We’ve climbed the Great Wall, admired the Terracotta Warriors, trekked down the majestic Hua Shan, explored the grottoes, it is time to head further west of China to spice things up a little. That’s right, we are heading Chengdu, the land of spicy food and cute pandas.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, it is one of the three most populous cities in Western China (the other two are Xi’an and Chongqing) with over 10.4 million people living in the urban area. Since ancient times, Chengdu has been known as “the Abundant Land” owing to its fertile soil, favorable climate, and novel Dujiangyan Irrigation System. Hence, you can expect some real good food here using local produce, particularly the Sichuan peppercorn and chillies, lots of chillies! Yummy food aside, there are also a few major attractions that drew us to this city and the surrounding areas.
First stop is the Wenshu Fang Monastery, it is one of the most well preserved Buddhist temples in Chengdu. Dated back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Wenshu Monastery is famous for its tranquil gardens and peaceful surroundings. More importantly, cultural relics are the highlights of this monastery, with over 500 pieces of painting and calligraphy by renowned Chinese artists are stored here.
But as a foodie, one good thing about this monastery is that the Eat Street is just around the corner. Across Wenshuyuan St from the monastery is an eatery quarter aligned with small restaurants and food stalls. We didn’t have to walk far and found our fist lunch stop, the Long Chao Shou dumpling house. Who can say no slippery dumplings in a spicy sauce?
Sichuan cuisine is well known for its bold flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness where garlic and chilli peppers, as well as the tongue numbing Sichuan peppercorns are predominantly the main ingredients in the dishes. The locals tend to love spicy food, the hotter the better. The Pom and I can eat spicy food, but definitely not up to that spicy tolerance level, so we made sure to order one dish without the chilli just in case.
Long Chao Shou, translated as ‘dragon reading hands’, is a Chengdu, Sichuan specialty, but basically it is just a special name for “wontons”. They are typically pork (sometimes prawn) wontons, served in either a clear stock or with a chilli garlic dressing. But you will find different varieties in different cities in Sichuan province, fish wontons in Guangzhou for instance.
Another Sichuan specialty is Tian Shui Mian (sweet water noodle), hand-pulled noodles as thick as chopsticks offer al-dante chewiness, doused in garlic, soy sauce and sesame dressing for that salty and sweet flavours, then a dollop of dried chilli oil for the spicy sensation that lingers in the mouth. You can also opt for the thinner noodles and ask for Dan Dan Mian instead, same flavour profile but minus the sweetness from the sesame dressing.
We had a stroll around the eatery quarter after lunch for more food. The choices were endless, more noodle houses, street snacks, food stalls, you name it. There was one stall specialises in Sichuan dried chilli oil sauces, all came in different heat level. We stumbled upon a shop famous for a local street snack called the Three Big Bang, where three mochi balls were thrown and hit the drum to make three loud bangs, before they landed on a tray of peanut and sesame powder slightly on an angle, as the balls rolled down and perfectly coated in the sweet powder. The mochi were then drizzled in caramel syrup and a sprinkle of sesame seeds for the extra sweetness.
Then we took a taxi and headed off to the more touristy Jinli Street.The street is located to the east of the Wuhou Temple, it was known as the ‘First Street of the Shu Kingdom’ date back to 221-263. The street had been restored to its former glory and now is a popular tourist destination where you will find lots of tea houses, hotels, gift shops and of course restaurants. We didn’t stay long as we felt it was a bit of a tourist trap.
At night, Tianfu Square came to life. Located in the city center, it is the landmark of Chengdu. It is the busiest area in the commercial and business district with the subway lines underground. It is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists. The locals were sitting around the fountain on a balmy night, at the other end we found a group of older ladies were doing aerobics to some techno music.
To the north of the square is the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum with a huge Chairman Mao stone statue at the front waving his hand to visitors. There are also Sichuan Art Gallery, Chengdu Museum, Imperial Mosque all within close proximity.
And when we were in Chengdu, The Pom stood out like a sore thumb and we found many locals wanted to have photos taken with him, even a Tibetan monk!
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
We started bright and early the next morning because we were very excited to see one of the cutest animals in the world – PANDA! Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (What a silly long title!) is a MUST visit in Chengdu. I’ve done a lot of research prior to our visit, as I’ve always wanted to cuddle a real panda and you actually can do it here!
