Day 2: 成都 / Chengdu
Fun fact: Chengdu literally translates to “become capital.” So basically way back in the day, this king selected a random city in Sichuan province and was like, “okay, let’s move the capital here now.” That’s Chengdu for ya.
I decided to set my first full day in Chengdu aside just to see the city. Especially after the chaos of the night before, I wasn’t in the mood to plan anything too big. I’m glad I did it, because things were chaotic enough without having big plans to follow through with.
I started the day off at a place called 锦里 / Jinli Ancient Street. China seems to really like these “ancient” places as tourist attractions, whether streets, “temples,” or full towns. Each one looks like what most Westerners might picture as the stereotypical China—sloping rooves, red buildings, lanterns strung up everywhere. And each one honestly seems to be a glorified tourist shopping area. But somehow I still find them kind of cool. If you are very creative enough and can ignore the selfie sticks, iPads, and cheap souvenirs spilling out of every building, you can almost feel like you’ve been transported back to ancient China.
In Jinli we walked in a thick pack through the street, with no hope of stopping, turning back, or changing direction at any point in time. (It wasn’t quite to the point of crowd crush, but it was pretty tight in there) A woman blatantly pointed at me as I walked next to her and yelled at her baby, “Look! A foreigner!” I was beginning to feel like I was a bit more out of place here in Chengdu than I’d ever felt in Shenzhen.
Then the crowd turned to see a beautiful sight—an entire road lined with stalls selling street food for as far as the eye could see. I started buying things left and right, not stopping to ask anything’s name, and everything I purchased was amazing, and of course all of it left my mouth totally numb.
Chengdu is the capital of 四川 / Sichuan province (commonly Romanized as “Szechuan”). Sichuan is notorious for having some of the spiciest food in all of China (as well as the most beautiful women, interestingly enough). Sichuanese food is defined by a distinct flavor called 麻辣 / mala / “numbing spice.” Food so hot it leaves your lips numb and tongue tingling is just breakfast in Sichuan. I think it’s great, but even within China many avoid eating Sichuan food if they can. And I can see why—as I learned throughout the trip, my stomach is not really well-equipped to handle flavor that intensely awesome, much to my dismay.
After Jinli, I went to go hit up another one of Chengdu’s most famous sites—人民 公园 / Renmin Gongyuan / People’s Park. More than just a regular park, the area contains several traditional gardens, a koi pond, a mini amusement park, a lake where guests can rent boats and paddle around, and a sprawling tea house to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
On the last day of my trip I returned to People’s Park as I did enjoy the place, even with so many tourists everywhere. I took a seat at the tea house and ordered a cup of green tea leaves. Quickly I was handed a massive jug of boiling water and was able to drink as many cups of tea as I would like. As I sat and read my book outside, I suddenly heard a man yelling at me in English.
“Clean ear?! Clean ear?!” he was shouting. I had no idea what he was talking about so I just said no, but a few seconds later he approached the table next to mine. Sure enough, they agreed to have “clean ear” so he whipped out a few medical-looking instruments and started sticking them up in the ears of the guy seated right next to me. It might actually be the weirdest thing I saw in Chengdu, and I also saw a woman who was holding her child’s pee in a plastic bag (see accompanying photo).
Anyways, at this point in the day I was actually starting to get worried about not having a place to sleep that night, so I decided to go track down housing. I thought that maybe because it was still early in the day, I could find somewhere to accommodate me even in the central areas of town. But I still must’ve tried out ten or more hotels before I finally found one with space. Once again it was a lot more money than I’d wanted to spend on a room, but at that point, just having a bed was something to appreciate! And besides, it had a king size bed and free unlimited drinking water in the bathroom, so I learned to love it.
The hotel ended up being in a great location after all, as it was about equidistant from People’s Park and the main center of Chengdu, 天府广场 / Tianfu Guangchang / Tianfu Square. Tianfu actually translates to “heavenly province,” which is a descriptor commonly used for the entire province of Sichuan, which as I mentioned Chengdu is the capital of. And Tianfu Square is at the center of the center of Sichuan, so I see why it is so important for travelers to come see.
The square during the day wasn’t honestly too special in my opinion. There are some interesting swirling sculptures that double as fountains, and the square faces a towering sculpture of 毛泽东 / Mao Zedong, who of course established the People’s Republic of China and set the country on a path towards Communism back in 1949. It is also surrounded by some of Chengdu’s most impressive, modern buildings so it is clearly supposed to represent the newest side of the city.
At night, the square actually gets really awesome. It was a few days later when I stumbled upon the hidden “sunken plaza”—open during the day too but way cooler at night. Basically there is a big pit in the middle of the square with an underground mall hidden inside, and awesome views of the city! The rest of the plaza is all lit up at night too, and the surrounding buildings play around with lights in different colors. Overall, it’s definitely a good idea to look at the plaza both during the day and at night for the full effect.
The last area of Chengdu which I stopped by that night was 春熙路 / Chunxi Road (translates to something like “Sunny Spring Road”). This was actually a huge, modern shopping area located in the streets next to Tianfu. Almost any desired store was to be found here—from designer brands to Gap and H&M to numerous Chinese brands I didn’t recognize. The streets were packed with shoppers of all ages and backgrounds, and stores were blaring American and Chinese pop music left and right. It was a pretty cool place, but unfortunately I spent most of my trip regretting all the street food I’d so eagerly devoured earlier. So I returned home early to my overpriced hotel room, hoping to get lots of rest for the next day. I sure was going to need it…