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Travel around Chengdu in 36 hours – part 1

Chengdu might look like a typically gray Chinese metropolis of
skyscrapers and chaotic traffic, but beneath the concrete exterior is
one of China’s most inviting, charming cities. Life moves just a little
more slowly here. The teahouses fill up quickly on weekends with locals
practicing calligraphy and cracking sunflower seeds, and at the Chengdu
panda research center, the city’s most famous residents seem content
lazing about in trees most of the time. Recently, though, this
unpretentious city has seen its economy boom as one of China’s new
high-tech hubs, luring young entrepreneurs to found creative start-ups
and innovative architects to transform the skyline. There’s definitely a
buzz about the place, though it’s hard to notice over the clacking of
tiles during a rousing game of mah-jongg in the park.




1. Poetic Inspiration | 3 p.m.

1. 诗情画意 | 下午3点


Slip into the
laid-back Chengdu lifestyle at Wangjiang Pavilion Park, a quiet green
space dedicated to a famous poetess from the Tang dynasty, Xue Tao. Xue
loved bamboo — and it’s everywhere, some with stalks as wide as small
trees towering 50 feet overhead. Wander through the graceful,
century-old pagodas and pavilions — some of the oldest architecture left
in Chengdu — and then settle in at the atmospheric teahouse next to the
river where locals while away the hours sipping green tea (20 renminbi
per glass, or $3.40, at 6 renminbi to the dollar), chatting and playing
cards. For the brave-hearted, a gentle ear scrub is also on offer from
the roving ear cleaners clanging their metal instruments as they stroll


2. Artistic Revival | 6 p.m.

2. 艺术复兴 | 下午6点


A historic district
restored by the government several years ago, the Wide and Narrow
Alleys offer a glimpse of the city’s long-forgotten imperial-era
architecture combined with the commercial excess of modern-day China.
While most of the overpriced silver and trinket shops can be bypassed,
Fingertip Art (24 Kuan Xiangzi) is worth a stop for its brightly
embroidered bags, shawls and pillows, all made by women from the Qiang
minority, whose villages were devastated in the 7.9-magnitude earthquake
that struck Sichuan Province in 2008. The company has trained hundreds
of women how to improve their traditional embroidery to appeal to
well-heeled tourists and returns a share of the profits to their slowly
rebuilding communities.


3. Haute (Not Hot) Cuisine | 8 p.m.

3. 高端(不辣的)料理 | 晚上8点


Sichuan food may be
known for its heat, but the cuisine is actually more complex than that.
At Yu Zhi Lan, a tiny restaurant with three private rooms run by the
affable chef Lan Guijun, every course in the kaiseki-like meal presents a
unique balance of flavors, from the spicy-sour sea cucumber to the
delicate sweetness of the bird’s nest with snow pears, peach tree sap
and a bit of sugar candy. Lan’s goal is to elevate Sichuan cooking by
combining a Japanese-style precision with fresh, locally sourced
ingredients: He makes noodles with duck eggs from a free-range farm, for
example, and slices them thread-thin by hand with a giant cleaver. Even
the pottery used to serve each course was handmade by the chef. The set
menu for two, with 10 cold appetizers and nine mains, starts at 600
renminbi per person.




4. A Monk’s Life | 11 a.m.

4. 寺庙生活 | 上午11点


With a history of
some 1,400 years, Wenshu Monastery is one of China’s most significant
Buddhist centers — and certainly one of its most active. On the
weekends, locals flock to the sprawling complex of gray-tiled temples
and gingko-filled courtyards to light incense from caldrons, rub copper
dragons for good fortune and march in circles around a slender iron
pagoda, hands clasped in prayer. The monastery has some of the
best-preserved ancient Buddha statues in the country, along with
paintings and calligraphy dating back hundreds of years, but the
highlight may be the monastery garden, a shady spot of koi ponds,
pagodas and sculpted rocks where the silver-haired crowd goes to enjoy a
little peace and quiet.


5. Cheap Eats | 12:30 p.m.

5. 便宜小吃 | 中午12点半


Although the city’s
street food vendors are dwindling, Chengdu’s tastiest snacks can still
be had for pocket change in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, such as the
noodle shop directly across from the monastery, Zhang Liang Fen. At
lunchtime, a line of customers snakes out the door for the shop’s
specialty, tian shui mian (sweet water noodles), a bowl of thick,
hand-pulled noodles topped with mouth-numbing ground Sichuan
peppercorns, chile oil, sesame paste and a spoonful of sugar (6
renminbi). Around the corner, join the queue at Yan Tai Po for another
local must-try: guo kui, a crispy, baked bread pocket stuffed
with pork and a spicy mix of shredded carrots, cucumbers and bean
sprouts (7 renminbi). Menus in Pinyin and English make ordering simple.



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