Get comfortable in a bamboo chair and watch life go by in one of Chengdu’ s countless teahouses. Feast on the famously spicy Sichuan cuisine, and don’ t forget to visit the pandas.
A giant statue of Chairman Mao marks the center of Chengdu. Surrounded by flashy advertisements, the chairman oversees the movements in the capital of Sichuan Province from atop his podium. The Sichuan is endowed with fertile land and its nickname, “China’ s breadbasket,” is fitting. It is also diverse, with more than 40 ethnic minorities living in the province.
Chengdu is over 2,500 years old; paper money was first used here during the Song dynasty. But despite its antiquity and its laid-back feel, the city is rapidly developing as an important commercial center in western China. In the drive to modernization, many of Chengdu’ s traditional areas have been torn down, but there are still enough traditional areas and historical sights to keep visitors entertained.
The best way to get a good feel for Chengdu is to find a spot in the shade at a teahouse and relax. Teahouses and the local cuisine vie for the top spot as the defining characteristic of Chengdu. There are few places in China where traditional teahouses can still be found-this is the place to sit back, order a cup of tea and forget about your troubles. Mahjong, a domino-type game, is played everywhere. The click-clack of the mahjong pieces being shuffled fill the air, along with the whistles from songbirds that old men carry in bamboo cages. In some teahouses you can even enjoy your tea with a live performance of acrobatics or Sichuan opera while getting a head massage or your ears cleaned with long metal picks. In the area just north of the Jin River, which traverses the city from west to east, there’ s an excellent teahouse in the People’ s Park, aptly named the People’ s Teahouse.
Beside teahouses, there are many other attractions in Chengdu. One of the most pleasant experiences is to stroll around, or even better, to bike around the city and see the old residential areas and the food markets. Chengdu is a manageable size on a bike and most hotels will rent one for about RMB 10 to 20 per day. Most streets have a separate lane for bikes, making biking a far safer venture here than in many other Chinese cities. For travelers who have seen many of China’ s other cities, the abundance of greenery along the roads is a welcome change. A good area to explore is south of Renmin Dong Lu and east of Renmin Nan Lu. While over there, check out the Jinli, the most dynamic shopping street in Chengdu.
What can’ t be missed when coming to Chengdu is a visit to see the pandas. Sichuan Province is the home of these celebrated creatures. There are only an estimated 500to 1,000 pandas left in the wild and most of them live in northwestern Sichuan. The Wolong Nature Reserve is a 3-hour drive from Chengdu. This 772 square mile(20,000ha) reserve was created in 1974 to protect the pandas, but is also home to thousands of plant species and 230 different species of birds. Even though the beauty of the area is justification enough for the trip, there is no guarantee that you will get lucky and run into a panda here. However, some 6 miles (10km) north of the city center is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where seeing a panda is guaranteed. There are around a dozen pandas here, and it’ s best to get here in the morning between 8am and 10am when the pandas are fed and at their liveliest. There is a museum with exhibits explaining everything there is to know about pandas.
There are some interesting temples in the city and if you only have time to visit one, it should be the Wenshu Monastery, In the Wenhua Park is the smaller Qingyang Temple, which is worth a visit as it’ s the oldest Taoist temple in town, The temple also has an eight-sided pagoda made without any nails. The bustling market surrounding the temple is a major leisure area for the locals- at times it may seem like the whole city is shopping. Just east of the temple is the Qingtai Da Jie, where the old architectural Chengdu has been recreated. Close to the Qingyang Temple is Du Fu’ s Cottage, home of one of China’ s more revered poets of the Tang dynasty who wrote over 200 poems while living in this simple cottage.
For some local flavor in the evening, 200-year-old Sichuan opera is an entertaining option. Ear-slitting Sichuan Opera is definitely an acquired taste and can be seen at the Jinjiang Theater or the Shufeng Yayun. The contents of shows vary, but the most important elements are high-pitch singing, acrobatics, slapstick and unique to Sichuan Opera, “changing faces,” in which the performer very quickly changes colorful masks. The whole atmosphere, from the show with tea and snacks to the enthusiasm of the audience and performers make it a memorable experience.
For history buffs with a little more time on their hands, a visit to Sanxingdui, the site of the ancient Shu capital will be rewarding. Centered on Sichuan’ s Yangze River valley more than 4,000 years ago, Sanxingdui holds the largest surviving ruins of the Shu Kingdom. Since the discovery of the ruins, more than 10,000 relics including bronze, gold, jade and marble artifacts, pottery, bone tools and ivory objects have been uncovered. The site’ s museum is in Guanghan City, about 25 miles (40km) from Chengdu. Sanxingdui is considered the most important site for ancient Sichuan culture due to its sheer size and the number of artifacts found.
THE WENSHU MONASTERY
Arguably the most beautiful and well preserved temple in Chengdu is the very active Wenshu Monastery. Worshippers light candles and incense, constantly wrapping the temple in a thick perfumed smoke. The young manage to hold incense sticks in one hand and their mobile phone in the other while older visitors burn “ghost” paper money hoping it’ ll reach deceased ancestors, and touch iron figures of animals for good luck. During holidays, worshippers struggle through throngs of people to offer their incense. So much is being burned that monks frequently pull out fire hoses to extinguish the flames.
The monastery, situated north of the central square on Renmin Zhong Lu, was founded all the way back in the Tang dynasty but the buildings here today were built in 1691. It’ s the main temple for the province’ s Zen Buddhist sect. The most stunning features of the temple are the White Jade Buddha and the Thousand Buddha Pagoda. Aside from beautiful carvings, there are peaceful green areas around the temple grounds and many locals take a nap under a tree or perform their daily exercises in the quiet shade. You might see seniors hugging trees and rubbing their backs against them to improve blood circulation.