Open in 1993, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (why so long title?) is one of the major (if not the most popular) tourist attractions in Chengdu. It is about 20km from Chengdu town centre. There are buses that take you there, but it will take over an hour for the trip. We hired a taxi driver and it took about 40 minutes to get there.
If you want to see these cute, fluffy pandas up close, then the best time to visit is in the morning that’s when they are most active during feeding time. We arrived right on the dot at 7.30am when the gate opened. There were about 50 visitors and we got the tickets (RMB58 – AUD$11.20) with ease and went straight in.
The base covers 92 acres with 96% of which is verdure and bamboo forest. I am glad to see the place is well kept and looked after, providing the best possible environment for the pandas. It was tranquil and peaceful early in the morning (I’m sure it will be different story during the day packed with tourists) with the ocassional rustle of bamboo leaves we could hear in one of the exhibits and then we saw it – a group of giant pandas are having the best time masticating on young bamboo shoots. Our hearts instantly melted.
Random fact – Do you know the collective noun for a group of pandas, is an embarrassment of Pandas? Well, they are pretty clumsy I must admit…
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is not only a place where visitors can learn more about these cute endangered species, it also plays an important role to further scientific education and to improve public awareness of the protection of both wild creatures and their environment. Many cute panda cubs were successfully bred and born here with their breeding program.
Oh look, cute, fluffy panda babies!!!
There are many exhibits at the base and we watched the pandas eat, play and being goofy. There was also a nursery where the baby pandas were snoozing after a morning feed. Apart from giant pandas, there were also red pandas, black-necked cranes, white storks as well as over 20 species of rare animals are fed and bred there.
Want to cuddle a panda?
Well you can, but at a hefty price tag of 2,000RMB (AUD$386). A reservation (via email or phone) needs to be made prior to the visit. The fee must be paid in cash on the day of your visit. Then you will be suited up in surgical dress from head to toe, hair net, gloves on, and then they will let you hold a 8-to-10 month old panda cub for a minute or two, while the caretaker will take a few photos of you with your mobile phone or camera. And then you are out.
I would like to think the fee is a donation for the research base so they can continue doing good things for the giant pandas, and as much as I’d love to cuddle one, I decided not to go ahead as it is a very expensive experience for my own enjoyment.
Wide and Narrow Alleys
The name is self explanatory, this entertainment quarter in downtown Chengdu comprises wide and narrow alleyways. The two main wide lanes were restored with old architecture to reflect the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) eras. Here you will find a cornucopia of delectable food on offer, there are tea houses, restaurants, food stalls, spas and also boutique hotels.
I found the street food here is little bit more “upmarket”, compared to the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an. The laneway was clean, the street snacks seem more hygienic and well presented. Just make sure you pack an empty stomach before you get here and eat to your heart’s content.
We tried the dragon’s beard candy floss, made from ginger toffee which was stretched to as thin as hair, then wrapped inside was peanut filling before coated with sesame powder.
Parallel to the wider lane is the “narrow” lane, it was lined with pubs, cafes and restaurants. There was even a Starbucks, considered a cool place to hang out for the locals. Everybody loves coffee and free WiFi. Instead of gorging ourselves silly in street food, instead we decided to be civilised and had a proper meal inside a restaurant.
When you see a restaurant filled with locals, join them. We ended up in a restaurant called Chengdu YingXiang and only then realised it was actually a theatre restaurant with live Chinese opera performance every evening. This restaurant was busy, we had to wait for about 10 minutes to get a table.
Can’t say I know how to appreciate Chinese opera, there was a man dressed as a baby, balancing an oil lantern on his head and doing some tricks, the locals applauded and shouted “HAO! HAO!” (meaning bravo in Chinese). Then there was a lady singing at an ear-piercing pitch, people loved it. I was just here for the food.
The food was great here. The little deep fried beef ball was crispy and buttery, filled with piping hot beef mince, only RMB6 a pop (AUD$1.16), they were nice appetisers that made us wanting more. We only ordered two dishes to share. I adored the farmer’s three best is a classic simple stir-fried dish of green beans, eggplant and peanuts, the dish was full of wok’s breath and was delicious despite a tad oily. The second dish was something a little unusual, stir fried conch with young ginger. The thinly sliced conch flesh was crunchy but not tough, despite it looked tame on the plate, eventually it got a little spicy from the ginger heat.
The table next to us was having their signature fish cooked in chilli oil. I was already sweating simply by looking at her fishing out all the dried chillies from the big bowl. The dish was definitely not for the faint hearted.