My Trip to Chongqing and Chengdu

My Trip to Chongqing and Chengdu
(April 2009)
In recent few years, there are many restaurants in Guangzhou offering Sichuan cuisines. And surprisingly, these spicy restaurants have become a favorite rendezvous for some Cantonese. With my curiosity to find out the attraction of Sichuan cuisine, I had a whirlwind visit to Chongqing and Chengdu in late April.
Chongqing has become a municipality, paralleling the political status of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, since 1997. As a result, the area of Chongqing has enlarged a great deal. In my two-day’s visit, I had only been to the neighborhood of the Liberation Monument and Chaotianmen Square, which are the landmarks of the city. My first impression of Chongqing people was very cunning. The cab driver dared to lift up the meter halfway, claiming for 60 RMB for the whole trip excluding toll. I was so p.o. and made a fib that it was more than my “last trip to Chongqing,” insisting the total fare should include toll. In the meantime, I copied down the driver’s license information and card plate number. My action might intimidate him as he asked me why I did so. I said that I was advised to mark down the information for later use and for safety concern. He eventually gave in to pay the toll with his own money.
I could not remember how many skyscrapers I had seen in Chongqing in just two-day’s time. The buildings are at least 30-storeys high, towering like some giant robots on both sides of Yangtze River and Jialing River. As Chongqing is a city built on hills, it is very common to see dozens of stairs on the slopes. To some extent, Chongqing is a replica of Hong Kong, where tall buildings are built one after another on the mountains. Perhaps because I am a city girl, I am not that crazy about the modern city life in Chongqing. Chongqing women love wearing high-heels and make-up. With their slender figures and white-powdered faces, I am sure the Chongqing women would draw a lot of attention from guys. In fact, the skyline of the city and the appearance of Chongqing women leave me an impression of vanity and conceit, seemingly Chongqing is looking up Shanghai as a role model in shaping itself a capitalized business hub in southwestern China.
The night cruise on both rivers, namely Yangtze River and Jialing River, is recommended. I spent a whole afternoon at Chaotianmen Square on people watching as cabs in Chongqing were unbelievably hard to get. The square is large enough for locals to fly kites. Luckily, the kites could fly higher than the tall buildings. The water in both rivers was low so the ships had to anchor almost in the middle of the river where the water was deeper. If it was not because of the neon lights on the skyscrapers and the colorful signs on the roadside flashing and blinking at night, I really didn’t expect the night cruise could offer any wow factor. An evening spent at the Hongya Cave, which is about 15 minutes walk from the Liberation Monument, is worthwhile. Although the Hongya Cave is a new attraction, visitors can enjoy Sichuan delicacy, Peking duck and western bar culture at the same time they can review the local folk history, as Hongya Cave is modeled on the stilted houses where Chongqing residents lived in the old days. The stilted houses, usually built on hills, are supported by two to four wooden pillars. From a distance, a cluster of stilted houses seem to be hanging on the hills. Today, many of these stilted houses are replaced by the tall buildings which look like a concrete forest.
Chongqing really does not offer much to see. The next day I joined a tour group to Dazu Rock Carving, which is about two-hour’s bus ride from Chongqing. The rock carving is amazing as some colors from a thousand years ago are still remained. The rock carving is related to Buddhism, so you can find many stories about Buddhism from the rock carving. A one-day tour package to Dazu Rock Carving is a good bargain as it only costs 180 RMB per person while renting a car for a day to the site costs at least 800 RMB. As I said earlier, people in Chongqing seem to be money-oriented.
