The Sleepiest Big City You’ll Ever Meet

Maybe we wouldn’t have ever to been to the sleepy yet crashingly vibrant city of Chengdu in Sichuan province of China if we’d never read Fuschia Dunlop’s book “Shark Fin Soup and Sichuan Peppers: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China”. And we would be kicking ourselves all the way to our graves had we known what we missed.

Remember how we took a painstakingly long train trip from Guangzhou in South China all the way to Chengdu in the South West? We still haven’t told you anything about the city that brought us across a continent.

Food is at the heart of any journey through China. Sitting here with a stoutly stretched belly in Shanghai, I look back with warm heart and fondness of our stay in Chengdu. While we used the city as a base for several ventures, the main reason we headed there is because we both read Fuschia’s book. Tracie read it before we even set foot abroad and I finally tucked it safely into the Pun Pun Cafe library shelves when we set out from Thailand to Hong Kong. I cannot underestimate the importance of her introduction to Chinese food, and China itself has influenced our own thinking about food and eating. It has been like we strolled into a secret room and found the rock that opens a lost lit tunnel.

Chengdu, a city of 11 million by my last check on Wikipedia (that’s almost twice as big as New York by population!), holds surprises at every turn, tearing down old buildings and back alleys and throwing up high-rises to house untold millions.

Thankfully life still churns. We stayed on a hip and happening street in a just as stylish hostel, the Loft hostel, where young Sichuanese with new found disposable cash spend it lounging with Westerners from across the globe. The Loft hostel sits on Xiatongren Lu. It’s a hotbed of young meets old, where you can rise at an easy hour of 9am and lounge around and watch the street vendors ride by, pitching everything from knife sharpening and shoe shining to fresh veggies and handmade noodles. Or you can pull yourself into one of any number of  “Foreigner Friendly” restaurants and find loads of young locals looking cool and living large eating Chengdu variations of Pizza and Hamburgers.

We felt lucky with that street. We ate our first hot pot on our first night, leading to hot pants for me the next day walking through the Panda reserve (hot going in and hot coming out). We drifted on down the street and shared a bowl of hand-pulled noodles the next. We spent hours every day just absorbing the street life and were surprised to see just how diverse a street could be, our little piece of Xiatongren Lu not excluded.

Our second day we spent partly ferried outside of the city to do the touristy thing and see the Panda Reserve. Cute pandas! Once we got the pandas and the hot pot out of our systems, we headed back and spent another leisurely day walking around the city. Chengdu is somehow a huge city where you can while away the hours. The parks are full of young and old alike. On the streets past lunchtime, one is bound to find a vendor napping, a group of older Chinese arguing over mahjong or a group of middle aged businessmen discussing terms over tea. Teahouses, hot pot, “xiao chi” (small eats), taxis, bicycles, strolls, cats on leashes, dogs unleashed. Any afternoon and every corner.

Chengdu is China’s south and its west, it holds the cusp of the Wild West at bay, while the southern pace, that seems to float across the belly of the world, hovering just above (and perhaps below) the equator. When things get steamy, or chilly and dreamy, people turn to one another and the foods they can talk about over the day’s business or play.

One day, we happened upon Chengdu’s People’s Park. It was mid-week, I think it was a Tuesday, somewhere in the middle at least. Every foot of the park was swirling with activity. Impromptu Sichuanese operas alight in every nook and cranny, speakers cranked to drown out others near and far. Tiled circles and squares overflow with people dancing. Lines drape for meters in the trees, encumbered with poetry bashes, done up in Chengdu style, where lashings of calligraphy screech off in varied size and form. Men stroll about with their bird cages for a walk. Ear cleaners chime their tines plying for business. The people are everywhere and the people’s park it is.

Just today we strolled through the same named park here in Shanghai, and while there were people doing their exercises and others putting their kuai up against a game of chess or cards, there wasn’t the same density, the same vibrancy to the park. Chengdu is the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang of our trip. The differences are clear – the Sichuanese live their lives on the street.

In fact, one of the best meals we’ve had in the country and the best Sichuan cooking by far we found in a back alley, tucked under the eaves of a glowering and looming new high-rise. A young lady, face-covered, brow sweating, flames lapping, poured over her woks and stoves, served up the best spicy green beans and fish-scented pork we’ve had to date. Construction workers loomed and settled in from their long haul of a day to the best and cheapest meal in town.

Like much of our trip, we would have never found it were it not for someone else that had blazed ahead. Only the night before Tracie had come upon a post on EatingAsia.com where the joint was highly lauded and vaguely located. While the young chef didn’t really bat an eye at my anglo-foreign-ness, her dining room was littered with faces in awe at another visit from the little-seen “white devils”.

In Chengdu, we met up with the “Ma” and the “La” and the “Oui Jiao” that Fuschia Dunlop describes so well, that sensation that binds your mouth, lips to cheek, to back of the throat, with numbness, opened us up to flavors and sensations we’d never met before. No place in the world have I had that taste before and as the lifeforce of the city itself, it takes to the streets and wafts around every corner, calling you back.

We based many of our regional trips around Chengdu. It became our hub of the province. And an easy hub to lean back on. The pandas were near, while a longer bus ride took us to the hailed ancient wares of “Sanxingdui”, where recently un-earthed bronzes, jade and clay date from as far back as 7000 BCE.
Only later to visit a living museum, where modern chinese roam the ancient remains of a vibrant and growing city of Lanzhong.

What the people of Chengdu miss out in sunny days, beating London with more cloud covered days a year, they make up for in loads of charm, hospitality, and sense of life. The chillies and peppercorns lend warmth when its cold and damp, and the tea houses keep the dull-drums away. But danger creeps in new forms everyday. Rubble encircles and interleave the city as high-rises tower and dwarf the lazy streets and avenues. All too near is a dread and the sense of a quickening to the overall pace of life. Hope floats in the rituals of the city, the overflowing parks, the calling of the traveling vendors, the roar of the hot pots, wherein living life in the streets gently keeps some of the sprawling “China Today” development at bay.

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