, an area also referred to as Little Lahsa, which is rich with the culture of its mountainous motherland.
The one or two streets that make up the incense-filled precinct are filled with shops selling traditional Tibetan clothing, trinkets, religious objects and many household items.
Need a saffron-coloured blender? Then this is the place to come; and it’s a very short walk from Jinli Street.
You’ll find street vendors selling Tibetan foods like boiled and roasted meats, roast potatoes, a variety of bread and pastries; even momos.
We may have been in Little Tibet, but somehow we ended up doing lunch at a diner-style Sichuan joint. So much for Tibetan food!
Rongyuan Restaurant is one that’s clearly geared for the locals. Thin plastic sheets cover every table – which makes for easy disposable cleaning – with locals chowing on cheap food and catching up on gossip; all whilst sucking on cancer sticks at the same time.
What’s for lunch?
How about kung pao chicken, some cabbage and cold pork with spicy garlic.
Back to the Qingyang District, where we stayed, there’s a nifty little strip called You Fu Street right by the ancient Wenshu Monastery. Dotted about are restored old wooden buildings which are home to teahouses, food stores and restaurants. Yes, it feels a tad contrived but, hey, this is China and they love this kind of stuff.
One place worth investigating is Wensuyuan (below pic) which has many-a-local lining up to grab boxes and bags of cookies, cakes and sweet pastries. It may not have rocked my world, but it sure did excite many of the locals.
One place in Chengdu that did rock my world is this.
Many of us have experienced that moment in a restaurant – often abroad – where every morsel of food is perfection. This was the case with Taipo Duck Shop, an unassuming little joint a block, or so, from the hotel.
It’s nothing much to look at, it’s only locals that go there and it’s the ideal spot to get stuck into some delicious cold meats. Especially on a balmy Sichuan evening.
Yes, there’s roast duck, but there’s a bit more that needs sampling at this eatery.
Cold roast beef with spiced pepper powder, divine ribbons of pig snout, and my favourite – thinly shaved pig’s ear with chilli, peanuts, spring onion and numbing Sichuan pepper. Four delicious dishes for about ¥113.
Not too far from People’s Park, west of downtown is another precinct much like Jinli Street. Kuanzhai Xiangzi (Wide & Narrow Alleys), along with Jing Xiangzi (Well Alley), are three passages which date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD).
The old ornate buildings have been restored, and along with many new ones they are home to restaurants (this being Chengdu, there are numerous hot pot restaurants), tea houses, cafes, boutique hotels, clubs and pubs.
Getting here early is advisable if crowds aren’t your thing, but this is China, so sharing a space with hundreds of others is the norm.
Traditional snacks can be seen everywhere, which means you’re bound to be stopping and nibbling as you explore.
I can definitely recommend Paris Baguette, a gorgeous cafe with irresistible sweet and savoury temptations. Grab a refreshing iced coffee, some blueberry crêpe cake (28) earl grey chocolate cake (28) and indulge in the stunning wooden home and leafy terrace.
The 900-metre Qintai Road can be found running south from Tonghuimen metro station, not far from Kuanzhai Alleys. Along its length, there are buildings with the styles of the Han (202BC — 220AD) and Tang (618 – 907) dynasties; all of which contain hotels, teahouses, jewellery stores and Sichuan Opera
The colourful road commemorates the 2000-year-old love story of two legendary figures – Zhuo Wenjun and Sima Xiangru – which you can read by tapping the above link.
The best time to visit Qintai Road is in the evenings when it comes alive with colourful lights, swinging lanterns and lots of people. It’s also a destination for food lovers, especially its numerous hot spot restaurants; which are a Chengdu speciality.
Before we hit up one of the hot pot restaurants, I tucked into something almost as ubiquitous – spicy rabbit head.
A lot of effort is involved in this Chengdu speciality, so gloves are always given when you buy them. There’s very little meat on the skulls, but once you pick and nibble that away, it’s onto the next step: prying apart the upper and lower jaws. That’s where all the good stuff is!
The tongue, the eyeballs and then the best bit – sucking out the paté-esque brain. Flavour-wise, it’s rich from being braised in a spice-heavy broth. Salty, spicy, a little bitter with plenty of numbing Sichuan pepper.
Now that my lips were tingling from massacring a rabbit head, it was time for something much more substantial – hot pot. There are at least seven hot pot restaurants along the Qintai strip; our choice was Bazi Hot Pot.
This place is seriously busy, so most people end up leaving their name at the door and wait their turn to enter. Once in, you’re met with a dazzling array of already-portioned ingredients to put into your chosen broth.
We went for a hyper-spicy broth in one half of the cauldron, and very mild cloudy chicken broth with ginger, red dates, goji and other aromatics. Help yourself to any of the portioned-up meats, offal, seafood, tofu and vegetables, make up your desired sauce from the “condiment station” and huddle around the hot pot.
The rest is easy – simply dip your ingredients into the simmering liquid – some will take longer to cook than others – dip into your sauce and chomp away.
You’d be looking at spending ¥102 per person.
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