Quite different from Chongqing, Chengdu is one of my favorite cities in China. There is so much local culture to be discovered in Chengdu. I visited Chengdu for the second time. Other than visiting the famous Panda Breeding Base, I also took my time to sightsee three neighborhoods in town which represent the old Chengdu lifestyle. They are Kuanzhai Xiangzi, literally meaning “Wide and Narrow Alleys”; Jinli and Wenshufang. Similar to Chongqing, the cabs in Chengdu are also up for grabs. Visitors have to be patient and feisty to get a cab in Chengdu. On the day to Jinli, I took the bus to get there. Jinli is located next to Wuhouci, which is a temple for Zhugeliang, a famous military strategist of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD). It is very difficult to take pictures without strangers in your background as Jinli is really a hot spot for both locals and visitors. You can find the distinct Sichuan handicrafts and folk artists in Jinli, from shadow puppets to candy painting and from bark artwork to handmade clay figurines. At night, Jinli is hustling and bustling as countless red lanterns are lit up outside of every store and bar, attracting so many eyeballs and cameras. I stopped at an outdoor table, ordering a glass of green tea and a basket of popcorn. It was quite a pleasure to sip the tea, chew some popcorn and watch people passing by. Some Chengdu young people at the next table were playing cards while drinking hot tea. This is Chengdu lifestyle—relaxing and easygoing. My taxi driver who is a genuine Chengdu resident said to me proudly that Chengdu locals love playing mahjong; those who can’t play mahjong are not the original residents. I believe so as I saw old people were playing mahjong in an old tea house near Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Kuanzhai Xiangzi is divided into three parallel alleys—Kuan Xiangzi, Zhai Xiangzhi and Jing Xiangzi. The architectural style of here comes from Ming and Qing Dynasty. Many of the households with a courtyard have altered for commercial use. But they still keep the ancient symmetrical façade. I prefer Kuanzhai Xiangzi to Jinli as I found less people in the former than the latter. Wenshufang is actually a neighborhood for the calligraphy lovers as there are many shops selling brushes, ink stones and calligraphy paper. A Buddhist temple, named Wenshuyuan, is nearby. This neighborhood is relatively new and not much to see if you are not a Buddhist.
Another famous tourist attraction in Chengdu is Dufu’s Thatched Cottage. Dufu is a renowned poet in Tang Dynasty, a contemporary of the poet giant Li Bai. In spring, Dufu’s Thatched Cottage is a lush green park. I also had a chance to visit Dujiangyan after the devastating earthquake last May. Built in 256 B.C., the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project stands the test of time, staying intact in the earthquake while several temples on the hills were collapsed. I am amazed at the wisdom of the founders Li Bing and his son. Dujiangyan is one of the earthquake-ridden cities and the downtown of the city is pretty much reconstructed. Some wooden houses are still being built for the local people whose houses are already damaged in the earthquake. And the temples in the irrigation project are also being restored. I heard the narration from my taxi driver and his wife about the moment when the earthquake took place in Chengdu. They both thought the incessant concussion of the earth would bring their life to an end. Over those few nights, people all rushed out to sleep in tents outdoors for fear the aftershocks would come back while they were trapped in the house. Those nights were sleepless to everyone who was facing life or death. According to the driver, the scene on the streets was spectacular during the earthquake. Thousands of families were hiding themselves in tents in the open air. It was like a refugee camp. It was rainy in those days and it was quite chilly at night. When night fell, all the residential buildings were dark while the streets were packed with people escaping from their homes. What a nightmare! Even I listened to the description from the survivors today I still felt the disaster was very appalling.
The Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu is a highlight of everyone’s Chengdu visit. Although it was my second visit to this place, I spent more time observing the pandas’ behaviors than last. I got a chance to see the panda pee and poop. And I also saw the dying-out species red pandas which look like a fox. I ended my trip with a night walk at Chunxi Road walking street. Speaking of shopping in China, almost every city has one or two walking streets which locals are proud of. Beijing has Huangfujing; Shanghai has Nanjing Road; Guangzhou has Beijing Road and Shangxiajiu walking street; and Chengdu has Chunxi Road. If you are curious about how prosperous capitalism plays in Chengdu, come to Chunxi Road and you may be startled to discover upscale brands such as Rolex, L’Oréal and Dunhill. Chengdu is considered one of the low-income cities in China. How can people afford these luxuries with their skinny salary?
Despite that the food in Chengdu is mainly spicy, the various local snacks really make visitors drooling. The overall price on food in Chengdu is reasonable. I enjoy the Mapo Bean Curd. Surprisingly, I could finish a whole dish of spicy bean curd by myself; whereas in Guangzhou I seldom touch spicy food. My dad said it was because of the different water in both places. Anyway, next time I return to Chengdu I am going to indulge myself in all sorts of snacks and Sichuan delicacies.

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