There’ s a teahouse on the premises, probably the best one in town and also one of the biggest. There are also vegetarian restaurants around the teahouse specializing mainly in tofu dishes.
In Guan County, about 37 miles (60km) from Chengdu, is Qingcheng Shan, a mountain that can be visited as a day trip. During the Han dynasty it became a center of Taoism when a Taoist master made the mountain his home. The Shangqing Hall sits over 5,250(1600m) above sea level and is the highest temple on the mountain. Halfway up the mountain is the Tianshi Cave where the old master used to give his lectures and is now home to the Taoist Association. Most of the buildings have histories going back to the Han dynasty or earlier, but the actual structures are mainly Qing dynasty or later. Many of the buildings, in accordance to Taoist beliefs, blend into the natural surroundings without disturbing nature’ s grace.
On the edges of Guan County is Dujiangyan, one of China’ s earliest irrigation systems. Begun over 2,200 years ago by Li Bing and his son, the system irrigates the area around the Minjiang River and has been continually expanded. It’ s still in use today, though with modern equipment instead of stones and bamboo.
The best place to see the system is at Fulong Temple, built in AD168 during the Han dynasty in honor os Li Bing and his son. The Guanlan Bridge is the highest point in the temple complex and overlooks the river. In the buildings are artifacts related to Li Bing and in the main hall is a nearly 10-foot-tall(3m) 5-ton (4.5-metric ton) statue of him that was thrown into the river as a sacrifice.
Emei Shan is the highest of China’ s four holy Buddhist mountains, rising 10,167 feet (3,099m) above sea level about 105miles (270km) from Chengdu. Buddhists believe the mountain is home to Samantabhadra – partron of the Lotus Sutra and Bodhisattva of Pervading Goodness.
The route to the summit crosses a lush and diverse landscape with enchanted rock formations, waterfalls and narrow gorges. Climbing upwards you’ ll encounter countless temples and pavilions. Thousands of pilgrims walk the way to the top-any of them elderly and sporting canes with their pockets filled with incense and ghost money to be burned.
The first temple erected on the mountain was built during the Han dynasty, and during the Ming and Qing dynasties, EmeiShan became one of China’ s most important centers for Buddhism. Many of its 100 temples fell into disrepair after the fall of the Qing dynasty, but since 1976, much has been done to restore past glory.
Bu far the most beautiful path to the top follows the southern route, which is also the longest. However, you’ ll be rewarded with marvelous landscapes and pass by colonies of monkeys. A word of warming: don’ t monkey around with the monkeys – they can be aggressive and they’ ll steal right out of your bag if you happen to open it in front of them. But if you act humble and show them your empty hands, they’ re also smart enough to go look for wealthier prey. Either that or buy a strong walking stick for self-defense.
At 1,804 (550m) is the Baoguo Temple with a 25-ton bronze bell dating from 1564. The Qingyin Pavilion offers some of the best views on the mountain. The Wannian Temple, built in the Jin dynasty houses a a 23-foot-high(7m) bronze figure of Samantabhadra sitting on a six-tusked white elephant weighing 68 tons (62 metric tons). Between Hongchunping, at 3,674 feet (1,120m), and the Xianfeng Temple you pass by the 99 Curves and the thousands of steps will start to make themselves felt in your muscles – but the splendid views here should reinvigorate even the exhausted. At the Leidongping Temple there is a cable car going to the top of the mountain. Continuing on foot from here takes another 2 hours. If the weather cooperates, the vista is divine at the 10,095- foot – high (3,077m) Golden Peak. This is the place to relax, meditate and enjoy the sunset. The sunrise is also one of China’ s legendary experiences, but enjoying this means hiking up ay night to be at the peak by sunrise. On Golden Peak, the Golden Peak Temple is a very active place of worship-so transcendence might be lost among the hubbub of pilgrims. The highest point of Emei Shan is the Ten Thousand Buddha Summit at 10,167 feet (3,099m); a monorail can take you there from Golden Peak.
Le Shan is about 19miles (30km) east of Emei Shan. The city’ s relaxed atmosphere is just the right prescription for sore muscles after some tough hiking. The giant attraction of the city is the world’ s largest Buddha statue. It’ s 233 feet (71m) high and you’ ll feel infinitely small just compared with one of the Buddha’ s toenails. The statue is carved out from the rocks at the confluence of the Dadu. Minjiang and Qingyi Rivers. Legend has it the swift currents created by the clash of these rivers sunk innumerable ships and drowned their passengers. In AD 713 the monk Haitong began building the Buddha in the hope this would prevent further disasters Construction finished 90 years later and the waste rocks from the carving succeeded in calming the waters.
The scale of the Buddha is amazing: his head is 49 feet (15m) high, the nose is 20 feet(6m) long and the index fingers are 26 feet(8m) long. The best views of the Buddha are onboard a boat on the river or from the hills that flank its head. Admission to the Buddha is RMB 40 and opening hours are from 8am to 6pm.
The Dongfang Fodu Museum specializes in copying some of China’ s most famous Buddhist sites in large size-some even bigger than the original. Here is the world’ s largest reclining Buddha with a length of 568 feet (173m). There is also a section of foreign Buddhas from places including Japan, Nepal and India.
The Mahao Museum offers a glimpse of life during the Han dynasty. These cave tombs were dug high into the cliff over 2,000 years ago and are valuable for their insights into Han society, architecture, religion and politics. The tombs were furnished as typical Han dynasty dwellings for the spirit of the deceased to use in the afterlife and a treasure of relics have survived to this day.