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With its tree-lined streets, lazy rivers, soaring skyscrapers, and glitzy department stores, Chengdu is at once stimulating and mellow. Known for its spicy food – hot enough to be cathartic – and prolific tea gardens, this fast-expanding metropolis is the perfect stop for the travel-weary to slow down and take a deep breath. After days of touring and nights spent dancing, Chengdu lures travelers into the great outdoors with trips to gorgeous, mountain-in-the-clouds nature parks – notably Four Maiden Mountains – for which the city serves as an ideal base.
Nestled at the intersection of the Fu and Nan Rivers, Chengdu’s city center is surrounded by three concentric ring roads, though most visitors rarely even make it to the second one. Renmin Lu extends north-south from Tianfu Plaza in the center of town to bisect the two ring roads that encircle the city. Major streets are divided into north, south, east, west, and central parts. They may be further divided into small sections. Street numbers increase moving away from the city center, or in the case of the ring roads, in the a clockwise direction. Chengdu’s layout is confusing, with streets often changing names every few blocks.
Almost everything you will need, including banks, post offices, most hotels, and transportation hubs, are on or near the city’s main axis. The North Bus Station and the train station sit at the far north end of Renmin Lu, where it intersects the second ring road Erhuan Lu. The Traffic Hotel and the New South Gate Bus Station are within a block of where Renmin Lu intersects the Nan River, a 20 minute walk south of Tianfu Plaza. On the stretch of Renmin Lu between the Nan River and Yihuan Lu, near Sichuan University, you can find many Chinese and Western bars, cafes, and restaurants. Inside Yihuan Lu, several branches of the Bank of China and China post line Renmin Lu. Just west of the central plaza on Renmin Xi Lu is People’s Park. Farther west, just off of the first ring road, are the city’s main historical sites, including Du Fu’s cottage and the Qingyang Temple, Chengdu’s Tibetan neighborhood lies next to Wuhou Temple on Wuhouci Dong Jie.
Chengdu is steeped in more than 3000 years of history, relics, and legends, from as early as the mythical Shang Dynasty (1600-1066 BC). As foreshadowed by the giant statue of Mao overlooking its main plaza, Chengdu’s plentiful historical sites steal the show.
Don’t worry about which sites to visit – let us help you out. Here are our top 3 picks. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
A Chengdu policy that outlaws all forms of street vending has tamed the busy open-air scene common to Chinese cities. With street markets on Chunxi Lu and near the People’s Park quieted, people must take their empty stomachs to excellent but less exciting restaurants. Various kinds of sweet dumplings and porridge are available in many shops along the downtown shopping strips.
Sichuan is famous for its spicy hotpot, a cook-it-yourself meal over a pot of soup, frothing red with peppers. Although Chongqing’s hotpot is better known, Chengdu’s hotpot scene can hold its own. Sichuan’s peppers are as flavorful as they are hot, and many tastes are available, often listed on menus next to the name of the dish. Streetside restaurants will generally cook meals or sell food grilled on a stick. There is also a strip of more upscale establishments in the Sichuan Opera district along Qintai Lu, on the eastern edge of Cultural Park.
Other famous plates include mapo doufu, a spicy tofu and pork dish and fuqi fei pian, beef slices and tripe lathered in spices and hot oil. Most regional specialties have their own original stores, including Dan Dan Noodles, on the first section of Renmin Zhong Lu. Tangyuan, sweet sticky balls of dough, with sugary, ground black sesame filling, is another favorite.
Tea-drinking, accompanied by card-playing, mahjong, and gossiping, ranks among the favorite pastimes of Chengdu’s residents. The city’s endless cacophony of bicycle bells and car horns fade away in the tea gardens found in virtually every park. A few yuan can buy a little peace of mind.
One of Chengdu’s most attractive tea gardens is secluded Wangjianglou Park, near Sichuan Union University. For a more buzzing and energetic tea garden, crowds gather at People’s Park, along Jinhe Lu, in the early afternoon and evening in a tea pavilion by a lake shaded by willow trees. For a more secluded and introspective sipping experience, check out the park surrounding the Tomb of Wang Jian, in the northwest of the city. Enjoy your beverage in a pavilion over a lily pond. Or, when running around town, look of the big character cha.
From Sichuan opera to soccer matches, from bass-thumping discos to laid-back folk and rock venues, Chengdu’s nights are always busy. A number of Western-style bars and cafes light up Linjiang Zhong Lu, along the Nan River. Students crowd a strip of bars along Renmin Nan Lu, Si Duan, just south of the first ring road. Of course, no one should overlook a pleasant walk by the river or a lazy cup of tea in one of Chengdu’s many parks.
Staring is not quite the social faux pas in China that it is in the West, to put it mildly. Be prepared for intense, prolonged scrutiny, especially if you’re obviously a foreigner and in a rural area that sees few Westerners. There is little that you can do to ward off the spectators. Take solace in the fact that you have achieved a special place in the pantheon of Chinese tourist sights. Unobtrusive clothing is recommended; body piercing and brightly dyed hair will make you stand out more. Yelling (in any language) or showing obvious annoyance will just make people stare more. If you speak Chinese, talking to onlookers is often the best way to deal with unwanted attention. Remember that staring usually represents friendly curiosity, nothing more.
At some point you’re likely to be approached by beggars, whether in Shanghai or in poverty-stricken rural regions. With rising unemployment, more and more people throughout the country are going hungry. In crowded areas like trains and bus stations, the elderly, the disabled, young children, and mothers with babies frequently beg for money. The children are quite tenacious, often grabbing hold of the legs and arms of passersby and hanging on. If you do give money, you run the risk of being thronged by more hopeful beggars. Keep a handful of spare change in your pockets to avoid drawing attention to cash. Buying food for beggars is also a food alternative.
Culture shock can’t be measured in volts, but the jolt sent through most westerners the first time they smell a Chinese toilet is roughly equivalent to sticking a fork in a socket. Most Chinese toilets are squat toilets: basically, a hole in the ground. Some toilets are recessed porcelain basins, with running water; some are noxious, stagnant pits. Many stall partitions are at knee-height, few have doors, and none have toilet paper. As the final result, some toilets charge admission. Public toilets are marked with signs, usually in Chinese, but sometimes as “WC” as well. Sometimes, the facilities are separated by gender.
Polluted cities and poor sanitation mean that respiratory flue are common for anyone living through a Chinese winter, and the Chinese tend to be fairly up front about how they take care of their phlegm. No one is shy about hawking back and letting it fly on streets, sidewalks, trains, buses, and even restaurant floors. Increasingly more cities are enacting anti-spitting regulations and hanging “No Spitting” signs, but all of this has had little actual effect. It’s best to get use to the characteristic hawking sound and get out of the way.
China and Taiwan have – how should we say – strained relations. In order to avoid an embarrassing or even hostile situation, take care of how you refer to Taiwan. When on the mainland, avoid mentioning Taiwan at all if possible. Never refer to it as a separate country, as it will likely offend the Chinese.