Miles From Milan

Chengdu, Sichuan (成都): Solo Impressions

I'll admit, I didn't really plan Sichuan (四川). Chengdu (成都) was definite but Chongqing (重慶) was tentative depending on time. I also wasn't clear about what I'd do besides seeing pandas and booked an extra night’s stay on my checkout day due to wanting more time. As disorderly as it sounds, it's one of the most adrenaline rushing things about travelling alone without a rigid plan. Still, a balance must be struck to avoid wandering aimlessly.

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Day 1

Chengdu East isn't far from Xi'An (西安) by high speed rail (4 hours), which I prefer over taking flights. Chinese high speed rail stations are fairly easy to reach via the metro, and their scale sometimes reminded me of small airports. I booked my ticket the night before in Xi'An, hopped on a train bringing a pack of Hei Ya Tofu Gan (黑鴨豆腐干) from the station and saw a seated couple tuck into their Hei Ya duck wings, wearing plastic gloves and a bib. On the other side, a group of friends watched a Chinese series without their earphones in. I realised the key was to ensure you were either comfortable or entertained. Instead, I attempted to sleep.

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Leaving Wenshu Yuan station (文殊院), I quickly sensed that I'd picked an arbitrary, touristless area for my accommodation. A queue formed outside a discreet sichuanese street food stall and I watched as locals walked away with small pots of spiced black fungus and pig stomach. No fuss access to this cuisine in London would be a luxury. Heading to my hotel, the roads were incredibly wide, with motorbikes, cars and cyclists battling haphazardly through crossroads. Each mode of transport was equal on the road, no matter how big or small, and set their own rules, including the MoBike rental cyclists.

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My four star hotel turned out to be an aged building attempting contemporary style. Whilst initially feeling duped by photos, this faded into contentedness. It was pleasant on the inside. I headed back out for a walk towards the city center and hoped to stumble across a low key but unsuspicious teahouse for dinner. Upon spotting my target, I ordered Dan Dan Mian (担担面) and a recommended jelly pudding/soup (冰粉; whilst I had no idea what it was made of, I was reassured it was famous in Chengdu). Only when an old woman passed on my order, did I catch the local dialect; '一杯水’ (Yi Bei Shui') in an accent I could scarcely recognise. Dan Dan Mian was delicious.

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Lost on the way, I took a detour to get to Tianfu (天府). Passing aged streets at the wrong turn, and emerging tall office builds as I headed the right way. Eventually, I passed vivid signs of city life, rows of contemporary restaurants lined a street and I couldn’t help but lean in to scan the menu; Mapo Tofu, chilli fried lotus. Then I finally made it, an imposing, modern Tianfu square, the largest in Chengdu. Bright office buildings, museums, a 30 metre Mao statue in front, and a sophisticated fountain structure resembling a spinning top. Quite a contrast from the confusion and chaotic roads that lay before I reached here. However, it was quiet for its appearance in the evening. If looked at from above, the square is painted as Yin and Yang. Perhaps the presence was sucked away by the shopping mall which lay beneath, enclosing the station. Not entirely, this was also sparse at night which made window shopping a comfortable experience. In a way, I preferred the quietness. I then headed back after a tiring day to research what I wanted to do in the coming days.

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Day 2

Unable to get onto a panda tour, I decided to stay around the local area. Never mind joining a tour after my experience with the rushed Terracotta Warriors one in Xi’An. I was better off arranging my own visit.

After several unsuccessful WeChat QR code scans of the public bike rentals and wanting to cycle into the city, I asked the old man next to me who managed to unlock his. Seemingly bothered by my question, he retorted that I needed to get the MoBike app, or else get a DiDi cab before cycling away (I had the sense that he hadn't encountered many tourists before). The Metro it will be then.

I revisited TianFu shopping mall, which was busier, to indulge in spicy fish hotpot. The waitress recommended the traditional Tian Xuan La Tang soup base, and wary of sales tactics, I asked if one person could finish the entire tray but went ahead on the mantra of being here once. Realising I was not local, she kindly offered me several free ingredients where I chose a mix of vegetables and noodles, duck blood and lotus. This was insatiable and I gloated over its authenticity. However, it sure was a struggle to finish for a small woman.

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I headed to Chengdu museum to learn about the city’s imperial Chinese history. This described Chengdu’s prosperity throughout the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties, particularly during the late Tang when Chengdu was economically significant as China’s economic strength shifted South West. Celebrities visited the city, many temples were built and entertainment such as opera, tea houses and sightseeing was enjoyed even by the common people. During the Song dynasty, Chengdu was a major base for bulk trade with foreign merchants.

The city suffered from the Song-Mongol war in 1227 CE for more than 50 years, and the fall of the Ming dynasty also hurt Chengdu from war, reducing its population. It wasn’t until migrations under the Ming dynasty from other cities, and a re-established military and political order, that Chengdu rose again through to modern times.

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The adjacent building is a science museum. Chengdu is a science and technology hub in Western China, attracting high tech manufacturing due to low waged but highly educated population, and since 2013, the Chengdu Science Center (CSC) was developed, establishing major innovation, research centers and incubators. Naturally, the science museum was a major attraction; only that it was designed for children to pique their early interest, so I didn't go.

I passed Chunxi Lu (春熙路) on an evening walk to Chengdu Bridge; a commercial district with 700+ shops and large malls such as IFS and Ito Yokado. The name Chun Xi was given to indicate it's hustle and bustle, like summer. Several communist statues lined what is otherwise a young, vivacious street that is awakened with energy through into the night. I couldn't help but think of East NanJing Road in Shanghai. Chunxi Lu was less bold and couture, more young, trendy and easy going.

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Arrival at Chengdu Bridge timed well with the gorgeous sunset, bridge lit view. The river was surrounded with old neon clad Chinese karaoke bars which were mostly empty. About 100 or so metres away is Shangri La hotel, but also unkempt pathways and alleyways. Chengdu is mixed, not quite as modern as Beijing, Shanghai, but full of character.

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On the way back, I passed the Taikoo Li (太古裡) outdoor shopping district by Chunxi Lu, a local development project around Daci Buddhist temple which reminded me of Bicester Village in appearance. Look closer and you will find the rooftop architecture is traditionally inspired. Yet, a group of fashionable friends sat outside Starbucks chatting, another well dressed girl carried her toy poodle in one arm, middle aged couples walked by. Back to Chunxi Lu, the music was blaring, changing quickly as one passed from a shop to another, crowd chatter and bike engines roaring could be heard. The street was fully awake.

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