When you visit China it’s hard to ignore the huge buildings and how modern the country is getting. Expensive cars seem to be at every corner and phone shops are difficult to avoid. What might have happened to the China that many of us westerners still imagine? The one of old wooden teahouses, and of narrow streets full of silk merchants and oriental artistry? The world is changing, and while those places do still exist, they are not easy to find among the 21st century glass and steel cities. And Chengdu is one hell of a glass and steel city. With a population of over 14 million, it’s bigger than Paris, Berlin, Rome and Madrid combined, a sprawling metropolis of glittering lights and futuristic buildings, it’s no easy task to track down a taste of China from the history books here. Fear not though, we’ve got you covered. We’ve compiled together a few ways that will give you a chance enjoy Chengdu and the Sichuanese culture. Escape the big buildings, the Asian pop music blaring from all of those mobile phone shops, and find yourself a piece of oldworld China in Chengdu.
Explore the local tea houses
Tea is an institution in all of China. It’s hard to go there and not find a tea shop somewhere. The western coffee shop chains are beginning to make inroads in Beijing and Shanghai, but Starbucks’ world domination plan is far from complete, and here in Sichuan it’s the traditional tea houses that still rule the roost. Those places are perfect to enjoy some of the local produce (legend has it that all of the tea varieties throughout the world are descendent from tea plants that were first cultivated here in our home town of Yaan in Sichuan some 5000 years ago) and just watch the world go by. Perfect places to express the “Laziness” the region is so famous for, those tea houses are relaxing and have been present in town for a very long time. If you pick your tea house wisely, you might even be able to witness a traditional tea ceremony, or get advised on which tea you should try. There are hundred of teas and it might feel a bit bewildering to have to pick one for the first time.
Those tea houses usually have tables where you can practice your Chinese writing for a small fee. Some of them can be very peaceful while others maybe busier, but in a town like Chengdu there is a tea house for everyone. With a clear antique charm, you should be able to find one at any street corner, just keep your eyes peeled! And while in there why not try Mahjong?
Try your hand at Mahjong
One game that people love to play in the area is Mahjong. It’s not rare to spot a few people playing this game in the streets or in a few shops. If you feel like fitting in there is nothing better than learning how to play the game. But how do you learn when you don’t speak the local language? (Chinese or Sichuanese that is…) Then you just need to call EZMahjong! They’ve got you covered! Spend a few days with them, depending on your availabilities, and get to learn as much as possible about the tiles, the game, its origins and how to play it in the local style (Mahjong is different in every part of China and Sichuan has got its own special style, that’s the one you would learn).
After a few days of training join a Mahjong table and try your hand (without spending too much money! Keep your bets low! ) with locals. Leave the observation behind and join this old tradition. Very few foreigners know how to play Mahjong, so watch the amazement on the faces of all those present when you sit down at the game table.
Walk in the local gardens and monasteries
Gardens, temples and monasteries are still popular in many towns and are a beautiful relic of the past. With so much choices, why not indulge and go for a walk in one of them? The entrance is free and a view into the local life. Taishi classes, fan dancing and people meeting on benches or feeding the turtles, fish and the birds, it’s hard to dislike the quiet and peace that those gardens bring.
The gardens are well tended, but in a style that still allows nature to be her chaotic self, they are a very different experience from the Japanese gardens.
If you feel like having a look into the influence of Buddhism on the region we do advise exploring the Wenshu Monastery, it’s a stunning place to visit, and the crowds of locals should put to rights anyone who doubts the resurgence of religion and traditional beliefs in this part of the world.
Stay in a classic Chinese hotel
Chengdu is home to hundreds of hotels and dozens of some of the best modern high class hotels in the area, but when you just want to try something else, something a little different, then you need to search a bit more. If you fancy a classic Chinese hotel then we highly recommend the Buddhazen. With a beautiful old architecture and a dark wooden frame, the look of the hotel is perfect and will make you feel like you just went back in time, but it’s also all that the staff of this hotel bring that makes it so special.
Traditional Chinese music played (live that it is, with string instruments, not an electronic sound system) and tea ceremony in the courtyard, incense burning in the corridors and a charming spa following Tibetan techniques, there is so much to enjoy there and a few days will surely make you feel relaxed and reinvigorated. Located near the Wenshu Monastery, the nearby streets are built in the same fashion, and a wealth of street food is wildly available. Bonus point: if you are vegetarian, then eat at the hotel restaurant which offers a lot of vegetarian options (something worth noting in the region)
Listen to a Sichuanese Opera
When comes the evening and once you’ve explored garden, monasteries and old streets like Jinli, make your way to another tea house to enjoy the local Sichuanese Opera. Different from Beijing Opera this one shows shadow puppetry and face changing actors, as well as fire eaters and a bit of comedy.
The Opera is not very popular anymore with the younger Chinese generations but they do show a surviving side of the old traditions. Come early, enjoy the view of the artists getting their make-up on, or why not try it on yourself and enjoy an evening of amusement and amazement.
We do realise that people mainly come to Chengdu to experience the sight of the Giant Pandas, and that the towns modernity is usually regarded as an advantage. But if you do want to experience the town differently, then we think you might want to try out our recommendations.
Have you visited Chengdu and how did you feel about this town? Did you have the time to explore the oldworld China while you were there? Let us know in the comments!
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