Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Destination Chengdu

I taught the last of my classes nearly two weeks ago. I tallied my grades and turned them in last week. I am now waiting on my extended residency permit to be approved by the regional government office and after that, I will be America bound. What to do in the meantime?

Well, travel! I am a vagabond, even if a pretentious one.

I had long wanted to visit Chengdu. The only thing I really knew about that city is that there was a huge Buddha statue carved by a blind monk. I wanted to go see it. As far as Chengdu was concerned? Well, a city is a city is a city. While most cities have their particulars, each city has shops, people, roads and tourist attractions. I’m coming to realize that a lot of cities look alike with their chain stores and franchised restaurants; it is the feel of them that are different. I did not anticipate a special vibe from Chengdu like the one I feel when I visit Xi’an. No, the only thing I really wanted to do in Chengdu is go see that giant statue carved out of a mountainside by a blind monk in the 700’s.

And I did see it; you’ll read all about that experience several posts from now. First, about Chengdu and how I came to go there.

While visiting with Carrie Ann she expressed the idea of burning her four days of leave before the end of the school year. Being as her schedule is much more rigorous than mine, she has to plan her ventures more carefully than I do. She opted to take two days in conjunction with the weekend, which would give us four days to discover and explore together. She also invited her friend Olaf, a German native who is on assignment in Wuhan for his engineering firm. Strangely enough, Olaf had just told her the day before that he wished to visit Chengdu before his China assignment ended in five weeks.

Chengdu it is, then!

成都 Chengdu – pronounced ‘tchung-do’ is a 2,000 year old city. Relatively young by Chinese standards, nevertheless it boasts a rich history and culture. It is the Capital of Sichuan province, located in Southeast China. The name of the city means ‘become a capital’, so it lives up to its name. It has made staggering progress in modernization and industrialization, now being home to companies like Motorola, Microsoft and Siemens.

Its traditional culture – spicy foods, embroideries and brocades distinguish Chengdu from other Chinese cities. It is the start of the Southern Silk Road. Chengdu, like Los Angeles sits at the bottom of a topographical bowl and is ringed by mountains. Industry is strictly controlled so that air quality remains healthy. Indeed all of the buses and taxis are natural gas powered and tractor trailers are discouraged or even fined for driving through the city rather than following their designated routes.

Chengdu is home to about 10 million people. It boasts a thriving expat community as it is the home to many consular offices, including an American one. Although traditional Sichuan food defines the culture, there are many ‘foreign’ eateries that serve anything from Indian food to Tex.Mex. Nightlife pulses at clubs such as The Shamrock which offers all you can drink for 88 Yuan, or The Bookworm, a more sedate and intellectual setting that features a well stocked library of books written in English, as well as a fully stocked bar and a menu that offers anything from spinach salad to bangers and mash. Many students, after graduation from the city’s universities choose to make their home in Chengdu because of its progressive, urban lifestyle.

Shopping, a trademark of contemporary Chinese cities is exciting at such areas as Chun Lu Street. There you will find several hundred stores and large malls selling everything from basic household items to luxury goods such as jewelry from Cartier, perfume from Guerlain and clothing from top of the line designers.

If you are into ‘tourist shopping’, buying souvenirs, you should visit Jin Li Street. It is part of ‘old city’ Chengdu but has been completely renovated. While the buildings maintain their ancient architecture they have all been modernized with electricity and indoor plumbing. Most buildings house restaurants or shops. Paved avenues make strolling this area feel like you are in Shanghai in the 1920’s.

Chengdu is home to many temples, most notably Wuhou and Wenshu temples. Both are within city limits and display relics of traditional Buddhist worship and culture. Each temple is surrounded by cultivated grounds that beckon with their lush, green shade on steamy, hot days.

For temples outside the city limits you can visit Mount Emei (峨眉山) or Mount Le Shan (乐山). Mount Emei is one of the four Buddhist sacred mountains in China. Not only is it home to over 30 temples on the mountain but also home to several monkey tribes. The peak of this mountain, at some 3,000 meters above sea level is usually buried in clouds, making you feel like you are on top of the world.

Le Shan, meaning Happiness Mountain is where the giant Buddha statue sits. Well, was carved from. The statue is 71 meters tall and faces the convergence of the Dadu and Qingyi rivers. While the sight of the Buddha statue is magnificent, the opposing view – the rivers and the city across the water, is equally spectacular. The giant Buddha is not the only attraction to Le Shan; the temple at the peak of the mountain rests on its own timeless reverence.

For more natural recreation, you can enjoy visiting the giant panda conservation area. Sichuan province is home to the dwindling panda population and the Research Base is located close to the heart of the city. The pandas are fed early morning because they are crepuscular animals – they are most active at dawn and dusk. To make the most of your visit, you should visit before 9AM. After that, those lazy pandas don’t do much more than sleep. Although, the park is lovely and well worth walking through, even if you don’t get to see pandas eating or playing.

There is 人民公元 – The People’s Park, where people gather to dance, stroll, boat or just hang out. It lies in city center, within walking distance from another traditional walking street. It is a bit like Central Park in New York; a patch of loveliness in the middle of the city.

There’s Tibetan Street with shops and restaurants. There’s The Valley of Nine Villages (九寨沟) with its crystal clear waters, waterfalls and mountain scenery. There’s ‘Wide and Narrow Alleys’ (宽窄巷子) district, a re-creation of ancient a traditional Sichuan neighborhood. There’s the brand new subway line that will take you through the heart of the city, north to south. There’s museums and bookstores and… and…

The more I read about Chengdu the more excited I get about visiting. I want to see it all! Don’t you? Let’s go!

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