Day 5: Chengdu
This morning we woke up to the sounds and smells of Cuisine Alley, a street of restaurants right outside our window. We spent some time watching the area come to life before heading out to explore Chengdu.
We set off by foot and walked in a southwesterly direction toward Chengdu’s city center. On the way, we must have passed through the city’s designated “athletics” zone, featuring the city’s Olympic-sized stadium, several health clubs, and store after store filled with sports clothing and gear for the city’s most popular sports (basketball, running, ping pong, etc.). It would be like Chicago declaring that Sports Authority, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Nike Store could only build next to each other in Wrigleyville.
Eventually, after making a pit stop at a Hilton to get a better map, we navigated our way south and west to Renmin Park, one of Chengdu’s biggest and most beautiful parks. Along the way, we passed through Tianfu Square, the center of downtown Chengdu and once the site of the Imperial Palace. Overlooked by an enormous statue of Mao, it features an elaborate music and water show twice a day (which we missed, unfortunately).
Renmin Park, or People’s Park as it is also known, was gorgeous, filled with ponds, lakes, terraces, and flowering trees. We met an English-speaking tour guide who told us that the park was very popular with senior citizens, who spent the days there dancing, playing dominoes, drinking tea, and socializing.
We walked around for a while before stopping at one of the many teahouses; over cups of delicious jasmine tea, we watched hundreds of people gathered around small tables, playing mahjong, a domino-type game.
The park was a great way to see a slice of life in Chengdu; it seemed as though half the city was gathered in this beautiful oasis in the middle of downtown.
We wanted to buy tickets for a performance of Sichuan opera, so armed with only a brochure, an address, and the Hilton’s slightly-better than mediocre map, we once again returned to the busy streets of Chengdu. A few laps around the downtown shopping area and a couple conversations with policemen (none of whom offered much help), we finally found the theater.
The Sichuan province is famous for its hotpot, where diners cook an array of meats, vegetables, dumplings, and noodles in boiling oil flavored with Sichuan peppers and other chilies. In addition to the hotness of the various chilies, the Sichuan peppers cause a tingly, numbing sensation on your tongue, and the whole effect only intensifies as they continue to steep in the oil. Not thrilled with the prospect of a mouth-numbing meal, we nonetheless figured we couldn’t come to Chengdu without trying its famous dish, so we headed for Longsenyuan Hot Pot. Thanks to the helpful staff, we ordered a half-spicy (oil with the peppers), half non-spicy (broth flavored with ginger, garlic, coriander, and green onions) hotpot, along with beef tenderloin, bamboo shoots, pea sprouts, mushrooms, and pork dumplings to cook in it.
Verdict: excellent! Spicy, yes, but not to the point of profuse sweating. Our server stood near our table during the entire meal; at first we thought it was just because we were clearly novices, but then we realized every table had a similar “chaperone” – we figured it was in case of an oil emergency (?). We absolutely loved this meal.
Back near the hotel, we stopped for ice cream and wandered a little more around the “folk cultural zone”. For having had no real plans when we set out this morning, we ended up having a pretty lovely day in Chengdu.