少不入蜀，老不出川。“Young people should never come to Sichuan Province, while the elderly should never leave.”
The meaning behind this saying that has been passed down through the generations is those who enter the Sichuan are susceptible to the persuasive charms of its lifestyle: the slow-paced rhythm of work, the pleasant climate, the mouth-watering cuisine, the sounds of mahjong being played into the night…
The underlying message is that young people will forget all their career goals and family-related responsibilities if they come to this province. On the other hand, the elderly, who have already experienced the hardships of life, deserve to stay and enjoy all the comforts Sichuan has to offer.
After visiting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, I feel there is some definite truth to this saying. Chengdu’s laid-back, comfortable vibe reminded me of another favorite city of mine, Xiamen. I had a great time exploring the city, taking in its skylines and sights. It’s a beautiful place that I’d recommend visiting!
Chengdu’s Many Nicknames
Chengdu, known as the “Land of Abundance” or the “Country of Heaven,” is located in the heart of China on the fertile Chengdu Plain west of the Sichuan Basin. According to the World Atlas, Chengdu currently ranks 7th largest city in China for its population of over 8 million, and is the 2nd most populous city in Western China following its neighbor, Chongqing.
Agriculture thrives here with help from the Min and Tuo Rivers. During the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) governor and engineer Li Bing created the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project that still controls flooding and provides water to Chengdu and 49 other cities in Sichuan today. This allows the province to continue being a major producer of China’s agriculture, namely grain, soybeans, and pork.
Another nickname for Chengdu is “China’s Gateway city” as it’s a place many travels drop in for a pitstop. Chengdu’s Shuangliu International Airport is among the 30 busiest airports in the world. They are also one of the few that have “women-only” lines for pat down’s by a female agent! I was one of these commuters last year on my way to Tibet (one can’t just fly into Tibet as the Chinese government has super strict laws stating that you have to pick up travel documents from an official hotel in Chengdu, and then your travel company has to arrange a flight into Tibet). Thus, arriving in to Chengdu airport hit me with a heavy sense of déjà vu. However, this time, I was going to stay for a few days and explore the city, itself!
Chengdu’s history stretches back over 4000 years! Some fun facts: it’s the first place to use paper money (over 1,000 years ago). It’s also the only Chinese metropolis to have kept its name and location for more than 2,000 years. What’s probably the most well-known aspect of Chengdu’s history is that the area was once the capital of the Shu State under Liu Bei during the Three Kingdoms Era (220-80 ACE). Premier Zhuge Liang gained renown at time is considered the upstanding model for wisdom and loyalty.
During WW2, the capital of China was moved here briefly under the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chiang Kai-shek, around 1938, in their retreat from Imperial Japanese forces. The KMT brought into Sichuan business people, workers, and academics who founded many of the industries and cultural institutions that continue to thrive in the province to this day. The American military also had some interesting dealings here during WW2, such as Operation Matterhorn, an ambitious plan to base B-29 Superfortresses in Chengdu and strategically bomb Japan.
While I adore history, like many other visitors, my main reason to visit Chengdu was to see giant pandas (see my post on the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base!). I’ll admit that since I only had a weekend, I didn’t do much extensive research into the city, choosing to be spontaneous for once and rely mostly on the recommendations of friends. In this way, everything felt like pleasant surprise! There’s lots more to do that I’d love to come back for – specifically the museums. Hopefully, I can bring my husband next time he visits my part of the world!
Chengdu has a reputation as one of the most livable cities, and it’s easy to see why. For one, housing here isn’t very expensive. Even hotels near the metro were relatively cheap! I stayed at the JinJiang Inn, about a five-minute walk from the Wenshufang metro stop. It was decently clean and cost about thirty bucks a night. There are even cheaper places further out!
Another point, I loved using the metro here! It felt much fancier and high tech than the metro in Shanghai (I can’t vouch for Beijing as it’s been 9+ years since I’d been back there). The metro cars were spacious, clean, and new. Screens above the doors alerted you in Chinee and English as to which car of the train you were in along with how long until the next stop.
Sadly, much of the infrastructure in town is fairly new as Chengdu was one of the areas struck by the catastrophic Great Sichuan/Wenchuan earthquake (see my anniversary post for more info).
Scratching my head through the Sichuan Dialect
Sichuan women are beautiful like clouds and spicy like hot peppers .
Sichuan people are noticeably friendly – and chatty! Everyone from bystanders to taxi drivers welcomed me and wanted to hear about my experiences in their town and country once they realized I was a foreigner. A side note, I’d never had so many female Didi and taxi drivers! It was great!
The Sichuan dialect is different from the standard Mandarin. It sounded a lot like Tibetan to me, which makes sense considering it’s a neighboring province, but that didn’t make it any easier to navigate. One lady driver sticks out in my memory as she kept replying, “Ko-Ay, Ko-Ay” when I was talking to her, which I’m still a bit confused as to its meaning. My coworkers back in Lishui guessed that might have meant to say “Keai” for “cute,” but that wouldn’t make any more sense. Sichuanese don’t use the typical 没有 ”Meiyou” (don’t have) of Mandarin, either, but rather what sounded like “May-Day” and “Yao-Day” for the normal 好的 haode (ok).
Guoqiang, a former colleague of my husband, took me to the famous Jie Yi Lou Stage (结义楼大戏台) for tea and a show (about 58 Kuai per person, with lots of showtimes throughout the day). It was a great introduction into the province’s unique style of performing arts.
A Bian Lian 变脸 (face-changing) performance is the Sichuan-style opera involving lavishly costumed performers dancing around the stage and switching their masks in a blink of an eye to play different characters. The practice dates back to more than 250 years ago!
We were one of the first people in and had great seats at the front. A catchy lilting folk song, Chengdu, by Zhao Lei played on repeat as we waited for the show to begin. The acts were fun, albeit circus-y. There was lots of slapstick, dancing, martial arts and a twittering singer mimicking a bird. The only awkward bit was when they unexpectedly started auctioning calligraphy scrolls in the middle and end of the show.
The finale was the when they brought out the Bian Lian actor and his puppet-dancing assistant. I didn’t know the opera they were performing, but it was very lively and exciting with loud heart-pumping electronica mixed into the classic opera music. Everyone was clapping along, whooping in awe at the main actor’s effortless mask changes.
He must have pegged me for a person with great reactions, for at one point, the actor came really close to my face and scared me with a mask change. Everyone else laughed around me, ha.
A collection of random photos I took around the city:
I had a grand ol’ time exploring with Guoqiang through the Jingli Pedestrian Street and his area around city center. We even hung out at a mall with an indoor ice skating rink! It was interesting to watch little kids practicing ice hockey when it felt like a bajillion degrees outside.
All in all, I really wish I had more than a weekend to spend here! There’s so much to do, see, and eat! I had a grand ol’ time (and quite painful) sampling some of Sichuan’s famous spicy dishes. My next post will be on Sichuan’s fiery cuisine!